Archive for November, 2012

Syrian rebels capture air base near Damascus

November 26, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels captured a helicopter base just outside Damascus Sunday in what an activist called a “blow to the morale of the regime” near President Bashar Assad’s seat of power, while the bombardment of a village near the capital killed at least eight children.

Activists said the children were killed when Syrian warplanes bombed the village of Deir al-Asafir just outside the Damascus. The village is close to suburbs of the capital that has been witnessing clashes, shelling and air raids between troops and rebels over the past months.

The Britain-based Syrian observatory for Human Rights said the bombardment of the village killed eight children. Another activist group, the Revolution Command Council said 10 children were killed when warplanes struck the village as they played outdoors.

An amateur video showed two girls lying dead in a street while the bodies of two bloodied dead boys were in the back seat of a car parked nearby. Several other wounded children were seen rushed for treatment.

Another video showed the bodies of two dead boys inside what appeared to be a makeshift hospital as others received treatment from injuries while lying on the floor. The activist videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting about the events depicted. Syria restricts the access of reporters.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with an uprising against Assad’s regime, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts. It quickly morphed into a civil war that has since killed more than 40,000 people, according to activists. Hundreds of children have been killed since the crisis began, according to activists.

The air base takeover claim showed how rebels are advancing in the area of the capital, though they are badly outgunned, making inroads where Assad’s power was once unchallenged. Rebels have also been able to fire mortar rounds into Damascus recently.

The director of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said rebels seized control of the Marj al-Sultan base on the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday morning. He said at least 15 rebels and eight soldiers were killed in the fighting that started a day earlier. The rebels later withdrew from the base.

Rebels appear to be trying to take over air bases and destroy aircraft in order to prevent the regime from using them in attacks against opposition forces around the country. The rebels have no protection against the attack helicopters and fighter jets that have been blasting their positions.

Rebels have been attacking air bases in different parts of Syria, mostly in the northern regions of Idlib and Aleppo. In the battle at the base outside Damascus, Abdul-Rahman and Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said rebels destroyed two helicopters with rocket propelled grenades and captured a tank. They say the base, which is on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, houses several radar positions.

“This is a blow to the morale of the regime, because it is close to the heart of the capital,” said Abdul-Rahman, referring to the base that is about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Damascus. Al-Shami said the rebels withdrew from the base after they captured some ammunition. He said they feared counterstrikes by regime aircraft.

An amateur video posted online showed rebels walking next to two destroyed helicopters. At least three other helicopters appeared undamaged. Black smoke billowed in the distance. Another video showed several radar posts on hills inside the large compound. Parked military trucks stood inside as rebels roamed freely.

The Observatory also reported violence in other parts of Syria, including the country’s largest city of Aleppo in the north and the capital itself. It said rebels on Sunday captured a training base for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command near the Damascus suburb of Douma. The PFLP-GC is one of the Palestinian factions most loyal to Assad.

The PFLP-GC said in a statement late Saturday that the base was under attack. It said that thousands of activists and fighters who fought against Israel were trained at the base over the past 30 years.

Also Sunday, the Observatory said a bomb targeted a bus in the southern village of Othman, killing at least five people and wounding dozens. It said rebels and troops clashed in the southern region of Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said residents found 12 bodies in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, scene of heavy clashes between rebels and government troops over the past few days.

State TV said troops clashed with al-Qaida militants in Daraya, killing some of them and confiscating a mortar that they were using in their attacks. The station said that troops killed an al-Qaida affiliated Palestinian militant known as Abu Suhaib in the Damascus suburb of Hajira. It said his group was behind several bombings in Syria that killed and wounded dozens of people.

Assad’s regime blames the revolt on a foreign conspiracy. It accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the United States, other Western countries and Turkey, of funding, training and arming the rebels, whom it calls terrorists.

Syrian rebels take villages near Israel-held area

November 14, 2012

JERUSALEM (AP) — Syrian rebels control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, the Israeli defense minister said Wednesday, bringing the conflict dangerously close to the Jewish state and raising the possibility of an armed clash with the region’s strongest power.

During a tour of the Golan Heights, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a scathing assessment of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and said Israel will remain “vigilant and alert.” “Almost all of the villages, from the foot of this ridge to the very top, are already in the hands of the Syrian rebels,” said Barak, who was accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The Syrian army is displaying ever-diminishing efficiency.”

The civil war in Syria has renewed tensions over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.

But in recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory. On Wednesday, an Associated Press journalist said an Israeli helicopter was patrolling the border area, and gunfire could be heard. The source of the gunfire was not immediately clear.

While it is widely believed that Assad does not want to pick a fight with Israel, there are fears the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.

Israeli political scientist Dore Gold, an informal adviser to Netanyahu, said it’s difficult to assess whether Israel is better off with rebels in control along the border. “The forces fighting the Assad government are made up of diverse elements. And to make a judgment whether Israel should be more or less worried, that would require having a very precise picture of what’s going on there, which we don’t,” he said. “But it’s no secret that among the Syrian rebels are forces that identify with al-Qaida, and are a cause of concern.”

A buffer zone lines the Israeli border with Syria. Beyond the border on the Syrian side is a 75-kilometer (46-mile) stretch where no military forces other than U.N. forces are permitted. Israeli military officials said Barak’s assessment depicted a situation that is not entirely new, and that rebels have held those villages for several weeks. It was not clear how many villages the rebels hold along the Golan Heights, which is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the sensitive information, said the situation is dynamic and could change easily, with the villages returning to Assad’s hands.

Israeli experts said nothing prevents Assad’s forces from entering the villages and retaking them, even ones in the U.N. zone. “Just like any other place, it is a battleground between the army and the rebels,” said Itamar Rabinovich, the former chief Israeli negotiator with Syria.

He said Israel would likely continue to remain on the sidelines of the fighting because Israeli officials believe Assad will eventually fall and that any support for rebels would backfire. But privately, “Israel is rooting for the right kind of insurgents,” he said, ones who follow a moderate line and have no links to Islamist extremist groups.

Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said the exchange of fire this week was “based on a mistake,” and that if such incidents continued, they would be infrequent. “The Syrian army doesn’t have any interest in provoking Israel,” he said. “Syria has enough problems.”

The violence in Syria, which has killed more than 36,000 people since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, threatens to inflame an already combustible region. The fighting already has already spilled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

On Wednesday, Syrian troops used aircraft and artillery to try to dislodge rebels from a town next to the border with Turkey, as Ankara warned it would retaliate against any airspace violations. An AP journalist in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar saw Syrian airstrikes in the adjacent Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, where rebels say they have ousted troops loyal to Assad.

Deadly airstrikes began several days ago, and many casualties were taken to Turkey for treatment. Local officials said as many as 30 people have died since Monday. The journalist also saw Syrian forces shelling a wooded area near Ras al-Ayn from where rebels had been firing.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the fighting in Syria into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 11,000 escaped to Turkey last week following the surge of fighting at Ras al-Ayn, which is located in the northeastern Syrian province of al-Hasaka, an oil-producing region where the population is mostly Kurdish.

The proximity of the fighting to Turkey has raised fears of an escalation. Turkish media, including the Anadolu news agency, said several villages west of Ceylanpinar have been evacuated to protect residents from any spillover of the fighting in Syria. About 1,000 people left Mursitpinar, 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Ceylanpinar, after an appeal from the loudspeakers of local mosques.

Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s defense minister, indicated that military force would be used in response to any incursions by Syrian aircraft. Last month, Turkish artillery fired on targets in Syria after Syrian shells landed inside Turkey and killed several civilians.

“The necessary response will be given to Syrian planes and helicopters that violate our border,” Yilmaz said. A Turkish official in Ceylanpinar said the sound of shelling was heard through the night. Two rocket-propelled grenades hit houses on the Turkish side, but there were no injuries, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is barred by rules from being quoted by name.

The official later said a dozen wounded Syrians had been brought across the border, and one died during treatment. The official cited contacts in Ras al-Ayn as saying Syrian forces had entered the town.

A convoy of seven white jeeps and a truck was seen near the Syrian town, but it was unclear who was in the vehicles. On the Turkish side of the border, Turkish jets were heard overhead. At one point, sounds of jubilation were heard from Ras al-Ayn. One rebel shouted in Arabic: “The Syrian army fled. Did you see?”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes carried out six airstrikes in al-Hasaka, including those at Ras al-Ayn. Regime fighter jets also targeted the rebellious suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday, the Britain-based Observatory said. Heavy clashes between rebel units and Assad’s troops were ongoing in the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory said. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.

Although the conflict has been grinding on for nearly 20 months, neither side has managed to strike a blow that could tip the balance. Over the weekend, Syria’s splintered rebel factions agreed to a U.S.-backed plan to unite under a new umbrella group that seeks a common voice and strategy against Assad’s regime.

President Barack Obama said he’s encouraged the opposition has formed a new, more representative leadership council, but the U.S. isn’t ready to recognize the group as a “government in exile” or to arm it.

“We consider them a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Obama said at a news conference at the White House. France was the first Western country to formally recognize the newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Obama said the U.S. wanted to make sure the group “is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.” He also said the U.S. isn’t considering sending weapons to the opposition because of concerns the arms might fall into the hands of extremists.

“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition and one of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harms, or do Israeli harm or otherwise engage in actions that are detrimental to our national security,” he said.

The outgunned rebel fighters want arms — including critical anti-aircraft batteries — from main regional backers such as the wealthy Gulf states and Turkey. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi brushed off the new opposition group as a “desperate attempt” to undermine Syrians’ morale.

Foreign ministers from the main Gulf Arab bloc — which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar — met Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh to discuss the crisis, according to the official Saudi News Agency. The talks were expected to bring in visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose nation is an important ally of Syria.

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Lauren E. Bohn in Jerusalem, Mehmet Guzel in Ceylanpinar, Turkey, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Medical Experiments in Jordan

by Adam Nicky

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Illegitimate Children in Jordan Become Lab Rats for Pharmaceutical Companies

AMMAN – Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour made a bizarre official visit to a drugs testing laboratory within days of being appointed by King Abdullah II to lead the country through economic and political turmoil.

The liberal Ensour’s top priority is to steer the country through tricky parliament elections and tackle its economic plight.

While visiting the private hospital of al Hanan, where drug tests are conducted on illegitimate children, the premier said he wanted to make sure that testing on humans was in line with the regulations, after questions were raised over research centers’ and pharmaceutical companies’ practices.

According to Ahmed Ayasra, one of the drug-testing volunteers, the impact on health could appear in months or years to come, when it is too late to claim for compensation or even seek treatment.

The dark-skinned 24-year-old looked haggard, with sunken eyes as he spoke about his experience with the drug testing. He signed a contract worth 300 Jordanian dinars, under which he would stay a few days in a private hospital to test drugs varying from pain killers to lotions and Viagra-like drugs.

Ayasra grew up in a government care center, along with dozens of other children abandoned by their parents. He is believed to have been born as a result of an illegitimate relationship.

“I suffered from headaches and lack of sleep when they gave medication they said was a pain killer, but I’m already feeling pain in my bones and don’t feel well in general,” he told The Media Line.

Human rights activists and some of the testing subjects told The Media Line that the premier’s visit opened the public’s eyes to illegal and immoral practices by pharmaceutical companies and research centers.

Ayasra said he filed a lawsuit against the research center, but was forced to drop charges after threats by police.

“Targeting a certain group of people with limited financial income is a gross violation of human rights and should be banned,” said human rights activist Abdullah Khatib.

“While these men are over 18, they have limited, if any option but to accept being tested on. They have no food to eat, no training or proper education. This is what is illegal and immoral about this practice,” said Khatib, who is also a private physician.

Officials from the Jordan Food and Drug Administration (JFDA) said they license such tests for local companies, but only according to specific rules. The testing is conducted on behalf of international and local pharmaceutical companies.

JFDA Director General Hayel Obeidat said the government is following up on these companies’ activities and they are working within legal boundaries.

“The laboratories and hospitals are working according to international laws. We regularly monitor their activities,” he said.

However, he declined to say if the government has taken action against any research company, or if there have been violations in the past.

A spokesman for graduates of social care centers, Ala Teibi, accused pharmaceutical companies and research centers of targeting this group to avoid legal repercussions.

“The difficult economic situation among this group due to high unemployment pushes them into the arms of research centers,” he told The Media Line.

A source in a large Jordanian pharmaceutical company said the firm is trying to reproduce drugs made by international companies to sell under new brand names. He said Jordanian pharmaceutical companies are among the leading firms in the region in rebranding, but they need to test the drugs before producing them industrially.

“Jordan has a reputation of advanced pharmaceutical companies, therefore any medicine must be tested well before being exported or put on the local market,” said the source.

He noted that the government, including the Health Ministry, encourage the practice but try to impose strict conditions on testing.

Jordan’s Health Minister Abdul Latif Wreikat said such experiments are common in every country worldwide. He pointed out that the companies follow the Declaration of Helsinki – Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. The declaration makes it a physician’s duty to promote and safeguard the health of patients, including those involved in medical research.

“Each subject receives life insurance while being tested, as well as guarantees of treatment for any side-effects that could incur as a result of the drug, and this is what is being done in Jordan,” the minister told The Media Line.

Experts say the duration of testing contracts is limited. When an experiment is completed, some of these young men spend months reeling from the effects of the drugs, while the companies involved decline to provide treatment.

For Ayasra, the future remains clouded in uncertainty as he continues to suffer new symptoms. But he is clear about one thing: “I will never accept being treated as a lab rat. I would work day and night instead. I only hope the testing will not have a detrimental impact on my health,” he concluded.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Brokering Votes becomes Rampant in Lead-up to Jordan’s Elections

by Adam Nicky

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

[AMMAN]  Subhi Khatib is not an activist, nor does he have a political preference. But the 45-year old Palestinian refugee nevertheless works around the clock during Jordan’s election period, brokering votes for candidates.

Khatib’s job is to locate voters from some of the 13 Palestinian refugee camps spread throughout the kingdom and sell their votes to office-seekers running in large cities.

Jordanian law allows votes to be transferred from one location to another under strict conditions, but vote-brokering is prohibited and punishable by up to two years in prison. Nevertheless, no one has ever been convicted of the practice since the law was passed and circumventing the permitted procedures is not at all uncommon.

Khatib explained that his clients are typically businessmen or individuals from the security apparatus linked to authorities who are seeking to support their favored candidates or oust those candidates’ unwanted opponents in some hotly contested districts.

“Palestinian refugee camps are seen as gold mines for votes. There are tens of thousands of votes up for grab,” said Khatib, as he sifted through a list of telephone contacts. “There are middlemen in various camps who can bring me votes whenever I need them. Some of them do not even buy the votes, but herd relatives to me – most of whom are women who are poor and uneducated,” he told The Media Line.

Jordan is scheduled to hold elections for parliament on January 23, under an amended law. The revised legislation empowers tribes loyal to the royal family and affords only minimal representation to Jordanians of Palestinian origin who have full Jordanian citizenship.

In the squalid Baqaa refugee camp, home to nearly 300,000 refugees, residents show little interest in reform protests that swept through the main cities across Jordan. Residents of refugee camps opted to maintain a low profile ever since the “Arab Spring” reached Jordan, as leaders of the Palestinian community worry their camps are not politically protected.

“We have no role in this political drama. We worry about a tough response by the security forces if we take to the streets to demand reforms,” said Helmi Samer, a camp activist who has been lobbying for an elections boycott.

“We are considered Jordanians only on election day. For rest of the year, we are treated like [the] Palestinian refugees [we are] who have no political rights,” he says, noting that Palestinian camps housing nearly one million residents are represented by only four  seats in the parliament, while a small town like Ma’an, with a population of merely 50,000 people, has five representatives in the 122-seat parliament.

Since the 1971 civil war in between Palestinian factions and the Jordanian army, authorities in Amman have systematically denied major government positions to Jordanians of Palestinian origin and have restricted the “east-bankers” from enlistment in the army and police.

Samer believes the Palestinians continue to pay the price for the civil war, even until now.

“There is a wide sense of political apathy in the refugee camps,” said Samer. “People do not care about the parliament, which has been lackluster in performance and did little to help them improve their living conditions,” he said.

Former parliamentarian Mohammad Dahrawee lashed out at the government for approving the elections law, which he says grossly under-represents Jordanian Palestinians.

“The Palestinian camps are being politically marginalized. They have the right to be part of the political picture — not observers and voters,” he said. “Justice means that the electoral system is based on population density, not on geography. The elections law reaffirms that there are two levels of citizens and our ambition to reach justice is hampered by this law that needs reform,” he told The Media Line.

Elections are boycotted by most opposition parties, including the Islamist movement and a national coalition of opposition parties, an umbrella of seven leftist parties. In the battle with the Islamist movement following opposition’s decision to boycott the elections, authorities have been reportedly utilizing connections to Fatah and other Palestinian factions to secure higher voter turn-outs.

Several Palestinian leaders from outside of Jordan, including Rajab Kadoumi, a senior Fatah leader, have held meetings in Baqaa refugee camps urging community leaders take part in the voting.

Other Fatah figures held similar meetings in the Wehdat camp near Amman, the Zarqa camp and other areas with high concentrations of Palestinian refugees.

Researcher Kamal Hudeib said refugee camps are looked at as major vote-troves for influential candidates from outside the camps, including government-linked candidates, businessmen and political parties.

“Refugee camps have become a market for [the sale of] votes,” according to Hudeib. He told The Media Line that, “Several candidates have been trying to transfer voters from the camps to their districts.”

For most of the year, vote-facilitator Khatib is jobless. He spends his time in coffee shops, sports clubs and at social gatherings in order to meet people and expand his network of potential voters. Then, when election fever hits the kingdom, Khatib becomes as busy as a bee, moving from one camp to another, meeting with scores of candidates while trying to cash-in on what he sees as a spending-bonanza by candidates.

“All eyes are now on refugee camps — not to help improve conditions, but to obtain the votes of their residents,” said Khatib.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.