In Libya, the Cellphone as Weapon

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey

2011-08-22T105041Z_1400415706_GM1E78M1GGG01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA-REACTION

Libyans living in Turkey wave a flag of the Kingdom of Libya during a protest against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi outside the Libyan embassy in Ankara August 22, 2011. Libyan rebel fighters poured into Tripoli and on Monday morning controlled most of the capital, though fighting persisted in a few districts. The whereabouts of Muammar Gaddafi were unknown but the rebels held two of his sons, Saif Al-Islam and Mohammed.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – When Muammar Gaddafi’s government shut off the cellphone network in Misrata in the early days of Libya’s uprising, it wanted to stop rebel forces communicating with each other. But the power of a modern phone goes beyond its network.

Both rebels and government soldiers have used their phones to take pictures and videos of the conflict, a digital record of fighting from both sides. With the rebels now in Tripoli, the capital, and Gaddafi’s whereabouts unknown, those gigabytes of potential evidence may play a role in any war crimes cases.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo made an appeal in February for “footage and images to confirm the alleged crimes”, after the United Nations Security Council referred the Libyan uprising to the court. A court filing applying for arrest warrants listed video evidence, mainly from media, but also from unspecified sources, in support of its claim.

In the Mediterranean city of Misrata, in particular, a group of rebel-allied lawyers has worked to gather evidence of what it calls war crimes committed by Gaddafi forces.

“In the beginning when there were snipers we had to move around carefully,” said Omar Abulifa, a former prosecutor and head of the Misrata-based Human Rights Activists Association. “It was hard to get the evidence, but we did what we could.”

As the rebels gained control of more of the city in April and May, the association set up a system to gather evidence after every incident, especially the continued bombardment of the city with Grad rockets by Gaddafi loyalists, which killed and injured many civilians. The footage they gathered includes videos taken from the cellphones of rebel fighters and from those of government troops captured or killed during the fighting. Other video and photographs came from citizens of the town.

Some of that film can be used as evidence, Abulifa says. “But not all of it because to be used as evidence it has to be from a trusted source and it has to be clear what is happening.”

Around 150 gigabytes of video gathered by the city’s media committee, which was set up after the uprising, has been provided to the association. A member of the committee gave a Reuters reporter who was in Misrata in July a large volume of that material.

“Everyone has stuff like this,” said Ali, 21, an off-duty rebel fighter, as he showed a Reuters reporter videos on his touch-screen phone, including one of government tanks entering Misrata and one showing a man he says was an unarmed doctor who had been shot by Gaddafi troops and bled to death in the street.

Hair slicked back, and impeccably turned out in western jeans, shirt and shoes, Ali speaks in the weary tone of a young man explaining modern technology to someone older.

“Just ask anyone and they’ll show you,” he said.

Grilled Fish

Technology has been vital to Misrata’s uprising since the beginning.

When his closest childhood friend invited him to a dinner in a fisherman’s hut on the beach last December, Ayman Al Sahli was puzzled. As the 31-year-old lawyer and six other men tucked into grilled fish, their friend, Mohammed Al Madani, explained why he had called the group together.

The accountant brought out a photograph of the old Libyan flag, which predates Muammar Gaddafi’s seizure of power in a 1969 coup. The red-black-and-green flag with its white crescent moon and star is now ubiquitous in the rebel-held city and other parts of Libya. But in December it was forbidden so a small, easily hidden photograph had to do.

Al Madani then used his mobile phone to play Libya’s old national anthem. The song dates back to the country’s independence in 1951 and was banned after Gaddafi seized power. None of the men present had ever heard it before.

“We spent the rest of the evening talking about the unrest in Tunisia,” al Sahli says, “and about what Libya would be like without Gaddafi.”

In the six months since they rose against Gaddafi, the 500,000 or so residents of Libya’s third largest city have remained close to one of the fiercest frontlines of the Arab Spring. The rebels seized Misrata in May after a bloody, three-month long battle against well-armed government militia and in the past few weeks forced the government troops west toward Tripoli.

With the rebels on the verge of victory, much is likely to be made of the NATO bombing raids, which have hammered Gaddafi’s forces since March, and the role of Qatar, which has financed the rebels. But just as important have been two things on show that night in the Misrata beach hut: a low-tech, make-do resourcefulness and mobile phones.

Facebook “Event”

A few days before Misrata’s first street protest on February 17, Mohammed Agila, 32, a bespectacled bank employee, took his heavily pregnant wife and two children to her parents’ house. He withdrew all the money from his bank account and gave it to his father-in-law.

“I did not know exactly what would happen when we went out in the street,” said Agila, one of 70 or so participants in that initial demonstration. “But I knew I could be arrested.”

In the preceding months, Agila and Jamal Sibai, who also took part in the first protest, joined small group meetings like the one at the fisherman’s hut.

“People met in groups of 10, 11, 12 and talked about going into the streets to demonstrate,” said Sibai, 25, a slender, bearded art student and now a writer for a new newspaper called Free Libya. “We talked about freedom and the need for a constitution. We talked about how we wanted a president who could only serve for four or eight years and then, ‘Thank you, goodbye.’

“We didn’t talk about fighting,” he added. “We just wanted the things a normal country should have.”

In January, two Facebook pages — “Amal Libya” or Hope Libya, and another calling for a “day of anger” on February 17 — helped protesters like Sibai and Agila realize they were not alone.

“Before the Facebook pages, we did not know exactly when or where we should go out into the streets,” Agila said. “But they told us when and where to do it. We didn’t create the revolution in Misrata,” added Agila, now a radio announcer as well as working at a bank. “Everyone here wanted to do what we did. We just happened to do it first.”

By this time Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had already been toppled and protests were underway in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. Protests began in Benghazi on February 15, because of fears Gaddafi was preparing to send in his militia.

When protesters, most of them strangers to each other, showed up in the parking lot of Misrata’s technological college on February 17, they noticed cars carrying Gaddafi’s secret police and militia waiting for them. All the protesters were arrested.

“I was afraid,” Sibai said. “But I knew I had to do this anyway.”

Taking It In Turns

The first protests sparked off a series of increasingly large demonstrations in the city, Libya’s commercial and industrial heart some 200 km (124 miles) east of Tripoli. Government forces opened fire on protesters on February 19. Rebels armed with Molotov cocktails, hunting rifles and crude, home-made blades, took control of the city within a few days, but barely.

On March 17, the same day a United Nations resolution ushered in a NATO bombing campaign, Gaddafi forces began an artillery bombardment. Within a few days government tanks backed by snipers firing from tall buildings on Tripoli Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, had forced the rebels to hole up in the city’s seaport.

“We had no weapons, so we fought with what we could find,” says Abu Youssef, 55, a former caterer who recalls his amazement when he saw a teenager take out a tank in the early days of the uprising with just a Molotov cocktail.

On the ground, men like Youssef, 37, a former truck driver on the city’s southern front, joined small groups of men. The group Youssef joined had just one gun between them, a common situation in the opening days of the war before the city’s entrepreneurs, and mass fundraising efforts, brought weapons and ammunition.

Some weapons came from the temporary rebel capital of Benghazi in the east, but the fact that most were bought by locals is both a source of pride and a bone of contention with Benghazi.

“We would take it in turns to fire the gun,” Youssef says while taking shade from the fierce late July sun with his comrades. “The rest of us would help the man with the gun.”

Another fighter called Alim, 21, said rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a much-needed weapon against Gaddafi’s more heavily armed forces, were in particularly short supply. When a group without a launcher needed one for an attack they would ask other groups in the neighborhood to borrow theirs.

“Once we fired it, we returned it as promised,” Alim said as he sped toward the front line last month in a Chinese-made pickup, one of several thousand commandeered from the city’s port during the uprising.

Imported by the government a few years ago to sell to Libyans, the Toyota-lookalikes were rejected by consumers as too shoddy and sat idle at the port. Now they are a hot commodity. The trucks have to be hotwired to start, because no one knows where the keys are, and have a notoriously loose tailgate that pops open at inopportune moments.

“I’d rather have a Toyota,” Alim says, as he hotwires the truck. “Or any other half-decent truck. But I’ll make do with this.”

Dog Fight

The citizens of Misrata made do with whatever came to hand in a battle where, perhaps surprisingly, tanks were not the biggest threat the rebel fighters faced. “In the city, we could use the houses and buildings to get close to tanks,” says Ali, 29, a dentist on the western front line. “We found out that we could take out a tank at 80 meters.”

Far worse were the snipers.

On a tour around the damaged University of Misrata’s Faculty of Medical Technology, medical management lecturer Mahmoud Attaweil pointed to the holes knocked by government snipers in the roof of a five-storey building. Holes along the side of the building were caused by rebels trying to dislodge the snipers, said Attaweil.

“You can’t get a sniper out of a building with small arms,” he said. “The only way to persuade him to leave is to make him believe you will bring the whole building down if you have to.”

One group of rebel fighters attached flashlights to the heads of dogs at night then released them near buildings where they suspected a sniper was hiding. The sniper would open fire, almost invariably missing the fast-moving target presented by the running dog. Once the sniper had given away his position, the rebels would open fire with rocket-propelled grenades.

Gigabytes of Evidence

Mobile phones also became a weapon.

Much of the footage of fighting and its aftermath held by the rebels is too graphic for Reuters to show.

In one sequence, people run toward a car and open the door. The vehicle’s driver slumps out of the door, shot through the head by a sniper, his brains spilling out of a hole in his forehead. Many others, from the city’s hospitals and clinics — a trusted source of information — show injured children. One clip shows a bombed incubator room for infants where nurses pull glass out of the bloodied bodies of crying babies.

Another video, purportedly taken from the phone of a captured government soldier, shows what appear to be uniformed Gaddafi loyalists in the back of a truck trying to force a group of men mainly in civilian clothes to “Say Muammar!” and “Say something!”. Two of the civilians are assaulted — the first, a bearded man, is repeatedly slapped in the face, and pushed against the side of the truck by a man in a black coat. The second is slapped in the face. The men then all begin to chant “Long Live Muammar’s lions!”

The Misrata group says it has already started work on 150 war crimes cases against the Gaddafi regime, and Abulifa says it will add many more.

Gaddafi’s government has denied anything beyond firing at the “armed gangs” and mercenaries, and in June angrily rejected charges of crimes against humanity filed by the International Criminal Court against the Libyan leader, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

While Abulifa says he welcomes the ICC’s war crimes charges, if the country’s longtime ruler is captured he says he wants him to stand trial in Libya. When asked why, he pauses, then leans forward in his chair and speaks slowly.

“The ICC does not have the death penalty,” he says. “Libya does. We want Gaddafi brought to trial. We want the world to see what he has done. And then we want him brought to justice.”

The ICC said the possible admissibility of mobile phone footage as evidence would be decided on a case-by-case basis. “If there is a conversation from the defense about certain evidence it is up to the judges to decide the admissibility of that evidence,” ICC official Fadi el-Abdallah said.

“The Revolution Did Not Kill Him”

The rebel flag flies everywhere in Misrata now. It is painted on lamp posts, empty oil drums and even the old cargo containers that serve at increasingly irrelevant checkpoints in the city. The people of Misrata boast of how quickly law and order has been restored to the streets — a feat more elusive for Benghazi, Libya’s second city and home to the National Transitional Council, the ruling body for the parts of the country under rebel control.

Today, too, everyone knows Libya’s old national anthem.

But while Ayman Al Sahli, who first heard that anthem on the mobile phone of his friend Mohammed Al Madani last December, says he still backs the revolution, he mourns the loss of his friend, who was killed near the frontline on April 27.

When the fighting began, the accountant who had arranged the beach hut dinner began working for the rebel-run radio station in Misrata, making frequent trips to the station to report on the latest events at the frontline. Al Sahli was sitting with him and other friends when a mortar fired by Gaddafi loyalists struck, killing Al Madani instantly.

“The revolution did not kill Al Madani, Gaddafi did,” Al Sahli said. “More than anything, I want Libya to be free. But I lost my joy the day my friend died.”

(Nick Carey reported from Misrata in July; additional reporting by Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam; Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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After Libya, Eyes Turn to Syrian Revolt

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mariam Karouny

2011-08-20T165637Z_01_BTRE77I169700_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-SYRIA

A child holds a Syrian flag with Arabic words on it reading: “The people want the execution of killers, and freedom only” during a protest by Jordanians and Syrians against the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters, near the city of Mafraq at the Jordanian-Syrian border, northeast of Amman August 19, 2011.          

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed 

BEIRUT (Reuters)” – The downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is likely to pave the way for increased Western attention to Syria and embolden protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

The implosion of Gaddafi’s rule after six months of civil war in which the rebels benefited from sanctions on Gaddafi, a no-fly zone and NATO air strikes may have implications for Syri’s six-month-old revolt and Assad’s efforts to crush it.

“The international community will now think that its strong intervention in the struggle (in Syria) will resolve the situation,” said opposition figure Louay Hussein.

“Libya has raised the morale of the West and it will have a bigger excuse to intervene. But we reject any military action in Syria.”

Hussein and other opposition activists said however the events in Tripoli would revive Syrian protesters’ hopes.

“What happened in Libya means a lot for us, it means that the Arab spring is coming without doubt … there is no solution to any problem without the will of the people,” said Michel Kilo, a prominent opposition figure.

No country has proposed the kind of action in Syria which NATO forces have carried out in Libya. But the West has called on Assad to step down and Washington has imposed new sanctions over his crackdown, in which the United Nations says 2,200 civilians have died.

Syria has an alliance with Iran and a key role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005. It also has influence in Iraq and supports militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

Assad on Sunday said Syria would not bow to external pressure, which he said could only affect “a president made in the United States and a subservient people who get their orders from outside.”

“As for the threat of a military action … any action against Syria will have greater consequences (on those who carry it out), greater than they can tolerate,” he said.

Assad has responded to the unrest with a mixture of reforms and force. He granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, ended a state of emergency and promised to let groups other than his Baath party run in elections.

Analysts and opposition figures said they expected the situation in Syria to deteriorate further, with authorities intensifying the crackdown and protesters not backing down.

“After what happened in Libya I think he (Assad) will be tougher with the security option he is taking,” Boumonsef said.

“He sees what (he calls) the international conspiracy on him will be stronger and now that Gaddafi is out of the way it will move toward him in full strength … This is imminent.”

Some opposition figures expressed fears that Libya’s endgame might encourage voices among the opposition calling for the arming of a hitherto largely peaceful movement in Syria.

“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said Hussein, who was detained during the uprising.

“But we will resist such proposals, regardless of where they are coming from.”

The anti-Assad movement is fragmented. “Despite everything that is happening, the opposition remains stuck over little issues like personal issues between its leaders,” Kilo said.

Boumonsef said it would try harder, with international help, to unify.

“The opposition will be motivated more. There is no return and (Assad’s) reforms will not stop anything. It is too late.”

Encouraged after Western leaders called on Assad to step down, Syrian opposition figures are holding talks in Istanbul to nominate a broad-based council that could aid in a transition of power if Assad is toppled.

Unlike previous opposition conferences, which were marked by divisions between Islamists and liberals, participants said there was broad agreement on 120 nominees for the council from inside and outside Syria.

The council would speak for dissidents in exile and activists on the ground, opposition figures told Reuters.

But some poured cold water on the idea. “There is no interest inside Syria in a conference happening outside because the public opinion and those inside Syria believe that what is happening outside is marginal,” Kilo said.

“We do not need a transitional council … the real challenge is not what should be done after the regime collapses but for us it is what should be done every day so that we remain standing.”

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Allies Debate Libya Ceasefire, China Shifts Ground

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Robinson

2011-06-22T194132Z_1920063541_GM1E76N0AA801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Rebel fighters drive their vehicle on the frontline in Ajdabiyah June 22, 2011. A split opened within the NATO-led air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday as France and Britain rejected an Italian call for a halt to military action to allow aid access. 

REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Signs of discord emerged on Wednesday in the NATO alliance over the air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, as Italy said it favored a ceasefire and political talks while France dismissed the idea.

China also signaled a shift in its stand on the conflict, describing the rebels as a “dialogue partner,” while Libyan television said that “dozens” of people had been killed in Zlitan after NATO ships shelled the town.

Four months into the uprising, and three months since NATO war planes began bombing Libya, the rebels are making only slow gains in their march on the capital Tripoli to topple Gaddafi.

“The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament. “I believe that as well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage toward a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid.”

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero reacted sharply to Frattini’s comments, which reflected Italian anxiety for some time over the NATO operation.

“The coalition was in complete accord two weeks ago at the contact group meeting in Abu Dhabi: We have to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi. Any pause in operations would risk allowing him to gain time and reorganize himself,” Valero told reporters.

In Rome, a foreign ministry spokesmen played down Frattini’s comments, saying this was not an Italian proposal and that it had been discussed among others at a Cairo meeting on June 18 of European Union, U.N., African and Arab officials.

“There is no specific Italian proposal on this. What Minister Frattini said in parliament this morning is that Italy is interested in looking at all ideas which could relieve civilian suffering,” the spokesman said.

He said the ceasefire, an idea the United Nations has been pushing without success for some time, could apply to rebel-held Misrata and the Western Mountains region.

At the same time, the African Union chief said in Addis Ababa that the West would eventually have to accept an AU ceasefire plan, saying the air bombardments were not working.

“(The bombing campaign) was something which they thought would take 15 days,” Jean Ping, chairman of the AU Commission, told Reuters. “The stalemate is already there. There is no other way (than the AU plan). They will (endorse it).”

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a Saudi-based grouping of 57 Muslim countries, also said it had sent a delegation that arrived in Libya on Wednesday to mediate.
It would meet the rebels in Benghazi and Gaddafi officials in Tripoli, a statement said, but gave no more details.

China Shifts Ground

The debate over a ceasefire comes as Libya’s rebels, who have made steady progress winning support abroad and isolating Gaddafi on the international stage, secured Beijing’s recognition as a “dialogue partner.”

“China sees you as an important dialogue partner,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, diplomatic chief of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council in Beijing. The comments were published in a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

“(The Council’s) representation has been growing stronger daily since its establishment, and it has step-by-step become an important domestic political force,” Yang said, adding that China was worried about the Libyan people’s suffering.

Winning international recognition could eventually help the rebels to secure access to frozen Libyan funds, and the right to spend money earned by exporting oil.

China is the only veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has yet to call for Gaddafi to step down, after Russia joined Western countries last month in calling for him to leave power.

Beijing, never very close to Gaddafi, hosted Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi this month. Courting the rebels has marked a policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in other nations’ domestic affairs.

NATO and the rebels are hoping that Gaddafi’s diplomatic and economic isolation will eventually bring his government down.

Misrata Attacks

Gaddafi’s forces were able to shell the rebel stronghold of Misrata on Tuesday, landing rockets in the center of the town for the first time in several weeks.

No one was reported hurt by that strike, but it undermined a relative sense of security among residents who believed that a siege on the city had been broken last month.

More rockets fell later in the sparsely-populated El-Araidat neighborhood near the port. Residents said no one was hurt and a Reuters reporter saw only several dead sheep lying in a field after the attack.

“Everyone is worried. We don’t know where to go anymore. Only when I die will I be safe,” said Mohammed Mabrouk, who lives near one of two houses hit by the first rocket rounds in Misrata. Two more landed in open areas.

At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli on Wednesday morning and again in the afternoon but it was not clear where or what caused them.

In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Gaddafi’s state media issued instructions that ordinary people should follow “to deal with the fuel shortage.”

They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queuing at petrol stations.

Exports of oil have ceased, depriving Gaddafi’s government of the funds it used during peacetime to provide the population with heavily subsidized food and fuel. Petrol queues in Gaddafi -held areas now stretch for miles.

Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafi’s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said on Wednesday that “dozens” of people were killed in Zlitan after NATO ships shelled the town.

The report could not be independently verified because foreign reporters have been prevented from entering Zlitan. NATO normally comments on its Libya operations the following day.

If the Libyan television report is confirmed, it could further complicate the mission of the NATO-led military alliance, whose credibility has been questioned after it admitted on Sunday killing civilians in a Tripoli air strike.

Gaddafi’s government says more than 700 civilians have died in NATO strikes. However, it has not shown evidence of such large numbers of civilian casualties, and NATO denies them.

A rebel spokesman called Mohammed told Reuters from Zlitan that NATO had been hitting government military targets in the town on an almost daily basis. He said Gaddafi’s soldiers used artillery positions in Zlitan to fire salvoes toward Misrata.

“We hear the sound of artillery fire every night,” he said.

13-26

Syrians Flee Town as Troops Approach

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

 
 

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrians fled a restive town toward the Turkish border, fearing bloodshed as troops with tanks approached, under orders to hit back after the government accused armed bands there of killing scores of its security men.

Though accounts of days of killing in Jisr al-Shughour ranged from an official version of gunmen ambushing troops to residents’ reports of an army mutiny, it triggered international alarm that violence may enter a new and bloodier phase after three months of popular unrest that has left over 1,000 dead.

France and Britain, allies in the war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, took a lead in pushing U.N. moves against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia, citing NATO’s inconclusive bombing of Tripoli, said it would veto intervention against Syria in the United Nations Security Council.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, at U.N. headquarters in New York, said it was “a question of days, maybe hours” before the Council voted on a resolution condemning Syria. A draft circulated last month does not propose military intervention.

At Jisr al-Shughour, home to tens of thousands of people, residents said they were taking cover and bracing for attacks.

“The army is taking up position around Jisr al-Shughour,” one anti-government activist told Reuters by telephone, saying residents have seen troops approaching the northeastern town from Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and from Latakia on the coast.

“Most people have left the town because they are scared,” he said, asking not to be named for his own safety. “They know the deaths will be high. People have gone to nearby villages close to the Turkish border. The doctors and nurses have also left.”

On Monday, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said army units would carry out their “national duty to restore security.”

The government has expelled independent journalists, making it hard to determine clearly what is happening in the country.

Despite enthusiasm for pro-democracy movements that have unseated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, few Western leaders — let alone their autocratic Arab partners — have shown a will to intervene in Syria, an Iranian ally whose volatile mix of ethnic and religious groups sits astride a web of regional conflicts.

Foreign Pressure

Assad’s family and supporters from the minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria since his late father seized power 41 years ago. He has responded with promises of reform, and a crackdown on protesters in towns across the country. His officials accuse radical Islamists of fomenting a violent, armed revolt.

Neighboring countries, including Israel and Turkey, worry that a collapse into chaos could set off sectarian conflict and the emergence of violent, radical Islamists, as happened in Neighboring Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

But Western powers kept up pressure. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in some of London’s strongest language yet against the 45-year-old leader, told parliament: “President Assad is losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside.” He said European governments were looking at further sanctions.

“We are working to persuade other countries that the Security Council has a responsibility to speak out,” Hague added. Russia appears opposed to a general condemnation of Assad, let alone authorising military action against him.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who last month urged Assad to lead a transition to democracy or “get out of the way,” did not mention Syria in remarks at a news briefing on Tuesday.

But in Brussels, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said: “The prospect of a U.N. Security Council resolution that’s along the same lines as Resolution 1973 on Libya will not be supported by my country … The use of force, as Libya shows, does not provide answers.”

Veto-holding Russia abstained on the Libya vote, allowing NATO to begin a bombing campaign that Western powers say saved civilians in rebel-held Benghazi from an onslaught by Gaddafi’s forces, but which has failed to dislodge the Libyan leader.

Syria’s ambassador to France strongly denied a report on Tuesday that she had resigned in protest at the government’s repression of protests, saying it was part of a campaign of disinformation against Damascus.

Lamia Chakkour, shown standing in front of a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Paris embassy, told France’s BFM television that a report by news channel France 24, featuring a telephone interview with a woman claiming to be her, was false.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Michael Roddy)

13-25

Obama Warns Gaddafi of “No Let Up”

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Falloon and Joseph Logan

LONDON/TRIPOLI (Reuters) – President Barack Obama warned Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday there would be ‘no let up’ in pressure on him to go, following a second successive night of heavy NATO bombing in Tripoli.

Six loud explosions rocked Tripoli late on Tuesday within 10 minutes, following powerful strikes 24 hours earlier, including one on Gaddafi’s compound that Libyan officials said killed 19 people.

Obama told a London news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron he could not predict when Gaddafi, who is fighting a three-month-old insurgency, might be forced to go.

“I absolutely agree that given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks that Gaddafi and his regime need to understand that there will not be a let-up in the pressure that we are applying.”

“We have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course that we are on that he is ultimately going to step down,” he said. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime.”

Fighting between Gaddafi’s forces and rebels has reached a stalemate, despite two months of NATO aerial support under a U.N. mandate intended to protect civilians. Gaddafi denies his troops target civilians and says rebels are criminals, religious extremists and members of al Qaeda.

Strikes drove back Gaddafi forces shortly after he pledged “no pity, no mercy” to rebels in their stronghold of Benghazi. Rebels have since proved unable to achieve any breakthrough against better-trained and equipped government troops.

Cameron echoed Obama’s calls for the departure of Gaddafi, who denies targeting civilians and portrays the disparate rebel groups as religious extremists, mercenaries and criminals serving Western schemes to seize Libya’s oil.

“I believe we should be turning up that pressure and on Britain’s part we will be looking at all the options of turning up that pressure,” he said.

Such pressure will not include NATO troops, Obama said.

“We cannot put boots in the ground in Libya,” he said. “There are going to be some inherent limitations to our air strikes in Libya.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday the NATO bombing should achieve its objectives within months.

France said this week it would deploy attack helicopters to ensure more precise attacks against Gaddafi forces embedded among the civilian population of Libyan cities. Britain said on Tuesday it was considering doing the same.

Heavy Bombing in Libya

In the second day of heavy NATO bombing of Tripoli, the alliance hit a vehicle storage bunker, a missile storage and maintenance site and a command- and-control site on the outskirts of Tripoli, a NATO official said. Government targets around the Western rebel outpost of Misrata had also been hit.

Libyan news agency Jana says NATO hit a telecommunications station in Zlitan overnight, causing “material and human casualties losses” west of Misrata.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed fears that Western states were being drawn into an Iraq-style conflict.

“It’s very different from Iraq because of course in the case of Iraq there were very large numbers of ground forces deployed from Western nations,” Hague told BBC Radio.

Diplomatic activity is intensifying. G8 world powers will discuss ways to break the impasse this week, with some expecting Russia to propose a mediation plan to the meeting.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced he would visit Tripoli next week for talks with Gaddafi in his capacity as a member of the African Union high-level panel for the resolution of the conflict in Libya.

Zuma headed an African Union mission to Tripoli in April but the bid to halt the civil war collapsed within hours. The AU does not have a good track record in brokering peace deals, having failed recently to end conflicts or disputes in Somalia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast.

Unlike France, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not established formal diplomatic ties with the rebels. Jordan said on Tuesday it recognized the rebel council as a legitimate representative of Libya’s people and planned to open an office in Benghazi.

The United States bolstered the credentials of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council as a potential government-in-waiting on Tuesday when a U.S. envoy invited it to set up a representative office in Washington.

(Reporting by Joseph Logan in Tripoli, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Mohammed Abbas in Misrata, Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Nick Vinocur in Paris; writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Alison Williams)

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Secret History of the Libyan Uprising

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Barry Lando

2011-04-13T174823Z_1957980168_GM1E74E056Z01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

A boy with a Kingdom of Libya flag painted on his face attends a demonstration against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi April 13, 2011. International powers meeting on Libya’s future called for the first time on Wednesday for Gaddafi to step aside, but NATO countries squabbled publicly over stepping up air strikes to help topple him.

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

What you’re probably going to read someday: U.N. Resolution 1973 authorized action to create a no-fly zone in Libya. It did not authorize the use of foreign troops on the ground. President Barack Obama seemed to accept that limitation when he made his famous “no U.S. boots on the ground” declaration—a statement that has been repeated by every U.S. spokesman since. Since Obama’s declaration however, it has been learned that, in fact, for several weeks CIA operatives have been active in Libya. They are there supposedly to find targets for the missile and rocket attacks of the U.S. and its allies, as well as to get some idea of who the opposition is that Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy et al. have chosen to support.

The joke was those CIA types are not wearing boots, but sneakers.

Recently we learned, via Al-Jazeera English, that there is a secret training site in eastern Libya where U.S. and Egyptian special forces are giving basic weapons training to selected rebels. Those rebels are also now receiving more sophisticated weapons. You can be sure those U.S. advisers are wearing boots.

That report was long expected. For when the secret history of this current struggle is written (there are already several books in the works), we will almost certainly learn that, despite Obama’s public protestations, he was advised before launching his Libyan adventure that U.S. “advisers” would more than likely also be needed.

Revelations will probably also make it clear that President Obama was told that those U.S. advisers could not just be limited to instructing the rebels how to fire their weapons, but would also have to train them and give them basic military skills. And it probably won’t stop there.

Those advisers are probably also—behind the scenes—already filling key command roles: advising the rebels when and how to advance, either directly or in liaison with special forces from other countries with boots on the ground in Libya, everyone doing his best to maintain the fiction that those “advisers” aren’t there. And that the rebels are calling their own shots.

For those American spooks and troops are not alone.

According to other reports, special “Smash Squads” from Britain’s famed SAS have also been on the ground in Libya for several weeks now pursuing similar missions.

Perhaps they’re the same SAS teams that Britain supposedly dispatched to train Moammar Gadhafi’s special forces a year or so back—part of the warming of relations between the two countries.

And considering the determination of Sarkozy to push for the original attacks, reports that elite French troops are also on the ground in Libya are almost certainly true as well.

The above would mesh with an unconfirmed report from a Pakistani newspaper claiming: “According to an exclusive report confirmed by a Libyan diplomat in the region, the three Western states have landed their special forces troops in Cyrinacia and are now setting up their bases and training centres to reinforce the rebel forces who are resisting pro-Gadhafi forces in several adjoining areas.

“A Libyan official who requested not to be identified said that the U.S. and British military gurus were sent on Feb. 23 and 24 through American and French warships and small naval boats off Libyan ports of Benghazi and Tobruk.”

Which brings us to the declaration of an American military official briefing the press. When he was asked whether the coalition forces communicate with the rebels in Libya, he said no. “Regarding coordination with rebel forces, nothing. Our mission is to protect civilians,” said the official. “It’s not about the rebels, this is about protection of civilians,” he added.

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Lockerbie: Megrahi ‘a Convenient Scapegoat?’

August 27, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By BBC News

2009-08-22T113659Z_01_SIN805_RTRMDNP_3_LOCKERBIE

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi (L) talks with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli in this August 21, 2009 video grab from Libya TV. Gaddafi hugged the convicted Lockerbie bomber and promised more cooperation with Britain in gratitude for his release, while London and Washington condemned his "hero’s welcome" home. Meeting Megrahi and his family late on Friday, Gaddafi thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth for "encouraging" Scotland to release the dying prisoner from a Scottish jail, Libyan news agency JANA reported.

REUTERS/Libya TV

Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has left Scotland to return to Libya.

With his departure, a lengthy chapter in Scots legal history has closed.

But many questions remain – and they will not disappear along with the flight to Tripoli.

BBC Scotland’s Home Affairs Correspondent Reevel Alderson has been looking at the mystery which still surrounds the 1988 bombing.

The collection of evidence from Britain’s worst act of terrorism began immediately – and within a week detectives announced it had been caused by a bomb in a radio cassette player.

Throughout the subsequent weeks whole sections of the jumbo jet were recovered to help investigators literally piece together the cause.

Although they knew it was a bomb they needed to find out who had placed it, why they had done so, and how?

Early suspicion fell on Ahmed Jibril, leader of Palestinian terror group the PFLP-GC, who intelligence sources suggested may have been working for Iran.

West German police mounted Operation Autumn Leaves, raiding flats near Frankfurt where the group was preparing bombs in radio cassette players.

They were similar to that used to blow up Pan Am flight 103.

But Dick Marquise, chief of the FBI “Scotbom Task Force” from 1988-1992, said investigators could find nothing later to link this plot with Lockerbie.

“We never found any evidence,” he told the BBC. “There’s a lot of information, there’s a lot of intelligence that people have said there were meetings, there were discussions.

“But not one shred of evidence that a prosecutor could take into court to convict either an official in Iran or Ahmed Jibril for blowing up Pan Am flight 103.”

There were also suggestions that Jibril’s group put the bomb onto a Pan Am feeder flight from Frankfurt Airport to Heathrow, switching the suitcase for one containing drugs being run by another Palestinian group.

But another airport has also come under suspicion – Heathrow in London, from where the doomed jumbo jet took off.

Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of the victims of the atrocity, said a break-in the night before near the Pan Am secure baggage area was not fully investigated by police, who he claims concealed the evidence.

“I wrote recently to the Crown Office (which handles Scottish prosecutions) asking why that had been concealed for 12 years, and if they knew about it all along,” he said.

He said they would not answer his question, which he said meant there must now be a thorough inquiry into the incident.

During Megrahi’s first appeal, held at Kamp van Zeist in the Netherlands, his counsel raised the matter, saying it cast doubt on claims that the fatal bomb must have been loaded in Malta.

But the five appeal judges rejected the suggestion.

Malta had become crucial once police found a fragment of the bomb timer wrapped in a piece of clothing in a Dumfriesshire forest.

The clothes had Maltese labels – but question marks remain about how this discovery was made several months after the disaster, and also over how the material was handled.

The original trial heard labels on police evidence bags containing the fragment had been changed: the evidence of the officer who had done this was heavily criticised by the trial judges.

Worldwide terrorism

There were question marks too over Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who was the only man to identify Megrahi.

His evidence was that the Libyan, who he picked out at an identity parade, had bought the clothes at his shop.

But his police statements are inconsistent, and prosecutors failed to tell the defence that shortly before he attended an identity parade, Mr Gauci had seen a magazine article showing a picture of Megrahi, and speculating he might have been involved.

Mr Gauci now lives in Australia, and according to defence claims is believed to have been paid several million dollars by the Americans for his evidence.

It may be that we will never know exactly what happened in December 1988.

Secret documents before the Appeal Court – which even the defence has not seen – might have provided new information.

They will now remain undisclosed, after the foreign secretary issued a Public Information Immunity certificate stating that to publish them would be to the detriment of UK national security.

Megrahi was charged as a member of the Libyan Intelligence Services – acting with others.

Megrahi is now dying, but he may have been a convenient scapegoat for a much bigger conspiracy.

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