- Created on 26 November 2012
(AP) — Egypt's justice minister said Monday that a resolution was "imminent" to the political crisis over President Mohammed Morsi's decision to grant himself sweeping new powers, a move that has touched off days of violent street protests.
Ahmed Mekki spoke to reporters shortly before Morsi was due to meet members of the Supreme Judiciary Council to discuss the decrees the Islamist president announced last week that put him above any kind of oversight, including that of the courts. The judiciary council is in charge of the courts.
Mekki has been mediating between the judiciary and the presidency to try to defuse the crisis, although he did not say on what he based his prediction for its impending resolution.
Opposition activists have denounced Morsi's decrees as a blatant power grab, and refused to enter a dialogue with the presidency before the edicts are rescinded. The president has vigorously defended the new powers, saying they are necessary to implement badly needed reforms and protect Egypt's transition to democracy.
The dispute, the latest in the country's bumpy transition to democracy, has also taken a toll on the nation's already ailing economy — Egypt's benchmark stock index dropped more than 9.5 percentage points on Sunday, the first day of trading since Morsi issued his decrees. It fell by nearly 2 percentage points on Monday.
The crisis has also played out in street protests in cities across the country, including the capital Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
The Health Ministry said Monday that a total of 444 people have been wounded nationwide since the clashes erupted on Friday. Forty-nine of these remain hospitalized, said the ministry in a statement carried by Egypt's official MENA news agency.
In the Nile Delta city of Damanhoor, a teenager was killed late Sunday and at least 40 people were wounded when a group of anti-Morsi protesters tried to storm the local offices of the political arm of the president's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political force in Egypt.
It was the first reported death from the street battles over the decrees, officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
On Monday, thousands gathered in Damanhoor for the teenager's funeral, while in Cairo thousands more marched through Tahrir square, the birthplace of last year's uprising that toppled authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, for the funeral of another young Egyptian killed in clashes with police in the capital.
An informal truce between the police and protesters staging a sit-in in Tahrir allowed the funeral to go ahead peacefully. The sit-in by hundreds of protesters is aimed at forcing Morsi to back down.
Morsi's office said in a statement that the president has ordered the country's top prosecutor to investigate the teenager's death, along with that of the man fatally killed in Cairo last week during demonstrations to mark anniversary of deadly protests last year that called for an end to the then-rule of the military.
The judiciary, the main target of Morsi's edicts, has pushed back, calling the decrees a power grab and an "assault" on the branch's independence. Judges and prosecutors stayed away from many courts in Cairo and other cities on Sunday and Monday.
Morsi supporters insist the measures were necessary to prevent the courts, which already dissolved the elected lower house of parliament, from further holding up moves to stability by disbanding the assembly writing the new constitution, as judges were considering doing. Both the parliament and the constitutional assembly are dominated by Islamists.
Morsi, an Islamist, accuses Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary of seeking to thwart the revolution's goals and his Thursday edicts bar the judiciary from disbanding the constitutional assembly or parliament's upper house.
- Created on 23 November 2012
(AP) — Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man and wounded nine along Gaza's border fence with Israel on Friday, a Gaza health official said, reporting the first violence since a truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers took hold a day before.
The shooting appeared to be an isolated incident and was unlikely to jeopardize the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, which called for an end to Gaza rocket fire on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. The truce came after eight days of cross-border fighting, the bloodiest battle between Israel and Hamas in four years.
The Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, has urged militant factions to respect the cease-fire.
The man killed Friday was part of a group of people who approached Israel's border fence with Gaza to pick up parts of an Israeli army jeep damaged in the fighting, said Gaza health official Adnan Abu Salmia. He said soldiers opened fire, killing one man and wounding nine.
Israel's military, citing a preliminary investigation, said there have been isolated attempts to infiltrate Israel from Gaza, and that warning shots were fired in the air when the group approached Friday. The military said there was unrest along the border but did not elaborate.
In the past, Israeli troops enforced a no-go zone on the Gaza side of the frontier, firing on anyone approaching in an attempt to prevent infiltration attempts. Since the cease-fire, growing numbers of Gazans have entered the zone.
In Cairo, Egypt was set to hold separate talks Friday with Israeli and Hamas envoys on the next phase of the cease-fire — a new border deal for blockaded Gaza. Hamas demands a lifting of all border restrictions, while Israel insists that Hamas must halt weapons smuggling to the territory.
In Israel, a poll showed that about half of Israelis think their government should have continued its military offensive against Hamas.
The independent Maagar Mohot poll released on Friday shows 49 percent of respondents feel Israel should have kept going after squads that fire rockets into Israel. Thirty-one percent supported the government's decision to stop. Twenty percent had no opinion.
Twenty-nine percent thought Israel should have sent ground troops to invade Gaza.
The poll of 503 respondents had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.
The same survey showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and electoral partner Israel Beiteinu losing some support, but his hard-line bloc still able to form the next government. Elections are Jan. 22.
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed reporting.
- Created on 19 November 2012
(AP) — President Barack Obama spoke to hundreds of students, officials and former generals in long-closed Myanmar about freedom and the importance of finding strength in diversity. But for some, the more significant message came from what he did, not what he said.
Instead of traveling to the isolated capital, Naypyitaw, Obama became the first foreign leader to meet with President Thein Sein in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and cultural heart.
While the government says the location was chosen for logistical reasons, many cheered Obama's decision to give a speech at the University of Yangon, a place brimming with opposition history and personal memories for many in the audience, rather than sequester himself with top leaders in the empty, soulless capital built by the former military junta in 2006.
"The arrangement was made for mutual convenience," said Zaw Htay, the director of the president's office. "Due to time constraints on the part of President Obama and also because Obama wanted to deliver a speech at Yangon University, it was agreed by both sides to have a meeting in Yangon."
The diverse 1,500-member audience — students, activists, lawmakers, former generals and members of ethnic minority groups — mingled for several hours, listening to jazz music, while waiting for Obama to arrive. Everyone, including the former generals and parliamentarians, had to walk through the same security gauntlet. There was no VIP line, which surprised some in this hierarchical society.
"We couldn't even think of that two or three months ago," said Rebecca Htin, an ethnic Karen. "The message is clear. We are moving more toward democracy. That's encouraging for me."
"There's no separation because of Mr. Obama," said Nge Nge Aye Maung, the chairwoman of the Association of Myanmar Disabled Women Affairs. "There's no ranking. We are all together. We are all human beings. That's human rights."
Obama drew applause twice during the 30-minute speech, first when he said reform will not succeed without national reconciliation — Myanmar has been struggling for decades to resolve a plethora of armed insurgencies — and again when he stressed the role citizens must play in a democracy.
"That's the thing that's been denied," said Thant Myint-U, an author and presidential adviser. "There hasn't been a sense of citizenship for the whole lifetime of the majority of people in that room."
He said the most important impact of Obama's visit was not the boost it gives to reformers within the government, but the inspiration it offers people who must meet Myanmar's top-down transformation with grassroots energy if the country's transition is to succeed.
"It is much more about emboldening ordinary people to be willing to do their part in seeing through these changes," he said.
But there were still signs of the old days. Plainclothes government security personnel videotaped guests as they walked to the university's Convocation Hall to hear Obama talk about freedom.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report.
- Created on 20 November 2012
(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East for urgent talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders in his most decisive move yet to try to halt the Gaza crisis.
Clinton left an Asian summit in Cambodia's capital, which she was attending with Obama, and headed for Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first round of a new U.S. diplomatic initiative.
"We want to ... send a clear message that it's in nobody's interest to see an escalation of the military conflict," U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Phnom Penh.
Clinton's mission appeared to signal growing U.S. alarm over the prospects of a threatened Israeli ground invasion of Gaza as Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes continued for a seventh day.
Washington has seemed powerless to affect unfolding events and has faced criticism of a hesitant response, and the Gaza crisis has dogged Obama on an Asia trip meant to show a "pivot" East as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rhodes said the onus remained onHamas to halt its rocket barrages into Israel and stuck to the administration's stance that Israel had a right to defend itself.
But he said, "We all agree that the best way to resolve this is through diplomacy, so that you have a peaceful settlement that ends that rocket fire and allows for a broader calm in the region."
Clinton was due to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday and then go to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, presumably PresidentMahmoud Abbas.
She was then to travel to Cairo, where Rhodes would say only that she would meet "Egyptian leaders."
That would likely mean an encounter withEgypt's Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, who has spoken by phone several times with Obama since the Gaza crisis erupted and is seen as a possible linchpin in getting Hamas to back down.
"Secretary Clinton will emphasize the United States' interest in a peaceful outcome that protects and enhances Israel's security and regional stability, an outcome that can lead to improved conditions for the civilian residents of Gaza, and that could re-open the path to fulfill the aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis for two states living side by side in peace and security," Rhodes said.
Asked whether Obama was specifically asking Netanyahu to hold off on any ground assault to give more time for diplomacy, Rhodes said: "No. The president has been very clear that Israel is going to make decisions on its security."
Obama, weighing in with his first comments on the crisis on Sunday, said t would be "preferable" to avoid an Israeli ground invasion but urged Egypt and Turkey to do more to rein in Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group.
Obama promised to make Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy a high priority when he took office in 2009, but his administration's on-again-off-again efforts have done little if anything to bring the two sides any closer to the negotiating table. (Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason; Editing by Nick Macfie)
- Created on 16 November 2012
(AP) — Egypt's prime minister rushed to the aid of the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers Friday in the midst of an Israeli offensive there, calling for an end to the operation, as Palestinian rocket squads aimed at Tel Aviv for a second straight day.
Sirens wailed across Israel's main metropolis moments before an explosion was heard, but police said the rocket appeared to have fallen into the sea.
Israel said it halted its incessant air attacks on militant targets in Gaza during the brief visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, though Hamas security claimed three airstrikes hit the territory during that period. Militants, meanwhile, fired off more than 60 rockets after Kandil arrived in Gaza.
Kandil toured Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, accompanied by the territory's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who was making his first public appearance since Israel's offensive began Wednesday.
In one chaotic moment, a man rushed toward the two leaders, shouting as he held up the body of a 4-year-old boy. The two men cradled the lifeless boy who Hamas said was killed in an Israeli airstrike — a claim Israel denied.
Fighting to hold back tears, Kandil told reporters that the Israeli operation must end.
"What I saw today in the hospital, the wounded and the martyrs, the boy ... whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something that we cannot keep silent about," he said.
Israel vociferously denied carrying out any form of attack in the area since the previous night. The pace of cross-border fighting quickly resumed after the Egyptian leader's departure.
The violence has widened the instability gripping the region, straining already frayed Israel-Egypt relations. The Islamist government in Cairo, like Hamas linked to the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, recalled its ambassador in protest and dispatched Kandil to show solidarity with Gaza.
Israel, meanwhile, signaled a ground invasion might be imminent, with troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers massing near the Palestinian territory.
The Israeli military "continues to strike hard against Hamas and is prepared to expand its action into Gaza," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
The operation began with the assassination of Hamas' military chief and dozens of airstrikes on rocket launching sites. While Israel claims to have inflicted heavy damage, militants have fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, bringing the entire region to a standstill.
At least 22 Palestinians, including 12 militants and six children, as well as three Israelis have been killed in three days of fierce fighting.
The 4-year-old boy whose body had been handed to Kandil and Haniyeh was killed along with a young man earlier Friday when an Israeli missile struck close to their homes in the town of Jebaliya near Gaza City, relatives said.
The area near the boy's home showed signs that a projectile had exploded there, with shrapnel marks in the walls of surrounding homes and shattered kitchen windows. But neighbors said security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.
Kandil's visit came after a night of fierce exchanges. Overnight, the military said it targeted about 150 rocket-launching sites as well as ammunition warehouses, bringing to 450 the number of sites struck in the three-day operation.
Militants unleashed dozens of rocket barrages overnight, setting off air-raid sirens throughout an area that is home to some 1 million Israelis.
Fighting between the two sides escalated sharply Thursday with a first-ever rocket attack from Gaza on the Tel Aviv area, menacing Israel's most densely populated area. For the attack, they unleashed for the first time the most powerful weapons in their arsenal — Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets.
No casualties were reported there, but three people died in the country's rocket-scarred south when a projectile slammed into an apartment building.
Early Friday, 85 missiles exploded within 45 minutes in Gaza City, sending black pillars of smoke towering above the coastal strip's largest city. The military said it was targeting underground rocket-launching sites.
One missile flattened sections of the Interior Ministry, leaving a huge pile of rubble. Another hit an uninhabited house belonging to a senior Hamas commander. Those strikes, together with an attack on a generator building near Haniyeh's home, suggested that Israel was expanding its offensive beyond military targets.
Ten-month-old Haneen Tafesh was killed Thursday when flying shrapnel from an air attack on a field next to her family's shack struck her in the head.
"What did she do? Did she fire any rockets?" her 23-year-old father, Khaled Tafesh, asked as he waited outside the Shifa hospital morgue, waiting for the funeral of his only child to begin.
Israel and Hamas had largely observed an informal truce since a devastating Israeli incursion into Gaza four years ago, but rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes on militant operations continued sporadically.
The Israeli offensive has not deterred the militants from firing more than 400 rockets aimed at southern Israel, the military said.
The rocket attacks aimed at Tel Aviv raised the likelihood of a ground incursion. After the two rockets struck close to the city on Thursday, the government approved the mobilization of up to 30,000 reservists.
Those rockets also appear to have landed in the Mediterranean Sea, defense officials said, and another hit an open area on Tel Aviv's southern outskirts. No injuries were reported.
An Israeli ground offensive could be costly to both sides. In the last Gaza war, Israel devastated parts of the territory, setting back Hamas' fighting capabilities but also paying the price of increasing diplomatic isolation because of a civilian death toll numbering in the hundreds.
In the current round of fighting, the civilian casualties have been relatively low and the Israeli strikes seem to be more surgical.
Teibel reported from Jerusalem.