Aid workers reach remote Syrian camp for 1st time

A convoy of vehicles of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent driving in the Syrian desert heading to Rukban camp between the Jordan and Syria borders, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. (Syrian Arab Red Crescent via AP)
Updated 04 November 2018

Aid workers reach remote Syrian camp for 1st time

DAMASCUS: UN officials and volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent offered children vaccinations and distributed desperately needed aid on Sunday, the first such assistance since January to reach thousands in a remote camp for the displaced on Syria’s border with Jordan.
Residents said that teams from international organizations entered their desolate camp for the first time since it was set up over three years ago, where nearly 50,000 have been stranded in limbo.
Fadwa Baroud of the United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator said it was the first time a UN aid convoy had accessed Rukban camp from inside Syria. She said aid workers were in the Rukban area.
Before January, aid only reached the camp from Jordan and aid workers were barred from accessing the camp because of security concerns.
The Arab Syrian Red Crescent and the United Nations posted pictures of staff unloading trucks of life-saving assistance and administering vaccines to children.
Residents posed with the aid trucks driving through the desolate camp, where 10,000 children are expected to be vaccinated.
The US-led coalition fighting against Daesh militants said its local allies, a Syrian armed group known as Maghawir Al-Thawra, provided security for the aid convoys.
Resident Abdul-Fatah Al-Khaled, who also runs a camp school, said aid workers, including UN staff, were on the ground at the camp for the first time.
“Before (January) the aid used to be distributed from the Jordanian side over the sand berms” or by rebel groups who resided in the camp, Al-Khaled said.
Al-Khaled said distribution of food and winter clothes began late Saturday.
People started gathering in Rukban three years ago, fleeing Daesh militants and airstrikes by the US-led coalition, Russia and Syria. Jordan sealed its border and stopped regular aid deliveries in 2016 after a cross-border Daesh attack that killed seven Jordanian soldiers. The attack, and other violence, fueled accusations that militants were hiding among camp residents and raised concern that deteriorating humanitarian conditions amounted to collective punishment.
The last aid delivery from Jordan was in January, leaving the camp’s residents dependent on goods largely smuggled from government-held areas. The situation sharply deteriorated after the Syrian government blocked supply routes last month following a botched reconciliation deal with rebel groups in the area.
Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, has blamed the US for the deterioration of the situation in Rukban, which is within a 55-square kilometer (20 sq. mile) “deconfliction zone” set up by US forces stationed in the nearby Tanf military base.
The US-led coalition has denied such allegations and blamed Russia and the Syrian government instead.
“We continue to stand ready to enable future delivery of UN humanitarian relief to the people of Rukban until they are able to return home as we pursue our mission of an enduring defeat of (Daesh),” said Maj. Gen. (UK) Christopher Ghika, a deputy commander for the US-led Coalition.
The UN said aid deliveries would continue for up to four days, describing the condition in the camp as “critical” with reported shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns and increasing violence.
At least four people have died in the past month due to malnutrition and lack of medical care as regional powers traded blame.
Also on Sunday, the US-led coalition conducted joint patrols with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces along the borders with Turkey, the second this week following increased tension after Turkish artillery shelled Kurdish positions in northeast Syria.
“Sunday’s joint patrol with the SDF is the second of the week, after the first one was conducted by US forces on Friday,” Col. Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman, told The Associated Press in an email. “The US forces’ assurance patrols enables us to maintain safety and security in the region, but are not carried out on a routine basis.”
Senior Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed said the patrols were conducted along the borders with Turkey in Ras Al-Ayn, Tal Abiyad and Manbij.
In recent tension, Turkey said its military shelled Kurdish positions across the border in Syria, east of the Euphrates River, at least twice last week, in an area where US-led coalition are based.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of SDF a terror threat and an extension of Kurdish rebels waging an insurgency within Turkey. US support for the Kurdish-led forces has resulted in increased tension between Washington and Ankara.
Separately on Sunday, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the pro-government daily Al-Watan that Syria would cooperate with the new UN envoy Geir Pederson if he avoids the “methods” of his predecessor, commits to the country’s territorial integrity and stops supporting “terrorists, as his predecessor did.”
Pedersen succeeds Staffan de Mistura, who steps down this month after four years of unsuccessful peace efforts.

Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

Updated 20 April 2019

Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

  • El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital
  • Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms.

CAIRO: Egyptians were voting on Saturday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former coup leader who presents himself as a rock of stability in a turbulent region.

Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow El-Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even greater influence in political life.

At a polling station in Manyal, a Cairo suburb overlooking the Nile, Mohamed Abdel Salam, 45, told AFP he was voting enthusiastically in support of the changes.

"I don't care about the presidential terms," he said.

"Sisi could stay forever as long as he's doing his job... and he has already done a lot"

The three-day referendum bucks the trend of North Africa's renewed uprisings, in which mass pro-democracy protests this month swept away veteran presidents in Algeria and Sudan.

Sisi himself was among the first to vote when polls opened, casting his ballot in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

In Shubra, a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, dozens of voters, mostly women carrying their children, queued outside a polling station in the local high school.

In Cairo, troops and police were deployed in numbers although the interior ministry declined to give any nationwide figures.

Egypt is still battling a hardened Islamic insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has seen attacks in Cairo and other cities.

Sisi has argued that he needs longer to complete the job of restoring security and stability after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

Out on the streets, Sisi's supporters waved flags bearing their campaign motto: "Do the Right" thing, as they pressed passers-by to turn out and vote 'Yes'.

The Egyptian leader won his first term as president in 2014, a year after he led the army in overthrowing elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his single turbulent year in power.

Standing virtually unopposed after the disqualification or withdrawal of all realistic challengers, he was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent.

Both elections drew heavy criticism from human rights groups as they were accompanied by swingeing crackdowns on dissent -- both Islamist and secular.

Human Rights Watch also took issue with the referendum on extending Sisi's rule, saying the "constitutional amendments" would "entrench repression".

In a statement Saturday, the New York-based watchdog criticised the "grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment" of the vote.

For the past few weeks, Egypt's streets have been awash with banners and billboards urging citizens to vote for Sisi, while popular folk singers have exhorted voters to go to the polls.

Pro-Sisi campaign volunteers handed out boxed meals at four different polling stations in Cairo to voters after they had cast their ballots, AFP reporters said.

A parliamentarian greeted voters and volunteers gave out vouchers for the meals in the Shubra district.

In Manyal, a DJ blared loud patriotic songs extolling the virtues of Egypt under Sisi's leadership, including a new song by iconic Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram dedicated to Egypt and called "Ragel ibn Ragel" (What a fine man).

But not everyone is upbeat about the changes.

Sporting casual attire, a voter in his mid-30s told AFP in Cairo: "We are all staff in the same company and we were instructed by management to go vote.

"I want to say 'No'... on extending the presidential terms and the amendments related to the judiciary," he said declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.

He pointed to his bosses nearby who were making sure employees were voting.

"Even if I say 'No', they (the authorities) are still going to do what they want in the end," he added despondently.

Earlier in the week, parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the consitutional changes, which also include the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a quota ensuring at least 25 percent of lawmakers are women.

Think tank the Soufan Center said the main effect of the referendum would be to "solidify Sisi's grip on the Egyptian political regime" in a country that "has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak".