Archive for April 19th, 2014

Lebanon parliament soon to elect new president


BEIRUT – Lebanon’s parliament is to convene on April 23 to elect a new president to succeed Michel Sleiman, whose term ends on May 25, the National News Agency reported Wednesday.

“Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri has called for a session on Wednesday April 23 to elect a new president of the republic,” the official news agency said.

Lebanon’s president, who must come from the country’s Maronite Christian community, is elected by a vote in the parliament.

Michel Moussa, a member of Berri’s parliamentary bloc, said he hoped there would be a quorum for the session.

“In period between now and the end of the president’s mandate we need to hold a session and there is near-total agreement that the best time in is the second half of April,” he said.

“I hope that the parliamentary blocs will keep their word and there will be a quorum,” he added.

Moussa is one of three MPs tasked by Berri with meeting the parliamentary blocs to secure agreement on a date for the presidential vote.

Berri is hoping to avoid a repeat of the situation in 2007, when MPs refused on multiple occasions to attend sessions he called for the presidential vote because of political differences.

Even with a date set for the session, there are no guarantees that a president will be chosen on April 23.

So far just one political figure, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, has announced his candidacy.

But he is not expected to run unopposed, and other candidates are likely to announce their own campaigns in coming days.

Source: Middle East Online.


Syria war deepens fears for Lebanon’s missing

April 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — For 22 years, Mary Mansourati has been waiting for her son, Dani, to come home. His shirts are ironed and hanging in his closet. His trousers, neatly folded, are stacked on the shelves next to his bed in the family’s Beirut apartment.

Dani was 30 when he was detained by Syrian intelligence and has not been heard from since. He is among an estimated 17,000 Lebanese still missing from Lebanon’s civil war or the years of Syrian domination that followed.

The war in Syria has added new urgency to the plight of their families. Hundreds of Lebanese were detained by the Syrians, and their relatives are convinced they are still alive. Now they fear they will be lost in Syria’s labyrinth of overcrowded jails and detention facilities or be killed in the ongoing mayhem.

The war in Syria has also added a new generation of names to the already long rolls of the missing. There are no exact figures, but human rights organizations say tens of thousands of Syrians have vanished in the three years since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Elsewhere in the region, nearly 70,000 Iraqis are still missing from three wars over the past three decades, including sectarian bloodletting that was unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to government figures.

There’s never been any truth or reconciliation process that might uncover the fates of these missing. In both Lebanon and Iraq, few efforts have been made to examine what happened during the countries’ wars, mainly because many of those involved in killings and kidnappings have become politicians, some even serving in government.

The 82-year-old Mansourati believes her son is alive in a Syrian prison, despite having no concrete evidence or word that anyone has seen him. A fighter with an anti-Syrian Christian militia, he was arrested in 1992, two years after the civil war ended.

“We need our sons back,” she told The Associated Press in an interview at her home in east Beirut, where she cares for her gravely ill husband. Friday marked the ninth anniversary of a permanent protest tent Mansourati and other families of the missing have erected in downtown Beirut. Every day, relatives sit at the tent, sometimes spending the night. Photos of the missing and slogans calling on Assad to explain their fate line the sides of the tent.

“We are tired of going back and forth to the tent. We are getting old,” Mansourati said. Like many relatives of the missing, she believes Lebanese officials, some of whom led militias during the civil war and fought on behest of the Syrians, are complicit in covering up their loved ones’ fates.

Rights groups speak of a “conspiracy of silence,” with officials withholding information out of concern they could be implicated in wartime atrocities. The Taif Accord ended the war in 1990 by enshrining a sectarian-based political system that leaves all major decisions in the hands of a small group of people, many of whom gained political power by commanding a powerful militia during the conflict.

There has been no serious state-led documentation that would produce an official record with the numbers of dead, injured, missing and forcibly displaced. Lebanon went into “collective amnesia” after the war, the International Center for Transitional Justice said in a recent report documenting the country’s failure to examine and deal with its complex past.

A year after the Lebanese civil war ended, the government declared there were no detainees being held by rival militias. Four years later, in 1995, the government passed a law declaring any person missing for more than four years legally dead, advising families looking for their vanished loved ones to move on.

Most of the thousands missing likely are dead. They disappeared after being kidnapped by rival Lebanese militias during the war, which saw multiple sectarian massacres, and there’s little chance any Lebanese faction could keep someone secretly detained for nearly a quarter century. Still, even uncovering suspected locations of mass graves where the missing might be is considered too politically explosive.

When the families persisted in demanding the truth, the government said it couldn’t help because digging too deep into the past could inflame old hostilities and unleash another war. “The official discourse was, if peace is to prevail we need to forget the past and move on into the future,” said Lebanese lawyer Nizar Saghieh, who has represented hundreds of families seeking to discover the fate of their missing relatives.

But the families of those who disappeared after being detained by Syria are far less convinced by the government’s death declaration. Rights groups estimate they number between 300 and 600 Lebanese. Majida Hassan Bashasha’s brother, Ahmed, was picked up by Syrian troops at a checkpoint near Beirut in 1976, the year Syrian forces entered Lebanon to help quell the sectarian fighting. Ahmed was 18 when he vanished, and his sister says he was not a militant.

Like Mary Mansourati, 59-year-old Bashasha believes her brother is alive, languishing in a Syrian prison. She has been campaigning relentlessly to bring him home, attending annual rallies of the families of the disappeared in front of the local U.N. headquarters in Beirut. A few years ago, several former detainees came to the protest tent and recognized her brother from a picture she was holding. They said they shared a cell with him in a Damascus prison.

“I am his big sister and my heart tells me he is still alive,” Bashasha said, holding a black-and-white photo of a young man she said was Ahmed. Initially, when the conflict started in Syria she feared that her brother and other Lebanese detainees would be forgotten. But now, as she watches Assad’s agents fill Syria’s prisons with a new generation of government opponents, she holds out some hope that any Lebanese being held in Syria will be released.

“They don’t need them in prison anymore,” Bashasha said.

Lebanon registers 1 million Syrian refugees

April 03, 2014

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Yahya was trapped in his hometown for two years by Syria’s civil war, moving from house to house to avoid shells and bullets. His father was killed by a sniper. His family then fled to another town that came under a fierce government offensive.

When the teenager finally made it out of the country with his mother and two sisters, he became the latest sad statistic of the sectarian conflict: the one-millionth refugee to register in Lebanon. The United Nations’ refugee agency, which invited reporters to witness Yahya’s registration and allowed them to interview the 19-year-old, described the 1 million figure as a “devastating milestone” for Lebanon.

There are many more Syrians inside Lebanon than those officially registered, with the Lebanese government itself estimating that at least a half-million are unregistered. The UNHCR says it is registering an average of more than one refugee a minute in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million that is seeing its resources strained by the new arrivals.

“I feel sad because this means that 1 million fled here before me to suffer together,” Yahya said as he waited to register with the UNHCR in the northern city of Tripoli. “A million is a big number for Syria and a big number for Lebanon,” he added. Yahya asked to be identified only by his first name because he feared that Syrian authorities would retaliate against his relatives who are still there.

Yahya told a harrowing story of how his family became caught up in the violence between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking his ouster. Their house in the central city of Homs was on the front line of the conflict that began in March 2011, forcing them out.

They moved frequently for their safety, Yahya said, but his father was shot to death by a sniper in September of that year. They were finally evacuated from Homs earlier this year by the U.N., and traveled to Yabroud, a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border that soon came under government attack.

On March 8, the family crossed into Lebanon, first looking for shelter for a few days in the overcrowded border town of Arsal. They moved farther west to an informal settlement outside Tripoli. “We didn’t know where to go. We just wanted to get away from all the shelling and fighting,” Yahya said.

The conflict in Syria, which had a population of 23 million before the civil war, has killed more than 150,000 people. The U.N. estimates there are more than 2.5 million Syrians registered in neighboring countries — nearly 670,000 in Turkey, nearly 590,000 in Jordan and about 220,000 in Iraq. More than 47,700 are awaiting registration.

Lebanon has the highest per-capita concentration of refugees recorded anywhere in the world in recent history, the UNHCR said. “For us, the one-millionth refugee is a devastating marker,” said Ninette Kelley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon. She said that in publicizing Thursday’s milestone, the U.N. agency wants “the world to see what it means to individuals, being torn apart by the Syrian conflict,” but also to “show what a tremendous burden the Lebanese people are bearing.”

The Lebanese government provides none of the facilities and land that Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have allocated for the refugees. Many Syrians in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, finding shelter in slums, tents and tin shacks strung with laundry lines and wedged between farms.

On a casual walk in Beirut, Syrians can be seen sheltering in underground parking garages, under bridges and in old construction sites with no running water, sanitation, electricity or protection from the weather. Nearly half of the refugees are children.

The World Bank estimates that the Syria crisis cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2013 and threatens to push 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of this year, the UNHCR said. Along with the social and economic strain, Syria’s sectarian war has also frequently spilled into Lebanon with deadly clashes between factions supporting opposing sides in the fighting.

Militants from Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, while many among Lebanon’s Sunni population support the rebels. The U.N. and its partner agencies have mounted an unprecedented appeal to raise funds for both refugees and Lebanese host communities. The U.N. has asked for $1.89 billion in 2014, but only $242 million has been received so far, Kelley said.

For Yahya and his family, there was no place to go but Lebanon. “We were looking around to go somewhere else in Syria, but no place is safe,” he said. While he is relieved his family made it out of Syria, the prospect of being dependent on U.N. food aid to survive is daunting for Yahya. After his father’s death, he became the sole provider for the family, and jobs are hard to find.

He and his relatives get $30 a month each, which is barely half the $250 rent he has to pay for a shack in an informal settlement in nearby Dinniyeh. “Every day in Lebanon it’s going from bad to worse,” Yahya said. “We can’t even hope that tomorrow will be better.”

Lebanon sends army to Syria border as rebels flee

March 17, 2014

NABI OTHMAN, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese army sent commandos to the tense border area with Syria on Monday, bracing for another spillover of the conflict next door as Syrian rebels continued to flee into Lebanon after the fall of their stronghold to President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Since Yabroud fell on Sunday, Lebanon has been on edge. Syrian rebels have been fleeing into the Lebanese Sunni-dominated town of Arsal, which is surrounded by Shiite villages that are guarded by Hezbollah militants.

Lebanese troops, including commandos in beige, desert-style army uniforms, were seen patrolling the rugged, hilly border area on foot on Monday, fingers on the trigger of their automatic rifles. On one patrol, near the northeastern village of Fakiha, Lebanese troops came across an abandoned vehicle and blew it up as a precaution, firing a rocket-propelled grenade that turned the SUV into a fireball and left a four-meter (yard) crater on the ground.

“We took the decision to blow is up immediately, without searching it,” an officer told The Associated Press at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. The fall of Yabroud — a frontier town and a strategic smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow Assad — was a major gain for Syrian government troops and their Hezbollah allies. It was also the Syrian opposition fighters’ last stronghold in the vital border area. Assad’s forces have now consolidated authority in Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus.

Yabroud fell into Syrian government hands after months of fighting in the mountainous Qalamoun region between Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters on one side and rebel groups, mostly Islamist militant groups, on the other.

The Hezbollah fighters have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed fighters appears to have tipped the balance into the government’s favor in Yabroud.

However, with opposition fighters fleeing into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, the conflict is likely further to spill into Syria’s smaller neighbor. The civil war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites.

In the past weeks, Sunni militants have carried out several suicide bombings and car bomb attacks in Shiite dominated towns and suburbs of Beirut that are Hezbollah strongholds, claiming they were revenge for the Iran-backed group’s role inside Syria.

On Monday, a militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for a car bombing the previous night in Nabi Othman, a predominantly Shiite town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that also has a significant Christian community.

The Nusra Front in Lebanon said in a statement posted on its Twitter account that the attack, in which two people were killed and 14 were wounded, was in revenge for Hezbollah’s support for Assad and “a quick response” for the fall of Yabroud into Syrian government hands.

The statement also said the Nabi Othman bombing was in retaliation for Yabroud and because of Hezbollah’s “bragging about it.” In footage broadcast live on state television in Damascus, Syrian army officers raised the national flag in Yabroud’s main town square on Monday and covered rebel flag with posters praising Assad’s troops.

Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Shoes thrown at Jordan PM for ‘raising prices’


AMMAN – A Jordanian was arrested Monday after throwing his shoes at Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur and five cabinet ministers during a ceremony in the northern city of Jerash, an official said.

“The prime minister was talking about the economy, when Mefleh Mahasneh, 65, head of the Jerash countryside society that was attending the event, stood up and told the prime minister: ‘You raised the prices’,” the municipality official said.

“The mayor told Mahasneh to stop because it was not his turn to talk. Mahasneh, an army retiree, got angry and took off his shoe and threw it towards the stage on which the prime minister and the ministers were sitting.”

He said Mahasneh then took off his other shoe and threw it in the same direction.

“The pair of shoes landed on a table on the stage. Police arrested Mahasneh,” the official said, adding that he did not think he would be charged.

“I think he was detained for his own protection because some attendees threatened to take action against him,” he said without elaborating.

In November 2012, Nsur’s government raised fuel prices, including household gas, by up to 53 percent to help reduce a massive government deficit of 3.5 billion dinars (around $5 billion dollars), sparking a wave of violent nationwide protests as well as strikes.

Amid growing unemployment and poverty, Jordanians have held street protests to demand sweeping political and economic reforms as well as tougher anti-corruption efforts.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jordan court sentences Syrian smugglers to five years in prison


AMMAN – A Jordanian court on Tuesday sentenced three Syrians to five years in prison each for trying to smuggle 36 remote control detonators into their country to help anti-government rebels.

Civilian judges at the military state security court found the three men guilty of carrying out acts “that would harm Jordan’s relations with another country, exposing the kingdom to the danger of reprisal acts,” a judicial official said.

They were also found guilty of entering Jordan illegally.

“They were sentenced to five years in jail,” the official said.

According to the charges sheet, after crossing into Jordan from Syria last July two of the men settled in the northern city of Irbid while the third sought shelter in the Zaatari refugee camp near Syria’s border, which is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

They started to communicate with some members of the Free Syrian Army in order to smuggle 36 detonators across the border, before their arrest in “an ambush” in September.

Jordan, which is hosting more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, has tightened border security and jailed dozens of men convicted of trying to enter war-torn Syria to fight alongside rebel forces.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jordan ‘destroyed’ combat vehicles entering from Syria


AMMAN – Jordanian air force fighter jets destroyed a number of combat vehicles Wednesday as they tried to enter the kingdom from war-hit Syria by crossing the border, the army said.

“Royal air force jets fighters today at 10:30 am (0730 GMT) destroyed a number of vehicles that attempted to cross into Jordan from Syria,” the Jordanian army said in a statement.

“The camouflaged vehicles tried to enter from an area with rugged terrain.

“The fighter jets fired warning shots, but they were ignored, promoting them to destroy the vehicles. The army will not tolerate such actions,” said the statement.

A military official said that “they were three-wheeled vehicles which tried to enter the kingdom” near Ruwaished in northern Jordan.

Jordan’s border guards in recent weeks clashed with and arrested several people as they attempted to cross into the kingdom from Syria, where a devastating conflict has been raging for more than three years.

The government in Damascus has regularly accused Jordan of assisting rebels fighting its forces.

But Amman denies this, saying it has tightened control of the border and jailed dozens convicted of trying to cross the frontier illegally.

The kingdom, home to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, says arms smuggling across the border with Syria has risen by 300 percent in the past year.

Source: Middle East Online.