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Thursday, August 11, 2011

UN envoys concerned over NATO strikes as Libyan TV shows footage of Khamis

Russia, India and other UN Security Council delegations voiced concerns late Tuesday about NATO strikes on Libyan state television last month, saying they were awaiting results of a NATO investigation as the Libyan state television showed what it said was footage of Muammar Qaddafi’s son Khamis, who rebels said last week had been killed.

The criticism of NATO’s strikes came on the same day Tripoli accused the alliance of killing dozens of civilians and highlighted deepening divisions on the Security Council over a six-month war that most delegations originally hoped would last no more than a few weeks.

Speaking after a closed-door meeting of the 15-nation council, at which the July 30 attack on the Libyan broadcaster was discussed at length, several envoys said they wanted NATO to clarify what happened and why the facility was targeted.

“We are very concerned about this (attack),” Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. “We have urged them to stop this ... We were told they (NATO) are investigating the bombing of the TV station.”

Irina Bokova, the head of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, sharply rebuked NATO on Monday for the attack, which she said killed several people and wounded nearly a dozen.

“I deplore the NATO strike on Al Jamahiriya and its installations,” Ms. Bokova said in a statement. “Media outlets should not be targeted in military actions.”

NATO said last month it bombed three ground-based satellite transmission dishes in Tripoli to silence “terror broadcasts” on state television by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi during an uprising against his rule.

Carmen Romero, a spokeswoman for the alliance, defended the strikes.

“NATO targeted equipment that had been used to incite attacks against civilians,” she said. “The strike ... hit only three satellite dishes. And we are unaware of any evidence of casualties associated with the strike on those facilities.”

German Deputy Ambassador Manuel Berger said a media organization can be a legitimate target "when it is used to incite violence."

NATO began striking Qaddafi’s forces in March on the basis of Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized UN member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Farhan Haq did not echo Ms. Bokova’s criticism of the NATO attack when reporters asked him about her statement on Tuesday.

“The secretary-general believes that resolution 1973 has been used properly in order to protect civilians in Libya and he has continually emphasized the need, as this proceeds, to make sure that civilians in Libya will be protected,” Mr. Haq said.

Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, who was also critical of the attack on Libyan television, told reporters that council members “await full facts, including from NATO.” Ambassador Puri is this month’s Security Council president.

Lebanese and Brazilian envoys said they were concerned about the NATO attack and wanted an explanation.

Western diplomats cite the case of Rwanda as an example of a media organization that would be a legitimate target.

In Rwanda, the broadcaster Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines aided the 1994 massacre of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by broadcasting lists of people to be killed and announcing where they could be found.

In 1999, NATO attacked the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television in Belgrade, killing more than a dozen people. NATO said that attack was justified because it aimed to shut down President Slobodan Milosevic’s propaganda machine.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Libyan state television showed what it said was footage of Colonel Qaddafi’s son Khamis, who rebels said last week had been killed, visiting Libyans wounded in an air attack east of Tripoli.

The Libyan government has denied rebel claims that Mr. Khamis, commander of one of Qaddafi’s most loyal and best-equipped units, had been killed by a NATO air strike near Zlitan.

Libyan TV said the footage was recorded on Tuesday. If genuine, it would be the first visual proof by Qaddafi’s government that Khamis Qaddafi was still alive.

Wearing a military uniform and an orange beret and bearing a striking resemblance to Khamis, a man was heard chatting to people the network said were wounded earlier on Tuesday in a NATO air strike on farmhouses near Zlitan.

The government said dozens of civilians were killed in the attack. NATO said it hit a legitimate military target and was investigating the incident.

“They bombed the house. You mean you did not expect to be bombed,” Mr. Khamis could be heard asking a woman lying in a hospital bed.


British PM Cameron lost legitimacy over riots: Libya

Libya on Wednesday joined international outcasts Iran and Zimbabwe in voicing scathing criticism of Britain over its handling of four nights of riots.

The regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi called on Prime Minister David Cameron to step down, saying he had "lost all legitimacy."

"Cameron and his government must leave after the popular uprising against them and the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations by police," Libya’s JANA quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim as saying.

"Cameron and his government have lost all legitimacy," he said.

"These demonstrations show that the British people reject this government which is trying to impose itself through force."

Mr. Kaaim called on the "UN Security Council and the international community not to stay with its arms crossed in the face of the flagrant violation of the rights of the British people."

Nightly riots which began in London and quickly spread to other major cities have gripped Britain since Saturday when an angry crowd marched to demand justice after a 29-year-old man was shot dead by police.

The unrest is the worst since the 1980s and more than 450 people have been arrested so far.

Iran urged Britain on Tuesday to show "restraint" in dealing with rioters, the state television website said.

Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast asked "the British government to prevent the use of violence by the police, and to engage in dialogue with the protesters and examine their demands in order to restore calm," it said.

In 2009, Britain and other Western countries condemned Tehran for violently crushing protests that followed the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe took the opportunity to urge his old foe Britain to leave its former colony alone.

"Britain I understand is on fire, London especially and we hope they can extinguish their fire, pay attention to their internal problems and to that fire which is now blazing all over, and leave us alone," Mugabe said.

"We do not have any fire here and we do not want them to continue to create unnecessary problems in our country. We want peace, and the people of Zimbabwe want peace."


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Libyan capital rocked by several blasts as rebels face political crisis

Several powerful blasts rocked Libya’s capital on Tuesday, as the executive branch of Libya’s rebel government was sacked in a political crisis a week after their military chief’s assassination.

The explosions in the Fernej district of southwest Tripoli struck at between 1:00 am (2300 GMT) and 2:00 am, sending flames shooting into the night sky, an AFP correspondent said.

They were followed by a series of smaller blasts, suggesting an arms depot had been hit. Two other explosions followed at around 6:00 am, he said.

In the rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), sacked the entire executive office of his government late on Monday, officials said.

He dismissed several top ministers—including those responsible for finance, defense and information—while calling for root and branch reform.

“Mr. Mustafa Abdel Jalil has disbanded the executive office,” spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah told AFP, adding that prime minister Mahmud Jibril would be tasked with creating a reformed body.

It was the latest dramatic phase in the turmoil sparked by the assassination of rebel military commander General Abdel Fatah Yunis—amid his return to Benghazi under arrest in late July.

The NTC has come under fire for its role in events leading up to Mr. Yunis’s death, as well as its handling of the aftermath.

Although details are sketchy and still under investigation, it is known that an arrest warrant was signed by senior NTC executive member Ali Essawy, raising allegations that the NTC unknowingly helped facilitate his murder.

Mr. Essawy was one of the most visible members of the rebel government—the interlocutor for visiting foreign dignitaries.

The council has faced angry and sometimes violent protests from Mr. Yunis’s tribe, as well as demands for reform from groups that were at the forefront of the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that erupted in mid-February.

Mr. Jalil has vowed that an internal investigation into the NTC’s management of the crisis would not flinch from apportioning blame. “No one is above the law, starting from the top of the NTC,” he said.

Since the general’s death, tribal tensions have come to the surface in a country where clans for decades have formed the basis for solving disputes in the absence of functioning judicial institutions.

Insiders have reported frequent clashes between the NTC, whose members were largely Libyan-based lawyers and former members of Qaddafi’s regime, and the executive branch, the majority of whom were exiles.

On the ground, rebel fighters have been battling to defend gains in the west, in the face of an offensive by troops loyal to Colonel Qaddafi.

Rebels fighting at Zliten, 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli, have admitted they were running low on ammunition as they struggled to hold off an assault by loyalist forces.

Abdul Wahab Melitan, a rebel spokesman in the port city of Misrata near Zliten, said pro-Qaddafi forces had launched an assault on their positions on Sunday in the Souk Telat area.

Four rebel fighters were killed and 40 wounded, he said. “The rebels lack ammunition to advance and we do not want to risk losing any ground.”


Sunday, August 7, 2011

U.S. blames flawed analysis for S&P downgrade

Stung by the first-ever downgrade to its top-notch sovereign credit rating, the U.S. has hit back at Stanbdard & Poor, saying that the rating agency’s flawed analysis has put its own credibility and integrity at risk.

The U.S. administration has also got support from legendary investor Warren Buffett, who said that the rating downgrade from ‘Triple-A’ did not make any sense and he would rather give the U.S. a ‘Quadraple-A’ rating, if there was one.

The ‘AAA’ rating is the highest possible rating and the world’s largest economy had been enjoying this top-notch rating ever since the agencies began assigning sovereign credit rating to the country. However, S&P this weekend stripped the U.S. off this rating, downgrading it a notch lower to ‘AA+’, while terming the efforts being taken to tackle the country’s soaring debt levels as inadequate.

Reacting to the unprecedented downgrade, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a detailed statement on its website, questioning the credibility and integrity of S&P and terming as misleading and flawed the agency’s analysis for the action.

S&P, however, defended its action through media interactions and said that the U.S. administration’s angry response was on expected lines from any country or company being downgraded.

The Treasury officials have been saying that S&P had erroneously inflated the U.S. deficit figure by over $2 trillion, which they rectified after being alerted to the error but still decided to go ahead with the downgrade.

“S&P acknowledged this error - in private conversations with Treasury on Friday afternoon and then publicly early on Saturday morning. In the interim, they chose to issue a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating,” Treasury statement said.

The head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Gene Sperling, also joined in the assault on S&P, saying that it first arrived at a conclusion to downgrade the rating and then decided on the required arguments.

“The magnitude of their (S&P’s) error, combined with their willingness to simply change on the spot their lead rationale in their press release once the error was pointed out, was breathtaking. It smacked of an institution starting with a conclusion and shaping any arguments to fit it,” he said.

“After Treasury pointed out this error - a basic math error of significant consequence - S&P still chose to proceed with their flawed judgement by simply changing their principal rationale for their credit rating decision from an economic one to a political one,” Treasury’s assistant secretary for economic policy John Bellows said.

Joining those who did not appear convinced with the rationale for downgrade was Buffett, who holds about $40 billion of the U.S. treasury bonds and is a shareholder in S&P’s rival rating agency Moody’s.

He said that the downgrade did not make any sense and for him the rating was still ‘AAA’ “If there were a quadruple-A rating, I’d give the U.S. that,” he said, while adding that he would not sell U.S. treasury bonds because of downgrade.

The Treasury statement, on the other hand, said that the mistake committed by the rating agency and the “haste with which S&P changed its principal rationale for action when presented with this error - raise fundamental questions about the credibility and integrity of S&P’s ratings action.”


Assad vows ‘free elections’ in Syria as foreign pressure mounts

Syria vowed to hold “free and transparent” polls later this year but re-arrested a leading dissident, as foreign pressure mounted over its deadly suppression of anti-regime protests.

Security forces arrested prominent opposition figure and former political prisoner Walid Al Bunni and his two sons, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

In 2000, Mr. Bunni was one of the prime movers of the short-lived “Damascus Spring” amid hopes for reform after Bashar Al Assad became president following the death of his father Hafez.

The arrests came just hours after Damascus Saturday vowed to hold “free and transparent” elections by the end of 2011.

Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is unlikely to have much resonance with Syria’s opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in President Assad’s overtures.

The four-year term of the current parliament expired earlier this year and Mr. Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.

Mr. Abdel Rahim said earlier that hundreds of tanks and armored cars had been deployed in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor and around Homs in central Syria.

“Syria will hold free and transparent elections that will give birth to a parliament representing the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in a meeting with ambassadors posted to Damascus.

“The general elections will be held before the end of the year,” Mr. Muallem said, quoted by the official SANA news agency.

The foreign minister stressed “the commitment of the Syrian leadership to the continued reform process and implementation of measures announced by Assad.”

“The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them,” Mr. Muallem said.

But Syria was coming under increasing international criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched last Sunday after residents calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces. Activists said Saturday that security forces killed 24 people around the country a day earlier.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon told Mr. Assad to immediately end his deadly military campaign against opponents.

“In a phone conversation with President Assad of Syria today, the secretary general expressed his strong concern and that of the international community at the mounting violence and death toll in Syria over the past days,” said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Mr. Ban “reflected to the Syrian president the clear message sent by the Security Council and urged the president to stop the use of military force against civilians immediately,” Mr. Nesirky said.

Saturday’s phone call comes days after the UN Security Council overcame deep divisions and condemned Damascus’ bloody crackdown on civilian protesters, the 15-nation body’s first substantive action on Syria’s five-month-old uprising.

Mr. Ban has been trying for months to speak with Mr. Assad, UN officials have said, but the Syrian president had been refusing to take his calls. The last time the secretary-general spoke with Assad was in May, when he told Mr. Assad to end the violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Mr. Ban also reiterated previous UN demands that Mr. Assad allow missions from international humanitarian agencies and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into the country.

The embattled president issued a decree on Thursday allowing opposition political parties, but the move was largely dismissed by the opposition as a ploy to appease protesters.

The oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf on Saturday also turned up the heat on Damascus, with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council calling in a statement for an “immediate end to violence... and bloodshed.”

They urged a “resort to wisdom and introducing serious and necessary reforms.”

Their call followed a pledge by the US, French and German leaders to consider new steps to punish Syria after a deadly crackdown on the first Friday of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting.

US President Barack Obama spoke separately to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Western nations cranked up pressure on Assad.

They “condemned the Assad regime’s continued use of indiscriminate violence,” the White House said. They “also agreed to consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people.”

The Syrian government has sought to crush the democracy movement with brutal force, killing around 1,650 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Mr. Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory said around 250 tanks and armored cars were deployed in four districts of Deir Ezzor on Saturday.

The tanks were also posted around the airport in Deir Ezzor, many of whose residents started to flee the city from Wednesday, fearing imminent military action.

In Homs, “many armored cars and other army vehicles have been posted in the Bab Al Sibaa district,” Mr. Abdel Rahman said, adding that activists in the city reported gunfire from early morning.

Communications have been cut off as the army stepped up an operation to crush dissent in Hama, the central city where security forces killed at least 30 civilians and wounded dozens more, earlier in the week.

The call for Friday’s protests came from activists on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force behind the demonstrations that have been calling for greater freedoms since mid-March.

In Damascus and other cities, mourners held funerals Saturday for several of those killed on Friday. Amateur videos posted online by activists showed crowds marching in the funeral procession of a teenager who was killed in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. Some of the mourners shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, and “there is no God but God and Assad is his enemy.”

Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said funerals were also held for six soldiers and members of the security forces who were gunned down by “terrorist groups” and gunmen in Homs, Hama and the northern province of Idlib.

Al Arabia