France Recalls Syria Envoy

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – France recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syria’s suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.

Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.

Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assad’s home and offices.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.

Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.

“New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris,” Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.

Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.

Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.

Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.

“The regime should meet the demands of its people,” he said. “The collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this.”

IRAN DEFENDS SYRIA

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for “acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region.” He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.

“Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences.”

Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syria’s interest, not interfering in its affairs.

“What’s important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), it’s stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.

Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.

In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.

Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 7:30 p.m. EST.

A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.

The U.S. State Department said it had few details and no direct confirmation of the incident, but blamed Assad’s crackdown on protesters.

“It’s not surprising that we are now seeing this kind of violence,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. But let’s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path.”

“HUGELY SYMBOLIC”

A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as “hugely symbolic and tactically new,” saying that if the reported details were true it would be “much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before.”

“To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well,” said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localized civil war.

“It’s not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that,” said the diplomat.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.

It announced this week that it had formed a “temporary military council” of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.

The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to “bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls,” adding that it would form a military court to try “members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.”

Syrian television showed thousands of Assad’s supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League’s decision.

“God, Syria, Bashar, that’s all!” demonstrators shouted in central Damascus after turning out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. “Neither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism,” they said, according to the television report.

The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the center of its credo.

Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on “armed terrorist gangs” and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.

Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.

State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.

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Arab Spring Raises Hope for Era of Cleaner Business

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

2011-11-09T143612Z_1011185299_GM1E7B91KBQ01_RTRMADP_3_ABUDHABI-STRATEGY

Visitors look at models of the Saadiyat Island project during the Cityscape Abu Dhabi Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, in this April 18, 2010 file photo. When Abu Dhabi announced that it would delay establishing local branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, it was an important signal of the emirate’s economic strategy as well as its cultural priorities.The company gave no new dates for opening the museums, which were originally scheduled to start operating between 2013 and 2014 as part of a $27 billion art and culture development on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. But the message was clear: getting the projects right and ensuring public demand for them would be given precedence over rushing them out quickly to gain prestige.

AMMAN, Nov 9 (Reuters) – Gulf investor Omar Ayesh flew to Tripoli to meet Saif al-Islam Gaddafi when the son of Libya’s now-deposed strongman wanted to talk business, only to be caught in a web of bribery and crony capitalism.

A deal for a beachfront resort project on Tripoli’s seafront was signed with Muammar Gaddafi’s government and excavation work began, but it stopped after people linked to Gaddafi began asking for payoffs, the 43-year-old businessman says. Now, Ayesh is trying to revive the project.

“I didn’t expect influential figures within the regime would take over the project because it was lucrative. I just hope the new Libya will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” says Ayesh, chairman of United Arab Emirates-based Nobles Investments.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring uprisings have hurt many businessmen. Economies have slowed sharply as political uncertainty deters investment, new governments focus on trying to restore social stability instead of reforming economic policy, and labor unrest disrupts production and drives up costs.

But Ayesh is one of a substantial number of businessmen who say the economic climate is already improving in an important way: it is becoming easier to do business without the involvement of corrupt politicians and officials.

“Corruption was a major hurdle before the revolution and now it’s much less. This has improved the business environment in Egypt. We are much more optimistic,” said Issam Hijazi, chairman of Hijazi and Ghosheh, a Jordanian meat processing firm with millions of dollars of investments in Egypt and the region.

Patronage

Many businessmen are not as positive as Hijazi. In Egypt, for example, some small company owners still report struggles with corrupt officials and parasitical government bureaucracies that only their larger, wealthier competitors have the money to overcome.

But to some extent, the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak has loosened the grip of a clique of politicians, officials and their businesses cronies on commercial opportunities and the licences and financing needed to exploit them.

Companies linked to the former regime face legal challenges over past deals and must operate under greater public scrutiny; this levels the playing field and allows a wider group of businessmen to compete. Egyptian trade with Sudan, for example, is no longer dominated by businessmen linked to the Mubarak regime; it has become more open and diversified, said a business consultant in Egypt, who declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

Cases such as that of former Egyptian housing minister Ahmed al-Maghrabi have sent a chilling signal to officials and businessmen involved in improper deals. Maghrabi was sentenced to five years in jail in May over an illegal land deal in the Mubarak era; he and a businessman involved were ordered to return a total of 72 million Egyptian pounds ($12.6 million) to the state and were together fined a further 72 million pounds.

Much the same is happening in Tunisia, where members of the family of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali once owned or controlled many of the country’s biggest companies, with interests in media, banking and telecommunications.

“The political support and access to funds that some of the leaders of private sector in the Arab world had has been lost,” said Walid Nassan, head of the Jordan operation of Egyptian investment firm EFG Hermes.

“They now need to present themselves on their own credentials and many are tarnished. Those who exploited the system can no longer do that so openly and blatantly.”

At a meeting in Istanbul last week between executives of international oil firms and Libyan officials, who discussed Libya’s plans to buy nearly $3 billion of gasoline, oil traders were struck by the change in how the Libyans operated. The newly appointed managers of Libya’s National Oil Corp refused invitations to lunch or dinner and kept to a tight schedule.

“Before, everything was done under the table and with bribes. Now I haven’t heard anything about bribes, and tenders are being used to buy and sell,” one trader said.

In countries that have not seen their governments overthrown, the change in the business climate has been less dramatic. But here too, the Arab Spring appears to be increasing popular pressure for more transparency and an end to political patronage of business — pressure that governments cannot entirely ignore.

In Morocco, King Mohammed has ordered that the antitrust authority be given more powers to enforce transparency and good corporate governance. The authority’s head said it would be even-handed in dealing with firms owned by the monarchy, the biggest private stakeholder in the economy — although it may have to wait until late 2012 to obtain the power to intervene.

Usama Fayyad, executive chairman of Oasis 500, a Jordan-based investment firm which finances start-up firms in the region’s information technology sector, said governments had become more careful about appearing even-handed towards companies, even in countries that have been relatively untouched by the Arab Spring.

“Abuse of authority by government entities has definitely decreased. I see it applying even to countries that don’t have protests,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean it’s disappeared, but it means that they are more careful and this holds true in Lebanon, Iraq and in the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, where people are more afraid of exercising undue influence because scrutiny is coming. They know there will be more scrutiny, definitely more than before and that creates more diversified economic opportunities.”

He said big companies as well as governments had become “afraid of exercising their old methods of intimidation, influence peddling and corruption. This is helping local companies that previously were marginalized.”

Omar Bitar, head of Middle East emerging markets at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, said bidding processes for government contracts in the region were becoming more stringent and transparent, to the point that the award of some contracts was slowing down.

It is not clear how lasting these changes in the region’s business environment will be. New networks of corruption and economic patronage may form as post-uprising governments become more stable; public indignation over crony capitalism may fade as governments around the region buy off the public with subsidies and increased welfare spending.

Some businessmen suggest that in the short term at least, the cleaner commercial environment is actually hurting economies by making it more difficult for deals to get done.

“Legitimate business is being hurt by the perception of impropriety and few people dare to exercise their authority for fear of a witchhunt, and this is paralysing business,” said one Middle Eastern banker, who requested anonymity.

“Graft has an economic value as you measure the cost of corruption — monetary versus facilitation of business…Although companies now don’t have to buy the deal from some guy, it takes longer to secure the deal, plus the political risks have shot up.

“Business in Tunisia and in Egypt, at least on the surface, is not as tidy. You used to know someone who would facilitate business. Now it’s a big muddle.”

In the long term, though, a cleaner, fairer business environment could, even more than other economic reforms such as deregulation and fiscal policy changes, help to solve one of the Arab world’s biggest problems: job creation.

A more level playing field could spur the growth of small and medium-sized firms, which according to a World Bank study contribute only 20 percent of the region’s gross domestic product but employ 70 to 80 percent of its work force.

These firms could in turn create the tens of millions of new jobs that the Middle East and North Africa, with 65 percent of their 355 million people currently below the age of 25, will need in the next decade to avoid social disaster.

“There is no chance that the jobs needed in the years to come are going to come from government or from large businesses, because they don’t generally generate jobs. So it all has to come from entrepreneurs and new companies,” said Darin Rovere, president of Amman-based Sustainability Excellence, a management consultancy.

He said there were already signs that the Arab Spring was encouraging the growth of a new group of young, entrepreneurial businessmen.

“I think it’s exploding around us. These are all kids, young kids. It’s tech-related and you look at their ideas…and so many people just did not feel empowered or a sense of active citizenship. They are feeling different and feel an opportunity now,” said Rovere.

Fayyad at Oasis 500 agreed: “The desire to launch businesses is stronger than before and as far as start-ups and new companies go, private sector entrepreneurs are seeing more opportunities. More closed systems are now open.” (Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Istanbul; Editing by Andrew Torchia)

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Libya Tour Operators Eye Post-war Boom for Neglected Destinations

October 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Alexander Dziadosz

2011-10-12T143705Z_53610923_GM1E7AC1M4C01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA-TOURISM

A view of the ruins at the ancient city of Leptis Magna in Al Khums, some 81 miles east of Tripoli, in this April 15, 2011 file photo. The coastal country of Libya has all the makings for a vibrant tourism business, they say: warm weather, beaches, antiquities and proximity to Europe – all factors that helped the industry thrive in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. If developed, tourism could eventually help dent Libya’s high jobless rate by creating work for tour guides, drivers, restaurant workers and hotel staff, as well as help it diversify its economy away from dependency on oil and gas.                                

REUTERS/Louafi Larbi/Files

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – A holiday in Libya may sound like an absurdity now, but many of the country’s tour operators and officials are already starting to predict a bright future for the travel industry once the dust of war settles.

The coastal country has all the makings for a vibrant tourism business, they say: warm weather, beaches, antiquities and proximity to Europe — all factors that helped the industry thrive in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

If developed, tourism could eventually help dent Libya’s high jobless rate by creating work for tour guides, drivers, restaurant workers and hotel staff, as well as help it diversify its economy away from dependency on oil and gas.

The fact that operators are thinking about resuming business at all — some predicted tourists would start arriving again within a year — testifies to the relative peace that has prevailed in Tripoli and other parts of Libya since the former rebels ousted Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from the capital in August.

One company, Sherwes Travel, already advertises a three-day, 295-euro tour of “post-war Libya” on its website, featuring visits to sites in Tripoli and to the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Employees admit it may be a bit optimistic.

“The tour was very popular, actually. But not now, not yet,” said Ibrahim Usta, the company’s self-described international customer assistant. He said while some potential visitors had been in touch, it was not yet possible to bring them to Libya.

“We have many inquiries right now, but the problem is mainly security and visas,” he said. “There’s no (visa) system in place and many embassies are not functioning.”

Usta and others said tourism was languishing before the revolt because of apathy, incompetence, complex visa requirements, draconian police oversight and mercurial regulations under Gaddafi’s government.

Sabri Ellotai, manager of Sabri Tours and Travel, described bringing a group of Germans in 2009 only to have them turned away at the airport because they did not have an Arabic translation for their passports — a requirement he had never heard of before.

“I heard about it (the law) at the airport,” Ellotai said, shaking his head.

He and others said they hoped the country’s new rulers — currently represented by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) — would be able to do more with the industry when the war is over.

NTC forces are still fighting to take over Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and a few other bastions of Gaddafi loyalists, which has impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and restart oil production.

Libya’s lucrative oil and gas industry made tourism less of a priority than in Egypt and Tunisia, where it was a major contributor of jobs and foreign revenues before the uprisings in those countries.

Libyan central bank official Ali Shnebesh estimated tourism could account for between 3 and 4 percent of the economy within five to ten years, depending on how much effort the country’s new government puts into it.

“It would decrease unemployment, since we have a lot of areas that are good for tourism,” he said. “It would put thousands of our people to work in these places in many sectors — telecommunications, transportation, hotels — everywhere.”

It is difficult to tell how much tourism contributed to Libya’s economy before the revolt because it was not tracked as a separate industry in central bank records, but Shnebesh estimated it was below half a percent of gross domestic product.

That compares to Egypt, for instance, where officials said it accounted for over 11 percent before the revolt.

There is plenty of evidence of the lax oversight at the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, which was featured in the chronicler Herodotus’s “The Histories” and is now a UNESCO world heritage site, in the eastern Jebel al-Akhdar region.

The site is overgrown with weeds and graffiti etched onto one of its old columns. A renovation crew of Italians, Americans and French fled after the uprising started, guards there said.

Jamal Salem, 50, sitting in the afternoon sun outside a souvenir shop filled with woven baskets, photographs and ceramic statues still on display, said there weren’t many visitors even before the revolt.

“A lot of people think Libyans are terrorists, and so they’re afraid of coming here,” he said. “We hope the picture will become clearer now, and that things will get better.”

Others lingering in the area of Cyrene said they also hoped the revolt would help stamp out what they saw as widespread corruption and regional favoritism in the industry.

“Before, companies had their headquarters in Tripoli. They brought the cars from Tripoli, they brought the translators from Tripoli, everything. Nobody here benefited from it at all,” Hussein Saleh, who volunteered to help guard Cyrene, said.

Others near Cyrene and other sites said they also hoped a new government would show more interest in preserving relics.

“We’re expecting a better future, and maybe more interest in renovating the antiquities,” said Muftah Mabrook, a 35-year-old researcher at the ancient Greek port of Apollonia, a picturesque collection of columns and other ruins set against the sea.

While such ambitions are running high, it’s too soon to say how the situation will turn out.

Tripoli’s atmospheric old city is slowly coming back to life as jewelry shops and cafes reopen up in its winding streets, for instance, but many alleys are still littered with bullet casings.

In some areas, young men with Kalashnikov assault rifles sit smoking and chatting on stoops or around street corners. They are friendly, for the most part, as they smile and wave at foreign passersby, but their presence is not likely to encourage most holidaymakers.

The relative lack of English and French language speakers, as well as the ban on alcohol, may also make it hard for Libya to compete on a large scale with Egypt and Tunisia even after the war is finished, some operators say.

But Usta, like many others, was confident the industry would eventually thrive.

“We have everything. We have the desert, we have the sea, we have mountains. We just need the right people in the right place.”

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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Libya’s NTC thinks Gaddafi Near Algeria

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Joseph Logan and Sherine El Madany

SIRTE (Reuters) – Libya’s new rulers said on Wednesday they believed fugitive former leader Muammar Gaddafi was being shielded by nomadic tribesmen in the desert near the Algerian border, while his followers fend off assaults on his hometown.

Intense sniper and artillery fire from pro-Gaddafi fighters has so far prevented National Transitional Council (NTC) forces from taking Sirte despite more than two weeks of fighting and two full-on assaults.

One of Gaddafi’s last two bastions, it has withstood a siege, NTC tank and rocket fire as well as NATO air strikes, and the United Nations and international aid agencies are worried about conditions for civilians trapped inside.

More than a month since NTC fighters captured the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi remains defiantly on the run pledging to lead a campaign of armed resistance against the new leaders.

Gaddafi himself may be holed up near the western town of Ghadames, near the Algerian border, under the protection of Tuareg tribesmen, a senior NTC military official said.

“There has been a fight between Tuareg tribesmen who are loyal to Gaddafi and Arabs living there (in the south). We are negotiating. The Gaddafi search is taking a different course,” Hisham Buhagiar told Reuters, without elaborating.

Many Tuaregs, nomads who roam the desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbors, have backed Gaddafi since he supported their rebellions against the governments of Mali and Niger in the 1970s and allowed them to settle in Libya.

Buhagiar said Gaddafi’s most politically prominent son, Saif al-Islam, was in the other final loyalist holdout, Bani Walid, and that another son, Mutassem, was in Sirte.
Lack of coordination and division at the front-line have been hampering NTC attempts to capture Sirte and Bani Walid.

Fighting continued on separate eastern and western fronts in Sirte on Wednesday and commanders said they would try to join the two fronts together and take the city’s airport.

“There is progress toward the coastal road and the airport…. The plan is for various brigades to invade from other directions,” NTC fighter Amran al-Oweiwi said.

Street-fighting was under way at a roundabout 2 km (1.5 miles) east of the town center, where anti-Gaddafi fighters were pinned down for a third day by sniper and artillery fire.

As NATO planes circled overhead, NTC forces moved five tanks to the front but were immediately met with Grad rockets fired from inside the town, missing the tanks by only yards.

A Reuters crew at the scene saw several NTC fighters flee the front-line under heavy fire while others stood their ground.

“If I die, I’ll die proud,” one fighter shouted as he left a group of hiding comrades and ran back to the front.

“At the buildings! At the buildings!” an NTC commander ordered fighters manning the tanks, in an apparent attempt to target snipers, as thick black smoke rose over the town.

On the western front, fighters leapt into pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and anti-aircraft guns and raced in the direction of the airport.

Medical workers said 15 fighters were killed in Sirte on Tuesday, the highest single-day death toll. Two more, including a senior NTC field commander, were killed on Wednesday. More than 100 fighters were wounded, many from sniper fire.

NTC fighters captured 60 African mercenaries in Sirte on Wednesday. They said most had come from Chad and Mali to fight with Gaddafi loyalists.

A commander leading the attack on Sirte said on Tuesday he was in talks with elders inside the city about a truce, but the head of an anti-Gaddafi unit on the east rejected negotiations.

In Tripoli, a senior NTC officer said his fighters, on entering Sirte two days ago, had found and seized a helicopter under camouflage that appeared to have been made ready for a swift departure. He told Reuters he suspected the helicopter was assigned for the use of a senior official of the ousted Gaddafi government, possibly one of Gaddafi’s sons.

GADDAFI CLAN STILL VOCAL

As the fighting continues, humanitarian organizations are sounding the alarm about the possibility of civilian casualties in the town. Gaddafi’s spokesman has said NATO air strikes and NTC shelling are killing civilians.

NATO and the NTC deny that. They say Gaddafi loyalists are using civilians inside Sirte as human shields and have kidnapped and executed those they believe to be NTC supporters.

“Our main worry is the people being displaced because of the fighting,” said Jafar Vishtawi, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), near Sirte.

Civilians fleeing the town have said there is no power, little water and that the local population is terrified.

Taking the last two Gaddafi strongholds and finding the toppled leader would bring the NTC closer to establishing their credibility as the country’s new rulers.

A Syria-based television station that has been broadcasting audio speeches by Gaddafi, reported on Tuesday that Gaddafi had addressed his supporters and urged them to fight in a speech broadcast on a local radio station in Bani Walid. The report by Arrai television could not be independently verified.

In a separate development, NTC justice minister Mohammed al-Alagi said he was ready to work with Scottish authorities to probe the possible involvement of others in the Lockerbie bombing apart from the sole Libyan convicted for the attack.

His remark reversed a position he took only on Monday, when he said that as far as Libya was concerned the case of the bombing of the U.S.-bound airliner over the Scottish village of Lockerbie with the loss of 270 lives was closed.

Scottish prosecutors had asked Libya’s NTC to give them access to papers or witnesses that could implicate more suspects in the attack, possibly including Gaddafi himself.

(Additional reporting by William MacLean and Alexander Dziadosz in Tripoli, Emad Omar in Benghazi, Samia Nakhoul in London, Christian Lowe and Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Peter Graff and Louise Ireland)

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Eid Protests Across Syria Defy Tanks and Troops

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead four demonstrators on Tuesday as people streamed out of mosques after prayers to mark the end of Ramadan and renewed protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, activists and residents said.

The victims, who included a 13-year-old boy, were killed in the towns of al-Hara and Inkhil in southern Deraa province.

Demonstrations broke out elsewhere across the country, notably in Damascus suburbs, the city of Homs, 165 km (100 miles to the north) and the northwestern province of Idlib, the sources said.

“The people want the downfall of the president,” protesters shouted in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where activists said dozens of soldiers defected at the weekend after refusing to shoot at the crowds.

In the adjacent Saqba suburb a crowd held their shoes up in the air — an insulting gesture in the Arab world — and chanted anti-Assad slogans.

According to one activist group, troops have killed at least 551 civilians during Ramadan, the holiest period in the Islamic calendar.

Five months into the street uprising against his rule, Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, is facing more frequent demonstrations. Protesters have been encouraged by the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with whom Assad had close ties, and rising international pressure on the ruling hierarchy.

The Obama administration froze the U.S. assets of Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and two other Syrian officials on Tuesday in response to Assad’s increasingly bloody crackdown.

The Treasury Department also named Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, where Assad wields influence through the Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla group, and his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States had imposed the sanctions on the three because of the “role that they play in propagating and advancing the reign of terror that Assad is exacting on their own people.”

Moualem and Shaaban have appeared in the media defending military assaults on towns and cities, saying Syrian forces were pursuing “terrorists.” They are not part of Assad’s decision-making inner circle, composed of his younger brother Maher, other family members and top security officials already on the U.S. sanctions list.

Opposition figures in Syria see international pressure as crucial to stripping Assad of legitimacy and in helping raise the momentum of peaceful protests.

Residents and activists are reporting increasing defections among Syrian troops, drawn mostly from the Sunni majority population but dominated by Alawite officers effectively under the command of Maher.

In the capital, YouTube footage showed soldiers from core units roaming the center in green public transport buses, their AK-47s hanging out from the doors, to prevent protests, which broke out nonetheless in Qaboun, Kfar Souseh, Rukn al-Din and Maydan districts, activists said.

Moral Ground

In a report published on Tuesday, the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union grassroots activists’ group said Assad’s forces killed 551 people during Ramadan and that 130 others were killed on July 31, the eve of Ramadan, in a tank assault on the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.

“The report does not include the number of martyrs who were not identified by name nor… bodies that were abducted (by security forces) and not returned to their families,” it said.

Amnesty International said that deaths in Syrian prisons and police detention had soared in recent months as Assad’s government tried to crush the protests.

The London-based human rights group said it had details of at least 88 people believed to have died in detention between April and mid-August. At least 52 of them had apparently suffered some form of torture that was likely to have contributed to their death.

Chibli Mallat, a professor of law at Harvard, and chairman of the Right to Nonviolence international group of public figures, said Syria’s death toll, although high, was still less than Libya, where the revolution turned into armed conflict and needed NATO’s help.

“It may be also the case in Syria today … But is it necessary to reach the point that arms are engaged?” Mallat said in an article published on Tuesday in Egypt’s al-Ahram online.

“Is it not wiser, albeit perhaps more frustrating, to keep the revolution pure in the tenacity of its nonviolence, rather than lose the absolute moral superiority against violent rulers?” said Mallat, who is Lebanese.

The official state news agency said state television had aired an audio recording of two “terrorists” who described themselves as activists.

It said the tape revealed “a full agenda of provocation and targeting police and army camps and terrorising peaceful citizens in the name of freedom and non-violence.”

The Syrian National Human Rights Organization, headed by exiled dissident Ammar al-Qurabi, said pro-Assad forces, including a loyalist militia known as shabbiha, had killed at least 3,100 civilians since the uprising erupted in March, including 18 people on Monday alone.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay said this month that 2,200 people have been killed, with Assad’s forces continuing “to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities.”

Syrian authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed and say they have killed 500 soldiers and police. They have also repeatedly denied that army defections have been taking place.

Foreign media were expelled after the uprising began in March, making verification of reports difficult.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman; al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)

Gaddafi Loyalists Under Fire as Libya Celebrates ‘Eid

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Samia Nakhoul and Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI/TAWARGA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan forces backed by NATO bombers struck at loyalist troops dug in around Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown on Wednesday, as refugees streamed out of the besieged bastion fearing a bloody showdown in the coming days.

2011-08-31T101914Z_1293657413_GM1E78V1EZE01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA
Libyan Muslims react during Eid prayers at Green Square in Tripoli August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

As people in Tripoli and other cities marked the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with special savor following the end of 42 years of one-man rule, anti-Gaddafi fighters at the front around the coastal city of Sirte kept up pressure on its defenders, whom they have given till Saturday to surrender.

NATO said its planes bombed Gaddafi forces near Sirte on Tuesday, targeting tanks and other armored vehicles as well as military facilities. They also hit targets in the area of Bani Walid, another Gaddafi stronghold 150 km (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli. Anti-Gaddafi fighters said on the same day that they had advanced to within 30 km (20 miles) of the desert town.
On Wednesday NTC fighters said they clashed with Gaddafi forces patrolling in the area west of Sirte.

At Tawarga, west of Sirte, civilians streamed in laden vehicles along the coastal highway, some flying white flags.

Passing through a checkpoint set up by the forces of the interim ruling council, the NTC, many of the refugees said they feared a major battle, since they did not expect those holding Gaddafi’s tribal homeland to give up without a fight.

“I need to take my family where it is peaceful. Here there will be a big fight,” said one man, who gave his name as Mohammed.

Ali Faraj, a fighter for the opposition forces which forced Gaddafi into hiding last week, said he doubted people in Sirte would willingly join the revolt: “There will be a big fight for Sirte. It’s a dangerous city. It’s unlikely to rise up. A lot of people there support Gaddafi. It’s too close to Gaddafi and his family. It is still controlled by them.”

There is no independent confirmation of conditions in Sirte, which was developed into a prosperous city of 100,000 during the 42 years Gaddafi ruled Libya. NTC officials say power and water are largely cut off and supplies are low.

In Tripoli, after dawn, worshippers packed Martyrs’ Square, which was named Green Square in the Gaddafi era, chanting “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest), Libya is free.”
Fighters on rooftops guarded against any attack by Gaddafi loyalists and sniffer dogs checked cars. Even the interim interior minister, Ahmed Darat, was searched.
“This is the most beautiful Eid and most beautiful day in 42 years,” said Hatem Gureish, 31, a merchant from Tripoli.

“Gaddafi made us hate our lives … We come here to express our joy at the end of 42 years of repression and deprivation.”

Fatima Mustafa, 28, a pregnant woman wearing a black chador, said: “This is a day of freedom, a day I cannot describe to you. It’s as if I own the world. I’m glad I haven’t given birth yet so my daughter can be born into a free Libya.”

But the war is not over yet, with Gaddafi on the run and his loyalists defying an ultimatum set by Libya’s interim council.

Saturday Ultimatum

Libyans who revolted against Gaddafi in February needed NATO air power to help them win, but, given their country’s unhappy colonial history, they remain wary of foreign meddling.

Their interim leaders, trying to heal a nation scarred by Gaddafi’s cruelly eccentric ways, may want United Nations help in setting up a new police force, but see no role for international peacekeepers or observers, a U.N. official said.

“They are very seriously interested in assistance with policing to get the public security situation under control and gradually develop a democratically accountable public security force,” Ian Martin, special U.N. envoy for post-conflict planning in Libya, said at the United Nations in New York.

“We don’t now expect military observers to be requested,” he said. “It’s very clear that the Libyans want to avoid any kind of military deployment of the U.N. or others.”

The National Transitional Council (NTC), keen to assert its grip and relieve hardship after six months of war, won a $1.55 billion cash injection when the U.N. sanctions committee released banknotes in Britain in frozen Gaddafi accounts.

France has asked the committee to unfreeze 1.5 billion euros

($2.16 billion) of Libyan assets in France, a French government source said on Wednesday, adding that Libya has 7.6 billion euros of assets parked in French banks.

“Friends of Libya”

The source also said that Russia and China, which have not formally recognized the NTC, would send representatives to a “Friends of Libya” conference in Paris on Thursday to discuss support for political and economic rebuilding.

The timing of the meeting, on September 1, strikes a chord for many Libyans, who for four decades have been obliged to celebrate the date as the anniversary of the military coup that brought Colonel Gaddafi to power in 1969.

Despite the killing and shortages of fuel, power and water that Tripoli has endured since Gaddafi’s fall, worshippers in Martyrs’ Square were mostly ebullient about the future.

But Nouri Hussein, 42, an engineer, said that while he was glad Gaddafi was gone, he feared the guns in the hands of unruly fighters: “There is apprehension about what next. The rebels should not be blinded with the ecstasy of victory.”

NTC leaders have told their forces to treat prisoners with respect — in contrast with the reported killing and torture of detainees by Gaddafi’s forces — but Amnesty International said its staff had seen anti-Gaddafi fighters threaten and detain wounded opponents, notably black Libyans and foreigners.

“The council must do more to ensure that their fighters do not abuse detainees, especially the most vulnerable ones such as black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans,” Amnesty’s Claudio Cordone said in a statement after one incident in Tripoli.

“Many risk reprisals as a result of allegations that Gaddafi forces used ‘African mercenaries’ to commit widespread violations during the conflict,” the lobby group added.

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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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Libya Rebels Retake Village South of Tripoli

July 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Peter Graff

2011-07-13T203734Z_1071071745_GM1E77E0CWJ01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Rebels walk to take positions next to a main road leading to Al-Quwalish in the western mountains of Libya during an offensive by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi July 13, 2011. Forces loyal to Gaddafi on Wednesday retook a village south of the capital seized by rebels a week ago, a set-back to rebel plans for a march on Tripoli. The loss of the village of Al-Qawalish, about 60 miles from the capital, underlined the faltering pattern of the rebel advances that has led some of the rebels’ Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict instead.    

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) – Rebel fighters said on Wednesday they had retaken a village south of the capital they lost to forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi earlier in the day, boosting rebel plans for a march on Tripoli.

The retaking of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) from Tripoli, came at the end of a day of bitter fighting that killed five rebels and wounded 15, according to rebel sources and hospital officials.

The back-and-forth fighting underlined the fragile nature of the rebels’ advances in the west that has led some of their Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict.

Rebel spokesman Abdurahman Alzintani said pro-Gaddafi forces had been pushed back to where they were before they took the village earlier on Wednesday, or perhaps even further.

“It is the same, maybe one or two hills further,” he told Reuters.

A Libyan government soldier taken prisoner by the rebels said that pro-Gaddafi forces were massing nearby, potentially setting the stage for renewed fighting soon, according to a Reuters team in the western town of Zintan.

The counter-attack to retake Al-Qawalish was carried out by hundreds of rebels in pick-up trucks, who fanned out into the hills about 10 km (6 miles) north of the village, under fire from mortars launched by government troops.

Rebel forces want to use Al-Qawalish as a staging post to take the nearby town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway heading north to Tripoli.

On the other main battle front, near the western city of Misrata, a burst of missile and mortar fire killed five rebels and wounded 17, hospital spokesman Khaled Abu Talghah said.

“This is just a normal day’s work for Gaddafi,” he said.

The conflict in Libya started out as a rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule. It has now turned into the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings convulsing the region and has embroiled Western powers in a prolonged conflict they had hoped would swiftly force Gaddafi out of power.

The Libyan leader is refusing to quit and the rebels have been unable to make a decisive breakthrough toward the capital despite support from Western warplanes.

Libya charged the head of NATO with war crimes for killing innocent civilians and bombarding civilian targets in Libya.

Libyan General Prosecutor Mohammed Zekri al Mahjoubi described NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a war criminal during a news conference in Tripoli on Wednesday.

DEAL ‘TAKING SHAPE’

France said on Tuesday a political way out of the conflict was being looked at and that Gaddafi’s emissaries had been in contact with NATO members to say he was ready to leave power.

“A political solution is more than ever indispensable and is beginning to take shape,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Paris.

But it was not obvious how negotiations could persuade Gaddafi to quit, especially at a time when the Western alliance ranged against him is showing signs of wavering.

A report on Libya’s official JANA news agency described statements by Western officials about Gaddafi potentially stepping down or leaving the country as “elusive dreams.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is under pressure to find a quick solution. He gambled by taking a personal role in supporting the rebels, but is now anxious to avoid costly military operations running into the start of campaigning for the April 2012 presidential election.

Washington expressed doubts about peace overtures from Gaddafi emissaries. A State Department spokeswoman said the “messages are contradictory” and there is no clear evidence “Gaddafi is prepared to understand that its time for him to go.”

Revealing fresh strains inside NATO about the cost and duration of the Libyan operation, British Defense Minister Liam Fox said other alliance members were not pulling their weight and described some states’ contributions as “pathetic.”

“The United States is willing to spend on defense, Britain is willing to spend on defense and deploy. Far too (many) of our European partners inside NATO are still trying to get a free ride, and they should regard Libya as a wake-up call,” Fox said in London.

The rebel National Transitional Council, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, received a diplomatic boost on Wednesday when Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recognized the council as Libyans’ legitimate representative.

The Benelux countries joined more than 20 nations that have already granted the council recognition.

At a meeting in Brussels, the European Union executive offered Libyan rebels help with democratic reforms once the war was over and said their Benghazi-based council was gaining credibility.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Nick Carey in Misrata, Justyna Pawlak and Christopher Le Coq in Brussels, John Irish in Paris, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Mohammed Abbas in London; Writing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood; Editing by Robert Woodward)

13-29

Russia: Arming Libya Rebels Is “Crude Violation”

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Lutfi Abu-Aun

2011-07-06T202351Z_158716080_GM1E7770CEB01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Head of the rebel forces Abdel Fattah Younes gestures as he arrives at Green Square in the Kish, Benghazi July 6, 2011, to demonstrate against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. 

REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Russia accused France on Thursday of committing a “crude violation” of a U.N. weapons embargo by arming Libyan rebels, while Washington said it was acting legally, creating a new diplomatic dispute over the Western air war.

France confirmed on Wednesday that it had air-dropped arms to rebels in Libya’s Western Mountains, becoming the first NATO country to acknowledge openly arming the insurgency against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

France, Britain and the United States are leading a three-month-old air campaign which they say they will not end until Gaddafi falls. The war has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

Rebels acknowledged French support, saying it had helped sustain them in the region.

“There should be no doubt that Libyans in the Nafusa Mountain (Western Mountains) area are alive and safe today thanks to a combination of heroic Libyan bravery and French wisdom and support,” Vice Chairman Abdul Hafeedh Ghoga of the Transitional National Council said in a statement of thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Though rebel advances have been slow, the insurgents scored a success in the region on Sunday in pushing to the outskirts of Bir al-Ghanam, within 80 km (50 miles) of Tripoli.

On Thursday the rebels surveyed the strategic town from a ridge overlooking the desert plateau that leads to the capital, in preparation for a possible attack. A Reuters journalist with them said they were waiting for NATO airstrikes to help them.

Libyan television broadcast a statement from tribal leaders condemning Sarkozy over the arms, calling the rebels in the Berber area “a product of France.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow “asked our French colleagues today whether reports that weapons from France were delivered to Libyan rebels correspond with reality.”

“If this is confirmed, it is a very crude violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970,” he said. That resolution, adopted in February, imposed a comprehensive arms embargo.

Paris said on Wednesday it believed it had not violated the U.N. embargo because the weapons it gave the rebels were needed to protect civilians from an imminent attack, which it says is allowed under a later Security Council resolution.

Washington agreed. “We believe that U.N. Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, read together, neither specified nor precluded providing defense materiel to the Libyan opposition,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

“We would respectfully disagree with the Russian assessment,” he added. Nevertheless, although legal, arming the rebels was “not an option that we have acted on,” he said.
Although Russia is not involved in the bombing campaign, its stance could add to reservations among some NATO countries wary over an air war that has lasted longer and cost more than expected. Moscow could also challenge Paris at the U.N. Security Council, where both are veto-wielding permanent members.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said it was up to the Security Council to determine what is permitted by its resolutions.

France’s weapons airlift, while possibly increasing the insurgent threat to Gaddafi, highlights a dilemma for NATO.

More than 90 days into its bombing campaign, Gaddafi is still in power and no breakthrough is in sight, making some NATO members feel they should help the rebels more actively, something the poorly-armed insurgents have encouraged.

But if they do that, they risk fracturing the international coalition over how far to go.

The World Bank’s Libya representative said on Thursday Islamist militants could gain ground if the conflict wears on.

“If this civil war goes on, it would be a new Somalia, which I don’t say lightly,” said Marouane Abassi, World Bank country manager for Libya who has been in Tunisia since February.

“In three months we could be dealing with extremists. That’s why time is very important in this conflict, before we face problems in managing it.”

Even before news of the French arms supply emerged, fissures were emerging in the coalition with some members voicing frustration about the high cost, civilian casualties, and the elusiveness of a military victory.

Gaddafi says the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing the North African state’s oil. He says NATO’s U.N.-mandated justification for its campaign — to protect Libyan civilians from attack — is spurious.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made clear on Thursday the weapons airlift was a unilateral French initiative. Asked by reporters on a visit to Vienna if NATO had been involved, he answered: “No.”

“As regards compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, it is for the U.N. sanctions committee to determine that,” Rasmussen said.

The rebel advance toward Tripoli’s southwest outskirts from the Western Mountains has not been matched by progress toward the capital from the east, where they hold Misrata on the coast about 200 km (130 miles) from the capital.

The city has been bombarded for months by Gaddafi’s forces. Six rockets landed early on Thursday near the oil refinery and port. A Reuters journalist there reported no casualties.

Britain’s military said its Apache helicopters had attacked a government checkpoint and two military vehicles near Khoms, on the Mediterranean coast between Misrata and Tripoli.

Insurgents say Gaddafi’s forces are massing and bringing weapons to quell an uprising in Zlitan, the next big town along the road from Misrata to the capital. Rebels inside Zlitan said they mounted a raid on pro-Gaddafi positions on Wednesday night.

“(We) carried out a violent attack last night on checkpoints … and exchanged gunfire, killing a number of soldiers,” a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Mabrouk, told Reuters from the town.
Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains in early June.

A French military spokesman later confirmed arms had been delivered, although he said anti-tank missiles were not among them. Despite the diplomatic storm, the rebels encouraged more arms deliveries.

“Giving (us) weapons we will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” senior rebel figure Mahmoud Jibril said in Vienna.

The conflict has halted oil exports from Libya, helping push up world oil prices. Jibril said it may take years for oil exports to fully resume: “No, no oil is being sold. A lot of the oil well system was destroyed, especially in the east.”

13-28

Libyan Rebels Push Towards Tripoli on Two Fronts

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Peter Graff

2011-07-06T212010Z_307909548_GM1E7770F1801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

A Libyan boy flashing a victory sign attends a rally against Muammar Gaddafi in Misrata July 6, 2011.  

REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

AL-QAWALISH, Libya (Reuters) – Rebel fighters seized a village south of the Libyan capital and another group advanced toward Tripoli from the east on Wednesday in the biggest push in weeks toward Muammar Gaddafi’s main stronghold.

Rebels firing their rifles into the air in celebration poured into the village of Al-Qawalish, 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tripoli, after a six-hour battle with pro-Gaddafi forces who had been holding the town.

Rushing through an abandoned checkpoint where government troops had left tents and half-eaten bread in their rush to get away, the rebels ripped down pro-Gaddafi flags.

Farther north, rebels pushed westward from the city of Misrata to within 13 km of the center of the town of Zlitan, where large numbers of pro-Gaddafi forces are based.

But they came under artillery fire. Doctors at the al-Hekma hospital in Misrata said 14 fighters had been killed on Wednesday and about 50 were injured.

The advances came amid reports that Gaddafi — under pressure from a five-month uprising against his rule, sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign — was seeking a deal under which he would step down.

His government has denied any such negotiations are underway, and NATO’s chief said he had no confirmation that Gaddafi was looking for a deal to relinquish power.

A Libyan official told Reuters on Wednesday there were signs a solution to the conflict could be found by the start of August, though he did not say what that solution might involve.

In the rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misrata, thousands demonstrated against Gadaffi, waving European and rebel flags and calling for the end of his four-decade rule.

The rebel advances followed weeks of largely static fighting. Heavily armed Gaddafi forces still lie between the rebels and Tripoli, and previous rebel advances have either bogged down or quickly turned into retreats.

But with Al-Qawalish now in rebel hands, they can advance northeast to the larger town of Garyan, which controls the main highway leading into Tripoli. Libyan state television reported on Wednesday that NATO hit targets in Garyan as well fuel tanks in the town of Brega, 200 km (130 miles) west of Benghazi.

The previous big advance in the region was last month, when rebels pushed 20 km (12 miles) north from their base in the Western Mountains to the town of Bir al-Ghanam.

Misrata Push

At the frontline on the outskirts of Zlitan, a unit of fighters had built a sand-bank behind which they could shelter while firing at government troops. There were still sounds of intermittent shelling as night fell.

Unit commander Tarek Mardi, a 36-year-old former banker, said pro-Gaddafi forces had tried to push his fighters back but they had held their ground.

“Why isn’t NATO doing its job, where are the Apaches?” he asked, referring to the attack helicopters the alliance had deployed to Libya. “We are protecting our people, our country. We want to save our land from Gaddafi. He is a criminal.”

More than 100,000 rebel supporters spilled into the streets of Benghazi waving European and rebel flags and chanting slogans against the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi, who has ruled oil producer Libya for 41 years, says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has described the NATO campaign as an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya’s oil.

Deal Talk

A Russian newspaper this week quoted what it described as a high-level source as saying Gaddafi is sounding out the possibility of stepping down on condition there was a political role for one of his sons.

A Libyan government spokesman denied that report, saying Gaddafi’s future was not up for negotiation.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told Reuters in Tripoli that a solution to the conflict could be found before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins early in August.

“There are signals that the crisis will find a solution in the coming weeks. We will do whatever possible so that our people will spend Ramadan in peace,” he said.

“Currently the key hurdle to a solution is the NATO military campaign, and we hope that our friends in the African Union organization will do whatever possible to convince it to stop its aggression against our people.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he had no confirmed information that Gaddafi had sounded out the possibility of stepping down.

“But it is quite clear that the end state must be that he leaves power,” Rasmussen told a news conference in Brussels.

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Misrata, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Lamine Chikhi in Tripoli, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Maria Golovnina in Benghazi, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Moscow bureau; Writing by Christian Lowe and David Dolan; Editing by Diana Abdallah)

13-28

“Game Over” for Gaddafi?

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey and Adam Gray-Block

2011-06-29T203208Z_1646673128_GM1E76U0CR801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Stockpiles of ordnance inside a Gaddafi ammunition bunker which is now controlled by rebel fighters are seen approximately 40 kms (25 miles) southeast of Zintan June 29, 2011.

REUTERS/Anis Mili

(Reuters) – Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi could fall within two to three months, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on Tuesday, as rebels sought to build on a gradual advance toward Tripoli.
The ICQ’s Luis Moreno-O campo, who on Monday announced an arrest warrant for Gaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity, is the latest international official to say the Libyan leader would soon capitulate to a NATO-backed revolt.

“It is a matter of time … Gaddafi will face charges,” Moreno-O campo told reporters in The Hague, where the warrants were approved for Gaddafi, his son Said al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

He added: “I don’t think we will have to wait for long…In two or three months it is game over.”

The Libyan administration rejects the authority of the ICC and has denied targeting civilians, saying it has acted against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
While there is little chance of Gaddafi being arrested if he remains in power, his foes have seized on the warrant to justify the three-month NATO bombing campaign and to try and bolster world opinion in support of the operation.

In Washington, a U.S. Senate panel backed a resolution to formally authorize continued U. s. participation in the NATO-led operation. Senators on the panel rebuked President Barrack Obama for not having sought congressional approval in the first place.

In comments that appeared to make any political settlement even less likely, rebels said after talks in Paris that even indirect contacts with Gaddafi were now excluded — hardening a line that until now acknowledged talks through intermediaries.

“I don’t think there is any place for direct or indirect contact with Gaddafi,” Mahout Sham, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTSC) said after meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In its eastern stronghold of Benghazi, the NTSC hosted the foreign minister of Bulgaria, whose country along with Romania brought to at least 22 the number of states which recognize the NTSC as representatives of the Libyan people.

Rebels Closer to Tripoli

The rebellion against Gaddafi has made only slow progress since Western countries began bombing three months ago, but rebels say they are finally advancing closer to Tripoli.

Rebels based in the Western Mountains region southwest of the capital made their biggest breakthrough in weeks on Sunday to reach the town of Birr al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro- Gaddafi forces for control, their spokesman said.

The move took them 30 km (18 miles) north of their previous position and closer to Tripoli, Gaddafi’s main power base.

A rebel spokesman said there had been further fighting on Monday. “Fighting broke out yesterday evening in Birr Ay and Birr al-Ghanem. The (government) brigades used Grad rockets. The fighting stopped later after strikes by NATO,” he said.

A Reuters photographer said rebels tried to salvage weapons from a pro- Gaddafi arms depot some 20 km (13 miles) southeast of the nearby town of Zintan after it had been bombed by NATO, but they were prevented as fire broke out across the entire depot.

Elsewhere, rebels in Misrata said Gaddafi’s forces struck at the Mediterranean coastal city some 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli overnight. Rebels said they blew up a vehicle laden with arms belonging to Gaddafi’s forces in nearby Zlitan on Tuesday but were downbeat on the prospect of any imminent advances.

“Given our limited means, I don’t see how we are going to make major gains,” a rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam said.

The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers across the Middle East, becoming a full-blown civil war with control of the country divided between the rebels and Gaddafi’s government.

In London, a British minister told reporters a team planning for a post-conflict Libya had recommended Gaddafi’s security forces be left largely intact after any rebel victory, avoiding an error made after the Iraq war.

“One of the first things that should happen once Tripoli falls is that someone should get on the phone to the former Tripoli chief of police and tell him he’s got a job and he needs to ensure the safety and security of the people of Tripoli,” said International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

The report of the UK-led team is to be presented at the next meeting of an international contact group on Libya on July 15.

“NATO Fig Leaf”

Reporters were taken on Tuesday by Libyan government minders to the town of Bain Wailed, a tribal stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli to attend a pro- Gaddafi rally.

“We are here to show that all Libyan people love Gaddafi,” said schoolteacher Halo Aimed, 20, one of 200 mostly female supporters, some of whom fired machine guns in the air, while two carried unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Bain Wailed is home to the Walhalla, Libya’s biggest tribe, which originally announced its opposition to Gaddafi when the uprising began in February. The tribe’s revolt was quickly suppressed by forces loyal to Gaddafi.

The launch of a third war in a Muslim country has divided U. s. public opinion while tens of thousands of troops are still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. U. s. forces took the lead in the air campaign’s initial days, but quickly turned command over to NATO, with most bombing carried out by Britain and France.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed a resolution formally authorizing U. s. participation in the operation but banning the introduction of U.S. troops on the ground.

Senators said Obama should have sought approval in Congress earlier. U. s. State Department legal adviser Harold Kohl said no authorization was needed because the U. s. role was too limited to be considered “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, which requires presidents to seek approval for military action.

Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and former U. s. Navy secretary, said any operation that lasts for months and costs billions could be defined as hostilities “even under the NATO fig leaf.”

(Additional reporting by Maria Gorgonian in Benghazi, Michael Martian in Beijing, Susan Cornell in Washington, John Irish in Paris, Joseph Nash in Berlin, David Brainstorm in Brussels and Hasid Auld Aimed in Algiers; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Peter Graff)

13-27

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

Analysis: Arab Spring Likely to Leave Oil Firms Unscathed

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tom Bergin

2011-06-15T172504Z_01_BTRE75E1CDW00_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-TUNISIA-TOURISM

A Tunisian artisan makes tributes to the “Arab Spring” revolution by etching flags on bronze plates in the medina, the old city of Tunis, June 14, 2011.

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

LONDON (Reuters) – Western oil firms are unlikely to face widespread asset seizures or contract revisions as a result of Arab uprisings, thanks to deft diplomacy, legal protections and efforts to depict themselves as partners of the local citizenry.

In the past, big political shifts in the Middle East have often been followed by the eviction of foreign oil producers — Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran to cite a few examples.

This time around, upheaval has hit Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Syria — not the biggest oil producers in the Arab world but among the most open to foreign investment. Companies including BP Plc, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell have spent billions there.

“I wouldn’t describe us as worried. We’re being vigilant,” said Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP, echoing comments from other companies.

The new governments that have emerged, or may emerge, are expected by and large to remain supportive of foreign investment, because they will wish to maintain output and government revenues.
“I don’t see there being a large nationalistic wave,” said Richard Quin, Middle East analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

In the past popular anger toward a regime has spilled over to the companies that supported it, but oil companies say that over the past two decades, they have positioned themselves on the side of communities, rather than as agents of government.

“Companies now are not so closely aligned with governments,” said Mahdi Sajjad, president of Syria-focused Gulfsands Petroleum, whose shares have been hit by investor fears about the unrest.
In part this has been achieved by investing in community engagement projects. Oil contracts that are more transparent and more favorable toward host nations also play a big role.

Contract Changes

Up to the 1970s, oil contracts were opaque and seen as beneficial to companies and the region’s frequently corrupt governments — at the expense of citizens. Now contracts usually follow internationally accepted models.

This will help oil executives argue they are giving host nations the best deal that a new leadership could hope to get and, therefore, that existing contracts should be respected.
“We look at it (investment) from a perspective of the fundamental stakeholders, the population of the country .. rather than through the lens of the current incumbent government,” said Frank Chapman, chief executive of British Gas producer BG Group.

“What we are doing in Tunisia and Egypt is sustainable,” he added.

Oil companies have beaten a path to new leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and, an Italian ministerial source told Reuters last month, even to Libyan rebel leaders. Companies say the signals received so far do not point to widespread asset seizures.

If new governments do seek to expropriate oil fields or to rewrite contracts, companies will find they have greater legal protection than they did when the last wave of nationalization swept through the Arab world in the 1970s.

Modern contracts bar governments from taking unilateral action to seize assets and can limit their ability to hike taxes. And if there is a dispute over whether the government has overstepped its authority, companies don’t have to worry about arguing their cases in front of potentially biased local courts.

“Contracts usually provide for arbitration in a neutral venue,” Anthony Sinclair, a partner with law firm Allen & Overy said.

Potential for Loss Still

In addition, many countries have signed bilateral investment treaties, known as BITs, which commit them to protect foreign investments in their territories.
“There are close to 3,000 of these treaties in existence,” Sinclair said.

These will help deter unilateral moves against companies, but they will not protect companies against all losses. International litigation can drag on for decades, during which opportunities are lost, said Harry Clark, partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf. This suggests companies might agree to unfavorable contract changes that would not be upheld in court.

Also oil companies can face a big financial hit if instability delays production.

“The oil industry values everything in net present value terms … (and) because you are pushing things out, on a discounted cash flow basis, that will erode value,” said Quin.
BP and other companies have suspended operations in Libya, while French oil major Total said it lost production at one field in Yemen due to the conflict there.
Sajjad said Gulfsands’ operations in Syria were unaffected, but the conflict could create difficulties in importing equipment there and in other countries — especially if new sanctions are imposed against governments fighting revolts.

There is little companies can do to limit such losses.

Yet some executives say the problems thrown up by the Arab Spring simply reflect the intrinsic nature of the oil business.

“It is always like that in exploration, you can always face different kinds of issues .. This is part of life for an oil and gas company,” said Total head of strategy Jean-Jacques Mosconi.

13-26

Libya’s Misrata Hit; China Shifts Toward Rebels

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Robinson

LIBYA/
Rebel fighters sit at the frontline in Ajdabiyah June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s rebels gained on the diplomatic front Wednesday by securing China’s recognition as a “dialogue partner,” but suffered on the battlefield where Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were able to shell their stronghold of Misrata.

Four months into the uprising, and three months since NATO war planes joined their fight to topple Gaddafi, the rebels are making only slow gains in their march on the capital Tripoli. But they have made steady progress winning support abroad and isolating Gaddafi on the international stage.

“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, who visited 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 China was worried about the Libyan people’s suffering.

The comments came hours after Gaddafi’s forces landed rockets in the center of Misrata 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.

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

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.

In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Gaddafi’s state media issued instructions 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.

At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli Wednesday but it was not clear where or what caused them.

Rebels Seek Recognition

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

At least eight European and Arab governments have said they recognize the rebel council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Other countries have allowed the rebels to set up representative offices.

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) — a Saudi-based grouping of 57 Muslim countries — said a delegation arrived Wednesday to mediate. It would meet the rebels in Benghazi and Gaddafi officials in Tripoli, a statement said.

Misrata Attack

Rebels drove loyalist forces out of the third-biggest city Misrata in mid-May and are using it as a base for an advance westwards on Tripoli. Gaddafi forces’ ability to hit it with shells early Wednesday is a setback in a city that had experienced relative calm after months of siege and fighting.

More rockets fell later in the day 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. Two more landed in open areas.

Fighting has been largely on Misrata’s far western and eastern edges, where the rebel army is sustaining heavier casualties by the day from the better-equipped and better-trained government forces.
Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafi’s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said Wednesday that “dozens” of people were killed in Zlitan after NATO naval 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 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.

Four rebel fighters were killed and 60 others were wounded in fighting with government forces Tuesday in Dafniya, which lies between Zlitan and Misrata. Eleven rebel fighters were killed there a day earlier.

Rebels are trying to inch toward Tripoli from Misrata, east of the capital, and from the Western Mountains region to its southwest. The going has been tough.

“Gaddafi’s forces have moved forward about a kilometer,” Dr Mohammed Grigda said at the field hospital in Dafniya just outside Misrata. It was impossible to verify the information but a Reuters reporter in Dafniya saw that rebel mortar positions had pulled back slightly.

In the Western Mountains, where the rebels made significant gains in recent weeks, NATO launched four air strikes Tuesday against government forces outside the town of Nalut near the border with Tunisia, a rebel spokesman there said. Gaddafi’s soldiers fired 20 rockets into the town, but no one was hurt.

Gaddafi allies denounce the bombing campaign as a foreign attempt to force a change of government and seize the North African state’s oil. NATO states defend the operation as a U.N.-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians.

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Hammond and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Peter Graff)

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)

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Libyan Rebels Take New Ground in Western Mountains

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey

2011-06-15T224232Z_1848250202_GM1E76G0IRF01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Rebel fighters prepare to make their way to the frontline near the town of Riyayna, June 15, 2011.   

REUTERS/Anis Mili

GHARYAN, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed deeper into government-held territory south of the capital on Wednesday, but their advance came as strains began to emerge in the Western alliance trying to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

Fighters in the Western Mountains, a rebel stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) south-west of Tripoli, built on gains made in the past few days by taking two villages from which pro-Gaddafi forces had for months been shelling rebel-held towns.

The rebels are still a considerable way from Gaddafi’s main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts — in Misrata and in eastern Libya — have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.

“The revolutionaries (rebels) now control Zawiyat al-Babour and al-Awiniyah after pro-Gaddafi forces retreated this morning from the two villages,” Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, told Reuters.

In Gharyan, a Gaddafi-held town that forms the gateway from Tripoli to the mountains, there was an undercurrent of tension as the frontline moves closer to the capital.
Libyan government minders brought a group of reporters to the town, which lies about 120 kilometers southwest of Tripoli and about 20 kilometers east of Kikla, which rebels seized from Gaddafi loyalists on Tuesday.

Despite an outward appearance of normality, numerous walls around town on Wednesday had recently painted over graffiti. The windows of one government building were smashed, the sign for another was riddled with holes.

While many traders and people on the streets were reluctant to talk to reporters, one shop owner said the calm in the area during the day was replaced by fighting every night.
“Two thirds of the people here are for the rebels,” he told Reuters, giving his name as Mohammed.

Those willing to talk in front of the minders were strongly pro-Gaddafi.

“Sarkozy is stupid, he is fighting this war for petrol,” a man called Yunis said in French, referring to the French president, villified by Gaddafi supporters as the driving force behind NATO bombing. “This is colonialism all over again.”

The NATO military alliance, which has been pounding Gaddafi’s military and command-and-control structures for nearly three months, has failed to dislodge him.

Libyan TV said on Wednesday a NATO bombardment had killed 12 people in a convoy in Kikla. A NATO official denied it.

Ties are becoming strained in the alliance, with some NATO members complaining that others have been reluctant to commit additional resources needed to sustain the bombing mission in the coming months.

Adding to the pressure, Republicans in the U.S. Congress are pressing President Barack Obama to explain the legal grounds on which he was keeping U.S. forces involved in Libya without the authorisation of Congress.

Speaking in London after meeting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated that time was running out for Gaddafi and that the alliance was as determined as ever.

“I think there is a very clear pattern emerging which is time is on our side, because we have the support of NATO, the United Nations, the Arab League, a huge number of countries in our coalition and in our contact group,” he said.

Rasmussen echoed those comments despite senior NATO commander General Stephane Abrial on Tuesday raising questions about the alliance’s ability to handle a long-term intervention.

“Allies and partners are committed to provide the necessary resources and assets to continue this operation and see it through to a successful conclusion,” Rasmussen said.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the alliance was “sliding down and being dragged more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya.”

In a theatrical show of defiance, Gaddafi was shown at the weekend playing a game of chess with a Russian official, but after weeks of ambivalence, Moscow has joined Western countries this month in calling for Gaddafi to step down.

Saad Djebbar, a former legal adviser to the Libyan government, told Reuters Gaddafi would continue to play for time and seek to demoralise and split the coalition.

“Gaddafi’s mentality is that as long as my enemies haven’t triumphed, I haven’t lost,” he said.

“The U.S. stance, that the major outside role should be played by the Europeans and Arabs, sends the wrong signal. Gaddafi will be very encouraged by it. His line is ‘We are steadfast. We can wait it out.’”

Gaddafi has said he has no intention of leaving the country — an outcome which, with the military intervention so far failing to produce results, many Western policymakers see as the most realistic way out of the conflict.

The Libyan leader has described the rebels as criminals and al Qaeda militants, and called the NATO intervention an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s oil.

Potent Force

Though under attack from NATO warplanes and rebel fighters, Gaddafi’s troops have showed they are still a potent force.

A rebel spokesman in Nalut, at the other end of the Western Mountains range from Zintan, said Gaddafi’s forces had been shelling Nalut and the nearby border crossing into Tunisia. The rebels depend on that crossing to bring in supplies.

On Tuesday, the rebels tried to advance in the east of Libya, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega, but they were unable to break through.

In Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city about 200 km (120 miles) east of Tripoli, rebels have been inching slowly west toward the neighbouring town of Zlitan along the coast road to Tripoli, but have repeatedly had to fall back under fire.

The rebels there have expressed frustration that NATO is not more active at taking out Gaddafi’s forces there, and is not doing more to coordinate with fighters on the ground.

A Reuters correspondent in Misrata said there were no further advances toward Zlitan on Wednesday.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger will visit the rebels in Benghazi on Sunday to offer “concrete support,” his office said, the latest in a series of such visitors.

13-25

Libya’s Oil Chief Ghanem Defects, in Rome Now

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Deepa Babington

ROME (Reuters) – Libya’s top oil official Shokri Ghanem appeared in Rome on Wednesday, saying he had defected because of relentless bloodshed under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

A tired looking Ghanem, whose whereabouts had been unknown for several days, made a brief statement to a few reporters in the basement of a Rome hotel that he had resigned as National Oil Corp chief because of the “unbearable” violence in Libya.

“The continuous blood spill, continuous war and loss of life make it impossible for anyone to work in this environment,” said Ghanem, one of the most senior officials to desert Gaddafi.

“I left the country and decided also to leave my job and to join the choice of Libyan youth to create a modern constitutional state respecting human rights and building a better future for all Libyans.”

Ghanem, a familiar face to oil reporters with whom he enjoyed friendly banters at energy conferences, appeared tense and a shadow of his former effusive self, politely answering questions briefly before leaving.

“We will see what will happen, it’s too early to say,” he said, when asked what he would do next and if he would join the rebel movement. “I need some sort of few days rest.”
He said he had left Tripoli two weeks ago, and that some of his family remained there.

“Lot of Pressure”

Born in Tripoli, Ghanem has decades of experience in the oil sector and took the helm of Libya’s National Oil Corp. in 2006. Considered a reformer, reports emerged in 2009 that he had resigned in a turf war, but he was back at his post weeks later.

In Rome, he said had not seen Gaddafi “for months,” but still hoped for a peaceful solution to the leader’s fate. Gaddafi has shown no signs of stepping down since rebels in the east rose up against his four-decade rule in mid-February.

Asked if he thought Gaddafi would be willing to negotiate, Ghanem said: “Well he is negotiating sometimes. A few days ago he met with the South African president but of course we don’t know what is going to happen.”

When asked what the mood within the Gaddafi government was, he said: “What’s happening in Libya is that there is a lot of pressure from within and from outside.”

Ghanem, who normally led the Libyan delegation at OPEC, said oil production in Libya was “coming to a halt” because of the international sanctions.

“Very little is produced because you cannot export — if you cannot export, you cannot produce,” he said.

He added he would no longer represent Libya at OPEC.

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

13-23

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)

13-23

Heavy Fighting in Misrata and Libyan Mountains

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Lin Noueihed

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya’s rebel-held city of Misrata won no respite from two months of bitter siege as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces bombarded the city and battled rebel fighters, despite pulling out of the city center.

Gaddafi’s forces were also pounding Berber towns in Libya’s Western Mountains with artillery, rebels and refugees said, in a remote region far from the view of international media.

Italy said its warplanes would join the British and French bombing of Libyan targets for the first time and NATO flattened a building inside Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound, in what his officials said was a failed attempt on the Libyan leader’s life.

Late on Monday, the “crusader aggressors” bombed civilian and military sites in Bir al Ghanam, 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli, and the Ayn Zara area of the capital, causing casualties, Libyan television said, without giving details. A Reuters correspondent heard explosions in Tripoli.

The report said foreign ships had also attacked and severed the al-Alyaf cable off Libya’s coast, cutting communications to the towns of Sirte, Ras Lanuf and Brega.

But more than a month of air strikes did not appear to be tipping the balance decisively in a conflict increasingly described as a stalemate.

People in Misrata emerged from homes after daybreak on Monday to scenes of devastation after Gaddafi’s forces pulled back from the city under cover of blistering rocket and tank fire, said witnesses contacted by phone.

Nearly 60 people had been killed in clashes in the city in the last three days, residents told Reuters by phone.

Although rebels’ celebrations of “victory” on Saturday turned out to be very premature, it was clear they had inflicted significant losses on government forces in Misrata.

“Bodies of Gaddafi’s troops are everywhere in the streets and in the buildings. We can’t tell how many. Some have been there for days,” said rebel Ibrahim.

Rebel spokesman Abdelsalam, speaking late on Monday, said Gaddafi’s forces were trying to re-enter the Nakl Thaqeel Road, which leads to Misrata’s port, its lifeline to the outside.

“Battles continue there. We can hear explosions,” he said by phone. He said Gaddafi’s forces positioned on the western outskirts of the city had also shelled the road from there.

Another rebel spokesman, Sami, said the humanitarian situation was worsening rapidly.

“It is indescribable. The hospital is very small. It is full of wounded people, most of them are in critical condition,” he told Reuters by phone.

U.S. officials said relief groups were rotating doctors into Misrata and evacuating migrant workers.

Mark Bartolini, director of foreign disaster assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said aid organizations were aiming to create stocks of food in the region in case Libyan supply chains began breaking down.

Among the places in particular need of food aid were isolated towns in the Western Mountains, from where tens of thousands of people have fled to Tunisia from the fighting.

REFUGEES FLEE MOUNTAINS

“Our town is under constant bombardment by Gaddafi’s troops. They are using all means. Everyone is fleeing,” said one refugee, Imad, bringing his family out of the mountains.

NATO said its attack on the building in the Gaddafi compound was on a communications headquarters used to coordinate attacks on civilians. A Libyan spokesman said Gaddafi was unharmed and state television showed pictures of him meeting people in a tent, which it said had been taken on Monday.

Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam said the Libyan government would not be cowed.

“The bombing which targeted Muammar Gaddafi’s office today … will only scare children. It’s impossible that it will make us afraid or give up or raise the white flag,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency, Jana.

Italy said its warplanes would join British and French aircraft in carrying out bombing of Libya. Geographically the closest major NATO member state to Libya, Italy had until Monday provided bases and reconnaissance and monitoring aircraft only.

The surprise decision immediately opened a fissure in Italy’s coalition government.

The African Union held separate talks on Monday with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi and rebel representatives in Addis Ababa to discuss a ceasefire plan.

The rebels had earlier rebuffed an AU plan because it did not entail Gaddafi’s departure, while the United States, Britain and France say there can be no political solution until the Libyan leader leaves power.

(Additional reporting by Guy Desmond and Maher Nazeh in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi and Sami Aboudi in Cairo; writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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