July 19, 2012
By ASHRAF SWEILAM and AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
Two American tourists and their Egyptian guide who were abducted by a Bedouin in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula earlier this month were released unharmed July 16, after negotiations with security officials and tribal leaders.
Rev. Michel Louis, 61, and 39-year-old Lissa Alphonse, both Boston-area residents, had been kidnapped from a bus the Friday before, along with their guide, Haytham Ragab, on a Sinai road by a Bedouin who was demanding the release of his uncle, who had been detained by Egyptian police on suspicion of drug possession.
The kidnapper, Jirmy Abu-Masuh, told AP that he had handed the three over to security officials near the northern Sinai city of el-Arish after he was promised that authorities were working on his uncle's release.
"We are a people of mercy and they don't have anything to do with this," said Abu-Masuh, referring to the Americans. The three released captives later appeared at a police station in the northern Sinai city of el-Arish.
In Boston's Dorchester section, where Louis lives, about 10 family members and friends celebrated the news on the porch of his home, hugging and chanting "hallelujah."
"We are in joy after receiving such a message and we believe in God and let me tell you, He did not let us down," Louis' oldest son, the Rev. Jean Louis, said outside the house before breaking down in tears and being led back inside.
Later, Louis' children told reporters they were able to talk with their father on a satellite phone from Egypt.
"He just told us that he loved us, that he's safe, and he's coming home," said son Daniel Louis. "He sounds in good spirits."
"We're just overwhelmingly happy to hear from my father," added daughter Debora Louis.
Several joyful parishioners gathered nearby at the Presbyterian chuch where the elder Louis is the pastor.
"We are all so happy and we give all the glory to God. Everyone has been so worried, but we had faith in Christ that God will deliver him," said parishioner Roseline Inozil-Camille. "We just missed him so much. He's a man of God."
The abduction illustrated a broader breakdown of security in the Sinai, a key destination in Egypt's vital tourism industry, where lawlessness has risen since last year's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Relations between the Bedouin and authorities have long been tumultuous, with Bedouin complaining of discrimination by the government and abuses against them by security forces.
Under the Mubarak regime's tight hold, the disputes very rarely spilled over to effect tourists. However, this year has seen a string of kidnappings of tourists, usually by Bedouin trying to wrest concessions from authorities or the release of jailed relatives. In most cases, captives have been released unhurt after a few days.
During their captivity, the two Americans and their guide were kept at Abu-Masuh's home in the harsh mountain terrain of central Sinai, and given tea and food, including at one point a roast lamb, according to Abu-Masuh and the guide, Ragab.
"We were treated just like they treat their own," Ragab, 28, told AP by phone after their release. "But we were under emotional pressure. Life for the Bedouins is tough."
He said he and the two Americans spoke a lot with Abu-Masuh about his uncle — who Abu-Masuh says was being held because he refused to pay a bribe — and about the problems of Bedouin in general.
"The issue isn't Jirmy's alone, it's the issue of all Bedouins. Among them are good people who pray. The government needs to resolve their problems. From what I saw they live a tough life and have nothing to lose," Ragab said.
It was not immediately clear whether Louis and Alphonse were going to cross into Israel to join the rest of their tour group and continue their planned tour of the Holy Land before returning to the United States or cut it short. The two Americans declined to talk to the AP by phone.
Egyptian officials made clear earlier Monday that they would not bend to Abu-Masuh's demands. Officials and heads of tribes met with him for several hours before an agreement to release the hostages was reached, according to officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The two Americans, on a tour of the Holy Land, had been heading from Cairo to the 6th century St. Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai, said to be the site where Moses received the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Abu-Masuh, 32, earlier told the AP that he had stopped their tour bus and ordered them off, along with Ragab to assist with translation, as a way to force his uncle's release.
Throughout the ordeal, Louis' family was concerned that the 61-year-old pastor was unable to take his diabetes medication with him when he got off the bus. His family said he takes natural medication, not insulin.
The Bedouins of the sparsely populated peninsula have long-running tensions with the government in Cairo and with the security forces in particular. Security officials say some Bedouin are involved in smuggling of drugs and migrants endemic to the peninsula.
The Bedouin, in turn, complain of state discrimination in the development of their region. Bedouin and Egyptian rights groups say the security forces are responsible for many abuses. Police hunting fugitives have staged mass arrests to pressure families to hand over their relatives. They frequently enter homes by force and detain women — particularly provocative acts in conservative Bedouin society.
There are also fears of an Islamic militant presence in the Sinai, where militants carried out a string of suicide bombings against tourist resorts in the mid-2000s. Israel says militants in Sinai are behind cross-border attacks into its territory in recent years.
Abu-Masuh said his uncle had been stopped and harassed on his way to the coastal city of Alexandria last week. When officials saw he was from Sinai, they harassed his uncle even more, Abu-Masuh said. He said his 62-year-old uncle, who raised him after his father died, suffers from back and heart problems as well as diabetes.
Officials said Abu-Masuh's uncle was detained on Saturday for 15 days pending investigation for alleged possession of drugs.
Egyptian security officials were in a tight spot with the latest abduction, unwilling to free the hostages by force and risk a violent confrontation with the captor's Tarbeen tribe. Any escalation with tribes there could lead to more abduction along the popular tourist route.
July 12, 2012
By DONNA CASSATA and SOPHIA TAREEN |
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic House leaders on Wednesday joined colleagues and constituents in urging Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, who has been on medical leave for a month without disclosing details about his condition or location, to provide a public update about his condition as soon as possible.
House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, spoke about Jackson at separate unrelated events in Washington on the same day that a Jackson spokesman in Chicago said his staff hoped to get more information from doctors “soon.”
Jackson, 47, went on leave June 10, but did not disclose it publicly until two weeks later. Staff members initially released a short statement saying Jackson was being treated for exhaustion. Last week they said his condition was worse than previously thought and required treatment at an inpatient facility. Staff also said Jackson has been privately battling emotional problems.
Asked Wednesday about colleagues — including Illinois Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez — who have said Jackson owes his constituents an update about his condition as soon as possible, Pelosi said she hoped he would have “the appropriate evaluation so he can share that information.”
“I feel sad that whatever the situation is that he finds himself having to be away from Congress,” Pelosi said. “Hopefully we’ll see him back here soon again.”
A Jackson spokesman had earlier offered first word from anyone close to the congressman that specifics about his ailment might be on the way.
“We hope to hear from the doctors soon,” Jackson spokesman Rick Bryant told The Associated Press earlier Wednesday. He declined to elaborate, but Jackson’s wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, echoed the sentiment in comments to the Chicago Tribune.
“I’m hopeful that my husband’s doctors will be able to release something soon,” she told the newspaper. “I’m in constant talks with them about Jesse’s condition and his medical prognosis going forward.” She did not immediately respond to messages from the AP seeking further comment.
Pressure on Jackson to give an update has been mounting.
Durbin and Gutierrez in recent days have called it his responsibility as a public official. Jackson's little-known opponents in the November election have spoken out on the same issue, and voters in his district have asked questions. Hoyer told an unrelated news conference Wednesday that Jackson does not find himself in “an unusual circumstance.”
“People get sick, and when people get sick, they miss work. Everybody in America understands that,” Hoyer said. “But I think the family would be well advised to give his constituents as much information as is appropriate.”
Bryant has said relatives requested Jackson's location be kept private and his family has been unusually reticent on the issue. Jackson’s civil rights leader father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., has called it a private issue and repeatedly declined to give details. His wife has said little.
The timing of the leave has raised questions.
A House Ethics Committee investigation is pending over allegations Jackson discussed raising money for Rod Blagojevich’s campaign so the then-Illinois governor would appoint him to President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich is serving a prison sentence for corruption.
Jackson also allegedly directed a fundraiser, Raghuveer Nayak, to buy plane tickets for a woman described as Jackson’s “social acquaintance.” Jackson and his wife have called that a personal matter.
Days before Jackson announced the medical leave, Nayak was arrested and pleaded not guilty to unrelated medical fraud charges. At Blagojevich’s 2010 corruption trial, prosecutors said another Blagojevich fundraiser was ready to testify that Jackson instructed Nayak to raise money for Blagojevich’s campaign to help him secure the Senate seat. The same witness later testified he attended a meeting with Jackson and Nayak.
Jackson was not charged and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Jackson faces a Republican and independent candidate in November, though he's widely expected to win re-election. He first won office in a 1995 special election and has easily won each race since. Jackson’s district includes parts of Chicago and some suburbs.
July 12, 2012
By MICHAEL GRACZYK | Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The head of the NAACP on Monday likened the group’s fight against conservative-backed voter ID laws that have been passed in several states to the great civil rights battles of the 1960s.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said these are “Selma and Montgomery times,” referring to historic Alabama civil rights confrontations. He challenged those attending the NAACP’s annual convention to redouble their efforts to get out the vote in November.
“We must overwhelm the rising tide of voting suppression with the high tide of registration and mobilization and motivation and protection,” he said.
“Simply put, the NAACP will never stand by as any state tries to encode discrimination into law,” Jealous said.
The power to vote will be a key theme of the weeklong 103rd convention, which was expected to host about 8,000 attendees. An appearance by Attorney General Eric Holder was postponed from Monday until Tuesday, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden were also expected to speak at some point.
Since 2010, at least 10 states, including Texas, have passed laws requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification card when they go to the polls.
Supporters of voter ID laws, including many conservative Republicans, contend they are necessary to protect against voter fraud. But opponents say instances of such voter fraud are extremely rare and that voter ID laws could suppress turnout among the elderly, poor and some racial minorities who are less likely to have driver’s licenses or passports and who might find it harder to miss work or lose pay to obtain proper ID.
George R. Brown Convention Center was only about half-full for Jealous’ hour-long speech, but by the end he had much of the crowd standing and shouting, “Forward ever, backward never!”
“Our democracy is literally under attack from within. We have wealthy interests seeking to buy elections and when that ain’t enough, suppress the vote,” Jealous said. “There is no battle that is more important or urgent to the NAACP right now than the battle to preserve democracy itself. Let me be very clear, our right to vote is the right upon which our ability to defend every other right is leveraged.”
He cited the group's 103 years in existence as proof it wouldn’t cede ground on voting rights.
“If you let someone diminish the power of your vote you will already have lost a battle.”
Jealous said with 120 days remaining before the November elections, his organization's members could allow the election to be stolen from them “or we can double down on democracy and overcome the tide of voter suppression.”
“If we simply accept things as they are and allow those who wish to turn back the clocks and tides of all that we have gained, and block the forward movement of our movement for human rights ... we will have failed in our mission and our calling,” he said.
July 12, 2012
By ALBERT AJI and ZEINA KARAM | Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — International envoy Kofi Annan tried to breathe new life Monday into his moribund peace efforts in Syria, saying he has reached a new framework with President Bashar Assad and would discuss it soon with rebel leaders. Opposition activists raised the death toll in the conflict to more than 17,000.
Annan, the architect of the primary international plan to end Syria’s 16-month-old crisis, arrived in Iran late Monday for talks with leaders there. With the violence in Syria growing increasingly chaotic and diplomatic efforts faltering, Annan has said Iran, a staunch Syrian ally, must be a part of a solution to the conflict.
“We agreed on an approach which I will share with the armed opposition,” Annan told reporters following a two-hour meeting with Assad which he described as “candid and constructive” Monday.
“I also stressed the importance of moving ahead with a political dialogue which the president accepts,” he said. Annan did not disclose details of the framework he reached with Assad.
Annan’s efforts to broker an end to the Syrian conflict as the U.N.-Arab League envoy have unraveled as the uprising that began with peaceful protests in March 2011 has spiraled toward civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that 17,129 people had killed since March 2011 are 11,897 civilians, 4,348 soldiers and 884 military defectors.
The group has a network of activists on the ground who document deaths and rights violations through eyewitness, accounts, hospitals and video footage. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, says 14,841 civilians and fighters have been killed. The LCC does not report Syrian military deaths.
The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it impossible to independently verify death tolls.
The violence has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months as rebels gain more arms, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the carnage as the country spirals toward civil war. Activists have reported an average of about 100 people killed on some days in the past few weeks.
In an interview with the French daily Le Monde on Saturday, Annan acknowledged that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed. He added that more attention needed to be paid to the role of longtime Syrian ally Iran, saying Tehran “should be part of the solution.”
It is unclear what role Annan envisions for Iran, a staunch Syrian ally that has stood by Assad throughout the uprising. Tehran’s close ties could make it an interlocutor with the regime, though the U.S. has often refused to let the Islamic Republic attend conferences about the Syria crisis.
Annan’s six-point peace plan was to begin with a cease-fire in mid-April between government forces and rebels seeking to topple Assad, to be followed by political dialogue. But the truce never took hold, and almost 300 U.N. observers sent to monitor the cease-fire are now confined to their hotels because of the escalating violence.
“President Assad reassured me of the government’s commitment to the six-point plan which, of course, we should move ahead to implement in a much better fashion than has been the situation so far,” Annan told reporters Monday.
State-run news agency SANA said Assad discussed with Annan “mechanisms” that could ease the violence in Syria and told him the success of his plan hinged on regional countries ending their support for the “terrorism” in Syria. Damascus blames Arab Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar for fueling the crisis in Syria by funding the rebels.
Despite agreeing to a series of peace proposals in the past 16 months, the Syrian regime has repeatedly ignored its commitments and instead continued to wage a brutal crackdown on dissent. The rebels have also stepped up their attacks against government troops, dealing heavy losses among their ranks.
Annan said his team in Syria will follow up on the agreement reached with Assad.
“I also encourage governments and other entities with influence to have a similar effort,” he added.
Russia, another strong of ally of the Syrian regime, said Monday it will not sign new weapons contracts with Syria until the situation there calms down.
Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy chief of the Russian military and technical cooperation agency, told Russian news agencies on the sidelines of the Farnborough airshow south-west of London that Russia will continue, however, with previously agreed exports.