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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A UN armored vehicle leaves the UNDOF camp to cross between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Friday. Eight UN peacekeepers were withdrawn from Syria to the camp due to concerns about their safety amid fighting between rebels and government forces in Syria. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

UN peacekeepers pull out of Syrian-Israeli DMZ as civil war edges closer

By Staff writer / 03.08.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

In a stark illustration of how the Syrian civil war has the potential to end decades of calm in its neighbors as well, eight United Nations peacekeepers working in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria abandoned their posts today, saying they "feared for their lives."

Haaretz reports that the eight soldiers are in the same battalion as the 21 Filipino peacekeepers who were captured by Syrian rebels Wednesday. The captured UN peacekeepers were taken near the Syrian town of Jamlah, less than a mile from the border and the site of fierce fighting between regime and rebel troops. The rebels say they are holding the peacekeepers until Syrian Army troops leave the area around Jamlah.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have brought the eight who left their posts today into Israel in coordination with the UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) command. 

The UN has monitored the Golan Heights cease-fire line between Israel and Syria since 1974, when a demilitarized zone was formed between Israel and Syria following the1973 war. The border has been consistently quiet in the almost-four decades since the war's conclusion.

The rebels holding the peacekeepers said today that no talks are underway to free the captives and that they would not be released anytime soon, Reuters reports. In videos released yesterday, the peacekeepers said they were "being treated well."

Abu Essam Taseel, a spokesman for the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade holding the peacekeepers, said that they had failed in their responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area, as mandated by a 1974 agreement. A "limited" number of tanks and troops are permitted within 13 miles of the disengagement line, Reuters reports. Taseel said that Syrian Army warplanes were bombing the rebels within a half-mile.

The UN reported in December that both the Army and rebels had violated the agreement and entered the demilitarized area and the Army has "affected adversely" UNDOF operations. Errant Syrian shelling has landed in Israeli territory multiple times in the past year.

In the report, the UN warned that "Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries."

UNDOF, which has enforced a truce that has lasted almost four decades, is considered one of the most successful UN missions in the world, Timor Goksel, a former senior UN official in the region, told the Associated Press. Much of the credit for that is attributed to President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez.

Goksel, who works for the Al-Monitor news website, said the observers are "soft targets" in Syria's increasingly brutal civil war. Up to now they were "never challenged by anybody in Syria," he added.

The monitors' success may have been linked to a decision by Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, to comply with the armistice deal, including limits on military hardware allowed near the cease-fire line.

Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria, said the UN mission's success was largely due to the Assads' decision to abide by the truce.

"When you are dealing with an army that follows orders, it is one thing," Maoz said. "Now you have different groups. They do not recognize international law and have no respect for any law or international morals. They are terrorist groups that know no bounds."

A halt to UNDOF operations would be "a bad thing for peace" an Israeli official told AP. UN officials said yesterday that security for UNDOF soldiers will "almost certainly" be "reexamined" after the incident. 

The Arab League's pronouncement yesterday that it would allow its members to arm the Syrian rebels – something the Gulf states are widely believed to already be doing – is likely to only increase the number of weapons flowing into the country.

At the end of yesterday's meeting in Cairo, a final statement was released that "stressed the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self defense, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free (Syrian) Army," Reuters reports.

Lebanon, Iraq, and Algeria "refused to endorse" the statement. Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour warned after the meeting that the League's decision endangered his country, The Daily Star reports.

“We should be aware of the seriousness of what will come in the near future as a result of the decision to provide arms to Syria,” he said.

“Syria will become an open [battlefield],” he said.

“How will the weapons enter the country?” Mr. Mansour asked, adding: “They will not be carried by flying birds of course but will pass through neighboring countries.”

“How can we immunize the Lebanese borders to that?” he asked.

Lebanon is perhaps the most at risk of destabilization. Its porous border with Syria is tense, with both rebel fighters and Hezbollah fighters fighting with the Syrian regime crossing constantly between the two countries, prompting threats to bring the fighting itself into Lebanon. 

The Lebanese government has a strict policy of "disassociation" from Syria's conflict, and Mr. Mansour was slammed for what many Lebanese called a deviation from government policy by not going along with the Arab League decision and for calling for the reinstatement of Damascus's seat with the organization.

“I did not give up on Lebanon’s self dissociation policy. I did not take a side with any of those fighting in Syria,” Mansour defended himself.

A member of the Al Yarmouk Martyr brigade makes a statement in front of a white vehicle with 'UN' written on it at what said to be Jamla, Syria near the Golan Heights on March 6, 2013 in this still image taken from video posted on a social media website. (Social Media Website via Reuters TV/REUTERS)

Syrian rebels: UN peacekeepers captured in Golan are our 'guests' (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.07.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Talks are underway to free 21 UN peacekeepers seized by Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights yesterday, after the rebel group appeared to roll back its initial demands and instead declared the Filipino peacekeepers to be "guests" that they rescued.

The Philippine government said today that the troops, part of the UN's observer mission to Golan Heights to monitor the Syrian-Israeli border, were in good health and were being treated as "visitors and guests" by their captors, according to the Associated Press.

The peacekeepers' capture became public after a video was posted on the Facebook page of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a relatively unknown group of Syrian rebels. Monitor reports that in the video, a fighter, standing in front of a UN-marked vehicle, demanded that "America and the UN Security Council" comply with the group's demands to ensure the peacekeepers' release.

"We demand from the US, the UN and the Security Council the complete withdrawal of the troops of Bashar al-Assad to release those captives… If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners," said a young man who identified himself as Abu Kayed al-Fahel, standing beside white-painted UN vehicles and speaking to the camera. He accused the UN troops of collaborating with Assad's forces to push the rebels out of Jamla.

But today The Washington Post reports that the video has been removed from the group's Facebook page, replaced with claims that the group rescued the UN peacekeepers from fighting in the area.

“With God’s help we managed to secure a group of UN members working in the border town of Jamleh after they were victims of the criminal shelling of Assad’s gangs,” the statement said. “We request from the United Nations to send us a security convoy so that we can deliver them to the organization.”

“We have nothing to do with any of the old statements before this one,” added the posting on the brigade’s Facebook page.

The peacekeepers are part of the UN mission that has patrolled a narrow zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces since 1974. The unarmed troops do not provide aid or other support to locals in the region, though Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog notes that they have on occasion provided medical treatment to both rebels and government soldiers.

Though the incident appears to now be headed towards a peaceful conclusion, it highlights the chaos that the Syrian conflict is causing among its neighbors. Earlier this week, some four-dozen Syrian army troops were killed by Islamist militants inside Iraq, where the soldiers had fled after fighting rebel forces. And the UN announced that the conflict had driven 1 million Syrians out of their country, primarily into Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – the last of which is currently building a string of fortified watchtowers along its porous border with Syria. Lebanon has become a de facto extension of the Syrian battlefield, as rebels hiding in Lebanon frequently exchange fire with Assad loyalists on the other side.

The Israeli-Syrian border has been comparatively peaceful, though Agence France-Presse reports that the Israeli government expressed concern that the peacekeepers' capture may cause the UN to rethink its mission in the Golan Heights.

"This kidnapping is likely to convince countries who participate in this force to bring their troops home, which would undoubtedly create a dangerous vacuum in no-man's land on the Golan," an Israeli official said.

The top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said Israeli officials feared that "Al-Qaeda members will take control of the buffer zone."

But the Israeli government added today that it would not get involved in the hostage situation, and that "The United Nations ... can be trusted to persuade them [the rebels] ultimately to free them," according to Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official.

Syrian refugees collect aid and rations at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, March 6. Most of the Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, though AFP adds that North Africa and Europe have also seen an uptick of Syrians trying to escape the conflict. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Nearly 1 in 20 Syrians are now refugees (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.06.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The United Nations announced Wednesday that one million Syrians – nearly 1 out of every 20 people in the country – have fled the civil war, threatening a "full-scale disaster" in the country.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said that the one million count included both registered refugees and those awaiting registration, with 400,000 of those coming just since the beginning of this yearAgence France-Presse reports.

"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement issued in Geneva.

"We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped."

AFP notes that a year ago, the UN only tallied 30,000 refugees. The CIA estimated Syria's population to be 22.5 million in 2012.

Most of the refugees have fled to neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, though AFP adds that North Africa and Europe have also seen an uptick of Syrians trying to escape the conflict.

Lebanon, which abuts some of the country's most populated regions, is under particular stress from the Syrian exodus. The Daily Star reports that more than 325,000 Syrians and 25,000 Palestinians living in Syria have fled across the border into Lebanon, threatening to overwhelm the country's limited resources.

During a visit to Lebanon yesterday, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle said that the Commission would give 30 million euros ($39 million) in aid to Lebanon "within weeks" to help with the refugee crisis, the Daily Star reports.

In addition to noting the expected speed with which the money will be delivered, Füle highlighted that “for the first time [the money] will be made available ... for not only meeting the needs of refugees themselves, but also [for] meeting the needs of the hosting communities, because we realize that this increased number is quite a strain on Lebanon and its citizens.”

He said the money targeted at host communities would be used to “improve the capacity of local communities and municipalities and in some cases [to help] ... families to cope with this extra burden.”

Mr. Füle warned, however, that "more work needs to be done for the government to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow."

The conflict in Syria has also stirred up divisions in Lebanese politics, which have long been influenced by both current President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad. The Daily Star reports that members of the Future Movement opposition, led by Rafik Hariri, yesterday called for Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour to resign over his refusal to issue official complaints to the Syrian government after Syrian artillery shelled Lebanese territory.

The Daily Star reports that Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, and President Michel Sleiman, a Christian, told Mr. Mansour, a Shiite, to file such complaints, but the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon said that he had not been contacted by Mansour, and that Syria would continue to target rebels in Lebanon. The Assad regime is made up mostly of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. 

Mr. Mikati criticized Mansour publicly on Monday, warning that "The prime minister decides what the government’s stance is and Lebanon will remain committed to the policy of disassociation" from the Syrian civil war.

Iraqi police stand guard during foot patrol at Rabia, near the main border between Iraq and Syria on Saturday. Dozens of Syrian Army soldiers were killed yesterday after seeking refuge in Iraq, amplifying concerns of Syrian violence spilling across its borders and destabilizing its neighbors. (Khalid al-Mousuly/Reuters)

Syria's violence continues its march across borders, into Iraq

By Staff writer / 03.05.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Dozens of Syrian Army soldiers were killed in an ambush after seeking refuge in Iraq yesterday, amplifying concerns of Syrian violence spilling across its borders and destabilizing its neighbors.

The soldiers were attacked in Anbar province with bombs, grenades, and gunfire while being transported back into Syria by the Iraqi Army, reports The Associated Press. An estimated 48 Syrian soldiers, who were seeking a temporary reprieve from fighting with rebels over the border, and at least six Iraqi military personnel were killed. It was the first such killing of Syrians in Iraq since the conflict began two years ago, reports The Wall Street Journal

It is unclear who was responsible for the ambush, but Jassim al-Halbousi, provincial council member in Anbar, told the Associated Press, “This attack bears the hallmarks of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization,” adding that the borders need to be secured “at the highest level of alert.”

At the time of the ambush, the Syrian soldiers were being transported to a different border crossing, south of where they originally entered the country. According to AP, the Iraqi government insists it allowed the soldiers into the country on "humanitarian grounds" and is "not picking sides in the Syrian conflict."

"We do not want more soldiers to cross our borders and we do not want to be part of the problem," said Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister. "We do not support any group against the other in Syria."

The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad's apparent willingness to quietly aid the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on al-Qaeda's Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels' most potent fighters.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state-owned Iraqia Television broadcast a ministry of defense statement warning "all fighting sides in Syria not to move their armed conflict into Iraqi lands, or violate the security of the Iraqi border.”

The New York Times reports that Iraq has said it will deploy more soldiers to its border with Syria, raising fears among Middle East experts that Iraq, still fragile from its own sectarian war, will become further embroiled in the conflict next door. According to the Times, “The attack threatens to inflame the sectarian tensions that already divide Iraq, where a Sunni minority sympathizes with Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni opposition.”

Middle East analyst Juan Cole wrote today that the violent spillover into Iraq is a concerning development for regional sectarian violence.

Alarabiya was reporting Tuesday morning Iraqi time that Iraqi tanks had advanced on the Free Syrian Army checkpoint at al-Ya`rabiya, presumably seeking revenge for the ambush. That isn’t a good sign, to have an Iraqi-Syrian border clash….

Shiite-ruled Iraq faces an on-going guerrilla war from radical Sunnis, some of them apparently now fighting in Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In addition, the Sunni Arab population of the west and the north of the country, about a fifth of the population, has been demonstrating peacefully against the al-Maliki government, with large rallies, for several months. Al-Maliki is afraid that if the Sunni radicals win Damascus, there will be severe effects on Mosul and Ramadi. Indeed, those effects may already have begun.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential blog Syria Comment, told the Times, “A number of us have been saying that Iraq is the one most affected by the meltdown in Syria.”

Mr. Landis added that, “In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood.…They’re in one common struggle.”

Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told AP that the fact that the soldiers were allowed to enter Iraq in the first place worries him.

"If this goes on, al-Maliki's government is aligning itself with Iran and the Assad regime against the rest of the Middle East and the will of the Syrian people," Mr. Dodge said. "That is a huge gamble."

Unlike Iran and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Maliki has not expressed “outright support” for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Times reports.

Others in the region are concerned about spillover as well, with Israel telling the United Nations Security Council yesterday that it can’t be expected to do nothing as the Syrian conflict breaches its borders, according to Reuters. “Israel cannot be expected to stand idle as the lives of its citizens are being put at risk by the Syrian government's reckless actions," Israeli UN Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote to the Security Council. "Israel has shown maximum restraint thus far."

Errant Syrian fire has landed in Israeli territory multiple times since the conflict began. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Israel has taken steps to prepare the border region for the possibility of violence, installing a new fence and surveillance cameras and the deploying troops in the area. 

Violence – which has killed at least 70,000 people since the conflict began in 2011 – isn’t the only thing reaching into neighboring countries. The UN expects the number of refugees, who have settled mainly in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, to reach 1 million this week, reports The Washington Post.

[O]fficials say Syrians fleeing alleged massacres and Damascus’s fresh bombing campaigns are stepping into a growing humanitarian catastrophe, either in overcrowded camps with little to offer or, even more frequently, in urban areas that struggle to support them and where the welcome has worn thin.

The crisis is compounded by a growing funding gap, which U.N. agencies say is forcing cutbacks on basic supplies and shelter.

Although the international community pledged to meet a $1.5 billion U.N. appeal in December for aid to Syrian refugees, the U.N. refu­gee agency says it has yet to receive 20 percent of the promised money. In any case, the requested assistance was set to cover the needs of what was then a regional growth of about 1,500 new refugees per day — a mere quarter of the average number now entering neighboring countries daily.

Pakistanis gather at the site of a Sunday evening car bombing, that killed scores of people, in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday. Members of Pakistan's Shiite community were digging Monday through the rubble of a massive car bombing that targeted members of the minority sect leaving a mosque. (Shakil Adil/AP)

Pressure mounts on Pakistan to secure Shiites after Karachi blast

By Staff writer, Staff writer / 03.04.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A massive bombing in a Shiite neighborhood of Karachi claimed two more lives today when gunmen opened fire as crowds returned from the funeral of some of those killed in yesterday's incident.

Pakistan's The News International reports that 48 were killed and more than 140 injured when a bomb went off as Shiites left a local mosque yesterday. It was the latest in a slew of suspected Sunni militant attacks on Pakistani Shiites.

Most suspect that Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is behind this attack, although no one has claimed responsibility so far. As The Christian Science Monitor reported last year, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi publicly declared that Pakistan's Hazara Shiites are "worthy of killing" because of their beliefs, which they consider heretic.  

Over the past year, the Shiite community has grown more vocal in protesting the lack of security for their community in Pakistan. The Associated Press reports that local Shiites protested after the funerals today, demanding better police protection.

Thousands of people thronged a main road in Karachi Monday for the funeral service. Many beat their chests and heads and chanted "Stop the brutal attacks!" They called on the government to take action against militant groups responsible for the attacks.

"Terrorists are killing us everywhere, but the state is nowhere to be seen," said Intizar Hussain, whose father died in the bombing.

Last year was one of the deadliest for Shiites in Pakistani history, with more than 400 Shiites killed across the country, according to Human Rights Watch. But 2013, with nearly 250 already killed only two months into the year, looks set to top it. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for the two other attacks with mass casualties this year, both in the southwestern city of Quetta, home to much of Pakistan's ethnic Hazara community.

After the first of the attacks in January, Hazara Shiite activists refused to bury their dead and instead blocked a road with 86 coffins. The protest captured nationwide attention in Pakistan, as the Monitor noted at the time:

The protests are also receiving support from beyond the elite who tweet and take up civil society causes. Populist politician Imran Khan also traveled to Quetta, addressed the families of the victims, and demanded action to be taken against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – something that politicians in Pakistan are often scared of doing for fear of reprisal attacks or angering the military establishment that many say backs the group.

The fact that one of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi's leaders gave a public address in Karachi immediately following the January attack buttressed the perception that Pakistan was not trying hard enough to protect minority Shiites. Subsequently, Pakistan arrested Malik Ishaq and is talking tougher against the group, with the country's colorful Interior Minister blaming the group for 80 percent of the terrorist activity in the country, a figure The New York Times said "may be an exaggeration."

The Times also expresses some skepticism about Pakistan's commitment to tackle the group, writing that "[a]lthough the army has carried out sweeping military operations against the Pakistani Taliban since 2009, it has avoided a full-frontal confrontation with the country’s sectarian groups. In some parts of the country, the military and conservative political parties have faced accusations of collusion with sectarian groups."

Those accusations of ties between state elements and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have their roots in the history of the militant group. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is an offshoot of an earlier anti-Shiite organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba. A US Department of State cable released by WikiLeaks in 2011 state that the Pakistani government in the 1980s backed Sipah-e-Sahaba "in a move to counter Shia Iran’s influence in Pakistan." 

Although Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has carried on the anti-Shiite agenda, it also joined forces with jihadi groups including Al Qaeda to combat the US in South Asia after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the State Department cable. The Pakistani government officially banned the group in August 2001. However, bans of such groups have been unevenly enforced in Pakistan. 

The official ban hasn't dissuaded some regional leaders from suggesting that elements of the Pakistani state sometimes find the group useful, the Monitor reported last year: 

Some [Hazara Shiite] leaders further allege that the government turns a blind eye to Sunni militants in the hopes of distracting ethnic Baloch from their long-simmering, secular nationalist fight. 

Pakistan's security establishment has traditionally viewed ethnic nationalism as a more present danger to the state than Islamic militants, which it has used as tools of foreign policy across the border in Afghanistan

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has carried out attacks in Afghanistan, including a December suicide attack in Kabul that killed 80 people. Today, Afghanistan's Attorney General Eshaq Aloko said that though Lashkar-e-Jhangvi planned the attack, “it was masterminded by some spy agencies in our neighboring countries.” His comments are seen as a “veiled reference to Pakistan intelligence,” according to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

All eyes are now on Pakistan's response to the latest carnage in Karachi as protests mount inside the country against the sectarian violence. 

Filipino residents of the Malaysian state of Sabah arrive with their belongings at the port of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in southern Philippines early Monday, March 4, 2013 after fleeing Lahad Datu district of Sabah. (Nickee Butlangan/AP)

Malaysia standoff in Borneo spurs concern about broader repercussions

By Staff writer / 03.04.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The death toll has risen to at least 31 people over the weekend following a standoff between Malaysian authorities and Filipino militants, who stormed the island of Borneo three weeks ago and refused to leave.

Observers fear the incident could have broader domestic repercussions in Malaysia and the Philippines

Yesterday Malaysian police said unidentified armed men attacked and killed at least six security officials in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah, reports The Wall Street Journal. These deaths came just days after 14 people – two Malaysian and 12 Filipino – were killed in clashes between Malaysian security forces and the militants who claim to represent the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu.

In early February, more than 100 followers of the Sultan of Sulu reignited a centuries-old land dispute by traveling to Sabah and refusing to abandon claims to the territory, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The sultanate, or the territory the sultan governed, existed from the late 15th century until the late 19th century, governing Muslims spanning parts of Sulu and northern Borneo. 

Though the sultanate is not recognized anymore internationally as a governing entity, Malaysia still pays a token "rental fee" to the heirs of the last sultan.

This isn’t the first incursion of the resource-rich state of Sabah, reports Agence France-Presse. Past raids were largely orchestrated by Filipino Islamic militant groups traveling from southern Philippines.

Both the Malaysian and Filipino navies have been deployed in the area, and The New York Times reports that Malaysian security forces are doubling their presence in Sabah. The militants say reinforcements are arriving from the Philippines to support their claim to the land. The Filipino president sent social workers, medics, and Filipino-Muslims to try to bring about the Sulu militant group’s withdrawal.

The stakes are high as the scenario not only raises tensions between Filipinos and those who reside in Sabah, but also puts a spotlight on domestic issues. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The conflict is an awkward one for both the Malaysian and Philippine governments. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected a call national elections in the coming months, and can't afford to look weak on security issues. Officials in the Philippines, meanwhile, worry that the standoff is designed to sabotage a fragile peace process between the government and main Muslim rebel group in the south of the country, which analysts say could hamper the growth of Islamist militant networks across the whole of Southeast Asia.

The Malaysian state news agency Bernama quoted the Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying, “The people of Sabah should not be fearful of their safety,”  according to The New York Times. Mr. Razak said the violence had been contained to three areas in Sabah and that Malaysian forces were on the ground working to end the standoff.

“Let’s give them the opportunity and time to carry out their operations and overpower the group and rescue those in need,” Razak said. He warned Saturday that the men will either surrender “or face consequences if they refuse,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The rebels have already ignored two deadlines to leave.

A man named Jamalul Kiram III led the invaders to Sabah, however, and according to the Times, there are several people who claim to be the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, and some members of the clan disagree with the actions currently being undertaken by Mr. Kiram and his followers fighting there.

His daughter told a Malaysian radio station this weekend that Kiram is not likely to back down from his claims to the land. "The decision remains the same. They will not return here because honor is worth more than life," Jacel Kiram, one of Kiram's daughters, told Manila-based radio station DZBB, according to the Wall Street Journal. "What is life without honor?"

In fact, Free Malaysia Today reports that instead of heeding calls to retreat, Kiram “wants the United Nations, the United States and the United Kingdom to intervene in his claim over Sabah.”

The Sulu militants’ continued refusal to depart from Sabah caused Filipino President Benigno Aquino III to announce that the group must “surrender without condition.”

This has raised ire among Muslim groups in the Philippines, who feel their own peace accords with the government have been affected by the Sulu standoff, reports Time.

Bangladeshi activists celebrate the death sentence awarded to Delawar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday. The verdict against Sayedee highlighted the deep rifts that still exist in Bangladesh 42 years after independence from Pakistan. (A.M. Ahad/AP)

Sentencing of Islamist leader brings unhealed rifts to surface in Bangladesh

By Staff writer / 03.01.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

More than 40 people have died and hundreds have been injured in clashes in Bangladesh after a war crimes tribunal yesterday sentenced an Islamist leader to death for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Delawar Hossain Sayedee, vice president of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islamifaced 19 charges, including rape, forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, and collaborating with the Pakistani Army to kill unarmed civilians, according to Bloomberg. Eight of the charges were proved “beyond reasonable doubt,” according to prosecutors. He is the third leader of the Jamaat party to be convicted by the tribunal.

The verdict against Sayedee highlighted the deep rifts that still exist in Bangladesh 42 years after independence from Pakistan. As thousands came out in the streets in jubilation over a sense of justice for war crimes yesterday, waving flags and hugging each other, backers of opposition parties protested the courts decision as politically motivated, reports the Guardian. Protesters clashed in more than a dozen areas around the country, according to Reuters.

Protesters set fire to a Hindu temple and homes south of the capital, Dhaka, and additional police were deployed amid fears that there would be further violence after Friday prayers. The Islamic Foundation, run by the ministry of religious affairs, asked area mosques not to inflame the situation as the Jamaat party announced a two-day strike protesting the verdict, set to begin on Sunday.

The newspaper The Hindu called Sayedee’s case the “most sensational war crimes case so far.”

The war crimes tribunal was created in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, who was Bangladesh's leader during the independence war. The judges noted in their verdict that international law does not impose a statute of limitations on war crimes.

“As judges of this tribunal, we firmly hold and believe in the doctrine that ‘justice in the future cannot be achieved unless injustice of the past is addressed,’ ” Justice A. T. M. Fazle Kabir commented in a written summary of the judgment, reports The New York Times.

The protests for and against Jamaat have convulsed Bangladeshi politics, demonstrating that the country has still not healed from the bloody 1971 conflict, in which an estimated three million people were killed and thousands of women were raped. Before the war, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, separated from the rest of that country by a wide expanse of India. The war pitted Bangladeshi separatists against Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators, who were known then as the Razakar Bahini.

"I didn't commit any crime and the judges are not giving the verdict from the core of their heart," Sayedee told the tribunal, Reuters reports.

Detractors say the tribunal – which has been criticized by human rights groups for not following international standards – is being used by Prime Minister Hasina to take out political opponents. Jamaat is one of the two biggest opposition parties in the country, alongside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Nine other people, mostly Jamaat party members, are also facing war crimes charges, reports Reuters. Hasina’s party denies the accusations of politicizing the tribunal.

The Times reports that despite charges of a political witch hunt, “to many Bangladeshis, the real injustice has been that war criminals have remained free for decades.”

Yesterday’s protests weren’t the first: They have been ongoing, but markedly less violent, since a Feb. 5 conviction of Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was sentenced to life in prison. Upwards of 200,000 protesters came out to Shahbagh square in Dhaka. 

“Many political analysts say the Shahbagh protests are the most significant spontaneous political movement in Bangladesh in decades,” reports The Times. “Though the movement may be suffused with idealism and proud nationalism, it also bears a hard edge, with demands for the execution of convicted war criminals.”

Sultana Kamal, a prominent human rights leader in Dhaka, said that she disagreed with the calls for the death penalty, but that they reflected the cynicism of Bangladeshis who have seen war criminals evade punishment for decades….

“We have a problem in accepting that they are demanding the death penalty,” Ms. Kamal said in a telephone interview. “But we understand that it was from a nervousness among the people here that unless they are given the highest penalty in the land, these people will come back out.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) talks to Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib during an international conference on Syria at Villa Madama, Rome, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. (Riccardo De Luca/AP)

US will send nonlethal aid directly to Syrian rebels (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.28.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The United States is planning to boost the size and scope of its aid to Syria, a policy shift announced at an international conference on Syria in Rome today.

Aid will remain nonlethal, but for the first time, it will be sent to Free Syrian Army fighters battling the government, reports Reuters. In the past, aid has only gone to unarmed groups and local councils. Secretary of State John Kerry also announced the US government will more than double aid for Syrian civilians, pledging $60 million.

“No nation, no people should live in fear of their so-called leaders,” Mr. Kerry said.

Other European nations are expected to provide further assistance to the opposition, as well, potentially including “defensive military hardware,” reports The Associated Press.

"We want to help the Syrian opposition to better be able to meet the needs of the Syrian people," Kerry said at a news conference in Paris yesterday. "They've had difficulty doing that now. And some folks on the ground that we don't support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help."

According to The New York Times, nonlethal aid could possibly go beyond food and medical equipment, including things such as night-vision devices, vehicles, or communications equipment. “[O]ne official said that the financing the United States planned to send to the resistance might indirectly help the rebels arm themselves as it might free up other funds to purchase weapons,” reports the Times.

Today’s meeting in Rome of The Friends of Syria group – made up of the Syrian opposition and 11 foreign powers that support them – comes days before a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Turkey. According to Al Jazeera, at the Istanbul meeting the main Syrian opposition group is expected to “elect a prime minister and government to run parts of Syria seized from [President Bashar al-]Assad’s control.”

According to the Times, a primary goal of the US is to support the opposition in strengthening its credibility among the Syrian population. 

Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has provided $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians. American officials are increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon….

To blunt the power of extremist groups, the United States wants to help the Syrian Opposition Council, the coalition of Syrian resistance leaders it backs and helped organize, deliver basic services in areas that have been wrested from the control of the Assad government.

A US State Department official said that Washington wanted to help the opposition maintain "the institutions of the state" in areas under their control, reports Al Jazeera.

"We're talking about basic services, water, electricity – but also [to] build up new institutions in terms of governance, rule of law, police," State Department deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.

Another potential reason behind the US policy shift in Syria is to send a message to Mr. Assad that rebels have the support and capability to ultimately succeed, providing an impetuous for negotiating a political transition, reports the Times.

“He needs to know that he can’t shoot his way out of this,” Kerry said of Assad.

According to AP:

The U.S. will be sending technical advisers to the Syrian National Coalition offices in Cairo to oversee and help them spend the money for good governance and rule of law. The advisers will be from non-governmental organizations and other groups that do this kind of work.

Attendees at today’s meeting also condemned countries providing weapons and support to Assad, a separate Reuters story reports. Iran is suspected of supplying weapons and military support to the regime, and Russia has openly noted its provisions of military equipment.

“The United States’ decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah,” Kerry said.

Earlier this week Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Berlin, raising hopes for the possibility of bringing Assad and rebel groups to a negotiating table, reports The Christian Science Monitor. Russian experts say Russia is making strides in that regard, and that it’s now the US’s duty to convince rebel groups that the best solution is engaging in talks.

"I think it's clear that Russia can deliver the Assad regime on this point, and bring them to the table for talks with the rebels," says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center, an independent Moscow-based security think tank.

"Russian diplomacy has been pretty consistent on the need for such talks and Moscow is ready to do its part. But I would think it's the US that has a problem here. If Washington is going to change its approach, and come out in favor of negotiations, it may find itself unable to bring the rebels to the table. The Syrian rebels are very fragmented, have little common ground, and some of them are completely intransigent. Some of them didn't even want to go to Rome, to sit down with their friends, much less engage in talks with the Assad regime," he says.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 70,000 people have died in the two-year Syrian conflict. In addition, UN official António Guterres said the UN refugee agency has registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, which is almost 30 times as many people as registered in April last year, reports Al Jazeera. The number of refugees is expected to exceed 1 million within a month.

Dennis Rodman, famous for his rebounding on the court and his flamboyant, quirky persona off it, is surrounded by journalists upon arrival at Pyongyang Airport, North Korea, Tuesday. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday, becoming an unlikely ambassador for sports diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions between the US and North Korea. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

Can Dennis Rodman's 'basketball diplomacy' make a difference in North Korea? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.27.13

Dennis Rodman, famous for his rebounding on the court and his flamboyant, quirky persona off it, is not the typical cultural attache for the US. But that's the role he's playing this week in North Korea.

The Associated Press reports that Mr. Rodman's trip, made with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, is a show of "basketball diplomacy" according to Vice Media founder Shane Smith, whose company is filming the trip for an HBO documentary set to air in April.

"Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes," said Smith, who is host of the upcoming series. "But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing."

Rodman's visit to North Korea comes at a precarious time. The country conducted its third nuclear weapons test earlier this month to broad international condemnation, and Pyongyang has engaged in high-profile saber-rattling in recent weeks, including a warning this past weekend of "miserable destruction" if the United States and South Korea go ahead with a planned joint naval exercise next month.

But the AP notes that basketball might be a common ground between foreigners and the average North Korean, writing that "basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it's not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards." North Koreans also know of and idolize Michael Jordan, with whom Rodman played in the 1990s.

(The AP adds that Rodman may not have the same level of recognition as Mr. Jordan, however. When shown a photo of the snarling, tattooed Rodman, one North Korean man said that "He looks like a monster!")

The Los Angeles Times reports that some argue Rodman's visit may be a way to offset the harsh political rhetoric between North Korea and the outside world, as it could help show that the West is not what Pyongyang portrays it to be.

“Purely a stick with no carrot is not a productive policy. It’s important to send both messages -– that the U.S. is not pleased with North Korea’s latest actions, but to leave the door open,” said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.

“It also helps expose North Koreans to an image of the U.S. that is not the relentless negative one you see in official propaganda, showing them Americans are normal human beings -- although perhaps ‘normal human being’ doesn’t quite apply to Dennis Rodman,” he added.

But the Times notes that Rodman's visit to North Korea – like the visit of Google chairman Eric Schmidt in January – also boosts Pyongyang's positioning: “This is a calibrated message to the outside world that if diplomats don’t want to come to us, industry leaders will,” said Jae H. Ku, director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The Washington Post's Max Fisher adds that Rodman and the Globetrotters are not exactly going to be wandering freely among the North Korean populace; he's effectively a tourist, and North Korean tourism is highly controlled.  Mr. Fisher cites B.R. Myers, a scholar who has studied North Korea, who discussed the topic with him several months ago.

“Many tourists — and all of the foreign tour operators — assuage their consciences by telling themselves they are furthering the cause of peace or reform by building trust, breaking down barriers, and so on,” Myers told me over e-mail. “This is nonsense.”

“For one thing,” Myers wrote, “all the tourists are talking to the same tiny bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies. For another, individual interactions, however friendly they might be, neither reflect nor have the slightest effect on how people feel as members of one group, race or nation vis a vis another.”

...

"What many American travelers overlook is that by respectfully visiting North Korean tourist sites in view of the locals, they are serving to reinforce the personality cult, just as those foreigners did in earlier decades who allowed themselves to be photographed while grinning down at one of Kim Il Sung’s books. It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides’ pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance."

And one can't dismiss the possibility of a diplomatic misstep by the visiting basketballers. Rodman has already indicated that he may not be fully versed on the Koreas, tweeting that "Maybe I'll run into the Gangnam Style dude while I'm here," referring to internationally famous rapper Psy.  Psy is from South Korea.

Israeli explosives experts stand by an rocket fired from the northern Gaza Strip that landed near the costal city of Ashkelon, Tuesday. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Amid Palestinian protests, Gaza militants fire rocket into Israel

By Staff writer / 02.26.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas strained to tamp down tensions in the West Bank as Palestinians protested by the thousands and called for a third intifada, and militants in Gaza broke a November cease-fire by firing a rocket into southern Israel.

"The Israelis want chaos.... We will not allow them to drag us into it and to mess with the lives of our children and our youth," Mr. Abbas said, according to Reuters, as he sought to cool tensions and cast the uptick in Palestinian anger as a result of Israeli incitement.

But Abbas is up against formidable voices who seem to see another uprising as the inevitable result of days of large-scale protests across the West Bank against conditions for Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons, sparked by the Feb. 23 death of one such inmate.

This is the new intifada,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a rival to Abbas in the 2005 presidential election, according to Bloomberg. “A popular resistance has started.” Calls for a third intifada come despite the fact that public sentiment still largely opposes a full uprising. 

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the most recent protests come on top of frustration about the seemingly endless Israeli occupation and settlement growth, as well as Israeli and international inaction.

“The issue of the prisoners is only one point that created this eruption,” said Sheikh Issa Jaradat, the former mayor of Sair, at the funeral for deceased prisoner Arafat Jaradat. People filled every rooftop, balcony, and open patch of grass surrounding the village square as Jaradat’s coffin was carried through the crowd, sparking fierce whistling and a few gunshots.

“The fact that so many people are here shows that this is not just about the suffering of Sair. The whole West Bank is suffering,” says the sheikh. “This could easily be the beginning of an intifada.”

But, as the Monitor reports, only 32 percent of Palestinians support a third intifada, according to a poll taken before the death of Arafat Jaradat, the Palestinian inmate. Sixty-five percent oppose it, with 41 percent of them saying it will hurt the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, such an uprising could work against Palestinian interests in several ways. It could bolster Israel’s argument that it has no partner for peace, enabling it to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank unfettered by negotiations. It could also provide Israeli justification for maintaining or increasing checkpoints, arrests, and administrative detention in the name of security.

Reuters reports that international leaders had hoped the unrest in the West Bank was dying down prior to the rocket attack from Gaza, for which the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility. The news agency described the attack as “an apparent show of solidarity” with the protests. It was the first such attack since a cease-fire was signed in November to end eight days of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “Israel is taking the unrest seriously,” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding “security consultations” yesterday and sending a representative to Ramallah to urge the Palestinian Authority (PA) to calm the protesters.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu, pinned blame for the protests, some of which turned violent, on PA officials, the Journal reports. "There were elements within the [Palestinian Authority] who were actually encouraging incitement and violence," Mr. Regev said. "The Palestinian Authority has an obligation to maintain law and order."

And Amos Gilad, an Israeli defense official, told Army Radio that “It looks as if the Palestinian Authority is trying to walk a delicate tightrope: both raising unrest and displays of violence and not wanting the matter to spin out of control,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
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