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Archive for July, 2017

Albanian vote in election seen as key to moving toward EU

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were voting Sunday in a general election that follows a landmark agreement between the country’s two biggest political parties to look past their bitter differences and back efforts for Albania to eventually join the European Union.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

Preliminary results from the vote are expected Monday.

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Taliban leader: Afghan war will end only when NATO leaves

June 23, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The leader of the Afghan Taliban said on Friday that a planned U.S. troop surge will not end the protracted war in the country and vowed to fight on until a full withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The remarks by Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah came in a message ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan — something the Taliban do every year to rally followers.

It also followed a horrific suicide car bombing claimed by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province that targeted Afghan troops and government workers waiting to collect their pay ahead of the holiday.

By Friday, the death toll from that attack rose to 34 people, most of them civilians, provincial government spokesman Omar Zwak told The Associated Press. In the Taliban message this year, the militant leader seemed to harden his stance, saying the Afghan government is too corrupt to stay on and warning of another civil war in Kabul — along the lines of the 1992 fighting when mujahedeen groups threw out the Communist government in Afghanistan and turned their guns on each other. That conflict killed more than 50,000 civilians and gave rise to the Taliban.

The Taliban say they are waging war against the Kabul government and not targeting civilians. In their claim of the Helmand attack, they insisted no civilians died. Zwak, however said, most of the dead in the attack in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, were civilians, although there were soldiers inside the bank at the time of the explosion. Witnesses said children were among the dozens wounded.

Earlier, the Defense Ministry had urged soldiers to collect their salaries from banks located inside army bases. If they do go to banks elsewhere, they should refrain from wearing their uniforms, the ministry’s deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish told the AP.

Outside a hospital in Lashkar Gah, Esmatullah Khan, 34, said Friday he had donated blood to help some of the nearly 70 wounded in the attack. Akhunzadah, the Taliban leader, also boasted of allegedly growing international support, saying “mainstream entities of the world admit (the Taliban) effectiveness, legitimacy and success,” an apparent reference to reports of overtures by Russia and China to the Taliban amid concerns of an emerging Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

While the IS affiliate’s stronghold is in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, the branch has managed also to stage high-profile attacks in Kabul and other cities. The presence of battle-hardened Uzbek militants in the ranks also further worries Moscow.

After urging Afghans to embrace holy war, or jihad, to oust foreign troops, Akhunzadah’s rambling message went on to touch upon the conflict between Gulf Arab states and Qatar, saying he was “saddened” by the feud.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have accused Qatar of supporting extremists, a charge that Doha denies.

Associated Press Writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Abdul Khaliq in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

Nearly half a million displaced Syrians return home: UN

2017-06-30

GENEVA – Nearly half a million displaced Syrians have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year, mainly to find family members and check on property, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

The agency said it had seen “a notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria in 2017.”

Since January, about 440,000 people who had been displaced within the war-ravaged country had returned to their homes, mainly in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus, Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the agency, known as the UNHCR, told reporters in Geneva.

In addition, around 31,000 refugees in neighboring countries had also returned, he said, bringing to 260,000 the number of refugees who have returned to the country since 2015.

But Mahecic said this is a mere “fraction” of the five million Syrian refugees hosted in the region.

He said the main factors prompting the displaced to return home were “seeking out family members, checking on property, and, in some cases, a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country.”

He said it was too early to say if the returns might be directly linked to a palpable drop in violence since Turkey agreed at talks in Astana in May with Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to establish four safe zones across Syria to ban flights and ensure aid drops.

But this week, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council that since the May 4 deal, “violence is clearly down. Hundreds of Syrian lives continue to be spared every week, and many towns have returned to some degree of normalcy.”

Mahecic nonetheless cautioned that “while there is overall increased hope linked to the recent Astana and Geneva peace talks, UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria.”

“The sustainability of security improvements in many return areas is uncertain, and there remain significant risks of protection thresholds for voluntary, safe and dignified returns not being met in parts of the country,” he said.

“Access to displaced population inside Syria remains a key challenge,” he added.

But “given the returns witnessed so far this year and in light of a progressively increased number of returns”, the agency had begun scaling up its operations inside Syria to better be able address the needs of the returnees, he said.

Syria’s war has killed more than 320,000 people and forced millions from their homes since it began in March 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83717.

Syrian family on cusp of resettlement resigned to travel ban

June 30, 2017

IRBID, Jordan (AP) — A month before Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, Mohammad Al-Haj Ali, a 28-year old Syrian with a second child on the way, was taking cultural sensitivity classes in Jordan to prepare to start a new life in Illinois.

The International Organization for Migration-run class ended in a graduation ceremony that Al-Haj Ali remembers well, standing next to his pregnant 25-year old wife, Samah Hamadi, and 2-year-old son, Khaled, surrounded by about 20 other families.

“Ten to 15 days and you’ll go — get yourselves ready,” they were told. Al-Haj Ali was interviewed five times in the Jordanian capital, Amman, about his family history— at times in sessions lasting more than 12 hours — over a two-year period. Sometimes months would go by with no news, but he thought the stress was worth it.

Assured their refugee life was coming to an end, he quit his job working with kids in Zaatari refugee camp, sold his furniture for 150 dinars ($212), bought five suitcases and packed them. His uncle in Rockford, Illinois, rented him an apartment and furnished it in anticipation.

Gradually good news for other families came — an Iraqi family gone, followed by a Syrian. His was one of the last still awaiting permission to go when news of the White House executive order banning travel from six Muslim nations sapped their hope.

Two months later, Samah gave birth to the couple’s second son, two months premature — a tragedy al-Haji Ali still blames on Trump. The family waited in the hospital for a month as the baby struggled to survive in an incubator with partially formed lungs and an umbilical hernia.

They named him Laith, after Al-Haj Ali’s brother, who was killed by the Syrian regime. The baby’s brother, Khaled, had been named after their grandfather, who died in a regime prison. The family says they’ve received no clarification of their status from the coordinating refugee agencies and feel stuck in limbo. Their five suitcases remain in storage.

As he waits in northern Jordan, mere miles from his hometown in war-ravaged Deraa in southern Syria, jobless in a mostly empty house, Al-Haj Ali is desperate to escape the region. He dreams of a better life, proper medical treatment for his infant son, and of pursuing a doctorate in economics. But not in America.

“Maybe there will be a new law: Refugees aren’t allowed to study in universities, refugees aren’t allowed in certain hospitals, not allowed to go into New York or some other state,” he said, sitting in the family’s sparse apartment.

“The future there is not secure.”

Former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass dies in Paris

2017-06-27

PARIS – Syria’s former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez, died in Paris on Tuesday, his son Firas said. He was 85.

Tlass, whose other son Manaf was among the most high-profile regime officials to defect during the early days of Syria’s uprising, died in a hospital on the outskirts of the French capital.

Tlass “died this morning at the Avicenne hospital and will be buried in Paris in the hope he can one day be buried in Damascus,” Firas Tlass said.

The former minister, who settled in France five years ago, had been admitted to hospital in mid-June after suffering a hip fracture, his son said.

He fell into a coma on Monday evening.

The former minister’s other son General Manaf Tlass defected from Assad’s regime in July 2012, several months into the uprising that was brutally crushed by security forces.

A childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, Manaf Tlass later said French secret agents had helped him escape the country.

The uprising later turned into a devastating multi-sided war that has killed more than 320,000 people.

But Mustafa Tlass long refrained from publicly criticizing the regime.

A leading member of Syria’s ruling Baath party, he was close to Hafez al-Assad, succeeding his friend as defense minister in 1972 following the coup that brought Assad to the presidency.

Assad went on to rule the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son Bashar, who was 34 at the time.

Tlass remained in his post until he finally quit in 2004.

Originally from Rastan in central Syria, under rebel control since 2012, Tlass was one of the most senior Sunni Muslims in the Assad regime’s Alawite-dominated security apparatus.

“He had a minor role in military strategy, which was decided by Hafez al-Assad and the Alawite officers who controlled the army,” said Alain Chouet, a French former intelligence officer who spent many years in the Middle East.

In a rare 2005 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, the former minister defended a 1980s crackdown against a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, despite admitting that at its height, 150 people a week were hanged in Damascus alone.

“We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons,” he said.

He wrote several books including his 1983 “The Matzah of Zion”, a bestseller in the Arab world, in which he claimed that Damascus Jews had killed two Christians in 1840 in order to use their blood in religious rituals.

The “blood libel” allegations were commonly used against European Jews in the Middle Ages.

Tlass was also known for his crush on Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.

He famously claimed to have ordered pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon’s war to avoid targeting Italian troops — “because I do not want a single tear falling from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida”.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83677.

Aleppo girl Bana Alabed named among Time’s most influential people on internet

June 27, 2017

An eight-year-old Syrian girl who drew global attention with her Twitter updates from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo was named one of the most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine.

Other people on this year’s list included British author J.K. Rowling, pop singer Rihanna, celebrity Kim Kardashian, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Time makes its annual choice based on those with global influence on social media and in generating news headlines.

Helped by her mother Fatemah, who manages the @AlabedBana Twitter account, Bana Alabed uploaded pictures and videos of life amidst the Syrian war, gaining around 365,000 followers on the micro-blogging site since last September.

“I can’t go out because of the bombing please stop bombing us,” Bana wrote when she first joined Twitter on Sept. 24, 2016.

“Aleppo is very good city but we need peace. I want to live like a child but instead I am stressed now,” she wrote.

Last December, Bana, who was seven at the time, and her family were evacuated safely from the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo to Turkey, where they were greeted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at his palace.

Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when Bashar Assad’s regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests, which erupted as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Since then, more than 400,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million have been displaced, 6.3 million internally and 5.1 million externally, across the war-battered country, according to the U.N.

Turkey, hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, which accounts for around 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region, has spent around $25 billion helping and sheltering refugees during that time.

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2017/06/27/aleppo-girl-bana-alabed-named-among-times-most-influential-people-on-internet.

Suicide bomb attacks target refugee camps in Lebanon

2017-06-30

BEIRUT – Seven Lebanese soldiers were wounded on Friday as five militants blew themselves up and a sixth threw a grenade during raids on two refugee camps near the border with Syria, the army said.

The civil war, which has raged in Syria since March 2011, has triggered an exodus of more than 1.1 million refugees into neighboring Lebanon and has repeatedly spilt over.

Four of the suicide bombers struck in one camp near the border town of Arsal, wounding three soldiers, the army said.

Troops recovered four explosive devices during the raid on the Al-Nur camp.

One militant blew himself up in a second camp near the town — Al-Qariya — while another militant threw a grenade at troops wounding four of them.

The raids, which are aimed at “arresting terrorists and seizing weapons,” were still continuing in mid-morning, the army command said.

A military source said that troops made a number of arrests.

“The objective of the operation was to arrest a wanted man and it was this man who was the first to blow himself up,” the source said.

There have been multiple clashes along the border between the Lebanese army and jihadists of the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda.

In August 2014, the army clashed with jihadists of IS and Al-Qaeda’s then Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front in the Arsal region, with militants kidnapping 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as they withdrew back along the border.

After long and arduous negotiations, 16 of the kidnapped men were released in December 2015 in exchange for Islamist prisoners held in Lebanese jail.

The jihadists executed four of their hostages while a fifth died of wounds he suffered in the initial Arsal clashes, leaving nine members of Lebanon’s security forces still in their hands.

Since 2014, both the Lebanese army and Shiite militant group Hezbollah have carried out attacks on Syria-based jihadists in eastern Lebanon.

Hezbollah has intervened in the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, sending tens of thousands of fighters.

Its strongholds in Lebanon have been hit by several deadly attacks claimed by IS.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83713.

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