- Syrian rebels fight close to heart of Damascus
- French battle Mali Islamists as Tuareg problem looms
- Tunisian leader to form new government after activist shot
Posted: 06 Feb 2013 12:08 PM PST
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels battled President Bashar al-Assad's forces on the edge of central Damascus on Wednesday, opposition activists said, seeking to break his grip over districts leading to the heart of the capital.
Their offensive aims to break a stalemate in the city of 2 million people, where artillery and air strikes have prevented rebels entrenched to the east from advancing despite their capture of army fortifications, the activists said.
"We have moved the battle to Jobar," said Captain Islam Alloush of the rebel Islam Brigade. The district links rebel strongholds in the suburbs with the central Abbasid Square.
"The heaviest fighting is taking place in Jobar because it is the key to the heart of Damascus," he said.
Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels on the fringes of the capital.
State media and pro-Assad websites said rebel fighters had been pushed back from Jobar and other parts of the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus.
"Our noble army is continuing its operations against the terrorists in Irbeen, Zamalka and Harasta and Sbeineh, destroying the criminal lairs," Syrian television said.
But video footage taken by activists purported to show opposition fighters inside Jobar after they overran an army road block, and rebels said they had made significant gains.
"Parts of the Damascus ring road fell to us today. The road has been effectively the last remaining barrier between the Ghouta and the city," said Abu Ghazi, a rebel commander based in the eastern suburb of Irbeen.
"I don't want to give people false hopes but I think if street fighting reaches central Damascus, the regime will not be able to quell it this time."
A disorganised rebel advance on the city failed last year. Ghazi said that this time opposition fighters had established supply lines to support their offensive.
The Damascus Media Office, an opposition activists' monitoring group, said 13 people had been killed in fighting in Jobar, while three people had died in army shelling on Thalatheen, a rebellious neighbourhood in southern Damascus.
The Syrian National Council, an opposition group operating in exile and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, said Syrian Free Army rebel units were attacking "strategic targets" in Damascus.
"There is a new strategy, brigades are united. What is happening in the field is huge but it is a preparation for bigger operations," said Abu Moaz al-Agha, a leader and spokesman of the Gathering of Ansar al-Islam, which groups many Islamist brigades.
"Right now we will attack checkpoints especially in Jobar that some time ago seemed impossible to get near to. We want to shake the regime."
Abbasid Square and the Fares al-Khoury thoroughfare were closed as fighters attacked roadblocks and fortifications with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, and mosque speakers in Jobat blasted out chants of "God is Greatest" in support of the rebels, activists said.
"The areas of Jobar, Zamalka, al-Zablatani and parts of Qaboun and the ring road have become a battleground," activist Fida Mohammad said from Qaboun.
Residents reported explosions across the east and north of the capital. "The army seems to have been caught by surprise," one activist said. "Reports from the heart of the battle are talking about several tanks being hit and the army has been pushed to Abbasid Square."
The rebel Liwa al-Islam unit said the operation to enter eastern parts of Damascus aimed to relieve pressure on two large southwestern suburbs that have been under army siege.
Assad's core forces, mostly from his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, are based in Qasioun Mountain, which is part of Damascus, and on hilltops dotted with artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers.
Estimated at 70,000 army, security and militia personnel, the core forces have a supply line to the coast that has remained open despite rebel efforts to disrupt it.
Rebels were also attacking Adra, 17 km (10 miles) northeast of Damascus. Video footage purported to show an armoured vehicle in the area being hit by a rocket. Thousands of refugees have fled to the town, which is home to Syria's largest prison.
In Palmyra, 220 km (140 miles) northeast of Damascus, on the main road to the oil-producing east, a suicide car bomb struck a military intelligence compound, causing dozens of casualties, opposition campaigners said.
A bomb destroyed part of the back wall of the compound near the Roman-era ruins in the city and then a suicide car bomber drove through, detonating the vehicle and destroying parts of the facility, activists in Palmyra said.
They said it was not immediately clear how many people had been killed in the blast and the clashes that followed. Video footage, which could not be immediately verified, showed a large cloud of thick smoke rising in the city.
"The first car bomb struck at around six in the morning. The second one, which caused the larger explosion, broke through into the compound 10 minutes later," activist Abu al-Hassan said from the city.
He said tanks in the compound had responded by shelling an adjacent neighbourhood, killing several civilians.
Roadblocks across the city also came under attack.
The state news agency said two "suicide terrorists" blew up cars packed with explosives near a garage in a residential district, killing and wounding several people.
Street demonstrations against Assad's rule erupted in Palmyra at the beginning of the revolt almost two years ago. But the army has since tightened its control of the city, which is situated near a major oil pipeline junction.
After a failed uprising in the 1980s led by the Muslim Brotherhood against the rule of Assad's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, thousands of political prisoners were executed in a military jail in Palmyra.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 06 Feb 2013 11:46 AM PST
KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - French and Malian troops are fighting Islamist rebels in the Sahara outside northern Mali's biggest town, France's defence minister said on Wednesday, describing the desert campaign against al Qaeda as a "real war" that was far from won.
After driving the Islamists from northern Mali's main towns with three weeks of air strikes and a lightning ground advance, France is now pursuing them in the remote northeast, where pro-autonomy Tuaregs are pressing their own territorial claims.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French and Malian joint patrols were searching the scrubland outside the desert trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Gao residents said on Tuesday the town had been hit by rebel rockets fired from the bush.
"There were clashes yesterday at Gao because from the moment where our forces, supported by the Malian forces, started undertaking missions and patrols around the towns we had taken, we encountered Jihadist groups that fought," Le Drian told Europe 1 radio. "It's a real war."
With just 4,000 ground troops in an area the size of Texas, France has appealed for the swift deployment of a U.N.-backed African military force (AFISMA) to help secure the region, and says it expects to start pulling its troops out from March.
The African deployment has been slowed by lack of transport and equipment, but Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that France wanted the African force to be converted into a U.N. peacekeeping force by April.
WORKING WITH TUAREGS
"From the moment that security is assured, we can envisage without changing the structures that it can be placed under the framework of U.N. peacekeeping operations," he said.
France has said that several hundred Islamist fighters have been killed since it intervened In Mali on January 11 to turn back an Islamist column advancing south toward the capital.
With logistical support from Washington and European allies, it wants to restore stability and remove the threat of Islamists using Mali as a base to launch attacks in Africa and the West.
French troops are cooperating with Tuareg pro-autonomy MNLA rebels who say they have occupied the remote northeastern town of Kidal and surrounding areas after the Islamist fighters fled French air strikes into the nearby Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
But that on-ground cooperation, and France's public insistence that the MNLA should take part in talks on Mali's political future if it drops a demand for full independence for the north, is an irritant for Mali's troubled military.
"The MNLA are playing PR ... they might go and occupy those places where there is nobody and pretend they are militarily present, but they don't represent anything for us," said a Malian military source who asked not to be named.
Mali's armed forces are still smarting from their defeat in last year's northern Tuareg rebellion, which triggered a coup in the capital Bamako and was later hijacked by Islamist jihadists. Many ordinary Malians deeply resent the MNLA for opening the door to the Islamists' seizure of the north.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore, installed by the military after last year's coup, has offered talks to the MNLA if they do not seek full independence, and says he is aiming to hold a national election by July 31.
TUAREGS NOT UNITED
Experts say the MNLA are poorly organised and divided and represent only a part of the north's population.
"There will never, ever be a solution if you don't talk to the Tuaregs - but they are not homogenous," said Jeremy Keenan, a British anthropologist and expert on the Tuaregs.
"You have a huge part of the rest of Mali not wanting to have anything to do with the Tuaregs - the Tuareg problem has to be resolved and it goes wider than Mali." There are also restive Tuareg communities in neighbouring Algeria and Niger.
Paris argues that lasting peace in Mali hinges on political talks to reconcile the black African-dominated government in Bamako with the restive north, in particular the Tuaregs.
Positioning itself for talks, the MNLA said on Tuesday it had occupied the town of Menaka, more than 250 km (185 miles) south of its remote northern stronghold of Kidal.
The MNLA has started its own patrols in the remote regions around the Algerian border where Islamist fighters are believed to be holding seven French citizens hostage. It announced this week it had arrested two senior Islamists fleeing to Algeria.
French special forces and some 1,800 Chadian troops are also based in Kidal, but Malian government troops have kept away.
"AFISMA and also the Malian army will deploy eventually to Kidal," AFISMA spokesman Col. Yao Adjoumani told a news conference in Bamako. "Talks between the MNLA and the government will take place later."
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Alexandria Sage in Paris, Pascal Fletcher in Dakar, Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kevin Liffey)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 06 Feb 2013 11:03 AM PST
TUNIS (Reuters) - The killing of an outspoken critic of Tunisia's Islamist-led government on Wednesday sparked street protests by thousands who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won two years ago in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Chokri Belaid was shot at close range as he left for work by a gunmen who fled on the back of a motorcycle; crowds poured on to the streets of Tunis and other cities, attacking offices of the main ruling party Ennahda, and by the end of the day the Islamist prime minister promised a national unity government.
There was no immediate local reaction to the plan by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda to dissolve his coalition and bring in a wider range of political groups. After dark, hundreds of demonstrators were still fighting running battles with police in the capital, throwing rocks amid volleys of teargas.
Jebali, whose party has dismissed any suggestion it might be behind the assassination, said he would shortly announce the formation of a new government of non-partisan technocrats.
World powers, alarmed in recent months at the extent of radical Islamist influence and the bitterness of the political stalemate, urged Tunisians to reject violence and see through the move to democracy they began two years ago, when the Jasmine Revolution ended decades of dictatorship and inspired fellow Arabs in Egypt and across North Africa and the Middle East.
As in Egypt, the rise to power of political Islam through the ballot box has prompted a backlash among less organised, more secular minded political movements in Tunisia. Belaid, a 48-year-old left-wing lawyer who made a name challenging the old regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, led a party with little electoral support but his vocal opinions had a wide audience.
The day before his death he was publicly lambasting a "climate of systematic violence". He had blamed tolerance shown by Ennahda and its two, smaller secularist allies in the coalition government toward hardline Salafists for allowing the spread of groups hostile to international culture.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Alison Williams and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles Elgood)
Tunisian PM says will form small technocrat government
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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