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Syria conflict: Rebels seize Turkey, Iraq border posts

A video image provided by opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (19 Jul 2012) Video was posted on the internet of rebels defacing a poster of President Assad at the Bab al-Hawa crossing

“Syrian rebels have captured a number of positions on the country’s borders with Turkey and Iraq.

A senior Iraqi official said all the crossings on Syria‘s eastern frontier had been seized. At one point, two Turkish posts were also in rebel hands.

The push came a day after a bomb claimed the lives of three senior defence officials in Damascus.

At the UN, negotiations are under way on extending the mandate of the observer mission in Syria,

The mandate for the mission is due to expire on Friday.

There are almost 300 UN observers in Syria, but the mission suspended most of its monitoring activity in June, because of the risk from increasing violence.

The US says it might consider a final brief extension of the monitors work, but warned that it could not pin its policy on an unarmed mission.

The UK is said to be proposing an extension for a “final 30 days”.

As the situation in Syria becomes more unpredictable and violent, the diplomacy in New York is lagging behind events on the ground, says the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan at the UN.

Escalating battle

The rebels, perhaps sensing that the regime was too preoccupied with the escalating battle for the capital, stormed all the posts on the Iraqi border, the BBC’s Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says.

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The major Abu Kamal crossing on the Euphrates river in the east was captured after a clash with government forces, opposition activists said.

More than 20 Syrian soldiers and their commander were killed when a remote army outpost in the far north-east was attacked, Associated Press news agency reported.

Iraq’s government, seen as sympathetic to President Bashar al-Assad, has threatened to shut its side of the border and one official told Reuters news agency that it was closing the Abu Kamal crossing.

On the frontier with Turkey, too, rebels were said to have taken control of two posts, at Bab al-Hawa and Jarablus.

Video from the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib province soon emerged of rebels defacing a portrait of President Assad, but they later reportedly withdrew from the position.

First images

For four days, rebels have been involved in clashes in areas of the capital as they push their “Damascus volcano” operation against Syrian armed forces.

Damascus-based activist Hassan describes how people are too afraid to venture outside

The deaths of three top security officials has led to a mobilisation of government troops in an attempt to drive the rebels out of the city.

The president’s brother-in-law, the defence minister and head of the government’s crisis team were killed by a bomb as they attended a meeting at the national security headquarters.

The first images of President Assad since the attack have appeared, largely ending rumours he might have been hurt.

The footage appeared to show Gen Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, chief of staff of the armed forces, being sworn into his new post as defence minister.

Tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to have moved into Qaboun on Thursday, close to the centre of Damascus.

There were heavy casualties, activists said, as a result of an army bombardment of Zamalka in the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

Analysis

image of Laura Trevelyan Laura Trevelyan BBC News, New York

The mood inside the Security Council chamber was acrimonious after China and Russia vetoed the resolution. Britain’s ambassador accused the two nations of protecting a brutal regime by their actions. America’s ambassador said the council had failed utterly in the most important task on its agenda.

China’s ambassador denounced what he called an uneven resolution which placed pressure on one side, while Russia’s representative claimed the resolution would have opened the path to military involvement in Syria’s affairs.

Now negotiations are under way to try to extend the mandate of the UN monitoring mission in Syria which is due to expire on Friday.

The mission is supposed to monitor a ceasefire and support a political process – neither of which exist. So the UK is proposing a 30 day “final” extension.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of fatalities across the country on Thursday at 250.

‘Indefensible’

The pace of events in Syria was in marked contrast to the diplomatic stalemate at the UN Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed a Western resolution calling for tougher sanctions on Damascus.

Under the Western-backed plan, the Damascus government would have been threatened with non-military sanctions under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter if it failed to move troops and heavy weapons from populated areas.

But the use of Chapter Seven paved the way for “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs”, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin argued.

The UK, US and France said the UN had failed the people of Syria and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of the veto as “inexcusable and indefensible”.”

Map of Damascus area
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Blast in Kenya capital Nairobi ‘may have been bomb’

“The BBC’s Kevin Mwachiro: “There were lots of clothes and shoes that were strewn in front of the store”

Kenya’s police say an explosion which injured 33 in the capital, Nairobi, may have been caused by a bomb, after initially blaming an electrical fault.

The blast tore apart a shopping complex on Moi Avenue at lunchtime.

A witness has said a bag was abandoned next to her just before the explosion.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said the blast had a terrorist link. Militant group al-Shabab has repeatedly threatened to stage revenge attacks after Kenya sent troops to Somalia.

There has been a string of grenade and bomb blasts across Kenya in recent months, killing several people.

Shoes and clothes scattered

Five of those injured are said to be in a critical condition.

Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told the BBC he no longer believed an electrical fault had caused the blast, as police commissioner Mathew Iteere had initially suggested.

A man injured during an explosion is assisted from the scene in Kenya"s capital Nairobi, May 28, 2012. Some 28 people are said to have been injured by the blast

In a statement, Mr Kiraithe said the cause of the explosion had not been established.

“The investigating team is exploring the possibility that the blast was caused by criminals using an improvised explosive device,” he said.

“Initial examination of the scene indicates that the possibility of a conventional bomb is remote.”

Mr Odinga told reporters at the site of the blast: “This is terrorism… this is a heinous act, we are under threat, but we will not be cowed.”

Kenya Power, the country’s sole electricity distributor, has also ruled out any electrical malfunction as the cause of the blast.

The BBC’s Kevin Mwachiro says glass and shoes and clothes from the small shops inside the building were scattered across the street.

TV pictures have shown people pouring into the streets from nearby buildings to get away from the scene of the fire, the AP news agency reports.

Moi Avenue is a major road which would have been busy during the lunch hour, AP says.

According to an eyewitness, there was a huge blast and debris flew in different directions injuring people in the vicinity, the Nation newspaper reports.

The powerful explosion shook buildings in the surrounding area and the evacuation process began, the Nation says.”

Source : BBC News

 

Somali piracy: EU forces in first mainland raid

EU naval forces have conducted their first raid on pirate bases on the Somali mainland, saying they have destroyed several boats.

The EU forces were transported by helicopter to the bases near the port of Haradhere, a well known pirate lair.

Anti-piracy forces have been reluctant to attack mainland bases, fearing for the crew of captured ships.

Somalia-based pirates have seized vessels across the Indian Ocean and demand huge ransoms for their release.

They are believed to be holding about 17 ships and 300 crew.

The latest incident involves the Greek-owned oil tanker Smyrni which was hijacked in the Arabian Sea last week.

The Liberian-flagged tanker carrying 135,000 tonnes of oil is reported to be heading for Somalia.

‘Nothing spared’

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says the attack on the land base is a significant development in the fight against Somali piracy.

Analysis

Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent

The overnight raid on Somali pirate bases is small but significant. This is the first time since the EU set up its naval patrol force off Somalia in Dec 2008 that it has taken the fight to the pirates’ home base.

The idea, says the EU, is to disrupt the pirates’ business model and upset their logistics.

Naval officers say there were no casualties on either side but if raids like this are repeated – as they probably will be – the pirates are likely to adapt their operations making it harder for their equipment to be destroyed without also hitting local Somalis.

The EU recently agreed to expand Operation Atalanta to allow forces to attack land targets as well as those at sea, and this is the first time its forces have used the new rules to attack a base on the mainland.

The attack was carried out overnight and, according to the European forces, no Somalis were hurt during the action.

The multinational forces used helicopters in conjunction with two warships to leave five of the pirates’ fast attack craft “inoperable”.

The European naval mission issued a statement saying: “The focused, precise and proportionate action was conducted from the air and all forces returned safely to EU warships on completion”.

A spokesman added that the operation was carried out with the full support of the Somali government after extensive surveillance, and the aim was to deny the pirates a safe haven onshore.

Bile Hussein, a pirate commander, told the Reuters news agency that speed boats, fuel depots and an arms store had been targeted.

“They destroyed our equipment to ashes. It was a key supplies centre for us,” Mr Hussein said.

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“The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared.”

Military vessels from Nato countries, the US, China, Russia, Japan and India are also involved in patrolling an area of ocean which is about the same size as western Europe.

Two decades of war in Somalia have left the country without a fully-functioning government making it hard to deal with piracy.

The transitional government controls the capital Mogadishu, but al-Shabab militants hold many southern and central areas of the country.”

Source: BBc News

Sudan vows to end fighting with South Sudan

Children carry their family's belongings as they go to Yida refugee camp in South Sudan outside Tess village in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, 2 May 2012
Thousands of people have fled their homes as a result of the fighting

Sudan has promised to cease hostilities with South Sudan and comply with a UN Security Council resolution.

However the foreign ministry also said that Khartoum reserved the right to respond to “aggression” from the South.

The statement came hours after Juba alleged fresh bombing by the Khartoum government’s forces.

A UN resolution on Wednesday backed an African Union plan demanding both sides cease hostilities, amid fears of an all-out war between the neighbours.

The Security Council called for a written commitment by both governments within 48 hours, and threatened sanctions if its terms were not met.

The South has already said it accepts the terms of the roadmap.

The BBC’s James Copnall in Khartoum says that both sides appear to have been brought back to the negotiating table, but tension is still high.

In a statement, a foreign ministry spokesman said Sudan would “fully commit to what has been issued in the resolution about stopping hostilities with South Sudan according to the time limits issued”.

It added that it hoped the “other party will commit to stop the hostilities completely and withdraw its troops from the disputed areas so as not to put SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] in a situation where it has to defend itself”.

Under the roadmap, the two countries have until next Tuesday to restart negotiations and three months to reach an agreement.

Our correspondent says that while both countries have now committed themselves to the roadmap, they have also accused each other of new attacks.

In its statement, he says, Sudan pointed out the numerous ways in which it considers it has been attacked by South Sudan in the last few days.

Meanwhile, South Sudan said that Sudanese warplanes had bombed a military position in Unity state, and said that there had also been a ground attack.

The latest crisis began last month when the south seized a disputed oil field at Heglig.

Disputes over the sharing of oil revenue is a major cause of conflict between Juba and Khartoum.

South Sudan took most of the oil reserves when it seceded in July 2011, but relies on pipelines to seaports in Sudan for distribution.

The South seceded from Sudan as part of a 2005 peace treaty following two decades of civil war in which some 1.5m people died.

 

Show regions
Map showing position of oilfileds in Sudan, source: Drilling info international

Both Sudan and the South are reliant on their oil revenues, which account for 98% of South Sudan’s budget. But the two countries cannot agree how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north. It is feared that disputes over oil could lead the two neighbours to return to war.

Source- BBC  News

Coming face to face with Somalia’s al-Shabab

Al-Shabab fighter in Elasha Biyaha, February 2012
It is usually difficult for journalists to have access to al-Shabab controlled areas

Freelance journalist Hamza Mohamed recounts the day he was able to put a human face to the Somali Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, in this article published in the latest issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine.

There is shelling not far from the hotel where I am staying. At the break of dawn I will be making my way out of Mogadishu and into al-Shabab-controlled Elasha Biyaha, to meet the group’s media coordinator.

There I will request access to report from areas under al-Shabab’s control.

Earlier in the day I made a call to see if the coordinator could meet me the next day. Surprisingly, he agreed to a 09:00 meeting.

Al-Shabab are notorious for denying access to foreign media – let alone granting a meeting at such short notice.

Al-Shabaab are notorious for denying access to foreign media – let alone granting a meeting at such short notice”

It is just after 06:00 when Nur, my driver, turns up at the hotel, but there is no sight of Awiil, my fixer.

Nur tells me that Awiil, who has a young family, did not want to risk being caught in Somalia‘s ever-changing front lines.

After about 15 minutes of driving at break-neck speed and negotiating two chaotic government checkpoints manned by nervous-looking skinny soldiers, we reach Elasha Biyaha.

This is a “pop-up” town that came into being when Mogadishu’s residents left the anarchy of the city for the relative calm of its outskirts.

Checkpoints and tinted windows

In the distance we see a black flag hanging from a dried tree branch. Unlike the previous two checkpoints, there is no heavy presence of soldiers manning this one.

It quickly becomes clear that this is one of the frontiers of the conflict: On one side the transitional government and African Union troops and on the other al-Shabab fighters.

From the shade of an acacia tree two seemingly teenage boys – the younger-looking one with a shiny AK47 rifle hanging from his left shoulder – wave our 4×4 to the side of the road.

BBC map

What seems to be the elder of the two has a headscarf wrapped around his face. He stands back, letting the younger one approach our car.

The tint on our car windows has attracted their attention. In Somalia, most 4x4s are tinted to keep the occupants’ profile as low as possible. He is not impressed.

Nur acknowledges our “fault” and explains that we have our camera kit on the backseat and leaving expensive gear in a car with non-tinted window in Mogadishu is calling for it to be stolen.

In a soft and polite voice, the teenager explains to us that tinting is not allowed and walks towards a house 500 metres away, telling us he is going to seek advice from what we think are his superiors.

Nur and I turn to each other asking what other rules we might be breaking. I notice Nur still has his shirt firmly tucked. He quickly untucks it.

Out of anxiety, I ask whether the al-Shabab youth might also take exception to my Nike trainers and we both break into nervous laughter.

All this time the elder of the two boys is standing not far from our car – listening but not responding to our small talk.

After waiting for about five minutes, while replays of press reports of al-Shabab’s notoriously harsh justice system run through my head, he comes back and tells us we are free to continue our journey but must wind down the tinted windows.

Beehive of commerce

We are at the frontline, but there is no sight of men in trenches. There is also no sight of pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

It is hard to imagine how this very lightly armed checkpoint was stopping the heavily armed government and African Union troops. Perhaps there were more fighters with superior weapons waiting in the nearby bushes.

I had expected to be asked whether I pray five times a day, not about my taste in women”

After a short drive we reach the centre of Elasha Biyaha, a beehive of commerce and trade.

Unlike the battle-scarred buildings of Mogadishu all the buildings here are new, with their tin roofs glowing in the mid-morning sun.

On both sides of the only tarmac road in the town, stores sell goods from matchsticks to sacks of rice.

Also noticeably different from Mogadishu is the absence of men with guns in the streets of the town – even though this is a “front line”.

People stop and stare at us, only for them to smile and resume their activities when I greet them in Somali.

We head to the hotel where our meeting is scheduled to take place. We get there in time but there is no sign of our contact.

A quick call and we find out to our surprise he is in fact in Mogadishu, a city controlled by government and AU soldiers, attending a funeral for two religious elders who died in the shelling the night before.

Facebook profile

After two hours’ wait a tall, slim figure with a goatee and a broad smile comes walking towards us.

Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage in Elasha Biyaha In February there was a demonstration in Elasha Biyaha to back al-Shabab joining al-Qaeda

With arms outstretched, he says my name and gives me a hug as if I am an old friend. I ask how he picked me out of the crowd in the hotel.

He says: “You look like the picture on your Facebook profile.”

My heart goes into overdrive. How much more could he possibly know about me? What about my Twitter account? Does he read my tweets?

After a few seconds of nervous silence, he gives a broad smile and soft pat on my shoulder saying: “Don’t worry you look better in real life.”

Over freshly made mango smoothies, he apologises for not being on time.

Probably in his late 20s, he looks nothing like you may imagine a typical Islamist insurgent to be. There are no robes or heavy beards.

He is wearing a crisply ironed shirt and trousers with the Islamic scarf loosely resting upon his head, protecting it from the intense morning sun.

As the main man of al-Shabab’s media campaign you would think he would be escorted by heavily-armed and masked bodyguards – but there are no signs of security or even a pistol for protection.

‘No stealing’

As we are having drinks he notices I do not wear a wedding ring.

The conversation changes to what kind of women I prefer, and why I have not married.

People fleeing Elasha Biyaha. January 2012 Many people have fled from areas controlled by al-Shabab

He offers to assist me in finding a potential wife and he adds that if I cannot afford the dowry he will happily contribute.

I had expected to be asked whether I pray five times a day, not about my taste in women.

We talk until the midday call for prayers goes out, and I suggest we go to the mosque. Somalia brings out the fear of God in everyone.

Nur and I are used to carrying our kit with us wherever we go, but he suggests we leave it in the car.

Remembering that we were told to keep the tinted windows down, I say we are happy carrying the kit with us.

He insists, assuring us if anything happened he would personally pay for our kit.

After prayers we go to a restaurant for a lunch of boiled camel meat, rice and stew. Between chewing the tough camel meat and the soft basmati rice he gives me the news I have been hoping for – the freedom to report from al-Shabab-controlled areas.

We return to our car after lunch; our kit is still there, albeit dusty from the strong wind and in full display to all the locals.

“This is an al-Shabab area, nobody touches what’s not theirs,” the man tells me.

As we begin our drive back to Mogadishu he reassures us of our safety.

Feeling a bit more confident, I retort with a smile that while this may be true, we cannot be safe from drone strikes.

#Africa : ‘Counter coup’ gunfight in Mali’s capital Bamako

Troops in Mali who launched a coup in March have exchanged fire with the presidential guard in the capital Bamako, officials and witnesses say.

A junta spokesman said guardsmen loyal to ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure were trying to reverse the coup.

The junta later said the situation was back under control, amid reports that several people died in the gunfight.

While the junta has handed power to an interim government, it is still thought to wield considerable influence.

Message on TV

The gunfire followed an attempt by junta loyalists to arrest the former head of the presidential guard, journalist Martin Vogl in Bamako told the BBC.

He said clashes continued around the state broadcasting building and several other locations in the capital late into the night.

One eyewitness told the Reuters news agency that the streets were deserted. Electricity has been cut in several part of the city.

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Members of the “Red Berets” presidential guards unit reportedly entered the broadcaster’s building, which has been controlled by pro-junta forces since the coup.

“These are elements of the presidential guard from the old regime and they’re trying to turn things around,” junta spokesman Bacary Mariko told the Reuters news agency.

He later said the airport in Bamako had come under attack from anti-coup forces, and that he was expecting an attack on a pro-coup base in Kati, north of Bamako, according to the Associated Press news agency.

But several hours later the junta aired a message on Mali’s TV, saying the airport, the state broadcasting building and the Kati base was under its control.

The 22 March coup, which ousted President Toure, was led by soldiers who accused Mr Toure of failing to combat an insurgency in the north.

Last week the leader of the coup, Cpt Amadou Sanago, rejected the decision of West African regional bloc Ecowas to send troops to the West African country.

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