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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Head of the Libyan land forces escapes an assassination attempt

Gunmen tried to kill head of the Libyan land forces, Khalifa Haftar, on Saturday in a bold daylight attack in Tripoil, setting off hours of intense gun battles along the main highway to the airport. Assailants in Tripoli also attacked one of Libya’s largest military bases.

The gunmen were believed to be from renegade groups of former rebel fighters. The violence deepens concerns about unity among the ex-rebels − many of whom remain heavily armed − while the police and military struggle to restructure their forces after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.

Military officials said revolutionary fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan were likely behind the violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was still under way.

The violence began in the morning with the attack on Haftar’s convoy as it moved from his home in Tripoli to the military headquarters, said a military spokesman, Sgt. Abdel-Razik el-Shibahy.

A group of armed men at a mock checkpoint tried to stop them, but Haftar convoy swerved from the checkpoint and drove over a nearby bridge where they were shot at by two gunmen positioned on the other side, al-Shibahy said.

The military spokesman said no one in the convoy was harmed and soldiers arrested the two gunmen, who are in military custody for questioning.

Minutes later, a second army convoy heading down the same road was ambushed, apparently by the same group of gunmen at another phony checkpoint. Soldiers firing AK-47 rifles wounded two gunmen, al-Shibahy said.

His predecessor

Haftar’s predecessor, military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis, was killed in late July. At the time, rebels insisted it was the work of Qaddafi’s regime, but several witnesses said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.

Near the airport road, gunmen shot at soldiers stationed inside the Katiba Hamza military base, which is used to train Libya’s new army. No one was harmed in the shootout, al-Shibahy said.

By nightfall, gunbattles raged between gunmen and the National Army along Tripoli’s airport road, according to an Associated Press reporter near the scene. A solider who was involved in the battles, Saddam Fakry, said the army also shelled the gunmen’s positions.

Libya’s new leaders have tread cautiously in seeking to persuade former fighters to disarm, stopping short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.

The night before the attack on his convoy, Haftar told The Associated Press in an interview that he is against forcing fighters to disarm.

“Collecting weapons has to be completely voluntary,” he said, adding that the transitional government should instead reward former rebels for their courage in joining the fight to oust Qaddafi.

“You know, fighters usually get medals of honor for their contribution, or a raise at their jobs,” Haftar said.

Earlier incident

Meanwhile, an insider source who kept his identity anonymous, told the Libyan al-Manara Media website that a military force belonging to Haftar stormed into the National Transitional Council’s headquarters in Rixos hotel in Tripoli on Tuesday

The source said that members of the transitional council were shocked especially that Haftar’s forces were heavily armed. He also said that one of Haftar’s men grabbed a mobile phone belonging to one of the hotel’s workers to stop any attempts to leak any pictures of what had happened.

According to the source, the transitional council kept around one $1 billion inside the hotel, and that Haftar demanded five percent of the money to be channeled to launch a national army for him to lead.

It is also an attempt for Haftar to pressure the interim government to appoint him as the chief of staff of the Libyan national army, the source added.

Libya’s new army post-Qaddafi has been recently formed and there is no official figure named as the head of the army yet.

Meanwhile, interim members described it as an attempted coup to bring the army to be in charge of the country.

Other sources said that Haftar’s forces came to offer their security to members of the transitional council instead of that of the rebels.

Haftar was one of Qaddafi’s army commanders in the Chadian–Libyan conflict, he fell out with the regime when Libya lost the war, and sought exile in the United States.

After falling out with the Qaddafi regime, Haftar set up his own militia financed by the CIA, according to the 2001 book Manipulations africaines, published by Le Monde diplomatique.

He came back to Libya to join rebels to oust the Qaddafi regime, and was appointed as the head of the land forces in the national army.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russian navy squadron sails to Syrian port; Damascus deploys tanks on Turkey border

Russia’s Defense Ministry said a navy squadron has set off for the Mediterranean as an Egyptian official said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has passed through the Suez Canal earlier this week heading to the Mediterranean.

Russian news reports quoted the ministry as saying that the squadron was to make a call at the Syrian port of Tartus to replenish supplies. The ministry said the visit had been planned long ago and had no relation to the Syrian crisis, The Associated Press reported.

Russian television stations showed the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft cruiser sailing off Tuesday from Severomorsk, the Arctic base of Russia’s Northern Fleet. The carrier is being escorted by a destroyer and several supply ships and will be joined later by several other warships.

Moscow has strongly opposed the Western push for international sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for its violent crackdown on protests.

Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.

However, an Egyptian navigational source said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has set off from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, according to Al Arabiya. The source said it might be heading to the Syrian coasts.

The news comes almost two weeks after the U.S. carrier George Bush crossed the Suez Canal on Nov. 20, heading to the Mediterranean and accompanied by five warships.

Syria’s state-run media said on Monday that the country’s military has held war games during which the army test-fired missiles and the air force and ground troops conducted operations “similar to a real battle.”

State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.” It said the war games were held on Sunday.

In October, Assad warned the Middle East “would burn” if the West intervenes in Syria, according to The Associated Press.

Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.

State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.”

The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security” and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.

State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers “to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them.”

Meanwhile, there were reports of a move by a huge number of Syrian tanks from the Maaret al-Numan in Idlib to the borders with Turkey, Al Arabiya reported.

On Tuesday, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that Syrian border guards blocked an infiltration attempt from Turkey by about 35 “armed terrorists”

It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey, where they received aid from the Turkish army. The wounded were transported in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.

“The border guards forces suffered no injuries or losses. They warned they would stop anyone who even thinks of touching Syria’s security or its citizens,” SANA said.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.

Assad still has significant support in Syria despite nearly nine months of unrest in which more than 4,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. Many Syrians have not taken sides, fearing chaos or sectarian war.

On Tuesday, clashes erupted between army defectors and security forces in the town of Dael in southern Deraa province, the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.

“There were raids and arrests ... and random gunfire and stun grenades exploding to terrify the people,” it said. All telephone lines and mobile phone connections were cut off.

The Syrian news agency earlier reported the funerals of seven army and police members killed in fighting with armed rebels. Syria says the latter are “terrorists” organized and financed from abroad.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have stalled and Syria is now the target of international economic sanctions and a travel ban on senior officials.

Syria’s isolation to intensify?

Syria’s isolation will intensify if Damascus fails to stop killing protesters, the British Foreign Office’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said on Wednesday.

“These killings must stop,” Burt told AFP in Tripoli, where he launched the British Council which had been closed during the armed revolt against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

Burt welcomed the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions on the Syrian government.

“The sanctions on Syria by the Arab League are most important. Such sanctions will continue. The isolation of Syria will continue and intensify,” he warned.

The minister expressed hope that Russia, allied with Syria since the Soviet era, would also be “encouraged” to back such moves.


Assad says only ‘crazy’ leaders kill own people, questions U.N.’s death toll

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a U.S. television interview released Wednesday denied ordering the killing of protesters, saying that “only a crazy person” would do so.

Speaking to ABC News, Assad questioned the U.N. death toll of more than 4,000 in the unrest and said most victims were government supporters. He also brushed aside international sanctions and said Syria had launched democratic reforms.

Assad – speaking to veteran journalist Barbara Walters in a rare interview to foreign media – said he was not responsible for the nine months of bloodshed and blamed any excesses on individuals rather than his regime.

“We don’t kill our people,” ABC News quoted Assad as saying. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”

Assad conceded that some members of his armed forces had gone too far, but said they had been punished.

“Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not an institution, that’s what you have to know,” he said.

“There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials,” he said. “There was no command to kill or be brutal.”

Witnesses and human rights groups say Syrian forces have used intense force and torture to crush the biggest threat to the Assad family’s four-decade rule.

The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 people have died since the uprising began in March, part of a wave of pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world that by now have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Assad dismissed the death toll, saying: “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?”

“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Assad said, giving a figure of 1,100 dead soldiers and police.

Assad said that his government was moving ahead with reforms but stated flatly: “We never said we are democratic country.”

“It takes a long time,” Assad said. “It takes a lot of maturity to be full-fledged democracy.”

Assad told ABC News such threats did not worry him, saying: “We’ve been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It’s not something new.”

Syria has come under growing pressure from the United States, European Union, Arab League and non-Arab Turkey to stop the violence.

The Arab League has threatened to impose new sanctions unless Syria lets in monitors. In a letter late Sunday, Assad’s regime said it will allow monitors but only if conditions are met.

The United States and France on Tuesday sent their ambassadors back to Syria, hoping that they will help shed a light on the violence and show solidarity with protesters after being pulled out due to security concerns.

Syria accuses “armed terrorist groups” of fueling the unrest, which comes amid a wave of street protests across the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quoted in U.S. media as saying it was “ludicrous” that Assad was “attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country”.

ABC News said that it was Assad’s first interview to U.S. media since Syria launched the crackdown in March.

Walters, 82, is known for interviews that seek to probe high-profile figures’ personal sides. She is a creator of the popular ABC News morning show “The View,” which features a panel of women hosts.

Calls for patience

Russia and Algeria both called for the Arab League peace plan, which Syria says it is considering, to be given time.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that months of effort to secure agreement on a regional plan had now finally started a handover of power in Yemen.

“The same kind of patience, the same kind of responsibility need to be exercised in relation to the realization of the plan of the Arab League in Syria,” he told reporters after attending a meeting in Lithuania of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told lawmakers in Paris that Syria was in a “pre-civil war situation”.

“Today we are in a situation where we are putting pressure on the Syrian government and, on the other hand, talking to the opposition to create the conditions for dialogue,” he said.

“Outside of this dialogue, this transition will not happen. We must give the maximum chance to this Arab initiative.”

Syria’s state news agency SANA said an “armed terrorist group” had shot dead an army pilot on Tuesday in front of his home in the city of Homs, scene of some of the worst violence.

On Tuesday, SANA had reported that Syrian border guards had blocked an attempt by about 35 “armed terrorists” to enter from Turkey.

It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey where they were picked up in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mood shift in Russia

The winds of change blowing in the Arab East appear to have reached Russia. The ruling United Russia party has suffered big losses in Sunday's parliamentary elections in a sign of dramatic shifts in the public mood in Russian society. United Russia polled just under 50 per cent of the popular vote, almost 15 percentage points lower than it did four years ago. It will still occupy more than half the seats in the 450-member State Duma, thanks to votes cast for outsiders, but it will see its majority slashed from 90 to 15 seats. Three opposition parties represented in Parliament have made impressive gains: the Communists will have 92 seats in the new house, an increase of 60 per cent, followed by A Just Russia with 64 seats, up from the current 38 seats, and the Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 56 seats against today's 40 seats. The reduced support for United Russia, which has controlled Parliament for the past 10 years, is partly a reaction to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, which hit people's earnings; it is also a protest against the failure of authorities to rein in corruption, which has slowed Russia's modernisation drive. The election results also indicated people's growing political activism and impatience with the overbearing dominance of the political scene by a single party.

United Russia's election setback deals a blow to its chairman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, just as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in the March 2012 election under an agreement with President Dmitry Medvedev. Previous election successes of the ruling party — set up in 2001 to provide a political base for President Putin — have closely mirrored his popularity as a strong leader who presided over Russia's resurgence from the chaos of the 1990s. When United Russia swept to a two-thirds constitutional majority in the State Duma in 2007, it was seen as a vote of thanks for Mr. Putin who refused to cling on to power and promoted a younger leader to steer Russia along the path he had charted. However, instead of stepping back, Mr. Putin remained the dominant power behind the throne in the past four years, holding back political and economic reforms proclaimed by his successor. The disappointing performance of United Russia is the writing on the wall. It came two months after the two top leaders announced their decision to switch jobs and barely a week after the party formally nominated Mr. Putin as its candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections. Mr. Putin's assured return appears to have failed to inspire Russians. They have sent a strong message the Kremlin can ignore only at its own peril. People want political competition, they want progressive reform, and they want new leaders.

Editorial-The Hindu

Thousands protest ‘election fraud’ in Moscow

uAllegations of massive election fraud brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow on Monday night in what appeared to be the largest opposition rally in years.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people defied icy rain to protest the official results of Sunday’s parliamentary election, which gave victory to the ruling United Russia party led by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

People chanted “Russia without Putin,” “Down with Thieves and Crooks”, “We’ll neither forget nor forgive” – in reference to what opposition leaders said was large-scale vote rigging that allowed the Kremlin party to grab more than half the seats in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament.

As the crowd swelled, police were forced to stop security screening of arriving protestors with metal detectors and remove fencing.

“We will not let them rob us of our votes, they must know we hate them all,” said popular whistleblower Alexei Navaly, who coined the now famous catchword “Party of Thieves and Crooks”, which has stuck fast to the United Russia party.

At one point, protesters began marching towards the Central Election Commission and the Kremlin, breaking through police lines and shouting anti-government slogans. It was not until riot police reinforcements arrived that they managed to break up the crowd, bundling people into dozens of buses parked on side streets.

About 300 people were detained, including a number of Russian and foreign reporters.

“I have not seen such a crowd in Moscow since 1993,” said Kommersant FM radio editor Dmitry Solopov. He was referring to a standoff between then President Boris Yeltsin and the Parliament that led to armed clashes and the storming of the legislature in October 1993 in which hundreds were killed.

Similar protest rallies took place on Monday in St. Petersburg and Samara, where police also detained scores of people.
The Hindu

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why this ‘kolaveri di' is India's coming of age

The video is said to be its first viral marketing campaign

In the last two weeks, two videos have gone viral on the Internet in India. One, the catchy Tanglish-folksy ‘Why this kolaveri di' video, and two, the flash mob at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in Mumbai where a few hundred Mumbaikars were seen shaking a leg to the Bollywood hit, ‘Rang de basanti'.

If you logged on to any social avatar of the World Wide Web, these videos, the ‘shares', the ‘likes' and the instantly-trending tweets were unmissable. While the flash mob at CST, a tribute to those who lost their lives on 26/11, has around 11.45 lakh views on YouTube, ‘Kolaveri di', a promo for Tamil hero Dhanush's upcoming film 3 uploaded by Sony Music on November 16, has been viewed 1.43 crore times.

On the Web, a world that is constantly on the look out for the ‘next cool thing', that Kolaveri's viewership continues to grow by the day, has made commentators christen it the first viral marketing campaign in India. Perhaps more interesting than the song itself are the over two dozen versions of it that you will find on YouTube. There's an anti-inflation version featuring Sharad Pawar; a group of boys from Kerala using the song to appeal to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on the Mullaperiyar dam issue; a talented young girl presenting a “female version” reply to the song that's arguably gender-biased, and many others have done remix versions and videos of the song. Like the song's appeal, the rip-offs too are pan-national.

While Bollywood trailers and content have always been popular online, film-makers have not actively tapped into this medium. Earlier this year, the makers of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Ra.One became the first film to have its own YouTube channel, featuring songs, promos, footage, ‘behind the scenes', and cast interviews, supplemented by a fairly effective social media campaign. Add to this, the potential of revenue generation offered by music downloads and caller ring-back tone subscriptions; this form of marketing is cheap, easy, instant and a potential recipe for success.

Indeed, mobile value-added service provider, Techzone, which holds the exclusive rights for music tracks, videos and digital entertainment formats for the ‘Kolaveri' movie 3, has seen a “phenomenal” number of subscriptions, downloads and ‘live-in' requests. Techzone reportedly saw 22,000 downloads of the song in the first five days. While refusing to share numbers, marketing representatives from Techzone told The Hindu that the response has been overwhelming. TechZone deployed the content through its entire distribution network, which includes all telecom operators.

“Generally, for Tamil songs, 90 per cent of the demand comes from Tamil Nadu, but with this song we have received a sizable amount of requests from different parts of the country. This is a first for us,” the Techzone representative said.

A vibrant medium

So are we witnessing a change in cinema's relationship with cyberspace, asks Nishant Shah, a researcher from the Centre for Internet and Society. A campaign like Ra.One does not compare to ‘Kolaveri' because a movie trailer simply offers people a chance to be spectators, unlike the simple and catchy ‘Kolaveri', which has people remixing, editing the footage and using the video to create their own narratives.

Mr. Shah feels that indeed this is the first viral online video campaign that India has had. Most viral videos so far, he points out, were invariably pornographic or even voyeuristic in nature. “Like the Delhi MMS video — that was perhaps one of the earliest videos to go viral — to other pornographic clips of movie stars. Later on, we saw interesting remixes or spoofs, mostly regional; this is the first time that we have home-grown content that has gone viral simply because it is fun, simple and addictive. In that sense it's an intelligent campaign,” he explained. He also feels that this could be the coming of age of video as a medium, particularly so because the campaign has become a pan-India phenomenon.

Tried and tested

Viral marketing is quite big abroad. In that sense, this has all been ‘tried and tested' abroad — from commercials for beer and sunglasses to selling computers and even presidential campaigns; online videos and viral marketing plans are indeed the mainstay of many publicity strategies.

Marketing campaigns can no longer ignore the Internet. Neither can they treat it as an also-ran, says Prashanth, a social media junkie and marketing professional. “Campaigns now have to start thinking of making promotional content for the new media. Currently, a shorter version of regular campaigns are edited for the Web; there are some successful ones in this category too. But a campaign such as the ‘Kolaveri' has the industry sitting up and taking notice. In some sense, the logic is simple: you have your audience cut-out, and the reach is pretty much pan-national,” he explains.


Putin's party losing support in parliamentary vote

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party struggled to hang onto its majority in Russia’s parliamentary election, results showed on Monday.

Rival parties and election monitors said even a result of around 50 per cent was inflated, alleging ballot-stuffing and other significant violations at the polls. Many expressed fears that the vote count would be manipulated.

The United Russia party held a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma, which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged. But the party is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy.

The Communist Party appeared to benefit from the protest vote, with exit polls and the early returns predicting it would get nearly 20 per cent, up from less than 12 per cent four years ago.

But Mr. Putin should still have no serious difficulties getting his laws passed. The two other parties in parliament also looked set to gain seats, and both have consistently voted with United Russia. Even the Communists pose only tempered opposition.

The results with over 92 per cent of the precincts counted showed 49.8 per cent for United Russia. This was in line with an exit poll conducted by the VTsIOM polling agency that had United Russia tallying 48.5 per cent and another done by the FOM polling agency that had it winning 46 per cent of the vote. The two polls were reported by the two state television channels.


Iranian military forces down a U.S. drone in Iran’s eastern province

Iran’s military said on Sunday it had shot down a U.S. drone aircraft in eastern Iran, a military source told state television.

"Our air defence and electronic warfare units managed to identify and shoot down an advanced unmanned spy aircraft − an RQ-170 − after it briefly violated the eastern border territory," Fars said, quoting an unnamed military source.

The Fars news agency, which has close ties to the Revolutionary Guards responsible for Iran's air defence and ballistic missile systems, said the drone had made an incursion into Iran's eastern airspace.

“The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the Iranian armed forces,” the source added

Iran warned that shooting down U.S. drones, in response to U.S. violation of its airspace, would be carried out outside Iran’s borders, Fars agency reported.

Washington denies attack

But a U.S. official said later on Sunday that Washington had no indication that a drone that had crashed in Iran had actually been shot down.

“There is absolutely no indication up to this point that Iranians shot down this drone,” the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the NATO-led force in Afghanistan said the drone the Iranians claim to have shot down may be an unarmed surveillance drone that was lost last week while flying over western Afghanistan.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said in a statement: “The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week.

“The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: “There is absolutely no indication up to this point that Iranians shot down this drone.”

Drones are routinely used by U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency to observe military activity in the region.

U.S. drones have also been used to launch missile strikes in Yemen as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, AFP reported.

At the start of this year, Iran had announced that its forces had downed two U.S. drones after they violated Iranian-controlled airspace and that it would put the aircraft on public display.


Iran has faced mounting international criticism over recent months.

Its relations with Britain were frayed last week when the British embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters shortly after London announced that it would impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank in connection with Iran’s controversial nuclear enrichment program.

Britain evacuated its diplomatic staff from Iran and expelled Iranian diplomats in London in retaliation, and several other EU members recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

The attack dragged Iran’s relations with Europe to a long-time low.

Washington and EU countries have been discussing measures to restrict Iran’s oil exports since the United Nations nuclear watchdog issued a report in November with what it said was evidence that Tehran had worked on designing an atom bomb.

But Iranian officials have repeatedly refuted the accusations, arguing that as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tehran has the right to use the civilian nuclear technology, adding that their nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Iran, which sits on the world’s second largest reserves of both oil and gas, has dismissed U.S. sanctions as inefficient, saying that it is finding Asian partners instead.

Several Chinese and other Asian firms are negotiating or signing up to oil and gas deals, Fars agency reported on Sunday.


Dozen Syrian secret police defect as death toll mounts; Arab League deadline passes

At least a dozen Syrian secret police have defected from an intelligence compound, activists said, in what appeared to be the first major desertion from a service that has acted as a pillar of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule as Damascus failed to respond to another Arab League deadline.

A gunfight broke out overnight on Saturday after the defectors fled the Airforce Intelligence complex in the centre of Idlib city, 280 km (175 miles) northwest of Damascus.

Ten people on both sides were killed or wounded, the activists said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

The defections came as the Arab League once again chided Syria for failing to sign up to a league-backed plan to end the violence in Syrian cities.

“We are very clear after the meeting yesterday... We give the Syrians one day, and I hope we will receive the answer from them. But until now I think there has been no answer from Syria,” the diplomat said.

The Arab League had told Syrian authorities to sign an initiative to end the military crackdown on popular protests by Sunday, threatening to impose financial and economic sanctions if it does not sign soon.

Arab League deadline

There are letters still being exchanged between the Arab League and Damascus to reach a vision for the protocol... These communications and correspondence are being studied by Damascus
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdesi

Sunday's deadline was announced in Doha by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who also warned against the internationalization of the Syrian crisis if Damascus did not heed the Arab call.

“As Arabs we fear that if the situation continues things will get out of Arab control,” Sheikh Hamad said.

A senior Arab diplomat at the League said late on Sunday that there was no sign Syria had responded to the deadline.

Such deadlines have slipped repeatedly in the past. Damascus complains that its sovereignty would be compromised by the plan, which would require it to admit Arab monitors to ensure that Syria pulled troops out of cities.

“There are letters still being exchanged between the Arab League and Damascus to reach a vision for the protocol... These communications and correspondence are being studied by Damascus,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdesi said in the Syrian capital.

Assad has so far shown no sign of halting the crackdown on protests against his rule.

In Homs’s Sunni district of Bab Amro on Sunday, several thousand people encircled the coffin of Khaled al-Sheikh, a 19-year-old protester who residents said was killed in random shooting by the army on the neighborhood this week.

Abdul Bassel Sarout, a 21-year-old soccer player, kissed Sheikh’s bloody head as the mostly young crowd of men and women chanted to the beat of drums: “Sleep easy we will continue the struggle... mothers weep for Syria's youth.”

“When we film the protests to send on YouTube, most demonstrators would try to hide their face so they would not be identified by the security police,” Wael, a young activist, said. “Khaled was always barefaced, chanting the loudest.”

Death toll mounts

Government forces and militiamen loyal to Assad killed at least 30 civilians and five defectors on Sunday, mostly in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, according to tallies by several activists’ organizations.

“Not a single opposition neighborhood was spared today. Troops either entered districts and raided houses, fired from roadblocks or tanks and pickup trucks hit houses and shops with machineguns,” said Abu Zeinab, an activist in the city.

Syrian authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed “terrorist groups” trying to spark civil war who have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police since March.

The official state news agency said a father and three children, who local activists said were shot dead by militiamen loyal to Assad in a drive-by shooting, were killed by a “an armed terrorist gang” that broke into their house.

“We see from this heinous crime that the terrorists are continuing to commit their crimes with cold blood,” the agency said.

Opposition sources said another 16 soldiers defected from Idlib on Sunday and fighting separately broke out between a new group of defectors, of similar size, and loyalist forces to the south, in the Josieh area on the border with Lebanon

They estimate the number of defectors from the military so far at several thousand, mainly army recruits from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have a tight grip on the country’s military and security apparatus.

The sectarian dimension to the unrest has come to the fore after tit-for-tat sectarian killings were reported near Homs, a nascent insurgency broke out in the provinces of Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and the United Nations warned of the risk of a civil war.

Peaceful way to stop violence

The street still wants the protests to continue to maintain the moral edge of the uprising. But it does not mind if the revolt acquires armed teeth to protect the demonstrators and deter attacks by the army and security police
Syrian activist Talal al-Ashqar

Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, said monitors were needed to keep a check on the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who have been accused by the U.N. of rights abuses.

“We believe that in full light of monitors and media, the security services reporting to Assad and his clique would not be able to operate the way they are operating now,” Feltman said in Jordan, according to AFP.

Allowing in monitors would be a “peaceful way of trying to stop this sustained cycle of violence that Assad seems committed to turning Syria into.”

Feltman also charged that Syria’s ally Iran was “actively engaged” in supporting the Syrian regime’s lethal crackdown and “facilitating” the killings of Syrian people.

The top U.N. human rights forum has condemned Syria for “gross and systematic” violations by its forces, including executions and the imprisonment of some 14,000 people.

Protests, modeled on “Arab Spring” revolts that have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have continued in Homs and scores of cities and towns. Armed resistance has grown alongside the sustained peaceful demonstrations.

“The street still wants the protests to continue to maintain the moral edge of the uprising. But it does not mind if the revolt acquires armed teeth to protect the demonstrators and deter attacks by the army and security police,” activist Talal al-Ashqar told Reuters by phone from Damascus.

Syrian officials sanctioned

The Arab League ministerial meeting in Doha listed 19 Syrian officials it said would be banned from travel to Arab countries and whose assets would be frozen by those states.

The panel also called for an embargo on the sale of Arab arms to Syria and cut by half the number of Arab flights into and out of Syria -- including its national carrier Syrian Air -- with effect from December 15.

Top military and intelligence brass as well as the defense and interior ministers are among the 19 officials banned from travel to Arab countries.

President Assad’s brother, General Maher al-Assad, who heads the feared Fourth Armored Division, and his cousin Rami Makhluf, a telecommunications tycoon, are also among those blacklisted.

The Arab panel also tasked a committee with drawing up a list of Syrian businessmen involved in financing the repression, ahead of slapping them with sanctions.

“This is a message to businessmen who have kept silent, so that they will choose what side to be on,” Najib Ghadban, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council which represents most of Assad’s opponents, told AFP.

Assad repeatedly has said he is battling to preserve Syria’s sovereignty against a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. His isolation has deepened, with the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and Turkey piling on tougher and tougher economic sanctions.

But the 46-year-old president does not face any immediate threat of foreign military strikes. The West has shown no appetite for the type of intervention that helped oust Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.


A French minister of Arab origin says ‘there is no such thing as moderate Islam’

A French minister said there was no such thing as moderate Islam, calling recent election successes by Islamic parties in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia “worrying” in an interview published Saturday.

Jeannette Bougrab, a junior minister with responsibility for youth, told Le Parisien newspaper that legislation based on Islamic sharia law “inevitably” imposed restrictions on rights and freedoms.

Bougrab is of Algerian origin, whose father fought on the French colonial side during Algeria’s war of independence, and said she was speaking as “a French woman of Arab origin.”

“It’s very worrying,” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t know of any moderate Islam.”

“There are no half measures with sharia,” she added. “I am a lawyer and you can make all the theological, literal or fundamental interpretations of it that you like but law based on sharia is inevitably a restriction on freedom, especially freedom of conscience.”

She was reacting to electoral successes scored by the Ennahda party in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has called for dialogue with such parties as long as they respect certain criteria, including the rule of law and women's rights.

Bougrab conceded that ousted Tunisian and Egyptian rulers Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak had used the Islamist “threat” to win backing from Western countries, but she added, “We shouldn’t go to the other extreme.”

And she hit out at the 30 percent of Tunisians living in France who had voted for Ennahda in last month's polls. “I am shocked that those who have rights and freedoms here gave their votes to a religious party,” she said.


Huge protest in Brussels against austerity

BRUSSELS — Tens of thousands of protesters marched through Belgium's capital on Friday to protest new austerity measures brought on by Europe's financial crisis.

The march — organized by the three main trade unions — protested the €11.3 billion ($15.3 billion) in budget cuts and austerity measures the government will enact next year to get the country's deficit within 3 percent of GDP and meet targets set by the European Union.

The unions specifically protest the extension of early retirement, cuts in unemployment benefits and the social security budget.

Union leaders later Friday met with Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist leader who pushed through the budget measures and is set to be sworn in as prime minister on Monday.

Union leaders estimated between 60,000 and 80,000 protesters marched through the streets of Brussels, choking city-center traffic which was compounded by a partial transport strike around the country.

"It shows how much the workers and the welfare recipients of this country want to have their voices heard by the coming government and say one more time that austerity is not the solution, it is the problem," Anne Demmelen, General Secretary of the FGTB socialist union said.

Beyond excessive noise from firecrackers and horns, no incidents marred the rally.

The march came on the heels of Thursday's protests in the Greek capital, and Wednesday's two-million strong demonstrations across Britain — showing a groundswell of labor discontent as the financial crisis grips the continent, forcing governments across the board to cut budgets and impose austerity measures.

On Friday, Di Rupo met with European Union President Herman Van Rompuy to explain the measures he planned to push through parliament as soon as his government would be sworn in.

Unions say the grand coalition of Socialists, Liberals and Christian Democrats seek to ride out the financial crisis on the backs of the working class.

They say that if the government does not heed their call for changes in the budget cuts, unions will consider a general strike.

With its high overall debt, Belgium is forced to make cuts, especially since its bond yields have been rising in markets.