Ban Ki-moon

BEIRUT — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian regime of committing “almost certain” crimes against humanity Thursday as activists reported fresh violence and the arrest of several prominent dissidents, including a U.S.-born blogger.

Speaking to reporters in Vienna, Ban demanded the Syrian regime stop using indiscriminate force against civilians caught up in fighting between government troops and President Bashar Assad’s opponents.

“We see neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately,” Ban told reporters in Vienna. “Hospitals used as torture centers. Children as young as ten years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity.”

Syrian activists said government forces attacked Daraa on Thursday, carrying out arrests and shooting randomly in the city where the uprising against Assad erupted 11 months ago. They also reported intense clashes between army defectors and government troops in the central province of Hama.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops “committed a new massacre” near the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, killing 19 people — 11 of them from the same family. The report was impossible to confirm.

The push into Daraa, located near the Jordanian border some 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Damascus, followed sieges on the rebellious cities of Homs and Hama and appears to be part of an effort by the regime to extinguish major pockets of dissent.

Also Thursday, the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, reported the arrest of a several activists, including Razan Ghazzawi, a U.S.-born blogger and press freedom campaigner.

Ghazzawi, who was born in Miami, Florida, was arrested early in the uprising and charged with spreading false information, but she was released after about two weeks.

The LCC said security forces also arrested leading human rights activist Mazen Darwish and others during a raid on their Damascus office. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

The LCC said dozens of people were killed throughout the country Thursday.

The Observatory said security forces killed at least one civilian in Daraa, and that clashes between defectors and government troops there left at least three regime soldiers dead.

The deadliest fighting between troops and defectors took place in the village of Kfar Naboudeh in Hama province where government forces killed 10 defectors and four civilians, according to the Observatory. The group said the defectors attacked an army checkpoint near the Hama town of Soran, killing four soldiers.

Death tolls are all but impossible to confirm in Syria, which has banned independent reporting.

The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarized in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.

The U.N. General Assembly approved an Arab-sponsored resolution strongly condemning human rights violations by the Syrian regime and backing an Arab League plan aimed at ending the conflict.

While General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues and supporters are hoping for a high “yes” vote to deliver a strong message to Assad’s regime.

On Wednesday, Assad ordered a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the same family dynasty for 40 years. Such a change would have been unheard of a year ago, and Assad’s regime is touting the new constitution as the centerpiece of reforms aimed at calming Syria’s upheaval.

But after almost a year of bloodshed, with well over 5,400 dead in the regime’s crackdown on protesters and rebels, Assad’s opponents say the referendum and other promises of reform are not enough and that the country’s strongman must go.

Assad’s call for a referendum also raises the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers.

The U.S. and France dismissed the referendum move as an empty gesture.

“How can he propose a referendum ... while continuing to shoot cannons at the innocent population at the center of some Syrian cities,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told journalists Thursday in Vienna.

He added that France is working at the United Nations on a resolution inspired by the Arab League proposal that calls on Assad to hand power to his vice president.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Assad “knows what he needs to do if he really cares about his people.”

“The violence just needs to come to an end, and he needs to get out of the way so we can have a democratic transition,” she told reporters

In Strasbourg, the speaker of the European Parliament said Assad’s leadership was “completely discredited” and that his proposal to submit a new constitution to a referendum before a nation at war is “inconceivable.”

“The European Parliament wants to see humanitarian corridors to be put into place and shelters provided for the growing numbers of displaced people,” Martin Schulz said. “The parliament urges the EU ... to help strengthening the unity of the Syrian forces which oppose the regime inside and outside the country.”

Russia, a top Syrian ally, has presented Assad’s reform promises as an alternative way to resolve Syria’s bloodshed. Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday for talks on how to end the violence, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Thursday. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.

“I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation,” Liu said.

On Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported raids and shooting by Syrian troops in Daraa, along with renewed shelling in the rebellious neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs.

Homs has seen one of the deadliest assaults of the crackdown that activists say has killed hundreds in the past two weeks, aimed at crushing a city that has been a stronghold of dissent.

A rebel fighter climbs atop a statue inside Gadhafi’s compound Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli, where intense fighting has occurred, on Aug. 24.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — When the end came for Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, it was stunningly sudden. One minute the rebels were in the mountains, the next they were sweeping through the coastal city of Zawiya to the gates of the capital.

Gadhafi’s dread fortress of Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli then came under siege by rebels, to fall in a matter of hours.

Over the next few days, the secrets of the 42-year-old regime spilled into the open.

Whispered stories about bunkers under Bab al-Aziziya proved true, with miles of tunnels navigable by electric golf carts leading to villas and hideouts across the city.

Inmates freed from the regime’s notorious prisons told of decades of inside tiny cells, cut off from the world. The squalor they endured contrasted with the luxury in which Gadhafi’s children lived, as evidenced by the expensive cars, indoor pools and gaudy decor at the homes rebels trashed and looted.

In the ensuing days, sporadic fighting continued with pockets of Gadhafi loyalists.

As they retreated, they left behind mounds of corpses, sometimes set on fire, before vanishing into the countryside.

GADHAFI LOCATION SUSPECTED NEAR SIRTE

Libyan rebels say they’re closing in on Moammar Gadhafi and issued an ultimatum Tuesday to regime loyalists in the fugitive dictator’s hometown of Sirte, his main remaining bastion: surrender this weekend or face an attack.

“We have a good idea where he is,” a top rebel leader said.

The rebels, tightening their grip on Libya after a military blitz, also demanded that Algeria return Gadhafi’s wife and three of his children who fled there Monday.

Granting asylum to his family, including daughter Aisha who gave birth in Algeria on Tuesday, was an “enemy act,” said Ahmed al-Darrad, the rebels’ interior minister.

Rebel leaders insisted they are slowly restoring order in the war-scarred capital of Tripoli after a week of fighting, including deploying police and collecting garbage.

Reporters touring Tripoli still saw chaotic scenes, including desperate motorists stealing fuel from a gas station.

Rebel fighters were converging on the heavily militarized town of Sirte, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of Tripoli.

The rebels gave pro-Gadhafi forces there a deadline of Saturday — the day after the end of the Muslim holiday — to complete negotiations and surrender. After that, the rebels will “act decisively and militarily,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council.

FUNDS DETAINED

UNITED NATIONS — Libya’s rebels got a boost Tuesday with the unfreezing of about $1.6 billion in Libyan currency held in Britain as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for urgent international support and billions more for the incoming government.

The U.N. chief said he was encouraged by events on the ground and told the Security Council “I think we can now hope for a quick conclusion to the conflict and an end to the suffering of Libya’s people.”

The National Transitional Council, which controls most of the country, says it urgently needs at least $5 billion in frozen assets to pay state salaries and maintain services in Libya, including in areas still under Moammar Gadhafi’s control, as well as for salaries for an army and a police force to restore order and confiscate arms.
Analysts estimate that as much as $110 billion is frozen in banks worldwide.
 

FAMILY FLEES TO ALGERIA, DAUGHTER HAS BABY 

ALGIERS, Algeria — Hunted throughout her homeland and forced to flee into exile across a dangerous desert border, the daughter of ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi paused somewhere in the Sahara to have a baby.

The dramatic birth of Gadhafi’s granddaughter after her mother and other relatives escaped Libyan territory into Algeria, lends a human dimension to the dictator’s downfall and the ongoing mystery of his whereabouts.

The birth in exile was disclosed by the Algerian Health Ministry on Tuesday.

Algeria’s U.N. Ambassador Mourad Benmehidi said in a letter to the Security Council obtained by The Associated Press that at 8:45 a.m. local time Monday two vehicles, a bus and a Mercedes entered Algerian territory from Libya carrying Safiya Gadhafi, her daughter Aisha, sons Hannibal and Mohammed, and their children. Benmehidi said one child “was born the same day at the border without medical assistance.”

The Health Ministry earlier said that Aisha Gadhafi gave birth to a girl on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear which day was correct.

Benmehidi said the country allowed them to enter the country for “humanitarian considerations.” Algerian news reports had said Aisha’s pregnancy was one reason for Algeria’s controversial decision to take the family in.

An Algerian newspaper reported that the exiles, who also included an unknown number of Gadhafi’s grandchildren by his eight children, had waited 12 hours to receive authorization to cross the Algerian border from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika — while Aisha was in labor.
 

POCKETS OF RESISTANCE 

TARHOUNA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s green flags still fly proudly above the main street in this bastion of support for his crumbling regime. Many here still openly pledge allegiance to the longtime Libyan leader.

And don’t even ask about the rebels, who ostensibly control the small market town but mostly keep to the outskirts.

“We felt safe with Gadhafi, but not now, not with the rats,” Hassan Sultan, 35, an unemployed laborer, said of the rebels.

Tarhouna’s loyalty is a stark sign of the problems the rebels face as they try to bring stability — and eventually a new government — to a country ruled by Gadhafi for more than four decades. Residents here say many of their neighbors have hidden weapons, leftovers from government programs to arm civilians against attackers, and some say they believe there could eventually be attacks on the rebels.

Because while Gadhafi was detested by many Libyans as a dictator who enriched his family but left much of the country in poverty, he also earned support by nurturing particular tribes and regions, offering generous government benefits and jobs to those he saw as key supporters.

Sultan, for instance, received about $500 a month in unemployment assistance — more than the salary of a low-level civil servant — but received his last check in July as the rebels pushed closer to Tripoli, the capital.

But in Tarhouna, residents say their loyalty runs far deeper than the next welfare check. The town, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, was widely seen as a Gadhafi favorite, and its dominant tribe — also called Tarhouna — holds many positions in the Libyan military.

“It had nothing to do with money,” said Jafer Abdel Sadik, 21, who still sells the once-ubiquitous green flags of the Gadhafi regime in his mobile phone shop, where one wall was decorated with a large poster of the former dictator. “Under Gadhafi, we lived peacefully and were secure.”

Despite such talk, Libya’s emerging new government keenly fears a repeat of the mistakes of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s supporters were purged by U.S. forces and quickly turned against the new regime, destabilizing the country for years.

Rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said that while Gadhafi’s key aides and fighters would be prosecuted, his civilian supporters would face no punishment.

“We are going to convince them that they are in the wrong camp, and we will welcome them to come back to the majority and understand that we’d like to build a new Libya,” he told reporters.

Printed on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 as: Rebels dispose dictator Gadhafi, Libya begins its transition.