- EXCLUSIVE - Concern grows over militant activity in Libya
- Bahrain jails 20 doctors after democracy protests
- Seven Syrian troops die as armed resistance emerges
Posted: 29 Sep 2011 09:16 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the dust settles after six months of fighting in Libya, U.S. officials are stepping up efforts to identify Islamic militants who might pose a threat in a post-Gaddafi power vacuum.
U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence agencies have recently produced classified papers examining the strength, role and activities of militant activists and factions in post-Gaddafi Libya, four U.S. officials said. Some assessments examine the backgrounds of anti-Gaddafi leaders with militant pedigrees, and explore whether these individuals, some of whom have publicly renounced Islamic militancy, will stand by their pledges against extremism.
During the half-year campaign by rebels to drive Muammar Gaddafi from power, U.S. and NATO officials downplayed fears that al Qaeda or other militants would infiltrate anti-Gaddafi forces or take advantage of disorder to establish footholds in Libya.
Since then, however, the assessment of top experts inside the U.S. government has sharpened.
"It's of concern that terrorists are going to take advantage of instability" in post-Gaddafi Libya, said a U.S. official who monitors the issue closely.
"There is a potential problem," said another U.S. official, who said both the U.S. government and Libya's National Transitional Council were watching closely. Experts around the U.S. intelligence community "are paying attention to this," a third U.S. official said.
Officials said that while the rebellion against Gaddafi continued, it was difficult to collect intelligence on the rebels. But now that Gaddafi's regime has dissolved, U.S. and allied agencies are taking a closer look.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in the region, said there was particular worry that Islamic militants could use Libya as a base to spread their influence into neighboring countries such as Algeria or areas such as the Sinai peninsula, where Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip share borders.
"There is a great deal of concern that the jihadi cadre now are going to be exporting their ideas and weapons towards the east and west," Riedel said.
Riedel and current U.S. officials said one high-priority issue is whether militants can acquire, or have obtained, weapons from Gaddafi's huge arsenals, especially surface-to-air missiles that could be used against commercial airliners.
Another key issue is trying to figure out what militant individuals or factions are presently in Libya. At the moment, two officials said, U.S. and NATO experts assess that a "power vacuum" exists while the shaky transitional council tries to organize itself and set up a new government.
In late August, the Open Source Center, a U.S. intelligence unit that monitors public media including militant websites, reported that "in recent days, jihadists have been strategizing on extremist web forums how to establish an Islamic state" in the post-Gaddafi era.
"Many forum members, describing the fall of Tripoli as the initial phase of the battle for Libya, have urged Libyan mujahideen to prepare for the next stage of battle against the (National Transitional Council) and secularist rebels to establish an Islamic state," the center said.
U.S. officials said militant groups have a history of taking advantage of power vacuums to consolidate and expand. The United States and its allies want to avoid a replay of what happened when Afghanistan was governed, patchily, by the Taliban and al Qaeda was able to establish elaborate, semi-permanent training camps.
Another worry is figures with a militant background getting into the higher echelons of the new Libyan government. One new Libyan leader under close scrutiny is Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a former Islamic fighter in Libya and Afghanistan who now commands post-Gaddafi forces in Tripoli.
After allegedly forging ties in Afghanistan with the Taliban and al Qaeda in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Belhadj reportedly was arrested with his wife by the CIA in Bangkok and later extradited to Libya, where he was imprisoned until 2010. He was released under a reconciliation plan promoted by Gaddafi son Saif al Islam.
In an interview this month with the Al Jazeera website, Belhadj said he was subjected to "barbaric treatment" while in CIA custody and later to "many types of physical and mental torture" in Gaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison.
Asked about his dealings with al Qaeda, Belhadj said, "We have never been in a relationship with them or joined them in any kind of activity because we could never come to an understanding of (philosophies)."
"Libyans are generally moderate Muslims, with moderate ways of practice and understanding of religion. You can find some extreme elements that are different from the mainstream, but this does not in any way represent the majority of the Libyan people."
Secret British intelligence files recovered by anti-Gaddafi forces from the offices of Gaddafi's advisers show that the British kept a close watch on suspected militants in Britain who they believed were linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the main anti-Gaddafi Islamic militant network.
The documents, obtained by Reuters, show that during a February 2005 visit to Libya, British intelligence expressed concern the LIFG might be becoming more militant because some al Qaeda links were emerging. But in a 2008 visit, British officials reported that some UK-based Libyan militants had qualms about closer ties to al Qaeda.
A person familiar with British government investigations of militants said U.K. authorities believe that LIFG, as a group, abandoned violence in 2009, although individual Libyan militants remained active in al Qaeda's central core.
Some U.S. and British experts said today's militants may have no connection with vintage LIFG fighters. They fear that young militants who fought against Gaddafi will be angered if Libya's new government is seen as too close to the West.
(Additional reporting by William MacLean; Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
Posted: 29 Sep 2011 08:15 PM PDT
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain jailed 20 doctors on Thursday for between five and 15 years on theft and other charges, the state news agency said, in what critics claimed was reprisal for treating protesters during unrest in the Gulf kingdom this year.
A security court also sentenced a man to death for killing a policeman by driving his car over him several times and joining illegal gatherings for "terrorist goals," the BNA news agency said. Another man was handed a life term for his involvement.
The doctors, who denied the charges, were among dozens of medical staff arrested during protests led by the island's Shi'ite majority demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and a greater say in government.
Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers quashed the protests in March, with the help of troops from fellow Sunni neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained -- mostly Shi'ites -- in the crackdown.
The doctors were charged with stealing medicine, stockpiling weapons and occupying a hospital during the unrest and in addition were jailed for forcibly occupying a hospital, spreading lies and false news, withholding treatment, inciting hatred of Bahrain's rulers and calling for their overthrow.
"We were shocked by the verdicts because we were expecting the doctors would be proved innocent of the crime of occupying the Salmaniya medical complex," defence lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi said, adding the hearing had lasted no more than 10 minutes.
The doctors say the charges against them were invented by the authorities to punish medical staff for treating people who took part in anti-government protests.
"Those doctors who have been found guilty were charged with abusing the hospital for political purposes. Nobody is above the law," a spokesman for the government's Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said.
Ten of the doctors, including senior physician Ali Al-Ekri, were given 15-year terms, two were sentenced to 10 years in prison and the rest to five.
"After today's verdict and those issued yesterday we feel pessimism," Alawi said, adding they would appeal against the decision.
On Wednesday a military court upheld life sentences against Shi'ite opposition leaders for organising protests in a trial described as a "sham" by Amnesty International, which also called the latest proceedings a "travesty of justice."
In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States was "deeply disturbed" by the sentencing of the doctors.
"We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, including a fair trial, access to attorneys and verdicts based on credible evidence," spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The British government voiced concern over the sentences.
"These sentences appear disproportionate to the charges brought," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday.
"These are worrying developments that could undermine the Bahraini government's moves towards dialogue and the reform needed for long-term stability in Bahrain."
OPEN FOR DISCUSSION
A senior Bahraini official said the government was still prepared to hold more talks with all opposition parties on political reforms to try to end protests that threaten to hold up the economy and scratch its business-friendly image.
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the IAA, also said Bahrain had begun receiving some of the $10 billion in economic aid promised by fellow Gulf Arab nations.
"Everything is open for discussion except regime change. That doesn't mean it has to be discussed today (but) the king said reforms are not going to stop," he said. "Other issues can be brought to the table -- when and how, I'm not sure."
Bahrain says it will expand parliament's powers of monitoring government ministers, recommendations that came from a national dialogue held after the U.S. ally crushed pro-democracy protests earlier this year.
But Shi'ite opposition groups, headed by the Wefaq party, want the elected chamber to have real legislative power as well as a new prime minister. The current incumbent, an uncle of the king, has occupied the post since 1971.
The conflict dragged in regional powers; Bahrain accused the opposition of pursuing a sectarian agenda backed by non-Arab Shi'ite giant Iran, just across Gulf waters. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama, says the government should talk to Wefaq.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Michael Roddy)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
Posted: 29 Sep 2011 08:15 PM PDT
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria said on Friday that seven of its soldiers and police were killed in an operation against terrorists in the central town of Rastan, where armed resistance has emerged after months of mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
The state news agency reported the deaths in the first official comment on a three-day government offensive to recapture the area from army defectors.
"The units responsible have inflicted big losses on the armed terrorist groups," the agency said, quoting a military spokesman. "The confrontation resulted in the killing of seven personnel, among them two officers, and the injuring of 32, including seven officers, from the army and security police."
Syria's army and security forces have remained mostly loyal to Assad during the six months of protests demanding his overthrow in which the United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed.
But army deserters, many of whom defected because they refused to shoot at demonstrators, have formed rebel units mostly in farming areas around Rastan, a town of 40,000 people which lies 180 km (110 miles), north of Damascus.
One army defector operating in the province of Idlib, northwest of Rastan, said the defectors in the town were using guerrilla tactics against the heavily-armed loyalist forces.
"Rastan has been churning out army officers for decades and there is a lot of experience among the defecting soldiers. Assad is mistaken if he thinks that he can wrap up the attack quickly," he said, adding that agricultural terrain made it difficult for the regular army to seal off the area.
The Rastan area is a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of manpower in the military, which is dominated by officers from Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Residents say that at least 1,000 deserters and armed villagers have been fighting the loyalist forces which are backed up by tanks and helicopters.
Syria says more than 700 soldiers and police have been killed in the uprising which it blames on armed groups backed by foreign powers.
In Rastan, troops and security police "were continuing to chase members of these terrorist groups to restore security and stability to Rastan and its citizens", the news agency said.
STONES AND TOMATOES
On Thursday, Assad supporters threw stones and tomatoes at U.S. ambassador Robert Ford's convoy as he visited an opposition figure in Damascus.
Ford and his party were uninjured, the U.S. State Department said, but several embassy vehicles were damaged and the ambassador had to lock himself in an office to await help from Syrian security.
Syria, which has been irked by Ford's meetings with opposition figures, accused Washington of inciting violence and meddling in its affairs. Washington demanded that Syria take steps to protect U.S. diplomats.
"We condemn this unwarranted attack in the strongest possible terms. Ambassador Ford and his aides were conducting normal embassy business and this attempt to intimidate our diplomats through violence is wholly unjustified," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
"We immediately raised this incident with the Syrian government and we are demanding that they take every possible step to protect our diplomats according to their obligations under international law."
The Syrian government said that once it had been alerted to the confrontation, authorities "took all necessary procedures to protect the ambassador and his team and secure their return to their place of work".
Assad's crackdown on the pro-democracy protests has poisoned relations with the United States, which has imposed fresh sanctions and rallied world pressure on Syria.
The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said the era of one-man rule in Arab countries was drawing to a close, and the change sweeping the region would soon take hold in Syria.
"Syria is in the midst of a profound crisis. I do believe strongly that there will be substantial change," Williams told Reuters. "When that will take place it is very difficult to ascertain but I don't think we are talking about years."
At the United Nations, European members of the Security Council softened a draft resolution condemning Syria's crackdown but Russia said it could not support the new text.
The latest version of the resolution showed that drafters Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had deleted a reference to U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay's recommendation that the council consider referring the Syrian government's crackdown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The United States is expected to support it, envoys said, despite its disappointment about compromises made in an attempt to woo Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
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