Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Libya’s NTC rejects resignation of its number two

Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council rejected the resignation of Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, who had stepped down after protests against him. (File photo)
Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council on Monday rejected the resignation of its number two, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, who had stepped down after protests against him, a member of the council told AFP.

“The NTC in its meeting examined the resignation of its deputy and rejected it,” Intisar al-Akili said of the decision which was taken during an NTC meeting in Tripoli.

It was unclear whether Ghoga, who could not be reached for comment, would return to his post. He had resigned on January 22 after days of protest against him in the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
Ghoga, who also served as official spokesman for the NTC, came under increasing opposition from Benghazi residents who accused him of opportunism because of his belated defection from the Qaddafi regime.

Angry protesters stormed the offices of the NTC in Benghazi demanding the resignation of Ghoga and several other council members.

Ghoga tendered his resignation, saying it was in the “best interests of Libya.”

Air raids on al-Qaeda bases in south Yemen kill 15, including senior operatives

An unidentified drone attacked the militants while they were travelling in two vehicles in southern Yemen. (Reuters)
Air raids overnight on al-Qaeda strongholds in south Yemen killed at least 15 people, a tribal official said on Tuesday, adding that four strikes had been carried out on two positions.

The attacks on the extremists, who have taken advantage of political turmoil in the country to overrun swathes of south Yemen, took place in the Loder and al-Wadih areas of Abyan province, the official said.

“We think they were carried out by American planes,” another tribal source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity and without elaborating.
A tribal leader said at least four of those killed were local al-Qaeda leaders. Residents said no civilians were hurt in the air strike.

The United States has used drones repeatedly to attack al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. Last September, a U.S. drone killed U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, described by U.S. officials as “chief of external operations” for al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The latest attack could deal a blow to al-Qaeda which has exploited unrest and protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh to strengthen its hold on remote areas in southern Yemen in recent months, according to Reuters.

An opposition-led government has been set up in Yemen after Saleh agreed in November to transfer authority to his deputy ahead of presidential elections in February.

But protests have continued and activists are pressing on with demands that Saleh be tried for alleged killings of demonstrators and that the government is purged of members of his family.

The deteriorating security situation in Yemen, caught up in an Arab pro-democracy uprising unleashed a year ago, has raised alarm including at the U.N. Security Council of a growing presence of al-Qaeda militants in lawless areas in the south and east of the country.

In mid-January the extremists made a significant advance towards the capital Sana’a when more than 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters swept into the town of Rada and held it for nine days.

They bowed to tribal pressure and withdrew from the town, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of Sana’a, after authorities pledged to free 15 militants.

The New York Times reported in June that the United States had stepped up its attacks on militant suspects in Yemen with armed drones and fighter jets.

Saleh is in the United States for medical treatment after being seriously wounded in a bombing at the presidential palace in Sana’a in June.

In November, after 10 months of bloody protests, he signed a deal by which he transferred constitutional powers to his deputy who is the sole candidate for next month's presidential polls.

Egypt’s military rulers lay out presidential election rules

Egyptian riot police during a protest against the ruling military council and the government outside the Egyptian parliament in Cairo. (AFP)
Egypt’s ruling military on Monday laid out the rules governing the country’s first presidential elections since a popular uprising ousted veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Only Egyptian nationals born to Egyptian parents and who do not hold dual citizenship can qualify for candidacy, according to the new election law issued by military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

Hopefuls must be endorsed by at least 30 members of parliament or 30,000 citizens eligible voters.
They must have completed their military service and will not qualify if married to a foreign citizen.

Parties with seats in parliament can nominate one candidate for the election which will take place over one day.

No date has yet been set for the presidential poll but the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak was ousted, has said it will take place no later than the end of June.

Under the terms of the new law, the election commission overseeing the process will be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Earlier this month, SCAF said that candidates for the presidency can start registering from April 15. Frontrunners in the presidential race include former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a veteran Egyptian diplomat who was foreign minister under Mubarak, as well as Abdel Moneim Abul Fotuh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nobel Prize laureate and ex-head of the U.N. atomic watchdog Mohammad ElBaradei decided to drop out of the race, complaining of a lack of democracy in Egypt.

Other candidates include Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, as well as Salafist leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Nasserite head Hamdeen Sabahi and Islamist independent figure Salim al-Awwa.

Hamas’ Gaza chief begins regional tour, to meet Ahmadinejad, Gulf leaders

Ismail Haniyeh’s regional tour will also take him to Kuwait, Bahrain and Iran. (Reuters)
The leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, left on Monday for a tour of Iran and Gulf states, continuing a diplomatic drive to realign the Palestinian Islamist movement after a year of political change in the Arab world.

The official Qatari News Agency said that Haniyeh had arrived at the Gulf emirate and that his visit will “last several days,” while diplomats said he will leave Doha on Saturday, after leading the main weekly Muslim prayers at noon on Friday.

He will travel to Kuwait, then Bahrain and Iran, diplomats said.
Non-Arab Iran, along with its Arab ally Syria, have been principal backers of Hamas. Iran has supplied funds and -- according to Israel -- weapons to use against the Jewish state.

Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nono said Haniyeh, who travels via Egypt since Israel bars other exits from Gaza, was going to Tehran at the invitation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he gave no details of the agenda for talks in Tehran, according to Reuters.

The upheavals across the Middle East are obliging the Palestinians and their rival political movements, Hamas and Fatah, to review alliances -- though how Hamas may adjust its strategies, or its stance towards Israel, is far from clear.

Among Hamas’ challenges is financing. A diplomatic source told Reuters that Iran had funded Hamas in the past with up to $300 million per year, but the flow of money had not been regular in 2011. “Payment has been in suspension since August,’ said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran is under tough international economic sanctions over suspicions, which it denies, that it is secretly developing nuclear weapons in violation of international agreements.

Analysts and diplomatic sources say Iran is unhappy with Hamas for its refusal to offer public support to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has hosted the Hamas leadership in exile in his capital Damascus for the past decade.

Diplomatic and intelligence sources say Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal no longer spends much time in Syria, where over 5,000 people have been killed in 10 months of conflict.

In a Middle East increasingly divided on sectarian lines between Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers, Meshaal appears politically embarrassed by finding his group, which like most Palestinians is Sunni, hosted by a Syrian government dominated by Assad and his Alawite minority, whose sect has its roots in the Shiite Islam practiced in non-Arab Iran.

Tehran’s other Arab allies include Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

As the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s, Hamas has found itself allied to the very forces -- Assad and his Iranian backers -- which are cracking down on the Brotherhood in Syria.

However, Hamas said in a statement in recent days that Meshaal’s absence from Damascus was due only to concerns about security in that country at the moment and denied that it had moved its leadership or headquarters out of Syria for good.

Arab League states, joining calls from Western powers, have now urged Assad to step aside, deepening Syria’s isolation from the rest of the Arab world, where Sunni rulers like those of wealthy Saudi Arabia and populous Egypt are dominant.

Analysts suggest these developments have persuaded Meshaal that Hamas needs to reassess its alliances, and adopt a more conciliatory stance towards the West, which like Israel labels his movement a terrorist group and refuses to negotiate with it.

Meshaal on Sunday visited King Abdullah of Jordan, ending a decade-long rift after the monarchy expelled Hamas. Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, was among the first Arab states to call on Assad to step down.

Hamas denies any internal dissent over the movement’s future course in light of the changes brought about by the Arab Spring uprisings against entrenched rulers. But analysts say divergences in its collective leadership are clear to see.

London-based Palestinian commentator Ibrahim Hamamy wrote of Haniyeh: “I urge you to reconsider your decision and your program to visit Iran, which took a clearly hostile position against the aspirations of the courageous Syrian people.”

Haniyeh was travelling with his political adviser Yussef Rizq, his minister of housing and public works Yussef al-Mansi and two key Hamas members -- Yehia Sinwar and Rawhi Mushtaha -- released from Israeli prison last year under a deal that saw captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit freed, according to AFP.

During his visit to Qatar, Haniyeh is also expected to hold meetings with Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and key Sunni religious figure Yussef al-Qaradawi, Nono said.

Haniyeh earlier visited Egypt and Tunisia to meet fellow Islamist leaders brought to power by last year’s uprisings. He also visited Turkey which, unlike its fellow NATO members, recognizes Hamas as a legal political party.

Some diplomatic sources have said that Turkey promised to provide Haniyeh’s Gaza Strip administration with $300 million to support its annual budget.

Monday, January 30, 2012

UN atomic team in Iran for nuclear talks

Officials from the United Nations nuclear agency are in Tehran for talks aimed at allaying concerns that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapon.
The visit, which began on Sunday, comes at a time of heightened tension between Iran and the West.
Although not officially disclosed, the IAEA team is expected to meet with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saedi Jalili and atomic chief Fereydoun Abbasi.It remains unclear whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team, headed by chief inspector Herman Nackaerts, would inspect nuclear sites or just discuss with Iranian officials possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme.
But there will be no meeting with Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, who left Tehran earlier on Saturday to attend the African Union summit in Ethiopia.
Speaking in Ethiopia, Salehi said he was "very optimistic" about the IAEA delegation's visit.
"Their questions will be answered during this visit. We have nothing to hide and Iran has no clandestine (nuclear) activities," Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran's Mehr news agency.
"We are looking forward to start with a dialogue, a dialogue that is overdue since very long," Nackaerts said before boarding a plane in Vienna, where the UN nuclear watchdog is based.
"In particular we hope that Iran will engage with us on our concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme," said Nackaerts, who is heading the team along with Rafael Grossi, a top adviser to IAEA director Yukiya Amano.
Iran determined
Iran has said it will co-operate with the IAEA team during their three-day visit but indicated it would not give up uranium enrichment, which it considers a sovereign right.
"We have always been open with regards to our nuclear issues, and the IAEA team coming to Iran can make the necessary inspections," Ali-Akbar Velayati, adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the ISNA news agency.

If inspections are conducted, one site could be the new Fordow uranium enrichment facility south of the capital Tehran near the city of Qom, which will become operational next month."We will, however, not withdraw from our nuclear rights as we have constantly acted within international regulations and in line with the laws of the non-proliferation treaty," Velayati said.
Sources close to the IAEA said the visit would not involve inspections of nuclear facilities but would focus on resuming talks on Iran's disputed nuclear programme, which the West suspects has a military dimension.
Since 2008, Tehran has declined to fully co-operate with the IAEA but denies it is seeking a nuclear bomb.
The visit could pave the way for the resumption of talks between Iran and world powers Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US. The last round of talks in January 2011 ended without a breakthrough.

Since then the EU and US have introduced a series of sanctions against Iran, including measures targeting the country's lucrative oil industry.

Mohammad Marandi, an associate professor of American Studies at Tehran University, told Al Jazeera: "If Western regimes try to strangle the Iranian people and to hurt the Iranian economy severely, then the Iranians will have no option but to punish them."

Hamas chief Meshaal makes ‘historic’ visit to Jordan amid Islamists’ praise

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (front) speaks to reporters after his meeting in Amman with King Abdullah of Jordan. (Reuters)
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Sunday made his first official visit to Jordan since the kingdom expelled him more than a decade ago and held talks with King Abdullah.

Meshaal was accompanied by Qatar’s Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The visit was planned before an uprising erupted in Syria, where Hamas has had its main headquarters outside the Gaza Strip.

“We are happy with this new good start ... We are keen on building strong ties with Jordan and on its security, stability and interests,” Meshaal was quoted as saying in a palace statement after the meeting, according to AFP.
“With this new chapter in relations with Jordan, we hope Jordanian and Palestinian interests will be served,” said the leader of the Palestinian Islamic movement.

Meshaal, who has Jordanian nationality, blasted Israel.

“Hamas stands firm against Israel’s schemes to turn Jordan into a substitute homeland. Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine. We insist on restoring Palestinian rights,” he said.

Both Hamas and Jordan have denied that the Islamist movement may move its headquarters from Damascus, where many of its Jordanian leadership relocated after being expelled from the kingdom in 1999. The Syrian conflict has forced Hamas to move some of its activists and families out of the country.

“Jordan supports the Palestinian Authority as well as Palestinian reconciliation,” King Abdullah told Meshaal at the meeting, attended by a Hamas political bureau delegation, including number two Mussa Abu Marzuk.

“Uniting the Palestinian stand will strengthen the Palestinian people and help restore their rights,” said the king, whose country aims to help efforts at inter-Palestinian reconciliation.

“The talk about the visit preceded the events in Syria and is not linked,” Izzat Risheq, a senior Hamas official, said, according to Reuters.

Hamas and Jordanian officials said neither side discussed reopening the Hamas office in Jordan.

Diplomatic and intelligence sources say Meshaal, 55, who has been based in Damascus since 2001, has effectively abandoned those headquarters, where he had been relative safety following a botched Israeli attempt on his life in the 1990s.

Jordan has indicated it will accommodate families of the Syrian based leadership, many of whom are Jordanian citizens, but would not tolerate political activities on its soil.

Analysts and Islamists say the visit has been given impetus by regional turmoil in which Islamists have made major political gains across the region following the “Arab Spring” uprisings, notably in Tunisia and Egypt.

Abdullah, a U.S. ally whose country was the second Arab state to make peace with Israel in 1994, is central to moribund Middle East peace efforts and seeks to appear as an honest broker with Palestinian factions, although the monarch strongly backs President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas consolidated its rule in the Gaza Strip in 2007 by overwhelming the forces of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, following victory in legislative elections.

Meshaal, a Jordanian citizen, was deported to Qatar after a crackdown by security forces on the movement in 1999 amid charges it harmed Jordanian national interests.

Meshaal, who survived a 1997 assassination attempt in Amman by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, has also made two shorts visits to Jordan since 1999 to attend his father’s funeral and see his ailing mother.

The crackdown embittered many Jordanians of Palestinian origin, a majority of the population, who saw it as a dangerous precedent in a country where many native Jordanians oppose a larger political role for Palestinians.

Jordan’s powerful opposition Islamists, who are ideologically close to Hamas, hailed Meshaal’s visit.

“The meeting today (Sunday) is historic. Qatari mediation is supporting the palace's efforts to reformulate Jordan-Hamas relations in line with national interests,” the Muslim Brotherhood said on its website.

“There are forces that are not pleased with this visit and see themselves losing as a result,” said Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leader of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Domestically, the visit is likely to help improve ties between the regime and Jordan’s Islamists, who have since January 2011 led an Arab Spring-inspired movement for political and economic reforms and for an end to corruption.

Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, a former International Criminal Court judge, said when he formed his government in November that the expulsion of Hamas leaders had been “a constitutional and political error.”

Khasawneh’s steps to co-opt Islamists to the cabinet have drawn the ire of the powerful security and native Jordanian political establishment that regards any comeback by Hamas as a boost to Islamists.

Egypt’s military rulers mull early power transfer as voting for Shura Council resumes

Voting for Egypt’s upper house of parliament resumes on Monday amid reports that the country’s military rulers were considering a handover of power to a civilian authority ahead of schedule.

Activists and revolutionary groups have been demanding the immediate transfer of power to the speaker of Egypt’s newly elected parliament or an interim president; whereas the military rulers insist on handing over the executive authority after the presidential elections scheduled in June.

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has asked its advisory council, which consists of prominent political and intellectual figures, to consider the early power transfer, the online edition of Egypt’s al-Ahram reported on Sunday.

The advisory council is expected to present its proposal within 72 hours.
According to the report carried by al-Ahram, the military council made the request on Saturday at a meeting with members of the advisory council, in the aftermath of the recent escalations while marking the revolution’s first anniversary on Jan. 25.

Sameh Ashour, deputy leader of the advisory council and head of the Nasserist Party, has proposed that the military council hand over power ahead of schedule following a constitutional referendum, without waiting for the results of elections for the upper house of Egypt’s parliament (Shura Council), which kicked off Sunday.

The referendum aimed at granting parliament the right to appoint the constituent assembly -- tasked with drawing up a new constitution -- which would allow the military council to step down sooner than originally proposed.

Ashour was quoted by al-Ahram as saying that according to the terms of a constitutional referendum held in March 2011, in the event that a new constitution has not been written before scheduled presidential polls, the elected president would hold power for one year while a new national charter is drawn up, before fresh elections are held.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party Secretary-General Mohammed al-Beltagy, meanwhile, has pledged the party’s support for the scheduled transfer of power in June following presidential polls.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has already departed Tahrir Square and only young people remain there,” Beltagy was quoted by al-Ahram as saying. He was referring to the weekend’s protests against military rule.

Meanwhile, turnout was low as Egyptians voted on Sunday for the Shura Council, in elections that are the latest step in the country’s planned transition from military to civilian rule.

Few voters showed up to cast their ballots at polling stations in Cairo, one of 13 provinces where the first stage of elections for the largely advisory council are taking place. A second stage will take place on Feb. 14-15.

“We now feel we have a role in shaping the country’s future,” Mohammed el-Hawari, a professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University and one of those who did vote, told The Associated Press.

But voters in Cairo appeared split on the importance of the latest poll.

“I voted in the referendum (on constitutional amendments in March), I voted for the (People’s) Assembly, and so I will vote for the Shura,” said a voter who only gave her name as Seham, according to AFP.

“If this chamber had no importance, authorities would not be seeking to revive it,” she added.

In contrast, voter Zainab al-Sadawi, said: “If the Shura had an important role to play drafting the future constitution, there should have been campaigns on the subject. Otherwise, the People’s Assembly is enough.”

The Shura Council is composed of 270 members.

Under the complex system adopted after Mubarak’s ouster, two thirds of the Shura’s 180 elected members will be elected via a party-list system, while one third will be appointed directly.

Islamists dominated elections for the People’s Assembly, the more powerful of the two houses of parliament, in voting that ran from Nov. 28 through January. Turnout was heavy in these elections, which were the first since the Jan. 25-Feb. 11, 2011, mass uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

One secular party, the Free Egyptians, had announced that it was boycotting Shura Council elections to protest what it described as violations of Egypt’s election laws by Islamist parties during the People’s Assembly vote.

The secularists say that that Islamists made heavy use of religious slogans and campaigned too close to polling stations. Islamist spokesmen have denied using slogans inappropriately, and said that all groups campaigned too close to the stations.

Secular and liberal alliances, including youth parties which led the anti-Mubarak uprising, have performed poorly in elections.

Once the Shura Council elections are complete, according to Egypt’s transition plan, the parliament is tasked to select a 100-member panel to draft the country’s new constitution. The ruling military council which took power after Mubarak's ouster is then scheduled to transfer power to an elected civilian president by the end of June.

Sudan’s army frees 14 ‘kidnapped’ Chinese workers

China confirmed on Sunday that some of its nationals had “gone missing” after rebels on Saturday attacked the camp of a Chinese company. (AFP)
The Sudanese military has freed 14 Chinese workers “kidnapped” by rebels in the country’s South Kordofan state, the official SUNA news agency reported on Monday.

“SAF troops succeeded in freeing 14 of the Chinese workers,” SUNA quoted state governor Ahmad Harun as saying.

Harun said the Chinese were in good condition and had been taken to nearby al-Obeid in neighboring North Kordofan.

The fate of other Chinese reported captured with the group was not immediately clear.
China confirmed on Sunday that some of its nationals had “gone missing” after rebels on Saturday attacked the camp of a Chinese company, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

It quoted an embassy official as saying more than 20 Chinese were missing, a figure also given by a senior executive at Power Construction Corp of China, their employer.

Rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) told AFP they had captured 29 Chinese.

Neither the rebels nor Chinese embassy officials could be reached on Monday.

SPLM-N spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi earlier told AFP the Chinese were “in safe hands”.

He said they were captured along with nine members of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on Saturday when the rebels destroyed a Sudanese military convoy between Rashad town and al-Abbasiya in the northeast of the province, which has been at war since June.

Lodi denied the Chinese had been kidnapped.

Al-Abbasiya has now been secured, SUNA quoted governor Harun as saying.

The Chinese were involved in a road-building project, the executive from Power Construction Corp told Xinhua.

China is Sudan’s major trading partner, the largest buyer of Sudanese oil, and a key military supplier to the regime in Khartoum.

There is growing international concern over the situation in South Kordofan and nearby Blue Nile state, where a similar conflict broke out in September.

The government is fighting ethnic minority insurgents once allied to the former rebels who now rule South Sudan.

The South gained independence from Khartoum last July after decades of civil war.

Food shortages would become critical without substantial aid deliveries into South Kordofan and Blue Nile by March, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has said.

Khartoum has severely restricted the work of foreign relief agencies in the war zones.

It cited security concerns and also accused aid workers of using United Nations flights to deliver arms and ammunition to the rebels -- a claim for which the U.N.’s top humanitarian official said there was “no evidence”.

Princeton Lyman, the U.S. administration’s special envoy for Sudan, told reporters last week the situation is so dire Washington has warned Khartoum it would consider ways for aid to be sent in without Sudanese government approval.

Syrian troops seize Damascus suburbs from rebels; Clinton to attend U.N. session

Troops seized eastern suburbs of Damascus from rebels early Monday, opposition activists said, after two days of fighting only a few kilometers from the center of power of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Free Syrian Army has made a tactical withdrawal. Regime forces have re-occupied the suburbs and started making house-to-house arrests,” an activist named Kamal said by phone from the eastern al-Ghouta area on the edge of the capital.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army of defectors fighting Assad’s forces appeared to confirm that account.

“Tanks have gone in but they do not know where the Free Syrian Army is. We are still operating close to Damascus,” Maher al-Naimi told Reuters by phone from Turkey.
Activists said earlier on Sunday soldiers had moved into the suburbs at dawn, along with at least 50 tanks and other armored vehicles. At least 19 civilians and rebel fighters were killed in that initial attack, they said.

“The more the regime uses the army, the more soldiers defect,” Ahmed al-Khatib, a local rebel council member on the Damascus outskirts, told AFP.

Other rebel sources reported heavy fighting in Rankus, 45 kilometers from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north.

Rankus was “besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds,” rebel Abu Ali al-Rankusi told AFP by telephone.

Fierce fighting

Fighters had taken over districts less than eight km (five miles) from the heart of the city. The areas have seen repeated protests against Assad’s rule and crackdowns by troops in the 10-month-old uprising.

“It’s urban war. There are bodies in the street,” said an activist speaking from the suburb of Kfar Batna.

Residents of Damascus reported hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night, shattering the city’s calm.

“The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident, according to The Associated Press.

“Once illusions unravel, reality soon follows,” he wrote in his blog Sunday.

Residents of central Damascus reported seeing soldiers and police deployed around main squares.

The fighting using mortars and machine guns sent entire families fleeing, some of them on foot carrying bags of belongings, to the capital.

“The shelling and bullets have not stopped since yesterday,” said a man who left his home in Ein Tarma with his family Sunday. “It’s terrifying, there’s no electricity or water, it’s a real war,” he told AP by telephone on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.

The escalating bloodshed prompted the Arab League to suspend the work of its monitors on Saturday. Arab foreign ministers, who have urged Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity, will discuss the crisis on Feb. 5.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby left for New York where he will brief representatives of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to seek support for the Arab peace plan. Diplomats told Al Arabiya that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to attend the Security Council session on Tuesday.

He will be joined by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, whose country heads the League's committee charged with overseeing Syria.

Al-Araby said he hoped to overcome resistance from Beijing and Moscow over endorsing the Arab proposals.

A Syrian government official said the Arab League decision to suspend monitoring would “put pressure on (Security Council) deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging armed groups to increase violence.”

Assad blames the violence on foreign-backed militants.

Death toll mounts

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 41 civilian deaths across Syria on Sunday, including 14 in Homs province and 12 in the city of Hama. Thirty-one soldiers and members of the security forces were also killed, most in two attacks by deserters in the northern province of Idlib, it said, according to Reuters.

State news agency SANA reported the military funerals of 28 soldiers and police on Saturday and another 23 on Sunday.

After mass demonstrations against his rule erupted last spring, Assad launched a military crackdown. Growing numbers of army deserters and gunmen have joined the protesters in a country of 23 million people regarded as a pivotal state at the heart of the Middle East.

The insurgency has crept closer to the capital. The suburbs, a string of mainly conservative Sunni Muslim towns, known as al-Ghouta, are home to the bulk of Damascus's population.

One activist said mosques there had been turned into opposition field hospitals and were appealing for blood supplies. “They (the authorities) cut off the electricity. Petrol stations are empty and the army is preventing people from leaving to get fuel for generators or heating,” he said.

The Damascus suburbs have seen large demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has dominated the mostly Sunni Muslim country for the last five decades.

In Rankous, 30 km (20 miles) north of Damascus by the Lebanese border, Assad’s forces have killed at least 33 people in recent days in an attack to dislodge army defectors and insurgents, activists and residents said on Sunday.

In Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, about 200 members of Syria’s Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad.

Abdul-Baqi Youssef, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Union Party, said representatives of 11 Kurdish parties formed the Syrian Kurdish National Council that will coordinate anti-government activities with Syria's opposition.

Kurds make up 15 percent of Syria’s 23 million people and have long complained of discrimination.

Giving time to Assad

Iran said Assad must be given time to implement reforms.

Tehran at first wholeheartedly supported Assad’s hardline stance against the 10 months of popular protests. It has since tempered its rhetoric, but it condemns what it calls foreign interference in Syrian affairs.

“They have to have a free election, they have to have the right constitution, they have to allow different political parties to have their activities freely in the country. And this is what he has promised,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.

“We think that Syria has to be given the choice of time so that by (that) time they can do the reforms.”

Syria has said it will hold a referendum on a new constitution soon, before a multi-party parliamentary election that has been much postponed. Under the present constitution, Assad’s Baath party is “the leader of the state and society.”

France, which has been leading calls for stronger international action on Syria, said the Arab League decision highlighted the need to act.

The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the protests and crackdown. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed. Britain and France said they hoped to put it to a vote next week.

Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October, and has said it wants a Syrian-led political process, not "an Arab League-imposed outcome" or Libyan-style "regime change".

Al-Araby told reporters Sunday in Egypt that contacts were under way with China and Russia.

“I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution,” he told reporters before leaving for New York with the Qatari Prime Minister.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was “concerned” about the League’s decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to “immediately stop the bloodshed.” He spoke Sunday at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Egypt deputy parliament speaker vows to avenge revolution martyrs, lists legislative’s priorities

Egypt’s First Deputy Parliament Speaker, Ashraf Thabet, has said he will ensure those responsible for the deaths of protestors are properly prosecuted. (File photo)
Egypt’s First Deputy Parliament Speaker Ashraf Thabet vowed to make sure the first post-revolution parliament would take the necessary measures to prosecute all those responsible for killing or injuring the revolutionaries.

“The revolutionaries have to be avenged because it is thanks to them that we are now members of parliament. This could never have happened during Hosni Mubarak’s time,” Thabet told the talk show 90 Minutes on the Egyptian independent satellite channel al-Mehwar.

Thabet, who also heads the fact finding committee in charge of investigating violence against protestors, said the committee will start its work as soon as its sub-committees are formed.
“Each member of the committee and its sub-committees will be assigned a special role so that at the end we have all the information needed and which includes the sequence of events since the beginning of the revolution.”

Thabet said that even cases where suspects were found innocent will be investigated by the committee.

“Meanwhile, the committee will also be working on knowing the whereabouts of people who disappeared at the time of the revolution and are still missing.”

In addition to making sure that anyone involved in killing or injuring innocent civilians is prosecuted, Thabet stressed that the new parliament will work on eliminating the reasons that ignited the revolution.

“This should include financial, political, and social corruption, flawed laws and legislations, and the problem of slum areas.”

Thabet found an alliance between the Salafi Nour Party, to which he belongs, and the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, quite unlikely.

“We did not have an alliance during the elections nor do we have one now. The Nour Party has good relations with the Freedom and Justice party and all other parties in the parliament.”

Those good relations, he explained, were what made electing a parliament speaker and two deputies a smooth process.

“The parliament speaker was from the Freedom and Justice Party since it has the majority and the first and second deputies came from Nour and Wafd, respectively, in accordance with their ranking in election results.”

Thabet added that the new parliament is entirely different from the 2010 one in the sense that it is no longer a subordinate of the government and the executive power.

“The former ruling National Democratic Party monopolized the parliament in several ways especially through rigging and thuggery and allowed no other party to take part in the political process.”

On the contrary, he pointed out, the new parliament is a body assigned with issuing legislations and monitoring the performance of the government.

“It also contains representatives of all political powers such as Islamists, revolutionaries, liberals, and independents.”

Saad al-Katatni, the new parliament speaker, declared Ashraf Thabet first deputy after getting 429 votes.

Thabet, holder of a B.Sc. in agriculture and a B.A. in law, was secretary general of the Membership Affairs Committee in the Nour Party, is a preacher in several Egyptian mosques, and has taken part in several charity projects across the country.

Libya’s NTC adopts election law, drops women quota

Women take part in a demonstration demanding that the Libyan National Transitional Council apply Islamic sharia rule in the country. (REUTERS)
The ruling National Transitional Council on Saturday adopted a new electoral law for Libya to form its first constituent assembly in June, dropping a quota set aside for women.

The law, announced on the NTC’s Facebook page, scraps a draft proposal that would have reserved 10 percent of seats on the 200-member General National Congress for women, in an amendment criticized by women’s and rights groups.
The law also stipulates that two-thirds of the congress be made up of candidates from political groups, with the rest going to independent members.

NTC member Mukhtar al-Jaddal confirmed the adoption of the electoral law.

“The NTC adopted the electoral law. The new law has abandoned the 10 percent quota reserved for women” that was proposed in the draft version of the law, Jaddal told AFP.

The NTC said on its Facebook page that the adopted law calls for 136 seats of the assembly to go to candidates of political parties and the remaining 64 seats to be held by independents.

However, it also said each political party must have equal numbers of men and women in its list of candidates for the 136 seats.

The NTC was to adopt the law last week but postponed it after violent protests at its offices in the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of the 2011 uprising which ousted Libya’s longtime strongman Muammar Qaddafi

The council, which spearheaded the bloody rebellion against Qaddafi and now rules the new Libya, is facing severe criticism over its functioning and choice of members.

Last week’s protests in Benghazi saw the NTC’s number two, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, quit the council as residents opposed his membership over his belated defection from the former regime.

Protesters stormed the NTC offices in Benghazi and threw several home-made grenades last Saturday, demanding the entire council resign except a few members such as Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who heads the ruling body.

The final text of the new electoral law is expected to be formally published in coming days.

The formation of the General National Congress is part of the new Libya’s 20-month roadmap since the NTC declared the country’s “liberation” after Qaddafi’s killing on Oct. 20.

Under the roadmap, which the NTC published last August, the council is to hand over power to the elected assembly within eight months of the liberation and a constitution be drawn up.

The 37-article “constitutional declaration” covers 10 pages and details the main stages of a transition from the four-decade rule of Qaddafi.

The NTC, which was formed in Benghazi last February, will step down once the congress, taking over as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, holds its first session.

Iran moves step closer to banning oil sales to EU

Iranian parliament will debate and vote Sunday on a draft bill requiring the government to immediately halt crude oil sales to Europe. (File photo)
Iranian lawmakers have finalized a draft bill requiring the government to immediately halt crude oil sales to Europe in response to the bloc’s decision to ban the purchase of Iranian oil, a member of parliament said Saturday.

Nasser Soudani said the legislature’s energy committee completed its work on the bill Saturday and that parliament will debate and vote on it during an open session on Sunday.
“As long as the EU doesn’t lift the oil embargo, we won’t give them a drop of oil,” state TV quoted Soudani as saying. Soudani is deputy chairman of the energy committee.

The European Union imposed an oil embargo against Iran and froze the assets of its central bank on Monday. It was the latest attempt to try to pressure Tehran over a nuclear program the United States and its allies argue is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for purely peaceful purposes.

The EU sanctions came just weeks after the U.S. approved, but has yet to enact, new sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank and, by extension, its ability to sell its oil.

Many Iranian lawmakers and officials have called for an immediate ban on oil exports to the European bloc before the EU’s ban fully goes into effect in July, arguing that the 27 EU nations account for only about 18 percent of Iran’s overall oil sales and would be hurt more by the decision than Iran. China, a key buyer of Iranian crude, has criticized the embargo.

Ahmad Qalebani, director of the National Iranian Oil Company, said the EU must either sign long-term oil contracts with Iran now or lose Iranian oil.

“Some European companies still want to receive Iranian oil,” Qalebani was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency. “We want those companies to enter transparent talks with us for a long-term contracts or stop purchasing oil from Iran now.”

Qalebani said the decision to immediately cut oil exports to Europe has to be approved by the country’s top leadership.

If parliament passes the bill to halt oil sales to Europe, the legislation must still be approved by the Guardian Council to become law.

Taliban negotiators meet with U.S. officials in Qatar to discuss initial steps: report

Taliban negotiators have begun meeting with U.S. officials in Qatar, where they are discussing preliminary trust-building measures aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Citing several former Taliban officials, the newspaper said these measures included a possible prisoner transfer.

The Afghan government is expecting a delegation from the Qatar government to visit Kabul to explain its role in the talks, said High Peace Council secretary Aminundin Muzaffari.

The former officials said that four to eight Taliban representatives had traveled to Qatar from Pakistan to set up a political office for the exiled Afghan insurgent group, the report said.

The comments suggested that the Taliban, who have not publicly said they would engage in peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, were gearing up for preliminary discussions, the paper said.

U.S. officials would not deny that meetings had taken place, and the discussions seemed to have at least the tacit approval of Pakistan, which has thwarted previous efforts by the Taliban to engage in talks, The Times noted.

Pakistani visit to Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will visit Afghanistan on February 1 to discuss reconciliation efforts there, a Pakistani newspaper reported on Sunday.

Khar was asked earlier this month by Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to travel to Kabul ahead of a trilateral summit on the future of Afghanistan.

The News reported that Khar would lead a small delegation on a one day trip to Kabul on February 1. No further details were given and officials were not immediately available for comment.

The United States sees Pakistan as critical to its efforts to wind down the war in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S.-led NATO forces are battling a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

Khar told Reuters on January 19 that Pakistan’s ties with the United States remain on hold after a NATO cross-border air attack and that Washington should not push Islamabad to go after militant groups or bring them to the Afghan peace process.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mubarak still Egypt president: Lawyer

The lawyer of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Farid El-Deeb, has claimed his client is still legally the Egyptian president.
Under article 78 of the constitution, said El-Deeb in court on Sunday, the president remains in office until a successor is installed.
El-Deeb also claimed that Mubarak’s resignation was void because it took place via a telephone call to Omar Soliman, the former vice president, and was not put in written form.
The trial has been adjourned until Monday.

Syrian regime blackmailing Arab League observers: former monitor

A former member of the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria accused the A regime of attempting to blackmail mission members to affect the results of their findings.

“The Syrian regime planted cameras in the bathrooms of commission members in order to blackmail them with the pictures,” an Algerian former member of the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria, Anwar Malek, told Al Arabiya’s Panorama show on Saturday.

Malek added that women were also sent to the rooms in which members of the commission stayed in order to later blackmail them with the photos.
“I am sure some of them must have fallen into this trap.”

Malek said Syrian intelligence also sent pictures of himself to him by the via email to blackmail him.

“That is why I call upon the Arab League to withdraw the monitoring commission from Syria, because its members are working under very stressful conditions.”

In addition to the blackmailing strategy, Malek said, the Syrian regime did its best to keep commission members from monitoring the situation in the country.

“Authorities would respond to transportation requests hours later, and most of the time observers had to use their own personal phones to do their work.”

Malek said that contrary to reports, the Syrian army has not withdrawn from the streets and that civilians are still being killed and cities are besieged.

“For this reason, what Syria needs is a commission of international observers or an international investigation committee.”

The stance of several commission members toward the Syrian regime, Malek said, was quite puzzling.

“The head of the commission became extremely lenient with Syrian officials a few days after we had arrived and for no good reason.”

The media coverage of the crisis in Syria, Malek said, was exclusive to official outlets.

“In Homs, I have not seen one journalist who was not working for the Syrian TV, and officials did not allow observers to follow satellite channels even in the rooms where they stayed.”

According to the head of the National Free Council, Burhan Ghalioun, the Arab League commission in Syria hsd failed.

“Observers were very few and were untrained and there was no mechanism for detecting ongoing violations,” he said.

Ghalioun called upon the Arab League to not extend the commission’s work in Syria.

Ghalioun added that the Syrian Free Army is not engaged in acts of violence, as reported by official media.

“They are protecting civilians from the brutality of the regime.”

Brotherhood’s candidate for parliament speaker steps down as FJP secretary-general

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party(FJP), Mohamed Morsy, declared Sunday that his party’s executive office has accepted the request by Mohamed Saad El-Katatny, the FJP secretary-general, to step down from his position in case he is elected parliament speaker.
Morsy explained that Katatny will undertake the tasks of party secretary-general until a new one is elected.
The Muslim Brotherhood had declared last week that they would nominate Katatny as parliament speaker, adding that they do not intend to back any of their candidates for the two deputy speaker positions.

Iran’s Gulf smugglers feel blowback from tensions

Business is sharply down, say unmarked Iranian smugglers, as the slumping Iranian currency leaves fewer customers for the smuggled wares. (Reuters)
By dawn, the unmarked speedboats from Iran pull into port. By dusk, they are racing back across the Strait of Hormuz loaded with smuggled consumer goods ranging from Chinese-made shoes to cut flowers from Holland.

Even as sanctions squeeze Iran ever tighter, there’s one clandestine route that remains open for business: A short sea corridor across the Persian Gulf connecting a rocky nub of Oman and the Iranian coast about 35 miles (60 kilometers) away.

Yet even this established smugglers’ path is now feeling the bite from the pressures on Iran over its nuclear program.
Business is sharply down, the middlemen and boat crews say, as the slumping Iranian currency leaves fewer customers for the smuggled wares. At the same time, the risks of interception are higher as Iranian authorities step up patrols near the strategic oil tanker lanes at the mouth of the Gulf.

The strait, which is the only access in and out of the Gulf, has been the scene of Cold War-style brinksmanship between Iran and the West after Tehran last month threatened to block the passageway for about one-sixth of the world’s oil in retaliation for new U.S. sanctions.

“We used to make two or three trips across every day. Now, it’s maybe one,” said an Iranian middleman, who gave only his first name Agheel to protect his identity from authorities in his homeland.

He watched crews load up a pickup truck with bolts of fabric from Pakistan and table-size boxes of cut flowers from the Netherlands, before the trucks headed off through the treeless mountains to Khasab port.

The operation smuggles in merchandise to avoid Iranian tariffs and to bring in American and European products that have disappeared from Iranian markets because of international sanctions. Experts note that the consumer items post no real challenge to efforts to block material with military or nuclear uses.

“Still, it shows you can’t close off all channels into Iran no matter how hard you try,” said Paul Rogers, who follows security affairs at Bradford University in Britain. “People will find a way.”

On this side of the Gulf, the smugglers operate under a tacit tolerance from authorities, even though Oman and the United Arab Emirates are close U.S. allies and have pledged to enforce sanctions. The port lies in a sparsely populated peninsula enclave belonging to Oman but encircled on land by the UAE, a legacy of how the area was carved up in the final days of British rule here in the last century that resulted in Oman holding joint control with Iran over the strait.

The goods are legally imported into the UAE and truck drivers take them across the border, paying the customary 50 dirham ($13.50) entry fee, according to the smugglers interviewed by The Associated Press. In Khasab, the merchandise is taken to warehouses and then piled on the docks less than 100 yards (100 meters) from the port police headquarters.

Omani authorities did not respond to requests for comment on the traffic.

The Khasab speedboats are far from the only back channel into Iran. Drug traffickers easily cross the hinterland borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and black market networks stretch across the frontiers with Iraq and Turkey. Authorities in Iraq’s Kurdish region have been under pressure for years to crack down on fuel trucks heading into Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

But Khasab stands out for its openness and for lying on the highly sensitive Strait.

A shipment arranged by the Iranian smuggler Agheel this week was done with practiced efficiency.

A pickup truck backed into a wood-floored warehouse with hundreds of cases of cigarettes bundled three together and wrapped tightly in gray plastic weave - in total 3,000 cigarettes under south Asian brands such as Ruby Menthol. The truck was soon sagging under the weight of boxes piled five high.

Agheel did some quick calculations: Each three-case load cost him about $1,200 and he could sell them to merchants in Iran for the equivalent of about $1,350 under current exchange rates. The truck pulling out of the warehouse represented a potential return of about $4,500.

“If we don’t get caught,” he added.

The smugglers have their ways of avoiding Iranian authorities.

Spotters off the coast - on the island of Qeshm and near the port of Bandar Abbas - call in coast guard movements to Khasab. The speedboat drivers keep close attention to the water conditions on the Strait and try to approach the Iranian coast just after sunset. The trip can take as little as 90 minutes in calm seas and up to four hours in rough water in the stripped down stripped-down 16-foot (five-meter) fiberglass boats.

Agheel’s truck passed through the Khasab customs station at midday and then down a strip of hardscrabble road.

At the port - almost in the shadow of a Costa cruise ship making a day stop - dozens of boats were being packed and secured for the trip. There were no names or markings on the speedboats. But the items loaded on carried familiar logos: LG 42-inch flatscreen TVs, Discovery Channel DVDs, Panasonic microwaves, Yamaha motorcycle parts. Also in the stacks were textiles, satellite dishes and Chinese-made clothes and shoes.

One boat driver, who gave his name only as Aziz, had a breakfast of eggs, beans and Mountain Dew as he waited for the day’s shipment to be loaded for the return run to Qeshm, a long arrow-shaped island near the Iranian coast and a main waystation for the smugglers.

Months ago, he could make as many trips as possible because the merchants in Iran were demanding goods.

But now the struggling Iranian rial - dragged down partly by U.S.-led sanctions that could target Iran’s Central Bank - has put many things out of reach for Iranians, he said.

“No one wants to buy because the (rial) rate is not stable,” he said.

He also said the Iranian coastal patrols have been boosted amid the escalating tensions over the Strait.

On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the American military is “fully prepared” to deal with any Iranian effort to close the waterway. Next month, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard plans naval exercises in the area.

If spotted by patrols, Aziz said the two-man boat crews try to heave the goods overboard. They then must pay back the smuggling network, which can amount to thousands of dollars.

But it’s worth the risk, he said.

“The situation is getting worse now,” he said. “All the prices are up and Qeshm has nothing else” except smuggling.

MPs call for early elections in April

MP and Al-Adl Party member Mostafa El-Naggar announced an initiative Sunday adopted by several parliamentarians calling for earlier than scheduled presidential elections, directly following parliamentary polls due to end in February.
The initiative, according to El-Naggar, calls for April presidential elections with the nomination window opening late February. The ruling military council announced late last year that the nominations process would begin mid-April following Shura Council (parliament’s upper house) elections.
El-Naggar ensured that several MPs together with the Mesrena (Our Egypt) movement will release a statement Sunday adopting this initiative. The Mesrena movement had already released a statement calling for a more accelerated timetable. The movement said it will be coordinating with other political groups as well as presidential candidates adopting this campaign.
The campaign comes as part of a broader movement calling for an end to military rule and a quick handover of power to a civil government. Other activists are proposing that power immediately transferred to the recently elected People’s Assembly (parliament’s lower house) on 25 January until presidential elections.  

Tens of thousands of Yemenis protest against Saleh’s immunity, call for his execution

A woman displays placards during a protest against immunity for Yemen’s outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taez. (Reuters)
Tens of thousands of Yemenis demanded President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s execution in protests Sunday against his immunity from prosecution over a deadly crackdown on dissent.

“It is our duty... to execute the butcher,” chanted angry protesters gathered in the Yemeni capital’s Change Square, the epicenter of the democracy movement that has been calling for Saleh’s ouster since January last year.

Yemen’s parliament on Saturday adopted a law giving Saleh “complete” immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down under a Gulf-brokered transition deal.

The law also offers partial protection from legal action for Saleh’s aides, saying the president’s lieutenants cannot face prosecution for “actions that were politically motivated and carried out in the exercise of their duties.”

The protesters carried banners calling on lawmakers to reverse their decision.

“To the lawmakers, we say there will be no immunity at the expense of the blood of our martyrs,” referring to the hundreds killed in the government crackdown.

The demonstrators tried to march to the U.S. embassy in Sana’a but were stopped by Yemeni security forces.

The final text of the immunity law specified the amnesty “does not apply to acts of terrorism,” though no further details were revealed as to what actions may fall within that category.

The transitional government of national unity, which is led by the parliamentary opposition, had submitted 11th-hour amendments on Friday reducing the scope of the amnesty offered to the president's aides following a public outcry.

U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has criticized the immunity law arguing it neglects the rights of “victims.”

Speaking to reporters before departing Yemen late Saturday, Benomar said that though “the law was amended... it does not live up to our expectations. The U.N. in principle stands against this type of blanket immunity.”

He further called on parliament to enact a “transitional justice and reconciliation” law that would allow victims to be heard and make claims for compensation.

Parliament also adopted a law approving Saleh’s longtime deputy, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as the consensus candidate in the election for Saleh’s successor, which is due to be held on February 21.