Archive for August 12, 2014

May 15, 2014

SOMA, Turkey (AP) — With photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests and chanting the names of lost miners, grieving relatives laid their dead to rest in mass burials Thursday, as gravediggers labored to make room for scores more victims of Turkey’s worst mining disaster.

“The love of my life is gone,” women wailed loudly, swaying and singing improvised laments about the departed as bodies were lowered, one by one, into the freshly dug graves. Rescue teams recovered another nine victims, raising the death toll to 283 from Tuesday’s disaster, with at least 140 miners believed still trapped underground, according to government figures.

Rage blended with grief as revulsion over poor safety conditions and what some perceived as government indifference set off protests across Turkey. “It’s not an accident, it’s murder,” read a banner waved by trade unionists who marched through the streets of Istanbul.

The disaster has stirred up new hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and thrown his presidential ambitions off stride. Blackening his reputation further, Turkish newspapers published a photograph Thursday of one of Erdogan’s aides kicking a protester who was being held on the ground by armed police.

At a graveyard in the mining town of Soma, where coal has been the main industry for decades, mourners said they spent their whole lives fearing a disaster like Tuesday’s, in which an explosion set off a deadly fire just as workers were preparing for a shift change, trapping hundreds underground. No miner has been brought out alive since before dawn Wednesday.

“The wives of the miners kiss their husbands in the morning. When they come back, even if they are five minutes late, everyone starts calling, said 45-year-old Gulizar Donmez, whose husband and father are both miners and whose neighbor was among the victims. “You never know what is going to happen.”

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the search for survivors was being hampered by a fire that had spread to a conveyor system — engulfing a 650-foot (200-meter) stretch of tunnel — but progress was made Thursday toward extinguishing it. Rescue operations have been suspended several times as fire created toxic fumes and too-risky conditions for rescuers.

Emergency crews detected a drop in carbon monoxide levels “which means that the fire has gotten smaller,” Yildez said. Erdogan, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon for Turkey’s presidential election in August, was greeted by angry protests during a visit to Soma on Wednesday after he referred to mining accidents as “ordinary things” that “happen all the time.”

The Turkish leader was forced to take refuge inside a supermarket after angry crowds shouting “Murderer!” and “Thief!” — in a reference to alleged corruption — clashed with police. An Erdogan aide, Yusuf Yerkel,” was photographed kicking a protester being pinned to the ground by special forces police.

Yerkel issued a statement Thursday expressing regret, but also claimed he was provoked. “I am sorry that I was not able to keep calm despite all the provocations, insults and attacks that I was subjected to,” he said.

In contrast, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, visiting Soma on Thursday, referred to the mine explosion as “a huge disaster,” adding: “The pain is felt by us all.” The mood was more restrained than during Erdogan’s visit, though townspeople angry at what they said was the slow rescue operation shouted at him, demanding that more be done to reach possible survivors.

Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president. His party swept local elections in March despite a corruption scandal that forced him to dismiss four government ministers and has also implicated him and family members. Erdogan denies the allegations, saying they are part of a plot to bring his government down.

Turkey’s largest trade union confederation, representing some 800,000 workers, joined a one-day strike Thursday by other unions to demand better working conditions for miners. In the Black Sea port of Zonguldak, site of Turkey’s previous worst industrial accident, where a 1992 gas explosion killed 263, miners gathered but refused to enter a mine. At the protest in Istanbul, trade union groups tried to march to the local social security department but were blocked by police and staged a sit-in instead.

Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and a fire at a power distribution unit, and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. The government said 787 people were inside the mine at the time and that 383 were rescued, many with injuries.

Erdogan has promised a thorough investigation and Hurriyet newspaper reported that a team of 15 prosecutors has been assigned to the inquiry. Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, when no safety violations were detected. But the country’s opposition party said Erdogan’s ruling party had voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into several smaller accidents at mines around Soma.

__ Fraser reported from Ankara.

April 18, 2014

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Abdullah Gul has signaled that he doesn’t want to swap jobs with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the presidential term ends later this year.

Gul said Friday he opposes a model similar to that of Russia where the president and prime minister have traded places and one has ruled in the other’s shadow. Gul suggested he would not oppose Erdogan if he chose to run for president in the election in August.

Erdogan has not made a decision about whether he will seek to become president — a position that is largely ceremonial but does include the power to appoint the prime minister. He has said he wants a presidency with more executive powers.

March 31, 2014

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Despite allegations of corruption and concerns about authoritarianism, Turkey’s local elections have given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan momentum that could see him start a campaign to become the country’s first directly elected president.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party swept municipal elections on Sunday, gaining 45.5 percent of the votes and roundly beating the main opposition party, according to unofficial results. The party retained the key city of Istanbul and was also leading in Ankara, but votes in the capital were close and the opposition said the results would be contested.

Erdogan’s win eased market concerns over instability on Monday, leading to a stock market rally. The Turkish lira strengthened against the dollar and the euro. Analysts say the result amounts to a vote of confidence for Erdogan and will encourage him to run in presidential elections in August, where he would have to win 50 percent of the votes.

“(Erdogan) has seen that he has the support of a mass of people that believes in him and won’t desert him under any condition,” wrote Mehmet Tezcan, a commentator for Milliyet newspaper. “This will encourage him on his way to the presidential palace.”

Erdogan’s presidential aspirations had been put in doubt after last year’s anti-government protests, a corruption scandal and a series of freedom-restricting moves, including blocking access to Twitter and YouTube. The curbs on social media came after several audio recordings were leaked, suggesting corruption by Erdogan and family members.

Erdogan and his party have dominated Turkish politics over the past decade in a period of great prosperity. The party came to power backed by a pious Muslim base looking for greater standing in a country that had for decades favored a secular elite.

The allegations of corruption and bribe-taking have already brought down four ministers. Erdogan has rejected the allegations as a plot orchestrated by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who has split with him. Following the results, Erdogan promised retribution against Gulen’s movement.

There were scattered reports of fraud, including irregular electoral lists and pre-stamped ballot papers, which were likely to delay an official announcement on the final results. Mustafa Sarigul, the opposition party’s candidate who lost his bid to become the mayor of Istanbul, complained of power cuts during vote tallies and “sacks of ballot papers wandering around.”

Turkey’s Kurdish Party, which is involved in peace talks with Erdogan’s government to try to end nearly three decades of fighting between troops and Kurdish insurgents, also made gains in the local elections, increasing the number of cities it won in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast regions from eight to 10, according to unofficial results.

March 31, 2014

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday hailed what appeared to be a decisive victory for his party in local elections, providing a boost that could help him emerge from a spate of recent troubles.

Erdogan was not on the ballot in the countrywide polls, but he campaigned as if he were. Hours after the polls closed, Turkish newswires suggested that his party was significantly outstripping its results of about 39 percent in the last local elections in 2009 and roundly beating the main opposition party.

With nearly 70 percent of the votes counted, Erdogan’s party was above 46 percent of the votes while the main opposition CHP was at just over 30 percent, according to state-run TRT television. “I thank my Lord for granting such a victory, such a meaningful result,” Erdogan said at a victory rally in Ankara, speaking to a crowd of supporters who had been chanting, “Turkey is proud of you!”

Incumbent candidates from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish acronym AKP, also were leading in high-profile races in Istanbul and Ankara. Voter turnout appeared to be heavy, with people forming long queues at polling stations.

The strong results were a big boost for the prime minister following a tumultuous corruption scandal. In recent days, Erdogan has also provoked outrage at home and abroad by blocking access to Twitter and YouTube.

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at London-based independent policy institute Chatham House, said neither corruption issues nor media freedoms determined the elections. “Overall, the people are happy with the government’s economic performance,” he said.

“His victory speech was uncompromising, tough and polarizing,” the analyst added. “It is an indication that he will intensify his current robust style of leadership.” The result could embolden Erdogan to run for president in an election scheduled for August. Prior to Sunday’s showing, he had appeared to be leaning against that route, which has risks. In a direct vote, he would have to win 50 percent in a country that is deeply polarized over his rule.

Erdogan and his party have dominated Turkish politics over the past decade in a period of great prosperity. The party came to power backed by a pious Muslim base looking for greater standing in a country that had for decades favored a secular elite. But AKP, whose party symbol is a light bulb, has also cultivated an identity of pragmatism and competency.

That image has been damaged by the corruption scandal, with a series of leaked tapes bringing down four ministers with revelations of bribe-taking and cover-ups. One tape allegedly involves Erdogan and family members, but he and his allies have rejected the allegations as a plot orchestrated by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who has split with him.

Following the results, Erdogan promised retribution against Gulen’s movement. “We shall enter into their caves,” he said. “They will pay and account for their deeds.” In the wake of the scandal, Erdogan has shuffled thousands of police officers and tightened control of the judiciary, which had launched investigations. The moves prompted concern that Erdogan was moving toward more authoritarian rule.

But in his victory speech, Erdogan said that democracy in Turkey is strong. “We have the democracy which the West is longing for,” he said.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

August 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — ISIS have crushed a tribal uprising against their rule in eastern Syria after three days of clashes in three eastern villages near the border with Iraq, activists said Monday.

The armed revolt by the Shueitat tribe in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour was the first sign of local resistance to the ISIS since its fighters swept into the province. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based activist Thaer ak-Deiri said that ISIS fighters regained control of three villages of the Shueitat tribe on Sunday after being expelled earlier this month.

The Observatory said ISIS fighters beheaded two tribesmen after they fled to the nearby village of Shaafa. It had no immediate word on other casualties in the area. Clashes over the past two weeks left more than a dozen people dead and both sides.

The extremist group has taken over much of northern and eastern Syria as well as western and northern Iraq. The group has declared a self-styled caliphate in territory it controls along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The clashes in eastern Syria came as ISIS fighters tightened its siege on a major military air base in the town of Tabqa in the northern province of Raqqa. The air base is the last army position in the Raqqa province that is an ISIS stronghold.

The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said ISIS fighters are bombarding the base with artillery as they appear to be preparing to storm it. Last week, ISIS fighters seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting and late last month captured another base in which they took dozens of prisoners whom some of them were later beheaded and their bodies paraded in one of Raqqa’s main squares.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule, but turned into an insurgency after government forces violently cracked down on demonstrators. It has since become a full blown revolution. Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in more than three years of fighting, activists say.

Sat Aug 9, 2014

Over 15,000 supporters of Muslim Brotherhood have staged an anti-Israeli demonstration in the Jordanian capital of Amman, urging the resistance movement to ratchet up its campaign against Israel.

Scores of masked youths dressed in the uniform of Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, also took part in the Friday rally, the largest demonstration in Amman in years, and staged a symbolic military parade in support of Hamas.

A Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson on Friday called on Hamas to escalate its attacks against Israel in an attempt to avenge the deaths of civilians in Gaza.

“In the coming phase, after negotiations failed, the only thing left is the flag of resistance which was behind the victory in Gaza,” said Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.

The Israeli military aggression against Gaza, which began on July 8, has claimed the lives of more than 1,900 Palestinians, including more than 400 children, and wounded over 9,500 others. Palestinian resistance movements have retaliated  by launching rockets into Israel.

A 72-hour truce in Gaza ended on Friday morning without any agreement to extend it.

Jordan is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees and most of its more than 7 million population are of Palestinian origin.

This week, the Arab country, which along with Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel, refused calls by public protesters, the opposition and some prominent politicians to expel Tel Aviv’s ambassador and cut ties with the entity, describing it as a counter-productive move.

Source: PressTV.


August 10, 2014

ZARZIS, Tunisia (AP) — The fishermen of this small North African port are used to catching sea bass and sea bream in their nets, but lately they’ve been hauling in something else: shipwrecked migrants fleeing war-ravaged Libya on flimsy boats.

Chamseddine Bourassine, a Tunisian fisherman in his 50s, and his colleagues are on the front lines of a growing humanitarian disaster as waves of migrants take to the sea bound for Italy. They do their best to save who they can, but Bourassine says they’re quickly being overcome by this year’s flood of African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking a new life in Europe.

The fishermen, who are risking both their lives and livelihoods to rescue the migrants, often cite a saying by the Prophet Muhammad: “Who saves a life, saves all of humanity.” “Today I have the means to bring back 107 people, but I’ll lose 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,750),” Bourassine says. “Tomorrow I might not be able to. I have people who work with me. If I interrupt work once, twice, three times, it becomes a heavy burden on my shoulders.”

He estimates he has saved more than 1,000 migrants on four separate occasions while out in his fishing boat, twice since the Libyan uprising in 2011. Bourassine and other fishermen don’t take any rewards for saving the migrants and he understands why they are trying to leave. But he says it’s not his job to save them and he feels there’s been a lack of support from rescue organizations and governmental authorities.

Mansour Ben Chouikha, a fifty-something fisherman, paused while cleaning his rustic blue-and-white fishing vessel to describe the horrific scenes he has witnessed on the calm, peaceful waters off Zarzis, only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Libyan border. He says he has seen floating bodies decomposing in the Mediterranean, some missing their heads.

“We find them dead but we don’t declare it,” said Chouikha. “(If) there is a body in the water and we are six or seven hours from the land, we can’t get them on board.” The fishermen don’t keep track of the number of migrants they recover — dead or alive. But they are unanimous in saying the numbers are rising. Last week two bodies were pulled out the water off the nearby coastal resort of Djerba.

“The other day, with my boat, I brought back 107 people, three or four died before my eyes, they fell in the water and they didn’t know how to swim. My stability (of the boat) didn’t allow me to act. One hundred and seven people represent a great danger for my crew,” Bourassine said.

The fishermen complain that the authorities are turning a blind eye. Unlike the media storm that followed the October 2013 migrant disaster off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa — in which roughly 400 migrants died when their boats capsized — similar catastrophes go unmentioned in Tunisia.

The fishermen say they’ve seen up 30 boats of migrants leaving each day for Italy, each with a capacity of between 50 and 250 people, but it’s difficult to get exact numbers. Organizations such as the Red Crescent are trying to help some of the migrants picked up by the Tunisian Coast Guard. A Tunisian Red Crescent official told The Associated Press they have looked after around 400 rescued migrants but that doesn’t reflect the true number out in the sea.

The Italian navy has stepped up their rescue efforts since Lampedusa. On Monday they announced they had rescued more than 93,000 migrants since the start of the year. Despite the risks, migrants see the journey as their only option.

Abou Bakr Boudjan is a Gambian who found his way to Libya last year. Two months ago, he took a boat trying to reach Europe but was caught by the Coast Guard at sea. Now he is stuck in Zarzis trying to file for asylum with the support of the Red Crescent.

His dreams are simple: having a normal life and a job, whatever country he ends up in. “Anywhere I can now have freedom is OK. Here, Libya, Italy, anywhere,” Boudjan said.

Keller reported from Paris.