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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mali, Iraq, Yemen

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  • Zafar Khan
    EGYPT Deaths in Egypt after football fans sentenced At least 32 people killed in Port Said clashes after 21 fans sentenced to death over last year s deadly
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 27, 2013

      Deaths in Egypt after football fans sentenced
      At least 32 people killed in Port Said clashes after 21 fans sentenced to death over last year's deadly football riot.
      Last Modified: 27 Jan 2013 10:33


      At least 32 people have been killed, including at least two police officers, during protests in Port Said after a court handed out 21 death sentences in connection with last year's deadly football riot in the Mediterranean city.

      At least 74 people were killed in the riot on February 1, 2012, which began minutes after the final whistle in a game between Port Said-based al-Masry and the Cairo-based al-Ahly.

      Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch after their team won, throwing stones, bottles and fireworks at al-Ahly supporters.

      Witnesses said that police at the stadium did nothing to stop the violence, which set off days of violent protests in the capital Cairo.

      Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid did not give his reasoning when he read out the verdicts for 21 out of the 73 defendants Saturday.

      The verdict for the remaining 52 defendants, including nine security officials, is scheduled to be delivered March 9. Some have been charged with murder and others with assisting the attackers.

      The verdicts are not final; death sentences must be approved by Egypt's grand mufti, though that is largely a procedural formality. Defendants can also appeal their sentences, which could take years to carry out.

      After the verdicts were handed down, the families of the defendants tried to storm the prison, and police used tear gas to disperse them.

      Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh, reporting from the city, said that people in plainclothes were firing automatic weapons.

      Police have now sealed off Port Said, and the army said it had been deployed to "restore stability"; a curfew has been imposed in the area around the prison.

      "It has been decided to deploy some units to work for calm and stability and the protection of public establishments," said General Ahmed Wasfi, in a statement carried by the official MENA news agency.

      'Justice or blood'

      Families of the victims inside the courtroom, meanwhile, reacted with joy and disbelief, cheering and holding pictures of their relatives. "The police are thugs," yelled relatives before the judge took the bench.

      Hassan Mustafa, who had pinned a photo of his dead friend to his chest, said he was pleased with the verdict, but also wanted "justice served for those who planned the killing."

      The verdicts were also met with cheers by al-Ahly supporters who had gathered outside the football club in Cairo.

      But the rulings will likely be seen as political - an effort to appease the "Ultras Ahlawy," die-hard supporters of al-Ahly, who threatened unrest in the capital if the rulings were not to their liking.

      Al-Ahly supporters have blocked roads, bridges, and Cairo's metro system over the past few days. "Justice or blood," they warned in a statement on Facebook.

      "There is nothing to say these people did anything, and we don't understand what this verdict is based on," one of the defendants' lawyers told the Associated Press by telephone. "[This was] a political decision to calm the public."

      Dozens of other defendants, including security officials accused of failing to stop the violence, are expected to receive their verdicts on March 9.

      All of this comes just hours after deadly protests that marked the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

      Ten people were killed on Friday in anti-government protests in Suez and Ismailia, and more than 470 people were wounded; Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president, deployed the army in Suez to restore order.

      On Saturday, police again fired teargas in the city when protesters angry at Friday's deaths hurled petrol bombs and stormed a police post and other governmental buildings including the agriculture and social solidarity units.

      About 18 prisoners in Suez police stations managed to escape during the violence, a security source there said, and
      about 30 police weapons were stolen.

      Calls for dialogue

      Representatives of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition bloc in Egypt, held a press conference on Saturday to condemn the violence.

      The group demanded that Morsi appoint a new national unity government and form a committee to overhaul the recently-approved constitution, and threatened to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections unless its demands are met.

      On Saturday evening, Egypt's National Defence Council, headed by President Morsi, condemned street violence and called for national dialogue to resolve political differences, the information minister said after the council met.

      Egypt pounded by steep currency decline
      Egyptian politicians are divided on how to remedy the cash-strapped government's economic woes.
      Alaa Bayoumi Last Modified: 06 Jan 2013 15:42



      Tunisia: Treasures for the taking
      It's been two years since the Arab Spring uprising, yet tourists have failed to return to Tunisia in any numbers. All the more reason to pay a visit


      Dateline Tunis. Dates as in 14 January 2011, on the postcards and T-shirts commemorating the start of the Arab Spring, and dates as in piles of sticky caramel fruit, on special offer in all the shops as the new harvest hits the shelves. Life in the capital bustles on amiably, the barbed wire and armoured vehicles outside the French Embassy more reassuring than threatening.

      Tunisia's archaeological patrimony has never been so impressively open for business. The Bardo Museum, one of the world's greatest collections of Roman mosaics, re-opened last July. I arrived to find a party of Tunisian schoolchildren and two Chinese people. This was a crush compared with the magnificent Roman amphitheatre of El Jem on the road south the next day, which contained just four tourists. And that still leaves Carthage. The assorted vestiges of the greatest Phoenician city of the Mediterranean share the coastline outskirts north of Tunis with a succession of seaside suburbs: Gammarth, La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said. La Marsa's tourist accommodation comprises mainly remote, gated luxury complexes, but it's also a popular township, with a couple of smaller hotels, sensible French-style restaurants, convenient small shopping centres and the excellent railway connecting to central Tunis via all the coastal suburbs, not least the famous white village of
      Sidi Bou Said, beloved of artists. But if its exquisite cobbled alleys, studded blue doors, bougainvillea-draped walls, Moorish cafes and souvenir souk are too tourist-geared for comfort, La Marsa is a sort of down-to-earth alternative.

      On to Tozeur across the Chott El Jerid, the great saline tray whose brown crusted surface, dotted with dirty piles of salt and tiny domed shrines, conceals a shallow layer of water. In the roadside hut cafe, the shopkeeper rose from his bed to pour a coffee from a vacuum flask and negotiate the purchase of a dead scorpion in a crudely carved frame.

      Tozeur, the major oasis and market town of the southern part of Tunisia has developed, but not excessively. There's a reasonably tasteful suburb of modern hotels; the Ksar Rouge, where I stayed, was excellent. The palmeraie is still enchanting: sheep grazing under the lovely arched canopy of the tall date palms, a sinuous dirt lane, bordered by terracotta walls, the low mud irrigation dikes that distribute the communal water. There are still horse-drawn carts used and new but non-intrusive additions, including a hotel consisting of wooden chalets on stilts.

      Next door is an impressive private date museum, café and production facility called Eden Palm, run by the Chokmani family, whose patriarch is an unstoppable date encyclopaedia. To cut an enjoyable two-hour story short, dates are brilliant for everything from blood pressure to sagging breasts. And the gleaming steel-and-glass kitchen/lab produces a copious range of smartly packaged jams, patisseries and unguents.

      North-west of Tozeur, the desert road winds towards the Algerian border. This is the domain of the 1960s tailfin Peugeot 404. Dusty beige pickup versions cart coloured plastic crates of dates, including contraband ones from the great Algerian palmeraies. What is booming in Tunisia is smuggling: dates, jeans, beer and above all petrol, from the hundreds of little roadside stalls selling cheap Algerian or Libyan gasoline from a suspended jerry-can. Also cafés: everywhere rows of men on metal chairs, whiling away the afternoon over a shared coffee, always ready for a courteous chat with a passerby.

      I went for lunch at the Tamerza Palace Hotel, an opulently traditional building whose terraces gaze over a dried river bed to peaceful sand hills, palm groves and the ruins of the old village of Tamerza, the head of a dramatic gorge system used during filming of The English Patient.

      Walking around the hill path behind another nearby beauty spot, Chebika, the call of a fennec desert fox sounded in the still air, and then the young man who had emitted it walked slowly down the rock face to chat, for no apparent gain.

      A palm rat slipped behind a boulder, frogs croaked in the reeds of a rock pool, back at the car park a boy snoozed by the espresso machine. Later I heard haunting choral singing emanating from a tent under the palms of a central square. Rows of seated men were listening to a bearded preacher in Old Testament headscarf and robe, accompanied by hirsute young attendants in orange nylon over-vests.

      "Who are we? Ansar Al-Sharia," said one, and hurried off to try to find me a CD of the music, most obligingly for a member of the Salafist party whose leaders are in hiding, sought for an attack on the US Embassy.

      Tunisia's reputation for the civilised reception of visitors remains undented, it seems.

      Enshrining idealism: Tunisia's long romance
      It is worth asking how Tunisian constitutionalism has affected the formulation of the current draft Constitution.
      Last Modified: 11 Jan 2013 07:21


      The draft constitution released by the Tunisian Constituent Assembly on December 14, 2012, for public comment is the latest episode in a long Tunisian romance with constitutions.

      In fact, Tunisia entertains an intriguing and surprisingly long relationship with constitutions in which love and loathing often intertwine.

      It is not uncommon to hear proponents of institutions and the concept of state in Tunisia accuse those who advocate Sharia as the basis for law or newly-formed states, such as Qatar, of ignoring the key fact that Tunisia had one of the oldest constitutions on earth, the so-called Carthage Constitution, dating back almost 3,000 years, which attracted Aristotle's interest and praise.

      They also refer to the oldest written constitution in the Muslim world, the 1861 documents supplementing the Security Covenant ('ahd al-aman), which limited the authority of the Bey but gave wide rights to Europeans, and a strong and forward-looking modern constitution enacted as early as 1957.

      The liberation movement in Tunisia would take this history as a basis for its demands, first in the shape of the Free Destour (Constitution) Party (founded in 1920 by Tha'alibi and then through the New Destour Party led by Habib Bourguiba from 1934.

      Members of these parties call themselves dusturi up to the present time, a term which carried flattering or derogatory overtones depending on the politics of the time.

      The truth behind this array of superlatives and claims to ordered state power warrants some investigation and recall.

      It is worth asking how this legacy of constitutionalism affected the formulation of the current draft constitution, intended to enshrine into long-term law the aims and ideals of Tunisia's surprising and now famous revolution.

      Nothing and everything had changed

      First, it must be noted of all that the transfer of power in the early days of 2011 and the several transitional phases since then reveal much about the power of constitutionalism in the country.

      One may indeed speak of an orderly, leaderless transfer of power in January 2011, specifically because constitutionalism was strong and alive.

      When Ben Ali fled the country on January 14, 2011, the activation of articles 56 and then 57 of the 1957 Constitution, was immediate, top down and of lasting effect.

      The first article, pertinent to temporary vacancy in the office of President, allowed the latter's powers to be transferred to Mohamed Ghannouchi, his Prime Minister.

      The second article was soon enacted by making this vacancy permanent and transferring authority to the Speaker of Parliament.

      This constitutional mechanism, ironically introduced by Ben Ali in 2002, allowed nothing short of the continuity of institutions along with the economic, social, political and legal activity in the country.

      "Where in the world would you find a people who made a revolution on Friday and went back to work on Monday?" commented one observer.

      There was a sense that nothing and everything had changed at the same time. The key to this transition was a thoroughly institutionalised state, and key to the latter was the long and well-entrenched constitutional history of the country, despite decades of abuse by successive leaders.

      Since then, a number of telling contradictions - always with reference to constitutionalism - took place and must be noted.

      1. The constitutional richness of the first transitional period versus the poverty of the current one. The main part of the transition was run by a scholar of constitutional law (Yadh Ben Achour) who chaired the Committee for Political Reform, Democratic Transition and Protection of the Aims of the Revolution (CPRDTPAR); its first spokesperson, Ghazi Ghrairi, was also a constitutional law scholar.

      Among its members were a powerful cast of individuals, nominated on the basis of their standing as national figures (intellectuals, academics, human rights advocates, etc...). The committee also had its own panel of experts who drafted key legislation, most prominent of which was the Independent Election Commission (ISIE) and the electoral code of 2011 on the basis of which Tunisia ran its widely acclaimed elections on October 23, 2011.

      These elections resulted in the current Constituent Assembly and government. They also gave rise to a reversal of constitutional culture.

      Of the 217 members of the Assembly, only one is an expert in constitutional law; no prominent intellectuals were elected and very few members of Ben Achour's committee won seats.

      Instead, and due to the elections, the meteoric rise in the number of parties, an electoral system based on lists and parity between men and women, a large number of elected candidates with very little political training, and in some cases, even low education level, found themselves in an Assembly entrusted with the writing of a new constitution. For example, the region of Kasserine is represented by eight members, six men and two women, who include a primary school teacher, a lawyer, an exiled businessman and one unemployed community college graduate.

      Nahda's heads of lists were almost exclusively the old guard, having spent years in jails or in exile, with little professional experience and knowledge of the country.

      This has resulted in a low level of debate and uninformed engagements with the complex work of a body responsible for all legislation as well as the oversight of the government. The Constituent Assembly soon became a favourite subject of jokes among cartoonists, on social media and television shows.


      Sri Lanka to ban maids going to Saudi Arabia
      Colombo government says it will gradually phase out domestic workers in the Gulf country after beheading of Sri Lankan.
      Last Modified: 25 Jan 2013 03:21


      The plight of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia
      A global outcry has followed the beheading of a young Sri Lankan housemaid accused of killing a child in her care.
      Inside Story Last Modified: 12 Jan 2013 07:39


      The beheading of a young Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia continues to stir anger in her home country and beyond.

      The case is also drawing widespread criticism despite repeated appeals to the Saudi government from Sri Lanka as well as rights groups.

      Sri Lanka has recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia after the execution of Rizana Nafeek over the death of an infant in her care in 2005.

      Rizana Nafeek was beheaded in the town of Dawadmy, near the capital Riyadh, on Wednesday morning after being sentenced to death in 2007.

      She was accused by her Saudi employer of killing his infant daughter while she was bottle-feeding her.

      The case once again highlights the plight of thousands of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

      Human rights groups say access to adequate translation and legal assistance is limited or non-existent, and they raised concerns about the fairness of Nafeek's trial.

      So, what is being done to address the plight of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia? Who is to blame for their situation? And what will it take to improve the conditions for domestic workers in Saudi Arabia?

      Inside Story, with presenter Hazem Sika, discusses with guests: Nisha Varia, a senior researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch, who has worked on domestic workers rights and has published numerous reports on migrant workers across Asia and the Middle East; Caroline Nanzer, the project manager at Caritas migrant center in Lebanon; and Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of the Sri Lankan parliament and presidential advisor, who was also the former head of the Sri Lankan peace secretariat and the secretariat to the ministry of human rights.


      Iran unable to get life-saving drugs due to international sanctions
      Western measures targeting Tehran's nuclear programme have impeded trade of medicines for illnesses such as cancer
      Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan
      The Guardian, Sunday 13 January 2013 18.20 GMT


      Hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.

      Western governments have built waivers into the sanctions regime – aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear programme – in an effort to ensure that essential medicines get through, but those waivers are not functioning, as they conflict with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on "dual-use" chemicals which might have a military application.

      "Sometimes companies agree to sell us drugs but we have no way of paying them. On one occasion, our money was in the bank for four months but the transfer repeatedly got rejected," Naser Naghdi, the director general of Darou Pakhsh, the country's biggest pharmaceutical company, told the Guardian, in a telephone interview from Tehran.

      "There are patients for whom a medicine is the different between life and death. What is the world doing about this? Are Britain, Germany, and France thinking about what they are doing? If you have cancer and you can't find your chemotherapy drug, your death will come soon. It is as simple as that."

      European officials are aware of the potential for disaster reminiscent of the debacle of the UN oil-for-food programme imposed on Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and discussions are under way in Brussels on how to strengthen safeguards for at-risk Iranians. The US treasury says its office of foreign asset control is seeking to reassure banks that they will not be penalised for financing humanitarian sales.

      However, the US and EU bans on doing business with the major Iranian financial institutions still make such transactions extremely difficult and risk-averse western companies have tended to avoid them.

      Naghdi, the head of Darou Pakhsh, which supplies about a third of Iran's pharmaceutical needs, said he can no longer buy medical equipment such as autoclaves (sterilising machines), essential for the production of many drugs, and that some of the biggest western pharmaceutical companies refuse to have anything to do with Iran.

      "The west lies when it says it hasn't imposed sanctions on our medical sector. Many medical firms have sanctioned us," Naghdi said.

      A senior British official acknowledged that discussions between London, Brussels and Washington had been going on for months with the aim of unblocking the supply of medicines, but without a decisive outcome. "The problem is that for some of the big pharmaceutical companies and banks it's just not worth the hassle and the risk of reputational damage, so they just steer clear," the official said.

      The international financial sanctions and the EU oil embargo last year have caused severe damage to the Iranian economy but have so far not forced the Tehran regime to accept restrictions on its uranium enrichment programme. Iran insists it is for electricity generation and medical purposes, while the west and Israel claim it is a front for Iranian ambitions to build nuclear weapons. Major western powers have suggested a new round of talks in Istanbul in mid-January, but Tehran has yet to confirm any date or venue.

      Meanwhile, the scale of the looming Iranian health crisis threatens to overwhelm recent efforts to mitigate the sanctions regime. At present 85,000 new cancer patients are diagnosed each year, requiring chemotherapy and radiotherapy which are now scarce. Iranian health experts say that annual figure has nearly doubled in five years, referring to a "cancer tsunami" most likely caused by air, water and soil pollution and possibly cheap low-quality imported food and other products.

      In addition, there are over 8,000 haemophiliacs who are finding it harder to get blood clotting agents. Operations on haemophiliacs have been virtually suspended because of the risks created by the shortages. An estimated 23,000 Iranians with HIV/Aids have had their access to the drugs they need to keep them alive severely restricted. The society representing the 8,000 Iranians suffering from thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder, has said its members are beginning to die because of a lack of an essential drug, deferoxamine, used to control the iron content in the blood.

      In the absence of an official supply, the drug market is being flooded with smuggled products. Many arrive on donkeys from Turkey, but there is no way of knowing which products are counterfeit and which are real. The drugs routinely spoil on the long, precarious journey over the rugged frontier. A drugs bazaar has boomed on Tehran's Naser Khosrow Street, but prices have doubled in a few years and the provenance and authenticity of the medicines on sale are questionable.

      US and European governments put the blame squarely on the Tehran regime. "Financial sanctions against Iran are in place because of the Iranian government's refusal to address the international community's well-founded concerns about its nuclear programme," said John Sullivan, a US treasury spokesman. "If there is in fact a shortage of some medicines in Iran, it is due to choices made by the Iranian government, not the US government."

      Last month, Iran's health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, was sacked for complaining that her ministry had only received a quarter of the £1.5bn allocated for the imports of medicine, noting that foreign currency at a subsidised official rate had been spent on imported luxury cars.

      In London, the Foreign Office said: "There are a number of explicit exemptions within EU sanctions to allow Iran to purchase humanitarian goods such as medicines. The UK issues, as a priority, licenses for transactions for humanitarian goods. The responsibility for any shortage in humanitarian goods in Iran lies with the Iranian regime."

      Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American business consultant based in Dubai, argues the regime's own shortcomings may well exacerbate the acute medical problems in Iran but are not their direct cause. "There is a lot of government mismanagement that is compounding the problem. But Iran had the same government before and there was plenty of medicines around. This is not a chicken-and-egg situation. The shortages have come after the sanctions," said Namazi.

      One of the unintended consequences of sanctions on the health sector is that they have strengthened companies linked to the regime and the Revolutionary Guards at the expense of the private sector, because of their privileged access to hard currency at the official rate. In some cases, those regime-connected firms are actually using their access to cheap foreign currency to acquire drugs cheaply and smuggle them into Iraq, deepening the crisis.


      Caught in the crossfire of Mali’s war
      Tuareg refugees fleeing Islamist rebels have taken cover with the Dogon, an ancient tribe in central Mali. Now both fear annihilation as al-Qa’ida and Malian troops close in


      Homes curved into high sandstone escarpments, intricate animist paintings on deep cliff walls, a people practising elaborate traditional rituals centuries old: an ancient heritage which became a focus of academic study and a prized destination for international travel, but now in danger from intolerance and strife.

      It is here, in Mali’s Dogon country, that the Tuareg had taken refuge, fleeing both Islamist persecution and the suspicious and trigger happy Malian forces. Twenty one people had set out from their village between Mopti and Timbuktu, fifteen now remained. Four were arrested by soldiers at a road block with threats that they would be executed; two others, brothers, returned home after hearing that their parents had been taken away by jihadist fighters. The rebellion, which began in the north of Mali and which is now tearing the country apart, was started by Tuareg separatists, once a significant part of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, armed with weapons looted from Libya. This has created deep enmities between the Tuareg and the Malian army, who blame them for creating the crisis the country now faces.

      Mali museum struggles to save artifacts
      Bamako national museum head says hardline groups try to destroy country's cultural history.
      Last Modified: 22 Jan 2013 01:07


      French and Malian troops enter Diabaly
      French and Malian troops take two key towns with little resistance as troops from Chad arrive in Mali.
      Last Modified: 22 Jan 2013 00:49


      Musicians of Mali fight for nation's soul
      As Islamist militants try to take over, suppressed artists show support for the French
      Sunday 20 January 2013


      Bearded Muslims Face Malian Paranoia
      OnIslam & News Agencies
      Friday, 18 January 2013 00:00


      BAMAKO – As French troops continue their airstrikes against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, bearded Muslims in the Malian Capital are falling prey to paranoia, with police forces arresting anyone who might look like Islamists.

      “I was near the area when I heard a deafening commotion,” Seybou, who filmed a video a group of men who were arrested by police in a mosque on January 14, told France 24 on Thursday, January 17.

      “A passer-by told me there was a suspicious meeting of Islamists and they were being turned in to police,” Seybou, who wished to remain anonymous, added.

      On a video showing their arrest, residents can be heard shouting: “Execute them!”; “They are infidels!”; and congratulating themselves for the “good catch”, even though there was nothing to prove their guilt.

      “Some people started to shout [in Bambara, the national language of Mali] that the men should be executed,” he added.

      “Others wanted to attack them but the police told everyone to keep calm.”

      Heading to the mosque, at CAN-2002 neighborhood in western Bamako, the police forces arrested 13 people who wore traditional clothing from Central Asia.

      Some of them also had long beards.

      A witness who saw the scene from an apartment window says the men broke into the mosque carrying handguns.

      The local resident who called the police said they saw the men taking guns from a hearse before heading to the mosque.

      Finding no firearms, police officer confirmed later that the men had been released; however they still face a court hearing on January 16.

      Peaceful Group

      Releasing the men, police confirmed that the arrested belong to an authorized Islamic movement in Mali which has been popular since the 1990s.

      “Dawah has nothing to do with extremist movements operating in northern Mali,” Abdoulaye Tamboura, a geopolitics researcher and a specialist in Sub-Saharan Africa, told France 24.

      “Dawah appeared in Mali around 20 years ago and has since been active from the south to the north of the country.”

      Dawah is an authorized Islamic movement in Mali which gained popularity in the 1990s.

      Its members say they practice a moderate form of Islam and that they have no Jihadist intentions.

      The arrested men were part of the Dawah Islamic sect and came to Bamako to attend a meeting for their movement at the Markaz mosque, police said.

      They came from different cities and were staying at the mosque in CAN-2002.

      Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.

      Muslims make up more than 90 percent of Mali's nearly 12 million population.

      The UN said an estimated 30,000 people had fled the latest fighting in Mali, joining more than 200,000 already displaced.

      France launched air strikes in Mali, an OIC member, last Friday to stop the advance of Islamist rebels in the north.

      France plans to field a total 2,500 soldiers in its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states.

      Mali refugees recount 'horrific abuses'
      Witnesses describe executions, amputations and use of child soldiers, as UN warns of up to 700,000 more refugees.
      Last Modified: 19 Jan 2013 06:28


      The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received reports of horrific abuses being committed in Mali, and it anticipates up to 700,000 more people will be forced to flee their homes in the next few months because of violence there.

      UNHCR staff members are relaying stories of "witnessed executions and amputations," and tales of large offers of money to civilians who will fight against the French-backed Malian army and its supporters, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Friday.

      Reports of the use of child soldiers among the rebel groups, and disappeared family members, also are surfacing, she said.

      The accounts were recounted by some of the 265 Malian refugees who crossed into Burkina Faso in the past several days from Intahaka, N'Tillit and Dorage towns, and surrounding areas in the Gao region of northern Mali.

      The refugees said they had fled due to the recent military intervention, the lack of any means of subsistence and fear of the strict application of Islamic law, Fleming said.

      Leaders from the Economic Community Of West African States are meeting in Ivory Coast on Saturday to discuss the international response to the conflict in Mali.

      French intervention

      Francois Hollande, France's president, authorised French intervention in the country after fighters, mainly from the Ansar al-Dine group, began progressing towards Bamako from their northern stronghold.

      The rebels seized the region in April 2012 amid the unrest that followed a coup in Bamako.

      Since the French intervention and the intensification of fighting there has been a surge in new and chilling cases of alleged abuses.

      "We have been hearing horrific accounts from refugees in the neighbouring countries," Fleming said.

      "They reported having witnessed executions and amputations, and mentioned that large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters."

      The agency is planning for the additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 more refugees flowing into neighbouring countries.

      It is urgently reinforcing its teams across the region, she said, as thousands more refugees flee to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Guinea and Togo.

      Already during 2012, about 200,000 people fled their homes in northern Mali and are on the move within the country, while 144,500 Malians fled to neighbouring countries because of instability, the agency says.

      Troop build-up

      Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said on Friday that Paris had increased its troop numbers by 400 in a single day, from 1,400 on Thursday to 1,800, "and the progress on our presence on the ground continues".

      France plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers in the country.

      Some Pentagon officials and military officers warn that without more aggressive US action, Mali could become a haven for "extremists," akin to Afghanistan before the attacks of September 11, 2001, The Los Angeles Times has said.

      But many top White House aides say it is unclear whether the Mali rebels could threaten the US, the paper said.

      Those aides worry about being drawn into a messy conflict against an elusive enemy just as US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, it noted.

      "No one here is questioning the threat that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses regionally," the paper quoted one administration official as saying.

      "The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the US homeland? The answer so far has been none."


      Deaths reported in Iraq suicide blasts
      String of attacks near Baghdad kill 17 and leave several wounded.
      Last Modified: 22 Jan 2013 14:48


      A series of blasts in Iraq, including one by a suicide bomber have killed at least 17 people and dozens more wounded.

      Tuesday's attacks struck an Iraqi army checkpoint south of Baghdad, a military base north of the capital and a mostly Shiite neighbourhood in north Baghdad, according to police officials.

      Seven people were killed and at least 24 wounded when a car bomb was detonated near an army camp oin the town of Taji, 25 kilometres north of Baghdad.

      A suicide attack at the army checkpoint in the town of Mahmudiyah, 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, killed five and wounding 14 including four soldiers.

      Another car bomb exploded near a market in the north Baghdad neighbourhood of Shula, killing five people and wounding 13.

      No one has claimed responsibility.

      The string of attacks come five days after an al-Qaeda linked group called the Islamic State of Iraq launched attacks across the country killing 88 people.


      US drone strikes publicly criticised by Yemeni cabinet minister
      Human rights minister Hooria Mashhour voices rare public opposition to use of drones to target al-Qaida militants
      Reuters in Dubai
      guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 18.18 GMT


      A Yemeni cabinet minister has criticised the use of unmanned US drones against suspected al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a tactic that has outraged communities in targeted areas, and urged a move to ground operations to avoid hurting civilians.

      Yemen, a country plagued by lawlessness that has been exploited by al-Qaida to launch attacks on Arab and western targets, has witnessed a rising tempo of US missile strikes in recent weeks.

      "To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach," Yemeni human rights minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, voicing rare public opposition to drones by a member of the cabinet.

      The comments by Mashhour, formerly a top activist in the mass unrest that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh a year ago, reflect growing public unease about the strikes and amounted to rare criticism from within the government.

      Saleh's successor, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has praised drone operations.

      But dozens of armed tribesmen took to the streets in southern Yemen on January 4 to protest against drone strikes, which they said had killed innocent civilians.

      The United States never comments on action by its drones, which it has used to hunt down militants in Yemen for years. The Yemeni government allows such air strikes but usually does not comment on the US role in specific incidents.

      Asked for her position on the use of drones, Mashhour did not mention the United States or assert that any specific strike had killed civilians.

      But she said: "I am in favour of changing the anti-terrorism strategy. I think there are more effective strategies.

      "We're committed to fighting terrorism but we're calling for changing the means and strategies," she said on the sidelines of a UN Yemen humanitarian appeal meeting in Dubai. "These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations."

      Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Washington has increased counter-terrorism help to Yemen, where al-Qaida's regional wing grew in power and influence during the popular uprising against Saleh.

      Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) is considered by western governments to be one of the most active and dangerous wings of the global network founded by Osama bin Laden, and has attempted a number of attacks on US interests.

      Leaked US diplomatic cables said that Saleh had agreed in 2009 to a covert US war on Islamist militants and accepted that Yemen take responsibility for US attacks when necessary.

      But Hadi spoke openly in favour of the drone strikes during a trip to the United States in September. Hadi, who has been praised by the US ambassador in Sana'a as being more effective against al-Qaida than Saleh, was quoted as saying that he personally approved every attack.

      Mashhour also said she wanted to see a fair trial for anyone suspected of involvement "in terrorist activities".

      "This is our idea, to do this through the judiciary. But the United States said that it's in an open war with them and they declared the US as an enemy. The (US) declared (militants) as enemies who could be targeted wherever they are found.

      "All we are calling for is justice and reliance on international regulations with regard to human rights and to be true to our commitment to our citizens in that they all deserve a fair trial," Mashhour added.
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