Middle East & Balkans News Brief – 3 July 2011


News Summary

NORTH AFRICA

Tripoli (Libya). In an audio address to his supporters that flooded the Green Square in Tripoli, Libyan leader Gaddafi has threatened that if NATO does not stop its operation, Libya will launch an attack to Europe. In his speech, Muamar Gaddafi has said that Libyans will swarm Europe as “bees and grasshoppers”.” He advised NATO to start talks with the Libyan nation.

Gaddafi has called on his supporters to go to the Western Mountains and “cleanse” the region from the French-armed insurgents. In response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Gaddafi delivers democracy instead of threats after the Libyan leader warned Europe of stinging attacks unless NATO halts its air war.

MIDDLE EAST

Damascus (Syria). Hundreds of thousands of people have staged anti-government protests across Syria despite an ongoing military crackdown. At least five people were shot dead by government troops in the central city of Homs. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned time is running out for Syria’s government to usher in reforms. Protests were reported in the capital, Damascus, in eastern and western cities and in towns along the border regions.

Tehran (Iran). The Wallstreet Journal reports, that Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has transferred lethal new munitions to its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months, according to senior U.S. officials, in a bid to accelerate the U.S. withdrawals from these countries, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Revolutionary Guard has smuggled rocket-assisted exploding projectiles to its militia allies in Iraq, weapons that have already resulted in the deaths of American troops, defence officials said. They said Iranians have also given long-range rockets to the Taliban in Afghanistan, increasing the insurgents’ ability to hit U.S. and other coalition positions from a safer distance.

Such arms shipments would escalate the shadow competition for influence playing out between Tehran and Washington across the Middle East and North Africa, fuelled by U.S. preparations to draw down forces from two wars and the political rebellions that are sweeping the region. The U.S. is wrestling with the aftermath of uprisings against longtime Arab allies from Tunisia to Bahrain, and trying to leave behind stable, friendly governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran appears to be trying to gain political ground amid the turmoil and to make the U.S. withdrawals as quick and painful as possible.

Kabul (Afghanistan). A suspected militant on a motorbike threw a hand grenade at the gates of a school in north Afghanistan injuring 17 children, the interior ministry said in a statement, AFP reports. The incident took place in Maimana, the main city of Faryab province, the ministry said, adding that the children had been taken to hospital, with two in a serious condition. “Seventeen school students were wounded when a terrorist gunman riding a motorbike threw a hand grenade at the main gate,” said the statement, which condemned the attack.

“Police has arrested the gunman who committed this action.” An annual UN report in March revealed that the deaths of Afghan civilians in the war had increased 15 percent to a record high last year, and that insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the killings.

Sivas (Turkey). Clashes broke out between local police forces and demonstrators on 2 July during the 18th anniversary of the massacre in Sivas, Hürriet Daily News writes. Nearly 10,000 demonstrators gathered at Ethembey Park in Sivas and marched to the city square to commemorate the massacre. The group, including relatives of those who were killed, held a ceremony. No injuries are reported.

On July 2, 1993, a group of religious extremists torched the Madımak Hotel in the Anatolian province of Sivas, where attendees of the Pir Sultan Abdal cultural activities were staying, resulting in the deaths of 33 attendees and two hotel personnel. The tragic event came to be known as the “Madımak Massacre.” Two arsonists also died in the fire.

Ankara (Turkey). Turkey is increasing its involvement as a mediator in efforts to release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit , Yedioth Ahronoth reports. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that international elements have been working on Shalit’s behalf in the past few days. It has been cleared for publication that Netanyahu had in fact been referring to Turkey, which is considered the country with the most influence over Hamas, possibly more than Egypt.

Turkey has been working to form a deal for Shalit’s release opposite Hamas for the past year, Yedioth Ahronoth has learned. It had maintained a low profile but recently decided to boost efforts apparently as a way to rebuild ties with Israel. Israeli-Turkish businessman Eliko Dönmez met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after last year’s flotilla and handed him a letter written by the captive soldier’s father Noam. According to an article in Hürriet Daily News, Shalit asked Erdoğan to use his influence over Hamas to convince the group to accept the German mediator’s proposal of releasing 1,000 prisoners in exchange for his son. He also expressed regret over the death of Turkish citizens in the flotilla raid. Shalit noted that Hamas refuses to allow the Red Cross to visit his son and asked for a meeting with Erdoğan.

Ankara (Turkey). Turkey’s president responded positively to Kurdish complaints about the country’s parliamentary crisis, an independent Member of Parliament  said, but suggested the government must assume responsibility for resolving the problems that have led to legislative boycotts. MPs from the pro-Kurdish BDP as well as others supported by the party, decided to boycott the Parliament after the Supreme Election Board quashed the deputyship of their colleague, Hatip Dicle, for a terror-related conviction.

President Gül met pro-Kurdish independent deputy Şerafettin Elçi to discuss the crisis that arose after the BDP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) refused to take their parliamentary oaths.

BALKANS

Athens (Greece).  Organizers of Gaza Flotilla II have confirmed that they will set sail for Gaza on 4 July. It is not clear how many vessels will take part in the humanitarian mission. Previously, the Greek authorities arrested the Captain of the US boat “The Audacity of Hope”. The boat has tried to leave Piraeus Port was impounded by the Greek Coast Guard and skipper John Klusmire,60, may be charged on an attempt to sail without permission. In a statement, Hamas denounced Greece for preventing the humanitarian mission under the pressure of Israel. On 2 July, Greece’s Civil Protection Service confirmed that it had banned the departure of ships under Greek and/or foreign flags for Gaza on grounds of “reasons for protection the national interests” and because of “imminent threats for human life” presented by the attempt at breaking through the Gaza blockade.

The Irish boat planning to participate in this year’s Gaza-bound aid flotilla was damaged before it entered Turkish waters, according to Turkish authorities who investigated claims by the owner that the ship had been sabotaged while in port in Göcek. According to initial findings of the inspection, the breakdown of the ship might not be a result of sabotage, a Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News on Friday.

Athens (Greece). The IMF welcomed Europe’s urgent aid to save Greece from default, after Euro zone finance ministers cleared 1 July the way for the debt-hit nation to receive 12 billion Euro by mid-July. This commitment together with the recent parliamentary passage of the necessary fiscal measures in Greece will enable the IMF’s executive board to consider the completion of the fourth review and the release of the next tranche under the current stand-by arrangement with Greece.

Greece is expected to receive 12 billion Euro from the Euro zone and IMF by 15 July after the ministers approved the fifth tranche of aid from last year’s 110-billion-Euro ($160 billion) financial rescue package. The IMF is due to clear its slice of the next installment, 3.3 billion Euro, next week. The Euro zone’s share amounts to 8.7 billion Euro.

The Greek parliament responded to EU and IMF demands this week by passing 28.4 billion euros in budget cuts and tax hikes, along with a 50-billion-euro privatization program, despite rioting in the streets of Athens. Euro zone finance chiefs would discuss the second bailout again on 11 July in Brussels, but that a decision will likely have to wait until September.

Sofia (Bulgaria). Bulgaria’s National Electric Company NEK and Russia’s Atomstroyexport have sealed an annex extending by three months their contract for the construction of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant.

The paper effectively provides the two parties with a deadline of 30 September 2011 to solve the problems related with the technical project for the Belene NPP, the market analysis by the project consultant HSBC, and further progress on the contract for construction and supplies, which is to be made more flexible to meet requirements by potential international investors.

However, it does not contain a commitment to a certain deadline for reaching a final construction deal. The issue over which Bulgaria and Russia have haggled for the past two years under the Borissov Cabinet has been the price of the project, with Russia insisting it should be no less than 6.3 billion Euro, while Bulgaria is demanding a price of no more than 5 billion.

This might signal a shift in the Bulgarian position as in the past three years, Russia, including directly through its state leader Vladimir Putin , offered Bulgaria funding for the Belene NPP on numerous occasions but both current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his predecessor Sergey Stanishev have dismissed such an opportunity.

Sofia (Bulgaria). Russian oil pipeline operator Transneft will soon consider if it is still expedient to attempt further cooperation with Bulgaria on the trans-Balkan Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project, Transneft President Nikolai Tokarev said. Tokarev’s statement comes after a week ago the Bulgarian government delayed further the controversial project for the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, returning its environmental assessment report for the second time to the Trans-Balkan Pipeline company.

“I consider this as an insult to our position (on the part of Bulgaria) and partners do not act like this. We can’t indefinitely finance this project and will soon discuss the expediency of cooperation with the Bulgarian side,” Tokarev said, as cited by RIA Novosti. The 300-km pipeline, planned to link the Black Sea port of Burgas to Alexandroupolis on the Aegean Sea, is designed to transport 35 million tons of oil a year, with a possible expansion to 50 million tons, to ease the tanker traffic burden in the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits. Transneft does not rule out finding a route bypassing Bulgaria to deliver Russian oil through Greece to the Mediterranean, Tokarev said.

Sofia (Bulgaria). On 1 July Bulgaria’s Airport of Sofia and State Railways Company (BDZ) faced their next new CEOs in an endless row.

Pencho Popov was replaced by Yordan Nedev as CEO of BDZ. The latter has never worked at the BDZ, according to Dnevnik Newspaper. He works for the MMD Partners consultancy, and has employment history at Austrian consultancy Roland Berger in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s state-owned passenger railway operator BDZ has been traditionally in a deplorable financial condition in the past 20 years. At present, it hopes to get a loan of 230 million Euro plus a loan of another 80 million for the National Company “Railway Infrastructure”, from the World Bank for badly needed reforms. However, the reform attempts have been countered by the trade unions as they threatened to lead to massive layoffs of the state-employed railway workers. Thus, in March 2011, the government was forced by an imminent railway strike to back out of some of its reform plans.

Vesselin Paykov replaces Assen Tanchev as a CEO of the Sofia Airport. Vesselin Paykov is an alumni from the Civil Aviation Institute in Kiev and has occupied different positions at Sofia Airport, the last being a Head of IT Department.

(Middle East & Balkans News, 3 July 2011)

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About Johann Brandstätter

Photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Bulgaria, working mainly in the Balkans and the Middle East. Conflicts & crises, social and environmental issues, defense & military, travel, transportation.
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