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Posts tagged ‘William Hague’

China Joins Russia In Support For Ukraine Military Action.

Sky News: Russia has said China is largely “in agreement” over Ukraine, after other world powers condemned Moscow for sending troops into the country. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have surrounded a military base in Crimea, preventing Ukrainian soldiers from going in or out. The convoy blockading the site, near the Crimean capital Simferopol, includes at least 17 military vehicles.


Armed servicemen wait near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, March 1, 2014

Russian troops are also reported to have taken control of a ferry terminal in the city of Kerch on the eastern tip of Crimea, which has a majority Russian-speaking population.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said two Russian fighter jets violated the country’s air space in the Black Sea on Sunday night and that it had scrambled an interceptor aircraft to prevent the “provocative actions”. And reports claimed pro-Russian protesters had occupied a floor of the regional government building in Donetsk. The 11-storey building has been flying the Russian flag for the last three days.

Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk has insisted his country “will never give up Crimea to anyone” and urged Russian forces to withdraw.

Mr Yatseniuk said: “I was and am a supporter of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, as a conflict would destroy the foundations for stability in the whole region.”  In an interview with Sky News, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the crisis is likely to take some time to resolve.

He said: “I think we probably are looking at a long period of very active diplomacy and looking for solutions to this since there is no sign of a change in the Russian position on this. ”It’s impossible to be optimistic at the moment. We’re not in any position to be optimistic about the security situation and what is happening in the Crimea.”

The crisis has had a huge knock-on effect on global stock markets, with Moscow’s stock exchange plunging as much as 10% on Monday morning.

Russia’s central bank raised its rate to 7% from 5.5% as the ruble hit an historic low against the dollar and the euro.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Ukraine by telephone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Monday, and claimed they had “broadly coinciding points of view” on the situation there, according to a ministry statement.

Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva later, Mr Lavrov said Russian troops were necessary in Ukraine “until the normalization of the political situation” and dismissed threats of sanctions and boycotts.source – Sky News.

by NTEB News Desk

Kerry in Geneva as Iran Nuclear Talks Reach ‘Final Moment’.

Image: Kerry in Geneva as Iran Nuclear Talks Reach 'Final Moment'

GENEVA — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join talks on Iran‘s contested nuclear program with Tehran and six world powers appearing on the verge of a breakthrough to defuse the decade-old standoff.

The Chinese, Russian, French, British and German foreign ministers — Wang Yi, Sergei Lavrov, Laurent Fabius, William Hague and Guido Westerwelle — also prepared to take part in the push to seal an interim deal under which Iran would curb its nuclear work in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

Diplomats said a formidable sticking point in the intense negotiations, which began on Wednesday, may have been overcome with compromise language that does not explicitly recognize Iran’s claim to a “right to enrich” uranium but acknowledges all countries’ right to their own civilian nuclear energy.

But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s demand to continue construction of a heavy-water reactor near Arak that could, when operational, yield bomb-grade plutonium remained one of the main outstanding issues.

Ryabkov said a breakthrough was closer now than at the Nov. 7-9 round of Geneva talks but, he told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency, “unfortunately I can’t say that there is a certainty of reaching that breakthrough.”

“It’s not a done deal. There’s a realistic chance but there’s a lot of work to do,” Germany’s Westerwelle told reporters.

The powers’ goal is to cap Iran’s nuclear energy program, which has a history of evading U.N. inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran of refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs rather than electricity.

“We are close to a deal but still differences over two-three issues remain,” said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbar Araqchi, a senior negotiator.

A senior European diplomat had told reporters earlier that foreign ministers of the six states would come to Geneva only if there was a consummated agreement to sign.

An interim accord on confidence-building steps would be designed to start a cautious process of detente with Iran after decades of estrangement, and banish the specter of a devastating Middle East war over its nuclear quest.

The draft deal would have Iran suspend some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level enrichment, in exchange for the release of some of many billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts, and renewed trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

The United States might also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear it wants a more significant dilution of the sanctions blocking its oil exports and use of the international banking system.

France’s Fabius, who objected to what he felt was a one-side offer to Iran floated at the November 7-9 negotiating round, appeared guarded on arrival in Geneva early on Saturday.

“I hope we can reach a deal, but a solid deal. I am here to work on that,” he said. France has consistently taken a tough line over Iran’s nuclear program, helping Paris cultivate closer ties with Tehran’s adversaries in Israel and the Gulf.

Kerry left for Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Echoing optimism that a deal was close, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying the talks “have reached the final moment”.

The United States and other Western powers say there is no such thing under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a “right to enrich”, but Iran has viewed this as a matter of national sovereignty and crucial to any deal.

Diplomats said new, compromise wording on the table did not explicitly recognize a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country. “If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclear program, that’s open to interpretation,” a diplomat said.

Iran also wants relief from sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy in return for any nuclear concessions it makes that could allay the West’s suspicions about its stockpiling of enriched uranium.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt to Iran’s enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent – a major technical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N. nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

If a preliminary agreement is reached, it would run for six months that would provide time for the powers and Tehran to hammer out a broader, longer-term settlement.

Diplomacy on Tehran’s nuclear aspirations has revived remarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctions relief and diminishing Iran’s international isolation.

The sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, however, bogged down in politically vexed details and hampered by long-standing mutual mistrust.

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Israel pursued its public campaign against the offer of respite from sanctions for Iran, voicing its conviction that all this would achieve would be more time for Iran to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media in Moscow that Iran was essentially given an “unbelievable Christmas present – the capacity to maintain this breakout capability for practically no concessions at all.”© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.


Iran Offers Concessions in Nuclear Talks; No Deal Yet.

Image: Iran Offers Concessions in Nuclear Talks; No Deal Yet

Iran‘s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, center, leaves his hotel in Geneva on Oct. 16 at the second day of closed-door nuclear talks.

GENEVA — Iran has indicated a readiness to scale back uranium enrichment the West fears could be used to make nuclear bombs, suggesting it is willing to compromise for a deal to win relief from harsh economic sanctions, diplomats said on Wednesday.But details of Iran’s proposals, presented during negotiations with six world powers, have not been made public, and Western officials were cautious whether the Islamic state was willing to go far enough to clinch a breakthrough deal.

Another round of talks between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany was expected to be scheduled in the coming weeks to try to end a protracted stand-off that could boil over into a new Middle East war.

Both sides sought to dampen expectations of any rapid deal at the Oct. 15-16 meeting, the first to be held since President Hassan Rouhani took office pledging conciliation over confrontation to ease Iran’s international isolation.

The powers want the Islamic Republic to stop higher-grade enrichment to allay concerns that it would provide Iran a quick path to bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Tehran says it is refining uranium solely to generate more electricity for a rapidly expanding population and to produce isotopes for medicine.

After the first day of talks in Geneva, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested Tehran was prepared to address long-standing calls for the U.N. nuclear watchdog to have wider and more intrusive inspection powers.

He also told the official IRNA news agency that measures related to its uranium enrichment were part of the Iranian proposal, but hinted the Islamic Republic was not inclined to make its concessions quickly.

“Neither of these issues are within the first step [of the Iranian proposal] but form part of our last steps,” he said without elaborating, in comments reported on Wednesday.

The sequencing of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions relief by the West could prove a stumbling block en route to a landmark, verifiable deal. Western officials have repeatedly said that Iran must suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, their main worry, before sanctions are eased.

“Are we there yet? No, but we need to keep talking,” a Western diplomat said as talks resumed on Wednesday.

Israel, Iran’s arch-foe, urged the powers to be tough in the talks by demanding a total shutdown of enrichment and ruling out any early relaxation of sanctions. But it did not repeat veiled threats to bomb Iran if it deems diplomacy pointless.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague underscored Western reluctance to move fast, saying during a trip to Tokyo that any changes in sanctions would only follow action by Iran.

“We are not today in a position to make any changes in those sanctions. Sanctions must continue. Sanctions are important part of bringing Iran to the negotiating table,” he told reporters.


Western diplomats were hesitant to divulge specifics about the negotiations due to sensitivities involved — both in Tehran, where conservative hardliners are skeptical about striking deals that could curtail the nuclear program, and in Washington, where hawks are reluctant to support swift sanctions relief.

But Iran, diplomats said, has made much more concrete proposals than in the past, when ideological lectures and obfuscations were the norm, to the point that Tehran’s negotiators were concerned about details being aired in public before they had a chance to sell them back in Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a post on Facebook that secrecy was working in the negotiators’ favor.

“Normally, the less negotiators leak news, the more it shows the seriousness of the negotiations and the possibility of reaching an agreement,” he said.

Diplomats said other proposals Iranian envoys had made regarding eventual “confidence-building” steps included halting 20 percent enrichment and possibly converting at least some of existing 20 percent stockpiles — material that alarms the powers as it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade — to uranium oxide suitable for processing into reactor fuel.


But Iran did not intend to renounce all enrichment itself “under any circumstances,” the Russian state news agency RIA quoted an unidentified Iranian delegation source as saying.

He was dismissing the maximal demand of U.S. and Israeli hawks which Western diplomats concede would undermine Rouhani’s authority at home by exposing him to accusations of a sell-out from conservative hardliners in the clerical and security elite.

Most Iranians of whatever political persuasion equate the quest for nuclear energy with national sovereignty, modernization and a standing equal to the Western world.

“Apart from suspending 20 percent enrichment, it is possible to consider a scenario involving reducing the number of centrifuges [enriching uranium],” RIA quoted the delegate as saying. “However, for this, concrete steps from our opponents are required, which we do not see yet.”

Iran has sharply expanded its uranium enrichment capacity in recent years and it now has roughly 19,000 installed such machines. Of those, about 10,400 are currently enriching.

The fact that Iran has so many idle centrifuges potentially allows it to swiftly expand enrichment, if it wanted, or to use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the powers.

Rouhani’s election in June turned Western pessimism into guarded optimism that Iran might be ready to do a deal before tensions escalated uncontrollably into armed conflict.

The sprawling Shi’ite state of 75 million people has become anxious to be rid of Western-led sanctions that have impaired its economy, slashed its critical oil export revenues by 60 percent and brought about a devaluation of its rial currency.

Iran has previously spurned Western demands that it shelve 20 percent enrichment as an initial step in return for modest sanctions relief encompassing, for example, imported aircraft parts. Instead, it has called for the most far-flung and painful sanctions, targeting oil and banking sectors, to be rescinded.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.


Obama Calls Russian Syria Proposal ‘Potentially’ Positive Move.

President Barack Obama said Russia’s bid to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons is a “potentially positive development,” while expressing skepticism about whether the embattled regime will follow through.

The president also said in an interview with NBC News that he’s isn’t confident that Congress will approve an authorization to use military force, and he hasn’t decided whether he would strike Syria even if lawmakers turn him down.

While vowing that the U.S. will pursue the initiative to see whether the Russian proposal is serious, Obama said it has to be taken “with a grain of salt.”

“We have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years,” Obama said in the interview, one of six he taped today as part of an administration-wide attempt to rally public and congressional support for a U.S. military attack against Syria.

He said Syria’s embrace of the Russian proposal stemmed from the “credible threat” of a U.S. strike.

Obama’s interviews were a prelude to his address to the nation tomorrow night in which he’s seeking to make the case that U.S. national security is at stake if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians last month goes unanswered. His top aides and advisers have been briefing lawmakers and the president made personal appeals at a dinner with Republican senators last night and telephone calls over the weekend.

Russian Proposal

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on an off- hand remark Secretary of State John Kerry made when answering a question at a briefing in London with U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Kerry, asked what could stop a U.S. military strike, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” he added.

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Kerry wasn’t setting an ultimatum. She said the top U.S. diplomat was making a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.”

Lavrov said after meeting with his Syrian counterpart today in Moscow that Russia would “immediately start working with Damascus” if international control of chemical weapons in Syria would forestall a military strike.

Syria Reaction

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem welcomed the opening and called it a constructive proposal to “prevent American aggression against our people.”

The move to set a deadline for Syria gained momentum at the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he was “considering urging the Security Council to demand immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely destroyed.”

He said he would make the request only after UN inspectors issue their report on chemical-weapons use in Syria.

Assad, meanwhile said the U.S. should “expect every action” in retaliation.

“There are going to be repercussions,” Assad said in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’s “This Morning” program, an excerpt of which was aired this morning.


© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.


Obama White House Message On Syria Becomes Confused And Disoriented.

RELATED AUDIO: The Coming End Times Nightmare With Obama’s War In Syria

Last week, Obama was threatening to blow Damascus off the map with cruise and tomahawk missiles. Today, John Kerry says that ‘military action is not the answer’, and that any attack would be ‘unbelievably small’. Well, which is it?


This muddled, rambling and obviously confused stream of consciousness only serves to illustrate all too well that Obama really has no message, no coherent foreign policy to speak of. Just last Friday, Team Obama said that they were considering accepting a Saudi offer to pay for America to destroy Damascus. Huh? America as a hired mercenary for a Muslim kingdom?

When Obama first said he wanted to attack Syria, there was worldwide outrage and anger, with not even our constant ally England standing with us. Here we are two weeks later, and the world’s anger is beginning to turn into laughter. Mocking laughter at an American president who is in over his head and saying silly, foolish things.

From Daily Mail UK: John Kerry today told Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad he had until the end of the week to hand over his chemical arsenal or face possible attack.

The U.S. Secretary of State issued the ultimatum as he arrived in London on the latest leg of a whistlestop tour of Europe to garner support for intervention in Syria.

Speaking ahead of a crucial vote in Congress on U.S. involvement, he said there was compelling evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against its own people.

But in an tacit message to American politicians who have heavily resisted action in the Middle East, Mr Kerry said that any strike would be ‘unbelievably small’.

‘The United States of AmericaPresident Obama, myself and others – are in full agreement that the end of the conflict in Syria requires a political solution,’ he said during a joint press conference with Foreign Secretary William Hague. ‘There is no military solution and we have no illusions about that.

‘But a resolution to this has to come about because the parties are prepared to come and negotiate that political solution. If one party believes that he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with impunity, using chemicals that have been banned for 100 years … he will never come to the negotiating table.

‘A resolution will not be found on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table, but we have to get to that table.’

Mr Kerry – whose visit to the Foreign Office was met with a small but vocal anti-war protest – used the opportunity to redouble his attacks on Assad, saying that the Syrian president’s credibility was in question.

‘He sends SCUD missiles into schools,’ he said ’(Washington) knows where the rockets came from and where they landed … and it was no accident that they all came from regime -controlled territory and all landed (in opposition-held territory)’

In an interview on CBS’s This Morning, Assad argued that the evidence Mr Kerry has disclosed about chemical weapons use amounts to a ‘big lie’ that resembled the case for war in Iraq the U.S. made to the United Nations over a decade ago.

Asked to respond, Mr Kerry said he would be confident to take evidence that the US intelligence committee has gathered into any court.

‘What does he offer?’ Mr Kerry asked. ‘Words that are contradicted by fact.’ source – Daily Mail UK

by NTEB News Desk

Egypt: ‘Dozens Killed’ As Rallies Turn Violent.


At least 120 people have been killed after security forces attacked a protest by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, according to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Doctors at a field hospital said another 1,000 people had been wounded in clashes on the road to Cairo’s international airport, while the Muslim Brotherhood was claiming that a total of 4,500 had been wounded.

“They are not shooting to wound, they are shooting to kill,” Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said, adding that demonstrators had been hit by gunshot in the head and chest.

He said the shooting started just before pre-dawn prayers at a round-the-clock sit-in staged by Morsi supporters at Rabaa al-Adawiya in east Cairo.

Activists rushed blood-spattered casualties to the makeshift hospital, some carried on planks or blankets. Many had fatal head wounds.

However, the Egypt Health Ministry claimed that the number of deaths reached 65, the number of wounded 750.

Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei on Saturday strongly condemned the “excessive use of force” in Egypt after deadly clashes between supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and security forces.

“I strongly condemn the excessive use of force and the deaths, and I am working hard and in every direction to end the confrontation in a peaceful way, God protect Egypt and have mercy on the victims,” he said on his Twitter account.

However, amid claims that rooftop snipers had opened fire on the vigil, Egypt’s interior minister blamed the Brotherhood for the violence.

Speaking at a news conference, Mohamed Ibrahim said the security forces would act “in a legal fashion” to disperse the protesters “as soon as possible”.

The MENA state news agency, quoting an unnamed security official, reported that nine people had been killed in the violence and at least 200 wounded.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” by the violence.

He said: “I am deeply concerned by recent events in Egypt, and condemn the use of force against protesters which has led to the loss of lives.”

The violence broke out as rival rallies were held across Egypt for and against the overthrow of Mr Morsi, who is under investigation for murder.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians heeded a call by army chief General Abdel Fattah al Sisi to take to the streets, while the Muslim Brotherhood mounted counter-demonstrations in Cairo.

A spokeswoman for the pro-Morsi camp said eight Brotherhood supporters had died in a clash near the Cairo vigil alone, and another said rooftop snipers had opened fire.

At least 10 people have also been killed in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, where hundreds of people fought pitched battles, with birdshot fired and men on rooftops throwing stones at crowds below.

Several of those killed were stabbed, hospital officials said, and at least one was shot in the head.

The investigation into Mr Morsi over his 2011 escape from jail has signalled a clear escalation in the military’s confrontation with the deposed leader and his Islamist movement.

MENA said Mr Morsi, who has been held at an undisclosed military facility since his overthrow, had been ordered detained for 15 days pending the inquiry.

Egypt’s army-installed interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, said month-old Cairo vigils by Mr Morsi’s supporters would be “brought to an end, soon and in a legal manner”.

An army official said the military had given the party a Saturday deadline to end its resistance and join a military-set roadmap to fresh elections.

But the Brotherhood says it wants nothing to do with the army’s transition plan and called its own crowds out for counter-demonstrations in a “day to remove the coup”.

Mr Morsi has been in military detention at an undisclosed location since he was overthrown.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon has called on the military to free Mr Morsi and other Islamic Brotherhood leaders, said deputy UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey.

Sky NewsSky News

‘Friends of Syria’ Hold Talks on Arming Rebels.

DOHA, Qatar — Foreign ministers of governments that support the Syrian opposition held talks in Qatar on Saturday on boosting their assistance after rebels hailed recent deliveries of new types of weaponry.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose government announced earlier this month that it was ready to start arming the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), was among the top diplomats attending the “Friends of Syria” meeting.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was also taking part, said his government had yet to take a decision on whether to provide arms as well as non-lethal equipment to the rebels.

“On the much debated question of whether we should give lethal aid of any kind to the Syrian opposition, the position remains the same — we have taken no decision to do that,” he told reporters as ministers gathered.

The Doha meeting began behind closed doors, without an official opening, delegates said.

Ahead of the talks, an FSA spokesman told AFP it had new types of weaponry that could give it the edge in the 27-month conflict.

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground,” Louay Muqdad said.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters,” he said, without saying who supplied them.

Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun said the FSA had recently received “sophisticated weapons,”including “an anti-aircraft defense system.”

Washington said earlier this month that it would provide arms to the rebels in response to intelligence assessments that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had made limited use of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

But U.S. officials have not specified what types of weapons Washington is prepared to deliver.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that the CIA and U.S. special forces have been training Syrian rebels for months, including in the use of coveted anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Top diplomats from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were also taking part in the talks.

“The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of every kind of assistance that’s coming from the London 11 countries (Friends of Syria) . . . being fully coordinated and going through only the Syrian opposition coalition,” a U.S. official said.

The official called the Qatar meeting critical as the opposition National Coalition assesses its leadership amid concerns in Washington that fighters battling Assad lack cohesion and direction.

“This is all in support of energizing, re-energizing, the Syrian opposition coalition leadership to work to select its leadership,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the meeting would address how to coordinate Western aid.

“We will try in Doha to sum up the situation on the ground and to see how we can aid the opposition coalition and arrive at a political solution,” he said.

France and Britain have pushed for arming the rebels but underscored that this must be done responsibly to avoid the kind of anarchy that followed the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Ministers were also expected to discuss a joint Russian and U.S. proposal for a Syrian peace conference.

Damascus officials have said they are ready to attend. Opposition leaders have said any peace conference must lead to Assad’s departure.

Hague said Britain was committed to trying to make sure any peace conference was a success.

“At the end, there is only a political solution for the conflict,” he said. “We want to see a successful conference in Geneva.”

Arab and Western assistance to the rebels has taken on new urgency after loyalist forces made key gains on the battlefield in recent weeks with support from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

They have retaken the strategic central town of Qusair near the Lebanese border and are trying to oust rebels fighters from footholds around Damascus which they have used as launchpads for attacks inside the capital.

The army on Saturday pressed a fierce assault launched four days ago against rebel areas in northern and eastern Damascus, killing three children with mortar fire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.


© AFP 2013

British Government Pressed Over Use of US Surveillance.

LONDON — The opposition Labour party on Saturday demanded clarification from the British government about the use by its spies of intelligence from a controversial U.S. surveillance program.

There are concerns that British eavesdropping agency GCHQ, in using U.S. data, may have been able to circumvent British legal processes required to seek personal information from Internet companies.

According to the Guardian newspaper, which helped break news of the existence of the PRISM surveillance program this week, GCHQ has had access to the U.S. system since 2010 and used it to generate 197 intelligence reports last year.

“The intelligence agencies need to be able to get information from abroad especially in their vital work against terrorist threats,” said Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper.

“But it must be within the legal framework agreed by parliament so there are proper safeguards in place.”

She called for clarification on what role ministers had in overseeing the use of the U.S. data, and “how this relates to long-standing legal requirements for warrants and inspection by the Intercept Commissioner.”

Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander called on Foreign Secretary William Hague to give a statement to the House of Commons on Monday to address the “serious public concern.”

The chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, Malcolm Rifkind, has already asked GCHQ to provide a report on its PRISM activities by Monday.

Reports in The Guardian and the Washington Post suggest the U.S. National Security Agency and the FBI are directly tapping central servers at nine U.S. Internet companies to monitor emails, documents, social media posts and online photos.

Dubbed PRISM, the secret program has been in operation since 2007 and involves media giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, the newspapers said.

The Foreign Office has not responded to the reports about GCHQ’s involvement, saying it does not comment on intelligence matters, but Hague is due to give a television interview on Sunday.

GCHQ also refused to comment directly, but insisted in a statement that it operated within a “strict legal and policy framework”.

“GCHQ takes its obligations under the law very seriously,” the agency said.

The revelations come amid a political debate in Britain about legislation allowing the security services access to emails and so-called media messages.

The so-called “snooper’s charter” has split Cameron’s coalition — his Conservative party supports the proposals but they have been blocked by their junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.


© AFP 2013


Europeans Fail to Renew Embargo, Opening Path to Arm Syrian Rebels.

BRUSSELS — Britain and France are free to supply weapons to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad from August, after attempts to renew an European Union arms embargo on Syria failed on Monday.

After a marathon negotiating session in Brussels, EU governments failed to bridge their differences and let a ban on arming the opposition expire, with France and Britain scoring a victory at the expense of EU unity.

Britain and France have made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition “at this stage,” an EU declaration said. But EU officials said the commitment effectively expires on Aug. 1.

The refusal of London and Paris to go along with the arms embargo could have caused the collapse of all EU sanctions against Syria, embarrassing the EU and handing a victory to Assad. EU ministers managed to avert that by agreeing to reinstate all of the restrictions except for the arms embargo on the rebels.

EU sanctions on Syria that will remain in place include asset freezes and travel bans on Assad and senior Syrian officials, as well as curbs on trade, infrastructure projects and the transport sector.

London and Paris have argued for months that Europe must send a strong signal of support for rebels fighting Assad by allowing EU arms deliveries, even though they say they have not decided yet to actually supply arms.

But they ran into strong opposition from other EU governments, led by Austria and Sweden, which argued that sending more weapons to the region would increase violence and spread instability.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU meeting had effectively ended the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate,” Hague told reporters.


London and Paris were seeking to increase the opposition’s leverage in planned U.S. and Russian co-sponsored peace talks expected next month by raising the prospect they could supply arms to the rebels if the political process made no headway.

The debate has gained urgency because of military gains by Assad’s troops and allegations of chemical weapons use.

French newspaper Le Monde published first-hand accounts on Monday of Syrian forces loyal to Assad having repeatedly used chemical weapons against rebel fighters in Damascus.

But while a number of member states softened their opposition to amending the EU arms embargo and said they could back a compromise, Britain was unyielding in the talks, diplomats said.

“The British didn’t give an inch,” one diplomat said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said he regretted it had not been possible to find a compromise with Britain and France.

Spindelegger said the Austrian government would now discuss what to do about its 380 soldiers patrolling the U.N. ceasefire line on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. Vienna has said in the past it might have to pull them out if the arms embargo was eased.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, sought to repair any damage to the bloc’s image, saying Monday’s decision did not mean the EU has lost the capacity to “have a common policy.”

“What it does mean is there is a recognition that in trying to establish how best to support the people of Syria, countries will want to make some decisions (on their own),” she told reporters.

Even if Britain and France decide to supply arms to the rebels, they will have to authorize any shipments on a case-by-case basis and follow safeguards to ensure no equipment lands in the wrong hands.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

EU Lifts Syria Oil Embargo to Bolster Rebels.

LUXEMBOURG — The European Union (EU) on Monday lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the forces fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime.

The decision will allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory, the import of oil and gas production technology, and investments in the Syrian oil industry, the EU said in a statement.

Any export or investment initiatives will be taken in close coordination with the leaders of the Syrian opposition, the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers decided at a meeting in Luxembourg.

The move marks the first relaxing of EU sanctions on Syria in two years as governments try to help ease shortages of vital supplies in areas held by the opposition in the civil war-struck Arab state.

“We wish for good economic development in the areas controlled by the opposition, therefore we lift the sanctions that hinder the moderate opposition forces’ work,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said ahead of the meeting.

The oil exports could open an important revenue stream for Syria’s opposition, even though it is still unclear when and how much crude could be exported.

EU officials hinted the move was in part aimed at laying the legal groundwork to get investment and crude flowing rapidly as soon as the security situation on the ground improves.

“The security situation is so difficult that much of this will be difficult to do, but it is important for us to send the signal that we are open to helping in other ways, in all the ways possible,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

While Syria was never one of the world’s major oil exporters, the sector was a pillar of Syria’s economy until the uprising, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — almost exclusively to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. Oil revenues provided around a quarter of the funds for the national budget.

Since the start of the uprising, Syria’s oil industry has faltered as the rebels have captured many of the country’s oil fields, with wells aflame and looters scooping up crude. That has deprived Assad’s government of much-needed cash and fuel for its war machine as it fights the two-year-old uprising.

The government has not released recent production figures, but exports have ground practically to a standstill, and Assad’s regime has been forced to import refined fuel supplies to keep up with demand amid shortages and rising prices.

Imports of fuel or crude to Syria have not been targeted by the sanctions.

Some EU members, such as Britain and France, are also pushing to lift the bloc’s arms embargo against Syria to allow weapons shipments to the rebels. But other major EU players, such as Germany, remain opposed to that step, fearing it might set off a regional arms race and deepen the conflict.

The arms embargo expires May 30, and the EU foreign ministers aren’t expected to make a decision on it before their next meeting in May, EU officials said.

“We need to do more to support the opposition,” said Britain’s Hague. “In the U.K., we increase humanitarian assistance, we are sending shipments of body armor, bullet-proof vehicles, communications equipment and other means of saving lives,” he added.

The conflict in Syria has left more than 70,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.

The violence in Syria has forced more than 1 million Syrians to escape their homeland to seek safety abroad, and more are seeking refuge by the day, putting an immense burden on neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.

“There is a risk that at the end of the year 2013, we’ll have three million refugees”, warned Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. The EU as a whole is already the single-biggest donor of humanitarian aid but more must be done to alleviate the suffering in Syria and reduce the burden on its neighbors, he added.

At their meeting, the ministers were also set to drop sanctions against Myanmar, also referred to as Burma, to support the country’s transition toward democracy.

“The problems of Burma are not over, but the progress that has been made is substantial,” said Hague, adding the EU must strengthen its engagement with the authorities to stop the ongoing ethnic violence in Myanmar that particularly targets Muslim minorities there.

The sanctions were suspended last April for one year after the country’s military rulers handed over power to a civilian government that launched democratic reforms. The measures had targeted more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, and also included the suspension of some development aid.

An embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression, however, will remain in place.

The end of the bulk of the sanctions should encourage firms from the 27-nation EU — the world’s largest economy — and development organizations to strengthen their engagement in Myanmar, EU officials said.

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