Archive for September, 2013

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.

Jordan’s king swears in 13 new Cabinet ministers

August 21, 2013

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The royal palace says Jordan’s King Abdullah II has sworn in 13 new Cabinet ministers, enlarging the government as part of promised reforms.

The long expected reshuffle is the first since Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour took office on March 30 following parliamentary elections hailed as the centerpiece of palace-led reforms.

Wednesday’s change excluded major posts, including foreign affairs, interior and finance.

It brought in two women, raising their number to three.

The palace said multiple portfolios held by serving ministers were divided among the newcomers.

The Cabinet now has 27 ministers, including Ensour, who also serves as defense minister.

Abdullah’s reforms come amid the violent upheavals brought by the Arab Spring, which toppled four longtime leaders.

The Jordanian reforms also allowed for public assembly and dissent — previously outlawed acts.



Egypt destroys homes for possible Gaza buffer zone

September 01, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s military has bulldozed 13 homes along the Gaza Strip border and caved in tunnels beneath them as a prelude to the possible creation of a buffer zone to reduce weapon smuggling and illegal militant crossings, angering residents who said they were evicted with no compensation, security officials and residents said Sunday.

The military envisions creating a building-free zone with no trees 500 meters (1,640 feet) wide and 10 kilometers (6 miles) long starting at the Rafah border crossing and ending at the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Sinai government officials said. The homes were knocked down over the last 10 days as a test of the buffer zone idea in an area called el-Sarsoriya, a few kilometers (miles) from the Rafah crossing, while explosives were used to collapse the tunnels. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The move comes as Egypt’s interim government and military attempt to assert more stringent state control over the largely lawless northern Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic militants have turned large areas into strongholds from which they have waged repeated attacks on security forces, Christians and tribal leaders — compounding the country’s security woes following the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. Homes and trees along the Gaza border have been used as cover for militants to fire at border guards.

Ehab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said he feared the creation of a buffer zone would be a step toward imposing “a new blockade on Gaza and increase the suffering of its people.”

“Buffer zones are not needed between neighboring countries that have historical and social relations,” Ghussein said, calling instead for the establishment of a free trade zone at the Egypt-Gaza border.

The Egyptian military has closed much of the once-bustling tunnel system, but some remain along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) stretch of border. Residents angered by the past days’ bulldozing staged a sit-in protest in Rafah Sunday.

One tribal leader claimed that many more homes were demolished and that the bulldozers showed up without notice, giving people little time to leave with their belongings. And the government has offered no compensation, he added, to residents who lost their homes. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from authorities.

Samir Faris, who lives in Rafah, said many more people fear losing their homes if the buffer zone is expanded beyond the small area leveled so far. Most homes along the border are two to three stories high and house more than one family, he said.

“Officers come to houses, tell people they must leave now because they want to expand borders,” he said. “We have no objections, but first give us a clear plan.” At the sit-in, residents decided to propose a committee to authorities made up of the military, local officials and tribal leaders who could negotiate over the relocation of people living in houses proposed for demolition. Residents themselves are divided about moving. Some insist they want to stay while others would agree to leave with compensation because they agree with the military that the tunnels are a threat to Egypt’s national security.

The tunnels have been used for years to transport goods and people including weapons and militants back and forth between Sinai and Gaza. The Egyptian military estimates it has closed 350 tunnels, or about 80 percent of the total. Officials say efforts to destroy the tunnels have accelerated along the border since Morsi’s ouster by the military after millions protested his rule.

Egypt is concerned about militants moving back and forth between Gaza and Sinai through the illicit tunnels, and is struggling to control jihadist sympathizers in the desert peninsula in what it calls a “war against terrorism.”

Under its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt must coordinate any large-scale military operations in the northern Sinai with Israeli officials. The Egyptian officials said Israel has repeatedly accepted Egyptian requests to move equipment and troops into the area.

News of the home destructions came a day after Egyptian authorities arrested a top militant named Adel Jabara, identifying him as an al-Qaida leader in the Sinai Peninsula. He is accused of masterminding the killings of 25 off-duty soldiers last month. The attack was one of Egypt’s worst militant strikes since last year’s killing of 16 soldiers near Rafah by masked gunmen.

Last month, the army foiled an attempted suicide car bomb attack targeting a police station in the Gaza border town of Sheikh Zuweyid, killing three militants before they could reach their target.

Associated Press Gaza correspondent Ibrahim Barzak and reporter Mamdouh Thabit from southern city of Assiut contributed to this report.