September 28, 2016 at 7:19 pm

US to deploy 600 troops to Iraq for Mosul offensive

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The United States will send about 600 more American soldiers to Iraq to prepare local forces for the upcoming battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters. 

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on Wednesday the US troops will advise Iraqi soldiers and provide logistics support and intelligence for the operation to recapture the country’s second-largest city from ISIL – also known as ISIS. 

“American President Barack Obama was consulted on a request from the Iraqi government for a final increase in the number of trainers and advisers under the umbrella of the international coalition in Iraq,” Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement.

US to send another 560 troops to Iraq

Last week, Abadi met Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, though it was not clear whether the deal was sealed there.

President Obama and Vice President Biden hold talks with Abadi in New York on September 19 [Reuters]

‘No boots on the ground’

US Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the Middle East, told Reuters in July the US military expected to seek additional troops in Iraq

There are at least 4,400 US troops in Iraq as part of a US-led coalition providing extensive air support, training and advice to the Iraqi military, which collapsed in 2014 in the face of ISIL’s advance towards capital Baghdad.

Iraqi forces, including Kurdish peshmerga fighters and mostly Iranian-backed Shia militias, have retaken about half of that territory over the past two years.  

But Mosul, the largest city under ISIL’s control, is likely to be the biggest battle yet.

US and Iraqi commanders have said the push to retake the city could begin by the second half of October.

Current US troop levels in Iraq are still a fraction of the 170,000 deployed at the height of the nine-year occupation that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, sparking an al-Qaeda-backed insurgency and throwing the country into a sectarian civil war.

Following the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Obama insisted there would be no American “boots on the ground”.

While coalition troops were initially confined to a few military bases, Americans have inched closer to the action as the campaign progresses

Source: News Agencies

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at 7:19 pm

Somalia: US accused of killing 22 troops in air strike

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An American air strike in northern Somalia killed as many as 22 soldiers, an official from the region alleged, suggesting the United States had been duped into attacking Somali troops.

The Galmudug region’s Security Minister Osman Issa said 22 of his soldiers had been killed in the early Wednesday strike, adding the rival region of Puntland had requested air suport on the pretext that the men were al-Shabab fighters.

“Puntland misinformed the United States and thus our forces were bombed,” Issa told Reuters news agency.

A US defence official said Washington had conducted “a self-defence air strike” against al-Shabab.

“The air strike was called in after Somali troops faced fire from militants,” the official said. No evidence had been seen that the attack killed civilians or anyone other than al-Shabab fighters, the official added.

UN: 40 percent of Somalis don’t have enough food to eat

A Puntland police officer said the attack had killed “more than a dozen” members of al-Shabab, which is waging an insurgency against Somalia’s Western-backed government and regional authorities.

Galmudug and Puntland regions have often clashed over territory.

The United States has launched many air strikes in Somalia against al-Shabab.

The armed group denied that it had any fighters in the area of the latest incident. “We neither have a base nor forces in Galkayo area,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabab’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters.

Protesters in Galmudug’s capital Galkayo burned US flags and images of President Barack Obama in protest, witnesses said. Shops closed because of the demonstrations.

Somalia is trying to rebuild after two decades of war. The conflict that began in 1991 left the Horn of Africa nation riven by clan rivalries and struggling with an insurgency.

Rival regions still sometimes take up arms against each other.

Source: Reuters

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EU refugee policy marks progress, not success

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More than six months since the EU-Turkey Deal to control refugee flows across the Aegean was signed, the European Commission is congratulating itself on a “steady delivery of results”.

According to its third report on the implementation of the deal released on Wednesday, daily arrivals of refugees and migrants on Greek islands have averaged 81 since June, compared to 2,900 daily arrivals during the same period a year ago.

The progress, according to the Commission, demonstrates that “the business model of smugglers can be broken”.

But the drop in arrivals comes hand-in-hand with significant problems. 

Under the Statement, Turkey agreed to take back all those who don’t qualify for asylum in Europe. So far, though, just 578 people have been returned. This means that the islands of the east Aegean are gradually turning into vast internment camps because the agreement confines newly arriving refugees to Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.

They are no longer allowed to travel to mainland Greece, from where they might more easily smuggle themselves deeper into Europe.

“When the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, there was no infrastructure that could support the sequestration of people on the islands,” says Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous. 

READ MORE: Refugees in Greece – ‘We are living in a prison here’

“VIAL overflowed with new arrivals within 4-5 days,” he says, referring to a disused aluminium plant the municipality spent 710,000 euros buying and refurbishing as a refugee camp.

The spillover from VIAL created two tent cities in Chios, and the refugees, frustrated with waiting, have sometimes turned to petty crime.

Ethnic tensions and the fear of deportation have also led to riots, like the one that sparked a fire around the Moria camp on Lesvos earlier this month.

The government has offered to build a new housing facility on Chios, but people are now increasingly skeptical.

“Many people now want these people simply to leave. They ask, why are you making more space for these people? Just get rid of them,” says Vournous.

“We are not a danger, believe me, we are in danger here,” says Bushra Asheh, a Syrian woman who has been on Chios for three months and is worried about the anti-immigrant demonstrations that have recently started taking place there.

“I wish to go to another country, another safe country. I need safety,” she says.

In theory, asylum caseworkers would process people off the islands faster than they would arrive, but Greek asylum authorities never received the level of staff support needed to achieve this from other member states, a problem the report readily admits.

Relocation is the only other way for refugees to get off the islands – a scheme whereby willing European Union member states agreed to relieve Greece and Italy of 160,000 asylum cases.

A year into the scheme, only 5,651 of Greece’s nearly 70,000 asylum seekers have so far been relocated, according to the report.

“The relocation programme has taken time to reach cruising speed,” the report admits, but points out that there is improvement: 1,202 relocations took place in September, the highest monthly figure so far.

Greece is home to nearly 70,000 asylum seekers [Reuters]

Source: Al Jazeera

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at 7:04 am

Obituary: Israel’s elder statesman Shimon Peres

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The death of Shimon Peres at the age of 93 marks the departure of the last major figure in Israel’s founding generation.

He died on Wednesday in a hospital after suffering a major stroke, the Israeli news website Ynet reported, after his condition worsened following a major stroke two weeks ago.

Peres – one of the disciples of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – spent his long political career in the public spotlight, but his greatest successes were engineered in the shadows, noted Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Peres’ most important task, to which he was entrusted by Ben Gurion, was developing in secret – and over US opposition – Israel’s nuclear weapons programme through the 1950s and ’60s. To that end, he recruited the assistance of France, Britain and Norway.

READ: Israel: New president has ‘big shoes to fill’

Peres, like his mentor, believed an Israeli bomb was the key to guaranteeing Israel’s status – both in Washington DC and among the Arab states – as an unassailable Middle East power.

The testing of the first warhead in the late 1960s was probably at least as responsible for ensuring rock-solid US patronage in subsequent decades as Israel’s rapid victory against neighbouring Arab states in the Six-Day War.

Peres’ later diplomatic skills in negotiating peace agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians were exercised largely out of view, too, though he was keen to take the credit afterwards.

His pivotal role in realising the Oslo Accords through a back channel in the early 1990s earned him – after frantic lobbying on his own behalf – the Nobel peace prize in 1994, alongside Israel’s prime minister of the time, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

These agreements, as well as his vision of economic and technological cooperation between Israel and Arab states in a “New Middle East”, made him a beloved figure in western capitals, where he was feted as Israel’s peacemaker-in-chief.

At home, among both Israelis and Palestinians, he was viewed far less favourably.

Born Syzmon Perski, Peres immigrated to Palestine from Poland with his family in 1934, aged 11. Raised on a kibbutz and inculcated in the values of Labour Zionism espoused by Israel’s East European elite, he was quickly identified as a rising star by Ben Gurion, a fellow Pole. 

During the 1948 war, Ben Gurion kept Peres in a backroom job, far from the fighting, where he was responsible for acquiring weapons, often illicitly, for the new Israeli army.

His diplomatic skills were relied on throughout the state’s tricky early years in the defence ministry. Despite his lack of an army background, he was instrumental in developing Israel’s large state-run military industries.

In the same role, he also developed alliances with key western states, especially France and Britain, that would eventually help Israel establish the Dimona nuclear reactor and build a bomb.

In return, Peres plotted with these two fading colonial powers an attack on Egypt in 1956 that triggered the Suez Crisis. Israel invaded Sinai to create the pretext for an Anglo-French “intervention” and seizure of the Suez Canal. All three soon had to withdraw under pressure from the US and Soviet Union.

Peres was elected to the Israeli parliament in 1959, the start of a 48-year career as an MP, the longest in Israel’s history. There were few senior ministerial posts he did not hold at some point.

READ: Israeli colonisation is at the root of the violence

But popularity eluded him. He led Ben Gurion’s Labour party to its first-ever defeat in the 1977 election against Menachem Begin. It would be the first of many electoral disappointments.

Peres’ lack of appeal to the Israeli public mirrored the gradual decline in support for the Ashkenazi (European Jewish) elite that had founded Israel and structured the new Jewish state to preserve its privileges.

As waves of new immigrants arrived, many of them Jews from Arab countries who were treated with disdain, men such as Peres came to look like an anachronism. Peres could not even boast, as Rabin could, a glorious record in the battles that established Israel.

Famously in the late 1990s, Peres made the mistake of asking a Labour party convention whether he was a “loser”. The delegates roared back: “Yes”.

Over two decades, Peres lost five elections in which he stood for prime minister.

Although he served in the top job on two occasions, he never won a popular mandate.

He briefly took over from Rabin after the latter was felled in 1995 by an assassin’s bullet.  He was also prime minister in an unusual rotation agreement with his Likud rival Yitzhak Shamir after neither secured a parliamentary majority in the 1984 election.

Unlike Rabin and Ariel Sharon, two figures of his generation who enjoyed greater political acclaim, Peres suffered in part because had not first made a name for himself in the Israeli army, Ezrahi observed.

READ ALSO: Israel’s Peres urges return to peace talk

He was seen as more uninspiring technocrat than earthy warrior.

Even on Israel’s left, said Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli political analyst and editor of the website Challenge, he was viewed as an opportunist.

“His real obsession was with his own celebrity and prestige,” she said. “What he lacked was political principle. There was an air about him of plotting behind everyone’s backs. He was certainly no Nelson Mandela.”

Rabin, who tussled regularly with Peres for leadership of the Labour party, called him an “inveterate schemer”.

With Rabin’s victory in 1992, Peres was appointed number two and returned to what he did best: backroom deals, in this case a peace track in Norway that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

When Rabin was assassinated two years later, it was assumed that Peres would romp home in the general election a short time later, riding a wave of sympathy over Rabin’s death.

Instead he lost to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who profited from the right’s campaign to discredit the peace process and its architects as “Oslo criminals”.

Peres would see out much of his remaining time in front-line politics providing a veneer of international respectability to right-wing Sharon governments through the second intifada as they crushed the Palestinian leadership and built a steel and concrete barrier through the West Bank.

In 2005 Peres deserted the Labour party and joined Sharon’s new centre-right Kadima party – an act of betrayal many allies on the left found hard to forgive.

Late in life, with his appointment as president in 2007, Peres finally found the chance to reinvent himself with the wider Israeli public.

In a largely ceremonial role, he had almost no influence on government policy. But his strenuous efforts repairing Israel’s damaged image abroad and nursing its strained strategic alliances, as Israel shifted ever further rightwards, were widely appreciated.

Over the next seven years, Peres gradually came to be viewed as a national treasure.

Among Palestinians, it was harder to rehabilitate his image. He is best remembered as part of a Labour Zionist elite responsible for the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 on the ruins of the Palestinian homeland.

Despite his later reputation, Peres held hawkish positions for much of his political career, noted Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

Following the 1967 war, he championed the cause of the settlers, and used his role as defence minister in the 1970s to establish the first settlements in the northern West Bank. His slogan was: “Settlements everywhere.”

With the Oslo process, Peres helped engineer Israel’s recognition of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people.

But in every other way, said Ghanem, the accords soon proved disastrous for the Palestinians, helping the settlements expand as the newly created Palestinian Authority looked on, confined to small enclaves of the occupied territories.

Pope and Middle East leaders pray for peace

Peres’ larger vision – embodied in the work of his Peres Center for Peace – was the creation of a “New Middle East”.

He hoped to transform the region through technological and economic cooperation between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. A Middle East modelled on the European Union, with Israel playing the role of Germany.

“It was a colonial view of the region,” said Ben Efrat, “driven by the goal of creating economic gains for Israel.”

In Ghanem’s view, Peres’ path to realising his New Middle East was paved by Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.

“The Arab states were removed from the conflict with Israel before a just peace was secured for the Palestinians,” he said. “Peres’ hope was to continue normalising relations with the Arab world while denying Palestinians their rights.”

Oslo fitted neatly with this vision, observed Ben Efrat. The Palestinians were to be caged into ghettoes, while Israel established industrial zones close by in which they could be exploited as a low-paid, low-tech workforce.

Or as Peres once explained his idea, “a young Palestinian student who finds a job won’t go and make bombs”.

Much of Peres’ political legacy – as heir to Ben Gurion – is currently being discarded by Netanyahu and the Israeli right. They prefer the politics of confrontation – at home and abroad – over the back-slapping niceties of the diplomacy Peres excelled in.

But Peres’ industrial zones are slowly being realised in an initiative called the “Valley of Peace“. The largest is due to open shortly next to the Palestinian city of Jenin, in the northern West Bank, supported by Turkey and Germany.

For Netanyahu, these zones accord with his policy of “economic peace”: pacifying the Palestinians through economic incentives while depriving them of political rights.

Peres gave every indication he approved.

Source: Al Jazeera

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at 7:04 am

US names first ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years

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The United States has tapped career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis to become the first official ambassador to Cuba in more than five decades.

“The appointment of an ambassador is a commonsense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries,” President Barack Obama said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government,” he said.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations in December 2014. The two countries restored full diplomatic relations in July 2015.

Since then, Washington and Havana have taken once-unthinkable steps to mend ties after more than half a century of enmity. 

Obama visited Cuba earlier this year and relaxed portions of the US embargo imposed since 1962.

Flights have resumed and cruise ships can now sail from Miami to Havana.

US companies like Airbnb and Netflix now operate in Cuba and hotel group Starwood, acquired last week by Marriott International, opened a Sheraton in Havana last June.

READ MORE: Rolling Stones rock into Cuba and make history

DeLaurentis is currently the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Havana and previously worked in Bogota and at the United Nations.

But his nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, is likely to face stiff opposition in Congress, where Cuban-American lawmakers have sought to garner local support by opposing Obama’s policies.

Any senator could place an anonymous hold on the nomination. Several Republican lawmakers have opposed Democrat Obama’s outreach to the Communist regime led by Castro.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American presidential contender in the Republican primary race who ultimately lost to Donald Trump, blasted Obama’s nomination.

“A US ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial and closed regime,” Rubio said in a statement.

READ MORE: Obama visits Cuba, hails ‘historic opportunity’

“This nomination should go nowhere until the Castro regime makes significant and irreversible progress in the areas of human rights and political freedom for the Cuban people.”

Accusing the Obama administration of failing to confront Cuba over its repressive policies, Rubio said the US embassy in Havana‘s Twitter account “seems more like a travel agency than an advocate for American values and interests”.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and foreign operations, on the other hand, argued for DeLaurentis’ confirmation.

“The Cuban people have their ambassador in Washington. The American people need their ambassador in Havana,” Leahy said in a statement.

Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington, Jose R Cabanas, was given the rank of ambassador last year.

Source: Al Jazeera News And News Agencies

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Former Israeli President Shimon Peres dies at 93

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Israeli ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres died on Wednesday, some two weeks after suffering a major stroke.

The 93-year-old died in his sleep at around 3:00am (0000 GMT), Peres’ doctor Rafi Walden, who is also Peres’s son-in-law, told AFP news agency. Israeli media also confirmed the former Israeli president’s death.

He died surrounded by family members.

“Our father’s legacy has always been the future. Look to tomorrow, he taught us,” said Chemi Peres, Peres’ son, in a press conference.

“Today, we sense that the entire nation of Israel and the global community mourns this great loss,” he added. “We share this pain together.”

Officials said that Peres’ body would lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday to allow the public to pay final respects.

His funeral was set for Friday at Mount Herzl, the country’s national cemetery in Jerusalem. Yona Bartal, a former personal aide to Peres, said the arrangements were in line with his wishes.

Obituary: Shimon Peres 1923 – 2016

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his “deep personal grief” in a statement in which he called Peres “the beloved of the nation”. Netanyahu is expected to deliver a personal message later on Wednesday, and the Israeli cabinet will convene for a special mourning session.

US President Barack Obama was quick to pay his respects, remebering Peres as “our dear friend” and “the essence of Israel itself”.

“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” a White House statement said.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “Shimon Peres was, above all, a man of peace. My deepest condolences to his loved ones and to the people of Israel on his passing.”

However, Al Jazeera’s Middle East analyst Yehia Ghanem said that many would remember Peres as a “war criminal”, especially in light of the 1996 Qana massacre. In that Israeli attack on a southern Lebanese village, at least 106 people were killed. Peres was then prime minister.

“People who are praising him [Peres] supported Israel and all of its crimes throughout its history,” Ghanem said. “The fact he ordered this massacre in Qana was and still is considered a war crime.”

Speaking of Peres’ legacy, Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, told Al Jazeera: “This is a man who, from the very beginning, was a war criminal.”

Buttu added: “He’s somebody who believed in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, somebody who when he had positions of power made sure that Paletsinian land that was occupied – not captured – was then turned over and made into Jewish Israeli settlements, which are war crimes under international law.”

Last remaining founding father

Peres had been in hospital near Tel Aviv since September 13, when he was admitted feeling unwell and suffered the stroke with internal bleeding.

Israel has been on edge over the health of its last remaining founding father, who had been under sedation and respiratory support in intensive care.

Peres held nearly every major office in the country, serving twice as prime minister and also as president, a mostly ceremonial role, from 2007 to 2014.

Shimon Peres: ‘Self-victimising Palestinians’

He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo Accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.

After suffering the stroke, he received an outpouring of support from across the world, including from Pope Francis, US President Barack Obama, the Clinton family, Donald Trump, Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called him “tireless in seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Heart trouble

There had been signs of improvement last week.

On September 18, Peres’ office said doctors planned to gradually reduce his sedation and respiratory support to judge his response.

His personal physician Walden had said at the time that Peres had seen “very slow, moderate improvement”.

But on Tuesday, a source close to Peres said his condition had taken a downturn and he was “fighting for his life”.

In January, Peres was hospitalised twice because of heart trouble.

In the first case, the hospital said he had suffered a “mild cardiac event” and underwent catheterisation to widen an artery.

READ MORE: New IsraeI president has ‘big shoes to fill’

He was rushed to hospital a second time just days later with chest pains and an irregular heartbeat.

Peres had sought to maintain an active schedule despite his age, particularly through events related to his Peres Center for Peace.

When leaving hospital on January 19, Peres said he was keen to get back to work.

“I’m so happy to return to work, that was the whole purpose of this operation,” he said.

Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine when he was 11. He joined the Zionist movement and met David Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor and Israel’s first prime minister.

Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry at just 29 years old. He was also seen as a driving force in the development of Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme.

Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies

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September 27, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Ali Bongo sworn in as president of Gabon

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Ali Bongo has been sworn in as Gabon’s president for a second seven-year term, three days after his election victory was controversially validated by the Constitutional Court following allegations of fraud.

“I pledge to devote all my efforts for the good of the Gabonese people and to ensure their wellbeing … and respect and defend the constitution and the rule of law,” the 57-year-old said during Tuesday’s ceremony in the presidential palace in the capital Libreville, according to AFP news agency.

Cannons were fired during the event, which was attended by a handful of African leaders including the presidents of Mali, Niger, Togo and Sao Tome, as well as the prime ministers of Chad, Senegal, the Central African Republic and Morocco, AFP said. Most regional and continental heavyweights, however, stayed away.

Government spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze said Bongo wanted to install “a unity government by this week or the start of next week”.

Earlier on Tuesday, the presidency had said the ceremony was going to be held at the presidential palace, without offering details of who had been invited or the time of the event.

The lack of details regarding the ceremony prompted a wave of criticism from the opposition, which has accused Bongo of “stealing” the vote.

“You don’t get sworn in unceremoniously in secret,” said Jean-Gaspard Ntoutoume Ayi, spokesman for Bongo’s  main rival Jean Ping.

Bongo’s victory in the August 27 vote was confirmed on Saturday by the country’s top court, which dismissed opposition claims of voter fraud. Violence initially erupted on August 31 after Bongo, 57, was first declared the winner. Demonstrators set the parliament ablaze and clashed with police, who arrested more than 1,000 people. 

Opposition figures say more than 50 people were killed, but authorities disputed that claim, saying that just a handful of people had died in the violence.

Libreville has been tense for days following opposition claims of electoral fraud [Reuters]

Ping, 73, who came in second in the vote, rejected the court’s ruling as a miscarriage of justice and declared himself “president elect”. A career diplomat and a former top official at the African Union, he had filed a legal challenge after Bongo was declared the winner by a slender margin of fewer than 6,000 votes.

Ping had asked for a recount in Haut-Ogooue province, where 95 percent of voters in the Bongo family stronghold were reported to have cast their ballots for the president on a turnout of more than 99 percent.

The Constitutional Court upheld Bongo’s victory and put the winning margin higher at around 11,000 votes.

The African Union said it had “taken note” of the court’s verdict, as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. 

The European Union, which sent a monitoring mission to Gabon during the election, said in a statement on Saturday that its observers had been granted “very limited access” to the court review process, and that the Gabonese people had a legitimate right to question the integrity of the electoral process.

Responding to the criticism, Bongo told Al Jazeera he had little interest in the opinions of the international community.

“The international community does not cast a vote here, Gabonese people do. So, I am accountable to them,” Bongo said.

In its final tally, the court ruled Bongo had won 50.66 percent of the vote (172,990 votes) and Ping 47.24 percent (161,287 votes).   

Gabon: Libreville reels as clashes erupt over vote

Bongo’s family has exercised a long grip on power in the oil and mineral-rich country of 1.8 million people.

Bongo took over from his father, Omar, who ruled Gabon for 41 years until his death in 2009.

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, who is 83 and has held office since 1982, wrote to Bongo on Monday voicing his “warm congratulations” and wishing him “success in the accomplishment of [his] new mandate.”

Senegal’s President Macky Sall also congratulated Bongo, as did Alassane Ouattara, president of Cote d’Ivoire.

“In the delicate period which Gabon is going through, I want to express to you my full encouragement and hope passionately that dialogue and calm will predominate between all the parties,” Ouattara wrote in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies

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at 6:56 pm

Syrian troops launch major ground assault for Aleppo

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Syrian forces launched a major ground offensive on a rebel-held district of Aleppo, the biggest assault yet in a new campaign aimed at wiping out rebel forces and retaking a city that’s key to ending the five-year war.

Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that troops captured Farafra district, near Aleppo’s famous citadel, and fighting was under way near the historic core of the northern city. 

A military official told AFP news agency that government forces “retook control of all of the Farafra district” and were now “demining the area”.

The official said the advance “comes as a continuation of the military operation that was announced that includes an aerial component and an artillery and ground component”. 

Aleppo has endured the worst aerial onslaught since the start of the war in 2011 with more than 400 people killed, hundreds of others wounded, and buildings flattened since a short-lived ceasefire broke down last week. 

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters told Al Jazeera that pro-government forces, including Shia militias, carried out “a ground push” in the Bab al-Antakya district.

“They [rebels] said that they repelled that attack and killed a number of pro-government militia” during fighting that lasted a couple of hours, said Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from across the Turkish border in Gaziantep.

Aleppo: Bodies litter floor at makeshift hospital

Stratford said a website run by the FSA reported two attacks in which 11 pro-government militiamen and Syrian soldiers were killed by rebel fighters, “keeping them from moving forward”.

It was not possible to independently confirm any of the claims. 

In the district of Handarat, north of Aleppo, government forces also advanced against the rebels, he said.

Government fighter jets backed by Russia’s air force also continued to target the city and its outskirts. Video obtained by Al Jazeera showed the latest air strikes on Tuesday with rescue crews rushing to the scene to pull people from under the rubble.

OPINION: Russia overplays its hand in Syria

The historic quarter of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, is home to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site. The 11th-century minaret of the famed mosque collapsed in April 2013 during fighting.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, confirmed that government forces were advancing on the old quarter.

“There was intense shelling earlier. It seemed the [government] was preparing for the attack,” said Ibrahim Alhaj, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, volunteer first-responders also known as the “White Helmets”.

He added news from the front line suggests a large mobilisation of pro-government militias in the old city.


Syria announced on Thursday it would carry out a major offensive following the collapse of the ceasefire [EPA]

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Syrian military official in Damascus told the AP news agency that operations in Aleppo will continue until “terrorists” in the eastern parts of the city are “wiped out”.

If President Bashar al-Assad’s forces do recapture the ancient city it would mark a major turning point in the war, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced millions.

“It will be a big victory for the regime if it takes Aleppo,” opposition activist Mahmoud al-Basha told Al Jazeera. “Aleppo is the biggest stronghold for FSA. There are no more cities for the FSA in Syria – they lost Homs, there is no FSA in Hama and Damascus.”

OPINION: Syria: Denial as a war strategy

Syria’s army announced an operation to retake the opposition-held east of Aleppo city following the collapse of the Russia-US orchestrated truce. Al Jazeera’s Stratford said people he spoke to “are literally terrified” at the prospect of a ground operation.

“They feel very helpless. They have completely given up on any kind of diplomatic effort. They have completely lost faith in what the international community is saying,” he said. 

Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies

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at 6:56 pm

Iran’s Ahmadinejad rules out another presidential bid

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Iran’s controversial former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he is not running to reclaim his old post, following advice from the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“You advised me it’s not expedient to run and I announced my obedience, following my explanations of my plans,” Ahmadinejad wrote in a letter to Khamenei made public by Iranian media on Tuesday. 

“I hereby inform you regarding the supreme leader’s considerations, I have no plan for next year’s elections.”

Ahmadinejad blamed for Iran’s fiscal woes

Ahmadinejad’s decision came a day after Khamenei, in cautiously worded remarks and without naming the ex-president, indicated that his standing again would be a mistake.

“A certain person came to me and I told him not to do a certain thing, believing it would be to the benefit of both the person himself and the country,” Khamenei had said.

He implied that an Ahmadinejad candidacy would have a polarising effect that would “damage the country”.

The Supreme Leader is seen as the final arbiter in the religious and political affairs in Iran. 

Ahmadinejad, who was president between 2005 and 2013, said he had met Khamenei on August 30.

“I will forever remain the small soldier of the revolution and a servant of the people,” he concluded in his letter.

Ahmadinejad had made numerous public appearances in recent months, leading to speculation that he was planning a comeback in next May’s presidential election.

Ahmadinejad made numerous public appearances in recent months, leading to speculation that he was planning a comeback in next May’s presidential election [AP]

Boost for Rouhani

Afhmadinejad’s decision not run is likely to reassure moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is expected to stand for a second term in the May 19 vote.

Ahmadinejad left office in August 2013 after two turbulent four-year terms, leaving the Islamic republic divided domestically, isolated internationally and struggling economically.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s re-election was followed by one the largest protests to hit the country since the Islamic revolution three decades before.

Two candidates backed by reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – who have been under house arrest since February 2011 – contested the results.

Both of Ahmadinejad’s terms were also marked by anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, including questioning the Holocaust.

But Ahmadinejad’s populist approach and humble roots mean that he remains a popular figure among poorer sections of society.

Rouhani, who oversaw a deal with world powers to end sanctions in exchange for curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme, faces mounting pressure from conservatives who say the accord has brought few benefits.

Rouhani was elected on a promise to resolve the nuclear issue and normalise relations with the outside world.

The nuclear agreement was reached with the major powers in July 2015 after two years of intense negotiations.

But despite it coming into force in January 2016 and some international sanctions being lifted, the economy’s recovery is still pending.

Ahmadinejad’s withdrawal from the presidential race comes as another conservative, Mohsen Rezai, former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, also announced Monday that he would not be a candidate next May.

More than eight months before the vote, political manoeuvring is already under way.

With Ahmadinejad out, the conservatives are trying to unite to support a single candidate to face Rouhani.

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf may also stand again, despite being a losing candidate twice, in 2005 and 2013.

Source: Agencies

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at 6:36 am

US election 2016: Clinton, Trump clash in first debate

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US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have gone head-to-head over the issue of race, the economy and foreign policy in their first televised debate ahead of November’s election.

Clinton accused her Republican rival of racism, sexism and tax avoidance, while Trump, a businessman making his first run for public office, repeatedly cast his opponent as a career politician and demanded that she should account for her time in government.

Monday’s televised face-off was the most anticipated moment in the election campaign, with both sides expecting a record-setting audience for the showdown at Hofstra University in New York.

In one of the more heated exchanges, the two candidates attacked each other for the controversy Trump stoked for years over whether President Barack Obama was born in the US.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii, released a long form birth certificate in 2011 to put the issue to rest. Only earlier this month did Trump say publicly that he believed Obama was born in the US.

“He (Trump) has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was absolutely no evidence for it. But he persisted. He persisted year after year,” Clinton said.

Trump repeated his false accusation that Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign against Obama had initiated the so-called “birther” issue.

“Nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it … I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate and I think I did a good job,” Trump said.

The Republican also backed the controversial “stop-and-frisk policing” tactic as a way to bring down crime, while the Democrat said the policy was unconstitutional and ineffective.

Foreign policy

The stakes were high as the candidates headed into the debate tied in most national polls ahead of the November 8 election.

The centrepiece of Trump’s case against Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state, was that she was a “typical” politician who has squandered opportunities to address the domestic and international issues she is now pledging to tackle as president.

“She’s got experience,” he said, “but it’s bad experience”.

READ MORE: Do the US presidential debates matter?

When the debate moved to international affairs, Trump, who has faced accusations that he has a weak grasp of policy, accused his rival of sowing chaos in the Middle East during her tenure as secretary of state.

“It’s a total mess, under your direction, to a large extent,” the Republican said.

But he appeared on shaky ground as he defended his refusal to reveal his plan for defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life,” he said, with Clinton replying that, unlike, her rival, she at least had a plan for fighting the armed group.

Trump also repeatedly insisted that he opposed the Iraq War before the 2003 US invasion, despite evidence to the contrary.

The Republican charged that Clinton and Obama created a vacuum when the US withdrew the majority of its forces from Iraq in 2011 after years of war.

ISIL “wouldn’t have been formed if (more) troops had been left behind,” he said.

Clinton countered by saying Trump had supported the invasion of Iraq, adding that the agreement about when US troops would leave Iraq was made by Republican president George W Bush, not Obama.

The Republican also appeared to contradict himself on how he might use nuclear weapons if he is elected president. He first said he “would not do first strike” but then said he could not “take anything off the table”.

Clinton said Trump was too easily provoked to serve as commander-in-chief and could be quickly drawn into a war involving nuclear weapons.

“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” she said.

Trump replied: “That line’s getting a little bit old.”

Tax returns and emails

In feisty exchanges on the economy, Clinton called for lowering taxes for the middle class, while Trump focused more on renegotiating trade deals that he said have caused companies to move jobs out of the US. 

Clinton attacked Trump for not releasing his income tax returns and said that decision raised questions about whether he was as rich and charitable as he has said. 

“There’s something he’s hiding,” she declared, scoffing at his repeated contentions that he will not release his tax returns because he is being audited. Tax experts have said an audit is no bar to making his records public.

OPINION: Donald Trump, false claims are still lies

Clinton said one reason he has refused is that he may well have paid nothing in federal taxes. He interrupted to say, “That makes me smart”.

Trump aggressively tried to turn the transparency questions around on Clinton, saying he would release his tax returns, “when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted,” alluding to the Democrat’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Toward the end of the debate, Trump said Clinton did not have the endurance to be president.

“She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina,” he said. Trump has made similar comments in previous events, sparking outrage from Clinton backers who accused him of leveling a sexist attack on the first woman nominated for president by a major US political party.

Clinton leapt at the opportunity to remind voters of Trump’s numerous controversial comments about women, who will be crucial to the outcome of the November election.

“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” she said.

Citing her own public record, Clinton retorted: “As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents … or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”

Quinnipiac University declared the race “too close to call” on Monday, with its latest national poll of likely voters suggesting 47 percent of support for Clinton and 46 percent for Trump.

“It really felt great,” Trump told reporters after the debate.

But political analyst Jason Johnson told Al Jazeera that he would not be surprised “if we see slight chances in the polls at the end of the week” in favour of Clinton.

“Trump came out aggressively … but never had much in terms of substance or answers,” he said.

“I think Hillary did what she needed to do better than Trump. She offered solutions.. explained how she sees America and her worldview. Her supporters will come out very enthusiastic.”

It was the first time the two candidates stood side by side since becoming their parties’ nominees.

Two more debates are to follow on October 9 and October 19.

Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies

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