- Syria opposition unity take face spectre of collapse
- Stockholm calmer but violence spreads outside Swedish capital
- Bosnia president, charged with graft, freed from jail
Posted: 24 May 2013 07:12 PM PDT
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian opposition talks aimed at presenting a coherent front at an international peace conference to end the civil war faced the prospect of collapse after President Bashar al-Assad's foes failed to cut an internal deal, opposition sources said on Friday.
The failure of the Syrian National Coalition to alter its Islamist-dominated membership as demanded by its international backers and replace a leadership undermined by power struggles is playing into the hands of Assad, whose forces are attacking a key town as his ally Russia said he would send representatives to the conference, coalition insiders said.
After two days of meetings in Istanbul, senior coalition players were in discussions late into the night after veteran liberal opposition figure Michel Kilo rejected a deal by Syrian businessman Mustafa al-Sabbagh, who is the coalition's secretary-general, to admit some members of Kilo's bloc to the coalition, the sources said.
Kilo has said that his group wants significant representation in the opposition coalition before it will join.
"There is a last-minute attempt to revive a kitchen-room deal. The coalition risks undermining itself to the point that its backers may have to look quickly for an alternative with enough credibility on the ground to go to Geneva," a senior opposition source at the talks said.
While the opposition remained wracked by differences, a major assault by Assad's forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies on a Sunni town held by rebels near the border with Lebanon over the past week was shaping into a pivotal battle.
The intervention of Shi'ite Hezbollah is justifying fears that a war that has killed 80,000 people would cross borders at the heart of the Middle East.
"It is ironic that Lebanon's civil strife is playing itself out in Syria. The opposition remains without coherence and the regime is intent on taking back anything it promises with violence," said one diplomat.
The diplomat was referring to a deepening sectarian divide between Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, where Syrian troops were present for 29 years, including for most of the civil war that ended in 1990.
Assad belongs to Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ism that has controlled Syria since the 1960s.
He has vowed to defeat what he calls terrorists and foreign agents behind the uprising, which began with months of peaceful protests and evolved into an armed revolt after months of military repression.
Washington and Moscow have been compelled to revive diplomacy by developments in recent months, which include the rise of al Qaeda-linked fighters among rebels and reports of atrocities and accusations that chemical weapons are being used.
The United States, which suspects Assad's forces of using the banned weapons, is also concerned they could eventually fall into the hands of jihadists now fighting Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet privately in Paris on Monday to discuss their efforts to bring Syria's warring parties together, U.S. and Russian officials said.
Russia said the Syrian government had agreed in principle to attend the planned peace conference, which could take part in Geneva in the coming weeks.
Senior opposition figures said the coalition was likely to attend the conference, but doubted it would produce any immediate deal for Assad to leave power - their central demand.
"We are faced with a situation where everyone thinks there will be a marriage when the bride is refusing. The regime has to show a minimum of will that it is ready to stop the bloodshed," said Haitham al-Maleh, an elder statesman of the coalition.
There was more heavy fighting on Friday in Qusair, a town controlling access to the coast that Assad's forces and Hezbollah allies have tried to take in a battle that could prove an important test of Assad's ability to withstand the revolt.
Assad wants to secure the coastal region, which is the homeland of his Alawite minority sect. He is backed by Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah against mainly Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
COALITION STRUGGLES TO AGREE
Much to the frustration of its backers, the coalition has struggled to agree on a leader since the resignation in March of respected cleric Moaz Alkhatib, who had floated two initiatives for Assad to leave power peacefully.
Alkhatib's latest proposal - a 16-point plan that sees Assad handing power to his deputy or prime minister and then going abroad with 500 members of his entourage - won little support in Istanbul, highlighting the obstacles to wider negotiations.
"He has the right to submit papers to the meeting like any other member, but his paper is heading directly to the dustbin of history. It is a repeat of his previous initiative, which went nowhere," a senior coalition official said.
Washington threatened on Wednesday to increase support for the rebels if Assad refused to discuss a political end to the violence, a sentiment echoed on Friday by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has been pressing the European Union to amend a weapons embargo to allow arming the rebels.
Concerned by the rising influence of Islamists in the rebel ranks, Washington has pressured the opposition coalition to resolve its divisions and to expand to include more liberals.
"The international community is walking a little faster than the opposition. It wants to see a complete list of participants from the Syrian side for Geneva and this means that the coalition has to sort its affairs," a European diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Thomas Grove and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, Arshad Mohammed in Amman, Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Nick Tattersall, Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 24 May 2013 05:38 PM PDT
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A nearly week-long spate of rioting spread outside Stockholm on Friday but authorities said police reinforcements sent to the Swedish capital had reduced the violence there, even though dozens of youths set cars and a recycling station ablaze.
The rioting - set off earlier this month by the police shooting of a 69-year-old man - continued for a sixth night in mainly poor immigrant areas in Stockholm.
In a country with a reputation for openness, tolerance and a model welfare state, the rioting has exposed a fault-line between a well-off majority and a minority - often young people with immigrant backgrounds - who are poorly educated, cannot find work and feel pushed to the edge of society.
Two cars were torched in Stockholm but the city appeared to have had its calmest night since the trouble began.
"It is a bit calmer. Of course, there are still fires," said Towe Hagg, a police spokeswoman in Stockholm.
But in Orebro, a town in central Sweden, some 25 masked youths set fire to three cars, a school and tried to torch a police station, police said. An old empty building was set alight in the town of Sodertalje, less than an hour's drive from the capital.
Pupils at a primary school in the Stockholm suburb of Kista - an information-technology hub that is home to the likes of telecoms equipment maker Ericsson and the Swedish office of Microsoft - arrived on Friday to find the inside of the small red wooden building had been burned out.
"In the short run, the acute thing is to ensure that these neighbourhoods get back to normal everyday life," Erik Ullenhag, Sweden's integration minister, told Reuters. "In the long run we need to create positive spirals in these neighbourhoods."
The police said they had called in backup from the cities of Malmo and Gothenburg. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt held an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the crisis.
The spree of destruction has seen masked youths vandalise schools, libraries and police stations, setting cars alight and hurling stones at police and firefighters.
It was sparked by the fatal police shooting earlier this month of a 69-year man, reported by local media to be a Portuguese immigrant and suspected of wielding a large knife, in the Stockholm suburb of Husby.
The scale of riots pales to the disturbances seen in London and Paris in recent years and there have been almost no injuries. Much of the capital has gone about business as normal.
But the violence - with more than 100 cars set ablaze this week - has shocked a nation that has long taken pride in its generous social safety net.
Some seven years of centre-right rule, however, have chipped away at benefits, while some communities have struggled to cope with the heavy wave of immigration they are seeing from Syria and other war-torn countries.
Youth unemployment is especially high in neighbourhoods such as the ones where the riots have taken place, home to asylum seekers from Iraq to Somalia, Afghanistan and Latin America.
About 15 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born. While many are from neighbouring Nordic countries, others are drawn by the country's policy of welcoming asylum seekers from war-torn countries.
Kicki Haak, head of the small Montessori school that was set alight in Kista on Thursday night, said she did not know if it would be able to reopen. The 94 students will move into improvised classrooms in nearby office buildings on Monday.
"Five nights in a row - it's incomprehensible," said Faisal Lugh, whose two children are pupils at the school.
"My children asked about the things they had there: 'How about my books? My rain jacket? My pictures? Are they all gone?'" said Lugh, who works for an unemployment office and often helps new immigrants find jobs.
There are signs that residents in the affected areas are getting fed up with the violence. Many community leaders, dressed in fluorescent jackets, have taken to the streets to try to calm things down.
"When will it stop?" said Maryam Rahimi, who works at a school in Husby that was vandalised.
Risto Kajanto, brother-in-law of the man who was shot dead, told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet he condemned the violence.
"I want to say to all those who are burning cars that it is totally wrong to react that way," he said.
One recent government study showed up to a third of young people aged 16 to 29 in some of the most deprived areas of Sweden's big cities neither study nor have a job.
The gap between rich and poor in Sweden is growing faster than in any other major nation, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, although absolute poverty remains uncommon.
(This story was refiled to fix headline)
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson and Patrick Lannin; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Bill Trott)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 24 May 2013 05:30 PM PDT
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The president of Bosnia's autonomous Muslim-Croat federation was freed from jail on Friday after the Constitutional Court ordered his release following his arrest last month on corruption charges.
President Zivko Budimir was arrested along with 19 other officials in late April in the most high-profile anti-corruption drive in Bosnia since independence more than two decades ago.
A court ordered Budimir and his four co-accused aides to be kept in detention because some of them held Croatian passports and there was a risk they might try to flee.
But on Friday, acting on the order from the Constitutional Court, the court decided to release all five accused immediately, a court spokeswoman said. She added that prosecutors could appeal the ruling.
Budimir left the prison in the southern town of Mostar late on Friday and was welcomed by dozens of supporters and relatives. He has been charged with accepting bribes to grant amnesty to a number of convicts.
"I have no knowledge about the existence of an organised criminal group," he told state television. "As for amnesties, I granted them in accordance to my consciousness."
Budimir's lawyer Ragib Hadzic said the court had determined there were no grounds to keep him in custody while the investigation was underway.
The arrest of Budimir has exacerbated a political crisis that blew up last year when he refused to approve a Federation government reshuffle and the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Friday that it would disburse the next tranche of a 400-million-euro loan to Bosnia only after Budimir signs a law cutting military pensions.
Under the deal that ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war, the country was split into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic that are held together by a relatively weak central government.
(Reporting by Maja Zuvela and; Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Editing by Jon Hemming)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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