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Friday, November 10, 2017

In Syria's Raqqa, IS makes last stand at city's stadium

October 17, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria on Tuesday captured the city hospital in Raqqa, leaving IS militants holed up at the local stadium, their last stand in the fight over what was once the extremists' de facto capital.

The hospital was one of IS last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center. Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium. Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. The fighting was still underway with militants who had refused to surrender, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a major push by the SDF on the municipal stadium was underway. Clashes are ongoing around the stadium with "a small group" of militants, said a senior Kurdish commander. "We hope it won't take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today."

He said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The stadium served as an arms depot, a security headquarters and one of the Islamic State militants' largest jails in their self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down. On Monday, the SDF captured Raqqa's infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings.

Paradise Square became synonymous with the group's reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in 2014, the militants used Raqqa's central city square to carry out public beheadings and killings, forcing the residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers. Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days, mounted on posts. Residents described how the bodies of those executed would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, Jahim in Arabic. The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The fall of the city would be a huge blow to IS, which has steadily been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.

Syrian refugees return to areas liberated from Daesh

October 14, 2017

Syrian refugees in Turkey have started to return to areas liberated from Daesh in the north of their country, Anadolu news agency reported on Friday. The areas were liberated as part of the Euphrates Shield Operation carried out by the Free Syrian Army with Turkish army support. The operation ended in March this year.

According to Anadolu, around 100 Syrian refugees, including women and children, left the refugee camps in Turkey to go back home. The refugees were transported by minibuses owned by the Disaster and Emergency Department run by the office of the Turkish Prime Minister.

Syrian refugee Farouq K told Anadolu that he has spent five years in the refugee camps and decided to go back to the areas liberated from “terror” in Syria. He expressed his thanks to Turkey for its efforts to provide security to parts of his country.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171014-syrian-refugees-return-to-areas-liberated-from-daesh/.

Syria: Local militants evacuate as Raqqa battle nears end

October 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Saturday that Syrian Islamic State fighters and civilians will be allowed to evacuate Raqqa, a deal that signals the imminent capture of the city but flouts earlier U.S. protests of negotiating safe exits for the extremist group.

Foreign fighters will be excluded from the evacuation deal, the coalition said. The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the final battle for Raqqa was underway, apparently propelled by negotiation efforts that secured the surrender and evacuation of dozens of Syrian militants still holed up in the city.

In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition said a convoy of vehicles was set to leave Raqqa following the deal brokered by a local council formed by their Kurdish allies and Arab tribal leaders. The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow the evacuation of local Islamic State fighters to stem further violence.

"Because our aim is liberation not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city, with our guarantees," the tribal leaders said in a statement.

It was not clear how many evacuees there were or where they would go, but the tribesmen said their evacuation would save the lives of civilians who the extremist fighters have used as human shields. Last week, there was an estimated 4,000 civilians still in the city.

With the push to liberate the Arab-majority Raqqa led by Kurdish-dominated forces, local officials fear a backlash once the city falls. The initiative appeared to be an attempt by local leaders to stem such tension.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the talks were bogged down over the fate of the foreign fighters there, which according to a local Kurdish commander include French, Russian, Azeri, Indonesian and Turkish combatants.

The U.S.-led coalition said it "was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the Coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqah with less risk of civilian casualties." Daesh is an Arabic acronym for IS.

The evacuation deal places the U.S. in a bind as it had earlier said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS fighters in Raqqa, would be accepted. The top U.S. envoy for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, had previously stated that foreign fighters in Raqqa would die in the city. Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, said Friday around 100 militants had surrendered.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters travelling with him Friday that the U.S. would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes. "Right now, as the bottom drops out from underneath (IS), more and more of them are either surrendering — some are trying to surrender, and some amongst them — more fanatical ones aren't allowing them to," he said, using a different acronym for the extremist group.

Only weeks ago, the U.S. coalition obstructed a Hezbollah-negotiated deal to evacuate IS fighters from its borders with Syria toward the border with Iraq. The coalition bombed the road used by the convoy evacuating the militants, only to finally capitulate following Russian calls asking it to allow Syrian troops in the area to advance.

It is also not clear what kind of justice would be meted out to those surrendering militants in the absence of established courts in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria. A senior local Kurdish commander said foreign fighters were unlikely to surrender so his forces are expecting to "comb them out" of at least two neighborhoods. He said it could be a matter of a day or two.

Scores of civilians were seen in a video Friday leaving Raqqa in desperate and terrified conditions. They emerged from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrived at a Kurdish-held area of the city, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-long ordeals.

The U.S.-led coalition said it expects "difficult fighting" in the days ahead to completely oust IS from the city and secure it. SDF and U.S. officials said the remaining militants are mostly suicide bombers who only have small arms and rifles. Backed into a small area, they have no access to their weapon of choice, car bombs, said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman.

Also Saturday, the Syrian and Russian militaries announced that Syrian troops and allied fighters had seized the town of Mayadeen, an Islamic State stronghold in the country's east. The Russian Defense Ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Syrian soldiers had driven IS fighters from the town, which he said was the extremist group's last major stronghold in eastern Syria.

Over the past months, Mayadeen had become a refuge for IS's leaders as they faced an intense crackdown in Syria and Iraq. On the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadeen was also a major node in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province that straddles the border with Iraq. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters could help Iran expand its influence across the region and establish a "Shiite corridor" of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.

Diverting fighters from the battle for Raqqa, the U.S.-backed SDF made a bid for the province to secure territories there, focusing on securing the Iraq border, still mostly controlled by IS. The Syrian government eyed Mayadeen earlier this month, fearing the SDF would get there first. The race accelerated amid fear of potential confrontations as Syrian troops crossed the Euphrates river to reach the oil-rich eastern banks.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, confirmed that government troops, backed by Shiite militias, had taken control of Mayadeen but said they were still combing it for militants. With the fall of Mayadeen and retaking of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters are losing two of their last strongholds in Syria as their self-declared caliphate crumbles. The militants are currently besieged in the city of Deir el-Zour, leaving them with one last major urban bastion, the strategic town of Boukamal, on the border with Syria and Iraq.

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group, and declared it the caliphate of their self-styled caliphate. It became synonymous with IS's reign of terror, with public killings and beheadings — videotaped slayings that have shocked the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS's attacks in the West were plotted.

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants.

Local official: 100 IS fighters surrender in Syria's Raqqa

October 13, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Some 100 fighters from the Islamic State group handed themselves over to U.S.-backed fighters in the northern city of Raqqa Friday as fighting continued with remaining gunmen in a pocket inside the city.

Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council did not give details how the 100 fighters surrendered but said fighting is still ongoing in parts of the city that was once the de facto capital of IS. U.S.-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

IS still controls the city's stadium that is believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small part of northern Raqqa. "There are still fighters but the area they control is getting smaller," said Mohammed Khedher of Sound and Picture Organization, which tracks atrocities by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier Friday, scores of civilians including women and children fled the last few remaining neighborhoods held by the IS in Raqqa, ahead of an anticipated final push by U.S.-backed fighters seeking to retake the city.

A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive. They seemed to be taking advantage of a slowdown in the fighting and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition amid efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

The coalition has said that IS militants are holding some civilians to use as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The video released by the Turkey-based Kurdish Mezopotamya Medya on Friday showed clearly petrified residents running toward safety, some clutching babies or wounded people. "This is my husband, we are civilians!" one woman cried, fearing that fighters from the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces would take him away. Some of the arriving men were searched before being allowed in while others kissed the ground in relief.

"God is stronger than them (IS)," shouted another woman, clutching what appeared to be a large Quran in her hand. Another elderly man hobbled out on crutches, begging for water. After drinking from a bottle handed to him, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.

Gunfire could be heard in the background. SDF fighters have been on the offensive in Raqqa since June 5 and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city that was the de facto capital of IS. IS still controls the city's stadium believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small area north of Raqqa.

Palestinian Authority takes over Egypt border crossing

2017-11-01

RAFAH - Hamas handed over control of the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, an AFP journalist said, in a first key test of a Palestinian reconciliation accord agreed last month.

Nazmi Muhanna, the Palestinian Authority's top official for border crossings, formally received control of the Rafah crossing with Egypt from his Hamas counterpart.

At a separate checkpoint with Israel, an AFP photographer also saw Hamas installations being dismantled.

At the Rafah crossing, Palestinian and Egyptian flags were flying, with large pictures of Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Hisham Adwan, director of information at the Hamas crossings authority, said that Palestinian Authority employees would resume full control of the border.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, the Palestinian Authority is due to take full control of Gaza by December 1.

The checkpoints had been due to be handed over by November 1 and were seen as a first key test of the strength of the reconciliation agreement.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 when the Islamists seized control in a near civil war with Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

A number of issues, including the future of Hamas' vast military wing, remain uncertain.

Multiple previous reconciliation agreements have collapsed.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85704.

Hariri's exit sparks fears of fresh war in Lebanon

2017-11-05

BEIRUT - Saad Hariri's resignation from Lebanon's premiership has raised fears that regional tensions were about to escalate and that the small country would once again pay a heavy price.

Analysts said the Saudi-backed Sunni politician's move on Saturday to step down from the helm less than a year after forming a government was more than just the latest hiccup in Lebanon's notoriously dysfunctional politics.

"It's a dangerous decision whose consequences will be heavier than what Lebanon can bear," Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said.

Hariri announced his resignation in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the entire region.

Hezbollah is part of the government, but the clout of a group whose military arsenal outstrips that of Lebanon's own armed forces is far greater than its share of cabinet posts.

For years now, Lebanon has been deeply divided between a camp dominated by the Shiite Tehran-backed Hezbollah and a Saudi-supported movement led by Hariri.

"Hariri has started a cold war that could escalate into a civil war, bearing in mind that Hezbollah is unmatched in Lebanon on the military level," Khashan said.

The rift in Lebanon's political class led to the assassination in 2005 of Hariri's father Rafik, an immensely influential tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia.

- Iran-Saudi flare-up -

Investigations pointed to the responsibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Other political assassinations in the anti-Hezbollah camp ensued, then a month-long war between the powerful militia and neighboring Israel, as well as violent internal clashes that harked back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Twelve years on, Lebanese politics remain just as toxically sectarian and the threat of another flare-up very real. Hariri even said on Saturday he feared going the way of his father.

His resignation came in a context of high tension between Saudi Arabia, once the region's powerhouse, and Iran, which has played an increasingly prominent political and military role in the region recently.

On Friday, Hariri met Iran's most seasoned diplomat, Ali Akbar Velayati, before flying to Saudi Arabia and resigning from there via a Saudi-funded television network.

"The timing and venue of the resignation are surprising... but not the resignation itself," said Fadia Kiwane, political science professor at Beirut's Saint Joseph University.

"The situation is developing rapidly and we're at a turning point... there could be a deadly clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran," she said.

"In that event, the two main camps in Lebanon will clash too."

Over the past few weeks, a Saudi minister, Thamer al-Sabhan, has unleashed virulent attacks against Hezbollah on social media.

- New war with Israel? -

"The terrorist party should be punished... and confronted by force," he wrote last month.

Other than just an internal conflict, analysts also do not rule out an external attack on Hezbollah, be it by Saudi Arabia directly or by the Shiite militia's arch-foe Israel.

"Hariri is saying 'there is no government any more, Hezbollah is not part of it'... and he is thus legitimizing any military strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon," Khashan said.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, and Israeli politicians have ramped up the rhetoric lately, warning that its military was prepared for war with Lebanon.

Any new war damaging key infrastructure would have a disastrous impact on a country already weakened by ballooning debt, corruption and the demographic pressure from a massive influx of Syrian refugees.

As soon as the news of Hariri's resignation broke, many Lebanese took to social media to voice their fears of a return to violence.

"After Hariri's resignation, a war will be launched against Lebanon," wrote one of them, Ali Hammoud, on Twitter.

On the streets of Beirut, even those who had little sympathy for Hariri expressed concern.

"We're headed for the worst," said one shop owner.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85776.

Refugees in Algeria yearn for homeland

2017-11-04

ALGIERS - Selembouha Dadi can only imagine the homeland she dreams of but has never seen, agonizingly out of reach beyond the Algerian refugee camp where she has spent her whole life.

"They tell me it was beautiful," the 25-year-old said.

The territory that Dadi yearns for is Western Sahara, a sprawling swathe of desert on Africa's Atlantic coast that has been disputed by Morocco and independence fighters from the Polisario Front for decades.

Her father Moulay abandoned everything and fled 42 years ago when Moroccan troops arrived in 1975 during the rush to claim the former Spanish colony as Madrid let it go.

Now, along with tens of thousands of other refugees, their family of nine lives in one of a string of refugee camps just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, beyond the Algerian border and a "defense wall" erected by Morocco in the 1980s.

Morocco and Mauritania were meant to share Western Sahara when Spain relinquished control, but in 1976 the Polisario proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic -- and was determined to fight for it.

Mauritania in 1979 gave up its claim, leaving Morocco to seize most of the 266,000 square kilometer (100,000 square mile) territory, but it was not until 1991 that a UN-backed ceasefire came into force.

Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the resource-rich territory, but the Algerian-backed Polisario Front insists on a United Nations-backed referendum on independence.

The 2,700-kilometer barrier erected by Morocco slicing from north to south divides the 80 percent of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco from the 20 percent held by the Polisario.

- 'Left everything behind' -

Moulay Dadi, 72, served tea in a large traditional tent, a vestige of the Sahrawis' nomadic past, and cooler than the nearby family cottage with its zinc roof.

He recalled his life back in his desert homeland herding the family's animals. He was 30 when the Moroccan forces arrived.

"We fled and we left everything behind us, our animals, our property, the houses," he said.

"We left everything behind us."

He settled in Algeria's Tindouf region with his wife and parents, who did not live to see their homeland again.

Some 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live today in the camps around Tindouf. They belong to a mosaic of nomadic tribes who have for centuries plied the sandy expanses of the Sahara with their camels.

The Dadi family's Boujdour camp, which, like the other camps, bears the name of an area of the Western Sahara controlled by Morocco, is dotted with brown-walled houses the color of the surrounding desert, one of the most inhospitable in the world.

Their home consists of a large living room, a small dining room and a kitchen. The shower and toilets are in a separate building.

There is intermittent electricity and no running water. Trucks pass regularly to fill a large canvas water reservoir.

Like the Dadis, many Sahrawis have set up traditional tents next to their houses in the camp, where life moves slowly.

After the morning prayer, Selembouha Dadi and her mother, in her sixties, cook and clean.

The youngest of the children, 12-year-old Mellah, goes to school.

Some of her brothers work on building sites and the others are in the army of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Sahrawi refugees in Algeria live mostly on funds from exiled relatives in Europe and on international aid.

The European Union provides some, $11.6 million (10 million euros) a year, despite the Polisario Front being accused of embezzlement in recent years.

Some residents have set up small shops -- groceries, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stalls -- in the camps.

Others work as officials for the SADR, which has its central administration in Rabouni, not far from Tindouf.

Isolated for decades and largely forgotten by the world, many Sahrawis still believe that they will one day return to the lands of their ancestors.

"We want our land whatever we find there," Selembouha said.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85763.

Libyan warlord in Cairo to enlist Egyptian airstrikes on Derna and other cities

October 28, 2017

The commander of the so-called Libyan Army Khalifa Haftar is scheduled to arrive in Egypt ‘s Cairo Saturday to discuss possible Egyptian airstrikes on Derna and other cities like Ajdabiya, The New Arab reported Egyptian sources as saying.

The New Arab added that a meeting between Haftar and his accompanying delegation and the Head of the Egyptian committee on Libyan affairs as well as Chief of Staff Ahmad Hijazy will take place Saturday and several issues will be reviewed.

As Egyptian fingers were pointed lately at the claim that the individuals who conducted the last attack in Wahat in Egypt came through the border with Libya, the sources added that cooperation on border security with Haftar’s forces will also be discussed, in addition to the results of Al-Sisi and French President’s talks on the Libyan crisis, the UK-based newspaper added.

It indicated that a relative alteration in Egyptian vision for the solution of Libya’s crisis has surfaced as Cairo will be pushing forth the military solution led by Haftar regardless of the ongoing UN action plan implementation that had already started in Tunisia talks last month.

This push of Egypt sees eye to eye with Haftar‘s efforts to seize Libya including the capital’s control, which belongs until now to the UN-brokered government led by Fayez Al-Sirraj, the newspaper reports.

“Cairo has a calmer and more gradual strategy than Haftar has. While the whole world would be watching how Al-Sirraj government would lose control of the government, there will be no way to reject the real situation that will see Haftar controlling the capital and we will welcome it.” It explained.

A couple of days ago, the mouthpiece of Haftar Ahmad Al-Mismari claimed that their forces will receive a warm welcome in Tripoli as they advance militarily on the capital to “attack terrorist militias,” vowing to coordinate with Egypt in border security operations.

Source: Libya Observer.
Link: https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/libyan-warlord-cairo-enlist-egyptian-airstrikes-derna-and-other-cities.

Medical supplies sent to Derna not nearly enough, says head of local hospital

October 28, 2017

The information office of the Derna branch of the Libyan Red Crescent Society, confirmed the arrival of medical aid to the city's medical supply stores from the Ministry of Health of the Interim Government of Abdullah Thini.

The shipment included vaccinations and supplies for the national vaccination campaign against polio and measles, dialysis medication and supplies for medical surgeries.

The director of Derna General Hospital stated that the materials that arrived does not cover the current shortfall of medicines and medical supplies as a direct result of the city being besieged, causing a difficult situation in the city.

Source: Libya Observer.
Link: https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/medical-supplies-sent-derna-not-nearly-enough-says-head-local-hospital.

Rada arrests members of Derna Shoura Council visiting Tripoli

Alexandria, 25 October 2017:

The Tripoli special deterrence force Rada, headed by Abdul Raouf Kara, is reported to have arrested at least three members of the Derna Revolutionaries’ Shoura Council (DRSC) who have been staying recently in the city.

The most prominent is Khaled Saad Al-Kilani, a senior DRSC commander who has been living in Tripoli since last year. He is reported to have been arrested earlier this week. At the weekend, two others were also said to have been arrested at an hotel on Omar al-Mukhtar Street. They have been named as Khaled al-Hsadi and Adel al-Karghali.

A former mechanic, Kilani, aged 50 and from the Bab Tobruk area of Derna, was imprisoned as an Islamist by the Qaddafi regime. He was released in 2011 and is said to have then joined Ansar Al-Sharia, fighting in 2014 and 2015 in Benghazi where he lost a leg. After returning to Derna, he was again reportedly wounded, going to Tripoli for treatment.

Two of his daughters are alleged to have married two other prominent Ansar members, Hisham Aneesh and Abdulaali Al-Maghrabi who was killed in Benghazi in 2015.

Kilani’s 23-year-son, Saad, is also reported to have been arrested by Rada.

The two others arrested, Hasadi and Karghali are believe to have been  dealing with the affairs of other wounded DRSC members being treated in Tripoli.

Source: Libya Herald.
Link: https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/10/25/rada-arrests-members-of-derna-shoura-council-visiting-tripoli/.

In purge crackdown, Saudi Arabia makes fresh arrests, freezes royals' accounts

November 9, 2017

Saudi Arabian authorities have carried out further arrests and frozen more bank accounts under an expanding anti-corruption crackdown that was announced last Saturday against the Kingdom’s political and business elite, Reuters reported, quoting official sources.

Since the campaign kickoff, dozens of royal family members, officials and business executives have already been held in the purge. They face allegations of money laundering, bribery, extortion and exploiting public office for personal gain.

According to the sources, the anti-corruption authorities have also frozen the bank accounts of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, one of the most senior members of the ruling Al Saud, and some of his immediate family members.

Nayef, known as MbN, was ousted as Crown Prince in June when King Salman replaced him with the then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Those who were held most recently include individuals with links to the immediate family of the late Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz who died in 2011, the sources noted.

“Others appear to be lower-level managers and officials,” the sources told Reuters.

Since Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s central bank has been expanding the list of accounts it is requiring lenders to freeze on an almost hourly basis, according to an official banker, who preferred anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The number of domestic bank accounts frozen as a result of the purge is over 1,700 and rising, up from 1,200, the banker added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171109-in-purge-crackdown-saudi-arabia-makes-fresh-arrests-freezes-royals-accounts/.

Catalonia strike is muted but protesters block roads, trains

November 08, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A general strike in Catalonia was muted Wednesday, but pro-independence protesters blocked roads and stopped trains in Spain's northeastern region to protest the jailing of ousted Catalan government officials and secessionist activists.

Big traffic jams were reported on roads leading to Catalan cities, including the regional capital Barcelona, and on major highways. But the strike wasn't backed by Spain's two main unions and wasn't reported to be having any major effect on industry or in the region's prized tourism sector.

National railway operator Renfe said services were halted on dozens of local lines as protesters blocked railway lines. Several national high-speed lines were also affected. In northern Girona, several protesters pushed past police controls to enter the city's main railway station. Later, dozens of others occupied the tracks.

Intersindical CSC, a platform of pro-independence workers' unions, had called the strike for labor issues. But separatist parties and civil society groups asked workers to join the stoppage to protest the Spanish government's moves against the Catalan bid for independence.

At mid-day, several thousand pro-independence protesters packed a central square in Barcelona, waving separatist flags and chanting "Freedom" for the 10 people in custody in a judicial probe into rebellion and sedition in the days before and after Catalonia's parliament ignored Spanish court rulings and declared independence Oct. 27.

Six hours later, thousands gathered again to keep up the pressure on the Madrid-based national government. Some shouted, "Free the political prisoners." Agusti Alcoberro, the vice president of the grassroots Catalan National Assembly told the midday crowd the arrests were "an attack on democracy and a humiliation" of Catalan people.

Spanish authorities took the unprecedented step of seizing control of Catalonia, one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, after a majority of regional lawmakers there ignored Constitutional Court orders and passed an independence declaration on Oct. 27.

Spain removed the regional government, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for next month. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Wednesday the elections should open "a new political era" in the region with the return to normality and respect for Spain's laws.

Eight members of the dismissed Catalan Cabinet and two activists were sent to jail as a Spanish court studies possible charges of rebellion and sedition against them. Former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and four of his aides have fled to Brussels, where they are fighting Spanish arrest and extradition orders.

Their presence in the European capital is sowing divisions within the Belgian government. Some Belgian lawmakers have criticized Prime Minister Charles Michel for not taking tougher action against Puigdemont, and others complain that the Catalan leader's presence was inflaming Flemish separatists in Belgium.

Speaking to Belgian lawmakers on Wednesday, Michel refused to comment on Puigdemont's political actions, saying that his case must be handled by judicial authorities alone. "Mr. Puigdemont is a European citizen who must be held accountable for his actions just like any other European citizens — with rights and obligations but no privileges," he said.

Michel also stressed that the Spanish government remains his partner. Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, represents a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and polls show its people roughly evenly divided over independence. Puigdemont claimed a banned Oct. 1 secession referendum gave it a mandate to declare independence.

Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this story.

Wind Turbines Supplied 99% of Scotland Electricity Demand Last Month

Lorraine Chow
Nov. 07, 2017

Another month, another renewable energy record for Scotland.

Scottish wind turbines, propelled by Hurricane Ophelia's strong winds, sent more than 1.7 million megawatt hours of electricity to the National Grid in October, according to WWF Scotland, citing data collected from WeatherEnergy.

Scotland's total electricity consumption for homes, business and industry was around 1.75 million megawatt hours in October, meaning wind turbines alone generated 99 percent of the country's electricity needs.

If we were just to look at households, wind power generated enough electricity for 4.5 million homes last month—that's almost twice the number of actual households in Scotland.

"No one will be surprised that October proved to be a spectacular month for wind energy, with some high winds, including the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia," WWF Scotland's acting head of policy Gina Hanrahan told the Press Association.

"Fortunately our infrastructure coped well with the windy weather which provided enough to power nearly twice the number of households in Scotland and almost all of our electricity demand."

Just this past Oct. 2, wind generated enough electricity to power 7.116 million homes, or about three times the number of Scottish households.

"We're blown away by these figures but they are part of a pattern of increasingly green power production made possible thanks to many years of political support in Scotland. Across the year, renewables now contribute over half of our electricity needs," WWF Scotland's Director Sam Gardner said at the time.

But as Huffington Post UK pointed out, while these figures are impressive, the problem with so much wind energy is that all of it needs to be distributed so it does not go to waste. To solve this problem, perhaps Scotland can take a page from Germany, whose grid operators sometimes have to pay customers to take electricity off the grid because its renewable energy mix is generating so much power.

Another method would be ramping up the nascent grid-scale storage industry. The Scottish government is already trying this with its Hywind Scotland—the world's first floating wind farm, which officially switched on last month. The farm is integrated with Statoil's Batwind, a lithium battery that can store one megawatt-hour of power to help mitigate intermittency and optimize output.

While one megawatt-hour is not a lot—about the capacity of over 2 million iPhones—"it is the first step in a larger-scale rollout of battery solutions for renewable energy," HuffPo UK noted.

As Karen Robinson of WeatherEnergy said, "October was an extraordinary month and provides more evidence that greater investment in both renewables and storage is the way forward."

Source: EcoWatch.
Link: https://www.ecowatch.com/wind-power-scotland-2507484398.html.

Romania: Ex-King Michael, 96, in frail health, family says

November 06, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's royal house says the health of former King Michael I, who ruled Romania twice before abdicating, has deteriorated. Michael, 96, one of the few leaders from World War II who is still alive, lives in exile in Switzerland. He is suffering from leukemia and a form of skin cancer.

In a statement Monday, the royal house said Michael's oldest daughter, Princess Margareta, had traveled to Switzerland to be with her father. Michael announced his retirement from public life in March 2016, citing poor health.

He was king from 1927 to 1930 and then from 1940 until 1947, when he was forced to abdicate by the communists. His Romanian citizenship was restored in 1997. Michael's wife Anne died last year. He has five daughters.

Former Czech PM Topolanek announces presidential candidacy

November 05, 2017

PRAGUE (AP) — Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has announced he is running for in the presidential election scheduled for January. Topolanek confirmed his candidacy to Czech public television on Sunday. The colorful and outspoken politician is set to say more on Tuesday, the deadline for entering the race.

Topolanek served as prime minister of the Czech Republic during 2006-2009 as the head of the conservative Civic Democratic Party. He was a staunch supporter of a U.S. missile defense plan President Barack Obama ultimately abandoned.

Topolanek often made headlines, such as when he called Obama's economic recovery plan a "road to hell." He left politics for business in 2010. Czech President Milos Zeman, who is known for his pro-Russia views and anti-migrant rhetoric, is seeking re-election and currently favored to win.

Sicily vote neck-and-neck between center-right and populists

November 06, 2017

MILAN (AP) — Early results in a regional election in Sicily show the center-right widening its advantage over the populist 5-Star movement. Less than half of the Italian island's 4.6 million eligible voters turned out Sunday for the last major electoral test before a national election due next year.

With 37 percent of the vote counted early Monday, center-right candidate Nello Musumeci was leading with 38.9 percent of the vote ahead of 5-Star candidate Giancarlo Cancelleri who had 35.6 percent support. The Democratic Party, which leads the central Rome government, was lagging badly at 18.4 percent.

A victory by Musumeci would restore the island's traditional political order after five years of a center-left administration, while a victory by the 5-Star movement would hand the populist party control of its first region in Italy.

The Sicily vote has turned into a proxy of sorts for national politics. All the major national party leaders, including former Premier Silvio Berlusconi for the center-right, 5-Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo and Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi had converged on the island in recent weeks to stump for their candidates.

Musumeci, a former Catania provincial president, has been backed by Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the anti-EU Northern League and the right-wing Fratelli d'Italia party.

Global climate talks begin in Germany with Fiji at the helm

November 06, 2017

BONN, Germany (AP) — Diplomats and activists have gathered in Germany for two-week talks on implementing the Paris agreement to fight climate change. Environmental groups staged protests in the western city of Bonn and at a nearby coal mine ahead of the meeting to highlight Germany's continued use of heavily polluting fossil fuels.

The 23rd conference of the parties, or COP23, will be opened Monday by Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama. The Pacific island nation is already suffering the impacts of global warming. Negotiators will focus on thrashing out some of the technical details of the 2015 Paris accord, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While President Donald Trump has expressed skepticism, a recent U.S. government report concluded there's strong evidence that man-made climate change is taking place.

France's Macron, Arab leaders to inaugurate Louvre Abu Dhabi

November 08, 2017

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron will be joining Arab leaders to inaugurate the new Louvre Abu Dhabi in the capital of the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday evening.

The museum marks a major cultural achievement for the UAE after a decade-long wait and questions about conditions that laborers on the project had faced. The artwork on display offers a brief history of the world and its major religions — without shying away from Judaism in a country that officially does not recognize Israel.

Museum officials say it also serves as a cultural bridge between the East and West. However, the conservative mores of Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital that's more buttoned-up than freewheeling Dubai, can be seen in the relative absence of pieces depicting nudity.

"Here at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, we've accomplished history," Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, said at a ceremony for journalists on Monday. "This museum is a lot more than just a museum."

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the modernist museum sits under a honeycombed dome of eight layers of Arab-style geometric shapes. It draws the lapping waters of the Persian Gulf into its outer corridors, allowing individual beams of light that pass through the roof to strike the surface and cast dancing reflections across the white walls. At night, light inside pours out like tiny little stars from a salt shaker against the city's skyline.

"I imagine this metaphor of the sky, cosmic, cosmographic, with a random system like the stars itself," Nouvel told The Associated Press. "I imagine that with not a lot of lighting, just a little bit to create a kind of rain of light."

That rain has been a long time coming in this desert country, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. Authorities first announced the project in 2007 as Dubai feverishly built the world tallest building and other wonders.

Today, much of Saadiyat Island, envisioned as a cultural district anchored by the museum, is still empty. A planned Middle East outpost of the Guggenheim remains unbuilt, with just a poured foundation on the salt flood plain.

Part of the reason is the drop in global energy prices from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to around $30 in early 2016. Abu Dhabi officials have not disclosed how much it cost to build the museum. What is known is that Abu Dhabi agreed to pay France $525 million for the use of the "Louvre" name for the next 30 years and six months, plus another $750 million to hire French managers to oversee the 300 loaned works of art. A center at Paris' Louvre now bears the name of the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, which was also part of the deal.

During construction, the project faced intense criticism over laborer conditions amid low pay, long hours and the brutal UAE heat. A worker was killed in an accident in 2015 while another died of "natural causes" in 2016, according to Abu Dhabi authorities.

Hundreds working on projects on the island, including the Louvre, also were deported or lost their work visas for launching strikes over their conditions, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Labor strikes are illegal in the UAE.

Jean-Luc Martinez, the president-director of the Louvre in Paris, contends the museum spoke "very frankly" about laborer conditions. He described the museum as a bridge between Asia, Africa and Europe.

"We are not a European museum," he told the AP. "It's a place to see the world from Abu Dhabi." The museum also makes a point to put the world's religions side by side. In one exhibit, a Jewish funerary stele from France in 1250 sits next to a Tunisian Muslim's funerary steel and a Christian archbishop's stone epitaph from Tyre, Lebanon. A painted French stone statue of Virgin and Child stands by a section of a Syrian Quran dating to around 1250, open to a page recounting the night during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the holy book was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

In a darkened room, a page from the Blue Quran, one of the oldest ever found, sits near a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras and a Torah from Yemen dating to 1498. In a Middle East still torn by religious and sectarian conflict, whether between Sunni and Shiite or Israelis and the Palestinians, simply putting them side by side is a major statement.

For now at least, the museum's exhibit ends with an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called "Fountain of Light," an illuminated work of steel and glass that recalls the museum's gleam at night.

UK Cabinet minister quits over unauthorized Israel meetings

November 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — In a new blow to Britain's beleaguered government, the U.K. international development secretary quit Wednesday over unauthorized meetings with Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Priti Patel resigned after being ordered back from a trip to east Africa and summoned to 10 Downing St. by Prime Minister Theresa May. If she had not quit, she would almost certainly have been fired. Patel is the second Cabinet departure in a week for a government facing crisis on several fronts, including divisions over Brexit and growing allegations of sexual misbehavior in politics.

Patel has been under pressure since it was revealed last week that she held 12 meetings with Israeli groups and officials, including Netanyahu, during a vacation in Israel in August — and that she hadn't told May or colleagues about it.

Patel apologized, but when details of two further meetings emerged, May acted. In her resignation letter, Patel said her conduct "fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state."

May replied that it was right Patel had decided to quit "and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated." Patel said earlier that her meetings in Israel — arranged by Stuart Polak, honorary president of the group Conservative Friends of Israel — stemmed from her "enthusiasm to engage." But critics accused her of breaching ministers' code of conduct and making a major diplomatic gaffe in a region of high political sensitivity.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported Wednesday that Patel visited an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights during her August trip. Britain regards Israel as illegally occupying the territory, which it captured from Syria in 1967.

After the visit, Patel discussed with her department the possibility of British aid being given to the Israeli army to support medical assistance for refugees from the Syrian civil war arriving in the Golan Heights. A fellow minister has said the idea was rejected.

Patel's situation had been made worse by her contradictory statements about the meetings. When news broke about the August trip, Patel insisted that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson "knew about the visit." Her department was later forced to clarify the statement, saying "the foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it."

Patel apologized, saying the meetings "did not accord with the usual procedures." May summoned Patel to Downing St. after details of two more meetings emerged. She also met Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan in London on Sept. 7 and foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York on Sept. 18 — in both cases without any other British officials present.

The demotion to backbench lawmaker cuts short a rapid rise for 45-year-old Patel, who was first elected to Parliament in 2010, became international development secretary in 2016 and has often been mentioned as a future leadership contender.

Labour Party lawmaker Jonathan Ashworth said Patel's position was untenable even if she had been unaware she was breaking rules when she met Netanyahu and the others. "If she didn't know, she's incompetent. If she did, she's lying," he told Sky News. "Either way she's got to go."

Patel's departure is an unwelcome new headache for May, and follows the Nov. 1 resignation of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon after sexual harassment allegations against him emerged. Several lawmakers have been suspended by their parties amid a growing scandal over sexual harassment and abuse in British politics. May's deputy prime minister, Damian Green, is facing a civil service investigation after a young party activist accused him of unwanted touches and text messages.

In another headache for the government, Johnson apologized Tuesday for saying a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran had been training journalists when she was arrested. The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says she was on vacation, and accused Johnson of putting her at risk of a longer prison sentence with his misleading comments.

May's critics say her failure to fire the foreign secretary shows how weak she is in the wake of June's snap election, which May called in a bid to boost the Conservative majority in Parliament. The move backfired, and she now leads a minority government deeply divided between proponents and opponents of Britain's exit from the European Union.

Divisions within the British government about what sort of post-Brexit relationship the U.K. wants with the bloc are complicating divorce negotiations, and the clock is ticking down to Britain's departure in March 2019.

Dozens of men describe rape, torture by Sri Lanka government

November 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — One of the men tortured in Sri Lanka said he was held for 21 days in a small dank room where he was raped 12 times, burned with cigarettes, beaten with iron rods and hung upside-down. Another man described being abducted from home by five men, driven to a prison, and taken to a "torture room" equipped with ropes, iron rods, a bench and buckets of water. There were blood splatters on the wall.

A third man described the prisoners as growing accustomed to the sound of screaming. "It made us really scared the first day but then we got used to it because we heard screaming all the time." Raped, branded or beaten repeatedly, more than 50 men from the Tamil ethnic minority seeking political asylum in Europe say they were abducted and tortured under Sri Lanka's current government. The previously unpublished accounts conjure images of the country's bloody civil war that ended in 2009 — not the palm-fringed paradise portrayed by the government.

One by one, the men agreed to tell their stories to The Associated Press and to have the extensive scars on their legs, chests and groins photographed in July and August. The AP reviewed 32 medical and psychological evaluations and conducted interviews with 20 men. The strangers say they were accused of trying to revive a rebel group on the losing side of the civil war. Although combat ended 8 years ago, the torture and abuse occurred from early 2016 to as recently as July this year.

Sri Lankan authorities deny the allegations. Piers Pigou, a South African human rights investigator who has interviewed torture survivors for the past 40 years in the world's most dire countries, says the sheer scale of brutality is nothing like he has heard before.

"The levels of sexual abuse being perpetuated in Sri Lanka by authorities are the most egregious and perverted that I've ever seen." Most of the men say they were blindfolded as they were driven to detention sites. They said the majority of their captors identified themselves as members of the Criminal Investigations Department, a police unit that investigates serious crimes. Some, however, said it appeared their captors and interrogators were soldiers based on the types of uniforms and insignia they were wearing. One man reported seeing army uniforms hanging on a clothes line and many of the men wearing army boots.

In an interview last week in Colombo, Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake denied the torture allegations. "The army was not involved — and as for that matter — I'm sure that police also were not involved," he said. "There's no reason for us to do that now."

The Sri Lankan government minister in charge of the police agreed to an interview with the AP last month but did not follow through. Despite its denials that widespread torture still persists among its security forces, Sri Lanka has repeatedly failed to investigate war crimes allegations stemming from its 26-year civil war.

That conflict was between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil minority, and the Sinhalese-dominated government. The Tigers, as they were known, were designated as a terrorist organization after a wave of suicide bombings. The government's forces, however, were also accused of targeting civilians, which is considered a war crime under international law.

At the end of August, human rights groups in South America filed lawsuits against Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Brazil and other South American nations. He is accused of overseeing military units that attacked hospitals and killed, disappeared and tortured thousands of people at the end of the war. Other high ranking officials — often shielded by diplomatic immunity — have also been accused.

Upon the ambassador's return to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed that neither Jayasuriya the ambassador nor any other "war hero" would face prosecution for such allegations — a pledge that rights groups said illustrates the government's refusal to investigate its own soldiers accused of war crimes.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka's international profile is on the rise. In May, the European Union restored the special trade status that Sri Lanka lost in 2010 after the European Commission found that the country had failed to implement key international conventions. Sri Lanka is also paid to participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions and was recently asked to sit on a U.N. leadership committee trying to combat sexual abuse. An AP investigation earlier this year found that 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers participated in a child sex ring in Haiti that persisted for three years — and no one was ever prosecuted.

Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, one of the U.N.'s top diplomats who has pushed for accountability in Sri Lanka, was aghast at the AP's accounts of the 52 tortured men. "While the U.N. is unable to confirm this until we mount an investigation, clearly the reports are horrifying and merit a much closer inspection from our part, especially if they occurred in 2016 and 2017," said Zeid, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The International Truth and Justice Project has gathered testimony from more than 60 Sri Lankans across Europe — 52 of whom were part of the AP's investigation. The group has been lobbying governments and international organizations to get justice for victims.

The non-governmental organization assigned the men witness numbers to protect their identities. The men agreed to share their stories on condition of anonymity out of fear that they or their families in Sri Lanka could face reprisals.

The men said they were accused of working with the Tamil Tigers, but the government insisted in its interview with the AP that the rebel group is no longer a threat. Nearly all of the men were branded with tiger stripes meant to symbolize the rebel group that fought against the Sinhalese-dominated government for an independent Tamil homeland. One man had nearly 10 thick scars across his back.

Most of the men say they were sexually abused or raped, sometimes with sticks wrapped in barbed wire. Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka and rape carries a significant social stigma. Still, the victims said they felt obligated to tell their stories.

"I want the world to know what is happening in Sri Lanka," a 22-year-old known as Witness #205 told the AP during an interview in July. "The war against Tamils hasn't stopped."

A 'WHITE VAN' ABDUCTION

Unlike most of the victims, Witness #249 admits to having been a member of the Tigers nearly a decade ago, joining up when their ranks had been depleted in the final stages of the war. He walks with a limp, caused when a piece of shrapnel left in his leg from a battle in which nine of his friends were blown up.

After the war, he returned to the family farm, helping his father. Last year, he married his high school sweetheart, and began collecting donations for victims of the war.

Soon after his wedding in 2016, he said, he was snatched off the streets, arriving at a torture room hours later.

"They heated up iron rods and burned my back with stripes," he told the AP, closing his eyes and rocking back and forth. "On another occasion, they put chili powder in a bag and put the bag over my head until I passed out. They ... raped me."

His father eventually bribed the security officers to free him. He was hospitalized for 10 days after his release. Most of the men said their families paid an average bribe of 500,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (around $3,250) and up to $20,000 to be smuggled into Europe — hefty sums that sometimes forced their families to sell parcels of land.

Many of the other victims said they had never worked for the Tamil Tigers. But all told similar tales: they were abducted at home or off the streets by men in white or green vans, they were tortured for days or weeks or months, a family member often secured their release through a bribe, and they made their way to Europe using smugglers.

"I didn't even get a chance to say good-bye to my wife before I fled for England."

Now, after all he has endured, Witness #249 relates to the tragic characters in the works of his beloved Shakespeare: broken and cursed.

Last year, Sri Lankan authorities were called to Geneva to testify before the U.N. Committee against Torture. When questioned about allegations of continued use of torture against suspects in police custody and impunity for alleged perpetrators, Sri Lanka's Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya said the country's constitution prohibited torture and that strengthening human rights was a cornerstone of its current agenda. He also said "strict action" would be taken against perpetrators of human rights violations.

But advocates say that hasn't happened.

"Unless those responsible for these crimes are tackled head on and held accountable, this will not end," said Frances Harrison, project manager for the International Truth and Justice Project.

Many Tamils contend that the government continues to target them as part of a larger plan to destroy their culture. Tamils, who speak a different language and are largely Hindu, unlike the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, say they have been treated like second-class citizens.

More than 100,000 people were estimated to have died in the war, including at least up to 40,000 civilians in its final months, according to U.N. estimates. Sri Lankan authorities have denied targeting civilians and dispute the toll. Rights groups say both sides committed war crimes.

Witness #205, who reported that he was held for 21 days and tortured, said he was accused of belonging to the Tamil Tiger rebel group.

He, like the majority of the other victims, said one of his captors identified himself as a member of Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigations Department.

"These survivors are the walking wounded of an invisible war in which rape has become the ultimate covert weapon," said Harrison.

SIXTY CIGARETTE BURNS

Many of the victims meet each week at a London church for English classes and counselling sessions.

In July, a new member of the group stepped forward revealing at least 60 cigarette burns on his legs and chest. At 19, he was the youngest victim of the group and trembled when speaking of his sexual abuse.

"What's striking is that I'm seeing men who are younger and younger, meaning that they would have had very little to do with the war," said Dr. Charmian Goldwyn, who has seen nearly 200 Tamils who say they were tortured. Some of the cases occurred before 2015 but she has also seen men who have described more recent abuse.

She assesses their mental and physical health and often testifies in their asylum hearings. She said the branding and scars often make it easier to prove torture for an asylum claim but it becomes more difficult to prove sexual abuse.

Gary Anandasangaree, a Tamil lawmaker in the Canadian government, said there is a large degree of distrust from asylum seekers who fear for the families they left behind. He said one group who sought asylum in Canada had telephone calls to their families intercepted. The families in Sri Lanka were then questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department, he said.

"The reports of recent torture are not surprising," he said. "I heard similar stories on a visit last year."

Though the men are relieved to be in Europe, asylum can take years, and even if granted it isn't necessarily permanent. Britain, like many countries, is buckling under pressure from anti-immigration groups.

For a 34-year-old taxi driver known as Witness #199, the fear of being rejected for asylum is crippling.

In 2014 while still in Sri Lanka, he visited his wife in the hospital after she gave birth to a son. With the war behind him and a new life ahead, he was overjoyed to be starting a family in his homeland — where he finally felt safe.

"After leaving the hospital, a man standing next to a white van started calling my name," he said. "I wasn't scared at that point so I just got in."

The men asked him to pay a bribe and when he told them he couldn't, they released him on the condition he pay in two weeks, he said.

"My uncle said the men would keep coming back to ask for money so he advised that it would be best if I left the country."

He fled to Switzerland, but was rejected for asylum eight months later.

Back home, he said, he was visiting friends when he was abducted again.

This time, he was held 23 days, branded with iron rods and raped after a group of men entered his cell and forced him to drink a bottle of alcohol, he said. Some forced him to perform oral sex on them and beat him when he refused. He lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was naked, covered in semen and bleeding from his rectum.

Seeing the bottle left in his cell, he broke it and tried to slash his wrists.

Two days later, he was released and made his way to the UK.

Within days of arriving and applying for asylum, he tried to kill himself again, this time by drinking bleach.

He hasn't seen his baby boy since he was born.

THE TORTURE ROOM

Some have cast doubt on the men's stories, saying that the marks could have been caused during the war or even that the men could have inflicted the injuries themselves to gain sympathy on asylum applications — an assertion that that medical and academic experts say is not credible.

Witness #203 said he was forced to join the Tigers as a child soldier at 16. He was studying to be a teacher when he found himself on the battlefield. For four months, he was tasked with collecting the body parts of fallen fighters killed in the extensive shelling soldiers so they could be buried.

Then, last year — seven years after the war ended — he said he was abducted in a white van and driven for two hours.

From his location, he believes he could have been taken to the notorious Joseph Camp, a military installation in the north of Sri Lanka that has been the source of numerous torture claims over the years.

For 11 days, he says men stripped him, touched his genitals and forced him to touch theirs. The 12th day was worse.

"I was put on a bench face down with my hands tied under it and my feet tied to it," he told the AP.

After refusing to sign a confession written in Sinhalese, the majority's language, he said his torturers threw a rag soaked in petrol into a bag and shoved the bag onto his head. He passed out. When he awoke he was in a torture room.

It was there that the soles of his feet were thrashed and his back was beaten with a metal pipe. His captors then heated up long metal rods so they could brand him with the marks of a tiger.

He was released on the 13th day after his father paid a bribe and found a Muslim trafficker to arrange for a fake passport for passage to the U.K. In the same month after he arrived, he tried to hang himself with a wire rope. More than a dozen of the victims have tried to kill themselves.

"From all of the beatings, especially on the soles of my feet, the pain had taken over. But what haunted me the most is all of the sexual torture that went on."

Many of the men said they signed false confessions after the torture.

The road to recovery will be no easy journey for the men, admits Caroline Roemmele, who supervises some of their counselling.

A cocktail of anti-depressants, sleeping pills and pain medication brings comfort to some. Others find solace in telling their stories even though each word awakens memories of their traumas.

"It's a long process," said Roemmele. "But the human race wouldn't have survived if we couldn't survive trauma."

Associated Press writer Katy Daigle contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Communist supporters mark Bolshevik Revolution centennial

November 07, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Unlike the grand celebrations of the Soviet past, the Kremlin skirted Tuesday's centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution — an anniversary that drew only a routine demonstration by Communist devotees.

The government's attitude reflects both a wide split in public perception of the revolution and the Kremlin's uneasiness about the events in 1917 that heralded more than seven decades of the Communist Party rule.

President Vladimir Putin has bemoaned the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," but he also has deplored the revolution that destroyed the Russian empire and triggered a devastating civil war that killed millions.

"Let us ask ourselves: Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution?" Putin said in a speech last month. "Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?"

Putin made no mention of the revolution while attending official meetings on Tuesday, a regular working day, unlike in Soviet times when it was marked as the nation's main holiday. Putin's ambivalence is rooted in his desire to claim the heritage of both the czarist and the Soviet empires. While he can't denounce an event that is still revered by many of his supporters, the Russian leader disdains any uprisings and tends to see them as work of foreign spy agencies.

While the Kremlin has avoided any celebrations of the centennial, Russian state television marked the event with a slew of documentaries about the revolution and lavish biopics about revolutionary leaders.

All those productions made a particular emphasis of the alleged role by Germany in triggering the revolution by funding the Bolsheviks — the line that echoes the Kremlin's allegations of the U.S. meddling in Russian affairs today.

Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, noted that Putin appears to see a parallel between his tight controls over the Russian political scene and the czarist government's efforts to rein in the revolutionary movement.

"He sees his punitive measure as the continuation of the inconsequent and luckless struggle of law enforcement agencies of the Russian empire against the looming collapse of the state, and hopes to do better," Baunov wrote in a commentary.

Putin has accused the U.S. of encouraging massive demonstrations against him in Moscow in 2011-2012, and he also has blamed Washington for masterminding a series of uprisings in Middle East, North Africa and ex-Soviet republics.

"The government has a fantastic, paranoid fear of revolution, and the memory of what happened 100 years ago still hurts," liberal politician Leonid Gozman said in his blog. The Kremlin's reluctance to commemorate the still-polarizing event reflects deep divisions over the revolution in Russian society. A recent nationwide poll showed public opinion on whether the revolution was positive or negative for Russia was split almost evenly.

Even as the Kremlin ignored the centennial, thousands of Communist Party members and supporters marched along Moscow's downtown Tverskaya Street carrying portraits of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

During Soviet times, Nov. 7 was a major state holiday, with huge military parades and demonstrations on Red Square. Russia stopped celebrating it after the 1991 Soviet collapse. The Communists have continued to honor the date, and the authorities allowed them to march close to the Kremlin to mark the anniversary, but kept them off Red Square.

Such marches reflect the Communists' role as part of the token opposition in parliament that obediently toes the Kremlin line and limits itself to pro forma criticism of the government without challenging Putin's rule.

Many Russians still see Nov. 7 as a major holiday and feel nostalgic about the Soviet past. "I feel like congratulating myself with the 100 years of my motherland," said Lyudmila Krasitskaya. "I think that this was the time when we dreamed and the dreams came true. And we all are absolutely grateful to our Soviet motherland for a happy life that it gave to us."

Another Moscow resident, Nina Galkina, said she's missing the holiday on Nov. 7. "We lived this life, we took part in manifestations, we had a feeling of a holiday," she said. In a bid to switch attention from the revolution anniversary, the authorities in recent years marked the date with a re-enactment of the Nov. 7 1941, Red Square parade that saw Red Army soldiers march directly to the front line during the Battle of Moscow in World War II.

The re-enactment featured troops in period uniforms, vintage tanks and other military gear. While Putin spoke critically about the revolution and Lenin, he has ignored demands to remove the Soviet founder's embalmed body from its Red Square tomb for burial. Such calls have become more frequent recently, with Ramzan Kadyrov, Moscow-backed strongman leader of the province of Chechnya, joining those who called for Lenin's burial.

Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov criticized Kadyrov for raising the issue, and Kadyrov angrily dismissed Zyuganov's statement as a "sign of senility."

Monday, November 6, 2017

Libyan monarchists to call on Prince Mohamed to return to Libya

Tunis, 25 October 2017:

A conference of Libyan monarchists due to take place in Gharyan next week is to call for the restoration of the Senussi monarchy as the only workable solution to the Libyan crisis and on Prince Mohamed El-Senussi, the son of the late Crown Prince Hassan Al-Rida, to return to the country to lead it .

As part of this, the National Conference for the Activation of the Constitution of Independence will also call for the restoration of the constitution as existed in 1969 before Qaddafi’s September coup and on the international community and specifically UNSMIL to take the monarchist option seriously. It will also call on Libyans to back it as well.

“We believe that the only solution [to Libya’s crisis] is to return to the constitution and the monarchy”, said Ashraf Boudaoura, chairman of the committee organizing the Gharyan conference on 31 October. Everything else, he told the Libya Herald, had failed or was destined to fail.

“It’s time to recognize reality and give the monarchy a chance.”

The constitution he and his colleagues want to return to is that of 1951, amended in 1963. “We have a constitution. We don’t need another,” he said.

There had been previous pro-Senussi meetings, Boudaoura explained, with groups in Beida, Tobruk, Tripoli and elsewhere. But this was the start of a national movement. Some 600 supporters were expected to attend from across the country, he added. These would include tribal as well as other community representatives.

Prince Mohamed and other members of the royal family had not been invited and so would not be in Gharyan next week, he added. Rather, the meeting would be a call on the prince to assume his responsibilities return to Libya and lead it forward.

Source: Libya Herald.
Link: https://www.libyaherald.com/2017/10/25/libyan-monarchists-to-call-on-prince-mohamed-to-return-to-libya/.

Kuwait emir reappoints PM

2017-11-01

DUBAI - Kuwait's emir reappointed his prime minister on Wednesday and asked him to form a cabinet, the official state news agency said on Wednesday, after the government stepped down earlier this week in an expected cabinet reshuffle.

The major oil producer has the oldest legislature among the Gulf Arab states and experiences frequent cabinet resignations amid tensions between the government and lawmakers.

Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Sabah had tendered his resignation on Monday.

Pan-Arab television channel Al Arabiya had earlier reported the news.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85708.

Prominent billionaire among dozens arrested in Saudi purge

2017-11-05

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens of senior figures including princes, ministers and a top business tycoon, in what authorities hailed Sunday as a "decisive" anti-corruption sweep as the kingdom's crown prince consolidates power.

Prominent billionaire Al-Waleed bin Talal was among the 11 princes arrested late Saturday, reports said, immediately after a new anti-corruption commission headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was established by royal decree.

Separately, the head of the Saudi National Guard, once a leading contender to the throne, as well as the navy chief and the economy minister were replaced in a series of high-profile sackings that sent shock waves through the kingdom.

The dramatic purge comes at a time of unprecedented social and economic transformation in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, as Prince Mohammed steps up his reform drive for a post-oil era.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported that the princes, four current ministers and dozens of ex-ministers were arrested as the commission launched a probe into old cases such as floods that devastated the Red Sea city of Jeddah in 2009.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the commission's goal was to "preserve public money, punish corrupt people and those who exploit their positions".

Shares in Kingdom Holding, 95 percent of which is owned by Prince Al-Waleed, dived 9.9 percent as the Saudi stock exchange opened Sunday after reports of his arrest.

The prince's office was not reachable for comment.

"With this (crackdown), the kingdom heralds a new era and policy of transparency, clarity and accountability," Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan was quoted as saying by SPA.

"The decisive decisions will preserve the investment environment and boost trust in the rule of law."

The kingdom's top council of clerics also lauded the anti-corruption efforts as "important", essentially giving religious backing to the crackdown.

An aviation source said that security forces had grounded private jets at airports, possibly to prevent high-profile figures from leaving the country.

- 'Shock waves' -

"The breadth and scale of the arrests appears to be unprecedented in modern Saudi history," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

"The reported detention of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, if true, would send shock waves through the domestic and international business community," Ulrichsen said.

The purge comes less than two weeks after Prince Mohammed welcomed thousands of global business leaders to Riyadh for an investment summit, showcasing his reform drive that has shaken up the kingdom.

It follows a wave of arrests of influential clerics and activists in September as the 32-year-old prince, often known as MBS, cements his grip on power.

Analysts said many of those detained were resistant to Prince Mohammed's aggressive foreign policy that includes the boycott of Gulf neighbor Qatar as well as some of his bold policy reforms, including privatizing state assets and cutting subsidies.

The latest purge saw Prince Miteb bin Abdullah sacked as the head of the National Guard, an elite internal security force. His removal consolidates the crown prince's control of the kingdom's security institutions.

To analysts, Prince Mohammed's meteoric rise has seemed almost Shakespearean in its aggression and calculation. In June, he edged out a 58-year-old cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to become heir to the throne.

At the time, Saudi television channels showed the bearded Prince Mohammed kissing the hand of the older prince and kneeling before him in a show of reverence. Western media reports later said that the deposed prince had been placed under house arrest, a claim strongly denied by Saudi authorities.

Already viewed as the de facto ruler controlling all the major levers of government, from defense to the economy, the prince is widely seen to be stamping out traces of internal dissent before a formal transfer of power from his 81-year-old father King Salman.

At the same time, he has projected himself as a liberal reformer in the ultra-conservative kingdom with a series of bold moves including the decision allowing women to drive from next June.

Foreign diplomats predict that Prince Mohammed, set to be the first millennial to occupy the Saudi throne, could well be in control of Saudi Arabia for at least half a century.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85769.

Saudi Arabia sets up new authority for cyber security

2017-11-01

KHOBAR - Saudi Arabia has set up a new authority for cyber security and named its minister of state Musaed al-Aiban its chairman, strengthening security in the world’s largest oil exporter, a royal decree said.

The National Authority for Cyber Security will be made up of the head of state security, the head of intelligence, the deputy interior minister and assistant to the minister of defense, SPA said late on Tuesday.

The authority will be linked to the King and is created to "boost cyber security of the state, protect its vital interests, national security and sensitive infrastructure," it said.

It will also improve protection of networks, information technology systems and data.

Saudi Arabia has been target of frequent cyber attacks.

Earlier this year, it put out an alert about the Shamoon virus, which cripples computers by wiping their disks after the labor ministry had been attacked and a chemicals firm reported a network disruption.

The worst cyber attack to date was when Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil company was hit by the Shamoon virus in 2012.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85703.

Bahraini jailed for 'insulting king' deported

2017-11-03

MANAMA - A Bahraini citizen convicted of "insulting the king" and stripped of his nationality has been deported to Iraq after serving a two-year jail sentence, Amnesty International said on Friday.

Ibrahim Karimi was released from the notorious Jaw prison on Monday and "deported to Iraq the next day", Amnesty said in a report.

He had served a sentence of two years and one month for allegedly "insulting the king" of Bahrain as well as Saudi Arabia and its ruler, and for possession of a stun gun.

Karimi was sentenced in 2016 but his citizenship had been revoked by the Bahraini authorities more than three years earlier.

Amnesty said Karimi had been found guilty of "publicly inciting hatred and contempt against the regime" and of "publicly insulting the king".

He was also convicted of "insulting Saudi Arabia and its king" in a tweet, following the deadly 2015 collapse of a massive construction crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that killed more than 100 people.

Karimi has denied ownership of the twitter account.

Amnesty has described Karimi as a "prisoner of conscience".

Authorities in Manama have stepped up prosecution of dissidents in recent months, granting military courts the right to try civilians for charges including terrorism as protests demanding an elected government in the Sunni-ruled monarchy near their seventh year.

Dozens of mostly Shiite protesters have been jailed and number of high-profile activists and clerics stripped of their citizenship since protests erupted in 2011.

Bahrain, a key ally of the United States and home to the US Fifth Fleet, accuses Shiite Iran of training "terrorist cells" that aim to overthrow the Bahraini government.

Iran denies the allegation.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85757.

Spain issues arrest warrant for ousted Catalan leader, aides

November 03, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant on Friday for former members of the Catalan Cabinet who were last seen in Brussels, including the ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who said he was prepared to run for his old job even while battling extradition in Belgium.

The National Court judge filed the request with the Belgian prosecutor to detain Puigdemont and his four aides, and issued separate international search and arrest warrants to alert Interpol in case they flee Belgium.

Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment, but has said that his client will fight extradition to Spain without seeking political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors said they had received the arrest warrant and could question Puigdemont in coming days.

"We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge," spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told The Associated Press. "We are not in any hurry." Puigdemont and the four others are being sought for five different crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement in a Spanish investigation into their roles in pushing for secession for Catalonia.

The officials flew to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office on Saturday for declaring independence for Catalonia. The Spanish government has also called an early regional election for Dec. 21.

Puigdemont told Belgian state broadcaster that he was in Belgium "ready to be a candidate" in the early polls and because he had lost faith in the Spanish justice system. "We can run a campaign anywhere because we're in a globalized world," he told RTBF, adding that he was not in Belgium to "Belgianize Catalan politics."

"I did not flee, but it's impossible to properly prepare" a legal defense while in Spain, he told the broadcaster. If Belgium acts on the international warrant issued by Spain and arrests him, Puigdemont would have to be brought before an investigating judge within 24 hours. His extradition procedure would take 15 days, Belgian legal experts say. But should Puigdemont appeal, that process could take a further 45 days, meaning that he would probably not leave Belgium before early January, well after the elections.

In her decision on Friday, Judge Carmen Lamela said that Puigdemont "apparently is in Belgium" and accused him of "leading the mobilization of the pro-independence sectors of the population to act in support of the illegal referendum and thus the secession process outside the legal channels to reform the constitution."

Spain says the only legal way to achieve secession is by reforming Spain's 1978 Constitution with an ample majority in the national parliament. The constitution says the country is "indivisible" and doesn't allow regional votes on sovereignty.

The arrest warrant came a day after the same judge jailed nine former members of Puigdemont's separatist government. All members of the ousted Cabinet were ordered to appear at Spain's National Court on Thursday to answer questions in a rebellion investigation. Five of them, including Puigdemont, didn't show up.

Spanish prosecutors want to charge members of the dismissed regional government —as well as six additional members of the regional parliament— for promoting official steps to declaring Catalonia's independence.

Meanwhile, a panel of National Court judges on Friday rejected an appeal seeking the release of two separatist activists who were jailed last month in a separate sedition investigation. A National Court spokesman said the president of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, Jordi Sanchez, and Omnium Cultural leader Jordi Cuixart will remain in a Madrid jail while the investigation continues. The spokesman spoke on condition of anonymity in line with court policy.

Sanchez and Cuixart are being investigated for allegedly orchestrating protests that hindered a judicial investigation to halt preparations for a banned independence referendum held on Oct. 1. Under Spain's legal system, investigating judges can have suspects detained while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if they should be charged.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo deflected questions by the media regarding the jailing of the Catalan officials. The separation of powers meant that the government's focus was on preparing for the early election it called for Catalonia, Mendez de Vigo said.

"What the government guarantees is that there will be elections where the parties that want to run can present their programs, and we hope that the election can end this period of uncertainty and the deterioration of harmonious coexistence in Catalonia," he said.

One of the nine jailed Catalan officials, ex-regional minister for business Santi Vila, posted bail of 50,000 euros ($58,000) and was released from custody on Friday. His passport was confiscated and Vila needs to show up in court regularly as the rebellion, sedition and embezzlement probe continues.

The other eight were held without having bail set. "I ask for all political parties across Spain, appealing to their democratic values, to put an end to this terrible situation that has put politicians in prison," Vila said as he left the Estremera prison near Madrid.

Vila resigned in protest a day before Catalonia's parliament voted in favor of the independence declaration. He has said he wants to lead the center-right separatist Democratic Party of Catalonia in the upcoming election on a moderate platform.

Puigdemont and his Cabinet were removed by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who used extraordinary constitutional authority authorized by the Spanish Senate to depose the separatists, dissolve the regional legislature and call the early regional election.

Spain's Supreme Court is also investigating six members of Catalonia's parliament. The court postponed a hearing Thursday until next week to allow more time for them to prepare their defenses in the case.

In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Cook reported from Brussels. Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.

Spain judge jails Catalan ministers, mulls leader's arrest

November 03, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish judge jailed nine former members of Catalonia's separatist government Thursday and was deliberating a possible international arrest warrant for the region's ousted president, who remained in Belgium while the others appeared in a Madrid court for questioning about their efforts to break away from Spain.

Former President Carles Puigdemont and his 13-member Cabinet are being investigated for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement stemming from their pursuit of Catalan independence. The Spanish government removed them from office on Oct. 27 and they were summoned to appear in Spain's National Court on Thursday.

After the nine Catalan Cabinet members who showed up were questioned, a judge sent eight of them to jail without bail. One was ordered held in lieu of 50,000 euros ($58,300) in bail. The seven men and two women were taken from the court in police vans hours later and assigned to prisons in the Madrid area.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Catalan towns to condemn the pre-charge detentions, which fellow separatist politicians and elected officials criticized as an attack on ideas. "We won't give up, we won't fail, we will fight till the end," Marta Rovira, an increasingly prominent politician in Catalonia's republican-left ERC party, said.

"We have all the right in the world to live in a country with more justice, dignity and freedom," she told reporters as tear welled in her eyes. The Spanish government said it does not comment on judges' decisions in deference to the separation of powers.

Investigative magistrate Carmen Lamela ordered the officials into custody at the request of prosecutors, who also asked Thursday for an international warrant seeking Puigdemont's arrest. Under Spain's legal system, investigating judges can have suspects detained while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if they should be charged.

Puigdemont surfaced in Belgium on Tuesday with some of his ex-ministers, saying they were seeking "freedom and safety" there. He and four of the officials remained in Brussels on Thursday. Asked whether Puigdemont would turn himself in if the arrest warrant is granted, his lawyer in Belgium, Paul Bekaert, told The Associated Press: "Certainly. Or the police will come get him." Bekaert said Puigdemont intends to cooperate with Belgian police.

Also Thursday, six Catalan lawmakers appeared for a parallel session in the Spanish Supreme Court. They were given a week to prepare their defenses and instructed to return for questioning on Nov. 9. In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

In a written ruling, the National Court judge said the eight jailed without bail had planned and executed a roadmap since 2015 to create an independent Catalan republic. The ruling said the activities of those under investigation were "meditated and perfectly prepared and organized, repeatedly disobeying systematically over two years Constitutional Court resolutions in favor of the independence."

The judge said the eight were being jailed without the possibility of bail because of the risk of them fleeing prosecution or hiding or destroying evidence. Lawyers for the jailed officials said they planned to appeal Lamela's order. Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, who represents Puigdemont and four more of the ousted Cabinet members, said the judge's decision to send them to jail "lacked justification" and was "disproportionate."

The Catalan officials' supporters and party aides in Madrid were seen crying outside the courthouse when the judge's decision was announced. They shouted "Freedom! Freedom!" and sang the Catalan official anthem, "Els Segadors," which translates to "The Reapers" in English.

Spain took the unprecedented step of triggering constitutional powers allowing it to take over running Catalonia following a declaration of independence by the regional parliament on Oct. 27. Madrid dismissed the Catalan Cabinet, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for Dec. 21.

Junqueras, in a tweet sent shortly after the judge's decision, called on Catalans to cast ballots to defeat unionists. "Do every day everything that is in your hands in order for good to defeat evil in the ballots of Dec. 21," the tweet posted through Junqueras' account said. "Standing up, with determination and onward to victory."

Puigdemont, also in a tweet, wrote that "the legitimate government of Catalonia has been jailed for its ideas." Javier Melero, a lawyer representing some of the separatist lawmakers investigated in the Supreme Court, criticized Puigdemont and the four ministers who skipped court. He said their actions would be damaging for his clients, three lawmakers who are members of Puigdemont's PDeCAT party.

"Not being at the service of the judiciary when you are summoned is always damaging for the rest of those being investigated," Melero said. About two dozen politicians and elected officials from Catalan separatist parties gathered at the gates of the Supreme Court in a show of support for the lawmakers under investigation.

"If the question is if in Spain you can trust the judicial system, my answer is no," said Artur Mas, a former president of the Catalan government. "From the personal point of view and also for my personal experience, I don't think that there are all the guarantees to have a fair trial."

Mas was banned by a Barcelona court from holding public office for two years after he ignored a Constitutional Court ruling and went ahead with a mock vote on Catalonia's independence in 2014. Across the street, half a dozen protesters with Spanish flags were stopped by police. They shouted at the Catalan politicians, "cowards" and "to jail, to jail."

The protracted political crisis over Catalonia, Spain's worst in decades, could have an impact on the country's economic growth, Spain's central bank warned in a report published Thursday.

Sylvain Plazy in Belgium, Paolo Santalucia in Madrid, and Elena Becatoros in Barcelona, contributed to this report.