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Protests hit new peak in Syria
At least 28 civilians were killed, including 16 in the capital Damascus and a child, as security forces opened fire to quell the largest anti-regime rallies in four months, activists said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syria cannot now return to the way it was before anti-regime protests erupted on March 15.
Rights activist Abdel Karim Rihawi said the deaths also included two in Kadam and four in Douma, both suburbs of the capital, in addition to three in the northwestern city of Idlib and two more in the southern town of Daraa.
Neighbourhoods in Damascus bore the brunt of the violence, with 12 killed in Qabun, three in Rukn Eddin and another in Barzeh, said Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
The capital’s suburbs also saw the death of a child killed in Jobar, four adults in Douma and one in Kadam. Three people were killed in the northern city of Idlib and two others in the southern town of Daraa, Rihawi added.
More than one million Syrians turned out in just two cities – Hama and Deir Ezzor – to protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and demand the release of hundreds of detainees seized in earlier pro-democracy rallies.
“More than a million people demonstrated today in Hama and Deir Ezzor,” Abdel Rahman said. “It’s a major development and a message to the authorities that protests are getting bigger.”
In the central city of Homs, 15 people were wounded when security forces opened fire, pro-democracy militants said of some of the mass demonstrations staged after Friday prayers.
Rihawi added that 15 protesters were wounded in Kiswe, in Damascus province.
Security agents used live ammunition to disperse protesters in the Qabun and Barzeh areas of the Damascus, while more demonstrators infiltrated the Madaya, Harasta and Saqba regions, Rihawi said.
Damascus, which once stood out for its eerie Friday calm and marginal demonstrations compared with massive pro-regime rallies, saw the highest death toll on Friday despite protest centres elsewhere drawing larger crowds.
The official SANA news agency said “armed men fired on security forces and citizens in the areas of Qabun and Rukn Eddin in Damascus.”
Syrians had been urged to demonstrate on Friday to demand the release of people imprisoned in the bloody crackdown on democracy protests.
State television reported “the death of a civilian killed by armed men at Idlib,” and added: “The military and security services are protecting demonstrators against armed men in Daraa province.”
Activists issued an appeal for nationwide protests to mark a day of “Freedom for the Hostages” on The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, a driving force behind the demonstrations.
Like their cousins across the Arab world, Syrians have adopted Fridays, when they gather for the main weekly Muslim prayers, as their main outlet for dissent.
Four dead in gun battle in Indian Kashmir
SRINAGAR (AFP) – Three suspected Islamist militants and an Indian soldier were killed in a gun battle on Friday in the Indian zone of divided Kashmir, a senior police official said.
The guerrillas, thought to belong to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, were killed by Indian troops in the village of Maidanpora, 120 kilometres (70 miles) north of Kashmir’s main city Srinagar, he said.
Five other Indian soldiers were injured in the fighting, which lasted for eight hours, police superintendent V.K. Birdi told AFP.
Virdi said the firefight broke out after soldiers and policemen encircled a house where some Lashkar-e-Taiba militants were holed up.
“The house, where the militants had taken shelter, was razed during the encounter,” Virdi said, adding that an effort was on to retrieve the bodies of the slain militants from the debris.
“We were tracking the movement of the group for the last two weeks and finally we trapped them,” he said, adding that the house owner and his relatives fled the premises before the fighting erupted.
Virk identified two of the slain militants as Pakistani nationals.
For more than 20 years, militant groups in Indian-administered Kashmir have fought against New Delhi’s rule in the highly militarised Himalayan region.
Violence in Indian Kashmir has been stoked by Pakistan-based groups that send militants over the de facto border that divides Kashmir between the two countries.
India also believes the Lashkar-e-Taiba and a Pakistani intelligence service staged the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which left 166 people dead and severely strained ties between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals.
Philippine colonel calls for president’s ouster
A colonel in the Philippine navy has been stripped of his post and put under investigation over a video in which he called for President Benigno Aquino’s overthrow, the military said Saturday.
Colonel Generoso Mariano was removed as deputy chief of the Naval Reserve Command on Friday and investigated for possible sedition and unbecoming conduct, navy spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Tonsay said.
“The tape showed him speaking out against the government,” Tonsay told AFP, adding the footage appeared to show Mariano laying out scenarios when a president’s removal could be justified.
Tonsay said the tape, copies of which began circulating on social networking sites on the Internet on Saturday, had been viewed by some military units. One copy was anonymously delivered at the gate of navy headquarters.
However, he stressed that the president’s ouster had no support in the 120,000-strong armed forces.
Mariano, who is set to retire Sunday when he turns 56, must stay in his navy quarters until the investigation is completed, Tonsay added.
“The possible offences are conduct unbecoming of an officer and sedition,” he said. “Sedition is a grave offence.”
A video said to be of the footage and making the rounds on Facebook showed a bespectacled middle-aged man wearing a blue shirt with an indistinct but military-style crest speaking to a microphone while seated behind a table.
“It is the duty, it is the right of every Filipino including soldiers to replace the government. I repeat, replace the government,” the man says in the 95-second tape, which was dated July 3, 2011.
The shared videos on Facebook come from the account of a group calling itself the “Oust Noynoy Movement!”. Noynoy is Aquino’s nickname.
The Philippine military has been wracked by periods of unrest since a military-backed bloodless “people power” uprising toppled the 20-year rule of strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Two of the five presidents that followed him survived a series of military coups, including Aquino’s late mother Corazon Aquino, who had to seek the help of the US Air Force in a bloody attempt in 1989.
Obama warns US ‘running out of time’ for debt deal
WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama is pressing polarised lawmakers to avert what he called economic ‘Armageddon’ by quickly forging a deal to prevent an early August debt default by the world’s richest country.
“We’re obviously running out of time,” Obama warned at the White House Friday, as Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives met separately to discuss the way forward and Senate leaders worked on a last-ditch compromise.
Obama renewed his call for a ‘grand bargain,’ which would cut entitlement programmes dear to his fellow Democrats, but Republicans have flatly rejected his call for higher taxes on the rich.
The US president, sure to be judged in the 2012 elections based on his handling of the jobs-poor US economy, signaled he would not reject a last-minute compromise key lawmakers were drafting behind closed doors.
“Let’s at least avert Armageddon,” he said after five straight days of crisis talks at the White House failed to reach a deal on closing the yawning budget deficit while raising the US debt limit from its current $14.3 trillion.
Economists and finance and business leaders have warned that failure to raise the US debt ceiling by August 2 could send shock waves through a world economy still reeling from the 2008 collapse.
Ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have warned they may downgrade Washington’s sterling Triple-A debt rating, and leading US creditor China, Wall Street titan J.P. Morgan Chase and the Federal Reserve have also sounded the alarm.
With time running short, Obama’s top Republican foes in Congress called for votes next week on their plan for severe spending cuts on the way to amending the US Constitution to require cash-strapped Washington to balance its budget.
4,800 evacuated in Indonesia volcano eruption
JAKARTA (AFP) – More than 4,800 people have been evacuated since an Indonesian volcano erupted on Thursday and its alert status was placed on the highest level, an official said.
Mount Lokon on Sulawesi island spewed grey ash up to 800 metres (2,600 feet) high early on Saturday as it continued to rumble.
“The evacuees are placed in six shelter points. No one has died because of the direct impact of the eruption,” disaster management agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
“The disaster management agency has assisted them by disbursing 300 million rupiah (35,100 dollars) of emergency funds, logistics, equipment and personnel,” he said.
The 1,580-metre Mount Lokon is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. It erupted in 1991, killing a Swiss tourist.
The Indonesian archipelago has dozens of active volcanoes and straddles major tectonic fault lines known as the “Ring of Fire” between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The country’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi in central Java, killed more than 350 people in a series of violent eruptions last year.
UN removes 14 Taliban members from sanctions list
The UN Security Council committee overseeing sanctions on Friday removed 14 Taliban leaders from an international blacklist in order to encourage peaceful reconciliation in war-torn Afghanistan.
Germany’s UN ambassador Peter Wittig, who heads the Security Council for the month of July, said the decision “sends a strong signal: the Security Council and the international community support the efforts of the Afghan government to engage reconciled Taliban in a political dialogue in order to achieve peace and security in Afghanistan.”
The 14 Taliban on the list include Arsalan Rahmani Daulat, Habibullah Fawzi, Sayeedur Rahman Haqani and Faqir Mohammad, all members of Afghanistan’s peace council, Wittig said.
“The international community recognizes efforts made by member of the High Peace Council to work towards peace, stability, and reconciliation,” said Wittig.
“All Afghans are encouraged to join these efforts. The message is clear: engaging for peace pays off,” said Wittig.
Ahead of the Friday decision, 137 members of the Taliban were on a sanctions list that called for an asset freeze, a travel ban and an arms embargo.
Wittig did not release the names of the other Taliban members removed from the list.
The United Nations Security Council on June 17 split the international sanctions regime for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to encourage the Taliban to join reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
The council unanimously passed two resolutions that set up one new blacklist of individuals and organizations accused of links to Al-Qaeda and a second for those linked to the Taliban militia.
The two groups have until now been handled by the same sanctions committee. But the international powers wanted to separate them to highlight the divide between Al-Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda and the Taliban’s focus on Afghanistan.
The sanctions committee was set up in 1999 when Al-Qaeda had major bases in the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until they were driven out of power by US-led forces.
Libya rebels breach Brega
BENGHAZI (AFP) – Libya’s rebels said a light mobile force had breached the strategically vital oil town of Brega late Friday, before pulling back in anticipation of a renewed offensive at daybreak.
Mohammed Zawi, a spokesman for the rebel army, told AFP a group of reconnaissance troops had entered the city from the north, then pulled back four kilometres (2.5 miles) before midnight (2200 GMT).
The probing raid deep into Kadhafi-held territory came around 32 hours after the rebel command launched a three-pronged attack to wrest control of the town back from Moamer Kadhafi’s troops, who were thought to have numbered around 3,000.
While the rebels’ forward position to the north was four kilometres from the town centre, a second unit attacking from due east of Brega faced stiffer resistance and was about 10-20 kilometres (six to 12 miles) from the town.
“Most of Kadhafi’s troops seem to be at the centre,” said Zawi.
Rebels were trying to dispose of more than 100 landmines placed around the town, to make way for heavy artillery.
Earlier the rebels said radio chatter from Kadhafi’s forces in the north showed them asking for reinforcements and for medics to come and collect the dead and wounded.
To the south of the town, where the rebels had made initial gains but suffered large numbers of casualties, Kadhafi forces had pushed back harder.
With fighting in the dusty and windy desert terrain difficult, Zawi said he expected fighters on both sides to dig in for the night and for clashes to slow.
“Tomorrow we can take Brega, God willing,” he said.
Brega, nestled at the southeastern tip of the Gulf of Sirte, has changed hands multiple times during Libya’s civil war, which soon enters its fifth month.