Archive for December, 2012


December 26, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist president proclaimed the country’s newly adopted constitution as the dawning of a “new republic” in a television address Wednesday, calling on the opposition to join a dialogue with him after a month of violent turmoil and focus on repairing a damaged economy.

Mohammed Morsi sought to present the Islamist-drafter charter as the turning of a historic page for Egypt, but his speech did little to ease the suspicions of those who fear he and his Muslim Brotherhood are entrenching their power. He offered no concrete gestures to an opposition that has so far rejected his dialogue and vowed to fight the constitution.

Instead, with a triumphalist tone, he presented the constitution, which was approved by nearly 64 percent of voters in a referendum that ended last weekend, as creating a democracy with balanced powers between branches of government and political freedoms.

“We don’t want to return to an era of one opinion and fake, manufactured majorities. The maturity and consciousness (of voters) heralds that Egypt has set on a path of democracy with no return,” Morsi said. “Regardless of the results, for the sake of building the nation, efforts must unite. There is no alternative to a dialogue that is now a necessity.”

The opposition says the constitution allows a dictatorship of the majority — which Islamists have won with repeated election victories the past two years. It says the charter’s provisions for greater implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah, would allow Islamists who hold the presidency and overwhelmingly dominate the temporary legislature to restrict civil rights and limit the freedoms of minorities and women.

Opponents also say the low turnout in the referendum, just under 33 percent, undermines the document’s legitimacy. The main opposition National Salvation Front said it would study Morsi’s speech to see if his call for dialogue is serious. But it dismissed a “national dialogue” body that he launched before the results emerged as “farcical and simply theater.” The dialogue is mainly between Morsi and other Islamists.

“The president is talking to himself,” said Hussein Abdel-Ghani, a leading figure in the Front told a press conference after Morsi’s speech. He said the opposition would only enter “real and effective” talks, suggesting Morsi was aiming to assuage the United States, which has called for compromise and talks, without offering real substance. The Front said it will continue to be in opposition to the current rulers who “seek to establish a repressive regime in the name of religion.”

Morsi’s prerecorded address was his first speech since Dec. 6 after laying low amid the turmoil leading up to the referendum. It came a day after official referendum results were announced, formally bringing into effect the first constitution since the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Morsi’s main message: it is time to put aside differences and start “the epic battle for construction and production.” He said he had asked his Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to make changes to his Cabinet to meet the “needs of the coming period” and to introduce measure to facilitate investment. But he made no gesture of inviting the opposition to join the reshuffled government.

“As we set on a new phase moving from the first republic to the second republic, a republic that has this constitution as its strong base … I renew my pledge to respect the law and constitution,” Morsi said, repeating his oath of office based on the new charter.

The line signaled the formal end of the political system in place in Egypt since 1952, when a military coup pushed out the Western-backed king and Egypt was declared a republic. Morsi acknowledged the “respectable” proportion that voted against the constitution, but gave no nod to the concerns opponents have over the charter. Liberals and Christians withdrew from the assembly writing the document, complaining that the Islamist majority was railroading it through. Opponents worry about provisions giving Muslim clerics a say over legislation, subordinating many civil rights to Shariah and providing little protection for women’s rights.

Morsi declared the constitution Egypt’s first to be drafted and passed through a popularly approved process, saying it protects human dignity, enshrines moderation, protects freedoms and ensures rights to work, education and health.

His implicit message to those who complain that the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, is dominating government was that he could be trusted and that in the end, voters can remove them. “God only knows I make no decision except for God, and for the interest of the nation,” Morsi said. “As you know, I am not a lover of authority or someone who is keen to monopolize power. Power is with the people.”

He defended decrees he issued in November granting himself sweeping powers, which sparked a wave of protests. He said the decrees, since revoked, were necessary to swiftly push through the constitution to a referendum to end instability. The opposition had urged him to postpone the vote.

The administrator of a Facebook page seen as a major mobilizer for the uprising that forced out Mubarak dismissed Morsi’s speech, saying, “His words don’t match his deeds.” Abdel-Rahman Mansour, of the “We are All Khaled Said” page, said Morsi had violated earlier promises to respect processes and institutions and is now calling for a dialogue after rushing through a constitution that was highly disputed.

“You can’t talk about a second republic when it is based on a constitution that has no national consensus,” Mansour said. “He says he doesn’t want power but acts differently.” Under the new constitution, the Islamist-dominated Shura Council, the traditionally toothless upper house, was granted temporary legislative powers and began its work on Wednesday. It will legislate until elections for a new lower house are held within two months. Morsi has had legislative powers for months since a court dissolved the law-making lower house of parliament.

Morsi filled out the Shura Council this week by appointing 90 members to bring it to its full 270 members, adding a few non-Islamist members to the body recommended by the national dialogue. But the main liberal and secular opposition groups rejected the appointments as “political bribery.”

The parliamentary affairs minister, Mohammed Mahsoub, told Wednesday’s session that the government will prepare new legislation for the Shura Council to discuss, including a law to regulate the upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption laws, and laws to organize Egypt’s efforts to recover money from corrupt Mubarak-era officials.

Mahsoub said such bills can be ready as early as next week, when the council convenes again for its regular working session. Nasser Amin, the head of the Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, said that now the conflict has moved from dueling street protests between the regime and opposition to “a new phase of legal disputes over legislation and control of state institutions.”

“This is the most critical phase,” he said, “and the battle won’t be very clear to regular people.”

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December 25, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels fully captured a northern town near the Turkish border on Tuesday after weeks of heavy fighting and attacked a regime air base in a neighboring province, activists said.

The air base is in Aleppo province, where opposition fighters have already captured three other large military bases in recent months. Rebels have also laid siege to the international airport in the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and launched an offensive on the police academy near the city.

With steady rebel gains across the north, President Bashar Assad’s regime is having increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province, especially after rebels cut a major thoroughfare from Damascus. It is just another sign that the opposition is consolidating its grip across large swathes of territory in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

In his traditional Christmas address, Pope Benedict XVI decried the slaughter of the “defenseless” in Syria, where anti-regime activists estimate more than 40,000 have died in fighting since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in March 2011.

In another blow to the regime, activists said that Mohammed Adnan Arabo, a member of Syria’s parliament has left the country and joined the opposition. Ahmad Ramadan, an executive council member of the opposition Syrian National Council group, and other activists said Arabo arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He said the regime’s hold on power is deteriorating and rebels are besieging military bases for weeks until they either take over or negotiate with local army commanders to surrender. He added that some regime forces are being diverted to the capital to fight there.

“The regime cannot protect its bases and also cannot send forces to support troops under siege,” he said. Over the weeks, rebels fighting to overthrow Assad have also been able to take the battles into the capital Damascus, Assad’s seat of power, where the southern neighborhoods are witnessing almost daily clashes between troops and rebels.

The big successes began in mid-November, when rebels captured Aleppo’s Regiment 46, a large military base, carting off tanks, armored vehicles and truck-loads of munitions. Three weeks later, they captured the Sheik Suleiman base near the provincial capital of Aleppo and days later they took an infantry base in the city.

Last week, they captured an army technical regiment near Damascus’ international airport but were pushed back in a counter attack. The army command said in a statement that the regiment’s commander was killed in the battle.

The rebels have also brought the battle to areas around Damascus international airport where some flights were cancelled earlier this month because of the intensity of the fighting. One of the biggest blows came in Damascus on Dec. 12 when a suicide attacker blew his vehicle outside the Interior Ministry, killing five and wounding many, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar. The government denied at first that al-Shaar had been wounded until it got out when he was brought last week to a Beirut hospital for treatment.

It was the second injury the minister suffered after being wounded in a July 17, bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed four top regime officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister.

The rebel takeover of Harem, a town of 20,000 in northern Idlib province, was the latest in a string of recent rebel successes. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured Harem in the early hours of Tuesday. Mohammed Kanaan, an Idlib-based activist, said the last post to be taken was the historic citadel, which overlooked the town. The army had turned the citadel into a military post.

“Harem is fully liberated now,” Kanaan said via Skype. He added that as the rebels pounded army posts and checkpoints in Harem, the troops withdrew to the citadel that later fell in the hands of rebels.

Rami-Abdul-Rahman, who heads to Observatory, said nearly 30 soldiers and pro-government gunmen surrendered late Monday. He added that rebels set free all gunmen at the age of 16 or less and referred others to local tribunals.

“Harem was very important because it is one of the towns that was loyal to the regime,” Abdul-Rahman said by telephone about the town that is nearly a mile from the Turkish border. In Aleppo province, which neighbors Idlib, local activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels attacked the air base in the town of Mannagh near the Turkish border. He said it is one of four air bases in the province, adding that rebels also attacked the police academy near the city of Aleppo.

Regime forces have been using helicopters to carry supplies to besieged areas and to attack rebel positions. The regime has had increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province after rebels captured in October the strategic town Maaret al-Numan. The town is on the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a major battleground in the civil war since July.

“Airplanes and helicopters are the only way to send supplies since the Free Syrian Army controls the land,” Saeed said. He added that rebels are also laying a siege to Aleppo’s international airport known as Nairab and threatening to shoot down military or civilians planes using it.

In the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, opposition gunmen ambushed the head of military intelligence in the area and seriously wounded him. He later died of his wounds, the Observatory said. Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory reported violence in areas including the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, the southern area of Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Height and the southern region of Daraa.

In Israel, top officials said they cannot corroborate Syrian activists’ claims that the regime has used chemical weapons against its citizens. Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio that Israel has “no confirmation or proof” the regime has employed such weapons in the civil war. He says Israel is “monitoring the situation with concern.”

Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Israel Radio that Syria was closely guarding its chemical weapons stockpiles. On Monday, the Observatory quoted activists in the central city of Homs as saying that six rebels died in two neighborhoods the day before after inhaling white smoke that came out of shells fired by government troops in the area. Amateur videos released by activists showed men in hospital beds suffering breathing problems as doctors placed oxygen masks over their faces.

December 23, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist-backed constitution received a “yes” majority in a final round of voting on a referendum that saw a low voter turnout, but the deep divisions it has opened up threaten to fuel continued turmoil.

Passage is a victory for Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, but a costly one. The bruising battle over the past month stripped away hope that the long-awaited constitution would bring a national consensus on the path Egypt will take after shedding its autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

Instead, Morsi disillusioned many non-Islamists who had once backed him and has become more reliant on his core support in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Hard-liners in his camp are determined to implement provisions for stricter rule by Islamic law in the charter, which is likely to further fuel divisions.

Saturday’s voting in 17 of Egypt’s 27 provinces was the second and final round of the referendum. Preliminary results released early Sunday by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood showed that 71.4 percent of those who voted Saturday said “yes” after 95.5 percent of the ballots were counted. Only about eight million of the 25 million Egyptians eligible to vote — a turnout of about 30 percent — cast their ballots. The Brotherhood has accurately predicted election results in the past by tallying results provided by its representatives at polling centers.

In the first round of voting, about 56 percent said “yes” to the charter. The turnout then was about 32 percent. The results of the two rounds mean the referendum was approved by about 63 percent. Morsi’s liberal and secular opposition now faces the task of trying to organize the significant portion of the population angered by what it sees as attempts by Morsi and the Brotherhood to gain a lock on political power. The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said it would now start rallying for elections for the lawmaking, lower house of parliament, expected early next year.

“We feel more empowered because of the referendum. We proved that at least we are half of society (that) doesn’t approve of all this. We will build on it,” the Front’s spokesman, Khaled Daoud, said. Still, he said, there was “no appetite” at the moment for further street protests.

The new constitution would come into effect once official results are announced, expected in several days. When they are, Morsi is expected to call for the election of parliament’s lawmaking, lower chamber no more than two months later.

In a sign of disarray in Morsi’s administration, his vice president and — possibly — the central bank governor resigned during Saturday’s voting. Vice President Mahmoud Mekki’s resignation had been expected since his post is eliminated under the new constitution. But its hasty submission even before the charter has been sealed and his own resignation statement suggested it was linked to Morsi’s policies.

“I have realized a while ago that the nature of politics don’t suit my professional background as a judge,” his resignation letter, read on state TV, said. Mekki said he had first submitted his resignation last month but events forced him to stay on.

The status of Central Bank Governor Farouq el-Oqdah was murkier. State TV first reported his resignation, then soon after reported the Cabinet denied he has stepped down in a possible sign of confusion. El-Oqdah, in his post since 2003, has reportedly been seeking to step down but the administration was trying to convince him to stay on.

The confusion over el-Oqdah’s status comes at a time when the government is eager to show some stability in the economy as the Egyptian pound has been sliding and a much-needed $4.8 billion loan from the IMF has been postponed.

Over the past month, seven of Morsi’s 17 top advisers and the one Christian among his top four aides resigned. Like Mekki, they said they had never been consulted in advance on any of the president’s moves, including his Nov. 22 decrees, since rescinded, that granted himself near absolute powers.

Those decrees sparked large street protests by hundreds of thousands around the country, bringing counter-rallies by Islamists. The turmoil was further fueled with a Constituent Assembly almost entirely made up of Islamists finalized the constitution draft in the dead of night amid a boycott by liberals and Christians. Rallies turned violent. Brotherhood offices were attacked, and Islamists attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo leading to clashes that left 10 dead.

The turmoil opened up a vein of bitterness that the polarizing constitution will do little to close. Morsi opponents accused him of seeking to create a new Mubarak-style autocracy. The Brotherhood accused his rivals of being former Mubarak officials trying to topple an elected president and return to power. Islamists branded opponents “infidels” and vowed they will never accept anything but “God’s law” in Egypt.

Both rounds of voting saw claims by the opposition and rights groups of voting violations. On Saturday, they said violations ranged from polling stations opening late to Islamists seeking to influence voters to say “yes.” The official MENA news agency said at least two judges have been removed for coercing voters to cast “yes” ballots.

The opposition’s talk of now taking the contest to the parliamentary elections represented a shift in the conflict — an implicit gamble that the opposition can try to compete under rules that the Islamists have set. The Brotherhood’s electoral machine has been one of its strongest tools since Mubarak’s fall, while liberal and secular parties have been divided and failed to create a grassroots network.

In the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections last winter, the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis won more than 70 percent of seats in the lower chamber, which was later dissolved by a court order. The opposition is now betting it can do better with the anger over Morsi’s performance so far.

The schism in a country that has for decades seen its institutions function behind a facade of stability was on display in Saturday’s lines of voters. In the village of Ikhsas in the Giza countryside south of Cairo, an elderly man who voted “no” screamed in the polling station that the charter is “a Brotherhood constitution.”

“We want a constitution in the interest of Egypt. We want a constitution that serves everyone, not just the Brotherhood. They can’t keep fooling the people,” Ali Hassan, a 68-year-old wearing traditional robes, said.

But others were drawn by the hope that a constitution would finally bring some stability after nearly two years of tumultuous transitional politics. There appeared to be a broad economic split, with many of the middle and upper classes rejecting the charter and the poor voting “yes” — though the division was not always clear-cut.

In Ikhsas, Hassan Kamel, a 49-year-old day worker, said “We the poor will pay the price” of a no vote. He dismissed the opposition leadership as elite and out of touch. “Show me an office for any of those parties that say no here in Ikhsas or south of Cairo. They are not connecting with people.”

In the industrial working class district of Shubra El-Kheima just north of Cairo, women argued while waiting in line over the draft charter. Samira Saad, a 55 year old housewife, said she wanted her five boys to find jobs.

“We want to get on with things and we want things to be better,” she said. Nahed Nessim, a Christian, questioned the integrity of the process. “There is a lot of corruption. My vote won’t count.” She was taken to task by Muslim women wearing the niqab, which blankets the entire body and leaves only the eyes visible and is worn by ultraconservative women.

“We have a president who fears God and memorizes His words. Why are we not giving him a chance until he stands on his feet?” said one of the women, Faiza Mehana, 48. The promise of stability even drew one Christian woman in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, to vote “yes” — a break with most Christians nationwide who oppose the draft. Hanaa Zaki said she wanted an end to Egypt’s deepening economic woes.

“I have a son who didn’t get paid for the past six months. We have been in this crisis for so long and we are fed up,” said Zaki, waiting in line along with bearded Muslim men and Muslim women wearing headscarves in Fayoum, a province that is home to both a large Christian community and a strong Islamist movement.

The scene In Giza’s upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood was starkly different. A group of 12 women speaking to each other in a mix of French, Arabic and English said they were all voting “no.” “It’s not about Christian versus Muslim, it is Muslim Brotherhood versus everyone else,” said one of them, Shahira Sadeq, a Christian physician.

Kamla el-Tantawi, 65, said she was voting “against what I’m seeing” — and she gestured at a woman nearby wearing the niqab. “I lose sleep thinking about my grandchildren and their future. They never saw the beautiful Egypt we did,” she said, harkening back to a time decades ago when few women even wore headscarves covering their hair, much less the black niqab.

Many voters were under no illusions the turmoil would end. “I don’t trust the Brotherhood anymore and I don’t trust the opposition either. We are forgotten, the most miserable and the first to suffer,” said Azouz Ayesh, sitting with his neighbors as their cattle grazed in a nearby field in the Fayoum countryside.

He said a “yes” would bring stability and a “no” would mean no stability. But, he added, “I will vote against this constitution.”

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Fayoum, Egypt, and Aya Batrawy, in Cairo, contributed to this report.

December 20, 2012

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — French President Francois Hollande acknowledged the “unjust” and “brutal” nature of France’s occupation of Algeria for 132 years, but stopped short Thursday of apologizing for the past as many Algerians have demanded.

On the second day of his state visit to this North African nation, he told the two houses of parliament that “I recognize the suffering the colonial system has inflicted” on the Algerian people. He specifically recognized the “massacres” by the French during the seven-year war that led to Algerian independence in 1962. The admission was a profound departure from Hollande’s predecessors who, if not defending France’s tormented past with Algeria, remained silent.

The Socialist president’s visit came as Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence from France, during which the two countries’ ties have been fraught with tension. Hollande was traveling on Thursday to the western city of Tlemcen, the birthplace of Algerian wartime nationalist Messali Hadj.

Hollande said at the start of his visit that he and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are opening a “new era” with a strategic partnership among equals. Large numbers of Algerians, and some political parties, have been seeking an apology from France for inequalities suffered by the population under colonial rule and for brutality during the war. However, Hollande said at a news conference Wednesday that he would make no apologies.

“History, even when it is tragic, even when it is painful for our two countries, must be told,” Hollande told lawmakers on Thursday. “For 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a profoundly unjust and brutal system” of colonization.

“I recognize here the suffering that colonization has inflicted on the Algerian people,” he added. Hollande notably listed the sites of three massacres, including one at Setif where seven years ago Bouteflika compared French methods to those used by Nazi Germany and asked France to make a “gesture … to erase this black stain.”

The violence in Setif, 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Algiers, began on May 8, 1945, apparently during a celebration of the end of World War II. Demonstrators unfurled Algerian flags, which were banned at the time by the French. As police began confiscating the flags, the crowds turned on the French, killing about two dozen of them.

The uprising spread and the response by French colonial troops grew increasingly harsh in the following weeks, including bombardments of villages by a French war ship. Algerians say some 45,000 people may have died. Figures in France put the number of Algerian dead at about 15,000 to 20,000.

Hollande and Bouteflika agreed to relaunch economic, strategic and cultural relations between the two countries on a new basis among equals. A new start must “be supported by a base,” Hollande said, and “this base is truth.”

“Nothing is built in secretiveness, forgetting, denial,” Hollande said. A Declaration of Algiers was published late Wednesday saying that France and Algeria “are determined to open a new chapter in their relations” of “exceptional intensity” and spelling out political, human and economic goals.

France announced a deal for French automaker Renault to build a factory in Algeria with cars destined for all of Africa. The long-negotiated joint venture will be 49 percent owned by Renault and 51 percent by two Algerian companies, according to a statement by Renault, the first carmaker to establish production facilities in Algeria. The factory will be located outside Oran, a port city west of Algiers, and eventually expand to an automotive training center.

The accord is one of about 15 agreements being signed during the visit, on topics ranging from culture to defense. Hollande, who came to the French presidency in May, made an initial break with the French past by officially recognizing the deaths of Algerians at a 1961 pro-independence demonstration in Paris at the hands of French police. He referred to the “bloody repression” and paid homage to the victims of “this tragedy,” for which an official death toll has never been issued.

Elaine Ganley reported from Paris, Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

December 20, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan president on Thursday welcomed the withdrawal of nearly half of the British troops from Afghanistan next year, saying his forces were ready to take on defense of the country.

A statement from Hamid Karzai’s office said the partial pull-out was an “appropriate” move as NATO forces hand over the war against the Taliban to the Afghan military. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that about 3,800 British troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2013, leaving some 5,000 into 2014. The majority of NATO forces, including those of the United States, will depart by the end of 2014.

“The Afghan security forces are ready to implement the defense and security of the country. It is an appropriate act in the transition of security to Afghan forces,” Karzai’s statement said. Cameron told lawmakers in London that the decision reflects confidence in the Afghan military. It also reflects mounting political pressure and periodic public protests in Britain to end its military role in Afghanistan, to which Britain sent the second largest NATO force after the United States and sustained the second highest number of casualties.

Afghanistan’s army and police have grown substantially with the help of international allies and now number 350,000. But desertion rates, illiteracy and tensions among ethnic groups within the ranks remain high and analysts say the Afghan military still lacks the know-how to mount major, multi-unit operations.

NATO officials regularly praise operations as “Afghan-led,” even when Afghan forces play a minimal role, making it difficult to determine their full capability to take over. Also, a surge in insider attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against their own colleagues and their international allies has raised further questions about their readiness.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who visited the country last week, said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan believe NATO has “turned the tide” after 11 years of war. But skepticism remains whether the Afghan military can hold back a still powerful and resilient insurgency after 2014.

The U.S. has some 66,000 troops in the country with the number to be pulled out next year and the size of a residual force past 2014 currently under review in Washington. Cameron said some British troops would stay on after 2014 to return equipment and deal with logistics.

“We’ve said very clearly: no one in a combat role, nothing like the number of troops there are now,” Cameron said. “We’ve promised the Afghans that we will provide this officer training academy that they’ve specifically asked for. We are prepared to look at other issues above and beyond that, but that is the starting baseline.”

The withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan will start next April, according to Defense Secretary Philip Hammond. Cameron said Britain would continue to support Afghanistan by contributing about 70 million pounds (US $114,000) a year to help pay for Afghan security forces. Another 70 million pounds a year are spread through other aid programs.

Since 2001, 438 British personnel have died in Afghanistan. Last month, France ended its combat operations in Afghanistan, pulling hundreds of troops from a base in a volatile region northeast of Kabul and fulfilling promises to end its combat role on a faster track than other NATO allies. France has lost 88 troops in Afghanistan since late 2001.

December 13, 2012

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish police on Thursday used pepper spray and water cannons to push back hundreds of protesters trying to enter a courthouse where prosecutors were to deliver final arguments in a trial against nearly 300 people accused of plotting to overthrow the government, Turkish media reported.

Inside the courthouse, a panel of judges was forced to interrupt the trial three times over objections by defense lawyers and spectators shouting slogans in support of the defendants, who include prominent journalists, politicians, academics and retired generals, the state-run Anadolu agency and other media said.

The defendants are accused of plotting a series of attacks in a bid to foment chaos and provoke a military coup to bring down Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, in a manner similar to past coups in Turkey that ousted civilian governments.

They are charged with belonging to an ultranationalist gang, Ergenekon, which takes its name from a legendary valley in Central Asia, believed to be the ancestral homeland of the Turks. Prosecutors say the Ergenekon gang was behind attacks on a newspaper and a courthouse, and plots to kill the prime minister and author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate. The defendants have rejected the accusations.

The trial, now in its fourth year, grew out of an investigation into the seizure of hand grenades at the home of a noncommissioned officer in Istanbul in 2007. Opponents maintain the accused are victims of a government attempt to muzzle critics and undermine Turkey’s secular legacy and say the trial is based on flimsy or fabricated evidence.

The government insists the trial is a step toward democratic reform. Thousands of people travelled to the courthouse on the outskirts of Istanbul to show solidarity with the suspects, which includes the former Turkish military chief of staff, Ilker Basbug.

“People are being held (in prison) on false evidence,” Muharrem Ince, a legislator from Turkey’s main opposition party said in an address to protesters outside the court. “This is not a trial, it is (a government) revenge over the (secular) Republic.”

In September, more than 300 military officers, including the former air force and navy chiefs, were convicted of separate plots to bring down the government in 2003. Their case is being appealed.

December 13, 2012

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Patriot air defense missiles being deployed to protect Turkey from spillover from Syria’s civil war will become operational at the end of January, officials said Thursday. In addition, NATO will send Turkey special aircraft that can detect missile launches from Syria.

A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict in the Arab state began in March 2011. Turkey has condemned the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, supported Syrian rebels, and provided shelter to Syrian refugees, and Ankara is particularly worried that Assad may get desperate enough to use chemical weapons.

NATO foreign ministers endorsed Turkey’s request for the Patriots on Nov. 30. The Netherlands, Germany and the United States are the only NATO members that have the advanced PAC-3 model Patriots that Turkey needs to intercept ballistic missiles.

Germany and the Netherlands will each provide two batteries of the U.S.-built air defense systems. The U.S. would likely fill any gaps, possibly by sending some from its stocks in Europe. Up to 400 German and 360 Dutch troops will man the batteries, likely from somewhere well inland in Turkey.

In Berlin, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Link told lawmakers that current plans call for the missile sites to be stationed at Kahramanmaras, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Turkey’s border with Syria.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday that the three nations are working closely with Turkey “to ensure that the Patriots are deployed as soon as possible.” “We expect them to be operational by the end of January,” Rutte said at a joint press conference after meeting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the alliance’s headquarters. “The location will be decided with our allies, and several matters need to be sorted out before the Patriots can be deployed.”

Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries — including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities — they cannot be flown quickly by air to Turkey and will have to travel by sea, officials said.

Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as short-range missiles — some capable of carrying chemical warheads. These include Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-B missiles, which were originally designed to deliver nuclear warheads. Both have inertial guidance systems that have proven fairly accurate.

NATO also will deploy its Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, or AWACS, to Turkey, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because alliance rules do not allow him to speak on the record.

The aircraft, which can detect launches of ground-to-ground missiles, are scheduled to participate this month in a training exercise in Turkey, the official said. The planes will exercise command and control procedures as well as test the connectivity of various NATO and Turkish communications and data sharing systems.

Turkey has been a NATO member since the early 1950s. Its air defenses consist mostly of short-range Rapier and Stinger systems, and U.S.-made Hawk low- altitude missiles. Ankara has been looking to acquire a new high-altitude defense system to replace its Cold War-era Nike-Hercules batteries.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

December 12, 2012

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — The U.S. and the head of the new Syrian opposition coalition being feted at a conference in Morocco Wednesday publicly disagreed over designating a rebel group as terrorist, highlighting a key dilemma in overthrowing President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Even as the U.S., Europe and its allies recognized the new opposition of the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people to succeed the Assad regime, they have to deal with the fact that some of the greatest battlefield successes are by extremist groups the West does not want to see running the country one day.

The Obama administration designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization Monday, a day before he recognized the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition has been under international pressure for months to form a more representative and organized coalition that could receive international assistance in the battle against Assad. The organization they formed in Doha last November was then formally recognized by 114 countries at the fourth Friends of Syria conference held in Marrakech.

Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East William Burns described the new coalition as the future for Syria that the U.S. wants — democratic, pluralist, inclusive and unified. “The step that we took with regard to the designation of the al-Nusra Front raises an alarm about a very different kind of future for Syria, about a direction that a group like al-Nusra will try to take in Syria to impose its will and threaten the social fabric,” he said, describing the group as a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq.

But the president of that coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, who Burns invited to Washington at the conference, disagreed publicly with blacklisting one of the most successful fighting groups in the war against Assad.

“I say in all transparency that labeling one of the factions fighting the regime as a terrorist organization should be reconsidered,” he said in his speech at the conference’s opening. “We love our country very much, though we may not agree with all factions.”

Jabhat al-Nusra has recently conquered a number of bases from the regime in the north and has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly effective bombings that have hit sensitive government institutions, like a blast near the Interior Ministry on Wednesday that took four lives.

According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, several ministers from the Arab states also disagreed with the U.S. move. In his speech, Khatib did condemn “all forms of extremism” and pledged to protect the countries many religious and sectarian minorities, including the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot from which the Assad family hails. He urged them to join the resistance against the regime.

“We call on them to accept our extended hand and work together against the violence of the regime,” he said. Violence in the 21-month civil war that has claimed 40,000 lives has taken on a sectarian tone in some cases, with the majority Sunnis arrayed against Alawites and other minorities remaining loyal to the regime — a stance encouraged by the Islamic militants among the rebels who consider Shiites heretic.

The conference did succeed in gaining international legitimacy for the new opposition coalition and has further isolated the Assad regime, making it, in the words of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “the most significant” of all the conferences held to support the Syrian people in the past year.

Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid, with the U.S. following up with another $14 million in emergency medical care and winter supplies, including medicine, blankets and insulation. The world’s recognition of the Libyan opposition gave it a huge boost in the battle against Moammar Gadhafi last year and paved the way for Western airstrikes. Military intervention does not appear to be an immediate option for Syria, however, where the government has the powerful backing of Russia, China and Iran — though the conference pledged a swift international response if Assad unleashes his chemical weapons stocks against his own people.

According to Jon Wilks, the British special representative to the rebels, the purpose of the conference was not so much about military intervention or even collecting donations, but making sure the new opposition was building institutions that would let them channel the aid and administer the increasing amounts of territory under its control.

“The key point is they are setting up institutions and money is coming, it’s a better situation than three months ago, they are happy, we are happy,” he said, adding that farther down the road for the Cairo-based group would be a provisional government.

Suheir Atassi, one of the vice presidents of the opposition, said in her speech that these structures for delivering aid, free of religious or political affiliations, were now in place across liberated areas, so the most needy during Syria’s cold winters get needed supplies.

The international recognition could also eventually pave the way for other sorts of aid, hinted Fabius, the French minister. “The fact that the coalition, which asks for the right to defend itself, now is being recognized by (many) countries … I think it is an important point,” he said, expressing confidence that “2013 will be the year of the democratic and united Syria.”

Despite the civil war grinding away in Syria, many of the delegates expressed confidence it would just be a matter of time before Assad’s regime fell and there was a need to start planning for an aftermath.

To that end, the conference pledged to set up a post-war reconstruction fund for the country to be administered by Germany and the United Arab Emirates. “With the fighting in Damascus, I believe we are coming close to the end, and there is a shift in the balance of power in Syria,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said at the closing news conference. “We are coming to the point of talking about the post-Assad era.”

According to a representative from Human Rights Watch, there is a strong chance the current human rights violations will pale in comparison to those when the regime falls, which might involve reprisals against former government supporters and wholesale sectarian massacres on the order of Iraq — especially if groups like the now blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra remain powerful.

The new Syrian opposition has to take into account how they are going to manage justice in the “new Iraq,” cautioned Tamara al-Rifai of the rights group. “We are calling on the Syrian delegation to include transitional justice in any political plan they are doing and calling on the international community to help support that,” she said.

by Adam Nicky

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anti-normalization groups up in arms over British fundraiser

AMMAN: Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan found himself in hot water this week after his participation in a Jewish charity event in the UK last month was exposed in local media.

Hassan, the uncle of King Abdullah II, was in headlines for the wrong reasons after he addressed a fundraising event on November 21 for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which Israeli figures also attended. The prince was pictured alongside the organization’s president, Vivian Wineman, and treasurer, Laurence Brass.

In a country where anti-Israeli sentiment runs high and most of the 7.5 million citizens are Palestinians, the move was viewed as a flagrant disregard for public sensitivities. What added insult to injury is the fact that the event was held less than a week after the end of hostilities between Israeli and Hamas in the Gaza Strip which claimed civilian lives on both sides.

In his speech, Hassan insisted that the Jordanian monarchy will remain in power despite the recent large demonstrations against recent price hikes that have rocked the nation.

“We are not in it for prestige,” Prince Hassan told the British guests. “I genuinely feel we are there for the sake of human dignity.”

King Abdullah was originally scheduled to attend the event, but cancelled without giving a reason.

Anti-Israel activists have called on the royal family to distance itself from the prince’s action. The National Anti-Normalization Committee, which lobbies against normal relations with Israel, blasted Hassan.

“We condemn Prince Hassan’s participation as it represents free service to the Zionist enemy and harms national causes as well as the prince himself and the royal family,” read the organization’s statement.

“This is a provocation of the feelings of all Jordanians,” added the statement, which was overlooked by most pro-government media.

It is rare for the organization to criticize a member of the royal family.

At least one editor at a major Arabic-language daily confirmed to The Media Line that it received instructions from security authorities to ignore the statement about the prince due to what he said was “sensitive times.”

Activist Dr. Anis Khasawneh vilified the prince and called for an apology.

“What I find astonishing is that the prince challenges the feelings of Jordanians by collecting donations for Israel. Why does he act in such an arrogant manner?” he asked.

Khasawneh said Hassan was poised to become leader of Jordan in the past and ended up helping the enemies of the entire Arab nation.

Government sources played down the significance of Hassan’s involvement in the event and tried to defend the prince’s action, insisting that his participation was designed to lobby for the resumption of peace talks and put pressure on Israel to commit to its political obligation, as part of a dialogue between religions.

The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the prince left the meeting before Israeli officials took to the podium to address the audience, and had only “scorning words for Israel’s actions in the peace process.”

Although Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, dealing with Israeli officials remains a social and political taboo, with several lobby groups campaigning against improving ties between the two countries.

At least two major labor organizations also object to normalization with Israel. Opposition parties, including the Islamist movement, draw support from Jordanians who are against the peace treaty with Israel.

Hamzah Mansour, president of the National Anti-Normalization Committee and secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, expressed his disappointment over the prince’s actions.

“I urge all Jordanians – the honorable ones – to end dealing with this enemy. The Israelis have no interest in talking. They only understand the language of the sword,” he said in response to diplomatic ties between Jordan and Israel.

“We must scrap the peace treaty because Israel has no interest in making peace,” he told The Media Line.

Meanwhile, the National Anti-Normalization Committee has accused brokers of doing business with Israeli firms that buy Jordanian products and sell them under Israeli labels. Figures from the Jordanian Department of Statistics show that exports to Israel during the first eight months of 2012 stood at some $48 million, a drop from $54 million in 2011. Imports increased from $65 million to $69 million during the same period.

In Amman’s bustling central fruit and vegetable market, farmers and brokers had mixed views about dealing with Israel. Some said they would rather throw their produce into the garbage than sell it to Israelis. Others believe they have no choice due to limited markets.

Abu Emad, a 56-year-old broker, said he sells to whoever pays the most in his auction.

“The government did not find us new markets. The Syrian crisis was a disaster for us. Now we have to sell to anyone,” he said, before starting an auction of newly-arrived olives.

“The prince did what he had to do. He’s a politician and Jordan cannot survive if officials do not talk to all kinds of people, including Jews,” he concluded.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

December 10, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban will attend a meeting in France to talk about Afghanistan’s future but will not discuss peace and reconciliation, the militant group’s spokesman said Monday.

The meeting, organized by a French think tank on the outskirts of Paris, is not expected to produce results, but it will produce a rare face-to-face gathering of Afghanistan’s major players. Only one such meeting, far less inclusive, has been held this year with Taliban participation. It was organized by a Japanese university in Kyoto six months ago.

Zabiullah Mujahid said two of the Taliban’s representatives will attend next week’s meeting to outline their policies. Representatives from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, political parties opposed to the Taliban, and the militant Islamist group Hezb-e-Islami also are expected to attend.

French Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Vincent Floreani said the intra-Afghan conference would take place this month under the auspices of the Foundation for Strategic Research. It will be closed to the media and will involve “all components of Afghan society,” he said. He declined to specify the date or indicate the location, citing security concerns.

Peace talks with the Taliban remained stalled, but there are signs of increasing efforts to get them back on track. U.S.-backed talks broke down last March in a dispute over the release of five Taliban detainees held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants the peace talks to be led by his government and the peace council, a body he set up to negotiate with the insurgency. It was unclear who would represent the Afghan government, but an official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters said that Education Minister Farooq Wardak may attend along with one other official.

Pakistan is also a key player in the peace process, and its release of a number of Taliban prisoners earlier in the month was seen as a key step in its participation. The cooperation of Pakistan, which has long-standing ties to the Taliban, is seen as pivotal in restarting the talks. The United States and its allies are trying to get movement ahead of the Afghan presidential election in 2014, the year that most foreign combat troops are set to leave the country.

“Two people are going from the Taliban side. We are not giving the names now,” Mujahid said. “We are not going to talk about the peace process. We will express our ideas and policy. We are not going to discuss peace. This gathering is not about peace.”

Ghairat Baheer, who will attend and represent his father-in-law Hekmatyar, said Hezb-e-Islami was supporting the initiative by the French because it focused on a discussion among Afghans. “It is a good forum for exchanging views and expressing oneself and understanding each other’s point of view,” Baheer said. “The intra-Afghan dialogue is the only solution. The Taliban have shown a willingness to participate.”

Muhammad Mohaqeq, a member of the peace council and top leader of Afghan Shiites and the Hazara minority ethnic faction, said the peace process would be a topic for discussion at the meeting. “There will be people from the government side, from Hezb-e-Islami and the Taliban,” he said. “We are going to talk about the peace process and all sides will be there. We will also talk about the elections and the situation in Afghanistan.”

Mohaqeq, a member of the National Front, which represents members of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban before the U.S. invasion 11 years ago, said he and another two people from the group will attend. One of the two is Ahmad Zia Masood, the brother of the late Northern Alliance chief Ahmad Shah Masood, considered a national hero by anti-Taliban forces.

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed.