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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to take new measures against Israel. Source: AP
Golan will be new front: Assad
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Saturday, June 1, 2013

SYRIA'S President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to open "a new front" against Israel in the Golan Heights, as his country's civil war worsens. He also blamed "Israeli escalation" for the growing role of the militant Shia group Hezbollah in trying to shore up his regime.

In an interview on the Hezbollah-owned TV station al-Manar, Assad said Hezbollah was now in Syria because Israel was involved. "There is pressure by the people to open a new front in the Golan," he said. "Even among the Arab world there is a clear readiness to join the fight against Israel."

Assad also insisted that Russia would deliver all the weapons his regime had purchased, which would include the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles Israel has called on Russia not to provide to Syria. "We are negotiating with the Russians on many types of weapons," Assad said. "Russia is committed to the agreement, signed previously. Everything agreed on will be done, and part of this agreement with Russia has been done."

Despite speculation leading up to the interview, Assad did not say that any S-300 missiles had been delivered. Israel is concerned about them because it believes they would reduce its current aerial advantage in a future war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The S-300s are high-powered surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down fighter jets.

Israel's Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon warned this week that if the missiles arrived in Syria, "we will know what to do". However, a leading Israeli commentator said yesterday that Israel had fallen into "a self-induced trap" on the issue. Writing in the largest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, Yossi Yehoshua said if the S-300s reached Syria and Israel did not act, it would have undermined its power of deterrence, while if it did act it would be "dragged into an unwanted war".

Two Russian newspapers reported yesterday that the S-300s may not be sent to Syria until next year. Vedomosti and Kommersant said the $US1 billion contract had been signed in 2010 and that even if they were delivered now it may take six months for them to be assembled and ready for use.

Syria's civil war has escalated in recent weeks as teams of Hezbollah fighters, based in Lebanon, have crossed the border to fight with the Assad forces against the rebels. This has turned the war into a full-scale battle between rival Shia and Sunni groups.

Sunni militants, led by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, have already been playing a major role as frontline troops fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army rebels. Hezbollah members are Shia Muslims, aligned to Iran, and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are Sunnis, aligned to al-Qa'ida. They have rushed to join the battle for Qusayr, a strategic city close to the border with Lebanon that links the capital, Damascus, to Homs and the Alawite stronghold along the Mediterranean coast. The Assad family and many of their inner circle are Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Meanwhile, divisions in the Syrian opposition are growing over whether to attend a conference being organised for Geneva. Many in the opposition say they will not attend unless there is prior agreement that Assad should have no future role in Syria. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "This is the most pressing crisis in world affairs today and the continued flow of weapons to the regime, the difficulties and disagreements about attending the Geneva talks don't help at all to resolve this crisis."

The EU's ban on providing weapons to Syria's rebels lapses this weekend. Britain and France successfully argued this week that the EU should not extend the embargo. They have said they will hold off any provision of weapons until the Geneva conference but, with that conference increasingly unlikely to proceed, the two countries could have the ability to provide weapons within weeks.

A senior EU aide said Assad's comments and the reluctance of the opposition to attend Geneva were part of a "normal escalation" as both sides jockey to arrive at a peace conference with the upper hand. "It's difficult to see any major breakthrough happening at Geneva" even if the main players do attend, the aide said. "What we hope to see is some kind of political dynamic which focuses the parties more and more on the political process."

Rami Hamdallah
'Pragmatist' Palestinian named as PM
The Australian
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

JERUSALEM: Rami Hamdallah, the Nablus academic who has been tasked by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with forming a new Ramallah-based government, is seen by Israel as a moderate pragmatist, commentators say. Mr Hamdallah, 54, who is president of An-Najah National University in Nablus and the secretary-general of the Central Elections Commission, was named as the new prime minister yesterday, about seven weeks after Salam Fayyad resigned from his post.

"The government will be formed in the coming days," said Mr Hamdallah, who belongs to Mr Abbas's ruling Fatah party and previously headed the Palestinian stock exchange.

Israel did not officially respond to the announcement that Mr Hamdallah would take over, but Israeli analysts described him as a figure who would be acceptable to the West and would not pose any internal threat to Mr Abbas. Israeli sources quoted by Haaretz newspaper described him as "pragmatic" with respect to negotiations with Israel, which the US is trying to revive.


Later same day
Extract: Missile kills 26 as key Syria battle enters third week

A MISSILE strike near Syria's biggest city Aleppo killed 26 people and government warplanes pounded Qusayr, a watchdog said yesterday, as a regime offensive to retake the town entered its third week. The missile attack on Kfar Hamra came as Assad's forces mounted an assault on the rebel-held countryside surrounding Aleppo in the north. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the surface-to-surface missile struck around midnight, killing 26 people, including six women and eight children.

Regime forces mounted a fierce onslaught on Qusayr, the strategic town near Lebanon, and also slightly farther north in Dabaa, the site of a disused military airbase partly under insurgent control. There were numerous dead on both sides, the Observatory said without giving any details.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission announced yesterday it was withdrawing from the National Coalition. Some Coalition leaders were "more interested in appearing in the media than helping the revolution," said a statement from the opposition faction, a Syria-wide network of activists. "A lot of money has been wasted because they used it for their own personal interests while the Syrian people inside the country lack everything," it added.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, meanwhile, said Russia would be unable to deliver a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria before 2014, army radio reported. Last week, Assad had hinted his government might already have received a shipment of the S-300 missiles. But Yaalon told an Israeli parliamentary committee: "No deliveries have taken place. If they do take place, it will not be before next year."

In Washington, US Lieutenant Colonel T.G. Taylor said a Patriot missile battery and F-16 fighters being sent to Jordan for a drill may stay there, if requested, "to enhance the defensive posture and capacity" of the country which borders Syria.

On Saturday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and international aid groups expressed concern about civilians trapped in Qusayr, and for up to 1,500 injured residents still in the town of 25,000 people. On Sunday, the regime said it would not allow the Red Cross into Qusayr until after the fighting stopped.

US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday denounced that decision in a fierce attack on Assad. In Qusayr, he said "you have an extraordinary number of civilians who are trapped, and he will not allow the Red Cross and humanitarian aid to go in until the military has finished what it intends to do". "I think the world is seeing the actions of a person who has lost touch with any reality except his own and who is willing to wreak any kind of punishment … on the people of his country simply so that he can maintain power."

At the UN, diplomats said that over the weekend Russia had blocked a draft Security Council declaration expressing "grave concern" about the situation in Qusayr. Moscow, a key ally of Assad's regime, had wanted "wider political discussion" on the issue, they said.

Germany, meanwhile, joined France in saying the proposed "Geneva 2" peace conference on ending the bloodshed in Syria could be delayed until next month. The international community has pinned its hopes for resolving the conflict peacefully on the US-Russian initiative that had been mooted for June in Geneva.


Also same day
Secret Israeli missile system 'shockingly revealed' by US
Sheera Frenkel, The Times

THE US government inadvertently revealed details of a top-secret Israeli military installation when it published building tenders for the project this week. Details of the facility that will house a new Israeli defensive ballistic missile, the Arrow 3, specified the depth of the underground complex and building materials to be used.

More than 1000 pages of blueprints and specifications cover everything from the engineering plans to the heating and cooling systems. The missile facility is to be built at Tel Shahar, a base between Jerusalem and Ashdod whose location has never been officially confirmed.

An Israeli military official said: "If an enemy of Israel wanted to launch an attack against a facility, this would give him an easy how-to guide. This type of information is closely guarded and its release can jeopardise the entire facility. This is more than worrying, it is shocking." The official said he could not comment on whether the plans had been altered as a result of the disclosure.

Israeli officials appear to have been well aware of the danger of outsourcing building projects to the US. In March this year, Lieutenant-Colonel Peleg Zeevi, head of the tender process at the Defence Ministry, defended the decision to seek US help to build military installations by saying that Israel needed "a player that has the knowledge, ability and experience". "We are aware of the security issues in deals with foreign firms, but because we want real competition and expertise, we will create conditions that will allow and encourage their participation," Lieutenant-Colonel Zeevi said.

The tenders for the Tel Shahar base, which were originally revealed by Jane's Defence Weekly, also included details of the Arrow 3, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere and is due to be commissioned in 2015. They showed that the Arrow 3 will have six interceptors in vertical launch positions at the base, and that a crane would need to be erected for additional missiles. The structures encasing the interceptor system would be constructed from high-grade concrete reinforced with steel mesh. They will have steel blast doors and be fitted with a system to withstand high pressure resulting from explosions.

Yesterday Israeli officials announced that they were fast-tracking the Arrow 3 system because of Iran's growing nuclear menace. "We want to reach a situation in which Israel has a ready defence for any threat, present or future," said Colonel Aviram Hasson, head of the Defence Ministry department charged with developing anti-missile systems. The Arrow 3 is capable of intercepting missiles at a range of 2500km and can manoeuvre in mid-air. In February Israel conducted its first test in space, which was observed by the US Department of Defence.

This is not the first project in Israel to involve the US government. The US Army Corps of Engineers is supervising construction of a five-storey underground complex for Israel's Air Force just outside Tel Aviv. The project, which is expected to take more than two years to build, at a cost of up to $US100 million ($102m), was open only to building contractors from the US.

The Arrow 3 facility will cost an estimated $US25m. Whoever wins the tender has only 485 days in which to complete the work.

Fresh fighting erupts in Golan Heights
Syria retakes Golan border post
The Australian Online
Additional reporting: AP
Friday, June 7, 2013

JERUSALEM: SYRIA'S army recaptured the only Golan Heights crossing on the ceasefire line with Israel last night, in another setback for rebels a day after they were blasted out of the strategic town of Qusayr. As the rebels were driven back out of the southwestern plateau, government troops also pursued insurgents who abandoned Qusayr, bombarding a nearby village where they fled to along with hundreds of wounded civilians.

Qusayr's capture gives President Bashar al-Assad the upper hand if a US-Russian plan for the first direct peace talks between his regime and its opponents materialises, analysts say. Russia said Syria's Foreign Minister would lead a government delegation at the "Geneva 2" talks which have been delayed largely over disagreement in the opposition ranks about who will attend.

The rebels briefly took control of the Quneitra crossing, strategically and symbolically important for its proximity to Israel and to the Syrian capital, before being forced out. "The Syrian army has recovered control of the crossing, there are sounds of explosions from time to time but far less than in the morning," an Israeli source said. An AFP correspondent near the crossing confirmed forces loyal to Assad recaptured the frontier post, saying he could see tanks moving inside the area. Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Israeli army radio said the rebel advance on the plateau was followed by fierce fighting in nearby Quneitra town.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous confirmed there had been "incidents" along the armistice line, and described the situation as "very sensitive". In Vienna, the government said Austria would withdraw its UN contingent as the "mission can no longer be maintained for military reasons". Shrapnel from the fighting wounded a UN peacekeeper from the Philippines.

One Israeli source said an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers had been taken to an Israeli hospital. The crossing falls within a UN-controlled buffer zone. It is the only direct passage between Israel and Syria and used almost exclusively by Druze residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights who are allowed to cross over to study, work or get married.

Israel seized a large section of the plateau from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move the international community never recognised.


Same day
Extract: UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights crisis as Austria pulls out troops

THE UN force in the Golan Heights was thrown into disarray after Austria withdrew its troops and two peacekeepers were injured as Syrian government and rebel fighters battled for a border crossing. Peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded by mortar shrapnel as the two sides fought for the strategic crossing, according to diplomats.

UN leaders held emergency talks to replace the 377 Austrian troops who make up more than a third of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger called UN chief Ban Ki-moon to tell him of the withdrawal, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. "The secretary general is concerned about the potential consequences of such a withdrawal on the peacekeeping operation and also on regional security and in that regard, he regrets the decision that has been taken," Mr Nesirky added.

Austria has been the cornerstone of UNDOF for many years. Mr Nesirky said the UN was in talks with Vienna about the timing and other details of the withdrawal. The country's defence minister, Gerald Klug, said the withdrawal would take between two and four weeks and could start as soon as Tuesday.

UNDOF has played a key role in monitoring the peace between Damascus and Israel over the past four decades and there are growing fears that Israel could be drawn into the Syria war.

The Austrian pullout would leave the force with just 341 troops from the Philippines and 193 from India, said Mr Nesirky. A year ago, UNDOF had more than 1100 troops. But Japan and Croatia have already pulled out in recent months. Fiji has promised some replacement troops but these have not yet arrived.

Extract: Israel admits Bashar al-Assad may hang on
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, June 12, 2013

SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad may survive the revolt against his rule with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Israel signalled yesterday. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said he believed Assad might "even regain territories". "I always thought that it might be the case that at the end of the day Assad, with a very strong Iranian and Hezbollah backing, might gain the upper hand," he told a meeting of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem. He added: "In such time of conflict, if the opposition is not making any progress, and the regime manages to survive and to get very strong support from other countries, namely Iran and Hezbollah, which is a proxy of Iran, in the end it might just survive."

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played down the comments, saying Mr Steinitz was speaking for himself and not the government. However, the comments by a minister who has access to Israel's intelligence assessments contrast with the position long expressed by recently retired defence minister Ehud Barak. Soon after the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, Mr Barak predicted Assad could fall "within weeks" — a view he later tempered.

At least 94,000 people are estimated to have died in the civil war, whose brutality — from both sides — has only intensified in the past month. Assad forces have made crucial gains in the central province of Homs, most notably regaining control of the town of Qusayr last week. Meanwhile, Syrian state TV last night reported that two suicide bombers had struck in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killing at least 14 people and injuring more than 30.

Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu renewed his warning that any attempt by Syria to attack Israel would be met with a strong response. "We see a new Middle East and it is very volatile — this is especially true on our northern border with Syria," he said. "The thing that guides us is first and foremost safeguarding the security of our citizens. We are prepared for any scenario and the fundamental principle that guides us is that whoever hurts Israel, or threatens to hurt it, will get hurt."

While stating Israel was not taking sides in Syria, Mr Netanyahu said Israel would do all it could to prevent weapons being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

Obama agrees to arm Syria rebels
Weekend Australian
ADAM ENTOUS, JULIAN E. BARNES, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, June 15, 2013

US President Barack Obama has authorised his administration to provide arms to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, officials said Thursday, a major policy shift after the White House said it had confirmed that Damascus had crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons in the country's civil war.

The order directing the CIA to co-ordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies reverses a long-standing policy that limited the US to providing non-lethal support. The White House declined to comment on the authorisation, saying only that Mr Obama had decided to ramp up "military support" to moderate rebels both in "scope and scale."

US officials also told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that the US military proposal for arming the rebels also called for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by US and allied planes on Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there. Such a move, if the White House goes ahead, would represent a significantly bigger US engagement in Syria's civil war.

The developments followed a series of high level meetings at the White House and consultations with allies in which intelligence findings and proposals for arming the rebels were discussed. US officials said the issue divided Mr Obama's national security team but the administration faced little choice other than to step up its support or risk watching as rebels lose more ground to a resurgent Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and soldiers from the militant Hezbollah group.

Rebels requested specific weapons to hold off Assad's forces and Hezbollah fighters who are closing in on rebel positions in the city of Aleppo, the Journal reported Wednesday. The head of Syria's opposition Supreme Military Council issued a plea to US officials and others for arms. Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said the US has concluded that forces loyal to the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against rebels, resulting in up to 150 deaths. The US determination came the same day the UN reported that the number of deaths in the 27-month conflict had surpassed 90,000.

The assessment on chemical weapons was based in part on laboratory analysis of physical samples taken from Syria, Mr Rhodes said. He referred to the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" and said it had changed Mr Obama's thinking about US involvement in the conflict.

In April, the White House notified Congress that US intelligence agencies believed with "varying degrees of confidence" that Assad forces had used chemical weapons, including sarin gas, in limited quantities. In the two months that followed, the US came under heavy pressure from allies Britain and France to make a clear-cut determination. On Thursday Mr Rhodes said the US now "has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information."

The findings about the use of chemical weapons use were shared with Russia, part of a US effort to get Moscow to cut support to Assad. The US ramp-up will be a key issue at a gathering of leaders of the Group of 8 leading countries in Ireland next week.

Mr Rhodes highlighted four instances in which the US believed chemical weapons were used: on March 19 in the Aleppo suburb of Khan Al-Asal; April 13 in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Maksud; May 14 in Qasr Abu Samra, which is north of Homs; and on May 23 in an attack in eastern Damascus.

Officials said the White House had yet to decide what types of arms the US will provide to the rebels. They have asked for anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons known as Manpads, as well as for large amounts of ammunition for small arms. "The red line has been crossed and now we are going to go ahead with arming the opposition," a senior US official said.

The move is an about-face by Mr Obama, who last year blocked a proposal backed by then-CIA Director David Petraeus and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the rebels. At the time, Mr Obama was concerned arms could end up in the hands of Islamists battling Assad. But administration officials who favoured providing arms said the White House believed it had a clearer picture today of the opposition and confidence that sufficient safeguards could be put in place to prevent US weapons from reaching Islamist fighters aligned with al Qa'ida.

More important, officials said, the White House was moved by concerns that Assad's forces and thousands of Hezbollah fighters might be poised for an assault on Aleppo that would deal such a serious blow to moderate rebel forces that it would be hard for them to regroup and bounce back. US officials say weapons and training will probably be delivered to the rebels inside Jordan, a key ally that has been overwhelmed by a flood of refugees from Syria and has offered the US use of its bases to help set up a safe zone along the Syrian border.


Same Day
Jordan key to Pentagon plan for no-fly zone
JULIAN E. BARNES, ADAM ENTOUS, Washington, The Wall Street Journal, Agencies

A US military proposal for arming Syrian rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to US officials. Asked by the White House to develop options for Syria, military planners have said that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.

To do that, the military envisages creating a no-fly zone stretching up to 40km into Syria and which would be enforced using aircraft flown from Jordanian bases and flying inside the kingdom. The limited no-fly zone wouldn't require the destruction of Syrian anti-aircraft batteries, US officials said.

Jordan has been inundated by a flood of refugees that Jordanian and US officials say is a growing threat to the kingdom, a key US ally in the region. The US has already moved Patriot air defence batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan, which could be integral to any no-fly zone if President Barack Obama approves the military proposal.

Proponents of the proposal say a no-fly zone could be imposed without a UN Security Council resolution, since the US would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn't hold Syrian territory. US planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long ranges. But officials said that aircraft might be required to enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes. Such an incursion by the US, if it were to happen, could be justified as self-defence, officials say.

Military planners believe it would be dangerous to set up a major operation inside Jordan to arm the rebels without creating a no-fly zone to hold back Syrian aircraft. "Unless you have a good buffer zone inside Syria, you risk too much," said a US official briefed on the military proposal.

Creating even a limited buffer zone that Syrian airplanes could not enter would be expensive, costing an estimated $US50 million ($52m) a day. Military officials said the US hoped the operation would be conducted with other allies, who could help pay for the cost of a no-fly zone.

The planes involved in the no-fly zone would fly from Jordan and possibly from navy ships in the Mediterranean or Red Sea. Jordan has offered the US and its allies the use of its military bases to protect a safe zone inside the kingdom.

US military officials believe it will take about a month to get such a limited no-fly zone up and running. Officials say there may be a limited window to do so. If Russia decides to provide advanced, long-range S-300 air defence weapons to Syria, it would make such a limited no-fly zone far more risky for US pilots.

US senator John McCain yesterday came out in support of a no-fly zone. "This isn't just a bunch of demonstrators being beaten up, this a regional conflict," he said on CNN. "It spilled over — Jordan is destabilised, Lebanon is about to erupt into sectarian violence, jihadists are falling in from all over the Middle East. This is erupting. Vital national security interests are at stake. No, we don't want boots on the ground and, yes, we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily."

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani hails his win as a victory over extremism. Source: AFP
World powers look to Iran's 'sheikh of hope' Hassan Rowhani
The Australian Online
Monday, June 17, 2013

IRAN'S new President Hassan Rowhani has hailed his presidential election win as a victory over "extremism" as jubilant supporters took to the streets, pinning their hopes on an easing of Western sanctions.

Major powers quickly offered to engage with the moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator, who has promised a more constructive approach to talks. But Israel called for no let-up in the sanctions crippling the Iranian economy.

Iran's reformist press hailed Mr Rowhani as the "sheikh of hope" and said his victory promised a return to optimism after the eight-year grip of conservatives under outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tens of thousands of celebrators thronged the streets of Tehran, toting pictures of 64-year-old Mr Rowhani and chanting pro-reform slogans as news of his victory spread on Saturday night. "Tonight we rejoice as there is once more hope in Iran," said Ashkan, 31, holding a poster of Mr Rowhani and wearing a green wristband.

Mr Rowhani was declared outright winner with 50.68 percent of votes cast in Friday's election. In his first statement, he called on world powers to treat Iran with respect and recognise its rights, an apparent allusion to its controversial nuclear program.

"This is a victory of intelligence, of moderation, of progress… over extremism," Mr Rowhani said. "The nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic republic."

Then they will "hear an appropriate response", added Mr Rowhani, who has championed a more constructive engagement with world powers.

He won outright against five conservative candidates with 18.6 million votes out of the 36.7 million people who voted from an electorate of 50.5 million, the interior ministry said. That was enough to ensure there would be no run-off against Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who came a distant second with 16.55 per cent.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all strategic matters in Iran, including nuclear policy, congratulated Mr Rowhani. "I urge everyone to help the president-elect and his colleagues in the government, as he is the president of the whole nation," Mr Khamenei said on his website. Reformist daily Etemad headlined: "A salute to Iran and to the sheikh of hope," above a picture of a smiling Mr Rowhani flashing a V-for-victory sign.

World powers expressed readiness to take up Mr Rowhani's offer of engagement. The White House said it was prepared to engage Tehran directly to try to reach a "diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program". Mr Rowhani said in his campaign that he was ready to hold bilateral talks with Washington on Tehran's nuclear program. He has also offered to restore diplomatic ties with the United States, which cut relations in the aftermath of the 1979 seizure of the American embassy by Islamist students. "If he is interested in… mending Iran's relations with the rest of the world, there's an opportunity to do that," White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS News.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who acts as chief negotiator for the six powers involved in nuclear talks, said she was committed to working with Mr Rowhani to find a "swift diplomatic solution". The Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, a close ally of Tehran, called Mr Rowhani a "beacon of hope", while Syria said it would seek to expand its relations with its regional ally after his victory.

But Iran's arch-foe Israel urged the international community to keep up its pressure on Tehran. "The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel, the region's sole if undeclared nuclear power, has not ruled out a military strike to prevent Iran developing a rival arsenal. Iran insists it has no such ambition and that its nuclear programme is for peaceful power generation and medical purposes only.

King Abdullah of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia was among Gulf Arab states to congratulate Mr Rowhani. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group's senior analyst on Iran said: "Rowhani cannot change the core of Iran's nuclear strategy, which is determined by the supreme leader," Khamenei. "But what he can alter is the tone and the team," while easing Tehran's isolation which could lead to an easting of sanctions, Ali Vaez said.

Mr Rowhani inherits an economy that has been badly hit by EU and US sanctions targeting the key oil and banking sectors. Inflation has climbed to more than 30 per cent, as the rial has lost nearly 70 pe rcent of its value against the dollar, sending the cost of imported goods soaring and slashing the purchasing power of ordinary people. Mr Rowhani has pledged to tackle the problems by taking a more constructive approach with the major powers that might lead to the sanctions being relaxed.

Friday's vote was the first since the controversial 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad triggered mass protests that were crushed with deadly force.

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines
of the G8 summit at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Source: AFP
Extract: US, Russia push Syria peace talks
The Australian Online
Tuesday, June 18, 2013

RUSSIA and the United States agreed at a G8 (U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia) summit to push for Syria peace talks, but Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama made clear their deep differences over the conflict. Gathered with other leaders of the world's top industrialised countries in Northern Ireland, Mr Obama and Mr Putin told reporters after face-to-face talks that they would continue to push for a proposed Syria peace conference in Geneva.

But with the two countries now offering military support to opposing sides in the war, they could not paper over their disagreements. "Of course our opinions do not converge, but all of us have the intention of stopping the violence in Syria," Mr Putin said at a joint press conference. "We agreed to push the parties to the negotiating table," Mr Putin said.

"With respect to Syria we do have different perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence," Mr Obama said, adding that both countries "want to try to resolve the issue through political means if possible." The two also said they would hold a US-Russia summit in Moscow in September.

The war in Syria dominated the start of the two-day summit at a picturesque golf resort on the banks of Lough Erne, with Western leaders applying pressure on Moscow to back away from its support for President Bashar al-Assad. Russia dismissed rumoured Western moves to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to help the rebel forces fighting Assad, while host Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for progress on peace talks.

The British premier said his priority in the working dinner dedicated to foreign policy on Monday was to ensure that the peace conference takes place later this year. "What we do need to do is bring about this peace conference and this transition, so that people in Syria can have a government that represents them, rather than a government that's trying to butcher them," Mr Cameron told British television.

On the eve of the summit, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said few G8 leaders expected Putin to change his position. "I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one," Mr Harper told reporters in Dublin. "Unless there's a big shift of position on his part, we're not going to get a common position with him at the G8." French President Francois Hollande also criticised Russia for arming Syria's regime. "How can we accept that Russia continues to deliver arms to Bashar al-Assad's regime while the opposition receives very few and is being massacred ?" Mr Hollande told journalists.

On a brighter note the European Union and the United States announced the formal start of negotiations on the world's biggest free trade pact, in a bid to boost growth and create jobs in the flagging global economy. "This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it," Mr Cameron said. Mr Obama revealed that the first round of negotiations would take place in Washington next month.

EU nations agreed to go ahead with the talks after late-night discussions in Luxembourg on Friday to convince France that its prized cultural industries would not be under threat from the pact. Officials have said the deal could be worth more than 200 billion euros ($265 billion) annually to the European and US economies.


Later same day
Middle East peace talks must resume: China

CHINA has called for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at a conference in Beijing, as the rising global power seeks greater diplomatic influence in the Middle East.

"We need to redouble efforts to promote peace talks," assistant foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said at the United Nations International Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, an event attended by diplomats, UN delegates, academics and figures from the Palestinian and Israeli parliaments. "The international community should be fully aware of the importance and urgency of settling the Palestinian question and make every effort to promote the resumption of peace talks," he added, on the first day of the two-day conference.

China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has voiced support for the Palestinian push for full state membership in the UN. Beijing has traditionally remained distant from Middle East affairs, although it has begun to take a more active diplomatic role in recent years, wielding its UN veto to scuttle some Western-backed proposals on Syria.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu made state visits to Beijing during the same week last month. Bassam al-Salhi, a representative of Abbas, said that China could play a "special role" in the Middle East on a visit to Beijing last November.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen since 2010, causing US Secretary of State John Kerry to admonish both Netanyahu and Abbas to make the "tough decisions" needed to restart them.

Get real on Palestine, Bill Clinton tells Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, June 19, 2013

FORMER US president Bill Clinton says Israel has no alternative for its longer-term welfare than agreeing to a Palestinian state because of "sheer demographics". "The question (to) confront is: is it really OK with you if Israel has people in its territory that will never be allowed to vote ?" he told Israelis yesterday at a function to celebrate the 90th birthday of President Shimon Peres. "If so, can you say with a straight face that this is a democracy ' If you let them vote, can you live with not being a Jewish state ?"

The comments came as an influential Israeli politician said any two-state solution was dead. Naftali Bennett, the Minister for the Economy, said Israel should annex the majority of the West Bank and not allow a Palestinian state.

"The idea a Palestinian state will be formed in the state of Israel has come to a dead end," he said. "Never was so much time invested in something so pointless. The attempt to establish a Palestinian state is over, this idea is behind us. We have to make a transition from a situation of persuading people that a Palestinian state is inappropriate to thinking about how to conduct ourselves in the future." Mr Bennett urged Israel to continue its recent growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, officially regarded by Australia as illegal. "The most important thing for the land of Israel is to build, and build, and build," Mr Bennett said.

The comments come after Maariv newspaper recently revealed that Mr Peres, in secret talks with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, had agreed to a document for new peace talks. But Mr Peres said when he presented the deal to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "he (Mr Netanyahu) rejected it".

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned Mr Bennett's comments. "Israeli statements and actions are consistent and clear: Israel is declaring an end to working for a two-state solution and is beginning a campaign meant to officially turn it into an apartheid state."

Mr Netanyahu told Reuters: "Foreign policy is shaped by the prime minister and my view is clear: I will seek a negotiated settlement where you'd have a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state." Last week Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon said: "Israel is not interested in the two-state solution and will not discuss it."

Israel's Makor Rishon newspaper recently said Israel had rejected a key part of new peace efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry — to allow Palestinians to build new factories.

Rami Hamdallah
Mid East chaos as Palestinian Authority prime minister quits
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Saturday, June 22, 2013

THE Middle East's struggling peace process has suffered another blow with the resignation of the new Palestinian Authority prime minister after just 14 days. Rami Hamdallah, an academic hand-picked by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has tendered his resignation reportedly after a row with his two deputies.

The announcement came as Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, published a report that said the current growth in the number of Jewish settlers amounted to "one of the largest demographic surges in the world". Meanwhile, as an indication of the tensions in Jerusalem, Israeli police yesterday shot dead a Jewish man at the Western Wall. Police said the man shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), and they thought he was a terrorist.

The Hamdallah resignation leaves the Palestinian side in chaos as US Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to revive the peace process. The Kerry initiative increasingly looks to have failed. Israeli media reported recently that Israel had rejected one of the central initiatives of the Kerry plan, a proposal to allow Palestinians to build factories as a goodwill gesture to kick-start talks.

Violence in the West Bank between Palestinians and settlers is growing and there are increasing warnings about a further deterioration. A senior Israeli military leader, Major General Nitzan Alon, warned this week of the danger unless peace negotiations were quickly resumed. "If in a few weeks the attempts to restart the negotiations with the Palestinians do not bear fruit, I fear a security deterioration in (the West Bank)," he said.

This week a group of youths, believed to be Jewish extremists, entered the Arab town of Abu Ghosh and smashed 30 cars. Last week the Israeli cabinet rejected a recommendation from its security advisers that such attacks against Arabs be called "terrorism". The attacks are often in response to something which has upset settlers. Most such attacks are against Palestinians in the West Bank, but this was against Arabs inside Israel. Defence minister Moshe Yaalon opposed the move to call such attacks terrorism while the Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, supported it. Security advisers argued this would give them greater powers to prevent such acts.

Former minister Ophir Pines-Paz criticised the government for not upgrading the offence. "As an Israeli citizen who wants to be proud of his society and country, I ask myself — how long will this go on ?" he wrote on Israeli news site Walla. "There is no doubt in my mind that the conduct of the security cabinet and the government, which made light of the matter and failed to accept the recommendations of the security establishment, gave a tailwind to the perpetrators of the criminal act in Abu Ghosh."

Meir Dagan, former chief of spy agency Mossad, said Israel needed to begin "serious" negotiations and that the borders which existed before the 1967 war could be defended. However, key Israeli figures are supporting continued growth in Jewish settlements, which Australia officially regards as illegal. "The most important thing for the land of Israel is to build, and build, and build," the Minister for the Economy, Naftali Bennett, said this week.

The report about demographics in Yedioth Ahronoth said there was a "surge" in the number of Jewish settlers moving into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It said for the first time the Jewish and Arab populations in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as a possible capital, are equal. The paper said: "This surge in the Jewish population data is astounding, since during the second intifada the Jews in (the West Bank) numbered 190,000. They have doubled their numbers (to 385,000) within a decade."

Syrian conflict lands Lebanon in bloodiest fighting since civil war
The Australian
Nicholas Blanford, Sidon, Lebanon, The Times
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

BLACK smoke rose above the blocks of flats on the hill above Sidon, marking one of the bloodiest days of fighting in Lebanon since its civil war ended more than 20 years ago. Bullets zinged overhead and a hidden machine gun responded with a burst of fire aimed at the port's Abra neighbourhood. "Get off the road," a Hezbollah gunman yelled as he sheltered by the wall of a three-storey house. "There are snipers. Come to us."

In the most serious spasm of violence to spill over from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, Sidon faced a second day of skirmishes this week as army special forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, stormed a mosque and compound belonging to Ahmad Assir. The radical Sunni cleric, an outspoken Hezbollah opponent, was holed up there with about 300 well-armed followers.

By early yesterday (AEST), troops had seized the compound and were pursuing fleeing Sunni gunmen and checking the buildings for booby traps. Sheik Assir, who had vowed to die a martyr in his compound, apparently escaped through a tunnel. His whereabouts were unknown. However, Bassam al-Dada, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told Lebanon's al-Jadeed television that Sheik Assir had reached Syria and was planning to form a "free Lebanon army". The fighting left at least 20 soldiers and numerous Asir followers dead, making it the worst conflict in Sidon since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Dozens of gunmen were captured and about 25 were said to have surrendered.

The clashes began on Sunday when a dispute at a Lebanese army checkpoint between soldiers and Sheik Assir's supporters turned into a gunbattle that quickly spread to other areas of the city. On Sunday night, a delegation of Sunni clerics tried to mediate between the two sides, but neither was prepared to yield. "Assir wants to be a martyr," said Maher Hammoud, a cleric allied to Hezbollah despite being a Sunni. "The army is not accepting any mediation. The army wants to arrest or kill him."

Sheik Assir is a firebrand whose outspoken criticism of Hezbollah has won him notoriety and support from Lebanon's Sunni community. Tensions between Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have been simmering for years but have risen sharply since Hezbollah began fighting with the Syrian army against the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels. President Bashar al-Assad and much of Syria's officer corps are Alawite, an obscure offshoot of Shia Islam.

Yesterday, these tensions spilt over on to Lebanon's complex sectarian patchwork. Lebanese army positions beside the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp came under attack from Palestinian extremists who support Sheik Assir, despite the efforts of the camp's leadership to stay out of the fighting. Yesterday in the camp, shops were closed and school exams postponed.

"Assir is an Israeli dog. He is destroying the country," said Khalil Kurdi, pointing at his shop, shuttered against the fighting. "He gets lots of money from abroad and he doesn't care that we are suffering."

Although the Lebanese army's special forces units spearheaded the attack on Sheik Assir's compound, they had Hezbollah's battle-hardened fighters to back them up. "Haj", the Hezbollah commander in the eastern edge of Abra, marshalled dozens of fighters. He is a relaxed-looking, middle-aged man dressed in jeans, loafers and a striped shirt. "Today we are doing surgery," Haj said. "We are removing a cancerous gland in a quick, clean operation to cure the city."

Israel ready for concessions
The Australian
Sheera Frenkel, Jerusalem, The Times
Thursday, June 27, 2013

ISRAEL appears to be ready to agree to stop building new settlement outposts and release Palestinian prisoners in an apparent breakthrough in efforts to revive peace talks. Officials in Jerusalem said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing the measures before a visit to the region by US Secretary of State John Kerry this week. In moves that have angered his right-wing coalition partners, Mr Netanyahu could free more than 100 Palestinians from jails and will agree to freeze all construction in newer settlements in the West Bank, according to diplomatic officials.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will insist that Israel should declare that the peace talks are conducted on the basis of borders before the occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, in 1967. However, both sides accept that the larger settlements will remain in Israeli hands and land-swap deals will be made in exchange. "This is the beginning steps, the first concessions to get both parties to the table," said a US official. "This is probably the last chance we have to come to a peace agreement that will see two states for two peoples."

Neither Palestinian nor Israeli officials would confirm the concessions, but officials from both sides said that they hoped there would be progress before Mr Kerry arrives in Jerusalem today. Mr Netanyahu warned yesterday that peace talks would fail if they did not address "core issues".

John Kerry pushes harder for peace in Middle East
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Saturday, June 29, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry has intensified his efforts for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite both sides having doubts that progress can be made. Mr Kerry yesterday began a frantic schedule of engagements, meeting Jordan's King Abdullah, followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The meetings, along with comments by US officials that he was planning a press conference for later today, raised expectations Mr Kerry was preparing to announce a summit in Jordan next week between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. Stanley Fischer, the retiring chief of the Bank of Israel, added pressure on his government, saying: "I think we could have made a greater effort to reach an agreement with them (the Palestinians). They are partners, and we need to strengthen them and to help them create the state they want."

The fact that Mr Kerry is investing so much time trying to get the two sides to sit down together — rather than on substantive issues such as borders or Jerusalem — indicates the difficulty of the process. Mr Netanyahu yesterday said he did not want a bi-national country — which would include Israel and the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation. Under a bi-national model, Palestinians would become part of Israel and be able to vote, presenting a demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish state. Under a two-state model, the Palestinians would have their own state.

Mr Netanyahu has faced criticism in Israel that he is not serious about peace. Influential journalist Shalom Yerushalmi recently wrote in Maariv: "Netanyahu, and this is clear, would like to see US Secretary of State John Kerry leave the region, just like President Obama did after his visit here two months ago. Everyone understands that this was his (Obama's) farewell visit to the peace process. "If Kerry isn't around, Netanyahu won't have to squirm and dodge the secretary's efforts to promote negotiations and the Palestinian state — against which Netanyahu wrote books that are hundreds of pages long."

Kerry meets with Abbas, Netanyahu
US Secretary of State of John Kerry made stops in Jordan and Jerusalem in what
many say may be a bid to jumpstart stalled Middle East peace talks.
Kerry's Mid-East peace shuttle falls short
The Australian
Monday, July 01, 2013

JERUSALEM: The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made a last-minute push yesterday to revive Middle East peace talks as Israeli media said days of exhaustive shuttle diplomacy had failed to break the deadlock. Mr Kerry has spent 13 hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since Thursday, with the latest session between the two men and their aides lasting until nearly 4am (11am AEST) at a hotel suite overlooking Jerusalem's Old City.

A sleep-deprived Mr Kerry was to head to Ramallah in the West Bank last night to consult for the third day in a row with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a US official said. His previous two meetings with Mr Abbas took place in Amman. Israel's army radio painted a grim picture of Mr Kerry's initiative, saying he has apparently failed in his goal of restarting direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a gap of nearly three years.

The Palestinian leader is pushing Israel to free the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners as a sign of commitment to peace, to remove roadblocks in the West Bank and to publicly agree to making the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war the baseline for negotiations.

But army radio said Mr Netanyahu was willing to consider just the first two conditions — but only after talks were under way, and even then in stages. So far, Israel has flatly refused to countenance any return to the 1967 borders.

Army radio also said an Israeli committee was likely to push through the construction of another 900 new homes in annexed east Jerusalem, in a meeting scheduled to take place today. The committee had given final approval to around 70 homes in the same area on Wednesday, on the eve of Mr Kerry's visit. Palestinian leaders have accused Israel of a lack of sincerity by moving ahead on construction in east Jerusalem — which they want as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Mr Kerry has made the elusive goal of Middle East peace a top priority. He is paying his fifth visit to the region since taking on the role of top US diplomat in February, but he is running against the clock.

Mr Kerry is scheduled to attend a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Brunei today at which he will also hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the Syrian crisis and a row over the presence in Moscow of US leaker Edward Snowden. He also plans to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and to hold three-way talks with Japan and South Korea, US allies whose relations have recently been sour.

US officials said Mr Kerry was dedicated to seeking progress in the Middle East and plans to speak before flying out. He cancelled a dinner on Saturday in Abu Dhabi on Syria to spend more time shuttling between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. US officials have been tight-lipped about the substance of Mr Kerry's meetings. On his all-night meeting with Mr Netanyahu and senior aides, a US official said only that the two men discussed a "wide range of issues related to the peace process".

Extract: Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi under house arrest after ousting
The Australian Online
Thursday, July 04, 2013

EGYPT'S President Mohammed Morsi is under house arrest after being toppled by the military, a Muslim Brotherhood official says. Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who had denounced the military's move as a "full coup", has reportedly been moved from his office at the headquarters of the Republican Guards to an undisclosed location. Several of his aides said they had lost all communication with Mr Morsi and do not know what his status is.

Egypt's military chief Lieutenant-General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced Mr Morsi's removal on state television earlier today after a week of bloodshed as millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to a turbulent year of rule. Security forces have arrested two senior leaders of the Muslim Brother hood who are close to Mr Morsi. The website of the official Al-Ahram newspaper is also reporting that the military has ordered the arrest of a further 300 Islamists. Saad al-Katatni, who heads the Freedom and Justice Party — the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — and Rashad Bayoumi, the deputy head of the Islamist movement were detained, the officials said.

US President Barack Obama has voiced "deep concern" over the Egyptian military's move against their elected leader and said he had ordered a review of US foreign aid to the nation.

After the televised announcement by army chief Lieutenant-General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi,millions of anti-Morsi protesters in cities around the country erupted in delirious scenes of joy, with shouts of "God is great" and "Long live Egypt." Fireworks burst over crowds dancing and waving flags in Cairo's Tahrir Square, epicenter of the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Now it was one of multiple centres of a stunning four-day anti-Morsi revolt that brought out the biggest anti-government rallies Egypt has seen, topping even those of 2011.

The military had issued an ultimatum on Monday giving Mr Morsi 48 hours to find some solution with its opponents. Any deal, however, was a near impossibility, making it inevitable the military would move. Earlier in the day, al-Sisi met with Mr ElBaradei, Egypt's top Muslim cleric — Al-Azhar Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb — and Coptic Pope Tawadros II, as well as youth representatives and some members of the ultraconservative Salafi movements. The consultations apparently aimed to bring as wide a consensus as possible behind the army's moves. But the Brotherhood boycotted the session, its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party said.

In a last-minute statement before the deadline, Mr Morsi again rejected the military's intervention, saying abiding by his electoral legitimacy was the only way to prevent violence. He criticised the military for "taking only one side." "One mistake that cannot be accepted, and I say this as president of all Egyptians, is to take sides," he said in the statement issued by his office. "Justice dictates that the voice of the masses from all squares should be heard," he said, repeating his offer to hold dialogue with his opponents. "For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let's call what is happening by its real name: Military coup," Mr Morsi's top foreign policy adviser Essam al-Haddad wrote on his Facebook page.

Extract: Egypt army rounds up Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood leadership team
The Australian Online
Friday, July 05, 2013

EGYPT'S army rounded up the leadership of ousted president Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as a top judge took office after an abrupt end to the Islamist's first year in power.

The Brotherhood called for a peaceful protest on Friday over the "military coup" as the army turned the screws on the Islamist movement. Mr Morsi's supporters clashed again with his opponents in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, home to the former president's extended family. At least 30 people were wounded in the violence, in which birdshot and stones were used, a police official said. At least 10 people were killed in clashes in Alexandria and in the southern province of Minya during the night, security officials said, after the week before Morsi's downfall saw at least 50 dead.

Police arrested the Brotherhood's supreme leader Mohammed Badie "for inciting the killing of protesters", a security official told AFP. Former supreme guide Mahdi Akef was also arrested, state television reported.

Anger gave way to gloom as thousands of the embattled Islamist movement's supporters rallied at a Cairo mosque, surrounded by the army. "It's a soft military coup. The military was smart, using the cover of civilians," said one, 26-year-old Ahmed al-Sayyed, in reference to the mass anti-Morsi protests.

Military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Mr Morsi's overthrow yesterday, citing his inability to end a deepening political crisis, as dozens of armoured personnel carriers streamed onto Cairo's streets. The crackdown came as chief justice Adly Mansour, 67, was sworn in as interim president at a ceremony broadcast live from the Supreme Constitutional Court. He will serve until elections at a yet-to-be determined date, said Sisi, as he laid out a roadmap for a political transition that includes a freeze on the Islamist-drafted constitution.

A judicial source said the prosecution would on Monday begin questioning Brotherhood members, including Mr Morsi, for "insulting the judiciary". Other leaders of the movement would be questioned on the same charges, including the head of its political arm Saad al-Katatni, Mohammed al-Beltagui, Gamal Gibril and Taher Abdel Mohsen. Mr Morsi and 35 other Brotherhood leaders have also been slapped with a travel ban.

Mr Morsi's rule was marked by a spiralling economic crisis, shortages of fuel and often deadly opposition protests.

Thousands of protesters dispersed after celebrating wildly through the night at the news of his downfall. Egypt's press almost unanimously hailed Morsi's ouster as a "legitimate" revolution. "And the people's revolution was victorious," read the front page of state-owned Al-Akhbar. Mr Morsi's opponents had accused him of failing the 2011 revolution by concentrating power in Brotherhood hands. His supporters say he inherited many problems from a corrupt regime, and that he should have been allowed to serve out his term until 2016.

US President Barack Obama said he was "deeply concerned" over Morsi's ouster and urged the army to refrain from "arbitrary arrests". In May, Washington approved $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. That was now under review, said Mr Obama, as he called for a swift return to democratic rule. Germany called the military's move "a major setback for democracy in Egypt", while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said civilian rule should resume as soon as possible.

Governments across the Middle East welcomed Mr Morsi's ouster in varying degrees, with war-hit Syria calling it a "great achievement". But pro-government media in Qatar, a key Brotherhood ally, carried words of warning for Egypt. "Egypt has never before been in such a foggy situation … Every political and ideological group now thinks it has the right to rule," said a commentary in Asharq newspaper.

Friends in need: Israel keen to maintain uneasy peace
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, July 06, 2013

AS a Muslim Brotherhood politician before he was elected as Egypt's president last year, Mohammed Morsi would refer to Israeli Jews as "sons of apes and pigs". He did not repeat this in office, but he refused to dignify Israel by pronouncing the country's name in public even when plainly referring to it, and he avoided all contact with its leaders.

Nevertheless, during his year in office Israelis came to appreciate the Egyptian leader's pragmatic side, which led him, albeit under US pressure, to adopt moderate positions that surprised Jerusalem, such as endorsement of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The pact had long been condemned by Muslim Brotherhood officials who demanded its abrogation or amendment. "This was the first time a large Egyptian party was forced to support a peace agreement with Israel and justify it to the people," Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz yesterday. Mr Morsi permitted Egyptian army and intelligence officers to maintain contacts with Israeli counterparts. When Israel undertook an eight-day operation in Gaza in November, Morsi brokered a ceasefire that has largely held. He has been a restraining influence on Hamas's military arm.

Mr Morsi's fall has nevertheless been hailed by Israeli opinion-makers — as much for its impact on regional politics as on Israeli-Egyptian relations. "Islam is the solution" has been an effective slogan used by Islamic groups throughout the Middle East to recruit support among the disaffected. But the rejection of the Brotherhood politician after only one year in office by an overwhelming majority of Egypt's population, most of them devout Muslims, is a ringing refutation of that slogan. "This is a severe blow to political Islam throughout the Middle East, including Turkey and Hamas," said Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University.

A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, said the overthrow of Mr Morsi had prevented an attempt by the Brotherhood to turn Egypt into an Islamic state like Iran. "The army and the political opposition knew that if the Brotherhood stayed in power for another year or two they would have without question taken control of the police, the army, and the intelligence services," he said. "It would have become very difficult to get rid of them. This might have been the last moment to do it."

Israel is pleased the Egyptian military will remain close to the seat of power in Cairo for the foreseeable future, as its commanders are keenly aware of the importance of US financial and political support. There is broad anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, which has fought four wars with the Jewish state, and it is doubtless shared by army officers. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was a charismatic figure who exploited this sentiment to become the leader of the Arab world. But Nasser ruled, from 1956 until 1970, during the Cold War when he had the Soviet Union as a patron supplying arms, military training and economic support.

Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Egypt aligned with the US; its military is now mostly equipped with US warplanes and tanks and relies on $US1.3 billion in annual American military assistance. Israel is reportedly lobbying on Egypt's behalf to prevent US military aid from being cut off, for fear that Egypt may then renounce its peace treaty with Israel. US law requires suspension of aid to any country whose elected leader is overthrown in a military coup.

Arrest ordered for Mohammed Morsi's men
The Australian Online
Thursday, July 11, 2013

EGYPT last night ordered the arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme leader Mohammed Badie over violence in Cairo that left dozens dead while charging another 200 people over the bloodshed. Judicial sources said Badie and other senior Brotherhood leaders are wanted for allegedly inciting the clashes outside the Republican Guard headquarters at dawn on Monday where supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were calling for him to be reinstated. Mr Morsi is currently being held in a "safe place, for his safety," foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty told reporters yesterday, adding: "He is not charged with anything up till now."

His overthrow by the military a week ago, after massive protests calling for his resignation, has pushed Egypt into a vortex of violence that has claimed at least 88 lives, according to Amnesty International. On Monday, in the worst incident, the Brotherhood claims police and troops "massacred" 42 of their supporters as they performed dawn prayers, with women and children among the dead. The army said it came under attack by "terrorists". The public prosecutor yesterday charged 200 people held over the bloodshed outside the military barracks, the judicial sources said.

The charges and arrest orders came as interim authorities were to start talks on forming a caretaker cabinet headed by new prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi. However they face tough hurdles as opponents and supporters of Mr Morsi alike have slammed a temporary charter aimed at steering the divided nation through a difficult transition.

Interim president Adly Mansour has set a timetable for elections by early next year, while appointing Beblawi as premier and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president responsible for foreign affairs. But cracks have emerged in the loose coalition that backed Mr Morsi's overthrow.

The National Salvation Front, the main coalition formerly led by ElBaradei, denounced Mr Mansour's decree and demanded amendments, while Tamarod, the movement that spearheaded the grassroots campaign against Mr Morsi, complained about not being consulted. After initially announcing its "rejection" of the decree, the NSF on yesterday toned down its reaction, saying instead it "disagreed" with some of its provisions.

The Muslim Brotherhood had already rejected Mr Mansour's temporary charter as a decree enforced by "putschists". Mr Beblawi, a former finance minister and economist, was yesterday to begin talks on forming his cabinet, the official MENA news agency said. He would offer the Muslim Brotherhood posts in the new government, the agency quoted a presidential aide as saying. But the Muslim Brotherhood spurned the overture. "We do not deal with putschists. We reject all that comes from this coup," spokesman Tareq al-Morsi said.

Amnesty International called for an "independent and impartial" investigation into the deadly unrest, after its findings suggested "the use of disproportionate force by the security forces". The latest violence in Egypt took place overnight in Sinai, where militants struck a police garrison with mortar rounds and heavy machine guns, security officials said, while two people were killed in a rocket propelled grenade attack on an army checkpoint according to medics.

In addition to the security challenges, Mansour must also deal with the frayed coalition that helped topple Morsi. An official with one of the parties in the NSF said that Mr Mansour's 33-article declaration foresees new "legislative, executive and judicial powers" for the interim president. "You would look like a hypocrite now. It makes it look as if you are not against dictatorship, just against a dictatorship that is not from your group," he said.

Many within the coalition are wary of repeating the mistakes of the last military led transition, between Hosni Mubarak's ouster in 2011 and Morsi's election in June 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for an "uprising" to restore Morsi. But the army warned it would brook no disruption to what it acknowledged would be a "difficult" transition.

The US, which provides $1.5 billion in mainly military aid to Egypt, said it was "cautiously encouraged" by the timetable proposed for a new presidential election. In a boost for the economy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait between them have announced that they would give Egypt a combined total of $12bn in assistance. The Kuwaiti package includes a grant of $1 billion, a deposit of $2 billion at Egypt's central bank, in addition to oil and oil products worth $1 billion, State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Sabah said. The UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged on Tuesday aid packages of $3bn and $5bn, respectively.

New PM may offer Islamists positions
The Australian
AFP, The Times
Friday, July 12, 2013

Start of Ramadan overshadowed by crisis
Egypt remains polarised as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan shows no signs bridging political divisions.

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi has not ruled out posts for the Muslim Brotherhood despite a police hunt to arrest Mohamed Badie, the leader of the Islamist movement defiantly backing ousted president Mohammed Morsi. Mr Beblawi, who was appointed on Tuesday, said yesterday he was still considering who would make up the interim government after Mr Morsi's ouster in a popular military coup last week. "I don't look at political association … If someone is named from (the Brotherhood's) Freedom and Justice Party, if he is qualified for the post" he may be considered, Mr Beblawi said in a telephone interview. "I'm taking two criteria for the next government: efficiency and credibility."

State media had quoted an aide to interim President Adly Mansour saying Mr Beblawi would offer Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood some posts in the new government. The offer has already been rejected by the Islamists, who demand Mr Morsi's reinstatement. "So far I haven't approached anyone," Mr Beblawi added, explaining he wanted to decide on the best candidates before asking them to join the government. The Brotherhood has spurned an earlier offer to join the new government, and called for a mass rally tonight against what it called "a bloody military coup".

After a year in power through Mr Morsi, the Brotherhood is now in tatters, with much of its leadership detained, on the run or keeping a low profile. Police were searching for Mr Badie yesterday after a warrant was issued for his arrest on Wednesday, in connection with deadly violence in Cairo. Mr Badie and other senior Brotherhood leaders are wanted on suspicion of inciting clashes at an army building on Monday that killed 53 people, mostly Morsi partisans, judicial sources said. Mr Morsi was still being held in a "safe place, for his safety" yesterday, foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatt said, adding: "He is not charged with anything up till now."

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government will seek to suspend the Camp David peace accord with Israel to launch a large counter-terrorist offensive against Islamic extremists in the lawless Sinai peninsula. Jihadist groups have exploited the political crisis in Cairo by attacking Egyptian and Israeli targets in Sinai over recent days. The Egyptian army is poised to send thousands of troops into the region to crush the threat from terrorists, including al-Qa'ida affiliates. The operation is expected to begin within days. Cairo, however, is constrained by the 1979 Camp David accord, which imposes strict curbs on Egypt's military presence in Sinai, particularly the zone closest to the Israeli border. Any deployment must be approved by Tel Aviv. Israeli officials said they would agree to the request. US officials also indicated Washington would have no objection.

The Muslim Brotherhood is thought to finance many groups operating in Sinai and is suspected of unleashing them in revenge for the takeover and subsequent crackdown. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qa'ida, has issued an appeal for jihadists to strike against Egypt's new interim government. A new Islamist terror group, Ansar al-Shariah in Egypt, announced it had begun training fighters to attack secular Egyptians and military targets, as well as Israel.

US envoy in Cairo to push for accord
The Australian
Additional reporting: The Times
Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A SENIOR US official flew into Cairo yesterday hours after Egypt's prosecutor ordered the freezing of assets belonging to 14 top Islamists. Under-Secretary of State Bill Burns, the first US official to visit since the overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi, was scheduled to stay there until today, the US State Department said. Mr Burns would push for "an end to all violence and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government" at meetings in Cairo with various parties, it said.

Prospects for a reconciliation between Egypt's military-backed interim government and the Brotherhood dimmed yesterday after state security forces began formally questioning Mr Morsi on suspicion of treason. Investigators visited the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, where Mr Morsi is being held, to question him over allegations he collaborated with the foreign Islamist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, to escape from prison during the 2011 uprising that brought down the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

The interrogation took place hours after Egypt's public prosecutor announced he was opening investigations into a raft of potential criminal complaints against Mr Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including allegations of spying, incitement to violence and economic sabotage during their year in power.

The allegations of treason, which carries the death penalty, have been building for months but prosecutors opened a formal investigation only on Thursday — a week after Egypt's military removed Mr Morsi. The allegation of incitement to violence relates to the events of July 8 when soldiers fired on Morsi supporters demonstrating outside the barracks where he is being held, killing at least 53 people. The army accused the Muslim Brotherhood of opening fire on the barracks and provoking the killings to stoke instability.

Egypt's state prosecutor ordered the freezing of assets of 14 senior Islamists accused of inciting the violence, including the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, eight other leaders from the organisation and five people from other groups.

International concern is mounting over the detention of Mr Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, who was toppled in a popularly backed military coup on July 3. The US administration had still not decided whether he was the victim of a coup, which would legally require a freeze on $US1.5 billion ($1.65bn) in vital military and economic US assistance to Cairo. The same day, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called for a swift return to civilian, democratic rule and the release of political detainees.

The Brotherhood has refused to join the new government headed by caretaker Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, who is pushing ahead with talks on forming his cabinet. The ultra-conservative Islamist party al-Nur also confirmed it would not join the interim government. Spokesman Nader Bakkar said: "We would participate only in an elected government."

Among the appointments confirmed yesterday was prominent liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei, 71, as interim vice-president for foreign relations. Mr Beblawi is expected to unveil his full cabinet today or tomorrow. His priorities include restoring security and preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections.

In his first public comments since deposing the Islamist leader, military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the army acted after Mr Morsi rejected a referendum on his presidency. The interim leaders said Mr Morsi was being held in a "safe place, for his own safety", but the US and Germany have already called for his release. Washington has also condemned the arrests of Brotherhood members. The prosecutor said yesterday that 206 out of a total of 652 people arrested over fatal clashes in the past week had been released on bail.

In the lawless Sinai peninsula yesterday, militants killed at least three people and wounded 17 when they fired on a bus carrying workers in the North Sinai town of Al-Arish.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, arrives to meet Jordan's king in Amman on Wednesday. Associated Press
League endorses Kerry's peace bid
The Australian
By Jay Solomon in Amman, Jordan and Charles Levinson in Tel Aviv
The Wall Street Journal
Friday, July 19, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry won Arab League backing for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, boosting chances of the first direct negotiations in nearly three years. Neither side has agreed to direct talks, although the Arab League endorsement yesterday (on Wednesday) could build momentum for restarting the peace process.

Mr Kerry is making his sixth trip to the Middle East since becoming Washington's top diplomat in February. He continued this week his aggressive efforts to restart the Arab-Israel peace process by meeting in Amman with representatives of the 22-member Arab League. Mr Kerry notched an important win in his campaign by securing the League's endorsement of new talks. The Obama administration views the move as providing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas important political cover to resume direct negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since 2010. US officials stressed, though, that the resumption of the Middle East peace process isn't guaranteed.

Mr Kerry and his diplomatic team have been working with Israeli and Palestinian to put together a framework for negotiations. Among the important issues, said US and Arab officials, were an initiative to fuel economic growth in the Palestinian territories and steps to guarantee Israel's security. "The Arab delegates believe Kerry's ideas proposed to the committee today constitute a good ground and suitable environment for restarting the negotiations, especially the new and important political, economic and security elements," the statement by the Arab League said.

US officials said they are closely watching Mr Abbas's meetings later this week with the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella body for Palestinian factions, and his Fatah Party's central committee, to gauge the next steps in the peace process. Mr Abbas needs the endorsement of both bodies to resume negotiations.

A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu declined to comment on the Arab League endorsement of peace talks. A possible glitch in the peace track, said US officials, was the European Union's decision on Monday to ban state funding of Israeli institutions operating on land seized following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Mr Netanyahu bitterly criticized the decision, raising fears his government could pull back from the international diplomacy. Mr Kerry had initially planned on visiting Israel as part of his current Mideast trip, US officials said.

Mr Kerry and Arab leaders also appeared to back Egypt's new transitional government in Amman on Wednesday by declining to call the Egyptian military's overthrow this month of President Mohammed Morsi a coup and voicing confidence in Cairo's new leadership. The US is conducting a review of Mr Morsi's last days in office to determine whether his overthrow was achieved solely by military force, which could require the suspension of US military and financial aid to Cairo.

During his visit, Mr Kerry planned to visit a camp for Syrian refugees inside Jordan on Thursday in a bid to show American support for the opposition forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, US officials said.

President Barack Obama signed a secret directive in recent weeks authorizing the CIA to provide small arms and other weaponry to the Syrian rebels. Some of these supplies are expected to be provided through Jordanian territory. Syrian opposition leaders and Jordanian officials, however, have said in recent days that they have yet to see any of these arms arrive. Mr Kerry declined to put a time frame on when any lethal assistance might arrive. "I believe that (the rebels) are getting very significant assistance, but unfortunately, sometimes it takes longer than you would like because you need to get approvals, things have to go through Congress, things have to be approved," Mr Kerry said. "It just takes longer than you'd like."

Renewed Palestine talks 'vital' for Israeli security
The Australian
AFP, The Sunday Times
Monday, July 22, 2013

JERUSALEM: Renewing negotiations with the Palestinians is "vital" for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, after both sides agreed to lay the groundwork to resume talks frozen for three years. "The resumption of the peace process is a vital strategic interest of the state of Israel," he said. "It is important on its own to try to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and is important because of the challenges facing us, especially from Iran and Syria."

Mr Netanyahu's remarks were his first reaction to the weekend statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had agreed to meet to pave the way for a resumption of direct peace talks. The last round of direct talks broke down in 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. To avoid a repeat of the last, failed attempt at peace talks, which collapsed after 16 hours, the Americans have received assurances from both sides they will talk for at least six months.

Mr Netanyahu outlined two central goals he perceived for the talks: "Preventing a bi-national state … that would endanger the future of the Jewish state, and preventing the establishment of another Iranian-sponsored terrorist state within our borders." He did not provide further details on what the sides had agreed upon ahead of the initial talks. "I will insist on Israel's security demands and its vital interests," Mr Netanyahu's statement said. Israeli Justice Minister and chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni noted that while there were no preconditions to talks, "everything will be on the table". This would include the 1967 borders and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel would release a "limited" number of Palestinian prisoners as a "gesture". He said the staged release would be of a "limited number" of prisoners, some of whom he defined as "heavyweights", who have been in jail for periods of up to 30 years. According to Israeli rights group B'Tselem, at least 4713 Palestinians are imprisoned in the Jewish state. Their release is one of the Palestinians' key demands for resuming peace talks, particularly the 107 prisoners arrested prior to 1993, when the Oslo peace accords were signed.

Mr Kerry gave away little detail of the agreement, which came after four days of consultations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He said only both sides had reached "an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations". A State Department official said Mr Kerry had wrenched a commitment from both sides "on the core elements that will allow direct talks to begin".

The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on final-status issues, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and east Jerusalem. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly called for a freeze to Israeli settlement building on occupied land and a prisoner release. "The ball is now in Israel's court," a Palestinian official said. Secret talks in the Jordanian capital, Amman, earlier this year between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mr Abbas paved the way for last week's breakthrough agreement to restart the dormant Middle East peace process, it emerged yesterday.

Mr Peres, the architect of the 1992 Oslo peace accords, convinced Mr Abbas to accept that West Bank settlers and Jewish residents of east Jerusalem could remain in their settlements but be subject to the Palestinian state. Sources on both sides said Mr Peres put pressure on Mr Abbas to accept this condition as the minimum that he needed to convince Mr Netanyahu to give his blessing to the talks. The determination of Mr Kerry, after six rounds of preparatory talks, was admired by both sides. "Kerry is not a Kissinger but his tenacity is second to none," said one Israeli participant.

A Mohammed Morsi supporter erects a giant portrait of the deposed leader in Cairo AFP
Extract: Egypt on edge as rivals face off
Weekend Australian
DPA, The Times, AFP
Saturday, July 27, 2013

CAIRO: Clashes broke out last night as Egypt braced for mass rival rallies after the army gave supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi until today to join the "national ranks" or face a crackdown, while a court ordered his detention for collaborating with Hamas. Supporters and opponents of Morsi were throwing rocks at each other in the Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra. Witnesses said the clashes erupted after Morsi's opponents, who rallied at the behest of the military, burned posters of the ousted Islamist leader.

"The general commander of the armed forces has given a 48-hour deadline for a backdown and to join the national ranks," the army said, without explicitly naming Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement titled "last chance". It said that after the mass rallies called by army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who led Morsi's overthrow on July 3, the military would adopt a new strategy against "violence and terrorism".

The MENA agency reported last night that Morsi would have to face questioning on whether he collaborated with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in attacks on police stations and prison breaks in 2011, during the revolt against strongman Hosni Mubarak, when Islamist and other political inmates escaped. Morsi was to be jailed for 15 days. The Brotherhood responded that the detention signalled the return of the Mubarak regime.

Earlier, in his effort to mobilise more people on to the streets, General Sisi demanded television stations cancel the broadcast of popular Ramadan soap operas. Networks appeared to have accepted the order not to air the mosalsalat, which families watch after their Ramadan fast, and which advertisers say have the same pull as the US Super Bowl.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies said the general's call was "an announcement of civil war" and that they would hold simultaneous demonstrations.

Washington said it was "very concerned" by the call to mass mobilisation, warning that fresh violence "would make it very difficult to get ahead of the cycles of unrest and instability". President Barack Obama has halted the delivery of four F16 fighter jets to Egypt amid concern about security and the increasingly heavy-handed conduct of the military. UN leader Ban Ki-moon has called for Morsi and Brotherhood leaders to "be released or have their cases reviewed transparently without delay".

Brotherhood chief Mohammed Badie has compared the army's overthrow of Morsi to an attack on Islam's holiest site, calling on supporters of the Islamist group to stage mass rallies overnight against what he called "the bloody military coup". "I swear by God that what Sisi did in Egypt exceeds the enormity of his clutching an axe and destroying the holy Kaaba one stone after the other," Mr Badie said, referring to the holy site in Mecca, where Muslim pilgrims go on Hajj. Mr Badie is said to be hiding in a Cairo mosque where Morsi loyalists have protested for four weeks.

Anti-Islamist alliance the National Salvation Front has called on people to heed General Sisi's call: "The Brotherhood supporters have gone too far in triggering national divisions and crossed the line by calling for defections and splits in the army."


Later same day
Extract: death toll rises to 75 as Cairo protests turn violent

THE death toll from clashes between supporters of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi and security forces has jumped to 75 as violence flared at dawn after competing rallies in Cairo. The Brotherhood's Murad Mohammed Ali said police had fired live rounds at the Islamist demonstrators but the state MENA news agency cited a security official it did not identify as denying any live fire by police. Dr Yehia Mikkia, who's working in a field hospital near the pro-Morsi rally, said hundreds more had been injured. The death toll has not yet been confirmed by emergency services or the health ministry.

Clashes broke out at dawn on the road to the airport, with police firing tear gas at stone-throwing protesters, the state MENA news agency said. The clashes erupted following a day when millions took to the streets answering a call from the army chief, who said he wanted a mandate to stop "potential terrorism" by Morsi supporters. The largest crowds in two and a half years of upheaval filled Egypt's streets yesterday, while Morsi was formally placed under investigation on a host of allegations including murder and conspiracy with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

While tens of thousands of Morsi supporters gathered in a north Cairo square, hundreds of thousands of anti-Morsi protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and around the Itihadiya presidential palace in response to a call from army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for Egyptians to show their support for a security clampdown on "terrorism". A spokesman for army-installed interim president Adly Mansour said the numbers in Tahrir "affirmed the rejection of terrorism", MENA said.

Tens of thousands of army supporters also rallied outside the presidential palace, waving Egyptian flags and holding posters of Sisi who was Morsi's defence minister before ousting him.

Morsi's supporters also showed no signs of backing down, though they turned out in vastly smaller numbers. A leader of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Essam al-Erian, said in a statement they would respond to his detention with "peaceful marches".

In the city of Alexandria, seven people were killed and over 100 were injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi, officials said.

Peace talks to restart as Israel frees 100 Palestinian prisoners
The Australian Online
Monday, July 29, 2013

HIGH level envoys from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are set to meet in Washington to restart stalled Middle East peace talks, according to the State Department. The announcement in Washington came shortly after Israel announced plans to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, and represents the first direct dialogue since the peace process fell apart in September 2010.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and asked them to send teams "to formally resume direct final status negotiations". "Initial meetings are planned for the evening of Monday July 29 and Tuesday July 30, 2013," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. Israel will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians will be represented by chief negotiator Saeb Erakat and by senior official Mohammad Shtayyeh, she said.

The struggle to reach a final peace deal between the Arab world and Israel has moved only fitfully for decades, and talks collapsed completely in 2010 when Israel refused to freeze settlement building on Palestinian land. "As Secretary Kerry announced on July 19 in Amman, Jordan, the Israelis and Palestinians had reached agreement on the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations," the US statement said. "The meetings in Washington will mark the beginning of these talks. They will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months."

The initial talks are to begin on Monday evening in Washington. Mr Kerry will play host, accompanied by the White House's Middle East pointman Philip Gordon and by State Department adviser Frank Lowenstein. Mr Kerry has visited the Middle East region six times in the six months since he took office, as Washington renewed its drive to push Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

This week's talks were expected, but domestic tensions in both camps have kept the talks about talks going to the last possible minute.

Mr Netanyahu's cabinet met again on Sunday as he battled to convince some of the partners in his coalition government to accept the prisoner release and to approve the resumption of talks. Israeli public radio reported that the 22-member cabinet had only approved the release by a vote of 13 in favour, seven against and two abstentions. "The government approved the opening of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians … and mandated a ministerial committee for the release of prisoners during the course of the talks," Mr Netanyahu's office said.

The chief Palestinian negotiator welcomed the Israeli vote on prisoners. "We welcome the Israeli government's decision to release the prisoners," Mr Erakat told AFP. "We consider this an important step and hope to be able to seize the opportunity provided by the American administration's efforts."

The start of Sunday's Israeli cabinet meeting was delayed for over an hour, amid reports in Israeli media that Mr Netanyahu was battling to win over opponents within his own right-wing Likud party. While the names of the prisoners have yet to be published or even revealed to ministers, they reportedly include militants convicted of killing Israeli women and children or of killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. "This moment is not easy for me, not easy for the ministers, and especially not easy for the bereaved families," Mr Netanyahu's office quoted him as telling ministers at the start of the meeting.

The planned releases have stirred protests from Israeli victims' families, settlers and Mr Netanyahu's hardline coalition partners. "Releasing terrorists for peace is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. It is dangerous, immoral and irresponsible," settler leader Dani Dayan said in a statement. Likud Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon urged ministers to vote against the release, branding it "a diplomatic mistake, a moral mistake."

Ahead of the talks, the Israeli cabinet has also approved a bill that would require a referendum for a peace treaty in some circumstances. If adopted, the bill would oblige the Israeli government to poll its citizens in cases where territory over which Israel claims sovereignty is ceded in a peace agreement or by a cabinet decision.

So such a vote would not apply to an Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank, but would apply to changes in east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed, in a move never recognised by the international community. The Palestinians claim mainly-Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of their own promised state. Israel rules out ceding sovereignty over any part of what it calls its "eternal and indivisible capital."

Secretary of State John Kerry has named former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
that began on Monday in Washington.
Source: AP
Sydney-raised diplomat Martin Indyk to broker Middle East peace talks
The Australian Online
Devika Bhat, The Times
Additional reporting: Catherine Philp
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A VETERAN diplomat who has twice served as US Ambassador to Israel has been handed the task of overseeing the first Middle East peace talks since 2010. Martin Indyk was appointed as President Obama's Middle East envoy hours before preliminary discussions got under way after a Ramadan dinner in Washington hosted by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State.

On the Israeli side are Tzipi Livni, the Justice Minister, and Yitzhak Molcho, Benjamin Netanyahu's personal envoy. The Palestinians will be represented by their chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and one of President Abbas's aides, Mohammed Shtayyeh.

This week's meetings follow months of shuttle diplomacy by Mr Kerry. Although intended merely to lay the foundations for peace talks this year, they mark a cautious victory for a man seen by some as optimistic to the point of naivety about the viability of an agreement. Yesterday's carefully choreographed appointment of Mr Indyk further signalled the Obama Administration's renewed drive to attempt to achieve a deal.

Mr Indyk, born to a Jewish family in London and educated in Australia, served two stints as the Ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, and was a key part of the failed 2000 Camp David talks. A director at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, he was founding executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy before working in government.

Announcing the appointment, Mr Kerry said Mr Indyk "knows what has worked and he knows what hasn't worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right". He added: "Ambassador Indyk is realistic. He understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily and it will not happen overnight. But he also understands that there is now a path forward and we must follow that path with urgency."

Whether Mr Kerry's perseverance will pay off remains to be seen. Even before the talks began, there were signs of public disagreement, with Israeli and Palestinian officials proposing clashing formats for the discussions. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said that talks "will begin, in principle, on the issues of borders and security" — a reference to Mr Abbas's repeated demands that any future Palestinian state should encompass the West Bank, adjacent East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip; territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

Israel has made no such concession in public and, over the weekend, Silvan Shalom, a member of Mr Netanyahu's Cabinet, insisted that all matters were on the table. Israel deems all of Jerusalem its capital — a status rejected internationally — and wants to keep West Bank settlement blocs under any peace accord, while the question of where to locate Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants remains one of the thorniest questions of the conflict.

Behind the scenes, however, it is understood that Israel is prepared for the US-led discussions to refer to the 1967 lines, without the Jewish state explicitly endorsing the position. Prior to her departure to Washington, Ms Livni said she was entering discussions "cautiously", while the Palestinians noted conditions for a deal were more precarious now than during previous negotiations.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, cited the Palestinian political split, with moderate Mr Abbas and the militant group Hamas running rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the hawkish position of Mr Netanyahu, who remains under domestic pressure not to yield to Palestinian demands.

The talks follow Israeli approval for the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners who were jailed before an interim peace deal in 1993. Their release was a key demand for talks to resume. President Obama welcomed the move to restart talks but cautioned that achieving a peace deal would not be easy. "This is a promising step forward," he said in a statement, "though hard work and hard choices remain ahead."

From left: Adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Molcho; Israel
Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni; Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat
and aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Mohammed Shtayyeh at a state dinner
with John Kerry in Washington. AP
Israel, Palestine back at the table
The Australian
Jay Solomon, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

THE first direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in nearly three years began yesterday in Washington, initiating a diplomatic process the two sides have committed to follow for at least nine months. The round, set to conclude overnight, was expected to look at the timing and location for future negotiations, US and Arab officials said, rather than the contentious issues that have frustrated American diplomats for decades.

These include the borders of a future Palestinian state, security, and the status of refugees who were displaced by the creation of Israel and the 1967 war.

The relaunch of talks highlighted the effort the second Obama administration, and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular, has placed on forging an independent Palestinian state. US officials have argued to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that a peace treaty could help stabilise a region shaken by conflicts in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

"During my March visit to the region, I experienced first-hand the profound desire for peace among both Israelis and Palestinians, which reinforced my belief that peace is both possible and necessary," President Barack Obama said yesterday ahead of the talks. "The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead."

As expected, the administration yesterday named Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel raised and educated in Sydney, as a special envoy to facilitate the day-to-day dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians. Most of this diplomacy was expected to shift back to the Middle East after today, said US and Arab officials involved in the talks.

Mid-East diplomats and analysts remained cautious about any major breakthrough in the coming months, citing the fractious domestic political environments faced by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas within their own governments and societies. "I don't see the two sides having any political incentives right now" to take chances, said Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, an advocacy group that supports a two-state solution. "But they don't want to say 'no' to talks when Kerry is seen as doing the right thing."

The resumption of the peace process resulted from Mr Kerry's six trips to the Mid-East since taking up his post in February. During that time, he held separate marathon sessions with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas, and had stressed that time could be running out.

Mr Netanyahu, to support the process, agreed on Sunday to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom were jailed before the formal Arab-Israeli peace process began in the early 1990s. The Palestinians, in turn, have pledged not to take any steps in the coming months to seek statehood through the UN General Assembly or other international bodies, say officials.

Mr Netanyahu did not concede to Mr Abbas's two main demands to restart the peace process, say US officials. These included a complete freeze of Jewish construction in disputed territories and the recognition that Israel's borders before the 1967 war, with land-swapping where necessary, would form the baseline for the negotiations. US officials said the Israelis are expected to restrain any significant building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem while the talks are under way.

Mr Kerry met the Palestinian and Israeli delegations before a dinner at the State Department commemorating Iftar, the breaking of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is leading the Israeli side, facing the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "These first talks are largely symbolic," said an Arab official.

Mr Kerry deputised Mr Indyk to take charge of the day-to-day supervision of the peace process. Mr Indyk isn't expected to sit in on all the negotiations. Mr Indyk was a top official working on the Mid-East during the Clinton administration, including stints at the White House and State Department. He has spent much of the past decade writing about and analysing the Mid-East's conflict as a vice-president at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Envoys set goal of deal in months
The Australian
Thursday, August 1, 2013

WASHINGTON: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have set an ambitious goal to reach an elusive peace deal within nine months, despite warnings of obstacles and provocations. Standing side-by-side with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has dragged them back to the negotiating table, officials from both sides say it's time to end their decades-old conflict.

"I can assure you that in these negotiations, it's not our intention to argue about the past, but to create solutions and make decisions for the future," Israel's chief negotiator Tzipi Livni told her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat on Tuesday. I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. And let us be these people," she insisted.

Mr Erakat agreed: "No one benefits more from the success of this endeavour than Palestinians. It's time for the Palestinian people to have an independent sovereign state of their own."

Both sides have agreed to meet again "within the next two weeks", in Israel or the Palestinian territories, to begin direct, bilateral negotiations, Mr Kerry said. "Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months," he added after two days of talks in Washington. "We cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time."

Mr Kerry said he was aware of the deep doubts surrounding the new peace effort and acknowledged the road would be difficult. "While I understand the scepticism, I don't share it. And I don't think we have time for it." All issues, including contentious disputes over the status of the territories and Jerusalem, are "on the table for negotiation, and they are on the table for one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict," Mr Kerry said.

US officials praised the leadership and courage shown by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said no one was under any illusion the path ahead was going to be easy. "There will be provocations. Everybody knows that there will be people on both sides who will do things that will make things more difficult," a senior White House official said.

The Obama administration's last foray into the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict ended in failure, when talks launched in September 2010 collapsed just weeks later over continued Israeli settlement building. The so-called "final status issues" include such emotive problems as the right of return for Palestinian refugees, ejected from their lands with the 1948 creation of Israel; the exact borders of a Palestinian state, complicated by the Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank; and the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem claimed by both sides as a future capital. Officials confirmed they have not this time sought assurances from the Israelis on freezing settlement construction, once one of the main Palestinian demands for returning to the talks.


Same day
Extract: War room doors swing open as Islamists plot their fight for Egypt
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent

JUST after 9pm on Tuesday (5am yesterday AEST), the tacticians of the Muslim Brotherhood went into a small room off the Rabaa al-Adawia mosque in Nasr City, an outer suburb of Cairo, to decide the night's battle plan. They had declared there would be "a million person march", so expectations were high.

In this undeclared war with Egypt's army, tactics are kept a secret until the last moment. At 9.15pm, Mohamed Soltan, one of the communications team of "The Anti-Coup Movement" based at the mosque, walked back into the room. "Ten o'clock at military intelligence," he said. "We've already got a demonstration going to the presidential palace, but another one will be going to the military intelligence building."

From this mosque the Muslim Brotherhood is running its campaign to reinstate Mohammed Morsi, who was sacked from the presidency by the army on July 3.

Tonight we're in the communications room which is bustling with media, Muslim Brotherhood officials and teams of young men and women who look like they're running an election campaign. Requests by foreign journalists are given top priority — reflecting an instruction from Brotherhood officials to get their "anti-coup message" out to the world.

"Policemen are vandals!" they chant. "At any price we support Morsi!". "Egypt is an Islamic state, not a secret state!" In reference to the man who deposed Morsi, army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, they shout: "Sisi is a murderer!" One preacher tells the crowd: "The ruler of the country is Allah — don't obey anyone else."

He then leads a chant: "Islam will come back and the Koran will rule the nation."

However, as is becoming common, ordinary Egyptians who are spending hours in traffic due to the demonstrations are losing patience. "This was not a military coup, they're savages," Mayada Kamel, a presenter on Egyptian TV, told The Australian as she finally made it back to her home.

Pointing to the demonstrators, Ms Kamel said: "They're trying to make us fear them. They want to see how people will react according to the number of people they have at demonstrations. "Try to tell everybody (in Australia) that we are not in love with General Sisi but we feel more secure with our army, they have been securing us for a hundred years."

Before she heads into her home, she adds: "I am a Muslim and very proud to be a Muslim, but if this is Islam I am ashamed. "Torturing people, trying to make people always be frightened of you, this is not Islam. "There are some good people among them but many are savages." As she disappears inside she says: "Their support is expiring."


Later same day
Extract: Morsi loyalist crackdown ahead of peace envoy visit to Cairo

EGYPT'S cabinet has ordered a police crackdown on protests by ousted president Mohammed Morsi's loyalists, as European envoys headed for Cairo to try to ease tensions between the army-installed government and Islamists. The order to the interior minister raised the prospect of a dangerous showdown just days after 82 people were killed at a pro-Morsi protest in Cairo.

It came as diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful way out of Egypt's crisis gathered pace, with the EU and Germany sending envoys to urge a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

Adding to the tensions, judicial sources said prosecutors had referred the Muslim Brotherhood's fugitive supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, to trial for allegedly inciting the killing of protesters.

The developments came as the international community stepped up efforts to push for a peaceful resolution to Egypt's stand-off. EU spokesman Michael Mann said on Wednesday the bloc's Middle East envoy, Bernardino Leon, would be in Cairo later to "continue the contacts and mediation efforts." And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived to "promote the quick return to democratically endorsed conditions, and the resumption of an inclusive transformation process," a spokesman said before he landed.


Also later same day
Extract: UN inspectors to investigate three Syrian chemical weapons sites

UN inspectors will go to Syria soon to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks have been reported, the United Nations has said. President Bashar al-Assad's government had blocked the inspectors since calling for a UN inquiry into the use of the banned arms in March.

"The mission will travel to Syria as soon as possible to contemporaneously investigate three of the reported incidents," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. The announcement followed an accord reached with the Syrian government when two UN envoys went to Damascus last week. The inspectors, who are led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, are being assembled in Europe and could go to Syria as soon as next week, diplomats said.

Extract: Muslim Brotherhood protesters willing to 'give up their lives'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Friday, August 2, 2013

ONE of Egypt's "most wanted men" has said protesters at the Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo sit-in are prepared to die as part of the battle against the country's armed forces. Asked if he was prepared to die, he said: "We are looking for life but if death is imposed on us, that is reality. If the price is to give our lives to present a new life in dignity for the next generation, we are prepared to pay that price."

Dr Beltagy spoke inside the Rabaa al-Adawia mosque at Nasr City in Cairo. He is one of four Muslim Brotherhood leaders wanted by the army who would almost certainly be arrested if they left the compound. They are accused of inciting violence.

Dr Beltagy — an ear, nose and throat doctor — has caused a controversy after he was captured on camera making comments to an army officer. At a protest soon after Mr Morsi was deposed and before Dr Beltagy was accused of inciting violence, he said an increase in jihadist activity in the Sinai would stop if Mr Morsi were reinstated.

He told the officer: "We are not the controller on the ground but what is happening in Sinai is a response against the coup. And it will be stopped at the same second that Sisi announces the end of the coup and when the president finds his place."

The army claims Mr Morsi allowed jihadists to form a new base in the Sinai. Dr Beltagy's comments were significant because they contradicted repeated claims by Brotherhood leaders that they did not have any influence over jihadi activities in the Sinai.

Dr Beltagy said that as the death toll increased, protesters were becoming more determined. The situation for the Brotherhood was "stable" and "every hour that passes makes people understand that it was a huge conspiracy against the people. Every day people are realising that they face a black future if this putsch continues to rule the country," Dr Beltagy said.


Same Day Commentary: Risks aplenty in minefield of Mid-East peace talks
Colin Rubenstein

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

ON Sunday, Israel's cabinet made the agonising decision to authorise the staggered release of 104 Palestinian prisoners — including notorious mass murderers convicted for acts of wanton terror — in order to satisfy a Palestinian precondition for peace talks that began this week in Washington. The risky move underscores some of the perils accompanying US Secretary of State John Kerry's herculean efforts to reconvene negotiations which have substantively floundered since the Palestinians walked away from a generous, comprehensive peace offer from then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in late 2008.

It should be remembered that while it is generally true that talking is better than not talking, failed negotiations can often create genuine negative consequences. This is why US mediators must now proceed with even greater care and caution — and learn significant lessons from past mistakes. Israeli peace negotiator Tal Becker likes to say that while at least 75 per cent of Israelis consistently support making a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, an even higher percentage have come to believe it will never happen.

This growing lack of faith in the seriousness of the other side and confidence in the peace process — a sentiment that has been echoed in Palestinian surveys — can be traced back to repeated peace process stalls and failures. Meanwhile, never far from Israeli minds is the terror of the second intifada, which claimed the lives of more than 1000 of its citizens between September 2000 and January 2005. Palestinian officials have since admitted this intifada was orchestrated by then-Palestinian president Yasser Arafat after he rejected a US brokered deal at Camp David in July 2000.

Israelis also learned painful lessons after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 strengthened and entrenched Hamas, and led to a new, unprecedented and ongoing rocket threat on Israel's southern communities. Moreover, Israel is facing an unpredictable, unstable and challenging and regional security landscape, with Syria in the midst of a bloody civil war and Egypt now under military rule.

On the other side, the Palestinian public has become conditioned to believe — in no small part by their leadership's unrelentingly hostile anti-Israel rhetoric — that negotiations are a folly that can only lead to an erosion and abdication of Palestinian "rights", rights which in their view are justly owed to them and should therefore be non-negotiable. Furthermore, state-run Palestinian newspapers and television continue to portray Israel as a bitter enemy, not a potential peace partner, and routinely reassert the Palestinian claim to cities and towns inside pre-1967 Israel. It's no surprise then that, with the exception of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, all factions within the PLO have come out against the resumption of the peace talks under Kerry's terms.

Finally, it is doubtful that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority — years overdue for new elections and unable to represent Gazans since Hamas forcibly took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 — has any clear mandate to make concessions on behalf of West Bank Palestinians, let alone the Palestinian diaspora. All this means that there is little confidence that the gulf between the parties on key final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements can be bridged.

Does this mean Kerry's efforts are pointless ' Certainly not for lack of resolve on Israel's part. Despite his hardline reputation abroad, Israeli politics watchers have noted what appears to be a new urgency for a two-state resolution in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rhetoric. He has been publicly saying a Palestinian state is a crucial strategic interest for Israel to obviate the possibility of it becoming a bi-national state in the future, an argument he has not previously made publicly.

It is for this reason Netanyahu has given Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a major figure in prior peace negotiations and a long-time political rival, wide scope to hammer out an agreement working alongside seasoned Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat together with the very astute and experienced US-appointed mediator Martin Indyk. A weakening position for peace naysayer Hamas in Gaza, which has accelerated since the deposing of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in neighbouring Egypt, has also increased prospects for progress as it gives Fatah more room to explore two-state options.

However, peace cannot be achieved by turning a blind eye to inconvenient realities or downplaying acute risks that exist every step of the way. If it becomes clear that a final deal is not achievable, as is unfortunately likely, the opportunity to move forward in other ways must not be lost. An interim arrangement must be pursued which brings the two sides closer to the end goal of real peace, preferably including the "interim Palestinian state with temporary borders" proposed in the 2004 Roadmap for Peace.

Diplomatic creativity as well as sustained pressure will likely be required to overcome particularly Palestinian objections to this idea. These US-brokered peace efforts deserve widespread support, including by Australia, but they also require watchful vigilance. Realistic goals and a determined effort not to allow lofty dreams to unravel smaller but very valuable current achievements are essential — not least because the consequences of another peace process failure could be severe.

Egypt authorities to start breaking up Morsi protest camps 'within hours'
The Australian Online
Saturday, August 3, 2013 12:44PM

EGYPTIAN authorities have outlined plans to break up two sit-ins by supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi, saying they would set up a cordon around the protest sites, as riot police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators threatening a TV complex. Morsi backers also showed their defiance by briefly setting up a third camp near the airport, but later folded their tents and left.

State-controlled TV reported that security forces will establish a cordon within 48 hours around the two main protest sites in Cairo where thousands have been camped out since before Morsi was ousted by the military on July 3. The government offered protection and 'safe passage ' to those willing to leave the two main camps — a large one outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo and a smaller one near Cairo University's main campus in Giza. The leadership had earlier given orders to police to end what it described as a threat to national security" and sources of 'citizens' terrorism '.

Authorities will let people leave without checking their identities or arresting them, but they will not allow anyone into the protest camps, the report said. It did not elaborate on the next steps, but the government earlier said it will use water cannons and tear gas in dispersing the crowds.

Facing domestic and international pressure to avoid bloodshed, authorities have taken the unusual step of going into details of its security plans. Police have given authorities information about weapons in the protest camps and the 'dangers emanating" from there, and that the next phase of the plan, which includes surrounding the sites, would begin within hours, he was quoted as saying.

'The forces have established their presence in various areas with the aim of protecting security and stability," Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said. Ibrahim told the newspaper that he was awaiting approval from the National Defence Council on measures relating to the final phase of the operation, which would be the use of force while trying not to injure anyone. He said a prosecution team will accompany the security forces to monitor how they deal with the protesters.

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in Cairo, and an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said he would meet with interim leadership officials and representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies Saturday. Amr Darag, one of the Brotherhood negotiators who will meet with Burns, told the AP that the group and its allies are looking for 'confidence-building measures" in order for them to sit at the table with their rivals. Such measures include releasing detained Brotherhood leaders, unfreezing the group's assets, lifting the ban on its TV stations and ending violence against its protests.

In London, Kerry sought to clarify controversial remarks he made Thursday about the crisis when he told Geo TV in Pakistan that the Egyptian military was restoring democracy. The comment was seen by some as a signal the US was siding with the military, even though the State Department has repeatedly said the US is not taking sides.

Kerry said Friday that all parties — the military as well as the Morsi supporters — should be inclusive and work toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis. 'The last thing that we want is more violence," he said. 'The temporary government has a esponsibility with respect to demonstrators to give them the space to be able to demonstrate in peace. But at the same time, the demonstrators have a responsibility not to stop everything from proceeding in Egypt."

Extract: US intercepts point to al-Qa'ida plot
The Australian Online
Monday, August 5, 2013 7:40AM

THE unusual US decision to close its diplomatic missions en masse in the Middle East was prompted by intercepts of high-ranking al-Qa'ida operatives signalling a major attack. Politicians briefed on the intelligence called the threat reporting among the most serious they've seen in recent years, reminiscent of the intelligence chatter that preceded the September 11, 2001, attacks. "There is a significant threat stream and we're reacting to it," General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with ABC. General Dempsey said the specific locations and targets were not known but "the intent is to attack western, not just US interests."

At least 25 US embassies and consular offices were ordered closed yesterday, most of them in the Middle East and North Africa, in response to the threat. Later, the US extended the closure of some of its embassies and consulates in the Mideast and Africa through to August 10.

Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's "This Week" that al-Qa'ida's "operatives are in place." He said the United States knows this "because we've received information that high level people from al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack and these are people in the high level."

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, said the United States was on a high state of alert, calling it "probably one of the most specific and credible threats I've seen, perhaps, since 9/11." He said an attack appeared to be "imminent," possibly timed to coincide with the last night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The suspected plot comes against the backdrop of a series of recent prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan in which thousands of inmates have escaped, he said, creating additional risks.

The NSA's congressional supporters were quick to point to the role of electronic intercepts in obtaining the latest intelligence, while dismissing suggestions it also served to divert attention from the agency's role in scooping up Americans' phone and Internet data. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the electronic surveillance program used to warn of the latest threat focused on eavesdropping on conversations outside — not inside — the United States.

Representative Peter King, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence was specific "as to how enormous it was going to be, and also there's certain dates were given." "And, you know, the assumption is that it's probably most likely to happen in the Middle East at or about one of the embassies, but there's no guarantee of that at all," he said on ABC. "It could basically be in Europe, it could be in the United States, it could be a series of combined attacks," he said.

Extract: Talks fail, Egypt to expel protesters
The Australian Online
Thursday, August 8, 2013 8:45AM

EGYPT'S government has vowed to remove Islamist protest camps after it said foreign mediation failed, sparking fears of a violent end to the month-old standoff since president Mohamed Morsi's ouster. "The cabinet affirms that the decision to disperse the Rabaa Adawiya and Nahda sit-ins is a final decision, on which all agree, and there is no going back on it," prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi said on state television. Protesters have been camped out in the two Cairo squares and insist they will stay until the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi is reinstated as president.

"We call on them now, anew, to quickly leave, and return to their homes and work, without being chased if their hands have not been soiled by blood," Mr Beblawi said. "The government's solicitude for the holy month of Ramadan … in which it hoped the crisis would be resolved without the intervention of security, did not mean the cabinet had gone back on its decision," he said, just hours before the end of the Muslim fasting month.

The presidency said earlier on Wednesday that Western and Arab efforts to mediate an end to Egypt's political deadlock had failed. Its statement came hours after US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns left Cairo late Tuesday, without making headway in finding a compromise between the army-installed government and Morsi's supporters. "The phase of diplomatic efforts has ended today," the presidency said, referring to mediation by Burns and EU envoy Bernardino Leon, who were among other diplomats who had travelled to Cairo. "These efforts have not achieved the hoped for results."

The presidency said it "holds the Muslim Brotherhood completely responsible for the failure of these efforts, and for consequent events and developments relating to violations of the law and endangering public safety." More than 250 people have been killed in clashes since Morsi's ouster by the military on July 3, following days of mass rallies demanding his resignation. The government had already ordered police to end the sit-ins and protests, which it described as a "national security threat," but held off amid intense diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the release of Morsi, who has been formally remanded in custody at an undisclosed location. The government, which has faced intense domestic pressure to crack down on Morsi's supporters, lashed out on Tuesday against what it called excessive international pressure. "Foreign pressure has exceeded international norms," the official MENA news agency quoted presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Muslimani as saying.

His statement came as US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham outraged government supporters by describing Morsi's removal as a "coup". "The people who are in charge were not elected, and the people who were elected are now in jail," Graham said. The comments drew a harsh rebuke from the presidency, which described the comments as "clumsy".

Graham and McCain were later asked by CBS News if they were alarmed by events in Egypt. "Oh my God," Graham responded. "I didn't know it was this bad. These people are just days or weeks away from all-out bloodshed." Washington on Wednesday urged Egypt's military and political factions to resolve their differences through dialogue. "We absolutely do not believe that the time for dialogue has passed. We will continue this conversation, and it certainly remains a priority of ours and obviously a priority of the EU and other officials around the world who've been involved," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Extract: Pro-Morsi protesters fortify camps before showdown with Egyptian security forces
The Australian Online
Monday, August 12, 2013 8:23AM

SUPPORTERS of ousted President Mohammed Morsi fortified their two Cairo sit-in sites as Egyptian security officials said their forces will move against the entrenched protest camps within 24 hours — perhaps as early as daybreak Monday. At the main sit-in, vendors said they have sold hundreds of gas masks, goggles and gloves to protesters readying for police tear gas. Three waist-high barriers of concrete and wood have been built against armoured vehicles.

The Arab world's most populous country, where more than 250 people have been killed in clashes since Morsi was toppled July 3, braced for more violence as the four-day Muslim Eid celebrations wrapped up Sunday to end the holy month of Ramadan. The security officials said they would set up cordons around the protest sites to bar anyone from entering, and one of the officials said that could begin as soon as sunrise. The Interior Ministry has said it would take gradual measures, issuing warnings in recent weeks and saying it would use water cannons and tear gas to minimise casualties.

Interior Ministry officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to discuss details of the security plans, said they are prepared for clashes that might be set off by the cordons. The officials said police are working with the Health Ministry to ensure ambulances are on hand for the wounded and that armoured police vans are nearby to take away those arrested.

A special force within the Interior Ministry's riot police that are trained for crowd dispersal will deal with protesters. In the past, however, Egypt's riot police, many of whom lack the training to deal with unarmed civilians, resorted to using lethal force. There was no immediate government confirmation of when forces would move in on the sit-ins.

A last-ditch effort was launched over the weekend by the Sunni Muslim world's pre-eminent religious institution, Al-Azhar, to push for a resolution. There are fears that violence from trying to clear the two sites will spread to other areas of the capital and beyond, where thousands of Morsi supporters also hold near-daily marches.

The main protest camp is between middle-class residential buildings and ground floor businesses. Its focal point is the mosque and an adjacent stage where leaders of the Brotherhood charged with inciting violence openly talk to journalists. Many of those interviewed dismissed the mass protests against Morsi in the final weekend of June that preceded the coup. They acknowledge that Egypt is sharply divided, but worry that if they do not defend the sit-ins, they will be detained and tortured — just as many were before the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Organizations like UNICEF have condemned what it calls the deliberate use of children in Egypt who are "put at risk as potential witnesses to or victims of violence." The Brotherhood says it cannot control families that choose to camp out. Taking advantage of the Eid celebrations, organizers of the sit-in transformed it into a carnival-like atmosphere for families, setting up play areas for children under banners that read "Kids against the coup."

Egyptian flags hung everywhere and vendors cooked food. Field hospitals run by the Muslim Brotherhood group offered free medical care to visitors. Neither authorities nor the guards have made clear how women and children will be able to safely leave if rocks start flying and tear gas is fired. In past clashes, birdshot and live bullets were allegedly used by both sides.

Anger as Israel continues settlements ahead of prisoner release
The Australian Online
Tuesday, August 13, 2013 8:36AM

ISRAEL announced it would release 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners ahead of a resumption of peace talks, but at the same time angered Palestinians by approving new settlement construction. As some Israeli ministers criticised the government's prisoner release, Palestinians slammed the settlement plan, which Washington and the EU said was illegal and detrimental to peace efforts.

A special ministerial committee announced late on Sunday it had approved the 26 prisoners to be released ahead of talks, according to a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The names of the prisoners — most of whom were arrested for killing Israelis and Palestinians suspected of collaboration with the Jewish state — were published yesterday.

They are expected to be freed ahead of the start of talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The 26 constitute the first batch of a total of 104 long-term Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners to be freed in four stages, depending on progress in the talks.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat underlined the importance of the prisoner release for peace talks to continue. "We hope to put into effect what we've agreed on … we hope for the release of 104 prisoners. Each will return to his house. This is what we've agreed on," he told Israeli Arabic-language radio. "There is a clear understanding between us and the Americans and Israelis. Any change (in that) will mean the agreement is off the table."

The decision to free prisoners, however, has angered the families of those killed in assaults. "This is a day of celebration for terror organisations," Meir Indor, head of Almagor, a group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, told AFP. Most prisoners being freed were arrested for "murder", with five being "accomplices to murder" and one being guilty of "abduction and killing", Israel says.

All prisoners had been arrested before 1994 except one who was arrested in 2001. Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home party also reacted angrily to the impending releases. "Terrorists belong in prison," Ariel said. "The terrorists who are being released murdered women and children, and it's not clear to me how releasing murderers can help peace."

Ariel's ministry had on Sunday announced tenders for the construction of 793 settlement housing units in annexed east Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank in a move that infuriated Palestinians. Media reports have implied that the construction announcement was meant to appease Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners, who oppose the release of prisoners but fervently promote settlement construction. "I don't know of such a deal, but look — both were announced on the same day," Indor said.

Palestinian officials slammed the settlement announcement as a move aimed at "preventing" peace talks. "It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage US and international efforts to resume negotiations by approving more settlement units three days before the … Palestinian-Israeli meeting," Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh said. "Israel is attempting to prevent negotiations from taking place on Wednesday."

The United States and the European Union both expressed concern over the settlement plans. "These announcements that you're referring to certainly come at a particularly sensitive time," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. "We continue to engage with the Israeli government to make our serious concerns known," she said. "Our policy has not changed," she added. "We don't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity."

The European Union warned that approval for the West Bank settlements threatened to torpedo the peace talks. "Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann said. Russia described the Israeli move as "a counterproductive step that complicates the atmosphere of the talks".

But a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the new settlement units were "in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement." "It changes nothing," Mark Regev added. Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians resumed in Washington last month after painstaking US mediation. The last talks in 2010 broke down on the issue of settlement building.

Israel frees prisoners, launches air raid ahead of talks
The Australian Online
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 3:32pm

THE Israeli air force targeted rocket launch sites in Gaza after releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners, hours before the two sides were to hold new direct peace talks amid a growing row over settlements. "The raid targeted two rocket launch sites after rockets were fired yesterday from the Gaza Strip, one of which exploded on Israeli territory," an army spokesman said. No one was injured in the attack. "Hamas must account for any violation of Israeli sovereignty and the terrorist regime that it has put in place will be held responsible for any terrorist activity coming from the Gaza Strip," the spokesman said. The Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip is opposed to the resumption of US-sponsored peace talks in Jerusalem later today.

The negotiations will come just hours after the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building gesture, and a day after Israeli authorities announced the approval of 942 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, provoking Palestinian fury.

A group of 15 crossed into the Gaza Strip at about 1.40 am and were mobbed by relatives as they got out of a bus next to the border. At about the same time another 11 prisoners arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah to a welcome from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and thousands of cheering, dancing supporters. "This is the first group," Abbas told the crowd at an official welcoming ceremony at his Muqataa headquarters compound. "We shall continue until we free all the prisoners from Israeli jails," he said.

The 26 were the first batch of some 104 long-term detainees who are to be freed in stages as part of a US-brokered deal which brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table on July 30 for the first time in nearly three years. But Wednesday's talks are likely to be overshadowed by Israel's advancement of plans to build thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers on lands the Palestinians want for a future state.

The prisoner release has been billed as a confidence-building gesture ahead of the meeting of negotiators in Jerusalem which was expected to take place at the King David Hotel in the presence of US mediator Martin Indyk. But tempers were fraying on Tuesday after Israel approved construction of nearly 1,000 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, sparking Palestinian allegations that they were aimed at torpedoing the fledgling talks.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said that the announcement, coupled with the weekend approval of nearly 1,200 homes in east Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank, threatened to bring about the "collapse" of the talks. "This settlement expansion is unprecedented," he said. "It threatens to make talks fail even before they've started." Jerusalem city council said the approval for the construction of 942 new homes in the city's eastern Arab sector had been granted on Monday but had been in the works for years.

Two days earlier, Israel's housing ministry announced tenders for the construction of 793 settlement housing units in annexed east Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank. In a bid to defuse the crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose dogged shuttle diplomacy brought about a first round of talks in Washington two weeks ago, phoned Abbas late on Tuesday, a senior source told AFP. "The call Abbas received tonight from Kerry is part of ongoing US efforts to defuse a crisis before the talks (begin), as a result of the new settlement tenders today and in the last few days," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are waiting for the United States to take a clear stance on the escalating settlement building, which we consider the biggest obstacle that Israel is creating to stop serious talks from happening."

Abbas's office also confirmed he had received a phone call from Kerry "to discuss developments in the peace process, on the eve of the resumption of negotiations". Israel and the Palestinians last held direct negotiations in September 2010 but the talks collapsed several weeks later following a row over Israel's settlement building. Last week, Washington announced the two sides would hold their next meeting on August 14 in Jerusalem, but so far, Israeli and Palestinian officials have remained tight-lipped over the time of the meeting.


Same Day 6:29pm
Egypt police fire at pro-Morsi protest camps

AT least 43 people were killed today as police moved in to disperse two protest camps set up in Cairo by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, an AFP correspondent said. The AFP correspondent who counted the bodies at makeshift morgues at the Rabaa al-Adawiya camp said many appeared to have died from gunshot wounds. There were no women or children among the dead, the correspondent said. Egypt's interior ministry said two members of the security forces were killed in the operation.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood urged Egyptians to take to the streets in their thousands to denounce the "massacre". "This is not an attempt to disperse, but a bloody attempt to crush all voices of opposition to the military coup," Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad said on Twitter. The Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp, where several Brotherhood leaders are staying, "is calling on Egyptians to take to the streets to stop the massacre," Mr Haddad said. The Muslim Brotherhood also said more than 250 people were killed and over 5000 were injured. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the tolls.

Egypt's interior ministry said Al-Nahda Square was "totally under control" and "police forces have managed to remove most of the tents in the square". A security official told AFP that dozens of Morsi supporters had been arrested with the help of residents from the area. All train services in and out of Cairo have been stopped to prevent Morsi supporters from reassembling after being dispersed from protest camps in the capital. "Train services in and out of Cairo in all directions have been stopped until further notice … for security reasons and to prevent people from mobilising," the railway authority said.

Security forces surrounded the camp early morning and fired tear gas as they began moving in on the thousands of pro-Morsi protesters who have defied ultimatums to end their protests. Canisters of tear gas rained down on tents set up by the protesters at one end of the Rabaa al-Adawiya camp, sparking pandemonium that saw protesters running in all directions.

"It is the beginning of the operation to disperse the protesters," a security official told AFP, confirming that similar steps were being taken at the Nahda square camp. Witnesses spoke of bursts of gunfire but could not say who was doing the shooting. Television footage showed injured people being carried to a makeshift medical centre as well as police dragging away defiant protesters.

On Monday, the judiciary extended Morsi's detention for a further 15 days pending an investigation into his collaboration with Palestinian group Hamas. Prosecutors have set an August 25 date for the trial of the Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and his two deputies.

Extract: Hundreds dead in Cairo crackdown against ousted leader Mohamed Morsi's supporters
The Australian Online
Thursday, August 15, 2013 5:52pm

SECURITY forces have stormed two huge Cairo protests by supporters of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi, prompting the resignation of vice president Mohamed ElBaradei and sparking nationwide violence which left nearly 350 people dead. In response to the violence, the army-backed interim government imposed a month-long nationwide state of emergency and curfews in Cairo and 13 other provinces.

Authorities tonight said at least 300 civilians and 43 policemen had been killed, with many of the deaths in Cairo but with the violence spreading from the capital and claiming lives across the country. The state of emergency went into effect at 4pm local time, with what will be a daily 11-hour curfew beginning at 7pm.

Gory photographs and video images of the Cairo bloodbath dominated social media networks, as world powers called for restraint and condemned the show of force by security forces. At least four churches were attacked, with Christian activists accusing Morsi loyalists of waging "a war of retaliation against Copts in Egypt".

Hours after tear gas canisters first rained down on tents of protesters in the sprawling Rabaa al-Adawiya camp in eastern Cairo, an AFP correspondent counted at least 124 bodies in makeshift morgues there. In a field hospital, its floors slippery with blood, doctors struggled to cope with the casualties, leaving the hopeless cases, even if still alive. The health ministry said 235 civilians were killed in the Cairo crackdown and in subsequent clashes across Egypt. The interior ministry added that 43 security personnel had lost their lives.

Among those killed in Cairo was 17-year-old Asmaa al-Beltagui, daughter of wanted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed al-Beltagui, a spokesman for Morsi's movement said. And Britain's Sky News said a veteran cameraman, Briton Mick Deane, was shot and killed while covering the violence. Security officials had originally spoken of gradually dispersing the sit-ins over several days but the dramatic descent on the squares shortly after dawn came as a surprise to many.

The violence prompted vice president and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei to resign, saying his conscience was troubled over the loss of life, "particularly as I believe it could have been avoided." "It has become too difficult to continue bearing responsibility for decisions I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear," he said.

By Wednesday evening, a security official said Rabaa al-Adawiya was "totally under control. There are no more clashes." The authorities later said calm had been restored across the country.

Europe's leading powers, along with Iran, Qatar and Turkey, strongly denounced the use of force by the interim government. The White House said Washington, which provides Egypt with massive military aid, "strongly condemns" the violence against the protesters and opposes the imposition of a state of emergency.

Interim prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi praised the police for their "self-restraint" and said the government remained committed to an army-drafted roadmap that calls for elections in 2014. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood urged Egyptians to take to the streets in their thousands to denounce the "massacre." "This is not an attempt to disperse, but a bloody attempt to crush all voices of opposition to the military coup," Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad said on Twitter. But Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said no more protests would be tolerated.

The anger against the Islamist movement was evident as residents of several neighbourhoods clashed with Morsi loyalists. Clashes also erupted between security forces and Morsi supporters in the northern provinces of Alexandria and Beheira, the canal provinces of Suez and Ismailiya and the central provinces of Assiut and Menya. In Alexandria, hundreds of angry Morsi supporters marched through the streets armed with wooden clubs chanting "Morsi is my president." An AFP reporter said they set fire to tyres and tore down pictures of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup.

It was a dramatic turn of events for the Muslim Brotherhood, who just over a year ago celebrated Morsi's victory as Egypt's first elected president. But Morsi's turbulent year in power, marred by political turmoil, deadly clashes and a crippling economic crisis, turned many against the Islamist movement. On June 30, millions took to the streets to call on the army to remove Morsi.


Same Day
UN sends chemical weapons team to Syria

THE United Nations said the departure of a team of chemical weapons inspectors to Syria was "imminent" following a green light from Damascus. "The Government of Syria has formally accepted the modalities essential for cooperation to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the mission," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman said in a statement. "The departure of the team is now imminent," he added.

The statement said the team led by Swedish arms expert Ake Sellstroem would investigate the sites of alleged chemical attacks for a period of at least two weeks. The mission has been delayed in the past over differences with President Bashar al-Assad's regime over the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms in the country's civil war. The United Nations last month reached a framework agreement with the Syrian government on the mission but had been awaiting a final green light from Damascus.

One of the sites to be investigated is Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, where the government says rebels used chemical weapons on March 19, killing at least 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. The opposition says government forces carried out the attack. The United Nations has not yet identified the two other sites.

"Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry," the UN statement said. "The Secretary-General believes that an effective mechanism to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons can serve as an important deterrent against their employment," it added. "The overwhelming support of the international community for this investigation makes clear that the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime."

Sellstroem is to be joined by 10 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organisation. The Syrian opposition says the investigators can have full access to sites under its control where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used. Damascus had called for a UN probe in March but insisted that it focus solely on the Khan al-Assal site. Ban, however, had pressed for broader access and investigation of other sites as well.

Mid-East talks held in secret
The Australian
Friday, August 16, 2013

WITH tensions high and expectations low, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators kicked off their first substantive round of peace talks in nearly five years, huddling together at an undisclosed location yesterday in search of an end to decades of conflict. The meeting was cloaked in secrecy, an attempt by both sides to prevent leaks to the media and maintain trust. Officials would say only that the talks took place in Jerusalem, and there was no immediate comment from either side. The Israeli government released a brief video showing the chief negotiators shaking hands as the talks continued into the evening.

Ahead of the meeting, signs of trouble had already emerged. A new Israeli push to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements and fresh fighting in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip underscored the tough road ahead. "We are committed to making the effort, for the sake of Israel and for Israel's values," Israel's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said before the talks began. "It will be complicated and complex, but I am not giving up."

Both sides confirmed the meeting had ended after several hours. A Palestinian official said they had agreed to meet weekly, alternating between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Jericho. The Palestinians see Israel's continued construction of settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, as undermining hopes of dividing the land between two states, a view that is overwhelmingly shared by the international community. Israeli announcements in recent days of plans to build more than 3000 settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem have only fuelled Palestinian mistrust.

"The talks might collapse any time because of the Israeli practices," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian adviser, told Voice of Palestine radio.

Same Day: Letters Page
Israel's settlements
Colin Rubenstein, Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Melbourne, Vic

THE story "Israel approves further settlements on eve of peace talks" (14/8) featured two incorrect claims, starting with the headline.

The US also understands that the solution to the problem of settlements is to create a two-state resolution that draws final borders and ends the dispute over land. Three times, Israel has offered such a resolution. Sadly, the Palestinian leadership has failed to respond positively to these offers, thus helping perpetuate the problem.


Further News: Same Day
Extract: Fresh violence as UN meets on Egypt, death toll climbs to 638

FRESH violence has targeted the security forces in a tense Egypt, as Washington cancelled a joint military exercise in response to a crackdown on protesters that killed 638 people. Security sources said at least seven soldiers and a policeman were killed in attacks in the Sinai peninsula, and another policeman was killed in the central city of Assuit.

With the country under a state of emergency and many provinces hit by night-time curfews, the interior ministry ordered police to take tough measures after a series of attacks on government buildings. The death toll from nationwide clashes following Wednesday's operation to clear two protest camps in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi rose to 638, making it the country's bloodiest day in decades.

International criticism of the bloodshed poured in, with diplomats saying the UN Security Council would hold an emergency meeting on Egypt at early this morning AEST at the request of Australia, Britain and France. The carnage prompted fierce international condemnation, led by the United States, with President Barack Obama announcing a joint US-Egyptian military exercise would be cancelled. "While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back," he said. But despite cancelling the Bright Star exercise, which has been scheduled every two years since 1981, he stopped short of suspending Washington's annual $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt.

Meanwhile, the US State Department warned citizens not to travel to Egypt and called on those already there to leave. In Europe, governments in multiple capitals summoned Egyptian envoys to voice their concern.

Earlier, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Morsi supporter, had also called for an urgent Security Council meeting over Egypt's "massacre." And UN rights chief Navi Pillay called for "an independent, impartial, effective and credible investigation of the conduct of the security forces. The number of people killed or injured, even according to the government's figures, point to an excessive, even extreme use of force against demonstrators," she said.

Morsi supporters had called for Cairo marches but that call was not heeded, while small protests were staged in coastal Alexandria and southern Beni Sueif. Meanwhile, attacks against churches and Christian properties that began on Wednesday continued for a second day, with activists saying at least 25 churches had been targeted. As relatives sought to identify their dead, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad al-Haddad insisted protesters would "remain strong, defiant and resolved." "We will push forward until we bring down this military coup," he tweeted.

In Cairo, at the Al-Iman mosque, dozens of corpses of protesters clad in white shrouds were lined up before grieving relatives. At the two protest sites where Morsi loyalists had camped since his July 3 ouster, trucks cleared charred debris. Meanwhile, Egypt's interior ministry announced new security measures on Thursday, ordering police to use live fire if government buildings came under attacks.

The statement appeared to be a bid to warn against fresh attacks like those that targeted police stations in Sinai and Assuit, and the Giza governorate building in Cairo. In Sinai, where militants have targeted police and army facilities on an almost daily basis, security officials reported seven soldiers gunned down by men in two cars at a checkpoint near the northern Sinai town of El-Arish.

On Thursday night, the protest group that organised opposition to Mr Morsi's rule, Tamarod, urged Egyptians to take to the streets on Friday. The group called on "the great people of Egypt to form popular committees on all streets … to reject domestic terrorism and foreign interference." Despite the bloodshed, Egypt's press welcomed the end of the pro-Morsi demonstrations. "The nightmare of the Brotherhood is gone," daily Al-Akhbar's front page headline read.


Same Day
Syrian rebel cell blasts Beirut Hezbollah neighbourhood

A HUGE car bomb blast has killed at least 18 people in a densely-populated Beirut bastion of Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah, a military backer of Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad. A previously unknown group believed to be a Syrian rebel cell said it carried out the attack which rocked the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital.

The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 18 people were killed and 245 others wounded in the attack in an area between the Bir al-Abed and Rweiss neighbourhoods of southern Beirut. The bombing, reminiscent of the frequent attacks during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, sent a plume of black smoke into the Mediterranean sky, wreaked heavy damage to buildings and set several cars ablaze. The blast came a day after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his militant group was taking steps to ensure the security of the southern suburbs, after a July 9 car bomb in Bir al-Abed left dozens wounded.

A witness told a Lebanese television channel that he saw a van drive past three times before its driver found a parking spot where he set off the blast. The explosion had the impact of an "earthquake", said another witness. An AFP photographer saw vehicles on fire, scorched bodies and the entrance halls to two buildings in flames. Firemen used ladders to help residents escape their homes.

Hezbollah security forces were deployed in large numbers around the scene. "Terrorism has struck the southern suburbs again," said Hezbollah's Al-Manar television, adding that the group was "paying the price for its position".


Also, same Day
Sixteen killed in Baghdad terror

A SERIES of bombings struck Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 16 people, officials said, a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to press a campaign against militants. Security forces have carried out major operations against Iraqi militants in recent weeks, but despite the military action, the worst violence to hit Iraq in five years continues to ravage the country.

The four car bombs and a roadside bomb struck four different areas of Baghdad yesterday, also wounding more than 50 people. In the single deadliest attack, a car bomb exploded at a bus station in the Kadhimiyah area of north Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 24. Another car bomb exploded in Baladiyat near an office of al-Ahad television, which is affiliated with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militant group that split from powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

The violence came a day after attacks, including a blast at a cafe north of the capital, killed 17 people. On Wednesday, Mr Maliki said security forces would continue large-scale efforts to hunt militants. "The operation that we started in chasing terrorists, and those who stand behind them, will continue until we protect our people," he said. He said more than 800 alleged militants had been detained and dozens of others killed, and that security forces had destroyed militant infrastructure used to make bombs and seized a large amounts of weapons and explosives.

Mr Maliki did not, however, specify when the arrests were made, where the operations took place or who had carried them out. Security forces have for weeks been carrying out wide-ranging operations in multiple provinces, including Baghdad, after brazen assaults last month on two major prisons, claimed by an al-Qa'ida front group. Hundreds of inmates were freed in the attacks, among them some said to be senior militants, raising fears the escapes will bolster armed groups in Iraq.

Al-Fath Mosque under siege after fatal clashes in Cairo
The Australian Online
Saturday, August 17, 2013 6:13PM

EGYPTIAN security forces today surrounded a Cairo mosque full of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi as protesters planned fresh marches after deadly street battles. The tense stand-off at the Al-Fath mosque came after bloody clashes killed 83 people nationwide and resulted in the arrest of more than 1000 alleged supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown has divided Egyptians as never before in recent history, splintering the army-installed interim government and inviting international censure.

One protester said almost 1000 people were trapped in the mosque, which had earlier held the bodies of more than 20 people killed in yesterday's clashes. Television footage showed troops inside the mosque apparently trying to persuade the protesters to give themselves up.

A protester inside the mosque told AFP by telephone that they were demanding they not be arrested, or attacked by hostile civilians who appeared to be gathered outside the mosque. "Thugs tried to storm the mosque but the men barricaded the doors," another protester inside the mosque told AFP earlier. It was not clear whom she meant by "thugs".

Security officials quoted by the official MENA news agency said that "armed elements" had been shooting at security forces and police from inside the mosque. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) pleaded for another "massacre" to be avoided after at least 578 people were killed across the country on Wednesday when police cleared protest camps set up by loyalists of the former president, deposed by the military on July 3. It was not possible to verify the numbers in the mosque independently.

The latest unrest started as Morsi supporters emerged from mosques in the capital to protest in what they billed as a "Friday of anger" following Wednesday's bloodbath. Violence erupted almost immediately, with gunshots ringing out in Cairo and security forces firing tear gas. In the capital, a man leapt off a bridge near a police station to escape shooting as police armoured vehicles advanced on protesters, witnesses said. An AFP correspondent counted at least 19 bodies in one Cairo mosque, while witnesses said more than 20 corpses had been laid out in another.

Elsewhere in Egypt, 10 people were killed by security forces and dozens injured in the canal city of Suez when they gathered to protest in defiance of the curfew. Their deaths brought to 83 the number killed in nationwide violence although the FJP spoke of 130 dead in Cairo alone. Marches were also reported in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, in Beni Sueif and Fayyum, south of Cairo, and in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada. The demonstrations ended shortly after a night-time curfew came into effect but Anti-Coup Alliance spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said Morsi loyalists would hold "daily anti-coup rallies" going forward.

The interior ministry said "the number of Muslim Brotherhood elements arrested reached 1004," including 558 in Cairo alone. The Egyptian cabinet issued a defiant statement after the unrest, saying it was confronting a "terrorist plot." "The cabinet affirms that the government, the armed forces, the police and the great people of Egypt are united in confronting the malicious terrorist plot by the Muslim Brotherhood," it said. And the interior ministry, which authorised police to use live fire if government buildings came under attack, accused the Brotherhood of attacking police stations, saying it foiled attempts to storm buildings.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton described the violence as "shocking". "I have asked member state representatives to debate and coordinate appropriate measures to be taken by the European Union in response to the situation in Egypt," she said. French President Francois Hollande discussed the crisis with counterparts in London, Berlin and Rome. Germany said it would review ties with Cairo, and joined France and Britain in calling for EU talks on the situation, which are expected to take place on Monday.

President Barack Obama said the US was cancelling a joint US-Egyptian military exercise, but stopped short of suspending Washington's annual $1.3 billion in aid. Human rights organisation Amnesty International called for a full and impartial investigation into the bloodshed, saying the authorities' response to the protests had been "grossly disproportionate".

But the international response was not uniformly critical. Saudi Arabia and Jordan said they backed Egypt's fight against "terrorism".

Toll rises as Egypt police clear mosque
The Australian Online
Sunday, August 18, 2013 9:55AM

EGYPTIAN police have cleared Islamist protesters from a Cairo mosque after a standoff that included exchanges of fire, as the death toll from four days of violence surpassed 750. Security forces dragged supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi from the Al-Fath mosque, passing through angry crowds who tried to beat the Islamists, calling them "terrorists".

The clashes came as the government said 173 people had been killed within 24 hours, bringing the country's death toll to more than 750 since Wednesday, when police cleared two camps of Morsi loyalists in the capital. In Alexandria, Islamist marchers clashed with civilians during an evening protest, said the official MENA news agency. According to an AFP tally, at least 1,042 people have been killed since June 26, when Morsi supporters began protesting before mass demonstrations against the Islamist leader that prompted the military to end his single year of turbulent rule on July 3. International criticism of the bloodshed mounted, with Germany and Qatar jointly condemning the "brutal violence".

The standoff at Al-Fath mosque in Ramses Square began on Friday, with security forces surrounding the building where Islamists were sheltering and trying to convince them to leave. The Islamists had lined up the bodies of dozens of protesters who had been killed on Friday inside the mosque-turned-morgue. By Saturday afternoon, the situation turned violent, with an AFP reporter at the scene saying gunmen inside the mosque were trading fire with police outside. Police eventually dragged people from inside the mosque, firing in the air to hold back residents who tried to attack the Islamists with sticks and iron bars.

Both outside the mosque and in other parts of Cairo, residents targeted those suspected of being Islamists, often for no more than wearing a beard or a veil. The "Friday of anger" demonstrations called by Morsi's supporters turned violent, with gunshots ringing out in Cairo. The government said those clashes killed least 173 people across the country, including 95 in the capital and 25 in Alexandria. Among those killed on Friday was a son of Mohamed Badie, chief of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The Anti-Coup Alliance of Morsi supporters on Friday pledged daily demonstrations, but it was unclear if that call was heeded, with no reports of demonstrations in Cairo. The interior ministry said it had arrested 1,004 Brotherhood "elements", and on Saturday security sources said the brother of al-Qa'ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had been detained. Security sources also said one soldier was killed in northern Sinai where militants have launched daily attacks against security forces.

Egypt's interim army-backed government has defended its actions, with presidential adviser Mustafa Hegazy saying forces had acted with "a huge amount of self-restraint and self-control". The cabinet has also insisted the security services were acting to confront a "terrorist plot".

But international criticism poured in on Saturday, with Germany's foreign minister and his Qatari counterpart condemning the spiralling violence after a meeting. "We are deeply distressed by the ongoing and brutal violence in Egypt," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, urging dialogue. "Otherwise there is great danger that more blood will spill… which indicates the danger of civil war."

EU leaders have pledged a strong response to the violence, which EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has described as "shocking". In Turkey, which backs Morsi, thousands marched in Istanbul against his ouster, and the Vatican said Pope Francis was following events with "mounting concern". He was praying for the rival sides to "choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation," the Vatican said.

The United States has announced the cancellation of its biannual military exercise with Egypt, but stopped short of suspending $1.3 billion in annual aid. The US diplomatic mission in Cairo said it will not open its doors on Sunday, a working day in Egypt, as the "possibility of protests in vicinity of the embassy continues". Anti-American sentiment has risen in Egypt with Washington's criticism of the crackdown.

But the international response has been not uniformly critical. Saudi Arabia and Jordan said they backed Egypt's fight against "terrorism". In neighbouring Libya, meanwhile, an explosive device went off in front of the Egyptian consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, causing damage but no casualties, a security official said.

Extract: Egyptian prisoners suffocate on tear gas during an escape bid
The Australian Online
Monday, August 19, 2013 9:03AM

EGYPTIAN police fired tear gas in an attempt to free a guard from rioting detainees, killing at least 36 as the country's death toll reaches 900 people. The deaths of the prisoners, captured during the fierce fighting in recent days around Cairo's Ramses Square, came as General Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi also called for the inclusion of Islamists in the government. Meanwhile, security forces detained Muslim Brotherhood members in raids aimed at stopping more planned rallies supporting ousted President Mohammed Morsi — which the military-backed government says fuels the violent unrest.

The suspects killed were part of a prison truck convoy of some 600 detainees heading to Abu Zaabal prison in northern Egypt, security officials told The Associated Press. Detainees in one of the trucks rioted and managed to capture a police officer inside, the officials said. Security forces fired tear gas into the truck in hopes of freeing the badly beaten officer, the officials said. The officials said those killed died from suffocating on the gas.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to journalists. However, the officials' version of event contradicted reports about the incident carried by state media. The official website of Egyptian state television reported that the deaths took place after security forces clashed with militants near the prison and detainees came under fire while trying to escape. The official MENA state news agency also said the trucks came under attack from gunmen. State media also said all those killed and the gunmen belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation that Morsi hails from. The officials who spoke to AP said some of the detainees belonged to the Brotherhood, while others didn't. The differences in the accounts could not be immediately reconciled Sunday night.

The violence adds to the ever-rising death toll in days of unrest. On Saturday alone, clashes between Morsi supporters and police killed 79 people, according to a government tally released Sunday and carried by MENA. That raised the death toll for four days of unrest across the country to nearly 900 people killed. Some 70 police officers were killed in clashes with protesters or retaliatory attacks during the same period, according to the Interior Ministry.

Security forces arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members early Sunday morning in raids on their homes in different cities, aimed at disrupting planned rallies to support Morsi. The Cabinet also held an emergency meeting to discuss potentially banning the group, a long-outlawed organization that swept to power in the country's first democratic elections a year ago.

A possible ban — which authorities say would be implemented over the group's use of violence — would be a repeat of the decades-long struggle between the state and the Brotherhood. It also would drain the group's financial resources and allow for mass arrests of its members. That likely would diminish the chances of a negotiated solution to the crisis and push the group again underground.

In his first appearance since the violence began, el-Sissi spoke at length in an hour-long speech about the motives behind ousting Morsi. The general said the Islamist president exploited democracy to monopolise power. He again said the military's action "protected Egyptians from civil war," despite the ongoing violence on the streets. "We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching the nation and terrorising the citizens," el-Sissi said in a speech aired on state television. "I am not threatening anyone. … If the goal is to destroy the country and the people, no!"

The general said that the military didn't seek power but instead "have the honour to protect the people's will — which is much dearer (than) ruling Egypt." El-Sissi also said Islamists must be included in the country's politics moving forward. A military timetable calls for the nation's constitution to be amended and for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in 2014.

El-Sissi's speech was an attempt to consolidate internal support in the face of international criticism. In a joint statement Sunday, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council said it was the responsibility of the army and the interim government to end the violence, warning against the use of force. They said EU will "urgently review in the coming days its relations with Egypt" — meaning much-need financial aid could be on the line.

"We regret deeply that international efforts and proposals for building bridges and establishing an inclusive political process … were set aside and a course of confrontation was instead pursued," the statement by Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy read. They warned: "This path will not succeed."

Egypt also lost one of the few doves in the country's military-backed administration Sunday as Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned as vice president in protest of the use of force against Morsi's supporters, flew out of Cairo to Vienna. ElBaradei declined to speak to journalists as he left Egypt, where pro-military news outlets have become increasingly hostile toward him.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie has been detained by Egyptian authorities. AFP
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie detained
The Australian Online
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

EGYPTIAN authorities say they have arrested the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, as they stepped up a campaign to crush the party of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. The arrest stoked fears of an escalation in the already tense situation in Egypt, where nearly 900 people have died in days of clashes nationwide between security forces and Islamist supporters of Mr Morsi. In the latest bloodshed, militants killed 25 policemen in the restive Sinai Peninsula, just hours after 37 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners died in police custody.

The interior ministry said police picked up Brotherhood chief Mohamed Badie, 70, near Rabaa al-Adawiya square, where more than 200 Morsi supporters were killed last Wednesday as police cleared their protest camp. Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, including Mr Badie, have been accused by Egypt's military-backed authorities of inciting the violence over the deaths of protesters. And judicial sources said fresh accusations had been levelled against Mr Morsi himself, who has been held in a secret location since the military deposed him on July 3.

Meanwhile, former president Hosni Mubarak won conditional release in the third of four cases against him, but remained in detention on the fourth.

The bloodbath sparked by the crisis showed little sign of abating as militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at two buses carrying police in Sinai yesterday — the deadliest attack of its kind in decades. The interior ministry blamed the attack on 'armed terrorist groups ' and officials later said the border with the Palestinian Gaza strip, near where the attack occurred, would be closed. Security sources said another policeman was killed in the northern city of El-Arish, bringing to at least 75 the number of security force members killed in Sinai since the army toppled Mr Morsi.

The attack followed the death of 37 Muslim Brotherhood detainees as they were being transferred to a north Cairo jail. Authorities said they died after police fired tear gas in a bid to free an officer taken hostage by prisoners. But the Brotherhood, the once-banned movement from which Mr Morsi hailed, held the police accountable, accusing them of 'murder '. They said the incident affirmed 'the intentional violence aimed at opponents of the coup, and the cold-blooded killing of which they are targets '.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said he was 'deeply disturbed ' by the deaths and called for a 'full investigation to ascertain the facts surrounding this incident. '

The fresh wave of unrest came hours after military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged a 'forceful ' response by security forces to any violence from protesters. 'We will never be silent in the face of the destruction of the country, ' said Mr Sisi, who overthrew Mr Morsi after mass protests against the Islamist's single year of turbulent rule.

The international community has fiercely condemned the violence, with rights group Amnesty International decrying it as 'utter carnage '. And Human Rights Watch called on Egypt's rulers to 'urgently reverse ' instructions for police to use live ammunition against protesters. The group's secretary general Salil Shetty warned the country's government had 'stained its human rights record '.

In response to the violence, EU ambassadors were recalled from their summer break for a meeting in Brussels, with foreign ministers due to review the bloc's ties with Egypt at an emergency meeting tomorrow. The European Union has pledged nearly five billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid to Egypt but has cautioned this was under 'constant review ' after Mr Morsi's ouster. The United States has cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt but stopped short of suspending $1.3 billion in annual aid.

Allies' call for action undercuts Washington
The Australian
Adam Entous Washington, Charles Levinson Tel Aviv, The Wall Street Journal
Additional Reporting: Ellen Knickmeyer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WASHINGTON: The US's Middle East allies are undercutting US policy in Egypt, encouraging the military to confront the Muslim Brotherhood rather than reconcile, US and Arab officials said.

The parallel efforts by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have blunted US influence with Egypt's military leadership and underscored how the chaos there has pulled Israel into ever-closer alignment with those Gulf states, officials said. A senior Israeli official called the anti-Muslim Brotherhood nations "the axis of reason".

The Obama administration had sought to persuade Egyptian military leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not to overthrow the elected government of president Mohammed Morsi and then to reconcile with his Muslim Brotherhood base. General Sisi has done the opposite, orchestrating the president's overthrow and a crackdown in which more than 900 people have been killed since last Wednesday, reflecting his apparent confidence in the Egyptian government's ability to weather an American backlash.

US officials have voiced frustration with the stance of their regional allies but also played down the broader impact on relations with them. The US relies heavily on Israel and the Gulf states in other critical areas including countering Iran and al-Qa'ida, containing the civil war in Syria and backing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited," said Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.

US sway in Egypt has long been underpinned by military aid, some of which has been dialled back since Mr Morsi's ousting and the violence. The US froze the transfer of F-16 fighters and cancelled a military exercise. But US aid amounts, even before these moves, have been dwarfed by new pledges from Arab powers. Mr Hagel sought to play down the influence of others. "All nations are limited in their influence in another nation's internal issues," he said.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE recognises Israel or has formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. What unites the three countries is a series of common interests, in particular countering Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Diplomats say the Saudis and the UAE want to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and undercut the influence of the regional rivals that back them: Turkey and Qatar.

Israel wants an Egyptian government that will aggressively fight Islamists and protect the border. Its leaders see Mr Morsi's departure as "an opportune time to give a real blow to political Islam throughout the region and get the more sensible people back in power," said Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a Jerusalem-based think tank that advocates for a two-state solution.

Israel was not co-ordinating directly with the Gulf states, whereas Saudi Arabia and UAE were co-ordinating closely, Middle Eastern officials said.

This year, a string of Arab leaders, including King Abdullah of Jordan, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and the UAE's crown prince met US President Barack Obama to press Washington to be more wary of the Brotherhood's activities, according to US and Arab officials briefed on the meetings. Arab officials said they told the White House they were worried the US was pulling back from the region, and they could not wait for Washington to be more aggressive in trying to dictate events.

"I don't think that Washington is really in the conversation on Egypt in a significant way", said a senior Arab official. "We're not going to wait for the US and the Europeans to decide to get more involved."

Commentary: Anarchy being loosed again and the West is just letting it happen
The Australian
Roger Boyes, The Times
Thursday, August 22, 2013

THE Guns of August, usually held to describe Europe's slide to war in 1914, are now rumbling in Egypt. It is a dangerous moment, not just because a large, influential country is grappling with its own ungovernability, but because the galloping crisis signals a more general collapse of statehood in the Middle East. "Things fall apart," wrote WB Yeats in the aftermath of World War I. "The centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

That last quote is from Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" that he wrote in 1919 — click here for the text — Steve

The region certainly cannot sustain two wars — Syria's bloody insurgency and a near civil war in Egypt — without wrecking established peace treaties and the normal mechanisms for defusing conflict. If the Egyptian army loses its grip on the Sinai, if a radicalised Muslim Brotherhood seeks to heat up the neighbourhood, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot control jihadist activity on the Golan Heights, then Israel will be drawn into the fire.

You know it's bad, really bad, when on a single day four Arab cities, cradles of lost civilisations — Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad — are sucked into violence, rocked by car bombs, explosions and shoot-outs. Lebanon in the grip of the Hezbollah; Jordan flailing in its attempts to shelter refugees fleeing from Syria; Iraq barely able to lay claim to statehood. More than 4400 people were killed in Syria during the Ramadan fast.

It's a pretty rum month when the only "positive" news in the region emanates from Tehran, where a new president, speaking with the thinnest of credibility, hints there might yet be talks about talks about talks on Iran's nuclear program.

We should have seen it coming last week when Mohamed ElBaradei resigned as Egyptian vice-president, unable to accept the violence deployed by the military. ElBaradei is made of glass. You could read his despair from the hang of his shoulders. The Nobel peace laureate has abandoned the fight for that narrow strip of middle ground between a military dictatorship, an Islamic autocracy and the roar of the crowd. He was the closest the West had to a placeman in this crisis but most Egyptians barely registered his departure. For them, ElBaradei was a symbol of an unsuccessful, even doomed, engagement with the West.

It was Britain and France that drew up the map of the region when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 — an academic footnote for the English but a matter of burning interest today for Arab intellectuals — sought to defend minorities in the newly created states by putting them in charge. The French promoted Alawites in Syria. The British ruled Iraq through a pro-Hashemite Sunni elite. Christians were given power in a "Greater Lebanon".

After independence, the states were governed by authoritarian leaders heavily dependent on security services and military elites recruited from ruling dynasties. The result: a 15-year civil war in Lebanon after 1975, and a groundswell of bitterness against leaders toppled, or almost toppled, by the Arab Spring.

Now, with some delay, comes the re-ordering of the region. Syria looks as if it may be sliced up, with Assad's Alawites claiming a heartland. Thousands of Syrian Kurds, opposed to Assad but also to al-Qa'ida affiliates who have been fighting with the insurgents, have been crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan. They are keen, if the tide of battle changes, to form a Syrian Kurd statelet, perhaps together with Turkish Kurds. Libya's eastern Cyrenaica wants greater autonomy and may press for more. Yemen is by most definitions a failed state. All this is beginning to unfold and in its unfolding lies the peril.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was right to say that the events in the Arab world were as momentous as the financial crisis. That crisis was triggered by our failure to grasp the interconnection between different markets.

By the same token, World War I broke out because of the interconnectivity of the alliance of tired empires, and it is this that contains the true warning. Nobody in the imperial capitals was paying attention to Sarajevo. While Egypt is occupying minds, there is a sense in the West that this can only turn nasty for us if Israel is attacked or the Suez Canal is blocked. In August 1914 there was a lot of grouse shooting going on. In August 2013, politicians prefer to read doorstopper biographies in Tuscany and Cornwall. Yet the spreading Middle East crisis, its multiple flashpoints, is every bit as ominous as the prelude to war 99 years ago.

The coming break-up of at least part of the Middle East reflects the inability of badly governed states to deal with transnational challenges: the new Sunni assertiveness, the rise of the jihad, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood not only in Egypt but in every Arab society.

Egypt is the trigger yet there is a deafness to change in the Egyptian military. As Yeats had it: "the falcon cannot hear the falconer". The army is reverting to vintage Mubarak by slamming the Muslim Brotherhood in jail. Although Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the army leader, is a devout Muslim, he cannot puzzle out a middle way between God and the gun. For now he is sticking to the gun. The risk, unlike in Syria and Yemen, is not that Egypt will fall apart but that it takes the path of Algeria in 1991. There, the army annulled an election won by Islamists and a long, bloody civil war ensued; 200,000 died and 25 years were squandered.

The sudden acceleration of Arab politics has rattled the neighbourhood. Fear of regional war has flushed normally reticent governments into openly declaring their allegiances. On the Sisi team are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Even Israel is supporting the generals. All share an antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood and believe that a US-trained officer corps is less likely to rock the boat.

The Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, meanwhile, include Turkey, Qatar and, although the Brotherhood are Sunnis, Iran. Saudi Arabia has become particularly active. Not only is it offering fat cheques to Egypt, undermining the US attempt to use Pentagon money to buy influence, it is paying for weapons for the Syrian rebels and its intelligence chief has been trying to strike a deal with Russia that would dilute the Kremlin's support for Assad. The Saudis know they can only lose if war and insurrection spread.

And so will we. There must be a better way to influence events than to bankroll a military that has just ousted an elected leader. It is welcome that US President Barack Obama has at last decided to suspend military aid, but the fundamental aim has to be de-escalation of the crisis.

The odds are stacked against this. When the first Arab Spring demonstrations poured on to the streets, optimists called it a fragrant Lotus Revolution. Today, Egyptians smell nothing but teargas.

Later Same Day
Chemical attack on Damascus, Syria, a 'shocking escalation' says British foreign minister
Anthony Loyd, David Taylor, The Times
Additional reporting: AAP

HUNDREDS of Syrians have been killed or injured in what appears to be the worst chemical weapons attack on civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Iraq 25 years ago. Horrific video shot by activists early yesterday in several Damascus suburbs showed clinics swamped with corpses and toddlers struggling to breathe. The broadcast claimed to show scenes recorded after a series of chemical weapons strikes on rebel-held areas.

Conservative estimates spoke of scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries, while local activists claimed that as many as 1,300 had died. The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting in New York as world leaders expressed outrage. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said that if confirmed, the attacks would prove to be a "shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria". He added: "I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said news of a chemical weapons massacre in Syria is "repugnant'' and he wants United Nations weapons inspectors to investigate. Mr Rudd says Australia co-authored a United Nations security council letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting weapons inspectors be immediately dispatched to establish the facts. "The use of weapons of mass destruction in any circumstances is intolerable and unacceptable in any civilised nation," Mr Rudd said. "When weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, are used against civilian targets it is repugnant beyond description."

Opposition activists in Ghouta, a suburb in north-eastern Damascus who have been surrounded for months by the regime of President Assad, said that a chemical bombardment began at 3.30am local time. "At first they just used surface-to-surface rockets", Ahmed Ashami, an activist in Ghouta, said during a Skype call. "Then MiGs [Russian fighter jets] started bombing too. It went on through several opposition areas until after dawn, then stopped, then started again."

Local activists said that the regime had struck at least seven districts held by rebel fighters. Among the injured, some appeared to be frothing at the mouth and struggling for breath. A few were making convulsive movements. None showed evidence of trauma caused by shrapnel or gunfire. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, said he was determined that there should be a thorough investigation of all reported incidents. Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and President Hollande of France backed the UN demand for an inquiry.

A spokesman for the White House said the UN must be allowed "immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian Government". He said: "If the Syrian Government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team's immediate and unfettered access to this site."

However, he refused to be drawn on whether the use of chemical weapons on a massive scale would change America's calculation about military intervention. UN chemical weapons inspectors are already in the Syrian capital. However, local activists said that the regime had continued bombing the suburbs yesterday afternoon — a move that would hinder the inspectors.

The attacks come a year after President Obama warned the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons would mark a "red line". John McCain, the Republican Senator who has been a consistent critic of the Administration's response to events in Syria, tweeted: "No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons and crossing red line — we shouldn't be surprised he's using them again." Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli Defence Minister, said it was not the first time the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons.

Mr Ashami, the Ghouta activist, listed seven locations hit by the bombardment and said that activists had collated the names of 1,288 dead. More than 100 video clips from the targeted areas, which include Jobar, Duma, Muadimiyah, Daraya and Irbin, appear to show scores of casualties, most of them civilians and the majority dead. At least two dozen children are among them. The timing, at the very moment that UN inspectors are in Damascus, seems suspicious. The Syrian regime immediately denied that it had used chemical weapons, yet experts suggested that the footage appeared genuine and clearly showed mass casualties and chemical poisoning.

Bayan Baker, a nurse in a Duma medical facility, said that many women and children had died. "They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths," she said. Ake Selltrom, head of the UN inspection mission, said that he had seen TV footage of the attacks. "It sounds like something that should be looked into," he said, adding that his ability to investigate depended first on the request of UN member states.

Extract: Syria pressured to allow weapons inspectors in after suspected chemical attack
The Australian Online
Friday, August 23, 2013 7:42AM

THE regime in war-torn Syria came under intense pressure to allow UN inspectors to probe an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus which the opposition says killed hundreds. Footage distributed by activists showing unconscious children, people foaming around the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen to help them breathe has triggered revulsion around the world.

The United Nations formally asked Syria to authorise UN experts to probe the allegations, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon decided to send a special envoy to Damascus. French President Francois Hollande denounced the "likely" use of chemical weapons while the United States said it has yet to "conclusively determine" such weapons were used. Damascus denied it unleashed chemical weapons, particularly at a time when a UN team was in Syria to inspect three sites where other such attacks allegedly took place.

It would be "political suicide" to go ahead with such an attack, said a senior security source.

The opposition National Coalition says more than 1,300 people were killed by poisonous gases in a rebel-held town southwest of the capital. Syrian activist Abu Ahmad, speaking to AFP over the Internet from Moadamiyet al-Sham which reportedly bore the brunt of the alleged chemical attacks, said he helped bury dozens of civilians whose bodies were "pale blue", and who died of "suffocation."

A UN spokesman said: "The secretary general now calls for the mission, presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident which occurred on the morning of 21 August 2013. "A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay." Ban would also send to Damascus at an undisclosed time Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

And the UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the reported deaths and urged the Syrian government and opposition forces alike to allow the UN inspectors to visit the sites without "delay or obfuscation." Pillay also called for an end to fighting, referring to reports of new air raids by regime forces on rebel positions, including those in areas where the chemical attacks allegedly took place.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists and medics on the ground, said air strikes and bombardments were launched across Damascus province while fighting rage in the southwest of the capital. Videos posted online by activists of the alleged chemical attacks have provoked shock and condemnation around the globe. One shows people foaming at the mouth and bodies laid out in long lines, while in another a doctor is apparently trying to resuscitate some children as others are given oxygen to breathe. Another video shows what activists said was a case of hysteria following a chemical strike in the eastern suburbs.

None of the videos could be verified but AFP analysed one of the most striking pictures showing the bodies of children using specialised software. The analysis showed the picture was not manipulated and was taken, as presented, on August 21.

Former US Army Chemical Corps officer Dan Kaszeta said "it would be relatively hard to fake" the amount of video footage that has surfaced. "There's a lot of stuff that goes on in that video and a lot of the victims sadly are children, and it's hard to get small children to consistently fake things," said Kaszeta, an independent consultant. If confirmed, the attack would be the largest scale use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.

Egyptian security forces and medics wheel a stretcher transporting former Egyptian president
Hosni Mubarak from a military helicopter into an ambulance after his release from prison. Source: AFP
Same Day
Extract: Egypt's deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak leaves jail for house arrest

EGYPT'S toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak has been transferred from prison to house arrest at a military hospital, in a move overshadowed by a blistering crackdown against his Islamist successors. The former strongman, forced to quit in early 2011, was flown by medical helicopter to a military hospital, where he will remain under house arrest as he stands trial on corruption and murder charges. His ouster in 2011 was a pivotal moment in regional democratic upheavals that in Egypt led to an Islamist government, which lasted a year before a popularly backed military coup last month.

In other circumstances, the 85-year-old's removal from prison might have caused shockwaves. But with Egypt mired in a deadly conflict between the military-installed government and Islamists, Mubarak's transfer took place amid little fanfare or protest. He was ordered released after his lawyer argued Mubarak's stay in prison had exceeded the maximum pre-verdict detention, and Mubarak made financial amends for one of his charges.

He still faces trial for corruption and his role in the deaths of protesters during the uprising that toppled him, with his next hearing on Sunday. Prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi, empowered with the authority to order arrests under the current state of emergency, ordered Mubarak to be placed under house arrest after release from jail. Mubarak chose to be held at the military hospital, the official MENA news agency reported.

Arrests of Brotherhood leaders continued, with authorities detaining Ahmed Aref, a spokesman for the group, in Cairo. Despite the pressure, a Brotherhood-led coalition has defiantly called for mass rallies on Friday, in a test of its support following the crackdown. On Thursday, Human Rights Watch condemned the government for failing to protect churches, but also the Brotherhood for failing to halt incitement against Christians. Violence has also targeted police and soldiers, including two who were killed in a drive-by shooting near the Suez Canal town of Ismailia on Thursday.

The unrest has prompted international criticism, and EU foreign ministers agreed at an emergency meeting Wednesday to suspend the sale of arms and security equipment to Cairo in response to the mounting violence. They issued a statement calling recent security operations "disproportionate", while also condemning "acts of terrorism" in the Sinai and the church attacks. But they expressed concern over the economic situation and said "assistance in the socio-economic sector and to civil society will continue".

The United States has also criticised the violence, as well as Badie's arrest, and announced the cancellation of joint military exercises. But it has stopped short of halting its $1.3 billion annual defence aid package to Egypt, and denied reports it was withholding aid.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which backs the army-installed interim government, has said it would step in with other Arab nations to fill any funding gap if Washington halts aid. Meanwhile, a Hamas official said Egypt is set to reopen the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip daily from Saturday after closing it in the wake of last week's bloodshed.

US readying for possible Syria attack
The Australian Online
Saturday, August 24, 2013 6:32PM

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested today the Pentagon is moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria, even as President Barack Obama voiced caution. The revelation came today as new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani pointed to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but did not say who might be responsible. Obama has said the country must be wary of costly and difficult foreign interventions, as calls mount for action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over alleged chemical warfare.

US commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of "options" for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters aboard his plane en route to Malaysia. "The Defence Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," Hagel said. "And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options — whatever the President might choose."

But Hagel declined to provide any details on the positioning of US ships, aircraft or troops, as the Obama administration reportedly contemplated cruise missile strikes against Assad's forces.

In Australia, Kevin Rudd has suspended his campaign today to attend a national security briefing in Canberra on the unfolding crisis in Syria.

Hagel spoke as a defence official said the US Navy will expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles. The US Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of letting it return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia. Three other destroyers are currently deployed in the region — the USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage. All four warships are equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles. The reinforcement allows the Pentagon to act more rapidly if Obama orders a military strike.

"The president has asked the Defence Department for options. Like always, the Defence Department is prepared and has been prepared to provide all options for all contingencies to the president of the United States," Hagel said. The Pentagon chief and other defence officials made clear no decision had been taken on whether to employ military force against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

US newspapers have suggested disagreements within the administration over the risks of another American military intervention in the Middle East. CBS News also reported today that it had been told the Pentagon was making the initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces. "We say "initial preparations" because such an attack won't happen until the President gives the green light," the report said. The Wall Street Journal reported that Pentagon officials were updating target lists for possible airstrikes on Syrian government and military installations.

In Iran, Rowhani said: "The situation prevailing in Syria today and the death of a certain number of innocent people caused by chemical weapons is very distressing," according to a government website. Iran's foreign ministry rejected claims the Syrian regime, its chief regional ally, had deployed chemical weapons, saying if such an attack were proven rebels would be responsible.

Rowhani added that Iran, itself a victim of chemical attacks in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, "totally and vigorously condemned the use of chemical weapons". During the conflict, chemical strikes by the Iraqi armed forces killed thousands of Iranians, particularly in civilian areas. "The Islamic republic of Iran, which was the victim of chemical weapons, asks the international community to do everything to stop the use of these weapons anywhere in the world," Rowhani said.

Hagel, who visited US Marines in Hawaii on Thursday before setting off on a week-long tour of Southeast Asia, said he expected American intelligence agencies to "swiftly" assess whether the Syrian government indeed used chemical weapons. He said the US government would work closely with its allies. "The international community should and will act in concert on these kinds of issues," Hagel said.

Same Day
Syrian plot thickens as Israel returns fire

AN Israeli air force attack in southern Lebanon has targeted a Palestinian group close to the Syrian regime, hours after militants fired four rockets across the border, shattering a long calm. "The air force of the Israeli enemy launched a raid on a position of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command at dawn in the Naameh Valley," Lebanon's state news agency said, referring to the group headed by Ahmad Jibril and known for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The PFLP-GC denied any link with what an Israel Defence Forces spokesman called "an unprovoked attack on the Israeli home front". The local branch of al-Qa'ida spin-off the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, which bands together Salafist militants from across the region, had on Twitter earlier taken responsibility for the rocket attack. Lebanese and Israeli officials had already ruled out the involvement of Hezbollah, which has been heavily involved in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

As many as four rockets were fired from Rashidiya, near the city of Sur. Rashidiya is the site of a large Palestinian refugee camp, home to about 18,000 people. Lebanon's security forces are prohibited by law from patrolling the sprawling cities that have risen up since the Palestinians sought refuge in Lebanon 60 years ago. The self-policed camps have thus been a hotbed for extremism and a refuge for foreign terrorists.

The leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades is a Saudi national and is thought to be living in the open in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. The group's leader, Majed al-Majed, is on Saudi Arabia's most wanted list for suspected terrorist leaders. The attack highlighted the risk that the Syrian civil war could widen into a regional conflict that could embroil both Lebanon's militant groups and Israel. Since the Israel-Lebanon war, the border region has seen only a few incidents of missile fire.

Lebanese officials suspect Salafi extremist groups may have perpetrated the attack in the hope that Israel would retaliate on Hezbollah interests in Sur. "For sure it wasn't Hezbollah," said an official from Lebanon's security forces. "It must be these Salafi groups because we have no control over them."

Also Same Day
Scores killed in bombings at Sunni mosques in Tripoli

POWERFUL car bombs that exploded outside two Sunni mosques in a Lebanese city riven by strife over the war in neighbouring Syria have killed 42 people and wounded hundreds. It is the highest toll in an attack since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and brought condemnation from Western powers, the United Nations and Syria.

Coming a week after a bombing in the Beirut bastion of Shiite party Hezbollah, a close ally of Bashar al-Assad, the bombings in the northern port of Tripoli risk further stoking tensions between supporters and foes of the Syrian president. The death toll has risen to 42," a security source told AFP, a few hours after the early-afternoon attacks.

Earlier, the Lebanese Red Cross earlier said there were also at least 500 wounded, with director Georges Kettaneh adding that many of them had serious burns and head wounds. The blasts hit during weekly Muslim prayers, in a city where Sunni supporters of Syria's rebels engage in frequent, often deadly, clashes with Alawites, who back the Assad regime.

The first bomb struck in the city centre at the Al-Salam mosque as worshippers were still inside. Local television showed images from a CCTV camera of people sitting on the floor listening to a talk, when the explosion hit and they scattered in panic. The second explosion struck just minutes later outside Al-Taqwa mosque, about 2km away, near the port. An AFP reporter saw a number of charred bodies near Al-Taqwa and the bodies of five children brought out of it.

As huge clouds of black smoke billowed into the air, television channels aired footage of the dead, of buildings with their fronts blown in and vehicles ablaze. Hundreds of furious people gathered outside the Al-Taqwa mosque shouting curses at Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. The powerful Shiite movement, whose militia have been fighting for months alongside Assad's troops, linked the Tripoli attacks to the one in Beirut on August 15, which killed 22 people and injured more than 300. It said they were part of a plan to "plunge Lebanon into chaos and destruction".

Former premier Saad Hariri, a Sunni and Hezbollah opponent, said the "authors of dissension do not want Lebanon to live in peace for one minute; they want the killing machine to mow down the lives of innocents across Lebanon". Hariri's father and former billionaire prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut that also killed another 22 people which was, until last night, the worst attack since the civil war. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned this "cowardly terrorist attack on our brothers in Tripoli".

In London, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt condemned what he called the "abhorrent attacks" while French President Francois Hollande spoke of what he called "odious, cowardly attacks." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Lebanese to "exercise restraint, to remain united," while expressing hope that "those responsible for such cowardly acts of violence will be brought to justice as soon as possible." Washington also condemned the attacks and, in Beirut, its embassy warned Americans to "exercise security restraint" in Lebanon and reminded others to avoid travelling there.

On Wednesday, army chief General Jean Kahwaji had said his forces were fighting a "total war" against terrorism whose aim is "to provoke sectarian strife" in the country. The army had been pursuing a "terrorist cell that prepares car bombs and sends them to residential neighbourhoods," he said, adding that this action aimed at provoking sectarian strife. A Lebanese and two Palestinians suspected of preparing a car bomb attack were arrested days after the latest blast in Beirut, the General Security agency said.

Tripoli has seen frequent Syria-related violence over the past two years, including waves of deadly clashes. Lebanon is officially neutral in Syria's conflict, but the country is deeply divided.

Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said: "It is clear that there is a desire to trigger a confessional war in Lebanon to divert attention from what is happening in Syria." Yesterday's car bombings were reminiscent of attacks that shook the country during the civil war, but Khashan said he did not think a confessional war would break out "because it will not benefit anyone."

Extract: US, Britain weigh Syria options
The Australian Online
Sunday, August 25, 2013 9:17AM

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have expressed their grave concern about the "increasing signs" of a major chemical weapons attack in Syria. A White House statement said the two leaders vowed during a telephone call to 'continue to consult closely ' regarding the alleged attack near Damascus on Wednesday, as well as potential international responses.

But Downing Street went further, noting that Mr Obama and Mr Cameron 'are both gravely concerned by … the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people. The fact that President (Bashar al-)Assad has failed to cooperate with the UN suggests that the regime has something to hide, ' the British statement said, stressing that 'significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community. ' Mr Cameron also spoke separately with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Another White House statement regarding Obama's meeting with top aides in his National Security Council appeared to give credence to reports of the chemical attack on rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital. 'In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the US intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred, ' it said. 'The President also received a detailed review of a range of potential options he had requested be prepared for the United States and the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons. '

Quick visas for Israelis as Coalition opens door
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
Monday, August 26, 2013

TONY Abbott is committed to upgrading relations with Israel as part of a suite of new policies on the Middle East that includes banning more terrorist organisations and a harder line on visits to Australia by extremists. A Coalition government would also step-up opposition to the "boycott, divestment and sanctions" campaign against Israel, withholding taxpayer funds from any organisation that actively backed the movement.

The Australian has learned that the Opposition Leader will this week commit to extending to Israeli citizens an electronic travel authority, which in most cases provides nearly instant visa approval. The ETA system was introduced by the Howard government for citizens of advanced nations who have no history of illegally overstaying in Australia.

The Labor government recently expanded the list of nations whose citizens are eligible for fast-track visas to 64 but left Israel off the list — a decision critics said was in line with recent moves by the ALP to distance itself from Israel, including at the UN. It is understood the omission of Israel caused consternation in Jerusalem. Both the EU and Canada provide visa-free entry to Israelis.

An Abbott government would immediately direct that Israel be added to the list of nations whose citizens can access fast-track electronic visas for short-term visits to Australia.

Under a range of new policies — which are being directed by Mr Abbott with broad support within the opposition — the Coalition would seek to ban the Islamist extremist organisation Hizb Ut-Tahrir and prevent foreign members of the group coming to Australia to promote extremism. The Coalition will also seek fresh advice from ASIO on the question of banning the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Only the militant wings of these groups are currently banned in Australia, while the US, Canada and a number of Western nations have banned the entire organisations. Coalition policy documents draw attention to the fact that the US and Canada have banned more than twice as many terrorist organisations as Australia has.

The Coalition plans to make it more difficult for "preachers of hate" to visit Australia. It believes the federal government has the power to stop such visits on character grounds and should do so much more frequently. An Abbott government would also strengthen Australia's opposition to the BDS campaign by committing to a government-wide policy that prevents additional grants of taxpayers' funds to individuals and organisations that actively support the BDS campaign. The moves are widely supported in the Coalition but also reflect Mr Abbott's long-standing personal commitment to supporting Israel. He travelled independently to Israel as a young man and visited as an opposition MP before he became Liberal leader.

Mr Abbott and foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop believe Labor has deliberately moved away from its former close friendship with Israel, with its rhetoric becoming more critical. The Coalition opposed Labor's decision to abstain from — rather than vote against — the UN move to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status to that of an observer state late last year. The US, Israel and Canada voted against the proposal.

The Rudd government has recently described all Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank as "illegal". Israel argues that because the land is disputed, and its status to be negotiated, this term is incorrect. The US does not use the blanket label of illegal. The Coalition's stronger support for Israel and harder line on extremist organisations is the clearest foreign policy difference between the two sides of politics.

Both sides deny chemical attack in Syria
The Syrian government and its foes are both accusing each other
of using chemical weapons. Source: Sky News
Same Day 4:35PM
Drums of war sound amid UN probe into use of chemical weapons in Syria

UN experts will start investigating a suspected Syrian chemical attack as the US weighs military action, saying Syria's acceptance of the probe came too late. In an escalation of a showdown over the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week, the US and its Western allies pointed the finger of blame at President Bashar al-Assad's regime. "There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident," based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, as well as US and other foreign intelligence, one official in Washington told AFP.

French President Francois Hollande told his US counterpart Barack Obama that "everything was consistent" with the conclusion that Damascus was behind the attack. "The two presidents agreed to stay in close contact to arrive at a joint response to this unprecedented aggression," the French leader's office said.

And British Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned any evidence of a chemical attack may have been destroyed. "The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment," he said.

However, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault implied that a punitive strike on Syria was not imminent, in an interview with France 2 television. "Once this (UN) investigation has ended, we await a firm decision, a clear decision, from the international community. The (UN) Security Council will meet," he said.

A White House official also shot down a report in Britain's Telegraph newspaper claiming that London and Washington planned to join forces and launch military action against Syria "within days". "The president has not made a decision to undertake military action," the official said.

Britain's Mr Hague said that any evidence of a chemical attack by the Syrian regime may have already been destroyed, as inspectors start work today. "The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment," he said, referring to reported continued attacks on the area east of Damascus where the chemical attack is believed to have taken place. "Other evidence could have degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with," he added, during a press conference given shortly after Damascus gave its green light to a mission by UN inspectors.

The experts are Monday to start investigating the site of the alleged attack as a sceptical Washington said Syria's acceptance had come too late. Syria's opposition says more than 1300 people died when regime forces unleashed chemical weapons against rebel-held towns east and southwest of Damascus last Wednesday, while Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of "neurotoxic" symptoms. Damascus has strongly denied it, instead blaming the rebels.

Officials said Mr Obama, who held crisis talks on Saturday with top aides, would make an "informed decision" about how to respond to an "indiscriminate" chemical weapons attack. An official told AFP that based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, and US and foreign intelligence, "there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident."

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington had noted that Syria had offered to let UN inspectors view the site of the alleged attack on Monday, but suggested it was too little, too late. "If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN five days ago," the official said. "At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime's persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days."

Mr Hague also expressed concern that too much time had elapsed for the UN inspectors to gather enough concrete evidence. "We have to be realistic now about what the UN team can achieve," he said. However, he repeated his belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were responsible for the alleged attack, claiming "there is a lot of evidence already and it all points in one direction. We are clear in the British government that it was the Assad regime that carried out this large scale chemical attack," he added. "The eye witness accounts, the fact this area was under bombardment by the regime forces at the time that the chemical attack took place. If the regime believed somebody else had carried out this attack then they would have given access to the UN inspectors several days ago," he argued.

The minister said Britain was working with the international community to formulate a response, with Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama talking via telephone on Saturday. "They are agreed there must be a serious response by the international community," he explained. "We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it." He would not outline possible responses "for obvious reasons", but stressed it was "very important to act in accordance with international law and … to have widespread international support".

With the drums of a wider war beating, Syria's ally Moscow bluntly warned the West military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime would be a "tragic mistake". "We strongly urge those who, by attempting to impose their own results on the UN experts, are raising the possibility of a military operation in Syria to use their common sense and refrain from committing a tragic mistake," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Kasevich's said in a statement. More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad's rule flared in March 2011, the UN says.

US builds case for Syria attack in wake of chemical weapons use in Damascus
The Australian Online
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 10:16AM

THE United States is building a humanitarian and legal case for military action against Syria, rooted in the proposition that an "undeniable" chemical attack had shattered international codes of war. US rhetoric, led by an emotional indictment of Syria by Secretary of State John Kerry, is suddenly hawkish: a remarkable turn, since the White House has spent months trying to halt a slide into another Middle Eastern war.

Officials cautioned that no final decisions on force nor a timeline for action had been made. There was however a growing sense in Washington that the clock was relentlessly ticking down towards US strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime: the only questions were when and how.

The shift in tone has been swift. Late last week, President Barack Obama was warning about the danger of new entanglements in a blood-soaked region, which may not "turn out well and get us mired in very difficult situations." But it was clear a combination of what Kerry called "gut-wrenching" footage of dying children in a Damascus suburb last week, and what officials see as solid intelligence of regime culpability, shifted the US position over the weekend.

The administration made a dual case: that the use of such heinous arms against civilians, regarded by the world as taboo for decades, must not stand. Also, they argue, US national interests are now at stake. Mr Kerry — perhaps eyeing Russia, the Syrian ally which has warned the West not to make a "grave mistake" — said "common humanity" dictates the need to ensure the attack last week is not repeated.

And with polls showing antipathy among Americans for another Middle East misadventure, the White House began to make a domestic political argument. "The use of these weapons on a mass scale, and the potential risk of proliferation, is a threat to our national interests," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Any final case for military action would likely be made by Mr Obama himself to the American people, in a national address, for which Mr Kerry's remarks at a State Department press conference clearly laid the groundwork.

It was unclear exactly which international law statutes the administration will use to build its case, but the 1925 Geneva Protocol — though never fully ratified — provides a codified framework outlawing the use of poison gases in war. The administration has also made clear that it will not go it alone. While a UN Security Council resolution authorizing force would likely draw a Russian veto, the precedent for action by an international coalition without such a mandate was set by the 1990s Kosovo conflict.

Any US military action in Syria would likely be constrained in scope — likely to start with cruise missile strikes launched from US, and possibly allied, ships and submarines. Analysts say possible targets could include military units implicated in the attack last week, which opposition forces say killed up to 1,300 people. Any strike must be sufficiently punitive to deter further use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons. But there is no appetite in Washington for prolonged involvement — the mantra is "no boots on the ground" and senior officials say the notion of a "no-fly" zone in Syria is not on the table.

Stiffened US rhetoric appears to offer Mr Obama little wiggle room. The same is true of his warning a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a US "red line" — comments which placed presidential credibility on the line. "I think a response is imminent," Republican Senator Bob Corker said. "I think you are going to see a surgical, proportional strike against the Assad regime for what they have done and I support that," Senator Corker said on MSNBC.

Republican House Armed Services committee chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon agreed, saying there can be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons. "The president cannot fail to act decisively," he said.

Mr Obama has spent months trying to avoid being sucked into a war which has killed at least 100,000 people, after extracting US troops from Iraq, and as he brings them home from Afghanistan. His defenders point out he is hardly a reluctant commander-in-chief: he leads a ruthless drone war worldwide and risked his presidency to kill Osama bin Laden. But his instincts are to avoid new foreign quagmires and he built his political career on raging against "dumb wars." A Syrian campaign would also threaten Mr Obama's chosen legacy — one of ending wars, not of opening new fronts.

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