Archive for October 26, 2015


September 12, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s government resigned Saturday in the face of intense criticism from state-friendly media that reflects growing discontent but stops short of faulting President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led the overthrow of an Islamist president two years ago.

The office of the president said he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and his Cabinet but that the ministers would continue to serve until a new body is appointed. El-Sissi tasked Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail with forming a new Cabinet within a week.

Prior to handing in his resignation, Mehleb provided a report detailing the performance of the government, which two officials from the president’s office said el-Sissi found “unsatisfying.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.

Egypt’s president is generally in charge of major affairs of state while the prime minister, whom he appoints, handles day-to-day running of the government. El-Sissi in recent months has had to perform tasks that normally should fall to Mehleb, such as arranging meetings with ministers and negotiating business deals with foreign investors, according to the two officials. Mehleb also failed to pressure his ministers into following through on memorandums of understanding that el-Sissi signed during a much-publicized economic summit in March, they said.

The country’s private media, while lavishing praise on el-Sissi, have slammed the government in recent weeks, accusing ministers of incompetence and of being out of touch with ordinary citizens suffering from years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

“El-Sissi and the armed forces are responsible for the accomplishments we see,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent journalist and popular TV host, who called Mehleb and his Cabinet a “burden” on the president. “All of the ministers that failed were Mehleb’s choices,” Eissa told viewers earlier this week.

The government suffered a major blow when Agriculture Minister Salah el-Din Helal was detained Monday after tendering his resignation amid an investigation into allegations that he and others received over $1 million in bribes.

The Egyptian government has long been plagued by corruption allegations, particularly regarding land deals. El-Sissi routinely insists that he is rooting out corruption. Mehleb walked out of a press conference in Tunisia earlier this week after being asked about the allegations, a move widely ridiculed by the pro-Sissi private media.

“Didn’t you watch el-Sissi’s speeches?” television host Youssef el-Hosseiny said, before playing clips of the president’s past press conferences for comparison. The corruption allegations have fed into the perception that the government is detached from the people and engaged in the sort of cronyism that was widespread in the Mubarak era and was a central grievance of the protesters who overthrew him.

Last week, the higher education minister reportedly tried to exempt the children of judges, army and police officers from unpopular regulations that restrict where Egyptians can attend university. In May, the justice minister suggested the children of sanitation workers could never aspire to be judges.

Mehleb, a former construction magnate and prominent member of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party, angered many in July when he suggested the country’s youth consider driving auto-rickshaws, known as tok-toks, instead of counting on government employment.

El-Sissi has approved a new civil service law that many believe will dramatically reduce the country’s 6 million-strong public workforce. There have been few public expressions of discontent with the government. A draconian law restricting protests, and a wide-ranging crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as well as secular activists, have largely silenced dissent.

The dismissal of the Cabinet could further bolster support for el-Sissi ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, furthering the image he has cultivated of himself as a leader who is above the political fray.

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October 21, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister says he wishes that Syrian President Bashar Assad stayed in Moscow longer to give his people “relief” and start the political transition.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke Wednesday in response to journalists’ questions about Assad’s visit to Moscow a day earlier. It was the Syrian leader’s first known trip abroad since the war broke out in 2011.

Davutoglu said: “If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact he should stay there so the transition can begin.” Davutoglu also reiterated Turkey’s position that Assad should have no role in Syria’s future, insisting that efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis should focus “not on a transition with Assad, but on formulas for Assad’s departure.”

October 17, 2015

CAMLIBEL, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey’s president expressed hope Saturday that an undersea pipeline carrying fresh water from Turkey to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus could help reunify the island amid Greek Cypriot protests that the project is a Turkish ploy to cement its grip on the island.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials inaugurated the pipeline by symbolically turning open a large valve, starting the flow of water through the 107-kilometer (66.5-mile) pipeline at a ceremony at the Mediterranean town of Anamur in Turkey. At a second ceremony in Cyprus, Erdogan, who flew in by helicopter, and other Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, symbolically pushed buttons to mark the water’s arrival at a nearby dam as confetti showered a cheering crowd.

The project is aimed to meet the north’s irrigation and drinking waters needs for the next half century, supplying around 2.6 billion cubic feet (75 million cubic meters) of water annually. Turkey has said the water could be shared with Greek Cypriots once the island is reunified. But Greek Cypriot officials have said the pipeline violates international law, serves to “integrate” the north and to “augment Turkey’s influence and control over Cyprus.”

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and only recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence while still maintaining 35,000 troops in the north.

With Turkey geared toward an election on Nov. 1, both ceremonies had the feel of an election campaign. Spectators at a balloon and flag-festooned water treatment plant in the north of the island broke out in a chant in support of Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister when the project was initiated.

“Our wish is for the whole of Cyprus to benefit from this water as a result of a fair and lasting solution,” Erdogan said. “Let’s hope that the waters of (Turkey) lead to an environment where unity takes root and lives forever.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at Anamur that Turkey and north Cyprus “have been interlocked in such a way that they will never be separated.” The project comes at a time of renewed peace talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

Akinci said the water would turn the drought-prone island into a “green island.” “When the time comes and by increasing the volume, this water can be shared with the south too. Then it will become a true ‘water of peace,'” a reference to the name of the project.

Akinci also said Cyprus could serve as a conduit for east Mediterranean natural gas to Europe. Cyprus has one proven deposit off its southern coast that’s estimated to contain more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The Cyprus government says any future gas revenues could be shared with Turkish Cypriots after a reunification accord is reached. Ilhame Yildiz, 57, was among several hundred spectators who arrived at a water treatment plant in the north of the island.

“This is good for Cyprus. The government on this side can take water and the government on the other side can take water too,” Yildiz said. Farhan Kul, a 76-year-old from Nicosia, said: “If they give water to south Cyprus, this will help bring peace.”

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

 

October 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey shot down an unidentified drone that flew into its airspace Friday near the Syrian border, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s air campaign backing a Syrian government offensive has killed hundreds of militants.

A U.S. official said the downed drone was Russian, but Moscow staunchly rejected the claim. The incident underlined the potential dangers of clashes involving Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition planes in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria. Russian and U.S. military officials have been working on a set of rules to prevent any problems.

The Turkish military said it issued three warnings before shooting down the aircraft with its fighter jets. It didn’t specify how it had relayed the warnings to the operators of the drone. The drone crashed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) inside Turkish territory, said Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu. “We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory,” he added.

Earlier this month, Turkey had protested two incursions by Russian warplanes, which also drew strong condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies. The U.S., Russia and the Syrian government all operate drones in the region.

The drone was definitely not American, and the U.S. believes it was Russian, said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow strongly denied ownership of the drone. “I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base,” said Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, speaking at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

The Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that no Syrian or Russian warplane or drone was shot down over Turkey. Seeking to soothe Turkey’s anger over violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft, Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to discuss preventing such incidents.

“They apologized a few times, said it happened by accident, and that they have taken measures so that it will not occur again,” Sinirlioglu said of Thursday’s talks in Ankara with the Russian delegation.

Since 2013, Turkey has shot down a Syrian military jet, a helicopter and a surveillance drone that strayed into Turkish airspace. The incidents occurred after Ankara changed its rules of engagement following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria.

Turkey, which patrols the border with F-16s, has also reported numerous incidents of harassment by Syrian fighter planes or Syria-based surface-to-air missile systems locking radar on the aircraft. Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive in central Syria a week later. They have so far met stiff resistance from rebels using U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have impeded swift breakthroughs, although they have taken a few villages from rebels in the past week.

On Friday, Syrian troops supported by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group pressed an assault against rebels in central Syria and launched another offensive in the northern province of Aleppo to try to recapture territory, according to activists and the government. The multiple-front offensives appear aimed at stretching rebel lines and keeping the insurgents off-balance.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised statement that the army launched an operation in the Damascus rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Harasta. He added that troops now control of all hills that overlook Harasta and the nearby suburb of Douma, a stronghold of Islam Army rebel group.

The attack appears aimed at securing President Bashar Assad’s seat of power that has been shelled recently from rebel-held areas. The fighting is particularly intense in the central province of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed in Russian airstrikes and fighting. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network that follows the war, put the death toll at 57.

The Russian military has rejected claims of civilian casualties, saying its planes haven’t targeted populated areas. At a meeting in Kazakhstan of leaders of former Soviet nations, Putin said his air force has achieved “impressive” results in Syria.

“Dozens of control facilities and ammunition depots, hundreds of terrorists and a large number of weapons have been destroyed,” he said. Putin said the Russian air campaign against the Islamic State group and other radicals in Syria will continue “for the period of the Syrian troops’ offensive operations against terrorists.” He would not elaborate.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, he said. “We can’t allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home,” he added.

Russian jets have flown 669 sorties since Sept. 30, including 394 this week, said Kartapolov, the Russian general. He emphasized the urgent need for a U.S.-Russian agreement on avoiding clashes, which is being negotiated.

“The sky over Syria is swarming with aircraft,” Kartapolov said. “Such intense and uncoordinated use of air power in Syria’s relatively small airspace may sooner or later lead to an incident.” In a bid to dispel claims by the U.S. and its allies that Moscow is focused on moderate rebels instead of its declared targets of Islamic State militants, Kartapolov said the Russian Defense Ministry would send a detailed map showing positions of the IS and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate targeted by the Russian aircraft.

“Our aircraft have been used on targets outside of populated areas,” he said. Kartapolov also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for striking a power plant near Aleppo, leaving the city without electricity and paralyzing its water supply and sewage system, something he said could only increase the flow of refugees.

In a separate interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kartapolov shrugged off the U.S. claim that four of 26 cruise missiles launched at targets in Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran.

“The Pentagon may say whatever it wants,” he said. “All our missiles reached their targets.” Kartapolov said the Russian jets haven’t yet faced any surface-to-air missiles and warned that their use by rebels would signal a foreign involvement.

Following a similar statement by Putin, the general ruled out Russian military involvement in ground action in Syria. He said Russian air and land assets in Syria will be pulled together with its Soviet-era Tartus navy facility in one base.

Kartapolov wouldn’t offer any further details, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the issue. Russian warships in the Mediterranean helped provide cover for its air base in the coastal province of Latakia and could take part in attacks on targets in Syria, Kartapolov said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

October 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Tuesday banned a protest rally and march by trade union and civic society activists who lost friends and colleagues in Turkey’s bloodiest terror attack, but hundreds of people defiantly gathered for the protest.

The two suicide bombings on Saturday came amid political uncertainty in the country — just weeks before Turkey’s Nov. 1 election which is in effect a re-run of an inconclusive June election. The bombings raised fears that the NATO country, a candidate for European Union membership, may be heading toward a period of instability.

The blasts have further polarized Turkey as it grapples with more than 2 million refugees and tries to avoid being drawn into the chaos in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Dogan news agency video footage on Tuesday showed police pushing back a group of demonstrators trying to reach the rally to commemorate the 97 victims of the two blasts.

Plain-clothed police pushed at least two demonstrators to the ground and detained them. “Our brothers were killed! What are you doing?” a woman demonstrator was heard shouting. The Istanbul governor banned the protest citing “sensitivities at this time” and because the routes demonstrators planned to march along were heavily used by the public.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the Islamic State group was the main focus of the investigation. Authorities said Saturday’s attacks bore similarities with a suicide bombing that killed 33 activists at a town near the border with Syria in July. No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s explosions that also wounded hundreds.

The bombers likely infiltrated Turkey from a neighboring country, according to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus. He said several arrests were made in connection to the attacks but did not elaborate.

As with previous terror probes, authorities imposed “partial secrecy” on the investigation which even restricts defense lawyers’ access to information. The government has also banned the publication of images of the aftermath of the attack.

In Ankara, some 200 students held a brief sit-in at Ankara University’s faculty of political science to commemorate the victims. The youngest was 9-year-old Veysel Atilgan, who died in an explosion outside Ankara’s main train station, along with his father. He was buried on Monday following an emotional ceremony at his school.

The city is on edge following the blasts and on Tuesday, police detonated a suspicious bag found near the station’s VIP lounge, hours after Davutoglu visited the site to lay carnations in respect to the victims. The bag, however, contained food.

October 11, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Nearly simultaneous explosions targeted a Turkish peace rally Saturday in Ankara, killing at least 95 people and wounding hundreds in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years — one that threatens to inflame the nation’s ethnic tensions.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were “strong signs” that the two explosions — which struck 50 meters (yards) apart just after 10 a.m. — were suicide bombings. He suggested that Kurdish rebels or Islamic State group militants were to blame.

The two explosions occurred seconds apart outside the capital’s main train station as hundreds of opposition supporters and Kurdish activists gathered for the peace rally organized by Turkey’s public workers’ union and other groups. The protesters planned to call for increased democracy in Turkey and an end to the renewed violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.

The attacks Saturday came at a tense time for Turkey, a NATO member that borders war-torn Syria, hosts more refugees than any other nation in the world and has seen renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels that has left hundreds dead in the last few months.

Many people at the rally had been anticipating that the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, would declare a temporary cease-fire — which it did hours after the bombing — to ensure that Turkey’s Nov. 1 election would be held in a safe environment.

Television footage from Turkey’s Dogan news agency showed a line of protesters Saturday near Ankara’s train station, chanting and performing a traditional dance with their hands locked when a large explosion went off behind them. An Associated Press photographer saw several bodies covered with bloodied flags and banners that demonstrators had brought for the rally.

“There was a massacre in the middle of Ankara,” said Lami Ozgen, head of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions, or KESK. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the attacks were carried out with TNT explosives fortified with metal ball-bearings.

Turkey’s government late Saturday raised the death toll in the twin bomb blasts to 95 people killed, 248 wounded. It said 48 of the wounded were in serious condition. Selcuk Atalay of the Turkish Medical Association’s Ankara branch put the death toll at at least 97 and feared the toll could rise even higher, since several of the wounded were in serious condition with burns.

“This massacre targeting a pro-Kurdish but mostly Turkish crowd could flame ethnic tensions in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute. Cagaptay said the attack could be the work of groups “hoping to induce the PKK, or its more radical youth elements, to continue fighting Turkey,” adding that the Islamic State group would benefit most from the full-blown Turkey-PKK conflict.

“(That) development could make ISIS a secondary concern in the eyes of many Turks to the PKK,” Cagaptay said in emailed comments, using another acronym for IS militants. Small anti-government protests broke out at the scene of the explosions and outside Ankara hospitals as Interior Minister Selami Altinok visited the wounded. Some demonstrators chanted “Murderer Erdogan!” — referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many accuse of increasing tensions with Kurds to profit at the ballot box in November. Erdogan denies the accusations.

Later Saturday, thousands gathered near Istanbul’s main square denouncing the attacks and also holding the government responsible. The Turkish government imposed a temporary news blackout covering images that showed the moment of the blasts, gruesome or bloody pictures or “images that create a feeling of panic.” A spokesman warned media organizations they could face a “full blackout” if they did not comply.

Many people reported being unable to access Twitter and other social media websites for several hours after the blasts. It was not clear if authorities had blocked access to the websites, but Turkey often does impose blackouts following attacks.

At a news conference, Davutoglu declared a three-day official mourning period for the blast victims and said Turkey had been warned about groups aiming to destabilize the country. “For some time, we have been receiving intelligence information based from some (Kurdish rebel) and Daesh statements that certain suicide attackers would be sent to Turkey… and that through these attackers chaos would be created in Turkey,” Davutoglu told reporters, using the IS group’s Arabic acronym.

“The (Kurdish rebels) or Daesh could emerge (as culprits) of today’s terror event,” Davutoglu said, promising that those behind the attacks would be caught and punished. Davutoglu said authorities had detained at least two suspected would-be suicide bombers in the past three days in Ankara and Istanbul.

Authorities had been on alert after Turkey agreed to take a more active role in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State group. Turkey opened up its bases to U.S. aircraft to launch air raids on the extremist group in Syria and carried out a limited number of strikes on the group itself. Russia has also entered the fray on behalf of the Syrian government recently, bombing sites in Syria and reportedly violating Turkish airspace a few times in the past week.

On a separate front, the fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels flared anew in July, killing at least 150 police and soldiers and hundreds of PKK rebels since then. Turkish jets have also carried out numerous deadly airstrikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

Erdogan condemned Saturday’s attacks, which he said targeted the country’s unity, called for solidarity and canceled a planned visit Monday to Turkmenistan. “The greatest and most meaningful response to this attack is the solidarity and determination we will show against it,” Erdogan said.

President Barack Obama offered condolences to Erdogan in a phone call Saturday. The White House said in a statement that Obama affirmed that the U.S. will stand with Turkey in the fight against terrorism.

Critics have accused Erdogan of re-igniting the fighting with the Kurds to seek electoral gains — hoping that the turmoil would rally voters back to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Electoral gains by the country’s pro-Kurdish party caused the AKP, founded by Erdogan, to lose its parliamentary majority in a June election after a decade of single-party rule.

The attacks Saturday, which even surpassed twin al-Qaida-linked attacks in Istanbul in 2003 that killed some 60 people, also drew widespread condemnation from Turkey’s allies. Turkey’s state-run news agency said President Barack Obama called Erdogan to extend his condolences. The Anadolu Agency, citing unnamed officials, said Obama told Erdogan the United States would continue to side with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. It quoted Obama as saying the U.S. “shared Turkey’s grief.”

Erdogan earlier said the twin bombings aimed to destroy Turkey’s “peace and stability.” Anadolu said the two leaders agreed to talk more in the coming days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her condolences, calling the attacks “particularly cowardly acts that were aimed directly at civil rights, democracy and peace.”

“It is an attempt at intimidation and an attempt to spread fear,” she said. “I am convinced that the Turkish government and all of Turkish society stands together at this time with a response of unity and democracy.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “there can be no justification for such a horrendous attack on people marching for peace… All NATO allies stand united in the fight against the scourge of terrorism.”

Saturday was the third attack against meetings of Kurdish activists. In July, a suicide bombing blamed on the Islamic State group killed 33 peace activists, including many Kurds, in the town of Suruc near Turkey’s border with Syria. Two people were killed in June in a bomb attack at the pro-Kurdish party’s election rally.

“This attack (Saturday) resembles and is a continuation of the Diyarbakir and Suruc (attacks),” said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party. He held Erdogan and Davutoglu’s government responsible for the latest attack, saying it was “carried out by the state against the people.”

In the aftermath of the Ankara attack, the PKK declared a temporary cease-fire. A rebel statement said Saturday the group is halting hostilities to allow the Nov. 1 election to proceed safely. It said it would not launch attacks but would defend itself.

The government has said there would be no letup in its fight against the Kurdish rebels. “Our operations (against the PKK) will continue until they lay down arms,” Davutoglu said late Friday. __ Burhan Ozbilici in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

 

October 11, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has appointed a team of investigators to look into the circumstances leading to the Taliban’s brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz as well as a U.S. airstrike that destroyed a hospital and killed at least 22 people there, his office said Saturday.

The five-man delegation appointed by presidential decree will leave soon for Kunduz to conduct a province-wide probe into how the insurgents were able to overrun the city on Sept. 28 and hold it for three days before government troops launched a counter offensive, Ghani’s office said.

Part of the team’s mandate would include looking into the Oct. 3 airstrike on a trauma center run by the international charity Doctors Without Borders. The team would be led by the former head of the national intelligence agency, Amrullah Saleh, and would report to the president.

The “fact-finding team” will deliver a “comprehensive report so that we know what happened in Kunduz, what kind of reforms should be brought and what are the lessons learned for the future,” the president was quoted as saying.

Ten days after government troops entered Kunduz, they are still fighting to clear out pockets of Taliban insurgents, officials and residents said. Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said three areas of the city had been retaken overnight, though a gas station in Seh Darak was hit by a rocket and destroyed. Hussaini said he did not know which side was responsible.

Kunduz resident Abdullah said that people were still leaving the city for safety. He said he had seen grocers emptying their shops of food to take home, fearing scarcities. He would only give his first name because of security concerns.

The World Food Program said it was feeding thousands of people who had left Kunduz and were now living in camps in other cities in the north, and that “additional wheat is being milled in anticipation of increased needs in the coming days.”

Food and water were still not getting through in adequate quantities, and the city remained without electricity, residents said. “The whole city is empty of people,” Abdullah said. “Residents are still not feeling safe.”

Representatives of Doctors Without Borders met with Ghani and his national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar on Friday, his office said in a statement. Ghani told them he had ordered Afghan security forces to ensure the protection of humanitarian organizations. The statement quoted him as saying investigations were needed “so that we know what happened in the incident, how information was collected, and how the incident happened based on that information.”

Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent probe of the incident by the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission — which is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia. It was created after the Gulf War in 1991, and has never deployed a fact-finding mission.

Doctors Without Borders — a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones — is awaiting responses to letters sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, asking to mobilize the 15-member commission.

For the IHFFC to be mobilized, a single country would have to call for the fact-finding mission, and the U.S. and Afghanistan — which are not signatories — must also give their consent. The airstrike was requested by Afghan ground forces, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, but mistakenly hit the hospital.

The bombing continued for about an hour and destroyed the hospital’s main building. President Barack Obama apologized and the U.S. military is investigating. The hospital has been abandoned. Doctors Without Borders said that 12 staff members and 10 patients, all of them Afghans, were killed. Many more are still missing, though all foreign staff have been accounted for.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it would offer “condolence payments” to civilians injured in the airstrike and the families of those killed as well as provide funds for repairing the hospital. The compensation will be handled through the already existing Commanders’ Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan, and if necessary additional authority will be sought from Congress, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement issued Saturday.

“The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic icncident atht eh Doctors Without Borders hospital,” Cook said.

October 13, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents’ perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Amnesty said its findings were based on visits to 14 towns and villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa this summer, areas that are under Kurdish control. It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

The rights group said at least two villages were entirely demolished. In at least eight other villages, the residents were forced to leave, sometimes threatened with being shot or targeted in U.S. airstrikes. It said the victims were mainly Arab, but also included Turkmens and other Kurds.

Amnesty quoted Kurdish fighters as saying the displacement was carried out for security purposes. A Kurdish official in northern Syria told The Associated Press that forces may have committed minor violations against people suspected of ties to the IS group, but that such actions were not based on ethnicity. The official was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in the north since the start of the civil war in 2011. Kurdish fighters have been among the most successful ground forces battling the IS group. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, they defeated the IS group in the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this year and have since expanded their territory along the border with Turkey.

But Amnesty adviser Lama Fakih said the Kurds’ treatment of civilians amounted to collective punishment. “In its fight against IS, the (Kurdish administration) appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle.”

The London-based group called on Kurdish officials to end such abuses, compensate the families for their losses and hold those responsible accountable.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

October 10, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The leader of a Tunisian human rights group that was among the winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize said the honor has meaning not just for his country but for all those mired in war.

It’s also a ray of good news for a North African nation that has suffered two major terror attacks this year. Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he saw a message in giving the prize to the Tunisian coalition that laid the groundwork for the only democracy springing from the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

“It’s a message for neighboring countries where the civil is now permanent, in Libya for example where arms are used for years, and that doesn’t resolve problems,” he said. For many Tunisians, including Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the employers’ association UTICA, which was also honored, it’s also a message of confidence for the future of a country that is still troubled by poverty and violence.

Since two terror attacks this year that killed scores of tourists — one at the Bardo museum and another at a beach resort in Sousse — foreign tourism has plummeted and with it, hope for economic growth. Growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while unemployment is over 15 percent and inflation has been running around 6 percent.

“It says that Tunisia is a country where life is good. People can come and invest safely in Tunisia,” Bouchamaoui said. Hopes were high even among Tunisians not directly affected by the prize, in a country that had become increasingly despairing after this year’s deadly attacks.

“More than support and aid from abroad, this is an honor for Tunisians and should move them to give more in the service of the country to deal with the difficult situation it’s enduring,” said 25-year-old Monem Arfaoui.

October 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — France has signed deals worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) with Saudi Arabia, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday, underscoring the shared foreign policy stances that have helped deepen the two countries’ military and economic ties.

Valls, who announced the deals on his official Twitter account, is in Saudi Arabia with a large delegation of French business representatives and top officials, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the deal includes the start of negotiations to provide Saudi Arabia with its own communication and observation satellites — something the kingdom has been coveting as it expands its regional military reach and fights a war against Shiite rebels in Yemen.

The two sides also signed deals in Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Saudi public investment in French private funds with a focus on renewable energy and signed a letter of intent for cooperation in that sector. They also signed a cooperation agreement to establish a naval research center and to increase joint military training exercises.

The two countries agreed to hold another joint session in Paris next March. The visit to Saudi Arabia is part of a regional tour that included stops in Jordan and Egypt, where a $1.1 billion deal for two French Mistral amphibious assault ships was signed.

The French delegation, which arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in the capital, Riyadh.

A French official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says a military helicopter deal is also expected to be signed in Riyadh. In June, Saudi Arabia signed agreements worth billions of dollars to buy 23 helicopters for the Interior Ministry, 50 Airbus jets and two possible nuclear reactors from France.

The alliance between France and Saudi Arabia has grown stronger in recent years as ties between Washington and Riyadh cooled under President Barack Obama, particularly following his administration’s strong backing of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Though France was a part of the nuclear negotiations, its position has more strongly reflected Saudi concerns that the deal could bolster Iran’s influence in the region if economic sanctions are not lifted gradually. Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposite sides in the civil war in Syria.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference Tuesday with his French counterpart “there is no future” for President Bashar Assad in Syria, who is backed by Iran and Russia. Valls, meanwhile, also met Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding Company — which owns or manages several iconic landmarks in France, including The Four Seasons Hotel George V and the Le Royal Monceau Hotel.

The French delegation additionally took part in a business forum. According to Saudi media, France is the third largest investor in Saudi Arabia and has more than 80 companies operating in the kingdom, employing around 11,000 Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil and to create more jobs in the private sector for its growing young population. A slump in oil prices has gutted the kingdom’s most important source of revenue, forcing it to run a budget deficit and draw from its large foreign currency reserves.

John Sfakianakis, the Middle East director for British fund manager Ashmore Group, participated in the Saudi-French business forum and said it was more than just “empty words.” “It’s actually based on contracts that will materialize,” he said. “The Saudi-French business ties are very deep and old, and quite extensive and cover many sectors ranking from defense, security, health care, retail, food sector. It’s very important for Saudi’s diversification efforts.”

The visit to Saudi Arabia comes after Paris expanded its airstrikes against the Islamic State group by targeting IS militants in Syria last month for the first time. France had previously targeted IS militants in Iraq, where the group also holds territory. France and Saudi Arabia are both part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS.

The strong alliance between France and Saudi Arabia was highlighted in May when French President Francois Hollande met with the heads of state of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh for a meeting in his honor. And in November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh. The Lebanese military is widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by Iran.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.