Syria: calls to arm the opposition - live updates
Version 7 of 13.
2.12pm: A refugee crisis caused by the Syrian conflict is threatening to de-stabilise the entire Middle East, the EU's commissioner for humanitarian affairs warned today, writes Henry McDonald in Dublin.<br /> <br />
More than 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to the violence in Syria with those numbers expected to rise according to Kristalina Georgieva.<br /> <br />The EU commissioner for international co-operation humanitarian aid and crisis response also told The Guardian that reports reaching the EU via its sole representative in Damascus indicated that both sides in the armed conflict were firing on ambulances belonging to the International Red Crescent/Red Cross.<br /> <br />Speaking in Dublin today, Georgieva said: "We are operating on the assumption that 70,000 people have been displaced internally and around 30,000 to neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan."<br /> <br />She pointed out that the World Food Programme is planning to import supplies for around 400,000 civilians caught up in the conflict.<br /> <br />Georgieva said the EU needed more access to cities where the violence is raging such as Homs and Hama.<br /> <br />On the refugees whose numbers she predicted would swell, Georgieva added: "It can become a complicating factor in what is a complicated region."
2.03pm: Gerald Feierstein, the unpopular US ambassador in Yemen, has come up with some vague and unspecified accusations about Iranian involvement in the country.
"I think that we are seeing increasing Iranian outreach to various actors," he says in remarks quoted by Reuters.
We do see Iran trying to increase its presence here, in ways that we believe are unhelpful to Yemen's stability and security.
There are many Yemenis who would say Ambassador Feierstein's presence has been somewhat unhelpful too.
1.47pm: Members of the British parliament will have an opportunity to debate Iran this afternoon as a result of a backbench motion tabled by Tory MP John Baron.
His motion calls on the coalition government to rule out the use of force against and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts. "The use of force against Iran would be wholly counter-productive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons," Baron said in a statement quoted by Reuters.
Meanwhile, 22 MPs from all the main parties, including former foreign secretaries Malcolm Rifkind and Margaret Beckett, have put their names to an amendment backing the government's existing policy and recognising "the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table".
1.33pm: The Bahrain Daily Tribune devotes the first three pages of today's edition to coverage of the Grand Prix which is still two months away. "Vroom! for economy" is its main headline.
The regime is plainly setting great store by the event following two earlier postponements because of the political situation. One reason is that it is expected to bring more than $300m into the kingdom. Another is the public relations opportunity that it provides. One of the Tribune's articles begins:
Lawmakers yesterday lauded the decision to host Formula One, noting that the event declares the stability of the Kingdom.
It is a positive step and a major boost to the country's moral[e], MP Ali Ahmed Alderazi said.
He evaluated the decision as an open announcement to the world that Bahrain is safe.
Among the off-track events planned for the race weekend is a "I Love Bahrain" picture and video contest.
12.30pm: Here's a summary of events so far today:
• <strong>A reported build-up of troops reinforcement in Homs has raised fears of a possible ground invasion into opposition strongholds after more than two weeks of an artillery bombardment.</strong> An activist claimed three columns of army reinforcements are on their way, according to AP. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the infantry arrived yesterday. An activist in the Baba Amr area could not confirm the reports but said the army's bombardment of the area had intensified.
• <strong>China's People Daily accused Western countries of stirring civil war in Syria as two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian naval base. </strong> A Chinese envoy met president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday and backed his plan to hold a referendum on a new constitution which would lead to multi-party parliamentary elections within 90 days.
• <strong>Conflicting accounts have emerged of the killing of two judicial officials in Idlib.</strong> Authorities said "an armed terrorist group" in Idlib city opened fire on a car carrying a judge, Mohammed Ziyadeh, and a prosecutor, Nidal Ghazal. Also killed was the driver, said the official Syrian Arab News Agency. An opposition activist reached in Idlib contradicted the official version and said Syrian security forces killed the pair because they were cooperating with antigovernment rebels active in the northwestern region, close to the border with Turkey.
• <strong>Two senior Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said that rebel fighters deserved to be armed, the New York Times reports.</strong> McCain, who like Graham is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "I believe there are ways to get weapons to the opposition without direct United States involvement."
• <strong>The US won't provide weapons to opposition forces in Syria until it has a better picture of what those forces are, the top US military officer told CNN.</strong> "I think it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point," said General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
• <strong>An explosion damaged a polling station in Aden this morning, just 24 hours before voting starts in Yemen's one-candidate presidential election.</strong> "The explosion caused a big hole in the building's wall and shattered the windows of nearby houses," an official told Reuters.
• <strong>On the eve of the election, Barack Obama said Yemen could be an example of peaceful political transition for other Arab nations.</strong> In a letter to vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the only candidate in Tuesday's election, Obama said: "I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause."
• <strong>A team of UN weapons inspectors has returned to Tehran for talks about Iran's disputed nuclear programme.</strong> "The highest priority remains the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme, and we want to tackle all outstanding issues," said Herman Nackaerts, the head of the agency's weapons' inspectors.
12.17pm: An activist in the Baba Amr area said the assault on the Homs neighbourhood had intensified, but he could not confirm reports of troop reinforcement.
Speaking to the Guardian via Skype, above the occasional sound of artillery and gunfire, Abo Bakr said:
Assad forces continue their assault. Just recently they started to use heavier weapons. The rockets are getting larger and more destructive.
You can't see any signs of life in Baba Amr. Tens of buildings have collapsed. There is no power supply or heating.
There are no troops in the area, they are shelling us from 7km away. If they had wanted to come into Baba Amr they would have entered in the last 16 days, not now.
As he spoke an explosion was audible in the background:
You heard that. That was some rockets landing, about 500m away. I'm not safe but I want to send a message to the world to help us.
We need safe corridors [into Syria] to allow medical supplies, food and clean water. Now we get water from the rain - we collect rain water and drink it. We don't have gas to heat food.
I've been hungry for several days. We can't survive for a long time.
The Free Syrian Army can't resist the rockets and shells, they only have rifles. They are just recovering the bodies from under the rubble.
12.04pm: Razan Ghazzawi, the prominent Syrian blogger who was arrested last week has now been released along with five other women, AFP reports. However, their questioning continues and they are required to report to the police every day.
They were among a group of 14 activists detained on Thursday when security forces raided the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus.
11.49am: AP provides further confirmation of a troop build-up in Homs:
A Syria-based activist says three columns of army reinforcements including tanks are heading toward the restive central city of Homs.
Mustafa Osso says the regime appears to be preparing to storm rebel-held neighborhoods in the city before a referendum is held 23 February on a new constitution.
Osso told The Associated Press Monday he does not think the regime will be able to retake Homs through military force as residents plan to fight until "the last person."
11.10am: An explosion damaged a polling station in Aden this morning, just 24 hours before voting starts in Yemen's one-candidate presidential election.
"The explosion caused a big hole in the building's wall and shattered the windows of nearby houses," an official told Reuters.
No casualties have been reported from the blast but gunfire was heard in the same area shortly afterwards. One soldier is said to have been killed and another injured in that incident.
10.54am: Bahrain has seen a 40% drop in tourism revenue over the last year, according to Nabeel Kanoo of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Before the trouble broke out, around 70 cruise ships visited the kingdom every season but since then the total has more than halved. Each cruise visit is estimated to be worth $300,000 to Bahrain's economy.
Kanoo blamed the cancellations on "continuous media misinformation" by foreign news organisations and called on Bahrain to step up its public relations effort.
"The old suq, the gold trade, taxi drivers, travel agencies and operators as well as traders have been bearing the brunt of the disturbances," he said.
10.33am: The government of Bahrain seems desperately eager to drum up business for the controversial Grand Prix due to be held in April.
The race has twice been postponed because of political unrest and to encourage customers Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority has sent out an email offering a 15% discount on tickets. It enthuses:
<br />Off the race track, there will be plenty of recreational activities for people of all ages throughout the three-day Grand Prix weekend ... all of them will contribute to the lively and engaging family friendly atmosphere here at Bahrain International Circuit.
Also adding to the jovial mood will be stilt walkers, street performers, buskers, balloon modellers, magicians and caricaturists who will be interacting with the large crowds; while a special Extreme Area will be set up for those wishing to test their limits and experience an extreme ride ...
And, hopefully, not a cloud of teargas in sight.
10.21am: There are renewed fears of a Syrian army ground invasion into opposition strongholds in Homs after the arrival of infantry troops, AFP reports.
"Infantry troops arrived yesterday (Sunday) in Homs," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Agence France Presse on the phone Monday.
A Homs-based activist voiced fears of an imminent attack on Baba Amr, the main rebel stronghold in the central city, speaking of "unprecedented military reinforcements coming from Damascus."
"News has been leaked to us from army officers about a bloody attack that will burn everything in Baba Amr," Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution said on Sunday.
"We were expecting the attack two nights ago, but it could have been just delayed because of the snowstorm," he said.
Activists claim the bombardment of Baba Amr has continued for a 17th day.
New video purports to show artillery shelling against the area.
10.02am: John Brennan, the US counterterrorism chief, has been visiting Yemen ahead of Tuesday's one-candidate presidential "election". Yesterday he gave a briefing to journalists in Sana'a.
It's clear the US is now heavily engaged in orchestrating a political transition along the lines set out in the Gulf Cooperation Council's plan – which the outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, reluctantly signed last November.
At yesterday's briefing, Brennan talked enthusiastically about the road ahead and transition "through the ballot box" (skimming over the fact that there is only one name on the ballot paper):
Yemen is on the eve of a historic milestone – the election of a new president. Of all the countries in the Middle East that have been affected by the so-called Arab Spring, Yemen has demonstrated that it can transition from the past to the future through the ballot box. Although there have been some difficulties in getting to this point, the Yemeni people should be very, very proud of this moment.
It's also clear from the briefing that US policy in Yemen is still shaped more by fears of instability and the threat posed by al-Qaida than support for democracy.
An article in The Nation last week argued that US preoccupation with al-Qaida in Yemen has been counter-productive. The Saleh regime profited financially from appearing to fight terrorism – which gave it a strong incentive to ensure that the terror threat continued.
Brennan acknowledged this yesterday in answer to a question at his press briefing:
You're absolutely right that there are some individuals within Yemen who have exploited al-Qaida's presence here for the wrong purposes. We find it outrageous for any members of the Yemeni government or the Yemeni political system to exploit al-Qaida's presence for their own purposes ...
I have spoken very directly to Yemeni officials about their need to do more against al-Qaida and to dry up those sources of support as you rightly point out. So rather than re-evaluate our programme of support to the Yemeni government, we are going to continue to press the Yemeni government, the Yemeni intelligence, security and military services, to do the right thing against al-Qaeda.
We will continue to do that. And I've had that conversation with Vice-President Hadi, and I am very encouraged by his comments to me. He is committed as well to destroying al-Qaida, and I consider him a good and strong counter-terrorism partner.
And on corruption in the armed forces, you are absolutely right that there are individuals within the military who, over the years, have tried to take advantage of their positions for personal gain. This is unacceptable, and I know Vice-President Hadi and other Yemeni government officials believe that it's unacceptable and must stop.
9.50am: Two Iranian ships docked at the Syrian port of Tartus on Saturday to provide maritime training to Syrian naval forces, Iran's Press TV reports.
The reports have alarmed Israel, it says.
"If the boats come near our territorial waters, we will monitor them very closely," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on Sunday.
9.21am: China's People's Daily, has accused western countries of stirring up civil war in Syria, Reuters reports.
China and Russia angered the west and Arab states this month by blocking a draft United Nations security council resolution that backed an Arab plan demanding Assad step aside.
If the security council had passed the resolution backing the Arab League, that would only have led to more violence, Qu King, whom the newspaper identified as a foreign affairs expert, wrote in the article.
"If western countries continue to fully support Syria's opposition, then in the end a large-scale civil war will erupt and there will be no way to thus avoid the possibility of foreign armed intervention," Qu wrote.
In another People's Daily article, the paper says:
Rationality and calmness are definitely needed to accomplish the urgent task of ending bloody conflict in the country. Military intervention and forced regime change violate the Charter of the United Nations, and are not the right solution. They will not only complicate the Syrian crisis, but also break the basic norms governing international relations.
9.10am: Khalid Abu Salah, a Homs based activist who was injured earlier this month during the assault on the city, has delivered another video appeal.
In his latest clip purportedly from the city, Salah calls on the opposition Syrian National Council, to do more to try to stop the bombardment of the Baba Amr neighbourhood, according to a translation by Syria dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, a vocal critic of the SNC.
Abdulahamid quotes Salah saying:
You haven't done anything of substance since the beginning of the bombardment. You should immediately contact the Red Cross to encourage delivery of humanitarian aid to the neighbourhood, and you should do more press conferences to inform the world of what's happening in Baba Amr. We gave you legitimacy, and we can take it away.
8.36am: (all times GMT) Welcome to Middle East Live. Senior US politicians have called for the arming of opponents of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad. But America's top general, Martin Dempsey, has called for caution over both Syria and Iran.
Here's a roundup in more detail:
• <strong>Two senior Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said that rebel fighters deserved to be armed, the New York Times reports.</strong> McCain, who like Graham is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said:
I believe there are ways to get weapons to the opposition without direct United States involvement. The Iranians and the Russians are providing Bashar Assad with weapons. People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves. So I am not only not opposed, but I am in favour of weapons being obtained by the opposition.
• <strong>But the US won't provide weapons to opposition forces in Syria until it has a better picture of what those forces are, the top US military officer told CNN.</strong> "I think it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point," said General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
• <strong>Conflicting accounts have emerged of the killing of two judicial officials in Idlib, the LA Times reports.</strong> Authorities said "an armed terrorist group" in Idlib city opened fire on a car carrying a judge, Mohammed Ziyadeh, and a prosecutor, Nidal Ghazal. Also killed was the driver, said the official Syrian Arab News Agency. An opposition activist reached in Idlib contradicted the official version and said Syrian security forces killed the pair because they were cooperating with antigovernment rebels active in the northwestern region, close to the border with Turkey.
• <strong>Syrian security forces opened fire when a funeral in central Damascus became the focus for a protest involving 15,000 people - one of the largest demonstrations in the capital, the Telegraph reports.</strong>
The first gun shot that was a Syrian army officer's signal to his troops went almost unheard among the songs and uproarious chants. Seconds later, though, the air was filled with deafening and relentless gunfire and the terrified screams of the crowds.
"They are shooting. Oh my God, they are shooting!" screamed a woman, grabbing her five-year-old girl from the ground.
• <strong>Maysaloon, a Syrian blogger based in the the UK, was encouraged by the protests:</strong>
The Damascus protests in Mazzeh yesterday were breathtaking to watch, and I know those streets like the back of my hand. The fact that a protest of this size managed to slip through the security net means that the minute Assad's control is weakened we can expect to see enormous crowds in Damascus again. That I feel certain of. Only months ago we saw this enormous Syrian flag festooned across that same thoroughfare by "supporters" of the regime. Yesterday was a different story, and the fact that the regime's thugs opened fire on clearly unarmed and peaceful protesters should be enough for all but the most stubborn defenders of dictatorship that Assad's time is up.
• <strong>In his CNN interview general Dempsey also warned Israel that a military strike against Iran "would be destabilising"</strong>. But in a comment likely to fuel speculation about Israel's military plans, he added: "I wouldn't suggest we've persuaded them that our view is the correct view." The two countries were having a "candid, collaborative conversation" which was continuing, he said.
• <strong>Iran has announced that it has stopped selling crude oil to British and French companies, in a move that may put further pressure on the price of oil amid heightening political tensions.</strong> A spokesman was quoted on the Iranian oil ministry's website as saying: "Exporting crude to British and French companies has been stopped … we will sell our oil to new customers. We have our own customers … The replacements for these companies have been considered by Iran."
• <strong>The US should change tactics to avert a war with Iran, a Guardian leader says. </strong>
Barack Obama has not pulled out of Iraq, and started the drawdown in Afghanistan, only to start a conflict with a country with the power to mess up both Iraq and Afghanistan if attacked. But if he continues on this path, he could well have a conflict. For this reason alone, he should change course ...
A way out still exists: it means allowing Iran the ability to produce civilian nuclear energy as it is entitled to do under the non-proliferation treaty. To date, Iran has not broken the provisions of the NPT. The IAEA has a list of unanswered questions about suspected research into warhead miniaturisation and nuclear triggers, but nothing has been proved. The gap between suspicion and proof creates the space for negotiation which would cap the amount of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride that Iran could produce, limit the sites in which such enrichment could take place, and prevent enrichment to military-grade levels.
• <strong>Egyptian election officials have failed to confirm the date of the first presidential election raising fears that the country's military rulers are planning to renege on a pledge to return to civilian rule, the BBC reports.</strong> An election commission briefing only expressed hope the process could be over by the end of May, following reports last week that the election would be held then.
• <strong>On the eve of a one-candidate presidential election, President Obama said Yemen could be an example of peaceful political transition for other Arab nations, the New York Times reports.</strong> In a letter to vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the only candidate in Tuesday's election, Obama said: "I know you face challenges ahead, but I am optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause."