Archive for July, 2013

Assir supporters rally in south Lebanon

July 12, 2013

SIDON, Lebanon: Supporters of fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir held a rally Friday in a suburb of Sidon, south Lebanon, calling for the return of the Salafist preacher whose gunmen fought deadly clashes in June against the Lebanese military.

Over 200 Assir supporters marched from the Bilal Bin Rabah mosque, where Assir used to deliver his fiery sermons, in Abra, east Sidon, following Friday prayers. The supporters held a similar rally last week.

In late June, armed supporters of Assir opened fire on a military checkpoint in Abra, killing several soldiers and prompting a swift crack down by the Lebanese Army. The clashes that ensued led to the killing of over a dozen soldiers and at least 28 of Assir’s fighters.

Assir, who remains at large, reportedly fled the area hours before the military seized control of his security complex in Abra.

Source: The Daily Star.

Link: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2013/Jul-12/223436-assir-supporters-rally-in-south-lebanon.ashx.

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Civilians turn against abusive Syria jihadists

2013-07-11

By Serene Assir – BEIRUT

Hardline Islamist factions are losing support following spate of abuses which have prompted civilians, mainstream rebel fighters alike to turn against them.

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, when opponents of the regime were desperate for assistance from any quarter, jihadist fighters were welcomed but a spate of abuses is fueling a backlash.

Things have changed.

“Out, out, out, the (Islamic) State (of Iraq and Syria) must get out,” protesters shouted at a rally in the northern town of Manbij this week, referring to an Al-Qaeda front group.

The video of the demonstration is one of many showing how civilians and mainstream rebel fighters alike are turning against the more hardline Islamist factions.

The rebel forces seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad are disparate but many espouse political Islam of one form or another.

There are two main Al-Qaeda linked factions, both with Iraqi origins, according to Washington — the Al-Nusra Front, which has operational independence, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Numerous other smaller groups, many of them composed almost exclusively of foreign fighters, are also operating on the ground.

Unlike the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, which has received weapons from several Gulf Arab governments as well as promises of US arms, the jihadist groups rely on private donations.

But there are enough wealthy benefactors attracted to their fundamentalist vision to ensure a steady stream of weapons, as well as volunteer fighters from around the world, many of them seasoned in other conflicts.

That has helped them become a fighting force out of proportion to their numbers, and they have captured several population centers.

But their imposition of their extreme form of Islam has increasingly alienated civilians.

In Raqa, the only provincial capital in rebel hands, the Al-Nusra Front is accused of detaining dozens of men.

“My father has been held for a month by the Front. They think they’re Islamic… I want my father to be free,” weeps a little girl in one Raqa protest, footage of which was posted online.

“We reject this oppressive brand of Islam… We are Muslims. You’re just fakes,” a woman protester cried in another video from Raqa, demanding the release of the men held by Nusra.

Activists in the city also point to the disappearance of Abdallah al-Khalil, a veteran dissident and human rights activist.

“Khalil was about to open up council elections to the whole of Raqa. Al-Nusra was against the idea. He disappeared the next day,” an activist from Raqa said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

“Although their methods differ from the regime’s, they are just as brutal.

“As they get more powerful militarily, they do whatever it takes to stem the growth of freedom in liberated (rebel-held) areas. They want power, not democracy.”

Reports emerged on Wednesday that a Raqa-based activist who has documented the uprising against Assad since its early days has been detained by ISIS.

“The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria detained the media activist Mohammad Nour Matar on Tuesday evening outside its base… after he stood alongside a woman who tried to stage a sit-in,” Matar’s brother Amer said.

In Idlib province in the northwest, whose borders with Turkey have allowed foreign jihadists to join the fighting in numbers, dozens of mainstream rebels were killed in a battle with ISIS last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fighting broke out after rebels protested against the detention by the jihadists of a 12-year-old boy accused of uttering a blasphemous phrase.

“The chief of the (Free Syrian Army-affiliated) Hamzah Assadullah Brigade and his brother were both killed” in the fighting, the Britain-based watchdog said.

“We haven’t seen many such battles, but it is clear the anger against the Islamic State and other jihadists is on the rise across Syria,” its director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The case echoed that of a 14-year-old boy executed by ISIS fighters in the main northern city of Aleppo who accused him of blasphemy for using a colloquial phrase.

Rahman said mainstream rebels appeared set for a new confrontation with their jihadist rivals in Idlib after ISIS demanded that all other groups surrender their weapons.

Nizar, an activist from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, said: “Time is running out for all these (jihadist) groups.

“They use violence and religion to try control us and, although people are afraid to openly express their dissent, no one wants them.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60033.

Lebanon wards Israel off energy reserves

July 8, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 8 (UPI) — Lebanon needs to take action to prevent Israel from siphoning off its offshore oil and natural gas reserves, the Lebanese energy minister said.

Lebanon has expressed frustration to the United Nations regarding the status of its maritime border with Israel. Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah last year warned Israel to stay away from Lebanon’s offshore reserves because of border issues.

Lebanon is eager to attract investors to its fledgling oil and natural gas sector. Israel, meanwhile, is looking to capitalize on the natural gas prospects from its offshore Leviathan and Tamar natural gas fields.

Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said Israeli natural gas fields are situated within 5 miles of the maritime border.

“Theoretically this means that Israel now has the possibility to reach Lebanese oil and this is a new and dangerous development,” he was quoted Friday as saying by The Daily Star newspaper.

The Lebanese government has said parts of the Leviathan natural gas field offshore Israel are in its territorial waters.

There may be more than 400 million barrels of oil and 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in place off Lebanon. Beirut is working to coordinate an offshore oil and natural gas licensing round later this year.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2013/07/08/Lebanon-wards-Israel-off-energy-reserves/UPI-45071373282149/.

Egypt turns away Syrians

July 10, 2013

The Egyptian authorities should not recklessly deny entry to Syrians and must provide anyone fleeing the conflict the opportunity to seek asylum, Amnesty International said today after reports that some 259 people were turned back at Cairo Airport on Monday.

“Given the scale of violence, bloodshed and human rights abuses currently taking place in Syria, it is unthinkable that Egypt should deny Syrians fleeing for their lives safety,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui , Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.

Syrian nationals arriving on Monday were denied entry to Egypt on the grounds that the passengers had not obtained the newly required visas or security permits. Previously, Syrian nationals did not require visas to enter Egypt.

While the Egyptian authorities can regulate entry to and stay in Egypt, they must do so in full respect of their international human rights and refugee law obligations.

Those sent back include: 95 passengers on a Syrian Airlines flight to Latakia, in Syria; 55 flew MEA back to Beirut; some 25 to Jordan, and six to Abu Dhabi.

Amnesty International understands that UNHCR did not have access to any of them at Cairo airport and it is not known what has happened to those returned to Syria.

Three other Syrians are also being held in limbo at Alexandria Airport, after they were denied re-entrance to Egypt despite having registered in the country with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

A statement on the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website on Monday said that “the decision to impose an entrance visa on Syrian nationals is a decision based on the conditions that Egypt is currently passing through”.

“No one should be forced to return to Syria due to the serious risk of indiscriminate violence and persecution,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “We urge the authorities to ensure that Egypt continues to be a place of refuge for Syrians even at this turbulent time.”

Source: Amnesty International USA.

Link: http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/news-item/egypt-turns-away-syrians.

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.

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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