Western powers are whipping up fears of a fateful move to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war as a “pretext for intervention”, President Bashar al-Assad’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.
He spoke as Germany’s cabinet approved stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries on Turkey’s border with Syria, a step requiring deployment of NATO troops that Syria fears could permit imposition of a no-fly zone over its territory.
“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Faisal Maqdad said.
Pakistan’s Taliban, one of the world’s most feared militant groups, are preparing for a leadership change that could mean less violence against the state but more attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Pakistani military sources said.
Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless commander who has led the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for the last three years, has lost operational control of the movement and the trust of his fighters, said a senior Pakistan army official based in the South Waziristan tribal region, the group’s stronghold.
The organization’s more moderate deputy leader, Wali-ur-Rehman, 40, is poised to succeed Mehsud, whose extreme violence has alienated enough of his fighters to significantly weaken him, the military sources told Reuters.
“Rehman is fast emerging as a consensus candidate to formally replace Hakimullah,” said the army official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Now we may see the brutal commander replaced by a more pragmatic one for whom reconciliation with the Pakistani government has become a priority.”
By day, the streets of Syria’s capital are crowded with cars and with shoppers. It looks normal, but it isn’t - by noon, people are planning how to get home before nightfall.
Roads suddenly blocked by the army cause traffic jams. Workers race to quit the office, hit the shops and get home by dark. Dark is when the kidnappers come out to seek new victims, and the clashes raging on the outskirts creep ever closer to the heart of Damascus.
For months, the people of Damascus have nervously watched their ancient city dragged deeper into Syria’s bloody conflict.
Fighting has already laid waste to much of the northern city of Aleppo and burned parts of its vaulted Old City quarter to the ground. Whole swathes of central Homs have been reduced to rubble.
“I’ve seen what happens and have a sinking feeling about what comes next. We fear killing and bombing, we fear being forced to flee, or being looted by the army or the rebels,” said Majed, 28, a hotel worker from central Damascus. “What would happen to our beautiful Old City? It is mental torture.”
The 20-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, is now finally threatening the seat of power. Residents describe a foreboding and anxiety overtaking Damascus.
Rush hour now starts around 3 p.m., well before dusk.
NATO told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response.
The warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came as Syrian forces bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad’s power base.
Syrian state media said a rebel mortar attack on a school had killed 28 students and a teacher.
International concern over Syria’s intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use.
“The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community,” Rasmussen told reporters at the start of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels.
Syrian rebel films himself shooting 10 prisoners
New footage posted on the Internet appears to have been filmed by a Syrian rebel who points the camera along the barrel of his gun as he shoots 10 unarmed prisoners.
The video, posted on YouTube on Thursday, shows 10 men wearing t-shirts and camouflage trousers lying face down next to a building and a lookout tower. Even before the shooting, two of the men are not moving and one has blood coming from his torso.
“I swear to God that we are peaceful,” begs one of the men to the camera, which is being held by the gunman. Cowering, the man gets up to plead with rebels. As he approaches a rebel off-screen, a shot is heard and he returns holding his bloodied arm.
The cameraman then points the camera along the barrel of his Kalashnikov assault rifle as he shoots the men.
Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, forcing the closure of the main airport road, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.
Residents also reported Internet connections in the capital were down and mobile and land telephone lines working only sporadically in what appeared to be the worst disruption to communications in Syria since an uprising began 20 months ago.
The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power that he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.
A Cairo court on Wednesday sentenced to death seven Egyptian Christians tried in absentia for participating in an anti-Islam video that was released on the Internet in September and had prompted violent protests in many Muslim countries.
“The seven accused persons were convicted of insulting the Islamic religion through participating in producing and offering a movie that insults Islam and its prophet,” Judge Saif al-Nasr Soliman said.
The crude, low-budget video, produced privately in California, denigrated the Prophet Mohammad and triggered anti-U.S. protests and attacks on Western embassies around the Muslim world.
An Israeli soldier smokes a cigarette at a staging area outside the northern Gaza Strip November 21, 2012. Israel and Hamas agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt on the eighth day of intensive Israeli fire on the Gaza Strip and militant rocket attacks out of the enclave, Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian sources said. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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