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Thursday
Dec062012

Egypt, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Protests and Fighting at the Presidential Palace

Supporters of President Morsi clash with his opponents near the Presidential Palace on Wednesday

See also Palestine Analysis: What Did Mahmoud Abbas Win for Palestinians --- and for Himself --- at the United Nations?

Wednesday's Egypt, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Protests Surge, But What Next?


2125 GMT: Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood says its headquarters in the Mokkatam section of Cairo, is on fire, with hundreds of protesters surrounding the building.

Journalist Reem Abdellatif sends a picture of demonstrators in Alexandria, "Oh God, Morsi and his clan must leave":

2118 GMT: Syria. According to Syrian State media, the death toll in the Mezzeh car bombing was not quite as high as the initial estimates suggested (see update 1930 GMT):

2106 GMT: Syria. The Syrian crisis may start to see a large-scale humanitarian disaster which could threaten many lives. With the economy in shambles, food hard to come by, and the temperature dropping, this winter will test many - and many civilians and refugees will not survive the test.

The UN warns that food prices are exploding across the country:

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that “the food security situation for many Syrians is rapidly deteriorating with the intensification of the conflict and its expansion to more areas”. Due to a shortage of fuel, government attacks on bakeries, and higher numbers of internally displaced Syrians, bread shortages in Syria are becoming increasingly common, and queues longer. In Aleppo for example, the price of bread is 40-50% higher than other Syrian governorates, with people dependent on private bakeries. With the situation intensifying in and around Damascus, the WFP has said deliveries of food aid have become more difficult:

“Road access to and from Damascus has become more dangerous, making it difficult to dispatch food from WFP warehouses to some parts of the country — particularly to the north. In the past few weeks, the UN food agency has seen increasing incidence of indiscriminate attacks on its trucks in different parts of the country.”

CNN's Arwa Damon is on the ground in Aleppo, and she has seen this situation get dramatically worse in just the last week alone:

2058 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi asserts, "Egypt will survive this dilemma, it will thrive and live on, following the end of the repressive regime."

2056 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi says that if the draft Constitution is rejected by referendum, a new panel will tasked with drawing a new one".

Morsi returns to the topic of protest, saying, "Demonstrations are a right, but only if they are peaceful and non-violent and if they don't hurt production or "obstruct traffic".

2053 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi says, "Let everyone know that I will never be a dictator and the people will always have the last word."

He reassures, "I'm not exercising individual authority. The final say is with the people - those who safeguard the revolution."

2050 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi calls for an "open comprehensive dialogue with all groups" on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. to reach agreements.

2049 GMT: Egypt. The consensus of most people watching Morsi's speech is pretty similar to Robert Mackey's:

2046 GMT: Egypt President Morsi insists, "The Presidential decree will come to an end once the outcomes of the referendum [on the draft Constitution] are declared, one way or the other."

He continues, "Once the people have their say, no one will have any review. We respond to the will of the people."

2038 GMT: Egypt President Morsi says, " I am prepared to cooperate with the opposition in a manner that guarantees security of homeland."

President Morsi, having set out the threat from violence, is clear that he will not back away from the expansion of powers that sparked the political crisis: "I repeat, the motivation behind my decree was the danger facing the nation."

The President then holds out a small olive branch to the courts whose authority he challenged with the decree, "I repeat my pledge that protecting my decisions was not meant to prevent judiciary system from its work."

2034 GMT: Egypt. In a get-tough passage, President Morsi says more than 80 "saboteurs" have been arrested and accuses protesters of "perpetrating terrorism".

Morsi assures, "The confessions of those arrested will be declared and we'll find those implicated."

The implication, made explicit by senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood last night, is that those carrying out violence are connected with leading opposition figures and parties, with "sources of funding, both foreign and domestic".

2030 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi has begun his long-awaited address to the nation. Expressing sorrow for deaths in last night's clashes and saying there is no difference between his supporters and his opponents in "their right to safety", he warns, "I will not allow anyone to call for the overthrow of the legitimate order."

Morsi also declares, "The deposed Mubarak regime will not be brought back to life under any circumstances."

2019 GMT: Syria. Sources in the Free syrian Army and many on Twitter now report that the FSA has overrun a major Assad base just outside Damascus. According to sources, the helicopter air base in Arqaba has been captured, and 2 tanks have been destroyed, though some are saying that number is more like 4. The base (found here on a map) is one of the main defenses near the road to the International Airport, and houses between 6 and 12 Mil Mi-8 assault helicopters, according to sources.

These helicopters are among the most feared weapons in all of Syria, especially in the suburbs of Damascus.

If true, this is another major blow to Assad. More importantly, it is a sign of just how weak, militarily, the regime is near the capital.

1930 GMT: Syria. Super-activist Zilal shares with us the first images from the car bomb in the Mezzeh 86 district of Damascus, apparently broadcast on one of the regime's TV channels. The explosion appears to be immensely powerful - if the car shown in the video was the vehicle carrying the bomb, this was an extremely powerful bomb:

1912 GMT: Syria EA's John Horne reports:

At today's State Department briefing, an AP reporter challenges recent US policy towards Syria:

1908 GMT: Syria. A prominent activist makes some strong claims about the car bombing in the Mezzeh 86 district (map):

1854 GMT: Syria. A massive explosion has been reported in the Mezzeh district of Damascus, one of the most sensitive areas of the capital that contains many government buildings:

Shaam News reports:

A car bomb has exploded on Almadrasah Street, followed by intense gunfire. Assad militias maintain a heavy presence as ambulance crews arrive at the scene. Witnesses report casualties and material damages.

1846 GMT: Syria. An interesting series of videos show fighters with the Free Syrian Army disarming and collecting mines that they say the regime placed along the border with Turkey. This video, reportedly taken in Khirbat al Jouz, shows the sheer number of weapons deployed in the area:

Another video shows what may be one of the worst way to dispose of mines, as an FSA fighter drops blocks from a roof to detonate a nearby explosive.

1803 GMT: Syria. On the international front, the US administration continues to stress that they believe the Assad regime may use chemical weapons, despite repeated denials from the Assad regime that they would never use these weapons against Syrians.

Take, for instance, today's statements from Defense Secretary Leon Paneta:

"I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today.

"The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered," he said.

Several media organizations, citing unnamed sources in the US government, say that Assad is actively preparing to use the weapons:

"The Syrian military is awaiting final orders to launch chemical weapons against its own people after precursor chemicals for deadly sarin gas were loaded into aerial bombs."

Obviously there is no way to independently assess the US intelligence information, but regardless of the validity of the claims it is now clear that the US is using the issue of chemical weapons to galvanize international support and turn up the heat on the Assad regime - and the Russian government, that may still be in a place to negotiate a political exit for the Syrian president.

1753 GMT: Syria. A potentially major shift in the geopolitical efforts to bring this conflict to a close. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, will have an emergency meeting today with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the UN's special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

"They will speak about a plan (or) common understanding on how to move forward," one source said of Thursday's meeting, which will take place on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gathering.

In Moscow, a senior Russian lawmaker and ally of Vladimir Putin described Syria's government as being incapable of doing its job properly, in a sign Russia is trying to distance itself from Assad.

Clinton held a bilateral meeting with Lavrov ahead of the talks with Brahimi, which are set to take place at around 12:00 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT). A Western diplomatic source hinted that at least some change may be forthcoming from Russia.

1655 GMT: Syria. Even more news from east of Damascus. Several sources report that the base of Assad's 22nd Brigade (map) has fallen. This video reportedly shows a group of insurgents riding a tank - though we're not sure if they captured the tank at the base, or used it to siege the base:

Another video, posted by the Hamza Martyr's Brigade, shows insurgents stating that they captured a base east of Damascus and all of the Assad soldiers inside were killed.

1629 GMT: Syria. More major headlines from the Syrian opposition. According to multiple sources, the insurgents have won a series of battles across eastern Damascus. In Harasta, northeast of Damascus (map), the FSA has engaged in fierce fighting with regime forces. The LCC reports:

Fierce clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces at Backery checkpoint and Jesreen area were reported. A number of soldiers from regime forces 41st brigade in Daheit Al-Assad have defected.

The LCC also posts this video, which they say shows "Plumes of Smoke Coming out of Vehicles Administration Headquarters in Harasta after Storming of the Building by Free Syrian Army."

In Irbeen, just to the southwest of Harasta, insurgents have also engaged in heavy combat. According to a few sources, they have reportedly captured a tank (map):

there's even reports that the FSA has captured another base in East Ghouta, though we are hunting these down right now so they have yet to be independently verified.

Regardless, while the focus has been on the Damascus International Airport to the south of the capital, it appears that the FSA has been preparing to ramp up their attacks to the east of Damascus.

1519 GMT: Syria. On Twitter, a reader points out the location of the Baath Party Headquarters in Al Safirah (see previous two updates). As you can see from the map, the Baath HQ is only 2 kilometers from the edge of Assad's base which protects his chemical weapons facilities, and the storage depots are perhaps less than 3.5 kilometers away (click for full-sized image).

The reader notes, however, that there also seems to be a storage depot a little further to the southwest (map). The good news is that this base is further away from where the insurgents appear to already be in position. The bad news is that this base is even more isolated, and may be easier to surround.

To be clear, we do not know for sure that there are chemical weapons in either location. However, experts who have studied the issue do know that the facility in the base is a chemical weapons facility, and the general understanding is that chemical weapons have been stored here - in large quantities.

It's also uncertain how close this are is to falling into insurgent hands. What is clear, however, is that it is now at least as likely that Assad will lose control of his chemical weapons as it is that he will use them.

1440 GMT: Syria. Building off of the last update, the US administration has repeatedly stated that it would intervene if Assad used chemical weapons. According to The Times, that intervention could be military, and such an intervention could be carried out in a matter of days:

It won’t require major movement to make action happen. The muscle is already there to be flexed. It’s premature to say what could happen if a decision is made to intervene. That hasn’t taken shape, we’ve not reached that kind of decision. There are a lot of options, but it [military action] could be launched rapidly, within days.

The obvious question, then, is what will the United States, NATO, Turkey, or other regional players do if the weapons are not used by the regime, but lost by them?

1425 GMT: Syria. This could be a major story - according to many sources, Free Syrian Army units have captured the Baath Party Headquarters, and may be close to capturing the entire town, in Al Safirah, just outside of Aleppo (map).

The problem - just south of Al Safirah, on the outskirts of the town, there are a series of large military bases. According to many experts cited over the last few days, these bases guard the depots of what may be the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the entire region.

Of course, we do not know whether or not the chemical weapons are still there, but the regime has not had full control of the roads in and out of this area for some time, so it is a very real possibility that if the base falls, whichever units capture the base will have control of a very dangerous weapon.

This video reportedly shows the Baath Party HQ in control of an insurgent unit.

1416 GMT: Syria. Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, shares with us this video reportedly showing an airstrike on Albu Amar, between Mohassan and Deir Ez Zor (map). It's obvious to us that this is a ZAB (zazhigatelnaya aviatsionnaya bomba), a Russian made incendiary cluster bomb. One can tell by the way the bomblets spread out, leaving trails like the ones seen here:

What's also important is that, through different sources, we've already seen more evidence of this strike, as the remains of the incendiary bomblets have been filmed on the ground in the town today:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon today.

1328 GMT: Egypt. The military and Presidency have announced that demonstrators will be moved, "The Republican Guard has decided to clear the area around the presidential palace at 1500 local time (1300 GMT) and ban protests around institutions belonging to the presidency."

Meanwhile, Egypt's top Islamic body, Al-Azhar, called on Morsi to suspend the decrees that expanded his powers and demanded an unconditional dialogue between the President and his opponents.

The Ministry of Health has updated the toll of injured from Wednesday to 644.

1154 GMT: Syria. The Minister of Information has told the BBC's Jeremy Bowen that the Syrian army, with operations at a "crucial turning point", will win the "battle for Damascus" in the coming days..

1148 GMT: Lebanon. Two men have been killed today by sniper fire in the continuing fights in the city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.

Eight people have been killed and 58 wounded in fighting since Tuesday.

1144 GMT: Egypt. The head of State TV, Essam al-Amir, has resigned in protest at President Morsi's rule of the country.

The proposed supervisor of the 15 December referendum on the draft Constitutional has quit, as have six of Morsi's advisors.

1124 GMT: Egypt. Journalist El-Hosseini Abul-Deif, who worked for the El-Fagr newspaper has been named as one of the six fatalities in last night's fighting.

The executive board of the Journalists' Syndicate has blamed the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood for the attack and held President Morsi responsible for the failure to ensure public security.

A man in a helmet, claimed to be a supporter of President Morsi, fires a shotgun during the clashes outside the Presidential Palace last night:

1120 GMT: Egypt. The military has pledged not to use violence against protesters after deploying tanks and armoured personnel carriers outside the Presidential Palace.

.

General Mohammed Zaki, head of the Republican Guard which protects the President, said, "The armed forces, and the Republican Guard, will not be an instrument of oppression against protesters."

1010 GMT: Egypt. President Morsi's assistant for foreign relations and internal cooperation, Essam El-Haddad, has told CNN that protests should be viewed as people exercising their freedom of expression.

El-Haddad said Morsi is open to dialogue and willing to negotiate on all matters, but he condemned violence and rejected calls by Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading member of the new National Salvation Front, for the Constitutional referendum to be postponed.

El-Haddad is in Washington with an Egyptian Government delegation meeting US officials.

1000 GMT: Egypt. The stock market fell 4.5% at the start of trade today.

0715 GMT: Egypt. Reuters reports, from a witness, that the Egyptian military has deployed three tanks and two armoured personnel carriers outside the Presidential Palace.

The Ministry of Health has raised Wednesday's toll to five dead and 446 wounded.

0615 GMT: Syria. Even though it was a quieter day on Wednesday, with some of the media distracted by the rumour that President Assad and his family are seeking asylum in Latin America, the Local Coordination Committees report that 107 people were killed. Forty-five of the deaths were in Damascus and its suburbs, 22 in Idlib Province, and 20 in Aleppo Province.

0555 GMT: Egypt. Tuesday's protests against President Morsi and the draft Constitution, notably in front of the Presidential Palace, turned into protests and counter-protests on Wednesday when the Muslim Brotherhood called for a show of support for the President.

That in turn led to clashes. While security forces separated the two sides in front of the Palace, there were running confrontations on the periphery. The Ministry of Health reports at least four deaths and at least 300 people injured.

For the second night in a row, Morsi made no statement, although Prime Minister Hisham Qandil appeared outside the palace and called for calm.

A group of opposition politicians --- including Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed El Baradei and former Presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa held a press conference to announce the formation of a National Salvation Front to challenge Morsi and return peace and stability to Egypt. They were met by Muslim Brotherhood allegations that they had instigated the violence.

As judges debated whether to supervise the 15 December referendum on the draft Constitution, the head of the process, Zaghloul El-Bashi, resigned: “I will not participate in a referendum that spilled Egyptian blood.”

Both sides have called for further protests today.

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