Archive for October 21st, 2012

Syrian opposition forms united front

October 03, 2011

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: Syrian opposition movements announced the formation of a “historic” united front against President Bashar Assad’s government at a meeting in Turkey Sunday.

At home, meanwhile, a son of Syria’s grand mufti was killed when his car came under attack from gunmen, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.

Meanwhile, rights activists said that Syrian troops have taken control of the central city of Rastan after sending in 250 tanks to quell clashes between the army and deserters.

The announcement of the Syrian National Council at a news conference in Istanbul appeared to be the most serious step yet to unify a deeply fragmented opposition. It follows five days of intense battles between the Syrian military and army defectors in the country’s central region that raised the specter of all-out armed conflict.

Prominent Syrian opposition figure Bourhan Ghalioun, who read out the founding statement of the SNC at a news conference in Istanbul, accused the Syria of fomenting sectarian strife to maintain its grip on power.

“I think that this [Assad] regime has completely lost the world’s trust,” he said. “The world is waiting for a united Syrian [opposition] that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognize it,” he added.

“The council denounces the [regime’s] policy of sectarian incitement … which threatens national unity and is pushing the country to the brink of civil war,” he said.

Syria’s volatile sectarian divide means that an armed conflict could rapidly escalate in scale and brutality. The Baath Party leadership is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

The opposition movement has until now focused on peaceful demonstrations, although recently some protesters have been reported to have taken up arms to defend themselves against military attacks. Army defectors have also been fighting government troops.

In forming a national council, the Syrians are following in the footsteps of Libyan rebels, who formed a National Transitional Council during the uprising that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Syrian opposition consists of a variety of groups with differing ideologies, including Islamists and secularists, and there have been many meetings of dissidents claiming to represent Syria’s popular uprising since it erupted seven months ago. But the new council is the broadest umbrella movement of revolutionary forces formed so far.

A group of Syrian activists had declared the preliminary formation of the council last month, but its structure, goals and a founding statement signed by major opposition factions, had not been announced until this conference.

The SNC announced in Istanbul appears to have received the recognition of the largest Syrian opposition factions.

Members said it includes representatives from the Damascus Declaration grouping, a pro-democracy network based in the capital, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political party banned in the country, various Kurdish factions, and the grassroots Local Coordination Committees which have led protests across the country, as well as other independent and tribal figures.\

Conference spokesman Ghalioun said a key benefit of the council to the opposition would be to provide a single body with which other countries could coordinate. He urged Syrians everywhere to support it and said it would be a vehicle for democratic change.

The council’s statement said it categorically rejects any foreign intervention or military operations to bring down Assad’s government but called on the international community to “protect the Syrian people” from “the declared war and massacres being committed against them by the regime.”

It said that protesters should continue to use “peaceful means” to topple the Syrian leader.

The organizers have not named a leader for the national council, but appeared to give a leading role to Ghalioun, a popular opposition figure who is also a scholar of contemporary oriental studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In ground developments Sunday, the government said it retook control of the rebellious central town of Rastan after hunting down “armed terrorists” holed up inside. The fighting there highlighted the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.

Syrian activists say the fighting in Rastan had pitted the Syrian military against hundreds of army defectors who sided with anti-Assad protesters. It was among the worst clashes in the 6-month-old uprising against Assad.

In a separate incident, the 21-year-old son of Syria’s top Sunni Muslim cleric was wounded by gunmen, the state-run SANA news agency reported.

Pro-government Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun’s son Saria was attacked in the Saraqeb region of the restive northern Idlib province as he left the university where he studies, the agency reported. He suffered wounds to his chest and kidney and was being operated upon.

Mufti Hassoun is considered to be a close supporter of President Bashar Assad’s government, and has echoed its claims that the unrest in Syria is the result of a foreign conspiracy.

SANA said Hassoun had died of wounds sustained during an ambush on his car, while traveling between Idlib and Aleppo.

Source: The Daily Star.


Israeli naval vessels take control of Gaza boat

October 20, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops on Saturday commandeered a Gaza-bound ship that tried to break through Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled seaside strip, the military said. European lawmakers and other pro-Palestinian activists aboard did not resist, and the Finnish-flagged vessel was diverted to an Israeli port.

The trip by the ship, Estelle, marked the latest challenge to the air, land and sea embargo of Gaza that Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized the territory in 2007. Israeli officials say they need to enforce the blockade to prevent weapons smuggling.

Hamas called for more attempts to break the sea blockade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement praising the military for enforcing the blockade, said there “is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza” and accused the activists of trying to “to provoke and slander Israel’s name.”

“If human rights were really important to these activists they would have sailed for Syria. We will continue to protect our borders,” he said. Six Israeli naval vessels stopped the Estelle when it was about 30 nautical miles from Gaza, and masked soldiers boarder the ship and ordered it to sail to Israel’s Ashdod port, said Victoria Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists. The boat arrived at the port Saturday night and will be inspected to see what is on board, the Israeli military said.

The activists will be questioned by immigration officials and then deported to their home countries within 72 hours, said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry. The Swedish-owned Estelle left Naples, Italy, on Oct. 7 with about 30 people from eight countries, including lawmakers from Norway, Sweden, Greece and Spain, as well as Israeli activists and a 79-year-old former legislator from Canada.

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Avital Leibovich accused the activists of staging a provocation. “We have this blockade because there are constant smuggling attempts of weapons, munitions that eventually reach the hands of terror organizations inside Gaza,” she said.

Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar rounds toward Israeli border towns. Although Hamas and Israel have maintained an unwritten truce for more than two years, violence occasionally flares in the area. Most recently, an Israeli strike on a prominent al-Qaida-inspired jihadi prompted two days of tit-for-tat rocket fire and strikes last week.

Strand, a spokeswoman for the activists, said the takeover of the Estelle by Israeli forces was a “demonstration of ruthlessness.” The ship was carrying cement, basketballs and musical instruments, Strand said. It was emblazoned with “Ship to Gaza” on one side, and also flew the colorful red, green, black and white Palestinian flag.

Israel, aided by Egypt, closed Gaza’s borders after Hamas seized control and drove out forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more than five years ago. Israel eased its restrictions after its raid of a Turkish-led blockade-busting flotilla in 2010 left nine activists dead and sparked international condemnation.

Still, Israel continues to block sea access to Gaza and severely restricts its ability to export goods and import raw materials. Activists say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, denying them the chance to trade and travel freely. Neighboring Egypt continues to impose restrictions at its passenger crossing with Gaza.

The blockade has deepened the hardships in Gaza, where three in four residents rely on U.N. food aid to get by, according to U.N. figures. “It’s hard to imagine what threat one sailboat, loaded with humanitarian supplies and a small number of people, could do to” Israel’s mighty military, said Eva Manly, the wife of former Canadian parliamentarian James Manly. She said she lost contact with her 79-year-old husband early Saturday.

Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Joshua Hantman said the goods onboard would be checked before entering Gaza through the Israeli-controlled land crossing, Kerem Shalom. He said Israel allows some 50,000 tons of goods into Gaza every week. Gaza residents also use dozens of smuggling tunnels linked to neighboring Egypt to bring in contraband goods, particularly construction materials.

Hantman said militants have tried in the past to smuggle weapons into Gaza by sea. In 2011, a vessel carrying 50 tons of weaponry sought to reach Gaza, while in 2009, a boat tried to bring in some 500 tons of weapons, he said.

A Hamas spokesman condemned Israel’s actions as “piracy.” “This confirms that the (Israeli) occupation is maintaining its control and isolation of Gaza. There must be more flotillas of solidarity activists to Gaza,” said Fawzi Barhoum.

Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Lebanese on edge after car bomb linked to Syria

October 21, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese protesters erected flaming roadblocks and gunmen roamed the streets on Saturday in a city on edge after the assassination of a top security official in a powerful car bomb the prime minister linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The crisis raised a terrifying specter for Lebanese who fear their country could easily plunge back into cycles of violence and reprisal that have haunted it for decades. Friday’s blast in the heart of Beirut’s Christian area killed eight people, including the country’s intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan. It was the deadliest bombing in Beirut in four years, shattering the country’s uneasy calm.

The government declared a national day of mourning for the victims Saturday, but protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks in anger. Sharbal Abdo, who lives in the neighborhood where the bomb went off, brought his 6-year-old son, Chris, and 12-year-old daughter, Jane, to see the destruction Saturday.

“They were very afraid yesterday,” he said. “They need to face this situation. It may be their future.” Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Saturday linked the bombing to al-Hassan’s high-profile investigation this summer that uncovered what authorities called a plot by Syria to provoke chaos in Lebanon with bombings and assassinations.

“I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but in fact we cannot separate yesterday’s crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened,” Mikati said at a news conference following an emergency Cabinet meeting.

Mikati, who opponents believe is too close to Syria and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, offered to resign after the bombing, but was asked by President Michel Suleiman to stay. Al-Hassan’s probe led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Assad’s most loyal allies in Lebanon. Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. Indicted in absentia in the August sweep was Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s highest aides.

Samaha’s arrest was an embarrassing blow to Syria, which has long acted with impunity in Lebanon. Syria has powerful allies here, including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which now dominates the government.

For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination. Damascus’ hold on Lebanon began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in truck bomb along Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront. Syria denied having any role. But broad public outrage in Lebanon forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country.

The killings of anti-Syrian figures continued for years, however, and Assad has managed to maintain his influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah and other allies. Now, as the Syrian civil war rages just across the border, Lebanon increasingly is getting sucked in.

Mikati said Saturday he had offered to resign after Friday’s car bomb, but said Suleiman asked him not to plunge the country into more uncertainty. The bombing raised fears that the crisis could unleash Lebanon’s sectarian tensions, a dire scenario for a country that endured a devastating civil war of its own from 1975-1990.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke Saturday with Suleiman and stressed the importance of “dissociating the country from regional events” and in Lebanon’s sovereignty, a U.N. spokesman said. The Syrian unrest has already enflamed tensions here. Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Assad. Al-Hassan was a Sunni whose stances were widely seen to oppose Syria and Hezbollah.

Hundreds of Sunni protesters marched in force through downtown Beirut Saturday, placing the blame squarely on Syria and Hezbollah for al-Hassan’s killing. “Hezbollah is a terrorist group!” they shouted.

Police were trying to identify the bombers and find out how they managed to target al-Hassan, an important security figure who traveled under great protection and who likely took more precautions following Samaha’s arrest.

“We don’t expect to reveal the crime within few hours,” police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi told Future TV. “The investigation is like a puzzle. You collect the pieces and put them together in a logical way.”

Al-Hassan had many potential enemies. Besides his investigation of Samaha, al-Hassan helped investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a powerful Sunni figure. An international tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah for Hariri’s killing, although the group denies involvement.

His department also had a role in breaking up several Israeli spy rings inside Lebanon in recent years, Lebanese officials said. Al-Hassan, 47, who was married with two children, is expected to be buried Sunday next to Hariri’s tomb in downtown Beirut. His family arrived in Lebanon on Saturday on a private plane from Paris, where they live.

Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, condemned the assassination, calling it a “criminal explosion that targets Lebanon and its people.” He also called for self-restraint, saying “the criminal will get his punishment sooner or later.”

But many Lebanese were seething with anger. In the eastern town of Marj, protesters tried to storm an office of the pro-Syrian Itihad group. Lebanese soldiers pushed them away, wounding five protesters, security officials said. Dozens of people who marched in protest in the border town of Moqueibleh came under fire from the Syrian side of the border, forcing them to disperse, the officials said.

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. In the predominantly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, gunmen were roaming the streets on motorcycles and opening fire in the air.

The army issued a statement urging Lebanese to overcome the crisis and coordinate among themselves in order to give a chance to the “the criminal killers who tried through the crime to incite strife and split the country.”

Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.