Archive for November, 2013

Albania refuses to accept Syria’s chemical weapons

November 15, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The mission to destroy Syria’s poison gas stockpile was dealt a serious blow Friday when Albania refused to host the destruction, but the global chemical weapons watchdog said it is still confident it can eradicate the arsenal outside Syria by the middle of next year.

The surprise refusal by the small and impoverished Balkan country left open the question of where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would send Syria’s estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and sarin.

“I can’t name a country at this point, but obviously there are options and there are ways in which this can be accomplished,” senior OPCW official Malik Ellahi said at the organization’s headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands.

Syria has said it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country, which is in the throes of civil war. Albania had been considered the strongest hope, and few diplomats expected the NATO country of 2.8 million people to reject what Prime Minister Edi Rama said had been a direct request from the U.S.

But the plan was unpopular in Albania, and young protesters had camped outside Rama’s office to oppose it, fearing it would be a health and environmental hazard. Chemical weapons have to be incinerated at extremely high temperatures or neutralized using other chemicals — both costly, risky and time-consuming operations that require specialized machinery.

In a televised address from the capital of Tirana, Rama said that it was “impossible for Albania to take part in this operation” — an announcement that brought a loud cheer from some of the 2,000 protesters.

Rama said he rejected the request because other countries, which he did not identify, were not prepared to be a part of the operation. The OPCW’s Ellahi said: “It was a sovereign decision that Albania has taken.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said the decision would not hurt U.S.-Albanian relations. “We appreciate Albania looking seriously at hosting the destruction of chemical weapons,” she said. “The international community continues to discuss the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program in the safest manner possible.”

Albania is one of only three nations that have declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. The U.S. and Russia have also declared stockpiles but have not yet completed their destruction.

Tirana has been an avid supporter of Washington since the U.S. and NATO intervened with airstrikes in 1999 to stop a crackdown by Serb forces on rebel ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo. “Without the United States, Albanians would never have been free and independent in two countries that they are today,” Rama said in an apologetic speech.

But the relationship was not enough to convince the hundreds of protesters. “We don’t have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can’t deal with our own stuff, let alone Syrian weapons,” said 19-year-old architecture student Maria Pesha, among the protesters camped out overnight outside Rama’s office. “We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S.”

Albania has had problems with ammunition storage in the past. In 2008, an explosion at an ammunition dump at Gerdec near Tirana killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.

Wherever it happens, the destruction of Syria’s weapons will be overseen by experts from the OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas around the world. Just getting Syria’s weapons out of the war-torn country will be a major challenge.

Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat running the joint U.N.-OPCW mission in Syria, said her team is working “in an active war zone, in an extreme security situation with serious implications for the safety” of all personnel.

Norway has offered a cargo ship and naval frigate to help transport the chemicals. The disarmament operation started more than a month ago with inspections. Machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, ending the Syrian government’s capability to make new weapons.

The disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined that sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria’s government of responsibility, while Damascus blames the rebels.

Syria’s conflict, now in its third year, has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists. It started as an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule but later turned into a civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground, said Friday that a government airstrike the previous night in northern Syria killed a senior rebel figure and wounded two commanders and the spokesman of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province.

Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

UN: Syria refugee children working, missing school

November 29, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — The United Nations refugee agency says a growing number of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan are missing out on education and fast becoming primary providers for their families.

More than two million Syrians fled their homes because of the country’s raging conflict and sought shelter abroad. A report by the UNHCR released Friday said at least half of the refugees — 1.1 million — are children. Of those, some 75 percent are under the age of 12.

With the war in its third year, refugee families lacking resources are increasingly relying on children as primary providers. The U.N. said children as young as seven work long hours of manual labor in fields, farms and shops for little pay, sometimes under dangerous or exploitative conditions.

Syrians fleeing war face hardship in Balkans

November 24, 2013

HARMANLI, Bulgaria (AP) — Idris Hassan, his wife and their three children fled the carnage of the Syrian war, hoping to find peace and safety in western Europe. Instead, they are stuck in an overcrowded Bulgarian refugee camp — living in a freezing tent without enough food or running water.

Thousands of Syrian and other refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, who make a dangerous journey from their war-ravaged countries, often end up in crammed settlements in the Balkans after being blocked at the borders of wealthy Western European nations.

“We left our country to look for a peaceful, better place to live, where we could give our children proper education,” Hassan, 44, said sitting by a fire outside his tent in the Harmanli camp in southern Bulgaria. “But now we see that Bulgaria is a poor country which struggles to provide food for its own people.”

Aid officials say that the humanitarian situation is particularly alarming in Bulgaria, which has faced massive influx of migrants that far outnumbers its capacities. Bulgaria, one of the EU’s newest and poorest members, borders Turkey — a Muslim nation that has become a magnet for Syrians fleeing the war.

“It is very important that all European countries keep their borders open, accept Syrian refugees and provide them with adequate assistance,” said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

After visiting a refugee camp in Sofia on Friday, Guterres pledged support for Bulgaria in its efforts to provide adequate protection and assistance to Syrian refugees, saying the agency will send a technical assistance team this week to Bulgaria.

Human Rights groups are also expressing alarm. “It is appalling that people seeking refuge in the European Union are being trapped in limbo in such awful conditions with winter rapidly approaching,” said Barbora Cernusakova, an EU team researcher at Amnesty International.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, warned of “appalling conditions in reception centers and a disastrous lack of medical assistance.” The group said that “hundreds of people find their only option is to sleep outside in unheated tents, while others crowd together in disused school classrooms because the reception centers are unable to cope with such a number of people.”

Sometimes, they have just one toilet for fifty people, while entire families do not receive enough food to eat, the group said in a statement. Hassan is living through such conditions. “I have only one request: to be moved to a house or a caravan,” said Hassan, a Kurdish pharmacist. “Soon, there will be snow and it will be impossible to live (in the tent) with the children.”

Hassan hopes that his family’s immigration documents will be processed quickly by Bulgarian authorities so they can move on to a wealthier EU country. Fellow refugees in the camp have threatened a hunger strike to protest appalling living conditions.

“Most of us have relatives, parents in other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland,” Hassan said. “We want to leave immediately, to live like all honorable people.” About 10,000 migrants, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, have arrived in Bulgaria from Turkey since January, generally using hidden routes to cross the border illegally. The influx has overstretched the country’s aid system — which, according to officials, can only accommodate about 5,000 people.

Thousands more refugees have sought to reach western Europe through Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro or Serbia. Entire families have been on the road for months, taken across borders by human smugglers, who pack them into trucks or boats or lead them on foot. The migrants often travel without documents and are vulnerable to being robbed of belongings and savings, which they need to pay the smugglers.

Last week in Greece, twelve people believed to be Syrian, including four young children and their father, drowned after the speedboat they were hoping to use to smuggle them to Italy capsized. Another 15 people survived the accident near the western island of Lefkada.

In Bulgaria, protests erupted in a refugee camp in a suburb of the capital Sofia, when Kahtan al Omar, a 35-year-old migrant, from Syria died of a heart attack a week after he arrived with his wife and three children. His wife said her husband had complained of chest pains, but received no aid and the ambulance arrived an hour after he died.

The Sofia camp is located in an old, vacant school, where people are jammed in run-down classrooms, with just a few toilets and showers, and no proper place to prepare food. The rooms are divided by sheets that barely provide a modicum of privacy.

People in the camp rely mostly on donations distributed by the Red Cross. Most are waiting for Bulgarian authorities to issue documents that will formally identify them as Syrians, which would help them seek asylum elsewhere in the EU.

The procedure takes time, officials said. “We understand that they want their documents to be immediately processed, but we have respective laws and regulations that we are following,” said Nikolay Chirpanliev, the head of Bulgaria’s government-run refugee agency.

The refugee influx also burdens neighboring Serbia, a Balkan country that borders EU member states Hungary and Croatia — making it a transit point for migrants. A Serbian asylum center in the central village of Bogovadja is full — and hundreds of migrants sleep outside. Those kept out are granted just one meal a day. Migrants say that asylum-seekers who manage to reach the EU are often deported back to Serbia, Macedonia, Greece or Bulgaria — where they wait a while and try again.

In an effort to stem the tide, authorities in Bulgaria are preparing to build a 3-meter- (10-foot-) high fence along the border with Turkey that is expected to be ready by February. “Today access to Europe has become virtually impossible for refugees, including Syrians fleeing the horrors of the war,” said Ioanna Kotsioni, the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Bulgaria.

“Walls are being built in Greece, and soon in Bulgaria, forcing the most desperate to seek ever more dangerous routes.”

Gec and Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Elena Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece.

Israel pushes forward with settlement plans

November 25, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense ministry says plans to build 800 new housing units in the West Bank are moving forward.

The ministry said on Monday it had approved a planning stage for the housing earlier this month. The approval is an initial step in a protracted bureaucratic process and construction is not expected to begin for months.

The approval comes as Israel and the Palestinians are conducting quiet, behind-the-scenes peace talks. The Palestinians want the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, as part of a future state and oppose Israeli settlement building.

The housing plans were originally announced last month, following Israel’s release of 26 Palestinian prisoners. That move was part of a deal that brought the two sides back to negotiations.

Families grieve in Damascus after attack on school

November 12, 2013

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Families in a central neighborhood of the Syrian capital wept quietly Tuesday as they retrieved the bodies of four children and their bus driver killed in a mortar attack on their school in a predominantly Christian area a day earlier.

The strike was the latest rebel reprisal to hit Damascus as government troops press ahead with a crushing weekslong advance into opposition-held suburbs, often relying on indiscriminant artillery fire themselves. Such mortar attacks by rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad have been on the rise.

“Those children were angels,” said Marwan Qabalan, a family friend picking up the body of nine-year-old Vaniciya Mekho from the morgue. He said the girl’s parents couldn’t bear to see her, still dressed in a school uniform and covered with blood.

Often-random rebel mortar fire has hit shops, churches, homes and embassies in the capital this year, killing dozens of civilians. But Monday’s shelling of Risaleh school in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood shocked residents in particular because the casualties were children.

A fifth pupil died early Tuesday, raising the number of children killed to five. Four other children and two supervisors were also wounded in the strike, and another mortar attack the same day on nearby John of Damascus school wounded 11.

Also Tuesday, Kurds announced a transitional autonomous administration to run day-to-day affairs in regions they dominate in Syria’s northeast. Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said the announcement was made in the city of Qamishli.

Overstretched from fighting rebels across most of the country, Syrian troops withdrew from Kurdish areas last year, leaving a security void. Since then, Kurdish militiamen led by the PYD, seen by mainstream rebels and some other Kurdish groups as being pro-government, have been fighting to purge their areas from Islamic extremists and al-Qaida affiliated militants.

The Kurdish move could be a first step toward setting up an autonomous region similar to one they administer in northern Iraq. It was not immediately clear however if other groups supported the announcement by the PYD and a few other small groups.

In Damascus, the morgue visit was organized for journalists by Syrian officials who otherwise typically restrict reporters’ access to events. All victims were Christians. Associated Press TV footage showed somber pallbearers placing a small white coffin with a gold cross on the lid into the back of a hearse. Three men carried out another coffin, as woman dressed in black cried out: “What a waste, what a shame!” A hospital medic draped a white robe over six-year-old Majd Shahadeh before he was placed in a coffin.

“I am proud because I am the mother of a martyr and I am ready even to sacrifice my other two sons for Syria,” said the bus driver’s tearful mother, Samira Abu Sukkeh. UNICEF called the shelling “barbaric,” saying in a statement that “all those with influence in Syria have a moral obligation to respect the sanctity of children’s lives and ensure that schools remain a place of safe refuge.”

The attack triggered outrage among residents of the capital who have largely become accustomed to violence and mortar fire in recent months, with many parents to terrified to let their children return to school. Education official Rami Shahin said only 100 of some 750 pupils at John of Damascus attended classes Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Damascus, mortar shells continued to draw blood, with state media saying a strike near the office of a pro-Assad Palestinian group wounded 10. The shells can be easily lobbed into the city from footholds on its outskirts.

Despite the attacks, rebel fighters say infighting and waning weapon supplies have weakened them in recent weeks. The government has also besieged many of their enclaves and made inroads in the northern province of Aleppo as well.

Tuesday’s fighting centered around the suburb of Hejeira, one of a patchwork of sprawling neighborhoods and towns just south of Damascus that have been opposition strongholds for the past year. In recent weeks, government forces have taken control of four nearby strongholds, most recently the nearby town of Sabina.

Assad’s efforts there were bolstered by Shiite fighters from Iraq and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground. A spokeswoman for a Damascus-based Syrian rebel council corroborated the claim, speaking on condition of anonymity however for fear of reprisals.

An Aleppo-based anti-government activist said rebels were on high alert in the northern city on Tuesday, fearing government troops backed by various Assad allies would soon try to storm their eastern strongholds. The activist, who uses the pseudonym Abu Raed in order to avoid identification by the government, said rebel fighters had been ordered to present themselves for duty or be punished.

“They want to halt the army’s advance,” he said. “The regime is coming.” Western-backed rebel groups have not been sent weapons or ammunition for at least a month, Abu Raed added, saying the cutback was part of a regional tactic to force Syria’s opposition to agree to participate in an international peace conference to end to the three-year conflict.

The fractured opposition however has so far demurred from saying outright it would attend the proposed talks in Geneva— welcoming the conference but with preconditions unlikely to be met.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed reporting.

Syrian opposition group approves partial cabinet

November 12, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group has approved a partial cabinet charged with administering rebel-held territories inside Syria.

The move by the Syrian National Coalition late Monday follows its announcement earlier in the day that it plans to attend proposed peace talks with the Syrian government, if certain conditions are met.

The coalition has struggled for months to cobble together an interim government, in part because of infighting among the various exile groups involved. In votes on Monday, the coalition approved most of the cabinet, but could not agree on some positions, according to those who took part in the voting.

The opposition government is tasked with organizing governance in rebel-held areas of Syria, although its ability to fulfill that goal appears limited. The coalition’s already slim support inside Syria received a severe blow in September when nearly a dozen of the most powerful rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition. The brigades said they do not recognize any government formed outside Syria.

That announcement highlighted the growing irrelevance of the coalition and its military arm headed by Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the Supreme Military Council supported by the West, amid increasing radicalization in Syria. The group is seen by many as being out of touch and a puppet of the West and Gulf Arab states.

On Monday, a coalition of Syria-based opposition groups said that the peace conference proposed by the United States and Russia to be held by the end of the year may be the last chance to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war.

The call came as Syrian government forces consolidated control over yet another northern town, part of a steadily advancing offensive that has reversed rebel gains in recent weeks. In Damascus, Syria’s state news agency said a mortar shell hit a school bus Monday in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood, killing four children and the bus driver. It said four children and two teachers were also wounded.

“This is the only available framework and might be the last chance to resolve the crisis in Syria,” the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change said in a statement. Neither that coalition nor the SNC, however, has much influence over the disparate armed factions fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The Syria-based opposition ranges from officials close to the government, to intellectuals and parties that have opposed Assad’s Baath party for decades. The exiled group ranges from secular intellectuals to Islamic activists.

In its statement Monday, the SNC said it would only attend the talks Geneva talks if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases political prisoners. The group itself wants any future transitional government to exclude Assad and his close allies, a demand the Syrian government has rejected.

The proposed Geneva conference faces a series of obstacles: the most powerful and best-armed rebel groups aren’t party to the talks, and most fighting units are disorganized bands with little central command or leadership. Even if an agreement is reached in Geneva, it is unclear if it will be accepted on the ground.

As diplomats have been trying to convene peace talks, the fighting on the ground has raged on. Government forces took over the town of Tel Aran and other positions in the northern province of Aleppo, state media said, a day after they consolidated control of a key military base held by rebels since February. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives its information from a network of activists on the ground, also reported the government advances.

The Observatory and an Aleppo activist said they believed the government’s gains were partly caused by rebel infighting. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in particular, they said, was trying to drive weaker opposition groups from rebel-held areas.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization said it has now confirmed 13 cases of polio in Syria as part of the first outbreak of the highly communicable disease in the country in 14 years. The WHO also said genetic sequencing indicates the strain is closely linked to one that originated in Pakistan and was detected in environmental samples in Egypt last year.

The U.N. has launched a massive vaccination campaign across the Middle East to try to control the outbreak.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Berza Simsek contributed to this report. Hadid reported from Beirut.

Syrian rebels launch counteroffensive in Aleppo

November 09, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels launched a counteroffensive in the northern city of Aleppo, recapturing a base near its international airport hours after the army advanced into the area, activists said Saturday.

The fighting came as the main Western-backed opposition group began a two-day meeting in Istanbul to decide whether they will attend a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva.

The Syrian National Coalition has demanded that President Bashar Assad step down in any transitional Syrian government as a condition for going to Geneva. Syrian officials say Assad will stay in his post at least until his terms ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters that the U.N.-Arab League’s top envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will hold a meeting in early December to decide on a new date and the attendees of the Geneva conference.

“We were saddened and depressed because of the failure of the latest meetings to decide on a date and participants for the conference,” Elaraby said, referring to a meeting in Geneva earlier this week that many had hoped would call for holding the talks later this month. The League had wanted the peace conference to lead to a cease-fire and secure means to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrians, Elaraby said.

Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh told reporters in Istanbul at the beginning of its meeting that the Syrian government could demonstrate some goodwill measures, such as lifting sieges on rebel-held areas. Government soldiers have prevented food, fuel and medical aid from reaching some opposition-controlled enclaves. Assad’s armed opponents have also similarly punished government-loyal areas in their midst.

But even with goodwill measures, many in the coalition will resist calls to attend unless Assad agrees to step down in a transitional government, a highly unlikely development. In Aleppo, al-Qaida-linked rebels and other Islamic fighters recaptured the Brigade 80 base that had protected the city’s airport, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center said. The government has not confirmed losing the base.

The government-held Aleppo International Airport, which has been closed due to fighting for almost a year, is one of the Syrian rebels’ major objectives. Brigade 80 first fell to rebels in February, but government troops seized parts of it early Friday during an offensive. The rebels launched a push to retake it later that day and fighting ranged overnight into Saturday, with 20 government soldiers killed as well as more than 40 rebels from different groups, including al-Qaida’s al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, according to the Observatory.

Hard-line Islamic groups have emerged as some of the most effective fighters in the Syrian rebel ranks. Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said a rocket fired by opposition fighters hit near a health center in Aleppo’s Ashrafieh neighborhood, killing six children and wounding six others.

Meanwhile, a woman working as a media activist was found slain with signs of abuse on her body on a farm in the Aleppo province, two Syrian activist groups said. The Observatory and the Local Coordinating Committees said the woman was seized about 40 days ago by gunmen near the Turkey-Syria border. The LCC identified her as Samira Kayali.

Associated Press writers Sarah el-Deeb in Cairo and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.