Middle Eastern & Internnational News (11/10/2012)

Syria rebels bomb Air Force Intelligence complex

Syria rebels bomb Air Force Intelligence complex

9 October 2012

Rebels have carried out a suicide bomb attack overnight on an intelligence agency compound in a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, reports say.

The al-Nusra Front, a jihadist militant group, said explosives-filled vehicles had been blown up outside the Air Force Intelligence complex in Harasta.

Residents said there were several huge blasts, followed by fierce clashes.

One activist group said dozens of people were killed and expressed fears for the fate of the agency's prisoners.

Human rights activists say hundreds of opponents of President Bashar al-Assad have been detained and tortured by Air Force Intelligence (AFI) across the country since the uprising began in March 2011.

AFI is seen by some as the elite agency of Syria's intelligence empire.

Though smaller than Military Intelligence, in the past it has played a leading role in operations against Islamist opposition groups, as well as covert actions abroad, and has a reputation for brutality.

'Citadel of repression'

 “Start Quote

The fate of hundreds of prisoners being held in the basements of the [Air Force Intelligence complex] is still unknown”

End Quote Rami Abdul Rahman Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

A statement issued by the al-Nusra Front said it had targeted the AFI "because it is one of the most notorious security divisions, and a citadel of repression whose extent is known only to God".

The group, which has claimed to be behind a series of deadly bombings since January, said a vehicle packed with nine tonnes of explosives had been driven up to the AFI compound in Harasta and blown up.

Twenty-five minutes later, another al-Nusra Front fighter blew up a one-tonne bomb hidden inside an ambulance, targeting survivors, it added. The fighters then fired mortars at the complex, the statement said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, reported that several large explosions had shaken homes overnight in Harasta, as well as in the nearby suburbs of Jobar and Qabun.

The blasts were followed by violent clashes in several parts of Harasta, with government forces firing heavy weapons and mortars, it added.

SOHR head Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP news agency that dozens of people had been killed in the suicide attacks.

 The al-Nusra Front has said it was behind many of the bombings that have rocked Syria this year

"The fate of hundreds of prisoners being held in the basements of the [security complex] is still unknown," he added. "The regime has not said a word about what happened last night."

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 verified.

A Syrian official told the Associated Press that a suicide bomber had detonated a car bomb near the AFI complex, while pro-government al-Ikhbariya TV reported that the blast was followed by clashes.

'Unbearable' conflict

Elsewhere on Tuesday, government forces continued to attack rebel strongholds in the central city of Homs.

State TV reported that soldiers had secured large parts of the Khalidiya district and were now "pursuing the remnants of the terrorists".

 Military aircraft and artillery have been targeting the Homs district of Khalidiya

News of the violence came as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government to immediately declare a unilateral ceasefire, and the opposition to abide by it.

"It is unbearable for the Syrian people to continue like this," he told a joint news conference in Paris with French President Francois Hollande.

Mr Ban also called on countries to stop supplying weapons to both sides.

On Monday, the BBC found evidence that weapons intended for the Saudi military have been found at a base used by Syrian rebels.

The BBC's Ian Pannell saw crates from a Ukrainian arms manufacturer - addressed to Saudi Arabia - at a rebel camp in the city of Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance has "all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary", amid escalating tensions on its border with Syria.

Turkish and Syrian government forces have been exchanging artillery fire since Syrian shells killed five Turkish civilians last week.

Turkish president:”Worst case scenarios” unfolding in Syria

October 8, 2012

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Monday the “worst-case scenarios” were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would to do everything necessary to protect itself, while its army fired back for a sixth day after a shell fired from Syria flew over the border.

Gul said the violence in Turkey’s southern neighbor, where a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has evolved into a civil war that threatens to draw in regional powers, could not go on indefinitely and Assad’s fall was inevitable.

“The worst-case scenarios are taking place right now in Syria … Our government is in constant consultation with the Turkish military. Whatever is needed is being done immediately as you see, and it will continue to be done,” Gul said.

“There will be a change, a transition sooner or later … It is a must for the international community to take effective action before Syria turns into a bigger wreck and further blood is shed, that is our main wish,” he told reporters in Ankara.

Turkey’s armed forces have bolstered their presence along the 900 km (560 mile) border with Syria in recent days and have been responding in kind to gunfire and shelling spilling across from the south, where Assad’s forces have been battling rebels who control swathes of territory.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the escalation of the conflict along the Turkey-Syria border, as well as the impact of the crisis on Lebanon, were “extremely dangerous”.


“The situation in Syria has dramatically worsened. It is posing serious risks to the stability of Syria’s neighbors and the entire region,” he told a conference in Strasbourg, France.

Ban said U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would be heading back to the region this week.

The exchanges with Turkey are the most serious cross-border violence in Syria’s revolt against Assad, which began in March last year with peaceful protests for reform and has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones.

Fighting further inside Syria also intensified on Monday.

Syrian forces advanced for the first time in months into the rebel-held Khalidiya district in the besieged central city of Homs, one of 12 districts they have been bombarding for days.

“They have occupied buildings that we were stationed in and we had to evacuate,” a rebel fighter told Reuters by Skype.

Skirmishes on the Syrian side of the border have been intensifying and it is unclear who fired the shells that have crossed into Turkey.

Damascus has said it fired into Turkey accidentally, but has failed to live up to pledges made last week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in the Turkish town of Akcakale, to ensure no more ordnance flies across the border.

Turkey launched its latest retaliatory strike on Monday after a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed in countryside in the Turkish province of Hatay, a Turkish official told Reuters.

The mortar round landed 150-200 meters inside the Turkish district of Hacipasa at about 3 p.m. (1200 GMT), the official said.


Further east, Syrian rebel sources in Raqqa province, which borders Akcakale, said they had seen five Turkish army trucks full of soldiers patrolling the Turkish side of the border.

NATO member Turkey was once an ally of Assad’s but turned against him after his violent response to the uprising, in which activists say 30,000 people have now died.

Turkey has nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory, has allowed rebel leaders sanctuary and has led calls for Assad to quit. Its armed forces are far larger than Syria’s.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the weekend that a potential leader in an interim Syrian government could be Vice-President Farouq al-Shara.

Reports in August said Shara, a former foreign minister who was appointed vice president six years ago, had tried to defect to neighboring Jordan, but Syrian state media subsequently said he had never considered leaving.

“The opposition is inclined to accept these names. Farouq al-Shara has the ability to understand the system of the last 20-30 years,” Davutoglu told the state broadcaster TRT.

“Farouq al-Shara did not get involved in the recent incidents, the massacre, in a very wise and conscientious attitude. But perhaps there is nobody who knows the system better than al-Shara.”


Plans ready for NATO to defend Turkey

(AP) / 9 October 2012

NATO is ready to defend alliance member Turkey amid artillery and mortar exchanges with Syria, its top official said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile Ankara sent additional fighter jets to reinforce an air base close to the Syria border where tensions have escalated dramatically over the past week.

Turkey and Syria have exchanged fire across their common border since errant Syrian shells killed five Turkish civilians last week, sparking fears of a wider regional crisis.

The comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were the strongest show of support to Ankara since the firing began Wednesday — though the solidarity is largely symbolic. Turkey has sought NATO backing but not direct intervention and the alliance is thought to be reluctant to get involved military at a time when its main priority is the war in Afghanistan.

Ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Fogh Rasmussen backed Turkey’s right to defend itself.

“Obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity,” he added. “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”

“We hope that all parties involved (in the Syrian crisis) will show restraint and avoid an escalation of the crisis,” Fogh Rasmussen said.

NATO officials said the plans have been in place for decades and were not drawn up in response to the Syria crisis. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

In an address to lawmakers from the ruling party, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Ankara will continue retaliating for attacks from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“Every kind of threat to the Turkish territory and the Turkish people will find us standing against it,” Erdogan said. “Soldiers loyal to Assad threw shells at us, we immediately reacted and responded with double force. We shall never stop responding.”

Analysts say Syria appears to be intentionally escalating tensions along the border with Turkey to send a message to its northern neighbor that it will pay a high price for its support of the Syrian rebels, hoping that will deter any foreign military intervention in the 18-month-old civil war.

At least 25 additional F-16 fighter jets were deployed at Turkey’s Diyarbakir air base in the southeast late Monday, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said, quoting unidentified military sources. The military’s chief of staff inspected troops along the border with Syria on Tuesday.

The reinforcement of the Diyarbakir base also bolsters Turkish forces along the volatile Iraqi border. Turkish jets struck Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq in two separate cross-border raids Sunday despite recent warnings from Baghdad against any military operations on its territory.

Turkey has frequently struck targets in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Relations between Turkey and Iraq have also been deteriorating over a Turkish decision to shelter convicted Iraq’s Sunni vice president on charges of running death squads.

Activists estimate more than 32,000 people have been killed since March 2011 when the uprising against Assad’s regime began. Initially, regime opponents launched a wave of peaceful protests that were met by repeated attacks by security forces, and the conflict has gradually turned into bloody civil war that has prompted tens of thousands of civilians to flee Syria. The fighting has devastated entire neighbourhoods in Syria’s main cities, including the northern city of Aleppo. Syria’s government has always blamed the uprising on what it calls foreign terrorists.

A Sunni extremist group called Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for an attack on Syrian air force intelligence compound in the Damascus suburb of Harasta Monday evening. A statement on a militant website by the group’s media arm, Al-Manara al-Bayda, said the bombing aimed “to avenge the killing of Muslims and those who suffered injustice.”

The Syrian state run news agency did not report the explosion and there were conflicting reports on how badly the compound was damaged. There were no official reports on casualties, but the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya channel said on Monday the blast was heard across Damascus.

Syrian rebels are increasingly targeting security compounds and symbols of the regime in and around the capital.

Jabhat al-Nusra said it sent two suicide bombers to hit the compound, which it called “ a bastion of tyranny and injustice.” The compound, headed by Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan, a top Assad security aide, contains prisons where activists say hundreds of people have been held and interrogated by security services during the uprising.

There were fears that detainees inside could have killed or wounded in the blast, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group. It said that so far it could not confirm casualties from its sources on the ground.

One woman who has a friend currently imprisoned in the compound told The Associated Press she is concerned. “I don’t know whether he still alive or he died from the explosion ... I pray to god to save him,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment from authorities.

On Tuesday, a roadside bomb attached to an electricity pole detonated as a packed commuter bus passed by in the Damascus neighborhood of al-Zablatani neighborhood, injuring a civilian, a Syrian official told the AP. The official blamed “terrorists,” the regime’s term for rebels. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rebels frequently complain that their weapons are no match for the military’s artillery and fighter jets. The British Broadcasting Corp. said it had uncovered evidence that appears to suggest that weapons intended for the Saudi military have been diverted to Syrian rebels. Three crates from an arms manufacturer, addressed to Saudi Arabia, were seen by a BBC correspondent in a base being used by rebel fighters in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo.

The BBC said it was not allowed to film their contents.

Meanwhile, two Syrian rebels told The Associated Press that seven military and intelligence officers belonging to Syria’s ruling Alawite minority have defected to Jordan. The rebels said they helped the seven cross into Jordan on Monday, and that the highest-ranking figure among them was an army colonel.

Defections by Alawites, who make up the backbone of Assad’s regime, are relatively uncommon. Almost all the defections have been from Syria’s Sunni majority, who dominate the rebellion.

Three other Alawite intelligence officials came to Jordan three weeks ago, said the two rebels, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Assad regime. Jordanian officials declined comment.

The new arrivals join more than 3,000 other Syrian army and police defectors who are housed in a secret Jordanian desert installation. The Syrian regime has seen a steady stream of defections in recent months, including former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who broke with the regime and fled to Jordan in August.

Iraq buys $4.2 bln in Russian weapons

(Reuters) / 9 October 2012

Russia announced on Tuesday it has signed $4.2 billion in arms deals with Iraq, making it the largest weapons supplier to the Middle East country after the United States.

The deals, disclosed in a Russian government document issued at a meeting between Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, give Russia a big boost at a time when the future of its arms sales to Libya and Syria is uncertain.

Iraq had been all but off limits for Russia’s defence industry after the US-led invasion of 2003 which ousted Saddam Hussein, one of Moscow’s biggest weapons customers.

President Vladimir Putin had vocally opposed the invasion and Moscow has struggled to claw back a share of the markets in energy, arms sales and infrastructure projects in Iraq.

“After the fall of Saddam Hussein, it looked like the country was lost forever” as a Russian arms customer, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Russian security and defence think tank CAST. “This is absolutely sensational.”

The contracts will help Russia maintain its position as the world’s second-biggest arms seller after the United States, Pukhov said.

The contracts were signed during visits to Russia by Iraq’s acting defence chief in April, July and August, the document showed. It gave no further details and the state agency in charge of the weapons trade could not be immediately reached.

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported late last month that contracts worth $4.3 billion were being agreed ahead of Maliki’s visit. It said they included deals for 30 Mi-28NE combat helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 mobile rocket launchers.

A spokesman for Russia’s state-controlled arms exporter, Rosvooruzheniye, said it never discusses content of arms deals.

The contracts comprised the third biggest package of deals for Russian arms sales since the 1991 Soviet collapse, after a $7.5 billion agreement with Algeria in 2006 and a $6 billion sale to Venezuela in 2009, CAST said.

Russia delivered about $13.2 billion in weapons last year, said Konstantin Makiyenko, an expert at CAST.

Pukhov said the Iraq deals showed the government there “is ready to pursue an independent foreign and defence policy”, but that the United States could have tacitly supported them to appease Russia, which scrapped a deal to sell air-defence systems to Iran citing U.N. sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Russian officials also have said Russia lost about $4 billion in arms deals with Libya because of the fall of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the future of Russian sales to Syria is uncertain because of the conflict there.


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