Activists: 24 killed as Syria army pounds Homs

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Syrian forces pounded the battered city of Homs with tank and mortar fire and troops pummelled several other rebel strongholds on Saturday, leaving at least 24 dead, opposition activists said.

With the bloodshed showing no signs of abating, the UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, flew to Moscow, seeking Russian backing for his efforts to secure a ceasefire.

Western and Arab states want Syrian President Bashar Assad to stand down but Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, has put the onus on the armed rebels and their foreign backers to make the first move.

In a statement ahead of Sunday’s meeting between Annan and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin said it would be hard to enforce a halt to the violence “until external armed and political support of the opposition is terminated”.

More than a year after the start of the uprising against Assad, the prospect of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever, with clashes reported in numerous locations.

At least 10 people were killed by explosions and sniper fire in Homs, the epicentre of the anti-Assad revolt, said activists who accused Syrian forces of shelling residential areas in the centre of the city indiscriminately.

“The shelling started like it does every morning, for no reason. They are using mortar and tank fire on many neighbourhoods of old Homs,” an activist in Homs’s Bab Sbaa district told Reuters via Skype.

He said most residents in the area had fled to safer districts and many were trying to escape the city altogether.

The Syrian government says rebels have killed about 3,000 members of the security forces and blames the violence on “terrorist” gangs. The official Sana news agency said the bodies of 18 “army martyrs”, killed in various clashes, were buried on Saturday.

Rebels under fire

Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and said last month they had regained control of Baba Amr, a large neighbourhood held by rebels for several months.

However, a surge in violence in other neighbourhoods this week suggested the army was struggling to keep control.

The Homs activist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said the opposition Free Syrian Army had also not been able to reestablish its hold on parts of the city.

“The Free Syrian Army had been in Bab Sbaa when the army started shelling the area four days ago and they weren’t able to block the army raids because they were getting hit by mortars at the same time that armoured vehicles were coming in,” he said.

“We only have a few rebels here left. There is nothing they can do,” he added.

It was impossible to verify the reports independently. Syrian authorities have prevented foreign journalists and human rights workers from entering affected areas.

Further to the north, security forces killed at least five people and wounded dozens more in raids on Saraqib, which lies in Idlib province bordering Turkey, activists said.

“There are dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles storming Saraqib now and there is heavy artillery fire,” an activist called Manhal said via Skype.

Mortars and heavy artillery fire also hit the city of Qusair, in Homs province, killing three civilians. There were reports of overnight clashes in the city of Douma, close to the capital Damascus.

In the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in an area where a soldier had been gunned down. Three other soldiers were killed in an attack in the northeastern province of Hasaka, it said.

Russian complaints

Deep divisions within opposition ranks have weakened the anti-Assad front. In a bid to tackle the problem at a military level, a senior army defector said on Saturday that all rebel groups would work under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.

“In these critical times that our beloved Syria is passing through, it is necessary that all noble people of this nation work to unite all efforts at toppling this corrupt regime,” Brigadier General Mustafa Sheikh said in a video message.

Sheikh said he would head the group’s military council while FSA leader Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who was sitting alongside him, would take charge of the fighting forces.

Annan is leading international efforts to avoid any escalation and has drawn up a six-point plan, including demands for a ceasefire, the immediate withdrawal of heavy armour from residential areas and access for humanitarian assistance.

Attempts to halt the conflict have been stymied by divisions between world powers. Russia and China have vetoed two UN resolutions highly critical of Damascus.

Moscow and Beijing did support a Security Council resolution earlier this week endorsing Annan’s mission. The former UN chief is due to fly to China after his Russia talks.

Moscow has accused the West of being too one-sided in the conflict, arguing that outside support for rebels is fuelling the fighting in Syria, which hosts a Russian naval base.

( / 24.03.2012)

Fayyad says freed US aid to help ease crisis

RAMALLAH (Reuters) — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said on Saturday the release of $88.6 million in development funds by US lawmakers would help ease a fiscal crisis in the aid-dependent Palestinian economy.

“This is very important in order to help us deal with the economic crisis,” Fayyad told reporters in Ramallah.

In August Republican lawmakers put a hold on $147 million in US assistance because they objected to a push for recognition at the United Nations, arguing that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through peace talks with Israel.

On Friday, US Representative Kay Granger announced she was ready for the entire sum to go to the Palestinians. But the other representative who had a hold on the funds, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, limited the release to $88.6 million.

Fayyad said he hoped that the whole amount, meant to support development projects, would be released.

“The entire sum must be sent in order to begin allocating spending for the year 2011 and this is important in order to support the Palestinian Authority’s budget,” Fayyad said.

There have been growing warnings, from the International Monetary Fund too, that the Palestinians are facing a deepening financial crisis due to a drop in aid from Western backers and wealthy Gulf states as well as Israeli restrictions on trade.

The IMF urged donors last week to meet their aid pledges to the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which has a projected 2012 budget deficit of $1.1 billion.

( / 24.03.2012)

Koning Marokko gaat universiteit in Gaza herbouwen

Koning Marokko gaat universiteit in Gaza herbouwen
Mohammed VI gaat de Hassan II faculteit van de Al Azhar universiteit in Gaza herbouwen.
De faculteit werd met de grond gelijk gemaakt door het Israëlische leger. De voorzitter van de Al Azhar Universiteit, Abdelhalek El Fara maakte in Rabat bekend dat de herbouwing in april start, zo meldt InfoMediaire bekend. De koning is voorzitter van de Al Quds Comité en helpt veel bij ontwikkelingsprojecten in Palestina.

De nieuwe faculteit zal vier verdiepingen tellen en op 14.000 vierkante meter gebouwd worden. De Marokkaanse architectuur zal terugkomen in het uiterlijk van het gebouw.

( / 24.03.2012)

Visit by Israeli delegate stirs anger in Morocco, embarrasses ruling Islamists

Parliament members of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) announced the boycott of a Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly meeting reportedly attended by an Israeli delegate. (File photo)

Parliament members of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) announced the boycott of a Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly meeting reportedly attended by an Israeli delegate.
The presence of an Israeli lawmaker among a delegation of the Union for the Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly gathered in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, on Saturday was met with anger from political and civil society groups in the North African kingdom.

Several Moroccan groups organized a protest against the visit by the Israeli lawmaker, whose name was not immediately revealed, in front of the parliament in Rabat prior to the opening of the Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly meeting.

Khaled Sofiani, of the National Action Group to Support Iraq and Palestine, condemned the Israeli lawmaker’s visit to Morocco and urged the government to “immediately expel” him.

The visit has caused embarrassment to the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (PJD) that leads a coalition government.

Prior to the wave of uprisings that swept the region last year and during its time in the opposition, the moderate Islamist PJD had condemned visits to Morocco by Israeli officials, including former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Moroccans were keen to see how the party, now that it is in the governments, would respond to regular visits by Israeli officials.

In a bid to save face, the party ordered its MPs to boycott Saturday’s Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly meeting.

Aziz Ammari, the PJD leader in the parliament, told Al Arabiya that the decision by the party’s MPs was in line with the party’s long held position to boycott all forms of activities with Israel.

Ammari previously told Morocco’s Hespress website that his party “will not participate in any parliament activity attended by the Zionist entity.”

Ammari said he was not sure whether the Israeli lawmaker, entered Morocco with the consent of the government led by his party.

The Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly meeting will discuss ways to support parliamentarians in the Arab Spring countries’ transition to democracy, economic developments in the region, and the situation in Syria, according to a European parliament report.

( / 24.03.2012)

Egypt-Hamas standoff leads to Gaza power crisis


A dispute between Egypt and Gaza’s Hamas government has produced the worst energy crisis here in years: Gazans are enduring 18-hour-a-day blackouts, fuel is running low for hospital backup generators, raw sewage pours into the Mediterranean Sea for lack of treatment pumps and gas stations have shut down.

The fuel and electricity shortages, which have escalated over the past two months, are infuriating long-suffering Gazans who say their basic needs, perhaps more than ever, are being sacrificed for politics.

“Life here is getting worse every day,” said Rawda Sami, 22, part of a group of students waiting in vain for public taxis outside the Islamic University. “There is no power, no transportation, and none of the leaders are thinking of us.”

Ostensibly the spat revolves around fuel supplies from Egypt — but on a broader level, it is linked to Egypt’s troubled relationship with Hamas and its long-standing deep ambivalence toward Gaza itself.

Hamas wants not just fuel: It hopes to leverage the crisis into getting Egypt to open a direct trade route with Gaza. Such an outcome might stabilize the Islamic militants’ rule over the territory they seized in 2007 from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, headquartered in the West Bank.

Egypt refuses, wishing to keep Gaza at arms’ length, and to avoid absolving Israel from continuing responsibility for the crowded, impoverished slice of Mediterranean coast. Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, after a 38-year military occupation, but still controls access by air and sea — and, except for the several mile (kilometer) long border with Egypt, by land.

After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade on Gaza to try to dislodge the new rulers. Since the fall of Egypt’s pro-Western President Hosni Mubarak last year, Cairo has eased restrictions on passenger traffic but has refused to open a cargo route. Instead, it largely has turned a blind eye to smuggling fuel and other supplies through hundreds of border tunnels.

The fuel crisis has its origins in the decision by Hamas, more than a year ago, to use smuggled fuel to run the territory’s only power plant instead of paying for more expensive fuel coming through an Israeli cargo crossing. The plant normally provides 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity.

Several weeks ago, the flow of smuggled Egyptian fuel began to slow: Egypt was itself suffering shortages, and it grew annoyed that Hamas was profiting by imposing tariffs on subsidized fuel meant for Egyptians.

The Gaza power plant shut down on Feb. 10 and has been mostly offline since. Depots of fuel for transportation gradually ran low, and major gas stations in Gaza City closed several days ago.

In recent days, no smuggled fuel has reached Gaza, traders say.

As a result, hospitals say fuel supplies for generators have run dangerously low, endangering hundreds dependent on steady electricity, including premature babies in incubators, kidney patients on dialysis and those in intensive care. Half the ambulances serving Gaza’s biggest hospital have been grounded.

Most cars are now off the streets, and large crowds fight over the few public taxis. The Gaza Cabinet ordered some 1,800 civil servants with government-issue cars to start picking up hitchhikers.

Those with diesel cars have begun pouring used cooking oil into their tanks. Water supplies have dropped sharply because there’s not enough fuel to pump it up from wells. Sewage is discharged into the Mediterranean because waste-treatment pumps can’t operate.

“The storage in Gaza is zero and within 48 hours, we will see a real disaster in terms of health, water and transportation,” said Amjad Shawa, who heads a network of Gaza civic groups.

Gaza has had fuel problems since the start of the Israeli-Egyptian border blockade. Initially, the EU bought the fuel needed for the Gaza power plant from Israel, which then delivered it through one of its crossings. Eventually, the EU asked the Abbas government to pay for the fuel and get the money back from Hamas. After a standoff, Hamas did make contributions for buying the Israeli fuel — before gambling on the cheaper option of smuggled Egyptian fuel.

Hamas now wants Egypt to openly deliver its fuel to Gaza through the Rafah crossing on their shared border — setting a precedent for establishing a proper trade route.

Egypt would agree to ship fuel, but insists on delivering it through Israel and via Israel’s Kerem Shalom cargo crossing to Gaza, said an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

The circuitous arrangement makes the point that Israel bears responsibility for Gaza and not Egypt.

“We propose Kerem Shalom, because with this, we stress that Gaza is still under Israeli responsibility,” the diplomat said. “If we accept what Hamas wants, we would absolve Israel of this responsibility.”

Hamas argues that the Kerem Shalom option would give Israel control over Gaza’s fuel supply.

The West Bank and Gaza, both captured by Israel in the 1967 war, lie on either side of the Jewish state. Over the past decade, Israel has enforced strict travel restrictions between the two, raising Arab concerns that it wants to “unload” Gaza onto Egypt and limit any future Palestinian state to a part of the West Bank.

Egypt also wants market rates for its fuel, which Hamas says it cannot afford. In recent days, Hamas officials have visited Qatar, Turkey, Bahrain and Iran in search of fuel subsidies. Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said Qatar has promised to help.

Yousef Rizka, an adviser to Haniyeh, accused Egypt of “political blackmail” and called on Egypt’s newly elected parliament, dominated by Islamists, “to solve this problem.”

Hamas officials also suspect Egypt is using the fuel issue to indirectly pressure the movement into accepting a Palestinian unity deal that would help Abbas regain some control in Gaza. Hamas leaders in Gaza have blocked the deal signed last month by their top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.

In recent days, Hamas has sent dozens of supporters to demonstrate near the Egyptian border to demand that Cairo start sending fuel.

But Hamas faces growing discontent.

“The government is responsible to find a solution for us,” said Amjad Daban, a 44-year-old teacher who spent an hour Wednesday looking for transport. “I don’t care where the fuel will come from. What I need is to find electricity and transportation.”

( / 24.03.2012)

Blast kills Muslim cleric in Russia’s Dagestan

MOSCOW (Reuters) — An explosion killed a Muslim cleric and his police bodyguard in the southern Russian region of Dagestan early on Friday, Russian news agencies said.
Police had assigned an officer to protect the imam, Gitinamohhamed Abdul Gapurov, after he received anonymous threats. Both men were killed in the blast in the town of Buinaksk, Interfax quoted police investigators as saying.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion at an intersection as they walked through the town.

Dagestan, which faces almost daily shootings and bomb attacks, has been caught up in an Islamist insurgency across the mainly Muslim North Caucasus following two separatist wars in Chechnya.

The rebels want to create an Islamic state in the region, which is close Sochi, where Russia will host the winter Olympics in 2014.

( / 24.03.2012)

Saudi protesters hold anti-government rally in Qatif

A file photo of Saudi protesters, demanding the release of political prisoners in Eastern Province.
Saudi protesters have staged a fresh anti-government demonstration in the eastern city of Qatif despite a violent crackdown on protests in the oil-rich region.
The demonstrators demanded freedom and urged the ruling Al Saud family to end the economic and religious discrimination against the eastern area.

They also condemned suppression of protests, calling on Riyadh to stop attacking anti-government rallies. Saudi protesters also vowed to continue taking to the streets until their demands are met.

Saudi Arabia’s east has been the scene of mass anti-government protests since last year with demonstrators demanding justice and release of political prisoners. Protest rallies are mostly held in Qatif and Awamiyah but despite a violent crackdown on demonstrations, the protests are now spreading across the country.

Protesters also want an end to economic and religious discrimination against the oil-rich region. Several demonstrators have been killed and dozens of activists have been arrested since the beginning of protests in the region.

On February 23, protest rallies were held across the province to demand the prosecution of those who opened fire on demonstrators one week earlier. Saudi security forces broke up the rallies using force and arrested several demonstrators.

Riyadh has intensified its crackdown on protesters since the beginning of 2012.

( / 24.03.2012)

Presentatie islamboek Wilders op 1 mei

DEN HAAG –  Geert Wilders’ boek over de islam wordt op 1 mei gepresenteerd in New York. Dat maakte de PVV-leider zaterdag bekend via Twitter.

„Geweldig, nieuwe boek ligt nu bij de drukker. Presentatie op dinsdag 1 mei in New York”, twitterde Wilders. Het boek heet ‘Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me’. Volgens Wilders komt het boek neer op een „aanklacht tegen de islam en de profeet Mohammed”.

( / 24.03.2012)

Gazan protesters call on Egypt to resume fuel flow

Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags at the Gaza Strip’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt
Thousands of people have held demonstrations in the Gaza Strip to call on Egypt to resume the flow of fuel to the Israel-blockaded Palestinian territory.
The demonstrators staged protests after Friday Prayers in the northern cities of Jabalia and Gaza City, the Associated Press reported.

In mid-February, Egypt blocked the flow of diesel through the tunnels lying beneath its border with Gaza, which are used to transfer supplies into the impoverished coastal sliver amid a crippling siege imposed on the territory by Israel.

The stoppage forced the territory’s sole electricity power plant out of work, causing the enclave to start experiencing blackouts of up to 18 hours a day.

During the Friday protests, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh called the decision by Egyptian officials ‘a plot’ against Gazans.

Gaza has been blockaded by Tel Aviv since 2007, causing a decline in the standard of living, unprecedented levels of unemployment, and unrelenting poverty.

The full-scale land, aerial, and naval siege has turned the enclave into the world’s largest open-air prison.

( / 24.03.2012)

Palestinians protest village road closure by Israeli troops

Palestinians in the northern West Bank village of Kufr Qaddoum have protested the recent closure of the village’s main road by Israeli forces, Press TV reports.

The villagers staged a protest rally late on Friday, demanding an end to the confiscation of their lands as well as regular night-time raids and searches of their homes by the occupation forces.

“The villagers of Kufur Qaddoum have come out to demand reopening of the main road, which is also main entrance of the village, which was closed by the Israeli army,” Khaldoun Abu Khaled, an organizer of the rally, told Press TV.

Israeli troops fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse Palestinian protesters before they could reach the blocked road.

Several protesters were injured after the Israeli forces attacked the peaceful demonstration.

The closure of the Kufur Qaddoum road, located between the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Qalqilia, forces Palestinians to travel about 12 kilometers on a different route in order to reach the same destination.

Israeli authorities constructed a roadblock at the end of the road to prevent the villagers from passing through the illegal settlements built on seized Palestinian lands.

( / 24.03.2012)