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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, Syria

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  • Zafar Khan
    BAHRAIN Fired Shias want Bahrain jobs back Hundreds of Shia workers, who lost their jobs, still waiting to be reinstated despite government s repeated
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2012
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      BAHRAIN

      Fired Shias want Bahrain jobs back
      Hundreds of Shia workers, who lost their jobs, still waiting to be reinstated despite government's repeated promises.
      Last Modified: 14 Feb 2012 08:32

      http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2012/02/201221462512510271.html

      [VIDEO]
      It's been one year since anti-government protests started in Bahrain. Nearly 2,000 mainly Shia Muslim workers in both the private and public sector lost their jobs as punishment for their perceived participation in the protests.
      Unions say they have not got their jobs back, despite repeated promises from the government.

      Human rights groups and activists say more than 60 people have been killed, including four policemen, since the crackdown began on Shia-led protesters.

      Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford reports.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Bahrain police repel protesters in Manama
      Tear gas fired on protesters trying to occupy Pearl Roundabout before one-year anniversary of uprising.
      Last Modified: 14 Feb 2012 07:18

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/20122131881317628.html

      Security forces in Bahrain fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters trying to occupy a landmark roundabout in the nation's capital on Monday, one day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Gulf kingdom's popular uprising.

      Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Manama's streets in the largest attempt in months to retake Pearl Roundabout, which served as the epicentre of weeks of pro-democracy protests last year.

      Thousands of riot police and other security forces have staked out positions around the square and across the Gulf island nation to prevent the opposition from staging a mass rally in or near the roundabout.

      Opposition supporters were undeterred by the authorities' warnings of zero tolerance for anti-government activities around the strategic island that is the home of the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

      "We will not back down,'' said Nader Abdulimam, who had taken refuge in a house just outside of Manama with other protesters overcome by tear gas. "This has gone on for one year and it will go for another year or more.''

      Some protesters hurled firebombs and rocks after the security forces fired tear gas. In an area about 10km west of central Manama, some demonstrators stood atop Bahrain's ancient burial mounds, some more than 5,000 years old, waving flags featuring the image of Pearl Roundabout's six-pronged monument.

      Sporadic clashes

      Authorities imposed martial law after security forces stormed the protesters' encampment at the landmark square, and later tore down the Pearl monument.

      The now heavily guarded square holds great symbolic value for Bahrain's opposition movement, and protesters have repeatedly tried to retake it. But the capital has largely been off limits to demonstrators since March.

      Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the predominantly Shia villages around the capital.

      Bahrain's ruling Sunni monarchy has said it will not tolerate a rise in protests to mark the anniversary.

      The island's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said last year's events were regrettable, although he downplayed the severity of the threat the protests had posed to the 200-year-old-rule of the Sunni dynasty.

      The king says that a massive opposition movement does not really exist in the country.

      "I regret the events of the past year,'' he told the German weekly Der Spiegel in an interview that was published on Sunday.

      "But there is no opposition in Bahrain, not in the sense of a united bloc. Such a thing is not in our constitution. There are just people with different views, and that is good."

      Village 'sieges'

      Shias account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain's population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination, such as being denied access to senior political and security posts.

      Bahrain's Sunni rulers have taken steps on reforms, including relinquishing more powers to parliament. In an announcement early on Monday, Bahrain's king named a Shia, Sadok bin Abdulkarim al-Shehabi, as health minister.

      The health position is significant because Bahrain's main hospital figured prominently during the early weeks of the uprising with authorities claiming medical staff aided demonstrators. Dozens of doctors and nurses have been put on trial.

      The government, however, has so far refused to make the far-reaching changes the protesters and the main Shia group, Al Wefaq, the country's largest opposition party, have demanded.

      These include ending the monarchy's ability to select the government and set all-important state policies.

      Al Wefaq criticised the authorities for imposing "a siege" on the villages around Manama ahead of the first anniversary of Bahrain's "revolution".

      Its statement on Sunday, it said police had stormed houses and fired tear gas indiscriminately in densely populated civilian areas. There were no reports of injuries, but Al Wefaq said several people were detained.

      At least 40 people have been killed during months of political unrest in Bahrain.

      In another tightening of policies, the official Bahrain News Agency said the kingdom would demand prior visa approval for many nations that had been allowed to obtain entry stamps upon arrival, including the US and other Western countries.

      The decision follows the deportation on Sunday of two American activists accused of joining protests after entering on tourist visas.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Bahrain protesters rally ahead of anniversary
      Activists say will continue tp press their demands as they prepare to mark first anniversary of protests on February 14.
      Last Modified: 05 Feb 2012 12:15

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/201225104043588538.html

      Thousands of Bahrainis have begun a week-long rally in a Shia village, 10 days ahead of the first anniversary of the start of pro-democracy protest which was brutally crushed, activists have said.

      "The large number of people who participated yesterday [Saturday] wanted to deliver a message to the government that people are determined to keep up the demands that they made on February 14 last year," Matar Matar, a leading Shia opposition activist, told the AFP news agency on Sunday.

      "They will use any venue available," he added.

      Mostly-Shia protesters occupied Manama's Pearl Square for about a month last year until they were driven out in a heavy-handed mid-March crackdown.

      The "steadfast" rally began in the afternoon in al-Muqsha village, about 7km west of Manama, the capital, and continued until 11:00 pm (2000 GMT).

      It will reconvene at the same time on Sunday, according to Matar, a former MP.

      Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shia cleric and leader of al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition grouping, urged demonstrators to rename the rally spot in the village as "Freedom Square," insisting that people have decided that "there will be no return to pre-February 14".

      "It is impossible that Bahrain remains without equality between its people," he said, according to the al-Wefaq Facebook page.

      Although al-Wefaq said that the protest would last a week, the interior ministry announced on Friday that the demonstration had been authorised for two days only.

      Matar said that his party informed the interior ministry that it intends to hold a seven-day rally, after it did not get authorisation to organise an open-ended demonstration.

      During the month-long protest last year, the Shia-led opposition demanded significant constitutional changes that would reduce the power of the Sunni al-Khalifa ruling dynasty, including through having an elected prime minister.

      Tensions have remained high in Bahrain since the initial deadly crackdown, and sporadic violence has risen in recent weeks as the first anniversary approaches of the launch of the protests.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      US pushes Bahrain arms deal despite abuses
      Obama administration using legal loophole to sell arms to Bahrain despite ongoing abuses and crackdown on NGOs.
      Gregg Carlstrom Last Modified: 02 Feb 2012 13:16

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/02/201221154429600105.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      EGYPT

      Egypt: The promise and perils of revolution
      With so much still undecided, did Egypt experience a popular uprising, Islamic revolution or military coup?
      Empire Last Modified: 25 Feb 2012 08:19

      http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/empire/2012/02/201222410410850277.html

      January 25 is a day that will live forever in Egyptian history.

      Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens occupied Tahrir Square, sparking nationwide protests that were brutally crushed.

      But the momentum had changed, and after 18 days, the dictatorship was overthrown.

      Democratic elections followed but they produced some surprising results, at least for outside observers.

      Islamist parties won two-thirds of the popular vote, a worrying trend some believe might challenge Egypt's secular, cosmopolitan identity.

      Even more worrying is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF's refusal to relinquish power. The military still controls the streets.

      And the young people who launched the revolution in the first place are left wondering what more they have to do.

      With so much still undecided, many are asking: Did Egypt undergo a popular uprising, an Islamic revolution or a military coup?
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Cairo street battles enter fourth day
      Tax office in capital set on fire amid continuing anger at authorities' failure to prevent Port Said football violence.
      Last Modified: 05 Feb 2012 06:42

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/201224131423624977.html

      Deadly clashes in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt have entered their fourth day, as anger at the ruling military continues to boil after 72 people died in football-related violence.

      Egypt's tax authority building in central Cairo was set on fire as the street protests against army rule raged into the early hours of Sunday, state television footage showed.

      Parts of the building, close to the interior ministry, were set ablaze, media said.

      Dozens of protesters remained in Mohamed Mahmoud street on Sunday morning, where riot police continued to occasionally fire tear gas to prevent the crowds from reaching the interior ministry building a few blocks away.

      Police fired tear gas and birdshot at protesters throughout Saturday, after protesters threw stones at officers guarding the ministry, which is hundreds of metres from the capital's Tahrir Square.

      In the canal city of Suez, two people died from wounds sustained in clashes overnight, medics said. The health ministry said 2,532 people have been injured since the violence erupted.

      Five people were also hurt in overnight clashes outside police headquarters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the official MENA news agency reported.

      'Security vacuum'

      Violence began after a Wednesday football riot in Port Said that left at least 72 dead was blamed on poor security and and intentional plan to set fans from one side against the other.

      Anger quickly focused on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - which has ruled Egypt since the ousted of ex-President Hosni Mubarak - and marchers took to the streets nationwide on Friday to demand that the generals cede power immediately.

      Protesters, many of them organised supporters of Cairo's main football clubs known as the ultras, held up a huge banner to the police that read: "Those who didn't deserve to die have died at the hands of those who don't deserve to live."

      Many of the dead in Wednesday's football riot in the northern city of Port Said were thought to have been Al-Ahly supporters, set upon by supporters of the local Al-Masry side after the home team won 3-1.

      The ultras played a prominent role among anti-government elements in the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak a year ago, and commentators and citizens have suggested pro-Mubarak forces were behind the incident, or at least complicit.

      Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh, reporting from Cairo on Friday, said that a cleric leading prayers in Tahrir Square questioned where the security forces were when the Port Said bloodshed happened.

      "The people wanted answers as to how exactly the football disaster happened," she said. "The question is, what exactly was the responsibility of the governor and the head of the police force there?"

      "Furthermore, why did the police force, as seen on cameras, remain on the sidelines and not engage the crowds?"

      'Foreign hands'

      In the ongoing aftermath, rocks and stones flew in all directions on Friday as police vans in Cairo repeatedly charged demonstrators.

      At one point, police clubbed protesters just metres away from the interior ministry.

      A soldier injured outside the interior ministry on Thursday died in hospital on Friday, MENA said.

      In a sign of increased insecurity, armed assailants carrying automatic weapons stormed a police station in al-Marg, east Cairo, freeing detainees before torching it.

      In the Dokki neighbourhood, a group of men attacked a police station, taking weapons from the building.

      Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton, reporting from Cairo, said the ongoing nationwide protests are "another symptom of the security vacuum going on across the country".

      The SCAF blamed the unrest on "foreign and domestic hands targeting the country".

      In a statement on Facebook, it urged "all political and national forces of this great nation to take a national and historic role and intervene ... to return stability".

      The military has pledged to cede full powers to civilian rule when a president is elected by the end of June, but its opponents believe it intends to hold on to power behind the scenes after a transfer to civilian rule.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      ALGERIA

      Algeria slides into prohibition
      Bars shut under pressure from Islamists, driving alcohol sales and consumption underground
      Isabelle Mandraud
      Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 7 February 2012 13.59 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/07/algeria-slides-into-prohibition-alcohol-bars

      There is no longer a single bar left in Constantine, Chlef, Tlemcen, Batna or Boumerdès. Only two remain in Sétif. In Algiers, once renowned for its many bars, about 15 struggle on. Last month La Butte and La Toison d'Or, two of the oldest and best known watering holes in the Algerian capital, pulled down their shutters for the last time.

      One after another bars selling alcoholic beverages are closing and retail outlets are increasingly rare. Algeria is sliding into prohibition.

      "We are on our last legs," says Tahar, one of the largest wholesalers. "I've been in the trade for years and I can't see any future in it."

      "We're heading for the disappearance of all that," says Mohammed Delabeche, sales manager of a drinks importer, pointing at a few of the remaining bars in Algiers. For passers-by there are no distinguishing marks, no signs or adverts.

      The trend started in 2005. Only Kabylia and the Oran area have resisted so far. Elsewhere there is a gaping void, and VL (wine and spirits) retailers fear they too will soon be for the chop. "It is a constant worry," says a vendor at Aïn Bénian, 40km from Algiers.

      "They should stop this campaign and define clear rules," said the president of the Society of Algerian Beverage Manufacturers (Apab), Ali Hamani, who expects "additional pressure" as the general election in May looms.

      There are more and more fly-by-night supply networks. In Jijel, 300km east of Algiers, there are about 30. Licensed bars often have to close at 8pm; these networks take over with deliveries from mobile bar-vans or someone's home. Sales are concealed, with drinks generally hidden in bags, but the gatherings are perfectly visible. At Sétif, an unlicensed vendor does the rounds to his customers with a van and a mobile phone. Actual consumption has not dropped, indeed it may have increased a little.

      On average, Algerians consume around 100m litres of beer annually, 50m litres of wine, and up to 10m litres of spirits. "These figures put us well behind Morocco and are only about half the amount consumed in Tunisia," Hamani said.

      Closing the bars has given rise to new habits. From the middle of the afternoon onwards, it is commonplace to see cars parked beside the road with the occupants setting up a bar on the bonnet and enjoying a beer. The verges are littered with beer cans. "If it goes on like this it will become a public health hazard," a wholesaler said. "People have learned to drink like that, on the sly. They don't even bother with bars any longer," Delabeche said.

      According to people in the trade, the "anti-alcohol attitude" began in 2006 with a memorandum from the trade ministry, which has been headed since that year by a representative of the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP). The memo required bars to comply with safety regulations and update their details on the business register every year. Many lost their licence in the process, and have no hope of getting it back. Others opted to become snack bars.

      Unanswered letters piled up at the offices of the officials who issue licences. At a local level, petitions by residents protesting against the trouble caused by the bars were the last straw.

      "It has to be admitted that society is gradually being Islamised," said the secretary general of Apab, Meriem Bellil-Medjoubi. "They use all the available tricks, particularly with residents and petitions; our letters to the authorities go unanswered, unlike other branches of the food industry," Hamani said.

      When questioned on this, the MSP's president, Boguerra Soltani, a minister of state without portfolio, said: "The government's prime concern is the availability of food." He denies the existence of a memo. "Clearly at the MSP the consumption of alcohol is prohibited, not as part of a ban but for [public] education," he adds. "We are convinced Algerians prefer to drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi rather than alcohol. For that matter, in Algeria it is forbidden to breed pigs or consume pork, and no one has a problem with that."

      Tahar recalled the 1990s, when the civil war between the Islamists and the regime prompted a very different response. "During the war against terror, the police protected points of sale and even encouraged us to stay open till 11pm," he said. "It was a form of resistance. Now it's the other way round."

      The state-owned Vine Marketing Board (ONCV) still produces wine, but all the outlets (the brasseries) have been privatised. However, not many jobs – 3,000 according to Apab – are at stake.

      "No one, not even a entire industry, can put pressure on the authorities because all the [state] money comes from oil, not trade," said a despairing importer. "And things won't improve after the next general election either."

      This article originally appeared in Le Monde
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      SYRIA

      Syrian regime rockets bombard Homs
      Death toll rises as country awaits outcome of referendum on a new constitution
      Martin Chulov and agencies
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 February 2012 08.13 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/27/syrian-rockets-bombard-homs

      Syrian government troops fired heavy barrages of artillery and rockets on Monday into districts across Homs, where rebels have been holding out through weeks of bombardment, opposition activists said.

      "Intense shelling started on Khalidiya, Ashira, Bayada, Baba Amr and the old city at dawn," activist Muhammad al-Homsi told Reuters from Homs.

      "The army is firing from the main thoroughfares deep into alleyways and side streets. Initial reports indicate at least two people killed in the Souk area," he said.

      Syrians took part in a referendum on Sunday to clear the way for multi-party elections that could see Bashar al-Assad entrenched as president until 2028, in a vote widely dismissed by the opposition as a figleaf for reform.

      Turnout appeared to be mixed across the country, with voter participation being noticeably higher in areas where Assad still has support, such as Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo.

      Nationwide, more than 50 people have been killed each day for at least the past week, according to local activists and civilian journalists.

      At least 59 civilians and soldiers were killed on Sunday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 civilians were killed in bombardment of the Baba Amr and al-Khalidiya districts of Homs, while three people were killed when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Damascus. The British-based observatory said 21 other civilians were killed elsewhere, while rebels killed 23 members of the security forces.

      Officials in Damascus said voting was lower in unstable areas. The result of the referendum, to change the constitution and authorise political parties other than the Ba'ath party, appears to be a foregone conclusion, with most of those who turned out likely to have voted yes.

      The referendum is held up as a centrepiece of Assad's reforms, which were drafted as a response to what has been a sustained challenge to the totalitarian state that he and his father before him have ruled for more than 40 years.

      It would mean the Ba'ath party would no longer have a monopoly on political and social life in Syria, with opposition groups, in law at least, being free to stand independently in future elections.

      But a constitutional change limiting a president's maximum term to 14 years would not be applied retrospectively, meaning Assad could still serve two more terms from the next election, likely to be held in 2014.

      The referendum has been dismissed by opposition groups and the west, which insist Assad has lost all legitimacy. Turkey said the ongoing crackdown on dissent belied talk of reform, while the White House described the referendum as meaningless and the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said it was a farce. "Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis," he said. "Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition."

      A Friends of Syria conference attended by more than 70 states in Tunis over the weekend said the vote was designed to create a veneer of change while the lethal assault on opposition groups continued unabated.

      The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who was in Tunis, indicated that the US objection to the arming of rebels who are in open revolt had not changed, despite the remarks of several congressmen. She said military intervention would be perilous. "I think there's every possibility of a civil war," she told the BBC. "Outside intervention would not prevent that. It would probably expedite it.

      "We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al-Qaida, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next."

      Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, also spoke against the idea: "I very much hope the US and other countries ... do not try to set a military scenario in motion without sanction from the UN security council." Russia and China have vetoed such security council approval.

      A senior Hamas figure told the Associated Press that its leader, Khaled Mashaal, had moved from Syria to Qatar.

      Efforts to evacuate the wounded from Baba Amr, including two western reporters and the bodies of two colleagues, have not succeeded despite urgent pleas from Europe. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying since the deaths last Wednesday of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik to get scores of wounded out of Syria to hospitals in Lebanon.

      Talks broke down several times over the weekend. Some observers said the delay was caused by a lack of trust. The Free Syrian Army was said to have rejected two ambulances sent into Baba Amr, partly because it could not guarantee where the wounded would be taken.

      Kate Conroy, the wife of the injured photographer Paul Conroy, said that, with reluctance, she could appreciate the Foreign Office view that it was too difficult to provide an escort to help with his rescue. Nonetheless, she would like it "if somebody in that embassy was to say: 'Forget protocol, I'm going to get them out.'"

      Essential services have collapsed in rebel-held districts of Homs over a four-month siege that has trapped up to 20,000 people. Neighbourhoods claim they get electricity for only a few hours each day, and are desperately low on food and water.

      Baba Amr, a hub for the Free Syrian Army, had largely been left to its own devices until an artillery assault began 24 days ago. It has since been reduced to a series of ghettos that regime forces have yet to enter, though local activists expect a ground assault at any time.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syria holds 'farcical' poll while violence continues

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-holds-farcical-poll-while-violence-continues-7441302.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syria: more killed in shelling of Homs as bid to evacuate journalists fails
      Residents of besieged suburb of Baba Amr say they feel abandoned after failure of 'Friends of Syria' peace conference
      Tracy McVeigh
      guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 February 2012 22.44 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/26/syria-homs-baba-amr-bombardment

      The Syrian military took its bombardment of the Baba Amr district of Homs into a fourth week on Saturday as the Red Cross tried to evacuate more traumatised civilians.

      At least 28 people were killed , nine of them in Homs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Thousands are trapped in the Baba Amr suburb.

      Deploring the outcome of the international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia on Friday, opposition activists and civilians in Homs said that they felt forgotten. People talked of how the world had abandoned them to be killed by the soldiers and rockets of President Bashar al-Assad.

      After its ambulances had been allowed to leave the city with 27 people on Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it had resumed negotiations with both sides to enable more civilians to be brought out. There was still no sign of progress on the evacuation of the western journalists injured in the rocket attack that killed reporter Marie Colvin, 56, and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, 28, on Wednesday.

      The Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, who has shrapnel wounds in his legs, and the French reporter Edith Bouvier, who has a broken leg, remain in Homs, as do two other western journalists, Javier Espinoza, from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and a French freelance reporter, William Daniels, who are unhurt. Efforts are continuing to get them out, along with the bodies of their colleagues. The Sunday Times today revealed that Colvin died trying to retrieve her shoes so she could escape the bombardment. The journalists had followed the Middle Eastern custom of taking off their shoes when they went into a building housing a rebel press centre, and tried to recover them as rockets fell.

      Colvin was on the ground floor when missiles hit the upper floors. The journalists were covered in dust but unhurt. They prepared to flee but had to get their shoes first. Colvin ran to the hall, where she had left hers, but when she got there a rocket landed at the front of the building, a few yards away. The blast killed her and Ochlik.

      The newspaper said hopes had faded for the rescue of Conroy and Bouvier, who both urgently need medical treatment, and the others.

      Reports said the evacuation had run into trouble because of distrust between the two sides during a ceasefire.

      Conroy was reported to be refusing to leave without Colvin's body despite being in danger of potentially life-threatening infection if his wounds were not treated.

      People in Homs – a city of more than 800,000 at the crossroads of highways from Damascus to Aleppo and from the coast to the interior – are suspicious of evacuations, carried out by the ICRC's local partner, the Syrian Red Crescent.

      A UK-based activist, Abdul Omar, told the BBC that people did not want to get into the ambulances. "We know that the Syrian regime has in the past used Red Crescent ambulances to pretend that they are rescue operations but they have ended up arresting individuals, arresting civilians and taking them to prison," he said.

      But the ICRC denied there was anything but a mercy mission under way with the Red Crescent vehicles, and said that there was no difference between the two groups. "Their volunteers are risking their lives on a daily basis to help everyone with no exceptions," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva.

      The Tunis conference of western, Arab and other countries was intended to increase diplomatic pressure on Assad to end an 11-month crackdown on opponents of his rule.

      The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said Assad would be held to account for the bloodshed and sharply criticised Russia and China, which have blocked UN measures against Syria.

      But to beleaguered Syrians the speeches seemed remote. "The people resent what happened in Tunis," said a doctor in the restive town of Zabadani. "We need them to arm the revolution. I don't understand what they are waiting for. Do they need to see half the people of Syria finished off first?"

      Diplomacy is hamstrung because Russia and China oppose action by the UN security council, and there is little appetite for military intervention – although Saudi Arabia has suggested it might arm the rebels, a move that prompted an angry reaction from Damascus, which accused the Saudis of being "partners" in the bloodshed in Syria.

      Despite international condemnation of his rule, Assad is due to stage a referendum today on a new constitution that he says will lead to a multiparty parliamentary election within three months. The opposition has called for a boycott of the vote, deriding his reform pledges and demanding again that he step down. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, also questioned how the vote could take place.

      "On one hand you say you are holding a referendum and on the other you are attacking with tank fire on civilian areas. You still think the people will go to a referendum the next day ?" he asked.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      'We are not afraid of Assad any longer. But why must more people die?'
      Eyewitness
      KIM SENGUPTA SATURDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2012

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/we-are-not-afraid-of-assad-any-longer-but-why-must-more-people-die-7440662.html

      The bodies were in a field, dumped during the night. They were men who had been arrested and taken away for interrogation after the forces of the Syrian regime began a vicious and vengeful sweep through this region.

      The families in the village of Kurin have not been able to collect and bury their dead because they would be walking into a trap; any approach so far, they say, has been met with sniper fire. A force of rebel fighters who went to carry out the task twice had to retreat under fire from mortars.

      Their commander, Abdul Haq, spread his hands in apology. "If we went any further there would be more killed, more for us to try and bring back. We feel we are failing our people, but we cannot match the weapons of the enemy."

      Yesterday, as the savage strife continued, the Friends of Syria – America, Western Europe and the Arab countries – meeting in Tunis issued yet another ultimatum to Bashar al-Assad and announced that the opposition group, the Syrian National Council, would be recognised as the legitimate government by a number of states, including the UK.

      None of this brings much relief in these killing grounds. The estimate of fatalities varies: according to the United Nations it is around 5,400, while activists say it is around 7,300. But it is a figure rising daily and, to those who have borne the losses, it seems little is being done to stop the murderous campaign.

      Nor is there much enthusiasm for the Syrian National Council. Few in the rural areas have heard of it and many among those who have, including rebel fighters, view them as preaching revolution from a comfortable exile.

      Here in Idlib province, in north-western Syria, The Independent found the reality is of troops and armour backed by the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, systematically going through the area, killing more people in the last four days than have fallen victim even in the terrible bombardment of Homs.

      Almost every village and township has tales of being visited by organised violence. On the day that the eight bodies were found at Kurin, activists were being held at Azmarin, Idita, Iblin and Bashon, on occasions after being identified by informers.

      Six were arrested at Darkush, including a 13-year-old boy and a schoolteacher. There "they had a list, they knew the ones they wanted" said Issa Mohammed, 22. "No one could go to help them because there were so many roadblocks. If anyone said anything they would be captured as well."

      One needs to be cautious of these accounts in such a bloody conflict in which hurt and anger, as well as political expediency, can lead to embellished tales.

      But here residents would come forward with names of those killed and detained, albeit with requests that the names of those still thought to be alive should not be made public because this may expedite their deaths and put relations and friends in harm's way.

      Abd Jibilawe, from al-Janoudiyah, described how three friends have lost their lives so far, before adding quietly "and there was Ahmed Jibilawe who was my cousin and my best friend".

      At a hamlet near Darkush, Hasina Um Samin was mourning her brother, Abu Khalid. "We are just poor people, we have not done anything bad," she said, huddled under a thin blanket at her home, unheated because of a lack of fuel. "Still they came and took him. We thought it must be a mistake, but we don't know where he is. We fear will not see him again."

      There is little defence in Idlib against a state which is clearly waging a war on its own people. The revolutionaries here are mainly local men, with courage but no military training and woefully short of anything like adequate arms and ammunition. Witnessing their plight, one had wry memories of rebels in Libya firing thousands of rounds into the air, often in celebration of imaginary victories.

      The Libyan revolution was, of course, facilitated by months of Nato bombing. The constant question here is why no military action has followed grandiose statements by the West. For the time being, however, the rebels would be grateful for supplies which would go some way towards enabling them to take on the regime.

      Commander Haq, a 34-year-old mechanic, has around 50 fighters under his command, but not even one semi-automatic rifle between them. Instead they pass around 20 hunting rifles, shotguns and handguns and one set of body armour brought over by a soldier who defected.

      As we sat at his base, a farm building in the hills above Darkush, pinned down by a burst of machine-gun fire flying overhead, he opened a rucksack containing cartridges. "This is what I've been sent. Perhaps the Syrian National Council can send us some proper guns and ammunition from all the international money they are getting. Look at these, how old they are. Some of these are rusting. Some of these are not even the right type for the guns we have."

      At this point a Remington pump-action shotgun one of his men was using simply fell apart, possibly due to metal fatigue. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the men were keen to show other examples of their antiquated armoury – a Soviet Star pistol proudly bearing the place of manufacture, CCCP, and the date, 1948. Britain, too had provided a little help for the Syrian revolution – a Webley revolver, circa the 1930s.

      Later in the afternoon, during a break in the shooting, another commander, Abu Staif, came in proudly bearing the favoured tool of revolutionaries the world over, a Kalashnikov AK-47.

      This one, the first for the group, was a regime-issue weapon. It had not been captured but bought from a member of the Shabiha. "It cost us $2,000 – even then we had to wait for almost two months," said Commander Staif. "The man who sold it to us stole it from another person from the Shabiha so the registration would not get back to him if Bashar's people capture it back.

      "The Shabiha and the army are both corrupt, just like the rotten regime they serve. The soldiers are more corrupt. One officer offered to sell us his entire checkpoint with tanks, but he wanted more money than we could ever have. The Shabiha are more difficult because they are Alawites and they hate us."

      The price of a Kalashnikov of similar vintage would probably be around $300 in places like Afghanistan. The Syrian rebels insist paying so much is not an illustration of being flush with Qatari or Saudi largesse, but rather of having to turn to wherever they can.

      Most of their funding, they claimed, came from donations raised by local communities. This, however, has suffered a setback because one of their main fund-raisers had been killed that morning at Jisr al-Shughour.

      "They used an agent. He was sent to find out who were the organisers, and they came and shot him in front of his family," said Izzedin Hihano, a revolutionary from the town.

      "For years, the Assads controlled us by fear. We are not afraid any longer. People would rather die than go back to that. But why must that happen? Why must more die? We need help quickly – we are desperate."
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Red Crescent evacuates wounded from Homs
      Aid group in talks to reach more casualties after ambulances move 27 women and children, as siege continues.
      Last Modified: 25 Feb 2012 18:04

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/201222423316836251.html

      [VIDEO]
      Syrian Red Crescent workers have moved 27 people from a neighbourhood in the besieged city of Homs and the International Committee of the Red Cross is in negotiations with the government to reach all casualties, a spokesman for the group has said.

      Ambulances from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent drove into the suburb of Bab Amr, an opposition stronghold which has been under heavy shelling and gunfire, after negotiations earlier on Friday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

      The news came as a major conference was held in Tunisia pushing for aid access.

      "The convoy did arrive in Bab Amr, earlier this afternoon, so far they have evacuated seven injured persons, and 20 women and children," Hicham Hassan, a Red Cross spokesman, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

      The injured were taken to a privately owned local hospital, the Red Cross said.

      No men, however, chose to be allowed to leave, fearing arrest and torture if they left, Al Jazeera's James Bays reported from Beirut.

      "There have previously been allegations that people have been taken from those hospitals and taken to prisons, and that people have even been tortured, we've been told, in the hospitals," Bays said.

      The Red Cross is continuing to negotiate for more access to all the wounded in the city, and injured Western journalists trapped inside have refused to leave until they are assured they will not receive preferential treatment over locals.

      Hassan said the situation in the area was getting worse by the hour.

      "This for us remains the first step, we want to evacuate all persons who are injured, as long as it takes," said Hassan.

      Journalists remain in Homs

      Two injured foreign journalists and the bodies of two others who died in a shelling attack on a media centre were not among those taken out of Bab Amr, according to Hassan.

      Syria's foreign ministry accused "armed groups" of refusing to hand them over, but an opposition activist in the area said the journalists had refused to leave, the Associated Press reported.

      A friend of French reporter Edith Bouvier who has been in direct contact with the journalist told Al Jazeera that she and British photographer Paul Conroy had refused to leave until they were guaranteed diplomatic or Red Cross escort. They also said they would not go until a humanitarian corridor had been opened for all Syrians in the city.

      Bouvier and Conroy suffered leg wounds in the same shelling in which two other journalists, US reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, were killed.

      Bouvier needs surgery for a broken leg, though her situation is not yet life-threatening, her friend said. Conroy reportedly has less-severe leg injuries. Two other journalists who were present during the shelling but uninjured have also remained in Homs.

      The activist said the surviving journalists were unwilling to release Colvin and Ochlik's bodies to Syrian authorities.

      A spokesperson for the Red Cross told the AFP news agency that negotiations in their case were under way.

      "Negotiations continue with the Syrian authorities and the opposition in an attempt to evacuate all persons, without exception, who are in need of urgent help," said Saleh Dabbakeh.

      The evacuation was the first time rescuers had entered Bab Amr in 21 days of siege. If a ceasefire results, the flow of people attempting to flee will likely increase, possibly raising tensions in Lebanon, whose border lies just 30km to the west.

      There, politicians are deeply divided over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has long asserted itself in Lebanese affairs.

      "If there is a pause in the fighting ... then it's likely I think that more people will come across the border, and I think there is going to be a problem, it's not only a humanitarian problem," Bays said. "The Lebanese government does not even want to call these people refugees."

      The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) activist network reported the deaths of at least 50 of people on Friday as footage of street protests emerged from Homs, Qamishili, Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and the suburbs of Damascus.

      The LCC said most of the deaths occurred in the central city of Hama.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Journalists killed in Syria rocket strike 'were targeted'
      Intercepted radio messages suggest Assad's army was told to attack press
      KIM SENGUPTA HACIPASA THURSDAY 23 FEBRUARY 2012

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/journalists-killed-in-syria-rocket-strike-were-targeted-7295063.html

      Marie Colvin, one of the most eminent war correspondents of her generation, was killed yesterday along with Remi Ochlik, an award winning photographer from France, while covering the siege of the Syrian city of Homs

      Two other journalists, including Paul Conroy, a photographer who also worked for The Sunday Times with Colvin, were injured when the house in which they were staying was hit by rockets. Fellow journalists, human rights activists and politicians condemned the killings amid claims that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad knew the building was being used by foreign media.

      Colvin, 55, had written a powerful and poignant dispatch for her newspaper in which she described the suffering inflicted on the population of Homs, which has become a symbol of resistance during the Syrian uprising.

      She had also appeared on a number of international broadcast networks, including the BBC and CNN, to accuse President Assad's forces of murder. She said the regime was peddling "complete and utter lies that they are only targeting terrorists". Describing what was happening as "absolutely sickening", she declared: "The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians." She also gave a charged description of watching a two-year-old die from a shrapnel wound.

      Jean-Pierre Perrin, a reporter with the French newspaper Libération, was with Colvin in Homs last week. He claimed they were told that the Syrian army was "deliberately" planning to shell their makeshift press centre. There were also unconfirmed reports that intercepted radio traffic between Syrian army officers contained threats to kill foreign journalists.

      The Syrian ambassador to London, Dr Sami Khiyami, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be told the UK expects prompt arrangements to be made for the repatriation of the journalists' bodies and for the injured British photographer to be given medical treatment.

      Colvin, an American who had worked for The Sunday Times since 1985, seamlessly used both steeliness and charm in pursuit of stories. She lost her left eye to shrapnel in 2001 while working in Sri Lanka.

      When she was stopped at a checkpoint after the fall of Tripoli in Libya last year, she got past a particularly obdurate militia commander by browbeating him. But she won him over enough to have him ask for his picture to be taken with her. "You never know, we might need him on the way back," she pointed out.

      She was fiercely proud of what the best kind of journalism could achieve. "You hear all this talk about the meaning of the media, the need for integrity etc," she said while discussing the Leveson Inquiry. "But isn't it quite simple? You just try to find out the truth of what's going on and report it the best way you can. And because we are kind of romantic, our sympathy goes towards the underdog."

      Colvin was adamant, however, that it was necessary to relax at times on tough assignments. One night in Tunis, at the start of the Arab Spring, her reaction to journalists being refused a late drink was to tell the waiter: "If you don't serve us I warn you I will take off my eye patch." We were served with alacrity.

      She could organise a party anywhere. I have fond memories of a dinner at the BBC house in Kabul, when she decided everyone was being far too serious. She got the furniture pulled back, the carpet lifted and got everyone up for not very refined but highly enthusiastic dancing.

      As tributes poured in, Simon Kelner, chief executive of the Journalism Foundation and former editor of The Independent, said: "Marie Colvin embodied all the qualities required of a great journalist: bravery, integrity and a fearless desire to seek the truth. At a time when newspapers are under intense scrutiny, her work is a reminder of the fundamental purpose of journalism, and her death, along with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, represents a dark day indeed."
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      UN report says Syria committing war crimes
      Secret list implicating high-level Assad government officials drawn up as deadly violence rages across the country.
      Last Modified: 23 Feb 2012 19:59

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/2012223133959617479.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Fears grow of humanitarian crisis in Homs
      Activists say lack of food and water in the opposition stronghold Bab Amr is almost as great a threat as the violence.
      Last Modified: 22 Feb 2012 08:59

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/02/2012222480571964.html

      Fears are growing that parts of the Syrian city of Homs is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, with activists saying the lack of food and water is almost as great a threat as the violence.

      Heavy shelling was reported in the city's Bab Amr neighbourhood for an 19th day on Wednesday.

      Hadi al-Abdallah, an activist in Homs, described the humanitarian situation as "catastrophic".

      "Water has been cut off from Bab Amr for 18 days," he told Al Jazeera. "There's no electricity, cooking oil or even bread. Many people are literally on the brink of starvation.

      "People have fled their homes in fear of being bombed. They took refuge in a mosque, and there they were bombed too."

      Dozens of people were reportedly killed in the city on Tuesday.

      Shortage of medicine

      The Homs Revolutionary Council reported a shortage of medicine, and said a large number of killed civilians were buried under the rubble of buildings damaged in the shelling.

      In the nearby Inshaat neighbourhood, the council said security forces, supported by the army and by armoured vehicles, had carried out house raids and arrests.

      Bab Amr is a stronghold of the armed opposition, but activists say most of those killed in the assault on the area are civilians.

      The Local Co-ordination Committees says about 3,000 people have been killed in Homs province since the uprising began in March last year. The activist network says more than 8,000 people have been killed nationwide.

      Official media said government forces were targeting "armed terrorist groups who have been terrifying citizens and attacking security forces and robbing public and private property".

      State-run news agency SANA cited residents of Homs saying food and services were available and that reports claiming the opposite were "lies".
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syria's sectarian war goes international as foreign fighters and arms pour into country
      After years of Syrian insurgents and weaponry infiltrating Iraq, now the traffic goes the other way
      KIM SENGUPTA ANTAKYA, TURKEY MONDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2012

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrias-sectarian-war-goes-international-as-foreign-fighters-and-arms-pour-into-country-7216665.html

      The attack at night was sudden and fierce, mortar rounds followed by machine-gun fire. There was panic among some of the inexperienced Syrian rebel fighters. But Sadoun al-Husseini had seen it all before.

      Mr Husseini got his combat experience in Iraq, fighting first against American forces and then as a member of the "Anbar Awakening", when Sunni nationalists turned their guns against foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qa'ida.

      His presence inside Syria, where an overwhelmingly Sunni uprising is taking place against Bashar al-Assad's Alawite-dominated establishment, can be interpreted as an example of the country's civil war turning into an international sectarian conflict, a source of great unease in the region. Or it could be, as the 36-year-old engineer from the Iraqi city of Ramadi insisted, an expression of solidarity with oppressed brethren sharing a common heritage.

      What it does illustrate is a reversal of roles between two countries. For years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, weapons and fighters slipped in across the border from Syria. Now the roles are being reversed with the flow coming the other way, although the numbers involved remain unclear.

      Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor as head of al-Qa'ida, declared this month that it was the duty of all Muslims to take part in jihad in Syria. The organisation's Iraqi arm was, according to some American officials, responsible for recent bombings in Damascus and one in Aleppo. A message on the website of al-Qa'ida in Iraq said: "A lot of people fought side-by-side with the Islamic state of Iraq and it is good news to hear about the arrival of Iraqi fighters to help their brethren in Syria."

      Mr Husseini had already been into Syria through Iraq's Anbar province. He maintained that his visit to the Idlib area, a circuitous route through Turkey, was part of a humanitarian mission. He got caught up in violence, he said, when regime forces attacked a village.

      Speaking to The Independent inside Syria, he said: "Our Syrian brothers are fighting their own war. I am not involved. But it is the duty of all true Muslims to help people in this struggle. We are just trying to work out what help is needed. People in Iraq and other countries are seeing the suffering that is taking place and I am working with a group that is giving support – but it is all peaceful."

      Mr Husseini acknowledged some arms may be coming across the Iraqi border. "This is something I have heard," he said. "There are plenty of guns, rocket-propelled grenades, other things one can buy in Iraq. So some businessmen are maybe doing this."

      He did not want to reveal details of the group he is working with for "security reasons". But he said: "We are the same family. There may be a lot of refugees coming into Iraq and we must look after them, just as the Syrians looked after us when people from Iraq had to escape there. Yes, I have heard all this talk of al-Qa'ida doing things in Syria. But that does not have the support of true Iraqis... this is propaganda, spread inside Iraq by people who want to damage solidarity with Syria."

      The Shia-dominated Iraqi government has said it is taking urgent steps to stop arms going into Syria. The office of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he held a meeting at the weekend "to work on closing all the gaps over the border with Syria, which terrorists and criminal gangs are using for all kinds of smuggling, including arms".

      Yet the worry of sectarian strife spilling across the region continues to grow. Yesterday, in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, a demonstration took place in support of the Syrian regime by about 3,000 people, the vast majority of them Alawites, chanting: "We shall shed our blood for you, Assad."

      Inside Syria, meanwhile, the official news agency, Sana, reported that gunmen killed a state prosecutor and a judge in Idlib province. They blamed "terrorists" – a catch-all phrase the regime uses to describe anyone opposed to President Assad's rule.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      China backs Assad before Syrian forces open fire at funeral
      Beijing's deputy foreign minister argues for 'stability' as regime continues to target protesters
      Conal Urquhart and agencies
      guardian.co.uk, Saturday 18 February 2012 16.40 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/18/china-backs-assad-syria-attacks

      China has urged President Bashar al-Assad's regime to engage with the Arab League and the Syrian opposition as Syrian security forces continue to target pro-democracy protesters.

      The Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhai Jun met President Assad on Saturday shortly before Syrian troops opened fire on a funeral procession in Damascus.

      Zhai, who met Syrian opposition and government representatives, said China was "deeply concerned by the escalating crisis" but added that "the Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability".

      The Chinese official said his government supported Syria's plan for a referendum on constitutional reform next week but urged Assad to work with the opposition, the Arab League, and Arab countries to find a solution.

      "China supports all the mediation efforts by the Arab League to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and calls upon relevant parties to increase communication and negotiations to find a peaceful and appropriate solution to the Syrian within the framework of the Arab League and on the basis of the Arab League's relevant political solution proposals."

      China rejected a UN Security Council resolution earlier this month which was based on Arab League proposals, which suggests that China supports Arab League mediation but not the involvement of the United Nations.

      A few hours later, Syrian forces opened fire on the funeral of three men killed by security forces on Friday, killing at least one person.

      "They started firing at the crowd right after the burial. People are running and trying to take cover in the alleyways," a witness told Reuters by telephone.

      The opposition Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union said the gunfire near the cemetery had killed one mourner and wounded four, including a woman who was hit in the head.

      Up to 30,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets in the capital's Mezze district, near the headquarters of air force intelligence and that of the ruling Ba'ath party.

      Footage of the funeral broadcast on the internet showed women ululating to honour the victims. Mourners shouted: "We sacrifice our blood, our soul for you martyrs. One, one, one, the Syrian people are one."

      YouTube footage from the Damascus suburb of Douma showed several thousand protesters at the funerals of two people said to have been killed there by security forces. The bodies were carried though crowds of mourners waving pre-Ba'ath Syrian flags.

      The Chinese embassy said Zhai held separate meetings with moderate opposition figures Qadri Jamil, Louay Hussein and Hassan Abdulazim, but gave no details.

      "We told the Chinese envoy that most of the opposition accept a dialogue if that dialogue is serious and responsible, meaning that the Syrian authorities would implement what is agreed. But the problem with dialogue is that the authorities have lost credibility," Hussein told Reuters.

      Fighting has continued across Syria during the envoy's visit. In Homs, there was no let-up in the bombardment of the city by government forces. Rebels set fire to a fuel tank at a refinery in the city.

      The state news agency, Sana, said that 10 members of the security forces were buried on Saturday. A soldier and a local councillor were killed by gunmen in Idlib and Aleppo, the agency said.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syrian forces fire on anti-Assad crowd in capital
      Published: Feb 18, 2012 18:53 Updated: Feb 19, 2012 15:38

      http://arabnews.com/middleeast/article577303.ece

      AMMAN/BEIRUT: Syrian security forces fired live ammunition to break up a protest against President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Saturday, killing at least one person, opposition activists said.

      A Chinese envoy met the Syrian leader and urged all sides to end 11 months of bloodshed, while backing a government plan for elections. He later held talks with three dissidents.

      The shooting broke out at the funerals of three youths killed on Friday in an anti-Assad protest that was one of the biggest in the capital since a nationwide uprising started.

      “They started firing at the crowd right after the burial. People are running and trying to take cover in the alleyways,” said a witness, speaking to Reuters in Amman by telephone.

      The opposition Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said the gunfire near the cemetery had killed one mourner and wounded four, including a woman who was hit in the head.

      A shopkeeper told Reuters many protesters were arrested.

      Up to 30,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets in the capital’s Mezze district, near the headquarters of Airforce Intelligence and that of the ruling Baath Party, witnesses said.

      Footage of the funeral broadcast on the Internet showed women ululating to honor the victims. Mourners shouted: “We sacrifice our blood, our soul for you martyrs. One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.”

      Youtube footage from the Damascus suburb of Douma showed several thousand protesters at the funerals of two people said to have been killed there by security forces. The bodies were carried though a sea of mourners waving pre-Baath Syrian flags.

      Assad described the turmoil racking Syria as a ploy to split the country.

      “What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region,” he was quoted by Syrian state television as saying after meeting Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun.



      Chinese support

      Zhai, speaking hours before the shooting at the funerals, said China backed Assad’s plan for a referendum on Feb. 26 followed by multi-party elections to resolve the crisis. The opposition and the West have dismissed the plan as a sham.

      The Chinese envoy appealed for an end to violence from all sides, including the government and opposition forces. His comments nevertheless amounted to a show of support against world condemnation of Assad’s crackdown on the popular uprising.

      “China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect,” he said.

      China’s state news agency Xinhua highlighted Zhai’s comments that China was “deeply concerned by the escalating crisis.” The Syrian TV report quoted him as saying: “The Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability.”

      The Chinese Embassy said Zhai held separate meetings with moderate opposition figures Qadri Jamil, Louay Hussein and Hassan Abdulazim, but gave no details.

      “We told the Chinese envoy that most of the opposition accept a dialogue if that dialogue is serious and responsible, meaning that the Syrian authorities would implement what is agreed. But the problem with dialogue is that the authorities have lost credibility,” Hussein told Reuters.

      Beijing and Moscow have been Assad’s most important international defenders during the crackdown which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers. The United Nations, the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab powers want Assad to step down and have condemned the ferocious repression.

      Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 calling on Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution on Thursday.



      Bombing the opposition

      Syrian government forces meanwhile renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs on Saturday.

      A blanket of snow covered Homs, on the highway between Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, as Syrian troops pounded mainly Sunni Muslim rebel districts with rockets and artillery.

      The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern neighborhood that has been target of the heaviest barrages since the armored offensive began two weeks ago, activists said.

      “Troops have closed in on Baba Amro and the bombardment is mad, but I don’t know if they are willing to storm the neighborhood while it is snowing,” activist Mohammad Al-Homsi said from Homs.

      “There is no electricity and communications between districts are cut, so we are unable to get a death toll... there is no fuel in most of the city.”

      The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad’s late father. The Assad clan are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a majority Sunni country.

      Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez when he died in 2000 after 30 years in power, says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.

      The uprising began with civilian protests in March, but now includes a parallel armed struggle led by the loosely organized Free Syria Army, made up of army deserters and local insurgents.

      Syria’s other significant ally is Iran, itself at odds with the West. An Iranian destroyer and a supply ship sailed through the Suez canal this week and are believed to be on their way to the Syrian coast, a source in the canal authority said.

      The West is concerned that the conflict is sliding toward a civil war that could spread across the region’s patchwork of ethnic, religious and political rivalries.

      But it has ruled out Libya-style military intervention, instead imposing sanctions and urging a fragmented opposition, which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile, to present a common front against Assad.

      Tunisia, which is hosting a meeting on Syria next week, said on Friday Arab countries would encourage the opposition to unite before they would recognize them as a government-in-waiting.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syria: Assad digs in for assault on town of the doomed
      If Homs is now a city of the damned, the town of Qusayr is doomed to be next in line.
      By Richard Spencer8:38PM GMT 17 Feb 2012

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9089985/Syria-Assad-digs-in-for-assault-on-town-of-the-doomed.html

      On the edge of the largest rebel-held enclave in western Syria, it already has troops of President Bashar al-Assad's army pinning it from three sides.
      Now, defectors say, the regime is preparing a new and final assault, digging in artillery at checkpoints along the highway and preparing for a bombardment of its civilian population.
      The rebel chief in western Homs province, a lieutenant-colonel who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Arab, said Mr Assad's forces were also resupplying mortars to the roof of the town hall and the grounds of the hospital in the sliver of Qusayr still under regime control.
      After an initial bombardment on key targets from these two points, he said, government forces would withdraw from inside the town and launch a general attack.
      These claims of army preparations, sourced from rebel spotters, were confirmed to Abu Arab and to The Daily Telegraph by recently defected army officers.

      The offensive is expected in as little as two weeks, after the current assault on rebel suburbs of Homs is complete.
      Speaking at his military base deep in the countryside outside Qusayr, Abu Arab predicted there would be a massacre of civilians and blamed the rest of the world for abandoning the revolution.
      "Every country in the world seems to be with Bashar al-Assad and against the ordinary people of Syria," he said. "The United Nations, America, Europe, Russia – they could destroy Assad's palace in Damascus with one plane, so why don't they?"
      He said the West could at least supply arms to balance the odds between the two sides. "It is impossible to stop these shelling attacks," he added. "We don't have h<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)
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