December 06, 2012
By BASSEM MROUE Associated Press
The families of Lebanese men killed in Syria last week say their relatives were more interested in nice clothes and vacations than fighting a civil war. Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime branded them foreign jihadists — and their deaths set off three days of new spillover violence.
Gunmen loyal to opposite sides in Syria's civil war battled Wednesday December 5 in the streets of the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The fighting has killed six people and wounded nearly 60 since December 3, security officials said.
The bloodshed is a sign of just how vulnerable Lebanon is to getting sucked into the Syrian crisis. The countries share a porous border and a complex web of political and sectarian ties that is easily enflamed.
Among the 17 Lebanese men who turned up dead in Syria last week were Bilal al-Ghoul and his childhood friend, Malek Haj Deeb, both 20. Malek's older brother, Jihad, said the two men sympathized with the rebellion, but they were not fighters.
"Malek used to see the videos of dead Syrians and cry," Jihad Haj Deeb told The Associated Press in Tripoli, as gunfire and explosions echoed near his home in the poor neighborhood of Mankoubeen. "He used to say, 'May Bashar fall soon, God willing.'"
A giant poster hung in the entrance of the home, with photos of three of those killed in Syria and a sign that read: "Our dead are in heaven, and yours are in hell."
Haj Deeb and Bilal al-Ghoul's older brother, Omar, said the men must have been kidnapped and handed over to Syrian authorities by a pro-Syrian Lebanese group. They said their brothers were not members of any political or Islamic group but were observant Muslims.
"My brother doesn't know how to hold a rifle," Haj Deeb said.
The Lebanese men killed in Syria were Sunni Muslims, like the majority of rebels trying to overthrow Assad's regime. Assad and much of his inner circle belong to the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The fighting in Lebanon comes at a time of deep uncertainty in Syria, with rebels battling government troops near Assad's seat of power in Damascus.
In Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated concerns that "an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons" or lose control of them to militant groups.
She also said NATO's decision on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to Turkey's southern border with Syria sends a message that Ankara is backed by its allies. The missiles are intended only for defensive purposes, she said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted Wednesday in the Turkish newspaper Sabah as saying that Syria has about 700 missiles, some of them long-range.
Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people.
But as the regime wobbles, there are fears the crisis will keep spiraling outside its borders. Fighting has spilled over into Turkey, Jordan and Israel since the uprising began more than 20 months ago, but Lebanon is particularly susceptible.
Seventeen times bigger than Lebanon and four times more populous, Syria has long had powerful allies there, including the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination.
That grip began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. Widely accused of involvement — something it has always denied — Syria was forced to withdraw its troops. But Damascus has maintained power and influence in Lebanon.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, reported that 17 Lebanese "gunmen" were killed inside Syria last week, and on Sunday December 2, Syrian TV aired footage of the dead.
Bassam al-Dada, a political adviser for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the group believes the Lebanese men were the victims of a "complicated Syrian intelligence operation" aimed at showing that foreign fighters are involved in fighting in Syria.
According to their relatives, Malek Haj Deeb and Bilal al-Ghoul left their parents' homes a week ago saying they were going to downtown Tripoli. Hours later, the families grew concerned and started calling the men's mobile phones.
There was no sign of them until two days later, when local media reported that a group of Lebanese citizens had been killed while fighting in Syria.
Pictures of the men, shown to the AP by their families, showed them clean-shaven and playing in the snow in one of Lebanon's mountain towns, and in front of Tripoli's Crusader-built citadel.
"We want their bodies back," Omar al-Ghoul said.
On Wednesday, Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdul-Karim Ali told Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour that Damascus has agreed to repatriate the men's bodies. Lebanon's National News Agency said the countries would soon discuss how to hand them over.
Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the dead men's families on Tuesday and took details about the men, their brothers said.
Jihad Haj Deeb said his brother was about to resume his college studies and would not have jeopardized his future to fight in Syria.
"He registered at the university four days before he went missing," Haj Deeb said, adding that his brother took 500,000 pounds ($335) from their father to pay his tuition at Lebanese University, where he was a third-year mathematics student. Haj Deeb's father, a school bus driver, makes $400 a month and has nine other children.
"Had he been planning to go to Syria, he wouldn't have registered," added Jihad, saying his father had to borrow the money.
Meanwhile, the unrest inside Syria shows no sign of slowing down.
The uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011 and later escalated into a civil war that the opposition says has killed more than 40,000 people.
Besides the violence roiling the capital, Damascus, there was growing speculation about the fate of a top Syrian spokesman who has become a prominent face of the regime.
Lebanese security officials have said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi flew Monday from Beirut to London. But it was not clear whether Makdissi had defected, quit his post or been forced out. Syria has had no official comment on Makdissi, who has defended the regime's crackdown on dissent.
December 06, 2012
By HAMZA HENDAWI and AYA BATRAWY Associated Press
Egypt descended into political turmoil on Wednesday over the constitution drafted by Islamist allies of President Mohammed Morsi, and at least 211 people were wounded as supporters and opponents battled each other with firebombs, rocks and sticks outside the presidential palace.
Four more presidential aides resigned in protest over Morsi's handling of the crisis, and a key opponent of the Islamist president likened Morsi's rule to that of ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Both sides were digging in for a long struggle, with the opposition vowing more protests and rejecting any dialogue unless the charter is rescinded, and Morsi pressing relentlessly forward with plans for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum.
"The solution is to go to the ballot box," declared Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, asserting the charter was "the best constitution Egypt ever had."
The clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district marked an escalation in the deepening crisis. It was the first time supporters of rival camps fought each other since last year's anti-Mubarak uprising, when the authoritarian leader's loyalists sent sword-wielding supporters on horses and camels into Cairo's Tahrir square in what became one of the uprising's bloodiest days.
The large scale and intensity of the fighting marked a milestone in Egypt's rapidly entrenched schism, pitting Morsi's Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamists in one camp, against liberals, leftists and Christians in the other.
The violence spread to other parts of the country later Wednesday. Anti-Morsi protesters stormed and set ablaze the Brotherhood offices in Suez and Ismailia, east of Cairo, and there were clashes in the industrial city of Mahallah and the province of Menoufiyah in the Nile Delta north of the capital.
Compounding Morsi's woes, four of his advisers resigned, joining two other members of his 17-member advisory panel who have abandoned him since the crisis began.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition reform advocate, said Morsi's rule was "no different" than Mubarak's.
"In fact, it is perhaps even worse," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told a news conference after he accused the president's supporters of a "vicious and deliberate" attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the palace.
"Cancel the constitutional declarations, postpone the referendum, stop the bloodshed, and enter a direct dialogue with the national forces," he wrote on his Twitter account, addressing Morsi.
"History will give no mercy and the people will not forget."
The opposition is demanding that Morsi rescind the decrees giving him nearly unrestricted powers and shelve the controversial draft constitution the president's Islamist allies rushed through last week in a marathon, all-night session shown live on state TV.
Speaking at NATO in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the unrest shows the urgent need for dialogue between Morsi's government and opposing voices on a constitutional path going forward.
"We call on all stakeholders in Egypt to settle their differences through democratic dialogue and we call on Egypt's leaders to ensure that the outcome protects the democratic promise of the revolution for all of Egypt's citizens," she said.
The huge scale of the opposition protests has dealt a blow to the legitimacy of the new charter, which Morsi's opponents contend allows religious authorities too much influence over legislation, threatens to restrict freedom of expression and opens the door to Islamist control over day-to-day life.
In addition, the country's powerful judges say they will not take on their customary role of overseeing the referendum. Zaghloul el-Balshi, secretary general of the state committee organizing the referendum, said on the private Al-Hayat television that he would not go ahead with preparations for the vote until the fighting stopped and Morsi rescinded his decrees.
The country's new attorney general, a Morsi appointee, hit back, ordering an investigation of Ahmed El-Zind, chairman of the judges' union that is spearheading the call for a boycott.
The December 5 clashes began when thousands of Morsi's Islamist supporters descended on an area near the presidential palace where some 300 of his opponents were staging a sit-in. The Islamists, members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, chased the protesters away from their base outside the palace's main gate and tore down their tents.
The protesters scattered into side streets, where they chanted anti-Morsi slogans as the Islamists shouted, "The people demand the implementation of God's law!"
After a brief lull, hundreds of Morsi opponents arrived and began throwing firebombs at the president's backers, who responded with rocks. The clashes continued well after nightfall and spread from the immediate vicinity of the palace to residential streets nearby.
The deployment of hundreds of riot police did not stop the fighting. The police later fired tear gas to disperse Morsi's opponents. Volunteers ferried the wounded on motorcycles to waiting ambulances, which rushed them to hospitals.
"I voted for Morsi to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. I now regret it," Nadia el-Shafie yelled at Brotherhood supporters on a side street.
"God is greater than you! Don't think this power or authority will add anything to you. God made this revolution, not you!" the tearful woman said as she was led away from the crowd of Islamists.
"May God protect Egypt and its president," read a banner hoisted atop a truck brought by the Islamists, as a man using a loudspeaker recited verses from the Quran.
"We came to support the president. We feel there is a legitimacy that someone is trying to rob," said Rabi Mohammed, a Brotherhood supporter. "People are rejecting democratic principles using thuggery."
The Islamists portrayed their attack on opposition protesters as defense of the revolution.
The clashes, said top Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian, pitted "those who are protecting the legitimacy and the revolution against the counterrevolution and coup plotters."
Vice President Mahmoud Mekki called for a dialogue with the opposition to reach a consensus on disputed articles of the constitution, which he put at 15 out of a total of 234. The referendum must go ahead, he said, adding that he was acting in a personal capacity, not on behalf of Morsi.
Speaking to reporters, ElBaradei said there would be no dialogue unless Morsi rescinded his decrees and shelved the draft constitution.
Asked to comment on Mekki's offer, he said: "With all due respect, we don't deal with personal initiatives. If there is a genuine desire for dialogue, the offer must come from President Morsi."
Morsi's Nov. 22 decrees were followed last week by the constitutional panel pushing through the draft constitution without the participation of liberal and Christian members. Only four women, all Islamists, attended the session.
If the referendum goes ahead as scheduled and the draft constitution is adopted, elections for parliament's lawmaking lower chamber will be held in February.
November 29, 2012
By JULIE PACE and
President Barack Obama will host his former political rival Mitt Romney for a private lunch at the White House Thursday, their first meeting since the election.
Obama promised in his victory speech earlier this month to engage with Romney following their bitter campaign and consider the Republican’s ideas.
“In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Gov. Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward,” Obama said at the time.
Obama aides said they reached out to Romney’s team shortly before Thanksgiving to start working on a date for the meeting. The two men will meet in the White House’s private dining room, with no press coverage expected.
In the days after his loss, Romney told top donors that the president was re-elected because of the “gifts” Obama provided to blacks, Hispanics and young voters, all of which are core Obama constituencies.
“The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” Romney said.
Many Republican officials, eager to move on quickly after the loss, disputed Romney’s comments and urged the party to focus on being more inclusive.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was looking forward to having a “useful discussion” with his former competitor. But he said there was no formal agenda for the lunch.
While in Washington, Romney will also meet with his former running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, according to a Romney campaign aide. Ryan is back on Capitol Hill, where he’s involved in negotiations to avert a series of automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts that have come to be known as the “fiscal cliff.”
Much of that debate centers on expiring tax cuts first passed by George W. Bush. Obama and Romney differed sharply during the campaign over what to do with the cuts, with the Republican pushing for them to be extended for all income earners and the president running on a pledge to let the cuts expire for families making more than $250,000 a year.
The White House sees Obama’s victory as a signal that Americans support his tax proposals.
Obama and Romney’s sit-down Thursday will likely be their most extensive private meeting ever. The two men had only a handful of brief exchanges before the 2012 election.
Even after their political fates became intertwined, their interactions were largely confined to the three presidential debates.
Romney has virtually disappeared from politics following his loss in the Nov. 6 election. He's spent the last three weeks largely in seclusion at his family's southern California home. He has made no public appearances, drawing media attention only after being photographed at Disneyland in addition to stops at the movies and the gym with his wife, Ann.
Former aides confirm that Romney is expected to move into an office at the Boston-area venture capital firm Solamere Capital. The firm was founded by his oldest son, Tagg Romney, and Spencer Zwick, who served as his presidential campaign’s national finance chairman.
It’s unclear what role, if any, Romney will play at the firm. Former aides said Romney was subletting office space from Solamere.
November 29, 2012
By MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press
Attorneys for Florida A&M University on Wednesday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the family of a drum major who died last year after being hazed by fellow band members, claiming Robert Champion was a willing participant in the ritual.
University attorney Richard Mitchell said Champion wasn't forced to board a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel where the hazing took place. He was an adult able to make his own decisions at age 26, and he had risen through the ranks of the famed Marching 100 band without taking part in hazing until that fateful night in November 2011, Mitchell said.
Champion’s willingness to take part in an illegal act gives the university immunity from the wrongful death lawsuit, Mitchell said.
“Robert Champion knew exactly what he was doing,” he said. “If Mr. Champion had not gotten on that bus, he would not have been hazed.”
Circuit Judge Walter Komanski didn't immediately issue a ruling.
Champion’s parents filed a lawsuit contending university officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean had proposed suspending the Marching 100 band just days before their son died. The lawsuit also alleges that school officials fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies.
An attorney for Champion’s family asked the judge to allow a jury to decide who was responsible for Champion’s death.
“A jury needs to decide how to allocate responsibility for the death of Mr. Champion,” said lawyer Kenneth Bell. “Please allow that to be heard.”
Champion’s parents, Robert and Pamela Champion of Decatur, Ga., rejected a $300,000 settlement offer from the university earlier this month. An attorney for the family, Chris Chestnut, said no further talks are taking place.
Ten FAMU band members face felony hazing charges in the case, while two others face misdemeanor counts. They have pleaded not guilty. Hazing that involves bodily harm is a third-degree felony in Florida.
“This is a commonsense case. It’s complex but common sense,” Chestnut said after the hearing. “There is a clear history of hazing at FAMU.”
Champion’s parents also are suing the bus company that operated the bus on which the hazing took place, as well as its driver. An attorney for the bus driver said her duty to protect the students ended when she dropped them off at the hotel.
An attorney for the bus company told the judge that Champion’s participation relieved them of liability.
“It is not an issue of whether he was a participant in hazing,” said Dick Ford, an attorney for Fabulous Coach Lines. “He certainly was a participant in hazing.”
November 29, 2012
By MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press
George Zimmerman plans to step up fundraising to pay for his expenses while he awaits trial for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The former neighborhood watch leader’s attorney said Wednesday that Zimmerman plans to launch the New George Zimmerman Defense Fund next month.
Donors will receive “thank you” cards individually signed by Zimmerman.
Attorney Mark O’Mara said an existing fund has raised $140,000 since last May, but the money it is running a bit low.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and claims the shooting was self-defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.
A trial is set for June, but a “stand your ground hearing” could be held by April.