In blockaded Gaza, making gas masks with jars and paper towels

Gaza resident Nafez Nayef is making homemade gas masks for his family and friends, worried that a US strike on Syria will prompt the Assad regime to hit back at Israel with chemical weapons.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — When Gaza resident Nafez Nayef first heard that the United States  might attack Syria — which Gazans fear will prompt a retaliatory chemical attack against neighboring Israel — he says he knew he had to get gas masks for his family right away.

But because both Israel and Egypt limit the goods that enter the Gaza Strip, a small, isolated territory on the Mediterranean, only a handful of journalists and riot police has been able to obtain masks.

So Nayef took to YouTube to figure out how to make them — convinced it was better than nothing if Syrian rockets landed near or in Gazan territory.

There was one YouTube video he preferred: a three-minute tutorial uploaded by an al Qaeda fighter in Iraq.

“All you need is an empty, 2 liter soda bottle, paper towels, vinegar, a plastic jar and ground coal,” Nayef said.

He uses the jar as the filter, stuffing it with paper towels soaked in vinegar to absorb the gas.

Opening the body of the soda bottle, he attaches it to the jar to cover the face.

“All the materials I need are available in Gaza,” he said. But still, “everything is rare here and prices are skyrocketing.”

Already isolated and struggling economically, Gaza was hit even harder when Egypt’s military ousted former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, in July. The government that replaced Morsi partly blamed Palestinians and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, for some of the violence that had gripped the country.

In addition to shutting its passenger crossing with Gaza, the Egyptian military moved to close the tunnels that ferry goods under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Gaza’s Hamas-run government says Egypt has destroyed more than 90 percent of the tunnels, which are used to smuggle fuel, construction materials and other goods to the territory’s 1.7 million residents.

The head of Gaza’s chamber of commerce, Maher Attabar, says Gazans are finding it nearly impossible to buy Israeli goods — at nearly double the price.

Construction on new homes and buildings — which was booming in 2011 and 2012 — is now completely stalled as materials from Egypt are blocked. In Gaza City, residents wait for hours in long lines at gas stations for expensive Israeli fuel.

Without allies, an ailing economy and acute shortages, Gazans say they feel stranded in the region.

Now the specter of war — after the U.S. threatened Syria with military strikes in the wake of a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs Aug. 21 — is making Palestinians here feel even more vulnerable.

“The unrest in Egypt has affected us badly, the problems between Hamas and Israel have made our lives unbearable. And the conflict in Syria may also affect us if the US attacks Damascus,” he said.

The likelihood of a U.S. attack on Syria decreased in recent days, when the U.S. and Russia announced talks to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

The U.S. had moved several naval destroyers into the Eastern Mediterranean over the past couple of weeks to ready for a strike, which President Barack Obama said would be aimed at deterring Assad from using chemical weapons.

The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed so far in the two-year-long Syrian conflict, pitting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad against a largely Sunni Muslim opposition.

Hundreds died in the Aug. 21 poison gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods outside Damascus, which the U.S., Human Rights Watch and other Western countries say was carried out by Assad’s forces.

“We are affected by everything happening in the region,” said Mazen Maarouf, a vegetable seller from Beit Lahiya, in north Gaza.

Nayef remembers when in 1991, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired ballistic missiles at Israel after the U.S. and other troops pushed back an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He also threatened to hit Israel with chemical weapons, prompting Gazans to seal their windows with plastic sheets, Nayef says.

This time, Nayef, a former policeman, is doing the same — and also making masks for his friends and other relatives.

Nayef’s brother, 35-year-old Nael, says he is less worried about a chemical attack from Syria that eventually reaches Gaza.

He says it’s more likely that Palestinian militant groups like Islamic Jihad — which have strong ties to Syria’s main patron, Iran — would fire rockets at Israel to avenge a U.S. strike against Assad.

Israel could respond to the rockets by launching another offensive on Gaza. And Nael says he is worried Israel could use white phosphorus on Gaza like it did in the 2008-2009 war here, Operation Cast Lead. White phosphorus is used in incendiary munitions and produces an instant blanket of smoke. International law prohibits its use on civilian areas.

“It’s protective enough,” Nael, an unemployed car mechanic, said of his mask. “It’s better than having nothing at all.”

At Nayef’s house, he is preparing for chemical war, but there are also more pressing concerns.

Right now, Gaza’s power is out for roughly 12 hours each day — and Nayef has eight children to take care of.

“I can barely get fuel for my generator,” he said.

(Source / 13.09.2013)

Twenty years on, Palestinians refuse to be defeated by Oslo

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat on 13 September 1993.

Twenty years ago – on 13 September 1993 – Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the “Declaration of Principles” on the White House lawn under the gaze of US President Bill Clinton.

It cemented a secret deal worked out over the previous months in the Norwegian capital, the first in a series of agreements that came to be known as the Oslo accords.

I have strong memories of that day. Fresh out of college, I was driving alone from the East coast to Chicago, listening to the live coverage on National Public Radio, as one college radio station after another faded in and out.

That night, I watched the ceremony again on CNN at a motel in Youngstown, Ohio.

Although I probably couldn’t have articulated why, I felt utter despair. I didn’t understand the celebratory mood, amid all the talk of an “historic breakthrough.”

It seemed to me that occupation, land theft and Israel’s brutality during the first intifada – which had not yet been fully snuffed out – were already being obscured with the soothing language of “both sides,” equating the oppressed with their oppressors.

More often, commentators cast Palestinians as the unruly villains who needed to be tamed, brought to heel and finally made to “renounce” this and “recognize” that.

“Palestinian capitulation”

But in the months and years ahead, the reasons for that despair came into much sharper focus for me, largely thanks to the columns of Edward Said, the Palestinian American scholar and globally-renowned public intellectual at Columbia University – many of which were gathered together in his 1995 book Peace and its Discontents.

For years I carried my well-thumbed copy everywhere and Said autographed it during a visit to Chicago in 1998.

This week I looked back at it. In its first pages Said declares the Oslo agreement a “Palestinian surrender” and a “Palestinian Versailles” – a reference to the humiliating and ultimately disastrous agreement Germany was forced to sign after the First World War.

While so many others got lost in the fog, Said’s clarity still leaps from the page. In “The Morning After” (October 1993), he writes:

Now that some of the euphoria has lifted, what emerges from the Israeli-PLO agreement is a deal that is more flawed and less favorable for the Palestinian people than many had first supposed. The vulgarities of the White House ceremony, the degrading spectacle of Yasir Arafat thanking everyone for what, in fact, was the suspension of most of his people’s rights, and the fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance – like a twentieth-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through the rituals of obseisance – all these only temporarily obscure the truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation.

It wasn’t only his inimitable style and deep analysis, but something else that Said gave us: he showed that you didn’t have to accept the capitulation.

You didn’t have to succumb to the deceptive language.

Even if we did not know exactly how to resist, the first step was at least to speak out. It is difficult to overstate how sustaining I found that message.

Was Said too optimistic?

Said saw all the inequality and lopsidedness built into the agreement. In “The PLO’s Bargain,” he writes:

Israel will allow “limited autonomy” and “early empowerment” for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, a small West Bank town sixty miles away. Yasir Arafat is reported to be allowed a visit first and residence later; a few hundred members of the Palestinian Liberation Army, at present in Jordan, will be permitted to handle internal security, that is police work. Health, sanitation, education, the postal service and tourism will be handled by Palestinians. The Israeli Army will reposition itself away from population centers, but will not withdraw for a while. Israel will control the land, water, overall security, and foreign affairs in these “autonomous” areas.” For the undefined future, Israel will dominate the West Bank, including the corridor between Gaza and Jericho, the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, and almost all the water and land, a good percentage of which is already taken. The question still remains, how much land is Israel in fact going to cede for peace?

As Said himself discovered, his initial reaction might have been too generous. He knew that by the time he died, ten years ago this month.

Now, two decades later, the few hundred Palestinian fighters have turned into “security forces” of tens of thousands, trained under American and European supervision, with support from Arab regimes, to brutally repress Palestinian dissent and resistance in collaboration with the occupation army.

Rather than giving up land, Israel has continued to take it, almost tripling the number of settlers living illegally in the West Bank.

A fundamental principle of the Oslo accords was that the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be treated as one territorial unit with a “safe passage” between them. Instead they are totally separated, with Gaza cut off and besieged.

The “peace process” hailed as “historic” has become a macabre, recurring joke.

Making money off occupation

Columbia professor Joseph Massad, Said’s student, colleague and close friend, was also prescient when he wrote in 1994 that the “Palestine Liberation Organization will come down in history as the only Third World liberation movement who has sought liberation through selling the resources it expects to ‘liberate’ to international capital before it even ‘liberated’ them. Western countries and their global instruments of economic domination, the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), are already devising different types of plans for investment in the Municipality of Gaza and Jericho once their projected mayor, Yasser Arafat, takes office.”

“In the long run nothing would have changed in the economic and political realities of the Palestinians,” Massad predicted. For many of us, the scale of the neoliberal transformation of Palestine is only now coming into focus.

Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli elites, including top generals, are doing fine, cheerfully making money together, as they have done from the start of the Oslo period.

Looking forward

There is no space here and no need to recount all the horrors and failures of the Oslo period – documenting them has been the work of The Electronic Intifada for almost thirteen of the past twenty years – but I just want to offer a few thoughts.

The reasons for despair – if we succumb to it – are still countless, and we can add to them new, dismal episodes in the tragedy as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced, along with millions of Syrians, in that country’s brutal civil war.

But twenty years later we can also say that Palestinians everywhere are still resisting capitulation.

True, capitulation was offered – and is still being offered – by the Oslo-era Palestinian leaders.

But it has not been offered by the people. There is no greater evidence of that than the unbreakable will of Palestinian hunger strikers in the face of Israel’s enormous power to imprison their bodies, but not their consciences.

One of Oslo’s legacies was the attempt to politically erase most of the Palestinian people. While all the focus was on the West Bank and Gaza, the refugees in exile, especially in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, were reduced to a “humanitarian issue.”

Palestinians in present-day Israel were forgotten altogether, dismissed as an “internal Israeli matter.”

Recovering from Oslo

Today, Palestinians in the diaspora who were only born around the time of Oslo, are leading the struggle on campuses in North America and around the world, in the face of fierce attempts at repression by Zionist organizations.

As next month’s third annual National Students for Justice in Palestine conference will demonstrate, this movement is only getting bigger, broader and more powerful.

The BDS movement – boycott, divestment and sanctions – has emerged in recent years as the most successful movement to build solidarity and action for Palestinian rights the world has ever seen. And it too is growing.

Young people in every part of Palestine refuse to accept capitulation, and, as Linah Alsaafin and Budour Hassan do in their recent essay “Resist Israel’s unjust system, don’t operate within it,” they are setting out the terms of their own struggle.

In the Galilee in the north of historic Palestine, a new generation of young people are no longer waiting for their right of return to be granted – or more likely abrogated – in some Israeli-PLO agreement. They are taking it themselves.

Nadim Nashif, writing this week, calls this a “grassroots, youth-led movement unprecedented in the history of activism for the right to return.”

Above all, Palestinians are reclaiming the right to demand all their rights. Not just a bantustan-like “state” instead of their rights, but their rights in full – an end to Israel’s colonial racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel, an end to occupation, colonization and siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the right to return.

As Palestinians assert their legitimate claims, more people can see that there is no “Palestinian problem” just as there was no “black problem” in South Africa or the Jim Crow United States.

Rather, more people now understand that the problem is Zionism and the practices of racism, settler-colonialism and apartheid that are inextricably linked to it.

That reality was supposed to be buried by now, but it is more visible than ever. Oslo could not hide it. Oslo did not bury the Palestinian cause.

(Source / 13.09.2013)

Israel exploits Egypt turmoil to increase attacks on Gaza farmers

Israel continues to violate the terms of a 2012 ceasefire by attacking farmers in Gaza.

Farming in the Gaza Strip’s “buffer zone” is hazardous under the best circumstances. Israeli troops routinely shoot live ammunition at Palestinian farmers in the free-fire area, which stretches hundreds of meters into the besieged territory from the barrier separating it and Israel, and invade their fields with tanks and bulldozers.

But Israel’s aggression against civilians in the area has escalated since the Egyptian army deposed elected president Muhammad Morsi and installed a new government on 3 July, according to Gaza’s farmers.

“After the coup in Egypt, the Israelis began shooting more heavily,” said Abu Jamal Abu Taima, a farmer in Khuzaa, a village in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza.

Abu Jamal is the mukhtar, or elected leader, of the Abu Taima family, 3,500 refugees fromBir al-Saba — a town in present-day Israel called Beersheva — now scattered among the farmlands outside Khan Younis.

He and two dozen other farmers from the family spoke to The Electronic Intifada during and after a meeting they held in Khuzaa.

“Egypt was the guarantor of the last ceasefire agreement [in 2012],” he said. “Now the Israelis are free to do whatever they want.”

“Just a few months ago, there was no gunfire. Now there is. We aren’t even in season yet, but they have already started to shoot.”

Morsi’s government brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian resistance groups on 21 November last year, ending eight days of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip and retaliatory fire from groups in the territory.

As part of the agreement, Israel reduced the “buffer zone,” which it had imposed in 2005, from 300 meters to 100 meters, according to the the Israeli military’s civil administrative unit, COGAT.

Targeted

In May this year, following months of conflicting claims about the size of the area by COGAT and the Israeli military’s spokesperson, COGAT stated that the “buffer zone” remained at 300 meters (“IDF: ‘Forbidden zone’ in Gaza three times larger than previously stated,” +972 Magazine, 12 May 2013).

But farmers say Israeli gunfire has extended the zone even further.

“According to the ceasefire, farmers could reach nearly all their lands,” Abu Jamal Abu Taima said. “These days, the Israelis are shooting farmers at 500 meters [from the boundary].”

He is not the only farmer who attributes the shift to turmoil in Egypt.

“After the coup, the Israelis expanded the area farmers couldn’t reach to 500 meters,” Abed al-Rasoul Abu Taima said. “Anyone coming closer to the separation barrier will be shot.”

Other farmers say they have been targeted even further from the barrier.

“The Israelis shot at me at 800 meters,” Zakaria Abu Taima said. “I was preparing to plant when they opened fire. I hid in an iron pipe, but the bullets came right through it.”

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) documented one Israeli shelling attack, twelve shootings, and seven incursions — resulting in a death and seven injuries, including two children — in the “buffer zone” during July and August.

Since the beginning of September, Israeli forces have undertaken at least two further incursions to level farmland.

Many other attacks, especially shootings that do not result in deaths or injuries, are never reported, according to farmers.

“It’s curious now, when you are talking about these limited incursions,” said Khalil Shaheen, head of PCHR’s economic and social rights unit.

“Violations define the restricted area. Officially, according to COGAT, the de jure area is 300 meters. But de facto, it depends on the incursions.”

Israel’s attacks in the “buffer zone,” especially those beyond 300 meters, discourage farmers from growing trees or building structures, like electrical pumps or wells.

“They don’t allow farmers to plant trees or build infrastructure,” said Dr. Nabil Abu Shammala, director of policy and planning at the Palestinian ministry of agriculture and fisheries. “They claim this is for reasons of their security.

“Agricultural activities in this area face many kinds of risks. Farmers avoid it not only because of gunfire, but also the destruction of land and infrastructure,” he added.

“We are afraid”

Amid the current rise in Israeli attacks, the potential destruction of their land particularly worries Gaza’s farmers.

The threat of Israeli bulldozers leveling fields has convinced many to delay the start of their fall planting.

“We are afraid to reach our land because, after we plant, the Israelis may come and destroy everything,” explained Abdul Azia Mahmoud Abu Taima.

“It’s regular for the bulldozers to level our land every week,” said Abed el-Aziz Abu Taima. “No one can stop them.”

When asked about the bulldozers used to raze their fields, farmers described the distinctive triangular treads of Caterpillar’s weaponized D-9 bulldozers.

“Caterpillar is the main weapon of destruction for the Israelis in the ‘buffer zone,’” said PCHR’s Shaheen. “They haven’t changed their company policy, despite all the information they’ve been given on the use of their machines here.

“After the farmers heard that they could access their lands up to 100 meters, they planted them. Now they cannot reach them. They lost their harvest. Israeli bulldozers levelled it.

“It’s very important to show what Caterpillar is doing, and that they know what’s happening.”

Under current circumstances, farmers face a delayed season with heightened dangers and an uncertain outcome.

“We are waiting until November to begin planting,” Zakaria Abu Taima said. “Usually, we would have started by now.”

“Of course we will plant,” remarked Abu Jamal Abu Taima. “But before we harvest, the Israelis may come with their bulldozers.”

(Source / 13.09.2013)

Bombing in Sunni mosque in Iraq, attacks kill 33

  • Iraqi women and children gather outside of a Sunni mosque after a suicide bomber struck during Friday prayers in the village of Umm al-Adham in Diyala province, a former militant stronghold 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Iraq is weathering it deadliest bout of violence in half a decade, raising fears the country is returning to the widespread killing that pushed it to the brink of civil war following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Photo: AP
    Iraqi women and children gather outside of a Sunni mosque after a suicide bomber struck during Friday prayers in the village of Umm al-Adham in Diyala province, a former militant stronghold 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Iraq is weathering it deadliest bout of violence in half a decade, raising fears the country is returning to the widespread killing that pushed it to the brink of civil war following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

BAGHDAD (AP) — A bomb hidden inside an air conditioner exploded Friday at a Sunni mosque packed with worshippers northeast of Baghdad, the deadliest in a series of attacks in Iraq that killed 33 people, officials said.

The blast in the village of Umm al-Adham on the outskirts of Baqouba, a former insurgent stronghold, left the green and white walls of the mosque spattered with blood. Debris was strewn across the tiled floor.

Police said at least 30 people were killed and 45 wounded. Two security officials said the bomb was hidden inside an air conditioner unit placed in the window.

Baqouba, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, also was hit with deadly violence earlier this week. Three car bombs targeting outdoor markets Tuesday killed at least 10 civilians in the city.

A roadside bomb also killed two soldiers and wounded two others in the northern city of Mosul, while gunmen shot and killed Khalaf Hameed, a local municipal official in the nearby Shora district, authorities said.

Hospital officials confirmed the causality figures for all the attacks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Iraq is weathering its deadliest bout of violence in half a decade, raising fears the country is returning to the sectarian bloodshed that pushed it to the brink of civil war in the years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

The months-long surge of bloodshed is taking place against the backdrop of rising tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The tensions are being inflamed in part by the sectarian divisions reflected in the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority have been protesting against the Shiite-led government since December, angered over what they see as second-class treatment of their sect and what they see as unfair application of tough anti-terrorism measures. Attacks surged after a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp by security forces in April.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s attacks.

Al-Qaida’s local branch, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other Sunni extremists have tried to harness the anger of many Sunnis, even as more moderate members of the sect appeal for calm.

Al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for a number of large-scale bombings in recent months and is believed to be behind other coordinated attacks. It frequently targets Shiite civilians, members of the security forces and those seen to be closely tied to the country’s Shiite-led government.

There has also been a spike in attacks on Sunni mosques in recent months. While it is possible that Sunni extremists could be to blame, Shiite militias that had been largely quiet for years may also be behind those assaults.

More than 4,000 people have been killed in violent attacks since the start of April, including 804 just in August, according to United Nations figures.

Also on Friday, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibly for a failed assassination attempt that took place early this month against a prominent Sunni militia leader opposed to al-Qaida, according to a statement posted on a militant website.

Al-Qaida said that three suicide bombers tried to storm the house of Wisam al-Hardan in Baghdad after attacking all the checkpoints leading to his residence.

Al-Hardan was recently appointed by the Iraqi prime minister to lead the anti-Al-Qaida Sunni militia known as Sahwa. The Sunni leader was not hurt in the attack that killed seven people, including six of his bodyguards.

Sahwa fighters joined U.S. troops in the war against al-Qaida at the height of Iraq war. Ever since, it has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider them traitors.

(Source / 13.09.2013)

250 Rohingya men from Myanmar swim ashore in southern Thailand

A Rohingya Muslim illegal immigrant from Myanmar cries as he prays at the Immigration Detention Centre during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province July 10, 2013.

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Some 250 Rohingya Muslim men who fled Myanmar by sea and were bound for Malaysia swam ashore in southern Thailand after their boat was hit by a storm and drifted off course, the Nation newspaper reported on Thursday.

The men, ranging in age from 15 to 40, came ashore on Wednesday morning in Satun, a Muslim-majority province bordering Malaysia, and were taken to a public park where locals provided food and medicine, while police and officials “conducted an inspection”, the report said.

The Nation said the men left Myanmar on August 26, and nine days later their food and water ran out. When they saw the coast they swam ashore to survive, and were being “kept at the park, pending further action by Internal Security Operations Command officials,” it said.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea in the past year, in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War. The number of people boarding boats from Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh reached 34,626 from June 2012 to May this year – more than four times the number in the previous year, the Arakan Project says. Almost all were Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Their exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where communal unrest last year in Rakhine state left 192 dead and 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Rohingya activists put the death toll as high as 748.

(Source / 13.09.2013)

Syria crisis: Elite Assad troops accused of hiding chemical arsenal

The authenticity of Syria’s offer to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal was being tested today as the top envoys of Russia and the US, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, held a second day of talks in Geneva aimed at getting the process started.

As the Syrian regime formally asked for technical assistance to help it meet the treaty’s obligations, scepticism about its real intentions was deepened by reports that an elite group fiercely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad known as Unit 450 has been dispersing his chemical weapons stockpile to as many as 50 different sites all across the country, just one day after the regime said it would join the Chemical Weapons Convention. This would present new difficulties in both implementing the plan now under discussion in Geneva or, were it to fall apart, launching a US bombing campaign that could be effective.

The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jafaari, said his country was “legally speaking” bound by the Convention by submitting papers to join it on Thursday. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the move. He said last night it was “an important step towards the resolution of the Syrian crisis, this confirms the serious intention of our Syrian partners to follow this path”.

However, a statement from the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the regime’s move “comes as too little, too late to save civilians from the regime’s murderous intent”. It said the regime must not be allowed to use diplomacy “to indefinitely stall international action while it continues its policy of widespread violence against civilians”.

Syria seemed to be at pains to bolster the credibility of its acceptance of the Russian proposal for it to hand over its arsenal and avoid American strikes. A spokesman for the Office of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague confirmed that Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, had contacted it with a request for technical assistance.

But there were new warnings in Washington that although it is running with the Russian proposal to rid Syria of its weapons, the US has not taken strikes off the table.

In a Bloomberg Television interview due to be aired on Sunday, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said President Barack Obama may have a stronger hand to strike if the talks fall apart, even without explicit congressional approval for them. “People would say, ‘Well, he went the extra mile, he reached out, he took the diplomatic course that people had been urging him to take – and it didn’t work,’” he said. “And therefore… the only option available to us to preclude the further use of chemical weapons and to try to deter and degrade Syria’s ability to use them is to act.’”

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, told reporters this evening that a UN inspectors’ report due to be released on Monday will be “overwhelming” in identifying chemical weapon use in the Syrian conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people. He did not say if the regime was responsible for the 21 August attacks nor whether the report would assign blame, which was not part of the inspectors’ remit. But he noted that Assad had “committed many crimes against humanity”.

In Geneva, Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov in principle agreed to resume trying to convene a peace conference involving the regime and the different rebel groups to be dubbed ‘Geneva 2’ and said they would discuss it again on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 10 days time. Mr Kerry said however that the prospects of a conference “will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here in the next day, hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons”.

(Source / 13.09.2013)