- Venezuela rejects "absurd" rumours over Chavez's death
- Assad forces take Aleppo village, reopening supply line
- Turkish PM's Zionism comments "objectionable" - Kerry
Posted: 01 Mar 2013 07:12 PM PST
CARACAS (Reuters) - Senior aides and relatives of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez countered on Friday a crescendo of rumours that the socialist president may be dead from cancer, saying he was still battling for his life.
"There he is, continuing his fight, his battle, and we are sure of victory!" his older brother Adan Chavez, the governor of Barinas state, told cheering supporters.
Speculation about Chavez, 58, hit fever pitch this week, fed in part by assertions from Panama's former ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Guillermo Cochez, that the Venezuelan leader had died.
"The launching of absurd and bizarre rumours by the right wing simply discredits them and isolates them further from the people," said Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, adding that the president was "calm" in a hospital with his family and doctors.
Apart from one set of photos showing Chavez lying in a Havana hospital bed, he has not been seen nor heard from in public since December 11 surgery in Cuba, his fourth operation.
The president made a surprise pre-dawn return to a military hospital in Caracas last week, with none of the fanfare that had accompanied his previous homecomings after treatment.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the OPEC nation's de facto leader and Chavez's preferred successor, urged Venezuelans to stay calm, patient and respectful of the president's state.
"The treatments Commander Chavez is receiving are tough, but he is stronger than them," Maduro said after a Catholic Mass in Chavez's honour at a chapel in the hospital.
"He's in good spirits, battling ... . Leave him in peace. He deserves respect for his treatments, because he's a man who has given everything for our fatherland."
Opposition politicians accuse the government of being deceitful about Chavez's condition, and compare the secrecy over his medical details with the transparency shown by other Latin American leaders who have suffered cancer.
"Maduro has lied repeatedly to the president's supporters and to Venezuelans about his real situation," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Friday. "Let's see how they explain to the nation in coming days all the lies they have told."
Panamanian diplomat Cochez said Chavez's relatives had switched off his life support several days ago after he had been in a vegetative state since the end of December. He challenged officials to prove him wrong by showing the president in public.
Across the South American nation of 29 million people, Venezuelans are extremely anxious, speculating almost non-stop about Chavez's condition and wondering what the potential end of his 14-year rule might mean for them.
Adding to the tension, several dozen opposition-supporting students have chained themselves together in a Caracas street, demanding to see the president and arguing that Maduro has no right to rule because he was not elected.
With the country on edge, the relatively routine shooting by police of a murder suspect during a gun battle in downtown Caracas on Friday forced Information Minister Ernesto Villegas to take to Twitter to issue reassurances.
"(Some people) took advantage of the episode to try to sow panic in the city centre," he said. "The situation is calm."
Should Chavez die or step down, a vote would be held within 30 days, probably pitting Maduro against Capriles for leadership of the country which boasts the world's biggest oil reserves.
The stakes are high for the region, too. Chavez has been the most vocal critic of Washington in Latin America and financed hefty aid programs for leftist governments from Cuba to Bolivia.
Amid the flurry of rumours, Spain's ABC newspaper said on Friday that Chavez had been taken to a presidential retreat on La Orchila island in the Caribbean off Venezuela's coast with his closest family to face the "final stages" of his cancer.
Venezuelan officials have frequently lambasted ABC as being part of an "ultra-right" conspiracy spreading lies about Chavez.
"The bourgeoisie harass him and they assault him constantly," added Maduro, singling out ABC and Colombia's Caracol radio for particular criticism.
"Stop the attacks on the commander! Stop the rumours, stop trying to create instability!"
In the latest of a series of short updates on Chavez's health, the government said last week that his breathing difficulties had worsened, and he was using a tracheal tube.
Officials say he suffered a severe respiratory infection following the six-hour operation he had in December for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in June 2011.
Chavez has never said what type of cancer he has.
Remarkably, two opinion polls this week showed that a majority of Venezuelans - 60 percent in one survey, 57 percent in another - believe he will be cured.
Chavez's millions of passionate supporters, who love his down-to-earth style and heavy spending of oil revenue on welfare policies, are struggling to imagine Venezuela without him.
"Of course, he's coming back, back to government," said Jose Urbina, 47, though he was also buying photos of Chavez at a pro-government rally as mementoes. "I want to remember him. I want to put them in my house."
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Editing by Kieran Murray and Xavier Briand)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 01 Mar 2013 02:41 PM PST
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces seized a village southeast of the city of Aleppo on Friday, reopening a supply line to the country's biggest city where they have been battling rebels for eight months, a monitoring group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the capture of Tel Shghaib marked the last step to creating a land supply route north into Aleppo from Hama province, crucial for Assad's forces who have lost control of part of the main north-south highway.
Rebels say they hold most of the city itself and nearly all the rural hinterland. But they have been unable to achieve a decisive victory and complain that they are outgunned and vulnerable to Assad's air force, artillery and ballistic missiles, which killed dozens of people in Aleppo last week.
The United States pledged direct but non-lethal aid to the rebels at a meeting in Rome on Thursday, disappointing Assad's opponents who had hoped for more tangible military support to tip the balance of forces on the ground.
Activists reported another day of fierce fighting around Aleppo, including the military airport at Nairab, three miles (5 km) north of Tel Shghaib which Assad's forces retook.
"It's a significant gain for the regime," the British-based Observatory's director Rami Abdelrahman said of the army's push north, which reversed many rebel advances when they moved south into Hama from Aleppo province at the end of last year.
Further east, on the Iraqi frontier, government troops also managed to wrest back control of the Yarubiyah border crossing after insurgents seized it 24 hours earlier, he said.
SYRIA COULD FALL APART
The revolt against Assad, which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests, has escalated into civil war between mainly Sunni Muslim forces and troops and militias loyal to Assad, from the minority Alawite community whose faith derives from Shi'ite Islam.
The United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed, nearly a million have fled the country and millions more have been displaced or need aid.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that Syria, a major Arab state on the fault lines of broader Middle East conflict, would fall apart if the government and rebels keep fighting instead of seeking a negotiated peace.
"This is a very small window of opportunity which we strongly support and encourage them to use that. The opportunity may close soon," Ban said in Geneva.
The government and opposition have both edged away in recent weeks from their previous rejection of dialogue. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday the government would even talk to armed rebels and opposition coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib has said he is ready to meet Assad's representatives.
But Syrian officials say any serious talks must be on Syrian soil under state control, and have shown no readiness to discuss Assad's departure - the central demand of the opposition. For rebel fighters, who do not answer to exiled civilian opposition leaders, Assad's exit is a precondition for any negotiations.
"I continue to urge the Syrian parties to find their way to the negotiating table. The horrors of the last months and years prove beyond doubt: the military solution in Syria is leading to the dissolution of Syria," Ban said.
He also called on the U.N. Security Council, paralysed by a standoff between the United States and European allies on one side, pushing for U.N. action against Assad, and Russia and China, who have backed Assad, to unite and address the crisis.
Moscow criticised Thursday's meeting in Rome of largely anti-Assad Western and Arab states for taking positions and steps which "directly encourage extremists" to topple the government by force.
But the Kremlin also said presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama had told their foreign ministers to keep in close touch and seek new initiatives to end Syria's civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington would provide non-lethal aid including medical supplies and food to rebel fighters, as well as $60 million to help the civilian opposition provide services including security, education and sanitation.
The European Union said it had amended sanctions on Syria to allow the supply of armoured vehicles, non-lethal military equipment and technical aid.
The steps still fell well short of what rebels are looking for - more arms, and prompted the opposition to postpone a Saturday meeting where they had been due to choose a prime minister to head the administration of rebel-held territory.
Alkhatib said he was tired of hearing Western concerns over the growing role of Islamists in the Syrian rebel ranks - one of the main obstacles to greater military support, saying it paled into insignificance alongside the prolonged civilian suffering.
"Many sides...focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter's beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed," he said, standing next to Kerry after their meeting.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)Obama, Putin see need to advance Syria transition - White House
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 01 Mar 2013 02:11 PM PST
ANKARA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday criticised a comment by Turkey's prime minister likening Zionism to crimes against humanity in a disagreement that cast a shadow over talks between the NATO allies.
Kerry, on his first trip to a Muslim nation since taking office, met Turkish leaders for talks meant to focus on the civil war in neighbouring Syria and bilateral interests from energy security and Iran's nuclear program to counter-terrorism.
But the comment by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at a U.N. meeting in Vienna this week, condemned by his Israeli counterpart, the White House and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has clouded his visit.
"We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable," Kerry told a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, saying he raised the issue "very directly" with Davutoglu and would do so with Erdogan.
Erdogan told the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna on Wednesday: "Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity."
The Turkish prime minister's caustic rhetoric on Israel has in the past won applause from conservative supporters at home but raised increasing concern among Western allies.
Kerry said Turkey and Israel were both key U.S. allies and urged them to restore closer ties.
"Given the many challenges that the neighbourhood faces, it is essential that both Turkey and Israel find a way to take steps ... to rekindle their historic cooperation," Kerry said.
"I think that's possible but obviously we have to get beyond the kind of rhetoric that we've just seen recently."
After Kerry and Erdogan met, a senior U.S. State Department official said that the secretary of state "had a respectful but frank discussion of the (prime minister's) speech in Vienna, and how to move forward. The Secretary made U.S. concerns very clear." .
The official said the two sides also discussed Middle East peace, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Gulf security and how to deepen their economic relations.
Washington needs all the allies it can get as it navigates the political currents of the Middle East, and sees Turkey as a key player in supporting Syria's opposition and planning for the era after President Bashar al-Assad.
Ties between Israel and Turkey have been frosty since 2010, when Israeli marines killed nine Turks in fighting aboard a Palestinian aid ship that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
"If we must talk about hostile acts, then Israel's attitude and its brutal killing of nine of our civilian citizens in international waters may be called hostile," Davutoglu said, adding Turkey had always stood against anti-Semitism.
"No single statement carries a price higher than the blood of a person ... If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey it needs to reconsider its attitude both towards us and towards the West Bank," he told the news conference.
Turkey has demanded a formal apology for the 2010 incident, compensation for victims and their families and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. Israel has voiced "regret" and has offered to pay into what it called a "humanitarian fund" through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.
SUPPORT FOR SYRIAN OPPOSITION
Erdogan appeared displeased when Kerry arrived late for their evening talks, remarking there was not much time left, according to a U.S. media pool reporter who attended the picture-taking session at the start of the meeting.
Kerry, in turn, apologised, saying that he had a good meeting with Davutoglu, according to the pool reporter.
Erdogan, speaking through an interpreter, replied that they "must have spoken about everything so there is nothing left for us to talk about." In a joking tone of voice, Kerry said: "We need you to sign off on everything."
Turkey's relations with the United States have always been prickly. And Erdogan's populist rhetoric, sometimes at apparent odds with U.S. interests, is aimed partly at a domestic audience wary of Washington's influence.
Ahead of Kerry's talks with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, officials said Syria would top the agenda, building on this week's discussions in Rome between 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the "Friends of Syria" group.
After the Rome meeting, Kerry said on Thursday the United States would for the first time give non-lethal aid to the rebels and more than double support to the civilian opposition, although Western powers stopped short of pledging arms.
Turkey has been one of Assad's fiercest critics, hosting a NATO Patriot missile defence system, including two U.S. batteries, to protect against a spillover of violence and leading calls for international intervention.
It has spent more than $600 million sheltering refugees from the conflict that began almost two years ago, housing some 180,000 in camps near the border and tens of thousands more who are staying with relatives or in private accommodation.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Michael Roddy)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
|You are subscribed to email updates from The Star Online: World Updates |
To stop receiving these emails, you may unsubscribe now.
|Email delivery powered by Google|
|Google Inc., 20 West Kinzie, Chicago IL USA 60610|