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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Civilians fleeing rebel-held east Aleppo 'detained and conscripted' by Syrian forces

5 December 2016

Syrian forces are arresting and forcibly conscripting civilians fleeing opposition-held east Aleppo, relatives of detainees have told the Telegraph.

Dozens of military-aged teachers, medics and aid workers are reported to have been rounded up and spirited away, as regime troops push further into the city.

The brother of one told how government officials were detaining men under the age of 40 whom they accused of supporting the rebellion.

“I was with him (Mohammed, his brother) when he was taken by the secret service,” said Yussef, who did not wish to give his full name for fear of reprisal. “We just wanted to leave Aleppo to find safety.

“He was not political, he never took part in any anti-government protests,” said Yussef, speaking from the northern Syrian city of Azaz, a few miles south of the Turkish border, where he and his family are now seeking refuge.

He said father-of-three Mohammed, 30, had worked as a nurse at a hospital until a few months ago, when he joined a local medical NGO.

When Syrian troops entered the family’s al-Firdous neighborhood a week ago, they tried to escape the fighting.

“They did not allow us to leave - we were all taken to an old cotton factory in the Jibreen area of southeast Aleppo. Men were separated from women and everyone was questioned, and after a few days were allowed to go,” he said.

But as the family tried to pass through a checkpoint in the Ramousseh district last Friday, secret service officials checked Mohammed’s ID against a list and arrested him on the spot.

“They took his phone and all his belongings. The names on the list were of NGO workers, medics and anyone thought to be aiding the rebel cause. They told my brother ‘We have a situation and you need to help us fix it’.

“I did not speak out, I could not. I knew there was nothing I could not say to stop them,” said Yussef, a 36-year-old factory worker who was not on the government’s blacklist. “I could only think of my own children and wife and did not want to be detained or killed myself.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, estimates that more than 300 people have gone missing from east Aleppo since the regime began its blistering ground offensive late last month.

Yussef said he knew of many others who have suffered the same fate and feared there were likely hundreds more than reported.

The Telegraph spoke to two other families which confirmed the detentions. One father, whose son was arrested 10 days ago, had heard he was already fighting with the Syrian military in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

The army has been looking to bolster its dwindling numbers, having suffered a huge loss of manpower during the bloody five-year-conflict.

“We haven’t heard anything from him since December 1st,” Yussef said. “I think that we will never hear from him again.”

Fares Shehabi, an MP for Aleppo, denied civilians were being held, saying they had been offered shelter in the regime-held western side of the city.

“All civilians leaving the east are being taken care of by the government and various civil society groups,” he told the paper. “None have been detained to my knowledge.”

Since the army swept through the northern part of the rebel enclave a week ago, capturing several large, populous districts, at least 40,000 people have fled across the front lines from the opposition areas.

Thousands more have been displaced and have retreated further into areas still under rebel control, where the situation is becoming more dire by the day.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported on the ground by Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hizbollah fighters, have regained nearly two-thirds of the east in a blitzkrieg assault.

The parts still held by the rebel have been bombed relentlessly by the regime, which is hoping to empty out the east and reclaim full control of Syria’s second city.

A defeat for the rebels in Aleppo - one of their last remaining urban bastions - would be their most devastating loss yet in the intractable war.

Delegates from the US and Russia are due to meet later tomorrow in Geneva to discuss a deal which could see the withdrawal of all rebel fighters from the city.

The opposition remains defiant however, telling Washington they would not pull out despite international concern for the remaining civilians.

Abu Abdel Rahman Al-Hamawi of the Army of Islam group said rebels "would fight until the last drop of blood".

Source: The Telegraph.
Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/05/civilans-fleeing-rebel-held-east-aleppo-detained-conscripted/.

Syrian and allied troops advance in besieged Aleppo

December 04, 2016

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Syrian warplanes, artillery and mortar rounds pounded areas in eastern Aleppo on Saturday drawing rebel rockets, as government troops gain new ground in the shrinking opposition-held enclave.

After four years of holding nearly half of the divided city, rebel fighters have been increasingly squeezed into the center of the eastern enclave. Government and allied troops, including Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian fighters, have concentrated their fight on the northeastern part of the enclave, swiftly taking new districts since their offensive began last week. Another front on the southern outskirts of the city has been slower, as rebel fighters push back government advances there.

The advances have caused massive displacement. The U.N. estimated that more than 31,000 have already fled their homes, either to government or Kurdish areas, or deeper into the besieged enclave. The fighting has also intensified the rebel shelling of government-held areas in Aleppo.

The state broadcaster al-Ikhbariya said "precise operations" by government and allied troops aim to rout out "terrorists," which is how the government refers to all armed opposition groups. The sound of war prevailed in the city early Saturday. Warplanes made several runs overhead, drawing what appeared to be rebel machine gun fire toward the aircraft.

The Russian Interfax news agency report quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying that a light ground attack aircraft, L-39 jet, was shot down near Aleppo, and its crew was killed. The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said two pilots were killed when rebel fighters targeted the aircraft as it approached Aleppo airport to the east of the city.

Asked about reports of the downed plane, Syrian army spokesman Brig. Gen. Samir Suleiman said "we have no such information about such an incident and when such things happen the army announces them." He was speaking to reporters in Aleppo.

Suleiman said the Syrian army has regained control of 45-to-50 percent of east Aleppo, and accused insurgents of hiding among civilians. Syria's Defense Minister and other senior officers visited newly captured areas in Aleppo on Saturday, according to state-run media.

The Syrian Civil Defense in eastern Aleppo said six people were killed in bombings of the central al-Shaar neighborhood. Opposition news agency Thiqa also put the death toll at six. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at three, adding it was likely to rise. In government-held Aleppo, rebel shelling killed five people, according to the state news agency SANA.

To the south of the city, government cannons could be heard firing toward rebel-held areas. Residents in eastern Aleppo also reported intense shelling in al-Sukkari neighborhood on the southern edge of the enclave, where many of the newly displaced have sought refuge.

"The noose is tightening quickly," said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, a medical official in besieged eastern Aleppo. "Our resources are also running low and beginning to disappear." The bombings Saturday came hours after government troops made new advances on eastern parts of the enclave, including in Tariq al-Bab and al-Khaterji districts. State media reported that government and allied troops have moved in on new neighborhoods, pushing one kilometer (0.6 mile) deeper into the enclave from the far east.

The new advances tighten the government's grip on the enclave and reduce the territory the rebels hold by more than half, according to the Observatory. The new advances also secure the airport road east of Aleppo, leading to the city's international airport and a military airbase. The pan-Arab Mayadeen TV station said intense bombing in eastern Aleppo was designed to ensure rebels have been cleared from the airport road.

Moscow, a main backer of the Syrian government, says its warplanes haven't bombed Aleppo since Oct. 18. But the Russian military has helped fend off rebel attempts to break the siege of the city. "We and the Russians are allies and everything that is happening is coordinated between Russian and Syrian leadership," said Syrian army spokesman Suleiman.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow is ready to hold quick talks with the U.S. "'to ensure the withdrawal of all rebels without exception from eastern Aleppo, ensure humanitarian supplies to the city residents and the restoration of normal life in eastern Aleppo."

Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet in Geneva early next week. After their meeting in Rome Friday, Lavrov said Kerry gave him Washington's proposals for settling the situation in Aleppo, which he described as conforming to Russia's longtime offers. Lavrov said Moscow is ready to immediately send its experts to Geneva for talks with the U.S. to coordinate.

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Aleppo, Syria and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Syria opposition creates 'Army of Aleppo' to fight Assad regime

December 1, 2016

All the armed Syrian opposition factions in the besieged districts of opposition-held eastern Aleppo have decided to dissolve their individual organisations, and will now instead reform as a newly created “Army of Aleppo”, opposition forces have declared.

The announcement means that there no longer exists a multitude of different factions in Aleppo who opposed the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and their unification comes following gains the Assad regime have made over the past week.

The creation of the Army of Aleppo comes after the first major territorial upset suffered by the Syrian opposition in the divided northern city since 2012. Using barrel bombs laced with chemical agents, the Assad regime has advanced into a number of neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo, previously inaccessible to them.

Although the opposition has previously united their command structures, notably leading to a brief breaking of the regime’s siege on eastern Aleppo, this is the first time that they have completely unified as a single entity.

The unification comes at the request of the people of Aleppo who live under opposition control but fear what may happen to them by a vengeful Assad regime should eastern districts fall.

The collapse of the opposition frontline in Aleppo has led to concerns that regime forces and allied Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan may commit a sectarian massacre on an unprecedented scale.

It remains to be seen whether now unofficial divisions between the previously disparate groups will resurface, though it seems unlikely that will happen in the short-term considering the very real danger the Assad regime poses to neighborhoods under opposition control.

Calls to established a safe corridor for civilians

Meanwhile, the president of the Aleppo local council issued calls pleading for the Syrian regime assault to pause and for a corridor to be created to allow civilians wishing to flee the violence in Syria’s largest city safe passage.

“The civilians are calling for the world to help. In the name of humanity, let the civilians leave the city. Help the civilians! Protect the civilians!” said Brita Hagi Hasan at a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor, accused the Assad regime of detaining hundreds of civilians who were forced to flee their homes and neighborhoods as a result of the offensive.

Hasan said that the regime and allied Iran-backed militias were committing reprisals against civilians. “We have documented evidence, proof of executions and reprisals,” he said, adding that men under the age of 40 were being especially targeted by the regime.

Commenting on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, Ayrault said: “We shall see what members of the Security Council can do to save lives. Everyone is against the wall, but we can’t look the other way.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161201-syria-opposition-creates-army-of-aleppo-to-fight-assad-regime/.

Syrian opposition keeps up resistance

December 1, 2016

Syrian opposition on Wednesday vowed to fight on in east Aleppo in the face of sudden government advances that have cut the area held by the opposition by a third in recent days and brought insurgents in the city to the brink of a catastrophic defeat.

Gains by the Syrian army and its allies since last week have brought whole districts back under government control and led to a human exodus as thousands have fled their pulverized neighborhoods near the rapidly shifting front lines.

With the opposition now reduced to an area just kilometers across, the leaders of Russia and Turkey, two of the most powerful supporters of the opposing sides in the war spoke by phone on the need for a ceasefire, according to sources in Ankara.

The army and its allies said they had taken the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the city on Wednesday. Opposition denied this, saying the government’s advance had been repelled. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the insurgents retained a third of Sheikh Saeed.

The Observatory reported that the government was detaining and questioning hundreds of those fleeing opposition-held areas for the comparative safety of state-controlled districts.

A Syrian military source denied this, saying there had been no arrests, but adding that displaced people whose identities were not known were being moved into “specific places” in the areas of Aleppo where fleeing civilians were found.

In their attack on Wednesday, government forces stepped up the use of air strikes, including in Aleppo’s Old City, according to an opposition official. Rescue workers in eastern Aleppo said 45 people were killed in an artillery bombardment.

The UN’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, told a Security Council emergency meeting on Aleppo that dozens of humanitarian staff were trapped in Aleppo and that warring parties must protect civilians before the city becomes “one giant graveyard”.

After a year of gradual advances for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, the taking of Aleppo would represent a huge stride forwards in his efforts to end the opposition after nearly six years of conflict.

For the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition groups, the fall of Aleppo would deprive them of their last big foothold in a major city. A leadership council of the opposition groups in Aleppo called on all men able to bear arms to “defend the oppressed”.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful international ally whose air force has pounded opposition for more than a year, said it hoped the Aleppo situation could be resolved by the end of the year. Opposition in the city have vowed no surrender.

No Withdrawal

While opposition lines collapsed unexpectedly in parts of eastern Aleppo at the weekend, sources on the government side say the next phase could be more difficult as they try to take more densely populated areas of the city.

Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim opposition group, told Reuters that opposition groups in the city had rejected any withdrawal.

“This is the decision of the factions. I spoke to them about everything that was tabled and they said they would not withdraw, and other things may also happen,” he said from Turkey, without giving further details.

With tens of thousands of people remaining in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, many say they would rather risk death than surrender to a government they have been trying to overthrow since protests against Assad began in 2011.

Thousands of people who have fled the fighting have gone into the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud district rather than hand themselves over to a government which UN investigators have accused of secretly detaining activists and civilians.

Salem Abu Mudar, an east Aleppo resident reached by Reuters, said that although he had never taken up arms against the government, “I fear the regime will not let me go and I will end up in one of its many prisons”.

Damascus says such reports of arbitrary detention and torture are fabricated.

The Syrian military source said reports of detentions in Aleppo were intended to scare the people into staying under opposition rule, and that identities of people leaving the area had to be checked to ensure they were not militants.

The army has urged Aleppo’s opposition factions to accept a surrender under which they would abandon the city. In previous deals between the government and opposition, insurgents have been given safe passage to the opposition-held province of Idlib.

Renewed assault

Rescue workers in the opposition zone said renewed artillery bombardment had killed more than 45 people, mostly women and children, on Wednesday and injured dozens more, including some of those who had fled from front line areas. The Observatory put the toll from that attack at 26.

“Today there was another massacre, I witnessed it. The displaced people were coming at 6:30 am. There was artillery shelling while they were walking in the streets. Really, it was so, so horrible,” said Aref al-Aref, a nurse and photographer in an opposition-held part of the city.

Footage sent by the Civil Defense rescue operation, purportedly of the aftermath, showed people lying in the street in pools of blood, including a woman dressed in black who had been carrying a large backpack. Reuters could not independently verify the date or location of the video.

Opposition shelling of government-held districts in western Aleppo killed eight people, including two children, and wounded seven, the official SANA news agency reported, citing a source in the city’s police force.

With diplomatic efforts to resolve the war in deadlock, and uncertainty over the position that the next US administration will take on Syria, Moscow said it had been in contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s team on the matter.

Russian soldiers helped distribute food aid to displaced people who had fled eastern Aleppo to government areas, handing out packages stamped with the Russian flag and the slogan “Russia is with you” in Arabic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday on the need for a ceasefire and provision of aid to Aleppo, sources in Erdogan’s office said. Moscow did not immediately comment on the call.

But Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council: “We share the grave concerns of the plight of civilians in east Aleppo, but easing their suffering won’t happen by ceasing the counter terrorist operation.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet his Turkish counterpart in the Mediterranean city of Antalya on Thursday.

The fighting has displaced around 50,000 people in the parts of east Aleppo where fighting has occurred, the Observatory said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Paris, Brita Hagi Hasan, president of the local council in opposition-held Aleppo districts, said the government should set up a safe corridor for civilians to leave.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161201-syrian-opposition-keeps-up-resistance/.

Libyans protest against gang rape by militiamen

December 12, 2016

Libya has seen protests growing across the country following a video which surfaced online of a woman being gang raped by members of one of the country’s many armed militias.

Demonstrations were held in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Sunday with protesters demanding that the rapists be punished and calling for the restoration of law and order. The protests continued today with hundreds of demonstrators marching to the city center calling for justice for the victim of the rape. Her fate remains as yet unknown.

The video of the rape was posted on social media three days ago by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade after the mobile phone which was used during the assault was taken from the commander of Al-Awashr Brigade, Salah Hubaishi; he was killed earlier this month. The Revolutionaries say that they are holding two of those involved in the rape.

The Presidency Council described those involved as “human wolves” and promised retribution for the rapists and anyone else involved in the attack. It has since ordered the Attorney General to investigate the “heinous crime” as a matter of urgency. It went against “Libya’s values, religion and culture,” the council insisted.

The townspeople of Tarhouna, where the woman came from originally, have threatened to attack Tripoli in revenge if those involved have not been handed over by today.

The Tripoli branch of the Libyan Women’s Union, meanwhile, has said that it holds all security organizations in the country responsible for the rape due to the complete collapse of security in Libya. Women’s organizations across Libya were supported by the UN Security Mission; it condemned the attack and reminded Libyans that rape is a grave violation of human rights.

Ironically, the incident came at the conclusion of a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence organised across the country by the Libya office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161212-libyans-protest-against-gang-rape-by-militiamen/.

ISIS loses control of Libyan city of Sirte

Monday 5 December 2016

The drawn-out capture of Sirte, the last major Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold in Libya, has been completed after months of fighting and a stubborn resistance by snipers.

Rida Issa, a spokesman for the Misrata brigades, said they had led forces backed by US airstrikes to take the last ISIS-held buildings in the city. He said the brigades “control all of Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya neighborhood and are still securing the area”.

ISIS fighters clinging on in a few dozen buildings in the district had earlier on Monday surrendered to Libyan forces, and at least three women had left militant-held ground, officials said.

In recent days, dozens of women and children had left the last group of buildings controlled by militants, Libyan forces said. But several women carried out deadly suicide attacks on Friday as they were being granted safe passage with their children.

ISIS commanders were also captured trying to escape by sea, along with some Tunisian fighters.

The militant group took over Sirte in early 2015 and at one point had access to 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline. The US claimed about 6,000 ISIS fighters were inside Sirte, but subsequent analysis suggested the true number was closer to 3,000.

The anti-ISIS fight in Sirte has been led by brigades from the western city of Misrata, who have taken heavy casualties, with the support of at least 470 US airstrikes since August.

The absence of any recognizable Libyan intelligence forces means the west has little idea where the defeated fighters escaping the siege may have fled over the past few months, either within Libya or the largely unguarded Libyan borders.

The capture of Sirte does little to help resolve the fundamental political problems dogging the Libyan Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

The GNA has little or no authority, and the Libyan parliament – the House of Representatives – has refused to pass the constitutional amendments necessary to bring the GNA fully into constitutional existence.

Although oil production is slowly rising, government financial reserves are depleted and the Libyan dinar is overvalued. Fighting between rival militias in the capital, Tripoli, has worsened in the past week, with many deaths.

In recent weeks, Russia has become more closely involved in trying to resolve the political stalemate by giving visible backing to Khalifa Haftar, the Egyptian-backed leader of the Libyan National Army. Western governments regard Haftar as an obstacle to developing a political consensus. Last week he met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

Russia has insisted it will not arm Haftar but believes he must be integral to any new political compromise, and a reshaping of the GNA.

Source: The Guardian.
Link: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/05/isis-loses-control-of-libyan-city-of-sirte.

Algerian Parliament votes to amend pension draft bill

December 1, 2016

Members of the National People’s Congress (NPC) yesterday adopted a verbal amendment to the controversial retirement bill.

The amendment, introduced by the Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Mohamed El Ghazi, will provide a transitional period of two years granting the right to receive the pension benefit for a certain category of workers who have provided 32 years of service.

The minister did not explain the reasons for the draft’s extension but said that it was introduced due to “the instructions of the President of the Republic”.

However the minister reiterated that the pension reforms contained in the draft were completely necessary “to save the pension system” that is currently “programmed to bankruptcy”.

“The day the state will not pay pensions, we will not say that it is the fault of the unions, they will accuse the government,” he added.

The small concession by President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is unlikely to ease the worries of Algerians and independent unionists. Ministers supporting the bill have also been criticized for not being open to dialogue with independent unions against autonomous trade unions not affected by the law.

Tensions across the industrial sector are increasing due to the government’s lack of ability to fairly relocate the economic crisis away from its citizens.

The anger fueled by the Finance Act has been marked by a rise in taxes, undermining the purchasing power of households, with the retirement bill further adding anguish to dwindling social dynamics.

With parliamentary elections to be held in the New Year, a deleterious social climate is not likely to encourage citizens to take to the polls.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161201-algerian-parliament-votes-to-amend-pension-draft-bill/.

Colombia's Santos accepts Nobel, urges shift in drug war

December 10, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday, saying it helped his country achieve the "impossible dream" of ending a half-century-long civil war.

A smiling Santos received his Nobel diploma and gold medal at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for his efforts to end a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and displaced 8 million. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is one less war in the world, and it is the war in Colombia," the 65-year-old head of state said, referring to the historic peace deal this year with leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Santos used his acceptance speech to celebrate the end of the longest-running conflict in the Americas, pay tribute to its victims and call for a strategy shift in another, related war — on drug trafficking worldwide.

Just a few years ago, imagining the end of the bloodshed in Colombia "seemed an impossible dream, and for good reason," Santos said, noting that very few Colombians could even remember their country at peace.

The initial peace deal was narrowly rejected by Colombian voters in a shock referendum result just days before the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in October. Many believed that ruled out Santos from winning this year's prize, but the Norwegian Nobel Committee "saw things differently," deputy chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said.

"The peace process was in danger of collapsing and needed all the international support it could get," she said in her presentation speech. A revised deal was approved by Colombia's Congress last week.

Several victims of the conflict attended the prize ceremony, including Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage by FARC for six years, and Leyner Palacios, who lost 32 relatives including his parents and three brothers in a FARC mortar attack.

"The FARC has asked for forgiveness for this atrocity, and Leyner, who is now a community leader, has forgiven them," the president said. Palacios stood up to applause from the crowd. FARC leaders, who cannot travel because they face international arrest warrants by the U.S., were not in Oslo. A Spanish lawyer who served as a chief negotiator for FARC represented the rebel group at the ceremony.

Colombians have reacted to Santos' prize with muted emotion amid deep divisions over the peace deal. The vast majority didn't bother to vote in October's referendum. For many Colombians in big cities, Santos' overriding focus on ending a conflict that had been winding down for years has diverted attention from pressing economic concerns.

Santos' speech made a reference to fellow Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, this year's surprise winner of the literature award, by citing the lyrics of one of his most famous songs, "Blowin' in the Wind." The president also used the Nobel podium to reiterate his call to "rethink" the war on drugs, "where Colombia has been the country that has paid the highest cost in deaths and sacrifices."

Santos has argued that the decades-old U.S.-promoted war on drugs has produced enormous violence and environmental damage in nations that supply cocaine, and needs to be supplanted by a global focus on easing laws prohibiting consumption of illegal narcotics.

"It makes no sense to imprison a peasant who grows marijuana, when nowadays, for example, its cultivation and use are legal in eight states of the United States," he said. The other Nobel Prizes were presented at a separate ceremony in Stockholm to the laureates in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. Dylan wasn't there — he declined the invitation, citing other commitments.

The crowd still gave Dylan a standing ovation after a Swedish Academy member praised his work in a speech. An awkward moment ensued as American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, performing Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," forgot the lyrics midway through.

"I apologize. I'm sorry, I'm so nervous," Smith said, asking the orchestra to start over, as the formally dressed audience comforted her with gentle applause. In a speech read by U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji at the Nobel banquet later Saturday, Dylan alluded to the debate about whether a songwriter deserved the Nobel Prize in literature.

Dylan said when William Shakespeare was working on "Hamlet," he probably was thinking about which actors to pick and where he could find a skull. "I'm sure the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was: 'Is this literature?'" Dylan said.

Like the Bard of Avon, Dylan said, he also deals with "mundane matters" such as whether he's recording in the right key and not whether his songs are literature. However, he thanked the Swedish Academy for considering that question "and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer."

__ Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Top South American university to host Palestine conference

December 5, 2016

A top South American university will host a conference on Palestine tomorrow, bringing together politicians, academics and activists from the region and Middle East.

“Brazilian Perspectives on Palestine in a changing Middle East” will be held at Brazil’s University of São Paulo (USP), and is timed to coincide with this year’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, which fell last week.

The conference is a joint project of the Center for Arab Studies of USP, the Institute for International Relations at USP, Middle East Monitor (London) and Common Action Forum (Madrid).

The aim of the meeting is to examine current perspectives and inform the political discourse on Palestine in Brazil; intellectually expose and unpack prevailing myths about Palestine; and energize public opinion to hasten the decolonization of Palestine.

Speakers at the event will include Wadah Khanfar, former director general of Al Jazeera Media Network and President of Common Action Forum, Professor Arlene Clemesha, USP-based historian, and Professor Nur Masalha, editor of Holy Land and Palestine Studies from St Mary’s University in London.

There will also be an address by Representative of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The panelists will address topics such as: “The unfinished business of decolonization: Reinstating Palestine on to the world agenda”, “The rise of global civil society in the quest for Palestinian self-determination” and “Palestine: Shifting the paradigm from the hegemony of vested interest to genuine democracy”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161205-top-south-american-university-to-host-palestine-conference/.

Thousands protest corruption, support judiciary in Brazil

December 05, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across Brazil on Sunday to express disgust with public corruption and outrage at what they say are lawmakers' attempts to muzzle the judges and prosecutors pursuing those crimes.

Protesters, many dressed in the green and yellow of Brazil's flag, massed along a major artery in Sao Paulo and along Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Other protests were held in cities around the country. Many demonstrators wore T-shirts or held banners in support of Sergio Moro, the judge who has led a hard-charging investigation into a kickback scheme involving the national oil company, several construction conglomerates and politicians.

The investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, has shocked Brazilians both for the scale of corruption it has revealed and for the commitment of the judiciary to see it through in a country where many feel the rich and powerful act with impunity.

But Sunday's demonstrations also united a motley group of protesters whose only common cause appeared to be disgust with elected officials. They represented a cross-section of an increasingly fractured Brazil. In addition to those supporting the corruption investigation, some held signs calling for the removal from office of the president and leaders in Congress. Some called for the jailing of a former president now facing corruption charges. Still others were advocating a return to military rule.

"I want people who have character running the country," said Regina Medeiros, a 67-year-old retiree, who held a banner that read: "Let's finish with political parties before they finish Brazil." ''People are losing faith in other human beings," she added.

Around 15,000 people protested in Sao Paulo, according to an estimate from military police; they said they did not have a number for demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro. At least another 40,000 people came out in scores of other cities around Brazil, including the capital of Brasilia, according to estimates from military police published by the G1 news portal.

Many hoped that after former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office earlier this year, Brazilian politics would settle, and reforms proposed by the new president might pull the economy out of deep recession. But instead, those reforms have met with significant protests, President Michel Temer has seen his popularity plummet, and the economic crisis appears to be worsening.

Through it all, accusations of corruption against former or current leaders seem to come weekly. Scandal has touched several members of Temer's Cabinet, and six have resigned. Meanwhile, anger at the scale of corruption and frustration with the impotence of the government to address it is rising.

The one bright spot appeared to be the tenacity of the judiciary and its determination to see through Operation Car Wash. But last week, the prosecutors leading that investigation threatened to quit, accusing Congress of passing legislation that would leave them vulnerable to retribution from those they have prosecuted. The measure, approved in a marathon overnight session in the lower house of Congress as part of a package of anti-corruption laws, would allow defendants to accuse prosecutors and judges of abusing their authority.

"In the middle of the night, the house of deputies disfigured this (anti-corruption) project. Instead of punishing the corrupt, they want to punish investigating prosecutors and judges," said Agnes Musseliner, a prosecutor who attended the protest in Rio. "We are here to protest against this absurdity, to guarantee the independence of the public prosecutor's office and Brazilian judicial authority."

The package was proposed by the public prosecutor earlier this year and included measures that would toughen penalties for corruption and accelerate the handling of corruption cases in courts. But in its overnight session, held while Brazil was mourning the deaths in a plane crash of members of a beloved soccer team, the lower house of Congress dropped some of the toughest measures, like allowing prosecutors to reach more plea bargains, in addition to adding the one that allows prosecutors and judges to be charged with abuse of power.

Paola Augusta Mariano Margues, a 31-year-old prosecutor in Sao Paulo, said the measure could have a chilling effect on investigations because it could leave prosecutors vulnerable when investigations don't lead to charges.

Moro has called it an effort to intimidate the judiciary and halt Operation Car Wash before it implicates any more lawmakers. He pleaded with the Senate not to pass it, and judges and prosecutors are asking the president not to sign if it does.

"Sergio Moro, we are with you," read a giant banner at the Sao Paulo protest, where demonstrators frequently chanted his name.

DiLorenzo reported from Sao Paulo.

Social Democrats easily win Romania parliamentary elections

December 12, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's left-leaning Social Democrats easily won parliamentary elections a year after a major anti-corruption drive forced the last Socialist prime minister from power, near-final results released Monday showed.

Election authorities said that with 99 percent of the votes from Sunday's balloting counted, the Social Democratic Party had won about 46 percent and the center-right Liberals were second with over 20 percent.

The chairman of the Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, spoke Sunday after exit polls showed similar results. "There should be no doubt who won the elections," he said. "Romanians want to feel at home in their own country and I want Romania to be a good home for all Romanians."

Dragnea got a two-year suspended prison sentence in April for voter fraud for inflating voter numbers in a July 2012 referendum to impeach then-President Traian Basescu. Under a 2001 law, Dragnea is not allowed to be appointed prime minister because of the conviction, and last week he said the party would not try to change the law. However, he told Romania TV Monday that he had not ruled himself out as a future premier.

President Klaus Iohannis has said he will not nominate a premier who has been convicted or who is a subject of a corruption investigation. Dragnea's party has pushed a populist agenda, but on Sunday he sought to strike a conciliatory note, saying he wanted to end bitter divisions in the country.

The Save Romania Union, a new party that ran on an anti-corruption ticket, finished third, allowing it to enter Parliament. A party needs 5 percent of the votes to enter the bicameral legislature. Votes from parties that do not make the threshold are redistributed.

Turnout for the election was low, at just 39.5 percent, more than two percentage points less than the 2012 parliamentary elections. Former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, already the subject of a corruption probe, resigned after mass protests following a nightclub fire in October 2015 that killed 64 people. Romania is currently run by a government of technocrats headed by Premier Dacian Ciolos, a former European Union agriculture commissioner.

The country of about 19 million people is one of the poorest in the 28-member European Union and perceived as one of the most corrupt.

Romanians vote for parliament amid concerns over graft

December 11, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanians began voting Sunday in a parliamentary election a year after a massive anti-corruption drive forced the last Socialist prime minister from power. The country of about 19 million is one of the poorest in the European Union and perceived as one of the most corrupt.

Romania's biggest party, the Social Democratic Party, is expected to come first and will likely try to form a majority with smaller parties. In all, 504 seats are up for re-election in Romania's bicameral Parliament.

President Klaus Iohannis, who by law is not allowed to belong to any party, urged Romanians to vote. "I voted for a prosperous and strong Romania," Iohannis said after casting his ballot in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.

Former Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned after mass protests following a nightclub fire in October 2015 that killed 64 people. The country is currently run by a government of technocrats headed by Premier Dacian Ciolos, a former EU agriculture commissioner.

The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, got a two-year suspended prison sentence for voter fraud in April for inflating voter numbers at a July 2012 referendum to impeach former President Traian Basescu.

Dragnea this time has promised an ambitious populist agenda to raise salaries and pensions, slash taxes, build more hospitals, offer faster trains and give every village its own ambulance. In recent days, Iohannis has reiterated his commitment to the anti-corruption fight.

"Corruption is stagnation, contempt for citizens and the law. As I've said before, corruption kills," he said. Polls close at 9 p.m.

Polish leader wants to 'bring order' to political opposition

December 13, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The chairman of Poland's conservative ruling party says he does not like the style of political debate in Poland and the country's leadership plans measures to "bring order" to the opposition's activities.

Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's former prime minister, did not specify the measures or their timing, but said he expects they will be criticized by many as efforts to limit freedom and democracy.

"On our part, there will definitely be attempts to introduce some kind of order into the opposition's activity," Kaczynski said in an interview on state radio. Hours later, thousands of government opponents gathered in central Warsaw under the slogan "Stop the Devastation of Poland," singing the national anthem in unison at the start of their rally. They oppose changes brought by Kaczynski in the 13 months that his Law and Justice party has been in power.

The protests are being held on the 35th anniversary of martial law, a harsh communist-era clampdown imposed in 1981 in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. Law and Justice has enacted changes that have been condemned by the European Union and the United States as an erosion of some democratic standards. The most controversial is a new law that has damaged the ability of the Constitutional Tribunal to act as a check on government power.

Also Tuesday, Poland's government said it was taking steps to strip two late communist-era generals of their top military ranks. The move is part of the ruling conservatives' larger mission to punish the communists who held oppressive power for decades until they were toppled in 1989.

Those targeted are the top leaders who imposed martial law, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and his deputy, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak. Jaruzelski died in 2014 and Kiszczak in 2015. "Today, for the last time, will the word 'general' be used alongside the name of Mr. Jaruzelski," Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said, adding that Kiszczak also was being stripped of his rank.

"Criminals responsible for armed action against their own nation do not deserve to wear these military ranks," Macierewicz said. While the moves against Jaruzelski and Kiszczak are largely symbolic, Law and Justice party lawmakers also are debating a new law aimed at reducing the pensions of retired secret security officials and some military leaders from the communist era.

Their persons are higher than pensions of ordinary Poles, and the government argues that officials who served under the system imposed by Moscow do not merit any privileges.

Macedonian opposition leader contests election defeat

December 13, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's opposition leader is challenging the official results of the country's weekend parliamentary elections, and says he will file a formal appeal with electoral authorities.

Zoran Zaev's leftist Social Democrats narrowly lost Sunday's vote to the governing conservatives. He says each of the main parties should get 50 seats in parliament. Results issued Monday gave the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party 51 of parliament's 120 seats and the Social Democrats 49. While short of a majority, the conservatives should be able to form a governing coalition with their previous junior partner, an ethnic Albanian party.

The early election was designed to end a festering political crisis. Zaev said Monday official results differed significantly from figures provided by his party's observers at polling stations in a northwestern region mostly populated by ethnic Albanians.

Conservatives hold slim lead in Macedonia election

December 12, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Nearly complete results in Macedonia's national election gave the conservative coalition a slim lead over its left-wing rival early Monday, though no bloc appeared headed to winning a parliamentary majority on its own.

The election was called two years early as part of a Western-brokered agreement to end a paralyzing political crisis in Macedonia, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. With 98 percent of polling stations reporting, the conservative coalition led by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party had 37.94 percent of the vote, while the leftist coalition headed by opposition leader Zoran Zaev's Social Democrats had 36.63 percent.

Supporters of both big parties were in the streets claiming victory in Sunday's balloting, which saw voter turnout at 67 percent, one of the highest in recent general elections in Macedonia. The state electoral commission's website, which crashed for an extended period before being restored about 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) Monday, did not give seat projections, but it was certain that neither of the two main coalitions would end up with a majority of seats. That will make the country's ethnic Albanian parties necessary coalition partners, with probably more than one needed to form a stable government.

An ethnic Albanian party that usually allies with Gruevski, the Democratic Union for Integration, led by former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti, had 7.33 percent of the vote. In an unexpected showing, Besa, a new Albanian party formed in 2014, was second at 4.94 percent. The Democratic Party of Albanians, which had been expected to finish second, was pushed into fourth behind Besa and another new party, the Alliance for Albanians.

VMRO-DPMNE supporters celebrated in front of the party headquarters in downtown Skopje, the capital. Addressing his supporters, Gruevski declared victory: "From 88.6 percent of counted votes, we are in the lead with 440,000 votes over the Social Democrats with 415,000 votes. This is the 10th electoral victory for VMRO and the majority of the people gave the vote to our program and vision."

Activists in the opposition coalition, however, claimed their projections pointed to a victory by their side and gathered in celebration outside the main government building. Nearly 1.8 million registered voters were eligible to choose 123 lawmakers for the single-chamber parliament. Three seats are reserved for Macedonians living abroad.

Gruevski, who headed the government since 2006 before resigning as part of the deal to hold early elections, sought a new mandate. His leads a 25-party coalition called For a Better Macedonia. The political crisis began after the opposition accused the conservative government of an illegal wiretapping operation that targeted 20,000 people, including politicians, judges, journalists, police and religious leaders.

Gruevski charged that Zaev was guilty of plotting a coup and creating the political crisis. Zaev accused Gruevski of massive theft, social injustice and corruption. Over several months, Zaev released audio of dozens of wiretapped phone conversations that he said indicated Gruevski and his aides were involved in multimillion-dollar corruption deals, tampered with election results and brought spurious criminal prosecutions against opponents.

The conservatives vehemently rejected the charges, saying the wiretaps were conducted by unnamed foreign spies. Gruevski is under investigation by the country's Special Prosecution branch and has already been charged with enticement and carrying out a criminal act against public order.

The scandal led to months of street protests and has been the worst political crisis in Macedonia since the country survived a conflict with its ethnic Albanian minority in 2001. But voting took place in a "calm and peaceful atmosphere, without irregularities," said state election commission head Aleksandar Chichakovski, the electoral chief.

France's new PM Cazeneuve vows to "protect the French"

December 13, 2016

PARIS (AP) — France's new prime minister has given his first speech to parliament, arguing for an extension of a year-old state of emergency to keep France secure through its 2017 presidential election.

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve vowed to "protect the French" as a priority and insisted he would continue the fight against terrorism despite the fact that he has only five months before the end of President Francois Hollande's term.

The Senate is voting Thursday on the fifth extension of a state of emergency that was declared the day after the Paris attacks by Islamic extremists that left 130 people dead on Nov. 13, 2015. Cazeneuve last week replaced former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who stepped down to seek the French presidency in the nation's two-part vote in April and May.

State government trying to cover up collapsed church deaths

December 13, 2016

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state government says only 23 people died in a collapsed church tragedy, an apparent attempt to cover up a death toll of more than 150 when metal girders and the corrugated iron roof crashed onto a crowded service last weekend.

Cranes and bulldozers are still at the scene, clearing debris on Tuesday, three days after Saturday's disaster. The Associated Press has reported at least 160 people died, using the count at one mortuary by the director of the state's biggest hospital, the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital.

Hospital director Etete Peters said Saturday that mortuaries in Uyo city were overflowing with bodies and the toll likely would rise. But Peters later told journalists that only 24 bodies were at the teaching hospital's morgue. He could not be reached Tuesday to explain the discrepancy.

Reigners Bible Church was under construction when it hosted hundreds of people for the consecration of founder Akan Weeks as a bishop. Weeks and state Gov. Udom Emmanuel, who was a guest with a large entourage, escaped unhurt. The state website put the dead at 23.

"The governor said the earlier figures ... came as a result of multiple counting as a result of the different private health centers that victims were rushed to, before being transferred to the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital," the statement said.

Emmanuel has ordered the arrest of the building contractor of the collapsed church, but it was unclear Tuesday if he has been found. Federal workers of the National Emergency Management Agency were prevented by state officials from counting the dead, said an official involved in the tragedy. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Nigeria's media is questioning the low death toll. The official News Agency of Nigeria ran a story that began "Did the Nigerian police in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, lie on the number of casualties in the collapsed church on Saturday?" The agency quoted a resident, Gary Ubong, as saying, "I saw more than 100 dead bodies brought out on loaders."

Sahara Reporters, a New York-based Nigerian news agency, ran a commentary "Tell The Public The Truth About The Total Number Of Victims And Casualties Now" by human rights lawyer Inibehe Effiong. As in many such tragedies in Nigeria, the true toll may never be known. Buildings collapse often in the West African country because of endemic corruption in which contractors bribe inspectors to ignore shoddy work or a lack of permits.

Gambia's ruling party petitions for fresh election

December 13, 2016

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Gambia's ruling party pressed for a fresh presidential election Tuesday as West African regional mediators intervened to try to resolve a mounting political crisis in the tiny country that voted its leader of 22 years from power less than two weeks ago.

A petition signed by the secretary-general of President Yahya Jammeh's party on Tuesday demanded a new vote with a revalidated voter registry. The document, which was also signed by a notary public and seen by The Associated Press, says the election was not conducted fairly or in good faith and therefore should be invalidated.

Jammeh initially acknowledged defeat, even calling the Dec. 1 election fair and conceding to President-elect Adama Barrow in a telephone call broadcast on state television. But he announced last week that he was rejecting the election results.

Among the irregularities cited in the petition brought against the Independent Electoral Commission and Gambia's attorney general were the different results reported the day after the election and again on Dec. 5. It also questioned why some 360,000 registered voters did not make it to the polls.

The commission said the vote was transparent, fair and accurate. The results it gave on Dec. 5 were updated totals, but the commission said the new counts did not change the outcome and that Barrow still was the winner.

Tuesday was the deadline for challenging the election. However, Gambia does not have a sitting Supreme Court, so it was unclear with whom Jammeh's party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, filed its petition.

Gambian security forces blocked access to the electoral commission office, refusing to let staffers enter Tuesday, as several West African leaders arrived to urge the president to respect the elections and allow a peaceful transition of power.

"The president and all the entities have assured us that peace and stability will remain in Gambia as a decision process proceeds to a conclusion," Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who headed the delegation of West African regional economic bloc leaders, said.

Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, led separate meetings with Jammeh, President-elect Barrow and the electoral commission head. She was joined by other leaders from the regional economic bloc, known as ECOWAS, including Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghana President John Mahama, who also was just voted from office.

Sirleaf said the leaders will meet with other colleagues in the regional body on Saturday in Abuja, Nigeria. The head of the West African regional bloc, Marcel Alain de Souza, had told French radio RFI that military intervention could be considered if Jammeh does not step down. The bloc has warned that the tiny nation of 1.9 million could be plunged into violence, if its leader does not honor the will of voters.

Soldiers remained in the streets Tuesday as Gambians worried about unrest, a stark contrast to days of celebration in the streets after Jammeh's loss. Jammeh, who seized power in a bloodless 1994 military coup, has long been accused by human rights groups of overseeing a government that imprisons, tortures and sometimes kills its opponents.

Barrow has denounced Jammeh's rejection of the vote and said he lacks the constitutional authority to call for a new vote or to declare the Dec. 1 election null and void. Jammeh's term expires in January.

The United Nations Security Council, the United States and other countries and international organizations have called for a peaceful transition of power.

An Associated Press reporter in Banjul, Gambia, contributed to this report.

Gambia security forces block access to electoral office

December 13, 2016

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Gambian security forces blocked access to the electoral commission office Tuesday, refusing to let staffers enter, as several West African leaders arrived to urge the country's president to respect elections that voted him out of power after 22 years.

The head of the West African regional bloc, Marcel Alain de Souza, told French radio RFI that military intervention could be considered if President Yahya Jammeh does not step down. The bloc has warned that the tiny nation of 1.9 million could be plunged into violence if he doesn't respect a peaceful transition.

Jammeh initially acknowledged defeat, even conceding in a telephone call broadcast on state television, but last week he announced he was rejecting the Dec. 1 vote results. He alleges voting irregularities.

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize leaureate, is heading the meetings with Jammeh. Other leaders from the regional economic bloc, known as ECOWAS include Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghana President John Mahama, who also was just voted from office.

Soldiers remained in the streets Tuesday as Gambians worried about unrest, a stark contrast to days of celebration in the streets after Jammeh's loss. Jammeh, who seized power in a bloodless 1994 military coup, has long been accused of overseeing a government that imprisons, tortures and sometimes kill its opponents, according to human rights groups.

His ruling party has said it would file a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the election. President-elect Adama Barrow has denounced Jammeh's rejection of the vote, saying he has no constitutional authority to call for a new vote or declare the election null and void. Jammeh's term expires in January.

The U.N. Security Council, the United States and other countries and international organizations have called for a peaceful transition of power and warned against the use of force.

An Associated Press reporter in Banjul, Gambia, contributed to this report.

New UN chief says Syria peace is top concern

Tuesday 13 December 2016

UNITED NATIONS – The next head of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said on Monday that ending Syria’s war trumps other concerns in comments that suggest a greater willingness to accept a victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

As Guterres spoke at UN headquarters in New York, Assad’s troops, backed by Iranian forces and Russian air power, continued operations against rebel holdouts in Aleppo that would mark a decisive government success in the long-running conflict.

“This a war in which nobody’s winning, this is a war in which everybody’s losing,” Guterres, 67, told reporters after taking the oath of office to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general on 1 January 2017. “It’s high time to put an end to this nonsense.”

The UN Security Council has often been deadlocked on Syria, with Russia backing Assad's government while US armed rebels said the dynastic autocrat had butchered his own people and must step aside.

But with the six-year-old war shifting in Assad’s favour and with US president-elect Donald Trump signalling he is more amenable to Moscow, Guterres spoke of playing an “honest broker” in the elusive quest for peace.

“Whatever the contradictions that exist between member states, whatever the different perspectives that exist, I think there is a value that is above all,” said Guterres, who was elected in October in a series of polls.

“The value of peace in Syria corresponds to a necessity for us all, and I hope I will be able to help bring people together to this understanding.”

'Surge of diplomacy'

Guterres promised a “surge of diplomacy” when he takes over from Ban. The South Korean diplomat’s second five-year term ends this year after making gains against poverty and climate change but without any diplomatic breakthroughs on Syria.

Ban was often at odds with Russia over Syria. Analysts say that Guterres may be more open to Moscow’s position that Assad’s government is the only legitimate and viable force against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group and other militants.

In Aleppo, anti-government rebels faced another night of heavy bombardment.

Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, head of the government’s Aleppo security committee, said the Syrian army and its allies were in the “final stages” of recapturing Aleppo after an advance that had pushed rebels to the brink of collapse.

“The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They [rebels] don’t have much time. They either have to surrender or die,” Saleh told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo on Monday.

Guterres will start work just weeks before Trump’s inauguration as US President. The Republican billionaire has indicated he is willing to cut deals with Russia in an effort to extricate America from foreign military entanglements.

Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma scholar, said Guterres’s appointment comes at a turning point in the six-year-old conflict that has claimed more than 400,000 lives and uprooted more than half of Syria’s 22 million people.

“It’s a good time to have a new director in the UN, because the world is coming around to the idea that al-Assad will win this battle, either imminently or in one or two years’ time,” Landis, an expert on Syria, told Middle East Eye.

“There are no powerful militias to replace the Syrian government; the UN will be put in a very difficult but important position of finding a way to deal with Assad and smoothing the return of Syrian refugees to an Assad-run Syria.”

Handling the refugee crisis

Landis pointed to Guterres’s experience managing the UN refugee agency from 2005-2015 as preparation for the UN task of helping some 4.8 million Syrians who fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Europe and elsewhere to return home.

“One of the thorniest issues is guaranteeing that rebels associated with the Syrian opposition will be able to return home again and not face prison, torture or death,” Landis told MEE, adding that the “vast majority of refugees” are non-combatants who simply fled the violence.

“For them to go home, Syria has to rebuild. The West has placed a complicated maze of sanctions to hobble Syria’s economy. The return of refugees requires a new dialogue between the West and Syria, and that’s where the UN must set a new tone.”

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar from the World Policy Institute, a think tank, said both the UN and US are ceding influence on Syria’s conflict to Russia, which would likely result in fresh attacks on civilians designed to boost refugee flows and “destabilise Europe”.

“Guterres won’t be able to get anywhere near a genuine cease-fire in Syria, but he will make a difference in how the international community handles the refugee crisis more than in solving the problem at the source,” Cristol told MEE.

“Russia will be more willing to work with Guterres so long as he focuses on technocratic aspects of the refugee crisis rather than solving the miniature world war that is happening in Syria right now.”

Assaad al-Achi, executive director of Baytna, a Syrian civil society group, said hopes of creating a post-Assad transitional government will be “dead and buried” once government forces have taken eastern Aleppo.

Guterres and his team need “out-of-the-box creative ideas,” al-Achi told MEE.

“There is no military solution even if the regime forces take over the rest of Syria militarily, it will not be stabilised or pacified, there will be pockets of resistance for a long time and if we thought Daesh was violent, we’ll see Daesh 2.0,” al-Achi added, using another name for IS.

The election of Guterres has energised UN diplomats who see him as a skilled politician, able to overcome divisions that have crippled the UN. Trained as an engineer, he entered politics in 1976 in Portugal’s first democratic election after a revolt against five decades of dictatorship.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/new-un-chief-says-syria-peace-top-concern-1945187612.

Russian opposition leader Navalny announces presidential bid

December 13, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday officially announced his bid to run in the 2018 presidential election, a move that political observers say puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Navalny said in a video statement posted on a new campaign website that "I will take part in the struggle for the post of president of Russia." Russia's most widely-known opposition figure and a leading anti-corruption activist, Navalny has repeatedly said that Putin and his inner circle are guilty of graft and has successfully tapped into popular anger at the lavish lifestyle led by some of Russia's elite.

Navalny, 40, is currently on trial on fraud charges in a regional Russian city in a case that his supporters say is politically motivated. If convicted, he would be barred from running for public office.

Putin hasn't said whether he will seek a fourth presidential term in the March 18, 2018 election, but he is widely expected to run. Former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky said the announcement could push Putin toward a decision to run because any other Putin-loyalist candidate would struggle to win against Navalny.

"Navalny is not just announcing his intentions but throwing down a challenge to the current president," Pavlovsky told the Interfax news agency. Navalny said he would push to redistribute wealth, fight corruption, invest more in education and health, decentralize Russian politics, reform the country's judiciary and pull back from involvement in foreign wars.

"It's time for us to choose not only a person at elections. It's time to choose between stagnation and a program of development," Navalny said in his video address. The development received little coverage by state-owned television stations, which are almost universally pro-Kremlin and how most Russians get their news.

Experts said that Navalny's decision to launch a campaign was a shrewd political move that put the Kremlin off stride. Navalny can now pressure authorities into allowing him to officially register his candidacy.

"Now everything that happens in the process going forward won't happen in a vacuum, but will be an answer (to Navalny's presidential bid)," political analyst Yekaterina Shulman wrote on Facebook. Navalny, a trained lawyer, heads the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which publishes extensive exposes about the personal wealth and alleged corruption of Russian officials.

But he has no experience in public office. He shot to prominence with his often-bitingly sarcastic blog entries about corruption and exposes of corruption among the Russian elite. He played a leading role in the massive anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, Navalny organized a crowd-funded campaign to challenge Sergei Sobyanin, the incumbent pro-Putin candidate, in Moscow's mayoral election. He surprised many observers by finishing in second place with almost 30 percent of the vote.