Provoke Us Further And We Will Respond, Israel Warns Syria

Strong words were spoken by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations during a Security Council meeting about the Middle East today.

While speaking about the deadly violence in Syria, Ron Prosor tabled a warning to the Syrian government and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

“Israel has shown maximum restraint and has no intention of interfering in the Syrian conflict. But we will not allow our citizens to be the on-going victims of attacks. If provocations by the Syrian government continue, Israel will have no choice but to respond accordingly. The situation on Israel’s northern border is precarious. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, Assad has chemical weapons and he has proven that he is willing to do anything to cling to power. The situation is made all the more dangerous by the fact that Assad has received advanced weapons systems that Israel simply cannot allow. We cannot allow these weapons of this nature to fall into the hands of terrorist groups like Hezbollah,” he said.

israelSyrian rebels have been fighting to oust Assad for more than two years. The United Nations says as many as 100,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war.

The comments were made during the Security Council’s monthly meeting about the Middle East. Also discussed during the meeting was the on-going conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

During the meeting, Prosor said, “Direct negotiations and only direct negotiations are the only way forward.”

Palestinian United Nations Observer Riyad Mansour again called for a two-state solution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, winding up months of intensive mediation, has been trying to arrange a meeting between the two sides aimed at resuming negotiations stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building on land Palestinians seek for a state.

Palestinians said negotiations could not begin unless it was clear in advance that they would be about a future state based on pre-1967 borders, while an Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would seek the approval of his cabinet before going ahead.

Al-Qaeda Claims Responsibility For Huge Iraqi Prison Breaks

aquadecAl-Qaeda asserted responsibility on Tuesday for brazen assaults on two Iraqi prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad two days earlier that freed hundreds of inmates, including many of its own members, in one of the most serious breaches of security since the final US military withdrawal from the country more than two years ago.

In a statement posted on jihadist websites titled “Conquering the Tyrants,” the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said the assaults on the two high-security prisons, Taji and Abu Ghraib, had been planned for months.

The audacity of the assaults, which Iraqi officials said had left at least 25 security guards dead, underscored the deterioration of Iraq’s stability in recent months, punctuated by an almost daily litany of car bombings and other violence tied to a resurrection of sectarian tensions, largely between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis. The monthlong Ramadan holiday celebrated by all Muslims appears to have done little to diminish the mayhem.

he al-Qaeda statement said the planners of the assault, which began on Sunday evening, had coordinated the detonation of 12 car bombs and a barrage of Grad missiles and mortar rounds to kill sentries outside the prisons as groups of heavily armed assailants breached the entrances, all having taken an oath not to emerge alive until the prisoners were freed. The statement said hundreds of prisoners escaped, including 500 mujahedeen, or holy warriors.

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Iraqi officials said on Monday that many of the escapees had been captured or killed, and that the areas around the prisons were locked down, but it remained unclear how many were still at large. Thousands of inmates were housed in Taji and Abu Ghraib – the prison made famous by the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal during the eight-year US occupation.

A growing number of Iraq’s Sunnis have been alienated by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and what they view as his sectarian agenda to disenfranchise them and strengthen ties with Shiite-led Iran. Their resentments have fed the growing strength of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a development that has increasingly worried US officials.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has also been sending fighters to join the insurgency in neighboring Syria, where rebels drawn mostly from that country’s Sunni majority have been fighting the government of President Bashar Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is a Shiite offshoot.

Rallies in US over Zimmerman Verdict

Trayvon-Martin's-faProtests have taken place in more than 100 US cities, a week after George Zimmerman was cleared of murdering unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Demonstrators demanded federal charges to be brought against Zimmerman, 29, over the February 2012 incident.

A Florida jury agreed that the neighbourhood watch volunteer killed the 17 year-old in self-defence, reports the BBC.

In his first comments, President Barack Obama admitted many black men in the US experienced racial profiling.

The protests against the court’s decision were led by the National Action Network, headed by civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton.

“We are not coming out with violence, we are coming to denounce violence. The violence that was perpetrated on an unarmed, innocent man named Trayvon Martin,” Sharpton told at a rally in New York.

Thousands gathered for “Justice for Trayvon” protests in at least 100 other cities across America, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

Sharpton told supporters on Saturday morning that he wanted to see the scrapping of “stand your ground” self-defence laws, such as that in force in Florida.

“We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again,” he said.

The teenager’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told the crowd: “Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours.”

Rapper Jay Z and his wife, the singer Beyonce, appeared on stage at the New York rally.

In Miami, Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, was among those who gathered to the words of the civil rights song We Shall Overcome.

In an unexpected press call on Friday, Obama said very few black men in the US had not experienced racial profiling.

Obama said the pain that African-Americans felt around the case came from the fact that they viewed it through “a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away”.

He said African Americans were also keenly aware of racial disparities in the application of criminal laws.

“That all contributes to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” Obama said.

“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”

He shared his experiences of being racially profiled in the past, such as being followed while out shopping.

“There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.

“There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she has a chance to get off,” he said.

Obama called for the protests to remain peaceful, saying any violence “dishonours what happened to Trayvon Martin”.

Barack Obama, Racism And The Politics Of Identifying With Trayvon Martin

aobamaBarack Obama’s critics pounced when he said he could have been Trayvon Martin. But conservatives who accused him of dividing the country are missing the point, writes John Avlon in this week’s American Way column

Race remains a fundamental fault-line in American life. That’s why the Trayvon Martin murder trial drew wall-to-wall coverage on cable news and why the jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman drew outraged cries. And on Friday afternoon, a day before planned nationwide protests, President Obama weighed into the fray with a remarkable, unscripted 17-minute address from the White House briefing room.

But by trying to use the bully pulpit to turn this national paroxysm into what he might call a “teachable moment”, President Obama reignited conservative criticisms that he is an advocate for identity politics rather than for national unity. Judge for yourself: “When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said. “And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. “That all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario… both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

Beyond the jury’s verdict, the president’s last point is the bottom line for many: would Trayvon Martin have been shot dead – and his killer acquitted – if he had been white? On the most basic level, it’s hard to believe that a 16-year-old white boy wearing a hoodie in Sanford, Florida, would have been automatically seen as suspect.

But negative assumptions run deep – as Obama noted: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.” There is a residual discomfort and political cost when President Obama speaks as a member of the African-American community rather than as an entirely colour-blind Commander in Chief.

As usual, he walked a line, pointing out that blacks are disproportionately both the victims and perpetrators of crime. And almost lost in his remarks was the implication that his administration would not press federal charges against George Zimmerman despite the wishes of many in this weekend’s protests. But despite the fact that Obama’s biography shows a person who has consciously tried to be a bridge between black and white communities all his life – from high school in Hawaii to the Harvard Law Review, to the US Senate and to his 2008 campaign for president – obsessive critics project a cynical malevolence on his rise as a figure of racial reconciliation.

That’s why the reaction of some conservative populist media figures on Twitter provided a useful insight into their intertwining politics and psychology. For example, Fox News commentator Todd Starnes messaged: “He is truly trying to tear our country apart.” Conservative blogger Dan Riehl declared the president “the first Racist in Chief”. Talk radio host and Fox contributor Tammy Bruce tweeted: “So Obama ‘could have been’ Trayvon 35 yrs ago? I had no idea Obama sucker-punched a watch volunteer & then bashed his head in. Who knew?”

Of course, these reactions do not represent all conservatives. But the overheated impulse to declare President Obama “racist” – perhaps first and most prominently uttered by Glenn Beck when he was on Fox News – is an interesting tick, worthy of some analysis. It is a reflexive form of political judo, pre-empting an anticipated play of the race card by instead calling the first black president “racist”, attempting to claim the high ground while cloaked in wilful historical ignorance and protected by the approval of hyper-partisan fellow travellers. It is also a version of blaming the victim. Because the irrational anger, suspicion and disrespect Obama inspires in some critics is not unrelated to his race.

The reality of course is that President Obama is both an African-American and the Commander-in-Chief, and both experiences inform his perspective. The president is right to point out that a sense of historic perspective is necessary to understand the emotions beneath our political debates, and that the original sin of slavery – as well as its complicated legacy – remains our deepest wound. Talking honestly about it is part of the cure, encouraging the empathy to see ourselves in “the other”, as part of our never-ending quest to form a more perfect American union.

Russian Opposition Leader Freed on Bail after Protests

russia oppositn leaderRussia unexpectedly freed opposition leader Alexei Navalny on bail on Friday, bending to the will of thousands of protesters who denounced his five-year jail sentence as a crude attempt by President Vladimir Putin to silence him.

In a ruling that points to Kremlin uncertainty over how to handle Navalny’s case and revived protests, a judge approved an unusual prosecution request to release him while he awaits the outcome of an appeal.

The anti-corruption campaigner’s movements will be restricted to Moscow but he proclaimed the ruling, one day after he was convicted of theft, as a victory for people power.

“I am very grateful to all the people who supported us, all the people who went to (protest in Moscow’s) Manezh Square and other squares,” the 37-year-old said, rushing across the court to hug his wife after he was released from a glass courtroom cage.

“We understand perfectly well what has happened now. It’s an absolutely unique phenomenon in Russian justice,” he said in the court in Kirov, an industrial city 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow.

People poured onto the streets of big Russian cities to protest on Thursday evening after Navalny was convicted of stealing at least 16 million roubles ($494,000) from a timber firm when he was advising the Kirov regional governor in 2009.

Police said more than 200 people were detained in St Petersburg and Moscow although there were no big clashes.

Navalny says the case was politically motivated and intended to sideline him as a political threat to Putin, even though his support is limited outside the big cities and opinion polls show the president is still Russia’s most popular politician.

Navalny led anti-Putin protests which attracted tens of thousands last year before they started to fade when the former KGB spy was elected to a six-year third term as president.

The decision to release him could be a political manoeuvre to head off social unrest. Some political analysts said the Kremlin, and the business and security community around it, looked divided over Navalny.

Michael Adebolajo ‘Attacked In Jail’

michaeladebolajoPolice are investigating after one of the two men accused of murdering Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks in May alleged he had been assaulted in Belmarsh prison.

It is understood Michael Adebolajo, of Romford, east London, lost two front teeth in Wednesday’s alleged attack.

No arrests have been made.

The Old Bailey trial of Mr Adebolajo, 28, and co-accused, Michael Adebowale, 22, from Greenwich, south-east London, has been set for 18 November.

Mr Adebolajo is also accused of the attempted murder of two police officers and possession of a firearm with intent to cause others to believe that violence would be used.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The police are investigating an incident that took place at HMP Belmarsh on 17 July.

“It would be inappropriate to comment while the investigation was ongoing.”

Prime Minister David Cameron joined thousands of mourners at Fusilier Rigby’s military funeral at Bury Parish Church in Greater Manchester on Friday.

The 25-year-old soldier’s commanding officer, Lt Col Jim Taylor, said in a eulogy he was “larger than life [and] was always at the centre of fun and mischief, but he was a true regimental character with real charisma and everybody fell under his spell”.

After the service, his body was driven along roads lined by mourners for a private burial at Middleton Cemetery.

Senior Pakistani Taliban leader ‘shocked’ by Malala attack

malalaA Pakistani Taliban leader has sent a letter to schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, 16, expressing shock that she was shot by Taliban gunmen last year.

The Taliban were universally condemned after gunmen shot Malala in the head.

In his letter to Malala, Adnan Rasheed stops short of apologising but says he wished the attack “had never happened”.

He also claims the shooting was not in response to Malala’s campaign for girls’ education, but because she ran an anti-Taliban “smear campaign”.

Malala – who is considered a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize – is credited with bringing the education issue to global attention.

Speaking at UN headquarters in New York last Friday, she said that books and pens scared extremists. She also urged education for all, including “for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists”.

A copy of the letter was obtained by Channel 4 News and other news organisations.

Writing in his “personal capacity”, Rasheed said he felt “brotherly” emotions towards Malala because they belong to the “same Yousufzai tribe”.

However, he refuses to condemn the attack, saying the judgement on whether it was correct or not should be left to God.

Rasheed says he first heard of Malala’s work when he was in prison, when the BBC Urdu service broadcast a diary that she wrote.

He says he wished he had been able to “advise” her before the attack, which he describes as an “accident”.

The Taliban leader also says that his group is not “against education of any men or women or girls”. Instead he claims Malala was targeted because she campaigned to “malign [the Taliban’s] efforts to establish the Islamic system”.

“You have said in your speech that the pen is mightier than the sword, so they attacked you for your sword, not for your books or school,” he writes.

Rasheed finishes by telling Malala to “come back home, adopt the Islamic and Pashtun culture and join any female Islamic madrassa [school], use your pen… and reveal the conspiracy of the tiny elite who want to enslave the whole of humanity”.

The letter also contains references to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

A friend of the Yousafzai family told the BBC the correspondence was a confused and belated attempt at damage control by the Taliban in light of Malala’s UN speech, which received a standing ovation.

Meanwhile the girl’s parents said in a statement that they were aware of the letter but had not received it directly and had no wish to comment on it.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who serves as the UN’s special envoy on global education, said on Wednesday that Malala had clearly had a profound effect on the Taliban.

“It’s taken her to put the Taliban completely on the defensive, and that’s why they’re issuing this statement now,” he said.

“But we know that they’re still bombing schools, they’re still destroying classrooms, they’re still murdering teachers, and they’re still massacring groups of students.”

After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the UK for treatment, and now lives in Birmingham, central England.

Her speech on her 16th birthday at UN headquarters in New York was her first public address since last October’s attack.

Malala said she was fighting for the rights of women because “they are the ones who suffer the most”.

A quarter of young women around the world have not completed primary school.

Queen Gives Stamp Of Approval On Gay Marriage In Britain

QUEENBritain has legalized gay marriage after Queen Elizabeth II gave her royal stamp of approval, clearing the way for the first same-sex weddings next summer.

Lawmakers cheered as House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said royal assent had been given — one day after the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in England and Wales cleared Parliament.

The queen’s approval was a formality and is the last step necessary for a bill to become law.

STORY: British Lawmakers pass gay marriage bill

The law enables gay couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies in England and Wales, although the Church of England is barred from conducting same-sex unions. It also will allow couples who had previously entered into civil partnerships — which carry similar rights and responsibilities to marriage — to convert their relationships to marriage.

The British government introduced the bill in January.

Prime Minister David Cameron had backed it, but it divided his Conservative Party and touched off strident debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Mandela Makes ‘Dramatic’ Progress, Says Daughter

mandelaNelson Mandela has made “dramatic progress,” and may be going home “anytime soon,” said his daughter Zindzi on the eve of his 95th birthday.

“I visited him yesterday and he was watching television with headphones,” said Zindzi Mandela in an interview with Britain’s Sky TV. “He gave us a huge smile and raised his hand … He responds with his eyes and his hands.”

Mandela is gaining “energy and strength,” said his daughter. “I should think he will be going home anytime soon.”

The latest description by Zindzi — who is one of Mandela’s daughters by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — is a significant improvement from court documents filed by the family earlier this month which said he was on life support and near death.

Mandela has been in a Pretoria hospital since June 8 and officials say his condition is critical but stable.

The news of the improvement in Mandela’s health will boost his supporters in South Africa and around the world who are preparing to celebrate his 95th birthday on Thursday, a day declared by the United Nations as a way to recognize the Nobel Prize winner’s contribution to reconciliation.

Interest in Nelson Mandela International Day has ignited as a result of the former South African president’s hospitalization in Pretoria and people find ways to honor his ideals.

A Johannesburg-based foundation named after Mandela and numerous other groups have asked people to volunteer 67 minutes to charity to match what they say are the 67 years that Mandela served his community. Mandela led South Africa through a tense transition from apartheid to democracy and became president in the country’s first all-race elections in 1994.

President Jacob Zuma will mark the birthday by overseeing the donation of houses to poor white families in the Pretoria area, in line with his Cabinet’s theme to commemorate Mandela’s birthday this year by focusing on food security, shelter and literacy.

In Cape Town, labor activists are holding an event at St. George’s Cathedral on Thursday, in remembrance of Mandela’s years of service and to encourage people to donate food to charity while leaving messages of support for the former leader’s family.

Mandela, who is in critical but stable condition, has been hospitalized since June 8, and hundreds of well-wishers have left prayers and messages of hope at his Johannesburg home and at the hospital where he is being treated. Legal documents have said Mandela’s breathing is machine-assisted.

The anti-apartheid leader has also inspired artists and graphic designers who celebrate his life through paintings and posters.

A group of young South African designers created a poster project to offer a global perspective of Mandela with submissions from around the world. The group whittled down 700 posters submitted by designers from more than 70 countries, to 95 for each day of Mandela’s life.

The posters will be unveiled Wednesday and a single special edition auctioned off to raise money for a proposed children’s hospital that will be named after Mandela, the group said.

“He carries across this concept of humanity and selflessness,” said Mohammed Jogie, co-founder of the project.

South African artists John Adams and Paul Blomkamp have painted two of the largest Mandela paintings to honor the man who spent 27 years imprisoned during the system of white minority rule known as apartheid.

Blomkamp said his painting was inspired by Mandela’s energy, which he described as exceptional. Blomkamp said an image of his painting will be featured in a display in New York’s Times Square Thursday in honor of Mandela’s birthday.

Burma To Free All Political Prisoners, Says Thein Sein

burma.brownBurma will release all political prisoners “by the end of the year”, President Thein Sein has said during his first official visit to the UK.

The president made the remarks during a speech in London, after holding talks with Prime Minister David Cameron.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has freed hundreds of political detainees since Thein Sein took power in March 2010.

Up until then, it barely acknowledged the prisoners’ existence. Their release is part of ongoing political reforms.

“By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” President Thein Sein said on Monday.

He added that a special committee was reviewing every political inmate’s case.

The president is in Britain to discuss trade and military ties. He wants help to boost Burma’s economy and Western nations are keen to invest in the resource-rich nation.

Sectarian violence

Earlier, Mr Cameron told the Burmese president greater action was needed on human rights.

The British PM said he was “particularly concerned” about the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Burma.

Sectarian violence in Rakhine state last year left some 200 people dead and tens of thousands – mostly Rohingya people – displaced.

Burmese authorities have been accused of failing to stop the violence and adequately safeguard the rights of Muslims.

But the government says Rohingya people are relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent, and so the country’s constitution does not include them among indigenous groups qualifying for citizenship.

President Thein Sein has introduced major reforms since the elections of November 2010, which saw military rule replaced with a military-backed civilian government.

Many political prisoners have been freed and media restrictions have been relaxed.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy – which boycotted the November 2010 polls – has rejoined the political process and now has a small presence in parliament.

In response, most international sanctions against Burma have been relaxed.