Archive for March, 2014

March 29, 2014

BAKCHYSARAI, Crimea (AP) — Leaders of Crimea’s Tatar minority gathered Saturday to condemn Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and appealed to international bodies for recognition as an autonomous group.

Tatars, an ethnically Turkic and mainly Muslim group that was subjected to mass deportation from their native Crimea by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944, gathered to forge a collective response to Russia’s absorption of their native region.

Decisions on whether to accept Russian citizenship and possible participation in a Moscow-loyal government were deferred as the community further contemplates its options. But the forum of about 250 delegates underscored difficulties Russia will face in integrating a community that resisted annexation and largely boycotted the March 16 referendum to join Russia.

According to the most recent Ukrainian national census, carried out in 2001, the 245,000-strong Tatar community accounted for 12 percent of Crimea’s population. But anecdotal evidence of higher birth rates and a continued return of Tatars from exile in Central Asia suggest those figures may have grown markedly since then.

The Kremlin decision to annex this strategic Black Sea region, which has a large Russian majority, was backed by rhetoric of national self-determination, as Moscow argued that pro-Russian Crimeans had the right to break away from Ukraine.

“Recently, all decisions (by Russia) have been based on the presupposed right of every nation to self-determination,” said Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar governing body. “One must now conclude that the Crimean Tatar people also have that right.”

Chubarov also appealed to the international community to recognize the Crimean Tatars as a “national territorial autonomy,” but fell short of demanding a referendum on independence or allegiance to Ukraine.

Yet the vociferous tone of the delegates who spoke demonstrated the lingering rage within the Tatar community. “Russia turned us out three times,” Aishe Setmetova, an elderly woman in a knit sweater, bellowed from the stage. “They think of us as worthless objects. I do not believe in Russia.”

Crimea’s Tatars began to return to their native peninsula in the late 1980s with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The population is growing fast compared to the ageing Russian population and presents the Kremlin with a long-term problem of integration.

Russia and the local Crimean government have assured Tatars that their rights will be fully respected on the peninsula. Tatar is to be elevated to one of the three state languages and the community has been given loose assurances it will be guaranteed a prominent political status.

But Tatars, who ruled the peninsula from the 15th century until the Russian Empire took it over in the 18th century, remain deeply skeptical of Moscow’s intentions. “We, as the native people of this land, shouldn’t collaborate with an occupying power,” congress delegate Ilver Ametov said.

“Ukraine, too, wasn’t our home, but at least it was a democracy,” he said. “There’s a story we have about the dog who ran to Moscow because things were better over there, but ran back to Ukraine because at least here he’s allowed to bark.”

March 28, 2014

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea (AP) — As armed pro-Russian forces spread out across Crimea, Mustafa Maushev joined his Tatar neighbors on a nightly vigil to keep intruders off their property.

Almost exactly 70 years ago, Tatars were expelled from their homeland as a result of one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s merciless mass deportations of perceived enemies of the state. Decades later, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, many returned and slowly reclaimed their place.

Following a March referendum that ended with Crimea breaking away from Ukraine and being swallowed up by Russia, disquiet is stirring that the Tatars’ hard-fought hold over their land could be lost once again.

On Saturday, 250 delegates are gathering in the southern Crimean town of Bakchysarai for a traditional Tatar Qurultay congress to decide whether to hold a referendum on yielding to absorption by Russia or clinging to their Ukrainian citizenship. The former choice might be easier, but few have any illusions.

“Russia is offering us all sorts of nice things. But we understand the essence of the Russian empire, because we are its victims,” said Zevget Kutumerov, a Tatar with extensive experience of dealing with land issues. “If (Russian President Vladimir) Putin says a word, they’ll pass any law tomorrow. That’s what we’re afraid of.”

One of the Tatars’ greatest problems is their legally tenuous control over the land on which they live. Maushev, a neighborhood delegate to the kurultai, arrived penniless from Uzbekistan in 1989 and was forced to scrabble and find a home for himself.

Linking up with about 100 other homeless Tatars, he pitched a tent in a field on the outskirts of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Each settler built a “vremyanka,” or makeshift hut, which provided just enough shelter for squatters guarding the land overnight.

“About 30 or 40 people kept watch here at night so that nobody would trespass, nobody would come and break down the vremyankas,” Maushev said. By the community’s own estimates, Tatars on average own two-fifths as much land as ethnic Russians in Crimea. While Tatars account for only 12 percent of the peninsula’s population, space still remains tight for younger generations raising large families.

After a decade-long moratorium in which no group settlements were founded, Crimean Tatars organized thousands of land seizures in 2006, as the children of the first wave of migrants grew up, made families, and felt cramped in the old settlements.

“I was living in an apartment with my mother, grandmother, everyone — female warfare, every day,” said Sedomed Setumerov, who lives about a kilometer down the road from Maushev in a newer settlement. Yet regardless of how the kurultai dictates Tatars should determine their fealty, whatever victories the community has scored in securing land may yet be lost. Many Tatars worry that Russian laws will limit their ability to press for the government to recognized their land ownership.

In Russia, heavy fines are levied on those who participate in unsanctioned protests, which often end within minutes as demonstrators are swept brutally away. Setumerov moved here in 2010, and now lives in a self-built house with his wife and his three young children. The vast field around them, empty but for the identical but crumbling vremyanki on equal plots of land, gives it the air of a ghost town.

They have lived for three years without running water or electricity, using a generator that has enough gusto for a few lamps and a television but not for a washing machine. They are waiting for the government to recognize them as the owners of the land, which will allow them to use electricity and water from the public grid.

Setumerov acknowledges the wait may be long — especially now that Russia has annexed Crimea — but says it’s worth it. “I’d still rather live in a vremyanka,” he said. “At least it’s quiet and the air is fresh.”

Manila (AFP)

March 27, 2014

The biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines signed an historic pact Thursday to end one of Asia’s longest and deadliest conflicts, promising to give up their arms for an autonomous homeland.

Following four decades of fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives; the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the peace deal with President Benigno Aquino’s government at a high-profile ceremony in Manila.

“The comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro is the crowning glory of our struggle,” MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim said at the signing ceremony, using a local term that refers to a Muslim homeland.

“With this agreement the legitimate aspirations of the Bangsamoro and the commitment of the government of the Philippines to recognize those aspirations are now sealed.”

The pact makes the MILF and the government partners in a plan to create a southern autonomous region for the Philippines’ Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.

“What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in Muslim Mindanao,” Aquino said at the ceremony, attended by more than 1,000 people.

The Bangsamoro region would cover about 10 percent of territory in the mainly Catholic Philippines. The planned region has a majority of Muslims, but there are clusters of Catholic-dominated communities.

Muslim rebels have been battling since the 1970s for independence or autonomy in the southern islands of the Philippines, which they regard as their ancestral homeland dating back to when Arabic traders arrived there in the 13th Century.

The conflict has condemned millions of people across large parts of the resource-rich Mindanao region to brutal poverty, plagued by Muslim and Christian warlords as well as outbreaks of fighting that has led to mass displacements.

The conflict also created fertile conditions for Islamic extremism, with the Abu Sayyaf group and other hardline militants making remote regions of Mindanao their strongholds.

The MILF, which the military estimates has 10,000 fighters, is easily the biggest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, and the political settlement was greeted with relief and optimism in the south.

“I am really happy. In the face of all the hardship of our parents, we the next generation hope and pray that Christians and Muslims will have peace,” Mona Rakman, 42, a mother of four who lives close to the MILF headquarters, told AFP.

The autonomous region would have its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes, while revenues from the region’s vast deposits of natural resources would be split with the national government.

It would have a secular government, rather than being an Islamic state. The national government would retain control over defense, foreign policy, currency and citizenship.

There are about 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, roughly 10 percent of the population, according to government statistics. Most live in the south of the country.

– Fragile peace –

However there are no guarantees the peace deal will be implemented by the middle of 2016, a crucial deadline as that is when Aquino is required by the constitution to end his six-year term.

Aquino needs to convince Congress to pass a “basic law” to create the Bangsamoro autonomous region, ideally by the end of this year to allow time for other steps such as a local plebiscite.

But even though Aquino enjoys record-high popularity ratings, there are concerns politicians could reject or water down the proposed law.

Powerful Christian politicians in Mindanao are regarded as potential deal breakers, while others elsewhere may see political advantage in opposing the deal to appeal to some Catholics ahead of the 2016 national elections.

The deal is also likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2008 struck down a planned peace deal the MILF had negotiated with Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.

Islamic militants opposed to the peace deal are another threat, and could continue to create enduring violence in Mindanao.

Among the potential spoilers is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an MILF splinter group of a few hundred militants that has carried out deadly attacks in the south in recent years.

“We will continue to fight against the government of the Republic of the Philippines because we are for independence and nothing else,” BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama told AFP by phone from his southern hideout.

The MILF leadership has committed to working with the government to neutralize the threat of the BIFF.

However the MILF will not give up its arms or the identities of its fighters until the basic law has been passed, highlighting the fragility of Thursday’s peace deal.

In his speech, Aquino warned militant and political foes alike that he was prepared to crush any challenge to the peace deal.

“I will not let peace be snatched from my people again,” Aquino said to applause.

“Those who want to test the resolve of the state will be met with a firm response based on righteousness and justice.”

Source: Space War.


11 MARCH 2014

Khartoum — A Darfuri student of the University of Khartoum was shot dead by security forces on Tuesday. Other students from Darfur were injured.

The students had organised a political meeting within the university premises, condemning the silence of the Sudanese government about the ongoing violence against civilians in Darfur. When they went to the streets in a peaceful march, security troops opened fire on them.

Speaking to Radio Dabanga, multiple sources reported that the security forces used excessive violence during and after the meeting, when the students went to the streets in a march to hand a memorandum against the violence in Darfur to the UN representative in Khartoum.

The security forces used batons, tear gas, and live bullets to disperse the demonstrators. Ali Abakar Musa Idris, student at the Faculty of Economics, was killed instantly, and a number of other Darfuri students were injured, including Mohamed Ishag Abdallah of the Bahri University, and Mohanad Abu Elgasim of the University of Khartoum.


“The security forces arrested dozens of Darfuri students during the demonstration,” the chairman of the Darfur Students’ Association of the University of Khartoum told Radio Dabanga this afternoon. He confirmed that the body of the killed student was transferred to the Bashayir Hospital.

Security troops also stormed the Zahra dormitory of the University of Khartoum, and beat the Darfuri women students, the chairman said.

According to the chairman of the Darfur Students’ Association of the Islamic University three Darfuri students sustained bullet wounds when security troops and students of the ruling National Congress Party shot at them. He confirmed that the security forces used live bullets to “intimidate and disperse” the demonstrating students.

‘Peace and Justice for Darfur’

The chairman explained that the Associations of Sons of Darfur had invited the students from all Khartoum State universities and higher institutes to the meeting under the motto “No to war. Yes to Peace – No to racism and tribalism – Peace and Justice for Darfur!”.

“The meeting was organised in response to the attacks on Saraf Omra, El Taweisha, and Alliet in North Darfur, and on the villages in the area south of the Ed-Daein-Nyala railway in South Darfur. After the meeting the students decided to march to an UN office in Khartoum to hand a memorandum. They were immediately stopped by police and security troops, who fired tear gas at them and began shooting.”


The chairman of the Darfur Students’ Association of the Islamic University described what had happened inside the University of Khartoum’s compound. “Students belonging of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) entered the university, along with security troops, carrying Molotov cocktails, revolvers, and Kalashnikovs to intimidate the students at the meeting, and disperse them.”

“It is amazing that the administration of the University of Khartoum allowed heavily armed NCP students and the security forces to enter the university premises.” The chairman further noted that the total number of injured students injured is unknown.

Source: allAfrica.


Wednesday, 05 March 2014

Hamid Seddik, an Egyptian legal expert, said in a press statement that he would file a lawsuit at the Court of Urgent Matters, which banned Hamas this week, demanding the banning of all Israeli activities in Egypt and closing down its embassy.

On Tuesday, the same court issued a verdict banning all Hamas activities in Egypt, and closing down its headquarters.

“If the Court of Urgent Matters declines the lawsuit, I will submit it to the Administrative Court,” Seddik said.

He pointed out that he will cite Israel’s “espionage” activities against Egypt, including the latest case involving Israeli spies.

The Egyptian Higher State Security Prosecution announced on February 2 the referral of an “Israeli espionage network” to court. The network, according to the prosecution’s statement, is made up of 3 Egyptians, two Israelis, and four officers affiliated with the Israeli Military Intelligence apparatus. All Israeli defendants are at large.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Wednesday, 05 March 2014

Egyptian authorities took over a school chain owned by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the Upper Egypt governorate of Asyut.

Dar Hiraa school chain is reportedly the largest school chain partly owned by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Egypt. It includes 87 schools and is located in different places across the country.

On Monday, the Education Ministry Directorate in Asyut announced the changing of the school’s name into “30 June”, which marks the date of the military coup d’état against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi.

The Ministry of Education formed a new board for the school’s administration, excluding all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and all those who supported the anti-coup protests following June 30.

On Tuesday, police raided the school and informed its staff about the newly appointed board. Police forces were deployed inside the school.

Wafaa Mashhour, the original chairwoman of the board, said in statements to Anadolu news agency that the procedures “are worse than arrests”. “My relation with this school is older than my relation with my children. Forcibly sacking me from the school is a very cruel decision,” she said.

“The school is a subsidiary of an NGO which includes all sections of society. Its board has been elected by the NGO’s members. This is an educational institution. The fact that some of its board members are affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood is not harmful to the school.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


March 12, 2014

ISTANBUL (AP) — Thousands of people have gathered in Istanbul for the funeral of a Turkish teenager who died nine months after slipping into a coma from being hit by a police tear-gas canister during anti-government protests.

Fifteen-year old Berkin Elvan’s death on Tuesday sparked clashes between protesters and riot police in several cities. On Wednesday, thousands converged in front of a house of worship calling for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign.

Berkin was on his way to buy bread during anti-government street protests when he was struck in the head by a high-velocity gas canister. Several police officers were questioned about Berkin’s head injury but none has been charged.

His death raised the number of fatalities from last summer’s protests to at least eight.

March 09, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s influential Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a leading commander in the alliance that fought the Taliban who was later accused with other warlords of targeting civilian areas during the country’s civil war, died Sunday. He was 57.

Fahim was an ethnic Tajik who was the top deputy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He died a month before Afghans go to the polls to choose a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

Fahim’s death could bring some sympathy votes to presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who was also a member of the Northern Alliance and a friend. But it is not expected to cause any dramatic ripples in either the campaign or the polling.

Karzai’s office said Fahim — who held the rank of field marshal and had survived several assassination attempts, most recently in 2009 in northern Afghanistan — died of natural causes in Kabul. The government declared three days of mourning beginning Monday, and Karzai and other dignitaries rushed to Fahim’s house in Kabul to pay their respects.

His longtime friend and Afghanistan’s ambassador to Spain, Masood Khalili, said Fahim “was not feeling good. He had diabetes. He had had two heart operations and three times he had gone to Germany for check-ups.” Khalili was badly wounded in the same suicide bombing that killed Massoud.

Fahim served as defense minister in Karzai’s first administration and most recently was the first of two vice presidents. But he was best remembered as a former warlord who fought against the Soviets when they occupied the country and for taking part in the bitter internecine fighting that marked the early 1990s. He went on to battle alongside Massoud against the Taliban.

In a televised address to the nation, Karzai called Fahim his close friend and brother. “No one can replace him. It is a loss for all of us,” Karzai said. “Fahim was part of every historic decision made for the future of Afghanistan.”

Fahim “started his fight for the liberation of Afghanistan,” when he was barely out of his teens, Khalili said in a telephone interview from Spain. “He was one of the heroes of Afghanistan. He was the one who stood alongside Massoud. He never accepted the Taliban, their ideas, their government. He was always rejecting al-Qaida as terrorists,” Khalili said.

The Pashtun-dominated Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and ruled from the capital until they were ousted five years later by the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance, made mostly of minorities including ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Fahim was widely accused of marginalizing all Pashtuns, particularly in the security services, during his tenure as defense minister in the first years after the Taliban’s collapse. He was bitterly criticized for alleged past atrocities, such as killing civilians by rocketing residential areas and booby-trapping homes, his heavy handedness and allegations of corruption.

Human Rights Watch accused Fahim, as well as several other prominent warlords allied with the U.S.-led coalition, of war crimes when they last ruled in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, before the Taliban took over.

He was removed from his post as defense minister in 2004. “He kept quiet when he was removed as defense minister. He wanted the country to move toward democracy,” Khalili said. As Afghanistan headed into its first presidential elections in 2004, Fahim distanced himself from Karzai and threw his support behind his fellow Tajik, Yunus Qanooni. Eventually the two men reconciled and Karzai chose Fahim as his first vice president in the 2009 presidential elections, putting him first in line to fill in for the Afghan leader during absences from the country.

“I was just writing in my diary my thoughts. He was a good man. I have good memories of my friend,” Khalili said. “He wasn’t just a fighter. He had a kind, soft heart for culture, for poetry. There was a milder side to him. It was not just always that he was thinking with the gun. He also thought of poor Afghans.”

Khalili recalled last year’s ceremony to mark the anniversary of Massoud’s death. “I turned to Fahim and I said: ‘Next year Fahim, either you or I will not be here in this world. Only God will be here,'” he said.

Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Associated Press writer Kim Gamel contributed to this report.

March 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — The number of Syrian children affected by the civil war in their homeland has doubled in the past year to at least 5.5 million — more than half the country’s children — with devastating effects on the health, education and psychological well-being of an entire generation, the United Nations children’s agency said Tuesday.

The conflict, which enters its fourth year this month, has unleashed massive suffering across all segments of Syrian society, but the impact on children has been especially acute, according to a new report by UNICEF. Malnutrition and illness have stunted their growth; a lack of learning opportunities has derailed their education; and the bloody trauma of war has left deep psychological scars.

“After three years of conflict and turmoil, Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child,” the agency said. “In their thousands, children have lost lives and limbs, along with virtually every aspect of their childhood. They have lost classrooms and teachers, brothers and sisters, friends, caregivers, homes and stability.”

“Millions of young people risk becoming, in effect, a lost generation,” UNICEF said. Since the conflict began, thousands of videos and photographs of bloodied babies, lifeless children and bombed out schools in Syria have provided stark images of the war’s impact on children. But in many ways, figures provide perhaps the clearest indication of how sweeping an effect the conflict has on their lives.

UNICEF said that more than 10,000 children have been killed in the violence, which would translate into the highest casualty rates recorded in any recent conflict in the region. Of those who have survived, thousands have been wounded, lost their home and schools, and seen family members and friends killed. That trauma has left around 2 million children in need of psychological support or treatment, the agency said.

Almost 3 million children are displaced inside Syria, while another 1.2 million have fled the country and now live as refugees in camps and overwhelmed neighboring communities where clean water, food and other basic items are scarce.

On the education front, UNICEF said that nearly half of Syria’s school-age children — 2.8 million and counting — cannot get an education because of the devastation and violence. More than 2 million of those who should be in classes remain within Syria’s borders, as education and health services collapse and classrooms are bombed or used as shelters and military barracks. Another 300,000 Syrian children are out of school in Lebanon, along with some 93,000 in Jordan, 78,000 in Turkey, 26,000 in Iraq and 4,000 in Egypt, agency officials said in Geneva.

Many are forced to grow up fast: One in 10 refugee children is now working, the agency estimates, while one in five Syrian girls in Jordan is forced into early marriage. Inside Syria, boys as young as 12 have been recruited to help the rebels, some as fighters and others in a support role, the U.N. report said.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad. Facing a brutal government crackdown, protesters eventually took up arms and the country descended into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people so far.

Two rounds of peace talks in Switzerland early this year between Assad’s government and Syria’s main Western-backed political opposition group broke up without making any progress, and there are no immediate plans for another session.

On the ground, meanwhile, the fighting has shown no sign of slowing down. On Tuesday, three suicide bombers blew themselves up in a local administration building in the Kurdish town of Qamishli in northeast Syria, killing at least five people, state media and a Kurdish official said.

The state news agency said the blasts at the Hadaya Hotel killed five people, but a Kurdish official at the scene said at least seven people died, including four women. The hotel in the center of Qamishli has functioned as a municipality building, said Joan Mohammed, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone. The area has been the scene of heavy fighting recently between Kurdish gunmen and members of the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mohammed said several people wearing explosive belts and firearms shot dead the guards outside the building, walked in and hurled grenades before blowing themselves up. One of them was caught before he detonated his belt and was being questioned.

He said the dead included two employees and two visitors. He added that 15 people were wounded. “The building is in the center of the town and is usually very crowded,” said Mohammad, adding that Kurdish fighters in the area were “on high alert” following the attack.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Militants from the group have been fighting Kurdish gunmen for months in northern Syria in battles that left hundreds of people dead.

Kurds have carved out their own territory in the country’s northeast, declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control amid the chaos of the civil war. But Kurdish militias continue to battle Islamic militant fighters in an offensive that has accelerated in recent months.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people.

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

12th of March 2014, Wednesday

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) – The UN’s Palestine refugee agency has decided to temporarily employ 210 fresh graduates from the Gaza Strip, says a spokesman of the director of UNRWA operations in the central Gaza Strip.

Khalil al-Halabi added in a statement that 210 alumni who graduated in 2013-2014 from Palestinian universities would be hired for nine months at UN-affiliated schools in the Gaza Strip. He added that $1 million donated by the Islamic Relief of Saudi Arabia has been allocated to the temporary program.

Al-Halabi highlighted that UNRWA started to distribute aid in cash to families whose properties sustained damage as a result of the snow storm Alexa in mid-December. More than 1,000 families will receive cash.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.