Archive for September, 2013

Syrian refugees land in Italy

(By Emily Backus) (ANSA) – Rome, August 26 – More Syrian refugees landed on Italian shores over the weekend in a humanitarian crisis that appears to be spilling even into Europe’s lap.

Ninety-eight refugees from Syria on Saturday were intercepted by a patrol of Frontex, the European agency for cooperation and management of EU borders. They were aboard a ship at sea about 40 miles south of the Sicilian coastal town of Porto Palo. Twenty-five children and eight women were aboard. The Syrian refugees were among hundreds this weekend alone from distressed countries – Tunisia, Eritrea and Somalia – who risked their lives in dodgy vessels to be rescued near or found on Italian shores. Syrians have featured all summer long among migrants daring the sea from various parts of the Middle East and Africa, who are generally placed by Italian authorities in migrant detention centers for identification, processing, and possible expulsion. On a visit to the migrant island of Lampedusa last month, Pope Francis asked God to forgive European policy makers’ indifference while hailing immigrants’ efforts to seek better lives.

He also asked to mourn the many lives lost at sea.

Last week the UNHCR and UNICEF in Geneva said one million children have fled fighting in Syria, about three quarters of whom are under age 11. In the words of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the survival and well-being of an entire generation of innocent children is at stake.

“The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures.

Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope,” he added. Children account for over half of the two million refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Syrians are arriving in North Africa and, embarking across the sea to Europe ever more often.

The price paid by Syrian children in the conflict – now in its third year – is enormous.

In addition to the one million child refugees, there are some two million displaced children in Syria. The UN estimates that at least 7,000 children have been killed in the conflict, while child refugees are often exposed to threats such as forced labor, early marriage and sexual exploitation.

Source: La Gazzeta.


French military preparing for Syria operation

August 29, 2013

PARIS (AP) — France said openly Thursday for the first time that its military is preparing for a possible operation in Syria — but President Francois Hollande stopped short of announcing armed intervention over a suspected chemical weapons attack.

Expectations have been mounting that the United States, France and Britain are preparing military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime after an apparent poison gas attack in Syria on Aug. 21. U.N. experts are currently in Syria investigating what happened.

Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months. He appears to have a stronger hand than his U.S. and British counterparts, who are facing some resistance at home to a Syrian intervention amid questions over the attack.

While Hollande has spoken firmly against Assad’s regime, the French military has been quiet about its plans. On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “The Armed Forces have been put in position to respond” if the president commits French forces to an international intervention in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France and its allies are preparing an “indispensable” response and that it should be “thought-out, proportionate and firm.” Hollande on Thursday stressed the importance of a political solution and making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative, notably with increased firepower.

“We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration,” Hollande said after meeting Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.

France has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. France’s military was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and led an intervention against extremists in Mali earlier this year.

French military officials confirmed that the frigate Chevalier Paul, which specializes in anti-missile and air-air capabilities, as well as the hulking transport ship Dixmude, had set off Thursday from the Mediterranean port of Toulon as part of normal training and operational preparations — but denied reports that the move was linked to a Syrian intervention.

Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Senator warns Hizbullah may have chemical weapons; Jordan’s king could be toppled

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

WASHINGTON — The administration of President Barack Obama has been warned that Syria’s chemical weapons could be dispersed and that Jordan could collapse.

A leading senator said the Hashemite kingdom was under tremendous strain from the civil war in neighboring Jordan. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah could not bear the huge Syrian refugee population as well as threats from Iran and Al Qaida-aligned rebels.

“You ask me about my biggest fear would be to lose the king of Jordan for prolonged war, that the Al Qaida elements of the rebels could wind up seizing the chemical weapons cache, that Assad would share chemical weapons or advance Russian weapons with Hizbullah, which would be a direct threat,” Graham said.

Over the last few months, Graham has repeatedly warned of Jordan’s vulnerability. In July, the senator told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Abdullah said in 2012 that the influx of Syrian refugees — now reported at more than 650,000 — could destroy his regime. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he shared that concern.

“Will [Abdullah] be in power a year from now?” Graham asked Dempsey. “I have met with him and he is concerned with the demographic change. He told me last year he did not think he will be there in another year because there will be a million Syrian refugees destabilizing Jordan. Do you agree with that?”

“That is his concern,” Dempsey replied.

Earlier, Graham said Abdullah could not face an emboldened regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The senator urged Obama to use Jordan and Turkey to neutralize Assad’s military, backed by Iran and Russia.

“So the balance of power is really now on Assad’s side,” Graham told a television roundtable on June 13. “And if we don’t do more than add AK-47s into the mix, he will continue to win. And the king of Jordan is going to become toast.”

One option raised by Graham was the use of Jordan and Turkey to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to protect Sunni rebels. Graham cited the U.S. deployment of F-16 multi-role fighters and PAC-3 air and missile defense systems in the kingdom.

Graham, in close contact with Abdullah, envisioned the fall of the Hashemite kingdom and its replacement by an Al Qaida-aligned regime.

He said Washington must ensure the departure of Assad for regional stability.

“But if the war lasts six, four months, Jordan’s going to go,” Graham said. “And Israel’s going to be surrounded by a Syria on fire, Jordan more radical, and Egypt becoming more radical. The whole region’s about to blow up. And our foreign policy to me, I don’t understand it. Whatever it is is not working.”

Source: World Tribune.


Israel airlifts 450 Ethiopians to the Jewish state

August 28, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities have completed what they say is the final large airlift of Ethiopian immigrants, ending decades of efforts to bring the remnants of an ancient community to the Jewish state.

Tali Aronsky, spokeswoman for the semi-official Jewish Agency, says 450 people arrived Wednesday. They are Falash Mura, a community whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity under duress about 100 years ago, but managed to keep some Jewish customs.

Aronsky said the airlift caps a three-year operation that brought in 7,000 Falash Mura. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. Many arrived in secret airlifts in 1984 and 1990. Small numbers of Falash Mura remain behind in Ethiopia. Dozens of their relatives held a protest at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem Wednesday to demand Israel bring them over.

Israel pushes forth with settlement plans

August 26, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel pushed forward Sunday with plans to construct 1,500 apartments in east Jerusalem in a move that could undermine recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

City spokeswoman Brachie Sprung said city officials had approved plans to lay down infrastructure for the project. She called the move a “standard and bureaucratic process” and said final government approval was still required. Actual construction is still years away, she said.

Still, the move comes just after Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks after a five-year stalemate. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is one of the thornier issues separating the two sides.

The city is pushing development in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a project that has also raised tensions with the U.S. Israel first announced the plans in 2010 during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem following its 1967 war with its Arab neighbors and claims the area as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state. About 200,000 Jews and roughly 250,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, which is home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

While Israelis consider east Jerusalem enclaves neighborhoods like others in the city, the international community doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of the area and rejects the areas as illegal or illegitimate settlements.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi accused Israel of playing a “dangerous game” by moving ahead with the plans. “It seems they’re pushing ahead with infrastructure as though this is not a basic part of settlement activity!” she wrote in an email.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

Israeli navy grapples with defending Med gas fields

Haifa, Israel (UPI)
Jul 26, 2013

Amid signs Israel’s effort to patch up relations with one-time ally Turkey is in difficulties, the prospect of exporting gas from offshore fields to Europe via a pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey would seem to be dimming.

That suggests more interest in a liquefied gas system aimed at lucrative exports to Asia via the Red Sea.

Either way, Israel’s navy is trying to figure out how best to protect the Jewish state’s expanding gas industry– and if current plans work out, oil production as well — from a wide spectrum of security threats that seem to be growing by the day amid the violence convulsing the Middle East.

Israel’s Globes business daily reports the navy’s at odds with the Defense Ministry over two bids to supply naval vessels from Germany and South Korea.

It seems the navy’s top brass decided in April in favor of the German vessel, while the ministry favors the South Korean even though it’s $105.4 million more expensive.

Globes said if the ministry decides to put the issue to tender, “it means a delay of almost three years in protecting the gas rigs, protection which was supposed to be ready this year.”

The navy has said it needs a minimum of four 1,200-ton patrol-class warships to protect the offshore platforms, of which there are likely to end up being at least 20, up to 80 miles off Israel’s coastline.

These will need to be armed with a range of weapons systems to counter different kinds of attack — armed speedboats, torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, frogmen, suicide strikes, possibly even suicide air attacks.

The navy estimates the system will cost $700 million, plus $100 million more annually to maintain — this at a time the Defense Ministry’s having to make hefty budget cuts.

But the gas fields, currently estimated to contain around 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, are vital strategic assets that will earn an estimated $60 billion in export revenue over the next two decades.

Discussions between Israel and Turkey to end a rupture triggered by the Israeli naval commandos killing nine Turks when the navy intercepted a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip have deadlocked amid some acrimony, despite the personal intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Jerusalem Post Thursday quoted Israeli officials with knowledge of the deliberations as saying the Turks ” are not interested in a diplomatic reconciliation, but rather in humiliating it and bringing to its knees.”

There had been hopes the prospect of the undersea pipeline from Israel’s gas fields for eventual delivery to Europe, cutting its dependence on Russian gas, would bring the two military powers back together as U.S. allies in a region undergoing profound change.

But security experts say the Turkish option, which involves infrastructure outside Israeli waters, is less secure than the main alternative, establishing a floating liquefied natural gas plant within Israel’s security envelope.

Abraham Sofaer, former adviser to Noble Energy of Texas which discovered Israel’s gas fields and is the majority stakeholder, told an energy conference in Tel Aviv: “Since distribution and transportation infrastructure are the most vulnerable aspects of oil and gas production, additional infrastructure and transport requirements beyond Israel’s control could increase risks significantly.”

He stressed nearly 70 percent of terrorist attacks on oil and gas facilities in 1999-2005 targeted pipelines and transport networks, while only 15 percent hit production facilities.

By using a floating LNG plant, he said, “all security efforts would be concentrated at the drilling platform and FLNG facility, thereby reducing other, greater risks in natural gas production and transportation. Experts regard the risks of protecting vessels transporting LNG significantly lower than those of protecting pipelines and other stationary facilities.”

David Wurmser, founder and head of Washington’s Delphi Global Analysis Group, observed in a recent paper Israel “will likely send the bulk of any gas it exports eastward,” possibly from Eilat on the Red Sea, thus avoiding the Suez Canal.

“The new gas trade … will echo the shift already under way in Israel’s export patterns more broadly as Israel’s economy increases trade with Asia while deceasing trade with Europe.

“This new energy trade and expanding hydrocarbon exports to Asia will coincide with and reinforce Israel’s broader plan to offer a strategic alternative to the Suez Canal,” Wurmser noted.

Source: Energy-Daily.

Insight: Syria’s opposition considers national rebel army, Islamists angered

By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT | Sun Aug 25, 2013

(Reuters) – Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patron Saudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

“It is very serious. It will be a proper army. The future of Syria depends on this move,” said a senior member of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, which hopes to set up the force.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Saudi Arabia has prevailed over Qatar to impose itself as the main outside force supporting the Syrian rebels, in part to counter the influence of Qatari-backed Islamist militants.

Riyadh has put forward $100 million as preliminary funding for a force planned to be 6,000 to 10,000 strong, rebels say.

Sources in the Coalition said the aim was to form a core of several thousand well-trained fighters that would also serve as the base for a bigger national army once Assad was toppled, avoiding a military vacuum and anarchy.

More than two years of a revolt-turned civil war have turned Syria into a magnet for jihadists from across the world, fuelling fears foreign military assistance might fall into the hands of fighters hostile to the West.

That has served only to strengthen the hand of Islamist brigades whose regional backers, many of them private Gulf donors, have been more forthcoming with support.

In recent weeks, al Qaeda-linked groups attacked several Alawite villages in the coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s stronghold. They also seized a strategic airport in Aleppo province that Syrian rebels failed for months to take.

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front, both of which acknowledge the authority of al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri, are now the ultimate rulers in many rebel-held towns.

The authority of the Supreme Military Council – the latest body that Western and Gulf powers have promoted as a moderate, unified rebel command – is increasingly challenged by radical Islamists and foreign jihadists, most recently when an Iraqi Islamist killed one of its senior commanders.

The Military Council demanded that the man, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, be arrested, but he remains at large, playing a prominent role in rebel campaigns.


Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters in Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Homs and Damascus said they feared the new army would deepen divisions among rebels and lead to further infighting. Comments from Islamists played into those fears.

“The real goal behind this army is that they want to fight Islamists,” said a commander of a powerful Islamist brigade in Idlib province. “It’s an open game. They will not announce it now or immediately, but this is the long term for it … We will not join, for sure. Not only us, but many others, too.”

A source in Aleppo close to al-Nusra Front said: “With every passing day, those living outside are becoming tools to the West … They fear Islam and see it as the enemy. Unfortunately, some Syrians are falling into this trap.”

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

The Homs commander said that showed the real intention was to dismantle the Islamist units. “This thing is very suspicious,” he said.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba “wants to strike with an iron fist”, he said, adding that the Saudi-backed Jarba wanted all weapons entering Syria to be overseen by his coalition.

However, the al Qaeda-linked rebels control many border crossings in the north, giving them strong influence over what enters the country and who gets hold of it.

The proposed new force must also overcome the same skepticism many fighters feel towards the Military Council.

A rebel commander in the north-eastern Raqqa province, voicing widely shared views, dismissed the body as ineffective and subject to foreign influence.

“They do not have a presence on the ground. They left us on our own. When we need them, they are not here, and then they come and ask us: Where are you getting your funding from? Well, not from you for sure.

“They are only performing external agendas. They don’t know what is happening inside; their people tell them Islamists are the enemies, you need to fight them to get funding, so they come to us and they say: Yes, let’s fight Islamists.”


Sources say the army will be launched, at a date yet to be fixed, in Deraa, the southern province that was the cradle of the 2011 uprising and where the presence of jihadists is still relatively weak.

Jordan is now playing a bigger role in helping the rebels and is more flexible in allowing weapons to enter the southern front, the sources said. A military operations room to oversee the battle in the south is now in Jordan and includes Saudi, Syrian and American officers.

One of the sources said Manaf Tlas, a senior army officer and former friend of Assad who defected last year, is also a member of the joint operation room. He is close to Jarba and has good ties to Saudi Arabia. His name has been floated as the chief of the new army.

But many rebels distrust Tlas because he waited months before defecting, and his father served as defense minister under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, for three decades.

A Coalition official declined to say whether Tlas would head the new army but said he would welcome him having a role. “The man has been an advocate of this from the beginning.”

However, an Islamist commander in Aleppo said Tlas’s leadership would be “another reason why we will not join”.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans, Will Waterman and Philippa Fletcher)

Source: Reuters.


Syria militant vows revenge for alleged gas attack

August 25, 2013

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The leader of an al-Qaida linked militia fighting to overthrow the Syrian government has vowed to take revenge for what he says was Damascus’ use of chemical weapons that killed hundreds of people.

Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s comments came in an audio recording posted Sunday on a militant website that usually carries al-Qaida and similar groups’ statements. It also appeared on the group’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified. Al-Golani said he plans to target Shiite Muslim villages. President Bashar Assad’s regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Last Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus prompted U.S. naval forces to move closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers a military response.

Twin explosions kill 29 in north Lebanese city

August 23, 2013

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Twin car bombs exploded Friday outside mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 29 people, wounding more than 350 and wreaking major destruction in the country’s second largest city, officials said.

Footage aired on local television stations showed thick, black smoke billowing over the city and bodies scattered beside burning cars in scenes reminiscent of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

The blasts hit amid soaring tensions in Lebanon as a result of Syria’s civil war, particularly following the open participation of the militant Shiite Hezbollah group on behalf of embattled President Bashar Assad. Their entry into the war has further polarized the country along sectarian lines. Preachers at both of the targeted mosques are virulent opponents of Assad and Hezbollah.

Friday’s attack was the second such bombing in more than a week, showing the degree to which the tiny country is being consumed by the raging war next door. Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, has seen frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. But the city itself has rarely seen such bombings in recent years.

It was the most powerful and deadliest bombing in Tripoli since the end of the civil war. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Dozens of bearded gunmen deployed on the streets of Tripoli following the attacks, checking people’s identity card and driving around in SUVs. A prominent Salafist sheik, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, said Sunnis in Tripoli would take security in their own hands going forward, blaming the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon for the bombings.

Attacks have become common in the past few months against Shiite strongholds in Lebanon. On Aug. 15, a car bomb rocked a Shiite stronghold of Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 27 people and wounding more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area on July 9, wounding more than 50.

Witness Samir Darwish said he was in a Tripoli square when he heard the first explosion and ran in the direction of the fire to the Salam Mosque, one of the two targeted. “I came here and saw the catastrophe. Bloodied people were running in the street, several other dead bodies were scattered on the ground,” he said. “It looked like doomsday, death was everywhere.”

Hezbollah swiftly condemned the bombings, calling it a “terrorist bombing” and part of a “criminal project that aims to sow the seeds of civil strife between the Lebanese and drag them into sectarian and ethnic infighting.”

In a strongly worded statement, the group expressed “utmost solidarity and unity with our brothers in the beloved city of Tripoli.” The bombings came the same day Israeli warplanes struck a target south of Beirut, hours after militants in south Lebanon fired four rockets into northern Israel. It was the first air raid on the area since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The strike demonstrates the chaos and security challenges engulfing Lebanon, which has been without a functioning government since March, largely because of infighting between political factions.

The explosions shattered windows in apartment blocks over a wide area and triggered car fires that left the charred bodies of trapped people inside. After the bombings, bloodied people could be seen being ferried away by screaming residents. Gunmen took to the streets, firing in the air in anger, which delayed the arrival of army troops and investigators.

Local media and mosques called for blood donations. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded. The blasts went off on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when places of worship would be packed. A security official said one of the blasts exploded outside the Taqwa mosque, the usual place of prayer for Sheik Salem Rafei, a Salafi cleric opposed to Hezbollah. It was not clear whether he was inside the mosque, but Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said he wasn’t hurt.

The official said the blast went off as worshippers were streaming out of the mosque. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The second car bomb explosion went off about five minutes later in the Mina district of Tripoli, about five meters from the gate to the Salam Mosque. The explosion blew open a 5-meter (16-foot) -wide and 1-meter (3-foot) -deep crater outside the mosque.

Former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a senior leader in the Western-backed, anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon, called on the group to withdraw its fighters immediately from Syria, saying its involvement in the war has opened Lebanon to terrorist threats.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared Saturday to be a day of mourning for the dead. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon condemned the bombings and called on all parties to exercise calm and restraint.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut.

Deadly attack in Syria renews chemical arms claim

August 22, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — The images showed lifeless children — wrapped in simple white cloths, their pale faces unmarked by any wound — lined up shoulder to shoulder in a vivid demonstration of an attack Wednesday in which activists say the Syrian regime killed at least 130 people with toxic gas.

The Syrian government adamantly denied using chemical weapons in an artillery barrage targeting suburbs east of Damascus, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless.” The U.S., Britain and France demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in the country be granted immediate access to investigate the claims.

Videos and photographs showed row upon row of bodies wrapped in white shrouds lying on a tile floor, including more than a dozen children. There was little evidence of blood or conventional injuries and most appeared to have suffocated. Survivors of the purported attack, some twitching uncontrollably, lay on gurneys with oxygen masks covering their faces.

Activists and the opposition leadership gave widely varying death tolls, ranging from as low as 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war.

For months now, the rebels, along with the United States, Britain and France, have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in its campaign to try to snuff out the rebellion against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011. The regime and its ally, Russia, have denied the allegations, pinning the blame on the rebels.

The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the carnage of Syria’s war, has made it impossible to verify the claims. After months of negotiations, a U.N. team finally arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin its investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. But the probe is limited to three sites and only seeks to determine whether chemical agents were used, not who unleashed them.

The timing of Wednesday’s attack — four days after the U.N. team’s arrival — raised questions about why the regime would use chemical agents now. The White House said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the reports, and spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration had requested that the U.N. “urgently investigate this new allegation.”

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.

Almost exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama called chemical weapons a “red line” for potential military action, and in June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.

But the possibility of intervention seemed ever smaller after Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week that the administration is opposed to even limited action because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests.

Russia decried Wednesday’s reports as “alarmist.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich denounced an “aggressive information campaign” laying full blame on the Syrian government as a provocation aimed at undermining efforts to convene peace talks between the two sides.

The regime began shelling the capital’s eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma around 3 a.m. as part of a fierce government offensive in the area, which has a strong rebel presence, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The heavy thud of artillery and rockets, as well as the grinding roar of fighter jets, could be heard by Damascus residents throughout the night and early Wednesday, and a pall of gray smoke hung over the towns.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman cited activists in the area who said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air. He said that he had documented at least 136 deaths, but said it was not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said hundreds of people were killed or wounded. The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300, basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.

George Sabra, a senior member of the Coalition, blamed the regime, as well as “the weakness of the U.N. and American hesitation” for the deaths. “The silence of our friends is killing us,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s attack effectively eliminated any chance for peace negotiations with the regime.

Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher who specializes in chemical and biological weapons and disarmament, said that in videos of the aftermath of the attacks, the hue of the victims’ faces appeared to show many suffered from asphyxiation.

However, he said the symptoms they exhibited were not consistent with mustard gas or the nerve agents VX or sarin. Mustard gas would cause blistering of the skin and discoloration, while the nerve agents would produce severe convulsions in the victims and also affect the paramedics treating them — neither of which was evident from the videos or reports.

“I’m deliberately not using the term chemical weapons here,” he said. “There’s plenty of other nasty stuff that was used in the past as a chemical warfare agent, so many industrial toxicants could be used too.”

A pharmacist in the town of Arbeen who identified himself as Abu Ahmad said he attended to dozens of wounded people in a field hospital after the shelling on Zamalka and Ein Tarma early Wednesday. He said many were moved to Arbeen.

The bodies of 63 of the dead had signs of a chemical weapons attack, he said, though he could not confirm this. “Their mouths were foaming, their pupils were constricted, and those who were brought in while still alive could not draw their breaths and died subsequently,” he told The Associated Press via Skype. “The skin around their eyes and noses was grayish.”

Activists in nearby Zamalka told Abu Ahmed that an additional 200 people died in that town on Wednesday. Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, denied government troops used chemical agents, calling the activists’ claim a “disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead” the U.N. mission.

The head of the U.N. team, which has a mandate to investigate previous claims of alleged chemical attacks, said he wants to look into the latest claims. Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Ake Sellstrom said the high numbers of dead and wounded being reported “sound suspicious.”

“It looks like something we need to look into,” Sellstrom, who is Swedish, was quoted as saying. He said a formal request from a member state would have to go through U.N. channels and Syria would need to agree — and there is no guarantee that it would.

French President Francois Hollande said the latest allegations “require verification and confirmation,” according to government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Hollande said he would ask the U.N. to go to the site “to shed full light” on the allegations.

In addition to the U. S. and Britain, Germany, Turkey and the EU called for immediate U.N. access to the site of the alleged attack. The Syrian government did not immediately respond to the demands. The U.N. Security Council held emergency consultations about the purported attack, and U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Sellstrom’s team was in talks with the Syrian government about all alleged chemical attack, including Wednesday’s.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told the AP via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. “This is a massacre by chemical weapons,” he said. “The visit by the U.N. team is a joke. … (Assad) is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.”

Photos posted on Facebook by an activist group in Arbeen showed rows of Syrian children wrapped in white shrouds, and others with their chests bare. There appeared to be very little sign of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.

In an amateur video posted online, a young girl with curly brown hair wearing a Minnie Mouse shirt lay on the ground, her head lolling on the tile floor as doctors injected medicine into her arm. Next to her, paramedics attended to two young boys who appeared unconscious, their bodies limp.

The photos and videos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Amir Bibawy in New York, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.