Archive for February, 2014

Lebanese PM belatedly forms his Cabinet

February 15, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s prime minister formed a Cabinet more than 10 months after taking office on Saturday, including a wide range of political groups after bridging serious divisions among them mostly over Syria’s civil war.

Tammam Salam’s 24-member national unity Cabinet was announced at the presidential palace and includes members of the Western-backed coalition as well as those of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies.

Fears of a spillover of Syria’s civil war to its smaller neighbor have intensified pressure on Lebanon’s rival faction to make concessions, facilitating Salam’s job. “This is a unity Cabinet that represents at the present time the best formula for Lebanon with all the political, security, economic and social challenges it is facing,” Salam told reporters shortly after his government was announced. “The national interest Cabinet was formed with the spirit of gathering, not divisions, and meeting, not defiance.”

Salam said the Cabinet aims to “strengthen national security and stand against all kinds of terrorism.” He said that the Cabinet will also face the social issue of nearly a million Syrian refugees who fled for safety in Lebanon, which has a population of some 4 million.

The Cabinet is not expected to remain in office long, as a new government should be formed after President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term ends in May and a new head of state is elected. The Syrian civil war has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon and sharply divided its population, who support rival Syrian groups.

Many Shiite Muslims in Lebanon back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, while Sunnis support rebels trying to remove him from power. Clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups have killed scores of Lebanese over the past months. A wave of car bombs also claimed the lives of dozens.

Hezbollah openly sent fighters to Syria last year to fight along Assad’s forces while some Sunnis have joined the rebels. The Western-backed coalition, known as March 14, had previously said it will not take part in any national unity government until the militant Hezbollah group, Lebanon’s most powerful, withdraws its members fighting in Syria.

March 14’s leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said last month that he is ready to share power with Hezbollah if it helps in ending the Cabinet formation deadlock. Hezbollah has also abandoned an earlier demand that it be given, along with its allies, veto power in the new Cabinet.

In April last year, the vast majority of legislators chose the British-educated Salam to form the Cabinet. He replaced Najib Mikati who abruptly resigned a month earlier over a political deadlock between Lebanon’s two main political camps and infighting in his government.

Mikati, who had served as prime minister since June 2011, headed a government that was dominated by Hezbollah group and its allies. Salam is the son of the late former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, and leans politically toward the Western-backed anti-Hezbollah coalition. He studied in Britain and has degrees in economics and business administration.

He will be holding the top post in the country that a Sunni Muslim can hold. Lebanon’s politics are always fractious, in part because of the sectarian makeup of the country’s government. According to Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon’s population.

Salam’s Cabinet included only one woman, Alice Shabtini, who was named Minister of Displaced People. As in the previous government, Hezbollah holds two posts. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying that it “appealed to all Lebanese people to preserve national unity in the face of attempts to undermine the country’s stability and stressed the importance for all Lebanese parties to respect Lebanon’s policy of disassociation and to refrain from any involvement in the Syrian crisis.”


Israel unveils “Super Heron” MALE drone

Jerusalem (XNX)

Feb 19, 2014

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) on Tuesday unveiled the newest “Super Heron” drone at the Singapore Air Show, an aircraft that “redefines” Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial systems, said in a statement of IAI.

The newest drone features a heavy fuel engine and a propulsion system that enable it to operate at an altitude of 30,000 feet ( about 9 km), fly 1000 km when linked to satellite communications, and remain aloft for 45 hours, according to IAI’s report at a press release.

“Its forte lies in the enhanced triple-redundant avionics, processing capabilities, operational flexibility, and simple integration of more diversified payloads, among other features,” an IAI spokeswoman told Xinhua.

The Super Heron is a significantly upgraded version of the “Shoval,” the first Heron-type drone to had entered service in the Israel Air Force (IAF) in 2007, where it has since been used in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR), maritime patrol and other missions, and has been sold to 20 foreign customers.

The IAI spokeswoman clarified that the Heron family continues to be dominated by the Heron TP, also known as Eitan, a fourth- generation craft delivered to the IAF in February 2010 which can reportedly be armed with missiles for long-range strategic strikes.

“Super Heron is positioned between the Shoval and the TP, and was developed to meet requirements specified by leading customers, ” the spokeswoman said.

According to the statement, IAI’s various drones have accumulated over 1.1 million operational flight hours around the world, while the Heron family has accumulated 250,000 operational flight hours worldwide.

Source: Space War.


Israel begins sending African migrants to Uganda

February 19, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has begun sending dozens of African migrants to Uganda, an Israeli official said Wednesday, a move that has sparked concerns that they are being coerced into going to a country that may not keep them safe.

The resettlement of people in Uganda, and perhaps other countries, marks a new phase in Israel’s campaign to rid itself of thousands of Africans who have poured into the country in recent years. Migrants and activists said the arrangement, which includes a one-way ticket and a stipend, is questionable because it is unclear if there is an official agreement with Uganda that would secure the migrants’ status. They said the new arrivals risk deportation to their home countries, where they may face conflict or persecution.

Uganda, for its part, denied any deal. The Israeli official said Israel paid $3,500 each in recent weeks to about 30 migrants who agreed to leave for Uganda, though he, too, said there was no formal agreement in place. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.

Israel says the relocations are done on a voluntary basis. About 50,000 Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have poured into Israel in recent years across the southern border with Egypt. The Africans say they are asylum-seekers fleeing persecution and danger. Israel says they are looking for employment, but it does not deport them because they could face danger in their conflict-ridden homelands. Critics say Israel has dragged its feet on reviewing the migrants’ claims for refugee status.

Israel has grappled with how to deal with the influx, which has caused friction with locals and alarmed authorities who say Israel’s Jewish character is threatened by the presence of the Africans. Israel has built a fence along the border with Egypt, all but stopping the influx, passed a law that allows for the migrants’ detention and said it has a deal with an unidentified country to host some of the Africans until they are able to return home. It has used financial incentives in the past to encourage other African migrants to return home.

Rights groups say Israel has an obligation to protect the migrants, in part because of Israel’s history of taking in Jewish refugees following the Holocaust, and because it is a signatory to the U.N. refugee convention.

“We are very concerned that these deportations are clearly not taking into consideration the safety and well-being of the deportees,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group.

Ugandan officials denied any deal was in place. “We are not privy to such an arrangement,” said David Kazungu, a Ugandan government commissioner who is in charge of refugees. Israel’s Interior Ministry and the prime minister’s office declined to comment.

Tsurkov said Israel’s policies toward the migrants have forced many to accept the relocation offer. A recent amendment to an Israeli “infiltrators” law allows Israel to detain newly arrived migrants for up to a year.

The Interior Ministry also has begun ordering more veteran migrants to report to a new detention center in the southern desert when they try to renew visas that previously allowed them to stay in the country.

The Holot detention center is meant to be an “open” facility, where residents can come and go. But they must sign in several times a day and sleep there, making it impossible for them to stray far or hold jobs. Those who violate the rules, or reject what Israel calls “invitations” to report there, can be sent to a nearby prison.

The offers to relocate to a third country, and the threat of being sent to Holot, are part of a broader strategy to rid Israel of anyone it determines does not meet refugee status. In a speech last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “continue to work to return the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who crossed the border.”

One Eritrean migrant who accepted the offer to move to Uganda said he did so because his options in Israel — detention or economic hardship — were bleak. He said that upon entering Uganda, he was given a two-month tourist visa, and he was not certain what his status would be once that period expired.

The 32-year-old man, who asked not to be identified for fear he would be sought out by Ugandan authorities, had worked menial jobs in Israel for two years. “I didn’t want to go to Holot. That’s why I left,” said the man, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from Kampala, Uganda. “Without a visa, you can’t work. Without work you have no money. If you don’t have money, how do you live in Israel?”

He said he approached Israel’s Interior Ministry to ask how he could leave the country. He was offered a free ticket and some cash if he went back to Eritrea or else a free ticket to fly to Uganda. Fearing for his life should he return to his homeland, which is widely seen as one of the worst human rights violators, he chose Uganda, where he has lived for the past month.

Jack Zaidan, a migrant from Sudan’s Darfur region who is still in Israel, said at least five Sudanese migrants he knows accepted the offer because of the situation in Israel. He said their fate in Uganda was uncertain.

“There is no protection in Uganda. You arrive and two days later police will catch you and send you away,” he said.

Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, and Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.

Occupation forces violently disperse protesters against settlements

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Israeli authorities’ response on Thursday to competing rallies on the outskirts of East Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank highlights the deep injustices of Israeli occupation and apartheid. While Israeli security forces forcibly prevented Palestinians from gathering to non-violently protest against the colonization and ethnic cleansing of their lands, they allowed illegal settlers to assemble to celebrate their occupation of Palestine.

According to an Anadolu Agency news correspondent, Israeli occupation forces violently dispersed on Thursday a Palestinian protest against the confiscation of Palestinian land in the occupied territories known as E1, adjacent to East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces reportedly arrested one activist.

The protest was organized by the Popular Initiative for Resisting the Barrier and Settlements in Al-Ayzariya village, which is near the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

Although the Israeli authorities refused to grant Palestinians their right to assemble on their own land, the authorities allowed those settlers illegally occupying their land to gather later that same day to declare their unwillingness to cease their criminal activities.

According to the Jerusalem Post newspaper, the pro-settlement event, “which drew over 5,000 participants from across the country, mostly teenagers, began in the afternoon in [the] Maale Adumim [settlement]. Activists then marched 4 km from the built up area of the settlement down to and across Route 1, and then up to the E1 hilltops.”

Israeli Transportation and Road Safety Minister Israel Kat, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel and coalition leader in the Israeli Knesset Yariv Levin all attended the settler protest.

The newspaper reports that the settlers chanted against US efforts to broker peace and called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authorize building more settlements and to reject US pressure to give up land in the West Bank, particularly in and around occupied East Jerusalem. One sign read “Kerry = persona non grata,” referring to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to broker an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.

MK Levin told the media that he personally told US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, “a true friend of Israel… that there was no mandate, no government and no majority of citizens that could relinquish the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”

Israeli settlement construction in E1 would divide the occupied West Bank into two territories and thus make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible. In late 2012, the Israeli authorities announced plans to build hundreds of settler homes in E1 after Palestine was granted non-member observer state status at the United Nations. After international pressure the plans were frozen, but never completely shelved.

Despite the Palestinians being denied the same rights as those illegally occupying their lands, Salah Khawaja, the deputy secretary-general of the anti-settlements group, vowed to Anadolu Agency that: “We will continue our struggle against the Israeli occupation.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Israeli court discusses anti-boycott law

February 16, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli rights groups asked the Supreme Court Sunday to overturn a law that bans Israelis from calling for a boycott of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The court is expected to deliver its ruling in the coming months.

The 2011 law does not make a boycott call a criminal offense, but rather a civil issue that could trigger lawsuits demanding compensation. There is no precedent of this happening yet. The collection of rights groups said the law infringes on the right to free speech while defenders of the law say it prohibits discrimination based on geography.

The appeal comes against a backdrop of an international boycott campaign against Israel’s settlement policies in captured territories claimed by the Palestinians. Israel officials have derided the campaign as anti-Semitic since it holds Israel to a double standard.

In recent years, settlement opponents in Israel have joined broader boycotts of products made there. The Palestinians and most of the international community say settlements are illegal because they are built on war-won land that the Palestinians want for their future state.

Haggai El-Ad, head of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said that a boycott is a legitimate form of protest and that the Israeli law was politically motivated since it only applied to those targeting the settlements.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, who initiated the bill, said the aim was to prevent discrimination against people based on where they lived. He said Israel has to defend itself against those aiming to harm it.

The issue of settlements, and the boycott threat against them, has figured prominently in the recently restarted U.S.-mediated peace talks. More than 550,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, contiguous areas captured in the 1967 war, among roughly 2.5 million Palestinians. Some Israelis see a big security risk in giving up the West Bank, which commands the highland over central Israel. Many religious Jews see it as their biblical heartland.

Ottawa opens door to 1,300 Syrian refugees

Wed Jul 03 2013

By: Nicholas Keung

Ottawa will resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees to Canada from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over two years to address the deepening humanitarian crisis there, says Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

The announcement on Wednesday came a month after the Syrian Canadian community made a public appeal urging the federal government to establish a special program for displaced refugees caught up in the two-year-old civil war between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition.

The latest United Nations data shows more than 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced and more than 1.6 million have fled to neighboring countries.

“Our focus . . . is finding a long-term political solution to the crisis there,” Kenney told a news conference in Edmonton. “Our country is making an important effort to ensure the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are provided protection.”

A coalition representing Canada’s 100,000-strong Syrian community welcomed the announcement, but worry about the lengthy screening and processing involved in the resettlement program.

“It is a step in the right direction. They finally recognized the crisis in Syria, which is the largest refugee crisis in the world today,” said Faisal Alazem of the Syrian Canadian Council in Montreal, one of seven groups involved in the coalition that met with Kenney in June.

Two hundreds of the 1,300 Syrian refugees will be resettled with financial support by the Canadian government, while the rest will be assisted by community and faith groups that have sponsorship agreements with Ottawa.

Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an extra $115 million in assistance to help Syrian refugees in Syria and neighboring countries.

Alazem said the community was hoping Ottawa would offer speedy relief to help Syrian Canadians bring their loved ones to Canada by issuing temporary visas.

“This is not ideal. The (resettlement) process can take up to two years,” said Alazem. “It is going to be a long road. Time is crucial to alleviate the refugees’ suffering.”

Kenney said Ottawa cannot open its doors to all Syrian refugees but will provide $1 million to fund five staff members to directly assist with the resettlement of displaced Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Source: The Star.


A rush to evacuate as truce extended in Syria city

February 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Aid officials rushed to evacuate more women, children and elderly from rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government troops for more than a year in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in the city was renewed for three more days Monday.

The truce, which began Friday, has been shaken by continued shelling and shooting that prevented some residents from escaping and limited the amount of food aid officials have been able to deliver into the besieged neighborhoods.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos sharply criticized the two sides, saying U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers were “deliberately targeted.” The drama in Homs, where Amos said around 800 civilians have been evacuated so far, played out as activists on Monday reported new sectarian killings in Syria’s civil war.

Al-Qaida-inspired rebels killed more than two dozen civilians, including an entire family, when they overran a village populated by minority Alawites on Sunday, Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They also killed around 20 local fighters in the village, he said.

The violence further rattled peace talks that entered their second round Monday in Geneva — and which quickly became mired in recriminations between President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition in exile.

The two sides’ first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little. This time, the two appeared even further apart, with no immediate plans to even sit at the same table. U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was holding separate talks with each side.

“The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people,” opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after talks with Brahimi. The opposition insists the talks’ aim is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace Assad.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. “Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” he told a reporter.

The events of the past few days have only underscored each side’s position. The government says it is trying to defeat an extremist, al-Qaida-style insurgency. Syria’s opposition, in turn, points to government blockades of dozens of rebel-held areas that have caused widespread hunger and sickness among civilians as proof of the cruelty of Assad’s rule.

The aid operation in Homs laid bare the desperation in the besieged areas. Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, and while government forces have retaken much of the city, several rebel-held districts in its historic old center have been under a suffocating siege for more than a year.

Many of those evacuated since Friday “were traumatized and weak,” Amos said in a statement. They reported “terrible conditions at the field hospital in the Old City, where the equipment is basic, there are no medicines and people are in urgent need of medical attention,” she said.

She said around 800 had been evacuated since Friday, though the governor of Homs province put the number at around 1,070, including 460 evacuated on Monday. Under the U.N.-brokered truce, the government refused to allow males between the ages of 15 and 55 to leave, presuming them to be fighters. Those leaving are women, children and elderly.

Amos said the truce had been extended for three days. The original truce ran from Friday to Sunday, but the continued shelling and shooting between the two sides severely limited efforts. Eleven people were killed by the fighting.

Over the weekend, some women and elderly tried to leave but were unable to make their way through checkpoints to evacuation buses, according to Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations of the Syrian Red Crescent.

He said some food aid was brought into the areas over the weekend — “but not the quantity we had hoped for” — and none made it in on Monday. On Sunday, residents rushed through gunfire to reach U.N. vehicles carrying food that did make it in. Then they fought over the oil, sugar and other supplies, according to one activist in Homs who uses the nickname Eman al-Homsy for security reasons.

“They didn’t care about death; the hunger was killing them,” Eman said. Erksoussi echoed the worries of activists who said they fear that once civilians are evacuated, fighting will only escalate. “We know that not all civilians will leave, but the fighting parties will claim that they did and step up the shelling and shooting,” he said by phone from Damascus.

Around a quarter-million people in 40 districts besieged by government forces have been cut off from humanitarian aid for months, said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program. In the Yarmouk area, on Damascus’ southern fringe, activists estimate over 100 people have died from hunger-related illness and a lack of medical aid because of a year-long blockade.

At the United Nations, Russia threatened to veto Western efforts to push through a Security Council resolution that would raise the prospect of sanctions against Syria unless the government gives unrestricted access to deliver humanitarian aid.

Both Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and China’s U.N. ambassador were no-shows at a meeting Monday to discuss the Western and Arab-backed resolution. The proposed resolution, obtained by the Associated Press, puts most of the blame for the humanitarian crisis on the Syrian government.

The new sectarian killings came in the village of Maan, north of the central city of Hama. Hard-line Islamic fighters overran it Sunday after mortars from the village hit rebels on a nearby road, according to Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory.

At least 25 of the victims were civilians, including an extended family of 11 — a man, his wife, and their sons and daughters — along with eight other women and six men, Abdurrahman told The Associated Press. Another 20 killed were village fighters defending their homes, he said. The ages of the civilians were not known. He said he obtained details on the killings from residents of nearby villages.

The villagers are predominantly Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs and which is a pillar of support for his rule. The Syrian state news agency called the killings a “massacre” and said 10 women were among the dead. Information minister Omran al-Zoubi said the slain included four disabled residents. A Syrian army statement put the toll at 42 dead.

The rebels who overran the village belonged to two hardline factions, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. Both uploaded videos showing their fighters in the village, though neither claimed responsibility for any killings.

In Jund al-Aqsa’s video, its fighters wave a black flag over the village and are seen grinning as they loot a house. One fighter shouts against Assad and against Alawites, whom extremists see as heretics to be killed. The bloodied body of one man in fatigues, apparently a village fighter, is shown lying on the ground.

The videos corresponded with the AP’s reporting of the event. Jund al-Aqsa has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway group from al-Qaida. Ahrar al-Sham is a conservative Muslim rebel group.

Islamic extremists — including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies — have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Assad. But extremists have also turned on each other, with some Islamic factions battling the Islamic State, which they accuse of trying to control the rebellion.

On Monday, the Nusra Front announced it had pushed out Islamic State rivals from the eastern province of Deir al-Zour after four days of clashes, the Syrian Observatory said. Meanwhile, a third batch of Syria’s chemical weapons material was shipped out of the country on a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday. The Hague, Netherlands-based OPCW, which is overseeing Syria’s attempts to destroy its chemical weapons, said an unspecified amount of chemicals used in making weapons has also been destroyed inside Syria.

Syria has missed several deadlines on the timetable to have its chemical weapons eradicated by June 30 but insists it will meet the final deadline.

AP correspondents Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.