Archive for February 19, 2015

January 19, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Houthi rebels battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace Monday morning, witnesses said. The status of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was not immediately clear.

Witnesses nearby told The Associated Press that heavy machine gun fire could be heard as mortars fell around the palace. Civilians in the area fled the fighting as columns of black smoke rose over the palace.

The Houthis’ al-Maseera satellite television channel accused the army of opening fire on a militia patrol in the area of the presidential palace, sparking the violence. A Yemeni military official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, said the Houthis provoked the attack by approaching several checkpoints and military positions in the area.

There was no word on state media about the violence as Sanaa was suffering a power outage at the time. Those able to watch Yemen state television saw a prerecorded musical performance. The Houthis seized large areas of Yemen, including Sanaa, last year as part of their protracted power struggle with Hadi. Critics say the Houthis are a proxy for Shiite Iran, charges the rebels deny.

Hadi took over the presidency after a popular revolt toppled his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2011. In recent days, the Houthis kidnapped Hadi’s chief of staff, widening the conflict. In a statement, the Houthis said at the time they abducted the man to disrupt a meeting scheduled for the same day that was to work on a new constitution and the reorganization of the country into federally organized regions.

Saleh is widely considered to be backing the Houthis. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said they believed tribal fighters loyal to Saleh were racing into Sanaa to back the Houthis in the fighting.

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has suffered years of turmoil since the Arab Spring. It also is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by the U.S. to be the most dangerous arm of the terror group. That group has said it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris “as revenge for the honor” of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

The U.S. has carried out a campaign of drone strikes in the country targeting suspected militants. Civilian casualties from those strikes have angered Yemenis.

Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

January 12, 2015

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani children returned on Monday to the school where Taliban gunmen killed 150 of their classmates and teachers last month, clutching their parents’ hands tightly in a poignant symbol of perseverance despite the horrors they had endured.

It was the first time the school had reopened since the assault and security was tight. The nation has been reeling from the Dec. 16 terrorist attack in Peshawar — one of the worst Pakistan has experienced. The violence carried out by seven Taliban militants put a spotlight on whether the authorities can end the stubborn insurgency that kills and maims thousands every year.

The massacre also horrified parents across the nation and prompted officials to implement tighter security at schools. For Peshawar parents like Abid Ali Shah, Monday morning was especially painful as he struggled to get his sons ready for school, something his wife used to do. She was a teacher at the school and was killed in the violence. Both of his sons attended the school. The youngest was shot in the head but survived after the militants thought he was dead.

“A hollowness in my life is getting greater. I am missing my wife,” Shah said. He said he had wanted to shift his children to a different school or city but decided not to because they still have to take exams this spring: “Everything is ruined here, everything.”

His older son, Sitwat Ali Shah, 17, said it wasn’t until he saw his brother break down in tears as they prepared to go to school that he did as well. Sitwat said both he and his brother have trouble sleeping and often wake up, crying for their mother.

“Those who have done all this to all of us cannot be called humans,” Sitwat said, adding he still wanted to go back to school and become an air force officer. A ceremony was held at the school to mark its reopening, but classes were to restart on Tuesday. Security was tight, part of a countrywide effort to boost safety measures at schools in the wake of the attack. Schools around Pakistan have raised their boundary walls, added armed guards and installed metal detectors, although many have questioned why it took such a horrible attack to focus attention on school safety.

The government has stepped up military operations in the tribal areas, reinstated the death penalty and allowed military courts to try civilians — all attempts to crack down on terrorism. But in an attack on Monday, gunmen killed seven paramilitary soldiers in the southwestern Baluchistan province, underscoring the dangers the country still faces.

In Peshawar, media and vehicles were kept hundreds of meters (yards) away from the Army Public School, which had coils of barbed wire freshly installed on top of the compound’s walls, and two helicopters circled overhead. The chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, was on hand with his wife to greet and console the students.

Some women brought garlands of flowers and draped them around the children. Passages from the Quran were read and the national anthem was sung while parents, students and teachers were given a pamphlet about the psychological impact of terror attacks on children.

On social media, some Pakistanis questioned why top government officials were not at the ceremony. Teacher Andleeb Aftab, who lost her 10th grade son, Huzaifa, in the attack, came in a black dress and head scarf, walking to the place where she had last seen her son alive. She said she chose to go back to school rather than sit at home and keep mourning.

“I have come here because the other kids are also my kids,” she said. “I will complete the dreams of my son, the dreams I had about my son, by teaching other students.” On Sunday night, 15-year-old Ahmed Nawaz said he is still in constant pain and being treated for his badly wounded left arm but that he was determined to go back.

For the militants, he said he had one message: “We are not scared of you.” But in many families, apprehension mixed with anger. Aurangzeb Khan lost his 16-year-old son in the attack while his other son survived.

“We all are scared after this incident,” Khan said. “I am not satisfied about what they are claiming or what they are doing for security and safety of the children.”

Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report from Quetta, Pakistan.

January 12, 2015

QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani official says gunmen have attacked a checkpoint in southwestern Baluchistan province, killing seven paramilitary soldiers.

Abdul Haleem says the attack took place early Monday in the mountainous Mekhtar region in Lorali district. Lorali is 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Quetta, the provincial capital. Haleem says the checkpoint started taking fire after midnight, which continued for hours. The official said he did not know who was behind the attack.

The province is home to Baluch separatists as well as various al-Qaida linked militant groups.

February 07, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Ahead of Baghdad ending a decade-old nightly curfew, bombs exploded across the Iraqi capital Saturday, killing at least 37 people in a stark warning of the dangers still ahead in this country torn by the Islamic State group.

The deadliest bombing happened in the capital’s New Baghdad neighborhood, where a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a street filled with hardware stores and a restaurant, killing 22 people and wounding at least 45, police said.

“The restaurant was full of young people, children and women when the suicide bomber blew himself up,” witness Mohamed Saeed said. “Many got killed.” After the blast, bloody water mixed with olives and other debris from the restaurant as authorities tried to clean.

A second attack happened in central Baghdad’s popular Shorja market, where two bombs some 25 meters (yards) apart exploded, killing at least 11 people and wounding 26, police said. Another bombing at the Abu Cheer outdoor market in southwestern Baghdad killed at least four people and wounded 15, police said.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the Islamic State group has launched attacks on Baghdad in the past. The extremist group now holds a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate.

The attacks came as Iraq prepared to lift its nightly midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew on Sunday. The curfew largely has been in place since 2004, in response to the growing sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the the U.S.-led invasion a year earlier.

There was no immediate comment Saturday from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced the end of the curfew on Thursday by decree. He also ordered that streets, long blocked off for security reasons, reopen for traffic and pedestrians.

Iraqi officials repeatedly have assured that the capital is secure, despite Sunni militant groups occasionally attacking Baghdad’s Shiite-majority neighborhoods.

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

Baghdad (AFP)

Feb 5, 2015

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an end to a years-old nightly curfew in Baghdad in a bid to ease restrictions on daily life despite persistent violence, officials said Thursday.

Lifting the curfew is a major change to a longstanding policy aimed at curbing violence in the capital by limiting movement at night, which has failed to stop the frequent bombings that hit Baghdad.

“The prime minister ordered that the curfew in the city of Baghdad be completely lifted starting from this Saturday,” said Brigadier General Saad Maan, the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command.

Abadi wants there “to be normal life as much as possible, despite the existence of a state of war,” his spokesman Rafid Jaboori said, referring to the battle against the Islamic State jihadist group.

This is “part of the response to terrorism and the war against it,” he said.

A statement from Abadi’s office said he had also directed that important streets in the capital be opened “to facilitate the movement of citizens,” and that the Adhamiyah and Kadhimiyah neighborhoods of north Baghdad be “demilitarized zones.”

It did not provide details on which streets would be opened, or on what the plan for the two adjacent neighborhoods — the former mainly Sunni, the latter Shiite — entails.

The army and police checkpoints across Baghdad cause massive traffic jams that are a major source of irritation for Iraqis and often follow lax security procedures that are unlikely to hamper the movement of militants.

The hours the curfew has been in force have varied over the years, but it has most recently lasted from midnight to 5:00 am.

The decision to lift it comes as Iraqi forces battle to regain ground from IS, which spearheaded an offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June.

It was initially feared that Baghdad itself could be attacked by the militants.

But federal troops that initially wilted under the offensive have regained significant territory with support from Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribesmen and US-led air strikes.

In the north, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region are also making gains against IS, and evidence of atrocities likely committed by the group has been found in retaken areas.

Gains by security forces have not stopped militants from carrying out attacks in Baghdad, which they were able to do even when violence was at a low ebb in 2011-20112.

Bombs still ripped through markets, cafes and crowded intersections, and militants also frequently targeted security forces in the capital.

Scrapping the curfew does away with a measure that restricted the lives of ordinary people while doing little to stop the near-daily attacks they have suffered for years.

Source: Space War.


Geneva (AFP)

Feb 4, 2015

Many children in Iraq remain at the mercy of ruthless armed groups that use them as fighters, suicide bombers and human shields and subject them to systematic abuse, a UN watchdog said Wednesday.

In a report on the plight of children in the strife-torn country, a UN committee voiced deep concern over “the large number of children recruited by non-state armed groups,” and especially the Islamic State jihadists.

“It is a huge, huge, huge problem,” Renate Winter, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), told reporters in Geneva.

IS spearheaded a sweeping offensive that has overrun much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland since June, carrying out a campaign of brutal killings, kidnappings and torture.

Children have not been spared.

CRC, which is composed of 18 independent experts who monitor the implementation of international children’s rights treaties, denounced numerous cases of IS militants torturing and murdering children, especially those from minorities.

The group has been targeting and attacking schools, executing teachers and subjecting children to systematic sexual abuse, including sexual slavery, the committee said.

“Children (are) being used as suicide bombers, including children with disabilities or who were sold to armed groups by their families,” said the report, which also detailed how children were used as “human shields” to protect IS facilities from airstrikes, to work at checkpoints or build bombs for the jihadists.

The committee has urged Baghdad to explicitly outlaw the recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 into armed conflict.

While the Iraqi government is responsible for protecting its citizens, Winter acknowledged it was probably powerless at present to hold the jihadists accountable.

She said the government should strive to do as much as possible to protect children in areas it controls and do everything it can to rescue youths from IS-controlled territory.

However, the committee took Baghdad to task for a number of abuses that cannot be blamed on the jihadists, including reports of underaged boys used to guard government checkpoints and children held in harsh conditions on terrorism-related charges.

It also denounced frequent honor killings as well as forced early and temporary marriages of girls as young as 11.

The committee took particular issue with a law that allows rapists to go free if they marry their victim, rejecting Baghdad’s argument that the law was “the only way of protecting the victim from reprisals of her family.”

Source: Space War.


By Jean Marc MOJON, Ammar Karim

Baghdad (AFP)

Jan 29, 2015

The Iraqi government vowed Thursday to investigate accusations backed by eyewitness accounts that Shiite militias massacred more than 70 Sunni villagers during an operation against jihadists in Diyala province.

Survivors and Sunni officials say the massacre took place on Monday in Barwana as soldiers and allied militias wrapped up an operation to expel Islamic State (IS) jihadists from their last urban bastion in Diyala.

Some military officials have already denied the allegations but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that an inquiry has been opened.

“The prime minister has ordered an investigation into the matter,” his spokesman Rafid Jaboori told AFP, without elaborating.

Barwana is a small village located just west of the town of Muqdadiyah. It housed several Sunni families who had fled IS rule over neighboring villages.

Shiite militiamen entered Barwana on Monday and allegedly selected young men after checking their IDs before lining them up to be shot.

“Cars filled with men carrying mostly light weapons entered the village. They gathered all the people in one place, including some children,” said Nahda al-Daini, a lawmaker from Diyala.

“They executed 77 of them,” she told AFP. “It was Shiite militia forces who carried out this massacre with cover from the security forces.”

Ali Juburi, a 27-year-old father of one, fled to Barwana from nearby Hamada village in June, when IS jihadists swept through swathes of Iraq.

– Hiding in orchards –

He said that when the fighters entered the village, some men were taken to one side.

“They were still checking some names when we heard shooting and women screaming,” he told AFP by phone.

“The mukhtar (village chief) went to a house where killings happened. He found 35 bodies in one place and there were about 40 other bodies nearby,” he said.

“He came back and told us to leave everything behind and run because they would kill us. So we ran to an orchard, hid and walked. I eventually reached Muqdadiyah at 1:00 am,” Juburi said.

Jamal Mohamed, a teacher who has been compiling names of the victims, said he knew of 71 people who had been executed on Monday but added that a few more were still missing.

“There were four boys aged nine to 12 among the victims, but no women nor girls,” he said.

He added that to his knowledge only 12 of the victims had been buried, while the other bodies had been taken by government elite forces to an unknown location.

The teacher said Monday had started well.

“When an army commander and officials came in the morning, they were greeted with applause. Some women distributed sweets… We just told them we wanted to go back to our villages,” he said.

“They left but, later, the militiamen arrived in several vehicles. They had laptops and started listing names,” he said.

– Army denial –

Several other witnesses AFP spoke to gave slightly different death tolls but largely matching versions of events.

Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi, the officer who commanded army operations in the Moqdadiyah area, denied the allegations.

“Not a bullet was shot in Barwana,” he told AFP, adding that 70 Iraqi forces were killed and at least twice that number of IS jihadists in the Diyala operation.

He said his men had found evidence that IS fighters had shaved their beards in their retreat in an apparent bid to escape by blending in with local residents.

Ali Juburi and Jamal Mohamed said the alleged executioners had scribbled messages on walls praising Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite saint.

Another message read “Revenge for Speicher”, in a reference to the IS massacre of hundreds of young recruits at a base near the northern city of Tikrit on June 12.

Top UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov welcomed the investigation.

“It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all armed forces are under its control, that rule of law is respected and civilians are protected in all areas of the country, including those areas recently liberated from IS,” he said.

The government last year announced a probe into allegations that Shiite militias had gunned down 70 men at the Sunni mosque of Musab bin Omair in August.

The mosque is also in Diyala, an ethnically and religiously mixed province northeast of Baghdad, where Iran-backed Shiite militias have played a key role in the fight against IS.

Rights groups have documented many cases of revenge attacks and abuses by Shiite militias against Sunnis.

The accusations have infuriated Shiite leaders who argue it was the militias, which they prefer to call “Popular Mobilisation” forces, that saved Baghdad and the rest of Iraq from falling to IS.

Source: Space War.


January 22, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi commanders heavily dependent on outside support to defeat the Islamic State group are increasingly voicing frustration over the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts, complaining of miscommunication, failed deliveries of weapons, inadequate training and differences in strategy.

Speaking to The Associated Press this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “We want to see an acceleration of the training, acceleration of the delivery of arms” from foreign allies. Al-Abadi complained that Iraq is “left almost alone to get these arms and munitions for the army, for our fighters, and we expect much more.”

At the same time, he reiterated that his government does not want any foreign boots on the ground, and he acknowledged that coalition airstrikes had been “very, very effective.” Leaders of the coalition stressed its successes at a London meeting Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that nearly 2,000 airstrikes had helped ground forces retake 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory, kill 50 percent of Islamic State commanders and choked off some of the group’s oil revenue.

But three Iraqi generals who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss ongoing operations said the U.S. has on several occasions ignored guidance from Iraqi commanders and has failed to provide ample training and weapons to Iraq’s beleaguered forces.

“Whenever we complain about the poor training they provided us, they remind us that it was Iraq who forced them to leave” in 2011, one of the generals said. The generals noted, by contrast, Iran’s willingness to quickly accommodate their urgent needs for weapons and training, while the coalition makes them wait.

The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq’s army during its eight-year intervention, only to see security forces crumble last summer when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and captured the second-largest city of Mosul.

Many Iraqis blame the military’s weakness on the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying it did little to target mounting military corruption and had replaced seasoned commanders with less-experienced loyalists.

A senior U.S. military official told the AP that as of June 2014, the Iraqi military stood at 125,000 men at best, down from 205,000 in January 2014. That left it relying heavily on unruly Shiite militias for reinforcements.

In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of U.S. forces to 3,100. None has a combat role.

The Pentagon has requested $1.6 billion from Congress to train and arm Iraqi and Kurdish forces. That includes an estimated $89.3 million in weapons and other equipment to each of the nine Iraqi army brigades, according to a Pentagon document prepared in November.

At the meeting in London, where officials from 21 countries met to present a united front in the fight against the extremists in Syria and Iraq, Kerry said the coalition “can do better.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iraqi forces were in a “state of disarray” and “it will be months yet before they are ready to start significant combat operations” against the extremists.

“The trajectory of this fight … will be neither short, nor easy. That has been a consistent statement,” Kerry said at a news conference with al-Abadi and Hammond. “I don’t think there’s any undertaking in its early months where you can’t do better and you can’t find things you can’t improve on.”

After the meeting, al-Abadi said, “I have asked people for more support and I think my call didn’t go unnoticed.” The growing Iraqi impatience in many ways stems from concerns about the speed and success of the Islamic State’s advance, and the government’s inexperience in handling a security crisis of this magnitude. Until recently, Iraqi security forces were focused on protecting against insurgent bombings and other attacks, not on repelling an advancing force or retaking areas seized by the militants.

The U.S. set up a joint-operations center so coalition officials could coordinate with the Iraqi Defense Ministry to identify the needs of Iraqi security forces, locate targets and streamline operations — a concept that coalition officials say has not resonated with the Iraqi military.

Richard Brennan, a former Department of Defense policymaker now at RAND Corp., said the Iraqi military operates in “exactly the opposite” way to the Americans’ more decentralized system, where “if you go to a U.S. army platoon, squad leaders do things independently.”

“In the absence of directions, we find Iraqi subordinates are reluctant to take any action on their own for fear of doing something their commanders wouldn’t approve,” he said. “There’s a paralysis in the ability of the Iraqi army to move.”

By contrast, the militants of the Islamic State group appear to operate in a fluid, decentralized command structure that has enabled them to adapt quickly and more nimbly to the changing environment amid airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensives.

With the weapons they have seized over time — mostly from defunct Iraqi battalions — they have managed to make significant gains in Iraq’s Anbar province, despite the airstrikes. They also continue to challenge strategic territories retaken by Iraqi security forces, including areas near the Mosul Dam and Beiji.

Militants used the breakdown of law and order in Syria’s civil war to operate freely and set up unpoliced training camps where fighters from around the world could go to join the battle. Camps have emerged more recently in Iraq as the IS group gained territory.

Coalition officials say Iran’s role in Iraq also imposes limitations on their mission. Two to three Iranian military aircraft land at Baghdad airport a day, bringing in weapons and ammunition. The elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its commander, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, are organizing Iraqi forces and have become the de facto leaders of Iraqi Shiite militias that are the backbone of the fight. Last month, Iran carried out airstrikes to help push militants from an Iraqi province on its border.

Iraqi government officials noted Iran’s willingness to quickly accommodate requests for weapons and frontline assistance in the absence of faster support from the coalition. They have also claimed that coalition forces have provided more support to Kurdish fighters in semiautonomous northern Iraq. Last summer, the Kurdish capital of Irbil was within shelling distance when Islamic State fighters made a lightening advance across the country.

Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have been helping Kurdish peshmerga fighters by directing coalition airstrikes against Islamic State extremists — work generally considered risky because it means they are close to the battle. Canadian soldiers this week traded fire with militants after coming under a mortar and machine gun attack while training on the front lines.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the U.S. would consider directing attacks from the ground, but that it has not done so. Iraqis have served as the forward air controllers for much of the coalition’s mission thus far, but one of Iraq’s top generals, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief the media, told the AP he has grown frustrated because his tips for airstrike targets are frequently ignored.

Another, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who led Iraqi soldiers to recapture the oil refinery city of Beiji, called U.S. air support erratic. Even public perception toward the coalition mission has taken a turn in recent weeks, with reports and public statements highlighting alleged missteps.

Lawmaker Hassan Salem, a member of Iraq’s Security and Defense Committee, alleged that “American planes are dropping food and weapons to Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. He could not offer proof for his claims, saying only: “They deny it but we know it’s happening.”

At a news conference in Baghdad last week, Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, was asked by an Iraqi journalist about the same accusations. “We are dropping weapons all over ISIL areas and we’re dropping them on ISIL,” Allen joked, then quickly turned serious. “That is not correct — we are not supplying ISIL.”

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.

February 17, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia has postponed the transfer of six convicted drug smugglers, including five foreigners, to a prison island for execution due to technical problems and to allow the two Australians among them to spend more time with their families, an official said Tuesday.

They are among eight convicts who are facing imminent execution despite international appeals for clemency. Among them are Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of a group of nine Australians arrested in 2005 for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms (18.3 pounds) of heroin to Australia from the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Authorities had said Monday that the eight would be moved this week to Nusa Kambangan prison off the main island of Java. Two convicts are already being held on the island while six others would be moved from Bali, East Java, Yogyakarta, Banten and Sumatran province of Palembang.

But Attorney General’s Office spokesman Tony Spontana said Tuesday that executors surveying the island found it was not ready to handle the executions. He said the inmates would be transferred after the location is ready, but did not give a time frame.

Spontana said that “the execution plan is still on schedule” since the inmates’ clemency appeals have been rejected. “The change is the plan of transfer, which was to have been carried out this week,” he said, adding that prison officials have suggested the transfers take place three days before the executions.

The postponement was also in response to requests from Australia’s government to allow Chan, 31, and Sukumaran, 33, to spend more time with their families, Spontana said. The two are being held in a prison in Bali.

The other convicts to be executed are five men from France, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia, and a woman from the Philippines. Spontana said Rodrigo Gularte, Brazilian prisoner who is already in Nusa Kambangan, needs medical examination due to mental illness.

“Due to lack of facilities, the Attorney General is considering permission for being examined outside Nusa Kambangan,” he said. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has rejected appeals by Australia’s government for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran, and has vowed not to grant mercy to any other drug offenders because Indonesia is suffering a “drug emergency.”

Australia has abolished capital punishment and opposes executions of any Australian overseas. The seven other members of the group — dubbed the “Bali Nine” by Australian media — received prison sentences from 20 years to life.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday he was continuing to make personal representations to Widodo to spare the Australians’ lives. “This is an encouraging sign, but that’s all it is,” Abbott told reporters, referring to the prisoner transfer postponement. “It certainly isn’t an indication that there is now a serious prospect of clemency.”

Abbott made his strongest indication yet that Indonesia would face diplomatic consequences if it rejected Australia’s appeals for clemency. “We will be making our displeasure known. We will be letting Indonesia know in absolutely unambiguous terms that we feel grievously let down,” he said.

Abbott declined to say whether Australia was considering trade sanctions or recalling its ambassador. “I am sick in my stomach at the thought of what might happen to these two unfortunate young Australians in a very short space of time if the Indonesian government does not treat our representations on their behalf with the same respect that it expects its representations on behalf of its citizens on death row to be treated,” Abbott said.

Six former Australian prime ministers — Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard — on Monday added their voices to calls to spare the Australians. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Lestari Marsudi said she understands the position of Australia government to give representation on their behalf, but noted that the death penalty is part of Indonesian law.

“The decision to impose the death penalty by the Indonesian court is not directed to a particular country or a national of certain country.” she said. “It should be underlined that the issue is purely law enforcement, a law enforcement against serious crime, law enforcement by a sovereign country, Indonesia.”

Indonesia has 133 people on death row, including 57 for drug crimes and two terrorists.

Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

February 18, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday regained much of the territory north of the city of Aleppo lost to government troops in fierce fighting the previous day in ongoing clashes that left more than 100 dead on both sides, activists said.

The violence came as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said he received a government commitment to suspend airstrikes on the city of Aleppo for six weeks, which would allow a proposed U.N. plan to “freeze” hostilities in the country’s largest city to be tested.

De Mistura briefed the Security Council late Tuesday on his efforts to find a solution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 220,000 people. The envoy said he will return to Syria “as soon as possible” to assess whether the government’s commitment is possible and to announce a start date.

An activist in Aleppo said most rebel factions will abide by a truce if the government stops airstrikes and release detainees, starting with female prisoners. Ahmad Hamed said via Skype that the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which has a small presence in the city, is not expected to abide by the plan.

The Islamic State group is about 30 kilometers northeast of the city. “The most important thing for the opposition is a cease in the (government’s) barrel bombs campaign in Aleppo,” Hamed said, referring to large canisters packed with explosives and metal scraps that the Syrian army drops regularly from the air, causing widespread damage and casualties.

Another activist in Aleppo, Bahaa Halaby, said Syrian troops were trying to besiege rebel-held areas before any freeze goes into effect. “The regime wants to implement the initiative after advancing on the ground,” Halaby said via Skype. “The regime says it wants dialogue then attacks rebel positions.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based activist Bari Abdellatif said rebels regained control of the villages of Ratyan and Dweir Zeytoun early Wednesday. The Observatory says 70 troops and 86 rebels were killed in Tuesday’s fighting.

The Observatory and Hamed, the activist, said fighting is now concentrated in the village of Bashkoy, just north of Aleppo.