- Syrian forces pound Damascus suburbs, flights to resume
- U.S. soldier in WikiLeaks case seemed suicidal at times - sergeants
- Clinton in Prague to lobby for Westinghouse nuclear bid
Posted: 02 Dec 2012 07:40 PM PST
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces pounded rebel-held suburbs around Damascus with fighter jets and rockets on Sunday, opposition activists said, killing and wounding dozens in an offensive to push rebels away from the airport and stop them closing in on the capital.
The army struck hard after a week of rebel advances, including the capture of two military bases near the capital. Rebels had been planning to push into central Damascus from their strongholds on the outskirts and fighting in the past week has been fierce.
Activists said heavy rocket fire struck towns close to the Damascus airport road, where rebels and the army had been locked in three days of clashes. Some described constant shelling, similar to carpet bombing, in towns like Beit Saham.
"It was frightening because it was the first time we heard continuous shelling. Really powerful explosions, one after the other, were shaking the area. I could see fire coming up from the town," said Samir al-Shami, from the opposition's Syrian Youth Union, speaking by Skype.
"This was the worst day in those people's lives."
In a sign the government had regained some control over the airport, EgyptAir said it was resuming flights to Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo on Monday after a three-day halt in which Damascus airport was effectively closed due to unrest. The airline's head said conditions were stable.
No comment was immediately available from Emirates Airline, which had also suspended its flights indefinitely.
The army's assaults appear to have staved off a rebel advance into central Damascus so far. But neither side has gained ground in recent days, and fighting continued along the outskirts of the city despite heavy shelling by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
But rebels said the area around Damascus airport was not secure, with clashes still erupting along the road. It is difficult to verify opposition reports because the government restricts media access into Syria.
Other activists said the road was in army hands but the area was still unstable due to fighting in nearby towns like Beit Saham, about 1 kilometre away.
"No one controls that road. The army has tanks along the road, but the whole area is exposed to rebel attacks and they could fire on it any time," said one, asking not to be named.
DEADLY ROCKET ATTACKS
Rocket attacks on Sunday killed at least 10 in the town of Deir al-Asafir, 12 km east of Damascus, activists said. Video published by activists from the town showed at least five bodies, one of them a young boy and one an elderly man. The other bodies were wrapped in blood-spattered white sheets.
Syrian security officials and diplomatic sources say the army's goal is to push rebels back and seal off central Damascus from the surrounding suburbs where the opposition is dominant.
Rebels say they want to control the airport because the army has used it to bring in weapons. Western intelligence reports earlier this year said that Iran, Assad's main backer, had been using civilian aircraft to fly military equipment and personnel through Iraqi airspace into Syria.
U.S. officials say the arms flow into Syria has continued due to Iraqi reluctance to check flights, according to a New York Times article. It said only two inspections had occurred since Iraq agreed to a U.S. request in September and that Iran may have been tipped off about the searches.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday there was no such request.
"There is no ability to inspect all planes destined to Syria and there was no U.S. request to inspect all aircrafts because they know that this is not possible," he said.
Lebanese troops clashed with Syrian rebels on the border between the two countries on Sunday in what a security source called the first such incident between Lebanon's army and the rebels.
The clash occurred when a Lebanese border patrol spotted the rebel fighters along the border and the rebels opened fire to prevent the patrol from approaching, said a Lebanese military source. He said there were no casualties.
In Syria's central city of Homs, a car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded 24 on Sunday, Syria's state news agency SANA said. It said the blast in the city's Hamra district also damaged many nearby residential buildings. The government and the opposition traded blame for the blast.
There has been a rise in the number of car bombs around the country. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, reported four car bombs on Saturday.
The group gave a preliminary death toll for Sunday's fighting of 140.
Violence has risen in Syria particularly since rebels began to contest Assad's control around the capital and Aleppo, Syria's largest city, but foreign powers remain deadlocked.
Western countries support the opposition but Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, and China have blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad and reject sanctions.
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria autocratically for four decades, says he is fighting off radical Islamist militants funded by the West and Gulf Arab countries.
State television on Sunday said the army was "eliminating al Qaeda terrorists" in the rebel stronghold of Daraya, a suburb on the southern outskirts of Damascus from which mortar shells have been fired into the capital.
Rebel spokesman Abu Nidal said the army had entered one side of the suburb but that the rebels were still in control of the rest of the area.
(The story has been refiled, to add Assad's first name and title in eighth paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad; Editing by Roger Atwood and Eric Walsh)
Lebanese army clashes with Syrian rebels on border
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 02 Dec 2012 07:20 PM PST
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - The U.S. Army private charged with leaking classified U.S. war documents was held in extreme confinement for nine months at a Marine Corps detention centre because of a pattern of behaviour suggesting suicidal thoughts, military officials testified Sunday at a pre-trial hearing.
Despite several recommendations from the psychiatrist at the brig - the military detention centre - that Army private Bradley Manning, 24, did not appear suicidal, two military sergeants who counselled Manning testified Sunday that he was uncommunicative, dismissive and had made suicidal comments before and during his detention at the Quantico, Virginia, Marine base.
Military judge Colonel Denise Lind said at Sunday's hearing that if a trial for Manning is held, it would begin next March, not in February, due to extensive pre-trial motions.
Manning's attorneys are trying to prove in a pre-trial hearing that the extreme confinement at Quantico constitutes illegal punishment, and should prompt the dismissal of 22 charges against him, including aiding the enemy, which is punishable by life in prison.
On Sunday, Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Jordan testified that Manning was uncommunicative during his detention at Quantico. Manning "wouldn't open up," Jordan said. "He wouldn't talk to anybody."
In their testimony, Jordan and Marine Master Sergeant Craig Blenis noted several incidents they said supported their concerns about Manning's mental state.
They testified that he crafted a noose out of a bed sheet during confinement in Kuwait soon after his arrest; that he told a Marine brig staffer in March 2011 that he could make a noose out of the elastic in his underwear; and stated upon arriving at Quantico in July 2010 that he was "always planning and never acting" on suicidal thoughts.
When one of Manning's defense attorneys suggested that his client's comment about the elastic band was simply a sarcastic assertion that if he really wanted to kill himself he could find a way, Blenis said it wasn't interpreted that way.
"When we're talking about suicidal statements or actions, sarcasm is out of the picture," Blenis testified. "I don't go to an airport and joke about a bomb."
PLEA DEAL SOUGHT
Defense attorneys on Sunday sought to establish that Manning's reluctance to engage with his counsellors at the brig was simply a lack of common interests.
Manning was confined to a 48-square-foot (4.46-square-metre) cell for up 23 hours a day, his lawyers said, while the Pentagon said he had to sleep naked and was woken repeatedly during the night to check that he was safe.
Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 and charged with downloading a trove of intelligence documents, diplomatic cables and combat video while working with the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade intelligence operation in Iraq.
Among the material Manning is suspected of leaking is a classified video of a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
WikiLeaks, which posted that video in April, 2010, has never confirmed Manning was the source of any documents it released.
The mass disclosure of U.S. secrets by WikiLeaks beginning in 2010 staggered diplomats across the globe and outraged U.S. officials, who said the extraordinary damage to national security from the leaks endangered U.S. lives.
Manning was confined to an eight-foot-square "cage" for a month in Kuwait before being transferred to Virginia in July 2010, he testified earlier this week.
In April 2011 he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he is reportedly being held on medium security status.
The pre-trial hearing is being held at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Manning's lawyers will continue to work with the court on the language of a proposed plea involving less serious charges and a prison term of at least 16 years, one of his attorneys said.
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 02 Dec 2012 05:45 PM PST
PRAGUE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will seek to convince Czech leaders of the advantages of picking U.S. firm Westinghouse over a Russian rival as the contractor for a $10 billion (6 billion pounds) nuclear reactor project in meetings in Prague on Monday.
U.S. officials travelling with Clinton to Prague said the Temelin nuclear power project could bring as many as 9,000 jobs to the United States and would help diversify the Czech Republic's energy supply away from Russia.
Majority state-owned Czech firm CEZ applied on Friday to build two new blocks at its 2,000 megawatt Temelin nuclear power plant, in what would be the European country's biggest energy deal.
Westinghouse, a unit of Japanese firm Toshiba Corp, is competing with Russia's Atomstroyexport, which is bidding in a consortium with a Russian-owned Czech group.
U.S. officials said formal negotiations between the two bidders and the Czech government are expected to start in December, with a decision on the contractor expected in the spring.
Clinton is due to meet Prime Minister Petr Necas and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Monday morning.
"There will be the opportunity for the Secretary to support ... Westinghouse," a senior State Department official told reporters.
"It could be great in lots of ways - for American jobs, American companies, for energy security and diversity in the Czech Republic, for jobs in the Czech Republic and for a scientific and innovation partnership with the United States."
Clinton would stress Westinghouse's safety record given concerns about nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, he said.
The U.S. side will also stress the advantage of reducing the Czech Republic's reliance on Russia for energy. According to U.S. officials, the country currently gets 60 percent of its oil, 70 percent of its gas, and 100 percent of its nuclear reactor fuel from Russia.
"We think there's an awful lot to be said for this (choosing Westinghouse) in terms of energy security and diversifying sources."
Clinton will also discuss energy security with EU officials in Brussels on Wednesday.
CEZ, central Europe's biggest energy group, with a market capitalization of $18.2 billion, threw out a bid from French firm Areva in October, because it failed to meet "crucial requirements."
Clinton's visit to Prague follows one by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Nicole Lamb-Hale last week. Lamb-Hale said the U.S. Export-Import Bank was interested in financing the deal if Westinghouse were picked.
The Czech Republic's bid to expand its nuclear capacity has run into opposition from neighbours Austria and Germany. Clinton will share a conference table with the foreign ministers of these countries, as well as with Russia, when she attends a meeting of the NATO military alliance in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Many Czech officials fear an over reliance on Russian energy will put their country under too much influence from its former communist master. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Prague became a close ally of the United States.
The Russian bidders have sought to allay Czech fears about Moscow and stressed that there would be a high participation rate by domestic firms if they won the tender.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
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