Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: International Meeting in London Discusses Support for "New" Opposition
Protest rally in Homs today
Still, the FSA made significant strides against it today. The FSA has demonstrated that it is stronger in the east than many analysts expected. If this base falls, it will be a major blow to the Assad military in the region.
2139 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera reports on how civilian volunteers, using Italian ambulances, help save lives in the northern city of Aleppo:
2122 GMT: Jordan. Video from today's protests in Amman:
2012 GMT: Syria. Al Arabiya confirms that one of their reporters, Mohammad Dughmush, was severely injured while filming a peaceful protest in Bustan al Qaser, Aleppo (see updates below), and is now in Turkey recovering:
“There are tens of dead or wounded, I’m not sure… The dead bodies were feet away from me,” said Dughmush as he laid in bed with eyes shut, barely gaining the strength to talk.
“The demonstration was 100% peaceful and was purposefully targeted with a mortar shell,” he added.
Dughmash asked the cameraman to stop filming afterwards as he was no longer able to speak.
1934 GMT: Syria. A potentially significant development. Earlier we carried reports that the FSA had captured Al Bukamal, in southeast Deir Ez Zor (see update 1339). We pointed out, however, that while the capture of the city was a major development, the regime still controlled one of the largest military bases in eastern Syria, Hamdan airport, and the FSA was in for a long and drawn out siege.
We may have underestimated the FSA - significantly.
Now, the spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees reports that the FSA has captured Hamdan airport.
Report: Hamdan Airport in Bokamal has been completely taken over by the FSA, and all regime personnel there gave themselves up. #Syria— Rafif Jouejati (@RafifJ) November 16, 2012
There does seem to be some dispute. This rumor was circulating earlier, and an opposition Facebook page disputes the claim, though says the airport has been under siege all day.
A source on Twitter has tipped us off about another report from a reliable source:
Again, this news is unconfirmed, but if the FSA has taken Hamdan airport, then they may have complete control from Al Bukamal to the Iraq border. This also means that the FSA has likely captured large amounts of equipment, and will be able to bring it to the fight for Deir Ez Zor and its suburbs to the northwest.
In chess terms, this is like capturing a rook with a pawn, and then promoting the pawn.
1909 GMT: Syria. The airstrike in the Bustan al Qaser district of Aleppo (see previous) hit a peaceful protest, reportedly injuring an Al Arabiya reporter and killing tens of civilians. Tragically, one of those civilians was a well-known activist who, like many in the Syrian opposition, was dedicated to peaceful opposition to the Assad regime, at least according to one well-known activist:
One of the greatest activists from Bustan Al Qasr in Aleppo, Mustafa Karman, was martyred today by Assad regime forces. #syria— Nader (@DarthNader) November 16, 2012
Mustafa Karman was a peaceful activist who focused on the civil struggle and popular revolution. #Syria— Nader (@DarthNader) November 16, 2012
Mustafa Karman was threatened by Shabiha & some opposition bc he was Shiite, but he never wavered in his activism. RIP.— Nader (@DarthNader) November 16, 2012
34 martyrs were reported in in Damascus and its suburbs; 25 in Aleppo most of them in Bustan Qaser; 10 in Idlib; 8 in Daraa; 7 in Hama; 6 in Raqqa; 6 in Deir Ezzor; 5 in Homs; 3 in Banyas; 2 in Lattakia; and 1 in Qunaitera.
Note that the LCC is now reporting 25 deaths in Aleppo after confirming the Bustan al Qaser airstrike. Earlier, an Al Arabiya reporter was reportedly severely injured in a bomb blast there (see update 1556).
1652 GMT: Jordan. A detail we missed:
In fact, it is a Syrian opposition flag that is visible (at least one, towards the foreground).
The protests in Jordan are still relatively small (though surprisingly large for Jordan), but they feel similar to the early protests that happened in Syria and Bahrain in 2011 - before the extreme reactionary violence of the governments of both locations.
1623 GMT: Syria. A claim from a regional reporter:
There have been reports of unexplained explosions (beyond the air strikes and shelling), so this could explain that. Then again, there are so many explosions in Aleppo right now, who knows what is blowing up and why?
22 martyrs were reported in in Damascus and its suburbs; 17 in Aleppo most of them in Bustan Qaser; 10 in Idlib; 8 in Daraa; 6 in Raqqa; 5 in Hama; 5 in Homs; 3 in Banyas; 3 in Deir Ezzor; 1 in Qunaitera; and 1 in Lattakia.
1607 GMT: Syria. EA's John Horne reports:
Amnesty International have called upon British Foreign Secretary William Hague to "push for concrete action" from opposition groups in Syria to stop serious human rights abuses and "potential war crimes". Earlier today, Hague met with members of the new opposition coalition.
Amnesty campaign manager Kristyan Benedict said:
The crimes of Syrian government forces still dwarf those on the other side, but there’s a growing list of incidents where armed opposition groups have reportedly tortured and killed people they’d captured.
William Hague must insist on practical actions not just fine words to prevent opposition abuses. We need to see proper accountability, with any fighters accused of abuses detained and proper investigations mounted.
Mr Hague needs to reinforce the message - ‘It doesn’t matter which side you’re on in Syria, if you torture and kill prisoners, you need to be brought to justice’. There should be no place in the future Syria for war criminals - from any side.
1556 GMT: Syria. Mohamad Dughmosh, an Al Arabiya reporter who was in Aleppo, has reportedly been injured according to a prominent activist, Alexander Page (Rami al Jarrah):
We posted video from this protest in Bustan al Qusar in our previous update below.
While this is unconfirmed, Rami is highly reliable, and it is unlikely he would make a mistake this large.
1548 GMT: Friday is a day of protest across Syria, and despite the violence and risk, many have taken to the streets. This is important - each Friday is a show of defiance, and adds legitimacy to the opposition. Each Friday, opposition groups vote on Facebook pages and agree upon a national theme. What makes today's protests so important?
The theme is the support of the new Syrian National Coalition, the new opposition leadership group formed in Doha, Qatar.
Below we post a few videos as examples:
A reported protest in Maliha, in southeast Damascus:
Daraya, southwest of Damascus, and embattled city and site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Syria:
Douma, east of Damascus, an area that has been criss-crossed by Assad MiGs since dawn:
Bustan Al Qusar district of Aleppo:
1513 GMT: Syria. Air strikes over eastern Damascus and its suburbs have been constant today. One source has posted several live streams from Saqba, including this 12 minute video where jet fighters were a constant sound overhead. Interestingly, there also appeared to be machinegun fire targeting the jets.
The CFDPC posts this video, taken from Jisreen, showing a jet dropping a bomb on East Ghouta.
Homs has also been intensely bombed today, as have other areas in and around Damascus. The air force is now the primary weapon being used to attack opposition strongholds, which makes the earlier reports of downed helicopters in Eastern Damascus even that much more important.
1505 GMT: Yemen John Horne reports:
Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Qadhi reports on a suicide bombing in Zinjibar:
At least three members of the popular committees supporting the army against al-Qaeda have been killed in a suicide attack in Zinjibar— Mohammed al-Qadhi (@mohammedalqadhi) November 16, 2012
The suicide attack killed 3 and injured 4 as a leader in the Popular Committees told me. He said the bomber was wearing an explosive belt.— Mohammed al-Qadhi (@mohammedalqadhi) November 16, 2012
Damascus Suburbs: Ghouta Sharqiya: Free Syrian army drops two helicopters the first in Marj Sultan and the second in Hamouria.
The LCC also shares this video (which is both graphic and low quality) which claims to show one of the downed helicopters (and perhaps several of its crew):
Another shaky video we've seen claims to show the smoke rising from the crash site of a helicopter in Ghouta Shariqiya - it is inconclusive:
Without clear video of the wreckage we have to treat these reports as unconfirmed. If this were to be confirmed, however, the significance of two helicopters shot down in the same region of Damascus, on the same day, should not be understated.
1440 GMT: Jordan. Extremely large protests today, especially in Amman:
NBC reports that there were 2000 protesters in downtown Amman, but that is clearly too low based on what we've seen. Protesting against the King is illegal, but an increase in gas prices have sparked outrage, protests, and the death of a protester yesterday:
"Go down Abdullah, go down," the protesters Friday chanted as police, some in riot gear, largely stayed away from crowd, near the main Husseini Mosque.
The crowed also chanted "The people want the downfall of the regime," the rallying cry of the Arab Spring uprisings that have shaken the Middle East and toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
"Shame. Shame. Prices are spiking and Abdullah gambles," people shouted.
There was no reason for his detention. last night the decision was made to release him. He is out now and arrived in Beirut two hours ago.
1414 GMT: Lebanon. John Horne reports:
The Lebanese economy is set to grow by 2 percent this year, according to central bank chief Riad Salameh, a marked slowdown from last years growth of 5.2 percent. The crisis in Syria is seen as taking a toll on investments. According to Salameh, Lebanese banks in Syria have lost $400 million since the start of the Syrian uprising. The International Monetary Fund, however, suggested in September that it was weak government policies which led to the decline in investment.
1406 GMT: Egypt. On Wednesday the European Union approved a 5 billion euro ($6.4bn) aid package to Egypt, reports the BBC. The package was announced following a meeting in Cairo between President Morsi and Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief. A statement from Morsi's office said that the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) would provide 2 billion euros each, with a further 1 billion euros coming from EU member states.
Part of the aid package is conditional on an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who are currently in Cairo negotiating the terms of a possible $4.8 billion loan. The IMF team was due to leave Egypt on Wednesday, but have extended their stay in what an IMF spokesperson described as a "sign of progress".
1350 GMT: Bahrain/Kuwait. EA's John Horne reports:
Dr Nada Dhaif, Chairperson of Bahrain human rights NGO BRAVO, was yesterday refused entry to Kuwait. She was travelling with her husband and two young daughters at the time. In a statement, she describes her ordeal:
I arrived to Kuwait with my family at 10 am and was informed at the passport check that my name is on ‘the list of Bahraini ‘s who are denied access to Kuwait’.
I was taken directly to the Passport Department were the officer asked me couple of questions about when it was that I last entered Kuwait. Then I was transferred immediately to State Security apparatus where I was interrogated for 2:30 hrs by Officers in civilian clothes who refused to reveal their identities, names or rank, despite that I asked for this information and to know upon what basis I was being questioned.
The officer started the interrogation by asking firstly my name and then whether I’m Shiaa or Sunni! I replied that I’m Shiaa and he then asked about my husband whether he is Shiaa also? I replied affirmatively.
I was subjected to probing questioning about the events that took place in Salmaniya hospital during the uprising in Feb 2011, my role in the uprising , whether I ever visited Iran, and whether I have been to the Pearl Roundabout participating in the demonstrations against the regime? And he insisted that I was demonstrating against the royal family in Bahrain. I replied to the officer : Why am I being interrogated about charges that I was found innocent of, and how is this even related to Kuwait?
Dr Dhaif's husband was also questioned. Dr Dhaif was then taken to Alnuaissib police station. She adds:For a total of 4 hrs my family were in total panic and alarm, my two young daughters 9yrs and 8yrs were crying and terrorized seeing their mother being interrogated and dragged between state security and the police station.
A police car then took the family to the Saudi border, from where they were deported.
@jmiller_ea Worth noting that this only applies to the city itself and not the adjacent Hamdan Air Base, which is still in regime hands.— Fadi Mqayed ★★★ (@DSyrer) November 16, 2012
This is an important point. Hamdan is the real military strength - a major air base where ground forces have been gathering in an attempt to hold nominal control of the area. This is an illustration of how the fighting is going in Deir Ez Zor. The Assad military is hold up in major bases, not allowing the FSA to ever feel safe.
Of course, these bases are also the primary weapons against the civilian populace, who has paid the highest price.
I wrote months ago that Assad is destroying the country to "save" it. But with the fall of more cities, it's clear that there is no saving the country for the Assad reign.
1331 GMT: Bahrain Khalil AlMarzooq, the political aide to the Secretary-General of main opposition society AlWefaq, was yesterday called in for questioning by authorities over an interview he gave to the Al Mayadeen satellite channel. AlMarzooq has spoken about the incident, in a statement circulated by AlWefaq:
[The interview] was hurried, and only to ask me about a very short participation on Al Mayadeen channel a week ago. There was no specific question.
I proved my right as a Bahraini citizen in accordance with the Constitution and the international covenants to freedom of expression, as well as they are arraigning me because of exercising my right to freedom of expression, and the interrogation was completed.
AlWefaq describe the questioning as "an escalation step in the process of targeting political activities in Bahrain".
1327 GMT: Syria After meeting members of the new opposition coalition in London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "encouraged" by the group, but is waiting to "hear more about their plans" before deciding whether to recognise them as the representatives of the SYrian people. Speaking to the BBC, Hague said:
I'm encouraged by what I've heard and seen from the leaders of the coalition.
We would like to be able to be in a position to recognise them as the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, but I do want to hear more about their plans ... about who they are going to appoint, particular positions, about whether the Kurds will be included, how much support they have inside Syria.
Hague also said that the British National Security Council had discussed arming the rebels in a meeting yesterday, but agreed not to change policy and remain only providing non-lethal support.
Deir Ezzor: Bokamal: The Free Syrian Army has announced that the city is completely free of regime forces
The city (map) is Syria's gate to Iraq, and any supplies and reinforcements that come with it. Furthermore, the FSA is using Al Bukamal to eat away at the regime's control in Deir Ez Zor. Though the Assad regime has pockets of stiff resistance, for the most part its control of the entire eastern province of Deir Ez Zor has been slipping for months.
With Ma'arrat al Nouman in Idlib (map) still under FSA control, and Assad's supply routes to Idlib and Aleppo cut, the FSA is strangling Assad's military, and Assad may not have enough firepower to spare in order to retake Al Bukamal, if the city has indeed fallen.
But the FSA's struggle to take Deir Ez Zor has been painstakingly slow, if steady. It will likely be a long time before they convert victories here into control of eastern Syria.
Officials report that the minibus in Farah province was traveling to a wedding party when it struck the bomb.
Abdul Rahman Zhewandai, provincial spokesman, told the AFP news agency that the dead were mainly women and children traveling from one village to another.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.
1240 GMT: Tunisia. Béchir El Golli, held over September's attack on the US Embassy amid protests over an American-produced film about Islam and Prophet Mohammad, died on Thursday after a 57-day hunger strike, according his lawyer.
1105 GMT: Bahrain. A report by the Project on Middle East Democracy on the status of the 26 recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, issued in November 2011, finds the regime's "reforms" far from satisfactory:
The Government of Bahrain has fully implemented three of the BICI report’s 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented.
Finally, the government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken – accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.
Nearly as troubling as the failure to address key areas has been the unrealistic assessment by the Government of Bahrain of its own progress. Bahraini government officials, including the Ambassador to the United States, have claimed in public statements to have fully implemented 18 of the 26 recommendations. It is difficult to expect the government to make significant progress on the many unfulfilled recommendations while it maintains that most of those steps have already been completed.
1055 GMT: Syria. Today's protest in Kafranbel:
And in Binnish in the northwest:
1045 GMT: Jordan. Al Jazeera English has been carrying live footage of a protest of "about 1500 people" in Amman over rising fuel prices. Correspondent Nicole Johnston says, "What's different about these protests and the protests that were held last night is that people are starting to call for the downfall of King Abdullah."
Johnston says a "very heavy security presence" has appeared in the last 15 minutes, with a group of pro-regime loyalists held back by police.
1015 GMT: Syria. Speaking before the international conference in London on aid to the Syrian opposition, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has set conditions before the United Kingdom will formally recognise the new Syrian National Coalition:
.@williamjhague: We urge the Coalition to commit to upholding applicable international laws including humanitarian and human rights law.— Foreign Office (FCO) (@foreignoffice) November 16, 2012
Before the conference, Hague met the Coalition's President Moaz al-Khatib and Vice Presidents Riad Seif and Suheir Atassi.
1000 GMT: Jordan. After recent protests over rising fuel prices, the Saudi Arabian Embassy has "warned Saudi employees and students in Jordan from going to public squares or approaching sites of gatherings and demonstrations" and has advised them "to preserve their security after earlier clashes between security forces and students at universities".
0900 GMT: Syria. The US military's Central Command and Joint Staff has told the Obama Administration that seizure of the Assad regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons will require up to 75,000 troops.
A senior American official said Lebanon's Hezbollah has set up camps close to some of the depots, with fighters have been training at “a limited number of these sites”: "The fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern.”
Military officials said the Pentagon has not yet been directed to draft details of how it could secure the chemical weapons, but there are contingency plans for taking control of a limited number of the depots.
0640 GMT: Syria. Britain will host an international gathering today to discuss the financial and military support for the opposition, following this week's formation of the Syrian National Coalition.
The Coalition, supplanting the old umbrella of the Syrian National Council, was announced in Qatar on Sunday after sustained pressure by the US, European nations, and Arab States, and the London meeting was designed as a quick follow-up to consider the situation inside Syria and consider next steps in the campaign to remove President Assad from power. The meeting has been overshadowed, however, by the Israeli offensive against Gaza.
France and the six Arab States of the Gulf Cooperation Council have formally recognised the Coalition, and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to regain the initiative on Thursday, praising the formation of the new opposition group as an "important achievement".
Speaking at an Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) ministerial meeting in Djibouti, Davutoglu said, "Turkey once again reiterates its recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and calls upon all our brothers in the OIC to do so."
Davutoglu also pointed to military action, amid discussion of a "protected zone" inside Syria and this week's fighting near Ras al-Ain, taken by the Syrian insurgents, on the Turkish frontier:
We do not want escalation. But everyone should be well aware that Turkey has the capacity and determination to protect its citizens and borders. Turkey's border security has been jeopardised. Our towns on the border have been targeted by the Syrian army.
The Local Coordination committees said 130 people were killed by security forces on Thursday, including 59 in Damascus and its suburbs, 21 in Aleppo Province, and 17 in Homs Province.
The LCC said it had documented 206 locations hit by shelling: 146 by artillery, 46 by mortars, and 23 by missiles. It claimed six sites had been targets by warplanes dropping "explosive barrels" and four by thermobaric bombs.
The activists said there had been 84 clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces, with the insurgents shooting down a MiG warplane near Al Bukamal and "liberating" the city in northeastern Syria.