UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday opened a long-awaited international peace conference for Syria in the most serious effort yet to end the bloodshed. The Syrian parties “can make a new beginning… This conference is your opportunity to ..…
A December 31 deadline to remove part of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal from the country for destruction has been missed, with ships due to receive the materials returning to Cyprus.
In Syria, meanwhile, a newspaper quoted government officials as saying invitations to a peace meeting in Switzerland next month had not been issued, blaming the delay on disarray among the country’s opposition groups.
And in northern Aleppo, at least 10 people were killed when a regime tank shell slammed into a bus in Aleppo city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A Norwegian frigate and a Danish warship had been near the Syrian coast waiting to dock at the port in Latakia to escort chemical materials to Italy, ahead of their destruction at sea on a US ship.
But the vessels returned to port in Cyprus on Monday night as it became clear that the removal mission would not go ahead as scheduled.
Lars Hovtun, a spokesman for the Norwegian ship HNoMS Helge Ingstad gave no new date for the mission to escort the dangerous cargo out of Syria.
“We are still on high alert to go into Syria,” he said. “We still don’t know exactly when the orders will come.”
The international disarmament mission in Syria had acknowledged on Saturday it was “unlikely” the weapons could be transported to Latakia in time for the December 31 deadline set for the removal of key weapons components.
But the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons remained positive on Tuesday, saying the overall plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal was on track.
“An enormous amount of work has been accomplished in three months,” OPCW spokesman Christian Chartier told AFP.
“Syria’s chemical arsenal has been completely neutralised, the chemical agents and chemical products are under international control, have been sealed… the effective dismantling of the production and filling plants is on course.”
“All unfilled munitions have been destroyed, so even if the Syrians tried to get their hands on certain chemical products they wouldn’t have the weapons to use them,” Chartier said.
“Their capacity to produce and use chemical weapons has been reduced to zero.”
Chartier said the operation was still on track to meet a deadline to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
“The most important deadline in our eyes is June 30, and nothing leads us to believe that it won’t be met,” he said.
The failure to meet the December 31 deadline underlines the complexity of the task of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a bloody civil war.
On Saturday, the UN and OPCW said the war, logistical problems, and bad weather had held up the transport of chemical agents to Latakia for pick-up.
Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over its arsenal for destruction in the wake of a devastating chemical weapons attack that prompted the United States to threaten military action against Damascus.
The August 21 chemical attack, which the opposition and the United States blamed on the Syrian regime, is believed to have killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus.
Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, addressing the parliament on Tuesday, said the government was complying with its obligations.
“We were able to accomplish what was agreed upon, destroying the chemical production and mixing sites,” he said.
“Now we have started collecting these materials so they can be transferred to the Syrian ports and taken to other places and destroyed within a timeframe that Syria has committed to.”
On the diplomatic front, Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper quoted a foreign ministry source as saying invitations to the a peace conference scheduled for January 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux.
The source said invites were to have been sent by December 28, and the delay was “the result of the floundering efforts to form a delegation representing the ‘opposition’.”
The key opposition National Coalition has yet to officially announce it is attending the conference, and there are questions about whether staunch regime ally Iran will be invited.
In Aleppo city meanwhile, the Observatory said 10 people, including two children, were killed when a regime tank shell hit a bus.
The monitoring group said the toll could rise as many of those injured were in critical condition.
This citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a member of UN investigation team taking samples of sands near a part of a missile is likely…
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Jihadists cut down a 150-year-old oak tree in Atme, on Syria’s border with Turkey, after they accused locals of worshipping it, a pro-jihadist source said.
“Thank God almighty, the tree… aged more than 150 years has been removed, after people were worshipping it instead of God,” said the source on Thursday via his Twitter account named “our call is our jihad”.
He also posted pictures of a man in a black mask using an electric saw to cut down the tree. A black Al-Qaeda-style flag bearing the Islamic profession of faith had been planted on top of the tree.
The jihadist sympathiser used the hashtag used by supporters of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the tree had been cut down, adding that it stood next to an ancient shrine in Atme.
After jihadists took over the shrine and prevented people from going to pray there, prayers were held by the tree instead.
The reports came hours after ISIL took over the town of Atme in northwestern Syria’s Idlib on Thursday, according to the Observatory and a local rebel source.
ISIL “have taken over Atme… They have set up checkpoints across the town,” said Abu Leila, a rebel from Idlib who was angered by the capture.
He saw it as a strategic loss for mainstream opposition fighters, many of who have been at loggerheads with the jihadists.
“Atme was oxygen for the (rebel) Free Syrian Army” fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, he told AFP.
The rebels had been using Atme “as an entry point for everything from weapons to food, and as an exit point for the wounded” into Turkey’s hospitals, said Abu Leila.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
A Syrian film that has scooped a string of prestigious awards in recent months barely made it to screens because of the dangers the crew faced in the war-ravaged country, its director told AFP.
Filmmaker Basil al-Khatib’s Mariam won prizes at festivals in Cairo on October 13, at Oran in Algeria in September and at the Moroccan city of Dakhla in February.
It tells the story of three women, each named Mariam, who lived through three different conflicts in Syria’s recent history, but who overcome the horrors of war through love.
But the Palestinian-Syrian director said the film’s crew had to contend with the risks of Syria’s bloody civil war as they struggled to finish the production.
“Some of the scenes were shot in very dangerous sites, with battles raging nearby,” said Khatib.
“We’d go out to shoot and didn’t know whether we’d come back home alive that evening,” he added.
Despite this, he wanted to keep the film focused on how humanity can shine through in conflict. Mariam opens with a line of poetry by Khatib’s father: “We have lost everything, but we still have love.”
The words ring true in a country where in 31 months more than 115,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced in a savage war.
In the film, “love, peace and forgiveness are victorious, as we overcome the difficulties we are living,” Khatib said.
One of the characters echoes this, saying: “Just as war brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the most beautiful in others”.
Khatib said the film’s name is also a nod to the Virgin Mary, who in religious texts teaches love and kindness.
Mariam, he said, “sums up the situation in Syria, its suffering and the wounds and pain women are made to bear”.
The film shows the bitterness of war and the impact it has on the three women, who nonetheless “do not lose their capacity to love and make sacrifices.
“It celebrates Syrian women,” the director said.
The story of the first Mariam is set in 1918, just as World War I drew to a close.
“That era was a key to our history. The region’s future was unclear at the time as the Ottoman empire came to an end and the Allied powers came in,” said Khatib.
The film’s second part explores the impact of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, “which created a great divide” in the region, said Khatib.
It looks at a widow who refuses to leave her home in Quneitra, on the border with the Golan heights, which has been under Israeli occupation since the war.
“This war is not aimed at destroying our houses, but our very souls,” says the second Mariam.
The film’s final part returns to Syria’s turbulent present, where the third Mariam is faced with the worsening conflict at home.
After her father abandons his own mother in a shelter, the young Mariam tells him: “When a son gives up on his mother… he gives up on his memory, his country and all that is noble in him.”
Khatib believes that it is this focus on the “human element” in Syria’s conflict that has made the film a hit with audiences and juries at festivals.
As well as Mariam’s clutch of awards and successful runs at film festivals, it is also currently being screened in Alexandria.
Watch the trailer for “Mariam,” as posted online by Arab WomensFF, below.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday for “action” over the dire humanitarian situation in conflict-torn Syria as efforts were underway to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons.
“The Security Council has… made a strong commitment to relieve the humanitarian situation to reach millions of desperate civilians. Now these commitments must be backed by action,” Ban told journalists in Budapest, where he opened a UN conference.
“I call on all parties to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, end the violence and work for a political solution,” he added.
Last week, the UN Security Council demanded immediate and “unhindered” access to hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the conflict, urging both sides but “in particular the Syrian authorities” to help UN agencies and private aid groups.
Ban on Tuesday also praised the UN resolution ordering the destruction of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal as “a hopeful sign after more than two and a half years of deadlock.”
The resolution was the first on the Syria conflict since fighting began in March 2011. The UN estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since then.
Ban was in Budapest to open a UN water summit.
The number of Tunisian women travelling to Syria to wage “sex jihad” by comforting Islamists fighting the regime is very low, a senior interior ministry official told AFP on Sunday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, seemed to play down previous government statements that suggested “sex jihad” was more widespread.
“At most about 15 Tunisian women went to Syria, most to care for fighters or to do social work,” the official said.
But some of them were forced to have sexual relations with Islamist fighters once they were in the country, the official said.
“Four of them came back from Syria, and one is pregnant,” he added.
“The pregnant woman said that she was caring for fighters and had to have sexual relations with them.”
The official said, however, that women from Chechnya, Egypt, Iraq, France and Germany had travelled to Syria for “sex jihad”.
“They were targeted for indoctrination over the internet and by foreign sheikhs,” he added, referring to information obtained from Tunisian women returning from Syria.
Interior Minister Lotfi ben Jeddou told the National Constituent Assembly in September that Tunisian women had gone to Syria where “they have sexual relations with 20, 30, 100″ militants.
“After the sexual liaisons they have there in the name of ‘jihad al-nikah’ — (sexual holy war, in Arabic) — they come home pregnant,” Ben Jeddou said at the time.
Ben Jeddou did not elaborate on how many Tunisian women had returned to the country pregnant with the children of jihadist fighters.
Jihad al-nikah, permitting extramarital sexual relations with multiple partners, is considered by some hardline Sunni Muslim Salafists as a legitimate form of holy war.
Meanwhile the head of the relief association for Tunisians abroad, Badis Koubakji, said “dozens of Tunisian women have come back” from Syria after carrying out the jihad al-nikah there and that “hundreds” were still there.
Koubakji said there was a camp for the women in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.
“It’s a complete network and the interior ministry is not being transparent on this issue,” he said on Sunday.
He said that these young women aged between 17 and 30 would not talk about their experiences because their families wanted to “preserve their honour”.
NGOs in Tunisia have urged the government to do more to tackle networks recruiting young girls to travel to Syria.
The interior ministry said earlier this year that it had beefed up checks at airports to stop young Tunisians trying to reach Syria.
Ben Jeddou had said that since he assumed office in March “six thousand of our young people have been prevented from going there” to Syria.
Local media outlets in Tunisia have published several anonymous witness accounts from young women saying they had come back from Syria, but AFP has been unable to verify them.
Media reports say thousands of Tunisians have, over the past 15 years, joined jihadists across the world in Afghanistan Iraq and Syria, mainly travelling via Turkey or Libya.
At least 115,206 people have been killed in Syria’s devastating 30-month conflict, most of them fighters from both sides, a monitoring group said on Tuesday.
“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 115,206 people from the start of Syria’s revolution on March 18, 2011 to September 30, 2013,” the Britain-based group said.
Among the dead were 47,206 fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and 23,707 rebels seeking his ouster.
Of those, 28,804 were regular troops, another 18,228 were pro-regime militiamen and “informants” and 174 were members of the pro-Damascus Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, the group said.
On the rebel side, 17,071 were civilians who picked up weapons to join the insurgency, 2,176 were army defectors and 4,460 were either foreign or unidentified fighters killed in battle.
Another 41,533 civilians lost their lives in the war, among them 6,087 children and 4,079 women, said the Observatory.
The group also said it has documented the deaths of an additional 2,760 unidentified victims, who it was not possible to identify as either civilians, rebels or regime forces.
The figures exclude people being held by the regime, who activists have said number in the tens of thousands.
“It also excludes more than 3,000 regime troops held prisoner by the opposition factions,” added the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and medics on the ground for its information.
Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011, when peaceful protests calling for political change were met with a massive crackdown on dissent.
It has since developed into an all-out war that has forced millions of people to flee their homes, the United Nations says.