Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen
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The photos Saudi Arabia doesn't want seen – and proof Islam's most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca
Archaeologists fear billion-pound development has led to destruction of key historical sites
JEROME TAYLOR FRIDAY 15 MARCH 2013
The authorities in Saudi Arabia have begun dismantling some of the oldest sections of Islam’s most important mosque as part of a highly controversial multi-billion pound expansion.
Photographs obtained by The Independent reveal how workers with drills and mechanical diggers have started demolishing some Ottoman and Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
The building, which is also known as the Grand Mosque, is the holiest site in Islam because it contains the Kaaba – the point to which all Muslims face when praying. The columns are the last remaining sections of the mosque which date back more than a few hundred years and form the inner perimeter on the outskirts of the white marble floor surrounding the Kaaba.
The new photos, taken over the last few weeks, have caused alarm among archaeologists and come as Prince Charles – a long-term supporter of preserving architectural heritage – flew into Saudi Arabia yesterday for a visit with the Duchess of Cornwall. The timing of his tour has been criticised by human rights campaigners after the Saudis shot seven men in public earlier this week despite major concerns about their trial and the fact that some of the men were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes.
Many of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns in Mecca were inscribed with intricate Arabic calligraphy marking the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and key moments in his life. One column which is believed to have been ripped down is supposed to mark the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse, which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night.
To accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims heading to the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year the Saudi authorities have embarked upon a massive expansion project. Billions of pounds have been poured in to increase the capacity of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina which marks where Muhammad is buried. King Abdullah has put the prominent Wahabi cleric and imam of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, in charge of the expansion while the Saudi Binladin Group – one of the country’s largest firms – has won the construction contract.
While there is little disagreement over the need to expand, critics have accused the Saudi regime of wantonly disregarding the archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of Islam’s two holiest cities. In the last decade Mecca has been transformed from a dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers that tower over the Masjid al-Haram and are filled with a myriad of shopping malls, luxury apartments and five star hotels.
But such a transformation has come at a cost. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca's millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone. Dozens of key historical sites dating back to the birth of Islam have already been lost and there is a scramble among archaeologists and academics to try and encourage the authorities to preserve what little remains.
Many senior Wahabis are vehemently against the preservation of historical Islamic sites that are linked to the prophet because they believe it encourages shirq – the sin of idol worshipping.
But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation which obtained the new photographs from inside the Grand Mosque, says the removal of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns will leave future generations of Muslims ignorant of their significance.
“It matters because many of these columns signified certain areas of the mosque where the Prophet sat and prayed,” he said. “The historical record is being deleted. A new Muslim would never have a clue because there’s nothing marking these locations now. There are ways you could expand Mecca and Medina while protecting the historical heritage of the mosque itself and the surrounding sites.”
There are signs that King Abdullah has listened to concerns about the historical destruction of Mecca and Medina. Last October The Independent revealed how new plans for the masjid an-Nabawi in Medina would result in the destruction of three of the world’s oldest mosques on the west hand side of the main complex. However new plans approved by King Abdullah last week appear to show a change of heart with the bulk of the expansion now slated to take place to the north of the Masjid an-Nabawi.
However key sites are still at risk. The Independent has obtained a presentation used by the Saudis to illustrate how the expansion of Mecca’s main mosque will look. In one of the slides it is clear that the Bayt al-Mawlid, an area which is believed to be the house where Muhammad was born in, will have to be removed unless plans change.
The Independent asked the Saudi Embassy in London a number of questions about the expansion plans and why more was not being done to preserve key historical sites. They replied: “Thank you for calling, but no comment.”
Saudi Arabia arrests 18 suspected spies
Authorities arrest an Iranian, a Lebanese and 16 Saudis accused of being part of "foreign spy network".
Last Modified: 19 Mar 2013 21:05
The Saudi authorities have arrested 18 suspected spies, including an Iranian and a Lebanese, on charges of espionage for a foreign country, the interior ministry said.
"Sixteen Saudis, an Iranian and a Lebanese were arrested in co-ordinated and simultaneous operations in four regions of the kingdom," including the capital Riyadh and Mecca, the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told state television that the arrests were made four days ago and the suspects were being investigated before being handed over to judicial authorities.
'Case of espionage'
"This is a case of espionage and those have been involved with a spy network working for a foreign country," Turki told state television.
"They were gathering information about installations and vital areas in the country and providing intelligence agencies of that state with it," he added, without naming the state.
News of the arrests come as rights activists on Tuesday reported that Saudi security forces had arrested several Shias across the kingdom, including two clerics, over the past days for unspecified reasons.
Since early 2011, mainly Shia towns in the eastern province have seen sporadic protests and confrontations between police and Shia residents who complain of marginalisation.
There are an estimated two million Shias in the Sunni-dominated kingdom of about 27.5 million people,
Saudi Arabia jails two prominent activists
Founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association are sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Last Modified: 09 Mar 2013 19:59
A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced two prominent political and human rights activists to at least 10 years in prison for offences that included sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media.
Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah Hamad are founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, known as Acpra, that documents human rights abuses.
Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years. Hamad was told he must complete the remaining six years of a previous jail term for his political activities and serve an additional five years.
They will remain in detention until a judge rules on their appeal next month.
Saturday’s trial was open to the press and public, in what Saudi activists had described as a step forward for rights even as they decried the verdict.
More than 100 people attended the hearing on Saturday morning, mostly supporters and relatives of the defendants.
More than 20 security officers were also present in the room, prompting a protest from the defendants’ lawyer.
Acpra will also be disbanded and its funds confiscated, the judge ruled.
Last year a court in Jeddah sentenced Acpra member Mohammad al-Bajadi to four years in prison.
Another of the group's founders, Abdulkarim al-Khathar is on trial in Buraidah.
After the verdict, the police cleared the public from the court room as supporters of Qahtani and Hamad shouted that the trial was politically motivated.
On Thursday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said that activists, whom he did not name, had tried to stir up protests in the world's top oil exporting country by spreading "false information" on social media.
Qahtani said in January he had never been to prison but thought he was "psychologically ready" for it, and that his family, who are in the United States where his wife is attending university, were also prepared.
Dozens killed in Syria in army assault
Children and women said to be among victims of attacks on two towns in Deraa apparently prompted by army defections.
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2013 21:29
Six children are among at least 57 people killed in southern Syria after the army launched an all-out assault on two towns in Deraa province, according to a London-based activist group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) identified the towns on Thursday as Sanamin and Ghabagheb.
"At least six children, seven women, 16 rebel fighters, 16 other unidentified men and 12 army troops were killed on Wednesday, in fighting, shelling and summary executions waged after the army launched an assault on Sanamin and Ghabagheb," the SOHR said.
Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith, reporting from Istanbul in neighbouring Turkey, said the raid in which 45 people reportedly died in Sanamin, about 50km south of Damascus, was precipitated by a rash of defections by members of the Syrian army.
"So, a day later, the Syrian army had gone into this area to try and find these soldiers, perhaps try and kill them to stop them from giving intelligence to the opposition but also as a warning, to ... [other] soldiers, that if they consider defection, then this is what's going to happen to them," he said.
"But of course, as we see on daily basis, caught up in these battles are civilians as well."
Lebanese town hit
In another development on Thursday, Syria's air force attacked a rural area near the town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon for the second time in 24 hours, Lebanese officials said.
"I can confirm there was a raid," Ahmad Fliti, deputy head of the council in the majority Sunni Muslim town in northeastern Lebanon, told the AFP.
"Several ambulances travelled immediately to the affected area to transfer the wounded to clinics and hospitals."
Fliti said was unclear how many people were hurt.
A security official confirmed reports of the attack, and a Lebanese Red Cross said the organisation took four wounded away from the scene.
The raid came a day after Syrian jets bombed Sarjal Ajram, the same area that was struck on Thursday.
The cross-border raids occurred as a prominent rights monitor said Syrian military air strikes have hit bakeries and hospitals among other civilian targets and killed thousands of people in raids that it said amount to war crimes.
"Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war wilfully, that is intentionally or recklessly, are responsible for war crimes," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday in a report titled Death from the Skies .
Basing its findings on investigations in rebel-held areas of three war-torn provinces, the New York-based HRW documented air strikes on four bakeries and two hospitals, along with other civilian targets.
One hospital in the northern city of Aleppo, the Dar al-Shifa, suffered at least four attacks alone.
"In village after village, we found a civilian population terrified by their country's own air force," Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher, said.
"These illegal air strikes killed and injured many civilians and sowed a path of destruction, fear, and displacement/"
Citing a network of activists, HRW said that "air strikes have killed more than 4,300 civilians across Syria since July 2012."
The report detailed the use of highly explosive munitions that sometimes flattened several houses in a single attack.
One resident of the northern town of Azaz told HRW that at least 12 members of his family were killed in a bombing of their homes on August 15 last year.
One of the explosive devices used in attacks on Azaz was a powerful fragmentation bomb "that has a casualty-producing radius of 155 metres", HRW said.
Other types of munitions used by the Syrian army were cluster bombs, ballistic missiles and incendiary weapons, HRW said.
Syria responded to the HRW report by accusing foreign organisations of being biased in favour of opposition fighters.
Without naming the group, Syrian state television said on Thursday that foreign organisations rely only on accounts by opposition activists when reporting about the conflict.
Robert Fisk: The war has reached Damascus, but for now it is not a warzone
The Independent's Middle East correspondent returns to the streets of Damascus
Thursday 11 April 2013
Damascus under siege? Certainly. But at war? I’m not so sure. The shells swish high over the city, from Mount Qasioun to Deraya, soaring far over the 18th-century Azem Palace and the mosque built on air, the glorious Umayyad with its fragile 8th-century mosaics, last resting place of Saladin, the head of Imam Hussain and John the Baptist. The place vibrates with explosions. Yet down at my favourite hostelry near the Barada river yesterday morning, the latte and the chocolate croissants were as fresh as they were eight months ago, the front page of the government newspaper Thawra bearing a poorly coloured photograph of a regime soldier amid heaps of anonymous rubble. But haven’t I seen this picture before?
Rumours of war. A cliché? Of course. Yet true. On Wednesday, I’m told by trusted friends that the Iranian-style shrine of Sayyida Zeinab has been destroyed by Salafist mortar fire. The tomb of the Prophet’s grand-daughter stands – or stood – on a site from the fourth caliphate. So yesterday, I drive at 140km/h south from Damascus, thundering down fearful motorways amid equally terrified drivers and along country laneways and earthen front-line barricades until suddenly, towering above me, are the blue-marble minarets and golden dome of the tomb of poor Zeinab, sister of Hussain, the Shia world’s first martyr whose own death began the whole sorry chasm within Islam. Mortars crack and rumble around us but save for a few marble squares, the place stands untouched. There’s a T-72 tank down the road and a clutch of government soldiers outside. But the rumour is untrue.
You can tell the diminishing circle of middle-class hope from the destinations plastered over the city’s buses. Until recently, they were announced on display boards; now they are written in vast inky whorls on cardboard taped to the windscreen. The Jobar bus now terminates at the edge of the rebel suburb. The Samaria station single-decker now finishes its journey just the other side of the Old Market. The great Haj railway terminus hasn’t seen a train in six months.
But who is under siege? The shopkeepers and the middle classes of the Mezze boulevard, “supporters” – a dodgy word these days – of the President, or the people of the little hell of Deraya, those who are left amid the cellars and chewed-through fabric of long-destroyed homes whose antagonists worm their way like centipedes through the walls of living rooms, toilets and hallways? “A whole society eaten away,” a Syrian journalist describes it.
A whole country, you might say. Anniversaries are celebrated with suitable gloom. The foundation of the Baath party; the start of the uprising against the Assad regime; the first major attack on government troops. The latter slightly upsets the Western narrative, of months of peaceful demonstrations brutally assaulted by government forces until the rebels reluctantly seized weapons in the summer of 2011. In fact 25 days after the beginning of the revolution, a convoy of the government army’s 145th Infantry Brigade was attacked on Banias bridge. Up to 12 soldiers were killed, 40 more wounded. But the “other” narrative, that of the Assad government’s desperation for “democracy” in order “to save the homeland”, is also hourly contradicted by the air raids against “foreign terrorists” – and surely the Assad lads and lassies can do better than dish up Israel’s and Washington’s clichés – which are erasing so many towns.
I talk to a former Syrian Special Forces officer. “Don’t you remember the ambush and murder of seven of our finest pilots in Hama province?” he asks contemptuously. “Is it surprising that their comrades want to go and smash the people who did this?” How easily revenge becomes a legitimate motive for war in Syria, in any war I guess. Casually, almost without realising its significance, I bump into this awful phenomenon.
At the al-Jdeideh border post between Syria and Lebanon, a Syrian-Turkish journalist has to return to Istanbul – via Beirut. Driving home over the northern frontier is impossible. “My village is just south of the Turkish border. The rebels killed my nephew. This was a message for me.” A Syrian-Armenian TV personality’s home is attacked in Damascus. Yerardo Krikorian’s grandparents were from Kilis in ancient Armenia. The Turks killed her grandfather in the 1915 genocide, her grandmother escaped. She comes from Aleppo. “The rebels knew where I lived,” she tells me. “They tried to kill my brother when they came to the house. I had asked the local (government) checkpoint to protect us when we saw the armed men in the area. They said their duty was only to guard the mukhabarat [intelligence] headquarters down the road.” When the same armed men attacked the secret police, the government soldiers were at last forced to fight.
The mukhabarat, the torturers, beaters, threateners, killers of the regime, are to blame. It’s surprising how many within the steadily diminishing circle of government Damascus say this. Soldiers say the same. The mukhabarat are to blame, they started this wretched business by assaulting the teenagers who painted graffiti on the walls of Deraa, they went beserk, they thought they were kings. It’s said that Assad wanted to rid himself of these thugs – there are tens of thousands of them – and that quite a few soldiers in the still-loyal army want to destroy them. But whose side would the mukhabarat then join?
“Really Robert, this country was always complicated – now it’s more difficult to understand than ever,” I’m told. Take the rebel commander who allegedly offered to pay for 25 captured government tanks for 750,000 Syrian pounds each. “I refused to sell for less than a million,” their “owner” is supposed to have proudly announced. He was told he was a fool. A million Syrian pounds was rubbish money. The tanks were worth a million dollars each.
Take the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. The soldiers outside have been ordered to let us enter. Inside a little room bearing pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chairman – this is, after all, a Shia shrine – sits a smiling man, the head of security for the shrine, a foreigner, I suspect (readers may answer this little riddle without much trouble), who speaks with impressive ease. “ Yes, we have water and other things to protect this shrine when it is attacked. We have expertise in these things. You cannot protect the shrine from mortar attack with the Koran.”
But his message is simple. “This shrine is not for Shia only but belongs to all Muslims because Zeinab was the granddaughter of the Prophet. We want to protect this shrine and all others. But we must protect this shrine because if there is damage, it will make Shia across the world more angry with Sunnis – so we are protecting all Muslims.” This friendly man lives and sleeps in the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. He has been there for a year. The last mortar strike damaged a tiny part of the roof on Wednesday. “We know exactly who is trying to destroy this building. They are not Sunni who are doing this. The Sunnis don’t think like this. It was the Salafists.” Ah, those great tomb-destroyers, shrine-eradicators, Bamyan Buddha-liquidators, the Salafists. They are indeed in Syria now. Chief funders: our old and wealthy friend Saudi Arabia.
I walk into the great marble square for prayers where I find another Zeinab, a Syrian woman with her two tiny children in a pram. “I am not afraid,” she says. “It is normal here.” Untrue, of course. She sees the two soldiers standing in the corner. Then there is Moratada Ali, a 30-year-old from Najaf in Iraq. From Iraq, I ask incredulously? Yes, he says, a refugee who came here two-and-a-half years ago to escape the sectarian terrors of his homeland. He says he’s unafraid. Lives just round the corner with the wife and two children. The shrine “speaks” to him, he says. The woman guardian who stands not far from Zeinab herself – the real Zeinab who cared for her vast family when Hussain had bled to death – says that she prays for the Prophet’s granddaughter to protect her.
Only by chance, chatting to a Syrian companion yesterday did he mention that his brother had been kidnapped six months ago. He had never mentioned this to me. Not his business to, I suppose. “We are still searching for him,” he says, and I realise that he, too, is under siege. Damascus isn’t Leningrad in 1941 or Stalingrad or Troy or even Beirut, 1982. Not yet. The best description I heard came from a colleague. “Damascus?” he asked. “Going. But definitely not gone.”
Civilian deaths in Syria documented by rights group
By Emily Alpert
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
April 11, 2013, 5:00 a.m.
Syria says Jordan 'playing with fire' over assistance to rebels
Jordan tightens security along Syrian border as tensions soar amid reports of arms shipments to anti-Assad forces
Ian Black, Middle East editor
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 16.34 BST
Citizen press emerges in Syria's rebel zones
Journalists in rebel-held areas report on issues such as guns, theft, lawlessness and poor services.
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2013 16:40
Remaining Syrian Christians fear chaos
In town of Yacoubiyah, from which many of the community have fled, the main fear is lack of authority on the ground.
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 16:44
Daughter of Syria's slain cleric speaks out
Sumayya al-Bouti says top pro-regime preacher who died in a Damascus blast supported Assad out of his conviction.
Basma Atassi Last Modified: 24 Mar 2013 15:36
It has become common for Syria's opposition to blame the government of President Bashar al-Assad for explosions that hit residential areas in Damascus. The latest blast - in a mosque that killed the country's top cleric, Sheikh Mohammad al-Bouti, his grandson, and 40 others - was no different.
Dissidents, including the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, have alleged al-Bouti, a vocal supporter of Assad, was assassinated this week by regime insiders. Many believe he had been on the verge of announcing his defection.
Al-Bouti's daughter, Sumayya, however, said that her father could not have changed his position. She said those who killed him were "unjust" and "criminal" - but refused to say who she thought might have been responsible for his death.
"My father's position is clear. It was based on conviction and religious texts. He believed one should not disobey [the ruler]. Disobeying may lead to strife and strife would lead to a cycle of more disorder," she said, speaking from Saudi Arabia.
Since the early days of the uprising, which started in March 2011, al-Bouti had dismissed anti-government protesters as a bunch of mercenaries and saluted the Syrian Army in its fight against Assad's enemies.
Sumayya said her father believed that changing reality required patience.
"He preached for patience and advocacy, rather than violence and bloodshed," said the 52-year-old.
"In his writings, he spoke of many examples where change took place after a lot of patience, like in India."
The cleric had influence over the affluent Sunni Muslims in Damascus and is credited for keeping them away from the violence of the protest movement.
Al-Bouti was considered one of the most influential Muslim scholars in the world. He wrote more than sixty books on various Islamic issues, and was considered an important scholar of Sufism.
Following the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the 1970s and the brutal crackdown upon armed fighters and thousands of civilians by President Hafez al-Assad in the early 1980s, the regime encouraged a more moderate interpretation of Islam based on Sufism, which focuses on rites and rituals rather than political governance.
In the early 1990s, al-Bouti became a highly reputable figure among Syrians. He appeared on state television twice a week and his mosque lectures were attended by thousands.
But in 2011, many Syrians, including some of al-Bouti's students, found Assad's crackdown on protests too brutal to justify and accused the cleric of legitimising the regime's military campaign against rebellious towns.
His daughter said al-Bouti was aware that some people saw his support for Assad as "hypocrisy" and "power hungry".
"He disregarded them. He lived by the saying of Prophet Mohammad: 'Whoever seeks Allah's pleasure at the expense of men's displeasure, will win Allah's pleasure and Allah will cause men to be pleased with him.'"
"My father used to say to us: 'If I really was after power and wealth then I would have pursued them when I was young. Not now, when I am 84.'"
Al-Bouti wanted reform. He believed it was his duty to advise both officials and the public at large.
"He attended meetings with officials to advise them, not to be photographed with them," Sumayya said.
I flew secret missions carrying cash and weapons into Syria for Assad, pilot reveals
A former Syrian army cargo pilot has revealed how he flew secret missions for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to carry cash and weapons into the country in the face of international sanctions.
By Nigel Wilson, Amman8:00AM GMT 24 Mar 2013
Robert Fisk: The cost of war must be measured by human tragedy, not artefacts
What does heritage matter in the face of such tragic desolation?
Monday 18 March 2013
PKK leader calls for ceasefire in Turkey
Turkish PM calls declaration by jailed Abdullah Ocalan a "positive development" in ending decades-old conflict.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2013 20:49
Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader, has issued a long-awaited ceasefire declaration that would be a major step towards ending a 30-year conflict that has cost around 40,000 lives in Turkey.
The ceasefire, announced on Thursday and which coincides with the Kurdish New Year, or Newroz, also calls for the withdrawal of PKK likely to bases in northern Iraq.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said the ceasefire call was a "positive development".
"There are groups that are fed by terror in our country. This process will ruin their game." he said, speaking during a visit to the Netherlands.
In Ocalan's letter, read out by members of parliament, Pervin Buldan, in Kurdish, and Sirri Sureyya Onder, in Turkish, the PKK leader said: "Let guns be silenced and poltics dominate.
"The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
The statement was read out to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags, in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, where hundreds of thousands gathered for celebrations.
Erdogan expressed his disappointment because there were no Turkish flags at the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir.
"This is a provocative approach by the circles who wants to influence the process in a negative way," he said.
Ocalan's ceasefire is likely to be in return for wider constitutional recognition and language rights for Turkey's up to 15 million Kurds.
The peace plan is the result of written consultations between Ocalan, pro-Kurdish legislators and PKK bodies in Europe and northern Iraq, under the close monitoring of Turkish agents.
Kurdish legislators say Ocalan might ask for commissions to be established to properly monitor the ceasefire, and call for safe passage for fighters wishing to leave Turkey.
Erdogan and Ocalan both appear to have staked their political futures on the renewed push to end the conflict.
Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, reporting from Diyarbakir, said Erdogan had made no secret that he was eyeing the presidency.
"He will need to amend the constitution and would like to increase the powers of the president. He can not do that without the support of the Kurdish party, the BDP."
Erdogan said he was putting his faith in the peace process "even if it costs me my political career", in the face of accusations that Ankara was making concessions to Ocalan.
Ocalan, known as "Apo," has said he wants peace for the greater good of his people.
"Consider Apo dead if this process fails. I am simply out," the burly 64-year-old was quoted as saying in a rare prison meeting with Kurdish legislators last month.
Hard road ahead
If a ceasefire holds, the path to disarmament, and the reintegration of PKK fighters, will still be long and vulnerable to sabotage.
The fate of Ocalan also remains uncertain, but any move to release him would be strongly opposed by critics who see any settlement as threatening Turkish unity.
The prospect of talks with the PKK has outraged many Turks who revile Ocalan and hold him personally responsible for the bloodshed.
Muammar Gaddafi's family granted asylum in Oman
Officials confirm that widow, daughter and two sons of the late Libyan leader, two of whom are wanted by Interpol, are in Oman
guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 March 2013 17.38 GMT
Oman has granted asylum to some members of Muammar Gaddafi's family, two of whom are wanted by Interpol, an Omani official said on Monday, but Libya said it was too early to talk about any possible extradition requests.
Algeria said last week that the widow of the late Libyan leader and three of his children had left its territory long ago, without saying where they had gone.
They had sought refuge in Algeria in 2011 after Libyan rebels reached the capital Tripoli during the armed uprising that ended his 42-year rule.
"Gaddafi's wife, two sons and a daughter, as well as their children have been in Oman since October last year," an Omani government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We have already accepted their request for asylum provided they don't engage in political activities," the official added.
The Omani official said that apart from Gaddafi's widow Safia, his daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal were among those granted asylum.
Aisha and Hannibal are wanted by Interpol following a request from the Libyan authorities, but there is no international warrant for Mohammed or Safia.
Libyan foreign minister Mohamed Abdelaziz confirmed in Qatar that some members of Gaddafi's family have moved from Algeria to Oman, saying an official announcement by the three countries was due to be issued later.
"Oman is a sovereign country and has the right, just like other countries, to receive asylum seekers and members of the political opposition," Abdelaziz told journalists in Doha ahead of an Arab summit due to convene on Tuesday.
"All we ask of the countries that host these, be it the family or supporters of the former regime … not to be a negative factor in the path of the revolution," he added.
Asked if Libya would demand their extradition, he said: "It is too soon to talk about this."
Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, captured by rebels more than a year ago, appeared in a Libyan court for the first time in January. Libya wants to try him and other former Gaddafi-era officials itself, although Saif al-Islam has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court
Another of Gaddafi's sons, Saadi, fled to Niger at the end of the revolt in which his father was overthrown and killed.
Libya emerges as global weapons bazaar
Arms ranging from handguns to anti-aircraft missiles have flooded the streets and across the border.
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 10:11
Libya become one of the the world's largest markets for weapons.
When war broke out in the country in 2011, arms ranging from handguns to anti-aircraft missiles flooded onto the streets and across the border.
The UN is now struggling to bring the global arms trade under control.
Al Jazeera's Stefanie Dekker reports.
Jordan's king swears in new cabinet
Smallest government in decades will be tasked with pushing through unpopular austerity measures to secure an IMF loan.
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2013 06:57
Jordan's King Abdullah has sworn in a new government tasked with pushing through austerity measures required under a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
The cabinet lineup was confirmed on Saturday after nearly three weeks of consultations led by prime minister Abdullah Ensour, who himself was reappointed on March 9 after the king canvassed members of parliament.
The monarch's rare consultations follow constitutional changes devolving powers away from the palace - a response to calls for reform prompted by uprisings across the Arab world and smaller scale protests inside Jordan.
King Abdullah previously hand-picked his prime ministers without consulting parliament, and the 150-member assembly did not play a role in forming governments.
The cabinet announced on Saturday was the smallest in four decades, with 18 ministers.
The appointment of former central bank governor Umayya Toukan as finance minister signalled a desire by lawmakers to press ahead with unpopular reforms sought by the IMF in return for a $2bn loan.
US-educated Toukan is a strong advocate of fiscal steps to reduce years of overspending by successive governments. The IMF pushed the kingdom to liberalise fuel prices last November, sparking several days of civil unrest, mainly across rural and tribal areas.
Ensour has faced down street protests, arguing a shift from broad subsidies towards targeted cash transfers to the poor was the only way to deal with a financial crisis that drove the deficit to over 12 percent of GDP and forced Jordan to seek IMF help.
The fund has urged the country to continue to overhaul its costly subsidy scheme and raise electricity tariffs, which officials say will be hiked in June.
The IMF this month completed its first review of last year's stand by arrangement with the Jordan and applauded Ensour's economic reforms, saying it saw some signs of economic recovery. It said on March 11 its executive board could consider Jordan's request for completion of the first review as early as April, making available the second tranche of about $385m.
Jordan's financial crisis has been deepened by a drop in Gulf aid which traditionally tops up the country's coffers, and the economy has been strained by a flood of refugees from the two-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Ensour, untainted by corruption allegations, has held senior government posts in successive administrations.
He was appointed in October after the king dissolved parliament halfway through its four-year term to prepare for the country's first parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
The constitutional changes transferred some of the monarch's powers to parliament, which critics said had become sidelined, and restored to the government some executive powers which had shifted to the palace and security forces.
Lebanon names Salam as prime minister
Tammam Salam, British-educated former minster, vows to work towards ending divisions and preventing civil war
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 6 April 2013 19.11 BST
A British-educated lawmaker from a prominent political family was named Lebanon's new prime minister on Saturday, and vowed to work toward ending divisions in the nation and preventing the civil war in neighbouring Syria from spilling over into the country.
Tammam Salam, a 68-year-old lawmaker and a former culture minister, was asked by President Michel Suleiman to head a new government. Lebanon's parliament strongly endorsed Salam, who is widely seen as a consensus figure, with 124 lawmakers in the 128-seat legislature voting in favour of his nomination.
The country faces rising sectarian tensions linked to Syria's civil war, with Lebanon's two largest political blocs supporting opposite sides in the fight between Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and rebel fighters trying to oust him. The conflict also has forced some 400,000 Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon, putting a severe straining on the country of 4 million to cope with the influx.
"I start from the necessity of taking Lebanon out of divisions and political tensions that were reflected in the security situation," Salam said in his first public statement after being chosen.
He added that he also wants to mitigate threats from the "catastrophic situation next door," remarks aimed at trying to allay fears in Lebanon that Syria's 2-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, will spread to Lebanon.
Salam said he would do his best to form a "national interest government," a process that could take time because of the sharp divisions among Lebanese politicians as a result of the Syrian crisis.
Once he cobbles together a cabinet, his new government must win a vote of confidence in parliament to be approved. Many will be keeping close tabs on how Salam will deal with the militant Hezbollah group and its arsenal, which is one of the biggest dividing issues among Lebanese.
Hezbollah's armed wing is the strongest military force in the country, outstripping even the national army, and many Lebanese are wary of the Shia militant group's power and refusal to set aside their arms.
Hezbollah and many other Lebanese, however, counter that the weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon against any Israeli attack.
Salam went straight home from the presidential palace where he was seen kissing the hand of his Syrian mother, Tamima Mardam Beik. "I took my mother's blessing," he told reporters while sitting between her and his wife, Lama Badreddine.
Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Miqati abruptly resigned last month over a political deadlock between Lebanon's two main political camps and infighting in his government. Miqati, who had served as prime minister since June 2011, headed a government that was dominated by the Shia Muslim Hezbollah group and its allies.
Miqati stepped down to protest the parliament's inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hezbollah and its allies in the Cabinet to extend the tenure of the country's police chief.
"I start from the point of uniting national visions and to quickly reach an agreement on a new elections law that gives justice of representation," Salam said.
Salam is the son of the late former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, and politically leans toward the Western-backed anti-Hezbollah coalition. He studied in Britain and has degrees in economics and business administration.
He will be holding the top post in the country that a Sunni Muslim can hold.
Salam was first elected to parliament for four years in 1996. He became minister of culture in 2008 under then prime minister Fuad Saniora. He was elected to parliament for the second time in 2009 when he ran for a seat in Beirut and joined a Western-backed coalition led by former prime minister, Saad Hariri.
Salam headed the Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association of Beirut, a non-profit organization that runs schools, cultural centres and a hospital, between 1982 and 2000. He is currently the honorary president of the association that was headed by several members of his family.
Yemen president orders military shake-up
Move directed at allies of ousted president Saleh, who placed loyalists in military posts over his 33-year rule.
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2013 16:03
Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has ordered the removal of top security officials from government, in a major shake-up directed at allies of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Hadi removed Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh as head of the elite Republican Guard, appointing him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, the country's state-run television reported on Wednesday. The military commander is a son of the former president.
General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armoured Division and a rival of Ahmed Saleh, was named presidential adviser for military affairs.
In a separate statement sent to Al Jazeera, Yemen's embassy in Washington, DC, said Hadi's order also covered two nephews of the former president, who had served in the Presidential Guard and the intelligence service.
Brigadier Tariq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh was named defence attaché to Germany, while Colonel Ammar Mohammed Abdullah Saleh was appointed to a similar post in Ethiopia.
Dozens of military officials were named in the statement provided to Al Jazeera.
Former president Saleh, who stepped down in early 2012 after more than a year of protests against his rule, placed relatives and loyalists in top military and government posts over his 33-year rule.
The Saleh appointees have been accused of obstructing the US-backed government as it tries to reform and fight an active al-Qaeda branch in the impoverished Arab nation.
Retired general Mohammed Sarei Shaye said the orders "effectively ended the divisions" in the army and put all forces under the president's control.
"It is a strike by a master," Shaye said. "It uprooted all centres of power in the army."
Political commentator Abdel-Bari Taher said the orders made Hadi "truly the president and sole decision maker of the army".
Celebrations in Sanaa
Gulf neighbours and Western nations fear Saleh's continuing influence, not least through his powerful son, could tip a delicate political transition into chaos.
Dozens of youths gathered outside Hadi's home in the capital, Sanaa, to show support for the decisions.
"March, O Hadi, we are behind you until we achieve change," they chanted.
Fireworks went off in Sanaa and in Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, after the announcement.
The decisions were announced while Saleh was in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He has been under international pressure to leave the country.
Saleh's family-owned TV channel Yemen el-Yowm reported on Wednesday that the president's son "welcomes the decision" and "does not oppose it".
Last December, Hadi ordered similar overhauls of the country's defence ministry, including the abolition of the Republican Guard.
In March, Hadi also launched a conference of national reconciliation, which is expected to produce a draft of a new constitution.