Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Arab ministers meet in Doha over Syria

No progress has been made to end Syria's deadly 13-month crisis, Qatar's prime minister has told Arab ministers attending a summit in Doha on ways to end the conflict that has continued to rage despite a ceasefire.

"We hope the Syrian government responds" to UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said during the talks on Tuesday.

"We don't see any progress in implementing it. Nothing has changed except for (Damascus) accepting (the plan)”, he said at the opening of the meeting.

"Implementation is more important."

The talks came as UN observers admitted on Tuesday they face a tough task to firm up a ceasefire in Syria, as five civilians were killed in the latest violence on the sixth day of a tenuous truce.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi, attending the Doha meeting along with Annan, called for the ceasefire to be implemented "completely and immediately".

"Annan's mission is a political one which would take some time," he said. The Arab ministerial committee, chaired by Qatar, includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Kuwait.

After a spike in violence the Arab League ended its own Syrian monitoring mission in late January, barely a month after sending observers.

On Monday, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said the chances of Annan's plan succeeding "are no higher than three per cent” and that Syrians should not be supported through peaceful means but "with arms".

Qatar has taken an aggressive stance in favour of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

'Not an easy process'

Continuing violence in Syria has dampened expectations in many quarters for the prospects of a peace plan proposed by Annan, which was supposed to halt all fighting and bring about a withdrawal of Syrian heavy weaponry from areas under attack.

The plan was agreed to by Assad, but compliance by Syrian forces appears to have been partial, despite the arrival in Damascus on Sunday of a six-man advance team of UN monitors.

UN officials said the team was still drawing up plans, and the head of the observer team, Moroccan Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, said on Tuesday it would take time to reach badly affected towns and cities.

"There should be co-ordination and planning and we should move ... step by step," he said. "It's not an easy process."
The group is to be reinforced by an additional 25 monitors who are expected to arrive in the next few days, he said.

Hopes for the observation mission have been tempered by the failure of a previous Arab League mission which was hampered by regime restrictions on movement, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon has demanded his monitors be given free access.

Al Jazeera's Steve Chao, reporting from outside the meeting in Doha, said the Arab leaders were "highly sceptical about Syria's intentions".

"The Arab League did not say exactly how much time they would give Kofi Annan … before they basically rule this peace plan a failure," Chao said.

"They pointed to the fact that so far, five days into this ceasefire, Syria has yet to implement any of the six points Kofi Annan has laid out."

Attacks continue

Activist reports of shelling against opposition strongholds by Syrian government forces appeared to deal a fresh blow to the ceasefire.

While the overall level of violence is down since the ceasefire formally took effect on Thursday, the regime has stepped up attacks.

The number of people killed every day has also risen steadily since a brief lull that coincided with the start of the truce. Activists reported at least 26 people killed on Monday.

Army tanks were reported to have shelled the southern town of Busra al-Harir, killing at least two people, according to the the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The town, about 70km south of the capital of Damascus, is considered a stronghold of anti-government Free Syrian Army fighters.

Government forces also shelled the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood in the central city of Homs, a centre of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to the Observatory.

Areas of Homs have been under continuous attack for weeks, with only a short lull on the first day of the ceasefire, according to activists.


French FM: Sanctions Against Syria Biting

RTR30UI8_France_Juppe_Syria_17APR12 The French foreign minister said sanctions against Damascus are working and have cut Syria's financial reserves in half. Alain Juppe made the remarks in Paris to the "Friends of Syria" contact group aimed at helping the Syrian opposition and reinforcing sanctions against the government and leaders.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said it is critical to closely monitor what he called "maneuvers" by Syrian authorities to escape the increasingly painful bite of international sanctions.

Speaking at the start of a Paris meeting of Arab and Western diplomats supporting the opposition, Juppe said not only are sanctions an efficient instrument to deprive the Syrian government of goods and resources it uses to finance militias, but they also send a strong political message.

The international community has slapped an array of ever-tougher sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They include an embargo against oil exports, measures against the country's financial and banking sectors, and asset freezes and travel bans against a score of individuals, including Mr. Assad and his wife. Juppe said the sanctions appear to have cut Syria's finances in half.

Both Arab League and European participants at the Paris working group want to keep up the pressure against Syrian authorities - even as U.N. observers monitor a shaky cease-fire.

Juppe said the international community will be firm in demanding the observers have free movement in Syria to ensure the cease-fire is sticking. But he said countries must also keep up the pressure on Damascus by reinforcing existing sanctions.

Violence has continued since the cease-fire came into force last Thursday, notably in the Syrian city of Homs.

Russia on Tuesday accused both the Syrian government and the opposition of undermining the cease-fire.

The Paris meeting coincides with the anniversary of Syria's 1946 independence from France. French stars and human rights activists are organizing a public event to mark the day - and to express their support for the Syrian people.

VOA News

UK moves to deport alleged terror fund-raiser Abu Qatada

120117115347-abu-qatada-story-top British authorities have arrested Abu Qatada, whom they describe as an inspiration to terrorists that include one of the hijackers who struck on September 11, 2001, the Home Office said Tuesday.

The United Kingdom will resume efforts to deport him to Jordan, the government said.

Britain views Abu Qatada as a national security threat, but the European Court of Human Rights barred the country from deporting him because evidence gained from torture could be used against him in Jordan, where he has been convicted in absentia of involvement in terrorist conspiracies.

But Jordan has outlined a number of conditions that Home Secretary Theresa May said means the deportation could now go ahead.

Qatada will be tried in public before civilian judges, and the existing conviction against him will be quashed, she told British lawmakers Tuesday.

"The assurances and information that the government has secured from Jordan mean that we can undertake deportation in full compliance with the law and with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights," said May in a statement to the House of Commons.

"Deportation might still take time -- the proper processes must be followed and the rule of law must take precedence -- but today Qatada has been arrested and the deportation process is under way."

Jordanian Justice Minister Ibrahim Aljazy had said after Britain announced the arrest that Jordan would detain Abu Qatada and give him a full trial when he arrived in the country.

The two countries have been in talks since the Court of Human Rights ruling earlier this year. Both sides want him sent to Jordan.

But he can still appeal to stop his deportation, a process that could take months, May said.

Assem Rababah, a lawyer representing Abu Qatada in Jordan, told CNN it was too early to judge when his deportation might occur, as British legal proceedings were still ongoing.

He said that when the deportation order was final, a team of officials and doctors would travel from Jordan to Britain to assess Abu Qatada's mental and physical health.

Abu Qatada was released from a high security prison on bail in February.

He had been imprisoned in Britain for six years while the government worked to send him to Jordan, where he holds citizenship.

The British government claims Abu Qatada has raised money for terrorist groups, including organizations linked to former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and has publicly supported the violent activities of those groups.

Abu Qatada has denied the allegations against him.

Also known as Omar Othman, Abu Qatada arrived in the United Kingdom in 1993 and applied for asylum on the grounds that he had been tortured by Jordanian authorities. He came to Britain on a forged United Arab Emirates passport, according to court documents, and claimed asylum for himself, his wife and their three children.

The British government recognized him as a refugee and allowed him to stay in the country until 1998.

Abu Qatada applied to stay indefinitely, but while his application was pending, a Jordanian court convicted him in absentia on charges related to two 1998 terrorist attacks and a plot to plant bombs to coincide with the millennium.

He was released briefly in 2005 after the repeal of the anti-terrorism law on which he was being held. British authorities ordered his renewed detention that year under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, according to the European Court of Human Rights.


Q&A: International troops in Afghanistan

afghanistan-us-troops-story-top When Afghan forces repelled a barrage of attacks from insurgents near Kabul's green zone over the weekend it was hailed as proof of how far local security forces had come.

"They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated," said General John Allen, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai said it showed the country's forces would be able to defend their country after international forces leave.

Then on Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her country would pull its troops out months earlier expected -- by early 2014 -- citing an improvement in the security situation.

"We continue to see steady gains in the fight against the Afghan insurgency," Gillard said, in a speech in Canberra.

Australia's 1,550 troops in Afghanistan are a fraction of the overall number of foreign troops deployed to keep a lid on the country's insurgency more than ten years after allied airstrikes marked the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.

How many international troops are operating in Afghanistan?

More than 130,000 troops from 50 countries are currently operating in Afghanistan, according to the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

The United States is the biggest contributor, providing around 90,000 troops, followed by the United Kingdom (9,500), Germany (4,800) and France (3,600).

The international force has been there since 2001, shortly after the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. on September 11. The campaign was launched to stop the Taliban from providing a safe haven for al Qaeda fighters, and to stop the terror group's use of Afghanistan as a base for its future activities.

How long are they there for?

In June 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan would end by 2014. At that time there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, following a 30,000-strong troop "surge" in December 2009 to help bolster the campaign against the Taliban.

In February this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the U.S. hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013, transitioning primarily to a training role as Afghan forces take more responsibility for security.

Some countries have already pulled out of the country. Canada, which once headed the ISAF mission, pulled out almost all of its 3,000 soldiers at the end of 2011. Norway also withdrew almost all of its 500 troops during this period.

France announced in February that it would begin an early draw down, and that all 4,000 of its troops would be gone by 2013. Germany plans to pull out some troops next year, with the remainder leaving in 2014.

Britain, the second-biggest contributor of troops, plans to hand over its security operations to local forces by the end of 2013, before continuing in a "supporting role" from 2014.

How well trained are Afghan security forces?

The Afghan forces who fought off an 18-hour multi-pronged Taliban attack in Kabul earlier this week are some of the best trained in the country, according to analysts. The crisis response group is based in the capital and has received training from U.S. special forces.

"That would be the equal of any other unit of its type in the region," said James Brown, a military associate at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

"It's got it own intelligence assets, which it didn't have three years ago. They've got their own Afghan aviation assets, helicopters, that can respond to these kind of events. So yes, they are getting better at responding to high-profile events in Kabul -- but the Taliban are getting better as well."

This latter point is picked up by other analysts.

"I think there has to be a real question mark over the long-term prospects for Afghanistan," said Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"I think there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic over the ability of Afghan forces. But ultimately the future of Afghanistan will be determined by the factions inside Afghanistan. I think if the last 10 years has shown us anything, then the ability of the outside world to influence the future of Afghanistan in the long term is fairly minimal."

What's next?

Gillard's announcement of Australia's troop draw down precedes an announcement from President Karzai at a summit on Afghanistan in Chicago in May.

The Afghan leader is expected to announce that a third tranche of provinces will be handed back to full Afghan control, including Uruzgan, where most of the Australian troops are based.

A clearer split of financial contributions may also emerge at the summit, with the annual cost of funding the Afghan security forces after 2014 estimated to be $4.1 billion.

"The U.S. will probably pay a big part of that and I think the UK will also chip in," said Brown. "You may not see much from the Europeans. But there might be some funding commitments from Japan," he added.


Sudan: new oil output can help finance conflict

Sudan-new-oil-output-can-help-finance-conflict Sudan said on Tuesday the cost of a full-blown conflict with South Sudan would not deter it from recapturing the disputed Heglig oilfield, and that newly tapped oilfields would help to sustain its struggling economy.

South Sudan took control of the contested oil-producing Heglig region last week, prompting Sudan's parliament to brand its former civil war foe an "enemy" on Monday and to call for a swift recapture.

Analysts believe the outcome of the escalating border fighting is more likely to be determined by which faltering economy collapses first, rather than by military prowess.

"Despite the high cost of the war, despite the destruction that the war can cause ... our options are very limited. We can tolerate some sacrifice, until we can liberate our land," Sudan's ambassador to Kenya, Kamal Ismail Saeed, said.

"So from our side, yes, it is expensive but that doesn't deter us or that doesn't stop us from exerting all effort to liberate our land," he told reporters in Nairobi.

"We have been in war without oil for several years and we survived ... As a matter of fact ... the good news (is) we have developed other sources and fields of oil and that will really compensate our loss."

Fighting over oil payments and territory has withered the combined crude output of both countries.

The Heglig field is vital to Sudan's economy because it accounts for half the 115,000 barrels per day output that remained in its control when South Sudan seceded in July.

Meanwhile the South has completely closed its 350,000 bpd output because it cannot agree transit fees with its northern neighbor.

The latest clashes have also dampened hopes that Sudan and South Sudan can reach a deal soon on disputed issues such as demarcation of their 1,800-km (1,200-mile) border, division of debt and the status of citizens in each other's territory.

Saeed insisted Khartoum could weather the latest conflict, which has sent food prices soaring and hit the currency as officials try to make up for the sudden loss in revenues.


He said production from new fields in west Kordofan, in Darfur and in the states of White Nile and Blue Nile would offset much of the loss of Heglig's output.

"We used to produce 115,000 barrels a day before the attack, we lost about 40,000, and now we'll get another 30,000," he said.

South Sudan insists Heglig is rightfully part of the South and says it will not withdraw its troops unless the United Nations deploys a neutral force to monitor a ceasefire. Saeed said that was unacceptable.

"They have two options: either to withdraw very quickly or withdraw. We will reserve the right to use all means at our access to kick them out of there, and we will do it," he said.

"They will be thrown out of there very soon."

Meanwhile U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm over reports of a buildup of militia forces in the disputed Abyei border region.

The U.N. statement did not say where the reports were from or give details but called it a violation of a June agreement in which both sides said they would withdraw forces from the region.

Ban called on Khartoum to "ensure the full and immediate withdrawal of these elements from the area".

Abyei, which is prized for its fertile grazing land and produces some oil, was a major battleground during Sudan's civil war and is symbolically potent for both sides. Both countries lay claim to it.

Khartoum seized Abyei in May last year after a southern attack on an army convoy, triggering an exodus of tens of thousands of civilians. The Security Council authorized the deployment of 3,800 U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei in June.

Some 2 million people died in Sudan's civil war, waged for all but a few years between 1955 and 2005 over conflicts of ideology, ethnicity, oil and religion.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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