Contains selective news articles I select

Archive for January, 2018

Closer look at pro-Ankara rebels amassing around Afrin

2018-01-22

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies have launched a cross-border offensive against the Afrin region of northern Syria, held by a powerful Kurdish militia.

Since “Operation Olive Branch” began on Saturday, rebels and Turkish forces have advanced about five kilometers (three miles) into Syrian territory.

An alliance of pro-Ankara rebels is amassing on front lines around Afrin for an expected ground attack.

– The fronts –

Afrin is a hilly enclave that juts out from Syria’s northern Aleppo province. Turkey holds the borders to the north and west while Syrian rebels control those south and east.

Rebels have deployed along a highway east of Afrin between their two strongholds of Azaz and Marea.

Other forces, including some fighters from the neighboring province of Idlib, have gathered south of Afrin.

Rebels have also launched a push alongside Turkish soldiers from inside Turkish territory, south into the enclave.

Ankara had bused around 600 rebels from northern Syria into Turkish territory ahead of a ground invasion.

– The forces –

The Turkish-backed rebel forces taking part in the offensive number around 25,000, according to Yasser Abdelrahim, a key member of the campaign’s joint operations room.

They include factions from Euphrates Shield, an operation launched by Ankara in 2016 against the Islamic State group and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which Turkey considers as “terrorists”.

Euphrates Shield brought together a smattering of non-jihadist factions that have received Turkish and US support, among them the Sultan Murad Brigades, Hamzat Division, and Mutasem Brigades.

Those forces are fighting side-by-side again in the Afrin assault.

Also taking part in “Operation Olive Branch” are fighters from Al-Jabha al-Shamiya and Faylaq al-Sham, two rebel alliances operating in northern Syria since 2014.

Many of these groups have threatened the YPG or already clashed with them.

– The mission –

Rebel forces behind the offensive say they are opposed to the YPG and its political branch, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), calling the groups “terrorists” and “separatists”.

“The operation is to liberate the area from all kinds of terrorism and protect civilians, Arabs and Kurds,” said Abdelrahim, who is also Faylaq al-Sham’s military chief.

“We’re not attacking to reach the town of Afrin. The residential buildings are not our aim — just the military bases and military positions used by the PYD and YPG.”

But rebels also blamed the YPG for not battling regime forces and have even evoked ethnic divides and accuse them of displacing Arabs.

“The goal of the offensive is, in the first phase, to oust the separatist parties from the Arab villages in our areas,” said Abu Meslem, a field commander in Al-Jabha al-Shamiya.

He insisted “Operation Olive Branch” does not aim to push out the entire Syrian Kurdish community.

“This is our duty: to oust the separatist parties and bring back the displaced families who have been living in tents during the winter,” he said.

– The operation –

On Sunday, a day into the operation, rebel forces and their Turkish backers entered the Afrin region and claimed to have captured several villages and hilltop positions.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said Turkish troops, whose number was not specified, were advancing alongside pro-Ankara rebels and were already five kilometers (three miles) inside Syria.

Turkey has mainly provided air cover to the operation, pounding dozens of YPG targets with artillery and air strikes.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86877.

Advertisements

Syria’s death toll in Idlib car bomb rises to at least 25

January 08, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics in the northwestern city of Idlib say the death toll from a massive car bombing there the previous evening has risen to at least 25. Also, nearly 100 people were wounded.

The first-responders Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets says four children and 11 women were among the 25 killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday gave a higher death toll, saying 34 people were killed, including 18 civilians.

The Sunday night bombing targeted the office of Ajnad al-Koukaz, a militant group consisting of foreign fighters mostly from the Caucuses and Russia, according to activists. Idlib is the capital of a province by the same name that is controlled by several rebel factions, including an al-Qaida-linked group.

Morocco’s king appoints five new ministers

2018-01-23

RABAT – Morocco’s king appointed five new ministers on Monday, a government statement said, after several top officials were dismissed in October for failing to improve the economic situation in a region shaken by protests.

King Mohammed VI named ministers for education, planning, housing, health and for African relations, the statement said.

In October the king had dismissed ministers and top officials after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan.

Protests erupted in the Rif region around the northern city of Al-Hoceima in 2016, triggered by the death of a fishmonger whose produce was confiscated by police.

The man’s crushing to death in a garbage truck during a confrontation with police became a symbol of corruption and official abuse.

Protests, also fueled by economic underdevelopment, continued there this year.

Political protests are rare in Morocco, where the palace remains the ultimate power.

The protests, the largest in Morocco since the days of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, were directed at the government and the king’s entourage rather than the monarch himself.

Police confiscated fish they said the fishmonger had bought illegally and then dumped it in a garbage truck. Desperate to recover his stock, Fikri jumped inside and was killed by a rubbish crusher.

In July the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and blamed local officials for failing to quickly implement development projects which stoked public anger.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86886.

Twin car bombs kill at least 30 in Libya’s Benghazi

2018-01-24

BENGHAZI – More than 30 people were dead and dozens wounded after two car bombings outside a mosque frequented by jihadist opponents in Libya’s second city Benghazi, medical officials said Wednesday.

The attack after evening prayers on Tuesday underlined the continued chaos in Libya, which has been wracked by violence and divisions since dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.

Benghazi has been relatively calm since military strongman Khalifa Haftar announced the eastern city’s “liberation” from jihadists in July last year after a three-year campaign, but sporadic violence has continued.

The bombers blew up two cars 30 minutes apart outside the mosque in the central neighborhood of Al-Sleimani, according to security officials.

Emergency and security workers who had rushed to the scene were among those killed in the second blast.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the mosque is known to be a base for Salafist groups which fought the jihadists alongside Haftar’s forces.

Mourners gathered outside the mosque on Wednesday, walking through puddles of water stained red with blood. Vehicles in a parking lot outside the mosque were burnt-out and mangled, their windows shattered.

The city’s Al-Jala hospital received 25 dead and 51 wounded, its spokeswoman Fadia al-Barghathi said. The Benghazi Medical Center received nine dead and 36 wounded, spokesman Khalil Gider said.

Ahmad al-Fituri, a security official for Haftar’s forces, was among those killed, military spokesman Milud al-Zwei said.

Medical officials said many of the wounded were in critical condition and the death toll was likely to rise.

– Political turmoil –

Haftar supports an administration based in the east of the country. It declared three days of mourning following the attack.

A UN-backed unity government based in the capital Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), has struggled to assert its authority outside the west.

The GNA condemned the attack as a “terrorist and cowardly act”.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) denounced the bombings as “horrific” and warned that “direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians… constitute war crimes”.

UN efforts to reconcile the rival administrations have produced no concrete result.

Haftar said in late December he would support elections in 2018 to bring the country out of chaos, but suggested he could take measures if efforts for “a peaceful power transition via free and democratic elections were exhausted”.

Haftar’s opponents accuse him of wanting to seize power and establish a military dictatorship, while his supporters have called for him to take control by “popular mandate”.

UN envoy Ghassan Salame presented a plan to the Security Council in September to hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year, but analysts are skeptical they will take place.

Clashes between rival militias are common, with fighting at Tripoli’s airport last week leaving 20 dead and forcing the cancellation of all flights for five days.

The turmoil has stifled efforts to restore oil-rich Libya’s economy and made the country fertile ground for extremists.

The Islamic State group has a significant presence and was in control of coastal city Sirte from late 2014 to late 2016, when the jihadists were pushed out by pro-GNA forces.

People-smugglers have also taken advantage of the chaos to turn the country into a major gateway for migrants heading to Europe.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86906.

Saudi Arabia frees wealthy prince held in anti-graft drive

2018-01-27

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia released billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on Saturday nearly three months after his arrest in an anti-corruption drive targeting the kingdom’s elite, a business associate said.

“He (Prince Al-Waleed) is out,” the associate said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Prince Al-Waleed, dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia, was among some 350 suspects rounded up since November 4, including billionaire tycoons and ministers who were detained in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Prince Al-Waleed is the latest in a series of high-profile detainees to be freed from the hotel. The terms of his release were not immediately clear.

Authorities have previously said most of those detained struck monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom, which could earn state coffers about $100 billion.

Another high-profile detainee, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was released recently following his “settlement” with authorities which reportedly exceeded $1 billion.

Saudi Arabia also on Friday released the owner of the influential Arab satellite network MBC nearly three months after his arrest, sources said.

Waleed al-Ibrahim was among the suspects rounded up since November 4.

Ibrahim held a family gathering at his residence after his release, three MBC employees said on condition of anonymity. The staff also received an official e-mail congratulating them on his freedom.

The Financial Times reported earlier Friday that authorities had ordered Ibrahim to hand over his controlling stake in MBC to secure his release.

Authorities have so far not commented on his case.

The government on Friday also released a number of other detainees including Khaled Tuwaijri, former chief of the Saudi royal court, and Turki bin Nasser, former head of the country’s meteorology agency, a source close to the government said.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of the king, has spearheaded the unprecedented crackdown on corruption among members of the government and royal family, as he consolidates his grip on power in the kingdom.

The windfall settlements agreed with those detained will help the government finance a multi-million dollar package announced by King Salman this month to help citizens cope with the rising cost of living, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told Al Arabiya television in Davos on Wednesday.

Some critics have labelled the campaign a shakedown, but authorities insist the purge was aimed to target endemic corruption as Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The Ritz-Carlton is set to re-open for business next month as the campaign draws to an end, sources at the hotel have said. Its website lists rooms as available from February 14.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86960.

Ex-guerrilla launches historic presidential bid in Colombia

January 28, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono was once one of Colombia’s most-wanted men. Now he is a presidential contender. The graying, spectacled man best known by his alias Timochenko launched his bid Saturday to lead the government he once battled from the jungle with a celebratory campaign kickoff featuring giant posters, colorful confetti and even a catchy jingle.

“I promise to lead a government that propels the birth of a new Colombia,” he said. “A government that at last represents the interests of the poor.” Breaking with the traditional campaign launch from a five-star Bogota hotel, Timochenko initiated his presidential bid from one of the city’s poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods in a clear nod to the underprivileged class whose votes the ex-combatants are hoping to win. Hundreds gathered in the parking lot of a community center decorated with banners featuring a smiling Timochenko sporting a neatly trimmed beard, angular, thick-rimmed glasses, and a crisp blue shirt.

“Timo president,” a new campaign song played from loudspeakers. “For the people.” The campaign is another historic step in transforming the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia into a political party following the signing of a 2016 peace accord ending more than a half-century of conflict. The nation’s once-largest rebel group is now known as the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, keeping its Spanish FARC acronym, and presenting a slate of former guerrillas as candidates.

Yet even as the ex-combatants ditch rebel green fatigues for simple white T-shirts emblazoned with the party’s red rose emblem there have been fresh reminders that the road to peace is filled with hazard.

Two ex-combatants were recently shot to death while campaigning for a FARC congressional candidate in northwestern Colombia. In total, 45 former FARC members or their relatives have been reported killed, according to a recent government report. Many fear a repeat of events in the 1980s, when scores of leftist politicians affiliated with the Patriotic Union party were gunned down.

On the same day as the FARC campaign’s inauguration at least four police officers were killed and another 42 injured when a homemade bomb exploded outside a police station in the city of Barranquilla, underscoring security challenges that remain even after the peace signing.

“From here on is going to be a huge test of whether the FARC’s gamble is correct: That they can practice politics without fear of being killed,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Like Timochenko, the candidates include ex-guerrillas who have been convicted in Colombian courts for their part in massacres and kidnappings and whose new role as politicians has irked many Colombians. The U.S. State Department has offered a $5 million reward for anyone who helps secure Timochenko’s capture and accused him of directing the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and “the murders of hundreds of people.”

The budding politicians will still have to go before a special peace tribunal, but so long as they fully confess their crimes they are unlikely to serve any jail time. Formed in the 1960s and inspired by Marxist principles, the ex-combatants are vowing to tackle Colombia’s entrenched inequalities, though their initial proposals haven’t been as radical as many of the country’s conservatives have warned. In community meetings and ads leading up to the launch, candidates have talked about creating a subway in Bogota and a basic monthly income, an idea currently being debated throughout Europe.

“They are not proposals of a socialist, Soviet or Chavista model,” said Ivan Cepeda, a trusted conduit of both the FARC and the government, referring to the Venezuelan socialist model promoted by the late Hugo Chavez.

FARC leader and candidate Griselda Lobo, alias Sandra Ramirez, characterized the party’s ideology as being based on “principles of unity, solidarity and honesty” rather than attaching themselves to a particular political philosophy.

“That is what has characterized us as guerrillas and that is what we will bring society,” she said. The ex-combatants are guaranteed 10 seats in congress as a condition of the peace agreement, but could capture more depending on how many votes they receive. Though Timochenko’s presidential bid is widely considered a long shot, the former guerrillas are entering politics at a time when polls show Colombians are frustrated with corruption and give the more established political parties dismal approval ratings.

“That group of thieves needs to get out,” one man told a contingent of FARC supporters recently canvassing a poor Bogota neighborhood. The FARC’s entry into politics thus far has been emblematic of the challenges Colombia still faces in implementing the peace accord. One of the biggest concerns has been security, as an estimated 10,000 fighters return to life as civilians. Some are going home to families and communities who despise the FARC. Many Colombians are reluctant to quickly turn a page on a conflict that left at least 250,000 dead, another 60,000 missing and more than 7 million displaced.

Lawmaker Edward Rodriguez said the political party founded by former president and peace accord critic Alvaro Uribe would file a complaint with the International Criminal Court to try and halt Timochenko’s candidacy.

“It’s an affront to Colombians,” he told reporters at a small protest in Bogota’s historic district where demonstrators held up signs reminding passersby of crimes committed by the FARC. The FARC campaign kickoff drew retirees, housewives and construction workers who live in Ciudad Bolivar and said that despite the FARC’s legacy as a violent guerrilla group they were nonetheless curious to hear their proposals.

“They are human beings and like all human beings make mistakes,” said Marco Tulio, 65, a former railroad worker. “Today they are reflecting and I think it’s magnificent that people listen to them.”

Politicians in Greece, Macedonia meet over name issue

January 28, 2018

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Political leaders in both Greece and Macedonia met Saturday to discuss ways to resolve a longstanding dispute over the name of Greece’s northern neighbor. The meetings come days before United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz will visit the countries to seek a compromise. Nimetz is expected in Greece on Monday and Tuesday before going to Macedonia the following two days.

Greece has disputed Macedonia’s right to call itself by a name shared with its own northern province of Macedonia ever since the Republic of Macedonia became independent in 1991. It has blocked Macedonia’s accession to NATO.

Greece contends that the use of the name, along with certain clauses in Macedonia’s constitution, imply territorial designs on Greece, as well as the perceived appropriation of Greek symbols and names, such that of Alexander the Great, the most famous ruler of the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia.

Although recognized as the Republic of Macedonia by the majority of countries, Macedonia sits in the U.N. as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in deference to Greek objections. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met Saturday with the leaders of all opposition parliamentary parties except for far-right Golden Dawn. Although none gave him carte blanche for negotiations, he focused his criticism on opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Tsipras described Mitsotakis as vacillating and too influenced by “extremists” within his party. The Greek premier said he is prepared to accept a “composite name … with a geographical or historical reference” that would include the name Macedonia. This could mean a name such as Upper, or New, Macedonia.

“We must not listen to nationalist outbursts or fanatical shouts,” Tsipras said in a televised speech after the meetings were over. He nonetheless acknowledged that “there is still a long way” before an agreement is achieved.

Besides the opposition, the leftist Tsipras has to contend with his own defense minister and leader of the right-wing, populist Independent Greeks, who has called for a referendum on the name issue and suggested the neighboring country call itself “Vardarska.”

A protest against allowing the name “Macedonia” to be used by Greece’s neighbor is scheduled for Feb. 4 in Athens. It follows a similar one in Thessaloniki, capital of Greece’s Macedonia province, which, according to police, was attended by 90,000 people.

In Macedonia, a “coordination meeting” under President Gjorge Ivanov went late into the night Saturday and no statements have been issued. It was attended by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, and opposition leaders Hristijan Mickovski, the new leader of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, and Ali Ahmeti, head of the Albanian-minority Democratic Union for Integration.

There was a protest outside the meeting. The protesters object to Zaev’s proposal to rename Macedonia’s main highway and airport, both named for Alexander the Great, and demand termination of negotiations on the name issue.

Testorides reported from Skopje.

Tag Cloud