MIddle Eastern & International News (1/10/2012)

Syria conflict: Aleppo's souk burns as battles rage

Syria conflict: Aleppo's souk burns as battles rage

29 September 2012

A blaze has swept though ancient markets in Aleppo, activists say, as rebels and government forces seek to gain control of Syria's largest city.

Reports say hundreds of shops in the souk, one of the best preserved in the Middle East, have been destroyed.

Unesco, which recognises Aleppo's Old City as a world heritage site, described the damage as a tragedy.

On the third day of a rebel offensive, battles broke out in the Old City and the Arkub district, reports said.

The fire, believed to have been triggered by shelling and gunfire, began on Friday but was still burning on Saturday, reports said.

"It's a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected," Kishore Rao, director of Unesco's World Heritage Centre, told the Associated Press.


The market stalls lie beneath the city's towering 13th Century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.

 Rebels were using a Turkish bath, or hamam, in the souk as a base

Activists quoted by Reuters news agency said that the presence of snipers was making it difficult to approach the Souk al-Madina, once a major tourist attraction.

Reports estimate that between 700 and 1,000 shops have been destroyed so far.

"It's a disaster. The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops," one activist, Ahmad al-Halabi, told AP.

He said the Syrian authorities had cut off the water supply, making attempts to control the fire more difficult.

Rebels and civilians were working together to limit the fire with a few fire extinguishers, he added.

The fire took hold with speed, fuelled by the many shops' wooden doors and the clothes, fabrics and leather goods sold inside.

Heavy clashes erupted at several military sites in the city on Saturday evening, Reuters reports.

Fighting was reported at the Neirab military base as well as Bab Antakya, a stone gateway to the Old City.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the focal point for fighting was Salaheddin, a rebel stronghold on the south-west side of the city.

State television reported attacks on what it called "terrorist centres" in 10 different locations on Saturday, saying heavy losses had been inflicted.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, says that though both sides have reported clashes in different parts of the city, the signs are that the rebels simply lack the firepower and the manpower to score a significant breakthrough.

"No-one is actually making gains here, it is just fighting and more fighting, and terrified people are fleeing," one activist told Reuters.

Activists estimate more than 27,000 people have died in the violence since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began last year.

Syria’s chemical weapons moved, says US Defense chief

September 28, 2012

 Intelligence suggests the Syrian government has moved some of its chemical weapons in order to protect them, but the U.S. believes that the main sites remain secure, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday, indicating there are lingering questions about what exactly happened to some of the weapons.

It was the first time Panetta confirmed that U.S. officials believe there have been multiple “limited” movements of the chemical weapons, but he said Syrian officials were relocating them in order to better secure them.

“There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place. Where exactly that’s taken place, we don’t know,” Panetta told reporters. “I don’t have any specific information about the opposition and whether or not they’ve obtained some of this or how much they’ve obtained and just exactly what’s taken place.”

Asked specifically if there was any belief that the Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard or the rebel forces have been able to get possession of any of the weapons, Panetta appeared to leave the door open to that possibility, saying he has no “firm information to confirm that that’s taken place.”

He said the U.S. has monitored the main sites and determined that they are still secure.

There have been ongoing concerns that the opposition forces battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad or other militant forces in the country may get their hands on the weapons caches.

It is widely believed that Syria possesses extensive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and it has threated to use them if the country comes under attack.

President Barack Obama has declared that the threat of chemical or biological warfare in Syria is a “red line” for the U.S., and has warned that the U.S. will not tolerate it if the weapons fall into the wrong hands. He said there would be enormous consequences if the U.S. sees any movement or use of the weapons.

Panetta was speaking at a news conference with Canadian Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay.

Libyans hand over hundreds of weapons to army

30 September 2012

Hundreds of Libyans have handed in weapons in Benghazi and Tripoli as part of a disarmament drive organised by the army to target militia groups.

Assault rifles, anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers and even tanks were among military hardware handed in.

The call to transfer weapons to Libya's army was promoted through a private television station.

It apparently gained momentum after the US ambassador was killed in Benghazi, sparking resentment of armed militias.

The groups that emerged during the fight to topple Col Muammar Gaddafi last year remain a powerful force in the country.

Need for stability

Libya's interim leader, Mohammed Magarief, vowed to disband all illegal militias in the aftermath of Ambassador Christopher Stevens' death on 11 September.

In Benghazi, one of the organisers, Ahmed Salem, said that over 800 citizens had handed in weapons at the main collection point, the Associated Press reports.

Over 600 different types of arms were collected.

In Tripoli, two tanks were among the weapons handed in by at least 200 former fighters at Martyrs' Square.

The television station which collaborated on the arms drive, Libya al-Hurra or Free Libya, broadcast live footage of the collection and transfer of weapons to military barracks on Saturday.

The army's chief-of-staff said Libyans needed stability.

"They are handing over weapons to the military so that they are kept in the right place and not on the streets," Yussef al-Mangoush said, according to Reuters.

He said he hoped the collection would also expand to other Libyan cities.

The government has estimated that over 200,000 people in Libya are armed. Previous attempts to disarm people have had little support.

Former anti-Gaddafi fighters were among those who gave their weapons to the army.

"When I saw the announcement on television I came to Benghazi with my wife and son to hand over my weapon to the national army because I want to move from the stage of the revolution to state building," Moussa Omr told AP.

"I don't need this weapon after today, the militias have been expelled from Benghazi and the national army will protect us."

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula held for probation violations

27 September 2012

A man linked to an anti-Islam video that sparked riots across the Muslim world is being held in Los Angeles, California, ahead of a bail hearing.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, has been under investigation for violating probation terms after he was released from prison in 2011 for bank fraud.

Court records say he was banned from accessing the internet or using an alias without an officer's permission.

Nakoula has not been detained over the contents of the inflammatory video.

Earlier, the Obama administration had requested Google, the company that owns YouTube, to remove the clip. The technology firm refused, saying the film did not violate its rules.

The US Attorney's office in Los Angeles confirmed Nakoula had been taken into custody on Thursday.

"Mr Nakoula was arrested pursuant to allegations made by the Probation Office that he has violated the terms of his supervised release," spokesman Thom Mrozek said.

Mr Nakoula, who allegedly produced the 14-minute trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims, was expected to appear in court for a hearing on Thursday afternoon.

He had been in hiding after the release of the video.

First amendment

A clip from the US-made film was dubbed into Arabic, provoking widespread anger for its disrespectful portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.

The film was made on a very low budget, with insults and offensive inferences to the Prophet Mohammad and Islam crudely dubbed on afterwards.

But it has not broken any laws in the US, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution's first amendment.

The clip was uploaded to YouTube in July, but violence broke out over the video on 11 September.

Four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stephens, were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya earlier this month.

Meanwhile, some of the actors in the video have come forward to say they were misled. They said had been hired to appear in a film called Desert Warriors, which did not mention Islam or the Prophet Muhammad in the script.

France pledges to integrate Muslims

September 28, 2012

STRASBOURG, France — France’s Socialist government vowed Thursday to do more to integrate the country’s Muslims but warned that it would not tolerate the country becoming a hotbed of radicalism.

In a speech marking the inauguration of the Strasbourg Grand Mosque, the biggest Islamic place of worship ever built on French soil, Interior Minister Manuel Valls pledged to come down hard on extremists, warning that foreign activists trying to stir up trouble would be immediately deported.

But he also held out an olive branch to the country’s four million Muslims by promising state help for the construction of more mosques and for the training of Muslim clerics.

Valls, whose rhetoric has frequently drawn comparisons with that of rightwing former president Nicolas Sarkozy, praised French Muslims for their measured response to the recent publication of a satirical weekly’s publication of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) caricatures.

“Islam has its place in France, it is a part of France,” he told representatives of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant communities attending the official opening of the mosque capable of hosting 1,500 people.

Relations between the French state and a Muslim community that has its roots in former colonies Algeria and Morocco have been strained in recent years by a string of controversies pitting their faith against France’s secular tradition.

Legislation introduced under Sarkozy which bans women from wearing full veils in public is widely resented and long-running debates over halal methods of animal slaughter and whether public prayers should be authorized have added to tensions linked to the economic marginalization of many Muslims.

Valls has adopted much of the rhetoric deployed by Sarkozy during his time in office.

He warned Thursday that he would not “hesitate to expel those who claim to follow Islam and represent a serious threat to public order and, as foreigners in our country, do not respect our laws and values.”


He also made it clear that the Muslim community as a whole had to accept responsibility for tackling extremism, which he linked to a reemergence of anti-Semitism in the country.

Built within two kilometers from Strasbourg’s celebrated cathedral, the new mosque has a capacity of 1,300 sq. meters, making it 1.5 times as big as the previous largest one in France, at Evry in the Paris suburbs.

It has a 16-meter copper dome but no minaret and has taken nearly two decades to complete since the project was first launched in 1993.

The cost of construction was 10.5 million euros ($13.5 million), with the local region and the governments of Kuwait, Morocco and Saudi Arabia all contributing. — AFP

Syria refugees to reach 700,000 by year's end - UNHCR

 27 September 2012

The UN's refugee agency has warned that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year, a huge increase on its previous estimate.

Some 294,000 refugees have already left Syria, and the UNHCR is appealing for $490m (£300m) to deal with the crisis.

Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Meanwhile, rebels in Aleppo say they have launched a "decisive" offensive on the city, where they have been battling government forces for weeks.

Hundreds of rebel fighters from different brigades were reportedly taking part in the offensive.

A UK-based activist group said that Wednesday was the bloodiest day of the 18-month-old conflict so far, with more than 305 people being killed across Syria.

Rami Abdel Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the figure included only those whose names had been documented.

"If we count the unidentified bodies, the figure will be much higher," he said.

The observatory (SOHR) said 199 of Wednesday's dead were civilians.

The SOHR is one of the most prominent organisations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.

Other groups estimated Wednesday's death toll to be considerably higher.

UN 'paralysed'

The UNHCR said between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees were fleeing the violence into neighbouring countries every day.

"Many refugees are arriving with only the clothes on their backs," said Panos Moumtzis, the agency's regional co-ordinator for Syrian refugees.

"Some have been displaced many times before leaving Syria. They need humanitarian assistance from day one."

The agency said in March it estimated that about 100,000 people would have fled by the end of the year.

But that number was surpassed in July.

The agency said it was urgently trying to prepare for winter, warning that many of the refugees were still living in tents.

Earlier this week, the UK announced £8m ($13m) in funding to help Syrians who had fled the fighting.

For much of the past 18 months rebel groups have been fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists estimate more than 27,000 people have died in the violence.

Repeated efforts by the international community to find a diplomatic solution have foundered because of a deep divide at the UN Security Council.

Late on Wednesday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Security Council was "paralysed" and urged the members to overcome their differences.

US temporarily reduces staff at Tripoli embassy

27 September 2012

The United States is temporarily removing further staff from its embassy in the Libyan capital, the state department has said.

It said staff were being withdrawn from Tripoli for security reasons.

The US ambassador to Libya was killed in what the US defence secretary has said was a "terrorist" attack in Benghazi on 11 September.

The attack followed protests triggered by an amateur film made in the US which mocks Islam.

Protests against the film, frequently held on Fridays, have spread across the Muslim world.

A statement on the website of the US embassy in Tripoli warned that demonstrations were possible in both the capital and Benghazi on Friday.

"This is a temporary further drawdown of staff for security reasons," a state department official said in New York.

"We will review our posture again early next week with the goal of restoring staff as soon as conditions allow."

It was not revealed how many staff were being withdrawn from Tripoli.


Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed during the Benghazi attack, which targeted the US consulate in the city on 11 September.

Stevens died of smoke inhalation when he was trapped alone inside the burning consulate after it was set upon by militants.

Another diplomat, Sean Smith, and two US security men were also killed.

"It was a terrorist attack," Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday.

"As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place, [...] it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack, and that's when I came to that conclusion," he explained.

His comments came a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to link the Benghazi attack to militants with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

However, Mr Panetta said investigations into which group was behind the attack were still continuing.

Libyan Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur has said that an investigation is under way but officials do not yet have a definite idea of which group was responsible for the deaths.

Kuwait opposition seeks fresh poll

September 27, 2012

Manama: Kuwait’s sitting parliament speaker said that he would not run as a candidate in the next parliamentary elections.

“I will not take part in the next legislative elections and Kuwait deserves stability following the events that unfolded here,” Jassem Al Khurafi said.

However, opposition members said that they were keen on the elections and called for the dissolution of the controversial parliament elected in 2009 and hold fresh votes to usher in a new legislative body.

Waleed Al Tabatabi, one of the most vociferous lawmakers, said that more street pressure would be applied until the government dissolved the parliament. “If this announcement is not made, the political and popular forces will hold rallies at the Irada Square,” he was quoted as saying by the media.

 “If we feel that the parliament dissolution issue is being procrastinated, we will call for a rally as soon as next Monday,” he said, quoted by Arabic daily Al Rai.

Kuwait is still grappling to find a satisfactory solution to the thorny issue of setting up a functioning parliament. The current parliament, elected in 2009, was dissolved in December, but reinstated in June after the Constitutional Court ruled that the decree dissolving it was not constitutional.

The court also ruled that the decree calling for holding elections in February was not in line with the constitution.

The opposition resisted both the rulings by the country’s highest court and, legally unable to challenge them, called for fresh elections. Two attempts by the 2009 parliament to convene and have the government take the oath failed for lack of a quorum after opposition members campaigned against holding any session.

In the second try on August 7, only four of the 50-member house turned up.

“We could not convene the session due to the lack of a quorum and I will not call for another session,” Al Khurafi said.

“I will take the matter to his highness the Emir.” In anticipation of seemingly unavoidable parliamentary elections, the government in August referred the 2006 controversial electoral law to the Supreme Court on suspicion that it breached the constitution and sought to “address legal loopholes” and “ensure a fairer representation of the people in parliament.”

The government was keen on reviewing the clause that had reduced in 2006 the number of constituencies from 25 to five. However, the opposition claimed that the move was part of a conspiracy to give pro-government candidates the edge in new elections. Several leaders organised rallies near the parliament to express their opposition to repelling the electoral law.

On September 25, the court rejected the government’s bid and maintained the five-constituency formula, prompting the opposition to pile up pressure on the government to dissolve the 2009 parliament and hold new elections.

The verdict, hailed by all parties, was seen as a landmark for renewed work for the sake of the country. However, their interpretations of its meaning and implications varied vastly.


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