Category: Land of the Central Silk


2017-01-18

DAMASCUS – Key Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Wednesday it will not take part in peace talks between the regime and opposition factions in the Kazakh capital next week.

The group decided not to participate in the negotiations in Astana that start on Monday due to “the lack of implementation of the ceasefire” in force since December 30 and ongoing Russian air strikes over Syria, it said in a statement.

Ahrar al-Sham was among rebel groups that signed the ceasefire deal brokered by regime supporter Russia and rebel backer Turkey last month.

The truce has largely held across Syria although fighting has persisted in some areas, allowing Russia, Turkey and regime supporter Iran to organize the peace talks in Astana.

Ahrar al-Sham said “the regime’s offensive against our people in Wadi Barada”, an area 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of Damascus that is the capital’s main source of water, was among the reasons it would not attend the talks.

Assad’s forces have pressed an assault to retake the area from rebels after mains supplies were cut last month, leaving 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs without water.

Ahrar al-Sham said however that it was giving its support to other rebel groups represented at the Astana talks.

Mohammad Alloush, a prominent figure of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction, will in Astana head a “military delegation” of around eight people, backed by nine legal and political advisers from the High Negotiations Committee umbrella group.

Russia started air strikes in support of Assad’s regime in 2015.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80945.

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Monday 16 January 2017

Syrian rebel groups have decided to attend peace talks backed by Russia and Turkey in Kazakhstan to press for implementation of a widely violated ceasefire, rebel officials said on Monday, in a boost for Moscow-led diplomacy.

Russia, the most powerful ally of President Bashar al-Assad, set the new diplomatic effort in motion after the Syrian opposition suffered a major defeat last month when it lost the rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo.

Rebel groups took the decision at meetings that are under way in Ankara, and are now working to form a delegation that will be different to one sent to peace talks in Geneva last year by a Saudi-backed opposition group.

The talks are scheduled for 23 January in Astana.

“The factions will go and the first thing they will discuss will be the matter of the ceasefire and the violations by the regime,” said an official in a Free Syrian Army rebel group who declined to be identified because the rebel groups had yet to appoint a spokesman.

A second official, Zakaria Malahifji of the Fastaqim rebel group, said: “The majority of the groups decided to attend. Discussions will be on the ceasefire – the humanitarian issues – aid deliveries, release of detainees.”

Turkey has been a major backer of the rebellion against Assad, but its priorities in Syria appear to have shifted away from toppling Assad towards combating both Kurdish groups and Islamic State in areas of northern Syria near its border.

The Saudi-backed opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, said on Saturday that it had supported efforts towards the planned peace talks in Kazakhstan, and viewed the meeting as a preliminary step for resuming the next round of political negotiations in Geneva.

The HNC, formed in Riyadh in December 2015, includes both political and armed opponents of Assad.

Malahifji said the new delegation would be formed in coordination with the HNC, but it would differ from it because “the Russians are focusing very much on the military factions”.

“The committee stresses its support to the military delegation… and expresses hope that the meeting would reinforce the truce,” the HNC said.

The HNC also expressed hope that the meeting would “establish a phase of confidence” through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, especially articles concerning ending sieges of cities and towns, delivering aid and releasing detainees.

The HNC said it “appreciates efforts” to make the Astana talks fruitful, adding that the meeting represents a step that “paves the way for political talks” in Geneva next month.

The statement, which did not clarify whether the HNC has been invited to the Astana talks, stressed that “discussing the political track … should be held under the UN sponsorship and supervision”.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-rebels-agree-attend-peace-talks-khazakstan-17265393.

February 13, 2017

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission says the incumbent leader has won the presidential election. Commission chairman Gulmurat Muradov told reporters on Monday that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov won 97.7 percent of the vote in the gas-rich Central Asian nation. Muradov said the results from Sunday’s election are preliminary and that election authorities still have to count ballots cast in Turkmenistan’s embassies abroad.

Berdymukhamedov has been the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the former Soviet republic since late 2006, when he assumed power after the death of his eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The country last year amended the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years from five, and eliminated the age limit of 70, effectively allowing Berdymukhamedov to be president for life.

February 11, 2017

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — The authoritarian president of Turkmenistan is set to sail to victory in Sunday’s election where eight other candidates are on the ballot, but all praise his polices. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the former Soviet republic since late 2006, when he assumed power after death of his eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Berdymukhamedov has made small reforms of the single-party system imposed by Niyazov and some aspects of the latter’s cult of personality, which included naming the months of the year after his family members and mandating all schoolchildren read his book of philosophical musings.

Some of Niyazov’s more notoriously odd initiatives, such as banning opera and gold teeth, also were rolled back. Notably, Berdymukhamedov expanded public access to the internet and increased compulsory education from nine years to 12.

Under Berdymukhamedov, a law was adopted to allow non-government parties, although these parties are strictly vetted. The candidates nominally competing with Berdymukhamedov have been allowed to meet with voters in theaters and cultural centers, but the encounters were not televised and no debates were held.

The country last year amended the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years from five, and eliminated the age limit of 70, effectively allowing Berdymukhamedov to be president for life.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhamedov has established a considerable personality cult of his own. He is regularly shown on state media successfully acquitting himself in a wide array of physical and competitive disciplines, such as horse-riding, racing cars, cycling, sailing and lifting weights. More recently, the president has taken up music with gusto, on occasion regaling wildly applauding crowds with performances on the guitar and piano.

State television reported on how during a pre-election visit to a gas refinery last month, Berdymukhamedov watched as workers serenaded him on a severely out-of-tune guitar. Later, the president was shown strumming the same guitar — now properly tuned — and performing a song of his own composition as workers clapped along.

Authorities in Turkmenistan have secured quiescence among the country’s 5 million people through a combination of authoritarianism and generous welfare subsidies, like free household gas and salt. But the state’s ability to dispense that largesse has come under intense strain as the price for natural gas — Turkmenistan’s only significant export commodity — has plummeted.

Until a few years ago, Turkmenistan could count on selling gas to China, Russia and Iran. Russia and Iran have recently stopped buying the fuel, however, following pricing disputes. Turkmenistan is placing strong hopes on an ambitious plan to build a gas pipeline serving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but construction so far is underway only in Turkmenistan.

The economic crisis triggered by the collapse in gas revenue has led to devaluation of the national currency, the manat, and shortages for many staples including cooking oil and sugar. Because of the intense secrecy which the government imposes on economic data, there are few ways of being certain about the depth of the problem.

Although tight visa procedures make it difficult for outsiders to visit, Turkmenistan has built an elaborate resort complex on the Caspian Sea. Gas revenues spurred a spectacular construction boom in the capital Ashgabat, turning swaths of the city into gleaming white marble residential towers flanking wide, lightly trafficked thoroughfares.

Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

January 24, 2017

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — A court in Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday upheld a life sentence for an ethnic Uzbek journalist in a case that has drawn international criticism. Azimzhan Askarov was convicted in 2010 for stirring up ethnic hatred, a charge related to ethnic unrest in the south of Kyrgyzstan in 2010 when more than 450 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, were killed and tens or even hundreds of thousands were displaced.

The majority of those convicted for taking part in the deadly clashes have been ethnic Uzbeks. Askarov, who can appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, shouted out after Tuesday’s decision that he would go on hunger strike in protest.

Askarov’s case was sent for review last year after the U.N. Human Rights Committee in April urged Kyrgyzstan to release him, finding that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied his right to a fair trial.

Askarov’s lawyer, Tolekan Ismailov, told reporters that his client would appeal the ruling, which he dismissed as unlawful. Askarov had been documenting human rights violations by the police and prison authorities in his hometown near the Uzbek border for more than 10 years before he was arrested in 2010.

January 16, 2017

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — A cargo plane crashed Monday in a residential area just outside the main airport in Kyrgyzstan, killing at least 37 people, the Emergency Situations Ministry said on Monday.

The Turkish Boeing 747 crashed just outside the Manas airport, south of the capital Bishkek, killing people in the residential area adjacent to the airport as well as those on the plane. Reports of the death toll on Monday ranged from 37 people according to emergency officials in the Central Asian nation, to 31 reported by the presidential press office which also said rescue teams had recovered parts of nine bodies. Fifteen people including six children have been hospitalized.

Images from the scene showed the plane’s nose stuck inside a brick house and large chunks of debris scattered around. Several dozen private houses cluster just outside the metal fence separating the cottages from the runway. Manas has been considerably expanded since the United States began to operate a military installation at the Manas airport, using it primarily for its operations in Afghanistan. American troops vacated the base and handed it over to the Kyrgyz military in 2014.

“I woke up because of a bright red light outside,” Baktygul Kurbatova, who was slightly injured, told local television. “I couldn’t understand what was happening. It turns out the ceiling and the walls were crashing on us. I was so scared but I managed to cover my son’s face with my hands so that debris would not fall on him.”

More than a thousand rescue workers were at the scene by late morning in the residential area where 15 houses were destroyed, Deputy Prime Minister Mukhammetkaly Abulgaziyev said. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear. Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Minister Kubatbek Boronov told reporters that it was foggy at Manas when the plane came down but weather conditions were not critical. The plane’s flight recorders have not yet been found.

The plane, which had departed from Hong Kong, belonged to Istanbul-based cargo company ACT Airlines. It said in an emailed statement that the cause was unknown. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Monday called his Kyrgyz counterpart, Erlan Abdildaev, to offer Turkey’s condolences, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara.

January 24, 2017

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Syria pressed on with efforts Tuesday to shore up a shaky cease-fire between the Damascus government and its allies and rebel factions, as he shuttled between delegates from the two sides on the second day of peace talks in Kazakhstan.

Staffan de Mistura said there were reasons for “optimism” and promised an “outcome” for later in the day. The talks in Astana on Monday saw only a brief face-to-face meeting between the government and rebel representatives — their first since the Syrian war began in 2011 — that was quickly followed by harsh exchanges.

The U.N. envoy told reporters outside the venue in Astana’s Rixos Hotel on Tuesday that discussions were underway to finalize a declaration to ensure that the cease-fire “becomes more solid.” He did not elaborate.

“We are not far from a final declaration,” he said. “There has been a lot of work done on it. If the one we are seeing is going to take place, there is some optimism.” “There are very intense discussions because this is not about a paper but about a cessation of hostilities, and that means saving lives,” de Mistura added.

Syrian rebel spokesman Osama Abo Zayd said that despite encouraging signs, the opposition is “waiting for something more than statements.” The rebels have pinned their hopes on Russia and Turkey, which brokered the cease-fire that took effect on Dec.30. Iran, a Damascus government ally, has approved of the cease-fire and co-sponsored the Astana conference.

“The people of in the besieged areas (in Syria) … are waiting for action on the ground,” Abo Zayd said. The rebel delegation is seeking to extend the Russia- and Turkey-mediated cease-fire to all of Syria. Violence has subsided since the truce, but fighting continues around the capital, Damascus, where the government and rebels accuse each other of violating the cease-fire.

The government says it is targeting members of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria in rebel-held areas, a group that is not part of the cease-fire. The rebels say the cease-fire should only exempt the Islamic State group and not al-Qaida-linked fighters.

Along with the cease-fire, the United Nations has also been demanding access to rebel areas besieged by government forces areas around the country. Rebels have also besieged two villages in northern Syria.

Abo Zayd said the government’s policy of forcing the surrender of rebel-held areas needs to stop. “For this conference to be successful, we need a cease-fire and a halt to forced displacement,” he said.

In recent months, the government has signed a number of capitulation agreements with rebel groups, particularly around Damascus, whereby after intense fighting and a tight siege, the rebels agree to evacuate along with other government opponents to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

Damascus sees these as “reconciliation” agreements, while the U.N. says residents and rebels are often not given a choice, which amounts to forced displacement.

December 10, 2016

PARIS (AP) — A top French court refused to hand over a Kazakh banker-turned-dissident to Russia despite accusations he embezzled millions, saying it considered the extradition request from Moscow to be “politically motivated.”

Hours after Friday’s ruling, Mukhtar Ablyazov walked free from a French prison, hugging his son, brother and lawyer. It was a surprise twist in a winding legal saga that has lasted years and spanned several countries.

Ablyazov’s lawyers had asked France’s Council of State to block his extradition, fearing Russia would quickly send him back to Kazakhstan. The Council of State noted in its decision that the Kazakh and Russian authorities have “repeatedly” held consultations on Ablyazov’s case. Requests for the return of criminal suspects can be rejected if they are judged to be politically motivated.

A former energy minister who founded an opposition party in Kazakhstan, he was charged by Kazakh authorities with stealing billions of tenge from a bank he founded, BTA. Russia, a close ally of Kazakhstan, says its citizens were also defrauded in the collapse of the bank.

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from BTA or Russian or Kazakh authorities. “We are thrilled with the result today,” Ablyazov’s lawyer, Peter Sahlas, told The Associated Press. “This is a huge step forward for human rights law in France and Europe.”

Last year, France’s top appeals court, the Court of Cassation, had approved Ablyazov’s extradition. The French government signed an extradition decree in September 2015, but Ablyazov appealed to the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body.

Ablyazov didn’t speak about his ordeal after being released from the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris late Friday night. His 24-year-old son Madiyar couldn’t contain his emotions. “Oh wow, we just feel so great. It is so unexpected today,” he said. “We are so glad to have Dad back finally … It’s the best New Year’s present.”

Ablyazov’s lawyers argued he was being pursued because of his activities as an opposition leader in autocratic Kazakhstan, and feared he would not get a fair trial in Russia or Ukraine. They also suspected he could be eventually transferred to Kazakhstan.

The banker fled Kazakhstan amid the nationalization of BTA Bank. He was arrested in southern France in 2013 on embezzlement allegations. Both Russia and Ukraine have requested his extradition. France has no extradition agreement with Kazakhstan.

Schaeffer reported from Fleury-Merogis.

29 October 2016 Saturday

Ex-Soviet republic Tajikistan on Saturday marked the start of construction of a controversial $4 billion Rogun hydroelectric dam conceived in the Soviet era, the presidential press service said.

The high-profile ceremony was held in Rogun some 100 kilometers from the capital Dushanbe and saw veteran President Emomali Rakhmon spend an hour-and-a-half behind the wheel of a bulldozer pushing soil to block the Vakhsh river.

According to his press service Rakhmon, 64, “poured gravel onto the bed of the (redirected) River Vakhsh, marking the beginning of construction of the Rogun hydroelectric plant vital for the people of Tajikistan.”

Speaking at the ceremony Rakhmon called the start of construction “the achievement of the year.”

He also promised states in the region worried about the project that Tajikistan would “never leave its neighbours without water.”

The dam, initially conceived by Moscow in the 1970s, has been severely criticized by Uzbekistan.

Saturday’s ceremony came a day after most of Tajikistan was plunged into darkness for several hours following an accident at the Nurek hydropower plant that supplies the bulk of the country’s electricity.

In July, Tajikistan announced that Italian company Salini Impregilo had won a $3.9 billion contract to build the Rogun dam, which at 335 meters (1,099 feet) would be the world’s tallest.

Downstream neighbor Uzbekistan strongly opposed the Rogun project under late president Islam Karimov, who feared its impact on Uzbek agriculture.

Karimov’s likely successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who became interim president after the autocrat’s funeral in September, also publicly criticized the project earlier this year.

In addition to helping the country achieve energy independence — planned shutoffs affect many parts of the country during the winter — Tajikistan believes Rogun will transform the country into a regional hub for electricity exports.

Tajikistan is a key node in the US-backed CASA-1000 project that aims to increase supplies of electricity from the region to South Asian countries Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/asia-pacific/179300/tajikistan-begins-building-4-bn-mega-dam.

October 14, 2016

A Palestinian was assassinated in the Kazakh city of Almaty this morning while entering the building he lived in.

Diya’a Al-Bashiti, 45, who was one of the founders of the Palestinian community in the city was killed by unknown individuals.

According to a statement made by the Palestinian embassy, Al-Bashiti was shot at point blank range near his heart. He died 15 minutes later.

Palestinian Ambassador, Montaser Abu Zeid, mourned the loss of Al-Bashiti and stated that the embassy is monitoring “the investigation into this heinous crime and following up with the police and security agencies in Kazakhstan.”

Al-Bashiti is originally from Gaza. He is married to a Kazakh woman and has a child.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161014-palestinian-assassinated-under-mysterious-circumstances-in-kazakhstan/.