Thousands flee Syria in major refugee exodus

Updated 11 November 2012
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Thousands flee Syria in major refugee exodus

ANKARA/DOHA: Thousands of Syrians fled their country on Friday in one of the biggest refugee exoduses of the 20 month war after rebels seized a border town.
Syria’s fractious opposition was meeting in Qatar, under increasing pressure from the United States and Qatar to unite and form a credible body capable of ruling the country effectively if President Bashar Assad falls.
The United Nations said 11,000 refugees had fled in 24 hours, most to Turkey. The exodus is testing the patience of Ankara, the most militarily capable of Syria’s neighbors and a strong opponent of Assad. Ankara has long said a full-blown refugee emergency would demand robust intervention.
Rebels overran the frontier town of Ras Al-Ain late on Thursday, continuing a drive that has already seen them push Assad’s troops from much of the north and seize several crossing points, a rebel commander and opposition sources said.
“The crossing is important because it opens another line to Turkey, where we can send the wounded and get supplies,” said Khaled Al-Walid, a commander in the Raqqa rebel division.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that compiles opposition activist reports, said at least 20 members of the Syrian security forces were killed when rebel fighters attacked a security headquarters in Ras Al-Ain.
Thousands of residents poured out of the Arab and Kurd town, in the northeastern oil-producing province of Hasaka, 600 km (375 miles) from Damascus.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan hit out at world powers on the UN Security Council over their inaction.
“It is very strange. There are currently atrocities being committed in Syria and these atrocities are being directed by a state leader,” he said. “How far will this go? When will the permanent members of the Security Council take responsibility?“
Turkey has responded in kind to mortar shells hitting its soil from fighting in Syria and is discussing with NATO allies whether to deploy Patriot air defense missiles on the border.
The Turkish state-run Anatolian news agency reported that 26 Syrian military officers had also arrived in Turkey with their families overnight in what it called the biggest mass desertion of senior soldiers from Assad’s forces in months.
The latest flight of refugees raised the total recorded by the United Nations to 408,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday it could not keep up with the increasingly dire needs of civilians.
Advancing rebels managed to fire mortars at the presidential palace in Damascus this week. Residents in the capital said security was being beefed up there. Assad told Russia Today television on Thursday he would “live and die in Syria,” echoing words of other Arab leaders before they lost power last year.
As rebels advance, an opposition Syrian National Council made up mainly of exiles has been seen as ineffective and out of touch with groups fighting on the ground. Western countries fear that means Islamist militants could seize power if Assad falls.
Qatar, which has bankrolled Assad’s enemies and played a leading role in Arab diplomacy against him, hosted an opposition meeting in its capital Doha, with senior US diplomats hovering on the sidelines and leaning hard on the opposition to unite.
A source inside meetings that lasted into the early morning hours said SNC members who had resisted a deal were now bowing to pressure for a new body that would give more voice to groups operating on the ground in Syria itself.
“We will not leave today without an agreement,” the source said. “The body will be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Once they get international recognition, there will be a fund for military support.”
An outline agreement could see the SNC and other opposition figures agree on a 60-member political assembly, mirroring the Transitional National Council in Libya, which united opposition to Muammar Qaddafi last year and took power when he fell.
“They will create a ‘temporary government’, which could take control of embassies around the world and take Syria’s seat at the UN, because the regime would have lost its legitimacy,” said the source.
The SNC, which has previously been the main opposition group on the international stage, may have around a third of the seats in the new body but would otherwise lose much of its influence. It was not yet clear whether the meeting in Doha would name members or broach the thorny issue of the new body’s leadership.
Qatar’s prime minister told delegates on Thursday to “get a move on” in a closed meeting in a Doha five-star hotel.
“The Qataris are not to going to let them leave here in failure after all this investment,” said a diplomatic source on the sidelines of the meetings. However, he sounded a note of caution: “Yes there will be an agreement, but is it sustainable? Is it well thought through and well prepared?“
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week called for overhauling the opposition, saying more representation was needed for those “on the frontlines and dying.” The SNC is due on Friday to complete elections to its executive council and choose a new leader, before continuing talks with other groups.
Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said the atmosphere at the talks was positive. “We all agree that we don’t want to walk away from this meeting in failure.”
In the last three months, the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels have captured outposts on the Turkish border, moving toward the northeastern heartland of Syria’s one million Kurds, many of whom have tried to stay clear of violence.
The Kurdish Council, a coalition of Kurdish parties opposed to Assad, called on rebels to pull their fighters out of Ras Al-Ain, saying the clashes and fear of Syrian bombardment had prompted most of its 50,000 residents to flee.


Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

On his first official visit to Israel and Palestine, Prince William is unlikely to talk about politics. Getty Images
Updated 23 June 2018
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Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

  • The second-in-line to the British throne is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
  • There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade

LONDON: Prince William will embark on the first official visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by a member of the British royal family on Sunday.

But even with more than 120 Palestinians killed in protests in Gaza during recent weeks and controversy still surrounding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the second-in-line to the throne is not expected to talk politics.
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Arab News that the four-day tour is likely to focus on making trade deals in preparation for Britain’s departure from the EU next year, rather than on addressing the moribund Middle East peace process.
“There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade,” he said.
The visit risks “normalizing” the abusive regime under which Palestinians live, he added.
“Of course Prince William has to go to both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors or there would have been outrage. But there is a risk of his visit making it appear more acceptable and normal to carry out abuses of international law like the blockade of Gaza,” Doyle said.
William begins his Middle Eastern tour on Sunday in Jordan, a long-time ally of Britain. On Tuesday he will move on to Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Holocaust victims, meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later attend a football event with a mixed Arab and Jewish team.
On Wednesday he will meet young activists, both Arab and Jewish, who are involved in education and social programs, and also cross into the Occupied Palestinian Territories to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before attending an event focusing on Palestinian refugees.
He is due to deliver a speech at a reception hosted by the American consul in Jerusalem. However, protocol prevents him from making any remarks that might be deemed partisan. Doyle told Arab News this was a pity in view of how William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, championed justice for the oppressed.
“It is a pity that someone of his status, who clearly cares about his mother’s legacy, cannot give voice to real major concerns about the treatment of the Palestinians and the human rights abuses that are daily issues for them under Israeli control but which will be airbrushed out,” he said.
“Yes, he will see co-operative programs and Arabs and Jews playing football together, but the reality is that the Palestinian footballers can only travel to matches with Israeli permission.”
William was a surprise choice for the visit. Many expected the task to fall to his father, Prince Charles, who has more experience of countries which are politically extremely sensitive. But it is thought he was chosen because his youth chimes better with young Israelis working in hi-tech fields who he is scheduled to meet. Among Palestinians, his presence will barely register, said Doyle.
“I hope the language can be found for him to say something to his Israeli hosts, that his visit will be more than window-dressing, but the reality is it’s very unlikely. So the visit won’t register as important with Palestinians. They don’t want to be part of some tourist show or box-ticking exercise,” he said.