Archive for July 7th, 2013

Austria begins withdrawing its peacekeepers from Golan Heights

June 11, 2013

VIENNA/MANILA: Austria has begun withdrawing peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, winding down a four-decade mission due to spillover fighting from the Syrian civil war, the Defense Ministry said.

A Reuters journalist on the Golan said that Austrian soldiers had already moved from the Qunaitra crossing point to a United Nations base inside the Israeli-held part of the heights Tuesday.

“The first 60 to 80 soldiers will land in Vienna tomorrow afternoon, so you can already see the withdrawal on site,” Defense Ministry spokesman Andreas Strobl told Reuters in Vienna.

A top Israeli government official told AFP Tuesday that several dozen Austrian troops had already left the mission’s headquarters. Israeli public radio said they were administrative staff.

The Austrians have patrolled the buffer zone between Israel and Syria as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force since it was set up in 1974.

The Vienna government said last week it would pull out after worsening fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces sent its soldiers running for cover.

Two soldiers were wounded last week after Syrian rebels captured a border post then were driven out by government troops.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Austria would now negotiate with the United Nations about an orderly handover to the next contingent, “if there is one,” but reserved the right to stick to its timetable for a full exit within four weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrians, but this was quickly shot down by Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping department.

She said that the disengagement agreement does not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Austria Chancellor Werner Faymann defended neutral Austria’s decision to withdraw from Golan Heights, where its roughly 380 soldiers make up the biggest contingent in the 1,000-strong force.

“We never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and governmental troops,” he told reporters after the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “We took over a different mandate, which was appropriate for a neutral country.”

He denied that Austria, which also has peacekeeping troops in hot spots including Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia, would suffer in international stature from the move.

Also Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said that he wanted better protection and a robust mandate for the country’s U.N. peacekeeping contingent in the Golan Heights if he decides to keep them there at the risk of violence coming from Syria.

Aquino said he was weighing a proposal made by his foreign secretary to withdraw all 342 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers, but announced no decision right away.

“We need to get some clarification from the U.N. before we could come up with a decision,” Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang said. “There are no deadlines set.”

The recommendation to withdraw troops follows two separate abductions and shelling by Syrian rebels inside the U.N.-patrolled demarcation line separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied plateau.

Two peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded last week during fighting between Syrian government and rebel forces.

Austria’s withdrawal leaves the Philippines as the largest single contributor. Croatia withdrew in March for fears its troops would be targeted.

“There are a lot of countries pulling out. There is heightened fear that if the whole U.N. detachment or the U.N. forces there pull out, there will be no buffer between Israel and Syria,” Aquino said, adding that if that happens, “the two forces will draw closer … and there will be a flare-up of hostilities again.”

Aquino said the changes needed include additional equipment and enhanced security for the peacekeepers, and different rules of engagement.

“If there is no change in the conditions, it might be an undoable mission and our poor troops will be in the middle of two potentially clashing forces and they cannot defend themselves,” Aquino said.

Source: The Daily Star.

Link: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Jun-11/220044-austria-begins-withdrawing-peacekeepers-from-golan.ashx.

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Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian protesters express solidarity with Morsi

by Muath Freij | Jul 06, 2013

AMMAN — Around 300 Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian activists gathered outside the Egyptian embassy in ‎Amman on Friday night to protest against the ouster of ‎Egypt’s Islamist president ‎Mohamed ‎Morsi.

Demonstrators carried Egyptian flags and portraits of Morsi, who was removed from power last week by the Egyptian army in response to popular protests that called for his ouster and accused him of hijacking the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The activists shouted slogans against the Egyptian army leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and members of the opposition who sided with his decision to remove Morsi and appoint an interim leader.

During the demonstration, protesters also performed the isha prayer.

Muath Abu Al Rub, one of the demonstrators, said he was there to express his support for Morsi.

“Some people claim that he [Morsi] did not achieve anything for the good of the country. On the contrary, he boosted the economy of Egypt,” the 21-year-old told The Jordan Times outside the Egyptian embassy.

He charged that some countries do not want to see Egypt under Islamic rule.

“These countries do not want the stability of Egypt. They want Arabs to be busy fighting each other so that we keep depending on them,” Abu Al Rub noted.

Maher Othman, an Egyptian who took part in Friday’s demonstration, said his compatriots should have given Morsi more time to prove himself.

“We waited for 30 years until Hosni Mubarak’s regime collapsed. We could have waited for four years to see what Morsi was planning to do,” Othman noted.

“The army did not take the right decision by giving Morsi only 48 hours to put an end to instability,” he said.

“They should have met with him and discussed all the details,” added Othman, who took part in demonstrations against Mubarak.

Another protester, Mohammad Shanabo, said Morsi was legitimately elected to be the president of Egypt, and everyone should have respected that.

“He was elected in fair elections.”

One woman, who refused to give her name, said Egyptians were calling for democracy and what happened was the exact opposite.

“A military coup simply does not represent democracy. Also, after the ouster of Morsi, many Muslim Brotherhood members were detained and some TV channels were closed down. Is that democracy?”

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/jordanian-egyptian-and-syrian-protesters-express-solidarity-with-morsi.

Jordan: Radical cleric Abu Qatada arrives

July 07, 2013

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada arrived in Jordan on Sunday to face retrial on terrorism charges after his deportation from Britain, a Jordanian military prosecutor said.

The arrival is a victory for Jordan, whose extradition request was blocked in British and European courts for over a decade. Jordanian and Western intelligence accuse Abu Qatada of being a key al-Qaida operative in Europe. He had been previously sentenced in absentia to life in jail, but that has been lifted now that he faces a new trial.

Information Minister Mohammed Momani said Jordan “is keen on credibility and transparency” in handling Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman. The deportation of the Palestinian-born Jordanian cleric, he said, “sends a message to all fugitives that they will face justice in Jordan.”

The move comes after Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture aimed at easing human rights concerns that had blocked previous attempts to deport him. In London, British Home Secretary Theresa May had announced Abu Qatada’s departure in a statement, expressing confidence that the U.K. public would welcome the conclusion of efforts dating back to 2001 to remove the radical cleric.

“This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country,” May said. The Home Office then posted a picture on Twitter of Abu Qatada climbing the steps of a plane.

Britain had tried since 2001 to deport Abu Qatada but courts had blocked extradition over concerns that evidence obtained under torture could be used against him. After years of successfully fighting the numerous attempts to expel him from the U.K., the 53-year-old preacher recently indicated he would voluntarily return to Jordan if that country and Britain ratified a treaty on torture.

That treaty — which explicitly bans the use of evidence “where there are serious and credible allegations that a statement from a person has been obtained by torture or ill-treatment” — was ratified by Britain and Jordan last month.

It paved the way for the long-awaited removal of the man described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden. In 1999, a Jordanian military court sentenced Abu Qatada to death in absentia for conspiracy to carry out terror attacks, including a plot on the country’s American school in Amman. But the sentence was immediately commuted to life in jail with hard labor.

In 2000, the same court sentenced him to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during the country’s millennium celebrations. In both trials, Abu Qatada was in London, where he entered on a forged passport in 1993 and was granted asylum a year later.

Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

UK deports radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan

July 07, 2013

LONDON (AP) — Radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada was deported early Sunday from Britain to Jordan to face terror charges, ending over a decade-long battle to remove a man described as a key al-Qaida operative in Europe.

The move comes after Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture aimed at easing human rights concerns that had blocked previous attempts to deport the Palestinian-born Jordanian preacher. British Home Secretary Theresa May announced Abu Qatada’s departure in a statement early Sunday, expressing confidence that the public in the U.K. would welcome the conclusion of efforts dating back to 2001 to remove the radical cleric.

“This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country,” May said in a statement. The Home Office then posted a picture on Twitter of Abu Qatada climbing the steps of a plane.

Abu Qatada was wanted in Jordan for retrial in several terror cases in which he was sentenced in absentia. Britain had tried since 2001 to deport Abu Qatada — whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman — but courts have blocked extradition over concerns that evidence obtained under torture could be used against him.

After years of successfully fighting the numerous attempts to expel him from the U.K., the 53-year-old preacher recently indicated he would voluntarily return to Jordan if that country and Britain ratified a treaty on torture.

That treaty — which explicitly bans the use of evidence “where there are serious and credible allegations that a statement from a person has been obtained by torture or ill-treatment” — was ratified by Britain and Jordan last month.

It paved the way for the long-awaited removal of the man described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden. Abu Qatada is accused by Britain of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric’s sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws, which at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be jailed without charge. Though he was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, the cleric was kept under close surveillance and detained in various ways. He most recently was being held at London’s Belmarsh prison after breaching a bail condition in March which restricted the use of mobile phones and communication devices.

The British home secretary acknowledged the delays in the legal process in her statement announcing that “at last” Abu Qatada had been deported, saying it is “clear that we need to make sense of our human rights laws and remove the many layers of appeals available to foreign nationals we want to deport.”

Ex-prisoner chosen to lead Syria opposition group

July 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A former Syrian political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia was picked Saturday to lead Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group, filling a post long vacant due to divisions among President Bashar Assad’s opponents.

Inside Syria, government troops advanced into rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs, pushing into a heavily contested neighborhood after pummeling it with artillery that drove out opposition fighters, an activist said.

The election of Ahmad al-Jarba as the head of the Syrian National Coalition came during a meeting in Turkey in what was the second attempt in recent months by Assad’s opponents to unify their ranks. The opposition bloc is primarily composed of exiled politicians with little support among Syrians back home who are trying to survive the third summer of conflict that has killed more than 93,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

Al-Jarba’s election suggests the opposition is trying to unite despite its differences after Assad’s forces gained ground last month in and around the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.

It also underscored the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both have been prominent backers of forces struggling to oust Assad.

The Saudi-backed al-Jarba won 55 votes, edging out Qatar-endorsed businessman Mustafa Sabbagh who got 52 votes, according to a statement from the 114-member SNC in Istanbul, where many of Syrian opposition figures are based. The SNC statement did not say who the remaining members voted for.

Al-Jarba, a 44-year-old lawyer with a law degree from Beirut’s Arab University, is from Syria’s northeastern province of Hassakeh and is a member of the powerful Shammar tribe that extends into Iraq. He was a little-known anti-Assad figure before Syria’s civil war though he was detained in March 2011 — days after the uprising against Assad began. It was his second arrest, following one in 1996 when he was held for two years because of anti-government activities.

After his release, al-Jarba left Syria in August in 2011 and became active in the opposition. He is close to secular politician Michel Kilo’s Democratic Bloc, which recently joined the SNC. Al-Jarba could not be immediately reached for comment after his election Saturday.

An SNC statement quoted him as saying that his priorities will be “to follow-up on the situation inside Syria, especially in Homs,” and that “all efforts should be in this direction.” But even with al-Jarba’s election, it is unclear if the SNC can overcome deep divisions among its politicians.

Also, the council has in many ways become irrelevant to rebels battling regime troops in Syria, despite its appointment in March of Ghassan Hitto as head of an interim government meant to administer areas seized by the rebels. So far, Hitto has not formed a Cabinet.

The vote in Turkey came as the U.S. and Russia hope to bring the warring sides in Syria together at an international conference in Geneva. The SNC said recently it will not attend the Geneva talks unless they are about Assad handing over power.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. welcomed al-Jarba’s election and would work with him “to prevent the total collapse of Syria into chaos.” The U.S. also urged the Syrian opposition to unite, Psaki said, adding that a “united opposition is essential to achieve a negotiated solution.”

Assad has repeatedly dismissed his political opponents as foreign-directed exiles who don’t represent the people of Syria. The president also has shrugged off international calls to step down, saying he will serve the rest of his term and may consider running for another one in next year’s presidential elections.

In Syria, meanwhile, government troops gained ground in the rebel-held Khaldiyeah district of Homs. The push was the first significant gain in the city for Assad’s forces. Government troops have been waging an eight-day campaign to seize parts of the central Syrian city that has been in rebel hands for more than a year.

Tariq Badrakhan, an activist based in the neighborhood, said government troops used rockets, mortars and cannon fire to flush out the area’s “first line of defenses” on Friday evening. The offensive continued Saturday morning, he said via Skype, as explosions were heard in the background.

“We feel like they are shaking the sky,” Badrakhan told The Associated Press. Another activist said eight rebels were killed in the fighting. He requested anonymity because rebels have accused him in the past of damaging their morale by reporting their casualties. He could not confirm that government forces had entered Khaldiyeh but said the report was consistent with the fighting he was following there. State-run media said government forces had seized buildings in the nearby Bab Houd area.

Fighting also continued Saturday in the northern city of Aleppo, a crucial stronghold for the rebels, as well as the Damascus suburb of Qaboun. The Syrian conflict, which began with months of peaceful protests against the Assad regime more than two years ago, deteriorated into an all-out civil war after a violent government crackdown.

Government forces, sometimes backed by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have recently launched a major countrywide offensive to reclaim territory lost to rebels, who operate in chaotic groups with ideologies ranging from secular to hard-line Islamic extremists. Hard-line Sunni Muslims from other countries have also joined the fighting.

The fighting in Syria has increasingly taken on sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunnis. Activists, who consider Homs “the capital of the revolution,” say the regime wants to capture the entire city to include it in a future Alawite state stretching to the coast, where many believe Assad would take refuge in a last resort.

In the vote in Turkey, the SNC also elected three vice presidents, including Mohammed Farouk Taifour, a senior official with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. The other two vice presidents are Salem al-Muslit and prominent opposition figure Suhair Atassi. Badr Jamous was voted in as the SNC’s secretary general.

Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.

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