Archive for June 10, 2013

June 09, 2013

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — One of Libya’s highest military officers resigned Sunday after clashes between protesters and a government-aligned militia he was in charge of left 31 people dead in the eastern city of Benghazi, the deadliest such violence in a country where armed factions hold sway.

The bloodshed underscored the growing public anger over the government’s failure to build an army capable of reining in the militias that dominate parts of the country nearly two years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. The militias have become bolder in trying to shape Libya’s politics.

The violence erupted Saturday when protesters in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, stormed the main camp of Libya Shield, a largely Islamist grouping of militias that are paid by the government to help maintain security. The protesters were demanding that the militias submit to the full authority of Libya’s security forces or lay down their arms.

The clashes prompted Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Youssef al-Mangoush to resign, citing the unusually high death toll from the violence. Al-Mangoush was due to be replaced soon, and the country’s Congress voted in support of accepting his resignation Sunday.

He was in charge of the country’s roughly 12 Libya Shield brigades, tasked with putting them on government payroll and directing them. The brigades, though sanctioned by the state, operate as a parallel security structure to the country’s police and armed forces. Libya Shield members are neither entirely under the authority of the state nor operating entirely renegade.

Libya’s nascent police and military rely on the brigades to help with security of the country. The militias are rooted in the brigades of rebels who fought to oust Gadhafi in the 2011 uprising against the longtime leader. They have since mushroomed in power and size as the government continues to struggle to build its security forces after the civil war.

In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s incident, military officers had been protesting al-Mangoush, accusing him of corruption and of failing to exert authority over militias. Some militias were believed to have favored al-Mangoush remaining in his post, because he had been unable or possibly unwilling to replace them with a strong unified force.

The militias, many of them refusing to join the army until ministries are purged of former regime officials, are seen by some as exhibiting too much autonomy, according to Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Local residents are upset from the sort-of parasitic nature of these militias,” said Wehrey, who was recently in Benghazi. “I think some of these Shield forces were trying to help police the east, but were leveraging their firepower to try and get concessions from the government.”

Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution that led to Gadhafi’s capture and killing, was the site of the Sept. 11 assault last year on the U.S. diplomatic mission that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. High level police officials have also been assassinated and security bases have come under frequent attack there by unidentified assailants.

In Saturday’s clashes, witnesses said hundreds of protesters — some of the armed — marched on the Libya Shield’s base, apparently outnumbering the militiamen inside. It remains unclear which side fired first in Saturday’s incident. Libyan officials have provided few details of the clashes.

Yousef Abdel-Salam, who joined the rally Saturday but left after gunshots were fired, told The Associated Press the protest was meant to support the army and police as the country’s sole security bodies.

Video taken by activists and posted on social media websites showed people firing machine guns mounted on the backs of pick-up trucks during the clashes. Some were seen ducking for cover behind trees and cars, while others ferried the wounded to ambulances. The footage appeared genuine and conformed with independent witness reports of the events.

Hospital officials said protesters made up most of 31 dead. The officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to reporters. According to the director at the city’s Jalaa Hospital Mohamed Belied, the deaths were caused by gunshots and explosive fragments. He said that dozens of people were wounded.

Among the dead were five members of the military’s special forces, known as the “Saaqa,” who were killed by an explosion when their forces tried to move in on the base, Col. Abdullah el-Shiafy said, according to the official Libyan News Agency LANA. Ten others in the force were wounded.

On Sunday, Saaqa troops controlled the main Libya Shield base where the clashes took place. Other security units took control of the remaining three Libya Shield camps in the city, according to el-Shiafy.

The head of Libya Shield in Benghazi, Wassim Bin Hamid, told a local radio station that those behind the assault were supporters of a campaign to declare eastern Libya an autonomous federal state and that they were aiming to create strife.

Benghazi security official Abdel-Salam al-Barghathi told The Associated Press that protesters were simply fed up with the militias, which he said do not take orders from anyone. Militias have been increasingly exerting their power for political gains — most notably in the lead-up to the passage last month of a contentious law that bans Gadhafi-era officials from senior government posts for 10 years.

Bin Hamid, of Benghazi’s Libya Shield force, was among those pushing for the law. He helped direct militias who lay siege to government buildings in the capital demanding the bill’s passage. Mohammed al-Megarif, the former head of the General National Congress, suggested in his resignation speech last month that lawmakers had used militias to pressure passage of the bill. The Gadhafi-era ambassador, who defected years ago to lead the opposition in exile, decried what he described as the empowerment of some legislators backed by gunmen.

Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood was among the parties that rallied successfully to pass the law in the face of liberal opposition. While Saturday’s incident was the most violent involving anti-militia protesters, it was not the first. Last September, after the U.S. ambassador was killed, hundreds of people attacked the offices of an Islamist militia forcing its dissolution. No deaths were reported then.

Benghazi’s volatile security situation has prompted a renewed push for self-rule in the east. Many residents of the east blame the central government for failing to clamp down on a proliferation of weapons from the 2011 civil war. They complain of discrimination by the west, where the capital, Tripoli, is located.

Prime Minister Ali Zidan, in a statement issued early Sunday, acknowledged that the large number of weapons in the east “led to what happened.” He also urged people to show self-restraint, suggesting his government would not be immediately taking a tough stance against the state-sanctioned militias.

Batrawy reported from Cairo.

June 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Men wielding batons and wearing yellow arm bands evoking Lebanon’s Hezbollah attacked protesters outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Sunday during a rally against the militant group’s participation in the Syrian civil war. One protester was killed, a senior Lebanese military official and witnesses said.

A military statement said the protesters had just arrived at the embassy area when clashes broke out and a civilian opened fire. The embassy is in a predominantly pro-Hezbollah area. Witnesses saw men wearing yellow armbands — the color of Hezbollah’s flag — attacking the protesters with batons. It was unclear if they were affiliated with the militant Shiite group, and the identity of the gunman was unknown, a senior security official said.

The official identified the man killed as a 28-year-old member of the small Lebanese Option Party, which had called for the anti-Hezbollah protest. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The Syria conflict is increasingly spilling over into Lebanon, home to a fragile mosaic of more than a dozen religious and ethnic groups. Hezbollah’s overt participation in the conflict, backing forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad in a successful campaign to drive rebels out of Qusair near the Lebanese border, heightened tensions.

The Obama administration could decide this week to approve lethal aid for the Syrian rebels, officials said Sunday. Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in White House discussions, said officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Sunday that it backed the Lebanese Red Cross in evacuating since Friday 87 Syrians seriously wounded in the fighting in Qusair to hospitals in Lebanon.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said during the battle for Qusair that he would side with Assad until the rebels are defeated. Assad’s Syria is Hezbollah’s main ally and supplier of weapons.

Gunmen from rival religious sects have gone to Syria to fight on the rebel side. Rebels have threatened to target Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon. Clashes in northern Lebanon between rival Lebanese groups since last month claimed more than 28 lives, and rockets have targeted Hezbollah strongholds.

Hezbollah’s rivals have increased their criticism, deepening a political stalemate and postponing elections for 17 months. The Lebanese Option Party is headed by a Shiite politician, Ahmad El Assaad, who has long been opposed to Hezbollah. Sunday’s clash outside the Iranian Embassy marked rare fighting between two opposing Shiite groups.

The official Lebanese National News Agency said the army cordoned off the area of the clashes in southern Beirut. The private Al-Jadeed Lebanese TV said a girl who was protesting was also wounded. The station said the protester who was killed was shot twice in the leg, once in the back, and was hit on the head with a baton.

The protest at the embassy coincided with another small rally in downtown Beirut also criticizing Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria’s conflict. Dozens of protesters, including many Syrians, converged on Beirut’s central Martyrs Square where a large banner read: “Rejecting Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria.”

“Those fighting in Syria are not Lebanese. Their culture, their flag, money and weapons are Iranian,” said Saleh el-Mashnouk, an ardent critic of Hezbollah. “We are here to erase the shame that struck Lebanon because of them.”

Lebanese protester Samara el-Hariri, 31, said Syria’s war is hurting Lebanon’s economy and increasing sectarian tension. “My country is stricken,” she said. Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, has strongly backed Assad, who belongs to a Shiite offshoot.

The fighting in Syria has claimed more than 80,000 lives and displaced several million people. Beside Lebanon, it has also threatened to spill into neighboring countries, like Israel and Turkey. In Syria, fighting between government troops and rebels raged in different provinces, including near the capital, Damascus, and in the northern Aleppo province. Pro-regime media outlets said that after securing control of Qusair, government forces are preparing to move to recapture the contested city of Aleppo next. Activists said there were no signs of a new push on the city or its surrounding areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of Syrians inside the country for information, said six regime fighters were killed in clashes in Aleppo. The city has been carved up into areas controlled by rebels and the regime, and families have been displaced by shelling.

The Observatory also documented a rare case of a public killing of a 15-year-old youth by Islamist rebel fighters in the city of Aleppo. The center said the gunmen detained Mohammed Kattaa late Saturday, accusing him of being an “infidel” for mentioning Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in vain.

The witnesses told the center the gunmen overheard the teenager arguing with a colleague, telling him that he would not lend him money even if “Muhammad comes back to earth,” a common phrase used to describe an impossible task.

The men then brought Kattan back to the coffee shop where he works, with his shirt over his face and his back covered in marks from whips, the witnesses told the Observatory. The militants threatened the same punishment for anyone who commits blasphemy, the witnesses said. Then they shot the boy in front of his parents and a crowd before fleeing the scene.

It was not clear which rebel group the gunmen belonged to. Rights groups have warned against rising abuses by rebel fighters, including killing of captured regime soldiers or allied fighters. Kattan’s case was a rare example of rebels killing a civilian for blasphemy.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Yasmine Saker, and Bradley Klapper in Washington, contributed to this report.

June 09, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a series of increasingly belligerent speeches to cheering supporters Sunday, Turkey’s prime minister demanded an end to the 10-day anti-government protests that have spread across the country, saying those who do not respect the government will pay.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his patience was running out with the protesters, who have occupied Istanbul’s main Taksim Square for more than a week and have held hundreds of demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country.

Raising the stakes for those opposing him on Turkish streets and squares, Erdogan said he plans to bring out his supporters for rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend. Erdogan’s increasingly fiery tone could inflame tensions, with tens of thousands of anti-government protesters in the country’s largest city, Istanbul, and thousands in the capital, Ankara, remaining on the streets. On two occasions, including one in the southern city of Adana on Saturday night, clashes have been reported between Erdogan supporters and protesters.

Protests have been held in 78 cities across the country since May 31, sparked by a violent police crackdown on a peaceful protest objecting to the redevelopment of Taksim Square and its Gezi Park. They have since morphed into a general denunciation of what many see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways after a decade in power, and as an attempt to impose his conservative, religious mores in a country governed by secular laws.

The protests have attracted a diverse crowd from all social backgrounds and age groups. Three people have died, including a police officer in Adana who fell into an underpass under construction while chasing demonstrators. More than 4,300 protesters have sought medical treatment, human rights groups have said.

“We showed patience but our patience has its limits,” Erdogan told a crowd of thousands of party supporters who turned out to cheer his arrival at Ankara airport on Sunday, in the third of about seven speeches given through the afternoon and evening.

Looking much like a candidate on a campaign trail, Erdogan delivered speeches at two airports, a sports hall, two Ankara districts and atop a bridge before heading to his party headquarters. At each, thousands of supporters turned out to cheer him.

“Stand firm, don’t yield, Turkey is with you,” they chanted. Erdogan called repeatedly for the protests to end. “I call on my brothers who are duped: please put an end to your actions. Look, we have come to these days with patience. As a prime minister I say: enough!”

In a separate speech, he added: “Otherwise I will have to speak the language you understand. Patience has an end. You cannot show Turkey as a country where there is an environment of terror.” As he spoke, tens of thousands of protesters turned out in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, while thousands more turned out on the seafront in the western coastal city of Izmir, television footage showed. In the capital, police used water cannon to break up a gathering by thousands of demonstrators in Ankara’s Kizilay Square.

Clashes also broke out between about 2,000 protesters and riot police in Sultangazi, a troubled neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul populated mainly by Kurds and Alevis. Erdogan once again belittled the protesters, calling them “capulcu,” the Turkish word for vandals.

“If you look in the dictionary, you will see how right a description this is,” he said. “Those who burn and destroy are called capulcu. Those who back them are of the same family.” The protesters have turned Erdogan’s label of them as “capulcu” into a humorous retort, printing stickers with the word, scrawling it on their tents and uploading music videos onto social network sites.

“All they do is to break and destroy, to attack public buildings … They didn’t stop at that,” Erdogan said. “They attacked daughters who wear headscarves. They entered Dolmabahce mosque with their beer bottles and their shoes.”

Some of the injured in the initial clashes in Istanbul’s Besiktas area were treated in Dolmabahce mosque. The mosque’s imam has denied reports that people entered with beer. In the initial days of the protests, some women said they were harassed verbally. The majority of protesters, however, have denounced those who did it and have been welcoming toward them.

Deniz Zeyrek, a journalist and political commentator for Radikal newspaper, said Erdogan was seeking to show that he has more supporters than those protesting against him. “He believes that it will make his support base more dynamic and gain from the crisis, not lose,” Zeyrek said on NTV television. “He is engaged in a race to show which side can garner more supporters.”

Zeyrek said Erdogan’s party had been bussing supporters to airports to greet the prime minister, “whereas the supporters at Kugulu Park (in Ankara) are there on their own initiatives. They went there despite the police batons and the tear gas.”

“He is engaged in a show of force at every stop he makes. This is causing more reaction and making the protesters more determined,” he said. But Erdogan denied he was trying to raise tension or be divisive, and insisted the protests were a way of undermining a government that was elected with 50 percent of the vote just two years ago.

“Those unable to topple (the governing Justice and Development party) at the ballot box tried to cause turmoil in the country by reverting to this. But this ploy won’t work. We know their game. We have the stubbornness to overturn the game,” he said.

The protesters have been camping out in Istanbul’s Gezi Park for the past 10 days. The park’s redevelopment would replace the park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks, and tear down an old cultural center. Initial plans included a shopping mall, but they have now been ditched in favor a theater, opera house or museum, possibly with cafes.

Erdogan’s tone caused dismay among protesters in Ankara. “As the prime minister continues (with) his harsh style, the resistance also continues and is getting bigger,” said Cagdas Ersoy, a 23-year-old student who joined the protests in Ankara’s Kizilay square. “He is making the resistance bigger without realizing it.”

Protester Cihan Akburun said: “He should not provoke the people. We invite everyone to (have) common sense.” Erdogan said his future will be determined not in the street but at the ballot box. “It’s not these marginal groups, but the people, who are going to call us to account, and they are going to do it at the ballot box,” he said.

Becatoros reported from Istanbul.