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History > 2013 > USA > International (I)





President Obama announces an additional $155 million in humanitarian aid

for those affected by the violence of the Assad regime.

This aid from the American people is providing

food, clean water, medicine, medical treatment, immunizations for children, clothing,

and winter supplies for millions of people in need inside Syria and in neighboring countries.

(Arabic Translation)


Published on Jan 29, 2013















Syria Says

It Has Right to Counterattack Israel


January 31, 2013
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Tensions over the Israeli airstrike on Syrian territory appeared to increase on Thursday as Syria delivered a letter to the United Nations declaring its right to self-defense and Israel’s action was condemned not only by longstanding enemies, including Iran and Hezbollah, but also by Russia.

Israeli officials remained silent about their airstrike in Syrian territory on Wednesday, a tactic that experts said was part of a longstanding strategy to give targeted countries face-saving opportunities to avoid worsening a conflict. But Syria’s own confirmation of the attack may have undercut that effort.

“From the moment they chose to say Israel did something, it means someone has to do something after that,” said Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser in Israel and a longtime military leader. But other analysts said that Syria’s overtaxed military was unlikely to retaliate and risk an Israeli onslaught that could tip the balance in its fight against the 22-month Syrian uprising. They also said Syria’s ally Hezbollah was loath to provoke conflict with Israel as it sought to maintain domestic calm in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon declared that Syria had “the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation.” The Iranian deputy foreign minister warned that the attack would have “grave consequences for Tel Aviv,” while the Russian Foreign Ministry said the strike “blatantly violates the United Nations Charter and is unacceptable and unjustified, whatever its motives.” Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the attack — as did some Syrian rebels, seeking to deny President Bashar al-Assad of Syria a chance to rally support as a victim of Israel.

Many questions swirled about the target, motivations and repercussions of the Israeli attack, which Arab and Israeli analysts said demonstrated the rapid changes in the region’s strategic picture as Mr. Assad’s government weakens — including the possibility that Hezbollah, Syria or both were moving arms to Lebanon, believing they would be more secure there than with Syria’s beleaguered military, which faces intense attacks by rebels on major weapons installations.

American officials said Israel hit a convoy before dawn on Wednesday that was ferrying sophisticated SA-17 antiaircraft missiles to Lebanon. The Syrians and their allies said the target was a research facility in the Damascus suburb of Jamraya.

It remained unclear Thursday whether there was one strike or two. Also unclear was the research outpost’s possible role in weapons production or storage for Syria or Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization that has long battled with Israel and plays a leading role in the Lebanese government.

The Jamraya facility, several miles west of Damascus, produces both conventional and chemical weapons, said Maj. Gen. Adnan Salo, a former head of the chemical weapons unit in the Syrian Army who defected and is now in Turkey.

Hezbollah indirectly confirmed its military function in condemning the attack on Arab and Muslim “military and technological capabilities.” That raised the possibility that Israel targeted weapons manufacturing or development, in an attack reminiscent of its 2007 assault on a Syrian nuclear reactor, a strike Israeli never acknowledged.

But military analysts said that the Israeli jets’ flight pattern strongly suggested a moving target, possibly a convoy near the center, and that the Syrian government might have claimed the center was a target to garner sympathy. Hitting a convoy made more sense, they said, particularly if Israel believed that Hezbollah stood to acquire “game-changing” arms, including antiaircraft weapons. Israeli leaders declared days before the strike that any transfer of Syria’s extensive cache of sophisticated conventional or chemical weapons was a “red line” that would prompt action.

Hezbollah — backed by Syria and Iran — wants to upgrade its arsenal in hopes of changing the parameters for any future engagement with the powerful Israeli military, and Israel is determined to stop it. And Hezbollah is perhaps even more anxious to gird itself for future challenges to its primacy in Lebanon, especially if a Sunni-led revolution triumphs next door in Syria.

But if weapons were targeted, analysts said, it is not even clear that they belonged to Hezbollah. Arab and Israeli analysts said another possibility was that Syria was simply aiming to move some weapons to Lebanon for safekeeping. While there are risks for Hezbollah that accepting them could draw an Israeli attack, said Emile Hokayem, a Bahrain-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there is also an upside: “If Assad goes down, they have the arms.”

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and professor at the American University of Beirut, said that SA-17s made little sense for Hezbollah because they require large launching systems that use radar and would be easy targets for Israel. Syria, he said, needs SA-17s in case of international intervention in its civil war.

Those suggestions comported with the account of a Syrian officer who said in a recent interview that the heavily guarded military area around the Jamraya research facility was used as a weapons transfer station to southern Lebanon and Syria’s coastal government stronghold of Tartous for safekeeping, in convoys of tractor-trailer trucks. (The officer said he had lost faith in the government but hesitated to defect because he did not trust the rebels.)

The attack on Wednesday, in all its uncertainty, pointed to the larger changes afoot in the region. Hezbollah may be looking at a future where it is without Syria’s backing and has to defend itself against Sunnis resentful of its role in the Syrian conflict. And Israel may find that its most dangerous foe is not Hezbollah but jihadist Syrian rebel groups that are fragmented and difficult to deter.

If Syria’s weapons end up with jihadist groups like Al Qaeda or its proxies, that would be a global threat, said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “If one organization will put their hands on this arsenal, then it will change hands in no time and we’ll see it all over the world,” he said.


Anne Barnard reported from Beirut,

and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.

Reporting was contributed by Irit Pazner Garshowitz

from Jerusalem,

Ellen Barry from Moscow, Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran,

and Alan Cowell from London.

    Syria Says It Has Right to Counterattack Israel, NYT, 31.1.2013,






Israeli Airstrike in Syria

Targets Arms Convoy,

U.S. Says


January 30, 2013
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — Israeli warplanes carried out a strike deep inside Syrian territory on Wednesday, American officials reported, saying they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry on the outskirts of Damascus that was intended for the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon.

The American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel had notified the United States about the attack, which the Syrian government condemned as an act of “arrogance and aggression.” Israel’s move demonstrated its determination to ensure that Hezbollah — its arch foe in the north — is unable to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to bolster its arsenal significantly.

The predawn strike was the first time in more than five years that Israel’s air force had attacked a target in Syria. While there was no expectation that the beleaguered Assad government had an interest in retaliating, the strike raised concerns that the Syrian civil war had continued to spread beyond its border.

In a statement, the Syrian military denied that a convoy had been struck. It said the attack had hit a scientific research facility in the Damascus suburbs that was used to improve Syria’s defenses, and called the attack “a flagrant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace.”

Israeli officials would not confirm the airstrike, a common tactic here. But it came after days of intense security consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the possible movement of chemical and other weapons around Syria, and warnings that Jerusalem would take action to thwart any possible transfers to Hezbollah.

Thousands of Israelis have crowded gas-mask distribution centers over the last two days. On Sunday, Israel deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system in the north, near Haifa, which was heavily bombed during the 2006 war with Lebanon.

Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war but have long maintained an uneasy peace along their decades-old armistice line. Israel has mostly watched warily and tried to stay out of Syria’s raging civil war, fearful of provoking a wider confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah. In November, however, after several mortars fell on Israel’s side of the border, its tanks struck a Syrian artillery unit.

Several analysts said that despite the increased tensions, they thought the likelihood of retaliation for the airstrike was relatively low.

“It is necessary and correct to prepare for deterioration — that scenario exists,” Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, told Ynet, a news Web site. “But in my assessment, there will not be a reaction, because neither Hezbollah nor the Syrians have an interest in retaliating.”

Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, “is deep in his own troubles,” Mr. Yatom said, “and Hezbollah is making a great effort to assist him, in parallel with its efforts to obtain weapons, so they won’t want to broaden the circle of fighting.”

In the United States, the State Department and Defense Department would not comment on reports of the strike.

The episode illustrated how the escalating violence in Syria, which has already killed more than 60,000, is drawing in neighboring states and threatening to destabilize the region further.

Iran has firmly allied itself with Mr. Assad, sending personnel from its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force to Syria and ferrying military equipment to Syria through Iraqi airspace.

Hezbollah, which plays a decisive role in Lebanese politics and has supported Mr. Assad during the uprising by providing training and logistical support to his forces, has long relied on Syria as both a source of weapons and a conduit for weapons flowing from Iran. Some analysts think Hezbollah may be trying to stock up on weapons in case Mr. Assad falls and is replaced by a leadership that is hostile to the militia.

One American official said the trucks targeted on Wednesday were believed to have been carrying sophisticated SA-17 antiaircraft weapons. Hezbollah’s possession of such weapons would be a serious worry for the Israeli government, said Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence official who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Israel is able to fly reconnaissance flights over Lebanon with impunity right now,” Mr. Levitt said. “This could cut into its ability to conduct aerial intelligence. The passing along of weapons to Hezbollah by the regime is a real concern.”

While some analysts said the Assad government might be providing the weapons to Hezbollah as a reward for its support, others were skeptical that Syria would relinquish such a sophisticated system.

Hezbollah has boasted that it has replenished and increased its weapons stocks since the 2006 war with Israel. During that war, Israeli bombardments destroyed some of its arms, and other missiles were used in a barrage that killed Israelis as far south as Haifa and that drove residents of northern Israel into shelters.

The Syrian statement, carried by state television, said an unidentified number of Israeli jets flying below radar had hit the research facility in the Jimraya district, killing two people and causing “huge material damage.” It cast the attack as “another addition to the history of Israeli occupation, aggression and criminality against Arabs and Muslims.”

“The Syrian government points out to the international community that this Israeli arrogance and aggression is dangerous for Syrian sovereignty,” the statement said, “and stresses that such criminal acts will not weaken Syria’s role nor will discourage Syrians from continuing to support resistance movements and just Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian issue.”

The Lebanese Army said in a statement on Wednesday that Israeli warplanes had carried out two sorties, circling over Lebanon for hours on Tuesday and before dawn on Wednesday, but made no mention of any attacks.

Israel has long maintained a policy of silence on pre-emptive military strikes. In October, officials refused to discuss an accusation by Sudan that Israeli airstrikes had destroyed a weapons factory in Khartoum, its capital. Israel also never admitted to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007; Syria kept mum about that attack, too, and the ambiguity allowed the event to pass without Damascus feeling pressure to retaliate.

Amnon Sofrin, a retired brigadier general and former Israeli intelligence officer, told reporters here on Wednesday that Hezbollah, which is known to have been storing some of its more advanced weapons in Syria, was now eager to move everything it could to Lebanon. He said Israel was carefully watching for convoys transferring weapons systems from Syria to Lebanon.

Israel has made it clear that if the Syrian government loses control over its chemical weapons or transfers them to Hezbollah, Israel will feel compelled to act. Avi Dichter, the minister for the home front, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that options to prevent Syria from using or transferring the weapons included deterrence and “attempts to hit the stockpiles.”

“Everything will have ramifications,” Mr. Dichter said. “The stockpiles are not always in places where operative thinking is possible. It could be that hitting the stockpiles will also mean hitting people. Israel has no intention of hitting residents of Syria.”


Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem,

and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.

Reporting was contributed by Anne Barnard, Hania Mourtada

nd Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Eric Schmitt from Washington;

and Rick Gladstone from New York.

    Israeli Airstrike in Syria Targets Arms Convoy, U.S. Says, NYT, 30.1.2013,






Chaos in Egypt

Stirs Warning of a Collapse


January 29, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — As three Egyptian cities defied President Mohamed Morsi’s attempt to quell the anarchy spreading through their streets, the nation’s top general warned Tuesday that the state itself was in danger of collapse if the feuding civilian leaders could not agree on a solution to restore order.

Thousands of residents poured into the streets of the three cities, protesting a 9 p.m. curfew with another night of chants against Mr. Morsi and assaults on the police.

The president appeared powerless to stop them: he had already granted the police extralegal powers to enforce the curfew and then called out the army as well. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and their opposition also proved ineffectual in the face of the crisis, each retreating to their corners, pointing fingers of blame.

The general’s warning punctuated a rash of violent protests across the country that has dramatized the near-collapse of the government’s authority. With the city of Port Said proclaiming its nominal independence, protesters demanded the resignation of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, while people across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets in protests was the only means to get redress for their grievances.

Just five months after Egypt’s president assumed power from the military, the cascading crisis revealed the depth of the distrust for the central government left by decades of autocracy, two years of convoluted transition and his own acknowledged missteps in facing the opposition. With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the very fabric of society appears to be coming undone.

The chaos has also for the first time touched pillars of the long-term health of Egypt’s economy, already teetering after two years of turbulence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. While a heavy deployment of military troops along the Suez Canal — a vital source of revenue — appeared to insulate it from the strife in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, the clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo spilled over for the first time into an armed assault on the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, sending tremors of fear through the vital tourism sector.

With the stakes rising and no solution in sight, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister, warned Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their opponents that “their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations.”

“Political, economic, social and security challenges” require united action “by all parties” to avoid “dire consequences that affect the steadiness and stability of the homeland,” General Sisi said in an address to military cadets that was later relayed as a public statement from his spokesman. And the acute polarization of the civilian politics, he suggested, has now becoming a concern of the military because “to affect the stability of the state institutions is a dangerous matter that harms Egyptian national security.”

Coming just months after the military relinquished the power it seized at the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, General Sisi’s rebuke to the civilian leaders inevitably raised the possibility that the generals might once again step into civilian politics. There was no indication of an imminent coup.

Analysts familiar with General Sisi’s thinking say that unlike his predecessors, he wants to avoid any political entanglements. But the Egyptian military has prided itself on its dual military and political role since Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup more than six decades ago. And General Sisi insisted Tuesday that it would remain “the solid mass and the backbone upon which rest the Egyptian state’s pillars.”

With the army now caught between the president’s instructions to restore order and the citizens’ refusal to comply, he said, the “armed forces are facing a serious dilemma” as they seek to end the violence without “confronting citizens and their right to protest.”

The attack on the Semiramis Hotel, between the American Embassy and the Nile in one of the most heavily guarded neighborhoods of the city, showed how much security had deteriorated. And it testified to the difficult task that the civilian government faces in trying to rebuild public security and trust.

Capitalizing on the melee between protesters and the police outside the hotel after about 2 a.m., at least a dozen armed men overpowered the guard at the hotel’s door, looted the luxury stores in its mall and ransacked its lobby, hotel staff members said. The assailants carried knives, pellet guns and one semiautomatic weapon, a guard told Al Ahram Online, run by the state-owned news media.

When the police failed to respond to calls for help, the hotel staff resorted to Twitter, the favorite medium of the Egyptian revolt. “We are under attack! Several thugs have entered the Semiramis! Send help!” the hotel’s Twitter account blared in capital letters.

“Revolutionaries” from the protest outside helped drive out the attackers, said Nabila Samak, the marketing manager who sent out the messages. The police finally responded about an hour and a half after the attack began, she said. The guests were relocated and the hotel closed.

Instead of taking a united stand in support of the law, Egypt’s political elite bickered over who was to blame. On Monday, the main coalition of the opposition refused to join a committee Mr. Morsi has created with the promise that it would include opponents to review the government’s measures to stem the chaos and to propose amendments to the Islamist-backed Constitution.

The president must “publicly admit his political responsibility for the Egyptian blood that was shed,” Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist former presidential candidate, demanded at a news conference.

Mr. Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, charged that the opposition leaders were looking for “political cover to justify the ongoing violent crimes their members are committing, including attempted murder, arson, burglary, sabotage and vandalism,” as Ahmed Diab, a leader of the Brotherhood’s political party, said in a statement on Monday. “But they cannot so fast wash their hands of the blood of Egyptians they shed in one way or another.”

In a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman echoed the Brotherhood’s charges by pointedly demanding that the opposition “clearly condemn violence, repudiate it and urge against taking part in it.”

Talaat Abdullah, the public prosecutor Mr. Morsi recently appointed, went a step further, issuing warrants for the arrests of a spectral new activist group calling itself the Black Bloc, which Brotherhood leaders have begun calling the opposition’s “militia.”

The group’s only confirmed act is its debut in an online video posted just a week ago depicting a group of masked figures. Declaring themselves part of a worldwide “liberation” movement, they said they intended to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, which it called “the regime of fascist tyranny.”

Since then, rumors have swirled about masked figures in protests and clashes who may or may not be members of the Black Bloc. Masked men purporting to belong to the group have given interviews denouncing the Brotherhood. But in a second video posted on Monday by the same source the Black Bloc disavowed them. In a bizarre twist, the video charged that the supposed spokesmen were in fact from the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking to blame the group for unrest.

Without any public evidence that the group has done more than pose for a video, the state news service reported Tuesday that an investigation by the prosecutor had found the Black Bloc a terrorist group. What is more, the news service reported, prosecutors ordered the arrest of not only its members but also of anyone who would “participate in it in any form including wearing the costumes” — outlawing, in effect, the wearing of a black mask.


Kareem Fahim and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.

    Chaos in Egypt Stirs Warning of a Collapse, NYT, 29.1.2013,






Chaos and Lawlessness Grow

After Days of Unrest in Egypt


January 28, 2013
The New York Times


PORT SAID, Egypt — The police fired indiscriminately into the streets outside their besieged station, a group of protesters arrived with a crate of gasoline bombs, and others cheered a masked man on a motorcycle who arrived with a Kalashnikov.

The growing chaos along the vital canal zone showed little sign of abating on Monday as President Mohamed Morsi called out the army to try to regain control of three cities along the Suez Canal whose growing lawlessness is testing the integrity of the Egyptian state.

In Port Said, street battles reached a bloody new peak with a death toll over three days of at least 45, with at least five more protesters killed by bullet wounds, hospital officials said.

President Morsi had already declared a monthlong state of emergency here and in the other canal towns of Suez and Ismailia, applying a law that virtually eliminates due process protections against abuse by the police. Angry crowds burned tires and hurled rocks at the police. And the police, with little training and less credibility, hunkered down behind barrages of tear gas, birdshot and occasional bullets.

The sense that the state was unraveling may have been strongest here in Port Said, where demonstrators have proclaimed their city an independent nation. But in recent days, the unrest has risen in towns across the country and in Cairo as well. In the capital on Monday, a mob of protesters managed to steal an armored police vehicle, drive it to Tahrir Square and make it a bonfire.

After two years of torturous transition, Egyptians have watched with growing anxiety as the erosion of the public trust in the government and a persistent security vacuum have fostered a new temptation to resort to violence to resolve disputes, said Michael Hanna, a researcher at the New York-based Century Foundation who is now in Cairo. “There is a clear political crisis that has eroded the moral authority of the state,” he said.

And the spectacular evaporation of the government’s authority here in Port Said has put that crisis on vivid display, most conspicuously in the rejection of Mr. Morsi’s declarations of the curfew and state of emergency.

As in Suez and Ismailia, tens of thousands of residents of Port Said poured into the streets in defiance just as a 9 p.m. curfew was set to begin. Bursts of gunfire echoed through the city for the next hours, and from 9 to 11 p.m. hospital officials raised the death count to seven from two.

When two armored personnel carriers approached a funeral Monday morning for some of the seven protesters killed the day before, a stone-throwing mob of thousands quickly chased them away. And within a few hours, the demonstrators had resumed their siege of a nearby police station, burning tires to create a smoke screen to hide behind amid tear gas and gunfire.

Many in the city said they saw no alternative but to continue to stay in the streets. They complained that the hated security police remained unchanged and unaccountable even after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted two years ago. Protesters saw no recourse in the justice system, which is also unchanged; they dismissed the courts as politicized, especially after the acquittals of all those accused of killing protesters during the revolution. Then came the death sentences handed down Saturday to 21 Port Said soccer fans for their role in a deadly brawl. The death sentences set off the current unrest in this city.

Nor, the people said, did they trust the political process that brought to power Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. He had vowed to usher in the rule of law as “a president for all Egyptians.” But in November, he used a presidential decree to temporarily stifle potential legal objections so that his Islamist allies could rush out a new Constitution. His authoritarian move kicked off a sharp uptick in street violence leading to this weekend’s Port Said clashes.

“Injustice beyond imagination,” one man outside the morning funeral said of Mr. Morsi’s emergency decree, before he was drowned out by a crowd of others echoing the sentiment.

“He declared a curfew, and we declare civil disobedience,” another man said.

“This doesn’t apply to Port Said because we don’t recognize him as our president,” said a third. “He is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood only.”

Officials of the Muslim Brotherhood and its party could not be reached. The group had recently moved offices because of security threats, and at the new office, neighbors said Brotherhood officials had not appeared since the start of the unrest.

As tens of thousands marched to the cemetery, many echoed the arguments of human rights advocates that the one-month imposition of the emergency law and reliance on the military would only aggravate the problem. The emergency law rolled back legal procedures meant to protect individuals from excessive violence by the police, while the reliance on soldiers to keep the peace further reduced individual rights by sending any civilians arrested to military trials.

“It is stupid — he is repressing people for one more month!” one man argued to a friend. “It will explode in his face. He should let people cool down.”

The police remained besieged in their burned-out stations, glimpsed only occasionally crouching with their automatic rifles behind the low roof ledges.

When one showed his head over a police building as the funeral march passed, voices in the crowd shouted that his appearance was a “provocation” and people began hurling rocks. Others riding a pickup in the procession had stockpiled homemade bombs for later use.

In a departure from most previous clashes around the Egyptian revolution, in Port Said the police also faced armed assailants. Two were seen with handguns on Monday around a siege of a police station, in addition to the man with the Kalashnikov.

Earlier, a man accosted an Egyptian journalist working for The New York Times. “If I see you taking pictures of protesters with weapons, I will kill you,” he warned.

Defending their stations, the police fought back, and in Cairo they battled their own commander, the interior minister.

Brotherhood leaders say Mr. Morsi has been afraid to name an outsider as minister for fear of a police revolt, putting off any meaningful reform of the Mubarak security services. But when Mr. Morsi recently tapped a veteran ministry official, Mohamed Ibrahim, for the job, many in the security services complained that even the appointment of one insider to replace another was undue interference.

In a measure of the low level of the new government’s top-down control over the security forces, officers even cursed and chased away their new interior minister when he tried to attend a funeral on Friday for two members of the security forces killed in the recent clashes.

“What do you mean we won’t be armed? We would be disarmed to die,” one shouted, on a video recording of the event.

In an attempt to placate the rank and file, Mr. Ibrahim issued a statement to police personnel sympathizing with the pressure the protests put on them. Later, he promised them sophisticated weapons.

“That can only be a recipe for future bloodshed,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which monitors police abuses.

By turning to the military, Mr. Morsi signaled that he understood he could not rely on the police to pacify the streets, Mr. Bahgat argued.

But it was far from clear that Mr. Morsi was fully in command of the military either. The new Islamist-backed Constitution grants the general broad autonomy within the Egyptian government in an apparent quid pro quo for turning over full power to President Morsi in August. Mr. Morsi’s formal request for the military to restore order was “not so much an instruction as a plea for support,” Mr. Bahgat said.

It remains to be seen whether the military retains the credibility to quell the protests. The soldiers stationed in Port Said did nothing to intervene as clashes raged on in the streets hours after curfew Monday night.

Analysts close to the military say its officers are extremely reluctant to engage in the kind of harsh crackdown that would damage its reputation with Egyptians, preferring to rely on its presence alone.

Near the front lines of the clashes, residents debated whether they would welcome a military takeover. “The military that was sent to Port Said is the Muslim Brotherhood’s military,” said one man, dismissing its independence from Mr. Morsi.

But others said they still had faith in the institution, if not in its top generals. “In the military, the soldiers are our brothers,” said Khaled Samir Abdullah, 25. Pointing to the police, he said, “those ones are merciless.”


Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo.

    Chaos and Lawlessness Grow After Days of Unrest in Egypt, NYT, 28.1.2013,






Israel Girds for Attacks

as Syria Falls Apart


January 27, 2013
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — At least one Iron Dome missile defense battery was deployed Sunday in northern Israel amid reports of intense security consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Syria and the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamist rebels or being transferred to the militant group Hezbollah.

Silvan Shalom, a vice prime minister, described the movement of such weapons as a “red line” that could lead to Israeli military action.

“If there will be a need, we will take action to prevent chemical weapons from being transferred to Islamic terror organizations,” Mr. Shalom said on Army Radio. “We are obligated to keep our eye on it at all times, in the event chemical weapons fall into Hezbollah’s hands.”

A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said that the deployment of the Iron Dome in the north — where Israel borders Syria and Lebanon — was part of a routine rotation around the country and “not related to any current situation assessments.” But Israeli journalists suspected otherwise, noting that Mr. Netanyahu had been in marathon meetings for several days with military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers, with unusual strictures on secrecy.

“Something is happening for sure,” said Ehud Yaari, a senior security analyst with Israel’s Channel 2 News. “Even in Israel, which is usually tense, and the normal nervousness that you have in this country, this is exceptional now.”

The intensifying focus on Syria here in Israel came as violence flared across the border. Syrian government warplanes and artillery increased attacks on rebels in the suburbs east and south of Damascus, fighting closed the highway to the Dara’a in the south, and clashes continued in Homs Province, in central Syria, and in the city of Deir al-Zour in the east, according to state news media and antigovernment activists.

The fierce fighting and desperate living conditions have sent 30,000 Syrians fleeing to Jordan in the past month, with thousands more entering Lebanon and massing on the border with Turkey — accelerating a flow that now totals 650,000 people who have fled and another two million displaced inside the country. The relief effort is underfinanced and overwhelmed, and the United Nations is seeking increased international aid.

The chaos worsened ahead of meetings on the crisis scheduled for Monday, when the main exile opposition group and its international backers are to convene in Paris, and civilian opposition leaders, including some who oppose the use of force, plan a conference in Geneva on building Syrian civil society.

President Obama, in an interview with The New Republic, signaled his continuing doubts about getting involved in the Syrian crisis, suggesting no dramatic change would be coming out of the meeting on Monday.

“In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?” Mr. Obama said. “Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?

“And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo? Those are not simple questions.”

More than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s nearly two-year-old conflict, but international efforts to end the crisis appear stalled. The opposition is divided, and Russia, the main backer of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is at loggerheads with the Syrian opposition’s Western and Arab supporters.

Russia’s prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, told CNN that Mr. Assad’s chances of remaining in office seemed to be getting “smaller and smaller” with each passing day, according to a transcript released by Mr. Medvedev’s office on Sunday. But he reiterated Russia’s insistence that Mr. Assad’s ouster could not be a precondition for talks, as the American-backed Syrian opposition leaders have demanded.

Mr. Medvedev said the United States, Europe and regional powers must “sit the parties down for negotiations, and not just demand that Assad go and then be executed” like Libya’s ousted leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, “or be carried to court sessions on a stretcher like Hosni Mubarak,” the deposed Egyptian president.

If Mr. Assad is to step down, “this must be decided by the Syrian people,” he said, “not Russia, not the United States, not any other country.”

Fighting edged into a new area of Damascus, the capital, according to activists, who said rebels attacked a railway station in the district of Qadam, in the city’s southwest. Video posted on the Internet showed gunmen walking near buildings by a railroad track and black smoke that activists said was from an airstrike. The claims were impossible to verify because of the government’s restrictions on journalists inside Syria.

In Israel, Mr. Yaari, the television news analyst, said he had seen video and other reports of activity by Jaba el Nusra, an Islamist rebel group, near the “fences” of Sfira, which he described as a chemical weapons installation southeast of Aleppo, Syria. He also said there was a “raging battle” between Mr. Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army near another installation on the southwestern outskirts of Damascus.

Israel is technically at war with Syria, though it has been a largely quiet conflict since a cease-fire line was established after the 1973 war. The current chaos in Syria has spilled across the border several times, with errant shells landing in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move that has not been internationally recognized. Israel has filed several complaints with the United Nations, and in November its tanks made a direct hit on Syrian artillery units after two consecutive days of incoming mortar fire.

This month, Mr. Netanyahu announced plans to build a security fence along the armistice line with Syria, similar to the one protecting its southern border with Egypt.

But the chemical weapons have been the chief concern for Israeli officials. On Sunday, the prime minister spoke of Syria in grave terms, linking it to Iran as potential existential threats to Israel in the context of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We must look around us, at what is happening in Iran and its proxies and at what is happening in other areas, with the deadly weapons in Syria, which is increasingly coming apart,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting. “In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment, and we must be prepared — strong and determined in the face of all possible developments.”


Jodi Rudoren reported from Jerusalem,

and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon.

    Israel Girds for Attacks as Syria Falls Apart, NYT, 27.1.2013,






Egypt’s Leader Declares

State of Emergency in Three Cities


January 27, 2013
The New York Times


PORT SAID, Egypt — President Mohamed Morsi declared a state of emergency and a curfew in three major cities on Sunday, as escalating violence in the streets threatened his government and Egypt’s democracy.

By imposing a one-month state of emergency in Suez, Ismailia and here in Port Said, where the police have lost all control, Mr. Morsi’s declaration chose to use one of the most despised weapons of former President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy. Under Mubarak-era laws left in effect by the country’s new Constitution, a state of emergency suspends the ordinary judicial process and most civil rights. It gives the president and the police extraordinary powers.

Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president and a leader of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, took the step after four days of clashes in Cairo and in cities around the country between the police and protesters denouncing his government. Most of the protests were set off by the second anniversary of the popular revolt that ousted Mr. Mubarak, which fell on Friday.

Here in Port Said, the trouble started over death sentences that a court imposed on 21 local soccer fans for their role in a deadly riot. But after 30 people died in clashes on Saturday — most of them shot by the police — the protesters turned their ire on Mr. Morsi as well the court. Police officers crouching on the roofs of their stations fired tear gas and live ammunition into attacking mobs, and hospital officials said that on Sunday at least seven more people died.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Port Said on Sunday demanding independence from the rest of Egypt. “The people want the state of Port Said,” they chanted in anger at Cairo.

The emergency declaration covers the three cities and their surrounding provinces, all on the economically vital Suez Canal. Mr. Morsi announced the emergency measures in a stern, finger-waving speech on state television on Sunday evening. He said he was acting “to stop the blood bath” and called the violence in the streets “the counterrevolution itself.”

“There is no room for hesitation, so that everybody knows the institution of the state is capable of protecting the citizens,” he said. “If I see that the homeland and its children are in danger, I will be forced to do more than that. For the sake of Egypt, I will.”

Mr. Morsi’s resort to the authoritarian measures of his predecessor appeared to reflect mounting doubts about the viability of Egypt’s central government. After decades of corruption, cronyism and brutality under Mr. Mubarak, Egyptians have struggled to adjust to resolving their differences — whether over matters of political ideology or crime and punishment — through peaceful democratic channels.

“Why are we unable to sort out these disputes?” asked Moattaz Abdel-Fattah, a political scientist and academic who was a member of the assembly that drafted Egypt’s new Constitution. “How many times are we going to return to the state of Egyptians killing Egyptians?” He added: “Hopefully, when you have a genuine democratic machine, people will start to adapt culturally. But we need to do something about our culture.”

Mr. Morsi’s speech did nothing to stop the violence in the streets. In Cairo, fighting between protesters and the police and security forces escalated into the night along the banks of the Nile near Tahrir Square. On a stage set up in the square, liberal and leftist speakers demanded the repeal of the Islamist-backed Constitution, which won approval in a referendum last month.

Young men huddled in tents making incendiary devices, while others set tires on fire to block a main bridge across the Nile.

In Suez, a group calling itself the city’s youth coalition said it would hold nightly protests against the curfew at the time it begins, 9 p.m. In Port Said, crowds began to gather just before the declaration was set to take effect, at midnight, for a new march in defiance.

“We will gather every night at 9 at Mariam’s mosque,” said Ahmed Mansour, a doctor. “We will march all night long until morning.”

He added: “Morsi is an employee who works for us. He must do what suits us, and this needs to be made clear.”

The death sentences handed down on Saturday to the 21 Port Said soccer fans stemmed from a brawl with fans of a visiting Cairo team last year that left 74 people dead. At a funeral on Sunday for at least a dozen civilians killed in clashes with the police on Saturday, angry Port Said residents called the sentences a capitulation to the threats of violence from hard-core soccer fans in Cairo if the Port Said defendants were acquitted. The mourners vowed to escalate their own violence in response.

“They wanted to please Cairo and the people there, so they decided this verdict at the expense of Port Said,” said Ayman Ali El Sayed Awad, 32, a street vendor whose brother was killed on Saturday by a police bullet. “And just like they avenged the Cairo people with blood and killed 30 of our people yesterday, we want the rights of our martyrs.”

A friend interrupted: “They were celebrating yesterday — celebrating our blood!”

Tens of thousands of mourners — some wearing the long beards associated with Islamists and others in affluent dress — carried the coffins toward the cemetery on a road along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Then the funeral procession passed the Grand Sky Resort, which belongs to the police.

It was unclear how the clashes began, but the police were soon firing heavy volleys of tear gas into the funeral march. The gas attacks caused the pallbearers to drop coffins, many witnesses said, and the bodies spilled into the streets, a serious indignity here.

Soon, thousands of mourners who had already passed the police club returned to attack it. Gunfire rang out, some from automatic weapons. Officers with rifles and tear-gas cannons could be seen on the roof of the resort, crouching and scurrying and sometimes firing their weapons.

Outside, protesters threw rocks, at least one incendiary bomb, and some of the still-smoking canisters of tear gas back at the police. One thrown canister set fire to a palm tree in a nearby cemetery, and another fire of unknown origin broke out inside the police club. By the end of the night, at least three protesters were seen carrying handguns and one an automatic rifle.

Similar battles broke out around police stations all over Port Said, with heavily armed officers defending them from the roofs. The first protester wounded by live ammunition was carried into the central hospital at 3:30 p.m., and by 4 p.m. the odor of tear gas and the sound of gunfire had permeated several neighborhoods around police stations for hours. Outside the police club, officers armed with automatic riffles had moved from the roof to confront opponents on the pavement, and were firing gas straight into the crowd.

But despite the facts on the ground, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior said in a televised interview around the same time that the Port Said police were unarmed and that tear gas was used only briefly about three hours earlier. The spokesman, Gen. Osama Ismail, blamed the gunfire on “infiltrating saboteurs” and suggested that civilians may have fired the tear gas.

“Are there any police forces there to begin with?” General Ismail said. “This is only a small group pushing back against intense shooting.”

Mr. Morsi had already deployed army troops to secure vital facilities around the city, and they stood unmolested outside the prison and certain administrative buildings. But the soldiers made no effort to control the streets, and watched without intervening as besieged police officers battled civilian mobs.

In his speech on Sunday night, Mr. Morsi praised and thanked the police and the armed forces for their work battling the chaos. He also renewed his invitation to his political opponents to join him in a “national dialogue,” beginning with a meeting on Monday evening.

But Mr. Abdel-Fattah, the political scientist, was skeptical that such a dialogue could restore trust in the government.

“Morsi has, to a large extent, lost his credibility before the opposition — too many false promises,” he said. “There is going to be chaos for some time.”


Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Port Said, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo.

    Egypt’s Leader Declares State of Emergency in Three Cities, NYT, 27.1.2013,






U.N. Cites Record Numbers

as Syrians Flee to Jordan


January 25, 2013
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — More than 6,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan over the past two days, a record influx that prompted the Jordanian monarch, Abdullah II, to call Friday for more international aid, even as the Syrian government urged refugees to return in a bid that was met with broad skepticism among antigovernment activists.

The accelerating flight from Syria into Jordan and Lebanon has occurred as fighting has raged near the southern city of Dara’a and in the northern province of Homs, where an increasing number of villages have been nearly emptied of residents, according to antigovernment activists inside Syria and people who recently fled the area for Lebanon. The government has recently stepped up its offensive in Homs in what may be an effort to clear a route from the capital, Damascus, to the pro-government strongholds on the coast.

In the northern province of Idlib, rebels declared that they had taken over the central prison and freed scores of prisoners. Antigovernment activists posted videos of fighters prying open barred windows to allow prisoners to escape.

More than 4,000 Syrians arrived at the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan on Thursday, and another 2,000 overnight, according to Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The influx, consisting mainly of families led by women, brought to more than 30,000 the number of Syrians reaching Zaatari this month, close to double December’s number, Ms. Fleming said, speaking in Geneva.

Many had come from the city and the suburbs of Dara’a, she said, describing a “real day-to-day struggle to survive” in the face of combat damage, the closure of medical facilities and shortages of food, water and electricity.

The Zaatari camp, which opened in July, already has some 65,000 people, and the agency said it was working with Jordan to open a second camp by the end of the month to initially accommodate 5,000 refugees and eventually some 30,000.

The refugee agency reported that it was trying to register Syrians elsewhere in Jordan and expected to have 50,000 by the end of February, but it noted that the Jordanian authorities say 300,000 Syrians have now entered the country. The number of Syrian refugees in the region is approaching 700,000, the refugee agency said, with 221,000 registered in Lebanon, 156,000 in Turkey and 76,000 in Iraq.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, King Abdullah issued an urgent call for help.

“I cannot emphasize enough the challenges that we are all facing, both in Jordan and Lebanon, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “What we’re asking from the international community is not just to help us with the refugee problems and their challenges as they face this harsh winter, but also stockpiling in Jordan so that we can move supplies across the borders to keep people in place.”

Jordan’s fears for its own stability surfaced last week when the country’s prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said that if the Syrian government collapsed, Jordan would not accept more refugees but would use its military to create safe havens inside Syria for those displaced by conflict.

Syria’s interior minister issued a call late Thursday for refugees to return to the country, promising that even those who fled without their identity cards would be welcomed back.

The government also said, in a statement on the state-run news agency SANA, that political opposition groups were free to enter the country to take part in a national dialogue aimed at creating a transitional government — and that they would be free to leave the country as well.

Government opponents commented widely on social media that the offer could be interpreted as a trap. The authorities also called on people to pray for peace on Friday, a day after the holiday celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

State television showed hundreds of people praying at the Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, as a senior cleric prayed for President Bashar al-Assad and asked God for “a miracle of your many miracles, to cleanse our country from oppression and of those rogues who commit injustice, murder and slaughter.”

In Homs, activists reported that the government was shelling the neighborhoods of Juret al-Shiyah and Khaldiyeh, which have been heavily damaged by months of fighting. They also said a family, including five children, had been found killed and burned at home.


Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

    U.N. Cites Record Numbers as Syrians Flee to Jordan, NYT, 25.1.2013,






Netanyahu-Obama Ties

May Thaw After Israel Election


January 23, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — For President Obama, whose relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has often resembled that of a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, the last three months must have offered some grim satisfaction.

In November, Mr. Obama won re-election over Mitt Romney, who had been the not-so-subtle favorite of Mr. Netanyahu. Then on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu stumbled in his own re-election bid, with his Likud Party holding enough seats in Parliament to keep him in office but falling far short of expectations in the face of surging centrist voters.

Still, there was no crowing at the White House, at least in public, as the returns flowed in from Israel. Administration officials on Wednesday were reluctant to comment on how Mr. Netanyahu’s setback may affect his relations with Mr. Obama, especially since the Israeli leader has not yet begun the work of cobbling together a governing coalition.

As they sifted through the implications, analysts said there was more than vindication for Mr. Obama in Israel’s new political landscape.

Mr. Netanyahu’s weakened position could set the stage for, if not a “reset,” to use the administration’s well-worn phrase, then an improvement in his ties with the president.

If, as some analysts expect, Mr. Netanyahu seeks to put together a center-right coalition that includes Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, it could sand away the roughest edges of Mr. Netanyahu’s existing right-wing coalition.

Mr. Lapid could push a new government in directions that would ease longstanding sources of tension with Mr. Obama. For example, he is more interested in creating jobs and providing housing than in expanding construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a recurring source of friction between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.

With Ehud Barak, a hawkish former general, leaving the Defense Ministry, Mr. Netanyahu may be under less pressure to consider a unilateral strike on Iran over its nuclear program. That would be a relief to the White House, which has had to plead with the Israelis for patience while it pursues a last-ditch diplomatic effort with Tehran.

“A weaker Bibi heading a government with some centrists was the best outcome the White House could have hoped for,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East negotiator, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “It gives them a better chance to avoid war with the Iranian mullahs and preserve the chance of a peace with the Palestinians.”

The most optimistic outcome, Mr. Miller said, would be a kind of “odd couple” relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, in which they retain their differences over issues like settlements, but learn to manage them more skillfully.

That would be no small step, given the mutual suspicion that has suffused their relationship. White House officials alternately fumed and rolled their eyes during the presidential campaign when Mr. Netanyahu appeared to tilt toward Mr. Romney, inviting him to dinner at his home during the Republican candidate’s visit to Jerusalem last July.

Mr. Obama, members of the Likud Party believe, returned the favor during the Israeli election when Jeffrey Goldberg, an American journalist who writes frequently about Israel, reported that the president had disparaged Mr. Netanyahu after the Israeli government announced plans for settlements in a contested area of the West Bank known as E1.

Mr. Goldberg quoted Mr. Obama as saying repeatedly, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The White House did not confirm or deny Mr. Obama’s comments.

But days before the election, Mr. Netanyahu shot back that “only Israeli citizens will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents the vital interests of Israel” — a vivid reminder of his chilly relationship with the leader of Israel’s most important ally.

While in the past Israeli leaders — including Mr. Netanyahu himself during a previous stint as prime minister — have been punished by Israeli voters for mismanaging their relationships with American presidents, analysts were reluctant to attribute too much of his troubles to Mr. Obama, given the complexities of an election that surprised even the experts.

Still, as Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, put it, “the Israeli public cares about the relationship, and it didn’t help that he mishandled it, and there was a reminder of how badly he mishandled it on the eve of the election.”

Among the intriguing questions, Mr. Indyk said, is whether Mr. Lapid would insist on concessions for joining a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu, like a freeze in settlement construction. While Mr. Lapid’s party has put its emphasis on concerns like jobs and housing, taking a stand on settlements would signal a shift from the right’s agenda.

Almost no one predicts that a new Israeli government will suddenly allow Mr. Obama to rekindle his first-term goal of a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Lapid’s party did not score its victory by pushing to revive long-moribund peace talks. The political climate on both sides remains hostile to such an effort.

Nor, after the frustrations of his first term, does Mr. Obama appear any more likely to invest heavily in Middle East peacemaking. The president scarcely mentions the subject these days.

While Mr. Indyk said that Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been nominated to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, would make a game effort to preserve the two-state solution, he is no more likely to achieve a breakthrough than Mrs. Clinton did.

Mr. Miller, now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he had rarely seen a relationship as persistently dysfunctional as that between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. A resounding Netanyahu victory would only have exacerbated those strains.

Now, though, in the wake of his deflating victory, Mr. Netanyahu may have the chance to mend fences, Mr. Miller said.

“The good news for Bibi, if he manages to put it together, is that a broader government would ease tensions and make the next four years much less rocky,” he said. “Netanyahu will be able to preside over a much more functional relationship with the United States.”

    Netanyahu-Obama Ties May Thaw After Israel Election, NYT, 23.1.2013,






The Taliban of Timbuktu


January 23, 2013
The New York Times


BEFORE the recent French intervention in Mali began, 412,000 people had already left their homes in the country’s north, fleeing torture, summary executions, recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women at the hands of fundamentalist militants. Late last year, in Algeria and southern Mali, I interviewed dozens of Malians from the north, including many who had recently fled. Their testimonies confirmed the horrors that radical Islamists, self-proclaimed warriors of God, have inflicted on their communities.

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu. The armed groups also reportedly destroyed many churches in the north, where displaced members of the small Christian minority told me they had previously felt entirely accepted. Such Qaeda-style tactics, and the religious extremism that demands them, are completely alien to the mainstream of Malian Islam, which is known for its tradition of tolerance.

That openness is exactly what the jihadists seek to crush. “The fact that we are building a new country on the base of Shariah is just something the people living here will have to accept,” the Islamist police commissioner in the town of Gao said last August. Until military action began this month, local citizens were on their own in resisting the imposition of Shariah — and they fought back valiantly. A radio journalist was severely beaten by Islamist gunmen after speaking on the radio against amputations. Women marched through the streets of Timbuktu against Islamist diktats on veiling until gunfire ended their protest.

The acting principal of a coed high school in Gao told me his school had been occupied by militants from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. They announced that they had come to protect the premises. Instead, they quickly stole its computers, refrigerators and chairs. “We consider ourselves under occupation,” the principal told me. “We consider ourselves martyrs.” He has risked his life to keep his school open, to continue to educate boys and girls together, though he must put them on opposite sides of the classroom now. “My presence creates hope for my students. I cannot kill this hope,” he told me.

Since the jihadist takeover, Gao’s economy has come to a standstill. Every Thursday, there are theocratic show trials in Arabic, a language many residents do not speak. The fundamentalists focus on teaching the predominantly Muslim population of Gao “how to be Muslim.” Like Al Shabab in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have a morality brigade that patrols the city, checking who is not wearing a sufficient veil and whose telephone sins with a musical ringtone. Speaking to a woman in public is an offense; this ban has caused such terror that some men flee in fear if they simply see a woman on the street.

The principal had been attending public punishments to document the atrocities. This meant repeatedly watching his fellow citizens get flogged. He has seen what it looks like when a “convict” has his foot sawed off. Close to tears, he said: “No one can stand it, but it is imposed on us. Those of us who attend, we cry.”

Some local and international opponents of military intervention have advocated negotiation with the rebel groups as an alternative. But negotiating with groups who believe they are God’s agents and whose imposed mode of governance is utterly alien to the people of northern Mali is unlikely to succeed, especially while the north remains occupied. “The population is not for the Shariah” is the refrain I heard again and again — from those displaced from Timbuktu and Kidal; from women and men; from Muslims and Christians. The preservation of Mali’s tradition of secularism is essential for them all.

Policy decisions regarding this potential Afghanistan-in-the-Sahara must be informed by the fact that what is happening there is not simply a question of regional or global security, but of basic human rights. The current intervention in Mali could deal a decisive blow to the recent advance of fundamentalism across North Africa, but only if French and West African soldiers take care to distinguish between civilians and their jihadist oppressors, who hide among the innocent.

They must also avoid simply shifting the problem elsewhere in the region. After all, one of the causes of the Islamist occupation of northern Mali was the displacement of armed men from Libya after the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. Algeria had lost hundreds of thousands of its own people to fundamentalist armed groups since the 1990s. Since then, many Algerian jihadists have crossed the border into northern Mali, reproducing the problem there.

Some Malians fear that foreign intervention may have grave consequences for their homes and livelihoods. But most of the displaced northerners I met last month, before France intervened, had already decided that “the risks of nonintervention are 10,000 times worse than the risks of intervention,” as a women’s rights activist told me in Bamako. Or, as a young refugee from Gao whom I met in Algeria put it: “We do not want war, but if these people don’t leave us alone, we have to fight them.”


Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California, Davis,

is the author of the forthcoming book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here:

Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.”

    The Taliban of Timbuktu, NYT, 23.1.2013,






Break All the Rules


January 22, 2013
The New York Times


First, my congratulations and condolences to John Kerry for being nominated to be our next secretary of state. There is no one better for the job today and no worse job to have today. It is no accident that we’ve started measuring our secretaries of state more by miles traveled than milestones achieved. It is bloody hard to do big diplomacy anymore.

Why? Well, as secretary of state today you get to deal with Vladimir Putin, who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. That is, even though Russia’s economy is hugely corrupt and nowhere nearly as innovative as it should be, Putin sits atop a huge reserve of oil and gas that makes him think he’s a genius and doesn’t need to listen to anyone. When recently confronted with his regime’s bad behavior, his first instinct was to block American parents from adopting Russian orphans, even though so many of them badly need homes. If there were an anti-Nobel Peace Prize, Putin would win hands down.

When Putin isn’t available to stiff us, China, to whom we owe a gazillion dollars, is ready to stand in. Those two are the real nations, where there’s at least someone to answer the phone — and hang up on us. Elsewhere, the secretary of state gets to deal with failed or failing states, like Mali, Algeria, Afghanistan and Libya, whose governments cannot deliver for their people, let alone for us. If he is looking for a break, Kerry could always call on our longtime ally Egypt, whose president, Mohamed Morsi, we find out, in 2010 described Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs.” Who knew?

So what’s a secretary of state to do? I’d suggest trying something radically new: creating the conditions for diplomacy where they do not now exist by going around leaders and directly to the people. And I’d start with Iran, Israel and Palestine. We live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea today is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens. There’s no more just top-down. People everywhere are finding their voices and leaders are terrified. We need to turn this to our advantage to gain leverage in diplomacy.

Let’s break all the rules.

Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

On Israel-Palestine, the secretary of state should publicly offer President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority the following: the U.S. would recognize the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as the independent State of Palestine on the provisional basis of the June 4, 1967, lines, support its full U.N. membership and send an ambassador to Ramallah, on the condition that Palestinians accept the principle of “two states for two peoples” — an Arab state and a Jewish state in line with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 — and agree that permanent borders, security and land swaps would be negotiated directly with Israel. The status of the refugees would be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents all Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine. Gaza, now a de facto statelet, would be recognized as part of Palestine only when its government recognizes Israel, renounces violence and rejoins the West Bank.

Why do this? Because there will be no Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough unless the silent majorities on both sides know they have a partner — that Palestinians have embraced two states for two peoples and that Israelis have embraced Palestinian statehood. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor President Abbas have shown a real commitment to nurture these preconditions for peace, and our secret diplomacy with both only plays into their hands. We need to blow this charade wide open by trying to publicly show Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians that they really do have options that their leaders don’t want them to see. (Israel’s election on Tuesday showed that the peace camp in Israel is still alive and significant.) It may not work. The leaders may still block it or the people may not be interested. But we need to start behaving like a superpower and forcing a moment of truth. Our hands are full now, and we can’t waste four more years with allies (or enemies) who may be fooling us.


Maureen Dowd is off today.

    Break All the Rules, NYT, 22.1.2013,






Gas Complex Worker Tells of Terror and a Desperate Escape


January 22, 2013
The New York Times


BERGEN, Norway — After militants stormed his remote desert workplace last week, Liviu Floria, a Romanian gas worker, locked the door and sought refuge under a desk. For five hours, as he stayed hidden, he communicated by text message with a Romanian co-worker in another part of the sprawling In Amenas gas facility.

Then an ominous final message flashed on his cellphone from the colleague. “I am a hostage,” it said.

That colleague would later be found dead, Mr. Floria said, along with at least 36 other foreigners whom the Algerian government has identified as victims of the attack. But Mr. Floria’s story is one of both terror and salvation as he and seven others managed to scale the fence surrounding the compound, trek through the desert and escape death.

Mr. Floria saw the attack as it began last Wednesday. He and a colleague, George Iachim, were making their morning coffee when an alarm sounded. They rushed to the window and saw what looked like an action movie unfolding before them. Four men with assault rifles had gotten out of a car and were shooting at the guards stationed at the entrance.

“Out of a peaceful place, a normal place to work, in a few seconds it was transformed into a cemetery,” Mr. Iachim later told Romanian television.

After nearly two days of hiding from the hostage-takers, Mr. Floria and seven others decided their only chance at survival would come from climbing the fence and running away. They left around 2 a.m. for what became a harrowing desert trek, guided only by the flickering flame atop a gas well in the distance and a compass application on Mr. Floria’s iPhone.

Algerian officials said Tuesday that they were searching the Sahara for five missing foreigners, in the hopes that others might have escaped into the desert as Mr. Floria and the others did. “It’s ongoing,” said a senior Algerian official. “They’ve disappeared. We’re not going to just abandon them like that.”

Helge Lund, chief executive of Statoil, the Norwegian company that is one of the operators of the In Amenas plant, said Monday in a televised news conference that 12 of Statoil’s 17 employees had returned home, while “extensive searches in and around the plant at In Amenas and at hospitals in Algeria are taking place” for the other five. It was unclear whether the Algerians were referring to the Norwegians, who as of late Tuesday were still classified as missing rather than dead.

Mr. Floria recounted his experiences from back home in Romania on Tuesday. He was clearly still shaken by the experience and traumatized about the deaths of his colleagues, including two Romanians, and on Monday he had gone to a monastery to pray.

Mr. Floria, 45, said that he was no wildcat cowboy, no thrill seeker or adventurer, just a hard-working man hoping to provide a better life for his family. He had been employed in the oil and gas industry in Pitesti, Romania, for nearly 20 years when he was contacted through the job-networking Web site LinkedIn by an international recruiting agency.

The new job in Algeria as a mechanical foreman paid five times as much as he was making in Romania, where the industry was struggling and the future looked uncertain. With the money he earned, Mr. Floria hoped that he could send his teenage daughter to Britain for college and eventually buy himself a little house in the mountains. Safety was not a concern, he said.

He began work in 2010 and before long was used to the routine, one month in the Sahara working 12-hour days and one month back home.

The night before the attack, Mr. Floria went to bed early. It was a decision he said he believed might have saved his life. He woke up early, at 5:15 a.m., and he and Mr. Iachim drove in a Toyota Land Cruiser from the living area to the central processing facility a few miles away. They drove through the very gate that the militants would storm minutes later.

The two Romanians stayed all day and all night in the office, trying to keep quiet, subsisting on water and a few cookies they had with them. Long periods of silence were interrupted by minutes of gunfire and explosions. Mr. Floria tried to suppress his emotions and remain focused on staying alive.

“In my mind, the fate was we should escape from here,” Mr. Floria said. “I must stay calm, manage my feelings and we see what happens next.”

On Thursday afternoon, after more than 24 hours in hiding, they heard someone calling: “Anybody here? Anybody here?”

It was Lou Fear, one of the Britons. “When we heard his voice, we were very happy,” Mr. Floria said, relieved to have been found by others who had eluded capture.

Soon a group of eight had gathered. There were two Norwegians, three Britons, an Algerian and the two Romanians. Word had spread that the attackers were targeting only expatriates and letting Algerians go, but the lone Algerian stayed with them, risking his life to help his co-workers, Mr. Floria said.

Someone in the group saw the attackers returning, and everyone went back into hiding. But that night Mr. Fear came back and told them there was talk of trying to escape. “Sooner or later they will discover us, and they will kill us,” Mr. Floria said. “All of us agreed. It’s our chance. We should fight for our lives.”

They were terrified of discovery. One of the would-be escapees knocked over something metal, and in the dead silence of the desert at night it rang as loud as a bell. Everyone froze and waited, but no one discovered them.

The fence, which Mr. Floria estimated was over six feet tall, built to protect them from the outside world, was now an impediment. But they managed to squeeze between the razor wire and the top of the fence, Mr. Floria said.

They were elated but wary when they made it out of the complex, knowing they were nowhere close to safe. If the attackers found them they would most likely be shot.

The group walked toward the beacon of burning gas in the distance, but when dawn came they could no longer see the flame. In their haste to escape several of the men, including Mr. Floria, had not thought about supplies, and the group had only four bottles of water for the eight of them.

Fortunately, the iPhone app worked without a cellular signal. They walked over barren terrain of sand and rocks and small hills, from about 2 a.m. until the late afternoon with only short breaks.

At last they found the gas well. There was a temporary building there, and at least one of the men was struggling to go on. Four of the men stayed and the other four continued to a nearby road. They saw vehicles but feared they might be the assailants.

They waited and watched from a distance. A white car with a green crescent looked like an official Algerian vehicle. They went to the road, stopped the car and felt incredible relief to find three Algerian security officers inside. The officers took the men and gave them cookies, orange juice and apples. Mr. Floria said the Algerians did not pick up the remaining four people despite repeated pleas. Mr. Floria’s group was flown out of Algeria on an American military transport plane. The other four made it to the road once the sun had set, Mr. Floria learned later, and also escaped safely.

“I got pain in my bones, but this was nothing for me,” Mr. Floria said, contrasting his fate with the dozens who did not make it out alive. “We escaped.”


Mihai Radu contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania;

Henrik Pryser Libell from Bergen; and Adam Nossiter from Algiers.

    Gas Complex Worker Tells of Terror and a Desperate Escape, NYT, 22.1.2013,






Defying Common View,

Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad


January 22, 2013
The New York Times


ALGHOOZ, Syria — The arc of Omar Abdulkader’s transformation from farmer to fighter resembles that of uncountable others in Syria, where since 2011 tens of thousands of men have been drawn into a civil war.

A rebel commander seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, he described the choice of a cornered man. His resistance began with peaceful demonstrations, he said. When the government answered with force, his tactics changed. “It was only after they showed that they would kill us that we became armed,” he said.

But there is a difference between this story and many others. Mr. Abdulkader is a Kurd, not an Arab, which means his experiences and decisions upend conventional wisdom that holds that the Kurds do not see this as their fight.

To hear the governments of Turkey and Syria describe it, Syria’s Kurds often side with or remain neutral toward Mr. Assad, whose government supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., in its bloody insurgency against Turkey until 1998, when Syria grudgingly extradited the Kurdish group’s leader at the brink of war with Turkey.

But the scenes in Alghooz and in a string of Kurdish villages north of Aleppo present a more complex picture of Syria’s Kurds and their ambitions and relations with the government. Kurds here fiercely note that they have suffered under Mr. Assad’s rule, too, and taken up arms against him. They sharply contradict the notion that they rely on Mr. Assad’s government for protection.

And so while there have been signs that many Kurds remained pro-government, with some pro-P.K.K. fighters clashing with rebels, hundreds of others have joined the Free Syrian Army, as the loosely assembled antigovernment fighters call themselves, Kurdish and rebel leaders say.

The flatlands north of Aleppo are spotted with towns. Local men said that about 40,000 Kurds live here, and that their families have produced more than 600 fighters against Mr. Assad.

The fighters are organized into at least eight separate groups, Kurdish leaders and fighters said. Their names include the Islamic Kurdish Front, the Pesh Merga Falcons and the Martyrs of Mecca.

Defying official and popular accounts of Kurdish loyalties, these men fight beside Arabs against Mr. Assad. They and their leaders bluntly denounce the P.K.K., which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization, and also criticize many Kurdish nationalists, saying that calls for an independent Kurdistan are not a vision they share.

“We are not interested in a separate homeland,” said Yousef Haidar, 72, Alghooz’s mukhtar, or village elder. “We want to be part of Syria.”

He added, “For hundreds of years we have lived together with Arabs, and after the revolution we want to live together more.”

The Kurdish revolutionary fighters also reject neutrality, like the public position of the Democratic Union Party, Syria’s largest Kurdish political party, which has largely kept out of the uprising, furthering the impression that Kurds were not supporting the rebels.

“I am Kurdish, and as a Kurdish citizen I am fighting side to side with the Free Syrian Army, because you cannot find anybody who was not stepped on by the regime, or was not wronged,” Mr. Haidar said. “We were wronged as well.”

Alghooz is a small farming village on an agricultural plain. It lies a few miles east of Marea, one of the area’s thoroughly anti-Assad towns.

Fewer than 3,000 people live here. Its elders said that perhaps 30 men from local families were now fighting, and that these men had attracted Arabs, Christians and Turkmens to fight with them under the rebels’ flag.

Mr. Abdulkader commands one of three sections of a group that calls itself the Grandsons of Saladin and claims to field nearly 90 fighters in all. It fights under the command of Al Tawhid Brigade, the largest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo region.

From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Abdulkader said, he served a tour of duty as an infantry conscript at a base south of Damascus. Then he returned home to work in the local fields, growing potatoes, lentils, onions and other crops. His Kurdish village lived peacefully beside the Arab villages nearby.

When protests against Mr. Assad began in early 2011 and Syrians in other villages in the countryside north of Aleppo demonstrated and organized into an underground movement, the Kurds in Alghooz did not commit.

But as the Assad government turned violent, the village picked a side, its elders said. “We joined the revolution,” Mr. Haidar said.

The imperative for the uprising, he said, was even greater than when the villages rose against colonial powers. “We were colonized by the French, but even France did not do what Bashar does,” he said. “The government kills innocent people. We felt no other option but to fight against this criminal.”

In doing so, the Kurds here noted that they face the same difficulties as the other Free Syrian Army units.

The Grandsons of Saladin split time now between their home villages, organizing roaming patrols at night on the roads, and holding a small portion of the front in Aleppo’s shattered neighborhoods.

They have relied in part on the training many of their members received during their brief service as conscripts in Mr. Assad’s army.

One man was previously a rifleman, another a machine-gunner. One — an Arab fighting inside the Kurdish group — was in a Syrian military communications unit. Two were trained in air defense.

All of them denounced the lack of Western support, and said their dearth of military equipment had slowed their progress and caused them many casualties.

“In general, we have a shortage of ammunition and weapons,” said Hussein Abu Mahmoud, a construction worker who is one of Mr. Abdulkader’s fighters. “Most of our fighters who were killed died because we don’t have enough weapons.”

Facing continued shortages, the Grandsons of Saladin make their own hand grenades, from pipes and locally made explosives, and use a large slingshot to heave some of their bombs, each slightly smaller than a grapefruit, toward army positions.

In recent months, the fighters said they had suffered five killed and seven wounded — proof enough, they said, of their role in the anti-Assad cause, and that Kurdish loyalties in Syria should not be defined by the statements from Damascus or Ankara, the Turkish capital, alone.

“There has been much propaganda that the Kurds are with the regime,” Mr. Abdulkader said. “We are not with Assad. We are fighting him.”


Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey.

    Defying Common View, Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad, NYT, 22.1.2013,






Diplomacy Is Dead


January 21, 2013
The New York Times



DIPLOMACY is dead.

Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.

This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.

There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time.

Violence, of the kind diplomacy once resolved, has shifted. As William Luers, a former ambassador to Venezuela and the director of The Iran Project, said in an e-mail, it occurs “less between states and more dealing with terrorists.” One result is that “the military and the C.I.A. have been in the driver’s seat in dealing with governments throughout the Middle East and in state to state (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq) relations.” The role of professional diplomats is squeezed.

Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.

Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital.

So when I asked myself what I hoped Barack Obama’s second term would inaugurate, my answer was a new era of diplomacy. It is not too late for the president to earn that Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course diplomats do many worthy things around the world, and even in the first term there were a couple of significant shifts — in Burma where patient U.S. diplomacy has produced an opening, and in the yo-yoing new Egypt where U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood was important and long overdue (and raised the question of when America would do the same with the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas.)

But Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.

There are some modest reasons to think the lid on diplomacy’s coffin may open a crack. This is a second term; Obama is less beholden to the strident whims of Congress. The Republican never-give-an-inch right is weaker. In John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, his nominees for secretary of state and secretary of defense, Obama has chosen two knowledgeable professionals who have seen enough war to loathe it and have deep experience of the world. They know peace involves risk. They know it may not be pretty. The big wars are winding down. Military commanders may cede some space to diplomats.

Breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends. It is conducted with the likes of the Taliban, the ayatollahs and Hamas. It involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The central question is: What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it? Or, put the way Nixon put it in seeking common ground with Communist China: What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?

Obama tried a bunch of special envoys in the first term. It did not work. He needs to empower his secretary of state to do the necessary heavy lifting on Iran and Israel-Palestine. Luers suggested that one “idea for a New Diplomacy would be for Hagel and Kerry to take along senators from both parties on trips abroad and to trouble spots. This used to be standard practice. Be bold with the Senate and try to bring them along.”

For diplomacy to succeed noise has to be shut out. There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky citizen-diplomats out there these days blathering on about dreamy one-state solutions for Israel-Palestine and the like. Social media and hyper-connectivity bring huge benefits. They helped ignite the wave of liberation known as the Arab Spring. They are force-multipliers for openness and citizenship. But they may distract from the focused, realpolitik diplomacy that brought the major breakthroughs of 1972, 1989 and 1995. It’s time for another.

    Diplomacy Is Dead, NYT, 21.1.2013,






French Airstrikes Push Back Islamists

and Regain Towns in Central Mali


January 21, 2013
The New York Times


SEGOU, Mali — Malian and French troops appeared to recapture two important central Malian towns on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country’s northern half.

French soldiers in armored vehicles rolled through the town of Diabaly, about 275 miles from the capital, Bamako, to cheers from residents, who flew French and Malian flags to welcome them.

“I want to thank the French people,” said Mamadou Traoré, a Diabaly resident. He said French airstrikes had chased away the militants without harming any civilians, a claim echoed by other residents.

“None of us were touched,” Mr. Traoré said. “It was incredible.”

Islamist fighters overran Diabaly a week ago, the closest they have come to Bamako in an aggressive surge this month. Worried that there was little to stop them from rolling into the capital, where many French citizens live, France quickly stepped into the fight, striking the militants at the front lines and bombing their strongholds in the north.

Suddenly a long-simmering standoff with the Islamist groups holding the north had been transformed into a war involving French forces, precisely the kind of event the West hoped to avoid. American officials have long warned that Western involvement could stir anti-Western sentiment and provoke terrorist attacks, a fear that seemed to be realized when militants stormed a gas facility in Algeria last week, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 foreign hostages.

Even after French forces entered the fight in Mali, driving back the Islamists would prove more difficult than officials initially suggested. Rather than flee, many of the militants in Diabaly seemed to dig in, taking over homes and putting the civilian population in the cross-fire.

But they eventually fled on Friday morning, residents said, in the face of relentless French airstrikes.

The fighters had little time to impose the version of Shariah law that has made them infamous in the north, where they have carried out public whippings and amputations and stoned a couple to death. But their brief reign over Diabaly was a small taste of the harsh policies they have enacted elsewhere.

“I had to cover my head at all times,” Djenaba Cissé said. “When I walked with my brother to the fields, they would bother us,” she continued. “They would ask us questions to verify that we were siblings.”

Few residents said they actually met the hardened men who had taken control of their village, but Kola Maiga, who lives at the edge of town, recalled their arrival on the morning of Jan. 14.

“I was in my house, and I saw them coming, and I knew, I knew that war was here in Diabaly,” Mr. Maiga said. “The first day, they started shooting in the air. They wanted the population to know they have power.”

He feared them, he said, but they tried to reassure him, offering cookies to his children.

“They said: ‘Do not be afraid. We are with Allah,’ ” Mr. Maiga said.

Militants have also abandoned the town of Douentza, which they held for several months, The Associated Press reported.

Mali has been in crisis since last January, when Tuaregs in northern Mali began a separatist uprising, newly invigorated by an influx of fighters and weapons from Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

A military coup by junior officers angry at how the government responded to the Tuareg uprising followed in March, leaving the country in disarray and hastening the loss of its northern half to insurgents. Islamist groups, some with links to Al Qaeda, quickly pushed aside the secular Tuareg militants, taking over northern towns and imposing their strict interpretation of Shariah law.

The fighters appeared to find little support among the local population, who said the harsh version of Islam they sought to impose had little resemblance to the moderate faith practiced by most people here.

“These guys, they are vicious,” said Oumar Diakité, Diabaly’s mayor. “It’s not Islam that they want. They want other things. As you can see, a poor country like Mali, they have come to attack us.”

Residents who had fled to nearby towns returned to their homes on Monday after hearing that the militants had been chased away.

“They arrived, and they said they were going to bring Shariah here,” said Mohamed Tounkara, who returned on Monday. “We don’t want Shariah. That’s why I left with my family.”

He said he was grateful to the French military but had little faith in his own country’s army, which in the past year has let half of Mali’s territory slip away and ended two decades of democratic rule.

“If France stays here, I trust their army,” Mr. Tounkara said. “We don’t have complete faith in our army, honestly.”


Lydia Polgreen reported from Segou, and Peter Tinti from Diabaly, Mali.

    French Airstrikes Push Back Islamists and Regain Towns in Central Mali, NYT, 21.1.2013,






Algeria Defends Tough Response to Hostage Crisis

as Toll Rises


January 21, 2013
The New York Times


ALGIERS — The prime minister of Algeria offered an unapologetic defense on Monday of the country’s tough actions to end the Sahara hostage crisis, saying that the militants who had carried out the kidnappings intended to kill all their captives and that the army saved many from death by attacking.

But the assertion came as the death toll of foreign hostages rose sharply, to 37, and as American officials said they had offered sophisticated surveillance help that could minimize casualties, both before and during the military operation to retake a seized gas field complex in the Algerian desert.

At least some of the assistance was accepted, they said, but there were still questions about whether Algeria had taken all available steps to avert such a bloody outcome.

American counterterrorism officials and experts said they would have taken a more cautious approach, using detailed surveillance to gain an information advantage and hopefully outmaneuver the militants. But others declined to second-guess the Algerians, saying events had unfolded so rapidly that the government might have felt it had no choice but to kill the kidnappers, even if hostages died in the process.

The debate over how the Algerians handled one of the worst hostage-taking episodes in recent memory reflects conflicting ideas over how to manage such mass abductions in an age of suicidal terrorist acts in a post-9/11 world.

The Algerians — and some Western supporters — argue that the loss of innocent lives is unavoidable when confronting fanatics who will kill their captives anyway, while others say modern technology provides some means of minimizing the deaths.

At a news conference in Algiers, the prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, portrayed the military’s deadly assaults on the Islamist militants who had stormed and occupied an internationally run gas-producing complex last Wednesday in remote eastern Algeria as a matter of national character and pride.

“The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous,” Mr. Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack “on the stability of Algeria.”

“Algerians are not people who sell themselves out,” he said. “When the security of the country is at stake, there is no possible discussion.”

It was the Algerian government’s first detailed public explanation of its actions during the siege, a brazen militant assault that has raised broad new concerns about the strength of extremists who have carved out enclaves in neighboring Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.

Mr. Sellal said that the 37 foreign workers killed during the episode — a toll much higher than the 23 previously estimated — came from eight countries and that five captives remained unaccounted for. It was unclear how many had died at the hands of the kidnappers or the Algerian Army. The United States said that three Americans were among the dead and that seven had survived.

The prime minister also said that 29 kidnappers had been killed, including the leader, and that three had been captured alive. The militants were from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Canada, he said — an assertion the Canadian government said it was investigating. Mr. Sellal said the group began the plot in Mali and entered Algeria through Libya, close to the site.

Other countries, notably Japan and Britain, have raised concerns about what they considered Algeria’s harsh and hasty response. The United States has not publicly criticized Algeria, which it regards as an ally in the fight to contain jihadist groups in Africa. But law enforcement and military officials said Monday that they almost certainly would have handled such a crisis differently.

First, the United States would have engaged in longer discussions with the captors to identify the leaders and buy time, the officials said. In the meantime, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and possibly allied security services could have moved surveillance drones, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and electronic eavesdropping equipment into place to help identify the locations of the hostages and the assailants.

“It would have been a precision approach as opposed to a sledgehammer approach,” said Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, a retired deputy commander of the United States military’s Special Operations Command.

A senior American official said the Algerians had allowed an unarmed American surveillance drone to fly over the gas field on Thursday. But it was unclear what role, if any, it had played in the Algerian Army’s assault that day. American officials said they had not been told of the strike in advance.

Prime Minister Sellal conceded no mistakes as he provided the government’s first distinct timeline in the sequence of events, breaking it down into three episodes.

First, the militants attacked a guarded bus carrying foreign plant workers to the airport at In Amenas, and two people aboard were killed. “They wanted to take control of this bus and take the foreign workers directly to northern Mali so they could have hostages, to negotiate with foreign countries,” he said. “But when they opened fire on the bus, there was a strong response from the gendarmes guarding it.”

After they failed to capture the bus, the prime minister said, the militants split into two groups: one to seize the complex’s living quarters, the other to capture the gas plant itself, a maze of pipes and machinery. They invaded both sections, taking dozens of hostages, attaching bombs to some and booby-trapping the plant.

At this point, he said, the facility was ringed by security forces.

Perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday morning — Mr. Sellal described it as a nighttime episode — the kidnappers attempted a breakout. “They put explosives on the hostages. They wanted to put the hostages in four-wheel-drive vehicles and take them to Mali.”

Mr. Sellal then suggested that government helicopters immobilized the kidnappers. Witnesses have described an intense army assault, resulting in both militant and hostage deaths.

“A great number of workers were put in the cars; they wanted to use them as human shields,” the prime minister said. “There was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded,” he said. One contained an Algerian militant whom the prime minister identified as the leader, Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb.

The second and final operation happened Saturday, Mr. Sellal said, when the 11 remaining kidnappers moved into the gas-producing part of the complex, a hazardous area that he said they had already tried to ignite.

“The aim of the terrorists was to explode the gas compound,” he said. In this second assault, he said, there were “a great number of hostages,” and the kidnappers were ordered to kill them all. It was then, he said, that army snipers killed the kidnappers.

None of the Algerian reporters questioned the prime minister’s version of events, and some spoke of a disconnect between foreign complaints about the way Algeria had managed the crisis and Algeria’s protracted struggle with Islamic militancy over the past three decades.

“The terrorists came with a precise plan: Kidnap foreigners and destroy the gas plant,” said Hamid Guemache, a journalist at TSA-Tout sur l’Algérie, an online news site, dismissing criticism of the government. “Did it really have a choice? If the assault hadn’t been undertaken quickly, maybe the terrorists would have succeeded in killing all the hostages, and blowing up the factory.”

Some American counterterrorism officials conceded that point.

“If the terrorists were shooting hostages or at least putting explosives around their necks and their intent was to sabotage the plant, this might have been a suicide mission to blow up the plant, and not negotiate,” said Henry A. Crumpton, a retired career C.I.A. officer and formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official.

“It sounds horrible to say, but given the number of hostages and scope of this, this is not as bad an outcome as what could have happened, if that was their intent.”

In all, 790 workers were on the site — including 134 foreigners of 26 nationalities — when it was first seized, the prime minister said.

From the start of the siege, the Algerians were bound to respond with force, said Mansouria Mokhefi, a professor who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. The question, she said, was how bloody the outcome would be.

“Everyone knows the Algerians do not negotiate,” Dr. Mokhefi said, and surely the attackers knew this as well.

After all, she said, the foundation of the Algerian government is its longstanding defeat of Islamist militancy and its restoration of a “certain peace” to the country after the civil war during the 1990s, when tens of thousands died.

“The legitimacy of this government in Algeria is its fight against terrorism and the security of the country,” Dr. Mokhefi said.

Criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows “a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning,” she said.

But the French understand the Algerians, Dr. Mokhefi said.

French officials have publicly supported Algeria’s actions, in part because France needs to use Algerian airspace for its military intervention in Mali and wants Algeria to work harder to seal its borders with Mali.

“There isn’t a military unit that would have done better, given the strategic conditions, the place where this unfolded, the number of assailants and the number of hostages,” said Christian Prouteau, who was chief of security under President François Mitterrand. “I challenge any Western country confronting this kind of operation to do better.”


Adam Nossiter reported from Algiers, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

Reporting was contributed by Hadjer Guenanfa from Algiers, Steven Erlanger

and Scott Sayare from Paris, Alan Cowell from London,

and Rick Gladstone from New York.

    Algeria Defends Tough Response to Hostage Crisis as Toll Rises, NYT, 21.1.2013,






Pursuing Ambitious Global Goals,

but With a More Modest Strategy


January 20, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Not quite nine months into his presidency, Barack Obama woke to the news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize — not for anything yet accomplished, but for the promise that he would end the Iraq war, win the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change and engage America’s adversaries.

Yet beyond Iraq, his first-term accomplishments from that list are sparse. In a fractured world, President Obama struggled to define a grand strategy for America’s role, apart from preserving its pre-eminence while relying increasingly on a changing cast of partners.

As Mr. Obama begins his second term, aides and confidants say he is acutely aware that his ambitious agenda to restore America’s influence and image in the world stalled almost as soon as the prize was awarded. But the president has indicated that he plans to return to his original agenda, though he has hinted it may be in a different, less overtly ambitious way.

Bitter experience — from getting the most modest arms control agreement through the Senate his first year, trying and failing to engage leaders in Iran and North Korea, discovering his lack of leverage over Egypt, Pakistan and Israel, and finding Afghanistan to be a costly waste of American lives and resources — is driving him to a strategy reminiscent of one of his Republican predecessors, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It is a strategy in which Mr. Obama will try to redirect world events subtly, rather than turning to big treaties, big military interventions and big aid packages.

“The appeal of the Eisenhower approach is that it had a big element of turning inward, of looking to rebuilding strength at home, of conserving American power,” said one of Mr. Obama’s senior national security advisers, who would not agree to be quoted by name. “But there’s also the reality that some of the initiatives that seemed so hopeful four years ago — whether it’s driving down the number of nuclear weapons or helping Afghanistan remake itself — look so much harder now.”

Whether this approach can work is very much an open question. His early forays into covert action and lightning-quick strikes — like the fast war in Libya or the cyberwar against Iran — have set back adversaries, but the satisfactions of striking with a “light footprint” have usually been temporary at best.

His promises of transformative change are now viewed around the world with more suspicion. There was the student in Cairo who cornered a reporter a year ago and demanded to know why the prison at Guantánamo Bay was still open, and the European foreign minister who, at a diplomatic dinner in Washington, asked whether “the pivot to Asia is another phrase for ignoring the rest of the world.”

Mr. Obama’s questions during Situation Room sessions, some of his current and former aides say, seem to reflect a concern that his first term was spent putting out fires, rather than building lasting institutions.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman solidified America’s post-World War II role by helping create the United Nations, the international financial institutions and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe; President John F. Kennedy emerged from the Cuban Missile Crisis with treaties limiting the spread of nuclear weapons; the first President George Bush lured new allies from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

By comparison, Mr. Obama’s biggest accomplishments have been largely defensive: a full withdrawal from Iraq and devastating strikes against the core leadership of Al Qaeda. (When President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan visited the White House last week, he was presented a scorecard: of the “20 most wanted” Qaeda leaders when Mr. Obama was first inaugurated, 13 were dead, along with many of their successors.)

The president’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, has argued in speeches since Mr. Obama’s re-election that in the first term the president built a broader alliance against Iran than any of his predecessors; that is true, but so far it has not moved the Iranians to limit their nuclear drive.

The United States has variously offered to increase aid to Egypt or restrict it if the country heads off on an illiberal path. So far neither approach has given Mr. Obama leverage in influencing the new government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. A promising start in building an economic and political partnership with China has devolved into an argument over whether the United States is seeking to contain China’s ambitions.

“He wants to be something more than a pure manager for the next four years,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, a longtime diplomat who was one of the White House architects of the “rebalancing” toward Asia. He added that Mr. Obama “understands that being a transformative president on a global stage is about more than good intentions and good plans. It’s about finding places where you are not dependent on adversaries who refuse to budge, or who benefit from demonstrating their hostility to the U.S.”

If there is a big strategic bet in Mr. Obama’s second term, it may be that Asia is that place. The huge, unexpected burst in oil and gas production in the United States has bolstered Mr. Obama’s conviction that the United States has an opportunity to extract itself from an overdependence on events in the Middle East. In Asia, he has found a region more welcoming to American influence, largely because a greater American presence — meaning more naval ships and more investment — can quietly counterbalance China’s rising power.

Mr. Obama’s focus on Asia has reinforced his interest in the Eisenhower era. After the Korean War, Americans simply wanted to bring the troops home and focus on growth. Eisenhower had publicly committed to both balancing the budget and containing growing threats around the world, while in secret he began a broad rethinking of American national security called Project Solarium.

Just as Mr. Obama has privately worried about being manipulated by generals who were trying to lengthen the American involvement in Afghanistan, Eisenhower left office warning of the “military-industrial complex” that he feared would dominate American decision making.

At the same time, those who work with Mr. Obama, and parse his questions in Situation Room debates over the ability of the United States to influence events in places like Syria or Mali or North Korea, say they sense in him a greater awareness than he had four years ago of the limits of American influence.

He asks more detailed questions about how sending 100 troops, or 10,000, might influence long-term outcomes. Paraphrasing the president, one aide said he is more likely to ask, “So if we put troops into Syria to stabilize the chemical weapons, what can they accomplish in a year that they couldn’t accomplish in a week?”

That is a product of Mr. Obama’s bitter experience in 2009, when he yielded to advice from the military to send a surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan. He regretted it almost instantly. The move to an “Afghan good enough” strategy followed, with minimal goals and a quicker withdrawal of troops. Ever since, he has been hesitant to use traditional power in traditional ways.

“He has got to find the happy medium between not committing us to a decade-long ground war and choosing not to do anything,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was the head of the State Department’s policy planning operation for Mr. Obama’s first two years in office and has urged him to intervene more strongly in humanitarian disasters.

Mr. Obama’s caution has incurred a cost. To much of the world, his presidency thus far looks unlike what they expected. He promised “direct engagement” with longtime adversaries, including Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Venezuela. He is one for five: only the generals running Myanmar responded to his letters, economic incentives and offers of a new relationship.

In what Mr. Obama once called the “war of necessity,” in Afghanistan, the complaint heard more often is that Mr. Obama has abandoned any pretense of accomplishment in favor of accelerating the withdrawal.

“The situation is obviously not very confidence-inspiring,” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said in an interview last week. “A responsible transition means that you have achieved your objectives and then you leave. It’s not ‘We leave in January.’ It’s ‘We leave when the objectives are achieved.’ ”

And what of the grand initiatives?

A proposal for a very large reduction in deployed nuclear weapons has been in the hands of the White House for months, but the president has not acted on it. Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised a new push to win passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was defeated during the Clinton administration. They have never submitted it to the Senate.

“We were assured by President Obama when he was elected that the U.S. would ratify this C.T.B.T.,” Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, said on Friday. “But somehow, it has not happened.”

Given the composition of the Senate, it is not likely to happen in a second term, either. So Mr. Obama, his aides say, will have to find another way; like Eisenhower, he will have to redirect American policy quietly, from the Oval Office.

    Pursuing Ambitious Global Goals, but With a More Modest Strategy, NYT, 20.1.2013,






Brotherhood Struggles to Translate

Power Into Policy in Egypt


January 19, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — When President Mohamed Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood pushed through a new constitution last month, liberals feared it would enable them to put an Islamist stamp on the Egyptian state, in part by purging nearly half the judges on the Supreme Constitutional Court.

But those warnings are turning out to be premature, at the very least, as the court itself made clear last week at its opening session last week, its first meeting under the new charter.

The president of the court sneered with disdain at a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood trying to address the reconfigured bench, stripped of 7 of its 18 members. “As if you left a court to be spoken of like this!” Judge Maher el-Beheiry snapped. He had already declared that the court, perceived as an enemy of the Islamists, “can never forget” the Brotherhood’s protests against it during the constitutional debate.

In the two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi and the Islamists have trounced their political opposition again and again at the polls and have accumulated unrivaled political power.

But Judge Beheiry’s rebuke was a vivid reminder that their political victories have not yet translated into real power over the Egyptian bureaucracy. Mr. Morsi still appears to exercise little day-to-day authority over the judiciary, the police, the military and the state-run news media.

“If you think of the main pillars of the bureaucracy, the Brotherhood has not gotten control of them yet, and I don’t think they will completely,” said Hani Shukrallah, 62, the left-leaning editor of an English-language state news Web site who was recently was asked to retire by its new management. “There are so many people who are very difficult to bring to heel,” he said. “I think we are in for several years of turbulence where state power is diffused.”

Although Mr. Morsi has the legitimacy of a democratic election, he has inherited the still-intact remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian state, built on fear, loyalty and patronage, and much of it permeated by a deep distrust of the Islamists.

Mr. Morsi and his allies are now only beginning to attempt to exert some control over the body of the state that would allow him to put in effect a social, economic and political program. And his ultimate success, or failure, will help decide some of the most pivotal questions concerning Egypt’s future, for better or worse.

On the one hand, the bureaucracy’s resistance could prevent the Islamists from consolidating their power, imposing their ideology, or, as some liberals say they fear, building a new dictatorship. But the failure to exert control could also prolong vexing social problems, like the collapse of public security because of the withdrawal of the police.

The analysts say that Mr. Morsi is clearly working to install networks of allies over key parts of the state. He has named Brotherhood members as governors in 7 out of 28 provinces. In a recent cabinet shake-up, he named another Brotherhood member as minister of local development, who under the new Constitution could have new powers over day-to-day local government.

His Islamist allies in the legislature named at least 11 fellow Islamists, including at least 3 ultraconservatives, to the 27 seats on the newly empowered National Council for Human Rights. The Constitution and other new rules give it the authority to regulate election observers, investigate human rights violations and act as a public ombudsman.

But Mr. Morsi’s attempts to consolidate his power have often yielded equivocal results. He finally persuaded Egypt’s top generals to relinquish their authority over the civilian government last August. But in December, the Islamist-backed Constitution granted the generals broad immunity and autonomy from civilian control, in an apparent quid pro quo.

Brotherhood leaders acknowledge they face deep resistance. When the president took office, the holdover staff was destroying his faxes and mail in small acts of sabotage, said one senior Brotherhood leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid further inflaming the tensions. In the Interior Ministry, which nominally reports to the president, rank-and-file officers remain all but openly antagonistic to Mr. Morsi and his party.

During the contentious run-up to the constitutional vote late last year, the police failed to increase security outside Brotherhood offices as one after another were vandalized and often burned. And when protesters clashed with Islamists outside the presidential palace, the police effectively vanished from the scene. “It seemed like a clear mutiny,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“It was as if the arm of the state was striking at its own head,” the senior Brotherhood leader complained.

The police say the lesson they learned from the revolution against Mr. Mubarak was not to stand against protesters on behalf of an individual president.

“It fills me with pride that a police officer was the one who opened the improvised metal gate for protesters during the march to the presidential palace to allow them to continue,” said Ahmed Mansour al-Helbawi, the head of a police union that claims to have 400,000 members. “The protesters carried him on their shoulders and chanted: ‘The people and the police are one hand.’ ”

Mr. Helbawi said the officers were no longer willing to use force against demonstrators even outside the presidential palace. But he acknowledged that the police still show no such hesitation when protesters approach their own headquarters.

As for the failure to protect the offices of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, “If I protect the F.J.P., then I must also protect the Wafd Party and the Constitution Party and every other party there is!” Mr. Helbawi said, adding that the police would never again “turn into the ministry of just one political party,” as it was under Mr. Mubarak.

Mr. Morsi has tried to extend control over the police and removed the interior minister, who presided over last month’s debacle and was a Mubarak enforcer who had run the Cairo district during the brutal crackdown two years ago. But Mr. Morsi replaced him with another longtime Mubarak-era police official, Mohamed Ibrahim, in an apparent bid to avoid an even broader police insurrection. (Groups claiming to represent the police have still circulated anonymous calls for a police protest over the dismissal this week.)

Mr. Morsi’s allies have not fared much better in trying to gain control of the official state news media, one of the most visible bellwethers of their hold on the bureaucracy. The Islamist-controlled upper house of Parliament replaced the top officials, but state television still provides evidence that many of the tens of thousands who work in the state news media oppose the Brotherhood.

The host Hala Fahmy, for example, opened a show by accusing the new government of selling out the “martyrs” and theatrically holding up a shroud to show she was ready to join them. She is now off the air, pending an investigation of the outburst.

“There are 40,000 people working in the building,” said Ehab El Mergawi, a state television news producer who is also a member of the leftist April 6 group. “And I think 35,000 out of those can’t stand the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said that so far the Brotherhood takeover sometimes appears to be working in reverse. “You feel that the institutions are taking over Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, “not the other way around.”

    Brotherhood Struggles to Translate Power Into Policy in Egypt, NYT, 19.1.2013,






Hostages Dead in Bloody Climax to Siege in Algeria


January 19, 2013
The New York Times


BAMAKO, Mali — The four-day hostage crisis in the Sahara reached a bloody conclusion on Saturday as the Algerian Army carried out a final assault on the gas field taken over by Islamist militants, killing most of the remaining kidnappers and raising the total of hostages killed to at least 23, Algerian officials said.

Although the government declared an end to the militants’ siege, the authorities believed that a handful of jihadists were most likely hiding somewhere in the sprawling complex and said that troops were hunting for them.

The details of the desert standoff and the final battle for the plant remained murky on Saturday night — as did information about which hostages died and how — with even the White House suggesting that it was unclear what had happened. In a brief statement released early Saturday night the president said his administration would “remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place.”

The British defense minister, Philip Hammond, called the loss of life “appalling and unacceptable” after reports that up to seven hostages were killed in the final hours of the hostage crisis, and he said that the leaders of the attack would be tracked down. The Algerian government said that 32 militants had been killed since Wednesday, although it cautioned that its casualty counts were provisional.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who appeared with Mr. Hammond at a news conference in London, said he did not yet have reliable information about the fate of the Americans at the facility, although a senior Algerian official said two had been found “safe and sound.”

What little information trickled out was as harrowing as what had come in the days before, when some hostages who had managed to escape told of workers being forced to wear explosives. They also said that there were several summary executions and that some workers had died in the military’s initial rescue attempt.

On Saturday, Algerian officials reported that some bodies found by troops who rushed into the industrial complex were charred beyond recognition, making it difficult to distinguish between the captors and the captured. Two were assumed to be workers because they were handcuffed.

Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said that five Britons and one British resident had died in the final rescue attempt or were unaccounted for. He said that police forces were fanning out across Britain visiting each of the families involved.

Most of the hundreds of workers at the plant, who come from about 25 countries, appear to have escaped sometime during the four days.

The Algerian government has been relatively silent since the start of the crisis, releasing few details. The government faced withering international criticism for rushing ahead with its first assault on the militants on Thursday even as governments whose citizens were trapped inside the plant pleaded for more time, fearing that rescue attempts might lead to workers dying. The Algerians responded by saying they had a better understanding of how to handle militants after fighting Islamist insurgents for years.

On Saturday, it was unclear who killed the last hostages. Initial reports from Algerian state news media said that seven workers had been executed during the army’s raid, but the senior government official and another high-level official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, later said the number killed and the cause were unknown. The early reports also said 11 militants were killed, but later information suggested that some may have blown themselves up.

One of the Algerian officials defended the latest military assault, saying the government feared the militants were about to set off explosions at the In Amenas complex.

The Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, said that the attackers had evidently mined the facility with the intention of blowing it up and that the company was working to ensure the safety of the plant.

The government official, meanwhile, said that the militants had set fire to the plant’s control tower on Friday night and that it was later extinguished by soldiers and workers. The militants also tried to blow up a pipeline, he said, leading officials to worry about the stocks of gas at the plant. “The authorities were afraid they were going to blow up the reserves,” said the official, who believed the militants had planned all along to destroy the complex.

Whatever the goal, the message of the militant takeover of the gas complex, in a country that has perhaps the world’s toughest record for dealing with terrorists, seemed clear, at least to Algerian officials: the Islamist ministate in northern Mali, now under assault by French and Malian forces, has given a new boost to transnational terrorism. The brigade of some 32 Islamists that took the plant was multinational, Algerian officials said — with only three Algerians in the group.

“We have indications that they originated from northern Mali,” one of the senior officials said. “They want to establish a terrorist state.”

A Mali-based Algerian jihadist with ties to Al Qaeda, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility through spokesmen — and is blamed by the Algerians — for masterminding the raid.

The militants who attacked the plant said it was in retaliation for the French troops sweeping into Mali this month to stop an advance of Islamist rebels south toward the capital, although they later said they had been planning an attack in Algeria for some time. The group that attacked the plant, thought to be based in Gao, Mali, was previously little known and had splintered last year from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda’s North African branch.

The gas plant is operated by Sonatrach, Norway’s Statoil and BP of Britain.

The militant takeover of the site began with heavy gunfire early Wednesday, and continued through the fierce, helicopter-led government assault on Thursday.

United States officials had said that “seven or eight” Americans had been at the In Amenas field when it was seized by the militants.

One American, Frederick Buttaccio, 58, of Katy, Tex., was confirmed dead on Friday.

On Saturday, BP announced that another American, a Texan named Mark Cobb, who was a manager of the plant, survived. A man from Austin also survived, according to a spokesman for Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas. It was unclear if either of the Texans who survived were the two declared “safe and sound” early on Saturday.

In a call with reporters, Robert Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said that 18 BP employees had been at the facility during the “unprovoked attack by heavily armed murderers” and that 14 had been evacuated safely. He said the fate of the four other employees remained unknown.

Among the workers killed at the plant were a French citizen identified as Yann Desjeux, who died before Saturday’s raid. An Algerian state news agency said some Algerians had also been killed as of Friday.

One Algerian who managed to escape told France 24 television late Friday night that the kidnappers said, “We’ve come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” The haggard-looking man, interviewed at the airport in Algiers, said the kidnappers then immediately executed five hostages.

While the government has defended its actions because of its experience with militants, one of the senior government officials acknowledged Saturday morning that the militant attack was of a scale and complexity the country had not experienced before.

“This one is different,” he said. “It’s of another dimension.”

Nonetheless, the brazenness of the assault — with scores of fighters attacking one of the country’s most important gas-producing facilities — is likely to call into question Algeria’s much vaunted security strategy in dealing with the Islamic militants who find shelter in its southern deserts, near the border with Mali.

The Algerians have made a virtue out of keeping a lid on these militants, pushing them toward Mali in a strategy of modified containment, and ruthlessly stamping them out when they attempt an attack in the Algerian interior. So far it has worked, and Algeria’s extensive oil and gas fields, which are essential sources of revenue, have been protected.

That relative success had allowed Algeria to take a hands-off approach to the Islamist conquest of northern Mali in recent months, even as Western governments pleaded with it to become more directly involved in confronting the militants, who move across the hazy border between the two countries.

But now Algeria may have to rethink its approach, analysts suggest.

If the outcome represents a relative setback for Algeria, it could be viewed as a victory for the Islamists who carried out the assault on the gas plant, achieving several of their perennial goals: killing large numbers of Westerners and disrupting states they have put on their enemies list — including Algeria.

Indeed, a spokesman for those militants — in a report on a news site that often carries their statements — said Friday that they planned more attacks in Algeria.


Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger and Scott Sayare from Paris,

Elisabeth Bumiller and John F. Burns from London, Manny Fernandez

and Clifford Krauss from Houston, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.



This article has been revised

to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 19, 2013

Because of an editing error,

an earlier version of this article misstated the nationality

of a government official who said security forces

were searching the gas complex.

The official is Algerian, not Turkish.

    Hostages Dead in Bloody Climax to Siege in Algeria, NYT, 19.1.2013,






As Algeria Hostage Crisis Goes On,

U.S. Says American Died


January 18, 2013
The New York Times


BAMAKO, Mali — Defying the Algerian Army’s demands to give up, the band of Islamist militant kidnappers who terrorized a remote Saharan gas field complex still held at least 10 and possibly dozens of foreign hostages on Friday, and a senior Algerian government official said there were no talks planned to end the standoff.

“They are being told to surrender, that’s it,” the official said on the third day of the crisis. “No negotiations. That is a doctrine with us.”

The United States said for the first time that Americans were among the remaining captives and confirmed the first known death of an American hostage, Frederick Buttaccio, 58, of Katy, Tex. Linked In, the social networking site for professionals, lists a Frederick Buttaccio as a sales operations coordinator for BP, the British energy giant that helped run the complex, but a company official said it would not comment on any employee who may have been at the facility.

France said a French citizen also was known to have been killed.

All foreign governments with citizens at risk were still scrambling for basic information about the missing as they ferried escaped hostages out of the country on military aircraft and urged Algeria to use restraint.

“This is an extremely difficult and dangerous situation,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington. Describing a conversation she had earlier Friday with Algeria’s prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, Mrs. Clinton said she had emphasized to him that “the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.”

Algeria’s state news agency, APS, said 12 Algerian and foreign workers had been killed since Algerian special forces began an assault against the kidnappers on Thursday. It was the highest civilian death toll Algerian officials that have provided in the aftermath of the assault, which freed captives and killed kidnappers but also left some hostages dead in one of the worst mass abductions of foreign workers in years.

Previous unofficial estimates of the foreign casualties have ranged from 4 to 35. The American who died, Mr. Buttaccio, lived in a gated community in Katy, a suburb that is about 30 miles west of downtown Houston.The Algerian news agency also said that 18 militants had been killed and that the country’s special forces were dealing with remnants of a “terrorist group” that was still holding hostages in the refinery area of the gas field in remote eastern Algeria.

It also gave a new sense of how many people may have been at the facility when the militants seized it on Wednesday, asserting that nearly 650 had managed to leave the site since then, including 573 Algerians and nearly half of the 132 foreigners it said had been abducted. But that still left many people unaccounted for.

The senior Algerian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed there were about 10 hostages, under the control of possibly 13 to 15 militants, but he emphasized that “nothing is certain” about the numbers, which have varied wildly since the crisis began. He also said that there were other workers on the site “who are still in hiding” but that the Algerian military had secured the residential part of the gas-field complex.

“What remains are a few terrorists, holding a few hostages, who have taken refuge in the gas factory,” he said. “It’s a site that’s very tricky to handle.”

The official also challenged the criticism made in some foreign capitals that the Algerian military had acted hastily and with excessive force. On the contrary, he said, Algerian forces had returned fire only as the militants sought to escape the complex with their captives.

“There was a reaction by the army,” he said. “They tried to flee and they were stopped,” the official said of the militants. “They came absolutely to blow the whole site up. These are bitter-enders.”

Earlier Friday, the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said that not all Americans had been freed. “We have American hostages,” she said, offering the first update on what was known about United States citizens since officials confirmed on Thursday that seven or eight of them had been inside the gas-field complex.

Ms. Nuland also said the United States would not consider a reported offer made by the kidnappers to exchange two Americans for two prominent figures imprisoned in the United States — Omar Abdel Rahman, a sheik convicted of plotting to bomb New York landmarks, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman convicted of shooting two American soldiers in Afghanistan. It was impossible to confirm that offer, which was reported by the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, a service that tracks jihadist activity on the Internet.

Intensifying the uncertainties, a spokesman for the militants, who belong to a group called Al Mulathameen, said Friday that they planned further attacks in Algeria, according to a report by the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which maintains frequent contact with militant groups in the region. The spokesman called upon Algerians to “keep away from the installations of foreign companies because we will suddenly attack where no one would expect it,” ANI reported.

The Algerian military operation to end the gas-field siege was done without consulting foreign governments whose citizens worked at the facility. It has been marked by a fog of conflicting reports, compounded by the remoteness of the facility, near a town called In Amenas that is hundreds of miles across the desert from the Algerian capital, Algiers, and close to the Libyan border.

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that the number of Britons at risk was estimated late Thursday at “less than 30.” That number has now been “quite significantly reduced,” he said, adding that he could not give details because the crisis was continuing. British officials have said they know at least one Briton was killed when the militants seized the facility.

Offering a broad account of Algeria’s handling of the operation, he told lawmakers: “We were not informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian prime minister while it was taking place. He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond.”

In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed for the first time that a French citizen had been killed, although it was not clear exactly when. The victim, whom Mr. Fabius identified as Yann Desjeux, had contacted relatives as recently as noon Thursday, according to the French newspaper Sud Ouest, which also said it had spoken with Mr. Desjeux. Three other French citizens were involved in the hostage situation but are now safe, Mr. Fabius said.

Frustration with Algeria’s information vacuum seemed particularly vexing to Japan, where an energy company that had assigned 17 employees to the gas-field facility said Friday that seven were confirmed safe but that 10 were unaccounted for. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had personally appealed to his Algerian counterpart by phone early Friday to stop the military action, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported, but was told that military action was “the best response and we are continuing our operation.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with Mr. Cameron in London as Pentagon officials were continuing to try to learn details about the raid.

“We are working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens, and we will continue to be in close consultation with the Algerian government,” Mr. Panetta said in a speech in London before meeting with Mr. Cameron.

A separate hostage situation of sorts appeared to have been averted at a village in Mali, the neighboring country where a French military intervention to stop radical Islamists may have been the catalyst for the Algerian gas-field seizure by the Al Mulathameen group. But details were sketchy.

A senior French official in Paris said Malian Islamist fighters, threatened by French and Malian soldiers, had occupied the village, Diabaly, and were threatening to use residents as human shields if attacked. But by Friday evening, a local official in Diabaly said the Islamists and most of the villagers had fled. “There’s practically nothing left in Diabaly except burned-out vehicles and boxes of ammunition,” said the official, Benco Ba, a local parliamentary deputy.

The Algerian fighters had been prepared to attack the gas complex for nearly two months, the militants’ spokesman said, according to the ANI report, because they believed that the Algerian government “was surely going to be the ally of France” in the Malian conflict.

Hostages and analysts have said the attackers appeared well-prepared and deeply knowledgeable about the site, and there was evidence to suggest they had informers on the site or were in contact with workers there. An official at BP indicated earlier in the week that the attackers had shut off production at the site at the time of the attack, for instance. And at least two former hostages, interviewed independently, have said the fighters were aware of labor tensions and plans for a strike among catering workers on the site.

“We know you’re oppressed; we’ve come here so that you can have your rights,” the militants told Algerians on the site, according to one former hostage. Another hostage said the fighters had asked about the plans for a strike.

Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller, John F. Burns and Julia Werdigier from London; Alan Cowell, Steven Erlanger and Scott Sayare from Paris; Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker from Washington; Martin Fackler and Hiroko Tabuchi from Tokyo; and Clifford Krauss and Manny Fernandez from Houston.

    As Algeria Hostage Crisis Goes On, U.S. Says American Died, NYT, 18.1.2013,






Hiding, Praying, Tied to Bombs:

Captives Detail Algerian Ordeal


January 18, 2013
The New York Times


The gunmen, dressed in fatigues and wearing turbans, stormed in well before dawn aboard pickup trucks, announcing their arrival with a burst of gunfire.

Dozens of employees were eating breakfast at the time before heading off to the vast network of tubes and silos of the In Amenas gas field, where hundreds of Algerians and foreigners work to extract natural gas from the arid sands of the Sahara.

“God is great,” the gunmen cried as they arrived.

It was the beginning of a terrifying ordeal — one in which foreign hostages would come under fire from both the gunmen holding them and the Algerian government soldiers trying to free them. For many of the captives, it is an ordeal that has yet to end.

Some hostages were forced to wear explosives on their bodies. Others hid under beds and on rooftops, praying to survive but expecting death. One was shot in the back while his fellow captives looked on. Left by their captors with their cellphones, some phoned home with terrifying accounts of the horrors unfolding all around.

These were among the chilling tales recounted Friday by some of the hundreds of workers who managed to escape the national gas field on the eastern edge of Algeria that had been stormed by Islamist militants two days before.

The gunmen, fighters with a group called Al Mulathameen, said they were acting to avenge the French intervention in nearby Mali, Algerian officials said. But there were indications that the attack had been planned long before the French military began its offensive to recapture the northern half of that country from Islamist insurgents.

The attackers appeared to know the site well, even the fact that disgruntled Algerian catering workers were planning a strike.

“We know you’re oppressed; we’ve come here so that you can have your rights,” the militants told Algerians at the facility, according to one Algerian former hostage. Another hostage said the fighters had asked about the plans for a strike.

“The terrorists were covered with explosives, and they had detonators,” said a senior Algerian government official who was briefed on the crisis. He said the situation remained a standoff on Friday, with “a few terrorists holding a few hostages.”

Former captives said that several of the fighters appeared to be foreign, with non-Algerian accents. One Algerian worker said that some of them may have been Libyan and Syrian, and that one might have been French. Another gunman who spoke impeccable English was assigned to speak to the many foreigners.

When the Algerian military eventually intervened, the situation grew even more chaotic. According to one witness, Algerian helicopters attacked several jeeps that were carrying hostages. The fate of at least some of those hostages remains unknown. The Algerian state news agency reported that 12 Algerian and foreign workers had been killed since the start of the military operation and that dozens remained unaccounted for.

From the start, it was clear that the gunmen only wished to harm foreigners. Algerian workers, along with other Muslims who could prove their faith by reciting from the Koran, were herded into one area, workers said.

“They told us, ‘We are your brothers. You have telephones: call your families to reassure them,’ ” said Moussa, an Algerian worker who asked to be identified only by his first name.

Algerian women in the group of hostages were released right away on Wednesday morning, Moussa said, but the militants initially declined to release the Algerian men, saying it was for their own good. “We’re afraid that if we free you, the army will shoot at you,” he quoted them as saying.

Foreigners, meanwhile, were taken away, their hands bound with rubber, both Algerian witnesses said. Some of the employees resisted. Several Filipino workers who had refused to leave their rooms were beaten, Moussa said. At one point, the fighters shot a European as he tried to flee, he said. The other Algerian described seeing a middle-aged European man, perhaps a security official, shot in the back in the cafeteria, where the lights had been switched off. He believed the man had died.

Before being captured, Stephen McFaul, 36, an electrical engineer from Belfast, Northern Ireland, barricaded himself in a room with a colleague at the first sound of gunfire, quietly using his cellphone to assure his family that he was all right.

“I joked that I was from Northern Ireland and that I had been through better riots,” he told the colleague, according to John Morrissey, a representative for his family in Belfast who was responding to reporters for media organizations around the world.

Mr. McFaul, who had been sent to work in Algeria only three weeks ago, was seized a few hours later, Mr. Morrissey said, and ultimately placed in the last jeep of a five-jeep convoy that came under heavy air attack from Algerian forces.

The first four jeeps were destroyed, and when Mr. McFaul’s vehicle veered off the road, he and a fellow worker managed to climb out of the back window, which had been broken. Their hands had been tied, their mouths taped and they had been forced to wear vests loaded with explosives, Mr. Morrissey said.

The two made a run for it, reaching the security forces, who disarmed the explosives. The spokesman said Mr. McFaul was “bright and together and nervously excited” about returning home.

At least one American, identified by a Corpus Christi, Tex., television station as Mark Cobb, also escaped. Mr. Cobb, who is from the Corpus Christi area, is said to have taken cover in an unused room and then made his way out of the plant unharmed, according to the station, KRIS-TV. On Friday, the station said, Mr. Cobb sent a text message to a friend that said, “I’m alive.”

Other foreigners, like Alexandre Berceaux, a French employee of a catering company working at the site, hid themselves as best they could.

“I stayed hidden for nearly 40 hours in my bedroom,” Mr. Berceaux told Europe 1 Radio. “I was under the bed, and I put boards everywhere just in case. I had food, water; I didn’t know how long I would be there.”

He said he was certain he would be killed. “When the Algerian soldiers, whom I thank, came to get me, I didn’t even know it was over,” he said. The soldiers came with his colleagues, he said, “otherwise I would never have opened the door.”

Mr. Berceaux said Algerian soldiers found some British hostages hiding on the roof and were still searching the site for others when he was escorted to a nearby military base, from which he expected to be transferred to France. Others might still be hidden, he said.

Among the casualties was a French citizen identified as Yann Desjeux, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a statement on Friday evening. Mr. Desjeux had contacted his family by telephone midday on Thursday and died sometime later, according to the French newspaper Sud Ouest, which also had spoken to Mr. Desjeux on Thursday.

The newspaper said a freelance journalist had dialed up a militant he had been in contact with previously and discovered that the man was involved in the raid on the factory. The journalist asked if any Frenchmen were captives, and the militant then passed the phone to Mr. Desjeux, 52, who said he was being well treated and that the captors wanted the French government to warn Algeria not to raid the factory.

The circumstances of his death were not clear.


Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Bamako, Mali; Douglas Dalby from Dublin;

and Manny Fernandez from Houston.

    Hiding, Praying, Tied to Bombs: Captives Detail Algerian Ordeal, NYT, 18.1.2013,






Jihad ‘Prince,’ a Kidnapper, Is Tied to Raid


January 17, 2013
The New York Times


PARIS — His entourage calls him “the Prince,” and after the militant Islamist takeover of a town in northern Mali last year, he liked to go down to the river and watch the sunset, surrounded by armed bodyguards.

Others call him “Laaouar,” or the One-Eyed, after he lost an eye to shrapnel; some call him “Mr. Marlboro” for the cigarette-smuggling monopoly he created across the Sahel region to finance his jihad. And French intelligence officials called him “the Uncatchable” because he escaped after apparently being involved in a series of kidnappings in 2003 that captured 32 European tourists, an undertaking which is thought to have earned him millions of dollars in ransoms.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, 40, born in the Algerian desert city of Ghardaïa, 350 miles south of Algiers, is now being called the mastermind of the hostage crisis at an internationally run natural-gas facility in eastern Algeria.

Algerian officials say he mounted the assault and the mass abduction of foreigners; his spokesmen say the raid is in reprisal for the French intervention in Mali and for Algeria’s support for the French war against Islamist militants in the Sahel.

Mr. Belmokhtar has been active in politics, moneymaking and fighting for decades in the Sahel, which includes Mali, Mauritania and Niger and is one of the poorest regions in the world. But through this single action, one of the most brazen kidnappings in years, he has suddenly become one of the best-known figures associated with the Islamist militancy sweeping the region and agitating capitals around the world.

The 1989 killing in Pakistan of Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian considered the “father of global jihad” and a mentor of Osama bin Laden’s, prompted Mr. Belmokhtar to seek to avenge Mr. Azzam’s death, he has said in interviews. At 19 he traveled to Afghanistan for training with Al Qaeda, and has claimed in interviews to have made contact with other jihadi luminaries like Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, according to a 2009 Jamestown Foundation study. Bin Laden made contact with him, through emissaries, in the early 2000s, according to Djallil Lounnas, who teaches at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.

Mr. Belmokhtar later named a son Osama, after Bin Laden, and inserted himself into local populations in the southern Algerian and northern Malian desert by marrying the daughter of a prominent Arab leader from Timbuktu, Mali. He is also said to have shared the riches of his lucrative activities with the impoverished local population, Mr. Lounnas has written.

Mr. Belmokhtar, described as taciturn, watchful and wary by a Malian journalist, Malick Aliou Maïga, who met him last summer, was one of the most experienced of the leaders of what became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb until he broke with the group last year to form his own organization, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, sometimes translated as the Signatories for Blood. Occasionally using the alias Khaled Abu Abass, he is thought to have based himself in Gao, Mali, which has seen heavy bombing by French warplanes.

It was not clear whether Mr. Belmokhtar was at the scene or commanding the operation from afar.

There are stories that he lost his eye fighting in Afghanistan, but others say he lost it fighting Algerian government troops after he returned to Algeria in 1993. The country was being ripped apart by civil war at the time, after the government annulled 1992 elections that were about to be won by an Islamist party. Mr. Belmokhtar has been a wanted man in Algeria since that time and condemned to death several times by Algerian courts.

Mr. Belmokhtar was falsely reported to have been killed in 1999. Nearly a decade later, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which he joined, adopted the jihadist ideology of Bin Laden and renamed itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Mr. Belmokhtar is considered to have been a key intermediary with Al Qaeda and a well-known supplier of weapons and matériel in the Sahara.

But he clearly does not share authority easily, and left or was removed from his post as commander of a battalion in Mali last October, reportedly for “straying from the right path,” according to a Malian official, quoting the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel.

The dispute was about Mr. Belmokhtar’s return to smuggling and trafficking. Dominique Thomas, a specialist in radical Islam, told Le Monde that Mr. Belmokhtar’s activities ran counter to the group’s official line, which presents itself as entirely virtuous.

Mr. Belmokhtar then founded his new group, which he allied with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist group that had broken off from Al Qaeda.

Some suggest that his expertise has been more in criminal activities than in holy warfare. Kidnapping and smuggling — of cigarettes, stolen cars, arms and drugs — have been his specialties in the vast and largely lawless border regions. He was said to be central to hostage-takings and subsequent negotiations for their release in 2003, 2008 and 2009.

Robert R. Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat and a United Nations special envoy to Niger, was kidnapped by Mr. Belmokhtar’s brigade in late 2008 and met with him several times.

“He’s a fairly slight, very serious, very confident-looking guy who moves with quiet authority,” Mr. Fowler said in a telephone interview from Canada. “He’s clearly been in the business of being a terrorist and surviving for a long time. I was always impressed by the quiet authority he exhibited.”

Mr. Maïga, the Malian journalist, recalled seeing Mr. Belmokhtar, dressed in black and wearing a turban that descended over his eye, leaving a hospital in Gao with his entourage. He called out to him, and a bodyguard quickly interposed himself: “You must not,” the bodyguard warned. “That is the Prince.”

Subsequently, Mr. Maïga recalled seeing Mr. Belmokhtar seated on the beach by the river at Gao, surrounded by bodyguards. “He was saying nothing. He has a fixed stare. He doesn’t trust people.”

Mr. Maïga and others say locals regard him with both respect and fear.

In an interview with the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar in Gao in November, Mr. Belmokhtar said he respected “the clearly expressed choice” of the people of northern Mali “to apply Islamic Shariah law.” He warned against foreign interference, saying that any country that did so “would be considered as an oppressor and aggressor who is attacking a Muslim people applying Shariah on its territory.”

Mr. Belmokhtar was already scheduled to be tried again in absentia by the Algiers criminal tribunal starting next Monday, on charges that include supplying weapons for attacks on Algerian soil. Planned targets were said to include pipelines and oil company installations in southern Mali.


Steven Erlanger reported from Paris, and Adam Nossiter
from Bamako, Mali. Harvey Morris contributed reporting from London, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

    Jihad ‘Prince,’ a Kidnapper, Is Tied to Raid, NYT, 17.1.2013,






Algerian Troops Attack Site

to End Hostage Standoff


January 17, 2013
The New York Times


BAMAKO, Mali — Without warning other governments, Algeria mounted an assault on Thursday on the heavily armed fighters holding American and other hostages at a remote Sahara gas field facility, freeing captives and killing kidnappers but leaving some hostages dead and foreign leaders scrambling to find out the fates of their citizens.

Hours after the raid, there was no official word on the number of hostages who had been freed, killed or still held captive. Estimates of the foreign casualties ranged from 4 to 35, though one Algerian official said the high figure was “exaggerated.”

Despite requests for communication and pleas to consider the safety of their abducted citizens, the United States, Britain and Japan said they had not been told in advance about the military assault, stirring frustration that the Algerians might have been overly aggressive and caused needless casualties.

But the Algerian government, which has a history of violent suppression of Islamist militancy, stood by its decision to deal forcefully with the kidnappers, who were holding Algerians and citizens of nine other countries.

“Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional,” the communications minister, Mohand Saïd Oublaïd, said in an announcement about the assault on the facility near In Amenas, in eastern Algeria, close to the Libya border. “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”

The midday assault came more than 24 hours after a militant group, which the Algerians said had ties to jihadis in the region, ambushed a bus carrying gas-field workers to a nearby airport and then commandeered the compound. It was one of the boldest abductions of foreign workers in years.

The abductions were meant to avenge France’s armed intervention in neighboring Mali, Mr. Oublaïd said, a conflict that has escalated since French warplanes began striking Islamist fighters who have carved out a vast haven there.

On Thursday, the United States became more deeply involved in the war, working with the French to determine how to best deploy American C-5 cargo planes to ferry French troops and equipment into Mali, according to an American military official.

The United States has long been wary about stepping more directly into the Mali conflict, worried that it could provoke precisely the kind of anti-Western attack that took place in Algeria, with deadly consequences. After the raid to free the hostages, the Algerians acknowledged a price had been paid.

“The operation resulted in the neutralization of a large number of terrorists and the liberation of a considerable number of hostages,” said Mr. Oublaïd, the communications minister. “Unfortunately, we deplore also the death of some, as well as some who were wounded.”

Algerian national radio described a scene of pandemonium and high alert at the public hospital in the town of In Amenas, where wounded and escaped hostages were sent. The director of the hospital, Dr. Shahir Moneir, said in the report that wounded foreign hostages were transferred to the capital, Algiers.

In a telephone interview from the hospital, one of the Algerians who had been held captive, who identified himself as Mohamed Elias, said some of the hostages had exploited the chaos created by the Algerian assault to flee. “We used the opportunity,” he said, “and we just escaped.”

Senior American military officials said that aides traveling in London with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta were struggling to get basic information about the raid, and that an unarmed American Predator drone was monitoring the gas-field site.

One senior official said that possibly seven to eight Americans were among the hostages — the first official indication of the number of Americans involved — and that he did not know if any had been killed in the raid.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said his office had not been told ahead of time, an implicit criticism of the Algerian government. A spokesman said that Mr. Cameron had learned of the raid through Britain’s own intelligence sources and that “the Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance.”

Mr. Cameron told reporters the situation was “very dangerous” as he and other British officials appeared to prepare for bad news. The gravity of the crisis prompted him to cancel plans to deliver a major speech in Amsterdam.

Japan also expressed strong concern, saying Algeria had failed not only to advise of the operation ahead of time, but to heed its request to halt the operation because it was endangering the hostages.

“We asked Algeria to put human lives first and asked Algeria to strictly refrain,” the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as telling his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, by telephone late Thursday.

The situation is “very confused,” President François Hollande of France said at a news conference in Paris and was “evolving hour by hour.” Mr. Hollande gave the first official confirmation that French citizens were among the captives.

A European diplomat who was involved in the effort to coordinate a Western response to the hostage seizure said that the information available to the United States, France and Britain had been “confusing at best, and sometimes contradictory.”

Several Western officials complained that the Algerians appeared to have taken none of the usual care exercised to minimize casualties when trying to free hostages.

“They care deeply about their sovereign rights,” said the European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s delicacy.

Even before reports of the Algerian military’s raid began to emerge, many hostages — Algerian and foreign — were reported to have escaped as the kidnappers failed to persuade the Algerian authorities to give them safe passage with their captives.

The Algerian news site T.S.A. quoted a local official, Sidi Knaoui, as saying that 10 foreigners and 40 Algerians had managed to flee after the kidnappers made several attempts to leave with the hostages.

Ireland confirmed that an Irish citizen, Stephen McFaul, had escaped. The man had contacted his family and was “understood to be safe and well and no longer a hostage,” Irish officials said.

Earlier, a French TV station, France 24, quoted an unidentified hostage as saying the attackers “threatened to blow up the gas field.”

Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said the seizure of the gas field had been overseen by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had reportedly established his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other Qaeda leaders.

The description of the leader was one of the most specific pieces of information given by the Algerians on a day of vague and contradictory accounts of the abduction and raid. Well into the night, officials warned that hostages were still being held inside the compound and that the crisis remained unresolved.

“It’s a painful situation. It’s not over,” said a senior Algerian official. “I can’t tell you how many are left in there. No numbers. None at all. Nothing is certain.”

Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell and Scott Sayare from Paris, Elisabeth Bumiller and John F. Burns from London, Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger from Washington, Hiroko Tabuchi from Tokyo, and Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo.

    Algerian Troops Attack Site to End Hostage Standoff, NYT, 17.1.2013,






U.S. Sees Hazy Threat From Mali Militants


January 16, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — As Islamic militants methodically carved out a base in the desert of northern Mali over the past year, officials in Washington, Paris and African capitals struggling with military plans to drive the Islamists out of the country agreed on one principle: African troops, not European or American soldiers, would fight the battle of Mali.

But the surprise French assault last Friday to blunt the Islamists’ advance upended those plans and set off a cascading series of events, culminating in a raid on Wednesday by militants on a foreign-run gas field in Algeria. That attack threatens to widen the violence in an impoverished region and drag Western governments deeper into combating an incipient insurgency.

And yet the rush of events has masked the fact that officials in Washington still have only an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups that have established a safe haven in Mali, and they are divided about whether some of these groups even pose a threat to the United States.

Moreover, the hostage situation in Algeria has only heightened concerns that a Western military intervention could transform militant groups that once had only a regional focus into avowed enemies of the United States — in other words, that the backlash might end up being worse than the original threat.

Largely for these reasons, the Obama administration adopted a strategy over the past year to contain the Islamists in Mali until African troops were ready to confront them, rather than to challenge them directly with an American military campaign of drone strikes or commando raids.

During Congressional testimony in June, Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, played down the terrorist threat to the United States from Mali, saying that the Qaeda affiliate operating there “has not demonstrated the capability to threaten U.S. interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the U.S. homeland.”

Some Pentagon officials have long taken a more hawkish stance, and they cite intelligence reports that fighters with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has a loose affiliation to the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, played a role in the deadly attack in September on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. They have pushed for targeted strikes against Islamist leaders in northern Mali, arguing that killing the leadership could permanently cripple the strength of the militants.

The administration has embraced a targeted killing strategy elsewhere, notably in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, after top White House, Pentagon and C.I.A. officials determined that militants in those countries were bent on attacking the United States.

Asked if fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb posed such an imminent threat, Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American commander in Africa, said, “Probably not.” But, he said in an interview, “they subscribe to Al Qaeda’s ideology” and have said that their intent is to attack Westerners in Europe and, “if they could, back to the United States.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made it clear on Wednesday that he considered the group a serious danger. “This is an Al Qaeda operation,” he told reporters while traveling in Italy, “and it is for that reason that we have always been concerned about their presence in Mali, because they would use it as a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria.”

It is too early to judge the impact of the French-led offensive in Mali, which came after an urgent plea by Mali’s government for help in repelling Islamist fighters who were rapidly moving south. But on Wednesday, some American officials said that the hostage episode in Algeria could be just the beginning of a wave of attacks against foreigners in the region. And there is a chance that if the Americans taken hostage on Wednesday are killed by their captors, American officials might reconsider their pledges not to commit ground troops to the battle.

As Islamists have tightened their grip on northern Mali over the past year, the American military has expanded spying operations in the region in the hope of gathering intelligence both about the strength of the militants and about their connections to tribal groups in Mali and elsewhere across North Africa.

According to current and former American government officials, as well as classified government cables made public by the group WikiLeaks, in recent years the military has set up a constellation of small bases in Africa for aerial surveillance missions flown by turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft. One of the principal bases used for the missions in Mali is in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, according to one former official and the government cables.

But the surveillance missions in northern Mali have had only a limited effect. Islamist leaders have banned cellphones, closed Internet cafes and shut down cellular towers in an effort to cut the region off from the outside world. With the clock turned back decades, there are few electronic communications for American eavesdroppers to intercept.

General Ham said that it had been very difficult to get consistent, reliable intelligence about what he called a militant “safe haven” in Mali.

“It’s tough to penetrate,” he said. “It’s tough to get access for platforms that can collect. It’s an extraordinarily tough environment for human intelligence, not just ours but the neighboring countries as well.”

The surveillance flights in Africa, which are mostly run by private contractors, are part of a classified Pentagon program called Creek Sand. The Washington Post first reported about the flights last year.

After a military coup overthrew Mali’s government last year, the northern part of the country — an area larger than France — was taken over by three militant groups.

The group most worrisome to American officials is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged out of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and originally was strictly focused on overthrowing Algeria’s government.

The group rebranded itself several years ago with the name AQIM, and since 2008 it has collected several million dollars in ransom payments for kidnapped Westerners in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and southern Algeria. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service released this week, the group’s influence in the region appeared to be waning before the coup last year gave it a safe haven in northern Mali.

The Qaeda affiliate controls the region in an alliance with a homegrown Islamist movement, Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, and another radical splinter group, the Mujao, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Together, these groups share the goal of imposing an extreme form of Shariah law on the people of northern Mali.

But what remained an open question, at least until last Friday, was whether the militant threat in Mali was serious enough to justify military intervention. Now, the context of that debate has changed.

General Ham put the matter succinctly in the interview, which took place last Friday, just hours after he learned about the French incursion into Mali.

“The real question,” he said as he raced off to a secure teleconference with senior Obama administration officials, “is now what?”


Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting.

    U.S. Sees Hazy Threat From Mali Militants, NYT, 16.1.2013,






French Strikes in Mali

Supplant Caution of U.S.


January 13, 2013
The New York Times


BAMAKO, Mali — French fighter jets struck deep inside Islamist strongholds in northern Mali on Sunday, shoving aside months of international hesitation about storming the region after every other effort by the United States and its allies to thwart the extremists had failed.

For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara.

But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.

Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.

First, they blunted an Islamist advance, saying the rest of Mali would have fallen into the hands of militants within days. Then on Sunday, French warplanes went on the offensive, going after training camps, depots and other militant positions far inside Islamist-held territory in an effort to uproot the militants, who have formed one of the largest havens for jihadists in the world.

Some Defense Department officials, notably officers at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, have pushed for a lethal campaign to kill senior operatives of two of the extremists groups holding northern Mali, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Killing the leadership, they argued, could lead to an internal collapse.

But with its attention and resources so focused on other conflicts in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, the Obama administration has rejected such strikes in favor of a more cautious, step-back strategy: helping African nations repel and contain the threat on their own.

Over the last four years, the United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million in a sweeping effort to combat Islamist militancy in the region without fighting the kind of wars it has waged in the Middle East. The program stretched from Morocco to Nigeria, and American officials heralded the Malian military as an exemplary partner. American Special Forces trained its troops in marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills.

But all that deliberate planning collapsed swiftly when heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya. They teamed up with jihadists like Ansar Dine, routed poorly equipped Malian forces and demoralized them so thoroughly that it set off a mutiny against the government in the capital, Bamako.

A confidential internal review completed last July by the Pentagon’s Africa Command concluded that the coup had unfolded too quickly for American commanders or intelligence analysts to detect any clear warning signs.

“The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning,” said Col. Tom Davis, a command spokesman. “The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks, who ultimately overthrew the government, not at the senior leadership level where warning signs might have been more easily noticed.”

But one Special Operations Forces officer disagreed, saying, “This has been brewing for five years. The analysts got complacent in their assumptions and did not see the big changes and the impacts of them, like the big weaponry coming out of Libya and the different, more Islamic” fighters who came back.

The same American-trained units that had been seen as the best hope of repelling such an advance proved, in the end, to be a linchpin in the country’s military defeat. The leaders of these elite units were Tuaregs — the very ethnic nomads who were overrunning northern Mali.

According to one senior officer, the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units fighting in the north at the time defected to the insurrection “at the crucial moment,” taking fighters, weapons and scarce equipment with them. He said they were joined by about 1,600 other defectors from within the Malian Army, crippling the government’s hope of resisting the onslaught.

“The aid of the Americans turned out not to be useful,” said another ranking Malian officer, now engaged in combat. “They made the wrong choice,” he said of relying on commanders from a group that had been conducting a 50-year rebellion against the Malian state.

The virtual collapse of the Malian military, including units trained by United States Special Forces, followed by a coup led by an American-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, astounded and embarrassed top American military commanders.

“I was sorely disappointed that a military with whom we had a training relationship participated in the military overthrow of an elected government,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Africa Command, said in a speech at Brown University last month . “There is no way to characterize that other than wholly unacceptable.”

American officials defended their training, saying it was never intended to be nearly as comprehensive as what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We trained five units over five years but is that going to make a fully fledged, rock-solid military?” asked an American military official familiar with the region.

After the coup, extremists quickly elbowed out the Tuaregs in northern Mali and enforced a harsh brand of Islam on the populace, cutting off hands, whipping residents and forcing tens of thousands to flee. Western nations then adopted a containment strategy, urging African nations to cordon off the north until they could muster a force to oust the Islamists by the fall, at the earliest. To that end, the Pentagon is providing Mauritania new trucks and Niger two Cessna surveillance aircraft, along with training for both countries.

But even that backup plan failed, as Islamists pushed south toward the capital last week. With thousands of French citizens in Mali, its former colony, France decided it could not wait any longer, striking the militants at the front line and deep within their haven.

Some experts said that the foreign troops might easily retake the large towns in northern Mali, but that Islamist fighters have forced children to fight for them, a deterrent for any invading force, and would likely use bloody insurgency tactics.

“They have been preparing these towns to be a death trap,” said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon. “If an intervention force goes in there, the militants will turn it into an insurgency war.”


Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, Eric Schmitt from Niamey, Niger, and from Washington, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.

    French Strikes in Mali Supplant Caution of U.S., NYT, 13.1.2013,






A Desert Cold and Wet Multiplies

the Misery of Syrian Refugees


January 12, 2013
The New York Times


ZAATARI, Jordan — The water has mostly been removed from hundreds of flooded tents and the dirt paths that run between them here in the region’s vastest camp of Syrian refugees. The clotheslines are laden with soggy sweaters and socks, waiting for the sun after a week of harsh wind, rain and snow.

The residents are waiting, too: for the next storm, and the next, that they know will come this winter and also, many fear, for their own demise.

“We were waiting for our deaths so we came out, but we found our second deaths here,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Tarik from the Dhulash family. He said he arrived in the Zaatari refugee camp 10 days ago after intense shelling near his home and farm, which lie across the border in Dara’a, Syria.

“There, we were going to die from the fires,” he said, sitting on a mat surrounded by a dozen family members. “Here we’re going to die from the cold. We don’t want to die in this tent.”

With aid agencies expecting the number of Syrian refugees to reach one million this year, and estimates for the cost of caring for them topping $1 billion, the misery in this struggling six-month-old camp is part of a deepening humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize the Middle East further. More than half a million people who have already fled Syria have ended up in camps and villages across Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, all of which have asked for more international aid. Last week was the worst yet in Zaatari, as scores of tents collapsed under the most severe storm in 20 years. Two babies and a 22-year-old amputee died, all of unrelated causes. Several aid workers were injured when a riot broke out during food distribution.

Life began to return to normal on Friday, but normal in this desert camp of nine square miles crowded with more than 50,000 people is, according to the refugees and even some of those running the place, somewhere between horrible and inhumane.

Barefoot children trod through mud in temperatures not far above freezing. People lined up for hours for pots, utensils and buckets. Women pushed squeegees through the remaining puddles, and washed clothes in plastic tubs with cold water that quickly turned brown.

A young man got a $3 shave and haircut in a corrugated tin shack that a refugee barber had set up four days before. A younger one shinnied up a 30-foot light pole to pirate electricity.

“There’s no silver lining on such harsh conditions,” acknowledged Andrew Harper, the top official of the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan. “It’s just a really, really bad place to be.”

But Mr. Harper said the United Nations and the nonprofit groups helping it run the camp were doing the best with what they had, noting that the agency had appealed for $245 million to absorb Syrians regionwide in 2012 and received $157 million. Jordan, already consumed with an intense financial crisis and a growing protest movement, is scrambling to keep up with the influx. Its task is particularly complex given the delicate balance in its population of six million, which is dominated by Palestinian refugees and their descendants and includes hundreds of thousands who fled the war in Iraq.

Zaatari is only the most visible challenge. Nearly five times as many refugees are living in Jordanian cities and villages, taxing the government’s resources, and competing for scarce jobs.

Anmar Hmoud, who is handling the Syria file for the prime minister, said that refugees could leave Zaatari and Jordan’s handful of smaller camps if a relative or friend could guarantee financial support, but that the government was “exhausting its own resources.” He estimated the cost of military, health, education and other services at $670 million for 2012 and 2013.

“We are a neighbor, and we do our duty, but there is a limit to helping people unless we are helped by others,” he said. “It’s not the Jordanian problem, it is the international community’s problem.”

Some relief is coming. Mr. Hmoud said a new camp just south of here near Zarqa, financed by the United Arab Emirates, would open in two weeks, allowing 6,000 of Zaatari’s most vulnerable residents to move into prefabricated homes, and eventually growing to accommodate 30,000. Saudi Arabia, which over the past month has provided Zaatari with 2,500 prefabs costing $8 million, announced Friday that it would give $10 million more to the Jordanian effort. Mr. Harper said he had met with envoys from Qatar and the Emirates.

“It’s terrible to say, but sometimes it takes a miserable situation like we’re having now to get people to say, ‘Yes, we can do something,’ ” Mr. Harper said.

Not soon enough for Iman Qardah, 30, who has been in the camp for 10 weeks with her five children, ages 1 to 10. When the storm struck last week, her husband spent the night hammering the stakes of the tent as the wind threatened to rip it from the ground. The next night, rain seeped inside, so the family slept piled on one side. The next, the tent “started swimming on the water,” she recalled, and finally collapsed. “My husband started shouting in the street for someone to help.”

The family moved to a prefab that is perhaps 10 feet by 20 feet. But they leak, too. On Friday, the children huddled for warmth around a gas burner where Ms. Qardah was simmering cauliflower and rice, as a bucket nearby caught drops from the ceiling. A neighbor poked a head in, wondering jealously how she had procured a space heater.

“Every day I’m thinner than the day before and my mind is more preoccupied,” Ms. Qardah said as she nursed the baby. “I used to not sleep because of the missiles. Now I don’t sleep because I’m worried about my kids constantly.”

The camp is rife with complaints. Skimpy food rations, scarce clothes. Spotty electricity, rare hot water, squalid toilets. Suspicions that aid workers are stealing blankets. Nothing to do, no prospects for getting out.

But given the weather and the continued flood of refugees — about 10,000 had arrived in the camp in the past 10 days — it is remarkable things are not much, much worse. Officials said there had been no casualties from the cold. Khaled al-Hariri, the 22-year-old who was described in a YouTube video posted Wednesday by a Syrian activist as “the martyr to negligence and cold,” actually died of cancer in a nearby hospital, according to a spokesman for the World Health Organization. There was also a stillbirth and a premature baby who died after three days in an incubator.

Anne, the doctor at the French military clinic here, which requires personnel to be identified only by first name, said she had seen a slight uptick in sore throats and ears since the storm, but no frostbite. The main change is that patients linger in the consultation tent to stay out of the cold.

The French have performed 192 surgical operations on war wounded in the camp. An organization called Gynecologists Without Borders has delivered 172 babies here, 46 in the last three weeks.

Yusef Mohamed Hasan was at the clinic on Friday holding Sham, who was born Dec. 12 by Caesarean section. She was swaddled in four layers, then cradled in a big fuzzy blanket as her mother had the stitches removed.

“As soon as my wife is O.K., we are going back,” said Mr. Hasan, 44. “It’s not better for me there; it’s not safe. But it’s humiliating here.”

Talk of returning to Syria has increased as conditions have deteriorated, but officials said there had been no marked change in the number heading back across the border. Most are resigned to remaining through the winter, or longer.

As the sun came out Friday, Aboud Mohamed Awad and three neighbors set about building themselves a bathroom. The storm made walking to the shared facilities unbearable, he said, and anyhow they are filthy and crowded. Mr. Harper of the United Nations said the goal was to have one toilet per 20 refugees, but that the reality right now was more like one to 50.

Mr. Awad said he used the profits selling the ground floor of his home in Syria to buy corrugated panels and wood for about $100 and hired a $1.50-an-hour laborer, who started by smoothing cement with a pie plate to create a floor.

“We can at least take care of certain things,” Mr. Awad said with something like pride. “We have young girls. It will make us feel more like people.”


Ranya Kadri contributed reporting.

    A Desert Cold and Wet Multiplies the Misery of Syrian Refugees, NYT, 12.1.2013,






Israelis Evict Palestinians

From a Site for Housing


January 12, 2013
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces evicted scores of Palestinian activists before dawn on Sunday from a tent encampment they had set up set up two days earlier in a strategic piece of Israeli-occupied West Bank territory known as E1, east of Jerusalem, where Israel says it plans to build settler homes.

A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said that police officers had removed the activists one by one, without any use of force, aside from some pushing and shoving, and that the police operation was over within an hour. But a spokeswoman for the protesters, Abir Kopty, said that six Palestinians had sought hospital treatment for injuries, some caused by punches to the face.

The encampment, which the protesters called the village of Bab al-Shams (Arabic for “Gate of the Sun”), represented a new kind of action by Palestinian grass-roots activists involved in what they describe as the nonviolent popular struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Employing a tactic more commonly used by Jewish settlers who establish wildcat outposts in the West Bank, the protesters had pitched their tents on Friday on what they said was privately owned land, and with the permission of the Palestinian landowners. They were immediately served eviction notices by the Israeli military authorities, but their lawyers had obtained a temporary injunction against their removal from the High Court of Justice until the state detailed the grounds for such a move.

But on Saturday evening, with the end of the Sabbath, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying he had ordered security forces to evacuate “forthwith” the Palestinians who had gathered in the area between Jerusalem and the large urban settlement of Maale Adumim.

The state responded to the High Court of Justice on Saturday night, arguing that the gathering would become a focus of protest that could lead to rioting, and asserting that most of the tents had been pitched on territory that Israel had declared state land. The court overturned the injunction, allowing the people to be removed from the site. Discussions about the fate of the tents were to continue on Sunday.

The Israeli authorities declared the area a closed military zone on Saturday evening and began building up security forces around the site.

The Palestinians claim E1, just east of Jerusalem, as part of a future state. The protest came six weeks after Israel announced that it was moving forward with plans for thousands of settlement homes in E1, stirring international outrage. Israel announced its intention as a countermeasure after the United Nations General Assembly voted in November to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of a nonmember observer state.

Israel wants East Jerusalem, which it has annexed, and Maale Adumim, which lies beyond E1, to be contiguous and says that the future of the West Bank has to be settled in negotiations. In the meantime, critics say, Israel continues to establish facts on the ground — a policy that the Palestinian protesters sought to emulate.

Ms. Kopty, the spokeswoman for the protesters, said about 100 Palestinians were removed from the site and taken to the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“The amount of support we got from Palestinians and across the world was heartwarming,” she said, speaking by telephone from the hospital in Ramallah where she was accompanying those who had been injured. “We hope this action will inspire Palestinians to do more, to break through the apathy and to take the popular struggle to the next level.”

And in a statement, leaders of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a grass-roots group, said, “Even though we were evicted, our strength was apparent since the police needed hundreds and hundreds of special unit police officers” to remove the protesters.

Israeli plans to build in E1 have been vehemently opposed by many countries, including the United States, which say that construction there would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, harming the prospects of a viable contiguous Palestinian state in that territory.

    Israelis Evict Palestinians From a Site for Housing, NYT, 12.1.2013,






Israel’s True Friends


January 7, 2013
The New York Times



PRESIDENT Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican with enough experience of war to loathe it, as his next secretary of defense is the right choice for many reasons, chief among them that it will provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel.

That debate, which will unfold during Senate confirmation hearings, is much needed because Jewish leadership in the United States is often unrepresentative of the many American Jews who have moved on from the view that the only legitimate support of Israel is unquestioning support of Israel, and the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, fired an opening salvo by telling CNN that, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”

The comment, based on Hagel’s lack of enthusiasm for war on Iran and his single allusion to advocates of Israel as “the Jewish lobby,” was of a piece with last year’s in-your-face Republican line that Obama, a strong supporter of Israeli security, had thrown Israel “under the bus.”

Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly favored Obama once again, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unsubtle nudges, demonstrated at the ballot box what they thought of this characterization of the president.

Identifying Israel’s enemies is easy. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, illustrated why when he declared: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.”

That is the sort of absolutist, annihilation-bent position that has been a losing proposition since 1948 and will continue to undermine the legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood alongside a secure Israel — the one embraced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — for as long as it is advocated by self-serving merchants of hatred.

But deciding who Israel’s real friends are is more difficult — and that decision is critical both for Israel itself and for the future of U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.

The question has been on the president’s mind for a long time. During the 2008 campaign, in a meeting with the Cleveland Jewish community, Obama said: “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”

He suggested that to equate asking “difficult questions” with “being soft or anti-Israel” was a barrier to moving forward.

Five years on, that needed dialogue has scarcely advanced. Self-styled “true friends” of Israel now lining up against the Hagel nomination are in fact true friends only of the Israeli right that pays no more than lip service to a two-state peace (when it even does that); scoffs at Palestinian national aspirations and culture; dismisses the significant West Bank reforms that have prepared Palestine for statehood; continues with settlement construction on the very shrinking land where a Palestinian state is envisaged (and was granted nonmember observer status at the United Nations last November by 138 votes to 9 with 41 abstentions, including Germany); cannot find a valid Palestinian interlocutor on the face of the earth despite the moderate reformist leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; ignores the grave implications for Israel of its unsustainable, corrosive dominion over another people and the question of how Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without a two-state solution (it cannot); bays for war with Iran despite the contrary opinions of many of Israel’s intelligence and military leaders; and propels Israel into repetitive miniwars of dubious strategic value.

These “true friends” shout the loudest. They are well-organized and remorseless.

Then there are the other friends of Israel, the quieter ones, the many who are unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security within its 1967 borders (with agreed land swaps); who believe continued settlement expansion in the West Bank is self-defeating and wrong; who hold that a good-faith quest for a two-state solution that will involve painful compromises on both sides (Palestinian abandonment of the “right of return” and Israeli abandonment of conquered land) is the only true path to Israeli security and the salvaging of its core Jewish values; who counsel against go-it-alone military adventurism against Iran; and who are troubled by a rightward nationalist drift in Israel whose central political tenet seems to be that holding on to all the land is doable and sustainable.

Hagel, like Obama, is a quiet strong friend of Israel. The movement against him is a relic of a binary with-Israel or against-Israel vision that does not have the true interests of Israel or the United States at heart.

    Israel’s True Friends, NYT, 7.1.2013,






Defiant Speech by Assad

Is New Block to Peace in Syria


January 6, 2013
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Sounding defiant, confident and, to critics, out of touch with his people’s grievances, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used his first public address in six months to justify his harsh crackdown, rally his supporters to fight against his opponents and inform on them — and leave in tatters recent efforts toward a political resolution to the country’s bloody civil war.

Mr. Assad offered what he called a peace plan, including a new cabinet, a new constitution to replace the one adopted just last year in a widely dismissed reform package, and talks with officially tolerated opposition groups. But he ruled out any negotiations with the armed Syrian opposition, and pointedly ignored its demands that he step down, making his proposal a nonstarter for most of his opponents.

He sounded much as he did at the start of the uprising 21 months ago, dictating which opposition groups were worthy and labeling the rest terrorists and traitors. He gave no acknowledgment that the rebels have come to control large parts of the north and east of the country, nor that many ordinary Syrians continue to demand change in the face of a crackdown that has laid waste to neighborhoods and killed tens of thousands, nor that even longtime allies like Russia have signaled that Mr. Assad may be unable to defeat the insurgency.

He even dismissed as foreign interference the mediation efforts of the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the senior Algerian diplomat who visited Damascus on Dec. 24, warning of national disintegration if the two sides did not negotiate a solution.

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,” Mr. Assad told a cheering, chanting crowd at the Damascus Opera House, on Umayyad Square in the center of the capital, where residents said the security forces were deployed heavily starting the night before.

“He doesn’t seem to have moved an inch since summer 2011,” said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, noting that Mr. Assad gave “barely the slightest nod” to Mr. Brahimi’s proposals.

Coming after days of hints that Mr. Assad might at last be ready to negotiate, his defiant speech on Sunday promised trouble for both his friends and his enemies. Russia may find it harder to stave off international action against Syria, which it has done so far using its veto at the United Nations Security Council, as the chances for a political solution seem to recede.

Moreover, Mr. Assad’s defiance may prompt Mr. Brahimi to decline to continue his mission. That would present the “Friends of Syria,” the group of nations supporting the opposition — the United States and its Western allies, Turkey and some Arab countries — with an unpalatable choice: intervene more aggressively or risk allowing the conflict to drag on indefinitely.

“Assad is not letting the Friends of Syria off the hook by making it easy for them to declare victory and close the Syria file,” Mr. Sayigh said. “Now what will they do?”

The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have died in the civil war, which began as a peaceful protest movement and turned into an armed struggle after security forces fired on demonstrators. Rebels have made gains in the north and east and in the Damascus suburbs, but Mr. Assad’s government has pushed back with deadly air and artillery strikes, and appears to be confident that it can hold the capital. Neither side appears ready to give up the prospect of military victory, though analysts say neither side is close to achieving it.

Mr. Assad’s defiant stance on Sunday “means we’re in for a long fight,” said Joshua Landis, a scholar on Syria and Mr. Assad’s minority sect, the Alawites, at the University of Oklahoma. “This is a dark, dark tunnel. There is no good ending to this. Assad believes he is winning.”

Victoria Nuland, the spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a statement that Mr. Assad’s speech was “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power, and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition.” She said that even as Mr. Assad “speaks of dialogue, the regime is deliberately stoking sectarian tensions and continuing to kill its own people.”

Before the speech, Lebanese media outlets close to the Syrian government reported, citing unnamed sources, that Mr. Assad would be much more conciliatory, offering to share some power with the armed opposition. But if anyone close to Mr. Assad was pushing that view, it did not make it into the speech he delivered.

Instead, Mr. Assad repeated his longstanding assertions that the movement against him was driven by “murderous criminals” and terrorists financed by rivals such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia with American blessing.

“Who should we negotiate with — terrorists?” Mr. Assad said. “We will negotiate with their masters.”

The main opposition body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, issued a statement calling the speech “a pre-emptive strike against both Arab and international diplomatic solutions.”

There was little immediate reaction in Russia, where the speech came on the eve of the Orthodox celebration of Christmas on Monday.

But Boris Dolgov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Eastern Studies said the speech reflected a new push by Russia and other nations to resolve the crisis.

Mr. Dolgov told the Voice of Russia radio station that Mr. Assad was correct to assert in his speech that the first step toward a resolution of the civil war must be the cessation of aid for armed rebel groups, adding that the current situation was “complex, but not a dead end.”

In Midan, a contested neighborhood of southern Damascus, a shopkeeper said that Mr. Assad’s speech had dashed his hopes that the president would end the conflict.

“He divided Syrians in two camps, one with him who are patriots and one against him who are criminals, terrorists and radicals,” said the shopkeeper, who gave only a nickname, Abu Omar, for safety reasons. “He doesn’t see Syrians who are patriots but don’t like him, and want to have another president in democratic, fair elections.”

Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, said Sunday that he was open to dialogue with “those who have not sold Syria to foreigners,” most likely a reference to tolerated opposition groups that reject armed revolution, such the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change. But his speech appeared unlikely to satisfy even those opponents, since it made no apology for the arrests of peaceful activists or for airstrikes that have destroyed neighborhoods. Nor did he acknowledge that his opponents sought anything but ruin for Syria.

“They killed the intellectuals in order to inflict ignorance on us,” Mr. Assad said of his opponents. “They deprived children from school in order to bring the country backward.”

Some armed rebel groups have used techniques that randomly target civilians, like car bombs, and there are foreign fighters among the rebels. But most of the armed movement is made up of Syrians who took up arms during the uprising or defected from the armed forces.

Mr. Assad thanked military officers and conscripts in the speech and vowed to stay by their side, seeking to dispel speculation that he would flee the country.

The audience of government officials and university students at the opera house chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we defend you, Assad,” and vowed to be his “shabiha,” a term that has come to mean progovernment militias that have attacked demonstrators.

When the president finished speaking, scores of people rushed frantically to greet him, and his bodyguards formed a phalanx to slowly escort Mr. Assad through the crowd.

Several observers noted in social media postings that the opera house seemed a fitting setting for such a speech.

“It was operatic in its otherworldly fantasy, unrelated to realities outside the building,” Rami Khouri, the editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, wrote on Twitter.

Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada from Beirut; an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria; Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Ellen Barry from Moscow.

    Defiant Speech by Assad Is New Block to Peace in Syria, NYT, 6.1.2012,






How to Talk to Iran


January 3, 2013
The New York Times


IF there are any two words in Persian that President Obama should learn, they are “maslahat” and “aberu.” Maslahat is often translated as expediency, or self-interest. Aberu means face — as in, saving face. In the nearly 34 years since the Islamic revolution in Iran, expediency has been a pillar of decision making, but within a framework that has allowed Iranian leaders to save face. If there is to be any resolution of the nuclear standoff, Western leaders must grasp these concepts.

Two examples illustrate this point. In 1988, after eight years of devastating war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, accepted a United Nations-brokered cease-fire agreement, deeming it to be in Iran’s maslahat. It was crucial that Iraqi forces had been pushed off Iranian soil, so Tehran could claim a victory.

Thirteen years later, after the 9/11 attacks, the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had sheltered Al Qaeda, in a matter of weeks. American troops would never have made it to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif with such speed had Iran’s leaders not acquiesced to the toppling of their enemies to the east. But the George W. Bush administration squandered an opportunity for dialogue by spurning this potential diplomatic overture by Iran.

For thousands of years, Persian culture has been distinguished by customs that revolve around honor and esteem. Preserving one’s aberu is tantamount to maintaining one’s dignity. There are almost no instances in modern Iranian history when maslahat has trumped aberu. The West has poorly understood these concepts. This was particularly true under President Bush, who rewarded Iran’s tacit acceptance of the American invasion of Afghanistan by labeling Iran a member of an “axis of evil.”

Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a “grand bargain” with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region. Despite this bold step, Iran was left out in the cold. Vice President Dick Cheney is said to have dismissed the initiative, reportedly asserting that “we don’t talk to evil.”

We now know, thanks to a recent memoir by the former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, that the Bush administration reached out to Tehran a year after dismissing the proposal. Not surprisingly, partly because of the blow to its pride, the Iranian government rejected the offer of direct, high-level talks as insincere. In the nine years since, Iran’s nuclear program — a major symbol of prestige for Iranians — has grown immensely. Things have gotten a lot more complicated.

The pattern of missed opportunities has persisted for more than three decades now. The result is that Barack Obama is the sixth consecutive president who has been led to view Iran as a threat rather than an opportunity. It is time for America to exit this vicious cycle and disregard irrational voices intent on sabotaging efforts to reach an understanding.

When Mr. Obama took office in 2009, he promised a real dialogue with Iran. Many in Tehran are still waiting for him to deliver on that promise. But how?

The foundation of post-1979 decision making in Iran is the pursuit of sovereignty within a framework that balances maslahat and aberu. We believe Iran would be open to new measures regarding the transparency of its nuclear program, and would agree not to pursue any capability to enrich uranium beyond that needed to fuel atomic power plants, if its legitimate right to enrichment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was recognized and if an agreement to remove sanctions was reached.

Equally important is how a deal would be implemented. Decades of mutual, institutionalized hostility have created a gulf of mistrust that neither side can unilaterally bridge. So getting the sequence right would be crucial to any accord.

While Tehran views a deal on its nuclear program as being in its self-interest, Western leaders need to grasp that it would be devastating for Iran’s aberu to take the first step solely in exchange for promises. The dominant discourse in Tehran portrays the 2004 decision by the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to suspend uranium enrichment on a voluntary, temporary basis as a failure because it resulted only in humiliating calls by the West for an indefinite suspension. The moral of this narrative is that placing maslahat above aberu, even temporarily, leads to nothing good.

In the coming months, Iran is expected to again engage with the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, along with Germany). Mr. Obama and his team, including his chief Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, should reflect on the meaning of maslahat and aberu. Understanding the Iranian mentality is key to grasping why the Iranians won’t put expediency above dignity. The only way to stop the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program from spinning out of control is to offer the Islamic Republic a face-saving way out.


Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiators, is a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the author of “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir.” Mohammad Ali Shabani is a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

    How to Talk to Iran, NYT, 3.1.2013,





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