Archive for October, 2014

Sweden recognizes Palestinian state; Israel upset

October 30, 2014

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden on Thursday became the biggest Western European country to recognize a Palestinian state, prompting a strong protest from Israel, which swiftly withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm.

The move by Sweden’s new left-leaning government reflects growing international impatience with Israel’s nearly half-century control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. It also comes during increased tensions between Arabs and Jews over Israel’s plans to build 1,000 housing units in east Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Sweden, fulfilling a promise made when the Social Democratic-led government took office earlier this month, believes the Palestinians have met the criteria under international law for such recognition.

“There is a territory, a people and government,” she told reporters in Stockholm, adding that Sweden was the 135th country in the world to recognize a Palestinian state. It is the third Western European nation to do so, after Malta and Cyprus. Some Eastern European countries recognized a Palestinian state during the Cold War.

Israel was quick to condemn Sweden’s announcement, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman describing it as “a miserable decision that strengthens the extremist elements and Palestinian rejectionism.”

“It’s a shame that the government of Sweden chose to take a declarative step that only causes harm,” he added. Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said Israel’s ambassador to Sweden was being recalled for consultations but declined to say how long he would remain in Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed the move by Sweden, a European Union member, as “a principled and courageous decision.” “It is our hope that other EU member states and countries worldwide will follow Sweden’s lead and recognize Palestine before the chances for a two-state solution are destroyed indefinitely,” Ashrawi said.

Israel says Palestinians can gain independence only through peace negotiations, and that recognition of Palestine at the U.N. or by individual countries undermines the negotiating process. Palestinians say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t serious about the peace negotiations.

The latest round of U.S.-brokered talks collapsed in April. American officials have hinted that Israel’s tough negotiating stance hurt the talks, and Netanyahu has continued to settle Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the two areas, greatly complicating hopes of partitioning the area under a future peace deal. The two territories and the Gaza Strip are claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. supports Palestinian statehood but added it can only come through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that resolve status issues and end their conflict.

“Some countries (are) responding to the lack of a resolution of a peace process out there,” she said. Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, said she had anticipated Israeli criticism against Sweden’s decision.

“It happens that ambassadors are recalled for consultations. It is part of the diplomatic toolkit,” Wallstrom said. “I am convinced that both our countries have an interest in maintaining and strengthening our good bilateral ties.”

While the U.S. and European powers have so far refrained from recognizing Palestinian independence, they have become increasingly critical of Israeli settlement construction. The 28-nation European Union has urged that negotiations to achieve a two-state solution resume as soon as possible.

In a symbolic move, British lawmakers earlier this month voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state. Some other Western European countries — including Germany, Denmark and Finland — have said they’re not planning to follow Sweden’s lead.

Associated Press writers Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attack Jerusalem buses over ad

October 21, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police say dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews have attacked buses with ads promoting female worship at a Jerusalem holy site.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Tuesday that the incident happened the previous night, when about 50 men slashed tires and pelted the buses with stones in Mea Shearim, a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The ads are from the Women of the Wall group, which promotes gender equality at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. They show women and girls holding Torah scrolls — an act many Orthodox Jews believe is reserved for men.

In Monday’s incident, the extremists also spray-painted the words “end the obscene pictures” on a bus. Religious extremists have faced criticism for their efforts to separate women and men in public places.

Iran military ready to ship equipment to Lebanon

October 20, 2014

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s defense minister said his country is ready to ship defensive materials to Lebanon to aid its army in the fight against Sunni extremists on Monday, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

The report quoted Gen. Hossein Dehghan, speaking at a joint briefing with visiting Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, as saying the shipment would help thwart extremists who plan to commit “inhuman crimes” in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

“We will provide an Iranian-made consignment of defensive items to the Lebanese army for their use in fighting the group and other terrorist groups,” Dehghan said. The Lebanese troops have been fighting militants from the Islamic State group since fighting spilled into the Mediterranean country from neighboring Syria.

Dehghan did not elaborate on the contents of the shipment but said it was a gift intended for “swift action against a possible threat.” The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Iran in 2007, banning it from importing and exporting weapons.

“The aid mainly includes items for ground forces — for confronting terrorist currents,” he said, adding that Iran was also ready to provide training to the Lebanese army. The shipment now awaits approval from Lebanon, Dehghan said, a country he described as having a “special position” in Iran’s foreign policy. Shiite Iran backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group now fighting alongside forces of key Iran ally President Bashar Assad against the Sunni extremists in Syria.

Iran’s former ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, said the U.S. and some groups in Lebanon are worried about the aid because they are concerned it could be used against Israel. “They say the aid breaks sanctions, but it is just a gift and there is no money in return,” said Roknabadi, adding that Iran had proposed gifting the aid years ago.

Iran, a major weapons manufacturer in the region, has in the past said it exported military products to scores of countries, although it has never revealed details.

For teen with passport, Syria trip can be seamless

October 23, 2014

PARIS (AP) — The teenage sisters told their father they were staying home sick from their suburban Denver school. Instead, they took $2,000 and their passports and headed off for Syria with a 16-year-old friend. They made it as far as Germany before border guards detained them for questioning.

The fact that adolescent girls could make their way across the Atlantic might come as a surprise to many parents, but a patchwork of laws and rules governing international air travel in many cases makes it easy for teenagers to travel with nobody’s permission but their own.

Airlines have a range of rules governing minors’ travel: Many major carriers including United Airlines and Scandinavian airline SAS place no restrictions on children over 12, while others let even young minors travel as long as they are accompanied by someone over 16. Yet others, including American Airlines, require a parent to accompany travelers under the age of 15 to the gate, while those 15 and over face no restrictions.

Countries have a separate set of laws that is no less haphazard, from a Russian requirement for notarized parental permission to the U.S. system where adolescents with valid passports are free to come and go.

In Spain, both parents must fill out a permission form at a police station before a minor can travel alone. In Germany, where the American teens were stopped, border guards are required to verify that minors have parental permission to travel.

And in France, which is Europe’s single largest source of would-be jihadis, parental authorization had to be received by city hall — until January 2013. That’s when a small administrative change took effect suspending the requirement for parental approval. The government said it would streamline unnecessary bureaucracy and officials remarked that few runaways went abroad, and even fewer stayed there.

Fast-forward 22 months, and nearly every week new reports emerge of French adolescents leaving for Syria. Teenagers from France can travel within the European Union with a valid ID; outside the EU, they need only a passport.

Under French law, parents can have their children flagged if they fear they will leave the country to join extremists. But for many of those who have left, their families had no warning. Lawyer Agnes Dufetel-Cordier represents a teenage boy from Toulouse who left in January to join the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, before coming back to his family to face criminal charges. She said the teen — now 16 — gave no sign he was about to bolt for Syria, and his departure came as a shock to his parents. He was not stopped at the airport in Marseille, nor on arrival in Turkey or crossing into Syria.

“If you reverse the regulation that lets them travel without their parents’ permission, you will see right away that minors are no longer leaving,” Dufetel-Cordier said. “Today in France, in the case of most minors who go to Syria, the families have absolutely no idea ahead of time.”

At age 17, Sahra Ali Mehenni went so far as to ask her mother to get her a passport, saying she wanted her paperwork in order before she reached adulthood. When she left for Syria on March 11, departing from the Marseille airport just as the teen boy did, she took her burgundy-bound passport and nobody stopped her before she boarded the flight to Istanbul.

“If I go out and I run a red light, they’re going to get me right away,” said her father, Kamel. “But these minors are going to Istanbul — and if they’re going to Istanbul, it’s to go to Syria. They know it. You can’t say they don’t know it. And no one stops it.”

The same concerns apply in the United States, where parental permission is required to obtain a passport — but none is needed for travel. The teens who flew to Germany were stopped because their parents, part of suburban Denver’s tight-knit East African community, reported them missing quickly, and American authorities contacted German authorities before they landed.

“Kudos to those family members in Colorado,” said Omar Jamal, CEO of American Friends of Somalia. “Time is of the essence. They did the right thing.”

Associated Press writers contributing to this story included Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Ellliot Spagat in San Diego; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; and Lara Jakes in Washington.

Lebanon pulled into war with Islamic State group

October 18, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — With all eyes on the Islamic State group’s onslaught in Iraq and Syria, a less conspicuous but potentially just as explosive front line with the extremists is emerging in Lebanon, where Lebanese soldiers and Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas are increasingly pulled into deadly fighting with the Sunni militants along the country’s border with Syria.

The U.S. has been speeding up delivery of small ammunition to shore up Lebanon’s army, but recent cross-border attacks and beheading of Lebanese soldiers by Islamic State fighters — and the defection of four others to the extremists — has sent shockwaves across this Mediterranean country, eliciting fear of a potential slide into the kind of militant, sectarian violence afflicting both Syria and Iraq, and increasingly prompting minorities to take up arms.

The crisis was slow in coming. For long, Lebanon managed to miraculously avoid the all-out chaos gripping neighboring countries — despite sporadic street clashes and car bombings, and despite being awash with weapons and taking in an endless stream of refugees from Syria who now constitute a staggering one third of its population of 4.5 million people.

Unlike in Syria or Iraq, the al-Qaida-breakaway Islamic State group does not hold territory in Lebanon. But along with Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, it has established footholds in remote mountains along Lebanon’s remote eastern border, from where it launches almost daily incursions further afield.

Jihadi recruitment in impoverished Sunni areas of northern Lebanon is on the rise, and black Islamic State group flags fly freely in some areas, reflecting pockets of growing support for the radical group.

“Lebanon is in the eye of the storm,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. The Lebanese are bitterly divided over Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah fighters have gone to join Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in their battle against Sunni rebels, drawing anger at home from Lebanon’s Sunnis and stoking Sunni-Shiite tensions. This in turn led to tit-for-tat suicide bombings and several rounds of street clashes in Lebanon in the past year.

The Islamic State group threat first came to Lebanon in August, two months after the group’s summer blitz in which it seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. In a surprise attack, Islamic State group and Nusra Front militants crossed over from Syria and overran the predominantly Sunni Lebanese border town of Arsal, hitting Lebanese army positions and killing nearly 20 soldiers.

After weeklong clashes, the militants pulled back to mountain caves near Syria’s border, taking more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen with them. Islamic State fighters have since beheaded two Lebanese soldiers. Nusra Front militants have shot dead a third. In return for remaining hostages, they have issued various demands, including the withdrawal of Hezbollah troops from Syria, and the release of Islamists from Lebanese prisons.

Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji said in comments published this week that the militants from Syria want to ignite civil war and create a passage to Lebanon’s coastline by linking the Syrian Qalamoun mountains with Arsal on the border and the northern Lebanese town of Akkar, an impoverished Sunni area.

Analysts agree that in Lebanon, the Islamic State group fighters also see an opportunity to strike at Hezbollah’s patron, the Shiite powerhouse Iran but that they are not too eager to immediately embark on yet another war.

“The territory of Lebanon is a longer-term goal,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there are fears that eventually, Schenker said, the Islamic State group could stage a spectacular bombing of, for example, the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh south of Beirut, recreating an incident similar to a 2006 attack in the Iraqi city of Samarra, and “unleash this incredible sectarian tension that results in a resumption of civil war.”

In Samarra, the Sunni extremists bombed a major Shiite shrine, setting in motion two years of sectarian bloodletting that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Lebanon is still recovering from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The global war against Islamic State group and its attacks in Lebanon have somewhat bolstered Hezbollah’s narrative that its intervention in Syria was necessary to ward off a Sunni extremist threat to Lebanon.

Paradoxically, it has brought Hezbollah closer to Christians and other Lebanese minorities through their shared fear of the Sunni militants. But the Lebanese Shiite group is hated by most Lebanese Sunnis, many of whom refer to Hezbollah as the “Party of Satan” — a dark play on Hezbollah’s name, which in English means “Party of God.”

In addition to being bogged down in the fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is increasingly embroiled in clashes inside Lebanon. In an unprecedented attack, Nusra Front fighters overran positions manned by Hezbollah along the Syrian border last week, killing eight of its fighters in battles that lasted several hours.

“Such attacks not only erode the stature of Hezbollah, they show it to be vulnerable. I think in the long run or as the months go by we’re going to see more and more of this,” Schenker said. In a rare excursion outside his underground bunkers, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah traveled to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon last week to meet his fighters, Hezbollah official Mohammad Afif said — an apparent move to boost their morale.

“Hezbollah entered a battle that is bigger than Lebanon,” said Kiwan, the political science professor. “Today, Hezbollah is obliged to continue in the battle that it started.” Along with the Lebanese army, Hezbollah is fighting almost daily incursions by Islamic State group militants in Bekaa, prompting accusations that the army is collaborating with the Shiite guerrilla against the Lebanese Sunnis, placing the army in the thick of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation.

Adding to the deadly mix, four Lebanese soldiers, all Sunnis from north Lebanon, have deserted from the army and joined either the IS or the Nusra Front since July. One of the deserters, Abdallah Shehadeh, said in a video posted online by Nusra Front this week that he had initially “enlisted in the army to defend the Lebanese people” — only to find that the army is a “Hezbollah tool.”

Though a handful of desertions do not pose an imminent risk to the stature of Lebanon’s military, such publicized statements may eventually hurt it and make the recruitment of Sunni conscripts more difficult, analysts say.

Because of the Lebanese Sunni-Shiite divisions and the pro- and anti-Assad split, the civil war in Syria has completely paralyzed the government in Beirut. Lebanon has been without a president since May, and parliament is set to postpone elections for the second time, ostensibly because the security situation makes it impossible to hold a vote.

Moreover, the government faces escalating protests by families of the captive soldiers and policemen who have blocked roads and set up protest tents, including several pitched last week near the government building that blocked traffic in Beirut’s commercial center. They families accuse the government of not doing enough to secure the freedom of their loved ones.

“We hope that the state (of Lebanon) will do something that restores its dignity,” said Layal Dirani, the sister of policeman Suleiman Dirani, who was taken captive by the Nusra Front on Aug. 2.

Turkish PM Davutoglu: We oppose ISIL and Assad

10 October 2014 Friday

“Turkey opposes the ISIL as much as the Assad regime in Syria,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Friday.

But Davutoglu rejected as “funny” a motion from the main opposition party to put Turkish ‘boots on the ground’ at Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, the Syrian border town under attack by ISIL.

Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu made the motion in parliament on Thursday. The motion proposes ground troop operations by the Turkish army against ISIL that would be limited to the Kobani region. The opposition has, however, rejected a separate motion that would allow foreign troops to operate on Turkish territory.

Davutoglu spoke to reporters after visiting the Police Chief Atalay Urker of the eastern Bingol province, who was wounded in an attack on Thursday.

The Turkish parliament accepted a government motion on October 2 authorizing military action in Syria and Iraq against any terrorist group, including ISIL.

US senators back Turkey

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have voiced support for Turkey over Ankara’s policy towards the besieged town of Kobani.

Their comments, released on their official website on Thursday, came after 31 people died in a series of illegal pro-Kurdish protests across Turkey, amid accusations the government was failing to act against the ISIL to save the mainly Kurdish-populated Syrian town on the border with Turkey.

The two US senators released a statement saying they backed Turkey’s Kobani strategy and its policy towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

They said: “The growing criticism of Turkey for not acting to save Kobani does not reflect the reality on the ground that both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad must be defeated.”

“We certainly believe Turkey should play a greater role in the fight against ISIS, and we have disagreed in recent years with some of Turkey’s policies and actions in the Middle East, especially on Israel and the management of its border with Syria.”

They went on: “In this instance, however, President Erdogan has said that we need an international strategy not just to destroy ISIS, but also to force Assad to leave power and end the conflict in Syria – for the former objective cannot succeed without the latter.”

“This strategy, Erdogan has said, must include the establishment of safe zones in Syria for civilians and opposition forces, protected by no-fly zones – a strategy we have long advocated and continue to believe is vital to success in both Syria and Iraq.”

The US senators also stressed that many other friends and allies in the Middle East shared their view.

“We are confident that, if President Obama adopted a strategy which took the steps that Turkish leaders are advocating to deal with Assad as well as ISIS, he would have significant support from our regional partners, including Turkish military involvement, which can be so important to success,” they said.

Source: World Bulletin.


Kurds struggle to defend besieged Syrian town

October 11, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Syrian activists and Kurdish officials say fierce fighting is underway in a Syrian border town where Kurdish militiamen are struggling to repel advances by the Islamic State group.

The battle for Kobani is raging despite airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting the militants. A Kurdish official, Ismet Sheikh Hasan, says Saturday’s clashes are focused in the southern and eastern parts of the town. He says the situation is dire.

The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, says the town’s Kurdish fighters are putting up a fierce fight but are outgunned by the militants Since the militants launched their onslaught on Kobani in mid-September, at least 500 people have been killed and more than 200,000 have been forced to flee across the border into Turkey.