Archive for April, 2015


Thursday, 16 April 2015

In a unique incident a quarrel between a police officer and an army pilot over a parking ticket turned into clashes between members of Shebin El-Koum police force and the Egyptian armed forces.

The incident began when an army pilot refused to provide his driving licence to the policeman who arrested him and took him to the police station where he was assaulted by the police.

Following the assault, the pilot informed the military command of the incident which dispatched army troops stationed at Shebin stadium in armored vehicles to free their colleague.

The army surrounded the town’s police station demanding the police officer’s arrest however, dozens of police officers refused to hand over their colleague.

Witnesses said the policemen shouted anti-military slogans as the army surrounded the police station, including: “Down with military rule”.

Similar incidents occurred in recent months between the army and the police who compete over spreading their rule in the street.

Menoufia governor Hisham Abdul-Baset said officials from the municipality have been trying to reconcile differences and prevent any further escalations.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/18091-egyptian-police-shout-down-with-military-rule.

April 27, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president on Monday rebuked the newly elected leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state for suggesting that Turkey should deal with northern Cyprus as an equal.

Mustafa Akinci, who has pledged to focus his energy on achieving an accord reunifying Cyprus, was elected president on Sunday. He says he favors a relationship “between brothers” with Turkey — not one where the “motherland” dictates terms.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey finances northern Cyprus’ budget, has made sacrifices for it, and will continue to consider it as its “child.” “Do his ears hear what comes out of his mouth?” Erdogan asked.

Akinci, who was being interviewed live on CNN-Turk television as Erdogan spoke, responded: “Does Turkey not want to see the child grow?” He then cut the interview short, saying he had to take a telephone call from Erdogan.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece. Akinci’s election has revived hopes for the reunification talks next month, but any deal would require cooperation from Turkey.

Earlier, Erdogan issued a message congratulating Akinci on his victory but also warning that Turkey would not accept an approach for a solution for Cyprus “that would come at any cost.”

by Firas Alkhateeb

6 April, 2013

Throughout Islamic history, one of the uniting aspects of the Muslim world was the caliphate. After the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, his close companion, Abu Bakr, was elected as the first khalifah, or caliph, of the Muslim community. His job as leader combined political power over the Muslim state as well as spiritual guidance for Muslims. It became a hereditary position, occupied at first by the Umayyad family, and later by the Abbasids. In 1517, the caliphate was transferred to the Ottoman family, who ruled the largest and most powerful empire in the world in the 1500s.

For centuries, the Ottoman sultans did not place much emphasis on their role as caliphs. It was an official title that was called in to use when needed, but was mostly neglected. During the decline of the empire in the 1800s, however, a sultan came to power that would decide to revive the importance and power of the caliphate. Abdülhamid II was determined to reverse the retreat of the Ottoman state, and decided that the best way to do it was through the revival of Islam throughout the Muslim world and pan-Islamic unity, centered on the idea of a strong caliphate. While Abdülhamid’s 33-year reign did not stop the inevitable fall of the empire, he managed to give the Ottomans a final period of relative strength in the face of European encroachment and colonialism, with Islam being the central focus of his empire.

Islamic Reform

Throughout the 1800s, the Ottoman government had been trying desperately to slow the decline of the empire. Beginning with Mahmud II and throughout the reigns of Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz, attempts at reforming the empire were at the forefront of the government agenda. These Tanzimat (reorganization) reforms attempted to rebuild the Ottoman state along liberal, European lines. Islam (and religion in general) was given a back seat in public life, as secular ideas began to influence laws and government practices.

These reforms proved to do nothing to reverse the decline of the empire. If anything, the increased emphasis on non-Islamic identities of Ottoman subjects just further promoted the nationalistic aims of the Ottoman Empire’s numerous subjects, which created further disunity in the empire. During the Tanzimat Era, the Ottoman provinces of Serbia, Greece, Wallachia, Modova, Abkhazia, Bulgaria, and Algeria were all lost to European encroachment or nationalism.

Abdülhamid decided to take a radically different approach. Because of the loss of European territory that had occurred just before and in the first few years of his reign, the empire was now overwhelmingly Muslim. Throughout Ottoman history, Christians had been a major part of the population, at some times being about 80% of the population. Throughout the 1800s, however, the Ottoman Empire was losing Christian-majority lands in Europe, and was getting a net influx of Muslim immigrants coming into the empire. With about 3/4th of his empire Muslim, Abdülhamid decided to emphasize Islam as the dominant uniting factor among his subjects.

The rest of Europe was experiencing powerful nationalistic movements in the 1800s. Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism were examples of uniting factors for people who spoke the same languages and had similar cultures. The Ottoman empire had always been multi-cultural. Turks, Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians, Kurds, Armenians, and many others made up the empire. Abdülhamid attempted to make Pan-Islamism a uniting factor for Muslims, both inside and outside of the empire’s borders.

To show his role as supreme leader of Muslims worldwide, Abdülhamid placed much emphasis on the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah. In the 1800s, a building program commenced in the holy cities, with hospitals, barracks, and infrastructure being built in the Hejaz to aid in the yearly gathering of Muslims in Makkah – the Hajj. The Ka’aba itself and the Masjid al-Haram that surrounded it were also renovated with a modern water system that helped reduce the severity of floods.

In 1900, Abdülhamid commenced the beginning of the Hejaz Railway. It began in Istanbul and traveled through Syria, Palestine, and the Arabian desert, ending in Madinah. The goal of the railway was to better connect the holy sites with the political authority of Istanbul, as well as make the pilgrimage easier. To show his emphasis on the protection of Makkah and Madinah, Abdülhamid decided that the gauge (width of the rails) of the Hejaz Railway should be slightly smaller than standard European ones. His reasoning for this was that if Istanbul were to ever fall to European imperialists, he wanted to make sure they could not use the Hejaz Railway with European trains to easily invade Makkah and Madinah.

Non-Ottoman Muslims

Throughout Ottoman history, there have been examples of the sultans helping Muslim communities outside their borders whenever the opportunity arose and the Ottoman state was capable. For example, in the 1500s, the Ottoman navy was a key force in the Indian Ocean, aiding local Muslims fighting Portuguese colonialism as far away as India and Indonesia. Abdülhamid considered it his duty to do the same in the 1800s, especially since large populations of Muslims in Africa and Asia were under European imperial control.

Delegations were sent to African Muslim kingdoms such as Zanzibar, giving gifts from Abdülhamid and asking them to acknowledge the caliph as their protector against European imperialism. Similar delegations were sent to Muslims living within Russian and Chinese borders.

In 1901, Abdülhamid sent one of his advisors, Enver Pasha, along with numerous Islamic scholars, to China. When they arrived in Shanghai, they were warmly greeted by the Chinese authorities, and especially so by the local Chinese Muslims, who had lived in China for centuries. Abdülhamid later helped establish a Muslim university in Beijing, called the Peking (Beijing) Hamidiye University. Even as far away as China, Abdülhamid wanted to create a sense of belonging and unity among Muslims, centered on the caliphate.

Abdülhamid’s efforts resulted in the caliph of the Muslim world being acknowledged in Friday prayers from small towns throughout Africa to the major Muslim communities of India and China.

The Issue of Palestine

In the late 1800s, a potent nationalist movement was forming among European Jews: Zionism. Zionist ideology called for a Jewish state to be established in their ancient homeland, Palestine. Although European Jews were dispersed throughout Europe, the unique financial and political power of numerous Jewish families was able to make Zionism a major force in the late 1800s.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, personally requested from Abdülhamid II special permission to settle in Palestine, in exchange for 150 million pounds of gold, which could have helped the Ottomans repay their enormous debts. Herzl’s aims were not to settle there and live under Ottoman authority, he clearly wanted to establish a Jewish state carved out of Muslim lands (as of course happened in 1948). Abdülhamid realized that his role as caliph required him to protect the sanctity and sovereignty of Muslim land, so he responded to Herzl with the following:

™Even if you gave me as much gold as the entire world, let alone the 150 million English pounds in gold, I would not accept this at all. I have served the Islamic milla [nation] and the Ummah of Muhammad for more than thirty years, and never did I blacken the pages of the Muslims- my fathers and ancestors, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs. And so I will never accept what you ask of me.

He further prevented the purchase of tracts of land within Palestine by Zionist organizations, ensuring that their attempts at establishing a foothold there were futile. Ultimately, the Zionists were allowed to purchase land and settle in Palestine after the reign of Abdülhamid II, when the Young Turk movement was in charge of the Ottoman Empire.

Legacy

Abdülhamid II was the last of the Ottoman sultans who had any real power. He was overthrown in 1909 by a group known as the Young Turks. They were Western-educated liberal secularists who vehemently disagreed with the Islamic direction that Abdülhamid took the empire in from 1876 to 1909. After his overthrow, his brother Mehmed Reshad was chosen as sultan by the Young Turks, but he effectively had no power, and the empire was run by an oligarchy of three ministers in the Young Turk government.

Three more people held the office of caliph after Abdülhamid II: Mehmed V, Mehmed VI, and Abdülmecid II, none of which had any power. In 1924, the caliphate was abolished by the new Turkish parliament and Abdülmecid and the rest of the Ottoman family were forced into exile. As such, Abdülhamid II was the last of the caliphs to have had any power over the Muslim world. The tradition of a strong, in charge caliph that commenced with Abu Bakr in 632 was upheld by Abdülhamid in the late 1800s before finally being overthrown by liberal elements within the empire.

Abdülhamid II died in Istanbul in 1918, and was buried in a mausoleum along with Sultans Mahmud II and Abdülaziz near Sultanahmet Square.

Source: Lost Islamic History.

Link: http://lostislamichistory.com/the-last-great-caliph-abdulhamid-ii/.

April 30, 2015

KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Sitting up in bed, 16-year-old Anas Baroudi lifts up an orange blanket to show where his left foot used to be, before he lost it almost three years ago in Syria’s civil war.

“It’s not painful,” the Syrian teenager says quietly as he covers the leg again. Lying in the next bed is Hassan, 26, a rebel fighter who lost his right eye and mobility in his right leg when a tank shell struck close to him on the front lines of Aleppo.

They both tease 23-year-old Khaled Qatrib, another Syrian war amputee who is sharing their room, about being a “Facebook addict,” with a smartphone seemingly attached to his hand. The mood is relatively upbeat among the young Syrian men, their lives forever scarred by war, at the Dar Al-Salameh center for recovery and physiotherapy in the Turkish border town of Kilis.

The men follow the news from their homeland on TV and via social media, and encourage each other as they wait for the day when they can return to Syria, once they get their prosthetics and adjust to their new lives.

“This is a temporary home where Syria’s many wounded people who have nowhere else to go can stay until they recover,” said Yasser Abu Ammar, a Syrian physician. The center is one of several in the border area that were established to help deal with the massive number of wounded streaming in from the war next door.

Syria’s conflict, which entered its fifth year last month, has killed more than 220,000 people and wounded close to a million. An untold number of those — there’s no reliable estimate — suffered traumatic injuries that have left them physically disabled. Turkey, a major supporter of the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, has served as a staging area for the fighters and is also the place where many come to rest and recover.

The two-story building in Kilis is less than an hour’s drive from Syria’s contested northern city of Aleppo and had been receiving a steady stream of people with traumatic injuries asking to stay. The number dropped sharply last month, when Turkey closed the crossing with Syria as a security precaution.

At the center, only a kilometer (half mile) away from the border crossing, patients share the pain of displacement and loss. Baroudi was wounded in the leg by a drive-by shooting in mid-2012 as he was taking part in a demonstration against Assad in in the central city of Homs.

“When I came to, there was still shooting everywhere, so I crawled a long way to safety, dragging my wounded leg with me,” he said. His leg developed gangrene and his foot was amputated at a nearby hospital. He moved from one location to another across Syria’s rebel territory until his brother and friends brought him to Kilis last month.

Baroudi is now waiting to be fitted with a prosthetic, which he hopes will be ready in the next few weeks. His parents are trapped in the Homs neighborhood of Waar, which has been besieged by government forces for two years, and he plans to go stay with his brother in Istanbul.

One day, he would like to resume school, to become a lawyer. “I want to defend people,” he said timidly. The others in the room chuckle at the teenager’s ambition. Hassan, who fought with an Islamic rebel group in Aleppo, said the only thing he wants to do is return to the front lines, even though he has lost an eye and a leg.

“Maybe I cannot fight anymore, but I still want to do something to serve the jihad and the mujahedeen,” he said of the “holy war” against Assad.

April 27, 2015

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Preliminary results of weekend nationwide polls in Kazakhstan show the long-ruling president confirming his incumbency with 97.7 percent of the vote amid a record turnout, election officials said Monday.

A crushing victory for 74-year-old Nursultan Nazarbavev was widely expected from the moment Sunday’s snap elections were announced. Nazarbayev faced only two nominal rivals, and state media have for years nurtured an increasingly extravagant cult of personality devoted to him.

Authorities in the oil-rich Central Asian nation have said they hope the election will serve as a confirmation of legitimacy in uncertain times. Kazakhstan is facing a slowdown in economic growth amid falling oil prices and recession in neighboring Russia.

The Central Elections Commission said turnout was a record 95 percent. The high turnout came despite what international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as a “hardly visible” campaign. Voter turnout is typically high in authoritarian states in Central Asia — the result of habit carried over from Soviet times and massive marshaling exercises by state officials.

Nazarbayev’s victory over his two nominal rivals, a trade union official and a communist politician, has been seen as all but a formality since the elections were announced. The communist candidate, Turgun Syzdykov, ran on a platform that included supporting Nazarbayev.

Speaking to supporters Sunday night, as local exit poll data showed him securing his election win, Nazarbayev hailed the scale of the turnout. “Without such mass public confidence, it would be difficult to work on completing the difficult tasks at hand,” he said. “The record turnout showed the unity of the people of Kazakhstan and their desire to live in a stable state.”

Earlier Sunday, Nazarbayev said he would after his re-election pursue creation of a constitutional reform commission to boost the economy and promote political development, greater transparency and openness. Kazakhstan currently has a dismal international reputation for corruption and political and media freedoms.

Authorities are looking with anxiety at the unrest that has gripped Ukraine. The political turmoil that led to the toppling of a Russia-friendly leader there in 2014 sent ripples of alarm throughout authoritarian regions of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has watched with dismay the war that ensued there as ethnic Russians were goaded by Moscow into mounting an armed insurrection.

Kazakhstan has its own substantial Russian minority and worries about the potential for such a large ethnic group to pursue a separatist agenda similar to that seen in eastern Ukraine.

by Firas Alkhateeb

9 March, 2013

Few wars in Islamic history have been as decisive or as influential as the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 710s. A small Muslim army arrived on the southern shores of Iberia in the year 711 and by 720, almost the entire peninsula was under Muslim control. Some people like to frame this conquest as one of imperialistic and aggressive Muslims conquering and subjecting a Christian populace with terror and force.

The truth, however, is far from that. It is a very complex conflict that cannot be easily framed in “Islam vs. Christianity” or “East vs. West” terms. The story of the Muslim invasion of Spain is one of justice, freedom, and religious toleration. Understanding the truth behind the Muslim invasion of Iberia is critical to understanding the subsequent history of religious pluralism seen throughout the history of Muslim Spain – al-Andalus.

Christian Unitarians

To fully understand the conflict, we must go back hundreds of years before the birth of Prophet Muhammad ? in 570. We must understand a vital split within the Christian community in the years after the Prophet Jesus (‘Isa).

While today almost all Christians believe in a concept called the Trinity, this was not always the case. The Trinity is a belief that God has three parts – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is depicted as being the Son of God, and thus part of God himself. This belief began to emerge during the time of Paul, a missionary who introduced the idea to make Christianity more popular among the polytheistic Roman Empire in the 40s-60s AD.

This new innovation in beliefs was highly disturbing to many who followed Jesus’s true message of monotheism and devotion to God. There soon emerged two groups in the early Christian Church – those who accepted Jesus as the Son of God (the Trinitarians), and those who simply accepted him as a prophet (the Unitarians).

To the Roman government, the distinction between the two groups was not important. Both the Trinitarians and the Unitarians were oppressed in the early decades of the AD era. That all changed in the late 200s and early 300s, AD. During this time, a Unitarian preacher, Arius, began to accumulate a large following among people in North Africa. He preached the Oneness of God, and the fact that Jesus was a prophet of God, not His son. As such, he was fiercely opposed by the proponents of the Trinity, who attacked and tried to marginalize him as a crazed madman. Despite their opposition, his beliefs took hold in his native Libya, and across North Africa.

At this time, the Roman Emperor was a man by the name of Constantine. He is best remembered for his transformation of the declining Roman Empire. He moved the capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), and managed to defeat some of the barbarian tribes that had been attacking Rome from the north.

When Constantine moved to Constantinople (which he named after himself), he became aware of the Trinitarian Christian Church, which informed him that if he converted to Christianity, he could have all of his previous sins forgiven. Having done so, he realized he could use the Christian Church to strengthen himself politically. As such, he began to promote the Trinitarian view of Christianity, and violently oppress Unitarians, such as Arius. During this time, the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325. The purpose was to settle at last whether or not Jesus was the son of God.

Naturally, the conclusion of the Council was that Jesus was a part of God and His son, and anyone who denies this is to be excommunicated from the Christian Church. The Unitarians, who were by now a strong majority of the population in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, were thus officially banned and forced to practice their beliefs in hiding. Constantine even ordered that all Unitarian documents be burned and Arius himself be exiled.

The Entrance of Islam into Spain

This oppression of Unitarians continued into the 600s, when a new force, Islam, became known in the Arabian Peninsula. When Muslim armies began to appear on the edges of the Roman Empire, the Unitarians of North Africa realized they shared much in common with this new religion. Both believed in the Oneness of God. Both believed Jesus was a prophet. Both believed that the official Trinitarian stance of the Church was an innovation that should be opposed. As such, they realized Islam was simply the conclusion of the original teachings of Jesus, and most of North Africa converted to Islam within the 600s.

The new Muslim empire, which was run by the Umayyad Dynasty from 661-750, stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the borders of India in the east, less than 100 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ?. Stories of the justice and equity that the Muslims ruled with quickly spread beyond the Muslim borders, particularly into the Iberian Peninsula.

In the early 700s, Iberia was controlled by a Visigothic king, Roderic, who was seen as a tyrant by his people. He continued the Roman policy of the Trinity, and attempted to impose his beliefs on the populace, which was mostly Unitarian. Muslim historians, such as Ibn Khaldun, tell the legend of an Iberian nobleman based in North Africa, Julian, who went to one of the Muslim military leaders in North Africa, Tariq ibn Ziyad, and asked for help overthrowing Roderic. In addition to being an oppressive tyrant, Roderic had kidnapped and raped Julian’s daughter.

Thus, in 711, Tariq led an army of a few thousand to the southern shore of the Iberian Peninsula. After a few minor skirmishes, he met the bulk of Roderic’s army at the Battle of Guadalete on July 19, 711. The result was a decisive victory for Tariq, and the death of Roderic. With the Visigothic threat gone, the Muslim armies were able to conquer the rest of the peninsula within the next 7 years.

Unitarians and Muslims

The story described above of how the Muslims managed to conquer Spain seems very simplistic highly unlikely. An army of a few thousand can hardly hope to conquer and entire country of 582,000 km2 in just 7 years. However, taking into account the Unitarian presence, it makes much more sense.

When the Muslims arrived in Iberia in 711, the Unitarians were very happy to help their brothers in monotheism against the oppressive Trinitarian government. For this reason, after the main battle against Roderic, most of the cities and towns of Spain opened their doors to Tariq without a fight. The Muslims offered a just legal system, freedom to practice religion, and the removal of oppressive and unjust taxes. It is no wonder that Tariq’s army was able to conquer the entire peninsula with a small army in a few years.

The Muslim conquest of Spain should not be seen as a foreign conquest and subjugation of a native population. Instead, it is an uprising of Unitarian Christians (aided by Muslims) against an oppressive Trinitarian government. The Muslim armies were specifically invited into Spain to remove oppression and establish justice, which they managed to do with the support of the locals. With such a just and moral reign, the Muslims won over hundreds of thousands of converts to Islam. Of course, the similarity in beliefs between the Muslims and Unitarians also contributed greatly the conversion of Iberia’s population to Islam. Within 200-300 years of the initial invasion, over 80% of Spain’s population was Muslim, numbering over 5 million people, most of them people originally from Spain whose ancestors had converted, not immigrants.

Source: Lost Islamic History.

Link: http://lostislamichistory.com/christianity-and-the-muslim-conquest-of-spain/.

April 25, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Syrian rebel groups seized a strategic town Saturday in northwestern Syria, sending government troops fleeing after intense clashes that have seen the opposition take nearly all of a crucial province.

The takeover prompted retaliatory government air raids in the town center — as many as 30 airstrikes according to one activist group — that left an unknown number of people killed and wounded. Among those wounded was a TV reporter for an opposition station who entered the town with the rebels.

If they can hold the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, rebel fighters from Islamic factions — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front — will have gained in only a few days a gateway to the Mediterranean coast, a refuge of embattled President Bashar Assad, and cut government supply lines from the coast to northern and central Syria. The town is one of the last bastions of Assad’s government in the area and fighting around it continued Saturday.

The offensive, which rebels have called the “Battle of Victory,” comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition. Opposition television station Orient News aired images inside the town showing rebel fighters milling in the town’s central square, raising their black flag. Meanwhile, fighting continued Saturday in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town, and activists said rebel fighters were gaining new ground.

A Twitter account affiliated with the Nusra Front posted pictures apparently from inside Jisr al-Shoughour Saturday, calling it “liberated.” Other pictures posted on social media showed bodies of government troops piled in the street as rebels sat atop tanks in the town’s center.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the rebels completely controlled Jisr al-Shughour after government troops and allied forces fled south. The group said there were clashes on the outskirts of the town. A video the group posted showed civilians leaving the town accompanied by a number of government troops.

The government conceded its forces had left the town. A military official, quoted by Syrian state media, said government forces redeployed to surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties after fierce battles with “armed terrorist groups” in Jisr al-Shughour.

Later, state TV said government aircraft targeted a convoy of fighters east of the town. But the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group that tracks the conflict, said the air raids were in the town center. The Observatory counted at least 30 raids in the town and its environs. The LCC said at least six raids were in a square in the town’s center. There were no immediate casualty figures.

The Orient News television network, which was airing live coverage of the rebels’ takeover, said one of its reporters was injured and its broadcast vehicle destroyed in one of the raids. The reporter, Ammar Dandash, emotionally told the broadcaster that he was returning to Jisr al-Shughour, his hometown, for the first time in years with the rebels. “Today I return to my home after four years of being deprived of it,” he said, before he was injured.

Asaad Kanjo, an activist in touch with residents of the town, said most civilians had stayed indoors, fearing government retaliation. The Observatory said members of a government security agency also killed 23 detainees before they withdrew. Pictures shared on social media by the Nusra Front showed bodies of civilians piled in what they said was a local prison, near a hospital where fighters had earlier said government troops were taking cover.

Government fighters had reportedly also carried out a similar mass killing before withdrawing from Idlib city last month. The fight for Jisr al-Shughour began Wednesday and activists have said thousands of fighters took part in the offensive, which first targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside of town.

The town of Jisr al-Shughour was one of the first towns to rise against Assad’s regime, but has largely remained under government control despite briefly falling to the rebels in early 2011. The government accused the rebels there of killing over 100 soldiers, a charge they denied.

Activists say the fall of the town is of also of symbolic significance because a military camp on the town’s outskirts had been used to target much of Idlib’s countryside, leading to many casualties. The Nusra Front and Syrian rebels have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012. After the fall of Idlib, the government moved its offices and staff to Jisr al-Shughour.

Assad has blamed Turkey for the fall of Idlib to Islamic fighters, saying Ankara provided “huge support” — logistical and military — that played the key role in the defeat of his forces. Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed some 220,000 people, and wounded at least 1 million. At least 4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly double that figure are displaced inside Syria because of the conflict.

April 26, 2015

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Voters in Kazakhstan turned out in abundance at polling stations Sunday for a presidential election guaranteed to overwhelmingly reconfirm the incumbent, who has ruled over the former Soviet republic for more than 25 years.

The election is taking place against the backdrop of a slump in economic growth and an air of anxiety over unrest in the nearby countries of Ukraine and Afghanistan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, wrote in an opinion piece before the election that the vote would give the elected president a clear mandate to lead the country through potentially troubled times.

“The upcoming election will strengthen the stability of Kazakhstan. This remains the main condition for the sustainable development of our country and completing the large-scale tasks of modernizing our economy and society,” he wrote.

Nazarbayev’s victory over his two nominal rivals, a trade union official and a Communist politician, is all but a formality. Polling stations are scheduled to remain open until 8 p.m. local time (1400 GMT).

Out of the several dozen voters questioned outside a polling station at a school in the business capital, Almaty, only two declared their intent to vote for Nazarbayev’s rivals and the stability message appeared to have driven home.

“I am voting for Nazarbayev, because I need no changes in my life. I am happy with things as they are under the current authorities,” said Daniyar Yerzhanov, 43. “We businessmen don’t need the kind of democracy you get in Ukraine. We need stability and predictability.”

Riding high on the back of its oil, gas and mineral wealth, Kazakhstan has posted healthy growth figures over the past two decades, with the exception of a notable blip during the global economic crisis in 2008.

However, low oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia, a large trading partner that has been hit with international sanctions for its role in the unrest in Ukraine, are dampening performance.

All international financial organizations see the country continuing its growth trajectory this year and the next, but at a far less impressive rate than previously. The political unrest that led to the toppling of a Russia-friendly leader in Ukraine in 2014 sent ripples of alarm throughout authoritarian regions of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has watched with dismay the war that ensued there as ethnic Russians were goaded by Moscow into mounting an armed insurrection.

Kazakhstan has its own substantial Russian minority and worries about the potential for such a large ethnic group to pursue a separatist agenda similar to that seen in east Ukraine. Nazarbayev did little campaigning for the election, but he did dwell intensely on rehearsing well-worn refrains on social and ethnic harmony.

The weekend presidential election was preceded Thursday by a congress of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, a talking shop devoted to cultivating national unity. At the event, Nazarbayev declared that the authorities would “robustly prevent any form of ethnic radicalism, regardless from where it arises.”

Nazarbayev will be almost 80 when the next presidential term comes to a close, and many worry whether his health will hold out. No clear succession plan is in place and with all semblance of political competition having been snuffed out by the authorities, uncertainty is strong.

One fear is that a successor to Nazarbayev could seek to cheaply bolster their mandate by striking a populist nationalist chord. Those worries appeared not to faze voters in Almaty, however. “There are no alternatives to him. And he is taking Kazakhstan along the right path,” said government employee Yelena Burlakova, 44. “His age is of no concern. As long as he is breathing, we will vote for him.”

With no real alternative candidates on offer, anybody opposing Nazarbayev is left only with the option of not voting at all. “A campaign of brainwashing has taken place over the past quarter century and no alternative can and will be offered,” said artist Arman Bektasov, 30. “The people of Kazakhstan have only one choice. What is the point of voting if the outcome has already been decided?”

April 24, 2015

Maiduguri (Nigeria) (AFP) – Suspected Boko Haram insurgents have forced hundreds of soldiers to flee Marte, a border town along the shores of Lake Chad, a local official and witnesses said.

“The terrorists, numbering over 2,000, appeared from various directions on Thursday and engaged the soldiers in Kirenowa town and adjoining communities in Marte,” said Imamu Habeeb, a local community leader.

“They fought with soldiers over the night and the fight continued today (Friday), forcing hundreds of soldiers to flee,” he added from Borno state capital Maiduguri.

Local fighter Shehu Dan Baiwa said the more than 2,000 fighters had been armed with bombs and tanks. “They used the weapons without restraint and succeeded in killing several people,” he said.

This is the third time Boko Haram has seized control of Marte in restive Borno state, a key battleground of their six-year insurgency, which has killed more than 13,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

The city is among several retaken in recent weeks by Nigeria’s military, which has launched an offensive against the Islamists as part of a regional operation supported by Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

But Boko Haram have been fighting back, and Nigerian troops were also forced to retreat from Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold this week after a landmine blast killed one soldier and three vigilantes.

A senior local politician confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that the insurgents had retaken Marte.

“We lost many (people) because some of our people that fled to Chad and Cameroon have return after Nigerian troops recovered the town recently,” he added.

A senior military official confirmed the attack on Marte, but refused to say whether Boko Haram had retaken the town, describing the army’s retreat as “strategic”.

April 24, 2015

GALLIPOLI, Turkey (AP) — Families of soldiers who served in the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, along with world leaders, streamed onto the battle sites on Friday for ceremonies marking 100 years since the British-led invasion.

Representatives of countries that faced off in one of the most iconic events of the war were honoring the dead in a joint ceremony, on the eve of the centenary since troops landed on beaches here. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Britain’s Prince Charles each laid wreaths at a memorial for the fallen Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli before listening to a recitation from the Muslim holy book as well as prayers for peace. A band in Ottoman Janissary costume performed old Turkish military marches.

“Despite the appalling sacrifices made by so many in two world wars, intolerance combined with the willingness to use the most barbaric violence remain a persistent and prevailing source of division and conflict,” Charles said at the Turkish memorial.

“We all have a shared duty … to find ways to overcome intolerance to fight against hatred and prejudice so that we can truly say we have honored the sacrifice of all those who have fought and died here in Gallipoli and elsewhere,” Charles added.

Ceremonies were to later move to the British memorial site, where Prince Harry, Charles’ son, was scheduled to deliver a speech. The main events are scheduled for Saturday, the anniversary of the dawn landings by troops — mostly from Australia and New Zealand — who were rowed in to narrow beaches with scant cover only to encounter rugged hills and fire from well concealed Turkish defenders.

The doomed Allied offensive aimed to secure a naval route from the Mediterranean to Istanbul through the Dardanelles, and take the Ottomans out of the war. It resulted in over 130,000 deaths and came to be seen as a folly of British war planning. Around 44,000 Allied troops died in the campaign; about 86,000 were killed on the Ottoman side.

The campaign, however, helped forge national identities for countries on both sides. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used his prominence as a commander at Gallipoli, known as Canakkale to the Turks, to vault into prominence, lead Turkey’s War of Independence and ultimately found the Turkish Republic.

Similarly, the tragic fate of troops from Australia and New Zealand is said to have inspired an identity distinct from Britain. The anniversary of the start of the land campaign on April 25, known as ANZAC Day, after the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, is marked as a coming of age for both nations.

“The Battle of Gallipoli is a striking reminder that the Great War was truly a World War,” Charles said. “Not only were its combatants were drawn from so many different nations but also because its effects were truly global.”

“It destroyed old empires and created new fissures just as it brought some countries together in shared endeavors and strengthened national identities,” Charles said. Erdogan, in his address, said all fallen soldiers were now considered the children of Turkey, echoing the words of Ataturk who paid tribute to the dead soldiers from Australia and New Zealand after the war.

“You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us,” Ataturk’s eulogy reads. “They have become our sons as well.”

Last month, Turkey marked the centenary of a naval victory against the Allies, when the Ottoman army held off British and French ships in the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.