UN Phillipino Peacekeepers released by Syrian Freedom Fighters

See they do nice things as well as eat their enemies hearts :p

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Rebels who held 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers in Syria put blankets on their hostages to help them sleep through the cold nights and a rebel commander became visibly emotional when his group released the men, a U.N. peacekeeping official said Sunday.

Despite the good treatment they got from the insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the peacekeepers were relieved to have survived the four-day ordeal unscathed and were thankful for U.N. and Philippine government efforts that set them free, said Philippine army Col. Cirilito Sobejano, who is the chief of staff of the U.N.’s monitoring mission in the Golan Heights.

The unarmed Filipino army soldiers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted by anti-Assad gunmen after providing water and food to other peacekeeping troops Wednesday in southern Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. After tough negotiations, they were freed Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Philippine officials said.

A medical checkup showed the released hostages were all in good health.

“They were in high spirits. We were laughing about their experiences,” Sobejano told The Associated Press by telephone from Amman. “They had a cordial relationship with their captors, who put blankets on them because it was very cold at night.”

“When they were handed over in Jordan, a rebel commander got visibly sad,” he said. “They were really treated as guests.”

At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a Philippine military mess-hall style of eating, where food is usually laid out on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said army Col. Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila.

Arcan said he talked by phone with one of the freed peacekeepers, army Maj. Dominador Valerio, who asked him to “please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan said, adding he immediately relayed the good news to the officer’s wife.

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday that the plan was for the 21 peacekeepers to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.

source: usa today

Russia Plays it’s Hand in the Arms Debate

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By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt
 
WASHINGTON — Russia has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to Syria, a move that illustrates the depth of its support for the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, American officials said Thursday.

Russia has previously provided a version of the missiles, called Yakhonts, to Syria. But those delivered recently are outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective, according to American officials who are familiar with classified intelligence reports and would only discuss the shipment on the basis of anonymity.

Unlike Scud and other longer-range surface-to-surface missiles that the Assad government has used against opposition forces, the Yakhont antiship missile system provides the Syrian military a formidable weapon to counter any effort by international forces to reinforce Syrian opposition fighters by imposing a naval embargo, establishing a no-fly zone or carrying out limited airstrikes.

“It enables the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review. “It’s a real ship killer.”

Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior American intelligence official, said Syria’s strengthened arsenal would “tend to push Western or allied naval activity further off the coast” and was also “a signal of the Russian commitment to the Syrian government.”

The disclosure of the delivery comes as Russia and the United States are planning to convene an international conference that is aimed at ending the brutal conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000. That conference is expected to be held in early June and to include representatives of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition.

Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly said that it is the United States’ hope to change Mr. Assad’s “calculations” about his ability to hold on to power so that he will allow negotiations for a political solution to the conflict. Mr. Kerry indicated that he had raised the issue of Russian arms deliveries to Syria during his recent visit to Moscow, but declined to provide details.

“I think we’ve made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance,” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”

American officials have been concerned that the flow of Russian and Iranian arms to Syria will buttress Mr. Assad’s apparent belief that he can prevail militarily.

“This weapons transfer is obviously disappointing and will set back efforts to promote the political transition that is in the best interests of the Syrian people and the region,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on Thursday night. “There is now greater urgency for the U.S. to step up assistance to the moderate opposition forces who can lead Syria after Assad.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the committee chairman, added in a statement, “Russia is offering cover to a despotic ruler and defending a bankrupt regime.”

Syria ordered the coastal defense version of the Yakhont system from Russia in 2007 and received the first batteries in early 2011, according to Jane’s. The initial order covered 72 missiles, 36 launcher vehicles, and support equipment, and the systems have been displayed in the country.

The batteries are mobile, which makes them more difficult to attack. Each consists of missiles, a three-missile launcher and a command-and-control vehicle.

The missiles are about 22 feet long, carry either a high-explosive or armor-piercing warhead, and have a range of about 180 miles, according to Jane’s.

They can be steered to a target’s general location by longer-range radars, but each missile has its own radar to help evade a ship’s defenses and home in as it approaches its target.

Two senior American officials said that the most recent shipment contained missiles with a more advanced guidance system than earlier shipments.

Russia has longstanding interests in Syria, including a naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

 Video: Obama with Turkey’s PM: ‘We both agree Assad needs to go’ (on this page)

As the Syria crisis has escalated, Russia has gradually augmented its naval presence in the region. In January, more than two dozen Russian warships sailed to the Black and Mediterranean Seas to take part in what the Defense Ministry said was to be the country’s largest naval exercise in decades, testing the ships’ ability to deploy outside Russian waters.

A month later, after the Black Sea exercises ended, the Russian Defense Ministry news agency said that four large landing vessels were on their way to operations off the coast of Syria.

“Based on the results of the navy exercises in the Black and Mediterranean seas,” the ministry said at the time, “the ministry leadership has taken a decision to continue combat duty by Russian warships in the Mediterranean.”

Russia’s diplomatic support of Syria has also bolstered the Assad government.

At the United Nations, the Russians recently blocked proposals that the Security Council mount a fact-finding trip to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to investigate the burgeoning flood of refugees, according to Western diplomats.

Jordan had sought the United Nations visit to make the point that the refugee situation was a threat to stability in the region, but Russia said that the trip was beyond the mandate of the Security Council, diplomats said.

Story: Entire families executed in ruthless Syrian massacre

When allegations that the Assad government had used chemical weapons surfaced, Russia also backed the Syrian government’s refusal to allow the United Nations to carry out a wide-ranging investigation inside Syria — which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said was an attempt to “politicize the issue” and impose the “Iraqi scenario” on Syria.

Russian officials have repeatedly said that in selling arms to Syria, they are merely fulfilling old contracts. But some American officials worry that the deliveries are intended to limit the United States’ options should it choose to intervene to help the rebels.

Russia, for example, previously shipped SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Syria. Israel carried out an airstrike against trucks that were transporting the weapons near Damascus in January. Israel has not officially acknowledged the raid but has said it is prepared to intervene militarily to prevent any “game changing” weapons from being shipped to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

More recently, Israeli and American officials have urged Russia not to proceed with the sale of advanced S-300 air defense weapons. The Kremlin has yielded to American entreaties not to provide S-300s to Iran. But the denial of that sale, analysts say, has increased the pressure within Russia’s military establishment to proceed with the delivery to Syria.

This story, “Russia Sends More Advanced Missiles to Aid Assad in Syria,” first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

More Evidence of Chemical Attacks by Alawite Shi’a Regime Emerges

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A correspondent who visited the northern town of Saraqeb was told by eyewitnesses that government helicopters had dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas.

The government has vehemently denied claims it has used chemical agents.

The US had warned that such a development would be a “red line” for possible intervention.

President Barack Obama said he had seen evidence of chemical weapons being used in Syria – but it was important to get more specific information about what happened.

In a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, he said all options, both diplomatic and military, were being considered.

The two leaders reaffirmed their support for Syria’s opposition and their demands for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.

“There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Mr Obama said.

“If there was, I think the prime minister and I would already have acted upon it and it would already be finished.”

Meanwhile UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that Syria must allow access to a UN team to investigate the chemical weapons claims.

‘Suffocating smell’

“Start Quote

We were taken to Maryam Khatib’s house by one of her nephews. He showed us where the device is said to have landed. A small hole has been smashed into the tiled floor, a pair of disposable surgeon’s gloves lie abandoned nearby. The plants around the site appear to have withered and died, showing signs of possible contamination”

On 29 April, Saraqeb, a town south-west of Aleppo, came under artillery bombardment from government positions.

Doctors at the local hospital told the BBC’s Ian Pannell they had admitted eight people suffering from breathing problems. Some were vomiting and others had constricted pupils, they said. One woman, Maryam Khatib, later died.

A number of videos passed to the BBC appear to support these claims, but it is impossible to independently verify them. Test are being carried out in France, the UK and Turkey on samples from the site of the attack.

Mrs Khatib’s son Mohammed had rushed to the scene to help his mother and was also injured in the attack.

“It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn’t breathe at all. You’d feel like you were dead. You couldn’t even see. I couldn’t see anything for three or four days,” Mr Khatib told the BBC.

A doctor who treated Mrs Khatib said her symptoms corresponded with organophosphate poisoning and that samples had been sent for testing.

Mohammed Khatib receiving treatment
 
Mohammed Khatib says he was badly affected by the attack

One device was said to have landed on the outskirts of Saraqeb, with eyewitnesses describing a box-like container with a hollow concrete casing inside.

In another video, a rebel fighter holds a canister said to be hidden inside the devices. Witnesses claim there were two in each container.

Another video shows parts of a canister on the ground, surrounded by white powder.

The BBC has been told that samples from the scene and from the alleged victims have been sent to Britain, France, Turkey and America for testing.

Competing claims

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at the UK’s Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment, said the testimony and evidence from Saraqeb was “strong, albeit incomplete”.

 

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, chemical weapons expert: “I gauge that they’re not making it up”

In Saraqeb and in three similar events in Syria in recent weeks, “people have got ill and died and their symptoms are what we would expect to see from a nerve type of agent, be it sarin or be it organophosphate,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

On the available evidence, recent attacks in al-Otaybeh to the east of Damascus, in Adra near the town of Douma, and in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo appear “virtually identical” to what happened in Saraqeb, according to Mr de Bretton-Gordon.

Mr de Bretton-Gordon has not visited the site or tested any of the alleged evidence but was given full access to the material gathered by the BBC.

Both the US and UK have spoken of growing evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.

Rebel fighters have also been accused of using them. They also have denied this.

In March, Syria’s government and opposition called for an inquiry into an alleged chemical weapon attack in Khan al-Assal in the north of Syria which killed at least 27 people, with both sides blaming each other.

A 15-strong UN team headed by a Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom has been assembled to investigate the claims.

However, the Syrian government has refused the team access. Syrian officials have been quoted as saying they want the team to look into the incident in Khan al-Assal, but the team has requested unconditional access with the right to inquire into all credible allegations.

The UN estimates that the two-year-old conflict has left at least 80,000 people dead.

Syria map

The Rebel Alliance reopens Ghutah

Interesting article: by the way Ghutah is apparently the location of the Second Coming of Christ!

Free Syrian Army fighters return fire after what they say was during clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor May 13, 2013. REUTERS-Khalil Ashawi
Free Syrian Army fighters return fire after what they say was during clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor May 13, 2013. REUTERS-Khalil Ashawi

Free Syrian Army fighters return fire after what they say was during clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor May 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT | Tue May 14, 2013 7:55pm EDT

(Reuters) – Syrian rebels including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front have counter-attacked east of Damascus to retake a town that served as a conduit for arms from Jordan into the capital before it was seized by government forces last month, rebel sources said.

The rebels’ struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule has been complicated in part by internal divisions along ideological and political lines, as well as a shortage of heavy weaponry that could decisively turn the tide of conflict.

But in a rare move, brigades operating in Ghouta, a largely agricultural region on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, have united under one command to wrest back the town of Otaiba, two miles northeast of Damascus international airport.

“This is a huge target no brigade can deliver on its own, even al-Nusra cannot do it alone, so we all agreed to unite to retake it,” said a commander whose brigade is one of the 23 taking part in the battle.

“With God’s will this will be a decisive battle in rural Damascus that will stop the advance of the regime army and reopen the supply route.”

Brigades from the Western-backed rebel General Command and Islamist units joined forces over the weekend and pledged to share weapons and fighters. They took as their flag a white banner with the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammad is God’s prophet”.

“We are fighting for the same goal and that is to topple Assad – so why shouldn’t we unite?” said a commander from an Islamist brigade involved in the battle.

Government forces have regained the initiative in the past few weeks, pushing rebels from areas close to central Damascus.

CHASTENED BY BATTLEFIELD SETBACK

Rebels said they wanted to take advantage of the unusual unity among brigades in the latest campaign – named Al Furqaan after a chapter in the Koran – to press on to Damascus airport.

The bloc of brigades was agreed only for the current battle, the rebels said, but it was driven by a heavy setback last month when their feuding and failure to reinforce local fighters allowed government forces to advance.

“How could they allow the loss of their supply line? How could they all just sit there and watch the regime throttling their lungs?” said a rebel from Otaiba. “Now they are paying the price – some shipments that were delivered earlier are stuck and need a path so they have to open the route.”

In addition to al-Nusra Front, Islamic groups like the powerful Liwaa al-Islam, Liwaa Martyrs of Douma and Ossoud al-Allah are also in the union under the command of Abu Salah Taha, head of the Martyrs of Douma.

The agreement signed by the brigades commits them not to pull out of battle or hold back their weapons, as some rebel groups have done in other provinces, and those who break the code are to be held to account.

“So far everyone is committed and everybody is using their weapons. They are all present on the front, which is 8 kilometers (5 miles) long,” said a fighter via Skype.

The Islamist commander said hopes were high in this offensive and that if it succeeded it would pave the way for rebels to work together in a national body.

“This is like a rehearsal for a wider cooperation across the country. If this is successful then all of us will consider forming a national army.”

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

More Hot Air?

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David Cameron: ‘Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people – and it is happening on our watch’

US President Barack Obama said such a body would be the goal of a meeting in Geneva in “the coming weeks”.

The US recently won Russian support for the conference.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in Washington for talks, said there was an “urgent window of opportunity before the worst fears are realised” in Syria.

Since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began more than two years ago, at least 70,000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 1.2 million are living outside Syria as refugees.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at the weekend that more than 80,000 people had died, a figure cited by Mr Cameron on Monday.

‘Onslaught’

 

President Obama: The situation in Syria is “a combustible mix”

Mr Cameron arrived in the US from Russia, where he had discussed the Syrian crisis with President Vladimir Putin.

On Tuesday, in a press conference following talks with Mr Obama, he said he welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement to join an effort to achieve a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

“There’s no more urgent international task than this. We need to get Syrians to the table to agree a transitional government that can win the consent of all of the Syrian people,” he said.

But he added: “There will be no political progress unless the opposition is able to withstand the onslaught and put pressure on Assad so he knows there is no military victory.”

Mr Cameron said he had not made a decision to arm the Syrian opposition, but cited the UK’s push for further flexibility in the EU’s arms embargo on Syria.

He also referred to an earlier pledge to double non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition over the coming year, including armoured vehicles, body armour and generators.

“I do believe that there is more we can do alongside technical advice, assistance, help, in order to shape them, in order to work with them,” Mr Cameron said.

Chemical weapons

Mr Obama said the US would work to increase pressure on Mr Assad, provide humanitarian aid, support the moderate opposition and prepare Syria for a democratic transition.

“Meanwhile, we’ll continue to work to establish the facts around the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and those facts will help guide our next steps,” he added.

Both the UK and the US have spoken of growing evidence that the Syrian government have used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin.

Mr Obama had previously warned that such a development was a “red line” for possible intervention,

The BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell says the US and Europe are “slowly inching towards arming the rebels” – a complicated move, because there are many different rebel groups, some of which are hostile to the West.

Mr Putin has been portrayed as one of the main obstacles preventing Western countries taking a stronger line on Syria.

Last week, however, the US claimed a breakthrough when the Russian leader agreed to the international peace conference on Syria, which would involve representatives of both the government and the opposition.

But details of who would attend this conference are vague, and no date has been set.

Alawite Terrorism Hit’s Turkey in Deadly Car bomb, killing 46 People in the Border Town of Rehanli

rehanli bomb

by Jim Muir (BBC).

Syria has denied being responsible for two car bombs which killed 46 people in a Turkish border town.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a news conference on Sunday his country “did not commit and would never commit such an act because our values would not allow that”.

Turkish police say that nine people have been arrested in connection with Saturday’s attacks in Reyhanli.

Ankara has said that it suspects the involvement of Syrian intelligence.

The Turkish government said on Sunday that the number of people killed in the blasts had risen to 46 and that more than 50 others were still being treated in hospital.

All nine of those arrested in connection with the attacks were Turkish citizens, officials said.

“This incident was carried out by an organisation which is in close contact to pro-regime groups in Syria and I say this very clearly, with the Syrian Mukhabarat,” Interior Minister Muammer Guler told Turkish TV.

Turkey, a Nato member, is a strong supporter of the opposition in Syria’s civil war and a vocal critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The US and Nato have condemned the bombings and expressed support for Turkey.

Hundreds of mourners have been attending the funerals of the victims in Reyhanli, which is home to many Syrian refugees.

Mr Zoubi said that “it is not anyone’s right to hurl unfounded accusations”.

Turkey map

“We were saddened by the martyrs’ deaths” [on] Saturday in the town of Reyhanli,” he said.

“It is [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan who should be asked about this act. He and his party bear direct responsibility.”

Mr Zoubi also launched what correspondents say was one of the harshest personal attacks on Turkey’s prime minister by an Syrian official so far. He demanded that Mr Erdogan “step down as a killer and as a butcher”.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says that it was a robust response from Damascus, throwing responsibility for the blasts firmly back on the Turkish authorities.

Mr Zoubi said it was the Turkish government that had facilitated the flow of arms, explosives, vehicles, fighters and money across the border into Syria.

He said that this had turned the border areas into centres for international terrorism and the Turkish leadership had to take political and moral responsibility for it.

Site of bomb blast in Reyhanli. 11 May 2013
Local people are reported to have turned on Syrian refugees after the attack.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has vowed to catch those behind the attack. On Sunday he said that he believed fighters loyal to Syrian President Assad were responsible.

The Syrian opposition coalition has added its voice to the Turkish accusations that Damascus was behind the bombings, saying it was a blatant attempt to drive a wedge between Turkey and the thousands of Syrian refugees who have been given shelter on the Turkish side of the border.

Mr Davutoglu said that the attacks “have nothing to do with the Syrian refugees in Turkey, it’s got everything to do with the Syrian regime”.

He said that it was “not a coincidence” that the bombings occurred as diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis were intensifying.

“There may be those who want to sabotage Turkey’s peace, but we will not allow that,” he said.

“No-one should attempt to test Turkey’s power. Our security forces will take all necessary measures.”

He said those behind Saturday’s bombings were believed also to have been behind an attack on the Syrian coastal town of Banias a week ago, in which fighters backing President Assad in the civil war were reported to have killed at least 62 people.

Pressure on Turkey

Reyhanli is an entry point for refugees fleeing violence in Syria and local people attacked Syrian refugees and cars with Syrian number plates after the attack, according to local media.

People gather at the cemetery of Reyhanli on 12 May for the funerals of the car bombing victimsThose killed in the Reyhanli bombings were buried on Sunday

The Turkish government said the bombings were intended to pit Turks against Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, adding that refugees had no role in the attack.

BBC World Affairs correspondent James Reynolds says the attacks will put pressure on the Turkish prime minister.

Mr Erdogan’s policy on Syria has always been to support the Syrian opposition but not become involved in the war, but the attacks now make it very difficult for him to carry on staying out of the conflict, our correspondent says.

He is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday with the US currently considering its options over Syria.

There has been some speculation that the bomb attacks may strengthen the hand of those urging the creation of a no-fly zone and safe haven for the Syrian opposition inside Syrian territory.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22499326

Turkish PM Hints at Possibility of Military Action?

ImageTurkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells NBC’s Ann Curry that he has evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime have used chemical weapons.

By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

Turkey’s prime minister is charging that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people and has called on the U.S. to take stronger action, he told NBC News’ Ann Curry in an exclusive interview Thursday.

“It is clear the regime has used chemical weapons and missiles,” Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Erdogan gave no specifics about when and where the weapons were allegedly used, but he said he believes President Obama’s “red line” for the U.S. in deciding whether to take action has been crossed.

“It has been passed long time ago,” said Erdogan, who is meeting with Obama on May 16.

“We want the United States to assume more responsibilities and take further steps. And what sort of steps they will take, we are going to talk about this.”

Erdogan cited as evidence the “remainders of missiles” — at least 200 by his count — that he believes were used in chemical attacks, along with the injuries of Syrians brought over the Turkish border for medical treatment.

“There are patients who are brought to our hospitals who were wounded by these chemical weapons,” he said.

Erdogan rejected any suggestion that the rebels might have used chemical weapons.

“There is no way I can believe in this now. First of all, how are they going to obtain this? And who will give this to them?” he said.

“But if it exists, we are against this…We are against whoever holds the weapons.”