Russia proposes inspection of gas attack site to avert Trump response

The Douma evacuation deal restores President Bashar Assad’s control over the entire Eastern Ghouta area — formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2018
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Russia proposes inspection of gas attack site to avert Trump response

  • There was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the US: Mikhail Bogdanov
  • Nikki Haley says Washington would respond to the suspected weapons attack in Syria regardless of whether the Security Council acted or not.
BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Russia said on Tuesday it will propose to the UN that international inspectors visit the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma, a move which follows US President Donald Trump’s warning of quick, forceful action in response to the incident.
At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured at several sites in the alleged attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, on Saturday, according to a Syrian relief group.
President Bashar Assad’s regime and Russia, his most powerful ally, said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.
But the incident has returned Syria’s seven-year conflict to the forefront of international concern and brought the possibility of Western military action against Assad’s forces.
Further heightening the volatility, Iran, Assad’s other main ally, threatened to respond to an airstrike on a Syrian military base which Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.
Meanwhile, on the ground, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held northwestern Syria after surrendering Douma to regime forces. 
The evacuation deal restores Assad’s control over all of Eastern Ghouta — formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday the Kremlin would submit a resolution to the UN Security Council proposing that inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigate the alleged attack in Douma.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the US.
TASS news agency quoted Nogdanov as saying Russia and US officials had “working contacts” over Syria and he believed common sense would prevail.
On Monday, Trump told a meeting of military leaders and national security advisers in Washington he would take a decision that night or shortly after on a response and that the US had “a lot of options militarily” on Syria.
“But we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed ... we can’t let that happen in our world ... especially when we’re able to because of the power of the United States, the power of our country, we’re able to stop it,” Trump said.
At the UN Security Council, the US plans to call for a vote on Tuesday for a new inquiry into responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, diplomats said.
If the US proposal is put to a vote, it would likely be vetoed by Russia.
At a meeting on Monday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington would respond to the suspected weapons attack in Syria regardless of whether the Security Council acted or not.
“This is basically a diplomatic setup,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Russia will inevitably veto the US resolution criticizing Assad, and Washington will use this to justify military strikes,” he said. “A breakdown at the UN will also make it easier for France to justify strikes.”
France said on Tuesday it would respond if it was proven that Assad’s forces carried out the attack. Any riposte would most likely be in coordination with the US, government aides said.
US officials told Reuters that Washington was weighing a multinational military response. Washington bombed a Syrian regime airbase last year over a toxic gas attack.
Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the US, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a “confrontational policy against Russia and Syria.”
“Russia is being unpardonably threatened. The tone with which this is being done has gone beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War.”
Initial US assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Assad’s forces were behind it.
Trump said, however, that Washington was “getting more clarity” on who was responsible.
A previous joint inquiry of the UN and the OPCW had found the Syrian regime used the nerve agent sarin in an April, 2017 attack and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. Damascus blamed Daesh militants for mustard gas use.
The suspected chemical attack came at the end of one of the deadliest regime offensives of the war, with an estimated 1,700 civilians killed in Eastern Ghouta in air and artillery bombardments. Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since an uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011.
The deal over the rebel evacuation of Douma took effect on Sunday, hours after medical aid groups reported the suspected chemical attack.
RIA news agency quoted Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying 3,600 militants and their families had left Douma over the past 24 hours. About 40,000 militants and their families are expected to leave, the pro-regime Watan newspaper said.
Sixty-seven buses carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule, reached opposition areas near Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
As part of the surrender deal, the Jaish Al-Islam group which controlled the town released scores of people it had been holding. Jaish Al-Islam’s departure will bring to an end the opposition presence in Eastern Ghouta after a seven-week military offensive against the densely populated area.

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Child bride auction in South Sudan goes viral, sparks Facebook anger

Updated 21 November 2018
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Child bride auction in South Sudan goes viral, sparks Facebook anger

JUBA: Five hundred cows, two luxury cars, $10,000, two bikes, a boat and a few cell phones made up the final price in a heated bidding war for a child bride in South Sudan that went viral after the auction was pointed out on Facebook. It is the largest dowry ever paid in the civil war-torn country, the government said.
The highest bidder was a man three times the 17-year-old’s age. At least four other men in Eastern Lakes state competed, said Philips Anyang Ngong, a human rights lawyer who tried to stop the bidding last month. Among the bidders was the state’s deputy governor.
“She has been reduced to a mere commodity,” Ngong told The Associated Press, calling it “the biggest test of child abuse, trafficking and auctioning of a human being.” Everyone involved should be held accountable, he said.
Earlier this month, Nyalong became the man’s ninth wife. Photos posted on Facebook show her sitting beside the groom, wearing a lavish dress and staring despondently at the floor. The AP is using only her first name to protect her identity.
South Sudan has a deeply rooted cultural practice of paying dowries for brides, usually in the form of cows. It also has a long history of child marriage. Even though that practice is now illegal, 40 percent of girls still marry before age 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The practice “threatens girls’ lives” and limits prospects for their future, said Dr. Mary Otieno, the agency’s country representative.
The bidding war has caused local and international outrage. It took several days for Facebook to remove the post that first pointed out the auction, and after it was taken down other posts “glorifying” the situation remained, George Otim, country director for Plan International South Sudan, told the AP.
“This barbaric use of technology is reminiscent of latter-day slave markets. That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world’s biggest social networking site in this day and age is beyond belief,” he said. The auction was discussed, not carried out, on the site.
Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.
While South Sudan’s government condemns the practice of child marriage it says it can’t regulate communities’ cultural norms, especially in remote areas.
“You can’t call it bidding as if it was an auction. It’s not bidding. If you see it with European eyes you’ll call it an auction,” government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told the AP. “You have to see it with an African eye, as it’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years. There’s no word for it in English.”
Some local lawmakers and activists disagree. In a statement released this week, the National Alliance for Women Lawyers in South Sudan called upon officials to comply with the government’s plan to end child marriage by 2030. Ending the practice includes putting a stop to the auctioning of girls.
South Sudan’s anti-human trafficking chief called the case reminiscent of others he has seen across the country, in which girls are forced or tricked into marriage after being told they are going to live with relatives and go to school instead.
“It is clear that some human trafficking practices are hidden in our culture,” John Mading said.
In other cases, some girls who grow up in the South Sudanese diaspora are brought back to the country and forced to marry. The AP spoke with several people who know girls who arrived for what they thought was a vacation, only to have their passports taken away and forced into marriage by their families.
“Some families want children to marry in their countries and in their ethnic communities, but most do it if the kids are misbehaving,” said Esther Ikere Eluzai, undersecretary for South Sudan’s ministry of gender.