Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fierce clashes in Cairo, Clinton voices outrage

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian police and soldiers firing guns and teargas fought to clear protesters from Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday, the fifth day of clashes that have killed 13 people and drawn a stinging rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton condemned as "particularly shocking" incidents such as one in which two Egyptian soldiers were filmed dragging a woman protester on the ground by her shirt, exposing her underwear, then clubbing and kicking her.
"Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago," America's top diplomat said in a speech at Washington's Georgetown University Monday.
The United States, which saw Egypt as a staunch ally in the era of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, gives Cairo $1.3 billion a year in military aid.
Clinton said women had been mostly shut out of decision-making by Egypt's ruling military and by big political parties.
"Women protesters have been rounded up and subjected to horrific abuse. Journalists have been sexually assaulted. And now, women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets," she added.
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people."
Her remarks were among the strongest criticism of Egypt's new rulers by U.S. officials.
General Adel Emara, a member of Egypt's army council that took over after Mubarak was overthrown in February, said on Monday the attack on the woman protester was an isolated incident that was under investigation.
"HITLER'S INCINERATORS"
Gunfire rang out across Tahrir Square at dawn as security forces charged hundreds of protesters attempting to hold their ground, activists and a Reuters journalist at the scene said.
After a night of clashes, hundreds of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule were in Tahrir in the morning.
Medical sources say 13 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the violence that began Friday in Tahrir and nearby streets leading to parliament and the cabinet office.
Army generals and their advisers have condemned the pro-democracy protesters, sometimes in extraordinarily harsh terms.
"What is your feeling when you see Egypt and its history burn in front of you?" retired general Abdel Moneim Kato, an army adviser, told al-Shorouk daily, referring to a government archive building set alight during clashes. "Yet you worry about a vagrant who should be burnt in Hitler's incinerators."
General Emara said "evil forces" wanted to sow chaos and that soldiers had shown "self-restraint" despite provocation.
"What is happening does not belong with the revolution and its pure youth, who never wanted to bring down this nation," he said. Despite the actions of the security forces in Tahrir, Emara denied that the army had given orders to clear the square.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticized the use of "excessive" force by the Egyptian authorities. Rights groups said suppliers should not send small arms to Egypt.
The flare-up has also marred a staggered parliamentary election that began on November 28 and ends on January 11, but the army has said a promised transition to civilian rule will go ahead.
Results so far suggest the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Salafi Islamists will dominate the lower house.
VIOLENCE IN TAHRIR
Before the latest charge by the security forces in Tahrir, protesters had been trying to tear down a brick wall the army had put up to block access to parliament, located nearby.
"Hundreds of state security forces and the army entered the square and began firing heavily. They chased protesters and burned anything in their way, including medical supplies and blankets," said a protester who gave his name only as Ismail.
"Some of those who fell had gunshot wounds to the legs," he added, speaking by telephone from Tahrir.
Politicians and members of parliament who had been staging a sit-in nearby tried to enter the square but were forced to turn back as the gunfire and clashes raged on, Ismail said.
The violent crackdown has alarmed rights groups. Amnesty International urged arms suppliers to stop sending small arms and ammunition to Egypt's military and security forces.
Reporters Without Borders complained of the army's "systematic use of violence against media personnel."
Many Egyptians want to focus on building democratic institutions, not street activism, but have nevertheless been shocked by the tactics of security forces in and around Tahrir.
The latest violence broke out just after the second stage of a six-week election for Egypt's new parliament that starts a slow countdown to the army's return to barracks. The military has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July.
Hard-core activists have camped in Tahrir since a protest against army rule on November 18, which was sparked by the army-backed cabinet's proposals to permanently shield the military from civilian oversight in the new constitution. A week of mayhem killed 42 people.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Dina Zayed; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

New Syrian law stipulates death for 'terrorists'

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's state-run news agency says President Bashar Assad has issued a new law under which anyone found guilty of distributing weapons for "terrorist acts" would be sentenced to death.
The Syrian government claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the nine-month uprising against Assad's rule. Government opponents deny that and say they are protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
SANA said Tuesday that according to the new law, anyone found guilty of weapons smuggling would be handed sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. Those smuggling and distributing weapons with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts would be sentenced to death.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BEIRUT (AP) — Syria agreed Monday to an Arab League plan to send foreign monitors, bowing to growing international pressure to end its bloody crackdown on a nine-month uprising. However the opposition saw the deal as a stalling tactic, especially given reports by activists that more than 100 people were killed on the same day.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo that an initial mission headed by one of his assistants will go to Syria within a day or two to discuss plans for 500 observers to eventually deploy around the country. He said they will be in small groups of at least 10 and each team will go to a different location.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem rejected accusations the regime was trying to stall, even though it delayed the monitoring agreement for weeks.
"The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers," he told reporters in Damascus.
He said the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," he said. But they will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with observers from member countries.
President Bashar Assad's regime accepted the monitors after Arab leaders warned they would turn to the U.N. Security Council to try to end the crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people since March.
Pressure from Syria's longtime ally Russia clearly played a role in the decision to allow observers.
Al-Moallem suggested that Damascus had agreed to sign on the advice of Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council. Two months ago, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria. But Moscow said last week it would work on a draft resolution at the U.N. that criticizes Syria for using disproportionate force against protesters.
The U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned human rights violations by Assad's government, calling for an immediate end to violence and implementation of the Arab League plan "without further delay."
Violence has escalated in recent weeks in Syria with more frequent armed clashes between military defectors and security forces. The increasing militarization of the conflict has raised fears the country is sliding toward civil war.
Activists said security forces killed up to 70 army defectors Monday as they were deserting their military posts near the Turkish border. At least 30 other people died in other violence across the country, the activists said. If accurate, it would be one of the heaviest daily tolls of the entire revolt.
Security forces shot and killed at least 20 people in the southern province of Daraa, in central Syria's Homs region and in the country's north. One person was killed when security forces opened fire on thousands of mourners in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan. The mourners were attending the funeral of a child who was gunned down by security forces a day earlier.
Syria has placed severe restrictions on journalists, and the reports by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group could not be independently confirmed.
By signing onto the Arab League plan, the Syrian regime stands to gain more time and to avert — for now at least — the possibility of wider international involvement in the crisis. But critics are skeptical that the regime will allow full, unrestricted access to trouble spots and said it was likely just a delaying tactic.
Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, accused the Assad regime of lying and said the signing was "worthless" in light of the brutal crackdown daily.
"The Syrian regime is maneuvering and wants to buy time," he said in Tunisia, where the group has been holding a three-day conference aimed at unifying Syria's fragmented opposition.
Ghalioun called for Arab military intervention to protect civilians and the creation of humanitarian corridors to deliver aid.
A Syrian-based anti-regime activist who identifies himself as Abu Hamza said the Syrian regime "has signed something it cannot implement." He said if the government withdraws the military from the streets, mass demonstrations will take pace throughout the country.
"This will automatically lead to the downfall of the regime," Abu Hamza said, declining to give his real name for fear of retribution.
The regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.
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AP writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo. Zeina Karam in Beirut and Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.

Paroled American Berenson arrives in US

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Paroled American Lori Berenson, who stirred international controversy when she was convicted of aiding Peruvian guerrillas, arrived in the United States Tuesday morning for her first visit home since Peruvian authorities arrested her in 1995.
Berenson's plane touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey around 7:35 a.m. The 42-year-old was greeted by two customs officers who escorted her to somewhere other than the usual passport checking area.
Berenson's mother, Rhoda Berenson, was waiting expectantly for her daughter in the international arrivals area of the airport.
"We are looking forward to the first holiday at home in a long, long time and many relatives who haven't met Salvador are excited to see him," she said, speaking of her 2-year-old grandson. "This is not a political time; this is a time for family, friends and holidays."
She said said they were heading to New York for the holidays.
Lori Berenson boarded a Continental Airlines flight at Lima's main airport late Monday under intense media scrutiny, as many in Peru wonder whether she will return to the country by the court-ordered deadline of Jan. 11.
Wearing a black turtleneck, black jeans and designer eyeglasses, Berenson told an Associated Press reporter while waiting for her flight that she intended to return to Peru. Berenson was accompanied by a U.S. Embassy employee.
"I just hope we don't get caught in a snow storm," she said, joking that such an occurrence in the U.S. would delay her return.
Berenson's departure capped three days of confusion after Peruvian authorities had prevented her from boarding a flight to New York on Friday despite a court approval allowing her to leave.
The authorities said Berenson, who had served 15 years on an accomplice to terrorism conviction before her parole last year, lacked an additional document.
Peruvian migration officials finally gave Berenson another document Monday clearing her to leave the country with her son to spend the holidays with her family in New York City.
Her father, Mark Berenson, said Monday that he was anxious to see her return.
"I'm just glad that they finally resolved the thing," he told the AP by phone from New York.
Lori Berenson admitted helping the Tupac Amaru rebel group rent a safe house where authorities seized a cache of weapons after a shootout with the rebels. She insists she didn't know guns were stored there and says she never joined the group.
In 1996, a military court of hooded judges convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison. After U.S. pressure, she was retried by a civilian court.
Mark Berenson said he went to sleep Friday night expecting to pick up his daughter and 2-year-old grandson, Salvador Apari, the following morning.
Instead, he was awakened by news that she had been blocked from returning and spent the rest of the night angry and unable to sleep.
It's not clear whether Berenson's delayed exit amounted to government harassment or whether she simply got caught between competing bureaucracies.
The court ruled that Berenson was not a flight risk. Her father told the AP that his daughter has every intention of returning to Peru.
By law, she must remain in Peru until her full sentence lapses unless President Ollanta Humala decides to commute it.
State anti-terrorism attorney Julio Galindo said he filed an appeal on Friday seeking to nullify the court ruling that approved Berenson's New York trip. He opposed Lori Berenson's parole from the start, and succeeded last year in having her returned to prison on a technicality for 2 1/2 months until a court ordered her freed in November.
Peru remains deeply scarred from its 1980-2000 conflict, which claimed some 70,000 lives.
Its gaping inequalities drew the young Berenson to Peru from El Salvador, where she had worked for the country's top rebel commander during negotiations that led to a 1992 peace accord.
Tupac Amaru was a lesser player in Peru's conflict and Berenson sought it out, she told the AP in an interview last year, because it was similar to other revolutionary movements in Latin America.
The group never set off car bombs or engaged in the merciless slaughter of thousands as Shining Path rebels did, but it did engage in kidnappings and selective killings.
In the 1980s, it was known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food to the poor.
The group most famously raided the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996 during a party and held 72 hostages for more than four months. A government raid killed all the rebel hostage takers.
Berenson was arrested leaving Peru's Congress and accused of helping plan its armed takeover, which never happened.
She was initially unrepentant, but harsh prison life softened her. She was praised as a model prisoner in the report that supported her parole.
Some Peruvians still consider her a terrorist. She had been insulted in the street, and news media have repeatedly hounded and mobbed her.
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Associated Press writer Martin Villena contributed to this report.