Archive for August 17, 2015

July 16, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi-backed Yemeni troops and fighters have driven Shiite rebels out of two major neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden, Thursday, prompting street celebrations by residents after weeks of fierce fighting.

Residents said armored vehicles and troops have deployed in the neighborhoods of Crater and Mualla, where fighting had intensified earlier as part of an offensive to regain control of the port city from the Shiite rebels and allied forces.

“Today we are free,” Aseel Mohsen, a resident of Mualla said by telephone, as celebratory gunfire broke out in the background. She said she had spent the last couple of days mostly holed up with 30 other people in the basement of their apartment building where they were taking cover from the intense fighting.

“We can now go down and prepare and shop for Eid,” Mohsen said, in reference to the feast that follows Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which ends Thursday in most of the Muslim world. A U.N. brokered truce, which had largely failed to hold, is expected to end with the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan. The truce was intended to put an end to months of punishing fighting in the war-torn impoverished Gulf nation and allow for the dispersing of much-needed humanitarian aid.

Fierce fighting in Aden broke out in March as empowered Iran-allied Shiite rebels expanded their bid for power from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which they overran in September. The rebels have allied with several military units loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The offensive, closely coordinated with the Saudi-led coalition, is a serious blow to the Shiite rebels, who have taken control of several provinces in Yemen, and driven the country’s internationally-recognized president into exile. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been living in Saudi Arabia since March. The rebels, and allied forces, remain in control of the capital and other provinces.

Hadi, in a recorded speech aired on TV, congratulated the troops and fighters for regaining control of parts of Aden. “Aden will be the key to salvation for our people and our case,” Hadi said. “From Aden, we will regain Yemen.”

Fighting intensified Thursday in Aden as Saudi-backed troops forced the rebels out of neighborhoods they control. Meanwhile, the rebels, known as Houthis, fired Katyusha rockets that landed in the vicinity of the airport early Thursday, killing three anti-rebel fighters, according to a government official.

They also fired at least five rockets at the city’s refinery, military officials said. The government official said the Saudi-trained Yemeni troops took control of the Crater neighborhood, the commercial hub of Aden that houses a presidential palace, and neighboring Mualla. He said armored vehicles were roaming the streets of the neighborhoods to ensure it has been cleared of rebels, and installing checkpoints manned by local militias.

The Saudi-backed troops and fighters, along with Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, had pushed the rebels out of the city’s airport Tuesday. It was at the outset of an offensive led by troops trained in Saudi Arabia and planned for over a month, the government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the ongoing fighting.

Footage aired on TV showed civilians clearing the runway of the Aden airport as troops secured it. A senior military official said more than 40 Houthis and allied fighters have surrendered to the troops. Through loudspeakers, military officials urged rebel fighters to hand themselves in. The troops are poised to enter the area that houses the presidential palace, the last remaining spot in Crater where rebels and allied forces appear to be holding on, the official and witnesses said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. An Aden resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said he saw some local militia fighters throw a rebel-allied fighter from the roof of a building.

Speaking to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, the Saudi-led coalition’s spokesman, praised the “heroic efforts” of Yemeni fighters, referring to the offensive as “the Golden Arrow.”

Al-Asiri said the operation has been successful so far because of “the element of surprise” and added, “We need to have patience and perseverance now.” In a statement to the Houthi-controlled Saba news agency, a spokesman said the rebels are fighting back, and are advancing in a neighborhood northwest of the airport.

May 26, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Fighters backing Yemen’s exiled government captured a key city on the road to the port city of Aden, officials said Tuesday, the pro-government forces’ first significant victory since a Saudi-led coalition began targeting Shiite rebels in airstrikes.

The fighters took Dhale, home to the command center of the 33rd Armored Brigade, the country’s largest army unit that had been loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has backed the rebels, known as Houthis, in their power grab across Yemen that began last September.

Government-allied fighters seized tanks, rocket launchers and ammunition caches from the base at Dhale, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Aden, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Footage from Dhale aired on the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite news network showed fighters in one armored vehicle flying the flag of once-independent South Yemen. The fighters, though allied with exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, also want an independent southern state in the country, which was only unified in 1990.

Dozens of fighters on both sides have been killed in intense clashes around Dhale in the past two weeks. Fighting between them still raged Tuesday on the city’s outskirts, officials said. The officials also said that in the city of Taiz, three civilians were killed and over 20 wounded when a mortar shell hit a passenger bus in the city center. Combatants on each side accused the other of firing the errant shell, which happened during intense fighting involving heavy weapons.

Just north of Aden, fighting between forces loyal to Hadi and those of Saleh killed three civilians and wounded five, they added. A Saudi-led coalition began targeting the Houthis and their allies on March 26. The U.N. estimates that at least 1,037 civilians, including 130 women and 234 children, have been killed between March 26 and May 20 in the fighting.

Hadi’s government in exile has declared several provinces of Yemen disaster zones, including Dhale, where all basic services have collapsed. Due to the violence and a Saudi-led sea-and-air blockade, most Yemenis face severe shortages of fuel, water, medicine and food.

In a new report, international humanitarian group Oxfam warned that some 16 million people in Yemen don’t have access to clean water. “This is equivalent to the populations of Berlin, London, Paris and Rome combined, all rotting under heaps of garbage in the streets, broken sewage pipes and without clean water for the seventh-consecutive week,” said Grace Ommer of Oxfam.

Also Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes in at least five Yemeni cities, including the capital, Sanaa, and the southern port city of Aden. Meanwhile, a statement by the Saudi Interior Ministry said fighting along the kingdom’s border with Yemen near Asir killed one Saudi soldier and wounded three late Monday.

As fighting continues, hopes are dwindling for a political resolution to end the war. Peace efforts also received a major blow this week after U.N.-sponsored negotiations due to take place in Geneva were indefinitely postponed.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered the postponement following a request from Yemen’s government and other parties for more time to prepare, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday, adding that Ban “is actively working to convene the talks at the earliest possible time.”

The organization still hopes the warring sides could convene without preconditions, he said. In a limited Cabinet reshuffle, Hadi on Tuesday appointed a former lawmaker, Brig. Gen. Abdu al-Houzifi, as the new interior minister to replace the one who sided with the Houthis.

The Houthis, who control large swaths of territory, later said in a statement that they were appointing new governors in six provinces — Sanaa, Rayma, Marib, Bayda, Jawf and Ibb.

Associated Press writers Edith Lederer and Cara Anna contributed to this report from the United Nations.

August 16, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Hamid Gul, who led Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency as it funneled U.S. and Saudi cash and weapons to Afghan jihadis fighting against the Soviets and later publicly supported Islamic militants, died late Saturday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 78.

Gul’s tenure at the ISI and his outspoken backing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other extremists highlighted the murky loyalties at play years later when the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath tested the U.S.-Pakistani alliance.

Gul came to be seen as an increasingly out-of-touch braggart later in life, as he appeared on countless Pakistani television programs warning of conspiracies and demanding his country militarily confront its nuclear-armed neighbor India.

“The unruly mujahedeen commanders obeyed and respected him like no one else,” Gul’s online autobiography reads. “Later on with the advent of the Taliban’s rise he was equally admired and respected.” Gul died late Saturday night at the hill resort of Murree near the capital, Islamabad, his daughter, Uzma Gul, told The Associated Press. She said Gul suffered a brain hemorrhage.

Funeral prayers were offered at an army base in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near the capital, Islamabad. Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif attended alongside other serving and retired military officers.

Born Nov. 20, 1936, near Sargodha in eastern Pakistan, Gul served in the army and fought in two wars against India. He viewed India with suspicion for the rest of his life, claiming it wanted to seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Many believe he helped shape Pakistan’s policy of funding Islamic militant groups to attack India’s interests in the disputed Kashmir region.

Gul became the chief of the ISI in 1987, at a time when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were using the spy agency to funnel billions of dollars to militants fighting the Soviets during their occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

Those militants later became the backbone of the Taliban and included a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto forced Gul out in 1989. He later acknowledged having forged an alliance of Islamist political parties to challenge Bhutto in the 1988 elections that brought her to power.

Despite being stripped of his office, Gul remained influential. Though unnamed in the Sept. 11 commission report, U.S. officials at the time said they suspected Gul tipped bin Laden off to a failed 1998 cruise missile attack targeting him in Afghanistan. The operation came in response to al-Qaida attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. The officials said he contacted Taliban leaders and assured them that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch.

Gul also was a close ally of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received U.S. assistance during the Soviet occupation and was a bitter rival of Taliban figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar. The U.S. declared Hekmatyar a “global terrorist” in 2003 because of alleged links to al-Qaida and froze all assets he may have had in the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Gul became an outspoken opponent to the U.S. while cheering the Taliban in public and media appearances. There were allegations, however, that Gul had a more hands-on approach. U.S. intelligence reports later released by WikiLeaks allege he dispatched three men in December 2006 to carry out attacks in Afghanistan’s capital.

“Reportedly Gul’s final comment to the three individuals was to make the snow warm in Kabul, basically telling them to set Kabul aflame,” the report said. Gul at the time described the documents as “fiction and nothing else.” Some of the reports, generated by junior intelligence officers, did include far-fetched claims, including an allegation in 2007 that militants teamed up with the ISI to kill Afghan and NATO forces with poisoned alcohol bought in Pakistan.

But Gul’s anti-Americanism was by then well-known. At one point in 2003, Gul boasted that Pakistani officials would “turn a blind eye” to any Taliban or al-Qaida fighters who escaped Afghanistan. “The intelligence and security agencies are a part of the ethos of the country and the national ethos today is a hatred of America,” he said.

When U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Gul helped spread a rumor that U.S. forces actually killed the al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan and brought his body to Pakistan to humiliate the country.

“My feeling is that it was all a hoax, a drama which has been crafted, and badly scripted I would say,” he said. In conspiracy-minded Pakistan, many believed him. As the last line of his online autobiography reads: “People wait to listen to his direction before forming their own opinions.”

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Cairo and Kathy Gannon contributed to this report.

August 04, 2015

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan executed a man Tuesday convicted of killing a 7-year-old boy in 2004 when his family and lawyers say he was just 14 years old, despite international outcry over his sentence, officials said.

Authorities hanged Shafqat Hussain shortly before dawn at a Karachi prison, said Iqbal Hassan, an official of the prison judicial branch. Hassan said Hussain’s brother, Gul Hassan, received the body and will take it to his native village somewhere in Kashmir.

Hassan said the deceased’s relatives visited him for the last time Monday night. Hussain’s execution had been stayed four times amid the controversy over executing someone who committed a crime as a minor. After his last appeal failed, Hussain remained on death row for another month as Ramadan had begun. Pakistan halts execution during the holy fasting month.

Pakistan imposed a moratorium on executions in 2008, but then lifted the ban in December, after a Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar killed 150 people, mostly children. While some militants have been executed, other convicts have as well.

Human rights groups say Pakistan has about 8,000 people on death row. They’ve criticized the government for restarting executions, saying police often use torture to elicit confessions — including Hussain’s. Authorities have denied the allegation.

Amnesty International called the execution a “deeply sad day” for Pakistan. “A man whose age remains disputed and whose conviction was built around torture has now paid with his life — and for a crime for which the death penalty cannot be imposed under international law,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s South Asia research director.

Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.


August 08, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of Iraqis braved the scorching summer heat to stage a huge protest in central Baghdad on Friday, calling on the prime minister to dissolve the parliament and sack corrupt government officials.

Security forces and riot police sealed off Iraq’s iconic Tahrir Square and searched anyone who entered the area, but tens of thousands of men, women and children thronged the sprawling square, waving Iraqi flags.

“In the name of religion, the thieves robbed us,” they chanted long into the evening. Men with the government-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group made up predominantly of Shiite militias, pulled up in trucks and handed out ice water bottles to the protesters.

Their gesture was welcomed by roaring shouts in support of the paramilitary force now fighting the Islamic State group. The PMU was hastily assembled last year, with pre-existing militias and new volunteers, to reinforce the Iraqi military after it crumbled in the face of the Sunni militant blitz that seized a third of the country.

“The government is robbing the Mobilization Forces too!” the protesters cried, with many PMU fighters claiming they weren’t receiving salaries promised to them. This is the second Friday of protests in Baghdad and across Iraq, with people initially calling on authorities to address the country’s chronic electricity problems as temperatures in the capital soared above 50 degrees Celsius (123 Fahrenheit). But with little action from the Shiite-dominated government following last week’s demonstrations, the call for a government shake-up intensified.

As Haider al-Abadi nears his one-year anniversary since assuming the role of Iraq’s prime minister, he faces his biggest challenge yet as an economic crisis and crippling war with the Islamic State group put a choke on domestic services. Discontent is rising, even among the country’s Shiite majority, with protests springing up in cities from Baghdad to Basra.

“Change, that’s what we need,” said schoolteacher Najlaa Malek, one of the protesters in the square Friday. “The problems in this country have become too many to list. And our leaders talk a great deal but then they do nothing to fix them.”

One man circled the square holding a mock donations box, with the written message: “proceeds go to the house of representatives.” The protesters represented mixed political and religious affiliations, organizers of the protest saying that about 75 percent were liberals, communists, linked to various political groups for youth, or independent. Professional syndicates were on hand, with the members of the lawyers syndicate marching in their judicial robes through the square demanding basic human rights.

Two of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite organizations, Badr and Asaib al-Haq, were represented in smaller numbers, while a few religious clerics attended but kept a low profile. Fadel el-Khafaji, a self-described liberal who has a degree in engineering, sells women’s clothing, he said, because he can’t find a job in his field.

The problems, he said, include “unemployment, general finances, human rights, where are the proceeds from our oil wealth, where is an end to this war we are living through?” he asked. “The only solution is to dissolve the parliament and a restore presidential authority.”

Earlier Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani addressed the prime minister in his Friday sermon, calling on al-Abadi to quickly address internal issues in the government. Through his spokesman Ahmed al-Safi, al-Sistani said the prime minister must be more “daring and courageous” in his steps to reform the government, urging him to strike “with an iron hand fist anyone who is tampering with the people’s money.”

In a statement following al-Sistani’s sermon, the prime minister’s office said al-Abadi is “fully committed to the valued guidance of the supreme religious authority.” It added that the premier “pledges to announce a comprehensive plan of reform and work on the implementation” of a reform program.

Shiite factions in Iraq turned against al-Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki largely because they saw him as a domineering leader who monopolized power and allowed widespread corruption. Critics say al-Maliki staffed the military’s officer corps with incompetent loyalists, playing a major role in the army’s collapse in the face of the IS advance. Sunni factions made similar accusations.

Similar anti-government protests took place in Iraq at the height of the pan-Arab uprising in 2011, but al-Maliki took heavy-handed measures to suppress any calls for change. When al-Abadi was named premier elect on Aug. 10 last year, he vowed to form a government based on efficiency and integrity.

However, protesters say that much of the country’s domestic problems have been sidelined as a result of the war with the Islamic State group, and that senior government officials are turning a blind eye to problems that have plagued Iraq for decades.

Al-Maliki, who now holds the largely symbolic role of vice president, issued a statement late Friday calling on the government to “tackle the offenders financially and politically.” In a televised speech Friday, Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, said that the parliament “will interrogate all the ministers in the government who the protesters demand to be questioned.”

“We do not hesitate in questioning both those suspected of theft,” al-Jabouri, Iraq’s most senior Sunni politician, added but called on the demonstrators “exercise their constitutional right” without turning to violence.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi staged several rallies on Friday to mark the second anniversary of the violent breakup of major protest camps in Cairo, in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed.

Protesters set out following Friday prayer from mosques from Cairo to Alexandria in the north and Minya in Upper Egypt.

Security forces used tear gas to disperse them in the eastern Cairo suburb of Matariya as demonstrators fired fireworks, according to an Anadolu Agency reporter.

Hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators were killed when security forces violently dispersed their protest camps in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and Giza’s Nahda Square on Aug. 14, 2013, only weeks after Morsi was removed from power in a military coup.

According to the National Human Rights Council, the dispersal of both protest camps that day left 632 people, including eight policemen, dead.

But the National Alliance for the Defense of Legitimacy, Morsi’s main support bloc and the sit-in’s main organizer, said thousands were killed in the dispersal.

HRW, meanwhile, called for an international investigation into the mass killing of protesters in the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.

In a Friday statement, the New York-based group called on the UN Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to investigate the killings.

“Washington and Europe have gone back to business with a government that celebrates rather than investigates what may have been the worst single-day killing of protesters in modern history,” Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, said. “The UN Human Rights Council, which has not yet addressed Egypt’s dangerous and deteriorating human rights situation, is one of the few remaining routes to accountability for this brutal massacre.”

Egypt has been roiled by violence and turmoil since Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, was ousted by the military on July 3, 2013 following protests against his rule.

Since Morsi’s ouster, Egyptian authorities have carried out a relentless crackdown on dissent that has mainly targeted the ousted president’s supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands behind bars.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


August 06, 2015

ISMAILIA, Egypt (AP) — In a defining moment of his young presidency, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi presided Thursday over the unveiling of a major extension of the Suez Canal that he hailed as a historic feat needed to revive the country’s ailing economy after years of unrest.

Upbeat and clearly relishing the pomp-filled occasion, el-Sissi nevertheless conceded that the $8.5 billion project will not bring a quick economic windfall to a country roiled by violence and unrest since 2011. Its completion, he said, was but the first of a 1,000-step journey Egyptians must take toward economic recovery.

“Egyptians have made a huge effort so as to give humanity this gift for development and construction,” el-Sissi said, his words interrupted at times by the horns of container ships using the new extension — a sound that brought a smile to his face and cheers from those in attendance

The magnitude of the project, its completion on schedule 13 months into his presidency and the large high-level foreign representation at its unveiling were likely to bolster el-Sissi’s already high standing among many Egyptians — pushing aside, at least for a time, his reputation as an authoritarian leader with little regard for human rights or liberties.

Playing into his hands is a clear shift by many Egyptians away from the need for democratic freedoms and toward economic survival as a top priority — not surprising in a country where nearly half the population is below or hovering just above the poverty line.

Wearing his ceremonial military uniform and trademark dark sunglasses on a sweltering August day, el-Sissi flew to the site aboard a military helicopter and immediately boarded the same monarchy-era yacht that dignitaries sailed on during the canal’s inauguration in 1869.

The vessel, bedecked in Egyptian and foreign flags, was flanked by navy warships as helicopters, fighter jets and military transport aircraft screamed overhead. A triumphant el-Sissi stood on the upper deck, waving to well-wishers and folklore dance troupes performing on shore.

At one point, a young boy in military uniform and holding Egypt’s red, black and white flag joined him on deck as they both waved the flag. But Thursday’s festivities were partially overshadowed by an Islamic State group affiliate’s threat to kill a Croatian hostage kidnapped in Cairo last month — a grim reminder of the threat posed by Islamic militants battling the Egyptian government.

Tight security was in place at an elaborate ceremony held in the canal city of Ismailia and attended by foreign dignitaries, including French President Francois Hollande, King Abdullah of Jordan and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kuwait’s Emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also attended, as well as Yemen’s exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The canal extension has been trumpeted as a historic achievement by pro-government media and has revived the nationalistic personality cult built around the 60-year-old el-Sissi, who as army chief led the overthrow of an Islamist president in 2013 and was elected to office last year in a landslide vote.

Egyptian flags adorned streets across Egypt, along with banners declaring support for el-Sissi and hailing his latest achievement. Patriotic songs, some written especially for the occasion, blared from TV and radio stations on Thursday, declared a national holiday by the government.

Banks and most businesses were closed and authorities, in sharp contrast to the government’s zero tolerance for political demonstrations, allowed people to gather on streets and squares to celebrate the occasion.

The new Suez Canal extension involved digging and dredging along 45 miles (72 kilometers) of the 120-mile canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic. With a depth of 79 feet (24 meters), the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to a 66-foot draught.

The project was initially estimated to take three years, but el-Sissi ordered it completed in one, something the pro-government media hailed as evidence of the president’s resolve and seriousness. The government says the project, funded entirely by Egyptians, millions of whom bought canal bonds, will more than double the canal’s annual revenue to $13.2 billion by 2023, injecting much-needed foreign currency into an economy that has struggled to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Economists and shippers, however, have questioned the value of the project, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require major growth in global trade, which seems unlikely.

On Thursday, el-Sissi appeared to acknowledge that the project would not yield an immediate windfall, saying it was also meant to reassure his countrymen and the world that Egyptians “are still capable” of great accomplishments.

The man-made waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which was inaugurated in 1869, has long been a symbol of Egyptian national pride. Pro-government media have compared el-Sissi to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a charismatic leader whose nationalization of the canal in 1956 was seen as a defiant break with the country’s colonial past.

“Egypt makes history,” read the banner headline of Thursday’s pro-government daily Al-Watan. “Rejoice, it is worth it!” proclaimed the front page of another daily, Al-Maqal. Thursday’s inauguration came a day after an Islamic State group affiliate calling itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State released a video threatening to kill 30-year-old Croatian Tomislav Salopek in 48 hours if authorities do not release “Muslim women” held in prison, a reference to female Islamists detained in the government’s crackdown on former President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters.

El-Sissi made no mention of the kidnapping, but denounced the Islamic militants battling his government as “evil people” seeking to “hurt Egypt and the Egyptians.” “Without a doubt, we will triumph over them,” he added.

Egypt has seen a surge in attacks by Islamic militants since Morsi’s ouster, in both the restive north of the Sinai Peninsula and the mainland, focusing primarily on security forces. Militants have also targeted foreign interests, including the Italian Consulate in Cairo, which was hit with a car bomb last month. That came just days after another bomb killed Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in an upscale Cairo neighborhood.

Hendawi reported from Cairo.

August 04, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — The 20-year-old law student says he has had enough of fruitless protests in support of Egypt’s deposed Islamist president, two years of a losing struggle with police.

Now he wants to join the extremists of the Islamic State group who are battling the army in the Sinai Peninsula. He and other youths are growing increasingly open in their calls for violence and a move toward extremism, frustrated by the police crackdown since the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Some want to avenge friends and family killed or abused by police.

Once sympathetic to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, some of them resent it as weak and ineffectual. “Now we know there is only one right way: jihad,” said the law student, Abdelrahman, showing off scars from pellets fired at him by police shotguns during protests. Like other protesters interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name for fear of police retaliation.

He spoke bitterly about the series of ballot box victories in 2011 and 2012 that gave the Muslim Brotherhood political dominance and made Morsi the country’s first freely elected president. “Democracy doesn’t work. If we win, the powers that be, whoever they are, just flip things over,” he said. “The Brotherhood thought they could play the democratic game, but in the end, they were beaten.”

At a time when militants are carrying out more sophisticated attacks in Egypt, the apparent spread of radicalism among youths in Cairo is a worrying sign for Egyptian authorities, who say they are working to quell violence.

In recent weeks, militants who declared themselves to be the Sinai branch of the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State group tried to take over a Sinai town in an elaborate attack on security forces, and Egypt’s top prosecutor was killed by a bomb in the first assassination of a senior official here in a quarter-century. Attacks are frequent in Cairo and elsewhere, often killing policemen or soldiers, and hitting businesses and some tourist sites.

The insurgency swelled after the army overthrew Morsi following mass nationwide protests of his rule. Since then, the more than 80-year-old Brotherhood has been shattered by a security crackdown. Most of its top leaders are in prison, with several sentenced to death, including Morsi. Since 2013, hundreds of protesters have been killed, many more wounded and thousands arrested, often brutalized in prison.

With other leaders in hiding or abroad, lower-level supporters of the Brotherhood have been the ones working to keep protests alive. Members of the Brotherhood themselves are divided over whether to stick to its official policy of peaceful protest or to embrace violent confrontation with the government. Authorities already accuse the group of fueling violence and have branded it a terrorist organization.

An official at Egypt’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, said its policies aim to eradicate lawlessness and chaos, saying it must confront those who seek to incite youth in rough neighborhoods to violence.

“The Interior Ministry also follows information and monitors social media sites to track people who promote extremist ideas and who are affiliated in groups,” according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because regulations did not allow him to talk to reporters.

The ministry has carried out several “pre-emptive strikes” against such individuals, he said without elaborating. If it is proven that a policeman is guilty of wrongdoing, he would immediately face legal proceedings, the official added.

Youssef, a Brotherhood member who leads protests in the greater Cairo area, said he opposes a turn to violence, but adds that others are embracing it in the face of police abuses. “We have all lost lots of friends. And as a result there are lots of opinions. Some feel the only way to resist now is with armed struggle,” said the 20-year-old business student. Others also involved in organizing demonstrations made similar statements.

Protests occur almost daily in poor, forgotten corners of the capital and countryside. Banners are less about Morsi and more about revenge against police. “Peace is dead,” proclaimed one at a recent march in the Cairo slum of Matariya. In the nearby village of Nahia, another banner bore the slogan “peaceful” — then mocked it by adding a smiley face carrying an assault rifle. Some demonstrators chant slogans praising the Islamic State group.

“Most of these young guys were not political before. They were politicized by violence, by seeing friends or family members shot and killed by police or being arbitrarily detained,” said Basem Zakaria al-Samargi, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, an advocacy group, and lives in Matariya. “There are many people who now want vengeance from the state.”

Jerome Drevon, a researcher at the University of Manchester and a specialist on militant groups in semi-authoritarian regimes, said the conflict is not about ideology, but rather people’s willingness to avenge themselves and their friends against the security forces and join whatever group can help them achieve that.

“The new Egyptian regime has triggered a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “They have hindered any possibility of peaceful opposition to the regime, assimilated the Islamist opposition to IS, eroded mainstream Islamist groups’ internal organizational control over their sympathizers, and nourished a desire for revenge for young opponents.”

At a news conference this month in Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry quoted President Barack Obama, who has said that “when people are oppressed, and human rights are denied … when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism.”

Matariya, a crowded district of narrow alleyways with few services and a history of neglect, has seen some of the country’s bloodiest clashes with police in the past two years. Dozens were killed in gunbattles there in January. Rights groups have raised alarm over possible abuses at the district’s police station, where detainees have died in custody and where residents talk of rampant torture and of young men disappearing after night raids on their homes.

Abdelrahman’s family is like many others in the district. His cousin is in a wheelchair after being shot by police at a demonstration. His uncle was recently arrested for protesting. His brother, known for orchestrating attacks on police, is on the run.

Security forces have clamped down in Matariya, making protests more difficult. Armored personnel carriers and troops surround mosques during Friday prayers. But Nahia, the nearby village, is a virtual no-go zone for the state at the moment. There, hundreds of youth march unopposed in formation down main roads, calling for the ouster of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief who deposed Morsi and later was elected to office. Some residents brag about the lack of a police station in Nahia, or the 2013 sniper killing of a police general in Kerdasa, a nearby Islamist stronghold.

While marching, Abdelrahman has waved the Islamic State group’s black flag. He says the only violence he has committed is burning three police cars. But he adds: “I’m ready to fight.” He says he has several friends already fighting alongside militants in Sinai.

Now living in a safe house away from his family, he says he knows whom to contact in order to join the group but that he needed to have a sponsor and go through vetting because it is wary of government infiltrators.

The self-declared Sinai branch of the Islamic State group is believed to have originally drawn on local Bedouin tribesmen for recruits. But the attacks it has claimed around the country have involved Egyptians from outside Sinai, suggesting it is gaining new followers.

Some Brotherhood members have attacked police stations or planted bombs on the street, but they usually get arrested, Abdelrahman said. “I tell people they should join a jihad group,” he said, “and if not, take the risky step of forming a group on their own, or even acting alone.”


AUG 2, 2015


ISTANBUL/BEIJING – The folded piece of paper with a photo of a 4-month-old baby tells a story that likely loomed over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Chinese hosts during his visit to Beijing last week.

Baby Arife is a Uighur, one of thousands of members of China’s Turkic language-speaking Muslim ethnic minority who have reached Turkey, mostly since last year, infuriating Beijing, which accuses Ankara of helping its citizens flee unlawfully.

Turkish officials deny playing any direct role in assisting the flight. But the document, labeled “Republic of Turkey Emergency Alien’s Travel Document” suggests otherwise.

Arife’s mother, Summeye, 35, says she was given it, along with documents for herself and her three other children, by a diplomat at the Turkish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, which she reached after a nine day journey transported by people smugglers through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The document, valid only for travel to Turkey, lists the baby’s place of birth as Turpan, a city in China’s western Xinjiang region. Under “nationality,” it says “East Turkestan,” the name Uighur activists and their Turkish supporters give for their Chinese-ruled homeland.

Other Uighurs in Istanbul said they too reached Turkey last year through a similar route, hiring people-smugglers to escape China and receiving travel documents on the way.

The issue is an uncomfortable one for Ankara, which says it is open to valid asylum claims by victims of repression who reach its territory, but denies acting abroad to assist the exodus of Uighurs that surged last year. Representatives of Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said they were not immediately able to comment on the temporary travel document.

Tong Bishan, a senior Chinese police officer helping to lead Beijing’s efforts to get Uighurs returned, said the issue of Turkey providing travel documents at embassies in southeast Asia has been raised “at high levels.”

“The general attitude of the Turkish government has been not bad,” he told reporters last month. “But what we have seen is that employees at Turkish embassies have been providing help.”

Uighurs fleeing China say they are escaping repression by the Chinese authorities.

“They don’t allow us to live as Muslims,” said another Uighur refugee, also named Sumeyye, who fled to Turkey last October with her three children and lives in the basement of a working-class housing block in Istanbul.

“You can’t pray. You can’t keep more than one Koran at home. You can’t teach Islam to your children. You can’t fast and you can’t go to Hajj. When you’re deprived of your whole identity, what’s the point?” she said, speaking through a translator and covered from head to toe in a chador.

Nationalist Turks regard the Uighurs as ethnic kin in peril and believe their government should do more to help them.

Earlier last month, when Thailand’s military rulers, under pressure from Beijing, forcibly deported nearly 100 Uighurs back to China, protests erupted in Turkey. The Thai consulate in Istanbul was stormed. There were reports of attacks on Chinese restaurants and east Asian tourists. A Chinese orchestra cancelled a concert.

In an apparent bid to placate Beijing, Erdogan said the unrest might have been aimed at damaging his trip, when he plans to raise the Uighurs’ plight.

On Wednesday, Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism and people smuggling, a senior Chinese diplomat said.

“Security and law enforcement cooperation is an important area for the two countries and both have agreed to strengthen cooperation,” Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming told reporters, after Xi and Erdogan met in Beijing.

Neither leader mentioned the issue while speaking before reporters.

China denies it represses the Uighurs and says their freedom of religion is respected. It accuses a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of waging an increasingly violent campaign for an independent state in Xinjiang and says it is recruiting followers to train in the Middle East.

“A lot of these people are victims. We don’t want to see them going to Turkey to become cannon fodder, to become new recruits for the terrorists,” said Tong, the Chinese police chief.

Uighurs themselves acknowledge that some members of their community have crossed from Turkey to fight alongside Islamic State militants in Syria, but say this is a small minority.

“These militants lure them, saying they will help them train for the Uighur cause, they will give them weapons and they will support them against China,” Uighur refugee Adil Abdulgaffar, 49, said in his apartment in Istanbul’s working-class Sefakoy district, next to a bookshelf filled with Muslim prayer books.

“I’ve known of people who have gone off to Syria from Turkey with hopes that these promises will come true. But I also know that they very much regret it and would like to come back,” he said. “Our brothers who have been battling for their existence for the past 50 to 60 years are longing for guns. They are also very naive, and open to being tricked.”

About 1,000 Uighurs are housed in a gated complex once used by the Turkish finance ministry in the conservative city of Kayseri in central Turkey, guarded by police.

The apartments, spread across around 10, five-story blocks, are spacious but sparsely furnished. Two large flags hang from one of the top floors, one the red Turkish flag, the other the blue flag of East Turkestan. One apartment is used as a Koranic school for young boys.

Many of the residents told stories of persecution in China and arduous journeys out, paying smugglers thousands of dollars to evade onerous travel restrictions imposed by Beijing.

“For these traffickers, Uighurs mean money, Uighurs mean cash. If you are Vietnamese … they charge $1,000, but when you are Uighur the price goes up five-fold, sometimes ten-fold,” said 54-year old Erkin Huseyin.

He said he had left Xinjiang in early 2014 after being told his brother, sick and imprisoned without trial since 1998, would not be allowed to see a doctor and would not leave jail alive.

“We were born into a life of oppression,” said another refugee, Omar Abdulgaffar, 44. “Our parents have gone through this and I thought… why should my children go through it too? So we escaped.”

Source: Japan Times.


August 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Efforts on Thursday by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to forge a coalition alliance with the country’s pro-secular party failed, edging Turkey closer toward new elections as it grapples with escalating violence.

Davutoglu said discussions with pro-secular party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu were frank but the two party leaders could not reach common ground for a power-sharing deal. “The likelihood of going to (elections) has increased. In fact, it has become the only option,” Davutoglu said after the talks that lasted less than two hours.

He did not say when the elections could be held but said a date should be set “at the closest time possible.” Davutoglu’s Islamic-rooted ruling party lost its majority in June elections, forcing it to seek a coalition to remain in power. The deadline for forming a government is the end of next week.

The prime minister could still turn to the nationalist party for a partnership, but that party’s leader has ruled out joining any party in a coalition. Another option is for the ruling party to form a minority government but that would need the support of another party in a vote of confidence.

By tradition, a party leader who fails to form a government must give other parties a chance to do so, but Davutoglu gave no indication he would. The development pushes Turkey into political uncertainty at a time when it is faced with a sharp surge of violence and the country is taking a more front-line role in a U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reported to favor renewed elections in the fall, in the hope that the ruling party, which he founded, can regain a parliamentary majority. Officials say the party’s grassroots are also opposed to a coalition with the pro-secular party.

In recent weeks, dozens have been killed in renewed clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels, while Turkish jets have conducted air raids on IS targets in Syria and Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq. U.S. jets on Wednesday launched their first airstrikes against IS targets in Syria from a key Turkish air base.

Critics have accused Erdogan of fomenting turmoil to highlight the need for a strong single-party rule, and to increase support for the ruling party by winning back nationalist votes and by discrediting a pro-Kurdish party he accuses of having ties to the Kurdish rebels.

The June election results were a major blow to Erdogan, who flouted impartiality rules to campaign for a supermajority for the ruling party that would have allowed it to usher in a system giving him increased powers.

The Turkish currency dropped to a record low of 2.8 against the dollar after the talks collapsed, losing some 1.5 percent in value. Davutoglu said there was no need for pessimism and compared elections to a “vaccine” that would help Turkey return to its old heath.

Kilicdaroglu suggested that Davutoglu never sought a true coalition alliance, but was looking for a short-lived government that would take the country to early elections. “We have not received a coalition proposal. What we were proposed was a (caretaker) government for elections,” Kilicdaroglu said. “A historic opportunity was missed.”

Delegations from the ruling party and Kilicdaroglu’s secular party have held a series of meetings in search of common ground for a partnership despite their deep-seated rivalries. Davutoglu said the two parties were poles apart on foreign and education policies and differed on the length of the coalition. The ruling party favored a short-term alliance, while the pro-secular party favored a long-term partnership.

The pro-secular party is strongly critical of the government’s policy on Syria, demanding that it abandon its insistence on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal. The party also wants improved relations with Egypt and Israel.

Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan earlier this month of obstructing coalition efforts, but Davutoglu insisted that the president never discouraged the talks.