Archive for November 1, 2015

June 25, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — After weeks of setbacks, militants from the Islamic State group launched swift counteroffensives Thursday on predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, killing and wounding dozens and setting off car bombs, activists and officials said.

The two-pronged attack on the northeastern city of Hassakeh and the border town of Kobani came two days after an Islamic State spokesman acknowledged that the group might lose some battles but would not be defeated. The spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, had urged militants to strike back at their foes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and “shake the ground beneath them.”

The early morning assault by IS captured part of Hassakeh, which has long been divided between Syrian Kurds and the military forces of President Bashar Assad. The militants also hit Kobani, a northern town on Syria’s border with Turkey that had become a symbol of Kurdish resistance against the Islamic State extremists. The Kurdish forces, backed by a campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes, drove the militants from Kobani and surrounding villages in January.

Thursday’s fighting in Kobani killed 35 civilians and Kurdish fighters, and 14 extremists, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It was the first time in six months the militants, who set off three car bombs, had managed to enter the town, the group said.

The IS militants, wearing Syrian rebel uniforms and carrying flags of the mainstream Free Syrian Army to deceive the Kurdish defenders, launched their attack from areas to the south and west of Kobani, said Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Ghalia Nehme, a commander with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from Kobani that its fighters were defending a position in the town. Another Kurdish official in Kobani, Idriss Naasan, said the fighting was intense in the morning but sporadic at midday.

“We hear cracks of gunfire every now and then,” Naasan said around noon, adding that he had heard explosions of unknown origin. Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bali said in the evening that IS fighters were still in the city and held several buildings, but that YPG fighters were trying to surround them. He said some IS militants were using civilians as human shields.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Twitter that four people were killed and 96 people had been wounded in Kobani. A suicide bomber detonated his car near the border gate, according to two Turkish officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Surveillance video seen by the AP showed a fiery explosion around dawn. Syrian state TV said the extremists crossed into Kobani from Turkey, but Kurtulmus dismissed such allegations as untrue, according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.

IS fighters entered the village of Barkh Botan near Kobani, opening fire on civilians and killing 20 people, the Observatory said. Syria’s state news agency SANA said 22 people were killed, including women and children.

The differing casualty figures from Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian sources could not be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of the violence. Natasha Underhill, an expert on Middle East terrorism from Britain’s Nottingham Trent University, said the re-entry of Islamic State forces in Kobani “comes as a warning to the strength of the group.”

What some may consider a victory over IS in Kobani could actually be an effort by the group to withdraw and develop a different strategy, she added. A year ago, the Islamic State group captured large parts of Syria and Iraq and subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory under its control. A major IS attack had been widely expected during Ramadan, which began last week.

Referring to the attack on Hassakeh, Khalil said the militants struck government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city and captured some areas. Syrian state TV reported intense clashes inside the southern neighborhood of Nashawi, with IS fighters killing several people they captured. It said there were many casualties among the militants, including the Tunisian commander of the group.

The fighting forced many residents to flee to safer areas, activists said. IS tried to storm Hassakeh earlier this month and reached its southern outskirts before meeting strong resistance from Syrian government troops who pushed them away.

The attacks on Hassakeh and Kobani came days after Kurdish fighters and their allies captured the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey and the town of Ein Issa to the south. Kurdish fighters have been advancing since January, thanks to coalition airstrikes.

Associated Press writers Ayse Wieting and Raphael Satter in Istanbul and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

The workers’ strike at Egypt’s biggest textile factory has entered its 10th day as the administration threatens to end staff contracts if they do not return to work, Quds Press reported on Friday.

In order to return to work, the workers’ have demanded that the company officially agree on payment of a “social allowance” equivalent to a ten per cent addition to their monthly pay.

They also want this payment to be counted retrospectively starting on the date it was pledged by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

According to Quds Press, the workers became enraged after seven members of staff were turned over to investigation services over claims they had incited the workers to go on strike.

Quds Press reported that the company had agreed to the additional payment, but that the workers said they would not go back to work unless a statement including the decision was posted on the factory notice board.

The company branch in Mahala placed a statement on Wednesday that included threatening nine workers to be dismissed from work and turning seven others over to investigators.

The workers tore down the statement and said they would return to work only after the company places a new statement that includes its agreement to making the additional payment.

Monitors said that this strike recalled the strikes during the last days of the Mubarak era, when a wide range of workers went on strike and arguably sparked the flash that ignited the 25 January Revolution.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


November 01, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turks are heading to the polls in a crucial parliamentary election that will determine whether the ruling party can restore the parliamentary majority it enjoyed for 13 years.

The contest is a rerun of a June election in which the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, surprisingly lost its one-party rule. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is calling on voters to choose stability and give AKP a new majority. Opposition parties hope to force Davutoglu into forming a coalition.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not on the ballot, but voters will determine whether he can continue to be Turkey’s primary political power by guiding his party in parliament. More than 54 million people are eligible to vote at more than 175,000 stations and turnout is expected to be high.

October 30, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish political parties on Friday made their closing appeals ahead of Sunday’s crucial parliamentary election.

The contest is a redo of a June election in which the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost its majority after 13 years of single-party rule. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for new elections after his appointed prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, failed to form a coalition with any of the three opposition parties represented in parliament.

Opposition parties, however, accuse Erdogan of acting behind the scenes to scupper the coalition efforts in the hope that the ruling party can win back its majority in the repeat election. The ballot comes amid ever increasing instability in neighboring Syria and Iraq and as Turkey grapples with more than 2 million refugees, though the latter hasn’t been much of an issue.

As he sought a rebound, Davutoglu campaigned in his home city of Konya on Friday. With the country gripped by violence, he emphasized security at home. “We will one by one defeat the terror and the negative reflection of the conflict in the region,” he said.

Supporters chanted “Alone!” in support of the party ruling without a coalition partner. “This is a vote on Turkey’s future,” Davutoglu said. “It’s almost a referendum. You will decide on whether Turkey will continue to rise.”

The main secularist opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, campaigning in his party’s stronghold, Izmir, promised to restore Turkey’s relations with neighbors and the Arab world. “Our relations with the Arabs have soured, our ties with Egypt have soured, our ties with Libya have soured. We are quarrelling with Syria,” Kilicdaroglu said. “They say ‘Our exports have dropped.’ Well you haven’t left us with any neighbors. They say ‘Tourists don’t come.’ Why would they come?”

The election comes amid a breakdown in the once hopeful peace process between the government and Kurdish militants. Campaigning on Friday in Istanbul, Selahattin Demirtas of the main Kurdish HDP party cast the election as a referendum on Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for the last 13 years.

“Our country is now at a crossroads,” he said. “Turkey will head toward a one-man system and oppressive dictatorial regime or it will head toward a road that heads to democracy.”

October 31, 2015

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco is reacting aggressively to any challenges to its claims on Western Sahara, as it marks 40 years since taking control of the mineral-rich territory. Among apparent targets of its wrath: Swedish icons IKEA, Volvo and H&M.

This month, the Moroccan government announced it would consider boycotting Swedish products and companies over reports that Sweden was planning to recognize the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR, which disputes sovereignty over Western Sahara with Morocco. Some 60 countries consider it an independent state, but no Western nation does. Morocco has been stuck in a frozen conflict for years with the Polisario Front, the Algeria-backed insurgency that proclaimed SADR.

Brands associated with Sweden have faced difficulties in Morocco in recent weeks: The country’s first IKEA store was blocked from opening last month over administrative problems. Employees were mysteriously unable to enter a Volvo dealership.

Thousands of Moroccans from labor unions and non-governmental groups marched in front of the Swedish Embassy in support of the possible boycott — some distributing brochures showing the logo of companies such as Swedish retailer H&M crossed out with a bold red “x.”

“This is the Moroccan people’s decision, not the Moroccan government’s,” said Mohamed Yacoubi from the Moroccan Center for Human Rights, who participated in the protest. Sweden will undergo a review of its policy toward the Western Sahara, due to be completed in February. But so far, “there has been no dramatic development in Sweden,” said Jens Orback, a former Social Democratic Cabinet member and current head of the Olof Palme International Center, a human rights group linked to Sweden’s governing Social Democrats.

While in the opposition, the Social Democrats called for Sweden to recognize the Western Sahara as an independent state, but now that they are in government, they appear more cautious. “The experience from (Sweden’s) recognition of Palestine have made them realize that they will get a lot of criticism,” Orback said.

Meanwhile, Morocco sent a delegation to Sweden comprised of leaders of leftist parties, with Nabila Mounib, Secretary General of the United Socialist Party, at its head. Upon her return, Mounib said that “Sweden does not understand Morocco’s anxieties.” She said she had the impression, however, that Sweden doesn’t plan to recognize SADR independence.

The Sweden flap is one of several signs of tension ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Western Saharan conflict next month, which the Moroccan government is marking with speeches and royal visits. Morocco annexed the mineral-rich former Spanish colony in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front until the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991. The territory on the Atlantic Coast is home to the U.N.’s longest-running peacekeeping mission — and its only mission without a mandate to monitor human rights.

Human rights groups say Morocco uses violence to stifle dissent, while the government insists U.N. monitoring is only needed when there are major violations. The issue erupted into a diplomatic dispute with the U.S. in 2013.

The Moroccan government recently urged Human Rights Watch to suspend its activities in Morocco pending a meeting between government representatives and the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth. Human Rights Watch says it responded and proposed meeting dates, with no response.

Then in early October, the Wall Street Journal carried a full-page appeal by Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi to Roth describing the group’s activities in Morocco as biased. “We don’t understand what motivates this surprisingly aggressive letter,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch’s Advocacy and Communications Director, for its Middle East and North Africa Division.

The group says it’s especially surprised by the new pressure because in August it publicly praised the Moroccan government’s approval of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Human Rights Abuses Committed by the Moroccan State.

Diplomatic tensions around Western Sahara often manifest themselves indirectly. The troubles with IKEA, for example, erupted just before it was scheduled to open Sept. 29. Morocco’s Interior Ministry said its opening was blocked because it lacked a proper “certificate of conformity.” But the move came amid Internet rumors about Sweden’s potential recognition of the Western Sahara. While IKEA is now based in the Netherlands, its founder and public image are resolutely Swedish.

Soon afterward, the government said it was considering a boycott of Swedish goods. Around the same time, authorities reportedly blocked employees from entering a Casablanca Volvo dealership, operated by a private importer.

“We are not affected by the discussed boycott in Morocco,” Volvo Cars said in a statement. “The incident in Casablanca relates to an issue around the ownership and rent of the dealership facility, it has nothing to do with the political debate.”

Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.