Archive for November 30th, 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.