Assad: Syria Won’t Stop Fight

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups” after Turkey pressed him to end a military assault aimed at crushing protests against his rule.

Syria “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“But (Syria) is also determined to continue reforms … and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.”

While the two men held talks in Damascus, Syrian forces killed at least 30 people and moved into a town near the Turkish border, an activist group said.

The National Organization for Human Rights said most of the fatalities occurred when troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles overran villages north of Hama, while four were killed in Binnish, 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.

Washington expressed disappointment at Assad’s latest comments and said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expected to talk to Davutoglu after his meetings in Syria.

“It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked about the comment.

She refused to comment directly on a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable quoted by McClatchy newspapers last week describing Assad in unflattering terms, calling him “neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father” (former president Hafez al-Assad).

Despite the growing international condemnation, including a sudden wave of Arab criticism, Assad’s forces pursued an offensive in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, residents said.

Activists say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, making it one of the bloodiest of the upheavals sweeping the Arab world.

Davutoglu held six hours of meetings with Syrian officials, including a two-hour session alone with Assad.

He told reporters on his return to Ankara that Turkey had demanded Damascus stop killing civilians and said his government would maintain contacts with all parts of Syrian society.

Davutoglu said Turkey hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria resulting in the Syrian people deciding their own future.

Neighboring Turkey has grown increasingly critical of the violence but earned a sharp rebuke on Sunday when an Assad adviser said Syria would not accept interference in its affairs.

Syria has faced nearly five months of protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, inspired by Arab revolts which overthrew leaders in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

Last week Assad sent troops and tanks to quell the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Hama in central Syria and the army launched a similar assault on Sunday against Deir al-Zor.

An armored column also pushed toward the center of the city on Tuesday, with troops storming houses and making arrests in the provincial capital of an oil region bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, a resident said.

“They are now about one kilometer from downtown. When they finish with one district, they move to another,” said the resident, who gave his name as Iyad.

Increasing the pressure on Assad, Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia issued a blunt warning that he risked turmoil unless he stopped the bloodshed and adopted reforms.

Kuwait and Bahrain followed the kingdom in recalling their ambassadors.

The withdrawal of envoys left Assad with few diplomatic friends bar Iran. Western states have imposed sanctions on his top officials, while states with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned Assad he is running out of time.

Nevertheless, no country has proposed military action such as that launched against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.

ASSAULT

In Deir al-Zor, a resident said on Monday 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the city, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus on Sunday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said among the dead were a mother and her two children, an elderly woman and a girl. Syria has expelled most independent media since the revolt began, making it hard to confirm accounts.

Syrian authorities have denied that any Deir al-Zor assault took place. They say they have faced attacks since the protests erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for civilian deaths and accusing them of killing 500 security personnel.

State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes river in Hama, saying 17 police had been ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city.

The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was starting to pull out of Hama after it said they had helped restore order. Residents said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.

About 1,500 people were detained in Hama’s Jarajima district and troops killed three civilians, the Observatory said.

Activists say at least 130 people were killed in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982, and one group has put the death toll at over 300.

Like most of Syria, ruled by Assad’s minority Alawite family, Hama and Deir al-Zor are mainly Sunni cities, and the crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the region and govern most Arab countries.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Ankara bureau; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

13-33

Yemen’s Saleh Losing Grip as Fighting Rages

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adam Baron, McClatchy Newspapers

2011-06-01T151733Z_632357451_GM1E7611ST301_RTRMADP_3_YEMEN

An anti-government protester, his face painted with the colours of Yemen’s national flag, shouts slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa June 1, 2011. Renewed fighting in Yemen’s capital between a powerful tribal group and President Ali Abdullah Saleh forces this week has killed at least 19 people and rocked Sanaa with explosions, officials said on Wednesday.    

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Sanaa, Yemen – After four months of widespread anti-government demonstrations, numerous defections of high-ranking officials and mounting pressure from powerful tribes, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be losing his increasingly fragile grip on the southern Arabian nation.

Fighting raged all day Tuesday in the capital between Saleh’s forces and fighters loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the leader of one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal federations, signaling the collapse of ceasefire negotiations. With the sound of shelling echoing until well after nightfall, Saleh’s forces bombarded the Hasaba neighborhood around Ahmar’s house, which includes several government ministries, but Ahmar’s fighters maintained their hold on the area.

The United Nations’ top human rights official condemned the government’s “intensified use of force” against protesters in the southern city of Taiz, a center of the anti-government movement 120 miles south of Sanaa. The U.N. said it had received unconfirmed reports that more than 50 people were killed and hundreds injured there since Sunday by pro-government forces using live ammunition.

In Sanaa, news reports said that Saleh’s forces targeted an army division headed by Ali Mohsin, a powerful general who defected from the government in March. The Yemeni Department of Defense denied the reports, however, and several top army defectors appear for now to have stayed out of the fighting.

Top members of the military, once Saleh’s most reliable base of support, have been deserting him since pro-government forces were ordered to fire on protesters in Sanaa in March in one of the bloodiest crackdowns of the so-called Arab Spring protests. Over the weekend, amid reports of mounting army defections, a group of anti-government generals put out a statement calling on members of the military to declare their support for the protests.

Many argue that support for Saleh is waning even in army divisions that remain ostensibly under his command.

“Many of us are waiting for the right time to join the revolution,” a member of the elite Republican Guard, which is led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, said on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. “Even if we stay for now, we will leave if ordered to fire on our brothers.”

In power for 32 years, Saleh has managed to weather Yemen’s volatile political climate by keeping close ties with the military and cleverly striking deals with Yemen’s powerful tribes. He’s survived numerous attempted coups, a civil war in 1994 and insurrections from rebels in the country’s north and south — in part by positioning himself as a Western-friendly Arab leader who’s received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance to combat the influence of al Qaida-linked militants on Yemeni soil.

However, with demonstrations against his rule escalating, the U.S. and other powers have been pushing Saleh to agree to a deal brokered by Arab Gulf states under which he’d cede power within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Opposition leaders have signed it, but Saleh has refused.

“Saleh seems to think he can escape this crisis as he has done in the past, but many in the country believe things have fundamentally changed,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. “That, in essence, is the conflict.”

Clashes between government forces and anti-government tribesmen have continued in numerous areas in the countryside around Sanaa, while fighting between the Yemeni army and what it has called Islamist militants has re-emerged in the long-troubled southern province of Abyan.

In Taiz, independent reports said that the army, Republican Guards and other pro-government forces forcibly destroyed the main protest camp at Horriya Square using water cannons, bulldozers and live ammunition.

“Such reprehensible acts of violence and indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians by armed security officers must stop immediately,” said the U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay.

Speaking in Geneva, Pillay said that at least 100 people were believed to have been arrested over the weekend in Taiz, while dozens of others were unaccounted for, and that her staff had received many reports of ill treatment, torture and killings at the hands of security forces. She called on Yemeni authorities to investigate the cases.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. Embassy condemned recent attacks on demonstrators, while reiterating previous calls for Saleh to transfer power.

The growing instability has made daily life significantly more difficult in the Arab world’s most impoverished country, where nearly 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Access to basic utilities is increasingly unreliable, as even the capital continues to experience widespread blackouts and gas shortages. Business has ground nearly to a halt in urban areas, with many Yemenis fleeing violence for the relative safety of the countryside.

Government figures estimate that the nation has lost up to $4 billion since the demonstrations began, as the value of the Yemeni rial continues to fall against the dollar; the black-market exchange rate is well above the official rate of 215 to 1.

The faltering economy hasn’t significantly affected Saleh’s ability to cling to power yet, but analysts say that the damage will likely have long-reaching effects.

“No matter what happens, economic issues are going to have a large effect on whoever comes next,” Johnsen said. “Yemen’s worsening economic issues will severely hamper any future government as it attempts to recover from over 30 years of misrule.”

13-23

Afghan Insurgents Learn to Destroy Key Armored Vehicle

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan have devised ways to cripple and even destroy the expensive armored vehicles that offer U.S. forces the best protection against roadside bombs by using increasingly large explosive charges and rocket-propelled grenades, according to U.S. soldiers and defense officials.

At least eight American troops have been killed this year in attacks on so-called Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and 40 more have been wounded, said a senior U.S. military official who, like others interviewed on the issue, declined to be further identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The insurgents’ success in attacking the hulking machines, which can cost as much as $1 million each, underscores their ability to counter the advanced hardware that the U.S. military and its allies are deploying in their struggle to gain the upper hand in the war, which entered its ninth year last month.

The attacks also raise questions about how vulnerable a new, lighter MRAP, the M-ATV, which is now being shipped to Afghanistan, are to the massive explosive charges that Taliban-led insurgents have been using against its bigger cousin. The insurgents are also hitting MRAPs with rocket-propelled grenades that can penetrate their steel armor, according to U.S troops in Afghanistan, several of whom showed McClatchy a photograph of a hole that one of the projectiles had punched in the hull of an MRAP.

The Pentagon has spent more than $26.8 billion to develop and build three versions of the largest MRAPs, totaling some 16,000 vehicles, mostly for the Army and Marine Corps, according to an August report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.Another $5.4 billion is being spent to produce 5,244 M-ATVs, the smaller version that U.S. defense officials contend offers as much protection as the large models do, but is more maneuverable and better suited to Afghanistan’s dirt tracks and narrow mountain roads.

“The traditional MRAP was having real problems . . . off road in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. “And clearly we have to do a lot of work off-road. And these new vehicles will provide our forces the ability to travel more safely off road — certainly off paved roads — than they would have been able to do with other vehicles.”

Defense officials acknowledged the growing problem of successful attacks on MRAPs, and said the U.S. military is constantly developing improvements for the vehicle that include better sensors and tactics.

“It’s not all about the armor. We can’t build something that is impervious to everything,” said Navy Capt. Jack Henzlik, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We are using a comprehensive strategy to try to provide for the protection of our forces.”

The issue was the subject of a high-level meeting convened on Wednesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who made the production of MRAPs his highest priority in 2007 as U.S. troops in Iraq were suffering massive casualties from roadside bomb attacks.

The use of powerful explosive charges against MRAPs “is a problem that he (Gates) is keenly aware of, very concerned about, and is determined to make sure this building is doing everything it can to combat,” Morrell said. “We have never advertised MRAPs or M-ATVs as a silver bullet for the IED (improvised explosive device) problem. This is but one element of a vast array of capabilities that we need to bring to bear to protect our forces.”

However, retired Army Col. Douglas A. MacGregor, a former armored cavalry commander and combat veteran and an expert on armor warfare, said that vehicles such as the MRAP have “very limited utility” in a war against a guerrilla group such as the Taliban.”

The notion of a wheeled armored constabulary force as a prescription for a close combat situation is nonsense,” he said.

U.S. troops rely on the MRAP’s V-shaped hull, which is designed to deflect explosive blasts, and heavy armored plating to protect them against the landmines and IEDs that are causing most American combat deaths in Afghanistan.

October was the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the 2001 U.S. invasion. At least 59 were killed, bringing the total for the year to at least 272 dead, according to the Internet site iCasualties. At least 139 of those troops died in IED blasts, according to the Pentagon.

“Pentagon officials note that insurgents are building larger IEDs and are finding better ways to conceal them,” the Congressional Research Service report said.

“The biggest question is what took them so long,” said a senior Pentagon official with extensive experience with the MRAP program and familiarity with the weapons and techniques that the militants in Afghanistan have developed to “compromise” the vehicle.

The fact that the large MRAPs — which range from 7 tons to 24 tons depending on the model — often are confined to narrow mountain roads and valleys in Afghanistan has made it easier for insurgents to prepare ambushes using anti-tank mines, IEDs or rocket-propelled grenades capable of penetrating armor, the official said.U.S. defense officials insisted that many more U.S. troops would be killed and injured in Afghanistan and in Iraq if they’d been equipped with vehicles other than MRAPs.

“KIA (killed in action) rates in particular are noticeably reduced in MRAPs,” said Irene Smith, a spokeswoman for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the Pentagon agency created to develop defenses against roadside bombs.

U.S. defense officials in Washington and Kabul declined to reveal the number of MRAPs that have been crippled or destroyed since the first vehicles were deployed in Afghanistan in 2003, saying they didn’t want to provide the Taliban with information on the effectiveness of their tactics.

McClatchy is voluntarily withholding some U.S. soldiers’ descriptions of insurgent tactics out of concern that they may not be known by all of those fighting U.S.-led forces.

The soldiers spoke out of what they said was a heightened concern about the vehicles’ vulnerability to ambushes, especially on mountain roads where there’s no room for the vehicles to turn around.

11-48