Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Egypt’s GUC expels students for showing “Military Liars”

CAIRO: Egypt’s German University in Cairo suspended three students on Tuesday and expelled two others, for organizing a “Kazeboon,” or “Military Liars,” showing, a visual documentation campaign exposing the ruling military council’s numerous human rights violations, screening on their campus.
Amr Abdel Wahab and Hassan Zeko were expelled from the university and Ahmed Bostan, Mostafa Essia, Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid Mekawy were suspended for two weeks, according to students at GUC.
The GUC administration warned families of students that if the students would not stop marching and protesting on campus chanting against the military council, they would be expelled.
However, the threats from the university have only fired up the students against what they have dubbed censorship of freedom of expression and oppression by the university.
Abou Zeid, one of the suspended students, published the suspension letter online through his Twitter account, which reads: “Due to your disrespectful behavior and your violation of courtesy and good manners, we hereby acknowledge that you are suspended for two weeks.”
Five other students at GUC were turned over to an investigation committee at the university for organizing an anti-military junta protest inside the campus and were accused of a long list of violations. Inciting students to break into the administration building, negatively influencing the educational process, endangering the lives of students due to over crowding and pushing, yelling loudly inside the campus and leading the “troublemakers student body,” were the accusations, according to a report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

israeli army raids Palestinian TV stations

israeli troops have raided two private Palestinian television stations in the illegally occupied West Bank, seizing transmitters and other equipment.
The two stations affected were Watan Television, a local private station, and Quds Educational Television, affiliated with the Palestinian Al-Quds University.
"They came at 2 am (0000 GMT) and took about 30 computers and all the transmitters. The station is totally shut down," said Ali Daraghmeh, Watan's editor-in-chief.
Haroun Abu Arra, director of Quds Educational Television, said troops raided his station shortly afterwards.
"At 3:00 am (0100 GMT), the Israeli army entered the television station's office and took all the transmitters, and the station is now unable to broadcast," he said.
The Israeli army said that Watan Television was a pirate station whose frequencies interfered with legal broadcasters and aircraft communications. It said several transmitters were confiscated in the operation initiated by Israel's communications ministry.
The military also confirmed a second raid at Quds Educational Television, but did not elaborate.
Palestinian officials denounced the raids as an aggression and va iolation of media freedoms.
Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, visited al-Watan later on Wednesday and said the raid had undermined his government.
"This is a clear aggression against what remains of the Palestinian Authority," Fayyad said, urging international mediators to force Israel to halt such raids.
Al-Watan station director Moammar Orabi said about 30 soldiers had entered the station before dawn.
Orabi told The Associated Press news agency an Israeli officer told station employees to "say hello to Khader Adnan," referring to the Palestinian detainee who waged a hunger strike for more than two months to protest being held without formal charges.
Al-Watan frequently reports on Palestinian protests against Israeli policies in the West Bank. It is owned by three non-governmental associations, including the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, headed by legislator Mustafa Barghouti.
"This is an act of repression of the freedom of the media in Palestine, and of repression of the popular resistance that we believe in," Barghouti said.

Iran 'intensifying clampdown' ahead of vote

Iran has “dramatically” escalated its crackdown on freedom of expression ahead of this week's parliamentary election, Amnesty International said in a report published on Tuesday.
The report entitled "We are ordered to crush you: Expanding Repression of Dissent in Iran" details repressive acts by the Iranian authorities since February 2011, including a recent wave of arrests.
The arrests, Amnesty said, have targeted lawyers, students, journalists, political activists and their relatives, as  well as religious and ethnic minorities, film-makers and people with international connections, particularly to media.
"In Iran today you put yourself at risk if you do anything that might fall outside the increasingly narrow confines of what the authorities deem socially or politically acceptable," said Ann Harrison, interim deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme.
"Anything from setting up a social group on the Internet, forming or joining an NGO, or expressing your opposition to the status quo can land you in prison," she said.
Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who were defeated in the controversial presidential elections in 2009, have been under de facto house arrest since February 2011.
"This dreadful record really highlights the hypocrisy of the Iranian government's attempts to show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, Bahrain and other countries in the region," Amnesty said.
'Enemy propaganda'
The crackdown has particularly worsened in the run-up to parliamentary elections due to take place on March 2, Amnesty said.
Iran’s authorities, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly called on security forces to be vigilant against “enemy threats” in the period leading up to the vote.
“The enemy's propaganda machines and the media of arrogant circles have begun an extensive effort so that the assembly election is without splendour," the 72-year-old leader said recently.
"But all should know that the people's participation in the elections will take the country forward … an election full of excitement will be a major blow to the enemy."
The clampdown has targeted electronic media, seen by the authorities as a major threat, Amnesty said, adding that attacks on dissenting views come against a backdrop of a worsening overall human rights situation in Iran, including public executions used to strike fear into society.
Amnesty called on the global community "not to allow tensions over Iran's nuclear programme or events in the wider region to distract it from pressing Iran to live up to its human rights obligations."
"For Iranians facing this level of repression, it can be dispiriting that discussions about their country in diplomatic circles can seem to focus mainly on the nuclear programme at the expense of human rights," said Harrison.
Iranians vote in parliamentary elections on Friday in the first national poll since the controversial 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A total of 3,444 vetted candidates are vying for the 290 seats in the parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, to be decided by an electorate of 48 million voters.

Judges in Egypt's NGO trial pull out

All three judges in Egypt's trial of 43 NGO workers have pulled out of the case, according to a court official.
The defendants, including 16 US citizens, are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt over the past year.
The non-governmental organisations flatly deny the charges, and US officials have hinted foreign aid to Egypt could be in jeopardy because of the case.
Mohammed Shoukry, the lead judge in the case, said on Tuesday that "the court felt uneasiness" in handling the case, according to a court official. He did not elaborate.
The trial has so far only made it as far as its opening session, and would need to be restarted with a new panel of judges. 
Combined with indications that the two countries are trying to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, there is speculation that the case could be dropped.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told two senate panels on Tuesday that the US and Egypt, which has long been considered a close ally of Washington, were "in very intensive discussions about finding a solution".
"We've had a lot of very tough conversations," she said. "We're moving toward a resolution. It's important that they know that we are continuing to push them," Clinton said.
The US has threatened to cut off up to $1.3bn in military aid and another $250m in economic assistance to Egypt over the case.
Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, reporting from Cairo, said: "The head of the appeal court will have to appoint another three judges and the whole trial will have to begin again.
"The reason for the judges’ action is not particularly clear and the timing, coming after the statement by Hillary Clinton, may or may not have influenced their actions," he said.
PJ Crowley, the former US state department spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that all sides involved in the politically charged case were trying to figure out how to resolve the situation with the least damage possible.
"The US has been very fervent in terms of decrying the prosecution of NGOs, and what you have here, unfortunately, is a clash of two democratic principles that Egypt needs to embrace," he said.
"On one hand, to develop a system of free and fair elections so that more people can participate in the political process and have their voices heard, and that’s what the NGOs were trying to do to," Crowley said.
"On the other hand, you need the fundamental pillar of democracy that is an independent judiciary, and these judges for whatever reasons are indicating that they are uncomfortable with the position they were put in."
'Absolute pandemonium'
Our correspondent said that Sunday's opening hearing in the case, which was not attended by most of the defendants, had been marked by "absolute pandemonium".
"One of the principle witnesses is the minister of planning and international co-operation. She argued in her evidence, that Al Jazeera has seen, that NGOs are part of an outside plot to foment civil dissent in Egypt.
"This case is as much to do with Egypt’s insistence on its sovereignty as it has to do with the NGO workers. The judges may be uncomfortable handling something that is less to do with the law but with wider political and diplomatic issues."
The affair began in December when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 groups, confiscating documents and equipment.
It led to charges that the groups, including human rights organisations, had financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and had failed to register with the government as required.
The groups insist their financing is transparent, and say that all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.
Egyptian officials claim the matter is entirely in the hands of the judiciary, and many view the US threats as unacceptable meddling.
Of the 43 defendants in the case, 16 are from the US, 16 are Egyptians, and others are German, Palestinian, Serbian and Jordanian. Of the 16 US citizens, seven have been banned from leaving Egypt, among them Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Several have taken refuge at the US embassy in Cairo.
The 43 worked for the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a group that trains journalists and a German nonprofit organisation. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.

France high court ordered judges to examine Palestinian boy killing case

A TV grab from France 2 footage shot in 2000 in the Gaza Strip shows Jamal al-Dura and his son Mohammed. (AFP)
France’s high court Tuesday ordered appeals judges to re-examine a long-running dispute over a French television report showing the killing of a Palestinian boy in a exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters in Gaza that was accused of being staged.

Philippe Karsenty, director of Media Ratings -- a media watchdog group -- claimed a report by France 2 reporter Charles Enderlin on the death of Mohammed al-Dura more than 11 years ago was doctored.

Karsenty was first convicted of defamation in 2006 for accusing France 2, the channel whose iconic images of the killing were beamed around the world, of broadcasting “false reporting, pure fiction”. It was overturned on appeal in 2008.
That appeal was then challenged by France 2 and Enderlin before France’s highest court which overruled the appeals court’s decision and sent back the case.

The high court said the appeals court had overstepped its bounds in ordering France 2 to send them the rushes of the report, according to the text of the decision seen by AFP.

It said that the appeals court in Paris should judge the Karsenty case anew.

The death of 12-year-old Dura, who died in the arms of his father, on September 30, 2000, remains a searing image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the Arab world, Dura quickly became a symbol with which to condemn the Israeli occupation. The image of the child keeled over was reproduced on posters, stamps and T-shirts. Streets were named in his memory.

On the other side, defenders of Israel contested Enderlin’s reporting, whose voice-over of the images in the report said Israeli bullets had killed the boy.

Some cast doubt of the provenance of those bullets, saying they were in fact Palestinian. But others claim the entire event was staged, that Dura did not in fact die in his father’s arms.

New resolution on Syria drafted at U.N. council to focus on humanitarian angles

The United States and France have drafted an outline for a new U.N. Security Council resolution demanding access for humanitarian aid workers in besieged Syrian towns and an end to the violence there.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday that the council was working on a third resolution, this time focusing on the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by Assad’s military operations against protesters.

The draft resolution, obtained by Al Arabiya, demands an immediate halt to all forms of violence in Syria and condemns the continued widespread, systematic, and gross violations of human rights in the country.
The latest push for action on Syria by the 15-nation council comes after Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions that would have condemned Damascus’ 11-month crackdown on pro-democracy protests and demanded an end to the violence, which has killed more than 7,500 people according to the latest U.N. figures.

The draft resolution calls on the Syrian government to cease all violence and protect its population, release all detainees and withdraw military forces from cities and towns nationwide.

According to the new draft resolution, Syrian authorities should immediately allow humanitarian access and fully cooperate with the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The draft also expresses full support to the Arab League’s decision to facilitate a peaceful political transition in the country and starting a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition.

Russia, U.N. diplomats said, has indicated that it would support a resolution that focuses exclusively on the humanitarian crisis without any mention of the political situation. Arab and Western diplomats, however, say that such a resolution would be unacceptable to them.

The Russians would most probably oppose to article 9 of the draft resolution, which states that in case of non-compliance with the resolution within 14 days, further measures could be considered by the member states.

The new U.S initiative, they said, could succeed since the Chinese have signaled that they might not want to keep vetoing Syria resolutions in the council.

They said that Chinese diplomats have repeatedly attempted to justify their Feb. 4 veto of a European-Arab draft resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside so his deputy could arrange free elections, saying they were voting against “regime change,” not the Arab League.

Two weeks ago, the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution similar to the council resolution Russia and China vetoed on Feb. 4. But assembly resolutions, unlike Security Council decisions, are not legally binding.

If the United States, Europe and Arabs manage to win the support of the Chinese, or at least a pledge from Beijing to abstain and allow the resolution to pass, it will be very difficult for the Russians to stand alone and veto it.

Wounded British journalist smuggled from Syria

BEIRUT (AP) -- A wounded British photographer who had been trapped in the besieged Syrian city of Homs was spirited safely into Lebanon on Tuesday in a risky journey that killed 13 rebels who helped him escape the relentless shelling and gunfire.
A Syrian diplomat stormed out of an emergency U.N. meeting amid renewed calls for a cease-fire to deliver humanitarian aid. A top human rights official said a U.N. panel's report concluded that members of the Damascus regime were responsible for "crimes against humanity."
The United Nations said the death toll in the 11-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad was well over 7,500, and activists reported more than 250 dead in the past two days alone - mostly from government shelling in Homs and Hama province.
Tunisia's president - the first since the country's own Arab Spring uprising toppled his predecessor - offered the Syrian leader asylum as part of a negotiated peace, an offer Assad will almost surely refuse.
The harrowing ordeal of British photographer Paul Conroy, who was wounded with a French colleague last week by government rockets that killed two others, has drawn focus to the siege of Homs, which has emerged as the center of the anti-Assad uprising.
Hundreds have been killed in the city, parts of which the army has surrounded and shelled daily for more than three weeks. Many have died while venturing outside to forage for food, and activists have posted videos online of homes reduced to rubble and alleyways rendered no-go zones by snipers.
Conroy's escape was the first sign of relief for a group of Western journalists who sneaked into Syria illegally and reached the embattled Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr only to find themselves trapped. Government rockets bombarded the makeshift media center they shared with activists last week, killing two of them and injuring Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier. Conroy and Bouvier later appeared in activist videos lying on makeshift hospital beds, pleading for help.
Conroy crossed the border into neighboring Lebanon after leaving Homs on Sunday evening, according to the global activist group Avaaz, which said it organized the evacuation with local activists.
The group said 35 Syrians volunteered to help get the journalists out and 13 were killed in the operation.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy retracted an earlier statement that Bouvier had also made it to Lebanon. He said he had been "imprecise" due to the complexities of the situation.
"It is not confirmed that Madame Bouvier is today safe in Lebanon," he said.
The journalists believed to still be in the neighborhood are Frenchman William Daniels and Spaniard Javier Espinosa. In addition, the bodies of American Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, who were killed last week, are thought to be still in the neighborhood.
Syria's conflict started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by the uprisings that ousted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the street in impoverished hinterlands to call for Assad's downfall. As his troops have used increasing force to try to stop the unrest, the protests have spread, and some demonstrators have taken up arms to protect themselves or attack the regime.
U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe said "well over" 7,500 people have died in Syria's violence and that there are credible reports that more than 100 civilians are dying daily. Activist groups said Monday the death toll for 11 months of unrest has surpassed 8,000.
The new U.N. death toll adds nearly 2,000 dead to last month's toll of 5,400, suggesting an acceleration in the killing.
At a meeting in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the situation in Syria had deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks and called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.
She said her office has received reports that Syrian security forces "have launched massive campaigns of arrest."
Pillay cited a U.N. expert panel's report that concluded Syrian government officials were responsible for "crimes against humanity" committed by security forces against opposition members. The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups, too, had committed gross abuses, the report said.
The panel has compiled a confidential list of top-level Syrian officials who could face prosecution over the atrocities.
Pillay reiterated her call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court "in the face of the unspeakable violations that take place every moment."
"More than at any other time, those committing atrocities in Syria have to understand that the international community will not stand by and watch this carnage and that their decisions and the actions they take today ultimately will not go unpunished," she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying in the Senate on Tuesday, said Assad fits the definition of a war criminal, but she stopped short of saying the international community should make that designation and level charges, pointing out that such a step is often a disincentive for leaders to step down.
Syria's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi accused members of the U.N. Human Rights Council of promoting terrorism and prolonging the crisis by organizing the debate on the situation in his country.
Al-Hamwi denounced a planned resolution on Syria as "malicious and prejudiced," and then said his delegation would withdraw from what he called "this sterile discussion." He then stormed out of the room.
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the 47-nation council, called al-Hamwi's comments "delusional."
"Anybody who heard the Syrian ambassador should be aware that his comments were borderline out of touch with reality," she told reporters.
The U.N. said former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the new U.N. special envoy to Syria, will meet in New York on Wednesday with current U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
Tunisia's first post-revolution president, Moncef Marzouki, said he would offer Assad asylum as part of a negotiated end to the conflict. But Assad, who blames the uprising on Islamist extremists and armed gangs, is unlikely to accept the offer.
Conroy's surprise arrival in Lebanon was celebrated by his family and British officials, who said they were trying to repatriate him.
"I have spoken to Paul this morning and he sounded in good spirits," Conroy's wife Kate Conroy said in a statement. "The family are overjoyed and relieved that he is safe and look forward to getting him home."
She told The Associated Press by phone that she wouldn't comment further for fear of jeopardizing the safety of those still attempting to leave.
Conroy, 47, and a father of three, is "in good shape and good spirits," said his employer, The Sunday Times.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Conroy was "safely in Lebanon, where he is receiving full consular assistance."
Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, said in a message on his Twitter account that Conroy's experience was "a chilling testimony to what families in Homs (are) experiencing."
The French reporter Daniels was last seen in an amateur video posted by activists last week, standing next to Bouvier, who was lying on a couch. He appeared uninjured. Bouvier works for Le Figaro.
Espinosa, who works for El Mundo, last sent a tweet Sunday that linked to a photo he said was from the Baba Amr neighborhood, showing blood pooled in a gutter.
Spain's Foreign Ministry said it is trying to help to evacuate Espinosa. The newspaper said it does not know if he is injured and last spoke to him Monday.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pakistan rebuffs reports that Bin Laden had contact with spy agency

Confidential emails have revealed that Osama bin Laden was in routine contact with several senior figures from Pakistan’s military intelligence agency while in hiding in the country. (File photo)
Reports that Osama bin Laden had been in contact with members of Pakistan’s spy agency, according to secret emails published by Wikileaks, have been rebuffed by a Pakistani military spokesman.

An email, which was sent by an analyst at a global intelligence firm, Stratfor, suggested that up to 12 officials in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had known of the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout

But spokesman for the army, General Athar Abbas, said the allegations surrounding the ISI were baseless. “They are nonsense and not credible,” he told Al Arabiya in a telephone conversation.
According to one of the e-mails, Stratfor had been shown the information papers collected from bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound after the U.S. special forces attack it last May, which killed the al-Qaeda mastermind, according to the Telegraph.

“Mid to senior level ISI and Pak Mil [sic] with one retired Pak Mil General that had knowledge of the OBL arrangements and safehouse,” the email said of the officers involved, according to the newspaper. “I get a very clear sense we (U.S. intelligence) know names and ranks,” it added.

But a Pakistani security source told Al Arabiya that the leaked revelations were a new American trick, using the saying, “like new wine in an old bottle,” and blamed U.S. intelligence forces.

“The information was leaked on purpose by the CIA to pressure Pakistan over its diplomatic ties with Iran and Afghanistan,” the security official added on the condition of anonymity.

WikiLeaks claimed to have five million Stratfor emails that it would published in collaboration with media outlets. However only 200 were released this week, the Telegraph reported.

Although the internal email did not name the Pakistani officials involved, it said the U.S. could use the information as a bargaining chip in post raid negotiations with Islamabad.

Pakistan has repeatedly dismissed the charge that its intelligence services knew of bin Laden’s hideout. But American officials had believed it had been impossible for the ISI not to have known that bin Laden was sheltering in a town so close Islamabad.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused Stratfor of involvement in wide range of legally or morally questionable research activities for private corporations.

“On the surface it presents as if it’s a media organization providing a private subscription intelligence newsletter,” the activist, who is awaiting extradition to Sweden on rape charges said in London, the Telegraph reported.

“But underneath it is running paid informants networks,” he added.

But the CEO of Stratfor, George Friedman, questioned the authenticity of the “stolen” email.

“Today Wikileaks is publishing the emails that were stolen in December. This is a deplorable, unfortunate − and illegal − breach of privacy,” Friedman said in an emailed message.

“Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies. Some may be authentic. We will not validate either, nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questions about them,” he added.

Stratfor, a firm providing analysis of world affairs to major corporations, military officials and government agencies and was once likened by an American business magazine to a “shadow CIA.”

Other emails disclosed by Wikileaks allegedly revealed that Israel had last year carried out a successful covert attack on Iran’s secret nuclear facilities.

Other revelations included the suggestion that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez may have less than a year to live after his cancer spread to the colon and bone marrow. 

Syrian troops heavily shell central region

BEIRUT (AP) -- Activists say troops have resumed heavy shelling of towns and cities in Syria's restive central region a day after reports of 144 more people killed.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling of the central town of Halfaya on Tuesday killed at least four civilians and wounded dozens, many of them seriously. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 20 people were killed and 100 wounded in the town.
Both groups said the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the central city of Homs was under intense shelling. The LCC said 12 people were killed in Homs.
On Monday, the LCC said 144 people were killed across Syria, scores of them in Baba Amr by security forces as they tried to flee.

Gunmen shoot dead 18 Shiites from bus in Pakistan

MANSEHRA, Pakistan (AP) -- Gunmen wearing military uniforms stopped a bus in northern Pakistan on Tuesday, ordered selected passengers to get off and then killed 18 of them in an apparent sectarian attack, the police and a lawmaker said.
The victims were all Shiite Muslims, a minority in Pakistan that is frequently targeted by extremists from the majority Sunni community, said lawmaker Abdul Sattar.
A spokesman for a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, a Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for the killings.
Around 27 other people on the bus were spared.
The incident in the remote Kohistan region was the latest in a spasm of violence in the country in recent weeks that has demonstrated the resilience of militant networks, including al-Qaida allied groups. The U.S. has tried to support Pakistani security forces in the fight against the extremists, but relations between the two nations are strained, hampering cooperation.
The attack took place in the mountainous village of Harban Nala, which is some 211 miles (340 kilometers) north of the capital Islamabad. The area, part of the famed Silk Road linking northern Pakistan to China, is populated by Sunni tribes.
Police officer Mohammad Azhar said the bus was traveling from Rawalpindi city to Gilgit when the gunmen attacked.
Sattar, the lawmaker, said eight gunmen were involved in the ambush, and all were wearing military uniforms, presumably to make it easier to stop the bus.
He said the attackers ordered the passengers to produce their identity cards before ordering the 18 off the bus and shooting them.
Haji Abdul Ghafoor, owner of restaurant in Mansehra where the bus stopped for dinner on Monday night, said there were around 45 people on board.
Sunni extremists allied to or inspired by al-Qaida and the Taliban routinely attack government and security force targets, as well as religious minorities and other Muslim sects they consider infidels. Most of the violence has been in the northwest, close to Afghanistan, though sectarian attacks happen across the country with some regularity.
Many thousands have been killed in the last five years, and attacks on Shiites - targeted purely because of their sect - have been some of the bloodiest.
The Jandullah faction of the Pakistani Taliban - one of the country's deadliest and best organized militant groups - claimed responsibility.
"They were Shiite infidels and our mujahedeen shot them dead one by one after bringing them down from a bus," said Ahmed Marwat, a purported commander, who called an Associated Press reporter from an undisclosed location.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Putin warns West over Syria, Iran

MOSCOW (AP) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against military intervention in Syria or an attack on Iran in scathing criticism of the West on Monday as he laid out his foreign policy priorities ahead of Russia's presidential vote.
Putin said the West had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region, and that instead of promoting democracy the revolts had given rise to religious extremism.
The lengthy article, brimming with criticism of the United States and its Western allies, was the latest in a series of manifestos Putin has published in Russian newspapers ahead of Sunday's election, which he is all but certain to win.
Putin defended the Russia-China decision earlier this month to veto a United Nations resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protests, saying that Moscow wouldn't allow a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO airstrikes helped Libya's rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
"Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in domestic processes in Syria," Putin said in the article published in Moscow News.
He said that any attempt to launch military action without U.N. approval would undermine the world body's role and hurt global security.
"I strongly hope that the United States and other nations will learn from the sad experience and won't try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria," Putin said. "I can't understand that bellicose itch."
Activists estimate that close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on dissent began.
Putin said both the government and opposition forces must pull out of populated areas to end bloodshed, adding that the Western refusal to demand that from Assad's opponents was "cynical."
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East. Moscow has maintained close ties with Damascus since the Cold War, when Syria was led by the current leader's father, Hafez Assad.
Putin said that Russian companies have lost ground in the countries engulfed by the Arab Spring uprisings and are being replaced by firms from the nations that backed the regime change.
"That raises the thought that the tragic events to some extent had been driven not by concern about human rights, but a desire by some to redistribute markets," he said. "We mustn't watch that with an Olympian calm."
Putin also warned against an attack on Iran.
"Russia is worried about the growing threat of a strike on Iran," Putin said. "If it happens, the consequences will be truly catastrophic. Their real scale is impossible to imagine."
He said that the international community must acknowledge Iran's right to conduct uranium enrichment in exchange for placing the program under close supervision by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Iran has insisted that its controversial uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing energy and medical isotopes, but the West believes it's a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
"The West has gotten carried away trying to 'punish' some nations," Putin said. "It reaches out for sanctions or even a military club at the drop of a hat."
He said the Western emphasis on using force could encourage more countries to seek nuclear weapons in a bid to protect themselves: "If I have a nuclear bomb in my pocket, they wouldn't touch me because it would cost them. And those lacking a bomb should wait a 'humanitarian' intervention."
Putin also accused the U.S. of using non-governmental organizations as an instrument of "soft power" aimed at destabilizing regimes.
"It's necessary to draw a clear distinction between the freedom of speech, normal political activities on the one hand, and illegal instruments of soft power on the other," he said, adding that U.S. attempts to interfere in Russian elections have strained ties.
The statement follows Putin's earlier claims that the U.S. was behind the protests against his rule.
In Monday's article, Putin again criticized the U.S.-led plans for a NATO missile defense system in Europe, saying it's aimed against Russian nuclear forces.
"The Americans are obsessed with the idea of ensuring absolute invulnerability for themselves, which is utopian and unfeasible from both technological and geopolitical points of view," he said. "An absolute invulnerability for one means an absolute vulnerability for all the others. It's impossible to accept such a prospect."

Israelis flock to see film produced by arch-foe

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli newspapers warn daily of the Iranian nuclear threat, but for the past week and a half, Israelis filmgoers have packed movie theaters to watch a drama set in Tehran.
"A Separation," a domestic drama directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi, bested an Israeli rival and three others on Sunday to win the award for best foreign film.
Israelis were rooting hard for their own Oscar contender, Joseph Cedar's "Footnote," a Talmudic scholar saga. But their interest in "A Separation" was piqued by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country they regard as a threat to their very survival.
"It's very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving," said Yair Raveh, film critic for Israel's leading entertainment magazine, Pnai Plus. "Ultimately you don't think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us."
Israel, like the West, accuses Iran of using its nuclear program as a cover to build bombs, and is afraid they would be turned against the Jewish state. Tehran insists it is producing energy, not weapons.
"A Separation" takes viewers far away from the nuclear showdown, chronicling the drama of an Iranian woman who wants to divorce her husband because he refuses to move abroad with her, preferring to stay behind to tend to his ailing father.
The Oscar buzz, the faceoff with an Israeli contender and glowing reviews have drawn an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers since "A Separation" opened here in mid-February.
Ticket buyers stood in a long line on Sunday night at the Lev Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem. Omer Dilian, manager of the theater's cafe, said "A Separation" has drawn hundreds of viewers, even on weeknights.
Rina Brick, 70, said she was surprised by the humaneness of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film.
"Our image of how Iran works is less democratic than we see here," she said. "The judge, the police, everyone behaves as if they are in a Western country."
Rivka Cohen left Iran at age 15. Now 78, Cohen said she was struck by Tehran's modernity, which jarred with the image of black-clad women and religious conservatism that has become iconic of Iran.
"I was surprised by the way people lived in their houses," Cohen said. "Everyone had a fridge and a washing machine."
"A Separation" is shown mostly at the seven theaters owned by Lev Cinemas. Lev Cinemas CEO Guy Shani said the heated atmosphere over Iran's nuclear program has helped to draw viewers.
"We are being helped a lot by the press in Israel," Shani said. He said all the screenings in Lev theaters were sold out last Friday and Saturday.
Raveh, the film critic, said Israelis historically have been drawn to see movies produced by enemy countries, including Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq - also off-limits to Israeli visitors.
"We like to take a look at what happens across the borders," Raveh said.
In 1986, the late Israeli director Rafi Bukai broke cinematic ground here with his sympathetic, multi-dimensional look at "the enemy" in his 1986 film about an encounter between Egyptian and Israeli soldiers right after the 1967 war, Avanti Popolo.
But the broader political context can never totally fade.
On Monday, Iranian state TV described the country's foreign film Oscar win as a victory over Israel.
And Moshe Amirav, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he "didn't stop thinking about the bomb the whole time" he was watching "A Separation."
"I said, what a contrast that we see this Iranian film with such admiration, and then when we leave we think about how they want to kill us," Amirav said.

Osama bin Laden's Pakistan home is no more

AP Photo

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistani authorities have reduced the house where Osama bin Laden lived for years before he was killed by U.S. commandos to rubble, destroying a concrete symbol of the country's association with one of the world's most reviled men.
Workers completed the demolition job in the garrison town of Abbottabad in northwest Pakistan on Monday.
The al-Qaida leader moved into the three-story house in 2005. Acting on intelligence gathered by the CIA, a team of U.S. commandoes flew in by helicopter from Afghanistan and killed bin Laden on May 2 before dumping his body at sea hours later.
The operation left Pakistan's army in the awkward position of explaining why it had not detected the U.S. raid, and how bin Laden was able to live in the town without its knowledge. U.S. officials have said they have found no evidence that senior Pakistani officials were in the know about bin Laden's whereabouts.
Mechanized backhoes and construction workers began pulling down the house on Saturday night, working under floodlights.
An Associated Press photographer said Monday the job was completed, save for a section of its boundary walls.
The house stood less than half a mile (one kilometer) from one of the Pakistan army's top training academies.
Authorities never allowed journalists inside the building, and starting from a few days after the raid stopped them from even getting close to it.
Officials did not explain why the house was destroyed. Some residents of Abbottabad thought it should be a tourist attraction, although given the sensitivities surrounding the property it was hard to see the government developing it as one.
Property documents show the land was owned by a man who later served as a courier for bin Laden. He is believed to have been killed during the raid.
Last year, several foreigners were briefly detained for trying to see it, including the Danish ambassador and his wife. U.S. commandos took computers, books and other intelligence materials from the building after killing bin Laden, and American officials were allowed to visit it in the weeks that followed.

Yemen's Saleh to seek exile in Ethiopia

SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Aides to Ali Abdullah Saleh said Monday that the ousted Yemeni president plans to go into exile in Ethiopia, as pressures mounted on him to depart the country for fear of sparking a new cycle of violence.
Saleh's presence in Yemen is a major source of discontent, and undermines confidence that his departure from office will lead to lasting political change. Thousands marched against him in the capital Sanaa on Monday.
Many Yemenis will not be satisfied until he actually leaves the country, if then. Saleh has frequently indicated over the past year that he is about to take a step away from power, then backed down at the last moment.
In the latest report, the aides said that the former president will leave Yemen within two days along with some of his family members.
A diplomat in Sanaa confirmed that arrangements had been made for Saleh's departure for Ethiopia. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
On Saturday, newly inaugurated President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president as part of a power-transfer deal that gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down. The deal aims to end a year of turmoil that left hundreds of protesters dead.
Saleh's erratic behavior has been a major source of uncertainty throughout Yemen's last year of turmoil.
He slipped out of signing the accord for the power handover accord three times before finally agreeing to it.
Even now, with a president in place, his opponents fear that if he remains in the country he will be able to exert control through his powerful network of well-placed family members and allies.
Saleh left Yemen in June after being injured in a rocket attack on his palace. He received medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for three months.
The United States, which has pushed for stability in Yemen for fear that al-Qaida will extend its influence there, had hoped he would remain in the Gulf. But the Yemeni leader returned home and violence worsened anew.
Three weeks ago Saleh went to the United States for more medical treatment, and again it was hoped that he would remain abroad. But he returned Saturday for Hadi's inauguration.
Saleh's aides said that he was waiting for an answer from the Gulf sultanate of Oman on whether he can live there but the sultanate has not responded to his request.
Saleh stayed in Muscat in January for some days before he left to the U.S. for treatment, and Yemeni officials raised the possibility at the time that he would eventually seek exile in Oman, which borders Yemen to the east.
The aides said that Saleh came under heavy pressures from Western and Arab countries to leave the country. They said that unnamed members of the U.N. Security Council threatened to freeze his and his family's assets if he did not leave.
"After days of maneuvering, he accepted," one said.
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa couldn't immediately comment on the report. The Ethiopian Embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
Also Monday, tens of thousands of protesters marched to demand Saleh's prosecution. Chanting, "The people want to prosecute the murderer," they gathered in front of Hadi's house.
Hundreds of Saleh's opponents were killed in crackdowns by the security forces and other violence during the uprising.
The protesters were angered by a farewell ceremony for Saleh in which he pledged to support the new president.
"Two years from now, I will stand in the same place to transfer power to (another) newly elected president," Hadi told Saleh. The ex-leader then handed him the Yemeni flag.
"This is a provocation to the Yemeni people," said Abdu al-Udaimi, a spokesman for the anti-Saleh protest movement. "As if Saleh claims he is stepping down voluntarily!"

Iran state TV says Oscar win victory over Israel ‘Zionist regime’

‘A Separation,’ directed by Asghar Farhadi, won the Oscar for best foreign language film, becoming the first Iranian movie to win the honor. (Reuters)
Iran’s state television has described on Monday the country’s foreign film Oscar win as a victory over Israel.

The Monday broadcast says the award won by “The Separation” succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime,” a reference to the country’s arch-foe Israel, the Associated Press reported.

“A Separation,” a tale of domestic turmoil, competed in the Oscars’ foreign language category against the Israeli “Footnote,” about a rivalry between father-son Talmudic scholars.
Traditionally, Iranian officials are dismissive of international cultural ceremonies.

Iran has a long tradition of cultural achievements in cinema, literature and the arts. But clampdowns by hard-liners in recent years have included artists and others, forcing some to flee the country or work underground.

“At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy,” director Asghar Farhadi said while accepting the Oscar.

“At a time of tug of war, intimidation and aggressions exchanged between politicians, the name of their county, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

“I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment,” he added.

Two nights before the Oscar ceremony, Israeli and Iranian artists came together in a show of peace, said Lior Ashkenazi, a star of the Israeli foreign language Oscar entry “Footnote.”

“At the Academy event in hour of the foreign films, we sat, spoke and all the veils came off,” Ashkenazi told Israel’s Army Radio. “They are warm hearted people. We invited them to Tel Aviv and they invited us to Tehran.”

Farhadi made the movie under Iranian censors who impose strictures on filmmakers in the name of Islamic morality and national morale. But he has said he was not confronted with censorship.

Award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to jail in 2010 and banned from making any more films. Farhadi has spoken up for Panahi, putting himself in the line of fire from hardliners in the Iranian government.

But Farhadi has also criticized fellow Iranians who emphasize state censorship in order to promote their movies abroad, saying they are as morally culpable as the government officials who censor them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Iran’s nuclear plant at full capacity ‘in weeks’

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is getting a step closer to developing the country’s first nuclear power plant. (Reuters)
Iran’s first nuclear power plant will be connected to the national grid at full capacity in the coming weeks, the head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization was quoted as saying by Iranian media on Sunday.

The Russian-built Bushehr plant is part of Iran’s nuclear program which Western countries believe is an attempt to develop the technology needed to build nuclear weapons.
Iran maintains the program is purely for energy and medical requirements.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) the plant had generated 700 megawatts from early February and will produce electricity at its full capacity of 1,000 megawatts early in the Iranian new year, which begins on Mar. 21.

“Nuclear power with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts will be linked to the national power grid early next year,” Abbasi-Davani said. “In order to realise that capacity, there will be various tests conducted at 75 percent capacity.”

The plant was built by Russian contractors after the Iranian and Russian government signed an agreement in 1995. It was due to be completed several years ago but the plans were beset by technological and financial problems, as well as political pressure from the United States.

Jordanians 'trapped' in Egypt's Sinai

At least 20 Jordanian are trapped in Ras Sidr area in the governorate of south Sinai in Egypt, officials said.

"They can't move because the road is being blocked by tires set on fire by Bedouin protesters demanding the release of Sinai prisoners - this has been going on for the past few hours," an Egyptian interior ministry source told Al Jazeera.

It is unclear whether those whose movement has been blocked were tourists or migrant workers.

The incident follows a string of kidnappings in South Sinai.

The AP news agency reported earlier this month that armed tribesmen stopped a tour bus in the same area and took three South Koreans as well as their guide.

One week prior to their kidnapping, two Americans were taken not far from the St. Catherine's Monastery by tribesmen.

Officials said both incidents were linked to Ali Dikheil, an inmate they said had escaped from prison during the revolution.

Although Egyptians are also kidnapped occasionally, tribesmen in the region often abduct tourists - who are seldom harmed - in the hope that they can be swapped for imprisoned colleagues, according to the AP.

Jordan Denies Presence of Anti-Syria Mercenaries in the Country

Jordan on Saturday denied media reports that Arab and Afghan mercenaries are present in the kingdom in preparation of attacking Syria.

Minister of Media Affairs and Communications Rakan Majali on Saturday denied in statements to media outlets the claims made by the pro-Syrian Lebanese Al Jadeed Television last week that six thousand mercenaries from Libya, Morocco, and Afghanistan are in Jordanian hotels being trained by the American security company Blackwater. 

Majali, who is also government spokesperson, categorically denied the reports, stressing that Libyans in the country arrived seeking medical treatment, blasting the media reports as "mere media incitement." 

The television report claimed that the anti-Syrian regime operation is complicated, citing participation by British intelligence, operations room in Tel Aviv, and cited that the mercenaries are present in Jordan readying to attack Syria under the cover of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to appear that the operations are carried out by armed Syrians.

Meanwhile, Al Sharq newspaper reported statements from what it said are reliable government sources that Turkish intelligence agents are meeting with Libyan rebels in Amman in preparation for participation in operations against Syria's Assad regime. 

The television also stated that most of the Libyans in Jordan are not seriously injured and they participated in fighting against Gaddafi's regime in Libya last year.

Syrians to vote on new constitution as Assad’s government continues its onslaught

Syrian activists wave flags during a sit-in protest against the new constitution outside the parliament building in Damascus.  The new referendum has also failed to ease global pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, with the U.S. calling it “laughable.” (Reuters)
Syrians went to the polls Sunday in a referendum on a new constitution that could end five decades of one-party rule that sparked protests which have taken the country to the verge of civil war.

Earlier this month, President Bashar al-Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March, with the resulting violence killing more than 7,600 people, monitors say.

But the referendum, which opposition forces have called to boycott, has failed to ease global pressure on Assad, with the United States calling it “laughable.”

More than 14 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations, which opened for 12 hours at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).
But with many parts of the country reeling under a campaign to crush the protests, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it is unclear how the ballot can prove to be convincing.

The new constitution, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes Assad’s Baath party “the head of state and society.”

That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.

Calls for boycott

Activists leading the revolt against the decades of Assad family rule have called for a boycott of the vote. In Damascus and suburbs where troops drove out insurgents last month, activists say they will try to hold protests near polling centers and burn copies of the new constitution.

State television showed officials stacking boxes of referendum ballots and preparing voting centers, and citizens interviewed said they planned to vote ‘yes’ in the national interest.

Activists said security forces have stopped people who had ventured out to buy food in Homs, confiscated their Interior Ministry-issued identification cards and informed them the cards can be retrieved at specified polling centres on Sunday.

“They want to force people to vote in this doctored, so-called referendum anyway they can,” activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.

A purported photocopy of Baath Party internal correspondence directed to the party’s branches across the country said members needed “to gather the biggest party and popular participation in the referendum”.

“Please direct the Baathist comrades and brother citizens to vote ‘yes’ to the new constitution because it expresses the aspirations of the Syrian Arab masses to build your modern state,” said the letter, signed by Mohammad Saeed Bkheitan, the party’s assistant secretary general.

The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots activists’ organization, called on Syrians last week to boycott the referendum, saying it was an attempt by Assad to cover up the crackdown.

The group in a statement said holding a referendum “whose result is known in advance” would not alter the police state that underpins the repression.

The authorities have held two referendums since Bashar inherited power from his late father 12 years ago. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent ‘yes’ vote and the second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 percent of the vote.

The authorities touted the referendums as the ultimate exercise of what they termed popular democracy. Dissidents said they were a sham.

Over 100 killed

As the country prepared to hold a referendum, the government kept up its onslaught, with at least 100 killed on Saturday in a fourth week of bombardments on the central city of Homs and assaults on towns and villages in northern and southern provinces.

“No one is going to vote,” said activist Omar, speaking by Skype from the rebel-held Baba Amro district of Homs.

“This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed,” he added. “More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? ... No one is going to vote.”

Forces loyal to Assad killed at least 100 people in Syria on Saturday in a fourth week of bombardments on the central city of Homs and assaults on towns and villages in northern and southern provinces, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.

Six women and 10 children were among those killed, the opposition activists’ organization, which documents what it describes as killings by loyalist forces, said in a statement.
It added that the dead included 44 people in Homs and the surrounding countryside, which has been under sustained shelling for more than three weeks.

In Homs, loyalist troops bombarded Sunni Muslim districts, with opposition activists reporting mortar rounds and anti-aircraft fire hitting Old Homs and the districts of Baba Amro, Bab Sbaa and Bab Dreib.

Khalidiya, a neighborhood inhabited by members of Sunni tribes from the Syriac desert east of Homs, also was hit, they said. Thousands of people in Khalidiya turned up on Saturday for the funerals of at least 17 people killed in the bombardment, according to YouTube footage uploaded by activists.

No further evacuation

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was still unable to evacuate distressed civilians from Baba Amro. After a day of talks with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters, it said there were “no concrete results”.

“We continue our negotiations, hoping that tomorrow (Sunday) we will be able to enter Baba Amro to carry out our life-saving operations,” spokesman Hisham Hassan said.

Conditions were nightmarish for some of those trapped by the fighting.

“We have hundreds of wounded people crammed into houses. People die from blood loss. We just aren’t capable of treating everyone,” activist Nader Husseini said via Skype.