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Archive for August, 2015

Young Lebanese activists challenge old political class

August 27, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — First they egged the prime minister’s building. Then they dumped some of the garbage piling up on Beirut’s streets outside the home of the environment minister, furious the government couldn’t get its act together to find a solution when Lebanon’s main landfill shut down.

But perhaps the most electrifying move by the young, tech-savvy group of activists was when they spread their catchy slogan “You Stink” across social media. It helped turn the trash crisis into a popular uprising against a political class that has dominated Lebanon since its civil war ended in 1990.

The core founders of “You Stink” include one of the Middle East’s most influential bloggers, as well as a creative media strategist, a rights lawyer, journalists and an actress whose film was banned by authorities for addressing touchy sexual issues. The group quickly picked up supporters from across the spectrum of Lebanon’s divisive politics and sects.

“We are the future of this country and the agents of change. If the youth didn’t do this, no one will do it,” said Nadyn Jouny, a 25-year-old freelance journalist who is among the group’s founding members.

She said the movement was a reflection of the growing frustration with an aging and corrupt political class that has failed to even show concern for people’s woes. She called it “the regime of the warlords.”

“You Stink” claims to have set aside ideology in its effort to mobilize support for an uprising against the political establishment. It says it seeks to ditch a patronage system that divvies up power to each of Lebanon’s multiple communities — Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and more — in favor of a non-sectarian culture.

That system has been the center of Lebanese politics for decades and helped fuel the 15-year civil war — and critics say it leads politicians to spend more time cultivating their sectarian fiefdoms than actually governing.

“You Stink” is up against aging warlords and oligarchs who have passed power on to their sons and relatives for generations — and continue to hold the country’s top positions with expansive business interests and powerful militias that helped them survive the war. Consecutive governments neglected to improve the country’s infrastructure, leading to chronic water shortages and electricity cuts that continue 25 years after the war ended.

“The corruption has been around for so long. But the people have also now smelled it,” said Tarek Sarhan, a 17-year-old “You Stink” supporter. Jouny said the stench from the mounds of trash that blocked Beirut streets was a wake-up call to residents who took pride in their beautiful city. Two major rallies over the weekend brought some 20,000 people into the streets of the capital, numbers rarely seen in a country wary of the chaos in neighboring Syria.

The last time large numbers took to the streets was a decade ago, after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hundreds of thousands of people from all sects demonstrated in peaceful rallies that were dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.” Those protests eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a decades-old presence — but sectarian politics quickly returned.

The idea for “You Stink” began on Facebook, and the group has tried to avoid the mistakes of other Arab protest movements by reaching out to existing youth organizations to help coordinate, Jouny said.

Neamat Bader al-Deen is a leftist activist with a group that calls itself “We Want Accountability,” one of several organizations collaborating with the movement. “We are asking the government to resign because it failed to resolve the crises,” the 34-year-old Bader al-Deen said. “We will not let this pass. This is robbery.”

Sarhan said his father initially ridiculed the group’s symbolic protests. But when thousands turned up at the allies last weekend, his father called to offer support. “Keep it up, son,” he says his father said.

At first the veteran politicians ignored the protesters. But after the crowds grew and turned violent over the weekend, the government erected a concrete wall Monday outside its main building to keep them at bay.

Within hours, the wall was filled with anti-government grafitti. On Tuesday, authorities took it down, just 24 hours after it went up. Now, politicians are trying to co-opt the young grass-roots movement. A main Christian party has called on its supporters to join the next “You Stink” protest on Saturday.

“The parties want to spoil the movement … because it is becoming popular and that is scaring them,” Jouny said. She said to ensure the group reflects the mood on the street it scans views on social media before making decisions. Several hundred volunteers have been prepped on strategies to ensure violent clashes don’t erupt at Saturday’s rally, which is being promoted with a video decrying Lebanon’s endemic electricity shortages.

Assad Thebian, one of the country’s best-known bloggers and the winner of an Arab creative digital campaign award, said attempts to stymie the movement will fail. That’s because young men and women fed up with the sectarian system are its backbone, he said.

“They are disgusted with the same political class robbing them, and sucking their blood all their lives, same as their fathers and their grandfathers,” he said. “This is something we want to get rid of. We want to all become children of the state.”

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Islamic State in control of Palmyra ruins, activists say

May 21, 2015

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State’s capture of the town of Palmyra late Wednesday was a stunning triumph for the militant group, only days after it captured the strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq’s largest Sunni province.

As IS took Palmyra, government forces collapsed in the face of the attacks and Syrian soldiers were seen fleeing the area, activists said. In Damascus, state TV acknowledged that pro-government forces had withdrawn from the town.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremists overrun the archaeological site, just to the southwest of the town itself, shortly after midnight Wednesday.

An activist in Homs who goes by the name of Bebars al-Talawy also confirmed that IS now controls the ruins at Palmyra. Both activists said that the militants had not damaged the site so far. The ruins at Palmyra are one of the world’s most renowned historic sites and there were fears the extremists would destroy them as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq. The UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, a cherished landmark referred to by Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert.”

In Damascus, Maamoun Abdul-Karim, the head of the Antiquities and Museum Department, said Palmyra’s town museum had suffered “minor damages” during the IS onslaught. “The city is now totally controlled by gunmen and its destiny is dark and dim,” warned Abdul-Karim. “We are in a state of anticipation and fear” about what will happen to “the archaeological site and the remaining artifacts in the museum.”

Before the fall, hundreds of “the most precious and beautiful” pieces from Palmyra were taken to safe houses in Damascus, he added. Also Thursday, many Palmyra residents were fleeing the town toward the city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, according to Talal Barazi, the governor of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra.

The Syrian army is now outside the town, from where it is targeting Islamic State reinforcements, he said. “We have not received any news about (the archaeological site’s) destruction,” Barazi told The Associated Press. “We hope that there will be no massacres in the city or damage to the ruins.”

Palmyra has a population of some 65,000 people, according to Barazi. He added that 1,300 residents fled over the past days and more were trying to leave on Thursday. On Wednesday, the head of the U.N.’s cultural agency called on Syria’s warring factions to immediately end hostilities within the archaeological site.

“I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra. The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East and its civilian population,” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said in a statement.

She urged all parties to respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict. In taking Palmyra, IS also overran the town’s notorious Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured over the years.

An amateur video posted online showed IS fighters setting a giant poster of President Bashar Assad, allegedly inside the prison in Palmyra, cheering as flames rose around them against the night sky. The video and its location could not be independently verified but appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.

Al-Talawy, the Homs activist, said the government had recently transferred thousands of detainees from the Palmyra prison to a jail near Damascus. But he added that IS extremists freed some of those who were still inside by the time they captured the prison. He could not provide any definitive figures but there were believed to have been thousands prisoners still there.

The Observatory said that with the capture of Palmyra and surrounding areas in recent weeks, IS now controls half of Syria — and most of the country’s oil wells. Despite the stunning victory by IS in Palmyra and Iraq, the extremists suffered a setback in Syria’s northeastern province of Hassakeh, where they have come under attack by Kurdish fighters.

The Kurdish fighters captured much of the Abdul-Aziz Mountain near the village of Tel Tamr on Wednesday, according to the Observatory and the Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The Observatory said YPG fighters were backed by airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, which has been bombing IS positions in Syria since September.

Mroue reported from Beirut.

‘I have fallen in love with Islam’: Reverted Malaysian pop star

August 27, 2015

Kuala Lumpur: A top Malaysian pop singer officially proclaimed her conversion to Islam during a press conference held at Astro on Tuesday, confirming rumors about embracing Islam after being spotted wearing hijab, according to media reports.

Rumors about Akademi Fantasia Season 6 champion’s reversion to Islam were circulated on social networking sites after she had appeared in a video taking the Islamic declaration of faith while dressed in hijab.

The 25-year-old star officially converted to Islam at the Johor Baru religious office in Johor and took a Muslim name, Ummu Syaikhah Stacy binti Anam.

The pop star, who has four albums, hopes that fans wouldn’t question her conversion to Islam. “I have fallen in love with Islam and I am ready to embrace it with all my heart,” she said.

Being in a relationship with a Muslim popular actor and TV personality Akim Ahmad was not the reason behind her conversion to Islam.

“Being a Muslim is a huge responsibility. There are a lot of things that I need to learn.

“So my focus now is to learn to become a good Muslimah first, before I can think about marriage,” she added.

Last month, two popular African footballers; Emmanuel Emenike and Emmanuel Adebayor reportedly converted to Islam.

Source: The Siasat Daily.

Link: http://www.siasat.com/news/i-have-fallen-love-islam-reverted-malaysian-pop-star-823004/.

Azeris get Israel UAVs built under license

Baku, Azerbaijan (UPI)

Oct 7, 2011

Azerbaijan is expected to acquire 60 small Israeli-designed unmanned aerial vehicles built under license in the oil-rich former Soviet republic that’s moving closer to the Jewish state as the Baku government modernizes its military.

The burgeoning military and intelligence alliance between the countries is causing growing concern in Iran, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, and in nearby longtime rival Armenia.

The Israeli Aerostar and Orbiter 2M UAVs are being manufactured by Baku’s Azad Systems Co., a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and Aeronautics Defense Systems of Israel.

That’s the country’s third largest UAV manufacturer after Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems.

Around 70 percent of the components are produced in Israel, the rest in Azerbaijan.

Sixty of the drones are to be delivered to Azerbaijan’s armed forces by the end of the year, primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Azerbaijan’s military already operates Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 and IAI’s Searcher reconnaissance drones, as well as some of Aeronautics Defense Systems’ Aerostar and Orbiter craft.

Azerbaijan Minister of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov told the Azerbaijan Press Agency that Baku is considering the production of missile-armed UAVs within the next two years, a development guaranteed to deepen Iranian and Armenian concerns.

The UAV deal with Azerbaijan allows Israeli manufacturers to pick up some of the slack that appeared when Israel’s strategic military alliance with Turkey collapsed in 2010.

APA reported that Aeronautics Defense Systems beat out several Turkish defense firms, including TAI, Baykar Makina and Global Teknik, for the UAV venture set up in March.

Azerbaijan, which lies in the energy-rich Caspian Basin, has oil reserves of more than 1.2 billion barrels as well as 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It is one of Israel’s largest suppliers of crude oil.

Last Sunday, Israel’s air force marked the 40th anniversary of the formation of its first UAV unit, Squadron 200 at the Palmachim Air Base on the Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv from where IAI satellites are launched.

The squadron was equipped with a drone named the Scout, built by what was then Israel Aircraft Industries, and became operational in October 1981. The Scout made its combat debut in the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

That campaign evolved into a counter-terrorism conflict that has dragged on to this day, even after Israeli withdrew from its last foothold in south Lebanon in May 2000.

In the years since the Scout took to the skies, but particularly after 9/11, Israel has become one of the world’s leading UAV manufacturers, second only to the United States.

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s defense export and defense cooperation arm, known as SIBAT, says Israel’s export of counter-terrorism systems, including UAVs, has risen from $2 billion a year 10 years ago to nearly $7 billion.

Defense experts expect the export of counter-terrorism systems to increase.

“The threats aren’t getting any smaller,” SIBAT Deputy Director Itamar Graff told Bamahane, the armed forces’ magazine.

“We constantly cope with terrorist threats ?The world’s moving in the direction of dealing with terrorist threats.

“On issues such as home front protection, shore security and missile defense, people from around the world come to learn from us,” Graff said.

“We’re dealing with a variety of possible threats and we’ll continue to be a dominant and significant factor in the world.”

The Scout was retired in 2004. It was replaced by, among others, IAI’s Searcher, which carried advanced navigation, communication and sensor systems and is in service with 10 countries.

IAI has since developed the long-endurance, 1-ton Heron that can operate at altitudes of 30,000 feet and can loiter over targets for 24 hours.

The Heron Turbo Prop, known as the Eitan, introduced into military service with Squadron 210 in February 2010, is the air force’s largest and most sophisticated unmanned aerial system.

Its takeoff weight is 5 tons and can carry payloads of 2,200 pounds. It has a wingspan of 84 feet, about the same as a Boeing 737. It can stay airborne for 24 hours and has a range of around 650 miles.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Azeris_get_Israel_UAVs_built_under_license_999.html.

Hungary border fence proving futile in slowing migrant flow

August 26, 2015

ROSZKE, Hungary (AP) — The fence being built by Hungary on the border with Serbia meant to stem the rising flow of migrants trying to reach the European Union is being proved futile, as record numbers of migrants keep entering.

Police said that 2,533 migrants were detained on Tuesday, up from 2,093 on Monday and by far the highest figure of the year. After requesting asylum and registering with authorities, migrants are sent to one of Hungary’s refugee centers but most try to quickly leave for richer EU countries like Germany or Sweden.

Scores of migrants were seen Tuesday morning by Associated Press journalists near the border town of Roszke, climbing over or crawling under the barbed wire to enter Hungary — just as they had done at the Greek-Macedonia border.

UN’s Cambodian soldiers clear land mines in divided Cyprus

August 26, 2015

MAMMARI, Cyprus (AP) — Cambodian army Lt. Sovannara Leang says helping clear ethnically-divided Cyprus of land mines has hit home with him.

“This has affected my country as well,” said the 32-year-old officer who’s been in the army since 2002. “It’s a humanitarian issue. It affects people’s lives.” Land mines remain a scourge for Cambodia where millions of undetected mines left over from three decades of conflict continue to injure, maim and kill.

Leang and his 20-man team where seconded from Lebanon’s U.N. peacekeeping force to help clear a parcel of farmland inside a no-man’s land that separates breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the north from internationally recognized Greek Cypriots in the south.

U.N. Peacekeeping Force Commander Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund said the team disposed of two anti-tank mines and anti-personnel mine fragments that had shifted into the U.N.-controlled area from an adjacent Turkish Cypriot minefield during winter floods.

The 17,000 square meter (183,000 square foot) parcel will be released for cultivation and grazing. Lund said the U.N. has received a pledge from Turkish Cypriot authorities to clear their minefield in the coming months and eliminate the danger of mines shifting in the area once and for all.

The land mines, like the U.S.-made, World War II-era anti-tank mines the Cambodian team disposed of, are a vestige of defenses set up in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup that aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece.

U.N. led-demining work between 2004 and 2011 removed more than 27,000 mines from inside the 180 kilometer-long (120-mile) U.N.-controlled buffer zone. But Lund said no progress has been made in accessing the buffer zone’s remaining four minefields — three controlled by the Greek Cypriots and the other by Turkish forces.

Many more minefields lie on either side of the buffer zone, although all anti-personnel mines have been removed from Greek Cypriot minefields under the country’s international treaty obligations. Lund, who’s the U.N.’s first and only female peacekeeping force commander, said there’s now “real momentum” to move ahead with ridding Cyprus of all remaining minefields amid a positive climate in renewed talks to reunify the country.

Underscoring their commitment to peace, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have agreed to open new crossing points across the divide which Lund said has refocused attention on demining needs in those areas.

Earlier, Anastasiades provided Akinci with detailed information about 28 Greek Cypriot minefields in the north. Lund said 25 of those minefields were found to pose no mine risk at all. “I don’t think this beautiful island should have any mines at all and this will be to everyone’s benefit,” Lund said.

Norway accused of unfairly taking away immigrant children

August 26, 2015

STAVANGER, Norway (AP) — One August day, Airida Pettersen received the news many immigrant mothers have come to dread: School representatives told the Lithuanian that child welfare officials removed her two children from the classroom and placed them in a foster home.

She pleaded to know why — but she said nobody would give her a straight answer. Pettersen, who moved to Norway in 2008 after marrying a Norwegian, is one of hundreds of immigrant parents whose children were taken away by Norway’s Child Protection Service, or Barnevernet, ostensibly to protect them from mistreatment.

After a series of highly charged custody disputes, the oil-rich Scandinavian country now faces accusations of cultural insensitivity at best and child theft at worst, as increasing numbers of immigrant children are being seized by officials and handed over to Norwegian foster families. Of 6,737 children taken in 2012 — the latest available data — some 1,049 were immigrants or born to immigrant parents. That compares to 744 children of immigrants taken away, of a total of 5,846, in 2009.

The authorities insist they’re acting in the best interests of the children. But their perceived heavy-handedness has stirred diplomatic disputes with several eastern European countries and India. All Western European countries assert the right to place children, both of nationals and foreigners, in foster care when there is evidence of abuse. And complaints of unfair seizures, allegedly for cultural reasons, are known to arise. But Norway is the only country where it has become as major issue — both due to the scale of the phenomenon and the fierce criticism of the government.

A relative managed to spirit Pettersen’s children away from their foster family while they were at school and reunite them with their mother in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius — where they remain today.

Morten Moerkved, head of the agency in the small town of Malvik where the Pettersens lived, said he could not comment on any specific case but insisted that the sudden removal of children happens only in “acute” circumstances, including cases of abuse or “serious deficiencies” in the daily care of a child, citing persistent drunkenness or drug use by the parents or evidence of malnourishment.

Official guidelines also make a point of ensuring that the special needs of a sick or handicapped child are adequately met and that parents have to be able to take sufficient responsibility so that a child’s health or development is in no way “seriously injured.”

Pettersen believes officials took her children partly because of her 10-year-old daughter’s clothes, which she alleges authorities found too provocative for a pre-teen. “I dress my daughter in a pretty dress and make her comb her hair,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Lithuania. “They look at me like I’m from a Third World country. In my country if you don’t take care of yourself you don’t get a husband.”

The child welfare agency insists children would never be removed from their families unless they were considered to be in danger, but Moerkved said that if children were attending class badly dressed or in smelly clothes it would be a factor in considering a child’s welfare.

“There are some culture differences between families coming to Norway,” said Solveig Horne, Norwegian Minister for Children and Families. “All children who come to Norway have the same rights as Norwegian children … If they are neglected or abused or if there is violence in the family the (child protection) agency should protect the children first of all.”

Statistics show that children born abroad are more than three times as likely to be removed from their homes as native Norwegians, with nearly 3 percent of foreign-born children in foster care. In May, hundreds of people marched in the capital Oslo to protest alleged human rights abuses by child welfare officials. The demonstration was organized by Norwegian human rights campaigner Marius Reikeras, who has denounced his country’s child protection agency in television interviews in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Turkey.

Reikeras accuses the agency of depriving children and their biological parents of “their fundamental human rights.” “The aim should be to reunite children with their families as soon as possible,” he said. “But Barnevernet too often does the opposite and seeks to break biological bonds.”

Brushes with the authorities have led to several cases of foreign nationals escaping across borders with their children. Norwegian authorities estimate that almost 500 children have been illegally removed from the country in the last 10 years, usually by their parents.

In January, 7-year-old Gabrielius Bumbulus, a Lithuanian, was returned to his foster family after being caught fleeing through Sweden with his uncle. Three months later, a Turkish mother says she narrowly avoided having her small children removed from home after a tipoff. Instead of showing up at a meeting with officials, Sedef Mustafaoglu made a dash through Denmark to Germany with her two youngest children, aged 6 and 8, and boarded a plane to Turkey.

Speaking by phone from the Turkish capital, Mustafaoglu said an earlier visit from the agency, when her daughters were toddlers, left her terrified. “They came into my home and filmed how I woke up and how I woke my children, how I fed my children, how I gave them a shower and how I played with them,” she said. “Having a child in Norway is like being in a scary movie.”

Her husband, Feridun Mustafaoglu, who stayed behind in Stavanger, Norway’s rich oil center on the west coast, said their problems started in 2011 when their son started having severe epileptic fits, which he believes officials mistook for signs that the parents weren’t caring for the child.

Gunnar Toresen, head of the Child Protection Service in Stavanger, insists there was no plan to remove Mustafaoglu’s children but declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality rules. He did recognize the fear many foreign families feel in dealing with officials: “Very many people come from other cultures with no government intervening in their domestic affairs. Then they come to Norway and the government intervenes in the family and they have no experience with this,” he said. “So I understand that this is a very emotional situation.”

In 2012, Toresen was briefly involved in a diplomatic spat between Norway and India when two Indian children were removed from their parents. After diplomatic and media pressure from India, they were returned to their uncle in India.

“The media said the reason for our intervention was that the parents were hand-feeding their children, and the child was in the bed with the parents, which of course had nothing to do with why they were taken away,” Toresen said.

He acknowledged that there had been a reference in an earlier case file about hand feeding and sleeping arrangements. However, he stressed the case revolved around much more and complicated family circumstances, thought he provided no details, in line with the privacy policies.

The child welfare service aims to provide in-home help for struggling parents before removing a child. But in the three years to 2013, the proportion of in-home measures decreased while the number of foster cases grew.

Campaigners and lawyers for parents say the decisions too often are rooted in cultural misunderstandings. “I have a lot of foreign cases. Often the lunchbox … is not good enough for school or there is problem with schoolwork,” said Ieva Rise, an Oslo lawyer representing several Latvian families in disputes with officials. “In Latvia and Russia, children help more in the home when they are quite small. This can be a problem as well.”

Gro Hillestad Thune, a human rights lawyer, says Norway’s strict attitudes against slapping — acceptable in some other countries — can also be a reason taking away children. “This zero tolerance (to violence) is a basic problem. Parents should be given a chance to learn through dialogue, not through having their children removed,” Thune said. “But the child protection officials take the children instantly … in too many cases.”

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