Saturday, February 19, 2011

Egyptians celebrate but military starts talking tough

An Egyptian soldier greets demonstrators with national flags as 
they pour into Cairo's Tahrir Square for celebrations on 18 February 
Soldiers joined in Friday's celebrations but is the military growing impatient with continuing protests?
Egypt's ruling military council says it will not tolerate any more strikes which disrupt the country's economy.
State television carried a statement in which the military said strikers would be "confronted".
Egypt's huge public sector has been hit by stoppages by groups including policemen and factory workers.
The army statement came at the end of a day in which millions of Egyptians had celebrated the victory of their revolution one week ago.
Cairo's Tahrir Square was again at the centre of events, with an estimated two million people gathering there to celebrate the removal of Hosni Mubarak and to pay tribute to the 365 people who died in the uprising.
The demonstration was also intended as a show of strength - a reminder to the current military rulers to keep their promise of a swift transition to democracy
By evening, the gathering had become a huge party, with music, singing, dancing, fireworks and food.
But the military statement struck a more sober tone.
Economic damage The weeks of protests had already damaged the country's economy, with banks, offices and shops frequently closed, and the tourism sector badly affected.
Workers, inspired by the political protests, have also been staging strikes to demand better pay and conditions.
The military statement pointed to "some sectors that have... organised stoppages and protests, disrupting (economic) interests, halting the wheels of production and creating difficult economic conditions that could lead to the deterioration of the nation's economy."
"They will be confronted and legal steps will be taken against them to protect the security of the nation and citizens," the statement threatened.
Young Egyptians wearing facepaint in the colors of the national 
flag arrive at Tahrir square to celebrate the fall of the regime of 
former President Hosni Mubarak one week ago, 18 February 2011  
For many thousands in Tahrir Square, it was a chance to celebrate the victory of people power
The warning appears directed only at strikers - the military has previously promised not to take action against the political protests - but the tough words could mark growing impatience with the demonstrators as well.
In one sign of a possible return to normality, authorities on Friday re-opened the Rafah border crossing to Gaza for Palestinians who had been stranded in Egypt by the unrest.
It was open for a few hours on Friday and will open again over the next few days, according to officials.
The border crossing has been mostly closed since 2007 as part of a blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, imposed after Hamas took control of the Palestinian territory.
Hamas authorities in Gaza are hoping the new regime will reopen the crossing more permanently.
Meanwhile, some Islamist websites have posted what is believed to be a response from al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the uprising in his home country.
In an audio recording which appeared to have been recorded before the resignation of President Mubarak, Zawahiri said the "reality of Egypt" was one of "ideological, political, economic, financial, moral and social corruption".
He said Mr Mubarak's rule was based on violence and fraudulent elections, in contrast with an Islamic state which would focus on morals, justice and equality.
The recording could not be independently authenticated.

Pirates hijack 4 Americans; US mulls responses

NAIROBI, Kenya – The United States government on Saturday said it was assessing possible responses after Somali pirates hijacked a yacht with four Americans on board in the Arabian sea off the coast of Somalia.
Pirates hijacked the yacht Quest on Friday, two days after a Somali pirate was sentenced to 33 years in prison by a New York court for the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. That case ended in a spectacular rescue when Navy sharpshooters killed two pirates holding the ship's captain, Richard Phillips.
The Quest is the home of Jean and Scott Adam, a couple who has been sailing around the world since December 2004, according to a website the Adams keep.
A U.S. military spokesman at Central Command in Florida said: "We're aware of the situation and we continue to monitor it."
Matt Goshko, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, which oversees Somalia, said preliminary reports indicate there are four U.S. citizens aboard the Quest.
"All relevant U.S. agencies are monitoring the situation, working to develop further information, assess options and possible responses," Goshko said.
Pirates have increased attacks off the coast of East Africa in recent years despite an international flotilla of warships dedicated to protecting vessels and stopping the pirate assaults.
Multimillion dollar ransoms are fueling the trade, and the prices for releasing a ship and hostages have risen sharply. One ransom last year was reported to be $9.5 million. Pirates currently hold 30 ships and more than 660 hostages, not counting the attack against the Quest.
After the Maersk Alabama was hijacked in April 2009, Navy sharpshooters on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge fired on pirates holding Phillips, the ship's captain, killing two of them. The only pirate to survive that U.S. rescue was Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the pirate who was sentenced to 33 years in prison this week.
The best known case of Westerners being held hostage in Somalia was that of Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple held for 388 days. The two, who were captured while sailing in their private yacht, were released in November.
U.S. officials will likely try to prevent the Adams' yacht from reaching Somalia, where their options to rescue the Americans become more limited.
The Adams website chronicles the couple's travels over the last seven years, from El Salvador and Panama in 2005 to Fiji in 2007 and Singapore and Cambodia last year. They most recently sailed from Thailand to Sri Lanka and India. Their website said they were on their way to Oman when they were taken. Djibouti — the tiny East African country directly north of Somalia — had been next on their list. A satellite tracking system the couple uses showed them docked in Mumbai, India on Feb. 1.
"Djibouti is a big refueling stop. I have NO idea what will happen in these ports, but perhaps we'll do some local touring," the couple's website says.
The couple runs a Bible ministry, according to their website, and have been distributing Bibles to schools and churches in remote villages in areas including the Fiji Islands, Alaska, New Zealand, Central America and French Polynesia.
They are members of the Marina del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, California, according to the website.
The prison sentence given to Muse this week could have implications on the hijacking of the Quest and the four Americans. Pirates have turned increasingly violent in their attacks, and naval officials say pirates have begun systematically torturing hostages and using them as human shields.
Earlier this week a Somali pirate told an Associated Press reporter in Somalia that pirates would target Americans in retaliation for the sentencing. The pirate, who identified himself by the name Hassan, said Americans would suffer "regrettable consequences."
Pirates have recently tied hostages upside down and dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, beaten them and used plastic ties around their genitals, the commander of the European Union anti-piracy force, Maj. Gen. Buster Howes told AP this month.
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.

Libya: Benghazi tense as police leave the streets

Pro-Gadhafi supporters gather in Green Square after traditional 
Friday prayers in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. Protesters 
battled with secur AP – Pro-Gadhafi supporters gather in Green Square after traditional Friday prayers in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, …
CAIRO – Libyans set up neighborhood patrols in the shaken eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday as police disappeared from the streets following an attack by government forces on a two-day-old encampment of protesters demanding an end to Moammar Gadhafi's regime, eyewitnesses said.
The situation in the North African nation has become increasingly chaotic, with a human rights group estimating 84 people have died in a harsh crackdown on anti-Gadhafi demonstrations and the U.S.-based Arbor Networks security company saying Internet service was cut off around 2 a.m. Saturday, eliminating a critical link to the outside world.
"We don't see a single policeman in the streets, not even traffic police," a lawyer in Benghazi said. People feared that pro-government forces would soon follow up the encampment raid with house-to-house attacks.
"Residents formed neighborhood watches ... guarding their houses and neighborhoods," the lawyer said. He and other people inside Libya spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi al-Warfali said that several other activists had been detained including Abdel Hafez Gougha, a well-known organizer who was being held after security forces stormed his house in a night raid.
According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 84 people have died in the Libyan protests, which have escalated dramatically since they began on Tuesday. Tolls given to the Associated Press on Friday largely tally with those announced by the rights group.
About 5:00 a.m. Saturday, special forces attacked hundreds of protesters, including lawyers and judges, camped out in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and a focus for the anti-government unrest.
"They fired tear gas on protesters in tents and cleared the areas after many fled carrying the dead and the injured," one protester said over the phone from Benghazi.
Doctors in Benghazi said Friday that 35 bodies had been brought to the hospital following attacks by security forces backed by militias, on top of more than a dozen killed the day before. Standing in front of Jalaa Hospital morgue, an eyewitness said that the bodies bore wounds from being shot "directly at the head and the chests."
About 20 coffins were brought to the square outside the Benghazi courthouse later Saturday as part of a mass funeral for the shooting victims, another witness said. Thousands of mourners were at the scene.
Gadhafi is facing the biggest popular uprising of his 42-year autocratic reign, with Libyans taking to the streets and much of the action in the country's impoverished east.
The nation has huge oil reserves but poverty is a significant problem. U.S. diplomats have said in newly leaked memos that Gadhafi's regime seems to neglect the east intentionally, letting unemployment and poverty rise to weaken opponents there.
At least five cities in eastern Libya have seen protests and clashes in recent days.
Forces from the military's elite Khamis Brigade moved into Benghazi, Beyida and several other cities, residents said. They were accompanied by militias that seemed to include foreign mercenaries, they added. Several witnesses reported French-speaking fighters, believed to be Tunisians or sub-Saharan Africans, among militiamen wearing blue uniforms and yellow helmets.
The Khamis Brigade is led by Gadhafi's youngest son Khamis Gadhafi, and U.S. diplomats in leaked memos have called it "the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military." The witnesses' reports that it had been deployed could not be independently confirmed.
During the popular revolt in Egypt, authorities cut off the Internet for several days, though it did not quell the uprising that eventually brought down the president.
Information is tightly controlled in Libya, where journalists cannot work freely and many citizens fear the powerful security and intelligence services. The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information released a report back in 2004 that said nearly 1 million people among Libya's population of about 6 million had Internet access at the time. That was just three years after Internet service had been extended to the public.
There have been few anti-government protests in the capital Tripoli, in the west of the country, where the government has staged large pro-Gadhafi rallies.

Protesters return to square in Bahrain capital

Bahraini protesters pray and others chants slogans at the Pearl 
roundabout soon after the military pulled out in Manama, Bahrain, 
Saturday, Feb. 19, 2 AP – Bahraini protesters pray and others chants slogans at the Pearl roundabout soon after the military pulled …
MANAMA, Bahrain – Thousands of celebrating protesters have moved back into a square that was the symbolic heart of their demonstration after Bahrain's leaders ordered the military to withdraw tanks and other armored vehicles that had secured it earlier this week.
The military vehicles moved away Saturday from Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the uprising against the Sunni monarchy in the predominantly Shiite nation, and riot police also withdrew.
The cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said "Peaceful, peaceful" marched to the square. They chanted, "We are victorious."
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, made a brief address on state TV and appealed for calm and political dialogue.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain ordered its military off the streets Saturday, responding to a key demand by the opposition for starting a dialogue in the political crisis a day after security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters.
But a prominent opposition leader said the withdrawal of army tanks and armored personnel carriers from the capital of Manama is not enough to open talks with rulers in the crisis-wracked Gulf nation.
Ibrahim Sharif, head of the Waad Society, demanded guarantees that protesters can stage rallies without fear of being attacked. Waad is an umbrella group of protest factions.
Jubilant Bahrainis honked car horns, waved flags and flashed v-for-victory signs as the armored vehicles began moving away from Pearl Square, the symbolic center of their uprising against the Sunni monarchy in the predominantly Shiite nation.
An Associated Press photographer saw a contingent of riot police who replaced the military forces fire tear gas at people celebrating the military withdrawal from the square and detain at least 10 people.
The riot police then left their positions, got into vehicles and drove away, allowing thousands of cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said "Peaceful, peaceful" to march to the square.
"We are victorious," the protesters chanted.
On Friday, army units opened fire on marchers streaming toward the square, . More than 50 people were injured in the second consecutive day of clashes.
Thousands of protesters took over the square earlier in the week, setting up a camp with tents and placards, but they were driven out by riot police in a deadly assault Thursday that killed five people and injured more than 200. The government clamped down on Manama by sending the tanks and other armored vehicles into the streets around the square, putting up barbed wire and establishing checkpoints to deter gatherings.
According to a government statement, the withdrawal order came from Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces and the member of the royal family who has been designated to open a dialogue with protest leaders.
The statement said he had ordered "the withdrawal of all military from the streets of Bahrain with immediate effect."
"The Bahrain police force will continue to oversee law and order," the statement said.
It was not immediately clear if the tanks and other armored vehicles were headed all the way back to military bases.
The crown prince appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.
"The sooner we return to calm, the sooner we can reach our goals," Salman said.
"Citizens of Bahrain, let's work together with all political blocks to help return the security situation to normal so we can announce a day of mourning for those we've lost."
U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform."
Protesters who tried to march to the square Friday described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests.
The clash came hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront Iranian military influence.
Some members of Bahrain's Sunni ruling system worry that Shiite powerhouse Iran could use Bahrain's majority Shiites as a further foothold in the region.
The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed when security forces attacked a protest camp in Pearl Square — reflect a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.
The mood, however, has turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the crackdown, which put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.