A petrol station in the Barzeh area of Damascus, destroyed by a car bomb on Thursday night
2107 GMT: Syria. The head of the insurgency's military command, Brigadier Selim Idris, has denied reports that his troops possess chemical weapons and intend to respond in kind if the Syrian regime uses them.
The political adviser of the Free Syrian Army, Bassam al-Dada, said on Wednesday that insurgents could put together components of chemical weapons and use them if necessary.
“In our faith, we can't use such a weapon,” even if the regime attacked with it, Idris said. "We will not try to acquire them, will definitely not produce them or facilitate their production."
2029 GMT: Syria. Freelance journalist Kurt Pelda reports from Halfaya, where scores of people were reportedly killed in a regime airstrike on a bakery 12 days ago:
The bakery in #Halfaya was on the ground floor of the municipal building. The jet made two rounds before attacking, according to witnesses.— Kurt Pelda (@KurtPelda) January 4, 2013
Next military target was 300 metres away, so this appeared to be a deliberate attack on the people queuing in front of the bakery.— Kurt Pelda (@KurtPelda) January 4, 2013
1708 GMT: Iraq. In addition to the protest in Kirkuk over claimed Government repression of the Sunni minority (see 1236 GMT), AFP notes demonstrations in Baghdad and in Salaheddin, Diyala, and Nineveh Provinces, as well as the continued blocking of a highway by protesters in Anbar Province in the west of the country.
Protesters at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the mostly-Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiyah in the capital were barred by security forces from leaving the compound to rally on the street. The crowd held up banners calling for a mass prisoner release, stronger human rights provisions in Iraq's prisons, and a repeal of anti-terror legislation, as they shouted, "Baghdad, free, free! Iran, go away!"
On Thursday, the Ministry of Justice said 11 female prisoners had been released and 13 others had been transferred to jails in their home provinces, two days after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he would work for the release of hundreds of female detainees.
The official told Anatolia News Agency that the team will attend meetings this month with President Vladimir Putin's Middle East director, Mikhail Bogdanov.
1525 GMT: Syria. The insurgent attempt to take the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib Province continues, with an activist claiming that "bad weather prevented the rebels from storming", as they could not see targets in the fog.
1518 GMT: Yemen. The Times runsa story today by Iona Craig with the claim from a US intelligence source that "some of the so-called drone missions are actually Saudi Air Force missions". According to the paper, Obama views the covert war in Yemen as a new strategy for overseas intervention, to avoid the legal difficulties posed by taking prisoners. One US official is cited as saying, "There is no kill or capture anymore. It's kill or kill".
The US presence in Yemen is further explored in an next to the US Embassy, providing what some have called "new 'Green Zone'", referring to the site of US operations in Baghdad during the American occupation of Iraq. Carapico writes:
The managerial acquisition of the Sheraton campus formally more than doubles the ostensibly diplomatic presence of the US Embassy on the outskirts of Sanaa. In a time when water is running out, electricity fails daily, Finnish tourists are abducted by armed thugs in the city center and kidnappings are no longer a lark, German democracy brokers need armed escorts, students of Arabic no longer study in Yemen, humanitarian organizations register alarm over catastrophic malnutrition, academic researchers have been tarred by pseudo-scholars hunting AQAP, no one quite knows the location of supposed US military bases in and around Yemen (the Seychelles, Ethiopia, inside the country?), and the aspirations of pro-democracy forces remain to be addressed, [the US Chief of Mission] needs a facility adjoining the Embassy grounds -- itself already a spacious fortified complex of barriers, set-backs, reception areas, offices, sports facilities, the ambassador’s residence, dormitories, high-tech security and ecologically improbable lawns -- to accommodate American consultants and experts.
On one level, the State Department’s leasing of the Sheraton property across the street from the Embassy compound merely regularizes a reality whereby more advisers earning hazard pay increments than tourists braving instability are venturing to Sanaa. On another level, the long-term leasing of a property designed and maintained for expatriate luxury and safety signifies the opening of a new American Green Zone in the Arabian Peninsula. This, in turn, is a major step toward a full-fledged US imperial presence in Arabia. It is bound to be fraught with hazards.
1325 GMT: Syria. A rally in the Bustan al-Qasr section of Aleppo:
1236 GMT: Iraq. A rally in Kirkuk today --- protests have been challenging the Baghdad Government over claims of discrimination and repression of the Sunni minority, with the sentencing of Vice President Tareq Al-Hashimi to death and last month's raid on the offices and home of Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawi as catalysts:
1218 GMT: Syria. Today's anti-regime demonstration in Kafranbel in Idlib Province (see also 1136 GMT):
The rally in Kafarnabodeh in Hama Province:
1141 GMT: Turkey and Syria. Turkish media report that US soldiers have arrived in Gaziantep in Turkey to assist local forces with the manning of the NATO Patriot anti-missile system based near the Syrian border.
1136 GMT: Syria. The latest message from the protesters in Kafranbel in Idlib Province:
Raed Fares, who made the banner, explains to The Guardian:
When we meet journalists from the West coming to cover our revolution, they keep telling us that the news they receive "confuses" them and is "vague" due to contradicting information. The banner is a response to such claims. What's happening in Syria is clear to us -- the regime launching a war on its own people.
Several senior advisors to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who oversees the West Bank, attended the rally.
After winning local elections in 2006, Hamas defeated Fatah in armed clashes the following year to consolidate control over Gaza. However, last month amid efforts at reconciliation, Abbas allowed the first Hamas rally in the West Bank since 2007.
"The message today is that Fatah cannot be wiped out," said Amal Hamad, a member of the group's ruling body. "Fatah lives, no one can exclude it and it seeks to end the division."
"The success of the rally is a success for Fatah, and for Hamas too," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The positive atmosphere is a step on the way to regain national unity."
The benches in Hawas park in the battered city of Aleppo are now mere metal skeletons, the wood stripped off by residents to burn so they can keep warm in the northern Syrian winter.
After months of battles devastated much of the city, the country's former commercial hub, the people of Aleppo are trying to lead as normal a life as possible, despite the deadly conflict that has raged for more than 21 months.
"This wood will help heat the house. Without it, we'd probably die of cold," said 14-year-old Ali as he hacked away at an acacia tree along with his three brothers.
With the park benches now bare, residents are now felling trees and uprooting bushes.
Heating fuel costs 300 Syrian pounds ($4.22) a litre, which is unaffordable for most people in the city where violence that erupted in July between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's forces has destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
1114 GMT: Yemen and Saudi Arabia. According to reports in the London Times, the Saudi Arabian Air Force has been using fighter jets to support US drone strikes in Yemen against the militant force Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
1033 GMT: Syria and Lebanon. The Lebanese government has decided to keep its border with Syria open to refugees fleeing the conflict and appeal to other Arab states and the wider international community for greater aid to provide assistance.
The move comes after members of the Free Patriotic Movement within the government argued for the closing of the border as estimates of refugees in Lebanon range from 125 to 200 thousand.
0955 GMT: Egypt and UAE. Earlier this week we noted that the UAE, amid its latest crackdown on dissidents, had arrested members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The incident has escalated into high-level diplomacy. Cairo has sent a delegation, including its head of intelligence, to the Emirates.
UAE officials accuse the Egyptian detainees of trying to steal State secrets. The Brotherhood's spokesman in Cairo responded by accused members of the UAE leadership of a “conspiracy” to support elements of the ousted Mubarak regime.
Mubarak's former Vice President Ahmed Shafiq, who lost the Egyptian Presidential election last June, is now resident in the UAE.
Today, those entering Douma must pass through rebel checkpoints at the city's main entryways. Rebels with camouflage vests and Kalashnikov rifles zip about on motorcycles, communicating by walkie-talkie. Some belong to the security brigade, an improvised police force to catch looters that works with a judicial council of Muslim clerics and lawyers who run a prison.
In November, residents formed a civilian council to provide services for the estimated one-third of Douma's residents who have not fled the violence.
The council oversees committees for medical issues, bakeries, media relations and other tasks, said its head, Nizar Simadi. A former cleaner at city hall runs a cleanup crew that helps remove rubble from the streets after shell attacks and airstrikes.
The city's electricity went out in November --- activists accuse the government of cutting it in revenge --- but former electric company employees have strung in power from nearby areas still on the government network, returning power to some of the city.
Douma has more than a dozen rebel brigades, and the city's fighters have joined battles in many other areas around the capital. Most of their support comes from wealthy Syrians abroad who send money to buy arms, said the head of one rebel brigade, the Douma Martyrs, who goes by the name Abu Waleed.
In November, Douma's fighters raided two army bases in the nearby suburb of Otaya, he said, making away with arms that helped them push closer to Damascus. But they can do little about the government's airstrikes.
0915 GMT: Syria. The Army Chief of Staff, General Abdullah Ayoub, declared on Thursday that the "conspiracy against Syria has fallen thanks to the bravery of the Syrian army and the coherence of the Syrian people".
The general, reviewing a Syrian battalion, urged the Syrian troops to continue their "holy tasks" in "crushing armed terrorist groups and their hideouts".
0655 GMT: Turkey. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has reportedly said that decades of armed struggle for Kurdish independence are over.
Two Kurdish lawmakers of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) paid a rare visit to Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in an island prison since 1999, on Thursday. The meeting came days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's chief advisor said the government is discussing disarmament with the PKK leader.
0545 GMT: Syria. Activists report that at least nine people were killed when a car bomb exploded in the Barzeh district of Damascus late Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that many of the wounded are in critical condition.
State media said the bomb by "terrorists" targeted cars that were lined up to get petrol. Grisly images on State TV showed medics retrieving body parts and burned bodies.
The pro-regime Ikhbariyeh TV station said about 30 civilians were killed or wounded in the blast.