Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spate of Baghdad bombings kills at least 16, wounds several in latest violence

A spate of bombings in Baghdad on Thursday killed at least 16 people and wounded several more, security and medical officials said.

The deadliest attack took place in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Shuala, where a car bomb killed at least four people and wounded 14 others, an interior ministry official and a medic said.

Separate bombings also struck al-Amriyah, Ghazaliyah and Yarmuk in west Baghdad, and Dora in the south of the capital, all between 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and 9:00 a.m., AFP reported.

An interior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put the overall toll at 16 killed and 37 wounded, while a medical official said seven people were killed and 14 wounded.
Differing tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of attacks in Iraq.

Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but attacks remain common, especially in Baghdad. A total of 126 Iraqis were killed in violence in April, according to official figures.

Last week, attacks north of Baghdad killed four people, including three soldiers who died in a bombing, security and medical officials said.

Among the violence, a roadside bomb against an Iraqi army patrol in the town of Badush, just outside the main northern city of Mosul, killed three soldiers, police First Lieutenant Salam al-Juburi said.

Another bomb attack and a shooting in the town of Abu Saidah, in restive central Diyala province, left one laborer dead and five people, including a soldier, wounded.

In the shooting, gunmen opened fire on a truck carrying workers, killing one and wounding four others, according to a police major and Ahmed Ibrahim, a doctor at the main hospital in the provincial capital Diyala.

A separate roadside bomb exploded close to a passing Iraqi army patrol, leaving one soldier wounded, the major and a medic said.

Two more roadside bombs near the home of a Kurdish family in Jalawla, also in Diyala, left two young men wounded, they said.

Iranian guards’ chief visits disputed Gulf islands

The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards on Thursday made a pointed visit to three islands in the Gulf whose ownership is fiercely disputed by Tehran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, accompanied by his naval commander, Ali Fadavi, went to the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb to deliver a speech stressing that they were Iran’s “strategic and sensitive territory,” the Guards’ official news website said.

Jafari expressed satisfaction with the condition of Iranian combat units stationed on Abu Musa, it said.

He also offered a message of “friendship” to neighboring Arab countries.
The visit was likely to be viewed as incendiary by the UAE, which claims the islands under the terms of a 1971 agreement signed when Britain ended its colonial-era reign over that part of the Gulf.

Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz has described as “unacceptable” Iran’s attitude towards the three islands which Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member UAE claims it owns, a report said.

“I reiterate the kingdom’s condemnation to the unacceptable attitude of neighboring Iran that continues to ignore the legitimate right of the United Arab Emirates over its three occupied islands,” said Prince Nayef, who is also Saudi Arabia’s interior minister.

But Iran rejects any UAE claim to the islands, saying they have always been part of its territory and that it never renounced its ownership.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered the fury of the UAE and its allied Arab monarchies when he visited the islands in April to reinforce Tehran’s position.

The six-nation GCC called Ahmadinejad’s trip “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of the UAE over its three islands.”

Iran’s military has vowed to defend the islands. It maintains a permanent military base and airfield on Abu Musa, the largest of the three and the only one to be inhabited.

The islands are at a strategic location in the oil-rich Gulf, permitting control over access to the waterway.

The UAE has won support from the United States in the dispute, with Washington urging Iran to agree to the Emirati demand that the issue be resolved through direct negotiations.

Earlier this month, Internet giant Google sparked a conflict with the Iranians when it dropped the name “Persian Gulf” from the body of water that separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

The waterway also touches Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – the six members of the GCC which refer to it as the “Arabian Gulf.”

Google also declined to call it “Arabian Gulf,” or even “the Gulf,” saying it would hurt their credibility and creditability.

The company instead decided, perhaps as the biggest landmark on its maps, to leave the 250,000 square kilometers (97, 000 square miles) body of water nameless.

Residents protest over ‘kidnapping’ of two Lebanese on Syrian borders

Scores of Lebanese border town residents on Thursday blocked a road to neighboring Syria, protesting the “kidnapping” of two Lebanese from across the frontier, an AFP correspondent said.

Initial reports had suggested the two men had been detained Wednesday at the border crossing. But both the Lebanese state news agency and Syria's main opposition coalition later described the incident as a “kidnapping.”

Protesters pitched tents and used sandbags to block the road linking Lebanon and Syria, demanding that Mohammad Yassin al-Merebi and Mahdi Hamdan be set free.

The two men were “kidnapped by five armed men who crossed into Lebanon from across the Syrian border” while they were working on the land, the Lebanese news agency NNA reported.
One of the men's relatives, Sohayb al-Rashid, told AFP that residents “will continue protesting until the two men are set free. And if they are not set free soon, we will escalate our protests.” He did not elaborate.

“Contacts are being established with the Syrian side to set the two men free,” Rashid added.

Protesters pitched a tent 700 meters (yards) away from the border crossing into Syria at Abboudiyeh, which links north Lebanon to Homs in central Syria.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Syrian National Council accused the Syrian regime of “escalating its breaches of the Lebanese borders (and of) increasing its armed attacks targeting Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees.”

The SNC also accused the Syrian regime of “kidnapping Syrian wounded patients from hospitals” in northern Lebanon, while also accusing “the regime's mercenaries of setting up checkpoints inside Lebanese territory.”

The statement called for “people kidnapped on Lebanese territory by mercenaries of the Syrian regime to be set free.”

The Syrian regime dominated Lebanese politics for almost 30 years, until it was forced out in 2005, following the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Israel returns remains of Palestinians

Israel has handed over the remains of scores of Palestinian fighters killed in attacks on Israel.
Seventy-nine bodies were handed over to Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Thursday and another 12 were transferred to the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority described them as "martyrs" killed since Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967.
The fighters, including several suicide bombers, had been buried, some of them for decades, in a desolate Israeli military cemetery for "enemy combatants" in the West Bank.
"I am happy they are sending back his body so I can go and pray on his grave before I die."
- Ahmad Kahlout, father
Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from Ramallah, said the 91 bodies are only a third of the ones still interred in unnamed graves in Israeli cemeteries.
"The majority are from Nablus and Hebron," she said. "The families are getting simple coffins back, with the numbers they were interred in in Israel. And inside the coffins are not only the bodies but also the belongings that they were found with."
Among the bodies were eight members of a seaborne squad which took over a Tel Aviv hotel in 1975 before being killed by Israeli commandos, in a raid in which seven hostages were also killed.
The Palestinian Authority was preparing a ceremony for the fighters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Hamas was to hold its own memorial ceremony in the Gaza Strip.
'Pray on his grave'
Near the crossing from Israel to Gaza, families held framed pictures of their dead sons as they awaited the bodies.
Ahmad Kahlout's 21-year-old son Yehiya was killed 17 years ago after he raided an Israeli settlement.
"I am happy they are sending back his body so I can go and pray on his grave before I die," said Kahlout, 78.
"Until my dying day I will be proud of him, but also sad for the years I wasn't able to visit his grave."
Among the remains returning to Gaza is Reem al-Reashi, a Hamas suicide bomber who blew herself up at an Israeli army checkpoint in 2004, killing four soldiers. Her husband said parts of her body had already been buried. The rest was now on its way.
The return of the bodies was announced on May 14 by the office of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, in what it called "a gesture to President [Mahmoud] Abbas".
"It is our hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence-building measure and help get the peace process back on track," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu.

"Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever," he said.
Abbas has demanded a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a condition for returning to peace talks that collapsed over the settlement issue in 2010.
The official Palestinian WAFA news agency said the remains will be transferred to families but 17 will be buried in a mass grave in Ramallah because their families could not be identified.
In July Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, blocked the transfer of the remains of 84 Palestinians buried in numbered graves in the Jordan Valley "cemetery of enemy combatants", citing the need to review their identities.

Mubarak's sons face fresh charges

The two sons of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's ousted president, will face charges of stock market manipulation, the country's public prosecutor has said, three days before a court was due to issue a verdict in a separate trial for their role in alleged corruption.

Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, both in their 40s, are already standing trial with their father in a case in which the former president is facing charges of fraud, as well as complicity in the killing of protestors who rose up against him last year.

The verdict in that trial is expected on Saturday.

Mubarak's eldest son, Alaa, is a businessman. His youngest son, Gamal, a former banker, was widely viewed as a being groomed for Egypt's top job until Mubarak was toppled on February 11, 2011.
Mubarak, his family and his aides and associates were accused by protesters of amassing wealth illegally while leaving swathes of the country in poverty.

Egypt's public prosecutor said in a statement on Wednesday that Alaa, Gamal and seven others, were referred to the criminal court on charges of violating stock market and central bank rules to gain unlawful profits through dealings in shares in Al Watany Bank of Egypt, a listed bank.

All those accused in the case were released on bail and barred from travel, except Gamal and Alaa, who were ordered to remain in detention and had their assets frozen pending the trial.

The public prosecutor's statement said that others referred to trial alongside Mubarak's sons included Yasser El Mallawany and Hassan Heikal, board members and joint chief executives officers of Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes.

The trial of Mubarak, 84, and his two sons began on August 3 last year.

It is the first time that an Arab head of state, toppled in a popular uprising, has appeared for trial in an ordinary court. Tunisia's ousted president was tried in absentia while Iraq's Saddam Hussein stood trial in a special court.
Emergency Law
The prosecutions of the Mubarak family and its cronies had seemed to be part of a process of dismantling the old regime ousted in the uprising.
But Mubarak's last prime minister and longtime protege, Ahmed Shafiq, is now one of two candidates heading into a runoff vote for president on June 16-17.
Shafiq was officially declared one of two top vote-getters, along with the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, in the first round of presidential elections held on May 23-24.
The two will now go head-to-head in the runoff, with the winner expected to be announced on June 21.
His qualification to the runoff angered many Egyptians - some who protested the result. He is seen as an extension of the old regime and an affront to the uprising that, among other things, sought to end military rule.
Meanwhile, Egypt's 31-year-old state of emergency - which gives the police extensive powers, suspends constitutional rights and strictly controls street demonstrations - could finally be declared over on Thursday.
The longstanding law expires and will be debated in parliament, where most of the representatives are expected to vote against its renewal.
Ending the law has been a key demand of the Egyptian opposition.
The Emergency Law was first imposed during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Since 1981 it has been extended every three years.

Al-Qaeda fighters clash with Yemeni troops

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reports from the capital Sanna

At least seven people have been killed after fighters linked to al-Qaeda attacked Yemeni troops guarding a town briefly seized by the fighters earlier this year, officials say.

The attack on Radda, a town in al-Baydah province 170km southeast of the capital Sanaa, comes amid a major Yemeni army offensive on al-Qaeda strongholds further to the south.

Fighters linked to al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), briefly seized Radda in January but left the town after striking a deal with the authorities.The Yemeni defence ministry said four fighters and three soldiers died during the attack late on Wednesday night.
AQAP-linked Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic law) said Wednesday's clash began after government troops surrounded the home of a resident named Nassr al-Hattam and pounded it with tank fire.
In an emailed statement, it said Ansar al-Sharia dispatched fighters who attacked troops surrounding the house and a Republican Guard checkpoint at the entrance of Radda. Several soldiers were killed or wounded, it said.
Also on Wednesday, an army official said 20 fighters and seven soldiers died when government troops fought off an ambush by fighters on the western edge of Jaar.
The US has grown concerned over security in Yemen after fighters overran several towns in the south of the country during a popular uprising last year that severely weakened central government authority and eventually put an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh's presidency.
Proper means
Government troops have since regained control of some parts of Abyan, including parts of the provincial capital Zinjibar, and now surround the town of Jaar, another fighters' stronghold, Yemeni officials say.
"The Yemeni army is deploying with proper means for the first time," said Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Sanaa.
"They have troops on the ground, air strikes and support from the Americans ... But defeating [al-Qaeda-linked fighters] is not going to be an easy task."
The US, which sees AQAP as a threat to international security, has thrown its weight behind Yemen's new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The US has also stepped up drone attacks against groups it suspects may be plotting against it. It has also renewed military training to help Yemeni security forces against al-Qaeda.

Egyptian emergency law expires today, Muslim Brotherhood pledges its cancelation

Today Egypt’s controversial three-decade-long emergency law expires amid speculations on the possibility of another extension and concerns about the stance of the Islamist-dominated parliament.

According to observers, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party will be subject to harsh criticism in case the parliament proposes an extension to the law, especially in the light of the remarkable drop in the group’s popularity following the performance of its members in the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly.

The stance of Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi in case he wins the elections was also brought into question. Mursi’s campaign was quick to respond and stress that in case Mursi becomes president, he will never seek an extension for the emergency law.
“Mursi has no intention to extend the emergency law and there is no need for doing that in the first place,” Yasser Ali, the spokesman of Mursi’s presidential campaign told the Egyptian daily independent al-Watan.

Ali said that with the fierce competition between Mursi and Hosni Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, both of whom have reached the run-off, the first will stir clear of anything that the second represents by virtue of being an integral part of the former regime and a potential replication of all its repressive practices.

Ali quoted Mursi as saying that proper application of the penal code is enough to guarantee the prevalence of security in the Egyptian street.

“Then there will be no need for such a notorious law.”

As for security during election time, Ali said that this can be done through the police working at full force.

“We will never go back. Citizens will no longer be subject to detention without justification,” Ali concluded

11-year-old played dead to survive Syria massacre

BEIRUT (AP) -- When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.
The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one.
The youngest to die was Ali's brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes - one in his head, another in his back.
"I put my brother's blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told The Associated Press over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an orphan and an only child.
Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria's central Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.
The killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of President Bashar Assad, who has unleashed a violent crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
U.N. investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as shabiha who operate on behalf of Assad's government.
Recruited from the ranks of Assad's Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha.
In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad's opponents.
Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of corpses shrouded in blankets.
"When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the massacre," said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. "I saw a kid with his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than 1 year old who was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering."
The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists. And even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiraling toward civil war.
As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what, exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness.
According to the U.N., which is investigating the attack, most of the victims were shot at close range, as were Ali's parents and siblings. The attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, to terrorize the population.
This type of massacre - even more than the shelling and mortar attacks that have become daily occurrences in the uprising - is a sign of a new level of violence. By most accounts, the gunmen descended on Houla from an arc of nearby villages, making the deaths all the more horrifying because the victims could have known their attackers.
According to activists in the area, the massacre came after the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels following anti-regime protests. Several demonstrators were killed, and the rebels were forced to withdraw. The pro-regime gunmen later stormed in, doing the bulk of the killing.
Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre in Houla began. He said there were two waves of violence, one starting at 5 p.m. Friday and a second at 4 a.m. Saturday.
"The shabiha took advantage of the withdrawal of rebel fighters," he said. "They started entering homes and killing the young as well as the old."
Ali, the 11-year-old, said his mother began weeping the moment about 11 gunmen entered the family home in the middle of the night. The men led Ali's father and oldest brother outside.
"My mother started screaming 'Why did you take them? Why did you take them?'" Ali said.
Soon afterward, he said, the gunmen killed Ali's entire family.
As Ali huddled with his youngest siblings, a man in civilian clothes took Ali's mother to the bedroom and shot her five times in the head and neck.
"Then he left the bedroom. He used his flashlight to see in front of him," Ali said. "When he saw my sister Rasha, he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway."
Ali had been hiding near his brothers Nader, 6, and Aden, 8. The gunmen shot both of them, killing them instantly. He then fired at Ali but missed.
"I was terrified," Ali said, speaking from Houla, where relatives have taken him in. "My whole body was trembling."
Ali is among the few survivors of the massacre, although it was impossible to independently corroborate his story. The AP contacted him through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the child over Skype.
The violence had haunting sectarian overtones, according to witness accounts. The victims lived in the Houla area's Sunni Muslim villages, but the shabiha forces came from a nearby area populated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Most shabiha belong to the Alawite sect - like the Assad family and the ruling elite. This ensures the loyalty of the gunmen to the regime, because they fear they would be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand.
Sunnis make up most of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. The opposition insists the movement is entirely secular.
It was not possible to reach residents of the Alawite villages on Wednesday. Communications with much of the area have been cut off, and many residents have fled.
Al-Qassem, the activist who helped gather corpses in Houla, said the uprising has unleashed deep tensions between Sunnis and Alawites.
"Of course the regime worked hard to create an atmosphere of fear among Alawites," said al-Qassem, who is from the Houla area, although not one of the villages that came under attack over the weekend. "There is a deep-seated hatred. The regime has given Alawites the illusion that the end of the regime will spell the end of their villages and lives."
He said the army has been pouring weapons into the Alawite areas.
"Every house in each of those Alawite villages has automatic rifles. The army has armed these villages, each home according to the number of people who live there," he said, "whereas in Houla, which has a population of 120,000, you can only find 500 0r 600 armed people. There is an imbalance."
Days after the attack, many victims remain missing.
Ali can describe the attack on his family. But al-Qassem said the full story of the massacre may never emerge.
"There are no eyewitnesses of the massacre," he said. "The eyewitnesses are all dead."

Activists: Syrian troops shell Houla

BEIRUT (AP) -- Activists say Syrian troops are shelling the central Houla area where more than 100 people were massacred last week.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist groups say Thursday's shelling of Houla was mostly by heavy machine guns.
Both groups also say a young man was killed by sniper fire in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages in central Homs province.
Survivors of the Houla massacre blamed pro-regime gunmen for at least some of the carnage that left 108 people dead, many of them children and women.
The Syrian government denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed "armed terrorists."
In the wake of the massacre, the United States, Western and Asian nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) - Thirteen bound corpses, many apparently shot execution-style, have been discovered in eastern Syria, U.N. observers said Wednesday, days after the massacre of more than 100 people provoked international outrage and the coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
The latest killings happened in Deir el-Zour province, where the bodies were found late Tuesday blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. A statement by the U.N. mission said some appeared to have been shot in the head at close range.
A video posted online by activists showed the men lying face down, pools of dried blood under their heads.
The head of the U.N. observer team, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, said he was "deeply disturbed by this appalling and inexcusable act."
The fresh killings underline violence that seems to be spiraling out of control as the uprising against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011 has morphed into an armed insurgency. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
In the wake of last weekend's massacre in Houla, in which nearly half of the 108 dead were children, the United States and Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest - a move Syria's state-run media denounced Wednesday as "unprecedented hysteria."
The massacre drew continued harsh criticism Wednesday, even from Syria's closest ally Iran, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that anyone responsible for the killings should be punished. "I'm not excluding anyone from this responsibility," Ahmadinejad told France 24 TV station.
U.N. investigators and survivors have blamed pro-regime gunmen for at least some of the carnage in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages in central Homs province, saying men in civilian clothes gunned down people in the streets and stabbed women and children in their homes. The Syrian government denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed "armed terrorists."
Damascus had said it would conclude its own investigation into the Houla deaths by Wednesday but it was not clear if the findings would be made public. The U.N.'s top human rights body planned to hold a special session Friday to address the massacre.
Meanwhile, violence continued unabated. Syrian forces bombarded rebel-held areas and clashed with army defectors in Homs province, killing at least eight people, activists said.
The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria ordered top Syrian diplomats to leave on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Turkey, Syria's neighbor and a former close ally, joined the coordinated diplomatic action, saying it ordered the Syrian charge d'affaires and other diplomats at the Syrian Embassy in Ankara to leave the country within 72 hours. The consulate in Istanbul will remain open for consular duties only.
Among the most outspoken critics of the Assad regime, Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus in March and withdrew the ambassador. Its consulate in Aleppo remains open,but the Foreign Ministry said it reduced the number of its personnel there on Wednesday.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said new unspecified sanctions might be imposed against Syria in the coming days. The world "cannot remain silent in the face of such a situation," he said.
Japan also ordered the Syrian ambassador in Tokyo to leave the country because of concerns about violence against civilians. Japan's foreign minister, Koichiro Genba, said his country was not, however, breaking off diplomatic ties with Syria.
The Obama administration added new sanctions on a Syrian bank Wednesday as a top White House official said the U.S. wants to economically throttle Assad's regime and cut off salaries of pro-government thugs blamed for the grisly massacre in Houla.
The U.S. Treasury Department said the Syria International Islamic Bank has been acting as a front for other Syrian financial institutions seeking to circumvent sanctions. The new penalties will prohibit the bank from engaging in transactions in the U.S. and will freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction.
"We are strangling the regime economically," White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said.
The international community has been grappling with ways to quell the deadly violence and spur a political transition. The U.S. and Western countries are loathe to use military intervention similar to last year's campaign in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi, fearing a backlash.
The White House said this week that such an assault risks leading to "greater chaos, greater carnage."
But for now, Syria can still count on the support of its allies China and Russia, which on Wednesday criticized the diplomatic moves.
"The banishment of Syrian ambassadors from the capitals of leading Western states seems to us to be a counterproductive step," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. He said the move closes "important channels" to influence Syria.
U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad on Tuesday in Damascus to try to salvage what was left of his peace plan, which since being brokered six weeks ago has failed to stop any of the violence on the ground.
Tensions have escalated as more information emerges about the May 25 killings in Houla.
The U.N.'s human rights office said most of the victims were shot execution-style at close range, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling.
The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors Wednesday to hear briefings from Annan's deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice warned that a failure of Annan's peace plan could create a spreading conflict that creates "a major crisis" not only in Syria but also region-wide.
"And members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of considering whether they are prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this council," she told reporters.

Revered Jerusalem church comes alive at night

JERUSALEM (AP) -- After the last tourists leave the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City at nightfall, a little-known but centuries-old tradition unfolds at one of Christianity's holiest sites.
Clerics from the three largest denominations represented in the church - Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic - gather each night for special prayers reserved for the men who take care of the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Starting at midnight, clerics and monks sing and pray for hours, their chants echoing through the cavernous chambers of the Holy Sepulcher's darkest rooms.
"The door of the church is closed, no pilgrims, no tourists, it's very quiet," said Father Isidoros Fakitsas, the superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at the church. "It's amazing to feel the liturgy with no people, only the monks."
Isidoros said he has attended the services for 21 years.
The preparations require a rigid routine. Before the first prayers of the new day, the Christian shrine needs to be cleaned, and maintenance work has to be done.
The clerics sweep the floors, replace oil lamps and clean candle holders, after thousands of pilgrims visited throughout the previous day. Occasionally a small number of devoted pilgrims help them with the cleanup and are permitted to stay and pray inside the church all night.
The early morning mass is a tradition associated with monastic life, said Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of Christian Archaeology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. "Mostly monks and religious people want to pray not only all the day, but also all the night, or part of the day or part of the night. It is part of the desire to pray without ceasing because prayers to God must be given all the time, day and night," Alliata said.
Father Fergus Clarke, the guardian for the Franciscan community inside the Holy Sepulcher, said the night prayers require a certain amount of personal sacrifice, but also bring greater spiritual fulfillment. "That's a wonderful vocation ... to be able to do something like that, to know that while people are sleeping, others are praying," he said.
The night liturgies inside the Holy Sepulcher are regulated by a consolidated tradition: The Greek-Orthodox start to celebrate mass inside Jesus' Tomb at 12:30 a.m., before handing over to the Armenians and then the Franciscans. The Greek Orthodox liturgy at the tomb is the longest, lasting for about three and a half hours; the Armenians then take over for an hour and a half and the Franciscans for another half hour.
The night service is subject to some variations. On the feast of Saint Matthias on the morning of May 14, for example, Catholics lead a procession to Jesus' tomb during the Greek Orthodox liturgy.
Sounds collided with one another that night. The celestial voices of Armenian priests rose from their wing of the Church as the sound of a Franciscan pipe organ came from the opposite direction.
Competing for attention is nothing new in the ancient church. The three main denominations that share the church jealously guard their turf, and an air of mistrust lingers as each group makes sure no one else crosses into their space.
While the Tomb of Jesus and the main passages of the Holy Sepulcher are considered common spaces, the three main religious communities each own a part of the church: The Chapel of Saint Helen, near the place where Jesus' cross is said to have been found, belongs to the Armenians; the Greek-Orthodox Church has ownership over the largest part of the church, including the Altar of the Calvary, where Jesus's cross was raised; the Franciscans own the Chapel of the Crucifixion where Jesus was crucified, along with the northern part of the Church, where according to tradition Jesus appeared to his mother.
The church was first built by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325, at the site where the tomb of Jesus was believed to have been found.
Constantine's structure was destroyed in 1009 by Muslim Caliph al-Hakim. A 12th century restoration by the Crusaders gave the Holy Sepulcher its current appearance.
Life inside the Holy Sepulcher is regulated by a complex maze of norms that are often subject to different interpretations, said Father Samuel Aghoyan, the Armenian Superior of the Holy Sepulcher. At times, tensions have even spilled over into violence, with monks pushing and punching each other.
"We keep almost awake at night here to see that things are done properly, on time, that no one will trespass the other's right by doing things that he's not supposed to do," said Father Samuel. "So we have to be careful and watch what we do or what they do."

Suicide car bomber kills 5 police in Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- A suicide bomber detonated a vehicle full of explosives outside a district police headquarters in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing five policemen, a government official said.
The attack in Kandahar province's Argistan district also wounded six policemen, said Javid Faisal, the provincial governor's spokesman.
Kandahar is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and has been one of the most heavily contested areas between the militants and Afghan and foreign forces. The U.S. poured tens of thousands of additional troops into Kandahar and other areas of the south in 2009 and 2010 to reverse the Taliban's momentum. While violence has fallen in some areas, attacks still occur frequently.
Also Thursday, a homemade bomb killed a member of the U.S.-led NATO force in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said, without providing further details.
The death raised the number of coalition troops who have died in Afghanistan this year to 176.
The persistent violence poses a challenge for the U.S. as it seeks to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and withdraw most of its combat troops by 2014.
A pair of attacks killed five policemen Thursday in eastern Afghanistan, also a key base for the Taliban and their allies.
In one attack, in Kunduz province's Dashti Archi district, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle carrying the head of the district's anti-terrorism police force, killing him along with a colleague and a police bodyguard, said district chief Shaik Sadaruddin.
A grenade tossed at a police checkpoint in Jalalabad city, capital of Nangarhar province, killed two policemen, said provincial police chief Gen. Abdullah Azim Stanikzai.

UN chief urges Syria to stop attacks

ISTANBUL (AP) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Syria to stop its attacks, saying U.N. observers monitoring the ceasefire were not there to watch the killings of innocent people.
Ban was speaking Thursday at a summit of the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum promoting understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds, days after more than 100 people were massacred in Syria's central Houla region.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, called on the world to listen to their conscience and see the desperation of families whose children are massacred in Syria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan says these are "our children who are massacred in Hama, Homs and Houla, as much they are the children of desperate Syrian families."
Erdogan says the world should not remain silent in the face of "oppression."

Bedouins in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula kidnap 2 American tourists, officials say

EL-ARISH, Egypt — Armed Bedouins kidnapped two American tourists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula early on Thursday, security officials said.
The Bedouins snatched the two as they were traveling in a car from Dahab to Nuweiba, resort towns on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba. The two Americans are men in their early 30s, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The abduction was the latest in a series of kidnappings in Sinai, which has seen a surge in lawlessness over the last year. Bedouins have been kidnapping tourists to pressure authorities to release their detained relatives or to improve basic services in their areas. Past kidnappings have ended peacefully.
The security officials said the latest kidnapping may have been carried out by Bedouins protesting Tuesday’s arrest of fellow tribesman Eid Suleiman Aytawi on suspicion of trafficking in drugs.
Negotiations were under way to secure the release of the two, the officials said.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Egyptian policeman given five years jail for protesters’ deaths

An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced a policemen to five years in prison for killing protesters, in a retrial that overturned an initial death sentence in absentia, judicial sources said.

Mohammed Ibrahim was convicted of shooting at demonstrators and killing 18 of them outside a police station on January 28, 2011, when protesters torched police stations nationwide in a revolt that later forced president Hosni Mubarak from power.

The court is expected to explain later its decision to punish Ibrahim with a relatively short prison term.
He had earlier been sentenced to death in absentia, but was granted a retrial after handing himself in.

On May 22, a Cairo court sentenced five policemen to 10 years in jail in absentia for killing protesters during the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak on February 11.

Ten policemen were acquitted in the same case.

Mubarak, his interior minister Habib al-Adly and six security chiefs are on trial for their role in the hundreds of killings during the uprising.

Their verdict is expected on June 2.

Khartoum and Juba start first talks since conflict amid fresh bombing accusations

Top negotiators for Sudan and South Sudan have held their first talks since deadly border fighting last month took them to the brink of war, even as Juba accused Khartoum of fresh air strikes.

Teams from both sides are in the Ethiopian capital for African Union-led talks which were stalled by heavy clashes last month, the worst fighting since the South won independence last July.

Khartoum stressed Tuesday its “commitment to reach a negotiated settlement to all issues of differences” and promised “its full adherence to peace and stability between the two countries,” it said in a statement released as talks began, AFP reported.
Sudan added that it hoped the talks would mark a “new chapter” in relations “away from conflict and warring.”

The state-linked Sudanese Media Center said Sudan had handed over facilities to U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei, Reuters reported.

“The delegation in Addis Ababa will make every effort to make this round of negotiations fruitful,” the delegation said in a statement carried by state news agency SUNA.

Southern President Salva Kiir said ahead of the Tuesday talks that “amicable dialogue on the outstanding issues with Khartoum is the only option for peace.”

The U.N. Security Council earlier this month ordered both sides to cease fighting and return to talks or face possible sanctions.

Idriss Mohammed Abdul Qadir from Khartoum and Pagan Amum from Juba began the talks mediated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, and also attended by the US special envoy on Sudan, Princeton Lyman.

However, Amum said Sudanese war planes bombed border areas in three Southern states -- Unity, Western and Northern Bahr al-Ghazal -- for the fourth straight day.

"Today as we speak they bombed us,” Amum told reporters hours before the talks started. Nevertheless he said he was optimistic talks would produce results.

Sudan has denied attacking the South and the raids could not be confirmed independently. Khartoum has in turn accused the South of alleged cross-border incursions, which it said broke the U.N. order to halt hostilities.

Khartoum, in an apparent peace gesture, reported it had pulled out troops from the contested Abyei region to end a year-long occupation, a Lebanon-sized area whose ownership is key for both Juba and Khartoum.

A U.N. spokesman confirmed the pullout, which was in line with a U.N. Security Council demand for both sides to demilitarize the territory.

Abyei is one of the key disputes between Sudan and South Sudan, which have been fighting each other along their uncharted border.

The rich pasturelands is claimed by both countries and was a flashpoint for past clashes.

Sudanese troops stormed the region in May 2011, forcing some 110,000 people to flee southwards, where the majority remains in impoverished camps.

“SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) deployed out of Abyei area this evening and they gave the military compound there to U.N. peacekeepers,” said the Sudanese Media Centre (SMC), which is close to the security apparatus.

Diplomatic sources said the pullout involved about 300 troops.

“We declared yesterday that we’re going to redeploy so we are going to do whatever we declared,” Khartoum’s negotiator Qadir said as talks broke for the night late Tuesday, refusing to comment on the progress of discussions.

But Amum rejected Khartoum’s reported pullout, claiming “Sudan did not withdraw from Abyei...up to today they are still in Abyei.”

Abyei was to have held a referendum in January 2011 on whether it belonged with the north or South, but that ballot was stalled over disagreement on who could vote.

But tensions soon flared again over a series of unresolved issues, including the border, the future of disputed territories and oil.

The South separated with about 75 percent of the former united Sudan’s oil production, but Juba still depends on the north’s pipeline and Red Sea port to export its crude.

A protracted dispute over fees for use of that infrastructure led South Sudan in January to shut its oil production after accusing the north of theft.

Despite the tensions at the close of the first day of talks, Amum said negotiations between the two former civil war foes would resume Wednesday.

“We are ready to continue,” he said.

South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted to split away from the north in a referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the two sides. About 2 million people died in that conflict, fought over ideology, religion, ethnicity and oil.

Russia, China oppose military intervention in Syria; Turkey, Japan expel Syrian envoys

Russia and China on Wednesday signaled their opposition to any military intervention in Syria as Turkey and Japan joined the list of western countries that expelled the Syrian envoys in protest of al-Houla massacre.

Russia said that the U.N. Security Council should not consider new measures to resolve the crisis in Syria at this point and signaled it would block any effort to authorize military intervention as China reiterated its opposition to either military intervention or regime change in Syria.

The warnings came after the French President Francois Hollande said military intervention was not ruled out provided it was backed by the Security Council, and Germany said it would push for “new engagement” by the council on Syria, according to Reuters.

Russia supported a non-binding U.N. Security Council statement on Sunday that strongly condemned the killing of more than 100 civilians in the Syrian town of al-Houla, criticized the government for using heavy weapons against population centers and called on the government and its foes to end the violence.
That statement was “a strong enough signal to the Syrian sides and a sufficient reaction by the council to the latest developments,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said, the Interfax news agency reported.

“We believe consideration in the Security Council of any new measures to influence the situation now would be premature,” said Gatilov, whose country has twice vetoed Western-backed council resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s government over 15 months of bloodshed.

Commenting on Hollande’s remark, Gatilov said Russia “categorically opposes any external intervention in the Syrian conflict, as it would only aggravate the situation with unpredictable consequences for Syria and the entire region.”

No military intervention, no regime change

Meanwhile, China on Wednesday reiterated its opposition to military intervention or regime change in Syria, and called again for all sides to support mediation efforts by peace envoy Kofi Annan.

“China opposes military intervention and does not support forced regime change,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing. “The fundamental route to resolving (the crisis) is still for all sides to fully support Annan's mediation efforts.”

Liu also stopped short of saying whether China would expel Syrian diplomats, after many Western governments expelled their top Syrian envoys in protest against the killing of civilians in Syria.

“I have not heard that there has been any impact on the Syrian embassy in China,” he said, according to Reuters.

Russia and China had previously blocked two Security Council resolutions condemning President Assad.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Russia was not a supporter of the Assad government and put the blame for the al-Houla attack on his troops, according to AFP.

Western and Arab governments opposed to Assad put the blame for the deaths squarely on his government, but Damascus has rejected the charge. The massacre was among the worst carnage of the 14-month uprising against Assad’s government.

Any military intervention in Syria needs to be discussed thoroughly as it would carry high risk, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Wednesday after expelling two Syrian diplomats a day earlier.

“To arm the Syrian opposition involves real difficulties. Members of the Assad government will interpret this as a license to slaughter even more vigorously than they've been doing to their political opponents,” Carr told reporters.

Turkey, Japan expel Syrian envoys

Turkey, meanwhile, has told Syrian diplomats to leave the country in 72 hours, the foreign ministry said Wednesday, the latest diplomatic move against Damascus following the weekend massacre of over 100 civilians.

“As the host country, it has been demanded... that Syria’s charge d’affaires in Ankara and all other diplomatic personnel leave our country within 72 hours as of May 30, 2012,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also said Turkey and the international community will take further “measures” if crimes against humanity continue in Syria.

Earlier on Wednesday, Japan told the Syrian ambassador in Tokyo to leave the country, the foreign ministry said.

The Japanese government asked Mohammed Ghassan al-Habash to depart “as soon as possible,” an official told AFP.

The move lines Tokyo up with many of its Western allies who have kicked out Syrian diplomats after expressing disgust over the massacre of civilians in al-Houla.

Tokyo gave no definite time frame for the expulsion.

On Tuesday, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States all kicked out the highest ranking Syrian diplomats in their countries in a bid to increase pressure on President Assad’s regime.

In the U.S., the highest ranking diplomat was given 72 hours to pack his bags.

Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Switzerland followed suit, while Belgium declared the Syrian ambassador “persona non grata” but said he could not be expelled as he was also EU envoy and there was no unanimity in the 27-nation bloc.

Syrian opposition says Moscow encourages Assad regime to commit ‘savage crimes’

U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan has urged President Bashar al-Assad to “act now” to end 15 months of bloodshed in Syria. (Reuters)
Russia’s position on the Syrian crisis is encouraging the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to commit “savage crimes,” the main opposition coalition said on Wednesday.

“Russia has chosen to join ranks with the Syrian regime and to provide it with political cover ... encouraging it to continue committing savage crimes that target civilians, including women and children,” the Syrian National Council said.

Russia on Wednesday warned against outside military intervention in Syria following al-Houla massacre that has been blamed by Western countries on regime-backed militia.

“Russia will use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block authorization for any military action in Syria,” Interfax reported, citing Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.
The Russian stance and the “weapons the Russian government has given the Syrian regime ... has turned Moscow into an accomplice with the regime in an attempt to spark a civil war,” making it impossible for Syria’s Soviet-era ally to be a genuine partner in the political process to end the crisis.

Russia should instead “join the ranks of the friends of the Syrian people,” the statement said, adding that by “covering for the crime,” it had to bear part of the “moral and legal responsibility.”

Russia, meanwhile, said Wednesday the “counterproductive” expulsion of Syrian envoys from European and other capitals would only damage existing efforts to end the 14-month crisis through talks.

“The expulsion of Syrian diplomats from leading Western states seems to us to be counterproductive. After all, vital (diplomatic) channels... end up being closed,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Numerous Western nations, including the United States, Britain and France, expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of Friday’s massacre and France floated the idea of armed intervention to protect civilians.

Earlier, SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun said that Assad must step down if joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan is to be saved.

“An international understanding for Assad’s stepping-down is the only way to save Annan’s plan and the political solution; otherwise the situation is on the verge of explosion and will threaten the entire region,” Ghalioun said.

In a statement issued after a telephone conversation with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Ghalioun stressed the “necessity that the international community moves quickly to put an end to the massacres.”

Either the international community should “work with Russia to overcome the division in the Security Council, or with the Friends of Syria” group, the statement added.

Visiting Damascus on Monday and Tuesday, Annan urged Assad to “act now” to end 15 months of bloodshed, warning the country had reached a "tipping point" as several Western states ordered out its top diplomats.

Deadly violence has raged in Syria in spite of an Annan-brokered truce in place since April 12. On Friday and Saturday, at least 108 people were massacred in central al-Houla, according to U.N. observers deployed in Syria to monitor the shaky truce.

But Russia said on Wednesday it was premature to take new U.N. action on Syria, and repeated that it remained firmly opposed to foreign intervention in the crisis.

The comments came just a day after the U.S. State Department said it hoped last week’s tragedy would spark a “turning point” in Russia’s reluctance to take tougher action against its Soviet-era ally.

“The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today,” Annan said in Damascus on Monday.

More than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March last year, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Egyptian activists call for anti-Shafiq mass rallies, urge passing of isolation law

Activists have been organizing demonstrations against presidential candidates Mohammed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq at al-Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Reuters)
Egyptian activists called for a million-man march next Friday for deposing presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who will face Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi in the election runoff on June 16 and 17, an Egyptian daily reported on Wednesday.

Activists at the iconic al-Tahrir Square in central Cairo urged passersby and car drivers, passing through the square, to take part in the planned mass rallies, Egypt’s daily al-Youm al-Sabea reported.

Earlier on Tuesday, scores of young activists marched from the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra to al-Tahrir Square to denounce both Shafiq and Mursy, Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm reported.

They criticized both candidates as “enemies of the revolution” and announced their rejection of being ruled by either a former regime remnant or a Muslim Brotherhood member. They also called for the Political Isolation Law be applied on Shafiq.
Thousands of Egyptians marched on Monday night in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in protest after the results of the first round were confirmed by the Presidential Elections Commission. “No to Shafiq and to the Brotherhood. The revolution is still in the square,” they chanted.

Protesters set fire to storage rooms and smashed computers late on Monday at the campaign headquarters of Shafiq.

The protests followed the announcement earlier Monday by the commission of the results of the first round in which the Brotherhood’s candidate Mursy was in the lead, with almost 25% of the votes. Shafiq, a former air force commander and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, received 24% of the votes.

Leftist opposition leader Hamdeen Sabbahi was a close third by 20.7%. Moderate Islamist Abdul Muniem Abul Fotouh with 17.47% and former foreign minister Amr Mussa was fifth with 11.12%.

The commission said that the election turnout was 46%, which means that about 23.67 million out of 51 million eligible voters cast their ballots.
“The election was rigged,” Assem Ali of the April 6 Youth Movement was quoted b al-Masry al-Youm as saying.

“We will not participate in the runoff, or else it would be recognition of the election and of Shafiq if he wins,” he added.

Both Mursi and Shafiq, who represent polar opposites in the country’s fragmented politics after last year’s uprising, are now trying to court the support of the losing candidates and their voters.

The Brotherhood, which alienated many other political parties after its domination of parliamentary elections last winter, has warned Egypt would be in danger if Shafiq wins and has pledged to become more inclusive.

Two of the losers, Mussa and Abul Fotouh, declined to endorse either of the front runners.

A spokesman for the Supreme Constitutional Court denied a newspaper report that it would rule on June 11 in a case examining the constitutionality of the Political Isolation Law that is expected to bar Mubarak-era officials, such as Shafiq, from running for office.

The runoff presents a difficult choice for activists who led the revolt. For them, choosing Shafiq would be to admit the revolution had failed, but a vote for Mursi could threaten the very freedoms they fought for.
Mohammed Mursi presents himself as the only candidate with an Islamic program. (File photo)
Mohammed Mursi presents himself as the only candidate with an Islamic program. (File photo)
In his bid to broaden his appeal beyond the Brotherhood’s disciplined network of supporters who propelled him to the run-off, Mursi indicated he was offering vice-president posts and even the prime minister’s position to people outside his group.

“I am committed to the presidency being an institution. It will never be an individual,” Mursi told a news conference in Cairo.

Mursi, who said in his campaign he would implement Sharia (Islamic law) without spelling out what that meant in practice, sought to assuage some liberal fears by saying no one would force women to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarves that many already wear.

Mursi also said he wanted to work with Christians, who make up a 10th of Egypt’s 82 million people and fear Islamist rule.
Ahmed Shafiq believes that one of his strongest assets is in fact this military background. (File photo)
Ahmed Shafiq believes that one of his strongest assets is in fact this military background. (File photo)
Although he makes no apology for his past and takes pride in his strong ties with the military, Shafiq needs to prove he will not revive the autocratic state apparatus protesters sought to dismantle. The army and the hated police force are still intact.

Seeking to assure his opponents, Shafiq on Monday told a press conference that there will be “no re-production of the former regime.”

Mursi’s conference took place amidst mounting pressure from secular and liberal political forces, who refuse to vote for Shafiq but at the same time are calling for guarantees that the Brotherhood will not establish an autocratic rule should Mursi assume power.

Ayman Nour, head of the Ghad al-Thawra Party, was quoted by the online edition of al-Ahram daily as saying that Mursi would need to dissociate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood and to give up any leadership position within the group’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Nour underlined that a presidential team should be formed of ten political figures, to create a national salvation government, headed by an independent national figure. It should include liberals, leftists, women, Copts and youth, he was quoted by al-Ahram as saying.

However, the liberal al-Wafd party announced late Tuesday that it will neither endorse Mursi nor Shafiq.

Al-Ahram quoted sources inside al-Wafd party as saying that the party was inclined to support Shafiq as a candidate representing a secular state rather than an Islamic one as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The election has followed a tumultuous military-led transition from autocratic rule that has been marked by political upheaval and bloodshed. But it also witnessed free parliamentary elections, which saw the two main Islamist parties clinch nearly three quarters of the 498 seats in the legislature.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center monitored the election, said he was broadly confident about the election process. Carter Center monitors highlighted several irregularities, notably lack of access in the final aggregation of national results.

Arab League monitors noted irregularities, but said they were not enough to affect the result.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in power since Mubarak’s downfall, has pledged to restore Egypt to civilian rule by the end of June.

Afghanistan: 2 NATO service members killed

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- An insurgent attack and a homemade bomb killed two NATO service members Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said.
The deaths raised the number of coalition troops who have died in Afghanistan this year to 174. The coalition did not provide further details about the attacks.
Southern Afghanistan is the traditional heartland of the Taliban and has been the deadliest place for foreign forces since the Afghan war started in 2001. The U.S. poured tens of thousands of additional troops into the south in 2009 and 2010 in an attempt to reverse the Taliban's momentum.
While violence has fallen in some areas, frequent attacks still occur, posing a challenge for the U.S. as it attempts to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of 2014.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, three district government employees were killed by a roadside bomb as they were traveling to work Wednesday morning in eastern Nangarhar province's Deh Bala district, said district chief Asrarullah.
Officials also said the Taliban attacked a hilltop police post in northern Badakhshan province's Warduj district late Tuesday, triggering heavy fighting that killed eight policemen and six militants, according to the provincial governor's spokesman, Abdul Maruf Rasikh. Two policemen and 11 militants were also wounded, he said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement sent to reporters by the group's spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
Badakhshan province is relatively peaceful but has experienced periodic attacks. Two foreign doctors and their three Afghan colleagues were kidnapped last week in Badakhshan.