Archive for January, 2017

Deal reached that could restart Aleppo evacuation

December 17, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — An agreement was reached Saturday to allow “humanitarian cases” to leave two besieged government-held Shiite villages in northwestern Syria, a step that would allow the resumption of civilian and rebel evacuations from eastern Aleppo which were suspended a day earlier, Hezbollah’s media arm and a monitoring group said.

The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation of some 4,000 people, including wounded, from the villages of Foua and Kfarya was expected to start Saturday. Hezbollah fighters have joined the Syrian war fighting along with President Bashar Assad’s forces. Opposition activists blamed the Lebanese group for blocking the main road south of Aleppo and blocking evacuations from rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city.

The Aleppo evacuation was suspended Friday after a report of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave by both sides of the conflict. Thousands were evacuated before the process was suspended. The Syrian government said the village evacuations and the one in eastern Aleppo must be done simultaneously, but the rebels say there’s no connection.

Hezbollah’s Military Media said the new deal includes the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near the border with Lebanon where tens of thousands of people are trapped under siege by government forces and the Lebanese group.

Syrian State TV correspondent, speaking from Aleppo, said Saturday that the main condition for the Aleppo evacuation to resume is for residents of Foua and Kfarya to be allowed to leave. The cease-fire and evacuation from east Aleppo earlier this week marked the end of the rebels’ most important stronghold in the 5-year-old civil war. The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal, in which civilians and fighters in the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.

In announcing the suspension, Syrian state TV said Friday that rebels were trying to smuggle out captives who had been seized in the enclave after ferocious battles with troops supporting Assad. Reports differed on how many people remain in the Aleppo enclave, ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians, along with an estimated 6,000 fighters.

There also were contradictory reports on the number of evacuees who left on Thursday and early Friday from east Aleppo. Syrian state TV put it at more than 9,000 while Russia, a key Assad ally, said over 9,500 people, including more than 4,500 rebels, were taken out.

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In rare demonstration, thousands protest power cuts in Gaza

January 12, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of people took to the streets on Thursday to protest chronic power cuts in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, in one of the largest unauthorized protests in the territory since the Islamic militant group took power a decade ago.

Hamas has shown little tolerance for dissent, and it moved quickly to contain Thursday’s demonstration. Police fired in the air to disperse a crowd of stone-throwing protesters and blocked journalists from the area. A day earlier, Hamas-run authorities arrested a local comedian who made a viral video lamenting the power shortages during the cold winter season.

The demonstration began in the Jebaliya refugee camp, and as it grew in size, the crowd marched toward the nearby offices of an electricity distribution company, chanting: “Raise your voice, electricity cuts mean death.”

Hamas police made way for the crowd, but took up positions outside the electricity company’s building. When a group of youths threw stones at them, they fired into the air to disperse the crowd. Later, the protesters arrived at the building and gathered peacefully.

Hamas forces blocked journalists from filming the gathering, and an Associated Press journalist was briefly detained at gunpoint until he handed over his mobile phones to plainclothes security men. The Foreign Press Association, which represents international media operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said a photographer with Agence France-Presse was badly beaten in the head by uniformed policemen and required medical care after he refused to hand over his camera. The group condemned the “violent behavior” in the “strongest terms.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad Bozom denied anyone had been injured. He said protesters were dispersed after they “attacked” the electricity company building and that “quiet has been restored” to the area.

Life has become increasingly difficult for Gaza’s 2 million residents, who are squeezed into the tiny coastal territory. Hamas’ violent takeover a decade ago triggered a border blockade by Israel and Egypt that, among other things, sharply aggravated power shortages.

In a sign of the worsening situation, Gaza comedian Adel al-Mashwakhi was arrested just hours after posting a video about the hardships under Hamas rule, friends and rights groups said. By Thursday afternoon, the video had received more than 250,000 views.

In the one-minute video, titled “Hamas, it’s enough,” he lists the basics missing in Gaza, including jobs and the ability to travel. “(Take) everything but electricity, Hamas,” he says, facing the camera.

Bozom declined to comment about the arrest. Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled the territory since 2007, routinely clamping down on critics. Despite the hardships, anti-Hamas protests have been rare, in part because of fear and because even disgruntled Gazans believe there’s no realistic path to toppling the militants.

Gaza is currently experiencing the worst electricity shortage in years, with power supplied to households only three to four hours a day in a cold winter. Residents have tried to improvise, using old kerosene heaters to keep warm and restarting previously disused community ovens for cooking and baking.

In recent weeks, Gaza residents have staged spontaneous demonstrations, including marching at night with torches to demand more electricity. Al-Mashwakhi posted his video late Tuesday. “There is no work, no (border) crossing points, no food, no water and also no electricity,” he shouts in the clip, after getting out of a white car in the dark.

The artist has produced several short mobile phone videos and acted in some. He rose to fame locally with video clips in which he sings songs with nonsensical lyrics. The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights condemned the comedian’s arrest, and said it was the third time since last year that he was taken into custody for criticizing Hamas. During one of the detentions, he was tortured, the group said.

Lebanon, others in Mideast, bury victims of Istanbul attack

January 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon on Tuesday buried its citizens who perished in the Istanbul nightclub massacre on New Year’s Eve amid an outpouring of grief that has for days dominated local TV channels and discussions among the country’s politicians.

Lebanon — a Mediterranean nation of 5 million people — lost three nationals in the carnage in Turkey. The attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, killed 39. Another six Lebanese nationals were wounded, according to local media.

Funerals were also held in Jordan and in Israel, which lost a citizen each in the assault. One of Lebanon’s victims Rita Chami, 26, had lost her mother to cancer only last July. She had taken time out of her university studies to care for her.

The other two — Haykal Mousallem, 34, and Elias Wardini, 26 — were both personal fitness trainers in Beirut. Wardini was engaged to be married; Mousallem got married four months ago. Both of their partners survived the attack.

Lebanon, accustomed to tragedy in the aftermath of its civil war and occasional bouts of violence, has treated its Istanbul victims as national heroes, their coffins draped in the Lebanese flag as they were brought back home.

In Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood, grieving relatives and friends set off fireworks on Tuesday morning as residents bid Wardini farewell. His funeral was attended by some of the country’s leading Christian politicians. Mousallem was buried in his native Chouf district, outside the Lebanese capital. Chami will be buried on Thursday.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri asked the Lebanese to stand still for five minutes in memory of the dead. But the local press went further than that. The country’s top TV stations sent reporters on intrusive assignments on Sunday, broadcasting live from the homes of the bereaved as they learned of the fates of their loved ones.

On Twitter, Hariri urged the outlets to leave the families in peace. The bodies were repatriated Monday night, sparking another media frenzy, first at the airport and then the hospital morgues where the remains were taken.

Wardini’s funeral was broadcast live on Tuesday on national TV, which called the victims “martyrs in every meaning of the word,” and condemned Islamic State militants as “enemies of God.” The New Year’s attack on Istanbul’s Reina club also touched others across the Middle East. The IS said it targeted Christian revelers in response to Turkish military operations against the militant group in northern Syria — but most of the dead were foreign tourists from Muslim countries. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency said nearly two-thirds of the victims in the upscale club, which is frequented by local celebrities, were foreigners.

In Jordan, hundreds attended the funeral ceremony Tuesday for 44-year-old businessman Nawras Assaf who died in the Istanbul attack. Assaf’s wife was among those wounded. In Israel, thousands attended the funeral Tuesday of 18-year-old Layan Nasser, an Arab Israeli killed in the Istanbul attack. She had gone to Istanbul to celebrate the New Year’s with three friends.

Mourners wept as they marched through the streets of Tira behind Nasser’s wooden coffin. The city’s mayor, Mamoun Abd El Hai, declared a day of mourning, with banks and municipal offices closed. “She had dreams to work, to progress, to study, to raise a family, but unfortunately the terror put an end to her dreams and ended her life,” the mayor told The Associated Press.

Another Israeli traveling with Nasser was wounded in the attack. Nasser’s father told Israeli Channel 10 TV that he had a bad feeling about his daughter’s trip to Istanbul. “I was very concerned about this trip,” Zaher Nasser said. “I asked her not to travel in light of the bad security situation there, but she insisted to go with her friends.”

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Qatar set to build embassy in Gaza Strip

JAN. 9, 2017

GAZA (Ma’an) — Qatar has reportedly decided to build an embassy in the besieged Gaza Strip during a meeting of the Qatari committee for Gaza reconstruction on Monday.

The head of the committee, Abd al-Halim al-Issawi, gave the greenlight for the construction of the embassy after visiting the planned location, a five-dunam (1.2 acres) plot of land south of the Gaza City port, on Thursday with contractors.

While Qatar has had a representative office in the besieged Palestinian enclave, the planned embassy could mark a significant diplomatic move, as most countries have implanted their diplomatic missions and consulates to the occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Qatar is a prominent backer of the Hamas movement — the de facto ruling party in Gaza — and has provided significant financial support for reconstruction in the blockaded enclave following several devastating Israeli offensives.

Naji Sharab, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, told the Dunya al-Watan news outlet that “such a step is unprecedented in diplomatic relations,” and that he saw it as a potential move by Qatar to recognize the Gaza Strip as a national entity separate from the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank.

However, Dunya al-Watan quoted another political analyst and writer, Hussam al-Dajani, as saying that embassies are usually located in the capital cities of the host countries, but that given East Jerusalem’s occupied status, “Qatar can choose a location for its embassy to Palestine in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Al-Dajani thus dismissed the significance of the move “as long as the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah and the one in Gaza are in agreement.”

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=774823.

Saudi unblocks military aid to Lebanon: Lebanese source

Riyadh (AFP)

Jan 10, 2017

Saudi Arabia and Lebanon agreed Tuesday to hold talks on restoring a $3-billion military aid package, opening a “new page” in relations, a Lebanese official source said.

“The blockage is lifted,” said the official in the delegation of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who held talks over lunch with King Salman in the Saudi capital.

After a tense year which saw Saudi Arabia freeze the aid deal over what it said was the dominance of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, Aoun arrived in Riyadh on Monday night with a delegation of ministers.

It was his first trip to the kingdom since his election in November ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in the Lebanese parliament.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian former army chief who was backed by Hezbollah, clinched the presidency with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after concerns over the role played by Hezbollah in the Lebanese government and the threat posed by jihadists and the war in neighboring Syria.

The Iran-backed Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to his government.

Riyadh last March declared Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

In February, the kingdom halted the $3-billion (2.8-billion-euro) military aid package to Lebanon to protest what it said was “the stranglehold of Hezbollah on the state”.

The program would see Riyadh fund the transfer of vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannons and other military equipment from France, which has been seeking to boost arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

The Lebanese official told AFP that a “new page” in relations with Riyadh had been turned and said the aid was “going to move”.

“There is truly a change. But when and how, we have to wait to see,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He added that King Salman’s son, the powerful Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will discuss with his Lebanese counterpart how to move the package forward.

– ‘Security, stability’ –

After Aoun’s election, France’s foreign ministry said it was in “close dialogue” with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in hope of a deal.

Aoun told Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria that his ministers of foreign affairs, education, finance and information would meet their Saudi counterparts “to find some fields of cooperation.”

Asked vaguely about the military aid, Aoun said: “Of course we will discuss all the possible issues.”

Syria’s nearly six-year civil war has been a major fault line in Lebanese politics, and the country hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.

Aoun said that Lebanon’s partners “have agreed to build Lebanon, regardless of the results in the other countries, because building Lebanon is for all, and secondly, security and stability is for all.”

He told Al-Ekhbaria his country’s internal political situation had improved, and expressed confidence that “balance” can be maintained.

“The state must realize, and maintain, security and stability for individuals and groups even if there are different political visions regarding neighboring and regional countries,” Aoun said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Saudi_unblocks_military_aid_to_Lebanon_Lebanese_source_999.html.

French right-wing candidate wants new approach toward Syria

January 10, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Francois Fillon has vowed to make France’s voice heard again in the Syrian conflict if he wins the presidential election later this year. Fillon, the conservative nominee, said in a New Year’s speech to press Fillon on Tuesday: “I want us to regain our position as an independent actor whose voice is heard between the Americans and the Russians.”

Fillon said the situation in Syria is changing and will leave more space this year for what he called France’s “imaginative and active” diplomacy, a reference to Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s policy to maintain the country’s independence during the Cold War.

Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen currently top polls for the first-round of the April-May presidential election. Socialists will choose their candidate in a Jan. 22-29 primary.

Fading French town offers hope of new life for Syrian family

January 05, 2017

GRAY, France (AP) — Gray is a dying town, its residents lament. Big businesses moved away taking jobs with them. Now many stores lie vacant, fading “to rent” signs in the windows. But for one Syrian family, the town’s picturesque streets, red-tiled rooftops and quiet river walks offers hope of rebuilding their shattered lives, away from the fear of death lurking around every corner in their homeland.

“I will start to love life another time,” said 43-year-old oncologist Abd Alwahab Alahamad. “Because sometimes (in the) last two years, I thought it will be very difficult to stay alive.” Like hundreds of thousands before them, the Alahamads risked everything to escape war and the dark brutality of the Islamic State group, embarking on a perilous and uncertain journey through checkpoints, bombs and a nightmarish sea crossing to Greece.

But after months of uncertainty and doubt, their luck began to change. Alahamad, his wife Iman Mshanati, 33, and their three children — 5-year-old Nora, 2-year-old Ahmed and baby Layan, born in Greece six months ago — were among the fortunate few accepted for European relocation.

Launched in late 2015, the program was designed to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, the main entry points for more than a million people fleeing into the European Union. But it has come under criticism for moving too slowly.

Applicants can’t choose their destination country. Neither the Russian-trained doctor nor his wife, a nutritionist and beautician, had ever been to France, which has taken in more people than any other country that’s part of the program.

“We are going into the unknown; We do not know the city, the people, nothing,” Mshanti said in a small apartment in Athens the day before their flight to Paris, three suitcases neatly packed on the floor. “But we hear from people who had left before us that they are happy, and we felt relieved.”

The Alahamads never intended to leave Syria. They didn’t expect 2011 anti-government street protests to turn into a full-blown civil war. “At first everybody thought — not only me — that it will finish tomorrow, the day after tomorrow,” Alahamad said of the early days of the rebellion.

In 2014, warned government forces were looking for him after he treated a man for gunshot wounds, Alahamad fled Damascus, moving his family east to near the city of Deir-e-Zor. The war followed. IS overran the area. Relentless bombings killed relatives and friends. When rockets landed near their home, Alahamad decided the time had come.

“I left. I left everything behind,” he said. With two young children and a pregnant wife, the journey was harrowing. The nighttime treks and border crossing, the smugglers, the truck ride with nearly 100 others. But nothing compared to the boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. A terrified Nora clutched her father’s hand, convinced they would die.

They arrived in Greece in early March. Alahamad spent months as a volunteer doctor in refugee camps housing some of the more than 62,000 people stranded in Greece by border closures and an EU-Turkey deal intended to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. The family thought of staying, but Greece’s asylum system was overwhelmed.

So they applied for relocation. September brought the news they had been waiting for: their application was successful. The Alahamads were assigned to Gray, a pretty town of about 6,000 people on the River Saone. They would be part of the second group sent there from Greece. The first — five families — arrived in March.

To facilitate integration, Gray Mayor Christophe Laurencot stipulated the town would accept only families, and each assigned a social worker. Housing is provided during the asylum application, a process that takes about four months in the fast-track relocation procedure, said Guillaume Germain, regional director of the French Immigration and Integration Office.

But small, close-knit towns do not always embrace outsiders. Laurencot decided the best tactic was transparency, and informed residents about the program before the first arrivals in March. “We had reactions straight away,” he said. “Good, less good or bad, I had them all.” There were overwhelmingly generous offers from some, while others questioned why the state should help foreigners.

But, Laurencot said, “France is after all a country of hosts, a country of reception, a welcoming country. And it’s not enough to say it; we had to do it.” So far, the mayor’s tactic appears to be working.

“We see them pass by, there are no worries on that account, everything is going well,” said Stephanie Vanhee, who runs an optical shop in Gray. Toddler Ahmed squealed with joy at being allowed to pet her puppy, Morito, during the family’s first tour around town. “It must be done, you know. We must receive them.”

Clothing store owner Roberte Fouillot said there was some initial reticence to the idea, what with the recent terror attacks and demands on social services by needy French people. But news of the Syrian war shocked her.

“These poor kids, these poor families who are suffering — it’s unacceptable in our day and age,” Fouillot said. As for the issue of integration, Fouillot didn’t foresee problems. “They are people like everyone else. We all have our religion,” she said. “Today, if everyone reached out to each other, well, there might be less wars, less misery in the world.”

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