Archive for March, 2013

Rebels free 21 UN captives in southern Syria

March 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Rebels in southern Syria freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers on Saturday after holding them hostage for four days, driving them to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganization of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Assad and complicates vows by the U.S. and others to provide assistance.

It also has raised concerns about the future of U.N. operations in the area. The Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on Wednesday by one of the rebel groups operating in southern Syria near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

Activists associated with the group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gave different reasons for seizing the 21 men. First they demanded that all government forces leave the area. Then they suggested the peacekeepers were human shields against government attacks. Then they declared them “honored guests” held for their own safety.

They also released videos online, including one on Saturday of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers’ shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign. On Saturday, after negotiations that the top U.N. official in Damascus described as “long and difficult,” the rebels changed the plan to deliver the peacekeepers to a U.N. team, instead taking them to the Jordanian border.

Video broadcast by Arab satellite channels late Saturday showed them sitting at a round conference table in Amman, their bright blue helmets in front of them. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed their release and called on all parties in Syria to respect the peacekeepers’ freedom of movement.

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday the initial plan for the peacekeepers is for them to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.

Hernandez also cited reports from Philippine Ambassador to Jordan Olivia Palala indicating that the peacekeepers are safe. “They are safe, they are unharmed, they are OK, and they are whole,” he said, quoting Palala.

It was the first time in nearly two years of violence in Syria that U.N. personnel have been directly caught up in the civil war, which evolved from an uprising against Assad that broke out in March 2011 and has left more than 70,000 people dead.

Since then, hundreds of independent rebel groups have formed across the country to fight Assad’s forces, overrunning military bases and seizing territory in northern and eastern Syria while the regime maintains its grip in the center and the capital, Damascus.

Although some groups have banded together into organized brigades, most still operate independently, competing with each other for resources and booty from captured sites. Even the rebel’s political leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, which the U.S. and other powers have officially recognized, has no direct control over fighters on the ground. And it remains unclear how many rebels follow its associated High Military Command, which was formed in Turkey in December.

This lack of a central command has hindered rebel efforts against government forces and discouraged the U.S. and others from providing arms. Last month, the U.S. promised $60 million dollars in new aid for the opposition but refused to arm the rebels, saying more weapons would worsen the situation and could help extremists.

The release of the 21 peacekeepers serves as a case study in rebel disorganization. As the days passed and the captors’ terms changed, international indignation rose. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blasted the Syrian government on Friday for shelling the area, while also warning the rebels that the kidnapping was “not good for their reputation and that they need to immediately release these people.”

The men were held in the village of Jamlah, less than two kilometers (a mile) from the Jordanian border. A U.N. team tried to retrieve the hostages on Friday, but abandoned the plan because of government shelling.

On Saturday, another U.N. team reached the area and stopped in a village less than a mile away to wait for the captives, said Mokhtar Lamani, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. Lamani said the team was “surprised” when the rebels issued a “very urgent request” that the team come to the village itself.

The team demurred, Lamani said, then was “surprised” again when rebels took the peacekeepers directly to Jordan. “We were surprised to hear to hear the news from a satellite channel that they had reached Jordan,” he said. “Praise God in the end that all of them were released safely.”

An activist associated with the captors said via Skype that the rebels had not been able to reach the U.N. team because of “security conditions” so had taken them to Jordan instead. He said the Syrian government had been shelling and carrying out airstrikes on the area for weeks, and that locals worried the situation would get worse after the captives left.

“They lightened the shelling today, but we fear that now they will launch a harsh attack on the area,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the United Nations Saturday that the Syrian army had held its fire in the area “out of concern for the security and safety of the U.N. forces.”

It called on the U.N. to “unequivocally condemn the attacks of those terrorist groups against civilians and work to dislodge those terrorist groups immediately from the region.” The Syria government says the uprising is a foreign-backed conspiracy to weaken the country carried out by “terrorists” — its blanket term for the opposition.

The peacekeepers are part of a U.N. mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a cease-fire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it pushed back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory.

The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli officials worry the violence will prompt UNDOF to end its mission.

On Friday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that.”

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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UN says 21 peacekeepers detained on Golan Heights

March 07, 2013

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Armed fighters linked to the Syrian opposition detained 21 U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines on Wednesday in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights, a new escalation in the spillover of Syria’s civil war.

The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release. In Manila, Philippine officials that Syrian rebels were holding 21 Filipino peacekeepers “as guests.” Early Thursday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the U.N. commander on the ground told him that negotiations were progressing. He said he was told “by tomorrow, they expect all of these 21 to be released.”

Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said the peacekeepers were in a military convoy when they were “suddenly held at one Syrian rebel outpost. They were allowed to go through the first outpost but were stopped at the second outpost.”

The troops, part of a Philippine contingent of 300 peacekeepers, were taken to a “safe area” after their vehicles were taken, he said. The capture comes a week after the announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force is missing. The force, known as UNDOF, was established a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and maintains a cease-fire.

Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian war moves closer to Israel. There have been several instances in which stray fire has landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and Israel is concerned that Syrian weapons could fall into the hands of hostile groups and be used against Israel.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said the capture of the peacekeepers “is particularly unacceptable and bizarre” because the UNDOF peacekeepers are unarmed and their mission has nothing to do with Syria’s internal conflict.

“They are there on a completely different mission so there is no reason at all under any circumstances, any kind of sick imagination to try to harm those people,” he said. Churkin said U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who briefed the council behind closed doors, identified the captors as being from a group associated with the Syrian armed opposition.

“There was no fighting, according to his briefing to us,” Churkin said. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the capture of the 21 peacekeepers, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

Del Buey said the U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by about 30 armed fighters near an observation post that was damaged in heavy combat last weekend and had been evacuated.

A video posted online by activists showed a group of armed rebels standing around at least three white U.N. vehicles with the words UNDOF on them, allegedly in the village of Jamlah in Daraa province.

The video, circulated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, accuses the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime forces dead.

A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced the group is holding the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from Jamlah.

“They will not be released until after Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel,” the man said. Churkin urged countries with influence on the Syrian opposition to use it to help free the peacekeepers. He did not name any countries but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are known to have been providing military aid to some Syrian rebel groups.

The international community has been divided in its response to Syria’s conflict. The United States and other countries have supported Syria’s political opposition but have been reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels. The Obama administration, however, announced last week that it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels.

Russia and China, meanwhile, have continued to back Assad’s regime. Human Right Watch, meanwhile, is investigating whether the same rebels linked to seizing the peacekeepers were involved in the executions of captured regime soldiers in another incident around Jamlah several days ago. The rights group began the investigation after receiving one video apparently showing the capture of the Syrian soldiers and a second video showing bodies in the same area, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said.

“We were just starting to investigate this today … when we learned about the incident with the UN peacekeepers,” he said. Asked about why the rebels might be holding the U.N. peacekeepers, he said: “This seems to be a rather inexperienced group. It shows the desperation that many people, including armed groups, around Syria feel about protecting the civilians in their own villages.”

Ban has warned of escalating military activity along the Israeli-Syrian border as a result of the intensifying Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has cost more than 70,000 lives. In December, Ban accused the Syrian government of serious violations of the 1974 separation agreement and called on both countries to halt firing across the cease-fire line. He cited numerous clashes between Syrian security forces and opposition fighters in the disengagement zone.

In response, he said, UNDOF has adopted a number of security measures.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Lebanon, and Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines contributed to this report.

Syrian refugees top 1 million, rebels take city

March 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s accelerating humanitarian crisis hit a grim milestone Wednesday: The number of U.N.-registered refugees topped 1 million — half of them children — described by an aid worker as a “human river” of thousands spilling out of the war-ravaged country every day.

Nearly 4 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil war. Of the displaced, 2 million have sought cover in camps and makeshift shelters across Syria, 1 million have registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and several hundred thousand more fled the country but haven’t signed up with the U.N. refugee agency.

The West has refrained from military intervention in the two-year-old battle to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, and many Syrians hold the international community responsible for their misery.

“The refugee numbers swelled because the world community is sitting idly, watching the tyrant Assad killing innocent people,” said Mohammed Ammari, a 32-year-old refugee in the Zaatari camp straddling Jordan’s border with Syria. “Shame, shame, shame. The world should be ashamed.”

Despite an overall deadlock on the battlefield, the rebels have made recent gains, especially in northern Syria. On Wednesday, they completed their capture of Raqqa, the first major city to fall completely into rebel hands, activists said.

But with no quick end to the conflict in sight, the refugee problem is bound to worsen, said Panos Moumtzis of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. The number of uprooted Syrians is still lower than those displaced in other conflicts, including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, but the Syria crisis will likely be protracted, and widespread devastation will make quick repatriation unlikely.

“We fear that the worst may not have come yet,” Moumtzis said. The exodus from Syria picked up significantly in recent months, turning into a “human river flowing in, day and night,” he added. The number of registered refugees doubled since December, he said, with some 7,000 fleeing Syria every day.

Many refugees moved from shelter to shelter in Syria first before deciding to leave the country, while others were driven out by the increasing lack of basic resources, such as bread and fuel, in their hometowns. In the hardest-hit areas, entire villages have emptied out and families spanning several generations cross the border together.

On Wednesday, a 19-year-old mother of two became the one-millionth Syrian refugee to register with UNHCR. She would only give her first name, Bushra, because she feared reprisals. Bushra waited with several others at a U.N. office in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli to sign up. Along with her 4-year-old daughter, Batoul, and 2-year-old son, Omar, she fled fighting in the central city of Homs more than two weeks ago.

“Our life conditions are very bad. It is very expensive here (in Lebanon) and we cannot find any work,” Bushra said. Only about 30 percent of the 1 million registered refugees live in 22 camps — 17 in Turkey, three in Jordan and two in Iraq — and the rest live in communities in host countries, Moumtzis said.

Zaatari, one of the largest, is home to some 120,000 people. Refugees have been struggling with harsh desert conditions, including cold and floods in the winter, and scorching heat, along with snakes and scorpions, in the summer.

Moumtzis said he recently met a woman in Zaatari with an ID that shows her to be 101 years old. The woman, from the southern Syrian town of Daraa, was carried by her relatives, he said. The U.N. refugee agency needs money to help overstretched host countries cope. Of the $1 billion in refugee aid pledged at a donor conference in Kuwait in January, only $200 million has come through, officials said.

“We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched,” said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, adding that “Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster.”

The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests, but soon became a civil war. The rebel takeover of Raqqa, a city of 500,000, would consolidate opposition gains in the northern towns along the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey to Iraq.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said rebels seized control of the military intelligence headquarters and another security building after three days of fighting with regime holdouts.

In southern Syria, rebel fighters detained about 20 U.N. peacekeepers Wednesday, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey. The peacekeepers are part of a force that monitors a cease-fire between Israel and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights.

In video circulated by the Observatory, a rebel identifying himself as a fighter from the “Yarmouk Brigade” walks along an armored U.N. vehicle. He accuses the peacekeepers of helping regime soldiers redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days earlier.

Del Buey said the U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by the rebels. He said a team was dispatched to try to resolve the issue. The Observatory quoted rebels as saying the peacekeepers, all Filipinos, would not be released until regime forces withdraw from a village called Jamla.

The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release. Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for the international group Human Rights Watch, said he is investigating suspicions, based on amateur video, that the same group of rebels was involved in the execution of captured regime soldiers in the area several days ago.

In Belgium, the top rebel commander renewed an appeal to the international community to send weapons to the opposition. Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, asked for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s warplanes.

He said Russia and Iran are aiding the regime, while the West, while calling for Assad’s ouster, is not doing enough to help the rebels. “The people don’t understand why the international community just looks at the news on their TVs,” he said. “They just speak in the media and say, ‘that is not good and the regime must stop and must go, Bashar must go.’ And they don’t act.”

Britain seemed to be stepping up its support. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country would provide armored vehicles, body armor and search-and-rescue equipment to the opposition. But he said Britain is sticking to the European Union’s sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo.

In Cairo, the 22-member Arab League gave a diplomatic boost to the opposition. The League’s chief, Nabil ElAraby, offered Syria’s seat to the opposition, provided it forms a representative executive council. The League had suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, after Assad’s government did not abide by an Arab peace plan.

Associated Press writers Barbara Surk, Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut; Jamal Halaby in Amman; David Rising in Berlin; Don Melvin in Brussels; Jill Lawless in London; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Syrian opposition head visits rebel areas in north

March 03, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Following rebel gains, the leader of the Syrian opposition made his first visit Sunday to areas near the embattled northern city of Aleppo as fighters trying to oust President Bashar Assad captured a police academy and a border crossing along the frontier with Iraq.

Assad, meanwhile, lashed out at the West for helping his opponents in the civil war, delivering a blistering rebuke to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the U.S. will for the first time provide medical supplies and other non-lethal aid directly to the rebels in addition to $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition.

Aleppo, the nation’s largest city, has been a major front in the nearly 2-year-old uprising. Government forces and rebels have been locked in a stalemate there since July. Mouaz al-Khatib met Sunday with Syrians in the two rebel-held Aleppo suburbs of Manbah and Jarablus, a statement said. The stated goal of his trip — his first since being named the leader of the Syrian National Coalition late last year — was to inspect living conditions.

But his foray to the edge of Aleppo also could be an attempt to boost his group’s standing among civilians and fighters on the ground, many of whom see the Western-backed political leadership in exile as irrelevant and out of touch.

The areas along Syria’s northern border with Turkey are largely ruled by rival brigades and fighter units that operate autonomously and have no links to the political opposition. Al-Khatib’s visit came as rebels captured a police academy west of Aleppo after an eight-day battle that killed more than 200 Syrian soldiers and rebels, activists said. Anti-Assad fighters also stormed a central prison in the northern city of Raqqa and captured the Rabiya border crossing in the east along the border with Iraq, activists said. Iraqi officials said the crossing in northern Ninevah province has been closed.

The territorial gains are a significant blow to Assad, although his forces have regained control of several villages and towns along a key highway near Aleppo International Airport — an achievement that could signal the start of a decisive battle for Syria’s commercial capital.

Also Sunday, the government troops launched an offensive in central Syria, sweeping through Latakia and Hama provinces, trying to dislodge rebels from towns and villages. The army also shelled opposition strongholds around Damascus, pounding areas such as Harasta, Daraya, Douma and Zbadani with artillery and airstrikes in what opposition groups said were the regime’s “desperate attempts” to reverse the rebel advances.

The rebels have trying to storm the capital for weeks, pushing ever closer to Assad’s seat of power. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group, said the rebels seized the police academy in Khan al-Asal after entering the sprawling government complex with captured tanks.

At least 120 regime soldiers and 80 rebels were killed in the fighting, according to Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman. He said the rebels control all buildings inside the complex, which was abandoned by Assad’s forces early Sunday.

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after the rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Assad maintains his troops are fighting “terrorists” and Islamic extremists seeking to destroy Syria, and he accuses the West and its Gulf Arab allies of supporting them in achieving their goal. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Assad criticized the U.S. and Britain for sending financial and other non-lethal aid to the opposition. He set harsh terms for talking to his opponents, dialing back earlier hints of flexibility about talks.

He told the British newspaper that he is ready for dialogue with armed rebels and militants, but only if they surrender their weapons. Recently, the Syrian government offered to participate in talks, but didn’t address the question of laying down arms.

“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons to terrorize people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country,” Assad said in the interview, conducted in Damascus. “We fight terrorism.”

The opposition, including fighters on the ground and the Syrian National Coalition umbrella group, has rejected talks with Damascus until Assad steps down, a demand he has repeatedly rejected. Kerry met Thursday with Syrian opposition leaders in Italy, where he said the U.S. will for the first time provide the non-lethal aid directly to the fighters in addition to $60 million in assistance to the political opposition.

Assad said the “intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal.” He bitterly criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for peace talks as “naive, confused, unrealistic” while London tries to end the European Union’s arms embargo so that the rebels can be supplied with weapons.

“We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter,” he said, dismissing any notion that Britain could help end the civil war. “How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem?”

Britain’s aim to send aid to moderate opposition groups was misguided, Assad said, adding that such groups do not exist in Syria. Arming the rebels would have grave consequences, he warned. “We all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida, or Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies,” he told the newspaper.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been the best organized and most effective force on the opposition side, leading successful rebel assaults on military installation around the country. Al-Nusra has also claimed responsibility for car bombs and suicide attacks on government institutions in Damascus. The U.S. has designated the group a terrorist organization, saying its fighters have ties with al-Qaida.

British Foreign Secretary Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad’s comments were proof that the Syrian leader was out of touch with reality. “I think this will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times,” Hague said in an interview Sunday with the BBC.

Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Activists: 10 bodies found on road near Damascus

March 01, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say the bodies of 10 men, most of them shot in the head, have been found on a road outside of the Syrian capital.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the bodies were dumped on the road between the Damascus suburbs of Adra and Dumair. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said on Friday that all of the bodies were of men who appeared to be between the ages of 30 and 45. He said one of the men had been decapitated.

The identities of the men were not immediately known.