Middle East & Balkans News Brief – 7 July 2011


News Summary

NORTH AFRICA

Tripoli (Libya). Libyan rebels will hold meetings with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and European Union president Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels next week, NATO and EU said. According to a report of Al Arabiya, Mr. Rasmussen has invited the rebel representatives for a meeting at alliance headquarters for the first time on 13 July, a NATO diplomat said. The gathering was agreed on by ambassadors of the 28-nation alliance.

“NATO countries agreed to invite the rebels because there is no NATO representation in Benghazi yet,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity, referring to the rebel bastion in eastern Libya.

Separately, a European diplomat said a member of the National Transitional Council (NTC) will meet Mr. Van Rompuy next week. The NTC official may also meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

NATO officials declined to confirm whether Mr. Rasmussen had invited the rebels, but noted he has met NTC officials at meetings abroad of the international contact group on Libya. Several NATO nations, including the United States, Britain and France, have recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Turkey became the latest alliance member to recognize them, doing so on Monday.

MIDDLE EAST

Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) British Foreign Secretary William Hague held talks in with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al Faisal on hotspots in the Arab world including Libya and Syria, Al Arabiya reported.

“At a time of great upheaval and change in the region, our constructive cooperation on regional issues including Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, is even more critical,” Mr. Hague told a news conference with Prince Saud in the western port city.

On Syria, Mr. Hague emphasized “the importance of the Syrian government taking rapid and concrete action to stop the violence and change the situation.”  On Yemen, where demonstrators have since January held protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit, Mr. Hague said “we encourage all parties to engage in political dialogue… and for an orderly transfer of power.”

“We’ve also discussed the situation in Libya,” Mr. Hague said, emphasizing Britain “will continue to take part in the enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973,” which authorized military force to protect civilians.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbor to the east, had its first session in a national dialogue on 5 July, which follows a bloody crackdown on pro-reform protesters earlier this year. Mr. Hague expressed hope that it will “mark the start of a successful and inclusive process based on shared commitment to the future of Bahrain, and which brings the reform needed to ensure stability.” Prince Saud, whose country sent about 1,000 troops to Bahrain, freeing up local security forces to crush the uprising, said Saudi forces would stay until “the completion of their mission,” and reiterated his country’s rejection of “foreign adventures” in Bahrain, in a reference to Iran.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has responded to protests, which have mainly been centered in Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live, by cracking down on dissidents, drawing criticism from rights groups and activists.

Hama (Syria) Overnight protests in cities across Syria continued. The main demand of the protesters is that the security blockade on the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, be lifted. Al Arabiya reports that Syrian troops armed with tanks have encircled Hama for a fifth consecutive day on 7 July, cutting off water and electricity supplies from most parts of the city.

More than 20 people have been killed by security forces in the city, prompting US calls for an immediate pullback, human rights activists have said. Al Arabiya also says, that troops have wounded more than 80 people as they pushed through improvised roadblocks put up by residents.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later on 6 July that at least 23 people had been killed in 24 hours.

The US State Department informed it had no evidence that the protests had been anything but peaceful and called on the Syrian government to withdraw its troops from Hama. “We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign, to pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and to allow Syrians to express their opinions freely,” the US-statement reads.

Human rights groups say that more than 1,300 civilians have been killed and thousands more arrested since the protests started nearly four month ago.

Baghdad (Iraq). Xinhua Agency reports two policemen killed and 19 people wounded, in a suicide car bomb attack targeted a convoy of a police chief in Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala. The attack occurred on 6 July night when a suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden car into the convoy of police vehicles carrying Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Hameed, chief of the 3rd Battalion of Diyala’s police commando, while moving through al-Hadeed area, some 65 km northeast of Baghdad. LCol Hameed was among the wounded.

Separately a roadside bomb went off in al-Gatoon area, some six km west of Baquba on Thursday morning near a butcher shop. The shop owner and two other people were injured in the attack.  Diyala province, which stretches from the eastern edges of Baghdad to the Iranian border east of the country, has long been a stronghold for al-Qaeda militants and other insurgent groups since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Baghdad (Iraq). The parliament chief of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region said in an interview with Al Arabiya, that US troops should stay beyond their planned departure date of the end of 2011 because security remained tenuous. US officials have repeatedly asked Baghdad to decide if it wants some troops to stay on beyond 2011, as Iraqi leaders bicker about security-related ministries left vacant since the formation of a new government in December.

“Iraq’s security situation does not permit the departure of US troops at this time,” said Kamal Kirkuki, speaker of the Kurdish parliament. “Iraq is still suffering from instability, and a terrorist war is still continuing,” he said. “We in the region wish there will be an Iraqi agreement − positive or negative − about keeping the US forces or not keeping them.”

Kirkuki’s comments came as US forces in June suffered their deadliest month in three years, with 14 soldiers killed. June was also the most lethal month so far this year for Iraqis: 271 were killed in insurgent attacks. The US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, said on 2 July that Washington was open to the idea of some troops staying behind, but insisted Iraqi forces must provide protection.

Cairo (Egypt). Hundred of people in Egypt’s Suez city continued their protest on 6 July over a court’s decision to release seven policemen who were accused of killing civilians during the anti-government protests earlier this year. The protestors threw rocks at Suez security headquarters and tried to break into the building, Egypt’s independent news website El-Youm7 reported. The Suez Criminal Court upheld the ruling of releasing the seven officers on bail. Suez was one of the Egyptian cities which witnessed fierce clashes during the protests which toppled the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak in late January and February.

Kabul (Afghanistan). A Russian cargo plane crashed into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan last night. Eight people were on board, Afghan officials told Al Arabiya. Transport and interior ministry officials said the plane was chartered by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but a spokesman for the military said it was not yet clear who had been running the flight.

“A cargo plane crashed in the Siagird area of Ghorband district of Parwan province last night. The plane was a Russian IL-76 cargo plane chartered by ISAF,” a senior interior ministry official said. He added initial reports indicated that the plane had eight crew members, but investigations were ongoing. Their nationalities were also unclear. Transport ministry spokesman Nangyalai Qalatwal confirmed the crash in the Shakar Dara mountains, about 40 miles north of the capital, Kabul, and said it was chartered by the military.

Jerusalem (Israel). A UN report into the bloodshed along the Israeli-Lebanon border on Nakba Day has criticized the Israeli army for using unnecessary force when firing on protesters.  The report, released by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week, was passed on to the 15 members of the Security Council, with a copy also passed on to Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. The study focuses on the events of 15 May, when thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon marched on the Israeli border in a show of mass mourning over the creation of the Jewish state, known in Arabic as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

As the protesters tried to scale the fence, Israeli troops opened fire, killing seven and injuring 111, the report said.

Another four people were killed and scores injured along the Syrian front line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but the report, which was based on the findings of an investigation by the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon (UNIFIL), focuses solely on the Lebanese-Israeli confrontation.

Cairo (Egypt). Egypt is still repairing a major natural gas pipeline which was damaged in an apparent attack on 4 July in north Sinai. It will take several days to complete the work, Egypt’s Mena news agency said. The pipeline was bombed in the early hours of Monday at a village in the northern Sinai Peninsula, some 80 km from El-Arish, a major gas-exporting hub in Egypt. This was the third attack on gas pipelines in the area since February. Investigations showed the latest blast was caused by a remote-controlled explosive device.

Jerusalem (Israel.) As Israeli authorities are preparing for the potential arrival of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists in a fly-in at Ben-Gurion International Airport over the weekend, a group of Israeli citizens on 6 July returned from their own private counter-flotilla in Greece, Xinhua reported.

“We brought our own flags saying ‘Free Gilad Shalit’ and ‘Free Gaza from Hamas’,” said Amit Barak, 35, the director of human resources for the local pro-Israel lobby Im Tirtzu.

A combination of public and behind-the-scenes diplomatic moves by Israel convinced the Greek government to bar the pro-Palestinian groups setting sail from their ports. Last week, Greek coast guard intercepted U.S. ship “The Audacity of Hope” and arrested its captain for leaving harbor without permission and on Monday Greek coast guard boarded the Canadian “Tahrir” shortly after it left the dock.

Pro-Palestinian groups said earlier in the week that hundreds of Palestinian supporters were planning to land at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel’s major airport, on Friday to visit the West Bank to take part in “Welcome to Palestine” week events. The Israeli police and other security forces on Wednesday are deploying hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers in the airport, preparing for possible mass-protest.

Kandahar (Afghanistan). Canada was to officially end its combat mission in Afghanistan on Thursday, after nine years of fighting which saw it lose 157 troops and spend more than eleven billion Canadian Dollars.

With popular support for the war sapped at home, most of the nearly 3,000 Canadian soldiers, based mainly in the dangerous battleground of Kandahar, have packed up and gone home.

A ceremony was due to be held at Kandahar airfield to mark the formal end of combat operations, although hundreds of troops will stay on in a training role. Britain is among other countries to have also announced partial troop withdrawals after nearly a decade of war, but the Canadians were the first major troop contributor to start sending forces home this year. US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, while France and Belgium have joined Britain in stating that they will soon bring some soldiers home. All foreign combat forces are due to leave by the end of 2014 and hand security to Afghan forces.

Tehran (Iran). The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps test-fired domestically manufactured radar-evading missiles dubbed Persian Gulf and Tondar on 6 July, Iran’s Mehr Agency reported. Three missiles were fired from Jask in Hormozgan Province and successfully hit the mock targets. The event took place during the second and last stage of the ‘Great Prophet Mohammad 6’ war game, which began last week.

Colonel Asghar Gelichkhani said during the first stage of the war game, stable targets on land and during the second stage, mobile targets on water were hit. During the first stage, the domestically manufactured Ghadir radar system was tested for the first time to detect missiles fired during the war game. Having a range of 1,100 kilometers the Qadir radar system is used for detecting radar-evading aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles and low-orbit satellites.

Last week 14 missiles – nine Zelzal, two Shahab 1, two Shahab 2, and one Shahab 3 – were test-fired.

(Middle East & Balkans News, 7 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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