Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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Leader of US church group seeks meeting with American imprisoned in Cuba, Alan Gross
Cleric: American jailed in Cuba in good spirits
Russia to help Cuba with production of rifle ammunition
Pilgrimage to see pope in Cuba considered
Bars in focus: Cuba Libre Nights
Russia Arms Cuba Amid Rising Tension With U.S.
Russia and Cuba to strengthen military cooperation
U.S. religious leader visits ELAM Lima, OH News Weather SportsCleric: American jailed in Cuba in good spirits
Website publishes personal details of top Cuban officials
Artist besotted by Bali
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Britain orders Iran's diplomats to leave UK

LONDON (AP) — Britain ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the U.K. within 48 hours and shuttered its ransacked embassy in Tehran on Wednesday, in a significant escalation of tensions between Iran and the West.
The ouster of the entire Iranian diplomatic corps deepens Iran's international isolation amid growing suspicions over its nuclear program. At least four other European countries also moved to reduce diplomatic contacts with Iran.
The British measures were announced by Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said Britain had withdrawn its entire diplomatic staff after angry mobs stormed the British Embassy compound and a diplomatic residence in Tehran, hauling down Union Jack flags, torching a vehicle and tossing looted documents through windows.
The hours-long assault Tuesday was reminiscent of the chaotic seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Protesters replaced the British flag with a banner in the name of a 7th-century Shiite saint, Imam Hussein, and one looter showed off a picture of Queen Elizabeth II apparently taken off a wall.
"The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful," Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
The diplomatic fallout from the attack quickly spread to other Western countries with embassies in Iran. Norway announced it was temporarily closing its embassy as a precaution, and Germany, France and the Netherlands all recalled their ambassadors for consultations. Italy said it was considering such a recall.
Iran currently has 18 diplomats in Britain. About 24 British Embassy staff and dependents were based in Tehran.
The White House condemned the attacks and spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. backed Britain's ejection of Iranian diplomats.
European Union foreign ministers were to meet Thursday to consider possible new sanctions against Tehran.
France's budget minister, Valerie Pecresse, said the EU should consider a total embargo on Iranian oil or a freeze on Iranian central bank holdings. British officials said the U.K. would likely support new measures against Iran's energy sector.
Hague claimed those involved in Tuesday's attack were members of a student group allied with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's paramilitary Basij organization, which recruits heavily on university campuses.
"We should be clear from the outset that this is an organization controlled by elements of the Iranian regime," he said.
Hague told Parliament the private quarters of staff and Britain's ambassador were trashed in the attack and that diplomats' personal possessions were stolen.
"This is a breach of international responsibilities of which any nation should be ashamed," he said.
Some were alarmed by Hague's tough tone. David Miliband, Britain's former foreign secretary, said he hoped the robust words would not become "part of the very unwelcome drumbeat of war."
Iran's government has publicly expressed regret about the "unacceptable behavior" of the protesters, whose attacks began after anti-British demonstrations apparently authorized by authorities.
However, regime hard-liners have spoken out in support of the protesters, reflecting the deepening power struggle over which direction Iran might take in the future.
Mohammad Mohammadian, a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the attackers, saying they had targeted the "epicenter of sedition."
Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said the "wrath of (the protesters) resulted from several decades of domination-seeking behavior of Britain."
The expulsion of Iran's diplomats and the withdrawal of Britain's officials from Tehran intensifies a rift that had deepened dramatically in the past week after Britain joined the United States and European Union in imposing new economic sanctions on Iran. The punitive measures followed a U.N. report offering new evidence suggesting Iran may be developing nuclear weapons.
On Sunday, Iran's parliament approved a bill to downgrade relations with Britain in retaliation.
The U.S. and many allies fear that Iran's nuclear program could eventually lead to nuclear weapons. Tehran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and fuel, but will not give up the technology to make its own nuclear fuel.
Tensions between Iran and the West were heightened in October when U.S. officials accused agents linked to Iran's Quds Force — an elite wing of the powerful Revolutionary Guard — of a role in an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
Britain previously ordered Iran to remove its diplomats in 1989, when the two nations broke off ties over a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie because his novel "The Satanic Verses" allegedly insulted Islam.
Iran's tensions with Britain date back to the 19th century, when the Persian monarchy gave huge industrial concessions to London, which later included significant control over Iran's oil industry. In 1953, Britain and the U.S. helped organize a coup that overthrew a nationalist prime minister and restored the pro-Western shah to power.
More recently, Iran was angered by Britain's decision to honor Rushdie with a knighthood in 2007, and over its involvement in Western scrutiny of Iran's nuclear program.
In March 2007, Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines for allegedly entering the country's territorial waters in the Gulf — a claim Britain denies. The 15 were released after nearly two weeks in captivity.
Associated Press writers Brian Murphy in Dubai, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Juergen Baetz in Frankfurt, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Frances D'Emilio in Rome, contributed to this report.

UK expels Iran diplomats after embassy attack

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Britain shut Iran's embassy in London and expelled all its staff on Wednesday, saying the storming of the British mission in Tehran could not have taken place without consent from Iranian authorities.
Foreign Secretary William Hague also said the British Embassy in Tehran had been closed and all staff evacuated following the attack on Tuesday by a crowd that ransacked offices and burned British flags in a protest over sanctions imposed by Britain on Tehran.
Iran warned that Britain's closure of the Iranian embassy in London would lead to further retaliation.
Tuesday's incident was the most violent so far as relations between the two countries steadily deteriorate due to Iran's wider dispute with the West over its nuclear program.
Analysts say it also appeared to reflect factionalism within Iran's ruling establishment, a unique hybrid of clerical and secular authority, and efforts by hardliners to undermine President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On top of its ban on British financial institutions dealing with Iran and its central bank last week, Britain has called for further measures and a diplomatic source said London would now support a ban on oil imports from the Islamic Republic.
Hague said Iranian ambassadors across the European Union had been summoned to receive strong protests over the incident. But Britain stopped short of severing ties with Iran completely.
"The Iranian charge (d'affaires) in London is being informed now that we require the immediate closure of the Iranian embassy in London and that all Iranian diplomatic staff must leave the United Kingdom within the next 48 hours," Hague told parliament.
"We have now closed the British embassy in Tehran. We have decided to evacuate all our staff and as of the last few minutes, the last of our UK-based staff have now left Iran."
France, Germany and the Netherlands said they were recalling their ambassadors for consultations. Germany said it would offer to take over consular duties on behalf of Britain in Tehran.
It was the worst crisis between Britain and Iran since full diplomatic relations were restored in 1999, 10 years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa that author Salman Rushdie could be killed for writing "The Satanic Verses."
Hague said it was "fanciful" to think Iranian authorities could not protect the British embassy, or that the assault could have taken place without "some degree of regime consent."
"This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety. It is action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations," he added.
Mindful of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, when radical students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, Britain waited until all its two dozen diplomatic staff and dependents had left the country to announce its move.
Iran's state TV quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as calling London's closure of the Iranian embassy "hasty." "Naturally the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran would take further appropriate action regarding the issue," a news reporter said.
Negotiations on Iran's nuclear program were now "dead," said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University in Scotland.
"What you are moving into is a period of containment and quarantine. I don't think we are into a military confrontation, but we are into a period of containment and they (the West) are going to try and tighten the noose."
The attack also exposes widening rifts within Iran's ruling elite. It appeared to be part of a move by the conservatives who dominate parliament to force Ahmadinejad to heed their demand to expel the British ambassador.
Ahmadinejad and his ministers have shown no willingness to compromise on their refusal to halt Iran's nuclear work but have sought to keep talks open to limit what sanctions are imposed.
The West believes the program is aimed at building a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran strongly denies.
"This incident was planned by elements who are not opposed per se to negotiations but want to stop them merely because of their own petty political struggles," said Trita Parsi, a U.S.-based expert on Western-Iranian relations.
"The push to get the UK ambassador out came from parliament which is headed by Ali Larijani," Parsi said. "When Larijani was chief nuclear negotiator Ahmadinejad carried out a similar campaign against negotiations."
Ahmadinejad was once seen as a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he has faced challenges this year from hardliners who fear his faction threatens the role of the Islamic clergy in the political system that emerged after Iran's 1979 revolution: a parliamentary one, with a directly elected president overseen by a powerful cleric.
Khamenei's recent comment that the directly elected presidency could be replaced with one elected by parliament has been welcomed by those who want to clip Ahmadinejad's wings.
Conservative newspapers trumpeted the embassy seizure.
The daily Vatan-e Emrouz declared: "Fox's den seized," referring to Britain's nickname "the old fox" which reflects a widely-held view in Iran that London still wields great power behind the scenes in Iranian and international affairs.
While Iranian police at first did not stop the protesters storming the embassy gates, they later fired tear gas to disperse them and freed six Britons held by demonstrators.
Iran's Foreign Ministry expressed its regret for the "unacceptable behavior of few demonstrators."
The protesters hit back, saying they had been "seeking to answer to the plots and malevolence of this old fox" and the Foreign Ministry should not sacrifice "the goals of the nation for diplomatic and political relations."
"We expected the police to be on the side of the students instead of confronting them," said a statement by a group calling itself the Islamic community of Tehran universities.
Britain imposed sanctions on the Iran central bank last week after a report by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency suggested Iran may have worked on developing a nuclear arsenal.
Iran, the world's fifth biggest oil exporter, says it only wants nuclear technology to generate electricity.
Britain has not backed a ban on Iranian oil imports, but that could now change, the diplomatic source told Reuters, and London will likely back a call by France to do just that and impose "sanctions on a scale that would paralyze the regime."
The United States, which cut diplomatic relations with Iran after its embassy was stormed in 1979, has not bought Iranian oil since the 1990s, but has not taken any measures against Iran's central bank. That would cripple Iran's economy as it would not be able to process payments for its vital oil exports.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Adrian Croft and Tim Castle in London and Parisa Hafezi in Istanbul; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Packing and patrolling, U.S. troops roll out of Iraq

CAMP ECHO, Iraq (Reuters) - Camp Echo's dusty motorpools are empty, its private contract caterers have long gone home and murals depicting the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's twin towers have been painted over.
One of the last seven U.S. military bases in Iraq, Echo is in rapid handover to Iraqi hands as American soldiers there pack up and complete their final task - protecting the last few departing troops heading home south across the Kuwaiti border.
Nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, the U.S. mission in Iraq is fast winding down with only 13,000 troops left in the country. Hundreds are departing each day until the end of 2011.
Hundreds of convoys of military vehicles and civilian trucks have gone south into Kuwait since President Barack Obama last month said troops would leave as scheduled, effectively ending the large-scale U.S. military presence on Iraqi soil.
"It's time. The president and everyone is saying it's time. We did as much as we can," U.S. Army Sergeant Fred Fox said at Echo in Diwaniya, 150 km (95 miles) south of Baghdad.
"It's time for us to go home and let them take care of their own," he said.
Soldiers left on Camp Echo, like other bases in Iraq, are still patrolling to protect themselves, the highway south and the base even as they pack up and hand over equipment from vehicles to air conditioners to the Iraqi armed forces.
On Echo, rows of white SUVs, construction vehicles and jeeps sit parked waiting for Iraqi officials to check U.S. inventories. U.S. troops are leaving behind anything not cost-effective to ship elsewhere, like concrete blast walls.
Nearby, sand-colored MRAP armored vehicles warm their engines before trundling out on patrol to secure Highway One.
Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the sectarian conflict in 2006-2007, when suicide bombers claimed hundreds of victims each day and inter-communal killing between Sunnis and Shi'ites ravaged Baghdad and other cities.
Attacks and bombings still happen almost daily. Iraqi forces are battling a Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shi'ite militias backed by Iran.
At the height of the war, Iraq had more than 100 attacks a day. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died in eight and a half years and at least 60,000 Iraqis were killed in the violence. In 2006 alone, 17,800 Iraqis were killed, government statistics say.
Attacks on U.S. forces are far less common now, though officials have warned insurgents may try to pick up their assaults in the last days of the American withdrawal.
U.S. forces at Camp Echo still face one or two attacks a week, usually roadside explosives. The base was last mortared a few months ago.
Patrols from Echo head out daily scouring highways or nearby fields for suspicious piles of trash, dead animals on roadsides - clearing anything that could be used to hide explosives targeting convoys.
"We know they can't destroy us, but they do want to try to show they are the ones who forced the Americans out," Captain Mark Barnes, an army intelligence officer.
Before Obama's announcement, U.S. officials had held months of talks with Iraq's government over the possibility of keeping a small contingent of several thousand American troops in Iraq as trainers to help local armed forces.
But Iraq's multi-sectarian leadership lacked the political capital to push through any agreement that would have granted legal immunity to remaining U.S. troops, effectively blocking a new accord on troops staying for the moment.
Civilian trainers will remain in Iraq to help teach Iraqi forces how to use the new U.S.-made hardware they have purchased, from F-16 fighters to Abrams tanks. Around 200 U.S. military personnel will be attached to the U.S. embassy.
"This tour is all about bringing our soldiers home, getting them out of Iraq and turning over to Iraqi forces," said Sergeant Derrick Grabener. "We have to keep the mindset that we are still here until we cross over the border."
Camp Echo is down to the basics. Private mess hall caterers have been replaced by army cooks and soldiers now run their gym. Photographs of U.S. troops have been taken off the base's office walls.
A mural painted in honour of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, which helped propel the United States into its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been painted over to stop images being defaced once the Americans leave.
"We are basically getting light on the ground. Every soldier is consolidating down to one duffle bag," Staff Sgt. William Cannon said. "We are pretty much ready to go when they give us the word."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wife: Man imprisoned in Cuba concerned before trip

WASHINGTON (AP) — An American imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 after bringing communications equipment onto the island wanted reassurance that what he was doing was legal but was told by his company not to ask Cuban officials, the man's wife said Monday.
"If anything happens you'll be out two days. Don't worry," Judy Gross said her husband Alan was told by a co-worker when he expressed concern about the trip.
Saturday will mark two years since Alan Gross, 62, was arrested in Cuba. Since then, the former Maryland resident has been sentenced to spend 15 years in a Cuban prison, and his case has become a sticking point in talks between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations. Judy Gross said that in the past year she twice thought her husband might be able to return to the United States. Both times she was disappointed.
"The Cubans will say one thing one day and change their minds the next," said Gross, who had to sell the couple's home and now lives in Washington.
Gross has rarely talked about her husband's situation, giving interviews only infrequently and waiting for her husband's case to work its way through the Cuban legal process. She hired a prominent Washington litigator who advised her against saying much because of the sensitivity of the case and also because it was working through the Cuban courts. But she acknowledged Monday that staying silent "didn't work."
Gross said in an interview that her husband asked the company he was working for to contact the Cuban government to clear his work setting up internet for the island's small Jewish community. But the company, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., refused to contact Cuban officials and refused to let him contact anyone either, she said. He was told separately not to worry about the project by a co-worker, she said.
A spokesman for DAI, Steven O'Connor, said in a statement that Gross "designed, proposed, and implemented this work" for the company, which had a government contract for a democracy-building project on the Communist island. Gross was a subcontractor for the company, which had a contract financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The company wants to correct some of the misconceptions surrounding his work, O'Connor wrote, but "now is not the time."
Judy Gross said her husband believes he was duped by the company, a characterization O'Connor disputed. Gross called himself a "trusting fool" in Cuban court testimony released by his lawyer and said, "I was duped. I was used."
In March, the father of two was sentenced in Cuba to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. His final appeal to Cuba's Supreme Court was denied in August, and expectations in some quarters that he might be released once the appeals process was over never materialized.
Subsequent efforts by American officials to win his release have failed.
In September, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba and told reporters he had been invited to negotiate Gross' release. But Richardson's efforts imploded after he called Gross a hostage in one interview. Cuban officials accused him of trying to blackmail them, and he returned empty handed.
Gross said she "had a lot of hopes dashed" when Richardson was unsuccessful and that he had been very confident before going down.
"I don't fault anyone or anybody on that because I don't really know what happened," she said.
U.S. officials also reportedly tried to negotiate Gross' release by offering to let a convicted Cuban spy return home, but Cuba rebuffed the offer.
Gross said both she and her husband are now less hopeful about his release anytime soon. And she said she is worried that if President Barack Obama isn't re-elected, a Republican president may be less willing to work with Cuba to secure his release. She urged Obama to make a statement about the case, which arose just as the Obama administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of U.S. tensions with Cuba.
For now, Alan Gross is generally allowed to call his wife once a week, on Fridays. Judy Gross said she last spoke to him days ago and he sounded "more hopeless and more depressed" than before. He has lost more than 100 pounds while in Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista prison but is now gaining weight, she said, adding arthritis now makes it difficult for him to walk.
She was allowed to visit him in Cuba earlier this month, her third visit since his arrest. She said she brought chocolate chip cookies, pictures of his family, and issues of his favorite magazine, The Economist.
On Monday, Judy Gross joined about a dozen others in a demonstration calling for her husband's release in front of the Cuban Interests Section in northwest Washington, the presence Cuba maintains instead of an embassy. The weekly vigils began in September. Demonstrators promised to be there until Alan Gross returns.
Jessica Gresko can be reached at
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40,000 troops to leave Afghanistan by end of 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Drawdown plans announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations will shrink the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan by 40,000 troops at the close of next year, leaving Afghan forces increasingly on the frontlines of the decade-long war.
The United States is pulling out the most — 33,000 by the end of 2012. That's one-third of 101,000 American troops who were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of U.S. military presence in the war, according to figures provided by the Pentagon.
Others in the 49-nation coalition have announced withdrawal plans too, while insisting they are not rushing to leave. Many nations have vowed to keep troops in Afghanistan to continue training the Afghan police and army in the years to come. And many have pledged to keep sending aid to the impoverished country after the international combat mission ends in 2014.
Still, the exit is making Afghans nervous.
They fear their nation could plunge into civil war once the foreign forces go home. Their confidence in the Afghan security forces has risen, but they don't share the U.S.-led coalition's stated belief that the Afghan soldiers and police will be ready to secure the entire nation in three years. Others worry the Afghan economy will collapse if foreigners leave and donors get stingy with aid.
Foreign forces began leaving Afghanistan this year.
About 14,000 foreign troops will withdraw by the end of December, according to an Associated Press review of more than a dozen nations' drawdown plans. The United States is pulling out 10,000 service members this year; Canada withdrew 2,850 combat forces this summer; France and Britain will each send about 400 home; Poland is recalling 200; and Denmark and Slovenia are pulling out about 120 combined.
Troop cutbacks will be deeper next year, when an estimated 26,000 more will leave. That figure includes 23,000 Americans, 950 Germans, 600 more French, 500 additional Britons, 400 Poles, 290 Belgians, 156 Spaniards, 100 Swedes and 50 Finns.
Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the AP that the number of Marines in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan will drop "markedly" in 2012, and the role of those who stay will shift from countering the insurgency to training and advising Afghan security forces.
Amos declined to discuss the number of Marines expected to leave in 2012.
There are now about 19,400 Marines in Helmand, and that is scheduled to fall to about 18,500 by the end of this year.
"Am I OK with that? The answer is 'yes,'" Amos said. "We can't stay in Afghanistan forever."
"Will it work? I don't know. But I know we'll do our part."
Additional troop cuts or accelerated withdrawals are possible.
Many other countries, including Hungary and Italy, are finalizing their withdrawal schedules. Presidential elections in Europe and the European debt crisis also could speed up the pullout. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week that Australia's training mission could be completed before the 2014 target date.
Back in June, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that when the Obama administration begins pulling troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. will resist a rush to the exists, "and we expect the same from our allies." Gates said it was critically important that a plan for winding down NATO's combat role by the end of 2014 did not squander gains made against the Taliban that were won at great cost in lives and money.
"The more U.S. forces draw down, the more it gives the green light for our international partners to also head for the exits," said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "There is a cyclical effect here that is hard to temper once it gets going."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings Jr. said the cutbacks that have been announced will not affect the coalition's ability to fight the insurgency.
"We are getting more Afghans into the field and we are transferring more responsibility to them in many areas," Cummings said, adding that many leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani militant networks have been captured or killed.
Afghan security forces started taking the lead in seven areas in July. They soon will assume responsibility for many more regions as part of a gradual process that will put Afghans in charge of security across the nation by the end of 2014.
Some countries are lobbying to start transition as soon as possible in areas where they have their troops deployed — so they can go home, said a senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss transition. The official insisted that those desires were not driving decisions on where Afghan troops are taking the lead.
The official said that because they want to leave, a number of troop-contributing nations faced with declining public support at home have started working harder to get their areas ready to hand off to Afghan forces.
"The big question (after 2014) is if the Afghan security forces can take on an externally based insurgency with support from the Pakistani security establishment and all that entails," Dressler said. "I think they will have a real challenge on their hands if the U.S. and NATO countries do not address Pakistani sponsorship of these groups."
Lekic reported from Brussels. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Helmand contributed to this report.

Monday, November 28, 2011

UN: Syrian forces killed, tortured 256 children

BEIRUT (AP) — A U.N. investigation concluded Monday that Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity by killing and torturing hundreds of children, including a 2-year-old girl reportedly shot to death so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.
The inquiry added to mounting international pressure on President Bashar Assad, a day after the Arab League approved sweeping sanctions to push his embattled regime to end the violence. Syria's foreign minister called the Arab move "a declaration of economic war" and warned of retaliation.
The report by a U.N. Human Rights Council panel found that at least 256 children were killed by government forces between mid-March and early November, some of them tortured to death.
"Torture was applied equally to adults and children," said the assessment, released in Geneva. "Numerous testimonies indicated that boys were subjected to sexual torture in places of detention in front of adult men."
The U.N. defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. The report was compiled by a panel of independent experts who were not allowed into Syria. However, the commission interviewed 223 victims and witnesses, including defectors from Syria's military and security forces.
The panel said government forces were given "shoot to kill" orders to crush demonstrations. Some troops "shot indiscriminately at unarmed protesters," while snipers targeted others in the upper body or head, it said.
It quoted one former soldier who said he decided to defect after witnessing an officer shoot a 2-year-old girl in Latakia, then claim he killed her so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.
The list of alleged crimes committed by Syrian forces "include murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence," said the panel's chairman, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian professor. "We have a very solid body of evidence."
At least 3,500 people have been killed since March in Syria, according to the U.N. — the bloodiest regime response against the Arab Spring protests sweeping the Middle East. Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds; while Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher, the conflict there differs from Syria's because it descended into outright civil war between two armed sides.
The U.N. investigation is the latest in a growing wave of international measures pressuring Damascus to end its crackdown, and comes on the heels of sweeping sanctions approved Sunday by the Arab League.
Syrian officials did not comment directly on the U.N. findings. However, the regime reacted sharply to the Arab sanctions, betraying a deep concern over the economic impact and warning that Syria could strike back.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called the Arab League action "a declaration of economic war" and said Syria had withdrawn 95 percent of its assets in Arab countries.
Economy Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar said "sources of foreign currency would be affected" by the sanctions, reflecting concerns that Arab investment in Syria will fall off and transfers from Syrians living in other Arab countries will drop.
Al-Moallem said Syria had means to retaliate.
"Sanctions are a two-way street," he warned in a televised news conference.
"We don't want to threaten anyone, but we will defend the interests of our people," he added, suggesting Syria might use its position as a geographical keystone in the heart of the Middle East to disrupt trade between Arab countries.
Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.
Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities. As they struggled with ways to respond to Assad's brutal crackdown, world leaders have been all too aware of the country's web of allegiances, which extend to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.
The latest sanctions include cutting off transactions with Syria's central bank, and are expected to squeeze an ailing economy that already is under sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. The net effect of the Arab sanctions could deal a crippling blow to Syria's economy.
"We've always said that global sanctions, without Arab sanctions, will not be as effective," said Said Hirsh, Mideast economist with Capital Economics in London.
Some 60 percent of Syria's exports go to Arab countries, and analysts concede the sanctions' effectiveness will hinge largely on whether Arab countries enforce them.
Iraq and Lebanon, which abstained from the Arab League vote, may continue to be markets for Syrian goods, in defiance of the sanctions. Syria shares long borders with both countries and moving goods in and out would be easy.
Still, there is no question the uprising is eviscerating Syria's economy. Hirsh said forecasts indicate it will contract by 5 percent this year and could shrink by another 10 percent in 2012 if sanctions are enforced and the Assad regime stays in power.
The economic troubles threaten the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.
The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.
The Arab sanctions, however, could chip away at their resolve.
Since the revolt began, the Assad regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. Until recently, most deaths appeared to be caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. But lately, there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces — a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.
The Assad regime has responded to the street protests by sheer brutal force while at the same time announcing reforms largely dismissed by the opposition as too little too late.
On Monday, a spokesman for a committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution said it would recommend the abolishment of Article 8 which states that the ruling Baath Party is the leader of the state and society.
The article's abolishment was once a key demand of the protest movement. However, such overtures are now unlikely to satisfy opposition leaders who say they will accept nothing more than the downfall of the regime.
Heilprin reported from Geneva. AP Business Writer Tarek El-Tablawy contributed to this report from Cairo.

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Deadline arrives, protesters remain at Occupy LA

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Wall Street protesters in Los Angeles defied the mayor's early Monday deadline to vacate their encampment near City Hall, with about 1,000 flooding into the area as hundreds of tents remained standing as they have for nearly two months.
A celebratory atmosphere filled the night with protesters milling about the park and streets by City Hall in seeming good spirits. A group on bicycles circled the block, one of them in a cow suit. Organizers led chants with a bull horn.
"The best way to keep a non-violent movement non-violent is to throw a party, and keep it festive and atmospheric," said Brian Masterson.
Police presence was slight right after the 12:01 a.m. PST Monday deadline, but it began increasing as the morning wore on.
"People have been pretty cooperative tonight. We want to keep it peaceful," police Cmdr. Andrew Smith told The Associated Press.
He refused to discuss how or when police will move to clear the park, but he said: "We're going to do this as gently as we possibly can. Our goal is not to have anybody arrested. Our goal is not to have to use force."
By 2:30 a.m., most protesters had moved from the camp site in the park to the streets, putting them technically in compliance with the mayor's eviction order.
There have so far been no arrests or reports of violence.
"We're still here, it's after 12, ain't nobody throwing anything at the cops, they haven't come in and broken anyone's noses yet, so it's a beautiful thing," said Adam Rice, a protester standing across the street from police in riot gear.
The Los Angeles showdown follows police actions in other cities — sometimes involving the use of pepper spray and tear gas — that resulted in the removal of long-situated demonstration sites. Some of those encampments had been in use almost since the movement against economic disparity and perceived corporate greed began with Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan two months ago.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said earlier that the park grounds would be closed after the deadline, while Police Chief Charlie Beck promised that arrests would eventually be made if protesters did not comply.
But in a statement issued shortly before midnight, the mayor said police "will allow campers ample time to remove their belongings peacefully and without disruption."
As the deadline approached, people poured into the grounds, likely many of them answering calls on Facebook and Twitter to come out and show solidarity.
Well after midnight, some protesters began marching into the streets, and several crossed the street to police headquarters.
"Me and my friends, we are not leaving no matter what," said Brian Guzman, who stood on the street corner holding a "Power to the People" sign. "Not until we get some changes."
Masterson said he had turned his own tent into a "non-violent booby trap" by filling it with sandbags to make it tough to tear down.
"We can't beat the LAPD, but we can make it difficult for them to do their job, and have fun while we're doing it," Masterson said.
Elsewhere, a deadline set by the city for Occupy Philadelphia to leave the site where it has camped for nearly two months passed Sunday without any arrests.
The scene outside Philadelphia's City Hall was quiet most of Sunday and by early Monday the numbers of protesters — and police officers — had decreased.
Philadelphia's protesters have managed to avoid aggressive confrontations so far. By early Monday there was still hope the City of Brotherly Love would continue to be largely violence-free.
But eight people were arrested in Maine Sunday after protesters in the Occupy Augusta encampment in Capitol Park took down their tents and packed their camping gear after being told to get a permit or move their shelters.
In Los Angeles, some campers packed up their tents and belongings to avoid police trouble, but said they intended to return without them in support of their fellow protesters.
Scott Shuster was one of those breaking down his camp, but he said it was only to protect his property and he planned to remain.
"I just don't want to lose my tent," he said.
Others moved their tents to the sidewalk so they were technically out of the park.
Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer himself, has said he sympathizes with the movement but that he felt it was time it moved beyond holding on to "a particular patch of park." He said public health and safety could not be sustained for a long period.
Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that he expected to make arrests at some point.
"I have no illusions that everybody is going to leave," Beck said. "We anticipate that we will have to make arrests."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Arab League to vote on Syria sanctions

BEIRUT (AP) — The Arab League was to vote Sunday on sweeping sanctions against Syria to pressure the regime to end its deadly, eight-month crackdown on dissent. Damascus slammed the move as a betrayal of Arab solidarity.
Syria is facing mounting international pressure to end its violent suppression of protests against President Bashar Assad, which the U.N. says has killed more than 3,500 people since March. The European Union and the United States have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Assad and his regime, including a ban on the import of Syrian oil.
The 22-nation Arab League will vote Sunday in Cairo on whether to impose its own sanctions, which could include halting cooperation with Syria's central bank and stopping flights to the country. If the Arab League goes ahead with the sanctions, it will be a huge blow for a regime that considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
The state-owned Al-Thawra newspaper ran a front-page headline Sunday saying the Arab League is calling for "economic and commercial sanctions targeting the Syrian people." Is said the measure is "unprecedented and contradicts the rules of Arab cooperation."
Since the revolt began, the regime has blamed armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy for the bloodshed.
It is not clear whether Arab sanctions would succeed in pressuring the Syrian regime into putting an end to the violence that has killed dozens of Syrians, week after week. Many fear the violence is pushing the country toward civil war.
Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. But there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces — a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.
On Sunday, activists reported fierce clashes in the flashpoint city of Homs, in central Syria, pitting soldiers against army defectors.
Violence in Homs and elsewhere across the country killed at least eight people Sunday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syrian activist groups.
Many of the attacks against Syrian security forces are believed to be carried out by a group of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army.
The Arab League's recommendations for sanctions specified that the Arab bloc will assist Syria with emergency aid through the help of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, working with local civilian groups to deliver goods.
Syrian neighbors Iraq and Lebanon already have expressed reservations about the sanctions.
On Sunday, an Arab League official said at least two Arab countries warned against adopting these sanctions, saying they would hurt the Syrian people rather than the regime. The official asked that his name not be published because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.
Also Sunday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh acknowledged that 100 Syrian military and police deserters have taken refuge in the kingdom throughout the uprising. It was the first official public confirmation that Jordan hosts Syrian defectors.
In September, officials said privately that Jordan had received 60 Syrian army and police deserters, who ranged in rank from corporal to colonel.
Judeh told The Associated Press that the Syrian soldiers and policemen, whom he claimed were conscripts rather than officers, had arrived in batches over the last eight months.
Many Syrians fleeing Assad's crackdown have also sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.
The Gulf nations of Qatar and Bahrain on Sunday warned their citizens to avoid travel to Syria and called on those already there to leave immediately. The foreign affairs ministries of both countries cited concerns about the security situation in issuing the travel alerts. They did not mention the planned Arab League vote.
The calls come two days after the United Arab Emirates issued a similar warning to its citizens.
The embassies of the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were targeted by pro-Assad regime demonstrators in Damascus earlier this month.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.