Archive for January, 2013


January 27, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s president declared a state of emergency and curfew in three Suez Canal provinces hit hardest by a weekend wave of unrest that left more than 50 dead, using tactics of the ousted regime to get a grip on discontent over his Islamist policies and the slow pace of change.

Angry and almost screaming, Mohammed Morsi vowed in a televised address on Sunday night that he would not hesitate to take even more action to stem the latest eruption of violence across much of the country. But at the same time, he sought to reassure Egyptians that his latest moves would not plunge the country back into authoritarianism.

“There is no going back on freedom, democracy and the supremacy of the law,” he said. The worst violence this weekend was in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said, where seven people were killed on Sunday, pushing the toll for two days of clashes to at least 44. The unrest was sparked on Saturday by a court conviction and death sentence for 21 defendants involved in a mass soccer riot in the city’s main stadium on Feb. 1, 2012 that left 74 dead.

Most of those sentenced to death were local soccer fans from Port Said, deepening a sense of persecution that Port Said’s residents have felt since the stadium disaster, the worst soccer violence ever in Egypt.

At least another 11 died on Friday elsewhere in the country during rallies marking the second anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Protesters used the occasion to renounce Morsi and his Islamic fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the country’s most dominant political force after Mubarak’s ouster.

The curfew and state of emergency, both in force for 30 days, affect the provinces of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez. The curfew takes effect Monday from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day. Morsi, in office since June, also invited the nation’s political forces to a dialogue starting Monday to resolve the country’s latest crisis. A statement issued later by his office said that among those invited were the country’s top reform leader, Nobel peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in last year’s presidential race.

The three are leaders of the National Salvation Front, an umbrella for the main opposition parties. Khaled Dawoud, the Front’s spokesman, said Morsi’s invitation was meaningless unless he clearly states what is on the agenda. That, he added, must include amending a disputed constitution hurriedly drafted by the president’s Islamist allies and rejected by the opposition.

He also faulted the president for not acknowledging his political responsibility for the latest bout of political violence. “It is all too little too late,” he told The Associated Press. In many ways, Morsi’s decree and his call for a dialogue betrayed his despair in the face of wave after wave of political unrest, violence and man-made disasters that, at times, made the country look like it was about to come unglued.

A relative unknown until his Muslim Brotherhood nominated him to run for president last year, Morsi is widely criticized for having offered no vision for the country’s future after nearly 30 years of dictatorship under Mubarak and no coherent policy to tackle seemingly endless problems, from a free falling economy and deeply entrenched social injustices to surging crime and chaos on the streets.

Reform of the judiciary and the police, hated under the old regime for brutality, are also key demands of Morsi’s critics. Morsi did not say what he plans to do to stem the violence in other parts of the country outside those three provinces, but he did say he had instructed the police to deal “firmly and forcefully” with individuals attacking state institutions, using firearms to “terrorize” citizens or blocking roads and railway lines.

There were also clashes Sunday in Cairo and several cities in the Nile Delta region, including the industrial city of Mahallah. Egypt’s current crisis is the second to hit the country since November, when Morsi issued decrees, since rescinded, that gave him nearly unlimited powers and placed him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.

The latest eruption of political violence has deepened the malaise as Morsi struggles to get a grip on enormous social and economic problems and the increasingly dangerous fault lines that divide this nation of 85 million.

In an ominous sign, a one-time jihadist group on Sunday blamed the secular opposition for the violence and threatened to set up vigilante militias to defend the government it supports. Addressing a news conference, Tareq el-Zomr of the once-jihadist Gamaa Islamiya, said:

“If security forces don’t achieve security, it will be the right of the Egyptian people and we at the forefront to set up popular committees to protect private and public property and counter the aggression on innocent citizens.”

His threat was accompanied by his charge that the opposition was responsible for the deadly violence of the past few days, setting the stage for possible bloody clashes between protesters and Islamist militiamen. The opposition denies the charge.

In Port Said on Sunday, tens of thousands of mourners poured into the streets for a mass funeral for most of the 37 people who died on Saturday. They chanted slogans against Morsi. “We are now dead against Morsi,” said Port Said activist Amira Alfy. “We will not rest now until he goes and we will not take part in the next parliamentary elections. Port Said has risen and will not allow even a semblance of normalcy to come back,” she said.

The violence flared only a month after a prolonged crisis — punctuated by deadly violence — over the new constitution. Ten died in that round of unrest and hundreds were injured. In Port Said, mourners chanted “There is no God but Allah,” and “Morsi is God’s enemy” as the funeral procession made its way through the city after prayers for the dead at the city’s Mariam Mosque. Women clad in black led the chants, which were quickly picked up by the rest of the mourners.

There were no police or army troops in sight. But the funeral procession briefly halted after gunfire rang out. Security officials said the gunfire came from several mourners who opened fire at the Police Club next to the cemetery. Activists, however, said the gunfire first came from inside the army club, which is also close to the cemetery. Some of the mourners returned fire, which drew more shots as well as tear gas, according to witnesses. They, together with the officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation in the city on the Mediterranean at the northern tip of the Suez Canal.

A total of 630 people were injured, some of them with gunshot wounds, said Abdel-Rahman Farag, director of the city’s hospitals. Also Sunday, army troops backed by armored vehicles staked out positions at key government facilities to protect state interests and try to restore order.

There was also a funeral in Cairo for two policemen killed in the Port Said violence a day earlier. Several policemen grieving for their colleagues heckled Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the force, when he arrived for their funeral, according to witnesses.

The angry officers screamed at the minister that he was only at the funeral for the TV cameras — a highly unusual show of dissent in Egypt, where the police force maintains military-like discipline. Ibrahim hurriedly left and the funeral proceeded without him, a sign that the prestige of the state and its top executives were diminishing.

In Cairo, clashes broke out for the fourth straight day on Sunday, with protesters and police outside two landmark, Nile-side hotels near central Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Police fired tear gas while protesters pelted them with rocks.

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Wed Oct 5, 2011

Saudi Arabia and the Western states have kept silent for decades regarding the occupation of two Saudi western islands by the Israeli regime.

Israeli forces reportedly occupied Saudi Arabia’s Tiran and Sanafir Islands in 1967.

The two islands are located at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, leading to the Red Sea.

Tiran Island, which has an area of about 80 square kilometers, is located at the inflow of the Straits of Tiran. Sanafir Island, with an area of 33 square kilometers, also lies to the east of Tiran.

The two islands were given to the former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for logistics use in the Six Day War of 1967 against Israeli forces.

However, the islands have been occupied by Tel Aviv since Egypt’s defeat.

The Straits of Tiran, which has remained under the control of Tel Aviv, has strategic significance since it serves as Israel’s only direct access to the Red Sea.

Regional observers say while Saudi Arabia has maintained a total silence on its own Israeli-occupied islands, it vigorously pursues baseless claims by the United Arab Emirates against three tiny Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf.

Source: PressTV.

Link: http://www.presstv.com/detail/202842.html.

Oct 04, 2011

AMMAN (JT) – Two Cabinet members applied to relinquish their non-Jordanian nationalities at the concerned embassies, a government official said.

Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and Government Spokesperson Abdullah Abu Rumman said the step taken by Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohammad Najjar and Minister of Culture Jeryes Samawi on Monday “was made to abide by the [new] Constitution, which prohibits Jordanians who have another nationality from holding ministerial posts”, according to the Jordan News Agency, Petra.

Under the amendments made to Article 75 of the Constitution, which went into effect Saturday, “no person can become a deputy, senator, minister or a high-ranking official if he/she holds dual nationality”.

In a press conference yesterday, Abu Rumman said Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit has informed all ministers who hold dual nationalities to rectify their statuses according to the Constitution, Petra reported.

Senator Talal Abu Ghazaleh was the first to resign his seat as he holds Bahraini citizenship, along with his Jordanian nationality.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/two-ministers-relinquish-foreign-citizenship.

BY PATRICK COCKBURN

WEDNESDAY 05 OCTOBER 2011

Pro-democracy protests which swept the Arab world earlier in the year have erupted in eastern Saudi Arabia over the past three days, with police opening fire with live rounds and many people injured, opposition activists say.

Saudi Arabia last night confirmed there had been fighting in the region and that 11 security personnel and three civilians had been injured in al-Qatif, a large Shia city on the coast of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The opposition say that 24 men and three women were wounded on Monday night and taken to al-Qatif hospital.

The Independent has been given exclusive details of how the protests developed by local activists. They say unrest began on Sunday in al-Awamiyah, a Shia town of about 25,000 people, when Saudi security forces arrested a 60-year-old man to force his son – an activist – to give himself up.

Ahmad Al-Rayah, a spokesman for the Society for Development and Change, which is based in the area, said that most of the civilians hit were wounded in heavy firing by the security forces after 8 pm on Monday. “A crowd was throwing stones at a police station and when a local human rights activist named Fadel al-Mansaf went into the station to talk to them and was arrested,” he said.

Mr Rayah added that “there have been protests for democracy and civil rights since February, but in the past the police fired into the air. This is the first time they have fired live rounds directly into a crowd.” He could not confirm if anybody had been killed.

The Shia of Saudi Arabia, mostly concentrated in the Eastern Province, have long complained of discrimination against them by the fundamentalist Sunni Saudi monarchy. The Wahhabi variant of Islam, the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, holds Shia to be heretics who are not real Muslims.

The US, as the main ally of Saudi Arabia, is likely to be alarmed by the spread of pro-democracy protests to the Kingdom and particularly to that part of it which contains the largest oil reserves in the world. The Saudi Shia have been angered at the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain since March, with many protesters jailed, tortured or killed, according Western human rights organisations.

Hamza al-Hassan, an opponent of the Saudi government from Eastern Province living in Britain, predicted that protests would spread to more cities. “I am frightened when I see video film of events because most people in this region have guns brought in over the years from Iraq and Yemen and will use them [against government security men],” he said. He gave a slightly different account of the start of the riots in al-Awamiyah, saying that two elderly men had been arrested by the security forces, one of whom had a heart attack.

“Since September there has been a huge presence of Saudi security forces in al-Qatif and all other Shia centers ” he said. Al-Qatif was the scene of similar protests in March, which were swiftly quashed by security forces.

The Saudi statement alleges that the recent protests were stirred up by an unnamed foreign power, by which it invariably means Iran. The interior ministry was quoted on Saudi television as saying that “a foreign country is trying to undermine national security by inciting strife in al-Qatif”. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the western Gulf have traditionally blamed Iran for any unrest by local Shia, but have never produced any evidence other than to point at sympathetic treatment of the demonstrations on Iranian television.

The 20 doctors in Bahrain sentenced to up to 15 years in prison last week say their interrogators tortured them repeatedly to force them to make false confessions that Iran was behind the protests. The counter-revolution in Bahrain was heralded by the arrival of a 1,500-strong Saudi-led military force, which is still there.

Mr Rayah, who flew from Saudi Arabia to Beirut to be free to talk about the protests, said: “People want a change and a new way of living.” He said that, in particular, they were demanding a constitution and a free assembly for the Eastern Province. He also wanted the Society for Development and Change legally registered.

Mr Hassan blamed the protests on the fact “that there has been no political breakthrough”.

“I am from the city of al-Safwa, which is very close to al-Awamiyah, and there is very high unemployment in both,” he said. Some 70 per cent of the Saudi population is believed to be under 30 and many do not have jobs. “We were hoping for municipal reforms and regional elections for years but we got nothing.”

He said reforms reported in the Western media were meaningless and that only a few Saudis had bothered to vote in the most recent local elections because local councils had no power.

Source: The Independent.

Link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-police-open-fire-on-civilians-as-protests-gain-momentum-2365614.html.

By Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Sep 28 2011 (IPS) – In a development that could help resolve an eight-year-old diplomatic and humanitarian standoff, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that has several thousand adherents at a military camp in Iraq, has agreed to allow residents to apply for refugee status and be interviewed individually by U.N. officials.

Vincent Cochetel, Washington representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IPS Wednesday that an agreement was reached about 10 days ago through the MEK’s legal counsel in London.

“They have agreed to individual screening,” he said. “We have offered an alternative location near Ashraf,” the camp north of Baghdad where the MEK members reside.

The decision by the MEK could help resolve a crisis that has weighed heavily on the United States as it prepares to withdraw most of its remaining troops from Iraq. Iraqi officials are considering allowing a few thousand U.S. troops to stay in the country but only to provide training and other military assistance.

Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman, told IPS, “We fully support the international community’s efforts to resolve the situation at Ashraf.”

There are about 3,300 Iranians left in the camp.

In the past, the MEK leadership has refused to allow most residents of Camp Ashraf to apply for refugee status or to speak with UNHCR representatives without MEK officials present.

Former members of the group, who contend that the MEK is a cult that fosters blind obedience to its leaders, say that many Ashraf inhabitants have been held against their will and would eagerly leave the camp if they could. There have been fears that the leaders would order members to commit suicide en masse rather than let them go.

The agreement with UNHCR is a necessary first step to close the camp – something the Iraqi government has long sought – but does not resolve the problem of where the residents find refuge.

“The challenge for us is to find countries to receive them,” Cochetel said. “The likelihood that they can remain in Iraq is very limited.”

The current Iraqi government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds, has tolerated the MEK camp only under U.S. and international pressure. The Iraqi leadership blames the MEK for allying with Saddam Hussein and participating in brutal crackdowns against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites following the 1991 Gulf War.

The George W. Bush administration initially promised to declare residents of Ashraf enemy combatants following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam’s regime. Instead, however, U.S. forces put the camp under their protection. Since 2008, when Iraq regained sovereignty over the camp, Iraqi troops have entered Ashraf several times in a futile effort to convince residents to leave. A few dozen people have been killed in skirmishes between the Iraqis and the Iranians.

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, told IPS the agreement with UNHCR “could potentially be a breakthrough”, but that it remained unclear whether the MEK leadership would allow everyone in the camp to be interviewed.

“Hopefully, if given enough protection, camp residents will be able to be truthful about conditions in Ashraf and where they want to go,” Parsi said.

Several hundred camp residents have managed to return to Iran since 2003 through the auspices of the International Red Cross. Many of those who remain would fear to go to Iran now in light of the widespread crackdown on Iranian opposition groups that followed disputed 2009 presidential elections.

Originally a Marxist-Islamist group that helped overthrow the Shah of Iran, the MEK lost a power struggle with more Islamic-oriented factions following the 1979 revolution. The group has very little support within Iran because of its siding with Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. During the following decade, while Saddam remained in power, the MEK carried out assassinations of prominent officials and other attacks within Iran.

The U.S. State Department put the MEK on its list of foreign terrorist organisations in 1997 because of the group’s bloody record, which includes the assassination of six U.S. citizens in Iran during the 1970s.

MEK leaders insist that they have renounced terrorism and now advocate a democratic government for Iran. But their literature continues to treat their leader, Mariam Rajavi, who lives outside Paris, as the object of a personality cult. The whereabouts of Mrs. Rajavi’s husband, Massoud, who led the group into exile, are unknown.

In recent months, wealthy supporters of the MEK have waged an aggressive lobbying campaign to be removed from the U.S. terrorist list, paying tens of thousands of dollars apiece to prominent former U.S. officials to speak on the group’s behalf.

One argument advanced by MEK adherents has been that removal from the list would allow Ashraf residents to come to the United States. However, a State Department official told IPS last month that U.S. law forbids immigration to anyone with ties to a foreign terrorist organisation. He said this includes “those who provided material support to, or received military-type training from the group, as many MEK members have”.

Asked if UNHCR was looking to Europe – where many Ashraf residents have relatives – to give refuge to camp residents, Cochetel said, “I can’t say at this point that their response has been overwhelming.”

Source: Inter-Press Service.

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/09/iranians-in-iraqi-camp-to-seek-refugee-status/.

January 25, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians delivered an angry backlash against President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood on Friday, marking the second anniversary of the start of the country’s revolution with tens of thousands filling major squares and streets around the country to call for a new regime change.

Two years to the day that protesters first rose up against now-toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is entrenched in the new phase of its upheaval — the struggle between ruling Islamists and their opponents, played out on the backdrop of a worsening economy.

Rallies turned to clashes near Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace in Cairo and in multiple cities around the country, with police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones. At least four people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in the day’s worst clashes, in the city of Suez, where protesters set ablaze a building that once housed the city’s local government.

More than 370 were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said, including five in Suez with gunshot wounds, raising the possibility of a higher death toll, the state news agency said. Friday’s rallies appeared to have brought out at least 500,000 opposition supporters, a small proportion of Egypt’s 85 million people, but large enough to suggest that opposition to Morsi and his Islamist allies is strong in a country fatigued by two years of political turmoil, surging crime and a free falling economy that is fueling popular anger. Protests — and clashes — took place in at least 12 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, including several that are Islamist strongholds.

“After what happened to me, I will never leave until Morsi leaves,” said protester Sara Mohammed after she was treated for tear gas inhalation during clashes outside the president’s palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district. “What can possibly happen to us? Will we die? That’s fine, because then I will be with God as a martyr. Many have died before us and even if we don’t see change, future generations will.”

The immediate goal of the opposition was to have a show of strength to push Morsi to amend the country’s new constitution, which was pushed through by his Islamist allies and rushed through a national referendum last month.

But more broadly, protesters are trying to show the extent of public anger against the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization Morsi hails from, which they say is acting unilaterally and taking over the state rather than setting up a broad-based democracy.

Morsi is Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president, a significant feat given that all his four predecessors were of military background. But his six months in office have been marred by some of the worst crises since Mubarak’s ouster and divisions that have left the nation scarred and in disarray. A giant wave of demonstrations erupted in November and December following a series of presidential decrees, since rescinded, that gave Morsi near absolute powers, placing him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, including the ultraconservative Salafis, have justified their hold by pointing to their string of election victories the past year — though the opposition says they have gone far beyond what in many ways is a narrow mandate — Morsi won the presidency with less than 52 percent of the vote. Brotherhood officials have increasingly depicted the opposition as undemocratic, trying to use the streets to overturn an elected leadership.

Thursday night, Morsi gave a televised speech that showed the extent of the estrangement between the two sides. He denounced what he called a “counter-revolution” that is “being led by remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime to obstruct everything in the country.”

Unlike in 2012, when both sides made a show of marking Jan. 25 — though, granted, not together — the Brotherhood stayed off the streets for Friday’s anniversary. The group said it was honoring the occasion with acts of public service, like treating the sick and planting trees.

On the horizon are key elections to choose a new lower house of parliament. The opposition is hoping it can leverage public anger into a substantial bloc in the legislature, but it is still trying to weld together an effective campaign coalition in the face of Islamists’ strength at the ballot box. Last winter, the Brotherhood and Salafis won around 75 percent of the lower house’s seats, though the body was later disbanded by court order.

Pending the election of a new lower house, Morsi gave legislative powers to parliament’s Islamist-dominated upper house, a normally toothless chamber that only about seven percent of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters bothered to elect in balloting last year.

The violence Friday pointed to the increasing tempers among some in the opposition, particularly younger men who have been the most restive. Clashes erupted outside the presidential palace when youths tried to push through a police barricade outside the gates. In other cities, protesters tried to break into offices of the Brotherhood’s political party or government and security buildings.

Beyond the violence, the protests re-created the tone of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, including the same chants, this time directed against Morsi — “Erhal! Erhal!”, Arabic for “leave, leave” and “the people want to topple the regime.”

Some of the protesters are planning sit-in strikes in major squares and streets, insisting that they will not go home before Morsi leaves office. Standing near Tahrir Square, retiree Ahmed Afifi declared that he joined Friday’s protests because he was struggling to feed his five children on less than $200 a month.

“I am retired and took another job just to make ends meet,” he said, his eyes tearing. “I am close to begging. Under Mubarak life was hard but at least we had security … The first people hit by high prices are the poor people right here.”

Tens of thousands massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the 2011 uprising began, and outside Morsi’s palace. Banners outside the palace proclaimed, “No to the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood government” and “Two years since the revolution, where is social justice?” Others demonstrated outside the state TV and radio building overlooking the Nile.

In two towns in the Nile Delta, Menouf and Shibeen el-Koum, protesters blocked railway lines, disrupting train services to and from Cairo. In Ismailia on the Suez Canal, protesters stormed the building housing the provincial government, looting some of its contents. There were also clashes outside Morsi’s home in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiyah.

The demands of Friday’s protesters vary. Some on the extremist fringe of Egypt’s loosely knit opposition want Morsi to step down and the constitution adopted last month rescinded. Others are calling for the document to be amended and early presidential elections held.

“There must be a constitution for all Egyptians. A constitution that every one of us sees himself in it,” opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said in a televised message posted on his party’s website.

Egypt’s bestselling novelist and democracy campaigner Alaa al-Aswany marched with ElBaradei on Friday to Tahrir. “It is impossible to impose a constitution on Egyptians, a constitution which was sponsored by the Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolution today will bring this constitution down,” he said.

Protester Ehab Menyawi said he felt no personal animosity against the Brotherhood but opposed its approach toward Morsi as Egypt’s first freely elected leader. “The Brotherhood thinks that reform was achieved when their man came to power and that in itself is a guarantee for the end of corruption,” he said as he marched from the upscale Cairo district of Mohandiseen to Tahrir with some 20,000 others.

Morsi has kept government policy-making and the choice of appointments almost entirely within the Brotherhood. Members and supporters of the group are being installed bit by bit throughout the state infrastructure — from governor posts, to chiefs of state TV and newspapers, down to preachers in state-run mosques.

Many were also angered by the constitution and the manner of its adoption. Islamists finalized the draft in a rushed, all-night meeting, throwing in amendments to fit their needs, then pushed it through a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.

Looming over the struggle between the opposition against the Islamists is an economy that has been in tatters since Mubarak’s ouster. The vital tourism sector has slumped, investment shriveled, foreign currency reserves have tumbled, prices are on the rise and the local currency has been sliding.

More pain is likely in the coming months if the government implements unpopular new austerity measures to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. “Egypt is in a bad place, It’s been wholly consumed with issues of power, and governance has been left by the wayside. None of this had to be,” said Michael W. Hanna, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation.

Associated Press reporters Aya Batrawy and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.

January 26, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s army unleashed a barrage of rocket and artillery fire on rebel-held areas in a central province Friday as part of a widening offensive against fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad. At least 140 people were killed in fighting nationwide, according to activist groups.

The United Nations said a record number of Syrians streamed into Jordan this month, doubling the population of the kingdom’s already-cramped refugee camp to 65,000. Over 30,000 people arrived in Zaatari in January — 6,000 in the past two days alone, the U.N. said.

The newcomers are mostly families, women, children and elderly who fled from southern Syria, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She said the UNHCR was working with the Jordanian government to open a second major camp nearby by the end of this month.

Many of the new arrivals at Zaatari are from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad first erupted nearly two years ago, the Britain-based Save the Children said Friday. Five buses, crammed with “frightened and exhausted people who fled with what little they could carry,” pull up every hour at the camp, said Saba al-Mobasat, an aid worker with Save the Children.

The exodus reflected the latest spike in violence in Syria’s civil war. The conflict began in March 2011 after a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, turned violent.

Despite significant rebel advances on the battlefield, the opposition remains outgunned by government forces and has been unable to break a stalemate on the ground. In Lebanon, the leader of the Syria-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday in a speech that those who dream about “dramatic changes” taking place in Syria should let go of their fantasies.

“Particularly those who were expecting the fall of Damascus,” he told supporters, adding that military, political and international developments point to the futility of such dreams. Activists said the army recently brought in military reinforcements to the central province of Homs and launched a renewed offensive aimed at retaking patches of territory that have been held by rebels for months.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.

Another video showed thick black and gray smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. “The city of Homs is burning … day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn’t stop,” the narrator is heard saying.

Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in surrounding towns and villages. The troops fired artillery shells Friday at several districts, including Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime warplanes carried out airstrikes on the suburb of Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus. Other video showed devastation in the Damascus neighborhood of Arbeen, following what activists said were two airstrikes there. A bleeding, wounded man can be seen being helped out of the rubble of the destroyed building. The videos appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting on the fighting.

Last month, the UNHCR said it needed $1 billion to aid Syrians in the Mideast, and that half of that money was required to help refugees in Jordan. The agency says 597,240 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration with the UNHCR in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some countries have higher estimates, noting many Syrians have found accommodations without registering, relying on their own resources and savings.

In Turkey, U.S. officials announced that the United States was providing an additional $10 million in assistance to help supply flour to bakeries in the Aleppo region. Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the aid would help provide daily bread for about 210,000 people for the next five months.

She said that with the new assistance, the United States was providing a total of $220 million to help Syrians. “Too many people — an unconscionable number of Syrians — are not able to get daily bread, in addition to other supplies,” Lindborg told journalists after a visit to a Syrian refugee camp near Turkey’s border with Syria.

In a rare gesture, Syria’s Interior Ministry called on those who fled the country during the civil war to return, including regime opponents. It said the government will help hundreds of thousands of citizens return whether they left “legally or illegally.”

Syrian opposition figures abroad who want to take part in reconciliation talks will also be allowed back, according to a ministry statement carried late Thursday by the state SANA news agency. If they “have the desire to participate in the national dialogue, they would be allowed to enter Syria,” it said.

The proposed talks are part of Assad’s initiative to end the conflict that started as peaceful protests in March 2011 but turned into a civil war. Tens of thousands of activists, their family members and opposition supporters remain jailed by the regime, according to international activist groups.

Opposition leaders repeatedly have rejected any talks that include Assad, insisting he must step down. The international community backs that demand, but Assad has clung to power, vowing to crush the armed opposition.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, according to the U.N. Activists also said two cars packed with explosives blew up near a military intelligence building in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, killing eight. Most of the dead were members of the Syrian military, the Observatory said.

The Syrian government had no comment on the attacks, which occurred Thursday night in the town of Quneitra, and nobody claimed responsibility for them. Car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Syrian troops and government institutions have been the hallmark of Islamic militants fighting in Syria alongside rebels trying to topple Assad.

Quneitra is on the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, which controls most of the Golan Heights after capturing the strategic territory from Syria in the 1967 war.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

by Abdulrhaman Shamlan

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hundreds of thousands work to help their families survive financially

Sana’a–Mohammed Abdu Al-Jadol, a 13-year-old boy, gets up early in the morning not to go to school like his friends but to go to a small welding shop, where he works from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m .for only $4 a day.

Poverty and harsh economical conditions pushed Mohammed’s father to force his children to work and drop out of school to help him provide for their big family. Mohammed says he only studied until the sixth grade.

Wearing a black helmet and polarized sunglasses to protect his eyes from welding light, he told The Media Line, “I don’t like school anyway.” But it’s too early for him to know what’s best for him.

“I pushed my children to work because I needed help to feed their younger brothers and sisters,” Mohammed’s father Abdu, a 48-year-old builder, told The Media Line. “When I brought my two children with me to Sana’a, I was planning to let them continue their studies but that proved to be impractical.”

Consoling himself, he added:: “My children can be better than the educated people if they work hard and establish their own businesses in the future. They can even hire those who received certificates.”

Like Mohammed, there are hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children aged 5-17 deprived from enjoying their childhood and continuing their education because of their families’ harsh economic conditions and lack of awareness about the dangers of child labor.

A recent survey showed that there are over 1.3 million child laborers in Yemen. The study results announced last week were based on a survey conducted in 2010 by the Yemeni government with support from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Social Development Fund and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

According to the survey, 17 percent of Yemen’s 7.7 million children in the 5-17 age group and 11 percent of those aged 5-11 are child laborers.

Although the study shows alarming figures, Yemeni activists and government officials working in child rights say that the real number of working children is far more than reported.

Ahmed Al-Qarashi, the chairman of the Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection, told The Media Line, “The recently-announced study is outdated. It’s impractical to announce the results of a study three years after conducting it.”

“In the past two years, Yemen has experienced political turmoil and security unrest. The turmoil has significantly increased the child laborers’ number,” he said.

Mona Ali Salem, the head of Child Labor Unit at Yemen’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, told The Media Line, “Child labor is on the increase in Yemen. In 2000, a government survey showed that there were around 421,000 working children and the results of the 2010 survey indicated that there are more than 1.3 million child laborers.”

While Jamal Al-Shami, the head of Democracy School, an organization advocating child rights in the country, estimated the current number of working children at three million, Al-Qarashi says he believes there are about five million child laborers in Yemen.

The working children are vulnerable to different kinds of abuse ranging from maltreatment to sexual abuse, child rights activists said.

Al-Qarashi said his organization has documented some cases in which a part of children’s bodies was amputated for them to be suitable for certain professions, like begging.

“An ever heightening poverty, increasing instability and high population growth are the main reasons for the alarming widespread of child labor in Yemen,” Salem said,  an understanding that both Al-Shami and Al-Qarashi shared.

Yemen is the poorest Arab state, with more than half of its population living on less than $2 a day.

Al-Shami told The Media Line, “A lack of awareness about the dangers of child labor and illiteracy among the parents are also factors for the widespread child labor.”

Underscoring that, a field study on child labor in the port city of Aden showed about 84% of working children are from rural areas. It indicated that the child laborers’ parents are either illiterate or received very basic education.

“Taking into consideration the economical hardships of Yemenis, we only oppose the work of children in hazardous professions or in jobs that interfere with their ability to attend regular school,” Afrah Humad, the communication officer for the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, a governmental body that answers to the prime minister, told The Media Line. “For example, we can’t force a mother who says she does not have anything to feed her children not to let her sons work and help her in providing for the family but we can persuade her to make them work in jobs that don’t affect their schooling.”

Al-Shami said the government should pass laws making education obligatory for children and punishing irresponsible parents who push their children to work without a great necessity for it.

Copyright © 2013 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

by Adam Nicky

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Muslim Brotherhood set to boycott parliamentary elections

With just three days left ahead of Jordanian parliamentary elections, King Abdullah and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party the Islamic Action Front (IAC), who are boycotting the election, are on a collision course ahead of the vote.

After failing to attract the Islamist movement to run in the polls, which he promotes as fruit of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah this week appeared to have given up on the IAC. The pro-Western monarch accused them of seeking to establish a “religious dictatorship” and said he didn’t trust the Islamists.

“I am not worried about the Islamists winning in the elections. I am worried about pluralism and an exchange of power” that might result from such a victory, Abdullah said in a January 13 interview with the French magazine L’Observoire. He also expressed concern about how much change such a victory would bring to the country.

Meanwhile, the state-controlled media has been leading a smear campaign against the Islamist movement ahead of the polls.

Jordanian officials point out that the January 23 elections will lead to the creation of the country’s first parliamentary government. The king would name a prime minister to form a government that includes members of parliament, and retain the right to name and dismiss the prime minister.

Jordan elects its parliament every four years to choose 150 MPs in the lower house, while the king appoints the upper house with 50 senators forming the legislative authority. It remains unclear how many MPs would join the new government, but lists of candidates show former officials and businessmen leading the race in the absence of powerful opposition.

Wary of the possible negative effects of an Arab Spring in Jordan, Abdullah’s spokesmen argue that gradual reforms are safer in a country surrounded by major powers struggling for Mideast interests.

“The region is facing an uncertain future. We don’t know where Syria is heading and countries that saw change in the Arab Spring are suffering,” a senior government official told the Media Line.

“The king is determined to go ahead with his vision of reform. He has said that his son will not inherit the monarchy as he did,” the official added, referring to opposition demands that the king relinquish his constitutional powers that allow him to form governments.

Over the past two years, Abdullah endorsed amendments to the constitution, including that the king can sack the parliament only once in four years and the government must resign after parliamentary elections, and he established an independent electoral committee that promised fair and free elections.

The opposition accuses the king of procrastinating and exploiting the Syrian storm to block fundamental change.

It wants quick reforms including trimming the king’s powers, separation between authorities to shield judicial authority and the parliament from government interference, and a fair elections law.

“The so-called concessions, including the constitutional court, etc….[are] like a camel that gave birth to a mouse. We expected too much and got so little,” Kathem Ayash, a member of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood Shura Council, the highest governing body of the group, told The Media Line.

“This is an arrogant attitude. The state says we give you this little and we have to be happy for it. We will not take part in this political process,” he added.

The Islamist movement said this week it plans to organize a major rally in downtown Amman against the elections, but vowed not to hold protests on election day, a sign it might not be acting as strongly as expected.

The highly publicized polls are expected to do little to defuse tension between maneuvering authorities and stubborn opposition, said political analyst and researcher Mohammed Imran.

“Jordan will remain in the same place as two years ago, when the Arab Spring started. The kingdom is headed to the unknown in such a situation,” argues Imran.

Islamist movement opponents say the group’s bark is bigger than its bite, accusing Shura Council President Abdul Latif Arabiyat, IAF party leader Hamza Mansour and other senior Islamists of failing to live up to their status as the biggest opposition party in the kingdom.

“Street protestations look more like a formality than a genuine expression of anger by the public. The Islamist movement has been treading so carefully that they are becoming powerless,” said Rami Rafeeq, a leader from the Jordan professional association.

Other opposition groups including some leftist parties have insignificant support.

Besides the planned election boycott, the Muslim Brotherhood has been enduring its own internal strife. Some party leaders say it supports peacefully achieving political rights and recently some said they are not seeking to overthrow the regime.

A melting pot for immigrants from around the region, Jordan has survived the bloody ripples of the Arab Spring that have occurred in other Arab countries.

King Abdullah takes his authority and powers from a general belief among the seven million inhabitants that the royal family is the safest option for a country built by refugees from what is today Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Chechnya and elsewhere seeking safety.

However, young opposition activists from Jordan University’s student council say they want better than their parents had, insisting the king must face the inevitable and change.

Copyright © 2013 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

January 14, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Despite a punishing bombardment by French warplanes, al-Qaida-linked insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the government’s seat of power.

Declaring France had “opened the gates of hell” with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution. “France … has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” said Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on radio Europe 1.

French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents’ desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the Segou region, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety. France expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.

The rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn’t hold them back,” said Le Drian, the French defense minister. Mali’s military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency in the West African nation began almost a year ago. While the al-Qaida-linked extremists control the north, they had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.

They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces. In response to the insurgent advances, Mauritania, which lies to the northwest of Mali, put its military on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, was helping France by opening its air space to French Rafale jets.

Many of Mali’s neighbors, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali.

Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air since there is almost no ground cover.

Monday’s surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last week have given many pause. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take it.

By afternoon, the commander, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. “We feel truly threatened,” he said. He said the rebels approached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large, U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation project.

French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy 25 miles (40 kilometers)) from Diabaly late Sunday, the commander said. “This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised — astonished,” he said.

It was unclear what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base, raising fears they were massacred.

A French squadron of about 150 troops and armored vehicles stationed in neighboring Ivory Coast was headed to Bamako to help with the offensive in Segou, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French military in Paris. The troops were joining the 550 French forces already in Mali, said an African diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The French national being evacuated from Segou said the email she received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were already heading to Segou, a drive that normally takes two to three hours.

Mali’s north, an area the size of France, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April following a coup in the capital. The international community has debated what to do, with most foreign powers backing a U.N. Security Council resolution in December that called for training the Malian armed forces before any military intervention was launched. Diplomats said no intervention could happen before September.

All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.

If either Segou or Mopti were to fall, many feared the Islamists could advance toward the capital. French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. France has sent in Mirage jets stationed in Chad that can carry 550-pound (250-kilogram) bombs.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the United States has “a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are,” including in Mali, adding that the U.S. is already providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists.

Besides France and the U.S., 11 other nations have pledged troops or logistical support. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. “Not a half hour goes by when we don’t see a French plane either taking off or landing,” said Napo Bah, a hotel worker in Sevare, the central town that is a launch pad for the operation. “It’s been a constant since last week, when they authorized the military operation.”

At least 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents began moving south last week, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey. __ AP writers Greg Keller and Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed to this report.