- Created on 21 December 2012
(AP) — Thousands of Islamists clashed with their opponents on Friday in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, a day before the second leg of voting on a proposed constitution that has deeply polarized the nation.
Riot police swung batons and fired volleys of tear gas to separate the stone-throwing crowds, made up of Muslim Brotherhood members and ultraconservative Salafis on one side, and youthful protesters on the other. The clashes started when the two groups met just after Friday afternoon prayers near the city's main mosque.
The demonstrators, some of whom carried black Islamic battle flags, withdrew from the mosque area under a heavy cloud of tear gas some two hours after the clashes began. Fighting continued along the coastal road of the Mediterranean city, near the Medical School and famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
At least 42 people were being treated for injuries, with some rushed to the hospital, a city health official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
It was unclear who started the fight. Islamists had called for a big rally outside the Qaed Ibrahim mosque, and some 20 liberal political parties had said they would not hold a rival gathering to avoid clashes.
Security forces had cordoned off streets leading to the mosque as throngs of Salafi Islamists, most wearing the long beards favored by the movement, gathered for what they called "the million-man rally to defend clerics and mosques." Some chanted "God is Great," and warned opponents: "with blood and soul, we redeem Islam."
The rally was called in response to violence last week, when a well-known Alexandrian Salafi cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, was trapped inside a mosque for 12 hours while his supporters battled rock-throwing opponents outside with swords and firebombs.
El-Mahalawi, 87, had stirred anger with a sermon in which he denounced opponents of the Islamist-friendly draft charter as "followers of heretics." He denied that in a sermon on Friday, accusing the media of spreading "lies," and claiming that last week's clashes were meant to prevent voting on the constitutional referendum.
The final round of voting on the disputed charter is to be completed Saturday in the remaining 17 of Egypt's 27 provinces.
Critics charge that the Islamist-dominated body that wrote the draft document did not represent all Egyptians. Liberal and Christian members quit the assembly to protest clauses and articles they say were rammed through by hardline members aiming to create a religious state.
The opposition National Salvation Front reiterated its call on Friday for voters to oppose the document, and one of the group's leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged President Mohamed Morsi to suspend the referendum and form a new constituent assembly.
With election authorities, army and police preparing for Saturday's voting however, ElBaradei's televised message looked unlikely to shift Morsi's position.
"If this constitution passed, there will be no stability," said Baradei, a Nobel Laureate and Egypt's leading pro-democracy advocate.
The first round of voting was held in 10 provinces last Saturday, including in Egypt's biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria. Turnout was low, around 32 percent, and unofficial results showed around 56 percent of voters cast a "yes" vote in support of the constitution. Rights groups and the opposition immediately filed complaints alleging irregularities.
Controversy over the proposed constitution has in the past month plunged Egypt into political turmoil unprecedented since the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian and secular-minded ruler.
The draft has split the country into two camps. On one side are the Islamists from the country's most organized group, The Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, and their backers from various Salafi and former Jihadist groups.
The opposition camp, led by the National Salvation Front, is an alliance of liberal parties and youth groups backed by Christians and moderate Muslims who fear the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolize power by passing a constitution that enshrines a greater role for clerics and Islamic law.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from both sides have rallied in the streets over the past month. The crisis peaked when Brotherhood supporters attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Dec. 5. The ensuing violence left at least 10 dead and hundreds of injured on both sides.
The crisis was compounded by Morsi's decision to rush the draft constitution to a referendum after an Islamist-dominated panel approved it, as well as his move last month to grant himself near-absolute powers, which were later rescinded.
Morsi's moves have also split state institutions. The judiciary became another battleground, with the powerful Judges' Club calling on its members to boycott the vote while Brotherhood sympathizers in the legal system and other independents insisted on supervising it.
Egyptian prosecutors held a sit-in protest to press Morsi-appointed prosecutor general Talaat Abdullah to resign on Monday. Abdullah resigned, then retracted his resignation on Thursday, raising the prospect of new protests by fellow prosecutors.
Also, Zaghloul el-Balshi, the secretary general of the election committee who is also a judge and an aid to the country's justice minister, resigned Wednesday, citing health reasons. The media said his resignation was prompted by his inability to prevent voting violations in the first leg of the referendum.
- Created on 20 December 2012
(AP) — South Africa's president says Nelson Mandela has steadily improved over the last few days after being diagnosed with a lung infection and undergoing gallstone surgery.
President Jacob Zuma said Thursday that the 94-year-old Mandela's condition had been serious but that the anti-apartheid icon had responded well to treatment.
Mandela was admitted Dec. 8 to a hospital in the capital, Pretoria.
Mandela was a leader of the struggle against racist white rule in South Africa, serving 27 years in prison for his beliefs.
He served one five-year term as president before retiring from public life.
- Created on 18 December 2012
(AP) — More than a dozen heavily armed gunmen kidnapped and held NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, keeping them blindfolded and tied up before they finally escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and anti-regime rebels, Engel said Tuesday.
Speaking to NBC's "Today" show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting to crush a bloody uprising by rebels. He said they executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured.
"They kept us blindfolded, bound," said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads fluent Arabic. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings," he added.
"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government," said Engel. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime.
Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.
Around 11 p.m. Monday night, Engel said they were being moved to another location.
"And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected. We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan," he said. "The kidnappers saw this checkpoint and started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them."
The team crossed back into neighboring Turkey earlier Tuesday.
NBC did not identify the others who were kidnapped along with Engel. The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.
The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011. Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Many foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers.
Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict. Among them are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.
Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named chief foreign correspondent in April 2008. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has lived in the Middle East since he graduated from Stanford University in 1996, according to his biography from NBC. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic.
- Created on 19 December 2012
(AP) — The leaders of an independent panel that blamed systematic State Department management and leadership failures for gross security lapses in the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya will explain their findings to Congress on Wednesday.
The two most senior members of the Accountability Review Board are set to testify behind closed doors before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees on the classified findings of their harshly critical report.
An unclassified version released late Tuesday said serious bureaucratic mismanagement was responsible for the inadequate security at the mission in Benghazi where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
"Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the panel said.
Despite those deficiencies, the board determined that no individual officials ignored or violated their duties and recommended no disciplinary action. But it also said poor performance by senior managers should be grounds for disciplinary recommendations in the future.
Wednesday's classified testimony from the review board — retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen — will set the stage for open hearings the next day with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who is in charge of policy, and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, who is in charge of management.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to have appeared at Thursday's hearing but canceled after fainting and sustaining a concussion last week while recovering from a stomach virus that dehydrated her. Clinton is under doctors' orders to rest.
In a letter that accompanied the transmission of the report to Capitol Hill, Clinton thanked the board for its "clear-eyed, serious look at serious systemic challenges" and said she accepted all of its 29 recommendations to improve security at high-threat embassies and consulates.
She said the department had already begun to implement some of the recommendations. They include increasing by several hundred the number of Marine guards stationed at diplomatic missions throughout the world; relying less on local security forces for protection at embassies, consulates and other offices; and increasing hiring and deployment of highly trained Diplomatic Security agents at at-risk posts.
Clinton agreed with the panel's finding that Congress must fully fund the State Department's security initiatives. The panel found that budget constraints in the past had led some management officials to emphasize savings over security, including rejecting numerous requests from the Benghazi mission and the embassy in Tripoli for enhanced protection.
It singled out the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs for criticism, saying there appeared to be a lack of cooperation and confusion over protection at the mission in Benghazi, a city in Eastern Libya that was relatively lawless after the revolution that toppled Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
But it appeared to break little new ground about the timeline of the Benghazi attack during which Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, information specialist Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods — who were contractors working for the CIA — were killed. Stevens' slaying was the first of a U.S. ambassador since 1988.
The board determined that there had been no immediate, specific tactical warning of a potential attack on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. However, the report said there had been several worrisome incidents in the run-up to the attack that should have set off warning bells.
It did confirm, though, that contrary to initial accounts, there was no protest outside the consulate. It said responsibility for the incident rested entirely with the terrorists who attacked the mission.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, administration officials linked the attack to the spreading protests that had begun in Cairo earlier that day over an American-made, anti-Islamic film. Those comments came after evidence already pointed to a distinct militant attack.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on numerous TV talk shows the Sunday after the attack and used the administration talking points linking it to the film. An ensuing brouhaha in the heat of the presidential campaign eventually led her to withdraw her name from consideration to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state in President Barack Obama's second term.
While criticizing State Department management in Washington along with the local militia force and contract guards that the mission depended on for protection, the report said U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi "performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues in a near-impossible situation."
It said the response by Diplomatic Security agents on the scene and CIA operatives at a nearby compound that later came under attack itself had been "timely and appropriate" and absolved the military from any blame. "There was simply not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," it said.
The report also discounted speculation that officials in Washington had refused appeals for additional help after the attack had begun.
"The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders," it said. To the contrary, the report said the evacuation of the dead and wounded 12 hours after the initial attack was due to "exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response" that helped save the lives of two seriously wounded Americans.
- Created on 17 December 2012
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Pakistan's troubled northwest tribal region near the Afghan border Monday, killing 17 people and wounding more than 40 others, officials said.
The bomb went off next to the women's waiting area of a bus stop, which is located near the office of one of the top political officials in the Khyber tribal area, said Hidayat Khan, a local government official. But it's unclear if the office was the target.
The 17 dead included five boys and two women, said Abdul Qudoos, a doctor at a local hospital in Jamrud town, where the attack occurred. At least 44 people were wounded, he said.
The explosives were packed in a small, white car that was parked in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, said Shireen Afridi, who was nearby buying a phone card when the bomb exploded.
"There was fire in which children burned, women burned, poor Afghan people burned, and it caused a lot of destruction," said Afridi. "People's heads were lying in the drain."
Local TV footage showed several cars and shops in the market that were badly damaged. Residents threw buckets of water on burning vehicles as rescue workers transported the wounded to the hospital.
The market was located close to the office of the assistant political agent for Khyber, said Khan, who works in the office. Initial reports wrongly indicated the women's waiting area was for the political office, not the bus stop.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Khyber is home to various Islamist militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, which have waged a bloody insurgency against the government for the past few years.
Taliban militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at an army convoy in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Monday, killing three soldiers and wounding three others, said Nisar Ahmad, a local government official.
The soldiers were escorting a polio vaccination team outside the town of Lakki Marwat when the attack occurred, said Wazir Khan, a local resident.
The Taliban have spoken out against polio vaccination in recent months, claiming the health workers are acting as spies for the U.S. and the vaccine itself cause harm.
A Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, Asim Mehsud, claimed responsibility in a telephone call to The Associated Press.
"These polio drops are a deadly American campaign to poison us," he said.
The army has carried out offensives against the Taliban in most parts of the tribal region, including Khyber, but militants continue to carry out regular attacks in the country.
On Saturday night, 10 Taliban militants attacked the military side of an international airport in Peshawar with rockets and car bombs, killing four people and wounding over 40 others. Five of the militants were killed during the attack, and five others died the next day in a gunbattle with security forces.
Elsewhere on Monday, gunmen killed a provincial government spokesman in the southwest Pakistan in an apparent sectarian attack, and then shot to death two nearby policemen, police said.
The attackers shot dead Khadim Hussain Noori in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, said local police official Hamid Shakeel. Noori was the provincial spokesman and also a Shiite Muslim.
As the gunmen were speeding away on a motorcycle, they killed two policemen and wounded a third, said Shakeel.
Baluchistan has experienced a spike in sectarian killings in the past year as radical Sunni Muslims have targeted Shiites, who they consider heretics.
The province is also the scene of a decades-long insurgency by Baluch nationalists who demand greater autonomy and a larger share of the province's natural resources.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.