Tunisia’s Islamists cede power to caretaker government

 Tunisia's Defence Minister Ghazi Jeribi (front L-R), Justice Minister Hafedh Ben Salah, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, President Moncef Marzouki and Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou pose for a photo after taking the oath of office at the Carthage Palace in Tunis January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Tunisia’s Defence Minister Ghazi Jeribi (front L-R), Justice Minister Hafedh Ben Salah, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, President Moncef Marzouki and Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou pose for a photo after taking the oath of office at the Carthage Palace in Tunis January 29, 2014.

(Reuters) – Tunisia’s new caretaker government formally took office on Wednesday, replacing the Islamist party which came to power after a 2011 uprising but stepped down in a deal intended to help the country embrace democracy.

Three years after the uprising against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali inspired revolts across the region, Tunisia on Monday adopted a new constitution, and a technocrat government has taken over until elections this year.

Compromise between Tunisia’s Islamist party and their secular opponents to end months of deadlock contrasts with the messy paths taken in neighboring Libya and Egypt, which are still struggling with turmoil and violence.

Former premier Ali Larayedh, an Islamist who spent years in prison under Ben Ali, formally handed over to Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, a technocrat who asked for support to bring stability to the country that started the Arab Spring.

In a transition widely praised as a model, the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and its secular opposition set aside differences to allow Jomaa’s caretaker government to lead until the elections.‮‮‮‮ ‬‬‬‬‬‬

“It’s great to see power in Tunisia passed on in such a beautiful way and with sincere smile,” Jomaa said referring to Larayedh, an often serious-faced premier who smiled broadly at the moment he handed over the government.

Jomaa, who once ran an aerospace parts company in Paris, has named a non-political cabinet that must decide how to tackle a large budget deficit and the threat of Islamist militants‮‮‮‮‮‮‬‬‬ whose presence has grown since the uprising.‮‮‮‬‬‬‬‬‬

Divisions over the role of Islam emerged after the revolution, but the assassination of two opposition leaders last year tipped the country into a crisis that eventually pushed Ennahda to compromise over its rule.

Political splits are still present, but Tunisia’s leaders, heavily reliant on tourism for its foreign income, and with no tradition of violence or military interventions, opted to battle at the ballot box, not on the street. No election date has been set.

“Ennahda handed over power for the benefit of our country, you cannot see this kind of thing every day in our region,” Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, told Reuters. “We proved that we want consensus and democracy.”

(Source / 29.01.2014)

Assad adviser rejects call for transitional govt

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s adviser on Wednesday rejected the opposition’s call for a transitional governing body and suggested for the first time that a presidential election scheduled to be held later this year may not take place amid the raging violence.

The comments by Bouthaina Shaaban in an interview with The Associated Press came as U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi announced that the first phase of the Syria peace talks in Geneva will end on Friday, as scheduled, and that the gap between the government and the opposition remains “quite large.”

“To be blunt, I do not expect that we’re going achieve anything substantial” by Friday, he told reporters Wednesday. “I’m very happy that we are still talking and that the ice is breaking slowly.”

Brahimi said both sides will decide when the second phase of the talks will take place _ most likely after a one-week break.

Earlier Wednesday, both sides managed to discuss the thorniest issue: the opposition’s demand for a transitional government in Syria.

But Shaaban said it would be difficult to hold a presidential election in Syria, given the fighting, and she rejected a transitional governing body.

“There’s nothing in the world called transitional government. We don’t mind a large government, a national unity government, but I think they invent the wrong term for our people and then they circulate it in the media,” she told AP.

The idea of a national unity government has been rejected by the opposition, which insists Assad must step down in favor of a transitional government with full executive powers.

Louay Safi, a spokesman for the opposition’s negotiating team, said the issue of a transitional government was put on the table at the talks for the first time. But he added the government delegation stuck to its demand that putting an end to terrorists was still its No. 1 priority.

“Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, the body whose responsibility is to end dictatorship and move toward democracy and end the fighting and misery in Syria,” he said.

The government seems “more ready to discuss that issue, but still they’re trying to push it to the back of the discussion,” Safi said. “We told them that this has to come first because nothing else can be achieved before we form a transitional governing body.”

Shaaban said the opposition seemed more willing Wednesday to talk about terrorism, and she described the day’s talks as constructive.

“The problem is that they’re only interested in transitional government. They’re only interested in government, not interested in putting an end to this war,” she said.

Despite the apparent small step in the peace talks, both sides continued to blame each other for the impasse.

The peace conference, intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people, has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago.

The coalition agreed to the Geneva talks only if the focus was on an end to the Assad dynasty, while the Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism.

Militants and foreign fighters have infiltrated the rebellion in Syria, dampening Western support for the fighters seeking to topple Assad. Two of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria are listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

The al-Qaida-backed militants do not accept the coalition’s authority and do not feel bound by any agreements reached in Geneva.

Shaaban hinted for the first time that a presidential election scheduled to be held this summer may not take place.

“It’s very difficult to imagine how presidential elections could be conducted in such an atmosphere,” she said. “The logical thing to do is to try to stop violence and then to launch a political process. Whether it is a presidential election or parliamentary elections that need to be done in the country, you need peace and quiet to be able to achieve that,” Shaaban said.

She reiterated what Assad has said: that should there be an election, he sees no reason why he should not run again.

(Source / 29.01.2014)

General’s murder highlights fragile Egypt security

CAIRO (AFP) — The brazen daylight assassination of a police general in Cairo underscores the growing insecurity in Egypt, as it awaits an announcement from its army chief to run for the presidency.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group from the restive Sinai Peninsula, said it shot dead General Mohamed Saeed outside his home in western Cairo on Tuesday, and threatened more such attacks.

The killing came a day after Egypt’s top brass backed Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for the presidency, which he is expected to win easily if he runs.

Sisi, 59, has said he would stand for the election to be held by mid-April if there was “popular demand”.

“Vengeance is coming,” Ansar Beit al-Maqdis said in a statement addressing Sisi and interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim.

In just over six months, Sisi has won accolades from a vast section of Egyptians for ousting Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and crushing his Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi, Egypt’s first elected civilian president, fell after mass protests following one turbulent year in office.

A victory for Sisi would keep alive a tradition of presidents drawn from the military, but the road ahead is expected to be riddled with political turmoil and security challenges.

The Brotherhood, now banned as a “terrorist” group, criticized the army’s backing for Sisi.

“Now it is evident that what happened on July 3 was a full-fledged military coup,” it said, referring to the day of Morsi’s ouster.

“The military council, whose main mission is to protect and not rule, mandated its chief, the leader of the coup, to run for the presidency, so the military can dominate political life in Egypt when it should remain far away from politics.”

General Saeed’s killing and later that of a policeman outside a Cairo church highlights the precarious security situation since the 2011 overthrow of veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak, with the violence having only worsened since Morsi’s removal.

On Wednesday, masked gunmen on motorbike shot dead a policeman in the Nile Delta province of Sharkiya, security officials said.

At least 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in a relentless crackdown on Islamists, according to Amnesty International, while scores of policemen and soldiers have fallen to militant attacks.

As part of the crackdown, 20 Al Jazeera staff — including award-winning Australian journalist Peter Greste, two Britons and a Dutch woman — were referred to trial on Wednesday.

The authorities have been incensed by the pan-Arab network’s coverage of their campaign against the Islamists.

The foreigners were accused of “airing false news” among other charges, while the remaining 16 — all Egyptians — were charged with belonging to a “terrorist” group, the prosecution said.

Al-Jazeera said its journalists had not been officially informed of developments in their case.

“These are silly charges and not based on any reality.

“This is a challenge to freedom of speech and the right of journalists to report different aspects of events, and the right of the people to know what is happening,” the channel said.

Militants warn of ‘economic war’

Since last Thursday alone, at least 14 policemen have been killed across Egypt, while nine soldiers were killed in Sinai.

The media condemned Saeed’s killing.

“Terrorism assassinates general,” declared the front-page headline of state-run Al-Gomhuria, while Al-Akhbar said “Bullet of treachery assassinates general.”

Sisi’s supporters feel he is the only person capable of restoring stability in Egypt.

The interim leaders have even altered a roadmap for democratic transition by announcing the presidential election will be held before a legislative vote.

“I would have preferred a presidential election comprising civilian candidates to install a civilian democracy,” said Alfred Raouf of the liberal Al-Dostour party.

“But I can understand that people want Sisi to be candidate, as given their security fears they want a strong man” to head the country.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis vowed to target “the economic interests of the regime, which comprises the gas pipeline to Jordan that sends billions of Egyptian pounds in the pockets of Sisi and his generals.”

It said it would “widen its economic war on (the) traitor clique until it defeats it”.

The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago, has condemned these attacks, but that has not stopped it from being declared a terrorist organisation.

(Source / 29.01.2014)

Turkish jets ‘strike ISIL convoy in Syria’

Reports in local media quote army statement that Turkish F-16s struck vehicles of al-Qaeda-linked group in north Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda
Turkish fighter jets have hit a convoy belonging to the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Syria, according to a local media report quoting a statement from the Turkish military.

A report on Turkey’s Todays Zaman website said that Turkish F-16s struck a number of ISIL vehicles “after militants opened fire on a military outpost” on the Turkey-Syria border on Wednesday.

Broadcaster NTV said Turkish troops opened fire on the ISIL positions after a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Turkish territory during clashes between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army.

The broadcaster said a pickup truck, a lorry and a bus were destroyed in the Turkish retaliation, but there were no reports of casualties.

Contradicting Todays Zaman, NTV said the attack occured on Tuesday evening,

Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul, said the report, if true, would represent “a considerable and significant escalation” in tensions between Ankara and such groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkish media have cited a two-day escalation in hostilities between the sides, but until now the Turkish military had only retaliated with tanks and artillery fire, our correspondent noted.

“These are fighters who on many occasions Turkey has turned a blind eye to,” said McNaught. “…Turkey is now fighting against the people [who] they have allowed to pass into Syria.”

(Source / 29.01.2014)

Hoping to deter Hezbollah, Israel threatens Lebanese civilians

  • A man moves sandbags towards a shop as protection from future explosions at a stronghold of the Shi'ite group Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut January 28, 2014. REUTERS-Hasan Shaaban
Residents play computer games at an internet cafe where sandbags were piled as protection from future explosions at a stronghold of the Shi'ite group Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut January 28, 2014. REUTERS-Hasan Shaaban
A man gestures towards sandbags piled as protection from future explosions at a stronghold of the Shi'ite group Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut January 28, 2014. REUTERS-Hasan Shaaban

1 OF 4. A man moves sandbags towards a shop as protection from future explosions at a stronghold of the Shi’ite group Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut January 28, 2014.

(Reuters) – Israel accused Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas on Wednesday of putting “thousands” of bases in residential buildings and said it would destroy these in a future conflict, even at the cost of civilian lives.

The unusually explicit threat by air force chief Major-General Amir Eshel appeared to be part of an effort by Israeli officials to prepare world opinion for high civilian casualties in any new confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel says Iran and Syria have supplied improved missiles to Hezbollah, which fought the technologically superior Israeli military to a standstill in a 2006 war in Lebanon.

“We will have to deal aggressively with thousands of Hezbollah bases which threaten the State of Israel and mainly our interior,” Eshel said in a speech, citing Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon among the locations of the bases.

Other Israeli officials have alleged that Hezbollah uses Lebanese civilian homes as missile silos or gun nests. Eshel said the guerrillas sometimes had entire storeys of residential buildings ready, under lock and key, to be used in combat.

“Above and below live civilians whom we have nothing against – a kind of human shield,” he told the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, a think-tank near Tel Aviv.

“And that is where the war will be. That is where we will have to fight in order to stop it and win. Whoever stays in these bases will simply be hit and will risk their lives. And whoever goes out will live.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday that Hezbollah now had around 100,000 missiles and rockets, or 30,000 more than figures given in official Israeli assessments in 2013.

Last year, Yaalon showed U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon an Israeli map of alleged Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanese villages, apparently to demonstrate the risk of a high civilian death toll in any new war.

Hezbollah does not comment on its military capabilities but says these have been honed and expanded since the 2006 fighting, in which 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 Israelis were killed. It says it needs its arms to defend Lebanon from Israeli attack.

Eshel said Israel’s military was “dozens” of times more powerful than Hezbollah and had more capabilities than in 2006.

“Our ability today to attack targets on a large scale and with high precision is about 15 times greater than what we did in the (2006) war,” he said, saying such intensity was required to keep the fighting short “because the more protracted the war, the more missiles we’ll be hit with here”.

Much of Hezbollah’s attention is now devoted to Syria, where its fighters have been helping President Bashar al-Assad battle an almost three-year-old insurgency.

While content to watch Hezbollah and the Islamist-led Syrian rebels fight each other, Israel worries that its Lebanese foes will obtain more advanced weaponry from Assad’s arsenal.

On at least three occasions last year, Israeli forces bombed suspected Hezbollah-bound arms convoys in Syria.

Asked whether Israel had done too little to intercept such transfers, Eshel said Israeli forces still had the upper hand.

“I don’t think this is a failure,” he said. “I think the State of Israel has extraordinary deterrence which should not be discredited – significant deterrence, bought in blood.”

(Source / 29.01.2014)

Israeli drone crashes in Gaza Strip: Report

An Israeli drone (file photo)

An Israeli drone

An Israeli drone has reportedly crashed in the southern Gaza Strip near the coastal sliver’s border with Israel.

The drone fell east of the city of Rafah on Wednesday, the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported.

Israeli forces quickly entered Gaza and moved the aircraft to the other side of the border. An Israeli army spokesperson saying he was unfamiliar with the incident.

Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of East al-Quds, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank during the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel conducted a self-proclaimed withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, but Israeli forces have been carrying out regular deadly forays into the sliver ever since the so-called pullout.

Israeli military drones regularly fly over the enclave even after a ceasefire that ended a 2012 Israeli military offensive, which left 170 Palestinians and six Israelis dead, the news agency said

(Source / 29.01.2014)

85 Palestinian refugees die of starvation in besieged Yarmouk camp



DAMASCUS, (PIC)– The action group for Palestinians in Syria said that 85 Palestinians died of starvation in the Yarmouk refugee camp, south of Damascus, until Wednesday.

The group, which monitors and documents daily field events of Palestinian refugees in Syria, said that 39 of those died over the past two weeks.

It pointed out that Yarmouk refugee camp has been under siege for 200 days because of the ongoing battles between the Syrian regular army and opposition forces.

The siege has led to famine in the camp after foodstuffs and medicines ran out of stock, the group said, adding that children and elderly people are the most affected of this siege.

The group said that the number of Palestinian victims in the Syrian armed conflict that started almost there years ago had exceeded two thousands.

(Source / 29.01.2014)

UN mediator not expecting ‘anything substantive’ at Syria talks

GENEVA (AFP) — UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday he did not expect a week of peace talks in Geneva between Syria’s warring sides to produce “anything substantive”.

“To be blunt, I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantive,” Brahimi told reporters after a fifth day of talks in the Swiss city, adding though that he was “very happy that we’re still talking.”

(Source / 29.01.2014)

Israeli general reveals Qaeda bases in Turkey

Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra take their position on the front line during a fight with Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo.

Some of the al-Qaeda militants fighting in Syria have set up bases in Turkey, where they can also easily access Europe, Israel’s military intelligence chief said Wednesday.

Al-Qaeda fighters from around the world enter Syria weekly, but they “do not stay there,” Major-General Aviv Kochavi told a security conference, while presenting a map of the Middle East, which was marked with areas of al-Qaeda presence. The map showed three markings of al-Qaeda bases in Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly denied his country was providing shelter for backing groups linked to al-Qaeda in Syria. A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman  did not have an immediate comment on the topic, reported Reuters.

No specific numbers

While the Israeli general did not give specific numbers, his spokesperson said the presented map showed the strength and the location of al-Qaeda bases, which appeared to be in the Turkish provinces of Karaman, Osmaniye and Sanliurfa.

“Syria is projecting its conflict to the whole region. Those blotches [on the map] in Turkey are no mistake by the graphic artist and it is a short way from there into Europe,” Kochavi said at the conference, which was held by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Turkey provided a lifeline to areas held by the rebels, through allowing in humanitarian aid, helping refugees out of the country, and letting the rebel Free Syrian Army carry out organizational operations in Turkey.

However the rise of al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has left Ankara open to accusations of supporting radical Islamists.

(Source / 29.01.2014)

U.S: Syria may be able to produce biological weapons

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee, Jan. 29, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

The Syrian regime has agreed to dismantle its arsenal of chemical agents but may now have the ability to produce biological weapons, the U.S. intelligence chief warned senators Wednesday.

“We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program,” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in a written statement presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Clapper offered no further details but it was the first time officials had stated publicly that America’s spy agencies believed Syria had made significant strides in its biological weapons program.

He added that Syria could potentially launch biological agents with conventional weapons.

Extremist magnet

“To the best of our knowledge, Syria has not successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional weapon systems that could be modified for biological-agent delivery,” he said.

Clapper also said the civil war in Syria had become a “huge magnet” for Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda-linked groups.

The U.N. Security Council last year approved a U.S.-Russian deal to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.

The agreement was brokered as a way to avert U.S. missile strikes that Washington threatened after a chemical attack near Damascus, which Washington and other Western governments blamed on the regime.

Under the accord, Syria’s entire chemical arsenal is to be eliminated by June 30.

(Source / 29.01.2014)