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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Azerbaijan holds referendum on presidential term extension

September 26, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Amid international criticism, Azerbaijanis held a referendum Monday on proposed constitutional changes that would extend the presidential term and powers in the ex-Soviet republic.

The proposals, which include raising the presidential term from five years to seven and granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, have been criticized by a European constitutional law watchdog and international human rights groups. Azerbaijani authorities have dismissed the criticism as unfounded and politically driven.

Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov said early Tuesday that with about 72 percent of the ballots counted, over 90 percent of the voters supported the extension of the presidential term.

Turnout was high at nearly 70 percent, according to election officials. Some opponents say the changes would cement what they see as effectively a dynasty, as President Ilham Aliyev is the son of the previous leader. They see the proposed measures as a mechanism for extending his rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation that has come under frequent criticism from abroad for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Last week, the Venice Commission, a watchdog body of constitutional law experts based in France, released a preliminary report saying that extending the presidential mandate "cannot be justified" and that other proposed legal changes would upset the balance of power.

The commission expressed concern about a measure limiting public gatherings and said a measure giving the president the power to dissolve parliament would weaken political dissent. The Venice Commission experts are part of the Council of Europe, a rights authority whose 47 members, including Azerbaijan, have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a statement before the vote, Amnesty International said the constitutional amendments would give more authority to the already powerful president and grant the government even more power to interfere with freedom of assembly, in violation of international standards. It added that preparations for the vote were marked by arrests and intimidation of critics of the proposed constitutional amendments.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism and insisted that the proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the government and promoting economic reforms. "One of the main reasons for the referendum is the need to conduct fast economic reforms ... to improve the efficiency of the government and cut the red tape," Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov told reporters Monday.

Leyla Abbasova, a 53-year old school teacher who cast her ballot in the capital, Baku, said she voted for the proposed amendments and voiced hope that "they will bring positive changes." Camilya Abdullayeva, 23, also said she voted 'yes,' adding that by removing minimum age limits for officials and legislators the proposed changes would "encourage young people to engage in politics."

Officials say the referendum results will be announced by Oct. 21.

Turkey, Russia sign gas pipeline deal as ties improve

October 10, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey and Russia on Monday signed a deal to build a gas pipeline from Russia as the two countries pressed ahead with efforts to normalize ties. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watched as their countries' energy ministers sealed an intergovernmental agreement for the "Turkish Stream" project that would bring gas from Russia to Turkey. It would then be distributed to European Union nations.

The project, which had previously been suspended amid tensions between the two countries, was signed on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress. In other steps aimed at restoring ties, Putin announced that Russia had agreed to a natural gas discount to Turkey and would resume importing fruit, vegetables and other agricultural goods from the country. The two countries would intensify defense contacts and also look into cooperation in space technologies. Russia is building Turkey's first nuclear power plant, and Erdogan said the sides agreed to accelerate the project.

"I am convinced that the process of normalization of our ties will continue rapidly," Erdogan told reporters during a joint news conference. "Our relations will (improve) in many fields, be it in defense industry, political, economic, trade, tourism or culture."

"We will make up for lost time in the coming days," Erdogan said. Putin had first suggested the Turkish Stream project to carry gas beneath the Black Sea into Turkey in 2014, when a pipeline project to Bulgaria fell through amid EU countries' opposition.

It was Erdogan and Putin's third meeting since June, when the Turkish leader apologized to Russia for shooting down a Russian plane at the Syrian border. The incident had seriously damaged ties, with Russia responding by deploying long-range air defense missiles at its air base in Syria, and imposing an array of economic sanctions on Turkey.

Serious differences remain on Syria. While Moscow has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the nation's civil war and further bolstered that support by launching an air campaign last September, Turkey has pushed for Assad's removal and helped his foes.

Putin said Turkey and Russia were in agreement over the need to deliver aid to Aleppo in Syria but were at odds over the "security" of the delivery routes. "Both Russia and Turkey support the end of the bloodshed in Syria," Putin said. "We share the same view that every effort should be made for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Aleppo."

"The only issue is the safety of the delivery of humanitarian aid," Putin added. He said Russia had shared with the United States its recommendation that Syrian and opposition forces withdraw from the Castello road, the main route for aid to be delivered to Aleppo, so that humanitarian convoys would not be fired upon. "However the American side does not want to do that, or is not capable of doing that," he added.

Erdogan said he and the Russian leader had discussed Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces' efforts to recapture areas near the Turkish border from the Islamic State group and said they had assessed possible cooperation with Russia.

Earlier, in his speech to the congress, Putin voiced support to Erdogan over the country's July 15 failed coup, saying he was happy that the country had "retained control." "We are very glad that Turkey is recovering and wish it success," Putin said.

Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara.

'Turkey will keep troops in Iraq,' insists PM

October 7, 2016

Turkey’s prime minister has insisted that his government will keep troops in Iraq. Binali Yildirim linked the presence of Turkish soldiers in Iraq to the elimination of Daesh and the prevention of any demographic shift in the country that is imposed by force. He made his comments following the rejection of the Turkish presence near Mosul by his Iraqi counterpart, Haider Al-Abadi.

“Whatever the Iraqi government in Baghdad says, the Turkish presence there will remain for the fight against Daesh and to make sure that the demographic structure of the region is not being changed by force,” said Yildirim in Ankara. Iraq’s second city [Mosul], he pointed out, had a population of two million before being taken by Daesh, in one day, on 10 June 2014. “Our goal is to avoid a repeat of another humanitarian crisis and to stop more blood from being shed,” the Turkish prime minister explained.

At a time when there are troops from 63 countries in Iraq to fight against terror, he suggested that concern about the Turkish presence in the country is “absurd” and has “nothing to do with good intentions.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161007-turkey-will-keep-troops-in-iraq-insists-pm/.

Turkey renews OK for military operations in Syria, Iraq

October 01, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's state-run news agency says parliament has extended by another year a motion allowing cross-border military operations into Syria and Iraq against Kurdish militants and the Islamic State group.

The resolution, first passed in 2014, was renewed on Saturday, the first and only item on the parliament's agenda on the first day of the new legislative year. The state-run Anadolu Agency says it will remain in force until October 30, 2017.

The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party voted against the bill, while the other three parties in parliament approved it. Turkey sent troops and tanks into Syria in August to help Syrian opposition rebels re-take Islamic State group strongholds near the border and curb the advance of Syrian Kurdish militia, which are affiliated with Turkey's outlawed Kurdish rebels.

Erdogan comments on historic treaty irk opposition, Greece

September 30, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioning a historic treaty that defined Turkey's current-day borders have sparked anger inside Turkey and in Greece. Erdogan suggested in an address on Thursday that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which Turkish nationalists negotiated with the Allies, cannot be considered a "victory" because Turkey had lost to Greece several islands near its coast that were part of the Ottoman Empire.

His words angered Turkey's main opposition party, whose late leader negotiated the treaty. It argued Lausanne had reversed the stiff conditions of a previous treaty that had been negotiated by Ottoman leaders.

In Greece, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said Friday: "Efforts to cast doubt on international treaties lead to dangerous paths." He urged Turkey not to "pursue" those paths.

Afghan migrants stuck in the Balkans resist going home

October 09, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — They have come a long way, spent most of their money on smugglers and camped out in the open for weeks. For Afghan migrants stranded in the Balkans there is no turning back, even as the most likely prospect many of them face in the European Union could be deportation back to their country.

Thousands of young Afghan men in Serbia and elsewhere in the region are determined to reach wealthy EU nations, despite closed borders and an agreement between their government and the EU that will more easily send home Afghan citizens who have been rejected for asylum.

Aid groups have sharply criticized "The Joint Way Forward" declaration, which was agreed upon only days ahead of an international donors' conference Wednesday for Afghanistan that pledged $15.2 billion for the beleaguered country.

Imogen Sudbery, head of the Brussels office of the International Rescue Committee, says the plan "is worrying on several levels." "Deals made behind closed doors, thrashed out with no civil society engagement and without apparent consideration for people's safety, nor the realities on the ground, set an alarming precedent for the EU," Sudbery said. "The notion that vulnerable women and children can be sent back to a place of war is preposterous."

The document outlines measures to return Afghan citizens, including charter flights, the issuing of travel documents and the possible construction of a separate terminal at Kabul Airport. The EU declaration said the plan aims "to establish a rapid, effective and manageable process for a smooth, dignified and orderly return of Afghan nationals" who don't receive asylum in the 28-nation bloc.

Afghanistan has been mired in conflict for decades. Clashes have revived recently between government forces and the Taliban around the northern city of Kunduz with civilians increasingly fleeing. Sudbery said 11,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year and 1.2 million people remain internally displaced.

"Afghanistan cannot be considered a 'safe country,'" Sudbery insisted. Serbia is not part of the EU, making the situation for Afghans stuck here even more complicated. It has asked to be included in the EU-Afghanistan return arrangements.

Some migrants in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, said they are not safe in Afghanistan and have no way to finish schools, find jobs or earn money. The young men — who stand little chance of being granted asylum in EU countries — pleaded with EU nations to let them in so they can have a hope of a better future.

"Life in Afghanistan is too hard for us, we can't live there," said 15-year-old Sulaiman Zazai. "That is why we go to live in Germany, for a good life, for our future." Saifullah Zamiri, 18, added that "we struggle a lot in these bad conditions and with closed borders."

"We can't go back," Zamiri insisted. "Our government can't control a bad situation, so why do you want us to go back to our country?" Germany and other EU nations have sought to limit the influx of refugees and migrants after taking in more than one million people last year. The German government says the joint declaration with Afghanistan will provide a "clear and reliable basis" for both voluntary returns and deportations.

IRC's Sudbery blasted as "most damning" the clause that envisages that unaccompanied minors could be returned if "adequate reception and care-taking arrangements" are put in place in Afghanistan. "It is unclear how the EU will measure or verify this," she said.

Rados Djurovic, from Serbia's Asylum Protection Center, said asylum-seekers from Afghanistan must not be automatically rejected but reviewed individually, considering that parts of the country are still dangerous.

"Each application should be taken most seriously," he said. Afghans account for about one half of more than 6,000 migrants who have piled up in Serbia after EU neighbor Hungary introduced strict limits on asylum-seekers and reinforced the border with a razor-wire fence and heavy patrols.

On Tuesday, several hundred men set off on a protest march toward Hungary, demanding that authorities there open the border. Tired and cold, the marchers gave up the next morning after walking 40 kilometers (24 miles) and spending the night out in the open.

On Friday, Serbian authorities discovered two Afghan boys, aged 12 and 16, hiding in a truck heading toward EU member Croatia. In Belgrade, a park close to the railway and bus stations where migrants from Afghanistan spend their days and nights is now dubbed "Afghan park."

On a sunny day last week, some migrants were sleeping on the benches wrapped in blankets at the park. A man was helping his friend shave without a mirror on the park's water pipes. A woman was washing clothes and hanging them on a rope spread between two poles.

At lunch time, hundreds lined up for a warm meal of beans and beets distributed by a Belgrade aid group. Hunched over, the migrants ate their food on the ground or on the limited benches. Aid coordinator Gordan Paunovic says his Info Park center now delivers more than 2,000 meals a day in what he described as a "dramatic" increase in recent months.

Many migrants said they have already spent 5,000 to 6,000 euros ($5,600 to $6,700) to get to Serbia from Afghanistan with the help of smugglers after many European borders closed down in March. They usually travel through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria before reaching Serbia.

Afghan young men are often sent to Europe to earn money to support their families back home, they said. Such is the case with Zazai. "If they send us back, that will break our hearts," he said.

Turkey, Qatar send 250 tons of flour to Syria

October 8, 2016

Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or IHH, and the Sheikh Thani bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services, RAF have sent 250 tons of flour to war-torn Syria, the IHH secretary general said on Friday.

A 50-truck convoy departed from Turkey’s southern border province of Hatay and headed to Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces, IHH Secretary General Yavuz Dede said.

Last month, a UN aid convoy was attacked as it was about to enter Aleppo, where 275,000 civilians need humanitarian assistance.

The attack in Urum al-Kubra, west of Aleppo, killed the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, as well as aid staff and drivers in a 31-truck convoy.

Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when the regime of Bashar al-Assad cracked down on pro-democracy protests.

The Syrian Center for Policy Research, a Beirut-based NGO, has put the total death toll from the five-year conflict at more than 470,000.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161008-turkey-qatar-send-250-tons-of-flour-to-syria/.

As Islamic State is pushed out of northern Syria, those fleeing militants elsewhere flood in

Wed Oct 5, 2016

By Khalil Ashawi

On a road in northern Syria, a rebel fighter signals to a group of men, women and children traipsing across barren fields to put their hands in the air. He pats them down and inspects their phones, trying to determine whether they are Islamic State sympathizers.

The group -- two families from the town of Tel Afar near Mosul in Iraq -- are part of a rising tide of people flooding into northern Syria, fleeing deteriorating conditions and conflict in the parts of Iraq and Syria still controlled by Islamic State as operations to crush the militants gather pace.

"Praise god we were only three days on the road," said one of those stopped, one of two brothers traveling with their wives and children. "There are people who take them a month and more."

The two families paid $32,000 to smugglers who took them to the edge of Islamic State territory in north Syria -- around 500 km (310 miles) -- inside oil tankers.

From there they walked the final 25 km (15 miles) to arrive at a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel checkpoint just outside the town of al-Rai on the Turkish border, an area of northwestern Syria purged of Islamic State by Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies in August.

"We were in the oil tanker for more than nine hours. The women fainted from the heat and lack of oxygen," said the brother, asking not to be named to protect relatives back home.

"The children were given medicine to make them sleep so they would not wake when Daesh (Islamic State) members tapped the tanks at checkpoints to make sure nobody was inside," he said.

In a long-anticipated operation aimed at delivering a killer blow to the militants in Iraq, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition could launch an operation to oust them from their stronghold of Mosul as soon as the second half of October.

The anticipated attack has caused a spike in people leaving the surrounding area since May, according to a U.N.-affiliated body which monitors population movement inside Syria but which asked not to be named to protect its workers.

"They (Islamic State) kill us every day," said the brother, who said he aims to cross into Turkey to join relatives.

"You have to let your beard grow. If you do anything wrong they will fine you 50,000 or 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($85). They fine you constantly."

While Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias allied to Baghdad's Shi'ite-dominated government have been a key deterrent against the hardline Sunni militants, they have also aroused fear as they move into areas dominated by Sunni Muslims, such as Tel Afar.

"The militias would consider us to be Daesh (Islamic State) even if I told them that we are civilians," said the brother.

"We are powerless to escape the double fear of Daesh and the Iranian and Shi'ite militias."


The rebels manning the checkpoints at al-Rai are also wary about who is and isn't Islamic State. Rebel fighter Abu Muhammad's job is to clear refugees for entry to the town.

"When we capture a Daesh member from among the fleeing civilians, we interrogate him and try to find out if he has sleeper cells among us," he said.

"In the event that someone renounces Daesh, we treat him well. If he has family we try to secure them, even if they are still in Daesh territory."

Arrivals cleared for entry are given aid and free transport out of al-Rai to other rebel-held towns, he said.

Another refugee, a 35-year-old Syrian who gave his name as Muhammad, said he traveled around 50 km (30 miles) from an IS-controlled area near Manbij, a city in northern Syria cleared by a U.S.-backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters in August.

He paid smugglers 40,000 Syrian pounds ($80) for each of the four children and two adults who accompanied him on his journey. He said he had no plan for where he was ultimately heading.

"The important thing is just that we left," he said.

Now in its sixth year, Syria's civil war has cut the country into a patchwork of territories held by the government and an often competing array of armed factions, including Kurdish militia fighters and a loose coalition of rebel groups.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and 11 million have been displaced -- half the country's prewar population.

The U.N.-affiliated body told Reuters it knows of at least 6,000 people who fled Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria, for other parts of Syria in June, July and August.

The majority of these traveled to IS-controlled areas in northwest Aleppo province, getting themselves as close as possible to the border with FSA-controlled territory, with the aim of traveling on to Turkey if possible.

More than 5,500 have also left Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, the largely IS-controlled province which borders Iraq, the group said. The majority of those headed north to Hasaka province, which is controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia.

Many fleeing Islamic State controlled areas around Mosul in Iraq also head over the border to Hasaka.

Ahmad Khader, 26, from Deir al-Zor, said Islamic State confiscated his identification papers. Members of his group had to pay 25,000 Syrian pounds ($48) per person for the journey to al-Rai, which included walking 40 km (25 miles) by foot.

"It is forbidden to leave territory controlled by Islamic State ... most cars on the way were scared to carry us just because we are from Deir al-Zor," he said.

Wael al-Jassim, 22, paid smugglers 60,000 Syrian pounds ($116) each for himself, his wife and two children to travel from their home in Islamic State territory east of Aleppo.

"I got myself smuggled because there was no work. With or without Daesh, if there is no work how can I feed my family?" he said.

The rebels manning the checkpoints around al-Rai estimated they see at least 3,000 people passing through each day.

"Those fleeing are in a pitiful state," said Muhammad, the rebel fighter. "They travel long distances and pay large sums of money to smugglers."

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Source: Reuters.
Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-islamic-state-idUSKCN1251TW.

Muslim Scholars call for worldwide protests for Aleppo

September 28, 2016

The Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) has called on Muslim and Arab nations and on all the “free peoples” to launch a worldwide day of protests on Friday under the slogan #BeAngryForAleppo.

Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Qaradaghi said yesterday that the aim of this campaign is to support the city of Aleppo, which is being “wiped off at the hands of the fascist Syrian regime and its allies in front of the world”, as UN meetings yield no results.

Qaradaghi also called on scholars, preachers and imams to devote Friday’s sermon to addressing Aleppo and its struggle and resolve, and the role that the world should play to support the war-torn city.

He stressed that scholars have to be at the frontline of the angry masses and put pressure to end the injustice and tyranny in Syria and other war-torn countries.

Qaradaghi called on the international community to stop their double standards, stop backing President Bashar Al-Assad, his regime and his allies and to support the Syrian people in their struggle for liberation.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160928-muslim-scholars-call-for-worldwide-protests-for-aleppo/.

Ban Ki-moon: Aleppo worse than a slaughterhouse

September 28, 2016

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that those using “ever more destructive weapons” in Syria are committing war crimes and that the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo is worse than a slaughterhouse.

Ki-moon’s comments come days after Britain accused Russia and Syria of committing war crimes, with the US describing Russia’s so-called counter-terrorism operation as “barbarism.”

Washington says the offensive shows that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have abandoned negotiations in order to seek battlefield victory, turning their backs on an earlier international consensus that no side could win by force.

According to Reuters, Al-Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies have said in recent days that the war will be won in combat.

The Assad regime began a major offensive to retake Aleppo last week with enormous Russian support, leading to almost 800 civilian deaths in the beleaguered city’s eastern districts, including 200 women and children.

Assad regime pounds hospitals

Earlier today, Russian or Syrian warplanes knocked a major Aleppo hospital out of service and ground forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad intensified an assault on the city’s besieged rebel sector, in a battle that has become a potentially decisive turning point in the civil war that is now in its sixth year.

Shelling damaged at least another hospital and a bakery, killing six residents queuing up for bread under a siege that has trapped 250,000 people with food rapidly running out. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it had reports that both hospitals were now out of service.

The WHO also reported earlier that only 35 doctors remained in eastern Aleppo, with other humanitarian organisations joining the WHO in calling for the sick and wounded to be evacuated to safe zones outside of Aleppo in order to provide urgent medical care.

A variety of munitions have been utilized against areas packed with civilians by Damascus and Moscow, including “vacuum” bombs, bunker-busters and incendiary munitions. The use of any of these weapons against civilian targets is a war crime.

“The warplane flew over us and directly started dropping its missiles … at around 4 am,” Mohammad Abu Rajab, a radiologist at the M10 hospital, the largest trauma hospital in the city’s rebel-held sector, told Reuters, adding “rubble fell in on the patients in the intensive care unit.”

Medical workers at the M10 hospital said its oxygen and power generators were destroyed and patients were transferred to another hospital in the area. There were no initial reports of casualties in the hospital.

Syria’s largest city before the war, Aleppo has been divided for years between government and rebel zones, and would be the biggest strategic prize of the war for Al-Assad and his allies. Taking full control of the city would restore near full government rule over the most important cities of western Syria, where nearly all of the population lived before the start of the war.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160928-ban-ki-moon-aleppo-worse-than-a-slaughterhouse/.

Syrians speak out about PKK/PYD 'cruelty'


A group of Syrians, who said they were forced to join PKK/PYD, fled the terrorist group and sought refuge in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The Syrian group told Anadolu Agency on Thursday that they had to leave their villages near Kobani town, controlled by PYD, the Syrian wing of the PKK terrorist group, which they reportedly were forced to join under the name of "compulsory military service" after receiving threats.

The Syrians, who wished to be unnamed for the safety of their family who live in PKK/PYD controlled areas, spoke about that they called "the cruelty of the terrorist organizations".

One of the Syrians said that the terrorist organizations forces at least one member of each family to fight and that it did not give the right to life to people who disobeyed the group.

The Syrian said the leaders of the terrorist organizations took them to an unknown location four days ago and said 'we will fight against Daesh in Al-Bab’.

"They put us in a completely dark place. We stayed there 1-2 days. Then they took us on a hill and said 'Al-Bab is right across,'" the Syrian said.

"When the sun was rising we saw the flag belonging to FSA. We decided to run away after we realized the truth," the Syrian said.

Another Syrian spoke about the PKK/PYD's persecution of people in the region.

The Syrian said the PKK/PYD told people: "Either you join us or you can not live here."

"They have animosity, especially against Arabs. Most of our village was Arab. They seized our all assets. They turn the young people into soldiers under the name of 'compulsory military service,'" the Syrian added.

Another Syrian said PKK/PYD members interfered with freedom of religion and treated pious Muslims who practice their religion "badly".

Source: Anadolu Agency.
Link: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/syrians-speak-out-about-pkk-pyd-cruelty/651483.

UJ students launch anti-normalization campaign to protest Israel gas deal

By Suzanna Goussous
Oct 09,2016

AMMAN — University of Jordan (UJ) activists on Sunday launched a campaign of anti-normalization activities to engage students in the political and economic aspects of the recent gas deal with Israel.  

The campaign will use protests, marches, debates, conferences and talks with political figures to raise students’ political awareness, said Anas Hussein, the spokesperson for the Student Coalition for the Cancellation of the Gas Deal.

“The figures that will be speaking at our events will not belong to one specific party, so we can reach out to a larger number of students and young citizens,” Hussein told The Jordan Times.

He added: “We make up a good percentage of the Jordanian society, which is why we are taking this opportunity to influence and educate the younger generations, starting from the street level and activities held on campus.”

Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a 15-year deal to import gas from Israel in late September, sparking protests across the Kingdom.

Hussein said the gas deal “will mainly affect students and the youths”, adding that “most students are not aware of the fact that more than 30 per cent of their electricity bills will fund the Zionist entity”.

“Our role as activists in universities is to inform other students who do not have much information about the issue,” he added.

The student campaign, the activist said, brought together students from all blocs and political parties, including the Arab Renewal Bloc, the Nashama list, Al Awda list, Ahl Al Himmeh Bloc, Al Quds Committee and students from independent parties.

The first activity for the campaign will take place at the UJ on Tuesday, he said.

“It will be a march from all faculties around the university to the clock tower in the centre of campus. We will be organizing unconventional events and using all available peaceful methods to spread awareness,” Hussein explained.

Over the past week, students at the UJ and the Jordan University of Science and Technology have organised marches and protests on campus demanding the cancellation of the gas deal.

On Sunday, activists around the Kingdom turned off all electrical appliances and lights in their homes for an hour for the second time to demonstrate against the agreement, according to members from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Jordan.

BDS activists also organised a march last week outside NEPCO’s main gate to protest its deal with Israel.

NEPCO officials say the gas deal with Noble Energy would “save Jordan up to $600 million each year”, with around 300 million cubic feet imported by the Kingdom daily.

Noble Energy is a Houston-based company that holds the largest share in the Israeli Leviathan gas field, located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel.

In recent remarks, Prime Minister Hani Mulki defended the deal, stressing that this is a matter of national interest.

The premier said Jordan needs to diversify its energy sources for national security reasons, and will continue to find new sources.

Mulki, who served as energy minister in previous Cabinets, said gas is currently considered the cheapest source of energy, noting that it will be constituting 40 per cent of the Kingdom’s energy mix in the coming years, dropping gradually as Jordan starts to utilize other sources, including renewable energy.

Government Spokesperson Mohammad Momani has said it is “extremely shallow” to suggest that Jordan supports the Israeli occupation by signing the gas deal, stressing, however, the need to “put matters in perspective”, since Jordan has signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994 and is engaged in trade with it.

Source: The Jordan Times.
Link: http://jordantimes.com/news/local/uj-students-launch-anti-normalisation-campaign-protest-israel-gas-deal.

Jordan's Abdullah II receives peace prize in Germany

October 08, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Jordan's King Abdullah II has been awarded a prestigious prize in Germany for his peace efforts in the Middle East. At the award ceremony Saturday for the Westphalian Peace Prize in Muenster's town hall, German President Joachim Gauck said Abdullah and his fellow Jordanians had "set standards for humanity" for their work in the region's refugee crisis.

Jordan, with a population of about 6.5 million, is hosting about 635,000 refugees from neighboring war-torn Syria. The annual prize commemorates the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties concluded and announced in Muenster town hall in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years' War and other conflicts.

Who are the winners and losers in Jordan's latest elections?

Osama Al Sharif
September 28, 2016

The results of Jordan’s legislative elections for the 18th Lower House of parliament, held Sept. 20, was a mixed bag of surprises, disappointments and modest breakthroughs. The elections were held under a new law allowing multiple votes for open proportional lists that replaced the decades-old single-vote system, which has been criticized for years by various political players, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood had boycotted the last two elections but decided to contest this year’s poll through its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). In all, 1,252 candidates ran in 226 lists in the elections.

Managed by an independent commission, the elections were hailed by local and international monitors as mainly free and fair with no government interference, despite incidents that marred the elections process and protests that erupted in many parts of the kingdom following the announcement of results.

So who were the winners and losers in Jordan’s recent elections?

The Islamists

The Muslim Brotherhood, which the government does not recognize as a legitimate entity, contested the elections through an alliance that brought together IAF candidates and tribal, nationalist and Christian figures — the National Coalition for Reform (NCR).

NCR’s program and rallies departed from traditional Brotherhood slogans, especially the famous slogan “Islam is the solution," and offered a civic, nonreligious approach to dealing with the country’s economic and social challenges. In all, the NCR fielded 120 candidates through 20 lists in various districts including Amman, Zerqa, Irbid and Salt.

When the results were announced, they had won 15 seats of the 130-seat Lower House, of which IAF candidates took 10 and the rest went to their allies. There is no doubt that while this makes the NCR the biggest opposition bloc in parliament, the result is a modest one for the Muslim Brotherhood. They had taken 11.5% of the Lower House seats while pre-election predictions gave them between 15 and 20 seats in total.

Overall the 20 lists had gathered 160,000 votes — the majority of which were in Amman, Zerqa and Irbid — or about 11% of total votes cast in the elections. Moreover, five of the seats that the NCR had won were part of the quota system, designated for women, Christians, Circassians and Chechens, which usually receive smaller number of votes. Of these, three seats were taken by women.

It is noteworthy that 50% of the NCR lists failed to win a single seat, and that these lists were mostly competing in southern governorates where tribal influence is dominant. Such results will please the government as they indicate a waning in grass roots support for the Brotherhood while allowing them to be represented in the legislature, ending a decade of boycott.

On the other hand, the newly registered Muslim Brotherhood Society (MBS), which was formed last year, failed to win a single seat. It had contested the elections with one list in Irbid's second district. This dismal performance will focus attention on the future of the MBS and its political viability. The Zamzam Initiative and the Wassat Party each won three seats, and the question now is whether or not their deputies will form a bloc with the NCR.


The election law was criticized by pundits and women's associations for designating three out of 15 seats, dedicated to women under the quota system, to the country’s most populace governorates — Amman, Zerqa and Irbid — raising further questions over gerrymandering imbalance that favored tribal districts at the expense of the capital, where half of the eligible voters, more than 4 million in total, live. Still, five women were able to compete and win outside the quota system, bringing the number of women in the new legislature to 20. In all, 252 women contested the elections through 218 lists, and they received a total of 266,000 votes, which is considered a new record for women in Jordanian elections. On the other hand, only 32% of eligible female voters cast their vote.

Political parties

The new law was supposed to help political parties do better in legislative elections, but results show that only 22 candidates belonging to seven political parties had made it, out of 215 candidates belonging to 50 political parties. Political parties’ representation in the new Lower House is about 17%, of which almost two-thirds belong to Islamist parties. Not a single nationalist or leftist party is represented and, in fact, independent deputies including businessmen, professionals and tribal figures will make up the bulk of the legislature. At least 50 candidates, who were formerly in the Lower House, were re-elected.

On a brighter side, especially for those who support democratic reforms and an all-encompassing secular state, the Ma’an (Together) list, competing in Amman’s third district, made history by winning two seats. While the victory is symbolic, it underlines a growing debate in Jordan among the political elite on the need to set the foundations for a civic, secular and democratic society to confront both authoritarian and religious driven agendas.

Voter apathy

Perhaps this is the biggest story in this latest election. Of more than 4 million registered voters — 1 million of whom are outside the country and cannot vote — voter turnout was a modest 37%, compared to over 50% in the 2013 elections. Amman was the lowest with only 23% voter turnout, and in its competitive third district turnout was only 18%. Similar low figures were marked for other urban centers like Zerqa and Irbid. Pundits believe middle-class voters had opted to stay home for a number of reasons including lack of confidence in the role of the legislature and its limited influence on government policies.

Election results have triggered calls by political parties and figures to review elections law shortcomings in preparation for the next legislative elections in four years time. Former Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher, a staunch proponent of civil rights and a secular state, told Al-Monitor, “Voter apathy should prompt the government to reform the law to prepare the ground for parliamentary governments, which will not come about without genuine development of political parties.”

He added that the new law has not succeeded in restoring voter confidence in parliament. “We need to reach a stage where elections are held on the basis of voting for party and national lists,” he said.

For now, the government can boast that Jordan’s democracy is thriving and that the elections were a success. But with limited political party participation and a legislature that is still dominated by loyalists, many Jordanians believe that little has changed.

Source: al-Monitor.
Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/jordan-legislative-elections-winners-losers.html.

Merkel visiting Ethiopia as state of emergency unfolds

October 11, 2016

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Ethiopia, where her meeting on Tuesday with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is expected to focus on the country's newly declared state of emergency and other issues including migration.

This East African country, one of Africa's best-performing economies, declared its first state of emergency in a quarter-century on Sunday, after months of protests demanding wider freedoms. Merkel's African tour, with stops earlier this week in Mali and Niger, is meant to highlight the global migration crisis and discuss security issues. Ethiopia is one of the world's largest hosts of refugees, with hundreds of thousands arriving from nearby Somalia, South Sudan and elsewhere.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer has said Merkel will also "of course clearly address human rights" in Ethiopia. The deaths of more than 50 people last week in a stampede after police tried to disperse protesters led to a week of more demonstrations. One American was killed in a rock attack.

At least 400 people have been killed in anti-government protests over the past year, human rights groups and opposition activists have said. The protesters have been demanding more freedoms from a government that has been accused of being increasingly authoritarian.

On Monday, Ethiopia's president announced during a Parliament session that the country's election law would be amended to accommodate more political parties and opposing views. But the country's internet service continues to be largely blacked out after last week's unrest, which included the targeting and burning of both foreign and local businesses over suspected ties to the government.

The United States and others have called on the government to use restraint against protesters, and the U.N. human rights office has asked for access to allow independent observers into the troubled Oromia region.

Estonia's first female president sworn in

October 10, 2016

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonia's president-elect has been sworn in for a five-year term as the Baltic country's first female head of state and its fourth president since independence in 1991. The 46-year-old Kersti Kaljulaid arrived at Monday's inaugural ceremonies at the Riigikogu, or Parliament, together with outgoing president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served two terms since 2006.

Political outsider Kaljulaid was elected as a consensus candidate by lawmakers on Oct. 3 after failed votes by the Parliament in August and a special electorate body in September.

22 soldiers killed in attack on Niger refugee camp

By Boureima Hama
Niamey (AFP)
Oct 7, 2016

Twenty-two soldiers have been killed in an attack blamed on jihadists against a camp in Niger sheltering almost 4,000 Malian refugees, security officials said on Friday.

The attack against the camp in Tazalit, in the Tahoua region some 300 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of the capital Niamey and close to the Malian border, took place in broad daylight on Thursday.

"A band of unidentified criminals in vehicles that had traveled from Mali" carried out the attack, killing "14 national guards, five gendarmes, and three army soldiers," defense ministry spokesman Moustapha Ledru said in a televised statement.

"Immediately after their crime, the assailants took flight towards Mali. The enemy were pursued in order to catch and neutralize them," he added.

"This attack will not go unpunished," the spokesman pledged, calling on the country's security forces to continue their "implacable fight against these criminal groups with courage and dedication."

A security official who asked not to be named said "some 30 to 40 heavily armed men speaking in Tuareg carried out the attack, killing 22 soldiers."

The assailants "headed directly to the camp's security post and machine-gunned the soldiers who were having lunch," he said.

He said the attack was "probably carried out by jihadists."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which confirmed the death toll, said in a statement that five soldiers were also hurt in the attack, while the three remaining soldiers deployed at the camp managed to escape.

No refugees were hurt, according to the agency.

The attackers left some two hours later after seizing a vehicle as well as weapons, food, medical supplies and clothing.

UNHCR says about 60,000 Malians have sought refuge in Niger, which is also sheltering around 80,000 Nigerians who have fled attacks by Boko Haram jihadists.

Boko Haram in recent months has escalated its attacks inside Niger, with at least 26 soldiers killed in the southeastern town of Bosso in June.

In attacks attributed to other jihadist groups active in the region, at least two civilians were killed last month at the Tabareybarey refugee camp in western Niger, near the border with Mali.

Despite a peace accord and a 2013 international military intervention, large tracts of Mali are still not controlled by domestic or foreign troops and remain subject to attacks by jihadists.

Although its long borders are quite porous, Niger has for the most part escaped the armed violence that has rocked neighboring states Libya and Nigeria, as well as Mali.

Northern Mali fell under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadi groups in 2012 before a French-led military intervention the following year, which is still ongoing, pushed them out of the area...

Source: Africa Daily.
Link: http://www.africadaily.net/reports/22_soldiers_killed_in_attack_on_Niger_refugee_camp_999.html.

Madagascar protests halt activity at Chinese gold mine

Soamahamanina, Madagascar (AFP)
Oct 7, 2016

A Chinese firm said Friday it had suspended work at its gold mine in Madagascar after a series of protests by local residents.

"The company wants to pull out so that calm and security can return to the town of Soamahamanina," said Stella Andriamamonjy, the spokeswoman for the firm, Jiuxing Mines, which operates the gold mine in the town to the west of the capital.

She stressed that, "given the investments already made," the halt was a temporary "sacrifice" to appease local sentiments.

On Friday, an AFP journalist saw that the company's excavators and trucks had been removed from the site.

The mine was officially opened in May and employs 11 Madagascan and 20 Chinese workers full time.

Jiuxing Mines has a 40-year permit to mine gold at the site.

Since June, locals have held protests every Thursday, claiming that the mine has ruined their land and calling for the Chinese company to leave.

In late September, protesters clashed with police.

"We hope the state will suggest solutions so we can find common ground with the local population. We hope to be able to start afresh and correct the errors of the past," said Andriamamonjy.

"We will do our best to set up local projects -- because that is what the people want -- before really embarking on mining proper," she added.

One of the conditions of Jiuxing Mines' licence was that it build roads, electrify the town, renovate one health centre and build another one.

Source: Africa Daily.
Link: http://www.africadaily.net/reports/Madagascar_protests_halt_activity_at_Chinese_gold_mine_999.html.

Philippines tells US no more joint sea patrols

Manila (AFP)
Oct 7, 2016

The Philippines announced Friday it had officially informed the United States that joint patrols in the South China Sea patrols had been suspended, following orders from President Rodrigo Duterte.

"They have been suspended for the time being. They (Washington) know it already," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters, adding he had relayed the decision to the commander of the US Pacific Command when he was in Hawaii at the start of this month.

Still, Lorenzana indicated he was still not 100 percent sure of Duterte's final plans.

"They will not be conducted anymore until we clarify if he (Duterte) means what he says," Lorenzana said.

The longtime allies began planning joint patrols under the previous Philippine government, which had sought to attract a greater US military presence in the region to counter Chinese efforts to take control of the South China Sea.

China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters close to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, and has in recent years built artificial islands in the disputed areas that are capable of hosting military bases.

Lorenzana said the United States and Philippines had conducted two "passing through" maneuvers over the section of the sea claimed by Manila this year, but not actual "combat patrols".

Duterte, who began his six-year term on June 30, quickly shredded Aquino's strategy on China, seeking co-operation and dialogue with Beijing while diluting the Philippines' alliance with the United States.

He also repeatedly railed against the Philippines' former colonial ruler for criticizing his war on crime, which has claimed more than 3,300 lives and raised concerns about extrajudicial killings.

"I have lost my respect for America," Duterte said on Tuesday, as he threatened to break ties completely with the United States.

Duterte had previously branded US President Barack Obama a "son of a whore".

He had also said he wanted US Special Forces out of the southern region of Mindanao, where they have been helping to quell Islamic militants, and threatened to scrap a 2014 agreement granting American troops increased access to Philippine bases.

Duterte also said he would cancel all 28 military exercises the two sides hold annually.

- Concrete actions -

However, until Friday, officials from both sides had said Duterte's pronouncements were not necessarily policy.

US officials had repeatedly said they had not been officially informed of Duterte's comments.

So the announcement that the joint patrols had been suspended was the first public confirmation that one of Duterte's anti-US comments had become policy.

Lorenzana said none of the other Duterte pronouncements had been officially delivered to the Americans.

But he did say the Philippines was planning to eject the US forces in the southern Philippines in the "near future", as he disclosed details of their normally secretive activities.

The US Special Forces began short-term deployments in 2002 to train Filipino troops in how to counter Islamic militants, with the American personnel peaking at about 600 before the operation was scaled down in 2014.

"There are actually very few of them (now), just about 157 people," Lorenzana said, adding they were stationed inside a large military camp on the outskirts of Zamboanga city on the main southern island of Mindanao.

"All they do is operate their drones and some intelligence equipment to help our troops in the south."

He said the drones flew over the militant strongholds of the Basilan and Sulu island groups, as well as central Mindanao where another small armed group had pledged alliance to the Islamic State group.

Lorenzana said those US forces would be asked to leave when the Philippines acquired its own drones.

"The president said that he doesn't want them to leave immediately but maybe in the near future," Lorenzana said.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Philippines_tells_US_no_more_joint_sea_patrols_999.html.

Japan Schedules Cargo Transporter Launch to ISS for December 9

Tokyo (Sputnik)
Oct 10, 2016

Japanese cargo spaceship KOUNOTORI6 is set to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on December 9, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said Friday.

KOUNOTORI is an unmanned cargo transporter which will be launched with the H-IIB launch vehicle from Tanegashima Space Center.

It is designed to deliver up to 6 tons of food and clothes among other supplies.

Takuya Onishi, a Japanese astronaut who is currently at the ISS, is about to return to Earth at the end of October. He will be replaced by the Norishige Kanai in 2017.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Japan_Schedules_Cargo_Transporter_Launch_to_ISS_for_December_9_999.html.

Orbital ATK and Stratolaunch partner to offer competitive launch opportunities

Dulles VA (SPX)
Oct 10, 2016

Orbital ATK and Stratolaunch Systems has announced a multi-year production-based partnership that will offer significant cost advantages to air-launch customers. Stratolaunch Systems, in cooperation with Vulcan Aerospace, is responsible for realizing Paul G. Allen's vision for space.

Under this partnership, Orbital ATK will initially provide multiple Pegasus XL air-launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft to provide customers with unparalleled flexibility to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

Pegasus has carried out 42 space launch missions, successfully placing more than 80 satellites into orbit for scientific, commercial, defense and international customers.

"We are energized by this evolved partnership with Orbital ATK," said Mr. Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch Systems and executive director of Vulcan Aerospace.

"Orbital ATK is the world's most experienced air-launch service provider, and we are proud to leverage that expertise and progressive approach in pursuit of our shared goal of convenient and affordable commercial access to low Earth orbit."

"Orbital ATK is excited by this collaboration and sees it as a positive first step in a long-term partnership," said Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK's Flight Systems Group.

"The combination of our extensive air-launch experience and the Stratolaunch aircraft has the potential to provide innovative and cost-effective options for commercial launch customers."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Orbital_ATK_and_Stratolaunch_Systems_Partner_to_Offer_Competitive_Space_Launch_Opportunities_999.html.