Archive for July 9th, 2013

Syrian prison shelled, part of Aleppo battle

July 07, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Shells smashed into a central prison in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, killing prisoners, a rights group said Sunday, part of a long battle for control of the ancient city.

The explosions killed six prisoners, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which communicates with a network of activists on the ground. The explosives hit on Friday night, the Observatory said. It was not clear who fired the shells.

The Observatory reported about 70 soldiers and fighters were killed on Sunday, as well as 40 civilians, in fighting across Syria. The U.N. estimates some 93,000 people have been killed in the civil war.

With government forces stepping up offensives, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood called on the U.S. and Europe to send arms. “Providing the Free Syrian Army and the revolutionary rebels with appropriate arms is more urgent now than at any time in the past,” the movement wrote on social media sites. “We feel cheated and disappointed because the U.S. and Europe have backed out from arming the FSA,” it said.

Last month the U.S. decided in principle to provide some weapons to rebel forces, though Western countries are concerned they might land in the hands of extremist Sunni Muslims fighting with the rebels.

The forces include an al-Qaida-linked group which has been fighting for weeks to seize control of the prison in Aleppo, besieging it. The Observatory estimated some 120 prisoners have died in the jail since April from fighting, illness and executions.

Syria’s state run news agency SANA said “a number” of rebels were killed in the shelling but did not give an exact number. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is near the border with Turkey. Many of its ancient monuments and its marketplace, once a magnet for tourists, have been destroyed in fighting.

Rebels and government forces also clashed near the Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province, the Observatory and pro-rebel activists reported. The towns have been besieged since at least May by hard-line Sunni rebels seeking to dislodge their enemies.

The Observatory said fighting killed three regime troops, including one foreigner, code for a fighter from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. Rebels claim that Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters are in the two towns. A hard-line Sunni brigade warned last week it would punish Shiites for harboring the forces, suggesting the towns’ populations of some 40,000 Shiites could be targeted.

The fighting underscores the growing sectarian nature of the two-year uprising against Assad’s regime. It began as peaceful protests but turned into an armed rebellion after a brutal government crackdown. It has since taken on regional dimensions, with Hezbollah fighters joining Assad’s forces. Foreign Sunni fighters have joined predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels who are formed in bands ranging from secular to hard-line Islamists.

At home, Assad draws support largely from Syria’s minorities, including fellow Alawites — followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam — as well as Christians, Shiites and Sunnis who fear the hard-line rebels.

In recent weeks, Assad’s forces, bolstered by Hezbollah fighters, have pushed back to seize rebel-held areas in several parts of Syria. In the central Syrian city of Homs, Assad’s forces fired mortar shells from a stronghold of buildings on the edge of the rebel-held area of Khaldiyeh, trying to flush out fighters, said two activists.

Explosions could be heard as they spoke via Skype. The shells were exploding in the densely-built area surrounding the 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, famous for its nine domes and two minarets, said a Homs-based activist identified as Nedal. He said parts of the wall surrounding the historic complex were blown away. Other parts were damaged in previous rounds of fighting.

Khaldiyeh-based activist Abu Bilal said fighters were low on weapons. He said the international community, despite promises to arm rebels, had left them hanging in Homs. “They have sold Homs to the enemy,” he complained.

The U.N. warns the some 4,500 residents in besieged, rebel-held areas of Homs face a humanitarian catastrophe. On Friday, the divided U.N. Security Council failed to approve a statement calling on the Syrian government to allow immediate access to trapped civilians there. Russia, Syria’s closest ally, demanded that the statement should also call for immediate access to the towns of Nubul and Zahra.

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Jordan charges Muslim cleric deported from UK

July 07, 2013

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A radical Muslim preacher described as a key al-Qaida operative in Europe rejected terrorism charges Sunday linked to alleged plots targeting Americans and Israelis in Jordan, his lawyer said, hours after Britain deported him to bring an end to a decade-long legal saga over his extradition.

Jordan first submitted an extradition request to U.K. authorities for the militant cleric known as Abu Qatada in 2001, but it was blocked in British and European courts over human rights concerns. Last month, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture aimed at easing those worries, paving the way for the 53-year-old preacher’s deportation.

Abu Qatada arrived at Amman’s civilian airport early Sunday on board a British aircraft and was immediately whisked away by heavily armed anti-terrorism police for questioning at a nearby courthouse. Police sealed off the area as the convoy drove against traffic to the court building, just across the street from the airport. Armed policemen kept a crush of journalists at bay.

After nearly two hours of questioning, Jordanian prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiring to carry out terror attacks in Jordan twice — once in 1999 for a foiled plot against the American school in Amman and another time in 2000 for allegedly targeting Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during new year celebrations.

In both cases, Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia years ago and sentenced to life in prison. With his return, those sentences have been suspended and he will receive a new trial. Abu Qatada’s lawyer, Tayseer Thiab, said his client “told military prosecutors that he is not guilty of terrorism and rejected the charges against him.”

Jordanian authorities ordered Abu Qatada held for 15 days pending further questioning, according to one of the prosecutors. He said the cleric will be held at Muwaqar I, a prison in Amman’s southeastern industrial suburb of Sahab. The military district attorney banned the publication of the prosecutors’ names.

Thiab said he will try to free his client on bail Monday. Outside the courthouse, Abu Qatada’s father, Mahmoud, told the Associated press that his “son is innocent and I hope the court will set him free.”

The cleric’s younger brother, Ibrahim, said he and his father met with Abu Qatada for 15 minutes in the prosecutor’s office and that his brother “looked well and in high spirits.” He said the three prayed together and that the cleric “kissed my dad’s hands and feet when he saw him.” He told them British and Jordanian authorities had not used hand cuffs.

“How do you think I felt seeing my brother after 22 years?” Ibrahim said. “Look at my eyes and you’ll know the answer.” Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been 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.

Britain accused him 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.

Abu Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum in the U.K. a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities, which allegedly included raising funds to finance terror plots in Jordan.

British authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him a year later 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. In London, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced Abu Qatada’s departure Sunday in a statement, and expressed confidence that the U.K. public would welcome the end to the saga.

“This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country,” she said. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his “delight” at Abu Qatada’s deportation, which he called “a priority” for his government.

Britain’s original efforts to deport Abu Qatada were blocked by courts 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., Abu Qatada recently indicated he would voluntarily return to Jordan if it 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, clearing the final hurdle for his deportation.

Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed Momani said the kingdom “is keen on credibility and transparency” in handling Abu Qatada’s case. He also said the cleric’s deportation “sends a message to all fugitives that they will face justice in Jordan.”

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

Israel passes military draft bill

July 07, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Cabinet has approved a plan that would gradually end a contentious system that has granted automatic draft exemptions to Jewish ultra-Orthodox seminary students.

Under a longstanding system, thousands of young men are allowed to skip compulsory military service to pursue religious studies. This has caused widespread resentment among secular Jewish Israelis. The new system, which needs parliamentary approval, would reduce the number of exemptions and require ultra-Orthodox men to register for service. It would go into effect in three years.

The draft was a central issue in January elections and propelled Yesh Atid, the secular rights party behind the new regulations, into the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday the law will be implemented “gradually.”

Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders condemned the decision, charging it would infringe on their lifestyle.

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