Archive for October 20th, 2012

Protesters block roads in Lebanon after car bomb

October 20, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks around Lebanon on Saturday in a sign of boiling anger over a massive car bomb that killed a top security official and seven other people a day earlier — a devastating attack that threatened to bring Syria’s civil war to Lebanon.

The Lebanese Cabinet was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Saturday as the country’s opposition called for Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign. The state-run National News Agency said security commanders would attend the meeting to discuss how to keep the peace.

The government declared a national day of mourning for the victims, who included Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence division of Lebanon’s domestic security forces. Dozens were wounded in Friday’s blast in Beirut’s mainly Christian Achrafieh neighborhood.

Many observers said the attack appeared to have links to the Syrian civil war, which has been raging for 19 months. Al-Hassan, 47, headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most loyal allies in Lebanon.

Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting a campaign of bombings and assassinations to spread sectarian violence in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. Also indicted in the August sweep was Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s highest aides.

Lebanon’s fractious politics are closely entwined with Syria’s. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other. Lebanon’s opposition is an anti-Syrian bloc, while the prime minister and much of the government are pro-Syrian.

The civil war in Syria has laid bare Lebanon’s sectarian tensions as well. Many of Lebanon’s Sunnis have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiites have tended to back Assad. Al-Hassan was a Sunni whose stances were widely seen to oppose Syria and the country’s most powerful ally in Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

On Friday, protesters in mostly Sunni areas closed roads with burning tires and rocks in Beirut, the southern city of Sidon, the northern city of Tripoli and several towns in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

The highway linking central Beirut with the city’s international airport was closed, as well as the highway that links the capital with Syria, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Rafik Khoury, editor of the independent Al-Anwar daily, said the assassination was an attempt to draw Lebanon into the conflict in Syria, which has been the most serious threat to the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty.

“The side that carried the assassination knows the reactions and dangerous repercussions and is betting that it will happen. Strife is wanted in Lebanon,” Khoury wrote.

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French sneak cash to Syrians in direct aid program

October 17, 2012

PARIS (AP) — France has been sneaking large sums of cash — $2 million in all — to civilians in Syria to help rebel-held towns rebuild bakeries, dispose of garbage and set up a police force.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met Wednesday with representatives of about 20 countries to share details about the secret French aid program and encourage others to join it. Five people from local Syrian revolutionary groups that have received the secret funds also attended.

A dozen countries have started or are starting such programs, a French official close to the program told journalists. The United States is among the nations funneling aid to local Syrian councils that provide essential services but it was unclear whether Washington was using the cloak-and-dagger route the French have opted for to hand over cash.

When questioned, the U.S. Embassy said its two representatives at the Paris gathering “focused on ways to better coordinate our assistance.” The French program, which started in early September, aims to help people in rebel-held zones survive, maintain institutions and bolster the civilian face of the Syrian revolution to prepare for a post-President Bashar Assad era.

The French official said after three border handovers of funds, France is now looking for a more efficient way to deliver the money, hopefully thorough a non-governmental organization. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

“In concrete terms, we want to provide aid to a segment of the population that is not covered by the traditional humanitarian channels,” Fabius told the gathering, adding that there was a risk that the Assad regime interferes with aid shipments going through standard channels.

“And, little by little, as these civilian revolutionary committees are elected, these zones are run freely and show what the Syria of tomorrow will be after Bashar has gone,” Fabius told reporters. The Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests in March 2011 against Assad’s regime. Since then, more than 33,000 have been killed, activists say. France has been a leader among western nations seeking the ouster of Assad, pressing for EU sanctions among other things.

The French direct aid is also aimed at easing frustrations among civilians because of the lack of action by the international community, which is blocked in the U.N. Security Council by Syrian allies Russia and China.

The foreign minister conceded that the budget so far for the direct aid — a tenth of the €20 million ($26 million) France is contributing to the rebel war effort in Syria — is small. But, he said, it has assured that more than 300,000 people get bread by renovating three industrial bakeries.

But the task has been onerous and risky. One official with knowledge of the project’s operation said tangible proof of need in a certain town is first established. Then, a French envoy meets at a Syrian border with a carefully chosen member of a local committee.

“The aid is handed over directly with a very strict follow-up,” the official said. Another official, also not authorized to speak publicly about the project, said the meeting point is at the Turkish-Syrian border.

“We wanted to quickly show that it is feasible and possible,” the first official said. The Syrian representatives have provided photos of renovated bakeries, road work and other improvements to daily life. “We proved it is important and very useful.”

Osman Badawi, a pharmacist in the Syrian city of Maraat el Noaman who attended at the Paris meeting, said what his town wants most is a no-fly zone that nations backing the opposition have been unable to deliver. He said that 30-40 homes per day are destroyed by barrels of TNT dropped on the town by government planes.

Fabius said besides using the so-called barrel bombs — containers packed with TNT — on civilians, the Syrian regime was also using cluster bombs. The Assad regime has “entered a new phase in the violence by using MIG (aircraft) and dropping barrels of TNT,” Fabius said.

Badawi, speaking through a translator, said the French direct aid was used to repair a bombed school and a police station, and he’s hoping the Paris meeting will produce more funds. The fighting in Syria has driven tens of thousands from their homes. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Wednesday by telephone that an estimated 2.5 million Syrians, including refugees, are in need of help.

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Beirut car bomb kills top official, 7 others

October 19, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — A car bomb ripped through Beirut on Friday, killing a top security official and seven others, shearing the balconies off apartment buildings and sending bloodied residents staggering into the streets in the most serious blast the Lebanese capital has seen in four years.

Dozens of people were wounded in the attack, which the state-run news agency said targeted the convoy of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the intelligence division of Lebanon’s domestic security forces.

Many Lebanese quickly raised the possibility the violence was connected to the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has sent destabilizing ripples through Lebanon for the past 19 months. Al-Hassan led an investigation over the summer that implicated a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician and one of the highest aides to Syrian President Bashar Assad in plots to carry out bombings in Lebanon.

Friday’s blast was also a reminder of Lebanon’s grim history, when the 1975-1990 civil war made the country notorious for kidnappings, car bombs and political assassinations. Even since the war’s end, Lebanon has been a proxy battleground for regional conflict, and the Mediterranean seaside capital has been prey to sudden, surprising and often unexplained violence shattering periods of calm.

“Whenever there is a problem in Syria they want to bring it to us,” said Karin Sabaha Gemayel, a secratary at a law firm a block from the bombing site, where the street was transformed into a swath of rubble, twisted metal and charred vehicles.

“But you always hope it will not happen to us. Not again,” she said. The blast ripped through a narrow street at mid-afternoon in Beirut’s mainly Christian Achrafieh neighborhood, an area packed with cafes and shops. Doors and windows were shattered for blocks, and several blackened cars appeared to have been catapulted through the air.

Bloodied residents fled their homes while others tried to help the seriously wounded. One little girl, apparently unconscious and bleeding from her head, was carried to an ambulance in the arms of rescue workers, her white sneakers stained with blood.

“I was standing nearby in Sassine Square and I heard a big explosion and I ran straight to it,” resident Elie Khalil said. He said he saw at least 15 bloodied people in a nearby parking lot before medics arrived and took them to a hospital.

Al-Hassan’s body was so disfigured in the blast that his bodyguards only realized it was him when they recognized his sneakers, a paramedic at the scene told The Associated Press. The paramedic, who saw the body, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

A Lebanese security official said al-Hassan had just returned earlier Friday morning from Paris, where he was visiting family. He was either on his way from or to work in a non-armored car with his driver, who also was among the dead, the official said. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give information to the media.

Eight people were killed, including al-Hassan, and 78 wounded, the state-run National News Agency said.. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zouebi denounced the bombing, calling it a “terrorist and cowardly” attack.

Syria’s top ally in Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah movement, also condemned the attack, expressing its “state of great shock over this terrible terrorist crime.” It called on the authorities to catch the perpetrators and on all political forces in Lebanon to work against “every conspirator against the security, the life, the safety and security of the nation.”

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the blast “in strongest terms.” She said the U.S. had no information about the perpetrators. Al-Hassan had headed an investigation into bombing plots that led to the Aug. 9 arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria’s most loyal allies in Lebanon, who has long acted as an unofficial media adviser to Assad. According to a senior Lebanese police official, Samaha confessed to having personally transported explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon with the purpose of killing Lebanese personalities at the behest of Syria.

A military court has since indicted Samaha and Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks. Mamlouk, who was appointed recently by Assad to head Syria’s National Security Bureau, was indicted in absentia.

Tensions have been soaring in Lebanon over the conflict next door, and clashes have erupted between Assad supporters and backers of the rebellion against his regime. Syria and Lebanon share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other. Many of Lebanon’s Sunnis have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiites have tended to back Assad.

Lebanon was hit by a wave of bombings and other attacks that began in 2005 with a massive suicide blast that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and more than 20 other people in downtown Beirut. In the following years, a string of anti-Syrian figures were assassinated, several in car bombings. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus for the killings, though Syria denied responsibility.

The last serious bombing was in 2008, when a car bomb killed a senior Lebanese anti-terror police official who was investigating dozens of other bombings. Four others were killed and 38 wounded in the blast in the Christian Hazmieh neighborhood.

Since then, Lebanese saw a relative calm in violence. After the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, there have been sporadic gunbattles between pro- and anti-Assad factions, particularly in northern Lebanon.

“I’m very worried about the country after this explosion,” Beirut resident Charbel Khadra said Friday. “I’m worried the explosions will return — and this is just the first one.”

AP writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Ben Hubbard and Barbara Surk contributed to this report from Beirut.

Syrian Refugees Flocking to Turkey Push the Limit

by Linda Gradstein

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Government Closes Some Border Crossings

For weeks now, the Ankara government has been saying that the number of 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey was a “psychological limit” – the point at which the border crossings would be closed. This week, the Turkish Disaster Management Agency, Afad, announced that there are now 100,363 Syrians at 14 camps along the border between Turkey and Syria, increasing speculation that no more refugees would be allowed in. Despite the threats, the influx shows no sign of slowing down.

“The 100,000 figure was truly a threshold for us, but we always said it may exceed 100,000,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters. “We are now currently working on this issue.”

The actual figure is even higher. In addition to those living in the government facilities, there are an estimated 70,000 Syrians who have fled the fighting but choose to rent apartments rather than live in refugee camps. In the camps themselves conditions are reasonable.

“The Turks have done an extremely good and professional job of setting up the camps,” Gerry Simpson, the refugee coordinator for Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Refugees are allowed to leave the camps for days or even weeks so they’re relatively free to move which is more than can be said in Iraq and Jordan where the authorities are refusing the refugees the right to leave the camps.”

The weather is already turning cold in Turkey. Simpson says officials are preparing for the change in temperature, with extra blankets and heaters for the refugees’ tents. Where Human Rights Watch is concerned, he says, is the situation on the Syrian side of the border, where an estimated 15,000 people fleeing the fighting are waiting to enter Turkey. At least two border crossings have already been closed.

“We are concerned about the thousands and soon to be tens of thousands who are stuck on the Turkish border as a result of the border closure,” he said. “In some of these places people are living under trees, in makeshift tents, or in schools where they are out in the open. They have little access to assistance. As winter approaches, it will become more urgent for Turkey to stop playing games and open the border crossings for Syrians fleeing violence.”

Tensions have increased as the once warm relations between Syria and Turkey have grown colder, and the two countries seem almost on the brink of war. This week, Turkey banned all Syrian flights from its airspace and ordered a plane to land after fears it was carrying weapons to Syria.

But most Turkish citizens differentiate between the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which they see as the enemy, and the Turkish refugees fleeing the violence.

“I don’t think there’s a real problem with the refugees — these people will eventually go back to Syria,” Faruk Yalvach, a professor of political science at Middle East Technical University told The Media Line. “If eventually Assad goes, then Turkey will have a good position with all of these refugees thanking Turkey for taking care of [them].”

The total number of refugees is over 300,000 according to the United Nations. Besides the ones in Turkey, some 210,000 are in Jordan, straining that country’s resources. In Turkey, too, officials say the international community must provide more money for the refugees.

For many years there have been close relationships between families living on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.

But as the refugee flow continues, attitudes are likely to change. Turkish officials say they are willing to shoulder part of the burden of dealing with the influx frorm Syria, but they cannot be solely responsible. Now that the figure of 100,000 has been reached, it is likely that Turkish officials will move to stem the flow of refugees.

“We understand the problems and we want to help,” Professor Yalvach said. “But it has to end somewhere.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Historic mosque burned in ancient Syrian city

October 15, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — A landmark mosque in Aleppo was burned, scarred by bullets and trashed — the latest casualty of Syria’s civil war — and President Bashar Assad on Monday ordered immediate repairs to try to stem Muslim outrage at the desecration of the 12th century site.

The Umayyad Mosque suffered extensive damage, as has the nearby medieval covered market, or souk, which was gutted by a fire that was sparked by fighting two weeks ago. The market and the mosque are centerpieces of Aleppo’s walled Old City, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Government troops had been holed up in the mosque for months before rebels launched a push this week to drive them out. Activists and Syrian government officials blamed each other for the weekend fire at the mosque.

Rebel supporters also alleged that regime forces defaced the shrine with offensive graffiti and drank alcohol inside, charges bound to further raise religious tensions in Syria. Many of the rebels are Sunni Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“It’s all blackened now,” activist Mohammad al-Hassan said of the site, also known as the Great Mosque. One of Syria’s oldest and largest shrines, it was built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a compound adjacent to the ancient citadel.

Al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the Old City and he blamed Assad for the destruction. “He burns down the country and its heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy it to begin with?” al-Hassan said in a telephone interview from Aleppo.

Fighting has destroyed large parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city with 3 million residents and its former business capital. Activists say more than 33,000 people have died in the conflict, which began in March 2011 and has turned into a civil war.

Five of Syria’s six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency. Looters have broken into one of the world’s best-preserved Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, and ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra have been damaged.

Both rebels and regime forces have turned some of Syria’s significant historic sites into bases, including citadels and Turkish bath houses, while thieves have stolen artifacts from museums. Karim Hendili, a Paris-based UNESCO expert who oversees heritage sites in the Arab world, said Aleppo’s Old City has been hardest hit. The fire that swept through the souk burned more than 500 shops in the narrow, vaulted passageways, destroying a testament to its flourishing commercial history.

“After the loss of the souk, there is now major damage of the mosque,” Hendili said. The “soul of the city” is really being damaged, he added, “and this is difficult to repair.” Video posted online by activists show a large fire and black smoke raging in the mosque Saturday, and there also are shots of its blackened, pockmarked walls. Debris is strewn on the floors where worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpets.

The videos are consistent with AP’s reporting of the incident. “Assad’s thugs set the mosque on fire as a punishment for being defeated by the Free Syrian Army,” the caption on one video read. In another video, a rebel inside the mosque holds up a torn copy of the Muslim holy book, saying: “These are our Qurans. This is our religion, our history.”

The rebel in the video also held up an empty bottle, saying it had contained alcohol. The Syrian government said it pushed back rebels out of the mosque after the weekend fighting, although activists gave conflicting reports on who controls it.

Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo’s Chamber of Tourism, blamed rebels for targeting the city’s monuments and archaeological treasures. He said the losses were impossible to estimate because of the fighting in the area, but added it could be the most serious damage since an earthquake in 1830s struck the mosque.

Despite the fire, the structure of the mosque appeared to be intact, although a gate that leads to the ancient market was burned, said Martini, who is specialized in repairing archaeological sites and monuments.

The platform inside the mosque, or minbar, and the prayer niche also were damaged by the fire, Martini said. The wooden minbar is identical to the one burned in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, he said.

Valuables were stolen from the mosque’s library, Martin said, including a transparent box purported to contain a strand of hair from the Prophet Muhammad, along with centuries-old handwritten copies of the Quran.

Assad issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013, although it’s not clear what such a body could do amid a raging civil war. The mosque’s last renovations began about 20 years ago and were completed in 2006.

In other developments Monday: — The Syria military denied reports by a human rights group that it has been dropping cluster bombs — indiscriminate scattershot munitions — during fighting. The denial came in a statement carried by the state-run SANA news agency.

Allegations that cluster bombs were used are “baseless and are part of media propaganda that aims to divert international public opinion from crimes committed by armed terrorist groups,” the statement said.

The New-York based Human Rights Watch on Sunday cited amateur video and testimony from the front lines in making the allegation that Assad’s government has been using the bombs that are banned by most nations in what the group said was a new sign of desperation and disregard for its own people.

— The European Union stepped up pressure on Assad’s regime, banning Syrian Arab Airlines from EU airports. At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers added 28 people to those whose assets are frozen and who are denied EU visas. They also froze the assets of two more companies, including the airline.

— The U.N. envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Baghdad for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials on the neighboring country’s civil war. Brahimi is touring the region to try to resolve the Syrian crisis.

— Turkey forced a Syrian-bound plane from Armenia to land in order to search the cargo for weapons. The plane, which was carrying aid for Aleppo, was granted permission to fly in Syrian airspace on condition that it could be searched for military equipment, said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal.

After the search, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the cargo contained humanitarian aid and was allowed to continue to Syria. Last week, Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara on suspicion it carried military gear. Russia, which has backed Assad, said the equipment was spare parts for radar systems.

Over the weekend, Syria and Turkey barred each other’s commercial aircraft from flying over their respective territories. The bans came after a week of exchanging fire across their volatile border.

— The Turkish government said the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey surpassed the 100,000 mark and that about 7,000 more were waiting at the border to get in.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Frank Jordans in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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