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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

This undated and unlocated photo provided Thursday, Jan.10, 2013 by the Kurdish Cultural center in Paris shows Sakine Cansiz, founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Three Kurdish women, including Cansiz, were "executed" at a Kurdish center in Paris, the interior minister said Thursday. (Kurdish Cultural Center/AP)

Kurdish leader's murder in Paris threatens tentative Turkish-PKK peace deal

By Staff writer / 01.10.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The future of a tentative agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the leading militant group fighting for Kurdish autonomy, may be on the rocks after the killing of three Kurdish exiles in Paris in what is suspected to be a politically motivated killing.

One of the three killed, Sakine Cansiz, was a founder of PKK. She and two other women – Fidan Dogan, the head of the Kurdish Institute of Paris and a representative of the Kurdistan National Committee, and Leyla Soylemez, a Kurdish activist – were found dead at the Kurdish Information Center in Paris around 2 a.m. today, The New York Times reports. (Editor's note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect where the incident happened; initial news reports were incorrect.)

Kurdish militants blame the Turkish government, but Turkish media reported that government officials suspect internal feuding within the PKK might be behind the killings.

BBC reports that French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said that the women were "undoubtedly [summarily] executed."

Decades of guerrilla warfare against the Turkish government, aimed at achieving Kurdish autonomy, seemed to be approaching an end last year as Ankara and representatives of the PKK's political wing met in Oslo for talks, but the talks fell apart amid an upsurge of violence in southeastern Turkey, where the Kurds are concentrated.

However, Turkish officials recently acknowledged publicly that they had formed a "tentative peace plan" with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the Times reports.

The Wall Street Journal writes that there was "rising optimism" in Turkey about the prospect for those talks, which are aimed at getting the PKK – considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the European Union because of its attacks on civilians – to disarm. Turkish officials are concerned that the death of the three women might be used to bring an end to the talks, which some within the PKK oppose.

"Unfortunately some may see the incident as an opportunity. Everybody should come to their senses and think and do what is their duty," President Abdullah Gul said, according to the Wall Street Journal. An official with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said, "We have seen inner conflict in the PKK before…. I am not sure who has done this, but there are those who would try to sabotage the process."

Turkish English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports that Ms. Cansiz was "known for her opposition" to both the head of the PKK's armed wing, a Syrian Kurd named Ferman Hussein, and the PKK's "financial head," Zübeyir Yılmaz.

Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) condemned the killings and urged Kurds worldwide to stage protests to put pressure on French authorities to thoroughly investigate the death, according to Hurriyet.

“We extend condolences to all Kurdish people. We expect the French government to immediately bring to light this massacre without leaving room for hesitation,” the leaders said in a written statement.

“Those in every place of the world who deem the Kurd worthy of only death should know that we will not avoid paying the cost of freedom for our people, whatever that cost is. We bow with respect before the memories of these three precious Kurdish female politicians who devoted their lives to the future of their people."

About 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, a substantive percentage of Turkey's overall population of 74 million, according to the Times. There are also substantial Kurdish populations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, where they have varying levels of autonomy.

In this August 2012 file photo, two helicopters fly over a line of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force tanks flaring up a smoke screen during the annual live-firing exercise and demonstration at Higashi Fuji training range in Gotemba, southwest of Tokyo. Japan's Defense Ministry will request a second boost to its military budget, according to reports, amid regional tensions. (Koji Sasahara/AP/File)

Japan to boost military budget amid regional tensions

By Staff writer / 01.09.13

Japan's Defense Ministry will request a second boost to its military budget, according to reports, just a day after the government announced the first Defense budget increase in 10 years. The boosts, although relatively modest compared with Japan's overall defense spending, coincide with increasing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan's Defense Ministry intends to ask for 180.5 billion yen ($2.1 billion) from a government stimulus package – on top of an increase of more than 100 billion yen ($1.1 billion) to its military budget announced earlier this week – in order to upgrade its air defenses, according to the BBC.

"We will request 180.5bn yen to be allocated to military spending from a stimulus package," a defence ministry spokesman told Agence-France Presse news agency.

He said that part of it would fund the purchase of PAC-3 surface-to-air anti-ballistic missile systems and modernise four F-15 fighter jets.

The defence ministry spokesman said the funds were needed "to prepare for the changing security environment surrounding Japan".

The budgetary shifts are relatively modest – both increases are dwarfed by the government's 4.65 trillion yen ($53 billion) defense budget – but are still noteworthy as a reverse course from the past decade, which has seen a steady decrease in Japan's defense spending, notes the BBC.

Kazuhiko Togo, director at the Institute for World Affairs of Kyoto Sangyo University, told Agence France-Presse that the military budget increases were the direct result of tensions over a set of islands – known as Senkaku to the Japanese and Daiyou to the Chinese – claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing. The islands have been at the root of increasingly testy relations between the two countries, as they sit amid a region of the East China Sea believed to be home to large oil and natural gas deposits that both nations covet.

China has publicly said it would seize the islands by force if necessary and acted as such. To avoid a possible armed clash, Japan has no choice but to possess deterrence by boosting its defence budget,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the budgetary increase is needed to fund upgrades to materiel, as much of the budget is dedicated to salaries and food for personnel.  "Continued decreases in defense spending [as in years past] would make it difficult for the SDF [Self-Defense Forces] to procure aircraft, vessels and other necessary equipment," it reports.

Bloomberg Business Week reports that according to documents distributed by the Defense Ministry, Japan also plans to use the budget increase to upgrade several F-15 fighters and purchase more missile interceptors.

The budgetary increases may also go toward exploring a drone program in Japan. The Guardian reports that China has been expanding its drone capabilities in recent months, nominally for surveillance, though experts warn future drone skirmishes with Japan are a strong possibility.

China unveiled eight new models [of domestically developed drones] in November at an annual air show on the southern coastal city Zhuhai, photographs of which appeared prominently in the state-owned press. Yet the images may better indicate China's ambitions than its abilities, according to Chang: "We've seen these planes on the ground only — if they work or not, that's difficult to explain."

Japanese media reports said the defence ministry hopes to introduce Global Hawk unmanned aircraft near the disputed islands by 2015 at the earliest in an attempt to counter Beijing's increasingly assertive naval activity in the area. ...

The Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed defence ministry official as saying the drones would be used "to counter China's growing assertiveness at sea, especially when it comes to the Senkaku islands".

NATO and Afghan forces inspect at the site of suicide attack in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province on Sunday. A british soldier was killed when a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire on fellow Afghan troops and British coalition forces in Helmand Province on Monday, in the first insider attack of 2013. (Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters)

British soldier killed in latest 'insider attack' in Afghanistan (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.08.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire on on fellow Afghan troops and British coalition forces in Helmand Province yesterday, killing at least one British soldier in the first insider attack of 2013. The shooting shines the spotlight once again on concerns about the Afghan National Army's ability to assume responsibility for security as international troops begin their drawdown.

A slew of such incidents, as international coalition troops have started shifting responsibility to the Afghan Army, prompted NATO to step up its screening of applicants to the Army, but the attacks have continued – 45 incidents in 2012 alone, up from 21 in 2011, according to the Associated Press.

BBC reports that all six of the British soldiers who have been killed in the past six months died in "green-on-blue" insider incidents, which accounted for the deaths of more than 60 NATO personnel overall in 2012.

The attack comes just as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has arrived in Washington to talk with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the future of Afghanistan

Although the Taliban claimed to be behind the attack, Afghan officials are skeptical of the group's involvement, telling the BBC that the Taliban often falsely claim responsibility for such attacks.

The Telegraph reports that the another Army soldier said that the attacker joined up a year ago and came from the eastern province of Laghman. The soldier said that the attacker acted as an "imam" for the Afghan troops, leading prayers for them. He was killed after opening fire.

Almost all the British forces have been concentrated in the southern province of Helmand, where the attack took place, according to the Associated Press, which dubs it the country's most violent.

The Monitor's Tom Peter reported in September that the insider attacks – and the "insurgent infiltration they represent" – threaten Afghanistan's longterm stability as international troops prepare for the 2014 withdrawal. 

“The issue of green on blue attacks is not only a tragic issue for international forces and Afghan forces right now, but post-2014 this could change into the collapse of one or many of government institutions in various districts and provinces,” says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “There might be a risk of many elements of the Taliban and insurgency or people who are loyal to them who spy for these groups inside the Afghan government.”

Mr. Peter also reported earlier in the year, after an Afghan police officer killed nine of his colleagues while they were sleeping, that the rapid expansion of the Afghan security forces may be partly to blame, as proper vetting fell off in the rush to fill out the Army's ranks.

Waheed Mujhda, an independent analyst in Kabul, says that one of the main problems may stem from the eagerness of the international community and the Afghan government to rapidly expand the size of Afghan security forces, without properly vetting candidates.

“During this process they never pay attention to the background of everyone who comes to the Afghan forces,” he says.

The Pentagon released a report to Congress last month that indicated only 1 in 23 Afghan Army brigades was ready to operate on its own without support from the US, according to the Washington Post.

In this photo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gestures as he speaks at the Opera House in central Damascus, Syria, Sunday. In his speech, Assad outlined a new peace initiative that includes a national reconciliation conference and a new government and constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels first. (SANA/AP)

Assad speech resoundingly dismissed by opposition and allies (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.07.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Syria's opposition and its supporters in the West dismissed President Bashar al-Assad's rare speech yesterday as nothing new, though analysts warn that it indicates that the Syrian strongman intends to hold his present, defiant course against the rebels and that no end to the nearly two-year-old conflict is in sight.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which the US and Europe have recognized as the representative of the Syrian people, called the speech "a pre-emptive strike against both Arab and international diplomatic solutions" and proof of Mr. Assad's "incompetence as a head of state," reports Al Jazeera English.

[The speech] demonstrates that [Assad] is incapable of initiating a political solution that puts forward a resolution for the country’s struggle and an exit for his regime with minimum losses because he cannot see himself and his narrow based rule except as remaining in power despite being rejected by his people and his traditional allies.

Assad repeated the talk about a national unity government, a national dialogue, and a new constitution – which is an acknowledgement of the failure and illegitimacy of the constitution that was passed and prepared under the supervision of his regime- at the same time as his militias commit massacres against the residents across Syria.

Similarly, Syria's Local Coordination Committees said, through spokesman Omar Idlibi, that Assad's comments were "an attempt to legalize the liquidation of whoever opposes the regime, along with their popular civilian grassroots."

Assad's speech yesterday was his first in seven months, writes Agence France-Presse, but offered "little realistic prospect of ending what has become a civil war." Although Assad proffered what he said was a diplomatic solution to the conflict, including an end to the violence and dialogue with "loyal opposition," he dismissed most of those aligned against his government as "a gang of killers" of foreign nationality and backing.

“The one thing that is sure [is] that those who we face today are those who carry the Al Qaeda ideology,” he said.

The West widely dismissed his comments, Al Jazeera notes. The US State Department called his speech "detached from reality," and "another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted that it was "beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one." And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that the speech "contains no new insights."

What Assad's speech does indicate, writes the Monitor's Dan Murphy, is that there will be no negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war. "Assad laid out a series of demands for the rebellion today guaranteed to give them no other option but to fight on."

He ruled out talks with "extremists" who know "nothing but the language of blood." Since he has defined all of those taking up arms against his government as "extremists" and terrorists, that would seem to rule out negotiations with anyone that matters on the other side of Syria's civil war. In his words, the rebels are "killers and criminals."

To be sure, anyone going into a negotiation would want to do so from a position of strength. It's possible that Assad is striking a maximalist, defiant tone in public while entertaining compromises behind the scenes. But there were no indications of even a moderation of tone towards his opponents, routinely described as "terrorists" or agents of foreign powers, which would usually be taken as a signal that some sort of overture was being made.

Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma, told The New York Times that Assad's stance “means we’re in for a long fight.... This is a dark, dark tunnel. There is no good ending to this. Assad believes he is winning."

And in a commentary for Al Arabiya, freelance journalist Nabila Ramdani called the speech "one of the most self-serving, cynical, and ultimately macabre speeches imaginable."

What Assad’s speech showed was that he has absolutely no intention whatsoever of compromising, and will continue to prosecute one of the most savage civil wars in Middle East history indefinitely. It did not go unnoticed that the district around the Damascus Opera House was ‘locked down’ by soldiers and police in the hours before Assad’s speech. The dictator’s affirmed enemies are no longer massing in ‘enemy’ cities like Aleppo, but flooding into the suburbs of Damascus itself.
 
Assad, of course, refuses to even discuss why millions of his own countrymen and women should have turned against him, and in many cases taken up arms against his rule. He will not acknowledge that the barbaric, repressive nature of his regime might be behind the desperate calls for democracy.

What the speech promised, Ms. Ramdani writes, "was a 2013 which is likely to be even more horrific for Syria than 2012."

This photo shows Malala Yousufzai saying goodbye as she is discharged from the hospital to continue her rehabilitation at her family's temporary home in the area, Friday, Jan. 4. The teenage Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls' education has been released from the hospital after impressing doctors with her strength. (Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham/AP)

Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani teen shot by Taliban, is released from UK hospital (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.04.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban in the fall for promoting girls’ education, was released from a British hospital yesterday.

Malala, who will spend the next few weeks with her family in the UK before returning to the hospital for more surgery, quickly became an international symbol of resistance to the Taliban’s efforts to deny women and girls education after the attack last October.

"Malala is a strong young woman and has worked hard with the people caring for her to make excellent progress in her recovery," said Dave Rosser, Queen Elizabeth Hospital's medical director.

15-year-old Malala was targeted in the close-range shooting – which took place on a school bus – because of a blog she wrote for the BBC in Urdu. Her blog, which was nominated for several awards, was written under a pen name, and was highly critical of the Taliban's ban on education for girls in the Swat valley.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, Malala blogged “about her views and about the atrocities of Islamic militias controlling the valley from 2007-2009.” The Taliban’s reign supposedly came to an end there after an Army operation in 2009, reports Agence France-Presse.

In interviews with Pakistani journalist Owais Tohid, Malala described her blog and motivation:

"I wanted to scream, shout and tell the whole world what we were going through. But it was not possible. The Taliban would have killed me, my father, my whole family. I would have died without leaving any mark. So I chose to write with a different name. And it worked, as my valley has been freed….

"I want to change the political system so there is social justice and equality and change in the status of girls and women. I plan to set up my own academy for girls.…”

The Taliban have bombed more than 1,500 schools since 2008 in the Pakistani province where Malala comes from, according to a separate Monitor story. Under 80 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 16 are enrolled in school across Pakistan, and among those, less than half are girls. Malala’s writing documents the Taliban’s control of the Swat valley, as schools were burned and extreme rules were created and enforced.

"Saturday January 3, 2009: Today our headmistress announced that girls should stop wearing uniform because of Taliban. Come to schools in casual wear. In our class only three out of 27 attended the school. My three friends have quit school because of Taliban threats."

"January 5, 2009: Today our teacher told us not to wear colorful dress that might make Taliban angry."

"Tuesday March 2009: On our way to school, my friend asked me to cover my head properly, otherwise Taliban will punish us."

Malala’s ordeal has inspired people around the world to take action on supporting girls’ education, and her survival has made her a hero to many.

Reuters reports that more than 250,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, while the United Nations released a plan named after the young woman to motivate girls around the world to enroll in school by the end of 2015. The UN also created a “Malala day” in November to support education for girls, reports the AFP. The Pakistani government even renamed her former school in her honor, reports the Telegraph. The angry reaction to that move, however, highlighted the ongoing fears surrounding the Taliban, as many students worried that any reference to Malala would create additional targets for Taliban violence.

A current student told the Telegraph, "The militants didn't spare Malala, then how can they be expected to spare a college named after her…. The government should refrain from politicizing our education. We want to pursue our studies in peaceful environments and the new name of our college can bring it into spotlight and Taliban could hit it.”

According to a separate Telegraph report, Malala has said she would like to return home to Pakistan once she has fully recovered. Officials say, however, that she will remain a target of the Taliban “as long as terrorism threatens the country.”

Malala’s release coincides with the appointment of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, as education attaché for the Pakistani consulate in Birmingham, reports Pakistani news outlet The News. “It is widely believed that it was Ziauddin’s own experience of campaigning for education and human rights that originally inspired Malala as her parents encouraged her by every means to be confident and vocal,” The News reports.

Malala was flown to England after an initial surgery removed the bullet – which “grazed” her brain upon entry – in Pakistan last fall. Her next procedure will take place in late January or early February and will focus on the reconstruction of her skull, reports Reuters.

In this file photo, Pakistani militant commander Maulvi Nazir meets his associates in South Waziristan, Pakistan near the Afghani border. (Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP)

US drone strike in Pakistan kills influential Taliban commander

By Staff writer / 01.03.13

Key Pakistani Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir – considered a "good" Taliban by some among the Pakistani military – died in a US drone strike that left at least six dead on Thursday, according to local reports. 

According to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, Taliban and local government officials confirm that Mr. Nazir and at least two of his deputies were killed when a US drone hit their vehicle in South Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region along the Afghan border. The commander's truck had reportedly broken down at the time.

The Guardian notes that neither the Pakistani government nor the Taliban has made an official statement on the reports, and that details remain murky.

Because journalists are usually prevented by militants from visiting places hit by drones, the exact details of what happened and who was killed in such attacks are often extremely hard to verify.

Residents and an intelligence official in South Waziristan who spoke to a local journalist said the total number of people killed in the first attack was either six or 10. The intelligence source said all the men killed were "top leaders" of the Mullah Nazir group, the leading militant group in South Waziristan.

Maulvi Nazir was the primary militant commander in South Waziristan and a key figure in Pakistan's Taliban, having maintained a complex set of relationships among the region's players.

Unlike some of Pakistan's domestic militants, Nazir chose to focus his efforts fully on Afghanistan and the NATO and US forces stationed there, and according to the US “had a clear collaboration” with Afghanistan's powerful Haqqani network, a primary foe of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Washington Post notes that he was accused of regularly sending troops into Afghanistan to fight alongside the country's own Taliban against the US-led forces there.

His Afghan focus on targeting foreign troops earned him a reputation with parts of the Pakistani military as a "good" Taliban, and he negotiated a deal with the Islamabad to stay out of its battle with domestic militants in the region. His militants have also aided Pakistani troops in attacking members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-Islamabad faction of the Taliban.

But that also earned him the hostility of some of his domestic Taliban peers. Nazir was wounded in November during a suicide attack on his convoy. Rival Taliban commanders were believed to have been behind the attack, which was said to have caused some fracturing of the Pakistani Taliban in the region.

Security analyst Imtiaz Gul told the Guardian that Nazir's death will likely be welcomed by both the US and Pakistan – despite the latter's peace deal with the late militant.

"Both the US and Pakistan will be happy because they now have one less enemy," he said. "Although he was in an undeclared peace deal with the government, he was also subverting the stated goals of that agreement by providing support and shelter to al-Qaida people whose leaders have pleaded with the rank and file of the Pakistani army to rebel against the state."

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Damascus countryside, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 2 (Shaam News Network via AP video/AP)

Any end in sight? Syrian conflict enters third calendar year (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.02.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Syrian civil war entered its third calendar year with rebel forces displaying increased military prowess but still lacking adequate weapons and organization to gain a decisive edge over government forces.

At the outset of 2012, many observers predicted it would be President Bashar al-Assad's last year, but now in 2013 the conflict appears locked in a stalemate with alarming fatality rates. 

According to UK-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 85 percent of the roughly 45,000 Syrians they estimate have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011 were killed in 2012. CNN reports that United Nations envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi expects that number to climb

"Do not expect just 25,000 people to die next year – maybe 100,000 will die," he said earlier this week. "The pace is increasing."

The opposition Local Coordination Committees told CNN that at least 136 people were killed yesterday, the first day of the year, alone. There were clashes in eight provinces, the heaviest in and around the capital of Damascus and Aleppo. 

Aerial bombardments by the Syrian Air Force have been responsible for many of those 45,000 fatalities. In rebel-controlled northwestern Syria, a strip of land running between Aleppo and the Turkish border, rebel forces have made it a priority to take over aviation facilities to rob the Air Force of its ability to bomb the area. They consider the regime's air power its "main threat" because they can do little to stop attacks by helicopters and jets, even in territory they hold on the ground.

Today they launched an offensive against a military airbase near Taftanaz in northwestern Syria, which they have attempted to take before, Associated Press reports. Reuters reports that the base has more than 40 helicopter landing pads, a runway, and aircraft hangars.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the US designated a terrorist organization last month, is involved with the assault on the Taftanaz base, according to Reuters.

Yesterday, fighting near Aleppo's international airport prompted a halt to all flights in and out of the city, which is Syria's commercial hub and largest city. Rebels have also been staging assaults on three other airports in Aleppo province, according to AP, including a military helicopter airbase closer to the Turkish border.

Agence France-Presse reports that the rebel attacks forced the closure of the commercial airport in Aleppo. Rebels have warned that they consider both military and civilian aircraft legitimate targets because they believe civilian flights have been used to supply the military.

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare their weapons in Aleppo's Izaa district December 30. (Muzaffar Salman/Reuters)

UN envoy: Without deal in Syria, think Somalia not Yugoslavia

By Staff writer / 12.31.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

After a week of attempting to craft a peace plan that both President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition would agree to, the United Nations' envoy to Syria said the situation will not stabilize on its own and that a political deal is no closer.

“People are talking about a divided Syria being split into a number of small states like Yugoslavia,” Lakhdar Brahimi said, according to The New York Times. “This is not what is going to happen. What will happen is Somalization – warlords." 

“The situation is bad and it’s getting worse,” Brahimi also said, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “I can’t see anything other than these two paths: Either there will be a political solution that will meet the ambitions and legitimate rights of the Syrian people, or Syria will turn into hell.”

He warned that the violence could claim as many as 100,000 lives in 2013.

According to the New York Times, Mr. Assad did not respond to Mr. Brahimi's proposals and a Syrian opposition leader declined an invitation to Moscow to meet with Russian officials. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Assad could not be convinced to leave the country, which the opposition has insisted is a precondition for talks. 

Speaking about the yawning gap that has to be bridged for the two sides to sit down for talks, CNN reports that Brahimi said, "The Syrians disagree violently. On one side, the government says we are doing our duty to protect our people from ... terrorists. On the other side, they say the government is illegitimate," Brahimi said. "They are not talking about the same problem. They are talking about two different problems."

Brahimi's comments came the day after what CNN said might be the bloodiest day in the uprising – on Dec. 29, at least 399 people were killed.

According to Reuters, Mr. Lavrov pinned the blame for continuing violence on the opposition, even though the US, European countries, and most Arab states back the opposition's demand that Assad's removal from power come first. 

"When the opposition says only Assad's exit will allow it to begin a dialogue about the future of its own country, we think this is wrong, we think this is rather counterproductive," he said. "The costs of this precondition are more and more lives of Syrian citizens."

But the Syrian opposition's calculus has changed over the last couple months. A string of victories has made it optimistic abut winning the war in the end, and therefore less flexible in negotiations, according to Reuters.

Regime still has strength

But despite their recent success, "the government still has the bigger arsenal and a potent air force. It controls most of the densely populated southwest of Syria, the Mediterranean coast, most of the main north-south highway and military bases countrywide," Reuters notes. 

Russia appears to be making an effort to secure a meeting, agreeing to meet the opposition representative outside of Russia if he insists. Bloomberg reports that, according to RIA Novosti, the foreign ministry said talks could be held in Geneva or Cairo instead. 

Meanwhile, Brahimi is rapidly losing ground support in Syria, Reuters reports. 

The envoy's credibility with the rebels appears to have withered. In the rebel-held town of Kafranbel, demonstrators held up banners ridiculing Brahimi with English obscenities. 

"We do not agree at all with Brahimi's initiative. We do not agree with anything Brahimi says," the rebel chief in Aleppo province, Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, said on Friday.

Supporters of Central African Republic President Francois Bozize and anti-rebel protesters listen to an appeal for help by Bozize, in Bangui December 27. Bozize appealed for France and the United States to help push back rebels threatening his government and the capital, but Paris said its troops were only ready to protect French nationals. (Reuters)

US embassy evacuated as rebels surge in Central African Republic

By Mike EckelCorrespondent / 12.28.12

Rebels are closing in on the capital of the impoverished Central African Republic, threatening to topple the weak government and push yet another African nation into civil war, failure, or outright collapse, The Associated Press and other news outlets are reporting. 

The former French colony joins a string of countries stretching from Mali and the Ivory Coast to Congo and South Sudan where war and turmoil have created waves of refugees and power vacuums for warlords or criminal groups to exploit. Several of the countries are former French colonies, raising questions for Paris about whether to get involved in the conflicts. 

The United States evacuated its embassy in the CAR capital Bangui overnight, sending the ambassador and around 40 other staff to Kenya due to the deteriorating security situation, the AP reports. The United Nations has also ordered around 200 non-essential staff to depart, as well. 

A day earlier, President François Bozizé, who seized power in a 2003 coup, urged the US and France to intervene, according to Radio French International. Hundreds of demonstrators pelted the French Embassy with stones earlier this week, demanding that France intervene militarily to halt the rebel advance, Reuters reports.  

“We ask our French cousins and the United States of America, the great powers, to help us to push back the rebels … to allow for dialogue in Libreville [Gabon] to resolve the current crisis,” President Bozize said.

“There is no question of allowing them to kill Central Africans, of letting them destroy houses and pillage, and holding a knife to our throats to demand dialogue,” he said.

The rebel fighters are a coalition known as Seleka that have captured four regional cities and towns, including a diamond mining hub, since taking up arms on Dec. 10. They accuse Bozizé of not upholding peace deals meant to end several regional uprisings.

The conflict has posed yet another challenge to French foreign policy, particularly in its former African colonies. There are around 250 French military advisers in the CAR, but French President François Hollande said yesterday that troops wouldn’t get involved. "If we are present, it is not to protect a regime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country," President Hollande was quoted by AFP as saying. "Those days are gone."

That’s a contrast from Hollande’s predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy, who took a more aggressive approach, sending French military troops, for example, to help oust Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo amid fighting that followed a disputed presidential election. French jets played a major role in the air campaign in Libya that ultimately led to Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s defeat.

Landlocked and poor despite substantial mineral wealth, including uranium, the CAR has been unstable for most of its 52 years of independence. It is also sandwiched between countries that have been roiled by war for years, often fueled by access to mineral and natural resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen on- and off-again war involving as many as nine other countries and other armed groups for nearly two decades. The fighting in South Sudan predates its independence in 2011, a struggle involving oil resources, among other things.

Also fueling the turmoil is Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army, who is believed to be hiding in southeastern Central African Republic. Mr. Kony, indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the brutal fight in Uganda, is the focus of a global manhunt. US military advisers have been dispatched to Uganda to help search for him.

Further west, France has been resisting calls for greater involvement in civil war in Mali, where Islamist rebels have seized the northern part of the former colony, and imposed harsh sharia law. That has raised fears of a power vacuum, allowing Al-Qaeda-linked terror groups a base for operations.

The United Nations Security Council last week approved a resolution that authorizes a US- and European-backed African force to rebuild Mali's military and to prepare it for a possible offensive against the separatists and extremists. The French-sponsored resolution also authorized military intervention by a 3,300-strong force of soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States, under the training and command of Gen. Francois Lecointre, who has experience in Africa and Bosnia.

[Editor's note: The headline on the original version of this story had a typo]

Members of the Free Syrian Army prepare to launch a mortar bomb in Idlib December 26. The UN special envoy to Syria is hoping to revive peace talks in the war-torn country. (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)

UN envoy tries to revive Syria peace plan

By Staff writer / 12.27.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, said today that he is in Damascus and Moscow this week to try to revive a peace plan for Syria that was shelved this summer. However, rebel gains on the ground make it unlikely that the plan will go anywhere without more concessions to the Syrian opposition.

Russia is standing by its red line – that the plan not push President Bashar al-Assad from power. Meanwhile, the opposition still wants to bar current members of the Syrian regime from participating in a transitional government; the current proposal doesn’t appear to contain any such provision, the Associated Press reports.

What has changed is the opposition's strength: In recent months, it has captured swaths of territory, acquired better weaponry, and organized itself into a true fighting force, all allowing it to pose a legitimate challenge to the Syrian Army. The progress makes it unlikely the opposition will accept a proposal that allows former regime officials to participate in a new government if it rejected such a plan previously, when it was considerably weaker.

Mr. Brahimi was vague about how the plan might be amended this time around. CNN reports that during an appearance on Syrian state-run television today, he said only that, "The Geneva communique had all that is needed for a road map to end the crisis in Syria within few months."

The shift in the opposition's fortunes has led to a corresponding shift in Russia's own position. While Russia, where Brahimi will be later this week, was previously a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime and refused to entertain any proposals for a post-Assad Syria, Moscow now seems "resigned" to the possibility, the AP says.

Reuters reports that Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich stated plainly that Mr. Assad's departure could not be treated as a precondition for talks this time around, but did not insist that the possibility of his removal be off the table.

"The biggest disagreement ... is that one side thinks Assad should leave at the start of the process – that is the US position, and the other thinks his departure should be a result of the process – that would be the Russian position," Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Reuters.

But Trenin said battlefield gains made by the Syrian rebels were narrowing the gap between Moscow and Washington.

Mr. Lukashevich said, contrary to speculation, there is not yet a concrete plan for resolving the Syrian conflict. "In our talks with Mr. Brahimi and with our American colleagues, we are trying to feel a way out of this situation on the basis of our common plan of action that was agreed in Geneva in June," he said, according to Reuters.

Officials have been vague about what is on the table as a series of high-level officials meet. Brahimi arrived in Damascus on Dec. 24 and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad was in Moscow today, possibly meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's envoy for Middle East affairs, Reuters reports.

CNN says that the Geneva plan was able to find some common ground between Russia and China on one side and France, Britain, the US, and Turkey on the other. That was, however, partially due to the fact that it didn’t address question of Assad's role in a transitional government.

According to the communique, the transitional government "could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent."

Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of political risk analysis firm Cornerstone Global Associates, told Bloomberg that it is unlikely we will see a public "abandonment" of Assad because of Russia's naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with Damascus. 

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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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