Weekly News Brief 9/21

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Syria

Last Friday, air strikes hit rebel-held police stations in Aleppo, right before talks before UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was scheduled to meet with opposition groups. On Saturday, Brahimi met with President Bashar. After the meeting, Brahimi said, "This crisis is deteriorating and represents a danger to the Syrian people, to the region, and to the whole world." For some of Brahimi's comments, see Al Jazeera's video here, and the full interview here. Clashes in Aleppo and Damascus continued Saturday, and the Syrian army, after a week of fighting, has taken over most of the central district of Midan. There are reports that today, September 20, between 54 and 110 people were killed in air strikes in the northern province of al-Raqqa. For more on the situations in Apello, Homs, Idlib, and more, see Al Jazeera's article here.

Iraq's fugitive vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, who fled Iraq in December, says that Iran is using Iraqi airspace to fly supplies to al-Assad's forces, and that Iraqi militia fighters have crossed into Syria to support his troops. Iran, however, says that the country is still undecided upon whether or not to assist the Syrian government. Turkish authorities have begun to take steps to stop Syrian refugees from entering their country. While refugees have been tolerated up until now, a Syrian refugee says that police gave him 24 hours to leave. Saudi Arabia, which has been critical of the Assad regime's crackdown on opposition groups, is blocking Syrians from performing the annual Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj this year.

Russia and China vetoed three rounds of sanctions against Assad, saying they were tricked into the Libya decision, and are determined to fight for a political solution to the Syria crisis. Pope Benedict, on a three day visit to Lebanon, called for a halt to weapons imports to Syria, calling them a "grave sin" and calling Arab uprisings a positive "cry for freedom," as long as they include religious tolerance. OnMonday, the Syrian Contact Group, which includes Foreign ministers from Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, met for the first time, optimistic that diplomatic means can end the crisis in the country. Saudi Arabia, who is part of the group, was not present. Today, diplomats from over 60 nations and the Arab League met in The Hague to discuss toughening and improving sanctions against the Assad regime.

According to the former head of Syria's chemical arsenal, the Syrian regime plans to deploy chemical weapons "as a last resort." Human Rights Watch has called for an end to both regime and opposition use of torture and executions, reminding is that opposition forces also must respect human rights. For their report, click here.

For Al Jazeera's Live Blog on Syria, click here.

Sudan

On Wednesday, September 19, Minnawi’s fighters (SLM-MM) clashed with Sudanese troops in North Darfur and captured 12 vehicles, according to statement by the rebel group spokesman Adam Saleh Abkr. The Sudanese army convoy was heading to Jebel Marra.

Minnawi’s movement signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government in May 2006, but the group resumed hostilities with Khartoum in 2010, citing lack of implementation of Abuja agreement. Consequently, Minnawi could not join the Doha process as Khartoum preferred only negotiating for the implementation of the signed deal.” In November 2011, the group forged a rebel alliance, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), with the SLM-AW, SPLM-North and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

According to U.S. Special Envoy for Darfur, Dane Smith, the security situation in Darfur deteriorated compared to 2011. ''We are disappointed with the degree of implementation of the Doha agreements,” he noted. Although the basic structures of the Darfur Regional Authority are theoretically viewed to be in place, due compensation, disarmament of militias, and other pertinent, tangible benefits to the people of Darfur remain to be realized. “I think that the militias are a problem and certainly some of the security forces that have been drawn from the militias. In particular we see problems with the central reserve police,” he added.

Meanwhile Sudan Armed forces (SAF) has announced the seizure of a rebel position in Blue Nile state on Wednesday, September 20, 2012. SAF spokesperson, Al-Sawarmi Kahlid, said the Sudanese troops took the control of Sarkam area located on the south-western part of Blue Nile state. Fighting between government forces and SPLM-N in Blue Nile started in September 2011 following the failure of talks to end clashes between the two parties in the neighboring South Kordofan.

But when contacted for comment regarding the incidence, SPLM-N spokesperson Arnu Ngutulu Lodi could not confirm the facts of the fighting, but pledged to supply more details at a later time. Political talks between the two parties are “complicated by the delay of humanitarian access to the rebel held areas and also the slow progress in the discussions over security issues between Sudan and South Sudan,” according to analysis. Although in Addis Ababa the UN Security Council is expected to meet next week to discuss on the process, already the indirect talks have been stalled over demands from both sides.

South Sudan

The South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURA) is intensifying the campaign against the death penalty in the country, saying killing people as punishment is an “outrageous and inhumane” act toward the right to life. According to Biel Boutros Biel, the Executive Director of SSHURSA, “the death penalty must be scraped off in the books of South Sudan.” The issue of the death penalty was first raised and condemned by the Comboni Missionaries. Last month, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights strongly criticized South Sudan after two men were executed in a central prison located in the country’s capital Juba. The executions, according to the UN, largely contradict the global trend and position on the death penalty, as many countries strive to abolish the practice, which was endorsed by it General Assembly.

In Yambio, South Sudan, the SPLA and UPDF have intensified the hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. According to the report, “Two thousand soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) and 500 from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were officially handed in a ceremony in Yambio, attended by heads of Diplomatic Corps, Defense Ministers and senior military officials from the two Countries.”

Previously, 360 soldiers of the Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA), Central Africa Republic, were handed over to the AU on September 12. The African Union Ambassador on the LRA Francisco Madeira hailed the commitment by the two countries, saying, “the immediate plan…will be to deploy these troops to protect the vulnerable population ,to track and combat LRA elements and also facilitate where necessary the delivery of Humanitarian assistance.”
The significant military pressure by both UPDF and SPLA is expected to cause more LRA defection and surrenders as well as rescue of abductees still being held hostage.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Yesterday, there was a hearing before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa to discuss the issue of the M23 in eastern Rwanda. “Congress, in your hands you have the salvation of all Congolese people,” said Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, bishop of the United Methodist Church of North Katanga, Congo. Also present was Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, who testified that the international community should consider expanding sanctions to reach those responsible for supporting the M23. Jason Stearns of Congo Siasa, said the United States should “take the lead in exerting economic pressure on Kigali.”

Herve Ladsous, the UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations, has said that the M23 is establishing a ‘de facto administration,’ controlling populations and taking taxes. DR Congo’s Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu suggests embargoing minerals coming from Rwanda as a partial solution to the problem. It is well known that many minerals are smuggled from Congo to Rwanda and sold to other countries. For more on this, see Jason Stearns’ interviews with the UN Group of Experts earlier this year. On September 27, there will be a meeting to discuss the situation at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

In other news, Sudan and Uganda have sent 2,500 troops into the DRC and Central African Republic in pursuit of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. 2,000 of the troops come from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and 500 from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

In western Congo, where the capital, Kinshasa, lies, there is a strong underground scene of politically conscious musicians. Sick of false promises by politicians, they rap to express themselves and denounce the corrupt government. Kinshasa is often considered the home of African music--interested in hearing more? Check out Staff Benda Bilili, a band consisting of disabled artists and street children making reggae-inspired activist music, Kin Mafia Style (KMS) and Lexxus Légal.

Burma

On Monday September 17, Myanmar pardoned more than 500 prisoners including many political detainees and foreigners. The amnesty comes before Myanmar President Thein Sein is due to visit the US and UN later this week. However, opposition groups estimate more than 300 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars.

Also, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader of Burma, is in the US this week for a 17 day trip. On Wednesday September 19, she accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honour in the nation. She is later due to meet with President Barack Obama before traveling to other parts of the US. 

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