- Created on 28 October 2013
Photo: AP Photo/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin
JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- Hundreds of people in the disputed border region of Abyei voted Sunday in a referendum that they hope will decide whether they join Sudan or South Sudan, a local leader said, but the exercise lacked the official backing of either of the governments.
The exercise was proceeding peacefully Sunday, said Luka Biong, spokesman for the Abyei Referendum High Committee, a civic group that is organizing the vote. He said the results of the three-day vote will be announced on Oct. 31.
"This reminds me of what happened in January 2011 when the people of South Sudan voted for their independence," he said. "This was a special moment, a historic moment. This was like crowning the history of the struggle of the people of Abyei. I saw my people so determined."
Both Sudan and South Sudan claim ownership of the oil-rich Abyei area, whose status was unresolved after South Sudan became independent from its northern neighbor in 2011.
The region's majority Ngok Dinka people are believed to be in favor of joining South Sudan. The Sudan-allied Misseriya nomads, who come to Abyei to find pasture for their cattle, are not participating in the referendum.
The voting was "going on very smoothly" across Abyei, confirmed Zacharia Deng Majok, a member of the Abyei Referendum High Committee.
"People are in a jovial mood here," he said. "The morale of the people is very high because they know they are making a choice for their future."
Up to 100,000 people are expected to participate in the vote despite warnings that the event might trigger violence in the border region. The African Union had warned against holding a referendum, saying such action could increase the risk of violence between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya. The Misseriya have warned that a referendum in which they are not participants should not take place.
The Abyei region is rich in oil, one of the reasons both Sudans are reluctant to give it up. An African Union panel mediating talks between the countries last year proposed a referendum to be held in Abyei this month to determine which country the region would join. The AU proposal said only the permanent residents of Abyei would be allowed to vote in the referendum. That proposal was rejected by Sudan, which says the nomadic Misseriya people - who spend up to six months each year in the Abyei area - should be eligible to vote.
The Sudan government in Khartoum has argued against any unilateral action in Abyei, with Foreign Minister Ali Karti saying the dispute can only be resolved through negotiations between the two countries.
- Created on 25 October 2013
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian state-run TV reported Friday the leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked rebel group has been killed — a claim that if confirmed would be a huge blow to fighters trying to topple President Bashar Assad. At least one rebel commander denied the report.
Abu Mohammad al-Golani heads Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as Nusra Front, which has emerged as one of the most effective among rebel groups fighting Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting in Syria, said senior Nusra Front leaders contacted by activists in Latakia and the eastern Deir el-Zour province denied al-Golani had been killed.
Other Nusra Front sources said they could not confirm or deny the report "because contact with al-Golani was cut," the Observatory said in a statement. A rebel commander in a Damascus suburb contacted by The Associated Press said he believed al-Golani was "alive and well" based on his contacts with other fighters including those from Nusra Front. He declined to elaborate or be identified for security concerns.
The report comes as the fragmented rebels have suffered significant losses on the battlefield.
Syrian troops killed at least 40 opposition fighters, including Nusra Front members, earlier Friday in an ambush near Damascus, the government said.
Assad's forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah gunmen also seized control of a rebel ammunition supply route on a highway linking the capital to its eastern suburbs — part of a blistering government offensive to bolster its position amid an international push for peace talks.
State TV said al-Golani was killed in the coastal province of Latakia. It did not say when or give other details. News of his death was not mentioned in the main headlines of the TV's late night news bulletin.
Al-Golani, who fought previously in Iraq, is a shadowy figure who is believed to have spent time recently in rebellious suburbs south of Damascus. Rebels have also gained footholds in mountainous regions of Latakia, which is largely loyal to Assad, and he may have gone there to direct fighting.
The Nusra Front is on a U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations. The group has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings against government targets.
Al-Golani gained prominence in April when he rejected an attempted takeover of the group by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, revealing a growing rift within al-Qaida's global network.
Al-Golani at the time distanced himself from claims that the two groups had merged into a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Instead, he pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
He said that al-Baghdadi's announcement of the merger was premature and that his group will continue to use Jabhat al-Nusra as its name.
The group is more popular in Syria than the ISIL, which is largely made up of foreign fighters and has been criticized for its brutality and for trying to impose a strict version of Islamic law in areas under its control.
Al-Golani's death could strengthen ISIL at a time of growing infighting between al-Qaida extremists and the more moderate rebels from the mainstream Free Syrian Army.
Assad's forces have been gaining ground in rebel-held areas around the capital, the seat of his power, and have made progress against outgunned and fragmented fighters in several areas.
On Friday, the state-run news agency SANA said 40 rebels died in the ambush near Otaiba, adding that soldiers seized a large arms cache, including anti-tank rockets.
The area is part of a region known as Eastern Ghouta, which was the scene of a chemical weapons attack in August believed to have killed hundreds.
The state-run Al-Ikhbariya television station broadcast footage showing more than a dozen bodies near the largely dried-out Otaiba lake, some wearing flak jackets strapped with ammunition. Automatic rifles and hand grenades lay nearby.
An unidentified Syrian army officer in the area told Al-Ikhbariya that foreign fighters were among the dead and that the ambush followed an intelligence tip.
The Observatory said at least 24 fighters, some of them foreign, were killed in the ambush, but it gave no further details and the differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
The offensive coincided with an international push for a peace conference to be held in Geneva. Both sides want to bolster their position on the ground ahead of the talks, expected next month. No final date has been set, however, and it is unclear whether the sides will reach an agreement on the agenda.
The Supreme Military Council, which brings together a collection of loosely-knit rebel brigades under the emblem of the Free Syrian Army, said Friday it refused to sit down with Syrian officials involved in killing Syrians. Comments carried by the Syrian National Coalition, the group's political wing, also dismissed the proposed talks for lacking a way to reach concrete results.
In other violence, a car bomb blew up near a mosque in in the village of Wadi Barada outside of Damascus shortly before Friday prayers ended. The Observatory said 40 people were killed in the blast and dozens wounded. SANA said the car blew up as it was being rigging with explosives. The agency said a number of people were killed.
The ambush near Damascus came hours after Assad's forces captured the town of Hatitat al-Turkomen south of the city, securing a key highway that links the capital with the Damascus International Airport.
North of Damascus, rebels and government forces clashed for a fifth consecutive day in the Christian town of Sadad. Al-Qaida-linked groups captured a checkpoint earlier this week that gave them control of the western part of the town.
Archbishop Silwanos Al-Nemeh told The Associated Press in a telephone interview as many as 3,000 civilians were trapped, and he appealed for international organizations to help civilians flee the area.
Also Friday, Norway rejected a U.S. request for it to receive the bulk of Syria's chemical weapons for destruction, saying it doesn't have the capabilities to complete the task by the deadlines set by an international chemical watchdog.
The United Nations has set a mid-2014 deadline for the destruction of Syria's arsenal — a deadline Brende said was too tight for Norway.
On Friday, the OPCW said its inspectors visited a site the day before and verified that all of its previous chemical weapons-related equipment has been dismantled. That brings to 19 the total number of sites visited by OPCW inspectors, of 23 that have been disclosed by Syria.
The Syrian conflict has left more than 100,000 people dead and driven nearly 7 million more from their homes.
- Created on 25 October 2013
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The International Criminal Court on Friday overturned a decision excusing Kenya's deputy president from attending his trial on charges of orchestrating deadly violence after his country's 2007 election.
The decision by appeals judges means William Ruto must - in principle - appear at his trial, but can still be excused on a "case by case" basis.
"The presence of the accused must remain the general rule," said the court president, Judge Sang-hyun Song.
The ruling could deepen a rift between the court and African leaders who accuse it of unfairly targeting their continent. It could also set a precedent for Kenya's president, whose trial on similar charges is scheduled to start next month.
The African Union earlier this month said it wanted the U.N. Security Council to defer the Kenya trials at the ICC for a year. The Hague-based court has only indicted Africans in more than a decade of operation.
However, while overturning the decision to issue a blanket excusal from trial for Ruto, the appeals panel left open the option for judges to let Ruto stay at home for parts of his case - but he would have to seek permission each time he wanted to miss hearings.
In June, judges said Ruto could skip most of his trial so that he could exercise his duties as deputy of head of state. Prosecutors appealed and Ruto has, so far, attended much of his case.
The five-judge appeals panel acknowledged that trial judges have the power to excuse a defendant, but "interpreted the scope of its discretion too broadly" in giving Ruto what amounted to "a blanket excusal" from his trial, Sang said.
Trial judges exercised their discretion last month when they adjourned Ruto's case for a week so he could fly home to deal with the aftermath of the deadly terror attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi.
Ruto, who is on trial alongside broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang, has pleaded not guilty to crimes against humanity for allegedly organizing violence targeting his political opponents after Kenya's 2007 presidential vote. More than 1,000 people died in tribal clashes in December 2007 and January 2008.
Kenyatta, who was elected president earlier this year, faces similar charges of involvement in attacks on his political rivals after the 2007 vote. He, too, insists he is innocent, and he has asked judges to throw out the case, claiming it is built on false witness testimony and is an abuse of process.
Judges preparing for his trial last week excused him from attending most of the hearings in a case that will likely take many months to complete.
Prosecutors said in a statement they will now ask the panel of judges preparing for Kenyatta's trial to "reconsider its decision to conditionally excuse Mr. Kenyatta from continuous presence at his trial" or allow prosecutors to appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, Kenyatta asked the court to delay the scheduled Nov. 12 start of his trial, arguing in a written motion that the court should hold a hearing into his claims made earlier this month of abuse of process and that he is still dealing with the fallout from the Westgate mall attack and is needed in Kenya.
Kenyatta's lawyers said the trial, which already has been pushed back twice, shouldn't begin before Feb. 12.
- Created on 24 October 2013
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Tens of thousands of people in Senegal struggling with advanced cancer and other illnesses are left with only basic headache medicines to treat their pain because the country does not have enough morphine in stock, according to a report released Thursday.
Only about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the powerful opioid drug is available each year in the West African country — enough for less than 200 people, Human Rights Watch found. As a result, those already confronting the pain of death are now spending their final months often unable to even sleep or eat because of their agony.
Fatoumata Seck, a 33-year-old woman from Mali battling advanced cervical cancer, described her pain without morphine as "infernal." She told Human Rights Watch it was "by far the worst pain" she'd ever felt in her life, even after having delivered six babies.
Morphine's use has long been strictly regulated because of the potential for addiction and overdose. Advocates, though, say as a result people in the final stages of cancer are needlessly dying in excruciating pain.
As in many countries in West Africa, Senegalese families struggle to pay not only the costs of medical care but also for travel expenses to hospitals and clinics in the capital. Many patients are diagnosed in the advanced stages of cancer because early screening is not available or out of reach financially.
"Unless palliative care becomes available near their homes, these people will continue to die in horrific circumstances when they fall ill with cancer or other chronic illnesses," the report said.
Senegal's National Pharmacy says it has added oral morphine tablets to its 2012 essential medicines list and plans to begin importing more of it later this year.
Government regulations, though, still require patients to get the drug from only a limited number of regional and national hospitals. Restrictions on prescriptions also mean families must refill morphine weekly.
And even when family members do make the journey, sometimes they find the drug is not in stock. Only a handful of places have oral morphine at all, and the report found the "complication authorization and important process creates many opportunities for delays."
Alboury Seck told HRW during one morphine shortage he sent a relative abroad in hopes he could bring back some of the drug. He rationed his remaining pills but nothing else could keep the pain from advanced prostate cancer at bay.
"I tried to bear the pain for two to three days, and when I could not handle it, I would take one pill," he said. "I went to all the pharmacies and they do not sell it. I tried to use Tylenol, Motrin, it is the only thing I have with me. Two, three, four times a day, but it is not enough. Only the morphine works."