Israel complains about Syrian tanks along Golan Heights border

JERUSALEM –- Three Syrian tanks entered a demilitarized zone Saturday afternoon along the border with the Golan Heights, spurring Israel to file a complaint with the United Nations, Israeli officials said.

Although the tanks did not enter the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel officials said the Syrian military presence is restricted from the border area under a U.N.-monitored cease-fire agreement.
The Syrian tanks were battling Syrian rebel forces when the fighting moved into the demilitarized area, Israeli media reported.

Israeli officials said they did not view the tanks as a provocation or an attempt to draw Israel into the fighting in Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar Assad has devolved into a civil war.

It’s not the first time violence from Syria’s war has drifted into the Golan Heights. In September, errant mortars struck the region.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War and announced in 1981 that it was annexing the region, though the move was not recognized by the international community.

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-- Edmund Sanders


Belated hurricane relief headed to battered Caribbean islands

Haiti storm victims

United Nations relief agencies are heading up a global mission to bring food, shelter and construction materials to Caribbean islands battered by super storm Sandy last week -- a belated response by the world body whose New York headquarters and staff were themselves hard hit by the deluge.

After a three-day closure amid the torrential rains and disrupted power, communications and transportation, U.N. agencies have swung into action to organize emergency aid to Haiti and coordinate the dispatch of relief supplies throughout the Caribbean.

More than 1.2 million Haitians are facing "food insecurity" and at least 15,000 homes were destroyed when the huge storm's drenching periphery lashed the world's poorest nation, where about 350,000 were still homeless and sheltering in tents nearly three years after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

A yearlong drought and damage from Hurricane Isaac in August had already taken their toll on food production in Haiti and Sandy has significantly worsened the crisis, Johan Peleman, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti, told U.N. Radio in an interview.

"With this new tropical storm, we fear that a great deal of the harvest which was ongoing in the south of the country may have been destroyed completely," Peleman said.

Many of the rugged dirt roads that provide the only access to storm victims in Haiti's mountainous interior have been rendered impassible by the torrential rains of the last week, Peleman said.

In New York, U.N. officials said they had reports of at least 54 Haitians killed as a result of the storm.

At least 11 people were reportedly killed in Cuba, where the storm damaged or destroyed 188,000 homes and inflicted severe damage on about 245,000 acres of the vital sugar crop in the eastern part of the island, a U.N. report estimated Wednesday.

The opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation appealed to the government of President Raul Castro to allow foreign relief agencies to bring food and supplies to the stricken island. An array of religious and nongovernmental organizations, including Catholic Relief Services and Outreach Aid to the Americas, announced relief missions to Cuba, according to InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based agencies. The Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations dispatched three plane-loads of aid for Cuba on Thursday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Storm-related deaths were also reported in Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, with the U.N. reporting at least 71 killed across the Caribbean in Sandy's wake.

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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Residents make their way through the flooded streets of La Plaine, in northwest Haiti. Credit: Carl Juste / Miami Herald


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


Car bombing in Damascus explodes holiday cease-fire

Assad syria
BEIRUT -- A car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Friday evening near a square where children had been playing, disrupting what was already a shaky holiday cease-fire. Casualties were reported but it wasn’t clear immediately how many people had died.

The government and opposition traded blame for the explosion in the Zuhour neighborhood and for breaking the truce on the first day of the Eid Al-Adha holiday. Video from the blast’s immediate aftermath showed fires in the street and the fronts of several buildings blown off as residents searched for bodies.

Early reports indicated at least a dozen people had been killed.

U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi had expressed hope that the four-day cease-fire could be used to broker a lasting end to the violence in the ongoing conflict between anti-government rebels and President Bashar Assad. But even when Assad’s government announced Thursday it had agreed to the truce, few held hope that it would succeed. Previous attempts at a cease-fire have failed and the violence in Syria has only escalated. 

From the first few hours on Friday, opposition activists reported violations with shelling of several cities continuing and clashes breaking out in the northern city of Maarat Numan.

Elsewhere, many Syrians took advantage of the reduction in violence to stage anti-government demonstrations.

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Photo: Photo released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, shaking hands with people at the end of Eid al-Adha prayers Friday at al-Afram Mosque in Damascus. Credit:  EPA / SANA


Syrian regime, rebels agree to cease-fire for holiday, envoy says

BrahimiBEIRUT -- The Syrian government has agreed to a cease-fire for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday.

Brahimi, the United Nations and the Arab League envoy to Syria, said most of the rebel groups battling President Bashar Assad's regime also have agreed to observe a temporary truce. Some rebel commanders said they would welcome a brief cease-fire for the civilian population on the holiday.

However, even if both sides agree, the implementation of a cease-fire remains in doubt. The fragmented opposition forces are not unified under one leadership, and it is unclear whether rebel commanders could enforce such a break in the hostilities.

A previous truce brokered by Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, fell apart almost immediately. Since then, the conflict has only grown more violent, with daily death tolls topping 150, many of them civilians.

Brahimi met with Assad on Sunday and had spent the previous week meeting with regional leaders to gather support for the cease-fire, which is anticipated to begin Friday and last four days.

Brahimi said the Syrian government planned to follow the cease-fire announcement with a statement later Wednesday or on Thursday.

"We hope to build on it and aim for a lasting and solid cease-fire," he said.

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Photo: Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, speaks Wednesday during a news conference following a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. Credit: Nasser Nasser / Associated Press

 


U.N. rights chief decries U.S. Border Patrol's 'excessive force'

Nogales

MEXICO CITY -- The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized U.S. Border Patrol officers Thursday for resorting to “excessive use of force,” according to news reports, a week after a 16-year-old boy was fatally shot by officers after allegedly throwing rocks at them near the Mexican border town of Nogales.

“There have been very many young people, teenagers, who have been killed at the border,” the commissioner, Navi Pillay, said at a news conference in Geneva, according to wire services. “The reports reaching me are that there has been excessive use of force by the U.S. border patrols while they are enforcing the immigration laws.”

U.S. officials allege that the shooting victim, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, was smuggling drugs before the Oct. 10 incident, which has been strongly condemned by the Mexican government.

The FBI is investigating the matter, and the Department of Homeland Security is reviewing its guidelines for the use of force by border agencies.

At least 16 civilians have been killed by border agents since 2010, many of them during rock-throwing incidents involving suspected drug smugglers.

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--Richard Fausset

Photo:  A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle keeps watch along the border fence in Nogales, Ariz, on Aug. 9, 2012.  Credit: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press


U.N. envoy presses for cease-fire in Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy to Syria, continued to push for a four-day cease-fire in the fightingBEIRUT -- The United Nations envoy to Syria continued Wednesday to push for a four-day cease-fire in the fighting and called it a "microscopic" step toward ending a conflict that could consume the entire Middle East, news agencies reported.

Lakhdar Brahimi was in Beirut in attempt to gather more support for a temporary truce between government and rebel forces during Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday. He told reporters that the rebels have said they would observe a cease-fire if it is initiated by the President Bashar Assad's government.

"The Syrian people are burying hundreds of people each day, so if they bury fewer people during the days of the holiday, this could be the start of Syria's return from the dangerous situation that it has slipped and is continuing to slip toward," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Since he took over in August for former envoy Kofi Annan, Brahimi has been publicly candid about what he says are his slim chances of brokering peace in Syria.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said that any initiative would require commitment by all sides. He blamed the unraveling of previous agreements -- namely a six-point peace plan proposed by Annan -- on opposition groups and countries that support them.

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U.N. Security Council asks Mali to draw up plans to retake north

Mali

The U.N. Security Council took a key step Friday toward approving military action by an African force in Mali, where religious extremists have capitalized on a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs and political turmoil to seize much of the north.

The resolution does not give the green light for troops to enter the north. However, it gives Mali and its partners 45 days to come up with a detailed plan for the Security Council to approve. The resolution also demands a halt to human rights abuses and warns the Mali military not to meddle in the affairs of its interim government.

Mali and a coalition of West African countries are seeking to send troops into northern Mali to oust armed Islamists who have imposed a severe interpretation of religious law, stoning alleged adulterers to death and  banning music and mingling. The extremists piggybacked on the earlier gains of Tuareg separatists who gained ground in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the south.

France has championed the calls for regional action, drafting the Security Council resolution that passed Friday. While on his first official trip to Africa this week, French President Francois Hollande argued that the situation posed a threat stretching beyond Mali to the rest of Africa and all the way to Europe.

West African countries have pledged to provide forces, but want the blessing of the powerful Security Council, which has pushed for more details about their plans before giving its approval.

The crucial step comes as reports pile up of human rights abuses in the country, the latest from a U.N. human rights official who returned from Mali this week with grim accounts of radicals, flush with kickbacks from drug traffickers, buying women and children. The price for a child soldier: $600 upfront, plus $400 a month for their families. The price for a wife: less than $1,000.

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As Malala recovers, U.N. marks International Day of the Girl Child

International Day of the Girl Child

As Malala Yousafzai lay in a Pakistani hospital recovering from gunshot wounds, the United Nations on Thursday marked its first International Day of the Girl Child.

The U.N. event, planned long before Malala was shot this week, focused on an end to child marriage and emphasized the importance of educating girls, the cause that put Malala in the sights of a Taliban gunman.

“Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families.”

Ban urged all members of society, including governments, community and religious leaders and families -- especially men and boys -- to promote the rights of girls.

“Let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides,” he said.

The Tuesday attack on Malala, who angered militants by speaking out against efforts to ban education for girls, appalled Pakistanis and again thrust the issue into the global spotlight. The 14-year-old, who was reportedly out of danger of dying from her wounds, was on a school bus when she was shot.

A new report released Thursday by Plan International says that while the average teen girl now gets more years of education than ever before, the numbers largely reflect strides made by China and India, masking the fact that many poor countries have made little or no progress in educating girls.

Girls are thwarted from going to school for a long and varied list of reasons, some of which also keep boys out of school. The obstacles include poverty, prejudice against women, early marriage and safety threats.

Less than a fifth of girls in Niger, for instance, are in school. In Mali, roughly a third attend classes. And in Senegal and Guinea, less than half are in school. Education rates are also dismal for Roma girls in eastern Europe; only 9% of Roma girls in the Slovak Republic go to high school, the group wrote.

The bulk of young people who are not in school are in South Asia and Africa, regions that also have glaring gender gaps, the report said. Rural girls are even less likely to go to school than urban ones, as girls are tasked with gathering firewood, finding water and childcare to help their families scrape by.

Other girls are kept out of school by marriage. UNICEF estimates a third of young women worldwide -- 70 million -- are married before they turn 18, including 23 million girls wed before the age of 15. Marrying young almost always ends schooling for girls, the United Nations said Thursday.

School fees and hidden costs block other girls from school. Others are turned away by lengthy treks on roads riddled with danger. And still others fear sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers or classmates, the report found. In some Francophone countries in West Africa, sexual coercion by teachers is so familiar that students coined the phrase ‘moyennes sexuellement transmissibles’ -- sexually transmitted grades.

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Global hunger has fallen, U.N. agency says after revising numbers

Fao

Three years after the United Nations grabbed headlines with the stunning announcement that more than 1 billion people could be going hungry across the globe, it now says that estimate was wrong and hunger has actually dropped.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says hunger did not skyrocket as it had believed three years ago, when world leaders fretted about the double threat of increasing food prices and the economic downturn swamping the globe. The global economic slump did not hit food markets as hard as feared, as governments cushioned the blow to the poor, it said.

Using a new method, the Food and Agriculture Organization recalculated all of its hunger figures back to 1990 and uncovered the more encouraging trend. It now pegs the number of undernourished people worldwide at nearly 870 million and says the number was not much different three years ago. Flawed data were behind the error, the U.N. told reporters Tuesday as it unveiled the new estimate in Rome.

The new information shows that global goals for cutting hunger are within reach if countries continue to take action, the agency says. The U.N. and other international groups have aimed to cut the global hunger rate in half between 1990 and 2015, whittling down the rate to 10% in developing countries.

If numbers continue to dwindle at a historic  pace, the hunger rate in the developing world could fall to 12.5% in three years, the U.N. predicted, still above the 10% target.

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