Damascus clampdown after defiance call Egypt pulls envoy to Syria

DAMASCUS, Feb 19, (Agencies): Syrian security forces on Sunday flooded a tense neighbourhood where a mourner was shot dead in the largest anti-regime rally seen in Damascus, activists said, blunting calls for a “day of defiance.”
With protesters more emboldened in Damascus after 11 months of revolt which has largely escaped the city, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime also came under regional pressure as Egypt joined other Arab League states in recalling its ambassador.
And the top US military officer warned on Sunday that intervention in Syria would be “very difficult” and said it would be “premature” to arm the opposition movement.
Although the security presence thwarted attempts to stage new protests in Mazzeh district, scene of a Saturday funeral that became a huge anti-regime rally, business there ground to a halt.
Mohammed Shami, a spokesman for activists in Damascus province, said most shops were shut in Mazzeh as well as in the Barzeh, Qaboon, Kfar Sousa and Jubar districts.
Student demonstrations had been expected in Mazzeh but security forces were stationed around schools, he said.
“Security forces are heavily deployed throughout Mazzeh,” Shami said.
Another activist, Abu Huzaifa from the Mazzeh Committee, said police forced the family of Samer al-Khatib, 34, who died after being shot in the neck during the mass funeral on Saturday, to bury him in a small ceremony earlier than planned, in an apparent move to prevent protests.
Student protests however erupted after school in other areas of Damascus, including the districts of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Midan, Jubar and Barzeh, according to Shami.
In central Damascus shops opened as usual, witnesses said, while state television showed live interviews from Mazzeh with people who claimed life was normal there.
Deeb al-Dimashqi, a member of the Syrian Revolution Council based in the capital, told AFP earlier that “huge demonstrations” were expected, but added that security forces had imposed a tight clampdown.
In a message to Damascus residents on the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page, activists said: “The blood of the martyrs exhorts you to disobedience,” after more than 6,000 deaths since anti-regime protests erupted in March, according to activist estimates.
Activists and official media reported at least 14 people killed on Sunday.
A “terrorist group” shot dead prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and judge Mohammed Ziyadeh and their driver in the northwestern province of Idlib, the official SANA news agency reported.
Four people, including a student, were killed and three wounded when gunmen fired on a bus in the central province of Hama, SANA said.
Security forces shot dead a woman when they stormed the town of Sukhna in Homs province as they hunted activists, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
It also said that a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in the northern province of Aleppo.
A lawyer was shot dead as troops stormed the town of Al-Ashara in the province of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory said.
An army deserter was killed in Bab Sbaa in Homs, while three troopers were killed in a gunfight with deserters in Dael village in Daraa province, the southern cradle of dissent, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, activists said regime forces pounded the flashpoint central city of Homs for the 15th straight day.
Sporadic shelling that targeted the Baba Amr neighbourhood in the defiant city intensified in the afternoon, at the rate of 4-5 rockets a minute, said Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution.
He also said the Bab Sbaa, Bab Dreib and al-Safsafa districts were being targeted with sporadic shelling.
Abdullah voiced fears that a new assault was imminent.
“News has been leaked to us from army officers about a bloody attack that will burn everything in Baba Amr. We were expecting the attack two nights ago, but it could have been just delayed because of the snowstorm,” he said.
Demonstrations took place in several towns elsewhere, including Herak in Daraa, Tayyana in Deir Ezzor, and the city of Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib, and northeastern Qamishli, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organise protests on the ground.
Saturday’s funerals in Damascus were for four people, including two teenagers, killed on Friday when security forces fired on protesters in Mazzeh, which houses many government offices and embassies.
Meanwhile, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN that Syria was the focus of competing Middle Eastern states, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, and posed different problems for the United States than Libya did.
“It’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” Dempsey said in an interview.
“There’s indications that Al-Qaeda is involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition. I mean there’s a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue.
“And until we’re a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them.”
But in the latest sign that international sanctions against Assad’s regime are crippling the economy, leading Syrian businessman Faisal al-Qudsi told the BBC that foreign exchange reserves have tumbled from $22 billion (16.7 billion euros) to about $10 billion.
Ambassador
Egypt said Sunday it was withdrawing its ambassador to Syria, the latest Arab country to scale back its relations with the embattled regime in Damascus.
The 11-month-old Syrian uprising began with mostly peaceful protests in a number of the country’s impoverished provinces. As security forces violently suppressed them, killing thousands, the protest grew and escalated into an increasingly armed insurrection.
Syria has faced mounting international condemnation over its crackdown on protesters, including harsh sanctions and political isolation.
Egypt’s decision follows moves by Tunisia, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab nations to reduce ties with Damascus.
The Egyptian state news agency MENA said that Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr decided Sunday during a meeting with Ambassador Shukri Ismael to keep the envoy in Cairo until further notice.
That report did not give a reason, though a report posted minutes before said such a decision could support the Syrian people.
“Withdrawing the ambassador could happen at any time, and if we find and discover that this benefits the Syrian people, we will do it quickly,” it quoted the minister as saying.
Iraq meanwhile, wants Syria to participate in an Arab summit that is to be held in Baghdad if it is not barred from doing so by its suspension from the Arab League, the Iraqi premier said in an interview.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been carrying out a bloody crackdown on an uprising against his rule, in which over 6,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
Member states voted in November to suspend Syria’s participation in the Arab League over the violence.
“We hope that all the Arab leaders will participate in the summit,” which is to take place in late March, Nuri al-Maliki said in an interview with Al-Rashid television that was broadcast on Saturday night.
“We prefer that there will be participation (by Syria), because it opens a page of dialogue away from interference and sectarian atmospheres, and because there is no benefit to anyone if the situation in Syria gets worse,” Maliki said.
But, if the Arab League suspension bars Syrian participation in the summit, Iraq will abide by that decision, Maliki said.
Peace
There is still hope that the Syrian crisis can be resolved peacefully through talks, as any armed intervention will only spread turmoil through the region, China’s official Xinhua news agency said on Sunday after a Chinese envoy visited Syria.
China and Russia infuriated Western and Arab states this month by blocking a draft UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit amid his government’s violent crackdown on opposition protests.
Stung by the criticism, China has since sent envoys to the region to seek a diplomatic solution, including Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, who met Assad in Damascus on Saturday and backed his plans for a referendum and multi-party elections.
“China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syria crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some Western countries’ argument that time is running out for talks in Syria,” Xinhua said in an English-language commentary.
“Among Syria’s assorted opposition groups, some have voiced a willingness to hold dialogue with the Syrian government and also warned those seeking outside intervention against becoming a tool of the West,” it added.
“However, their calls for peaceful inter-Syrian dialogue have been largely ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, in Western media reports, which convey the wrong impression that there is an overwhelming consensus among different factions of the opposition forces that they want foreign intervention in their country.”
Assad announced his plan on Wednesday for a referendum on a new constitution on Feb. 26 followed by a multi-party election. The Syrian opposition and the West dismissed it as sham.
China and Russia have been Assad’s most important international defenders during the crackdown which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers. The United Nations, the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab powers want Assad to step down and have condemned the repression.
Zhai also met opposition groups while he was in Syria.
Vote
The Philippines says it did not take part in a UN vote on a resolution calling on Syrian leader Bashar Assad to step down as it seeks Syria’s help in moving Filipinos from the troubled nation.
The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling on Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime, which has been blamed for a bloody crackdown that has killed over 5,400 people.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Sunday that the Philippines’ main concern was to repatriate thousands of Filipinos in Syria through the help of its government.
Nearly 1,000 Filipino workers have fled from Syria and thousands more remain there.
Libya
Libya has sent military forces to stem clashes between rival tribes over control of territory in the far southeast of Libya, the armed forces chief said on Saturday, as more people were reported killed in the violence.
Clashes broke out late last week in the remote city of Al Kufra and have continued since, highlighting the challenge of policing the sparsely populated desert. Dozens of people have been killed, the tribes have said.
Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council has struggled to assert its authority across the whole of Libya as rival regional militias and tribal groups jostle for power and resources following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Gunmen from the Zwai tribe have been clashing with fighters from the Tibu ethnic group led by Isa Abdel Majid, who they accuse of attacking Al Kufra backed by mercenaries from Chad, according to a security official from the Zwai tribe.
The Tibu, however, said they were the ones to come under attack.
Speaking by telephone on Libyan state television, armed forces chief Yousef al-Mangoush denied there was any foreign presence in the area and urged elders from both sides to meet.
“This is a problem between two tribes, which stems from the past. It is not an ethnic problem,” he said. “Military forces are now on the ground there.”
In a text message to Reuters, Adelbari Idriss, a security official from the Zwai tribe, said two people were killed and seven injured in clashes in the city on Saturday. Separately, he said the Zwai had stopped two cars carrying Chadian men.
It was not immediately possible to independently verify his comments nor contact officials from the Tibu side.
The Tibu are mainly found in Chad but also inhabit parts of southern Libya, Sudan and Niger, often criss-crossing unmarked desert borders. Abdel Majid’s men supported the Libyan rebels during the 2011 uprising that ousted Gaddafi.
In Al Kufra, tribal ties are far more powerful than they are on the country’s Mediterranean seaboard. A tribal rebellion in 2009 was suppressed only after Gaddafi sent in helicopter gunships. The remote region is also a hub for smugglers taking advantage of the lawless borders of sub-Saharan Africa.
The province surrounding Al Kufra is Libya’s largest and borders Sudan and Chad. The roads in the region are poor, and some reports said the airport was out of use due to the fighting, possibly holding up any aid.
Libya’s government will give each family more than $1,500 and pay unemployed former rebels who fought in the war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi last year, the prime minister said, in an attempt to win over those who want faster progress.
In a televised address a day after Libya marked the first anniversary of the start of the uprising, Abdurrahim El-Keib said families whose relatives were killed or were still missing would receive monthly aid but did not specify the amount.
“The government has decided that each Libyan family will receive 2,000 dinars ($1,540),” he said.
He said jobless former fighters would receive payment for the past year until the end of the month. He said students would also receive financial grants but did not say how much.
The transitional government appointed in November is leading Libya towards elections in June but is struggling to restore services and impose order on a country awash with weapons.
Together with the self-appointed National Transition Council (NTC), it has been praised for getting many of the ministries up and running and, notably, for drafting an election law for the Libya’s first free polls.
But many Libyans thought progress would be faster, and the Defence Ministry and the Interior Ministry are failing to incorporate disparate militias into a police force and an army.
These groups fought hard in the campaign to topple Gaddafi but still refuse to hand in their weapons.
El-Keib reiterated government calls for these fighters to join the national police and security forces.
Yemen
President Barack Obama threw his support behind Yemen’s Vice President just days before an election expected to enshrine him as the new leader of a country the US sees as crucial to the fight against al-Qaeda.
Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, read the text of the letter to reporters Sunday after delivering it to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi during a two-day visit to the troubled Gulf Arab nation.
Yemen, the Arab’s world’s poorest country, has been torn apart during a year-old uprising seeking to oust longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s security forces have used lethal force against demonstrators, killing hundreds, and many others have died in armed clashes with security forces.
Yemen’s active al-Qaeda branch, which has carried out attacks in the US, has exploited the unrest to seize territory in the country’s south. The US has long considered Saleh a necessary but unreliable ally in the fight against the al-Qaeda branch, and has been actively involved in brokering a deal to ease the crisis.
Under a deal presented by Yemen’s powerful Gulf Arab neighbors, Hadi is to be rubber stamped as the country’s new leader in presidential elections Tuesday. He is the only candidate.
In the letter, Obama said he looks forward to deeper relations between the two countries and vows that the US will be “a strong and reliable partner.”
He also said he hoped Yemen’s political transformation would inspire other Middle East nations facing political transitions.
“I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause,” he said.
Brennan met with Hadi during his two-day visit to Yemen that ended Sunday.
Speaking to reporters, Brennan said the US looked forward to cooperating with Yemen to fight al-Qaeda and spoke of the massive reforms needed. He criticized leaders in the security apparatus who have used forces under their command for personal gain.
As for Saleh, who is currently in the US for medical treatment, Brennan said he expected Saleh to return to Yemen after the election. US officials have said that while Saleh’s US visit is solely medical, they hope his absence from Yemen will ease the transition.
Many in Yemen worry that Saleh, who has ruled for 33 years through a mix of shrewd politics and brute force, will continue to influence Yemeni politics through his many relatives and allies he has placed in high positions.
Speaking of Saleh’s future, Brennan said he would have no official role in government.
“Ali Abdullah after the election will be a private Yemeni citizen, and his future is something that he and his family will need to determine,” he said.
Three soldiers were wounded in a clash with southern separatists near a polling booth in Lahij province on Sunday, two days ahead of Yemen’s presidential election, a government official said.
“Gunmen from the Southern Movement attacked military vehicles carrying ballot boxes to a polling booth in a school” near Al-Anad air base in Lahij, the official told AFP. “Three soldiers were wounded in an exchange of fire.”
A faction of the Southern Movement has called for a day of “civil disobedience” on Tuesday when Yemenis are to vote for Vice-President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, the sole candidate, to replace outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
It urged supporters to rally in the main southern city of Aden on Monday to “demand the freedom and independence” of the south.
Other members of the Southern Movement, who say the poll fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or southern independence, have been campaigning for a boycott.
On Friday, three civilians were wounded as southern militants traded fire with police outside a polling station, residents said.
Morocco
A few thousand people gathered Sunday in Morocco’s cities to mark the one year anniversary of the North African kingdom’s local version of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The modest turnout was in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands that once flocked to the February 20th movement’s banner early last year.
About 1,000 people turned out for a sit-in at Casablanca’s main square. In the capital Rabat, at least 1,500 marched through the center of town chanting slogans and singing songs.
The demonstrations last year prompted the king to amend the constitution to curtail is powers and hold early elections, which were won by an Islamist opposition party promising reforms. Since then, demonstrations petered out.
Activists say many of their demands remain unmet, including fighting corruption, releasing prisoners of conscience and decreasing the absolute power of the king.
While activists in Casablanca acknowledged that their numbers were down, they pointed out that a protest such as this, filled with young people, would have been unthinkable a year ago.
“It is not bad to be able to do a sit-in for two days and discuss issues in the open air,” said Larbi Menouzi, who has attended nearly every one of the weekly demonstrations held in Casablanca for the past year.
The main square of Morocco’s largest city, flanked by the central bank, city hall and main post office, was filled with people enjoying a sunny winter’s day, along with the knot of protesters, a few dozen of whom spent the night on the square in tents.
Banners above their tents demanded the new parliament be dissolved, those stealing public money be prosecuted and all prisoners of conscience be released.
Activists say the sit-in will continue until their demands are met, a conscious echo of the sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the center of Egypt’s uprising.
“Before people were too scared to speak and now they do. The February 20 movement has been a catalyst and people are now mobilized everywhere,” Souad Guennon said.
Placards and photos around the square testified to the breadth of movements across the country, describing striking villagers at a distant silver mine, residents bulldozed out of informal housing and clashes with police in a mountain town.
Omar Radi, an activist with movement, took heart in the turnout in Rabat, which was higher than it had been in months, though still far below the large demonstrations that characterized its early days.
“This is the biggest demonstration in Rabat in a while, which gives us hope,” he said activists chanted around him. “Like all movements, this has had its ups and downs, but the spirit of the February 20th is all over the country.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the trial of activists of the February 20th movement arrested for advocating a boycott of the Nov 25 elections.

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