On Monday, one day after six Red Cross workers were kidnapped in northwestern Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that three of the six Red Cross Members, along with a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer were “released safe and sound” in Syria. While it is known that the four aid workers were released in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, the circumstances under which they were released have not been made public. The humanitarian organization added that it was waiting on information relating to the three remaining workers. While Syrian state television blamed, what it called, armed terrorists, which is a term that has been frequently used to describe anti-government rebels, It remains unclear who is responsible for the kidnappings however hardline Islamist rebels are known to operate in the area and may be responsible for this latest incident.
The news of the release of the four hostages comes at a time when Syrian rebels have been urged to agree to a local ceasefire in order to allow access to international inspectors, who are working to locate and destroy the government’s chemical weapons arsenal.
On Sunday, gunmen abducted six Red Cross workers along with a local volunteer of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent near Saraqeb, in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria. The team had been on their way back to Damascus after delivering medical supplies in Sarmin and Idlib. The news of the kidnapping was confirmed by officials at the ICRC. ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson stated that “we are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of this team which was delivering humanitarian assistance to those in need – and we do that on both sides of the front lines.” The humanitarian agency also indicated that it had no contact with the unidentified gunmen but it was appealing for the seven to be freed immediately. The nationalities and gender of the ICRC staff has not been revealed however it is believed that the group includes both local and international staff in which most are thought to be medical specialists.
Syrian state media had reported the kidnapping earlier that day, stating that gunmen had kidnapped the Red Cross workers after they opened fire on their vehicles. Quoting an unnamed official, state news agency SANA indicated that the workers were travelling in the Idlib area when gunmen blocked their path, shot at the convoy, seized them and took them to an undisclosed location. Although the ICRC spokesman was not able to confirm whether or not shots had been fired during the kidnapping, the ICRC has indicated that the team’s vehicles were missing.
Kidnappings, especially of aid workers and journalists, have become increasingly common in northern Syria. In August of this year, the ICRC indicated that the number of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers who had lost their lives since the start of the conflict had risen to twenty-two. Although the rebels have captured a number of regions in the north, government forces continue to have some degree of control over the many urban centers that are located in the region. This has resulted in fighting which typically occurs on a daily basis. The conflict, which has been ongoing for two-and-a-half years, has claimed more than 100,000 lives and has driven more than 2.1 million citizens out of the country.
Algeria in Limbo as Bouteflika’s Health Remains In Question
On 27 April – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was rushed to Paris for treatment at Val-de-Grace Hospital for what is described as a “minor” stroke. The Algerian government reports he is doing well and convalescing in Paris, however, the government has also censored Algerian newspapers from reporting on his health. An Algerian publisher is facing prosecution for “harming state security” after two of his newspapers reported the president was in a coma nearly three weeks after being hospitalised.
Bouteflika is the leader of the National Independence Front (FLN), the party that has ruled over Algeria since it’s independence from France in 1962. Because the FLN is deeply intertwined with Algeria’s military, intelligence, and national corporations, opposition parties are weak by comparison. Algeria is essentially run as a one-party nation, and the absence and unknown condition of Bouteflika has caused a political crisis in a nation which is critical in the security of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
As it becomes increasingly realistic that Bouteflika will not run for a fourth term in the 2014 elections, leading figures are frantically searching for a replacement who will have the same backing by Algerian centres of power, and the Algerian public. The emerging leader would also have to have the faith of the international community that he would still work toward combating militant threats that are entrenched in the region.
In addition, the new leader must be able to respond to an increasing economic and demographic crisis: of Algeria’s population of 38 million, 20% are between ages 16 and 24, and 21% of the younger generation are either unemployed or underemployed. Unattended socio-economic issues could lead to uprisings against the current party. Official Gendarmerie Nationale figures report that over 9000 protests of various kinds have taken place in Algeria since the start of 2013. Last week, 1,600 workers in the oil-extraction zone of Hass R’mel went on a hunger strike, demanding that political and corporate leaders adhere to their promises to increase wages and improve working conditions. Economic predictions indication that oil revenues Algeria’s source of income, are declining, thus increasing the risk of socio-economic unrest.
While the FLN is urging continuing stability, members within the party who have backed Bouteflika are now jostling for position as his replacement. The in-fighting is likely to weaken the party, further creating uncertainty within the nation. Several youth movements have called for a change in political leadership. As Bouteflika recovers in Paris, many speculate that the vacuum created by his absence puts Algeria at risk for a national uprising which could allow militant groups, already in hiding on the outskirts of the nation, to gain access to the region.
US Embassy Warning to Civilians in Bahrain
3 June 2013 – The U.S. Embassy has issued a security warning about possible threats toward Americans in Bahrain. The message states, “Extremist elements of certain opposition groups have conducted surveillance on U.S. persons and locations where U.S. persons are known to reside and/or spend leisure time, including locations associated with night-life activities. These facilities and locations include, but are not limited to, the U.S. Embassy, the Naval Support Facility, the Bahrain School and American Alley.”
Diplomatic officials said there are no specific threats against U.S. personnel or facilities. There have been no attacks on U.S. citizens in Bahrain to date. However, Bahrain has experienced demonstrations stemming from the Shiite majority demanding a greater political voice in the Sunni-dominated political system. A segment of opposition appears to be growing increasingly radical in recent months.
A separate message from the US navy urged service members and families to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to base security personnel. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, with nearly 6,500 US personnel in the region.
Bombing suspects arrested, confess
2 June, 2013 – Bahraini police arrested ten suspects in connection to what is being called a “terrorist attack” on 29 May. A homemade explosive wounded seven policemen in Bani Jamra, six miles west of the nation’s capital.
Police initially responded to a terrorist blast in the region, finding rioters burning tyres in the village. After restoring order, as security patrols proceeded on foot to douse the tyres, the homemade device was detonated by remote. At least two policemen are in critical condition; one officer has required a leg amputation. Four officers sustained lesser injuries. Though police have been targeted previously, this bombing marked the most police casualties in a single attack.
Bahraini security identified suspects “from a house known to be used by conspirators to hatch terrorist plots”. Police confiscated weapons and equipment in the process of arresting ten suspects. According to the police, four of the suspects have confessed
Bani Jamra is believed to be the base of the Shirazi movement, a group that seeks regime change in Bahrain and is supported by Iran. Locations within the village have been used to store weapons and plan attacks. Weapons and explosive devices have been used against police in this area. Security forces are implementing procedures to ensure the safety of the public in the region.
Egyptian Court Rules Legislature was Illegally Elected
2 June, 2013- Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court has ruled that the nation’s Islamist-dominated legislature and constitutional panel were illegally elected. The ruling says that Shura Council, the legislature’s upper house (and the only active legislature since the dissolution of the lower chamber in June) would not be dissolved until the parliament’s lower chamber is elected later this year or early in 2014. Of the chamber’s 270 members, 180 were elected, and 90 were appointed by Morsi. Five percent of its members are Christians, and four percent are women. The Shura Council was elected by about seven percent of the electorate last year.
It is still unknown whether the ruling will impact the charter which was drafted by the 100-member constitutional panel. The constitution was adopted following a nationwide vote in December with only 35% voter turnout. Critics believe the charter restricts freedoms and gives clerics a say in legislation.
To prevent confusion Morsi’s office issued a statement emphasising that all state institutions must respect the constitution; and that the Shura Council will continue to function as the nation’s legislature. However, the ruling adds to the political instability that has gripped the country since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Egyptian- Ethiopian Tensions Escalate over Controversial Dam
31 May, 2013 – In a highly contested move, Ethiopia has started to divert a stretch of the Blue Nile—one of the two major tributaries to the Nile River— to make way for a hydroelectric dam. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is part of £ 8 billion investment project to boost power exports. The dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region bordering Sudan, and will eventually have a capacity equivalent to six nuclear power plants.
The reserve of the dam requires 74 billion cubic metres of water, which Ethiopia plans to meet in five years. This could cut off over 20% of water to Egypt. Egypt and Sudan object to the dam, saying that it violates a colonial-era agreement, which gives them rights to 90% of the Nile’s water. Ethiopia decided to go ahead with the project just days after a state visit by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a move that has been called “extremely humiliating to Egyptians” by Morsi’s opposition.
In a few days, experts from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will announce the findings of a study into the impact of the Ethiopian dam on the Nile’s flow. Egypt’s growing population is increasingly dependent on the water supply, with the nation’s National Planning Institute estimating that Egypt will require an additional 21 billion cubic metres of water per year by 2050 – above its current annual quota of 55 billion metres – to meet the needs of a projected population of 150 million.
Opposition leaders have suggested that in retaliation, Egypt could close the strategic Suez Canal to ships from nations such as China, which are helping Ethiopia to build the dam. Hamdeen Sabbahi,
co-leader of the National Salvation Front, stated that Egypt is capable of prohibiting ships from transiting the Suez Canal “until they stop harming Egypt’s interests.”
A source within the government stated that if Ethiopia fails to reach an agreement, Egypt could take the matter to International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Egypt Sends More Forces to Control Sinai Peninsula
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sent dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers to Sinai following the kidnap of seven Egyptian security officers. The kidnappings underscored a security vacuum in the peninsula, which borders both Israel and the Gaza Strip. Following the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the region has been rife with criminal and terrorist activity as militants have taken advantage of the absence of security forces. Smuggling, bombing of gas pipelines, and attacks on police stations have become prevalent.
The kidnappers, who have since released the abducted security officers, sought the release of their group members who had been jailed for deadly attacks on a tourist hotel and a police station.
Morsi initially sought accommodation, issuing a statement saying he would be “vigilant in protecting the souls of all, be they the kidnapped or the kidnappers.” However, days later, Morsi had changed his stance, and stated that “all available means” would be used to free the men. Egyptian forces shut down two border crossings and deployed the largest military movement in Sinai since August 2012.
Egyptian human rights organizations warned the government against a “short-sighted security solution” that did not address the grievances of Sinai’s residents.
Wave of Violence Continues in Iraq
2 June, 2013 – Iraq has been hit by a wave of violence that killed over 600 people in May, raising fears of all-out sectarian conflict. On 2 June, an attack in the western Province of Anbar killed seven people as gunmen kidnapped five others .
Armed men killed three Syrian truck drivers, setting their vehicles on fire near the town of Al-Rutba, near the Syrian Border. Near the site, the gunman kidnapped a policeman and a civilian, as further north, gunmen abducted another civilian and two more police officers.
It is unclear whether the abductions were conducted by members of the same group.
60,000 Syrian Refugees Return Home
30 May, 2013 – Nearly 60,000 Syrian refugees have left the Jordan, and returned home. Some refugees intend to fight President Bashar Assad’s regime, other have left because living conditions in their camp have become too difficult.
Jordan has hosted nearly half a million Syrian refugees, with nearly 150,000 living at the Zaatari camp near Syria’s border. The nation’s resources to cope with the influx have increasingly dwindled. Last week, the US signed a letter of intent, promising Jordan an aid package of $200 million to support Syrian refugees. The U.N. refugee agency is expected to issue a fresh appeal for help in June.
Pro-Syrian Forces Gain Victory in Qasair
3 June, 2013 – Syrian pro-government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies have gained control of the border town of Qusair. The victory is a severe setback to fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After two weeks of heavy fighting, the town has been reduced to piles of concrete.
Qusair is a strategic town; victory for the Syrian government would strengthen Assad’s control over the province of Homs, which would connect Damascus with the Alawite strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. A victory in Qusair for the rebels protects their supply lines through Lebanon.
Over 500 rebels have been killed, and a 1,000 wounded during the two weeks of combat. Only 400 rebel fighters remained, and were outgunned by Syrian forces and Hezbolla. The remaining survivors retreated, escaping through a corridor the attackers deliberately left open to encourage flight.
On 2 June, clashes erupted between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli, wounding at least 14 people. In addition, three rockets from Syria struck north-eastern Lebanon; only a day after 18 rockets and mortar rounds hit the Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon’s eastern Baalbek region. Last week, the Lebanese parliament delayed general elections scheduled for this month for another 17 months, citing a deteriorating security situation.
The latest confrontations between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian rebels come amidst increasingly incendiary rhetoric between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region. Hezbollah’s involvement in the battle over Qusair has also raised tensions with Syrian rebels, who have threatened to target Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon.
A member of a pro-Assad Syrian militia said the military focus may now move to the northern province of Aleppo, which has been largely in rebel hands for the last year.
Libya withholds Saif al Islam Gaddafi from International Criminal Court
Saif al Islam Gaddafi, son of the late leader Moammar Gaddafi, was captured in 2011 and remains in the custody of a local militia. The ICC has indicted him on war crimes charges stemming from the 2011 Libyan uprising. The charges include: indirect co-perpetrator of murder and persecution as crimes against humanity, use of security forces to carry out attacks against civilians, and assuming “essential tasks” against government opposition.
Because Gaddafi is not in official custody, Libya is not prepared to host a trial. Further, members of Libya’s judiciary believe Saif al-Islam should be tried in Libya, to revive faith in the Libyan judiciary.
In Zintan, where Gaddafi is being held, he faces additional charges based on actions in 2012, after the ousting of his father. He is held for complicity in exchanging information, obtaining documents that threaten national security and insulting the national flag.
Judges at The Hague recognise Libya’s efforts to restore the rule of law, however they state that Libya continues to “face substantial difficulties in exercising fully its judicial powers across the entire territory.”
Turkish Activists Issue Demands
5 June, 2013 – As the nation enters nears its first full week of unrest; Turkish activists have presented a list of demands which could anti-government protests in Turkey.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, met with leaders of the protest group as Prime Minister Edrogan left Turkey for a diplomatic visit to Northern Africa. Arinc apologises to protesters for what he called a “wrong and unjust” crackdown on a sit-in to prevent authorities from ripping up trees in Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square. The heavy handed response to the peaceful protest sparked a nationwide response against what demonstrators see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
The activist leaders, known as the “Taksim Solidarity Platform”, consist of academics, architects, and environmentalists who are opposed to the redevelopment of Taksim Square, the only green space remaining in Istanbul’s commercial district. The group denounced Erdogan’s “vexing” style and called for the halt of Taksim Square redevelopment plans. The group also called for a ban on the use of tear gas by police, the immediate release of detained protesters, and eliminating restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Finally, the group demanded that all officials responsible for the violent crackdowns be removed from office.
Turkey’s cities have been clouded in tear gas, and hundreds of people have been injured in five days of demonstrations. Over 3,300 people have been detained during the demonstrations, though most have been released.
Yemen Launches Offensive Against al-Qaeda
6 June, 2013 – Over ten thousand Yemeni troops, backed by tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets, launched an offensive in the southern Yemen province of Hadramawt to drive al-Qaeda militants from the area. At least seven suspected militant have been killed and many injured. The Yemeni military also destroyed weapon caches and took equipment, explosives and motorcycles. Civilians in the region have been instructed to stay indoors. One military commander was killed and five others were wounded.
The operation is the result of efforts by Yemen’s new government to force remaining al-Qaeda militants out of their strongholds. US analysts call the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen one of the world’s most active terror networks.
Former rebels are engaging in Yemen’s six-month National Dialogue, an attempt to bring all of Yemen’s rival groups, political parties, religious and tribal leaders together for discussion of a new political system as the country prepares to draft a new constitution.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued a travel advisory against
all but essential travel to Turkey. Demonstrations are taking place in cities across the country. Police are using tear gas and water cannons in response. Foreigners are advised to avoid all demonstrations.
Anti-government demonstrations have entered their third day as battles between police and protesters have spread to 48 cities in Turkey.
The protests initially began as a sit-in over a development project which threatened to redevelop Gezi Park, the last patch of green space in the commercial district of Istanbul. Demonstrators attempted to prevent workers from razing some of the 600 trees for the restoration of Ottoman-era military barracks which will be turned into a shopping centre.
Turkish police responded to the demonstrators by using electric shock batons and tear gas, sparking national protests against what opposition calls the government’s limiting of personal freedoms and an “increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda”.
By Saturday, the protests had spread to over 90 separate anti-government demonstrations in 48 cities throughout Turkey. Thousands of Turkish residents in Istanbul marched on Taksim Square, chanting “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and “government resign.” The protests mark the largest demonstrations against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which were elected in 2002, and re-elected in 2007. Erdoğan has indicated his desire to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
As clashes escalated, demonstrators attacked police cars and destroyed property. Media in the region has been shut down or limited, further stirring anger among citizens. Turkish police report 26 police officers and 53 civilians had been hurt. Unconfirmed reports from Amnesty International claim that two people had been killed and over 1,000 injured. Police arrested and detained 939 people around the nation. Most have since been released; the remainder will be put on trial.
The harsh methods used by the Turkish police have sparked outrage worldwide. On Saturday, amid outcry from the UK, US, and Amnesty International, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the police to withdraw from the demonstrations. Erdoğan admitted to the extremism in police response; however he maintains that the redevelopment of Gezi Park was an excuse for the unrest believing his main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), are responsible stirring tensions. Edrogan also offered to speak to the protesters, however there is no clear leader of the demonstrations. The Prime Minister pledged to continue with plans to redevelop Taksim Square.
On Sunday morning, despite isolated clashes, the atmosphere is relatively peaceful, however, the protests are expected to occur in the afternoons and evenings, and are suspected to be sustained.