Middle East & Balkans News Brief – 12 July 2011

News Summary


Tripoli (Libya). France’s Defence Minister Gerard Longuet admits the lack of perspective of the Paris-initiated military operation in Libya and advises the rebels to start direct negotiations with Gaddafi’s camp, Russia’s newspaper Nezavisimia Gazetta writes. Longuet even says that Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi  could stay in Libya and remain in his palace but would have to occupying another post.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi announces that the Libyan authorities are engaged in secret talks over the termination of the fights. He reveals that the talks are with France, not with the Libyan opposition forces. “There are no direct negotiations between France and the Gaddafi regime, but we pass messages through the rebel council (TNC) and our allies,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero confirmed that Tripoli is in talks with the French government.  Concerned about the mounting cost of the military campaign and the prospect of a continuation into the start of the 2012 French election campaign, France stepped up its pressure at the weekend for the rebels to negotiate an end to the conflict.


Cairo (Egypt). Egyptian state television reports that insurgents have blown up a terminal of the Egyptian natural gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan in a predawn attack today. The explosion occurred east of El-Arish, a city on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, located about 50km west of the Israeli border, the governor of Northern Sinai told Nile Television on earlier today.

Flames from the blast could be seen up to 20km away, the broadcaster reported, without giving details on the causes of the explosion or the damage. A security guard and his family were injured in the blast, the official MENA state news agency reported on Tuesday, without citing its sources. Fire trucks were working to contain the blaze and security forces were scanning the area to “find those behind this explosion and to find the type of explosives used”, the report said. At least four assailants ordered guards on duty to leave and then blasted a terminal of the pipeline, Egyptian officials told AP on condition of anonymity. No one has claimed responsibility for the explosion, the fourth attack on the pipeline since the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak ‘s regime in February. Bedouin tribesmen in the area and those who oppose Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel have been blamed for previous strikes. The pipeline serves 40 per cent of Israel’s gas consumption.

Kabul (Afghanistan). Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to the Afghan president and one of the most powerful men in the country, has been killed in Kandahar city by a close associate, according to government officials and a member of his security team.

Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot dead on the morning of 12 July morning inside his house by Sardar Mohammad, a “dear” friend who regularly visited him, according to the security source and a member of the provincial council. Mohammad shot Wali Karzai in the stomach and chest as he emerged from a bathroom and was then shot and killed by other bodyguards, the security source said. Hamid Karzai , the president, betrayed little emotion as he attended a scheduled press conference in the afternoon of 12 July with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He confirmed his brother’s death.

A Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera that they were behind the killing and had assigned the assassin to carry it out the hit a “long time” ago. Afghan analysts say, however, that the hardline Islamic movement often claims credit for acts it may not have organised.

Jerusalem (Israel). Israel’s parliament has approved a contentious law that would allow illegal settlers in the West Bank to seek damages from Israelis who promote boycotts of settlements, Al Jazeera reports. Critics of the law, including opposition parliamentarians and civil liberties groups, say the measure is anti-democratic. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement that making “the boycott of Israeli settlement products punishable by law will send a clear message that Israel is not committed to a two-state solution”. The bill, sponsored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was carried by 47 to 38 in the 120-seat parliament in the night of 11 July. Netanyahu did not himself vote.

The fierce debate reflected growing polarisation between Israelis who favour expanding settlements and keeping the West Bank in Israeli hands, and those who believe Israel must withdraw from much of the territory and dismantle some or all of the settlements as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians. All settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law. Under the new law, those calling for boycotts could be sued by any individual or institution claiming economic, cultural or academic damage as a result of the boycott. Anyone convicted of breaking the new law faces a fine of up to 50,000 Shekels ($14,500).

Ramallah (Palestine). Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias reviewed the honor guard upon Papoulias’ arrival in the West Bank city of Ramallah today, Xinhua reports. Meanwhile, French media report that France is planning to invite Palestinian and Israeli leaders to join the Middle East Quartet in peace talks scheduled for September in Paris. France, eager to generate a solid alternative to stop the long deadly conflict in the Middle East, had delayed the conference for the second time to this autumn, local radio Europe 1 said.


Athens (Greece). In an open letter to Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker early on Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou criticized European partners for acting too slowly to stem the crisis while creating a “cacophony” that ultimately put domestic politics before the common currency, Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper reports. “Crunch time has arrived and there is no room for indecisiveness and errors such as taking decisions that in the end prove ‘too little, too late’ to convince the markets we are serious; (and) making compromises that satisfy our internal political ‘red lines’ that in the end substitute tactical politics for sound management of the crisis,” Papandreou wrote.

The prime minister’s office released the letter as the finance ministers of the Euro zone met in Brussels for emergency talks on a Greek bailout and on measures to stem the possibility of contagion to Italy and Spain, including the thorny issue of private-sector involvement, which is high on the agenda of Tuesday’s talks between all 27 members of the European Union.

Papandreou also critcized in his letter to Juncker a French proposal under which investors would reinvest 70 percent of their holdings in 30-year Greek bonds, which rating agency Standard & Poor’s said last week would amount to a ‘selective default.’

“Greece is paying the price of excessive experimentation and confusion,” Papandreou said, adding that Europe-wide bank stress tests to be released on Friday could spark greater insecurity on markets.

Christine Lagarde, the new chief of the International Monetary Fund, said on Monday that her organisation and its European partners, however, were not ready to discuss the terms of any second bailout for Greece.

Meanwhile, the crisis around Italy gains momentum. The country’s debts of 900 billion Euro have to be paid back in the next few years and if the sale of its bonds continues as it is now, the yield on them will skyrocket and make the financing for Italy too expensive. At the same time, prior to his meeting with the US Congress, President Barack Obama warned that the ceiling of US debt should be raised. Otherwise, US economy will relapse back into recession and this will result in loss of millions of jobs.

Athens (Greece). Ten kilograms of dynamite went off outside a cafe-bar on busy Karamanli Avenue in the coastal suburb of Voula south of Athens on 12 July morning, Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper reports. Even though cleaning staff was working at the time of the 5.45 a.m. explosion, no one was injured in the blast, which, however, caused widespread damage to the area. Investigators suspect competition as a reason for the blast.


Nicosia (Cyprus). The Cypriot Navy’s chief of staff, Andreas Ioannides, and a military base commander, Lambros Lambrou, were among at least 12 people killed on 11 July in an explosion at a munitions facility. The blast prompted the resignations of armed forces commander Petros Tsalikides and Defense Minister Costas Papacostas, Greece’s Ekatimerini newspaper writes today.

The other ten victims were army officers and firefighters. At least 60 more were injured in the blast which also knocked out the island’s main power station, disrupting electricity supplies. Firemen were called to the navy base in Zygi, on the island’s southern coast between Larnaca and Limassol, at around 4.30 a.m. to curb a fire that had broken out at a munitions facility. Shortly before 6 a.m., locals reported hearing a huge explosion that sprayed debris hundreds of meters from the depot.  Defense officials said an investigation into the cause of the blast had yet to yield any results.

In a written statement, Cyprus government official Stefanos Stefanou said the explosion had occurred in a facility storing munitions confiscated from an Iranian ship Cyprus authorities intercepted in 2009. The vessel had been en route to Syria in violation of UN sanctions. Stefanou added that ministry officials had discussed the storage conditions at the munitions facility last week. “Decisions were taken on protecting the material but unfortunately there was not enough time for these decisions to be implemented,” he said. The ammonition, which had been stored in shipping containers, had started to warp recently, sources said, adding that experts had called for them to be kept at cooler temperatures before being destroyed. According to a US State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks, the munitions stored in the containers comprised powerful explosives including compressed gunpowder.

(Middle East & Balkans News, 12 July 2011)


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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