Archive for November 6, 2014


July 09, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo was ahead in Indonesia’s razor-tight presidential election Wednesday with more than 80 percent of the votes tallied, according to early quick count results. But supporters of his rival, Prabowo Subianto, a wealthy ex-army general with close links to former dictator Suharto, urged caution saying it is too early to declare a victory after what has been the most polarizing election campaign since Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998.

Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, was ahead by about 52 percent, while Prabowo Subianto had about 48 percent of the vote, according to most credible quick count surveys “At the time being, the quick counts show that Jokowi-Kalla is the winner,” Widodo told a news conference, referring to his vice-presidential running mate Jusuf Kalla.

Just a couple of months ago, the election was considered firmly in favor of Widodo, 53, who rose from humble beginnings as a furniture maker to become the governor of Jakarta with a squeaky-clean political record.

But a late surge by Subianto, 62, vastly improved his chances after he wooed legions of supporters with calls for nationalism despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses during his military career and his connection with Suharto — his former father-in-law.

Widodo’s appeal is that despite a lack of experience in national politics, he is seen as a man of the people who wants to advance democratic reforms and is untainted by the often corrupt military and business elite which has run the country for decades. He is the first candidate in direct elections with no connection to the 1966-1998 Suharto-era and its excesses.

“Unlike previous presidential elections, this time I’m so excited to participate because Indonesia needs a change,” said Widodo supporter Imam Arifin, who went to school with President Barack Obama when he lived in the country as a child. “I believe a candidate without a past dark track record can bring a better future to Indonesia.”

“There is a political excitement. We can see how people are showing up to vote full of joy,” Widodo said, as he voted in central Jakarta accompanied by his wife. “Today, the future of this nation for the next five years will be determined.”

The two candidates are vastly different in their policies and styles. Widodo is a soft-spoken man who likes to wear sneakers and casual plaid shirts, listen to heavy metal music and make impromptu visits to the slums.

Subianto is known for his thundering campaign speeches, a penchant for luxury cars and having trotted up to one rally on an expensive horse. He has the support of the most hard-line Islamic parties and has sparked concern among foreign investors worried about protectionism and a possible return to more authoritative policies.

“Many Indonesian Muslims prefer Prabowo’s strong and dynamic character, which can stand up in facing the foreign policies of neighboring countries and the U.S.,” said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesia Institute of Science. “Other people are responding positively to Jokowi’s caring and earthy traits.”

The campaign period was marred by smear tactics from both camps. But Widodo blamed his fall in opinion polls from a lead of more than 12 percentage points in May to just around 3.5 points on character assaults that accused him, among other things, of not being a follower of Islam. He has denounced the charges as lies, but says it’s hard to undo the damage it caused in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

At the same time, Subianto’s campaign has been more effective and better financed. He also enjoyed the support of two of the country’s largest television stations. “I think these black campaigns were effective enough to convince communities,” said Hamdi Muluk, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia. “And that has directly ruined Widodo’s image.”

But he added that Subianto’s past, including ordering the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists prior to Suharto’s fall in 1998, have not gone unnoticed and some voters fear a return to the brutal dictator’s New Order regime. Details about the abductions surfaced recently after the official findings of an army investigative panel were leaked.

“Considering the role models and figures behind Widodo’s team, I believe many new voters tend to support Jokowi,” Muluk said. “A return to the New Order is not popular among youngsters or new voters. They are interested more in change.”

The race is the country’s third direct presidential election, and has played out with fury in the social media crazed country of about 240 million people. There has been a frenzy of “unfriending” on Facebook pages belonging to users who support different camps.

Subianto, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been gaining allies. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party, which said it was neutral earlier in the campaign, openly endorsed Subianto just two weeks before the election. Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term after 10 years in office. After voting Wednesday, he called on both sides to respect the results.

Subianto’s vows of tough leadership and promises that “Indonesia will become an Asian tiger once again” have also gained footing with some voters fed up with Yudhoyono, who has been criticized for being ineffective and weak on some issues, including those involving neighbors Australia and Malaysia. The president’s party has also been plagued by a string of recent high-profile corruption scandals.

Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.

July 09, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — After the most polarizing campaigning in Indonesia’s history, millions of people voted to elect a new president Wednesday in a race too tight to predict, hoping for change after years of corruption and poverty.

The world’s third-largest democracy is divided over two very different choices: Joko Widodo, a one-time furniture maker and Prabowo Subianto, a wealthy ex-army general with close links to former dictator Suharto.

Just a couple of months ago, the election was considered firmly in favor of Widodo, who rose from humble beginnings to become the governor of Jakarta with a squeaky-clean political record. But a late surge by Subianto has vastly improved his chances after he wooed legions of supporters with calls for nationalism despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses during his military career and his connection with Suharto — his former father-in-law.

Widodo’s appeal is that he is seen as a man of the people who wants to advance democratic reforms even though he lacks experience in national politics, and represents a break from the past as the first candidate in direction elections with no connection to the 1966-98 Suharto-era and its excesses.

When the polls opened Wednesday morning to about 190 million people, analysts predicted that undecided voters will determine the winner. Preliminary quick count results were expected later in the day, and extra police and military forces were added in case violence erupts. High voter turnout was expected following campaigning that has energized people across the country.

Both candidates were mobbed by throngs of journalists and supporters as they made their way to polling stations. “There is a political excitement. We can see how people are showing up to vote full of joy,” Widodo said, as he voted in central Jakarta accompanied by his wife. “Today, the future of this nation for the next five years will be determined.”

“Unlike previous presidential elections, this time I’m so excited to participate because Indonesia needs a change,” said Widodo supporter Imam Arifin, who went to school with President Barack Obama when he lived in the country as a child. “I believe a candidate without a past dark track record can bring a better future to Indonesia.”

About 2 million Indonesians abroad have been casting their votes since Saturday, and the overseas turnout has been significantly higher than the 22 percent in April’s legislative elections, said Wahid Supriyadi, a foreign ministry official who heads the overseas election committee.

The two candidates are vastly different in their policies and styles. Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, is a soft-spoken man who likes to wear sneakers and casual plaid shirts, listen to heavy metal music and make impromptu visits to the slums.

Subianto, 62, is known for his thundering campaign speeches, a penchant for luxury cars and having trotted up to one rally on an expensive horse. He has the support of the most hard-line Islamic parties and has sparked concern among foreign investors worried about protectionism and a possible return to more authoritative policies.

“Many Indonesian Muslims prefer Prabowo’s strong and dynamic character, which can stand up in facing the foreign policies of neighboring countries and the U.S.,” said Ikrar Nusabhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesia Institute of Science. “Other people are responding positively to Jokowi’s caring and earthy traits.”

Smear tactics have surfaced in both camps. But Widodo, 53, has blamed his fall in opinion polls from a lead of more than 12 percentage points in May to just around 3.5 points on character assaults that accused him, among other things, of not being a follower of Islam. He has denounced the charges as lies, but says it’s hard to undo the damage it caused in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

At the same time, Subianto’s campaign has been more effective and better financed. He also enjoyed the support of two of the country’s largest television stations. “I think these black campaigns were effective enough to convince communities,” said Hamdi Muluk, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia. “And that has directly ruined Widodo’s image.”

But he added that Subianto’s past, including ordering the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists prior to Suharto’s fall in 1998, have not gone unnoticed and some voters fear a return to the brutal dictator’s New Order regime. Details about the abductions surfaced recently after the official findings of an army investigative panel were leaked.

“Considering the role models and figures behind Widodo’s team, I believe many new voters tend to support Jokowi,” Muluk said. “A return to the New Order is not popular among youngsters or new voters. They are interested more in change.”

The race is the country’s third direct presidential election, and has played out with fury in the social media crazed country of around 240 million people. There has been a frenzy of “unfriending” on Facebook pages belonging to users who support different camps.

For the first time in its 31-year history, the English-language Jakarta Post last week endorsed a presidential candidate. In choosing Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the paper said it could not remain silent because the stakes were too high.

“Rarely in an election has the choice been so definitive,” it said in denouncing Prabowo. “Never before has a candidate ticked all the boxes on our negative checklist. And for that we cannot do nothing.”

But Subianto, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been gaining allies. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party, which said it was neutral earlier in the campaign, openly endorsed Subianto just two weeks before the election. Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term after 10 years in office, and after voting Wednesday called on both sides to respect the results.

Subianto’s vows of tough leadership and promises that “Indonesia will become an Asian tiger once again” have also gained footing with some voters fed up with Yudhoyono, who has been criticized for being ineffective and weak on some issues, including those involving neighbors Australia and Malaysia. The president’s party has also been plagued by a string of recent high-profile corruption scandals.

Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.

November 04, 2014

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are discussing the creation of a military pact to take on Islamic militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East, The Associated Press has learned.

The alliance would also serve as a show of strength to counterbalance their traditional rival, Shiite-dominated, Iran. Two countries are seen as potential theaters for the alliance to act, senior Egyptian military officials said: Libya, where Islamic militants have taken over several cities, and Yemen, where Shiite rebels suspected of links to Iran have seized control of the capital.

The discussions reflect a new assertiveness among the Middle East’s Sunni powerhouses, whose governments — after three years of post-Arab Spring turmoil in the region — have increasingly come to see Sunni Islamic militants and Islamist political movements as a threat.

The U.S. Arab allies’ consideration of a joint force illustrates a desire to go beyond the international coalition that the United States has put together to wage an air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in those strikes in Syria. The officials said the alliance under consideration was not intended to intervene in Iraq or Syria but to act separately to address other extremist hot spots.

Three Egyptian military officials discussed details of the talks and a fourth confirmed their comments. A Gulf official, who is aware of the discussions, also told The Associated Press that the governments were coordinating on how to deal with Libya, and the talks were “ongoing on wider cooperation on how to deal with extremists in the region.” He and the Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks remain secret.

Talks on an alliance against extremists are well advanced, the Egyptian officials said. But the further idea of forming a joint force is more distant, and there are differences among the countries over the size of any force, funding and headquarters, and over whether to seek Arab League or U.N. political cover for operations, one of the Egyptian officials said. Past attempts at a pan-Arab military force have fallen apart.

Still, even if no joint force is agreed on, the alliance would coordinate military action, aiming at quick, pinpoint operations against militants rather than longer missions, the officials said. The countries have already shown an unprecedented willingness to intervene together. Egypt and the UAE cooperated in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic militants in Libya during the summer, according to U.S. and Egyptian officials, and last month Egypt carried out strikes of its own. Egypt’s government has denied both operations.

Egypt’s president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has warned repeatedly that Islamic extremists must be dealt with in multiple places, not just in Iraq and Syria. In a September interview with the AP, he said “a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region” is needed.

In Washington, asked if the U.S. was aware of the discussions, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said, “We’re not privy to that. I wouldn’t speak to it.” He would not elaborate. The spokesman for Egypt’s presidency, Alaa Youssef, denied that creating a joint rapid deployment force, complete with a headquarters, was part of the “routine” discussions between Egypt and its Arab allies on a strategy to combat extremism.

The Egyptian military officials said top generals from the countries — including at times, their chiefs of staff — have held multiple rounds of talks. Two of the Egyptian military officials said they had participated in the discussions, while the other two said they had been briefed on them.

Under consideration, they said, is the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops with aircraft and access to a pool of intelligence gathered by members of the alliance. To prepare for such a force, bilateral and multilateral war games have been held over the past year among the countries to promote harmony among their troops and weapons systems, the Egyptian officials said. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have elite counter-terrorism units, and the Gulf countries have sophisticated air forces, largely purchased from the United States.

The officials said Jordan and Algeria had also been approached to join. “It will only be announced when it is ready to go and we have an agreement on everything,” said the most senior of the Egyptian officials.

The countries involved intend to get a “nod” of approval from the United States, the officials said. However, the idea of a joint force reflects skepticism among the countries that Washington is prepared to pursue militants beyond the anti-Islamic State group operation, they said.

In Libya, Islamic militants have controlled the capital, Tripoli, and the second-largest city, Benghazi, for the past two months. Islamist politicians in Tripoli have set up their own government and revived the previous parliament, where they held a majority.

The internationally recognized and most recently elected parliament and government have been relegated to the small city of Tobrouk near the Egyptian border, while its allied militias and army forces under Gen. Khalifa Hifter battle the militants. El-Sissi and Saudi Arabia have backed the Tobrouk government.

In Yemen, al-Qaida has one of its most active branches, fighting the government for years. Also, Shiite rebels known as Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, in September, threatening the rule of Gulf-backed President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia has intervened to fight the Houthis previously, in 2010, believing that the movement is a proxy for Iran.

The alliance would also be on hand to protect the Gulf from any incursions by the Islamic State group, the officials said. Its existence would also be a symbolic show of unity against Iranian influence.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular have a close bond under el-Sissi. As army commander, el-Sissi overthrew Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who was democratically elected after the upheaval of the Arab Spring uprisings. El-Sissi has since waged a ferocious crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE also see as their enemy.

Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait have provided some $20 billion in aid to Egypt since el-Sissi’s ouster of Morsi. El-Sissi has repeatedly referred to the security of his Gulf Arab allies as a “red line” and integral to Egypt’s own security, hinting he would be willing to send troops. Shortly before he left the military to run for president this year, he inaugurated an elite rapid deployment force and later cryptically said that the Gulf region was “only a short distance away” from Egypt.

AP writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

By Naimul Haq

KURIGRAM, Bangladesh, Oct 29 2014 (IPS) – Jahanara Begum, a 35-year-old housewife, is surrounded by thatched-roof homes, all of which are partially submerged by floodwater.

Heavy rains throughout the monsoon months, beginning in August, left thousands of people in northern Bangladesh homeless or in dire straits as the mighty Brahmaputra, Dharla and Teesta rivers burst their banks, spilling out over the countryside.

Some of the worst hit were the roughly 50,000-70,000 ‘char dwellers’, residents who have been forced to make their homes on little river islands or shoals, the result of years of intense sedimentation along some of Bangladesh’s largest rivers.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Bangladesh experiences a net accretion of some 20 square km of land per year – “newly formed land of about 52 square km minus eroded land of around 32 square km” – as the coastline shifts, river beds dry up and floods and siltation leave little mounds of earth behind.

“With an assumed density of 800 people per square km,” IFAD estimates, “this means that each year approximately 26,000 people lose their land in Bangladesh.”

Many of those left landless opt to start life afresh on the chars, which lack almost all basic services: a water supply, sanitation facilities, hospitals, schools, electricity, transport, police stations, markets.

“We survive on God’s blessings,” an old man named Nurul Islam, a char resident, told IPS, “and indigenous agricultural practices.”

Sometimes, however, even divine intervention and ancient wisdom is not sufficient to guards against the hazards of such a precarious life. Jahanara recalls the worst days of the flood, when rapid waters swept away most of her neighbors’ household items while she herself was protected only by the slight elevation of her home on the Astamer Char in Kurigram district, about 290 km north of the capital Dhaka.

In the Bhangapara District, some 210 km from Dhaka, the floodwaters were knee-deep, according to Mossammet Laily, a mother of four in her mid-30s whose entire home went underwater this past August. “Everything inside was destroyed in no time,” a visibly moved Laily told IPS.

Her disheartened neighbor, who gave his name only as Rabeya, added, “I had pumpkin, potato, cucumbers and snake-, ribbed- and bottle-gourd in my small garden. All of them vanished in a matter of a few hours.”

As Naser Ali, a local businessmen, explained to IPS, “We never had floods of this magnitude in our childhood. In previous years floodwaters stayed for a couple of days but this time the water stayed for almost a month.”

All over Bangladesh, the impacts of a wetter and warmer climate are making themselves felt among the poorest and most marginalized segments of society. In a country of 156 million people, 70 percent of whom live in rural areas, natural disasters are magnified.

Some 50-80 million people live in flood-prone or drought-prone areas around the country. While statistics about their average income vary, rural families seldom earn more than 50-80 dollars per month.

Natural disasters in Bangladesh have resulted in damages to the tune of billions of dollars, with cyclones Sidr and Aila (in 2007 and 2009 respectively) causing damages estimated at 1.7 billion and 550 million dollars each.

And for the char dwellers, the prospect of more frequent weather-related hazards is a grim prospect.

The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP), adopted prior to the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, identified inland monsoon flooding and tropical cyclones accompanied with storm surges as two of the three major climate hazards facing the country.

In a bid to protect some of its most vulnerable communities, the government has embarked on the Community Climate Change Project (CCCP) at a total cost of 12.5 million dollars, managed by the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF), a multi-donor climate change adaptation trust fund supported by the World Bank, among others.

Referring to the project, Johannes Zutt, the World Bank’s country director for Bangladesh, told IPS. “It is increasingly evident that climate change will have enormous impacts on a low-lying delta country like Bangladesh. The CCCP is helping communities living on the frontline to increase their ability to cope with climate-related adversities.”

He also said, “Often, these people have few resources and no real ability to relocate, but they can nonetheless take collective action to increase their resilience to climate change.”

Tens of thousands of char dwellers will be the primary beneficiaries of these ambitious projects.

K M Marufuzzaman, program officer of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), a government lending agency working to implement the CCCP at the grassroots level in the Kurigram district in northern Bangladesh, told IPS that the “main mission” is to “minimize environmental risks” and safeguard at-risk communities.

One initiative has involved raising homes five to eight feet above ground level to protect families from being inundated. On the plinth, as it is commonly known, survivors and their poultry and other livestock are sheltered from the many storms and floods that plague the northern regions of the country.

Pointing at a tiny bamboo cottage, Mohammad Mukul Miah, a beneficiary of this project, told IPS, “We have built animal homes for goats to avoid the possible spread of diseases. We have also planted bottle- and snake-gourd to eat during times of food scarcity.”

Those like 65-year-old Badiuzzaman, who lives in a tin shed-like structure in Char Bazra on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, 200 km north of the capital, have “planted rice seedlings on the plinth so that when water recedes I can take advantage of the fertile soil to quickly grow paddy.”

Nearby, on one of the many plinths that now dot the 50-by-20-meter Char Bazra, 34-year-old Rehana Begum has planted rice seedlings beside her bamboo-and-jute-woven home. “My husband had planted rice and potato on about half an acre of lowland, but the flood destroyed all our dreams.

“We intend to recover from this by growing seedlings in advance,” she told IPS.

About 20 minutes away, in Char Korai Barisal, many homes still bear the scars of the recent disaster. Standing on the edge of the shoal with her two children, Anisa Begum remembers how and she and her family spent day after fearful day in their submerged home, “sometimes with nothing to eat, holding each other’s hands to avoid drowning in the dark.”

Other families spent entire days on large boats to survive the sudden catastrophe.

It was only those who had their homes on plinths who were spared. If the government’s community resilience scheme unfolds according to plan, 50,000 people on shoals will be living on plinths in the greater Brahmaputra region by next year.

In total, the project aims to cover 12,000 families living on the shoals in northern regions.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/bangladeshi-char-dwellers-in-search-of-higher-ground/.

November 04, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — It’s only a blue tent at the back of a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc. But for dozens of children who study in the makeshift school, it’s a glimmer of hope.

Inside, brightly colored drawings are pinned to the plastic walls, and wooden desks stand in two neat rows. For some of the Kurdish kids who fled with their families from the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, this is the only school they’ve known.

“The whole world was collapsing, how could they go to school,” said Ghazi Mammo Darwesh, father of 7-year-old Diyala. The shy, brown-eyed girl says she like learning Kurdish writing and drawing pictures of flowers and girls.

Her father is overjoyed that, at last, she is learning something. “How can I not like it? I can fly for happiness. I hope that my children will study abroad,” said Darwesh, who has seven children. School also provides some psychological support for traumatized youngsters, who have lost their homes and often family members during a ferocious onslaught by Islamic State militants on Kobani that began in mid-September. The lessons are basic — only reading and writing in Kurdish is taught, and only for the ages of 7-10. But children, parents and teachers agree it’s better than nothing.

“It’s very important for the children to be in school and concentrated on education instead of having flashbacks to the war,” said Rukan Sheikh Mohammed, a 19-year-old teacher who is a refugee from Kobani herself. The war, she said, had deeply affected the children. “We teach the students to try to provide some confidence, motivating them and telling them they will go home one day and all will be well.”

The school where Mohammed teaches was set up about three weeks ago. In a nearby camp, volunteers initially began organizing simple activities to keep the refugee children occupied, but soon decided to try a more formal education. The Viyan Amara school, named after a woman killed fighting in Kobani, started classes a few days ago.

Volunteer teacher Fidan Kanlibas said the school is funded solely by charitable donations. For now, she said, they only have enough materials for rudimentary lessons. “In the beginning we were doing activities and getting the children to do drawings,” Kanlibas said as she carried newly donated desks into the tent-school, with some of the camp’s older children rushing over to help.

“They were doing drawings of beheadings and weapons. The fear they saw was reflected in their drawings,” she said. “Now, you can see they are smiling and recovering from the things they saw and the pressure of war.”

Diyala’s friend, 7-year-old Shirin Ahmad, had been registered to go to school in Kobani, but the war broke out and she never made it to first grade. Now, she has started school in the camp where she lives with her two younger brothers and parents.

“This school isn’t enough, of course,” said Shirin’s mother, Warda Ahmad. “But at least having this is better than illiteracy.”

November 01, 2014

CAYKARA, Turkey (AP) — Tens of thousands of Kurds rallied in Turkish cities Saturday in solidarity with the embattled Syrian city of Kobani, which has been under a brutal siege by the Islamic State group.

In Diyarbakir, in the heart of the Kurdish region in Turkey’s southeast, protesters marched peacefully, chanting: “Long live the struggle for Kobani.” The assault on Kobani has largely emptied the city that was once home to hundreds of thousands.

The demonstrations in Turkey were the largest of scores of such pro-Kobani rallies in cities worldwide, said Yekbun Eksen, a member of the Federation of Kurdish Associations of France. A rally in Paris mobilized some 8,000 people on Saturday and hundreds of Kurds also marched peacefully in cities in Sweden and Denmark.

In villages along Turkey’s border with Syria, Kurdish refugees from Kobani marched within eyeshot of their former home. One demonstrator, Fatima Muslim said: “I came to show my support for my people and for the blood of our people.”

The 55-year-old added: “We’ve lost everything. They blew up our houses. And now we are in a refugee camp.”

October 30, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Iraqi peshmerga troops were cheered Wednesday by fellow Kurds in southeastern Turkey as the fighters slowly made their way toward the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani to try to break a siege there by Islamic State militants.

But the ability of the small force to turn the tide of battle will depend on the effectiveness of their weapons and on continued U.S.-led airstrikes against the extremists. “We are waiting for the peshmerga. We want to see what weapons they have,” said 30-year-old Nidal Attur, who arrived in Suruc two weeks ago from a small village near Kobani.

He and other euphoric Kurds waited for hours along streets in Suruc to catch a glimpse of the peshmerga troops they consider to be heroes. Most were seeing them for the first time. After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering supporters a day earlier in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey.

They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobani later Wednesday. Others traveled to Turkey in trucks and vehicles loaded with cannons and heavy machine guns. They crossed into Turkey through the Habur border gate before daybreak Wednesday and were driving about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) to Suruc.

The peshmerga troops — about 150 in all — were expected to join up along the road to the Mursitpinar border crossing, where they were to enter Kobani. Separately, a small group of Syrian rebels entered Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday in a push to help Kurdish fighters there against the militants, activists and Kurdish officials said.

The group of about 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army and is separate from Iraqi peshmerga fighters. The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from battle.

Kurdish fighters in Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, have been struggling to defend Kobani against the Islamic State group since mid-September, despite dozens of coalition airstrikes against the extremists.

It is not clear what impact this small but battle-hardened combined force of FSA and peshmerga fighters — and their combined weaponry — will have in the battle for Kobani. Kurdish fighters are already sharing information with the coalition to coordinate strikes against IS militants there, but the new force may help improve efforts and offer additional battlefield support.

Nawaf Khalil, Europe-based spokesman for Syria’s leading Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said the peshmerga force was “symbolic in number” but their weapons will play a positive role in Kobani. Syrian Kurds have begged the international community for heavy weapons — like the ones delivered by the U.S. and its allies to Iraq’s Kurds — to bolster the outgunned defenders of Kobani.

Earlier this month, the U.S. dropped weapons, ammunition and other supplies for the first time following concern that Kobani was about to fall. That, along with daily U.S. airstrikes and a fierce determination by the Kurdish fighters, has stalled the IS advance.

“Kurds will remember this moment in history. They will speak of ‘before and after Kobani’ from now on,” Khalil said of the peshmerga force’s participation. Emotions were high among residents of Suruc, a predominantly Kurdish border town, as people waited for the peshmerga in a square and along a main street, where police patrolled with loudspeakers.

“We are expecting them to go there and throw out IS from Kobani so we can go back to our homes,” said Ahmed Boza, 68, from Kobani. Another Kobani resident, 57-year-old Mohammed Osman, said: “We are waiting for the peshmerga because we (Kurds) are all brothers. We are all part of one whole. If one side hurts, we are all in pain.”

The Islamic State group’s offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages has killed more than 800 people, activists say. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages and control parts of Kobani. More than 200,000 people have fled into Turkey.

The coalition has carried out dozens of airstrikes against the militants in and around Kobani, helping stall their advance. The U.S. Central Command said eight airstrikes struck near Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The fighting in Kobani has deadlocked recently, with neither side getting the upper hand. Under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds in Turkey and Syria — the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Ankara views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what it regards as an extension of the PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

Kurdish fighters in Syria have repeatedly said they did not need more fighters, only weapons. Kurds in Syria distrust Turkey’s intentions, accusing it of blocking assistance to the Kobani defenders for weeks before giving in to pressure and shifting its stance. Many suspect Ankara is trying to dilute YPG influence in Kobani by sending in the peshmerga and the Turkey-backed FSA.

The battle for Kobani is a small part in a larger war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since 2011, according to activists. The conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. It eventually spiraled into a civil war as people took up arms following a brutal crackdown by Assad on the protest movement.

Elsewhere in Syria, at least 10 civilians were killed Wednesday when army helicopters dropped two barrel bombs that landed at a makeshift refugee camp in the northern province of Idlib, opposition activists said.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement that the U.S. was “horrified” by the report. “While we cannot confirm details, we’ve consistently condemned the Assad regime’s callous disregard for human life, particularly its violence directed against civilians. The attack on the Abedin camp was nothing short of barbaric,” the statement said.

Video posted online by activists showed bodies scattered among torn tents in a wooded area and civil defense workers gathering remains of the dead. A car bomb exploded in a government-held district of the city of Homs, killing at least one person and wounding 25 others, a local official said.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji and Diaa Hadid contributed from Damascus, Syria.

Mehmet Cetingulec

October 29, 2014

Turkey’s government has moved to expand Islamic banking by inviting public banks into the sector. Earlier this month, the largest state-run bank, Ziraat, received approval to establish an Islamic unit, a landmark move in a country where public lenders have so far stayed out of the Islamic finance realm.

There are currently four private Islamic banks operating in Turkey: Albaraka Turk, Bank Asya, Kuveyt Turk and Turkiye Finans.

According to the Banking Regulatory and Supervision Agency’s decision, published Oct. 15 in the Official Gazette, Ziraat Bank got permission to set up a “participation bank” with $300 million in capital. Islamic banks are called “participation banks” in Turkey, a moniker for interest-free banking that refers to participation in profits from certain financial instruments.

Ziraat has nine months to establish the new bank. But a key question remains unanswered: Where will the capital come from? Ziraat is a conventional bank, whereas paying and charging interest is prohibited in Islam. How is a bank that charges and pays interest supposed to create a bank that rejects interest? If Ziraat’s interest-based earnings are considered illicit, how is it going to establish the capital of an interest-free bank?

To resolve the conundrum, the Treasury is reportedly planning to provide the required capital. The Treasury, too, operates on the basis of interest — but perception is what matters. Hence, the Treasury is expected to transfer $300 million to Ziraat, a sum that will first figure in Ziraat’s assets and then become the capital of the prospective participation bank.

The government, seeming quite enthusiastic on the issue, is not expected to stop there. Another state-run lender, Vakifbank, is planning to follow in Ziraat’s steps. Things are likely to be easier for it since Vakifbank’s main shareholder, the Directorate General of Foundations, will provide the capital for the planned participation bank without stumbling over interest snags.

Simultaneously or shortly after, the third state-run bank, Halkbank, is expected to follow suit as the state descends on the sector with all its might.

The government has already submitted a bill to parliament to clear legal hurdles in Vakifbank and Halkbank’s path to Islamic banking.

Opposition objections

Faik Oztrak, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a former Treasury undersecretary, argued that the state-run banks’ venture into Islamic banking would be a constitutional breach.

“The establishment of participation banks through public means is disputable in terms of constitutional compliance,” Oztrak told Al-Monitor, recalling Article 24 of the constitution, which stipulates, “No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion … by even partially basing the fundamental social, economic, political and legal order of the state on religious tenets.”

Oztrak offered the following arguments: “Economic operations exclusive to the private sector are being converted to state-run operations by the government. To me, the state’s entry into the interest-free banking sector is objectionable in terms of principles as well as economically and legally. The essential principle in this realm requires the state to reduce its presence in the banking system and operate in specialized areas only. However, if the bill submitted to parliament is passed, the state would step into an additional field. Moreover, when state banks enter the participation banking sector they will be making profits from interest, which, in turn, will serve as capital to run participation banks as affiliate companies. This is also contradictory to the logic of participation banking. Ziraat Bank was created to meet the financing needs of farmers, and Halkbank those of tradesmen and small and medium enterprises. Our economic strategy has been based on supporting those particular sectors.”

Profit-sharing instead of interest

And how is participation banking different from conventional banking? In participation banking, the interest, considered illicit in Islam, is replaced with dividends paid to depositors from profits derived through various investment instruments.

In Turkey, participation banks use mostly the “murabaha” and “sukuk” techniques. In murabaha, the bank buys a commodity from a company in the portfolio it has created, adds a margin and then sells it. Clients are informed in advance how much profit they will get and in what time, just as with interest. The earning, however, is called a “profit share” rather than interest. The collected deposits, meanwhile, serve to provide capital support for companies whose commodities are sold.

Sukuk can be described simply as an interest-free bond. Purchasers of sukuk issued by participation banks receive yields under names other than interest. The key difference is that conventional bonds are Treasury guaranteed, while a sukuk certificate is issued on the basis of a tangible material asset.

Islamic banking, based largely on temporary partnerships in company profits, is popular in the Gulf, other parts of the Middle East and countries in the Far East.

According to research by Erkan Kizilocak from Turkey’s Para magazine, participation banks, which debuted in 1985 in Turkey, have total assets of 81.5 billion Turkish lira ($36.9 billion) and 869 branches across the country today. The total financing they have made available to the real economy has exceeded 60 Turkish lira ($27.2 billion).

Globally, more than 700 Islamic finance institutions, relying mostly on Gulf money, operate in 75 countries, offering 52 financial instruments. Their total assets reached $1.8 trillion as of 2013. The sector is expected to be worth $6.5 trillion in 2020. Observers note that Islamic banking has grown in popularity and expanded quickly since the 2008 global crisis.

The Turkish government’s push into a new field in the finance sector is mind-boggling, for only recently Ankara announced a large-scale privatization plan expected to include the sell-off of public bank shares. Is the state going to move out of the interest zone completely and shift into the interest-free one? Or is it planning to grow in interest-free banking as well before privatizing entities in both realms?

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/turkey-islamic-banking-gaining-ground.html.

October 29, 2014

ISTANBUL (AP) — Rescue workers desperately pumped water out of a coal mine in southern Turkey and anxious relatives huddled nearby Wednesday after surging waters trapped 18 Turkish miners deep underground.

After canceling some festivities for a national holiday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both visited the town of Ermenek in Karaman province, where the Has Sekerler mine is located close to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Both men pledged a vigorous investigation into the disaster, Turkish news agencies reported. Turkish officials say the workers’ chances of survival are slim unless they managed to reach a safety gallery at the coal mine. The regional governor said about 20 other workers either escaped or were rescued Tuesday as the disaster unfolded.

Divers attempted rescue operations at the flooded mine Wednesday but visibility was too poor to continue, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. Emergency workers worked through the night and into the day using huge pipes to pump water from 350 meters (380 yards) underground. Turkey’s emergency agency, AFAD, said a broken pipe in the mine caused the flooding but did not elaborate. It sent 225 emergency workers from neighboring regions to help the rescue effort.

The flooding has renewed questions about Turkey’s poor workplace safety record. In May, a fire inside a coal mine in the western town of Soma killed 301 miners in Turkey’s worst mining disaster. The fire exposed poor safety standards and superficial government inspections in many of the country’s mines.

October 22, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of supporters chanting slogans turned out to accompany three Kurdish fighters — two men and a woman barely out of her teens — to their final resting place in a dusty cemetery on the edge of the Turkish town of Suruc, within view of the Syrian border and the besieged town of Kobani. But there was one notable absence: their families.

The flag-draped coffin bearing the body of 20-year-old Hanim Dabaan was carried to her grave Tuesday by women who didn’t know her, but wanted to show their support for those killed fighting the Islamic State group extremists. Idris Ahmad, 30, and Mohammed Mustafa, 25, were laid to rest beside her, also carried by volunteers.

The three fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, died in fierce clashes in Kobani, which has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. IS still surrounds the town and holds parts of it despite Kurdish resistance and repeated U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

In the chaos of Syria’s multifaceted war, with a multitude of groups fighting each other as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and it’s not always possible to locate the families of those killed in fighting. Turkey alone has seen an estimated 1.6 million refugees cross its borders in the four years of the Syrian war, according to U.N. officials.

“Our house has been demolished in Kobani and we are living in tents. … At least we can support our martyrs and we will accompany them to their graves,” said Fatma Muslim, one of dozens of women who turned up at the Suruc hospital morgue for the funeral procession to the nearby cemetery.

It was volunteers — rather than family members, as is the Islamic tradition — who helped wash and shroud the fighters’ bodies in preparation for burial. “There is nobody to wash them,” said Akeed Hamad, 21, who came to the morgue with a friend and offered to help. “There is only one doctor who can wash them, and the rest are volunteers.”

It wasn’t immediately clear where the families of Dabaan, Ahmad and Mustafa were — or even whether they knew their loved ones were dead. At one point a rumor rippled through the crowd that the young woman’s parents were on their way. But if they were, they never made it.

Yet in Suruc’s cemetery, in a part set aside for Syrian Kurds killed across the border, they aren’t the only ones buried without their relatives. Out of about 30 graves there so far, only five of them have known families, said Wahida Kushta, one of the volunteers who helped prepare Dabaan’s body for burial.

“I do it to help. Let’s support them now at least.” Just a day later, another five fighters were buried beside them in Suruc’s cemetery. Wounded in Kobani, they had died in hospitals and their bodies were transferred to Suruc morgue Wednesday.

Like the three before them, their families weren’t present. One hadn’t even been fully identified. His rough tombstone will bear his nom de guerre, the name he was known to his fellow fighters with: Tamhat Kobani.