Archive for June 24, 2013


June 24, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — President Mohammed Morsi’s office on Monday condemned the killing of four Shiite Muslims by a Sunni mob, reportedly incited by ultraconservative Salafis, in a village near Cairo.

It said in a statement that authorities will not be “lenient” with anyone who interferes with the nation’s security and stability or harm its society. The statement echoed one issued earlier by Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.

Both said the culprits must be quickly found and brought to justice. Egypt is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation with a tiny minority of Shiites. About 10 percent of its 90 million people are Christians.

According to security officials, the Sunday attack came after Salafi preachers in the village of Zawiyet Abu Muslim gave a small local Shiite community an ultimatum to leave the town by sundown. They said Salafis also joined the crowd. They spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The incident also comes among a broad rise in hostile statements made against Shiites, including by the president’s hard-line allies, fed in part by the growing sectarian overtones of Syria’s civil war.

The killings came a week after Salafi clerics insulted Shiites during a June 15 rally attended by Morsi, who listened silently. One cleric, Mohammed Hassan, called on Morsi “not to open the doors of Egypt” to Shiites, saying that “they never entered a place without corrupting it.”

Egypt’s Salafis have vehemently objected to the arrival in Egypt of tourists from Shiite Iran, forcing authorities to suspend their tours before allowing them to resume later. The tourists are not allowed in Cairo, home to some religious shrines revered by Shiites, flying directly to southern Egypt or Red Sea resorts.

Morsi’s government has implicitly sanctioned travel to Syria by Egyptian volunteers who wish to join the mostly Sunni rebels fighting forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Assad’s forces are backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group, a longtime ally of the Syrian regime. Shiite Iran is Assad’s chief foreign backer. Egyptian volunteers have been fighting on the side of the Syrian rebels for over a year now, but the involvement of Egyptians in that nation’s civil war is likely to widen after Morsi’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Damascus and calls at the June 15 rally for jihad, or holy struggle, in Syria.

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June 24, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Vote counting has begun a day after Albania’s general election, which was marred by gunfire at a polling station which left one man dead and two others wounded.

Initial returns indicated a narrow lead for the opposition Socialist Party-led coalition of Edi Rama, who is running against Prime Minister Sali Berisha of the Democratic party. Both men claimed victory after polls closed Sunday evening.

Turnout was 53 percent of some 3.3 million registered voters, according to preliminary estimates by the country’s Central Election Commission, in the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990.

Official results were not expected to be announced earlier than Tuesday. A police spokesman said Gjon Gjoni, 49, died after being shot in an exchange of fire that also wounded Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Berisha’s governing Democratic Party, and a relative of Fufi.

The violence drew condemnation from an EU official. “Violence is simply not acceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Ettore Sequi, the EU ambassador to Tirana, told Associated Press television. Berisha and Rama have both expressed the hope that Albania can gain entry to the EU, and Sunday’s election was seen as a test of whether the country can run a fair and safe election.

“These elections are a crucial test for the democratic maturity of the country a test for the smooth functioning of the Albanian institutions,” Sequi said. Preliminary findings of some 400 international observers were expected later Monday.

Although the election campaign was highly acrimonious, it was generally considered peaceful. In 2009, three people were killed in politically motivated attacks during the campaign. The Socialists boycotted the parliament for a long time in protest to what it called manipulation from the governing Democrats.

Albania, now a NATO member despite a rocky road to democracy, has been denied EU candidate status twice since 2009 because of criticism that it has not done enough to fight corruption and proceed with democratic reforms that include its ability to hold elections that comply with international and European standards.

Last month, parliament held an extraordinary session to pass the last three laws in a series of 12 key recommendations required by the EU as part of the country’s quest for eventual membership.

Associated Press writer Nebi Qena in Tirana contributed to this report.

June 24, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister has brushed off criticism by human rights groups and some European countries, insisting police officers have displayed “legendary heroism” in quelling weeks of anti-government protests.

Addressing police academy graduates at a ceremony in Ankara Monday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was protesters — not police — that were violent, and praised the security forces for showing restraint.

The protests started off as a small environmental sit-in but quickly turned into a nationwide expression of discontent with Erdogan’s 10-year rule. Erdogan has blamed the demonstrations on a foreign conspiracy to harm Turkey.

At least four people — three demonstrators and one police officer — have been killed. Human rights groups say police used excessive force on protesters.

June 24, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese army units battled followers of a hard-line Sunni cleric holed up in a mosque complex in a southern port city on Monday, the second day of fighting that has left at least 16 soldiers dead, the military said.

The clashes in Sidon, Lebanon’s third-largest city some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, are the latest bout of violence in Lebanon linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria. They are the bloodiest yet involving the army — at least two of those killed are officers. The Lebanese media has depicted the clashes as a test for the state in containing armed groups that have taken up the cause of the warring sides in Syria, whose sectarian makeup mirrors that of its smaller neighbor.

The two days of fighting between troops and armed supporters of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir have transformed the city, which had been largely spared the violence plaguing border areas near Syria, into a combat zone.

The National News Agency said the clashes also left fifty wounded. Hospital officials said at least three of al-Assir’s supporters died in the fighting. The military in a statement said the gunmen were using the religious compound to fire on its troops and had taken civilians as shields.

Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenade explosions caused panic among residents of Sidon. Residents reported power and water outage. The city streets appeared largely deserted Monday. Local media reported many residents were asking for evacuation from the heavily populated neighborhood around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque where al-Assir preaches, and where the fighting has been concentrated. The local municipality said that the city is “a war zone,” appealing for a cease-fire to evacuate the civilians and wounded in the area.

Many people living on upper floors came down or fled to safer areas, while others were seen running away from fighting areas carrying children. Others remained locked up in their homes or shops, fearing getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.

The military appealed to the gunmen to hand themselves in. In its statement, it said that it “reassures all Lebanese that it will continue to uproot the strife and will not stop its operations until security is totally restored to the city and its boroughs, and falls under the rule of law and order.”

The clashes erupted Sunday in the predominantly Sunni city after troops arrested a follower of al-Assir. The army says supporters of the cleric opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint. Al-Assir is a virulent critic of the powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah group, which along with its allies dominates Lebanon’s government. He supports rebels fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

A few Hezbollah supporters in the city were briefly drawn into the fight Sunday, firing on al-Assir’s supporters. At least one was killed, according to his relatives in the city who spoke anonymously out of concerns for their security.

But the group appeared to be staying largely out of the ongoing clashes. Last week, al-Assir supporters fought with pro-Hezbollah gunmen, leaving two killed. Early Monday, al-Assir appealed to his supporters through his Twitter account in other parts of Lebanon to rise to his help, threatening to widen the scale of clashes.

The tweets did not give a clear statement on how the battle began. It came after a series of incidents pitting the cleric’s followers against other groups in the town, including Hezbollah supporters and the army.

The cleric is believed to have hundreds of armed supporters in Sidon involved in the fighting. Dozens of al-Assir’s gunmen also partially shut down the main highway linking south Lebanon with Beirut. On Monday, they opened fire in other parts of the city, with local media reporting gunshots in the city’s market.

Fighting also broke out in parts of Ein el-Hilweh, a teeming Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, where al-Assir has supporters. Islamist factions inside the camp lobbed mortars at military checkpoints around the camp. Tension also spread to the north in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Masked gunmen roamed the city center, firing in the air and forcing shops and businesses to shut down in solidarity with al-Assir. Dozens of gunmen also set fire to tires, blocking roads. The city’s main streets were emptying out. There was no unusual military or security deployment.

Sectarian clashes in Lebanon tied to the Syrian conflict have intensified in recent weeks, especially after Hezbollah sent fighters to support Assad’s forces. Most of the rebels fighting to topple Assad are from Syria’s Sunni majority, while the President Bashar Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, blamed the violence in Lebanon on the international decision to arm rebels, saying that it will only serve to prolong the fighting in Syria and will impact neighboring Lebanon.

“What is going in Sidon is very dangerous, very dangerous,” he told reporters in Damascus. “We warned since the start that the impact of what happens in Syria on neighboring countries will be grave.” In Syria, activists reported fighting Monday between Syrian troops and rebels in the northern province of Aleppo as well as districts on the edge of the Syrian capital and its suburbs.

Clashes in Lebanon have also mostly pitted Sunni against Shiite. The most frequent outbreaks have involved rival neighborhoods in the northern port city of Tripoli, close to the Syrian border. President Michel Suleiman called for an emergency security meeting later Monday.

Headlines of Lebanon’s newspapers were all dominated by the violence in Sidon, with many seeing it as a test for the state to impose order. “An attempt to assassinate Sidon and the military,” read the headline of the daily al-Safir. “Al-Assir crosses the red line,” read another headline in al-Jomhouria daily. A third headline in al-Nahar read: “Yesterday war in Sidon. Today, decisiveness or settlement?”

Beirut (AFP)

June 23, 2013

Syria’s main opposition group on Sunday welcomed a decision by Arab and Western governments to boost their assistance to rebel fighters but said more such moves were needed to end the 27-month conflict.

“The Syrian National Coalition thanks the (Friends of Syria) countries for their decisions, and welcomes the assistance that they pledged,” the group said.

“More steps of this decisive nature remain necessary, in order to end the conflict quickly, to stop Syrians’ blood from being spilt, and to make sure their aspirations are fulfilled.”

The National Coalition said that it regretted that the decision to boost assistance to the rebels had not come sooner.

It said “thousands of… lives could have been saved,” had the decision been taken earlier.

The opposition’s statement came a day after Qatar said the Friends of Syria had agreed on a “secret” plan to ramp up assistance to the rebels.

At the meeting in Doha, US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged new support for the rebels to end an “imbalance” in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

The National Coalition did not have an official delegation at the meeting.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Syria_opposition_welcomes_aid_boost_for_rebels_999.html.

June 23, 2013

VIENNA (AP) — Several thousand people have taken part in a demonstration in Vienna in support of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Police said about 8,000 people participated in Sunday’s pro-Erdogan demonstration in the Austrian capital— many waving red-and-white Turkish flags and some carrying banners with pictures of the Turkish leader.

About 600 people took part in a separate protest against a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in Turkey. Protests in Turkey erupted three weeks ago after riot police brutally cracked down on environmental activists opposing plans to develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park.

The demonstrations soon turned into expressions of discontent against Erdogan, who won a third term in office in 2011 elections. His critics say he is showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Austria has a sizeable Turkish community.

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

SABHA, Libya | Thu Jun 20, 2013

(Reuters) – Sitting on cement blocks, surrounded by shisha pipes and machine guns, a dozen or so tribesmen guard a makeshift checkpoint outside the main city in Libya’s desert south.

They are there to guard against smugglers and criminals, who have multiplied since Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall in the 2011 war. They also say they are ready to battle Islamist militants that Libya’s neighbors and Western nations fear are crossing the North African country’s porous borders.

“If I hear al Qaeda is here, I will kill them. We know what happened in Mali and we won’t allow it here, even if we only have rifles,” Mohammed Wardi, 25, said as a war movie blasted from an old television nearby. “We are here to protect Libya.”

A French-led military campaign this year broke Islamists’ hold over the northern two-thirds of Mali, killing hundreds of al Qaeda-linked fighters and pushing others into neighboring states like Niger and eventually Libya, security officials say.

The men with Wardi are from the Tibu tribe, a black African ethnic group that also lives in Chad and Niger, which along with ill-trained tribal militias of former rebel fighters and a poorly-equipped national army are trying to maintain security in Libya’s southern desert hinterlands.

The long-neglected region, with borders stretching more than 2,000 kms and home to major oil fields, has grown more lawless as the country’s new rulers – hundreds of miles away in Tripoli – struggle to impose order on a country awash with weapons.

The south has seen rising violence, weapons and drug trafficking and an influx of illegal immigrants, leading the national assembly to declare the region a military zone, a decree the weak government has little power to enforce.

“The south is dying and the government is ignoring us. Crime is rampant, there are tribal animosities, smuggling and we are worried that what is happening in Mali will spread here,” said a local government official, who declined to be identified.

“We are free of Gaddafi but we are prisoners to chaos.”

IN NEED OF WEAPONS AND BINOCULARS

Even under Gaddafi, the south was poorly patrolled and smugglers have long used the area – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Niger and Algeria – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe.

But now the traffickers, who also specialize in weapons, fuel, stolen vehicles and subsidized food, are as well-armed as the security forces tasked with catching them.

“We have patrol planes, convoys of cars but the area is very big,” said a senior army source at the base for the south’s military governor. “Sometimes phones don’t work well and we need better equipment – planes, cars, weapons even binoculars.”

Adding to the lack of equipment, the militias the state relies on – especially in the harsh desert terrain its soldiers do not know – are rife with long-standing grievances.

During his 42-year iron-fisted rule, Gaddafi often played off one tribe or clan against the other and tensions persist. Last year fighting between Tibu, oasis farmers by tradition, and Arab militias in Sabha and Kufra killed more than 150 people.

Skirmishes still erupt over control of smuggling routes, sometimes by the groups supposed to be catching the culprits.

In towns such as Sabha and Obari, a remote outpost 200 kms away, police struggle to rein in crime, compounded by unemployment, drug abuse and plentiful weapons.

Military convoys and bases have been attacked. Last month, Sabha airport was briefly shutdown by angry Tibu protesting against the disappearance of a militia leader.

The main prison for the southwest is in Sabha but it holds just 95 criminals. It has been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and prisoners broke free earlier this year.

“Most of the prisoners came back as they were too afraid to be out on the streets,” Mohammed Ali Azbari, who manages the former rebel fighters now acting as prison guards, said.

“We now have the army outside the prison.”

At Sabha hospital, doctors tell of how patients have been shot inside the grounds by angry rival tribesmen seeking revenge. Bullet holes are still visible on the floor.

ISLAMIST THREAT

Restoring order in the south is important to the stability of the wider region, where Islamist influence is spreading after the defeat of the insurgents in Mali.

A string of attacks in Niger including on a French-run uranium mine have shown how rebels have taken advantage of a security vacuum since the Mali conflict.

Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for Islamist groups. Paris has put the blame firmly on these groups for attacking its embassy in Tripoli in April.

Libyan officials insist Islamists have not found shelter in their deserts.

“There are no al Qaeda groups here. We can say that and we know,” said Mahmoud Abdelkareem, an official from Obari council involved in security matters for the south. “Our men in the desert would find them easily and this has not happened.”

But Western nations are worried. Earlier this month NATO, which played a major role in toppling Gaddafi, said it would send experts to Libya to see how it can improve security.

“We can’t deny some activities are going on. The fact that the area is not properly secured encourages smuggling, perhaps even training camps,” said one Libyan security official from the town of Ghadames, on the border with Algeria.

Residents in Sabha tell of hearing stories of weapons being sold across the border and areas briefly shutdown by militias.

“There are people who went to fight in Mali and others have come from there. But they are keeping a low profile, most likely near the borders,” said the first local government official.

“Any cooperation however between a tribal group here and them is likely to be financial rather than ideological.”

Gaddafi’s overthrow flooded the Sahara with pillaged weapons and ammunition, which Tripoli has failed to clamp down on.

“Libya is an open air arms market; it will remain a source of weaponry for 10 years,” an Algerian security analyst said.

Security sources say veteran al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar acquired arms in southern Libya and his fighters used it as a transit route before a mass hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria in January in which dozens were killed.

Many fear Libya’s oil facilities, also guarded by former rebels, may face a similar threat.

“The situation in the south has worsened dangerously fast,” Muftah Bukhalil, head of the intelligence office in Kufra, said.

“You can just about expect anything these days.”

(Additional reporting by Ghaith Shennib in Kufra and Myra Macdonald in Algiers; Editing by Peter Graff)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/20/us-libya-south-idUSBRE95J0NO20130620.

Beirut, Lebanon (AFP)

June 21, 2013

Syrian rebels have recently received new weapons that could “change the course of the battle” against the Syrian regime, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army told AFP on Friday.

The “Friends of Syria” group of countries that support the rebels is expected to announce in Doha on Saturday that it will arm the opposition, FSA media and political coordinator spokesman Louay Muqdad said.

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters,” he said.

He did not specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days and recalled that the rebels had asked for “deterrent weapons”.

“That means anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons, as well as ammunition,” he said.

Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun confirmed that the FSA had recently received “sophisticated weapons” including “an anti-aircraft defense system”.

Another opposition source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the system was “Russian-made” but declined to say which country had supplied it.

The apparent influx of arms comes after the United States said it would provide rebel forces with “military support”, although it has declined to outline what that might entail.

“The weapons will be used for one objective, which is to fight the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” Muqdad insisted.

“They will be collected after the fall of the regime, we have made this commitment to the friends and brotherly countries” that supplied the arms, he said.

On Thursday, Muqdad said rebels needed short-range ground-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs, anti-tank missiles, mortars and ammunition.

Saturday’s Friends of Syria talks in Qatar will be attended by ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

They are expected to discuss military help and other aid for rebels after an onslaught by government forces who have retaken key areas.

“We are optimistic because the international community has finally decided to protect the Syrian people and Syrian civilians and arm the FSA,” Muqdad said.

He added that rebels were expecting “a clear and official announcement by the countries participating (in Doha) on the arming of the FSA”.

“That’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we are waiting for,” he added, declining to say which countries were providing new weaponry.

“We received information that in the coming days, we will receive new shipments of weapons that will change the course of the battle and the equation of death imposed by Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Muqdad said that FSA chief of staff General Salim Idriss was not expected to attend the Doha gathering.

“For now, our presence is not required” because “all the countries are aware of the clear demands of the revolution after numerous meetings with Idriss.”

Syrian rebels have frequently urged nations that back the uprising to supply them with heavy weapons to tackle the regime.

But their backers, especially in the West, have been reluctant to do so for fear that those weapons could fall into the hands of radical rebel groups such as the Al-Qaeda-allied Al-Nusra Front.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Syria_rebels_say_now_have_game-changing_weapons_999.html.

Arbil, Iraq (AFP)

June 21, 2013

As central Iraq grapples with a surge in violence and a longer-term struggle to wean its economy off a dependence on oil, Abdullah Abdulkarim stands at a car dealership in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil and smiles.

“Every day, things are getting better.”

Abdulkarim is not the only one who feels that way — the economy of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, with Arbil as its capital, is growing faster than the rest of the country and sees none of the violence that has raged across Arab areas.

In Arbil, crowded cafes overflow onto sidewalks, customers pack out restaurants with no fear of attack and, perhaps most importantly for the three-province region’s future prospects, foreign investors appear keen to plant their flag.

“It is really easy to set up shop here,” said Jorge Restrepo, an American of Colombian origin who runs a consultancy business in Kurdistan targeting Spanish and Canadian energy companies.

“The government of Kurdistan is very open to foreigners,” he said.

Over the course of 22 years since the establishment of a no-fly zone over the region to keep out Saddam Hussein’s forces, Kurdistan has increasingly distanced itself from the rest of Iraq.

The region, comprised of Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk provinces and their capitals of the same names, has its own president and prime minister, and the Kurdish flag flutters over government buildings.

Rather than the Iraqi army and police, the peshmerga and asayesh comprise the region’s security forces.

It is currently enjoying economic growth of 12 percent, according to its regional investment commission, while Iraq’s economy as a whole is projected to expand by nine percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

And almost 800 foreign firms — the majority of them from neighboring Turkey — have so far entered the Kurdish market, apparently encouraged in particular by a 2006 investment law that exempts them from taxes on imports and profits for their first 10 years in the region.

Firms are not obliged to hire local staff, have local investors or local partners, and can repatriate their profits at their discretion, according to Kamiran Mufti, head of the regional investment commission.

But the crucial difference between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq remains security.

“Security is really the key to success,” said Ghada Gebara, head of Korek, Iraq’s third-biggest mobile phone operator, which is headquartered in Arbil.

Nationwide violence in Iraq last month was its worst since 2008, according to both UN and official figures, but Mufti said the autonomous region, by contrast, did not record a single incident throughout May.

And there are more differences.

“The bureaucracy is enormous here as well, but in Baghdad, you also have religious divisions (between Sunni and Shiite Arabs), and of course the corruption,” Restrepo said.

Iraq is rated one of the world’s most corrupt countries, placing 169 out of 176 states listed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but Mufti insisted Kurdish regional leaders have “implemented a plan to combat it”.

— ‘But now, everything is good’ —

Regional officials also tout an economy that they say is more diversified than the rest of the country — cement, pharmaceuticals, steel and electricity.

The latter is produced in significant-enough quantities that the region exports surplus power to the neighboring provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk which, like much of Iraq, suffer from shortfalls.

But the northern region shares one crucial characteristic with the rest of the Iraq — the heart of its economy is based on oil production.

The region has proven reserves of around 45 billion barrels of crude, or about a third of Iraq’s total reserves, according to regional officials, and its sale is the subject of tense debates.

The central government has angrily criticized Arbil for signing contracts with foreign energy firms without the expressed approval of the federal oil ministry, dismissing such deals as illegal, and slamming the transport of oil to Turkey as “smuggling”.

Gebara described the disputes — which also include a row over a swathe of territory stretching from the Iranian border to the Syrian frontier — as “healthy democratic debate”, but analysts and officials point to the disagreements as among the biggest threats to Iraq’s long-term stability.

For now, businesses in Arbil are not worried — at the dealership where Abdulkarim was eyeing a $24,500 pick-up truck, owner Hunar Majid was upbeat.

His glass-walled Toyota dealership lies at the center of the city and is packed. Majid hopes to increase sales threefold compared with last year.

At the entrance, Abdulkarim, a shepherd wearing the traditional baggy Kurdish garb, wasted little time debating whether to buy the truck of his dreams.

“Before, life was tough,” he said. “I could never pay for this truck.”

“But now, everything is good.”

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/As_Iraq_grapples_with_bombings_Arbil_booms_999.html.