Archive for June, 2013

Assaf named goodwill ambassador by PA, UN

23/06/2013

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian to win the popular Arab Idol TV singing contest, will also become the UN’s first Palestinian goodwill ambassador and the PA’s goodwill Diaspora ambassador.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made the appointment shortly after Assaf’s win on Saturday evening, according to PA news agency WAFA.

Assaf will have “full diplomatic privileges” in his appointment, Abbas said, describing his winning as a “victory” for the Palestinian people.

Among those there to support Assaf were influential Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri, PA Culture Minister Anwar Abu Aisheh, Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Dabour, and Abbas’ son Yasser.

The Arab Idol winner was also named goodwill ambassador for UNRWA, making Assaf the first Palestinian to receive the title.

A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a goodwill UN ambassador, becoming the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said Saturday.

“A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship had not yet been announced.

“It is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN.”

Thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated in the streets late Saturday after the judges announced this year’s winner. They also launched fireworks.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

In an interview as he prepared for the final stages of the show, he thanked his fans in Palestine for their support.

“If I keep thanking you forever it is never enough,” Assaf said, promising to do his best to keep entertaining his fans.

He also thanked Palestinian leaders for their encouragement, particularly those who came to Beirut to watch him perform in the show.

“Their presence gave me more energy to move on and sing better and represent Palestine in its beautiful image,” he said.

As he succeeded in the final stages of the show, Assaf received phone calls from President Mahmoud Abbas and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The president urged Palestinian communities across the world to vote for Assaf, and instructed the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact embassies to mobilize support for the Arab Idol star.

Assaf said he would first return to his home in the Gaza Strip after the competition and later perform three shows in West Bank cities.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607476.

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Assaf named goodwill UN ambassador

23/06/2013

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian to win the popular Arab Idol TV singing contest, will also become the UN’s first Palestinian goodwill ambassador.

A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a goodwill UN ambassador, becoming the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said Saturday.

“A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship had not yet been announced.

“It is is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN.”

Thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated in the streets late Saturday after the judges announced this year’s winner. They also launched fireworks.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

In an interview as he prepared for the final stages of the show, he thanked his fans in Palestine for their support.

“If I keep thanking you forever it is never enough,” Assaf said, promising to do his best to keep entertaining his fans.

He also thanked Palestinian leaders for their encouragement, particularly those who came to Beirut to watch him perform in the show.

“Their presence gave me more energy to move on and sing better and represent Palestine in its beautiful image,” he said.

As he succeeded in the final stages of the show, Assaf received phone calls from President Mahmoud Abbas and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The president urged Palestinian communities across the world to vote for Assaf, and instructed the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact embassies to mobilize support for the Arab Idol star.

Assaf said he would first return to his home in the Gaza Strip after the competition and later perform three shows in West Bank cities.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607449.

Hamas MP praises Arab Idol winner’s ‘thankfulness to God’

23/06/2013

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — A Hamas MP praised Muhammad Assaf for becoming the first Palestinian to win the popular TV competition Arab Idol on Saturday night via Facebook.

MP Yahya Mousa posted on his Facebook page that he welcomed Assaf’s thanks to God and his kneeling to the ground as though in prayer when he was announced the winner.

Assaf won Arab Idol and dedicated his winning to the Palestinian people.

Later it was announced that he was to be made the first Palestinian refugee ambassador for UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with providing services to Palestinian refugees in Palestine and the Middle East.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607472.

Rocket near Beirut brings Syrian war closer

June 21, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut on Friday, bringing the conflict in neighboring Syria closer to Lebanon’s bustling capital and reviving bitter memories of the country’s own devastating civil war.

With skirmishes between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise around the country, religiously mixed and highly vulnerable Lebanon is increasingly buffeted by powerful forces that are dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines.

There were no casualties from the rocket, which struck a Christian area southeast of Beirut overnight, but the incident raised fears that Lebanon was being sucked into a war that has already paralyzed state institutions and strained its economy with the presence of more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

“This is very, very dangerous,” said Pierre Ashkar, head of a syndicate of hotel owners, referring to the potential damage to the tourism industry from such rocket attacks. He said his daughter and her husband were among scores who have canceled plans to come Lebanon.

“When our kids can’t come to Lebanon, I don’t know how a French, British or even a Saudi and Kuwaiti can,” he told The Associated Press. For the most part, Lebanon has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up its appearance as an oasis of relative stability, which has helped its tourism and entertainment businesses.

The Lebanese — and the tens of thousands of expatriates and Gulf Arab tourists who visit every summer — have learned to live with the country’s occasional bouts of upheaval and violence, including huge street protests that followed the assassination of a former prime minister in 2005 and deadly street clashes in 2008, when the militant Shiite Hezbollah group briefly overran parts of Beirut.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country in its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 with clashes between mostly Muslim Palestinian factions and Christian militiamen, and eventually turned into a Christian-Muslim civil war in which external players like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Western countries used the country as a battleground.

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, which began in March 2011, brought sectarian tensions to the surface and has inflamed rivalries. The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties, and Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad groups, a legacy of Syria’s long dominance of its small neighbor.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria, while many Shiites support Assad, who is a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sectarian tensions sharply increased after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined Assad’s forces in fighting the rebels seeking his ouster. Lebanon has seen repeated bursts of violence, but it has mostly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. Last week, the tensions exploded into street clashes in the southern city of Sidon, suggesting the scope of the fighting was widening.

Friday’s rocket slammed into a valley southeast of Beirut, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of the city and surrounding mountains. After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, a Christian area near the presidential palace, the Defense Ministry and the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh, the military said in a statement. Two rocket launchers still holding one rocket also were found about 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the north of the city, also in a Christian town.

It was the second such attack in less than a month. Two rockets hit Dahyeh on May 26, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent Syrian government victory as they helped pro-Assad forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

No one claimed responsibility the rocket attacks near Beirut, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon. Friday’s attack may also have been an attempt to drag Christian areas into the conflict, or perhaps was intended to send a message to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian.

Rebel groups have warned Suleiman to rein in Hezbollah. Under pressure, the president has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah involvement in Syria; on Thursday, he said the group was making a “mistake” and urged it to leave Syria.

The conflict has paralyzed Lebanese institutions. In downtown Beirut, Lebanese protesters continued a sit-in for a second day Friday near the parliament building to demand elections that originally were scheduled in June. Their chants on both evenings were drowned out by music blasting from a nearby rooftop nightclub, a sign of Beirut’s bon vivant lifestyle struggling to prevail.

Last month, the 128-member parliament extended its term by a year and a half, put off the balloting because of the deteriorating security conditions in the country. The demonstrators, who clashed with police Thursday, say the extension was unconstitutional. They have set up tents, blocking a side road in the city center.

Ali Jammoul, a 22-year-old activist and biology student taking part in the sit-in, said he fears the Shiite-Sunni sectarian hatreds will lead to a cycle of revenge killings even uglier than Lebanon’s civil war, which is believed to have killed 150,000 people.

“The Lebanese are hostage to external dictates. They are spectators waiting to see what is going to happen in the battle (for Syria),” he said, adding that Lebanon, with its weak government, was powerless to stay out.

Ashkar, the tourism official, said Beirut is typically packed in the summer with more than 100 percent capacity but now is at only 40 percent occupancy, most of them business travelers. Hezbollah’s public involvement in the war in Syria, he said, was a big blow to the industry that contributes 20 percent to the national income.

“This is really the worst season” since 1992 after the restoration of the tourism industry following the end of civil war, he said. For the first time in years, all of Lebanon’s hotels, with their 22,000 rooms, are partially closed or operating at reduced capacity, he added.

The tension has risen to a point where politicians on TV talk shows regularly throw invectives, and sometimes water glasses, at each other, or engage in a few fistfights. The violence prompted organizers of Lebanon’s famous Baalbek International Festival to announce plans to move the annual music show out of the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of its proximity to the Syrian border. Earlier this month, 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian frontier.

“The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue,” an official with the festival said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to reporters.

At least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert at the festival, which is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, citing deteriorating security conditions. The festival is scheduled to begin in August.

Many Lebanese have despaired over the violence and the country’s future. “Half of my family left recently,” said Jammoul, who was among bottle-throwing protesters who clashed with police overnight. “My brother was my comrade in the streets. … I cried when I returned to the streets after a week and he wasn’t next to me, when I got beaten and he wasn’t near me,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

Lebanese army seals parliament after protests, Syria-linked tension

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – The Lebanese army sealed off Beirut’s parliamentary district with razor wire and threatened stern action against violence on Friday after a night of unrest stoked by the war in Syria and political paralysis at home.

Around 100 protesters, angered by the postponement of June’s parliamentary election until next year, scuffled with police on Thursday night near parliament. Twenty camped out overnight outside the ring of barbed wire, vowing to maintain the protest.

As the largely peaceful demonstration unfolded in central Beirut, protesters blocked roads with burning tires elsewhere in the capital and in Bekaa Valley towns in eastern Lebanon.

Demonstrators said they were acting in solidarity with residents of the Sunni Muslim Bekaa town of Arsal, which they say has been cut off by security forces investigating the shooting of four Shi’ite Muslim men on Sunday.

Sectarian violence has intensified across Lebanon and particularly in the Bekaa region because of the conflict raging across the border in Syria, where Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunni gunmen have joined opposing sides of the 27-month-old civil war.

Rockets from suspected Syrian rebel positions have hit Shi’ite towns in Lebanon since Hezbollah intervened decisively to recapture the Syrian border town of Qusair for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces earlier this month.

The army also discovered a rocket launcher in an area east of Beirut on Friday. The rocket was still in place, and apparently had not gone off due to a technical fault, a security source said.

The fighting in Syria has already driven half a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon and worsened a political stalemate which forced the election delay and held up efforts to form a new government. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni leader, warned this week of the potential for “state collapse”.

President Michel Suleiman has appealed to Hezbollah to bring its fighters home from Syria, saying that further entanglement there by the Iranian-backed movement will fuel instability in Lebanon, still scarred by its own 1975-1990 civil war.

ARMY WILL CONFRONT “OUTLAWS”

The army said several military posts and patrols were targeted on Thursday night by protesters, some of them armed, and four soldiers were wounded in exchanges of gunfire.

Security sources said at least two demonstrators were hurt in a protest near the main border crossing with Syria at Masnaa.

“The army leadership again urges citizens to be calm and not to follow rumors and sectarian emotions,” the military said in a statement. “It will not be lenient in confronting with force any outlaws or those who harm the armed forces.”

The statement said gunmen fired on army posts in three towns close to the Masnaa border crossing early on Friday. The army returned fire and arrested 22 suspects in raids following the incidents.

Travelers trying to reach Lebanon from Syria on Friday morning said the frontier was closed for several hours due to the skirmishes, but reopened later in the day.

Army commander General Jean Kahwaji was quoted by the local As-Safir newspaper as saying the military would not tolerate any threats to Lebanon’s security during what he described as “very critical and very difficult” times.

In central Beirut, activists said they would keep up their protest against the 17-month extension of parliament, agreed by politicians after they failed to break a deadlock over planned changes to the electoral law.

“We called for a protest yesterday against the extension and against the violation on Lebanon’s democracy,” protester Marwan Maalouf said. “This is a new coup against the republic.

“Security forces used force against the protesters so we decided to set up tents here in a peaceful way to protest the extension. There is a year and a half, we won’t let them rest.”

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/21/us-syria-crisis-lebanon-idUSBRE95K0GS20130621.

Lebanon feeling heat from Syrian war

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Lebanese leaders need to work quickly to prevent sectarian conflict from erupting as the threat from Syria’s war moves closer, the speaker of Parliament said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday there were growing concerns about “sectarian strife” in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political structure is divided along religious lines. Those divisions have been strained by the role Shiite movement Hezbollah has played in Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside pro-government forces in Syria to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida. Conflict has erupted, however, between pro- and anti-Syria elements near Lebanese-Syrian border.

Berri was quoted by the official National News Agency as calling “for doubling efforts to put an end to such attempts that threaten [to destabilize] the country.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Beirut the refugee crisis was compounding the issue for Lebanon. He said Lebanon is on pace to host more than 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Guterres said the threat of spillover from the Syrian war “is now becoming a harsh reality” for countries like Lebanon.

“The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Lebanon-feeling-heat-from-Syrian-war/UPI-95621371656907/.

Assad forces build up for Aleppo offensive

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are reported tightening a cordon around the northern city of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial heart, in a major offensive against rebels who hold 60 percent of the city.

The regime, dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is massing tanks and artillery around the ancient city that was once part of the famed Silk Road to China, for the coming showdown military analysts say could determine the course of the civil war, now in its third year.

Assad’s troops were greatly buoyed by their capture of the strategic town of Qusair in central Syria’s Homs province June 5 after a three-week battle.

The town, which controls supply routes from neighboring Lebanon, had been held by rebel forces for more than a year, cutting off Damascus from the Alawite heartland in the northwest.

The fall of Qusair after fierce fighting opened the way for the regime to push into central Syria in a drive to recapture territory held by the rebels, including Homs, the provincial capital, and Aleppo, the big prize.

The regime needs to take control of Aleppo to undercut the rebellion that erupted March 15, 2011, and to reassert dominance of Syria’s main population centers.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo would mean a critical and possibly terminal setback for those seeking to end Assad’s rule.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to arm rebel forces — although it’s not clear whether arms would include urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — could make a critical difference if the flow starts quickly.

The U.S. move overturned two years of reluctance by the West to get directly involved in the Syrian fighting, which threatens to spill over into neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Indeed, it was the regime’s conquest of Qusair, largely due to fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah who spearheaded the assault, that convinced Obama U.S. aid should be increased from medicine and supplies to include arms.

Much will depend on how swiftly the Americans can start the arms flowing to the rebels through Jordan and Turkey.

Rebels report Syrian warplanes attacked their positions around the contested Kweiras airbase near Aleppo Tuesday amid heavy ground skirmishes.

The regime’s command of the air is a major problem for the rebels, and unless they get surface-to-air missiles they will face serious problems in the looming battle for Aleppo.

The air force has carried out a series of aerial resupply operations in the region in the last two months that rebels have been powerless to prevent.

But it’s not all clear sailing for the regime forces either.

They face major obstacles in the push on Aleppo from well-entrenched rebel blocking positions, which are being supplied with weapons through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Loyalist forces have seized several villages in Homs province in recent days to consolidate their Qusair victory.

“Troop movements and bombardment patterns suggest the regime will likely stage attacks on rebels in Homs city proper and around the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh along the M5 highway, which leads from the Jordanian border in the south, through Damascus and all the way north to Aleppo,” the U.S.-based global security consulting firm Stratfor says.

Analysts say the regime’s assault on Aleppo may be deferred until there’s a significant loyalist push from the south as well.

“For all the regime’s announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles,” Statfor stressed. “Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in the summer of 2012.”

The rebels are dug in along much of the M5, which the regime would need to control to supply a major mechanized force.

Activists say rebels have already sent blocking forces to key supply routes in anticipation of a regime push northward from Hama province.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah will likely play a key role in the Aleppo offensive as a strike force, as it did in the battle of Qusair.

The Shiite movement, which has fought the Israelis for three decades, has proven to be a staunch ally of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Assad-forces-build-up-for-Aleppo-offensive/UPI-13761371648604/.

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