Archive for February, 2016


February 26, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Two journalists imprisoned for their reports on alleged government arms-smuggling to Syria were released from jail early on Friday hours after Turkey’s highest court ruled that their rights were violated.

A large group of supporters greeted Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar and the paper’s Ankara representative, Erdem Gul, as they emerged from a van after being freed from Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul.

The two were jailed in November, months after the center-left opposition daily Cumhuriyet published what it said were images of Turkish trucks carrying ammunition to Syrian militants. The images reportedly date back to January 2014, when local authorities searched Syria-bound trucks, touching off a standoff with Turkish intelligence officials. The paper said the images proved that Turkey was smuggling arms to rebels. The government initially denied the trucks were carrying arms, maintaining that the cargo consisted of humanitarian aid Some officials later suggested the trucks were carrying arms or ammunition destined for Turkmen groups in Syria.

The two were arrested after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed a complaint against them, leading to heightened concerns over conditions for journalists and media freedoms in Turkey. The Constitutional Court ruled late on Thursday that authorities had violated Dundar’s and Gul’s personal rights as well as their rights to freedom of expression by jailing them, paving their way to prosecution without being held in prison.

Prosecutors are seeking life prison terms for Dundar and Gul on charges of supporting a terror organization, threatening state security and espionage for publishing state secrets. They are accused of collaborating with a movement led by a U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has become Erdogan’s top foe.

The prosecutors’ indictment accuses the two of working with the movement to create the image that the government was aiding terror groups and to cripple its “ability to rule.” Government officials accuse Gulen’s supporters of stopping the trucks as part of a plot to bring down the government. The government has branded the movement a “terror organization” although it is not known to have been engaged in any acts of violence.

The journalists’ first trial is set for March 25. Dundar called the court’s ruling for their release a historic decision for freedom of expression in Turkey. He also said his release Friday would be “a present” on Erdogan’s 62nd birthday.

Last month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Dundar’s wife during a visit to Turkey in a show of support for journalists facing prosecution.

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February 19, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Friday detained three more suspects in connection with the deadly bombing in Ankara that Turkey has blamed on Kurdish militants at home and in neighboring Syria, while Turkey’s military pushed ahead with its cross-border artillery shelling campaign against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia positions in Syria.

Anadolu Agency said authorities have now taken 17 people into custody as part of the investigation into Wednesday’s suicide car bomb attack, which targeted buses carrying military personnel and killed 28 people. It said the latest suspects are believed to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said three of the detained suspects are believed to have played “an active part” in the attack. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the attack was carried out by a Syrian national who was a member of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. He said rebels of the PKK, which has led a more than 30-year insurgency against Turkey, were also behind the attack.

Erdogan said Friday that Turkish authorities don’t have the slightest doubt that the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, were behind the bombing and said Turkey was saddened by its Western allies’ failure to brand them as terrorist groups.

Speaking to reporters following Friday prayers in Istanbul, Erdogan also said he would take up the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama later in the day. Anadolu reported late Thursday that Turkish artillery units were “intermittently” firing shells into Syria, targeting militia positions near the village of Ayn Daqna, south of the town of Azaz.

The leader of the main Syrian Kurdish group, Salih Muslim, has denied his group was behind the bombing, and he warned Turkey against taking ground action in Syria. Following the attack, Turkey stepped up pressure on the United States and other allies to cut off support to the militia group. Turkey views the YPG as a terror group because of its affiliation with the PKK.

The YPG, however, has been most effective in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Ankara appears increasingly uneasy over the group’s recent gains across its border and has continued to shell the militia despite international calls for it to stop.

Davutoglu, accompanied by other ministers, placed 28 carnations at the site of the attack Friday in honor of the dead. Hundreds of people, meanwhile, filled two main mosques in Ankara for the funerals of at least eight of the victims.

The attack was the second bombing in the capital in four months.

February 18, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Syrian national with links to Syrian Kurdish militia carried out the suicide bombing in Ankara that targeted military personnel and killed at least 28 people, Turkey’s prime minister said Thursday.

Turkey’s Kurdish rebels collaborated with the Syrian man to carry out Wednesday’s attack, Ahmet Davutoglu said during a news conference. “The attack was carried out by the PKK together with a person who sneaked into Turkey from Syria,” Davutoglu said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK.

Authorities have detained nine people in connection with the attack, he said. Turkey’s military, meanwhile, said its jets conducted cross-border raids against Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq, hours after the Ankara attack, striking at a group of about 60-70 rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The car bomb went off late Wednesday in Turkey’s capital during evening rush hour. It exploded near buses carrying military personnel that had stopped at traffic lights, in an area close to parliament and armed forces headquarters and lodgings. The blast was the second deadly bombing in Ankara in four months.

Davutoglu confirmed earlier news reports that said the attacker was Syrian. Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the government, said the assailant who detonated the car bomb near the military buses in an apparent suicide attack had been registered as a refugee in Turkey and was identified from his fingerprints.

Pro-government Sabah newspaper said the man was linked to the PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy for Kurds in Turkey’s southeast region. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which killed military personnel and civilians, although suspicion had immediately fallen on the PKK or the Islamic State group. In October, suicide bombings blamed on IS targeted a peace rally outside the main train station in Ankara, killing 102 people in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years.

The attack drew international condemnation and Turkish leaders have vowed to find those responsible and to retaliate against them with force. The military said Thursday that Turkish jets attacked PKK positions in northern Iraq’s Haftanin region, hitting the group of rebels which it said included a number of senior PKK leaders. The claim couldn’t be verified.

Turkey’s air force has been striking PKK positions in northern Iraq since a fragile two-and-a-half year-old peace process with the group collapsed in July, reigniting a fierce three-decade old conflict.

“Our determination to retaliate to attacks that aim against our unity, togetherness and future grows stronger with every action,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “It must be known that Turkey will not refrain from using its right to self-defense at all times.”

The attack came at a tense time when the Turkish government is facing an array of challenges. Hundreds of people have been killed in renewed fighting following the collapse of the peace process and tens of thousands have been displaced.

Turkey has also been helping efforts led by the U.S. to combat the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria, and has faced several deadly bombings in the last year that were blamed on IS. The Syrian war is raging along Turkey’s southern border. Recent airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces have prompted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey’s border.

February 18, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A car bomb went off in the Turkish capital Wednesday near vehicles carrying military personnel, killing at least 28 people and wounding 61 others, officials said. The explosion occurred during evening rush hour in the heart of Ankara, in an area close to parliament and armed forces headquarters and lodgings. Buses carrying military personnel were targeted while waiting at traffic lights at an intersection, the Turkish military said while condemning the “contemptible and dastardly” attack.

“We believe that those who lost their lives included our military brothers as well as civilians,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said. At least two military vehicles caught fire and dozens of ambulances were sent to the scene. Dark smoke could be seen billowing from a distance.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Kurtulmus pledged that authorities would find those behind the bombing. He said the government had appointed seven prosecutors to investigate the attack, which he described as being “well-planned.”

Kurdish rebels, the Islamic State group and a leftist extremist group have carried out attacks in the country recently. In October, suicide bombings blamed on IS targeted a peace rally outside the main train station in Ankara, killing 102 people in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the bombing saying it exceeds all “moral and humane boundaries.” Turkey is determined to fight those who carried out the attack as well as the “forces” behind the assailants, he said.

“Our determination to retaliate to attacks that aim against our unity and future grows stronger with every action,” Erdogan said. “It must be known that Turkey will not refrain from using its right to self-defense at all times.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the explosion and “hopes the perpetrators of this terrorist attack will be swiftly brought to justice,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Wednesday’s attack comes at a tense time when the Turkish government is facing an array of challenges. A fragile peace process with Kurdish rebels collapsed in the summer and renewed fighting has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

Turkey has also been helping efforts led by the United States to combat the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria, and has faced several deadly bombings in the last year that were blamed on IS. The Syrian war is raging along Turkey’s southern border. Recent airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces have prompted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey’s border. Turkey so far has refused to let them in, despite being urged to do so by the United Nations and European nations, but is sending aid to Syrian refugee camps right across the border.

Turkey, which is already home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, has also been a key focus of European Union efforts to halt the biggest flow of refugees to the continent since World War II. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of refugees leave every night from Turkey to cross the sea to Greece in smugglers’ boats.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg strongly condemned the “terrorist attack” and offered his condolences to the families of the victims. Stoltenberg said there can be no justification “for such horrific acts” and that “NATO Allies stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against terrorism.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “In the battle against those responsible for these inhuman acts we are on the side of Turkey.” Washington also condemned the attack, according to a statement by Mark Toner, deputy spokesman of the U.S. State Department.

“We reaffirm our strong partnership with our NATO Ally Turkey in combatting the shared threat of terrorism,” Toner said. After the attack, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu canceled a visit to Brussels Wednesday evening and attended a security meeting with Erdogan and other officials. Erdogan postponed a trip to Azerbaijan planned for Thursday.

The government meanwhile, imposed a gag order which bans media organizations from broadcasting or printing graphic images of the dead or injured from the scene of the explosion and also banned reporting on any details of the investigation. Turkey has imposed similar bans after previous attacks.

Last month, 11 German tourists were killed after a suicide bomber affiliated with the IS detonated a bomb in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. More than 30 people were killed in a suicide attack in the town of Suruc, near Turkey’s border with Syria, in July.

February 23, 2016

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — Der, die, das: Little words that are the ticket to a new life. Mohammed al-Haj, a Syrian migrant whose journey across Eastern Europe to Germany last summer was documented by The Associated Press, has finished his first German language course and is getting ready for his second one. The feat, together with his recently granted three-year German residency permit, sets the 27-year-old up for a new life in his adopted home.

A native of Aleppo, Syria’s one-time economic capital that now lies in ruins, al-Haj came to the western German state of Saarland in September to benefit from its swift processing of migrants. He has since shown a healthy zeal to adapt.

In November, he accepted an offer by local authorities to take voluntary German classes. He begins mandatory German language classes in April, seeking a proficiency that will allow him to study in Germany.

“Honestly, it was worth the risk,” he said of his perilous, two-week journey from Turkey to Greece and across the Balkans to Germany. “The conditions in Germany are very good, at least here in my state. It was worth the risk to build a future here.”

Al-Haj has lived in a private home with three other Syrian asylum-seekers since October. His rent is paid by the local government and he receives a monthly stipend of 330 euros ($368) for food and other expenses.

“I manage, but I cannot go to many places because transport is costly,” he said. Al-Haj says he can get his point across in halting German, but he hopes eventually to be good enough to enroll at a German university to study media and business administration.

“Without knowing the German language, they (migrants) have no chance in Germany,” said Franca Cipriano, director of the Tertia German language school in Saarlouis where al-Haj took his classes. “If they want to work, they have to know the language. If they want to get citizenship in Germany and have a German passport, they have to pass a test about civic education and a language test. So without knowing the language, it is impossible.”

Al-Haj was about to start a degree in Arabic literature at Aleppo when the war broke out in 2011, and he had to shelve his dream to work to support his family. His decision to join the over 1 million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others making the often-perilous, smuggler-filled journey to western Europe last year came after his student visa application to study in Germany was turned down. At the time, he told The AP he had no choice. Returning to Syria was not an option — he was convinced the war would only get worse.

He still doesn’t see any hope of going back in the near future. “I don’t know what may become of Syria,” he said. “I don’t expect to visit home in the next three years.”

February 23, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian opposition activist bluntly accused Chechnya’s Moscow-backed regional leader of involvement in the killing of a prominent Kremlin foe, describing the Chechen strongman as a top security threat to Russia in a report released Tuesday.

Ilya Yashin said he had “no doubt” that Ramzan Kadyrov was behind the killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Feb. 27, 2015, outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Yashin said he was sure the suspected triggerman, an officer in Kadyrov’s security force, and his alleged accomplices wouldn’t have acted without Kadyrov’s approval. Kadyrov has denied the accusations and the official probe has failed to identify the mastermind behind the murder.

The Chechen leader posted a link to Yashin’s report on his Instagram account, where he has 1.7 million followers, and other social networks hours before its official release, dismissing it as “chatter.”

Yashin’s presentation of the report at the opposition party’s headquarters in Moscow Tuesday was interrupted by a bomb threat and police moved to clear the hall. An unidentified protester threw replica U.S. dollars at Yashin, suggesting perceived U.S. support for the Russian opposition.

In his report, Yashin accused Kadyrov of misappropriating generous federal subsidies to Chechnya to enrich himself and his loyalists and relying on a personal army of 30,000 to enforce his rule. “Chechnya has become a separate state within the Russian state,” Yashin said. “Kadyrov effectively rejects the federal law and ignores the Russian constitution.”

President Vladimir Putin has relied on Kadyrov to stabilize the region in Russia’s North Caucasus after two devastating separatist wars. The gruff 39-year-old succeeded his father, the former rebel who switched sides to become Chechnya’s first Moscow-backed leader before dying in a rebel bombing in 2004.

Kadyrov has used personal ties with Putin to ensure a steady flow of federal funds and effective immunity from federal controls. His unparalleled clout has angered leaders of Russia’s powerful law enforcement agencies, who have pushed for Kadyrov’s dismissal.

The killing of Nemtsov, who was shot dead while walking across a bridge outside the Kremlin, reportedly made Putin mad and emboldened Kadyrov’s foes. The probe into the killing has bogged down, however, apparently reflecting Putin’s view of Kadyrov as a linchpin of stability in Chechnya.

Tensions around Kadyrov heightened in recent weeks when he launched scathing criticism of Russian opposition leaders. With Kadyrov’s term set to expire in early April, some observers saw his statements as an attempt to secure Putin’s support for keeping the job.

In a radio interview broadcast Tuesday, Kadyrov mixed obedience with expressions of unswerving loyalty to the Russian president, saying he was proud to be a “foot soldier” of Putin ready to step down when he says so.

“If they tell me to keep on serving I will serve, and if they say goodbye I will bid farewell,” Kadyrov said. He added that he dreams about leading a military unit to fight “enemies of Russia.” Yashin strongly called for Kadyrov’s ouster, describing his regime as a “threat to national security.”

“Vladimir Putin has placed a time bomb in the North Caucasus that may blow up in case of any serious political crisis and turn into a third Chechen war,” he said.

February 21, 2016

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greek police say Macedonia has closed its southern border with Greece to Afghan migrants, allowing entry only for Iraqis and Syrians. Macedonian authorities reportedly said that Serbia has done the same on its southern border with Macedonia.

Macedonian police started restricting the flow of migrants across the Greek-Macedonian border Saturday, conducting body searches and demanding passports. Earlier, they had accepted Greek police’s official documents attesting that an individual had been processed.

The moves have led to a buildup of migrants waiting at the Greek side of the border. Greek police said 800 were stranded at the border Sunday and another 2,750 were waiting in 55 buses nearby. In the 24 hours to 6 a.m. local (0400 GMT) Sunday, only 310 migrants had been allowed into Macedonia.

Berlin (AFP)

Feb 21, 2016

Germany is considering sending troops to Tunisia to help train soldiers in the fight against the Islamic State group, a newspaper report said on Sunday.

Bild am Sonntag said that representatives of the defense and foreign ministries would hold talks in Tunis on Thursday and Friday about how the German military could lend support in a training mission.

It said the engagement envisaged training Tunisian soldiers first and could eventually be extended to setting up a training camp in Tunisia for Libyan soldiers, run with other international partners.

“The IS terror is threatening all of North Africa,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the newspaper.

She said it was thus crucial “to make every effort to support countries struggling with democracy such as Tunisia”.

Von der Leyen told the newspaper that a training camp in Tunisia would be a contribution toward regional stability.

“And if its direct neighbor Libya manages to put in place a unity government one day, its security forces could also benefit from established training facilities in Tunisia,” she said.

A defense ministry spokesman told AFP he had no further details beyond the minister’s remarks.

A foreign ministry spokesman confirmed the planned talks in Tunis “on further cooperation on security” but declined to provide more information.

German forces are currently engaged in the international alliance against the Islamic State group, including by arming and training Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and flying reconnaissance missions over Syria with Tornado jets.

Since 2013, Germany has provided Tunisia with more than 100 million euros ($111 million) in programs to improve its economy. It also provides its security forces with equipment and training.

However the country’s defense commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels warned in a report last month that the German military was overstretched and underfunded and had reached “the limit of its capacity for interventions”.

Tunisia suffered two devastating attacks targeting its vital tourist sector last year, in the beach resort of Sousse and on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, that together left 60 people dead. Both were claimed by IS.

IS has also been gaining ground in Libya amid the unrest that has gripped the country since longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi was ousted in 2011.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Germany_mulling_military_training_mission_in_Tunisia_report_999.html.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that it is planning to supply the moderate Syrian opposition with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), AlKhaleej.com has reported. Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made the announcement during an interview with the Germany weekly Der Spiegel; his comments were then reported widely by other media outlets.

“We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground,” he told Der Spiegel. “It will allow the moderate opposition groups to neutralize the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them.” He noted that something similar happened previously in Afghanistan.

Al-Jubeir repeated his calls for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “to step down in order to enable a political solution to the five-year-long war.” He suggested that Russian interference does not help the Assad regime in the long term.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24046-saudi-arabia-to-supply-syrian-opposition-with-sams.

February 20, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Two Serbian embassy staffers held hostage since November died in Friday’s U.S. airstrikes on an Islamic State camp in western Libya that killed dozens, Serbian officials said Saturday.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said there was no doubt that Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver, were killed in the American bombing. They were snatched in November after their diplomatic convoy, including the ambassador, came under fire near the coastal Libyan city of Sabratha.

“Apparently, the Americans were not aware that foreign citizens were being kept there,” Vucic told reporters. Speaking at a news conference in Belgrade earlier, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said information about the deaths was given to Serbia by foreign officials but had not been confirmed by the Libyan government.

“We got the information, including photos, which clearly show that this is most probably true,” Dacic said. American F-15E fighter-bombers on Friday struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing dozens, probably including an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, U.S. and local officials said.

Dacic said Serbia had known where the hostages were and had been working to get them back, adding that Libyan troops were considering an operation to free them. “I believe we had been close to the solution for them to be freed. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the attack against ISIS in Libya, the two of them lost their lives,” Dacic said. “We will seek official explanation from both Libya and the United States about the available facts and the selection of targets.”

He said, according to the information received by the Serbian security services, a criminal group believed to be linked to IS had demanded ransom for the hostages, who they were holding at the site that was bombed.

“On the other hand, the American administration said it was an (ISIS) training camp,” Dacic said. “This is information that has to be checked.” He did not specify the amount of ransom demanded of the families, saying only it was “impossible to pay.”

“It wasn’t in the interests of the people who held them to kill them, because there were no other demands but financial,” Dacic said. A Libyan armed group calling itself the Special Deterrent Forces announced on Facebook that the two bodies had been delivered to Tripoli’s Matiga Airport. The group posted pictures showing two green coffins inside a hearse, and another of one of the coffins sitting on a tarmac next to a small plane.

The Special Deterrent Forces are loyal to the militia-backed government that now controls Tripoli. The group’s posting did not indicate when the bodies would be flown to Serbia. In November, gunmen in Libya crashed into a convoy of vehicles taking Serbia’s ambassador to neighboring Tunisia and then kidnapped the two embassy employees. Serbian ambassador Oliver Potezica escaped unharmed along with his wife and two sons.

“The attack happened when one of the embassy cars was hit from behind. When the driver came out to check what happened, he was dragged into one of the attackers’ cars,” Potezica told Tanjug news agency at the time.

Since the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, the sprawling North African nation has fractured into warring camps backed by a loose array of militias, former rebels and tribes.

Libya’s internationally recognized government has been forced out of the capital, Tripoli, and now operates out of the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda. Another government, backed by Islamist-affiliated militias known as Libya Dawn, controls Tripoli and much of western Libya. U.N.-brokered efforts to form a unity government continue to falter.

The chaos has provided fertile ground for Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to flourish.

AP writers Jovana Gec, Ashraf Khalil and Maggie Michael contributed.