Archive for September, 2012

Syrian rebels seize control of a border crossing

September 19, 2012

AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Syrian rebels have seized control of a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey and pulled down the Syrian flag.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene Wednesday says Syrians on the Turkish side of the border are celebrating and yelling, “I am a free Syrian!” People are moving freely across the border, crawling under barbed wire.

There were fierce clashes Tuesday as rebels and regime forces fought for control of the Tal Abyad crossing. Syria’s rebels control several other border crossings into Turkey but it is believed to be the first time they have tried to take the border area in the northern province of Raqqa.

Taking control of border crossings helps the opposition ferry supplies into Syria and carve out an area of control.

Syrian forces, rebels clash near Turkey

September 19, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Fierce clashes broke out Tuesday between Syrian rebels and regime forces battling for control of a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey, and Turkish authorities told residents to evacuate the area.

The violence along the border with Turkey, which is a strong supporter of the rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad, underlines the regional danger as the Syrian civil war increasingly draws in neighboring countries.

On the diplomatic front, a spokesman for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said the Egyptian leader told Iran’s foreign minister in a meeting Tuesday in Cairo that relations between the two countries were being hindered by Tehran’s support for Syria’s regime.

Spokesman Yasser Ali said Morsi told the Iranian minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, that as president he cannot ignore the fact that public opinion in Egypt is overwhelmingly against the Syrian regime, which he said “uses harsh language and violence against people.”

The two were meeting as part of a Morsi-sponsored Syria peace initiative dubbed the “Islamic Quartet,” bringing together Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — all supporters of the Syrian rebellion — with Iran.

Salehi, whose country is a crucial ally to the Assad regime, is traveling to Syria on Wednesday, where he will meet with Assad and other Syrian officials. Iran has provided strong backing to the Syrian leadership since the uprising began in March 2011.

The Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said Tuesday that government forces and rebels were engaged “in very fierce” battles near the border crossing of Tal Abyad.

One woman was hit by a stray bullet and hospitalized in the Turkish border town of Akcakale. The Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency said six Syrians were injured in the clashes and brought across the border for treatment. Akcakale authorities told residents living close to the frontier to evacuate the area.

Turkish state TV TRT also said some rebels fled to Akcakale to escape attacks. Syrian opposition groups confirmed the fighting but had no immediate word on whether rebels succeeded in gaining control of the crossing. It is believed to be the first time Syrian rebels have tried to seize the border area in the northern Raqqa province, most of which is controlled by Assad’s forces. Rebels control several other border crossings into Turkey.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials reopened the western Qaim border crossing with Syria to a limited number of Syrian women and children fleeing the escalating civil war. The mayor of Qaim, Farhan Fitkhan Farhan said that 100 Syrian refugees entered Iraq through the border crossing Tuesday and more would be let in on daily basis. But he said only women and children would be allowed, while young men would be denied entry for security reasons.

The crossing was closed last month following of fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels on the Syrian side of the borders. In Jordan, Syrian refugees at a Jordanian camp pelted the U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s convoy with stones during a protest over the international community’s failure to stop the bloodshed.

Brahimi, who visited another camp in Turkey the same day, has himself called his task “nearly impossible.” But some in Jordan’s Zaatari camp shouted slogans implying that his initiative, which involves meetings with Assad, only legitimizes the Damascus regime.

“Leave our camp. By seeing Bashar, you’ve extended his life,” some 200 refugees chanted. Teenagers threw rocks at the vehicles of officials as they departed, according to an Associated Press reporter at the camp. U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ali Bebe confirmed the protest but said he did not see stones thrown.

Jordan hosts more than 200,000 displaced Syrians — the largest number in the region. The 31,000 residents of the Zaatari camp have frequently protested against conditions in their settlement, located on a plain in the northern desert. Jordan says the huge influx of Syrians has put pressure on its infrastructure and social services.

Brahimi also toured a camp in the Turkish border province of Hatay. Dozens of Syrian refugees demonstrated outside the camp, waving a rebel flag and denouncing Assad. Some 83,000 refugees have found shelter in 12 camps along the Turkish border with Syria.

Brahimi said it appeared refugees were being treated well in Turkey and that he hoped for an end to the violence. “We hope that their country finds peace again and they can return to their country as early as possible,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Brahimi on Tuesday and will meet him this weekend after he arrives in New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Tuesday. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig, the current Security Council president, said Brahimi would meet informally with members on Monday.

Also Tuesday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry brushed off Syrian accusations that it was allowing thousands of Muslim extremists to cross into its territory. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal told reporters that Turkey may not even respond to letters Syria sent to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon accusing Turkey of allowing thousands of terrorists access to the country.

“Instead of leveling complaints and making false accusations against various countries, including ours, Syria should look at the situation inside the country and take the necessary steps to correct the situation,” Unal said.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Umut Colak in Hatay, Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Dale Gavlak in Amman contributed to this report.

Lebanon demands explanation from Iran over troops

September 17, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has asked for official clarifications from Iran over statements by a senior commander that they have military advisers in Lebanon.

A statement released by Suleiman’s office says the president made his comments Monday while receiving Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi. The top commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard said Sunday that his force has high-level advisers in Lebanon and Syria. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari’s comments marked the clearest indication of Iran’s direct assistance to its main Arab allies, Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

He told reporters that the Guard’s Quds force have been in Syria and Lebanon as advisers for a long time, but was not more specific. The statement said Ambassador Roknabadi denied there were advisers in Lebanon.

Turkey seeks to relocate some Syrian refugees

September 16, 2012

ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — Already host to 80,000 Syrians in refugee camps, Turkey is now seeking to relocate some of the tens of thousands of others living outside the shelters to relieve pressure on local communities and better handle security in its tense border area.

Many Syrians who have fled violence in their country are living near the border but outside the dozen camps, either staying with relatives or renting apartments, a large number of them in Antakya, the largest city in Turkey’s southeast Hatay province. The influx since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began 18 months ago has strained municipal resources and tested the ability of the Turkish government to monitor cross-border traffic amid concerns about sectarian tension and militant activity in the region.

Turkish authorities, who support the Syrian opposition in its war with Assad’s regime, now want the refugees living outside the camps to either enter them or move to other provinces. Up to 40,000 Syrians are living in Turkey outside the shelters, according to some estimates, while the U.N. refugee agency puts the number at up to 60,000. Hundreds of thousands of other Syrians have also fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

“A few days ago, the police came and told us we had a week to leave Antakya. They gave us the names of three or four places we could go,” said 35-year-old Syrian refugee, Mahmoud Mohammed. He, his wife, their 2-year-old son and his brother’s family are living in a two-room apartment for $150 (€116) a month.

Samar Mohammed, Mahmoud’s wife, said they had tried to live in a refugee camp but found the conditions difficult. “My son has bronchitis and suffers from complications. He needs special food and a clean environment,” she said. “Our needs weren’t met in the camp and his condition got worse. We’ve been living in this apartment for two months and it would be very hard to go back to the camps.”

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N. refugee agency, visited camps near the Syrian border this past week and thanked Turkey for welcoming and providing for Syrians who had fled their homes, while urging donor countries to do more to help. Turkey has pressed in vain for the United Nations to set up “safe zones” inside Syria where civilians can shelter, but divisions within the international community and the security risks of such a project preclude any move to implement it for now.

Antakya’s mayor, Lutfu Savas, said there are sectarian tensions along the Syrian-Turkish border, and security concerns and potential discord were the main reasons for plans to relocate refugees who are outside the camps. Many Turks in Hatay province belong to a minority sect that is linked to the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates the Syrian regime and is fighting an insurgency comprised largely of Sunni Muslims. Turkey is concerned that the sectarian tone of the conflict could exacerbate tension in its own communities.

“In the interest of maintaining order and protecting everyone here, our government wants our (Syrian) brethren to move and live somewhere else,” Savas said. “First and foremost, they’re being asked to move into the refugee camps. But if they have the means and if they entered (Turkey) using their passports, they’re being asked to move out of Hatay. I think it’s a valid argument.”

A Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy, said Turkey was doing everything it can to help Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey. “Every country has the right to regulate or arrange the accommodation or duration of the stay of foreigners, including Syrians,” the official said.

Sali Al-Bounni, a Syrian teacher and assistant principal at a school in Antakya that taught 800 Syrian children, said it was recently closed because of the government’s decision to move refugees out of Hatay province.

“The day we closed the school, everyone — students, teachers — was crying,” he said. “Now the families are calling us and asking where we’ll be relocating because they want to move to where the school will be. But we have no idea where to go.”

Chris Torchia reported from Istanbul.

French direct aid a dubious break for Syria rebels

September 07, 2012

PARIS (AP) — France’s decision to send direct aid to Syria’s opposition represents a break for the rebels after months of Western hesitation over fears that costly equipment intended for Syria’s opposition could get lost or fall into the wrong hands. But even the French action, rebels and activists say, amounts to so little that it’s all but useless.

France, Syria’s one-time colonial ruler, began sending the aid without intermediaries last week to three regions of Syria where the regime of President Bashar Assad has lost control, in the first such move by a Western power, a diplomat said Wednesday. But it remains limited, primarily repairing bakeries, water systems and schools. And while apparently more than the indirect assistance extended by other Western countries, it’s still far from the magnitude needed to make a difference, Syrian opposition activists said.

In the province of Aleppo, which includes Syria’s largest city, and in the southern province of Daraa, activists said even the new French aid hadn’t helped. When something is broken, it’s locals who must fix it or just make do, said Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the Aleppo area.

“Instead of fixing water systems,” Saeed said, “they should go and give food to 5,000 refugees stuck on the border with Turkey.” France has pushed to secure “liberated zones” in Syria amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed. It has increased contact with armed rebel groups and started direct aid deliveries last Friday to local citizens’ councils in five cities outside the government’s control, the diplomatic source said, without disclosing the value of the assistance. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the French actions amid Syria’s violence.

Britain has offered a total of $10 million in non-lethal aid to Syria’s opposition, including medical supplies, communications gear and generators, intended to reach Syria through a small number of trusted intermediaries. Foreign Secretary William Hague says the supplies are for opposition activists — not fighters. U.S. and French officials have made similar comments about the destination of their aid.

“The amounts that have been delivered are even laughable,” said Ausama Monajed, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, one of several groups of Syrians outside their homeland trying to win over Western backing.

Hague said Friday that EU countries can only provide non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition groups because of an EU arms embargo. “At the moment we have a European Union arms embargo on Syria, it’s not possible or legal for any EU nation to send weapons to anybody in Syria and therefore our chosen route and is the same route of France and the United States, is to give non-lethal assistance and we’re doing that,” Hague told reporters in response to a question about whether France may be considering providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

He said Britain is also mulling sending protective clothing that doesn’t fall under the arms ban. Hague has acknowledged that the West is cautious, offering equipment only to a small number of groups and in small batches. He said it had only been possible to send equipment after developing better ties to members of the country’s varied opposition groups, some of whom are directing the deliveries.

The State Department set aside $25 million to supply the political opposition with non-lethal assistance, distributing 900 pieces of equipment through one program called the Conflict Stabilization Office. The gear includes cameras to document atrocities for potential future prosecutions, encrypted radios, phones, laptops and software that can be used to circumvent Internet controls, according to officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details.

The Assad regime, meanwhile, continues to get assistance from its allies in Russia and Iran. The Kremlin has insisted that the continuing Russian arms sales don’t violate any international agreements and scoffed at Western demands to halt the trade. Syria’s arsenal includes hundreds of Soviet-built combat jets, attack helicopters and missiles, as well as thousands of tanks and artillery systems. Russia also has said it has military advisers in Syria training the Syrians to use Russian weapons, and has helped repair and maintain Syrian weapons.

Iran also has been accused of helping to sustain the regime. The U.S. alleged this week that Tehran is flying weapons to the Assad regime across Iraqi airspace. The rebels have also benefited from weapons flowing to the rebels via Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere, according to activists and diplomats. Some of the arms, activists say, are purchased with Saudi and Qatari funds. Other sources are murkier.

In Istanbul, however, a rebel commander denied that the opposition was receiving arms deliveries via Turkey, dismissing the Assad regime’s claims that foreign powers were stirring up the uprising. “If we were given any weapons assistance, the Syrian regime would not be standing now,” Abdul-Qadir Saleh, the commander of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province, told a press conference. “The weapons we have are either looted from Syrian army depots or came with those who defected.”

Peter Harling, of the think tank International Crisis Group, said Syria’s opposition, although divided, was more than capable of handling aid. He criticized European and American diplomatic hesitancy as “a tendency to posture, to make statements as opposed to actual policy-making.”

Harling said words without action would have long-term consequences among Syrians: “There’s a huge disconnect which is causing a lot of frustration and will cause ultimately hostility on the part of Syrians who hear a lot of empty statements but see very little happening on the ground.”

Associated Press writers Paul Schemm in Azaz, Syria; Greg Keller in Paris; David Stringer in London; Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lebanon; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Foreign activists to try again with Palestinian visit

Aug 28, 2012

AMMAN — US and European activists insisted Tuesday on making a new attempt to go to Palestinian territories, two days after Israel and Jordan barred them from entering the West Bank to deliver aid to students.

“We are thinking of going in December to the Palestinian areas to break the siege on them,” Olivia Zemor, spokeswoman for the “Welcome to Palestine” group, told a news conference in Amman.

“We still do not know for sure if we want to go to Gaza this time or another place. It depends on whether the (Egyptian-controlled) Rafah crossing will be open or not.”

Israeli and Jordanian authorities on Sunday prevented the group of 100 activists from going to the West Bank through Allenby Bridge border crossing for delivering a ton of school stationary to Palestinian students.

Their first bus was allowed by the Jordanian authorities but the Israelis turned them back. The second bus was prevented from crossing by the Jordanians at the request of the Israeli authorities.

“I think it is unfortunate that one of the two buses was prevented by Jordan at the request of Israel,” Zemor said.

“We do not understand, and I think the Jordanian government should consider that Israel is not a respectable state because it does not respect international laws.”

Jordan and Israeli signed a peace treaty in 1994.

“I think the Palestinians are being imprisoned, tortured and killed because there is cooperation between Israel and our countries,” said Zemor, who heads CAPJPO-Europalestine, a French NGO seeking to help end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“If you in Jordan accept and approve such cooperation, then our mission will be extremely difficult.”

Zemor said the campaigners from France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the United States will deliver their supplies on Wednesday to Palestinian children in the Jerash refugee camp, north of the capital Amman.

They plan on Thursday to hold separate demonstrations outside the French and Israeli embassies.

“We want to tell the Israelis they are occupiers and terrorists who keep terrorizing Palestinians and anybody who wants to support them,” Zemor said.

“At the same time, we want to show the French government how shocked we are that it did not protest or make any statement against what the Israelis did.”

The campaigners say their mission comes after an invitation by Bethlehem governor Abdel-Fatah Hamayel.

They tried to go to Israel in July 2011 and April 2012, but the authorities at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport denied them entry.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.

King of Jordan Halts Fuel Price Increase

Written by Adam Nicky
Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Experts don’t see alternative fuel resources in the near future

AMMAN- King Abdullah II of Jordan has stepped in to stop the government from imposing an increase on gasoline prices, a move apparently aimed at easing growing public discontent over the government’s economic policy.

The king, who wields absolute power in accordance with the constitution, reacted one day after a 10 percent rise in fuel prices had been announced as part of a series of measures intended to trim the budget deficit and generate badly needed funds. The royal decree by the monarch, known for his pro-Western outlook, seemingly did the trick, absorbing at least some of the anger at the government’s fiscal policies visibly spreading among the poor and, according to some observers, even threatening the country’s stability.

When the price increase was announced, the government had explained the move as necessary to mitigate the impact on the budget. Following the cancellation of the fuel price hike, the king did not say what, if any, measures would be taken to compensate the treasury for the loss of funding the gas hike would have provided.

The move by Abdullah on Sunday came only hours after dozens of angry Members of Parliament vilified conservative Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh for raising fuel prices without consulting legislators. A motion of no confidence calling for Tarawneh’s dismissal was rejected on constitutional grounds.

Upon word of the intended increase in the cost of gas, economists had accused the government of turning a blind eye to the concerns of the country’s industrial sector which feared it would be harmed by a continued increase in production costs. Abdel Razaq Tabour, a member of the Zarqa Chamber of Industry, said the government took the decision without consulting the business sector and expressed concern over the future of laborers in the industrial sector.

“Industries have been suffering for the past years due to limited markets and high competition. With this frequent change in fuel prices, I am not sure how long we can continue,” Tabour told The Media Line. He said thousands of workers could lose their jobs and warned about growing social unrest in poverty stricken areas where unemployment is believed to be more than 15 per cent. Earlier Sunday, the streets of west Amman turned yellow after hundreds of taxi drivers staged a strike in busy parts of the capital to protest against the fuel increase.

“They are robbing us in broad daylight,” shouted one cab taxi driver referring to government reliance on taxation as a response to the shortage of cash. “Tomorrow, the prime minister will be fired after he puts in place the new increase. They are playing musical chairs games with us. One prime minister comes to increase prices, and another replaces him to absorb anger of the public,” said Zaidoun Abul Haq, an activist from the taxi drivers union.

Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the region in terms of oil and energy resources, with most of its needs imported from neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia supplies most of the country’s fuel needs at a comparably lower price – with discounts as large as 20% according to economists — compared to the international market, while Egypt pumps gas from the Sinai desert.

Officials have been concerned that the cash-strapped kingdom of Jordan remains hostage to its political relationships with its larger neighbors, preventing it from finding energy from local resources while the government is accused of overpricing necessities such as fuel.

But despite the kingdom’s discounted gas prices, experts and economists still accuse the government of overcharging citizens when compared to what other nations pay. A senior official from Royal Jordanian Airlines says the company buys airplane fuel in more than 60 cities around the world, and of those, prices in Jordan rank highest. Speaking to The Media Line on the condition of anonymity, the source said he expects the national flag-carrier will continue to suffer in a highly competitive market. Just recently, the company was forced to shut down some of its operations to Europe and Asia due to its mounting losses.

The kingdom is currently looking into alternatives to conventional fuel for generating electricity, including atomic energy and extracting shale oil extraction. A multi-billion dollar project to build the first nuclear facility is under discussion, but the ambitious program has not yet been approved and under any circumstances is not expected to be functional for many years.

Efforts to tap into vast reserves of shale oil, however, began earlier this year, but experts believe it will produce enough to satisfy the country’s rising demands any time soon.

In the meantime, experts say the government will be struggling to meet the strict conditions of the International Monitory Fund to keep its books balanced as it looks toward borrowing more money in order to solve its urgent financial needs.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.