Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.

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Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images


Former Balkan leader proclaims innocence of genocide charges

KaradzicLONDON -- Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared his innocence and argued that he tried to stop the violent 1990s conflict in his Balkans homeland as he began his defense against war crimes charges Tuesday before an international tribunal in The Hague.

The ex-president of the wartime Republika Sprska faces 10 counts of genocide and related war crimes  committed during the Balkan conflict that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

“Instead of being accused, I should be rewarded for all the good things I’ve done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war," said Karadzic, 67, who looked relaxed but resigned with a professorial air. "The number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the number reported.” 

Karadzic stands accused of aiding and abetting some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, committed primarily against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He is charged with having a hand in the notorious killing of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica; in the “sniping and shelling to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of Sarajevo” resulting in the death of thousands of civilians; and in the taking of hostages, including U.N. peacekeepers and military observers, to use as a human shields against NATO airstrikes.

“Everybody who knows me knows that I am not an autocrat ... that I am not intolerant, on the contrary I am a mild-mannered man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others,” Karadzic told the court as he denied the charges.

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Serbia bans gay pride parade, citing risk of violent attacks

Serbiagay

Serbian officials have banned a gay pride parade and all other public gatherings scheduled for the same day, saying they fear a repeat of violent attacks that injured scores of marchers two years ago.

The decision comes after the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church called for the government to prevent both the pride march and a planned photo exhibit called “Ecce Homo” at a Belgrade cultural center, which the Orthodox patriarch argued was insulting to Christians. Right-wing and ultranationalist groups also pushed to halt the parade, one calling it “a manifestation of totalitarian ideology.”

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters the government was also stopping gatherings of groups that wanted to attack the march from gathering and canceling soccer matches that might draw hooligans, in an attempt to avoid bloodshed. The move, Dacic insisted, was not a blow to civil rights.

Unconvinced, parade organizer Goran Miletic decried the government decision as “an open coalition with hooligans,” complaining that Serbian officials “completely adopted the arguments of extremist organizations, and even their demands," Serbian radio and television outlet B92 reported.

The parade was also banned last year over threats of violence. A year earlier, the event went forward in Belgrade but opponents attacked participants with stones and Molotov cocktails. As police clashed with rioters trying to disrupt the parade, more than 100 people were injured.

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Move over Dracula, tourists flock to see Bulgarian 'vampire'

Vampire

The discovery last week of a 700-year-old skeleton with metal stakes where his heart had been has stirred a bout of vampire-mania in Europe and attracted flocks of tourists to the churchyard grave site in Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Sozopol.

So keen is the interest, the Bulgarian newspaper Standart reported Thursday, that Bulgarian authorities have moved the disinterred remains to a special display case at the Bulgarian Natural History Museum in Sofia.

At least 100 graves have been discovered during modern-day archaeological excavations in which the remains appeared to have been pinned down with iron rods or stakes, the newspaper said.

As recently as a century ago, Balkan peoples held to the belief that staking down the corpses of people who they regarded a evil would prevent them from rising from the dead and continuing to torment the living, archaeologist and museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov told journalists in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

"A group of brave men would reopen their graves and pierce the corpses with iron or wooden rods. Iron rod was used for the richer vampires," Dimitrov told journalists gathered around the skeleton, which he said was probably that of a notorious Black Sea pirate known as Krivich, or "Crooked."

Historically, vampire lore has spread from Transylvania in neighboring Romania, where a brutal 15th century ruler known as Vlad the Impaler dealt with his enemies by skewering them on stakes and posting them to suffer their gruesome deaths in public. Vlad the Impaler was believed to be the real-life inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, Dracula.

Bulgarian media have reported the discoveries of two other staked skeletons this month, both 700 to 800 years old -- more than a century before Vlad the Impaler's reign.

The global tourism news site eTN reported that travel agencies have been hit with a surge of interest in "vampire vacations." A photo accompanying the Standart story from the Bulfoto agency showed tourists in shorts and sun hats strolling through ruins of the nearby Black Sea town of Nessebar, noting that many have been asking to see the grave where the pirate's remains were found.

Agencies said interest from Britain and Germany was especially high, but they had also received enquiries from Russia and the United States, eTN reported.

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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Bulgarian National History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov, right, unveiled remains believed to be those of a 14th century pirate found in a churchyard gravesite with metal stakes through the chest. Balkan pagans believed that evil people turned into vampires after they died and staking them to their coffins kept them from rising up to torment the living, Dimitrov said. Credit: Valentina Petrova / Associated Press


Trial of Bosnian military leader Ratko Mladic is suspended

The war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the wars of the 1990s, was suspended after the judge declared that the prosecution had failed to hand over evidence to the defense
This story has been updated. See the note below.

LONDON -- The war-crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the wars of the 1990s, was suspended Thursday after the judge declared that the prosecution had failed to hand over evidence to the defense.

Presiding Judge Alfons Orie told the court in The Hague that "in light of the prosecution's significant disclosure errors ... the chamber hereby informs the parties that it has decided to suspend the start of the presentation of evidence." The trial had begun Wednesday.

The announcement came after Peter McCloskey, speaking for the prosecution, wound up his opening statement before the International Criminal Tribunal. He had outlined what prosecutors say are the crimes that Mladic, as commander of the Bosnian Serb army, committed during the 1992-95 war that accompanied the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

TIMELINE: Ratko Mladic

The prosecution has acknowledged it failed to hand over full evidence to the defense as required by the court rules. The defense had requested a six-month delay.

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War crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, Bosnia's military leader, begins

 

LONDON -- The war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader accused in the killings of Muslim civilians during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, opened Wednesday in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Mladic faces 11 counts of genocide, murder, persecution, terrorism and hostage-taking, including the 1995 slayings of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. He denies all of the accusations.

Onlookers at the opening of the trial said Mladic, wearing a dark gray suit, applauded and gave the thumbs up sign as judges entered the courtroom. Wearing earphones, he listened attentively as presiding Judge Alphons Orie read out the charges.

PHOTOS: War crimes suspect Ratko Mladic

The massacre in Srebrenica came after Bosnian Serb forces entered the town, separated the Muslim men and boys from the rest of the population and took them away. The victims' bodies were later found shot and buried in mass graves.

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