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Archive for July, 2015

Saudi Arabia says strikes push Yemen rebels out of air bases

March 29, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A Saudi-led airstrike campaign targeting Shiite rebels who control much of Yemen has pushed them out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in the Arab world’s poorest country, the kingdom has said.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign, now entering its fourth day Sunday, continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads “devastated,” according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

However, he warned Saturday that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated. The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive as leaders at an Arab summit considered creating a military reaction force in the Mideast, raising the specter of a regional conflict pitting Sunni Arab nations against Shiite power Iran. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan planned to dispatch a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen’s airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Ali Hassan, a Pakistani in Hodeida, told Pakistan’s private GEO satellite news channel that hundreds there anxiously waited for a way home. “We had sleepless nights due to the bombardment in Sanaa,” Hassan said.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Summer camp for Iraqi Shiite boys: training to fight IS

July 28, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — A quiet middle-class Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad was transformed recently into a mini-boot camp, training teenagers for battle against the Islamic State group.

The Shiite boys and young men ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn’t fire them.

In cities from Baghdad to Basra, summer camps set up by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq’s largest militia umbrella group, are training teens and boys as young as middle school age after the country’s top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by The Associated Press, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It’s yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq’s brutal war as the military, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants, who seized much of the country’s north and west over the past year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos.

Among those training this month in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grew up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting with the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he said. Earlier this summer, the AP saw over a dozen armed young boys, some as young as 10, deployed on the front line with the Shiite militias in western Anbar province.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47’s, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

“It’s our honor to serve our country,” Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no. The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which supports the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they receive weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and are trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. was “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIL,” using an acronym for the militant group. “We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so.”

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. His influence was so great that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, most of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to “contribute to (the country’s) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk, if this is required.”

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give “lessons in self-defense” and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office echoed that. There may be “some isolated incidents” of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. “But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle.”

“We are a government that frowns upon children going to war,” he said. But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, “then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention” on the Rights of the Child.

“If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting” the Popular Mobilization Forces, she said. The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

“Governments like to say, ‘Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm’s way,’ but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly,” she said.

Taliban confirm leader’s death, choose Mullah Omar successor

July 30, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Two high-ranking Afghan Taliban officials have confirmed the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and say the group’s council has elected a successor.

The two told The Associated Press that the Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, has chosen Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new leader. He has been acting as Mullah Omar’s deputy for the past three years. The two Taliban officials say the seven-member-council has been meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized by the council to talk to the media. They also said the group chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as their new deputy leader.

Gannon reported from Timmins, Canada.

Libya court sentences Gadhafi son to death for 2011 killings

July 28, 2015

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A court in Libya on Tuesday sentenced a son of Moammar Gadhafi to death by firing squad after convicting him of murder and inciting genocide during the country’s 2011 civil war.

It is unlikely, however, that the sentence against Seif al-Islam Gadhafi will be carried out anytime soon, as a militia in western Libya has refused to hand him over to the government for the past four years.

That uncertainty reflects the chaos still gripping this North African nation split between rival militias and governments while facing an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group. The Tripoli court sentenced to death eight others, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, who is in their custody. Also sentenced to death were foreign intelligence chief Abuzed Omar-Dorda and Gadhafi’s former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.

The rulings can be appealed, and a defense lawyer in the case, Ali Aldaa, said he would challenge it before the Libyan Supreme Court. The Tripoli-based top court has in the past ruled the Tobruk government as illegitimate, raising questions over whether it is under pressure from militias that dominate the city.

Only 29 of the 38 Gadhafi-era figures were present in court. Six others were sentenced to life in prison and four were cleared of charges. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the trial was “undermined by serious due process violations,” and called on the Libyan Supreme Court to independently review the verdict. Other international organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, also condemned the verdict.

“This trial has been plagued by persistent, credible allegations of fair trial breaches that warrant independent and impartial judicial review,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The victims of the serious crimes committed during the 2011 uprising deserve justice, but that can only be delivered through fair and transparent proceedings.”

The Council of Europe said the case should have been turned over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which wants Seif al-Islam on charges of crimes against humanity. Libya has slid into chaos since the overthrow and killing of Gadhafi, who ruled the country for four decades. It is now bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government cornered in the country’s east, with little power on the ground, and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west that has seized the capital, Tripoli.

Since the end of the civil war, Seif al-Islam has been held by a militia in Zintan, which is allied with the Tobruk-based internationally recognized government against the Tripoli one. The court that convicted him is affiliated with the Tripoli-based government.

During the trial, Seif al-Islam was accused of recruiting mercenaries who were given Libyan nationality, planning and carrying out attacks on civilian targets from the air, forming armed groups and shooting into crowds of demonstrators. Among the charges he was convicted of were incitement of murder and rape.

Hundreds of militias in Libya are battling for power and turf in a lawless environment has allowed human traffickers and kidnappers to flourish. Meanwhile, extremists returning from fighting in the Syrian civil war have created a local affiliate of the Islamic State group, taking territory and beheading captives.

The U.N. envoy for Libya has urged the Islamist-led government in Tripoli to sign a peace deal that would establish a unity government. Members of the Tobruk government and regional leaders signed the unity accord in Morocco on July 11.

Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.

Rome’s hot summer: corruption, breakdowns run city to ground

July 29, 2015

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year for Rome. But the Eternal City will need a miracle to find anything to feel jubilant about.

Just when Rome needs to be at its best, the city is being shamed by corruption scandals and a breakdown in public services — especially in the mass transit that many of the expected 30 million Jubilee pilgrims will depend on.

Amid a relentless heat wave, bus drivers have been yanking buses out of service, forcing passengers off, often between stops. Others deliberately drive their spine-rattling buses so slowly that it’s faster to walk.

The actions are part of a protest against Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino’s order for bus drivers to punch in the clock like other city employees. The transport breakdown is one of the biggest headaches in a summer of chaos extraordinary even for a city that sees chaos as a way of life.

Meanwhile, Marino has taken the drastic step of getting help from a prosecutor famed for combatting Sicilian mobsters to help root out City Hall corruption. The Mafia-fighter was enlisted following dozens of arrests since late last year of city politicians and businessmen with links to the political right and left.

The scandal’s best-known suspect is none other than Marino’s predecessor as mayor: former neo-fascist street fighter Gianni Alemanno, who denies wrongdoing. He is being investigated for allegedly colluding with businessmen using mafia-like methods to win municipal contracts. Alemanno’s tenure allegedly involved rampant nepotistic hiring, including a go-go dancer as a manager’s assistant.

Corruption and cronyism have direct links to Rome’s current transport woes: Patronage scandals are blamed for helping to bankrupt the municipal transit company ATAC, which might be forced to stop service due to lack of funds. Free-wheeling hiring of friends and other improper practices have also put other municipal agencies like trash pickup in terrible financial condition.

Under Alemanno, bonuses were generously doled out to city workers to reward them for diligently showing up for work at least 110 days a year. Marino, a liver transplant surgeon who became a politician a decade ago, says he is determined to keep Rome from collapsing in dysfunction. The problem is he’s desperately trying to save the patient while seeing his own operating team disappear. Several commissioners have quit in despair.

On Tuesday, replacing his second budget czar, Marino drily recalled the shock that greeted him shortly after being elected in 2013: “I never imagined I’d find the coffers empty,” he said. “Nearly a billion (euros) in the red, organized crime, corruption.”

“About all that was lacking along the way were land mines,” the mayor told reporters. Marino fired his transport commissioner after a video surfaced on the Internet showing a crammed subway car filled with commuters hurtling through the underground with doors wide open.

“The trains are old, they aren’t maintained, they are dirty. It seems like there isn’t even anyone who cleans them,” said Claudio Laudi, waiting at a stop near the Piazza del Popolo. “I just don’t think you can compare (Rome) to other European capitals. Madrid is different. Paris is different, we have been left behind.”

Premier Matteo Renzi, whose Democratic Party backed Marino for mayor, is keeping a cautious distance. At a recent political event, Renzi told Marino critics: “Take an opinion survey of Romans and let me know how it turns out.”

Opinion polls have already shown Marino’s losing the popularity he enjoyed after he was elected two years ago. On Tuesday, he promised fed-up Romans they would get 200 new buses by year’s end, see roads repaved and have 60,000 new garbage bins for trash, which chronically piles up along the streets.

With ATAC running out of cash, Marino announced he is seeking a private partner to pump in funds. About 300 bus, tram and subway car drivers protested those plans Wednesday outside City Hall, worried that private investors might demand private sector levels of productivity.

The protesters yelled Marino’s name in hopes the mayor would appear, and draped protest banners fashioned from sheets over the elegant buildings on a Renaissance-era square. Meanwhile, Italy’s interior minister must soon decide whether to pull the plug on Marino’s administration, and put the city in the hands of a special commission. That’s the same humiliating treatment meted out to southern Italian towns whose governments are infiltrated by crime syndicates like Cosa Nostra.

The prosecutor leading the probe has stressed that Marino is himself completely free of suspicions of corruption. Rome’s corruption has long thrived on the connivance of city politicians, administrators and local gangsters, who have no formal ties to the traditional southern crime syndicates. Lucrative city contracts, prosecutors say, are divvied up, skirting public bidding procedures as the wrongdoers pocket kickbacks or bribes.

But these largely went undetected until probes intensified under Marino’s watch.

Trisha Thomas contributed to this report

Greece’s Tsipras prevails over rebels at party meeting

July 31, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has defeated a bid by dissenters in his left-wing Syriza party to push for an end to bailout talks and an exit from the euro currency.

Syriza’s governing central committee early Friday backed a proposal by Tsipras to hold an emergency party conference in September, after the talks have been concluded. Dissenters had sought a conference earlier, pressing the government to abandon ongoing negotiations with rescue lenders.

The decision followed a dramatic 12-hour meeting by the 200-member central committee, during which party rebels appealed for Greece to return to its national currency, the drachma. It also came hours before the main round of negotiations were due to start in Athens with a scheduled visit to the finance ministry by negotiators from the European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Stability Mechanism.

Tsipras effectively lost his majority in parliament in a vote three weeks ago, when nearly one-fourth of Syriza’s lawmakers refused to back new austerity measures. Pro-European Union opposition parties were left to save the bill and have continued to prop up Tsipras’ government.

“We have to agree that we can’t go on this way,” Tsipras told the committee members, adding that “the absurdity of this peculiar and unprecedented dualism” within the party must stop. Far-left dissenters argue Syriza has abandoned its principles over the past six months under the country’s popular prime minister. They have openly voiced support for Greece to turn its back on the euro as its national currency.

“This country no long has democracy, but a peculiar type of totalitarianism — a dictatorship of the euro,” prominent dissenter Panagiotis Lafazanis said. Despite the heated debate, Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Athens, says that at the moment a party split still looks unlikely.

“Being in power has a binding effect … and (dissenters) will not want to be held responsible for a break up.” Greece is currently negotiating the terms for a third bailout worth an some 85 billion euros ($93 billion) that will include a new punishing round of austerity measures heaped on a country reeling from a six-year recession and more than 25 percent unemployment.

According to government officials, bailout negotiations must be concluded before Aug. 20, when a debt repayment to the European Central Bank worth more than 3 billion euros is due.

Greek PM seeks to quash rebellion with party vote

July 30, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister has called for a vote within his radical-left Syriza party to decisively sideline rebels opposed to any bailout deal with the country’s creditors.

Addressing the party’s 200-strong top decision-making body Thursday, Alexis Tsipras said the vote slated for this Sunday would answer whether Greece would be better off without a rescue agreement as hard-liners contend.

He likened the vote to putting “the pin back in the hand grenade” and quelling the conflict with dissenters that threatens to splinter the party and touched off speculation of the country may be heading for fresh elections in the autumn.

In a vote three weeks ago, nearly a fourth of Syriza’s lawmakers refused to support new austerity measures demanded by creditors before a bailout deal can be sealed.

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