Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Mali, Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya

Expand Messages
  • Zafar Khan
    Violent tide of Salafism threatens the Arab spring A series of repressive dictatorships have been brought down in north Africa, but the ensuing struggles for
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2013
      Violent tide of Salafism threatens the Arab spring
      A series of repressive dictatorships have been brought down in north Africa, but the ensuing struggles for power have left a vacuum that has allowed the rise of an extremist movement that is gathering both force and supporters
      Peter Beaumont and Patrick Kingsley
      The Observer, Sunday 10 February 2013


      Late last year, largely unnoticed in the west, Tunisia's president, Moncef Marzouki, gave an interview to Chatham House's The World Today. Commenting on a recent attack by Salafists – ultra-conservative Sunnis – on the US embassy in Tunis, he remarked in an unguarded moment: "We didn't realise how dangerous and violent these Salafists could be … They are a tiny minority within a tiny minority. They don't represent society or the state. They cannot be a real danger to society or government, but they can be very harmful to the image of the government."

      It appears that Marzouki was wrong. Following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid last Wednesday – which plunged the country into its biggest crisis since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution – the destabilising threat of violent Islamist extremists has emerged as a pressing and dangerous issue.

      Violent Salafists are one of two groups under suspicion for Belaid's murder. The other is the shadowy, so-called neighbourhood protection group known as the Leagues of the Protection of the Revolution, a small contingent that claims to be against remnants of the old regime, but which is accused of using thugs to stir clashes at opposition rallies and trade union gatherings.

      The left accuses these groups of affiliation with the ruling moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, and say it has failed to root out the violence. The party denies any link or control to the groups. But it is the rise of Salafist-associated political violence that is causing the most concern in the region. Banned in Tunisia under the 23-year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which ruthlessly cracked down on all forms of Islamism, Salafists in Tunisia have become increasingly vocal since the 2011 revolution.

      The Salafist component in Tunisia remains a small minority, but it has prompted rows and mistrust among secularists and moderate Islamists. The Salafists are spread between three broad groups: new small political movements that have formed in recent months; non-violent Salafis; and violent Salafists and jihadists who, though small in number, have had a major impact in terms of violent attacks, arson on historic shrines or mausoleums considered to be unorthodox, demonstrations against art events – such as the violence at last summer's Tunis Arts Spring show, which was seen to be profane – and isolated incidents of attacking premises that sell alcohol outside Tunis.

      It is not only in Tunisia. In Egypt, Libya and Syria, concern is mounting about the emergence of violent fringe groups whose influence has already been felt out of all proportion to their size.

      In Egypt last week, it was revealed that hardline cleric Mahmoud Shaaban had appeared on a religious television channel calling for the deaths of main opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei – a Nobel peace prize laureate – and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy.

      In Libya in recent months, Salafists and other groups have been implicated in a spate of attacks, including the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi in which two Tunisians were suspected.

      Among the countries which succeeded in removing their authoritarian leaders in the Arab spring, Tunisia has faced the greatest challenges in its transition from Salafi-inspired jihadism. These groups – once ruthlessly suppressed by Ben Ali – have re-emerged with a vengeance over the past two years.

      In May last year, armed Salafists attacked a police station and bars selling alcohol in the El Kef region. A month later, a trade union office was firebombed. In September, a Salafist mob stormed the US embassy in Tunis and an American school.

      If it is difficult to describe what is happening, it is because of terminology.

      Although many of those involved in violence and encouraging violence could accurately be called Salafis, they remain an absolute minority of a wider minority movement that has emerged as a small but potent political force across post-revolutionary North Africa.

      Although the encouragement to violence from this minority has been most marked in Tunisia, it has not been absent in Egypt.

      "We've already started to see real threats," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre last week. "There are many instances in Egypt where Salafis have used the language of incitement against opponents."

      Last year, one Egyptian Salafi cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim, called for a jihad on protesters against President Mohamed Morsi, a demand he repeated this month. Another – Yasser el-Burhamy – reportedly banned Muslim taxi-drivers from taking Christian priests to church.

      Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst for the Crisis Group said: "All it takes is for one guy to take it upon himself to carry out a fatwa. But the prospects of that happening in Egypt are less – or certainly not more – than they are in Tunisia. In Egypt, there was a deeper integration of Salafis into the political process as soon as the revolution had taken place."

      Most tellingly, two leading Egyptian Salafis last week condemned the death threats against ElBaradei and Sabbahi.

      A spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya – which only last week called for the crucifixion of masked Egyptian protesters known as the Black Bloc – "rejected" assassinations as a political tool, while the leader of the Nour party, Egypt's largest Salafi group, went further, criticising "all forms of violence".

      Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party, said: "The Salafis in Tunisia are not organised well and they don't have the scholars who can teach them how to deal peacefully with things that they don't like in their country. It gives you a clear vision that we will not see in Egypt what we saw happen in Tunisia."

      Bakkar also argued that Shaaban, the cleric who issued the fatwa against ElBaradei and Sabbahi, had little currency in Egyptian Salafism.

      "He doesn't have many followers," said Bakkar, who claimed that Shabaan came from a school of Salafism that had preached obedience to former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and whose reputation had therefore been ruined in the post-revolution period.

      The main Salafist political parties, which are represented in parliament, have far more of a stake in democratic transition than in Tunisia and Libya.

      In Libya, Islamist violence, in some cases inspired by Salafism, has followed its own trajectory. After more than a year of violence that came as much from the competition between rival groups who fought former dictator Muammar Gaddafi for power and influence, recent incidents have had a more jidahi flavour even as Salafist groups have attacked Sufi shrines and demanded that women be covered.

      If there are differences between the strands of Salafist extremism in North African countries, there are some striking similarities. Like Egypt – as Anne Wolf pointed out in January in a prescient essay on the emerging Salafist problem in Tunisia for West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre, "certain territories … have traditionally been more rebellious and religiously conservative than others. Tunisia's south and interior, in particular, have found it difficult to deal with the modernisation policies launched by the colonial and post-independence governments, whose leaders came from more privileged areas."

      And while violence – and the threat of violence – by the "minority of the minority" of Salafis has the potential to disrupt the post-revolutionary governments of the Arab spring, for the new Islamist governments it also poses considerable political problems, which are perhaps as serious.

      In Tunisia, the government estimates that 100 to 500 of the 5,000 mosques are controlled by radical clerics. Although the majority of Salafists are committed to non-violence, the movement has been coloured by the acts of those following a jihadi stream.

      That has created problems for Ennahda, which secular opponents suspect of secretly planning with Salafis the "re-Islamisation" of Tunisia, not least because of the government's unwillingness or inability to move against the most extreme Salafi groups.

      Indeed, when an al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb cell was broken up in Tunisia last year, all its members were also found to be active in another Salafist grouping – Ansar al-Sharia, founded by Abou Iyadh. He was jailed for 43 years under ex-dictator Ben Ali's regime after being extradited from Turkey, but was freed under an amnesty for political prisoners following the 2011 revolution that ousted the president.

      The jihadist strand has recently been vocal in its condemnation of the intervention by France in its former colony of Mali, which has increased anti-French feeling. Algerian officials said 11 of the 32 Islamist gunmen who overran the In Amenas gas field last month were Tunisian. Tunisian jihadists are said to have left for Syria.

      For Ennahda – as a number of analysts pointed out last year – confronting extremist Salafist violence has become a challenging balancing act. Fearful of radicalising the wider movement by cracking down too hard – as the former Ben Ali regime did – it has sought instead to have a dialogue with those renouncing violence by condemning the "rogue elements". This is a policy that has led to accusations that it has been too soft or has secretly tolerated violence against secular opponents such as the murdered Belaid.

      As Erik Churchill and Aaron Zelin argued in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace last April, "this position opens the door for secular groups to criticise … the ruling party's actions [as] evidence of a double discourse – conservative in private and moderate in public".

      In particular, Tunisia's secular leftist parties were critical of the setting up of a religious affairs ministry under Noureddine al-Khademi, an iman affiliated to the Al-Fateh mosque in Tunis, known for its Salafist presence and protests.

      Khademi's office vowed that several hundred mosques in Tunisia which had been taken over by Salafist preachers after the revolution would be brought back under moderate control. Last year, his office said that around 120 remained controlled by extremist preachers, of which 50 were a serious problem.

      Even MPs in Ennahda have recently woken up to the problem. Zied Ladhari, an MP for Sousse in the Assembly said the Salafist issue was a concrete part of the heritage of the Ben Ali era and "must be handled in a concrete manner".

      He said violent Salafism and jihadism "presents a danger for the stability of the country", while non-violent Salafism – "a way of life and literal reading of Islam" often "imported and foreign to our society"– was something that Ennahda distinguished itself from.

      "The violent element must be fought very firmly by police and the law," said Ladhari. "Then there should be dialogue with the peaceful element, in the hope of evolution through dialogue. It's more of a sociological issue than a political one."

      He said social-economic issues and fighting poverty and social exclusion were crucial. He said: "We have to deal with it seriously and with courage, a drift must not take hold."

      Selma Mabrouk, a doctor and MP who recently quit the centre-left Ettakatol party in protest over the coalition's stance on the constitution and power-sharing, said: "The problem is the violent strain of Salafism, not the strain of thought, because we now have freedom of expression, everyone can have their views."

      She warned against an "ambiguous" stance by Islamist party Nahda and the centre-left CPR in the coalition towards street violence, hate speech and attacks which she said were going unchecked. She was also highly critical of the fact that two Salafists arrested for the US embassy attack died in prison after a long hunger strike without a proper trial procedure coming into effect.

      She said: "There is this ambivalent attitude from the government, a permissivity on street violence on one side and, on the other hand, indifference to prisoners and the hunger strike."

      Additional reporting by Angelique Chrisafis


      Heavy casualties in northern Mali fighting
      At least 13 Chadian troops and 65 rebels killed in fierce clashes in Ifoghas mountains, Chad's military says.
      Last Modified: 23 Feb 2013 07:36


      At least 13 Chadian soldiers have been killed in fighting in northern Mali, the heaviest casualties sustained by French-led African troops since the launch of a military campaign against rebels last month, Chad's army has said.

      Sixty-five rebel fighters were also killed in the clashes that began before midday on Friday in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the border with Algeria.

      "The provisional toll is ... on the enemy's side, five vehicles destroyed and 65 terrorists killed," said a statement from the army general staff read on state radio. "We deplore the deaths of 13 of our valiant soldiers."

      Earlier this month, Chad deployed 1,800 soldiers in the northern city of Kidal to secure what had been the rebels' last urban stronghold, putting itself in the frontline in the fight against the rebels.

      Also on Friday, two suicide car bombers targeted ethnic Tuareg forces in the northern town of Tessalit, killing three people.

      "The two [suicide bombers] were killed and in our ranks there were three dead and four seriously wounded," Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Asseleh, a spokesman for the ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, in Burkina Faso confirmed.

      Tuaregs in the north, who have long sought greater autonomy, rebelled against the federal government and swept across northern Mali in April last year, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a military coup.

      However, the MNLA and other Tuareg groups were sidelined by armed groups such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who took over major towns of northern Mali and imposed Islamic law.

      The MNLA blamed Friday's car bomb attacks on the MUJAO.

      The MUJAO made no comment on the latest attacks, but on Thursday it said that it was responsible for another car bomb in Kidal.

      US drones

      France intervened in its former West African colony on January 11 to stop a southward offensive by the rebels who seized control of vast swaths of the north in April last year.

      Troops from neighbouring African nations - including from Chad - have since deployed to Mali and are set to take over leadership of the operation when French forces begin a planned withdrawal next month.

      However, continuing violence since the rebels were driven from major urban areas highlights the risk of French and African forces becoming entangled in a prolonged conflict as they try to help Mali's weak army counter bombings and armed raids.

      A US defence official said on Friday that Washington had deployed several Predator drones to Niger to fly surveillance missions in support of French forces in Mali.

      'Several hundred' fighters killed in Mali
      France says hundreds of al-Qaeda-linked fighters killed in operation, and adds its troops could pull out in March.
      Last Modified: 06 Feb 2013 04:13


      Enforcer for Islamist rule in Timbuktu captured by Malian Tuareg rebels after French air strikes pound insurgent camps
      Rebel accused of atrocities captured with leader of terror group


      Two senior Islamist leaders were reported to have been captured today as they fled French bombardments of rebel bases in the mountains of northern Mali.

      The two men, including a law-enforcer who allegedly ordered amputations and whippings in Timbuktu, were seized by a non-Islamist armed group near the Algerian border.

      Up to 40 French warplanes, some flying direct from France, have been pounding rebel bases and supply dumps in the deserts and mountains of the far north of Mali in the past two days.

      The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the objective was to “destroy their support bases, their depots because … they can only stay there in the long term if they have the means to sustain themselves”.

      The situation is complicated by the fact that seven French hostages, seized in recent years in Mali and surrounding countries, are believed to be held by the Islamist insurgents in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the far north-eastern corner of the country. Any attempt by French special forces to follow up the air strikes could endanger the lives of the hostages.

      A further complication is that the largest town in the far north of Mali, Kidal, remains at least partially in the hands of two separatist Tuareg groups who have split from the Islamist fighters.

      One of these groups, the MNLA (Mouvement national pour la Libération d’Azawad) claimed to have captured the two Islamist leaders in an attack on a fleeing convoy and to have handed them over to local authorities in Kidal.

      They were named as Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, third in command of the Ansar Dine movement and the former sharia law enforcer in Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, of the al-Qa’ida affiliated Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

      As the French intervention enters its fourth week, both government and opposition figures in France have warned that the Islamist rebels are far from defeated despite the rapid advances of French and Malian troops since early January.

      The former centre-right Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, said: “Victory is not assured. We have not wiped out the terrorists … They can come back. We are entering a second phase of guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks.”

      Two civilians were reported by the UN to have been killed after stepping on a landmine planted by the insurgents. Four Malian soldiers died in a similar incident last week.

      France hopes to remove some of its 3,500 ground troops as soon as possible and hand over to the Malian army and a force of up to 8,000 soldiers from neighbouring African nations. “Withdrawal could happen very quickly,” Mr Fabius said. “We’re working towards it because we have no desire to stay [in Mali] for the long-term.”

      In Kidal, however, the two Tuareg separatist groups controlling the town have warned that they fear a “bloodbath” if Malian or West African soldiers enter what is an almost entirely Tuareg and Arab community. Paris and Bamako appear to have taken heed of this warning. French special forces seized the airport at Kidal last Wednesday but have not yet taken control of the town.

      No French or foreign journalists have been allowed near Kidal and the situation is uncertain. According to French media reports, there have been fire-fights in recent days between French troops and scattered Islamist guerrillas close to the town. According to another report, some French special forces and troops from Chad – ethnically closer to the inhabitants – have entered Kidal.

      President François Hollande was greeted as a national hero when he visited Bamako and Timbuktu at the weekend.

      He said that French intervention was a “repayment of the debt” to Malian troops who fought for France in two world wars.

      'Al-Qaeda fighters' arrested in northern Mali
      Malian forces capture eight suspected al-Qaeda-linked fighters, as French jets target fuel depots near Algerian border.
      Last Modified: 05 Feb 2013 13:18


      Mali Forces Execute Devout Muslim Students
      OnIslam & News Agencies
      Friday, 01 February 2013 00:00


      BAMAKO – Students with a particularly devout Muslim appearance in northern Mali are facing summary execution by Malian forces as French troops continue their airstrikes against Islamist rebels.

      “I heard one of them say, ‘For the sake of God, don't kill me. I'm not the enemy, I'm just a student of the Qur’an,’” an eyewitness, who wanted to remain anonymous, told BBC Newsnight on Thursday, January 31.

      “But one of the military guys said, ‘Don't listen to them, they're infiltrators’. They discussed what to do, then one said, ‘Fire!’ and they shot all three of them.

      “They dragged them by their feet and threw them into a well.”

      The anonymous eyewitness confirmed that he saw three Muslim students shot dead in a public place because they failed to show identity papers.

      He added that the three men had their hands tied behind their backs and they were made to kneel on a patch of waste ground.

      The following day he says he saw two more suspects - an old man and his son - shot in similar fashion.

      The BBC found bloodstains on three wells in the area, confirming reports about throwing the dead bodies in the wells.

      What appeared to be human bodies were clearly visible at the bottom of one, the BBC said.

      France has deployed more than 3,500 ground forces in a lightning three-week campaign that has wrested control of northern Mali's towns from Islamist rebels in the north.

      They said the troops targeted light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels.

      Muslim students of the Qur’an and others with a particularly devout Muslim appearance also fear they may now be singled out for attack.

      A student in the town of Mopti, Muhammad Barry, said he and others were now afraid to study the Koran outdoors for fear they might be arrested.

      But he insisted that he and most other pious Muslims had no sympathy with the Islamist rebels.


      The new revelations came as human rights groups said on Friday that the French-led offensive against Islamists in Mali had led to civilian deaths in airstrikes and ethnic reprisals by Malian troops.

      Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, cited eyewitness reports of extrajudicial killings by Malian government soldiers of dozens of civilians in the central towns of Sevare and Konna.

      “Neither the Malians nor the French took the required precautions to avoid hitting civilian targets,” Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty's lead researcher for West Africa, told a news conference in Bamako, Reuters reported on Friday, February 1.

      “We've asked France and authorities in Bamako to open an independent investigation.”

      US-based Human Rights Watch cited evidence that Malian soldiers executed at least 13 people suspected of collaborating with the Islamist rebels and forcibly 'disappeared' five others in Konna and the garrison town of Sevare, also in central Mali.

      "Malian authorities have turned a blind eye to these very disturbing crimes," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

      "The Malian government should take immediate steps to investigate these abuses and bring those responsible to justice, irrespective of rank."

      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.

      Inside Gao where Arab jihadis took bloody sharia retribution on Mali's black Africans
      The people of Gao endured nine months of amputations and floggings under the rule of Islamist rebels – much of it aimed at ethnic groups
      Lindsey Hilsum in Gao
      The Observer, Saturday 2 February 2013 12.31 GMT


      Revealed: how French raid killed 12 Malian villagers
      Witnesses describe the moment civilians fell victim to a helicopter attack


      Miracle of Konna: The baby boy who survived an air strike despite being on his mother's back when the bombs hit


      Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts
      Fleeing Islamist insurgents burnt two buildings containing priceless books as French-led troops approached, says mayor
      Luke Harding in Sévaré
      The Guardian, Monday 28 January 2013 17.07 GMT


      Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.

      Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor's office and an MP's residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

      French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.

      "It's true. They have burned the manuscripts," Cissé said in a phone interview from Mali's capital, Bamako. "They also burned down several buildings. There was one guy who was celebrating in the street and they killed him."

      He added: "This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north."

      On Monday French army officers said French-led forces had entered Timbuktu and secured the town without a shot being fired. A team of French paratroopers crept into the town by moonlight, advancing from the airport, they said. Residents took to the streets to celebrate.

      The manuscripts were held in two separate locations: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls.

      Both buildings were burned down, according to the mayor, who said the information came from an informer who had just left the town. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, Cissé replied: "I don't know."

      The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.

      The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

      Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. "They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don't know what it said."

      He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that "black Africa" had only an oral history. "You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is."

      Some of the most fascinating scrolls included an ancient history of west Africa, the Tarikh al-Soudan, letters of recommendation for the intrepid 19th-century German explorer Heinrich Barth, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction.

      A large number dated from Timbuktu's intellectual heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, Traoré said. By the late 1500s the town, north of the Niger river, was a wealthy and successful trading centre, attracting scholars and curious travellers from across the Middle East. Some brought books to sell.

      Typically, manuscripts were not numbered, Traoré said, but repeated the last word of a previous page on each new one. Scholars had painstakingly numbered several of the manuscripts, but not all, under the direction of an international team of experts.

      Mali government forces that had been guarding Timbuktu left the town in late March, as Islamist fighters advanced rapidly across the north. Fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the group responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas facility – then swept in and seized the town, pushing out rival militia groups including secular Tuareg nationalists.

      Traoré told the Guardian that he decided to leave Timbuktu in January 2012 amid ominous reports of shootings in the area, and after the kidnapping of three European tourists from a Timbuktu hotel. A fourth tourist, a German, resisted and was shot dead. Months later AQIM arrived, he said.

      Four or five rebels had been sleeping in the institute, which had comparatively luxurious facilities for staff, he said. As well as the manuscripts, the fighters destroyed almost all of the 333 Sufi shrines dotted around Timbuktu, believing them to be idolatrous. They smashed a civic statue of a man sitting on a winged horse. "They were the masters of the place," Traoré said.

      Other residents who fled Timbuktu said the fighters adorned the town with their black flag. Written on it in Arabic were the words "God is great". The rebels enforced their own brutal and arbitrary version of Islam, residents said, with offenders flogged for talking to women and other supposed crimes. The floggings took place in the square outside the 15th-century Sankoré mosque, a Unesco world heritage site.

      "They weren't religious men. They were criminals," said Maha Madu, a Timbuktu boatman, now in the Niger river town of Mopti. Madu said the fighters grew enraged if residents wore trousers down to their ankles, which they believed to be western and decadent. He alleged that some fighters kidnapped and raped local women, keeping them as virtual sex slaves. "They were hypocrites. They told us they couldn't smoke. But they smoked themselves," he said.

      The rebels took several other towns south of Timbuktu, he said, including nearby Diré. If the rebels spotted a boat flying the Malian national flag, they ripped the flag off and replaced it with their own black one, he said.

      The precise fate of the manuscripts was difficult to verify. All phone communication with Timbuktu was cut off. The town was said to be without electricity, water or fuel. According to Traoré, who was in contact with friends there until two weeks ago, many of the rebels left town following France's military intervention.

      He added: "My friend [in Timbuktu] told me they were diminishing in number. He doesn't know where they went. But he said they were trying to hide their cars by painting and disguising them with mud."

      The recapture of Timbuktu is another success for the French military, which has now secured two out of three of Mali's key rebel-held sites, including the city of Gao on Saturday. The French have yet to reach the third, Kidal. Local Tuareg militia leaders said on Monday they had taken control of Kidal after the abrupt departure of the Islamist fighters who ran the town.


      Tunisia PM to resign if new cabinet rejected
      Jebali vows to resign if his technocratic cabinet offer is denied as thousands of ruling party supporters mass in Tunis.
      Last Modified: 10 Feb 2013 05:09


      Hamdi Jebali, the Tunisian prime minister, has threatened to resign unless his Ennahda party and other parties accept his proposals for an interim government of technocrats.

      Jebali, who is in dispute with his party over his proposal for a new government, said on Saturday he would present his new cabinet "by the middle of next week by the latest," the official TAP news agency reported.

      If the team was accepted by parties represented in the country's constituent assembly without being put to a vote he would remain on as prime minister, Jebali said. Otherwise, he said, he would resign.

      Jebali first made the announcement on Wednesday, hours after the assassination of opposition leader Shokri Belaid outside his home by an unknown assailant.

      Ennahda rejected that idea soon afterward. Jebali said on Friday that he was confident he could gain his party's support. It remains unclear how he plans to pull enough support to his side.

      "I am convinced this is the best solution for the current situation in Tunisia," Jebali said late on Friday.

      Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Tunis, said: "Since its emergence as the biggest political party after the elections of 2011, Ennahda has said they would like to pick up on that legitimate backing they have of the people."

      "They think that a transitional period is very crucial, when they have to draft a new constitution, agree on the political establishment and set a final date for the elections. To do that, you have to have a very strong government," Ahelbarra said.

      "So will the prime minister convince Ennahda to back his proposal? It’s going to be extremely difficult for him to do that. If Ennahda refuses his offer, Tunisia will just plunge into further uncertainty."

      Pro-ruling party rallies

      Thousands of supporters of Ennahda party demonstrated in the capital on Saturday, a day after the funeral of the assassinated opposition leader.

      The demonstrators chanted "The people still want Ennahda" and "The revolution continues" as they marched along the central Avenue Bourguiba on Saturday.

      Some of the protesters shouted anti-French slogans. The government has accused France of meddling over critical comments by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who denounced the killing as an attack on "the values of Tunisia's Jasmine revolution".

      "France get out!" and "The people want to protect the legitimacy" of the government were among slogans chanted by Ennahda party supporters who numbered more than 3,000, AFP journalists estimated.

      "Enough, France! Tunisia will never again be a French colony," proclaimed some of banners waved by protesters.

      The pro-Ennahda demonstration took place on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 revolution that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, close to the French embassy.

      The ruling party had called supporters to gather in central Tunis to show support for the constitutional assembly, whose work on a new constitution suffered a severe setback when leftist parties withdrew their participation following the killing of Belaid earlier this week.

      Slain Tunisian politician buried amid clashes
      Tens of thousands take to streets for funeral procession of Shokri Belaid amid nationwide protests.
      Last Modified: 09 Feb 2013 09:04


      Tens of thousands of mourners have gathered for the funeral of an assassinated Tunisian opposition leader, chanting anti-government slogans, with clashes reported outside the cemetery where he was buried.

      Police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters on Friday as people joined the funeral of Shokri Belaid, whose murder by an unidentified gunman has plunged Tunisia into political crisis.

      The authorities had earlier fired shots in the air to disperse youths who were smashing cars in the area. The interior ministry said 132 people were arrested and estimated the size of the funeral crowd at 40,000.

      Belaid was buried at around 15:00 GMT at a cemetery in southern Tunis. As his body was lowered into the ground, thousands of people cried "Allahu akbar!" [God is greatest] before singing the national anthem and reciting the opening verse of the Quran.

      "With our blood and our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr," shouted mourners, who also chanted slogans denouncing the Ennahda party as "assassins".

      The murder of leftist leader, a harsh critic of the government, sparked days of rioting by his supporters, who hold the ruling Ennahda party complicit in his death, a charge the party has denied.

      General strike

      The nation was largely shut down on Friday due to a general strike called by the labour unions in solidarity with Belaid's murder.

      Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Tunis, said the strike called by the North African country's biggest union had caused mass disruptions, with most businesses closed and even the international airport being affected.

      "A big army force is out to prevent any clashes between protesters... This is the biggest concern, to have casualties. It could plunge Tunisia back into more violence and uncertainty," he said.

      Belaid's widow Besma held two fingers in the air in a victory sign as a chant of "The people want a new revolution" rang out. The murdered politician's eight-year-old daughter fainted amid the chaotic and emotional scenes as the procession set off on its 3.5km journey to the cemetery.

      Hamma Hammami, a leader of the Popular Front, the alliance of leftist parties to which Belaid belonged, gave a graveside oration, followed by a minute's silence.

      "Rest in peace, Shokri, we will continue on your path," Hammami told the huge crowd of mourners thronging El-Jellaz cemetery.

      'Overcome differences'

      Meanwhile, Tunisia's Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali has urged his people to overcome their differences following the assassination of Belaid.

      Earlier in the day, crowds in Tunis surged around an open army truck carrying Belaid's coffin, draped in a red and white Tunisian flag, from a cultural centre in the slain leader's home district of Jebel al-Jaloud.

      "Belaid, rest in peace, we will continue the struggle," they chanted, holding slain leader's portrait. Many shouted slogans against Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party.

      Al Jazeera's Ahmed Janabi, reporting from Tunis, said supporters of Ennahda had gathered outside parliament. They said they had come out to "defend the revolution" and denounce the assassination of Belaid.

      After the funeral Prime Minister Jebali, in a televised address, reasserted his conviction that a new non-partisan government was needed, despite Ennahda rejecting the prime minister's proposal to dissolve the government in a bid to restore calm.

      "I insist on my decision to form a technocratic government," he told reporters, saying this would not require the approval of the National Constituent Assembly.


      Iran Mourns Senior Commander Killed in Syria
      VOA News
      February 14, 2013


      A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander killed inside Syria was buried Thursday in Tehran.

      Several high-ranking officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and Revolutionary Guards chief general Mohammad Ali Jafari, as well as senior clerics, attended the funeral for General Hassan Shateri.

      Iranian officials said Shateri was shot and killed Tuesday while traveling from Damascus to Beirut. A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on "mercenaries and supporters" of Israel.

      Syrian rebel groups offered varying accounts of his death. The Free Syrian Army said he died in an Israeli air strike last month on a Syrian military center near Damascus, while other rebels said he was killed earlier this week near the Lebanese border.

      Iranian officials and semi-official media outlets said Shateri was in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Lebanon. Iran is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

      As a member of Iran's elite Quds Force, Shateri was required to have a pseudonym and was also known as Hessam Khoshnevis.

      Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that the longer the Syrian conflict goes on, the greater the risk that battle-hardened militants who have fought there will carry out terrorist attacks in Britain and other European countries.

      Hague, speaking in London, called Syria "the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today." He said this includes a number of individuals "connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries."

      On the ground in Syria, rebels and fighters from the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra front seized the town of Shadadeh, near the border with Iraq.

      The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 100 Syrian soldiers loyal to President Assad and 30 jihadists were killed during three days of fighting in the area.

      Attack on Iranian dissident group in Iraq


      Rocket attack kills Iranian exiles in Iraq
      Five deaths reported after rockets hit camp outside Baghdad housing members of opposition MEK group.
      Last Modified: 09 Feb 2013 20:20


      Katyusha rockets fired on a camp housing Iranian dissidents near Baghdad have killed five members of the opposition group, Iraqi security officials say.

      About 40 members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) group were wounded in Saturday's attack, along with three Iraqi policemen.

      MEK calls for the overthrow of Iran's leaders and fought alongside the forces of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

      There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the transit camp, a former American military base known as Camp Liberty, adjacent to Baghdad's international airport.

      "At 5:30am around 18 Katyusha rockets landed in the camp, west of Baghdad, killing five people and wounding 42," an Iraqi policeman at the base said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

      A spokesman for the interior ministry, however, said only one person had been killed and that reports of more deaths were "exaggerated'.

      A government official told Al Jazeera that the government had no way of knowing where the rockets were fired from.

      UN urges investigation

      The United Nations called on Iraqi authorities to "promptly conduct an investigation" and said its monitors on the ground were following up on the deaths, the first confirmed fatalities as a result of violence at the group's new camp since they moved there last year.

      Martin Kobler, the top UN official in Iraq, told Al Jazeera that he was "shocked" by the attack.

      "These people have to be protected," he said.

      The MEK, whose leadership is based in Paris, said in a statement that six people were killed and 50 wounded.

      The group provided amateur video and photos it said showed the aftermath of the attack. One photo showed six bodies swaddled in blankets lying on the ground in a hallway.

      Amateur video showed wounded, some with blood-covered faces, being treated at a small clinic.

      A spokesman for the MEK said they did not know for sure who was behind the attack, but said one likely suspect was
      Iran's Quds force - an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards with a special focus on military operations outside the country.

      Camp Liberty is home to more than 1,000 residents from the MEK who were moved last year, on Iraq's insistence, from their historic paramilitary camp of the 1980s - Camp Ashraf.

      The MEK was founded in the 1960s to oppose the Shah of Iran, and after the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew him it took up arms against Iran's theocratic rulers.

      It says it has now laid down its arms and is working to overthrow the government in Tehran through peaceful means.

      It is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shia-led government that came to power after US-led forces invaded and toppled Saddam in 2003.

      Under Iraqi protection

      Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said Iraq sees the MEK as a "terrorist group".

      "They [MEK] say they're in danger from the Iranians and the Iraqi government," she said.

      "Ultimately they're under the protection of the Iraqi government."

      The UN intends to process the them for refugee status in other countries but no country has so far welcomed them.

      Britain struck the group off its terror list in June 2008, followed by the European Union in 2009 and the US in September 2012.

      The US state department holds the group responsible, however, for the deaths of Iranians as well as US soldiers and civilians from the 1970s into 2001.

      The MEK has no support in Iran, and no connection to domestic opposition groups.


      Deaths reported after Bahrain protests
      Teenager and policeman killed during rallies to mark two years of anti-government protests, activists and officials say.
      Last Modified: 15 Feb 2013 06:25


      A teenager has been killed during a protest in Bahrain marking the second anniversary of the country's pro-democracy rallies, activists have said.

      Hussain al-Jaziri, 16, was reportedly killed by shotgun fire during a protest in Al-Daih, a village west of the capital Manama. Witnesses said that he was shot at close range.

      On Friday, Bahrain's interior ministry said that a police officer had died after being hit by an incendiary device thrown during clashes with protesters a day earlier.

      Earlier, the ministry had confirmed on Twitter that a person had died, but offered no further details.

      "[The] operations room received [a] call from SMC reporting an injured individual pronounced dead. Public prosecutor was informed," the tweet said, referring to Salmaniya Medical Complex, the largest hospital in Bahrain. It was unclear if the statement referred to the police officer or the teenager.

      The ministry also said that "rioters" had blocked roads.

      Hundreds of people had protested on Thursday in villages across the country, and there were reports of tear gas being used in several locations. Three Bahraini photojournalists were arrested while working in Daih, according to one of them, Mazen Mahdi, who tweeted about his arrest.

      New 'national dialogue'

      Protesters set up camp at Pearl Roundabout in Manama two years ago, and remained there for nearly a month before being forcibly expelled in mid-March. Authorities later razed the iconic statue at the centre of the square.

      More than 80 people have been killed during the two years of unrest.

      The government set up an independent commission to study the events. Its report, released in late 2011, documented the excessive use of force against mostly peaceful protesters.

      Bahrain says it has implemented the report's recommendations, but the opposition says that abuses continue, with regular reports of torture and the widespread use of tear gas in villages.

      A new round of "national dialogue," organised by the government, began on Sunday.

      The talks includes representatives from Al Wefaq and other opposition groups, plus members of pro-government groups like the National Unity Gathering and Asala, a Salafi party.

      Officials have revealed little about the substance of the talks so far.

      The opposition has continued to press for major political reforms, including a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

      Bahrain holds talks to end political deadlock
      Negotiators for six opposition parties took part in first government-sponsored reconciliation talks since July 2011.
      Last Modified: 11 Feb 2013 02:13


      Bahrain's government and opposition groups have held the first round of talks aimed at solving the country's two-year-old political crisis.

      The talks on Sunday, the first in Bahrain in more than 18 months, involved dozens of representatives from the country's main political groups. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group, agreed to take part, as did several other opposition parties.

      Isa AbdulRahman, the official spokesperson for the National Dialogue, told Al Jazeera that the first day of the talks brought "consensus between all the participants to have two sessions per week - they will be meeting on Sundays and Wednesday to continue the talks".

      He said the focus now rested on "building the bridges of trust" between all parties.

      The government was represented by loyalist groups like the National Unity Gathering and al-Asala, the main Salafi party in Bahrain.

      The government organised the dialogue, but will not take part directly.

      Negotiations have been stalled since July 2011, when the government organised a similar round of dialogue. Most opposition groups decided to boycott the talks, but al-Wefaq reluctantly joined, despite receiving just five of the 300 available seats.

      The party withdrew after just two weeks, though, saying the dialogue was not a serious effort to resolve the country's problems.

      'Everything on the table'

      There were some doubts last week about whether the new talks would begin on schedule. Al-Wefaq and other opposition groups said the government's offer was too vague, and demanded an agenda for the talks.

      Abdulrahman was earlier quoted in local newspapers saying that "everything [is] on the table."

      The opposition has continued to press for major political reforms, including a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister. The current premier, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, is also the king's uncle. He has been in office since 1971, making him the longest-serving prime minister in the world.

      The dialogue comes at a tense time in Bahrain: Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of the first protests against the government. More than 80 people have been killed since then. The government set up an independent commission to study the unrest. Its report, released in late 2011, documented the excessive use of force against mostly peaceful protesters.

      Bahrain says it has implemented the report's recommendations, but the opposition says that abuses continue, with regular reports of torture and the widespread use of tear gas in villages.

      The government has not made any significant political concessions to the opposition so far.


      More than 100 dead in South Sudan cattle raid
      Governor of Jonglei state says 103 people, including women and children, killed in latest outbreak of tribal violence.
      Last Modified: 11 Feb 2013 02:56


      Heavily armed rebels have killed more than 100 people, including women and children, in a cattle raid in South Sudan's Jonglei state, local officials have said.

      Kuol Manyang Juuk, the governor of Jonglei state, said on Sunday that 103 people died in the Friday clash in Akobo County.

      Juuk said 17 of the attackers were killed and that 14 soldiers from South Sudan's military, the SPLA, who were accompanying the cattle-moving tribe also died. Northeastern Jonglei state has been wracked by massive bouts of tribal violence for years.

      The United Nations says more than 2,600 violence-related deaths were reported in Jonglei from January 2011 to September 2012, and account for more than half of reported deaths in South Sudan.

      Akobo County Commissioner Goi Joyul said the attack took place during a yearly migration in which members of the Lou Nuer ethnic group were driving cattle across the Sobat River.

      The commissioner said survivors of the attack saw the assailants use rocket-propelled grenades in addition to machetes and spears "thus overwhelming an SPLA force accompanying the people".

      Joyul said the attackers in Friday's violence are believed to be members of the rebel group led by David Yau Yau.

      A former member of the South Sudanese army from the Murle ethnic group, Yau Yau launched a rebellion after failing to win a parliamentary seat in the Sudanese general elections in April 2010.

      South Sudan has repeatedly accused Sudan of backing Yau Yau and airlifting weapons and supplies to remote corners of Jonglei. Khartoum denies providing any support to the rebel group.

      Families 'missing'

      The International Committee of the Red Cross said it sent a surgical team to Akobo to help treat those injured in the attack.

      In November, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said the increasing level of violence in Jonglei was causing a humanitarian emergency.

      The group said health facilities are being targeted in the violence caused by inter-communal cattle rustling, fighting between government and rebels and a government disarmament process.

      Joyul also confirmed "hundreds of families" were still missing.

      "The attackers left with cattle and hundreds of children and women who have not reported back to the village," he said, explaining that some 3,000 people in all had been moving with their cattle when they came under attack.

      "The army is trying to retrieve the cattle from the criminals, and that will not be easy," he said


      Letter from Egypt: in Port Said, public grief is as hard to take in as the murders
      The outpouring seems almost performative – but is deeply sincere
      Patrick Kingsley
      The Guardian, Monday 11 February 2013 20.00 GMT


      The room was little bigger than a king-sized bed, and yet there must have been nearly 30 people sitting inside it. It wasn't a place for a stranger. Not just because it involved clambering over those inside, and treading on their shoes – but because they were dressed in black, it was midnight, and this was a night-long wake for their murdered son, Osama Sherbini.

      The family were sitting in their first-floor tenement flat in Port Said, northern Egypt. Over the previous five days more than 40 people had died here in gunfights between police and locals. Sherbini, 22, was one of them.

      Reports differ as to why the massacre started, but the gist is this: on 26 January, a Saturday, a court sentenced to death 21 sons of Port Said for their alleged part in a football riot last year that killed more than 70 rival fans from Cairo. Locals contested the decision, believing that the condemned had been framed by the hated police – the institution that came to symbolise the Mubarak dictatorship that was toppled two years ago today, which has yet to be reformed and whose continued brutality is partly responsible for the latest round of Egyptian civil unrest.

      Enraged by the court decision, either relatives or gangsters (or both) attacked a jail where the prisoners were being held – and the shooting started soon after. It continued on the Sunday, at a funeral for those who died on the Saturday, and it seeped into Monday, as locals and human rights researchers reported that police began firing indiscriminately at passersby. One of them was Osama Sherbini – defying a military curfew, his family said, to buy food for his sick father.

      It was reporting on this curfew that had brought me to Port Said. There had been stories of post-curfew football matches in the city's central square, and so the idea was to write an upbeat piece about a community's festive resilience in the face of state repression. Yet that night there was no football, and little festivity.

      Instead, at a crossroads where shopkeepers said around 20 had been killed in the crossfire, there were pools of dried blood, and story after story about the death of someone's son, father, husband or friend. It was a shocking night. But after a while, it was difficult to pinpoint what was harder to digest: the deaths that were being mourned – or the openness of the mourners, and the very public nature of their grief.

      In England, grief is – stereotypically, at least – a reserved activity. Private. Internalised. Behind closed doors. Yet in Port Said it seemed the opposite: externalised, in some cases almost performative, yet no less sincere. At a march in protest at the killings the next morning, the mother of one of the victims was driven through the crowds of marchers in a taxi, holding up a photograph of her son. As she passed, she thrust from the car window the bloodstained jacket he died in, a bullet-hole ripped through the shoulder.

      In the port's fish market across town, above the trays of shrimps and crabs, there hung the vast face of Walid, a local fishmonger shot on the Saturday. What was striking was not just the very public, very visible nature of the memorial, but the speed at which it must have been – in the space of a few hectic days – printed, laminated and erected by Walid's grieving colleagues. They wanted their customers to know about Walid, and they wanted them to know now.

      Back on the march, there was a tap on my shoulder. The bereaved family of another victim, Mohamed Asseyad al-Arafi, was waiting patiently to be interviewed. Later, they would return to say more – as if talking had in some way become part of the family's means of dealing with their grief.

      It was this hopeful assumption that saw me picking my way through a crowded wake to talk to the mother of Osama Sherbini. I had arrived there by accident, splashing aimlessly through Port Said's puddles, chatting to another local. When we reached Sherbini's block, his brother, sitting outside, discovered I was a journalist and invited us in. At first the thought seemed twisted: crashing a wake for the sake of a quote seemed an intrusion too far. Yet Aymin had a smile on his face, and at that moment it felt as if this was something he wanted to happen.

      So up we went, and two minutes later found ourselves face to face with his mother, Ansaf Moussa; 30 more silent mourners staring at us. Like Aymin, she was unexpectedly warm, as if having visitors for tea. She was frank, too – almost matter-of-fact. Osama's school certificates were to hand, and she flicked through them, explaining what a good student he was, how pious, and how devoted a son.Clearly, the openness of her grief was no less sincere than the private kind one might have expected. But it was different and surprising – and it made you wonder at its cause.

      Was it a means of regaining agency at a time when the city was so helpless and marginalised? Part of Moussa's controlled anger, and the anger in Port Said more generally, stemmed from a feeling of abandonment by metropolitan Cairo. The curfew was confined to the provinces; the death sentences were felt to be appeasing the families of the Cairo fans killed in last year's football riot. So the upfront – and at times seemingly nonchalant – nature of some of the city's mourners was perhaps a means of confronting the isolation that had partly caused their grief in the first place.

      Elsewhere, it was easy to see why a facade of nonchalance was so necessary. Half an hour later, I was back at the bloodstained crossroads, interviewing another pair of locals. Suddenly, two warning shots from the still-lurking police sniper cracked through the air above our heads. Manu, my translator, and I instinctively bolted up the road. When we stopped sprinting, our relief at having escaped was matched only by our amazement at our interviewees: completely unruffled, they were strolling slowly up the road, still in full view of the restless sniper.

      In a week that had already seen so much death, and on a spot where there was still so much danger, studied indifference was perhaps the only way to cope.


      Lebanon: The struggle to survive after escaping Syria
      By Johanna Rogers
      Monday, 18 February 2013 at 4:02 pm


      Johanna Rogers from Christian Aid shares her experiences following a visit to Lebanon last week

      In Lebanon, the despair of refugees forced by conflict to flee their homes in neighbouring Syria is all-consuming. They have found shelter wherever they can – in makeshift camps beside rubbish dumps or bedding down in disused factories – but yearn for the lives they have been forced to abandon. With accommodation in many cases precarious at best, no employment and no schooling for their children – these are desperate times.

      I’ve met many since my arrival four days ago – their communities across the border now battle zones, their present situation hopeless. And still they come.

      Lebanon is now home to more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region. The official figure is 265,000 but unofficially there are thought to be more than twice that number. The numbers are overwhelming for a country with a population of just 4,500,000.

      Many people told me the waiting list to register with the UNHCR – essential to get food vouchers – gets longer by the day. At present it stands at three months, they said. Families on arrival receive small handouts of food and money but once that is gone they are left to fend for themselves.

      The few jobs once available to Syrians in Lebanon are long gone, while food is more expensive than at home and landlords charge as much as £130 a month for a rented room, which often houses up to 20 people. In the farming area of Jeb Jannine in the Beqa’a valley, against a backdrop of snow covered mountains, numerous small encampments have sprung up – unofficial homes to many of the new arrivals.

      Crammed into a small two-room tent with her seven children, I found Samira, 31, who was forced to flee her hometown Hama while eight months pregnant, following ten days of bombardment. Joining her in the small shelter, a sturdy structure tied together with rope and wrapped with tarpaulin, she told me she had never left her homeland before, but knew she had to flee for the sake of her young family – her youngest born just days before my arrival. It took Samira and her children 12 hours to reach the camp by bus. All she had with her were her documents, the clothes on her back, and some jewellery she has since sold to pay for food and water. A kind neighbour donated the diesel stove she uses.

      The two nutritionists with me are from Christian Aid partner International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). IOCC has provided Samira’s antenatal care as part of their invaluable support of vulnerable refugee mothers. The nutritionists examine the baby, Ahmed, now 25-days-old. He is underweight. Samira fears for him and the other children. Mounds of rubbish line the makeshift camp’s perimeter, while sanitation is minimal and primitive; there are no toilets and shallow gullies dug in the earth serve as drainage ditches. Flooding has already been a problem.

      Nearby, Mohammed, 33, and his family arrived six months ago. Prior to that, they had spent nearly four months trapped and terrified in their house in Homs, eating dried food, rice and home-baked bread to avoid having to venture outside. Only in emergencies would they leave, creeping along a wall to avoid sniper fire. Eventually, they fled to Lebanon on a packed bus; there was no room for any of their belongings.

      Mohammed gets food vouchers from the UNHCR but they are not enough. Bread is five times more expensive than it was at home, and he and families nearby now pool the supplies they get, generally rice, Bulgur wheat and bread. Water and electricity are added expenses. But there is no way back he told me, Homs is gone.

      At Bedawi, a Palestinian camp near the northern border, new arrival Kamal, 32, described how he and his family in December were forced to flee months of violence in Yamouk, one of the largest Palestinian camps in Syria. At first, they found shelter in a mosque in Damasc<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.