Archive for May 6, 2013


May 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter in the country’s east, killing eight government troops on board as President Bashar Assad’s troops battled opposition forces inside a sprawling military air base in the north for the second straight day, activists said Monday.

In the past months, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have frequently targeted military aircraft and air bases in an attempt to deprive his regime of a key weapon used to target opposition strongholds and reverse rebel gains in the 2-year-old conflict.

The fighting inside the Mannagh air base in northern Syria came a day after Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the capital, Damascus, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday posted a video online showing several armed men standing in front of the wreckage. One of the fighters in the footage says it’s a helicopter that the rebels shot down late Sunday in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, along Syria’s border with Iraq.

As the man speaks, the camera shifts to a pickup truck piled with bodies. The fighter is then heard saying that all of Assad’s troops who were aboard the helicopter were killed in the downing. He says Islamic fighters of the Abu Bakr Saddiq brigade brought down the helicopter as it was taking off from a nearby air base in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said eight troops were killed. On Sunday, rebels occupied parts of the Mannagh military air base after weeks of fighting with government troops who have been defending the sprawling facility near the border with Turkey for months, the Observatory said.

Assad’s warplanes were pounding rebel positions inside the Mannagh air base Monday as clashes between rebels and government forces raged on, the Observatory said, adding there was an unknown number of casualties on both sides.

The rebels moved deep into the air base on Sunday despite fire from government warplanes, capturing a tank unit inside the base and killing the base commander, Brig. Gen. Ali Salim Mahmoud, according to another activists group, the Aleppo Media Center.

The Israeli airstrike on Sunday, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles hit a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties. The reports did not specify the number or say if the casualties were civilians or troops.

State-run SANA news agency made no mention of the fighting inside the Mannagh air base. But the agency reported that government troops on Monday regained control of villages along the highway that links the northern city of Aleppo to its civilian airport, the country’s second largest.

Syrian “armed forces restored security and stability to (six) villages” south of the city and along the airport highway, SANA said, calling it a “major strategic victory in the north.” Much of the north has been in rebel hands since the opposition fighters last summer launched an offensive in the area, capturing army bases and large swaths of land along the border with Turkey and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

The rebels have for months battled regime troops over the airport complex that includes army bases and a military air field. They’ve captured village and towns along the strategic highway and earlier this year advanced within a few kilometers (miles) miles of the airport, cutting the main road the army has been using to ferry troops and supplies to its bases at the airport.

But last month government troops recaptured the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, dealing a huge setback to the rebels unable to hold on to the territory in the face of Assad’s superior fire power.

The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people according to the United Nations.

More than one million Syrians have fled their homes during the fighting and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Millions of others have been displaced inside Syria.

In Geneva, former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said a U.N. commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon in their fight against Assad’s regime — but no evidence that government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

Del Ponte is on the U.N.’s four-member independent human rights panel probing alleged war crimes and other abuses in Syria. She told Italian-language Swiss public broadcaster SRI in an interview broadcast Sunday night that the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighboring countries.

The panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” said del Ponte.

Associated Press Writer John Heilprin contributed to this report from Geneva.

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May 06, 2013

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — At least 15 people died in clashes Monday between police and Islamic hardliners demanding that Bangladesh implement an anti-blasphemy law, police said.

A police official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said eight people, including two policemen and a paramilitary soldier, were killed in clashes in Kanchpur just outside the capital, Dhaka.

Another seven people died in Motijheel, a commercial area of Dhaka, the official said. The protesters blocked roads in the area with burning tires and logs during more than five hours of clashes, television footage showed.

The private United News of Bangladesh reported that the violence erupted after security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets in the central commercial district. The Islamic activists have been protesting to demand that the government enact an anti-blasphemy law.

The government in the Muslim-majority nation has rejected the groups’ demands, saying Bangladesh is governed by secular liberal laws. Dhaka Metropolitan Police said in a statement that all rallies and protests have been banned in the city until midnight Monday for fear of more clashes.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League and an alliance of 18 opposition parties led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had planned rallies in Dhaka later Monday. There was no immediate comment from the parties.

By Fayaz Bukhari and Satarupa Bhattacharjya

SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI, Indian | Mon May 6, 2013

(Reuters) – India and China simultaneously withdrew troops from camps a few meters apart in a Himalayan desert on Sunday, apparently ending a three-week standoff on a freezing plateau where the border is disputed and the Asian giants fought a war 50 years ago.

The two sides stood down after reaching an agreement during a meeting between border commanders, an Indian army official told Reuters, after the tension threatened to overshadow a planned visit by India’s foreign minister to Beijing on Thursday.

But it was not immediately clear how far China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers had withdrawn – Delhi had claimed they were 19 km (12 miles) beyond the point it understands to be the border with China, a vaguely defined de facto line called the Line of Actual Control, which neither side agrees on.

Defense and foreign ministry spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Our troops have moved one kilometer backwards from the position they were on since April 16,” said the officer, from the Indian army’s Northern Command, which oversees the disputed region on the fringes of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.

“Chinese troops have also moved away from their position they were holding on since April 15 when they intruded in Indian territory. It is not clear yet how (far) the PLA moved back.”

India considered it the worst border incursion for years.

New Delhi often appears insecure about relations with its powerful neighbor, despite slowly warming relations between Asia’s largest countries. China is India’s top trade partner, but the unresolved border sours the friendship.

India’s opposition and much of the media has been critical of the government’s handling of the standoff, drawing parallels with a 1962 war which ended in its humiliating defeat. On Friday, parliament was adjourned after members shouted “Get China out, save the country”.

“YOU ARE IN CHINESE TERRITORY”

India says Chinese troops intruded into its territory on the western rim of the Himalayas on April 15. Some officials and experts believe the incursion signaled Chinese concern about increased Indian military activity in the area.

A group of about 30 Chinese soldiers, backed by helicopters, had pitched several tents near a 16th century Silk Road campsite called Daulat Beg Oldi, close to an air strip New Delhi uses to support troops on the Siachen glacier.

Each day since, Indian and Chinese soldiers and border guards left their camps and stood about 100 meters (330 feet) apart on the Depsang Plain, a 5,000 meter (16,400 feet) high desert ringed by jagged peaks of the Karakoram range.

Winter temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees centigrade, and the area is lashed by icy strong winds all year round.

A photograph released by a source in the Indian army showed a group of six Chinese soldiers on a rock-strewn landscape holding a bright orange banner that read, in English and Mandarin, “This is the Line of Actual Control, You are in Chinese territory”.

Delhi reopened the Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip in 2008. Two other runways, out of use since the war, have been opened and Daulat Beg Oldi has been upgraded since.

Siachen, at the north of the disputed region of Kashmir, is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield.

Tensions are likely to persist given India and China’s increased presence in an area that for centuries was largely unclaimed and criss-crossed with caravan routes. Now the land abuts the Karakoram Highway joining Pakistan to China, which Beijing hopes to develop further as trade route linking it to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.

Speaking before Sunday’s resolution, Srikanth Kondapalli, an Indian analyst who specializes in China studies, said the dispute lay close to large hydroelectric projects and an ambitious plan to expand the Karakoram highway.

He said the lack of agreement about where the border lies, combined with increased military and infrastructure activity meant more flashpoints were likely.

“It is a no-man’s land,” said Kondapalli, who considers the current standoff to be more serious than the usual cross-border incidents. “Even if the (present) issue is resolved, this will only flare up.”

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jon Hemming)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/06/us-india-china-idUSBRE9440B220130506.

By Niluksi Koswanage and Stuart Grudgings

KUALA LUMPUR | Mon May 6, 2013

(Reuters) – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may have to step down by the end of the year, ruling party sources said on Monday, after his coalition extended its 56-year rule but recorded its worst-ever election performance.

Najib, 59, had staked his political future on strengthening the ruling coalition’s parliamentary majority in Sunday’s general election on the back of a robust economy, reforms to roll back race-based policies and a $2.6 billion deluge of social handouts to poor families.

But he was left vulnerable to party dissidents after his Barisan Nasional coalition won only 133 seats in the 222-member parliament, seven short of its tally in 2008 and well below the two-thirds majority it was aiming for.

It also lost the popular vote, underlining opposition complaints that the electoral system is stacked against it. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Alliance won 89 seats, up 7 from 2008 but still incapable of unseating one of the world’s longest-serving governments.

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, said in a statement on Monday that he would not accept the result because it was marred by “unprecedented” electoral fraud. He has called for a rally in the capital Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

Undermined by the result, Najib now faces a difficult task persuading his dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to press ahead with economic reforms and phase out policies favoring majority ethnic Malays over other races.

“We could see Najib step down by the end of this year,” said a senior official in UMNO, which leads the coalition.

“He may put up a fight, we don’t know, but he has definitely performed worse. He does not have so much bargaining power,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, still a powerful figure in UMNO, told Reuters last year that Najib must improve on the 140 seats won in 2008 or his position would be unstable.

Kuala Lumpur’s stock market surged nearly 8 percent in early trade to a record high on investor relief that the untested opposition had failed to take power, but later gave up some gains to close 3.38 percent higher. The Malaysian ringgit jumped to a 20-month high.

Ethnic Chinese, who make up a quarter of Malaysians, continued to desert Barisan Nasional, accelerating a trend seen in 2008. They have turned to the opposition, attracted by its pledge to tackle corruption and end race-based policies, undermining the National Front’s traditional claim to represent all races in the nation of 28 million people.

MCA, the main ethnic Chinese party within the ruling coalition, only won seven seats, less than half its 2008 total.

Najib, the son of a former prime minister, said he had been taken by surprise by the extent of what he called a “Chinese tsunami.” Alarmingly for Najib, support from ethnic Malays also weakened, particularly in urban areas, a sign that middle-class Malays are agitating for change.

Najib, who polls show is more popular than his party, could face a leadership challenge as early as October or November, when UMNO members hold a general assembly and elect the party leader.

“In the next round of elections within UMNO, you will see some dissidents emerging and asking for Najib to resign,” said the official, who has held cabinet positions in government. He said Mahathir would be among those who back the dissidents.

ANWAR CRIES FOUL

Barisan Nasional also failed to win back the crucial industrial state of Selangor, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, which Najib had vowed to achieve.

“Najib is now leading a coalition that lost the popular vote, a coalition that will really struggle to prove its legitimacy,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur.

“My feeling is it’s not going to be very easy for him.”

Investors had hoped that a strong mandate for Najib would enable him to push ahead with planned reforms such as subsidy cuts and a new consumption tax to reduce Malaysia’s budget deficit, which is relatively high at around 4.5 percent of GDP.

Those reforms now seem in doubt, Credit Suisse said in a report on Monday, although Najib is expected to push ahead with $444 billion Economic Transformation Program aimed at boosting private investment and doubling per capita incomes by 2020.

For Anwar, the election was likely the last chance to lead the country after a tumultuous political career that saw him sacked as deputy prime minister in the 1990s and jailed for six years after falling out with his former boss, Mahathir.

His three-party opposition alliance had been optimistic of a historic victory, buoyed by huge crowds at recent rallies, but faced formidable obstacles including the government’s control of mainstream media and a skewed electoral system.

Anwar, 65, had accused the coalition of flying up to 40,000 “dubious” voters, including foreigners, across the country to vote in close races. The government says it was merely helping voters get to home towns to vote.

“My heart is with every Malaysian who does not accept the results,” Anwar said in his statement.

Malaysia’s Bersih (clean) civil society movement, which has held large rallies to demand electoral reform, joined Anwar in withholding recognition of the result, saying it needed to study numerous reports of fraud.

(Additional reporting by Yantoultra Ngui and Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur and Saeed Azhar in Singapore; Writing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings.; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/06/us-malaysia-election-idUSBRE9430B720130506.