Human Rights Watch is calling on Saudi Arabia to free scores of jailed advocates of political reform, the Associated Press reports. According to the New York-based rights group some 60 men and women were arrested in the capital Riyadh on December 23 after a silent protest against the jailing of the cleric Yusuf al-Ahmad. While many Arab countries have been swept by waves of uprisings during 2011, the ultra-conservative kingdom has remained relatively calm and has banned all public protests.
North Korea’s new leader and successor to the late Kim Jong-il has been officially named the Supreme Commander of one of the world’s largest armies. Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late 20s, was given the title at a Friday meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The Korean Central News Agency reports that Kim Jong-un “has assumed supreme commandership of the Korean People's Army” according to a will made by Kim Jong-il on October 8. The young ruler of the secretive nuclear power has already received a string of titles from the government. However the latest appointment seems to be especially important in a country so dominated by the military.
A spokesman for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has underlined the importance of the Arab League’s mission in Syria and its efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis there. Martin Nesirky said it is critical that the Syrian government gives the observers unhindered access and its full cooperation. Damascus has allowed some 100 observers from the Arab League to enter the country as the months-long anti-government uprising, which according to the UN has already claimed over 5,000 lives, continues.
Cyclone Thane has resulted in the deaths of 33 people in the southernmost part of India. With heavy rain and gusts of wind up to 140 km/h, the severe cyclone left a trail of destruction as it tore through the southern Indian state of Tanu Nadu. The industrial city of Cuddalore was worst affected by the storm with 21 fatalities, The Times of India reports. The accompanying wind and rain was so strong hundreds of trees and electrical poles were ripped from the ground, causing power outages in several areas. However, the region being placed on high alert, the storm left the southern Andhra Pradesh coast practically unscathed.
President Obama is considering returning a senior Taliban official to Afghanistan. The possible transfer of Mohammed Fazl is seen as an attempt by the US government to improve the chances of a peace deal in Afghanistan. Fazl, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, is viewed as a high-risk detainee who is said to have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shiite Muslims between 1998 and 2001. While the White House promises he will not be released, it remains to be seen how he will be held upon arriving in Afghanistan. However, 10 months of negotiations between the government of Afghan President Karzai and the Taliban have reached a critical moment. To get things going, confidence-building measures have been proposed, including the transfer of five Guantanamo detainees and the establishment of a Taliban office. However, the move is likely to prove explosive both on Capitol Hill and in Afghanistan, where many fear the government in Kabul might collapse when US troops finally leave in 2014.
Bahrain riot police have used tear-gas and stun grenades to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters rallying on Friday in Manama, the island kingdom's capital. The mostly Shiite protesters were demanding an immediate resignation of the Sunni government. Activists slammed the government for the continuing crackdown on the opposition despite the fact-finding report by Bahrain authorities which revealed abuses. Demonstrators also called for the prosecution of police officers accused of the killings of some 35 protesters since the opposition’s demonstrations began 10 months ago.
A flotilla of Russian warships will undertake a tour of the Mediterranean in January, taking in Limassol in Cyprus, Tartus in Syria and Sfax in Tunisia. The group will dock at Tartus, a Russian naval base, around January 6. The heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will be the only ship out of the group not to dock at any international ports, including the Syrian one, a source in Russia’s Defense Ministry told Itar-tass news agency. The ministry has repeatedly stressed that the naval mission to the Syrian port is part of regular maneuvers and is not connected with the unrest in the Arab country. Besides the Admiral Kuznetsov, the flotilla will include the anti-submarine ship the Admiral Chabanenko and the patrol ship Yaroslav Mudry.
Nine people have been killed as a result of a car bomb detonating outside a politician’s home in Quetta in south-western Pakistan, the Associated Press reports. Police say twenty-one more were wounded in the blast and ensuing gun battle that took place between militants and private security guards outside the home of a former minister. Security forces have reportedly cordoned off the area and are looking for the militants. It was unclear if the politician, Shafique Mengal, was at home at the time of the attack. Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, Pakistan’s biggest, but poorest, province. The region has experienced decades of conflict, with nationalists seeking greater autonomy and control of the province’s natural resources.
The website of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani has been blocked on the government’s order. A company providing services to the site was ordered to shut it off, the former leader’s office said on Friday. It was not clear which authority ordered the site to be blocked, AP reports. Rafsanjani was the president from 1989 to 1997. He supported opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in the disputed 2009 presidential election. Since then, dozens of opposition websites have been blocked, including one belonging to former President Mohammad Khatami. Political rivals have accused Rafsanjani’s website of instigating rifts within the hardline camp as the March 12 parliamentary elections draw nearer.
Demonstrators in Yemen demanded on Friday that President Ali Abdullah Saleh be put on trial for the killing of hundreds of protesters during the past 10 months. Many of those gathered have rejected the power transfer deal. The agreement, brokered by Gulf Arab nations, does not include political changes many want, nor allow for Saleh to be tried. Meanwhile, a few thousand Saleh supporters held a counter-rally in the capital, AP reports. They called the power transfer deal “unconstitutional.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed regret over the deaths of 35 Kurdish civilians in an air strike. Speaking with journalists on Friday, he confirmed those killed were smugglers and not Kurdish separatist rebels. Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of the victims of the “unfortunate and distressing” incident. He said images transmitted by drones showed a group of 40 people in the area, but it was unclear who they were. Earlier, the premier said separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) used the same route to bring weapons into Turkey.
Tehran is preparing to fire long-range missiles during naval exercises in the Persian Gulf on Saturday, according to Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, deputy commander of the Iranian navy. Several kinds of missiles, including long-range missiles, will be tested, he told Fars news agency on Friday. Earlier Tehran warned it would close the passage of ships through the Strait of Hormuz if the West imposes new sanctions over suspicions about the country’s nuclear program. The US Navy reassured it would prevent Tehran’s move. Iran’s long-range missile systems, including the Shahab-3, are capable of hitting Israel and US bases in the region.
The Russian Supreme Court has upheld the refusal of the Central Elections Commission to register writer and opposition leader Eduard Limonov as a candidate in the March 2012 presidential election. The CEC’s December 18 decision came into force after the Supreme Court rejected Limonov’s appeal on Friday. The CEC did not register an initiative group that supported Limonov’s nomination on the grounds that the signatures of the group’s members had not been certified by a notary. The politician has labeled the decision politically-motivated. Four candidates of political parties represented in the parliament have been registered so far.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has announced it will probe a scandal over a memo sent by the government to the US, which allegedly asked for help against the military. The court has reacted to the appeal by the Pakistani military. Media reports say Pakistani government wanted the Pentagon’s help to avert a possible coup in the wake of the US raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May. The military have said they have no plans to topple the government, although analysts argue the investigation may lead to the ouster of the president, Asif Ali Zardari.
The construction pf South Stream should begin at the end of 2012, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Gazprom chief Aleksey Miller on Friday. “I think that it would be desirable to start at the end of next year,” Putin said. The pipeline aims to deliver Russian gas to Western Europe while bypassing Ukraine. The project will have a 925-kilometer offshore section and a 2,000-kilometer overland section. The first gas is planned to be supplied at the end of 2015. The Russian half of the project will cost approximately 7.5 billion euro, Miller said. He added that transit countries - Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria - can fund the construction of sections themselves. There will be pipeline branches to Croatia and Serbia and one is being considered for Macedonia.
A Sudanese military helicopter crash landed and burned in North Kordofan state in Sudan on Friday, killing all six crewmen aboard. The helicopter, which was carrying weapons for the military, caught fire after take-off from a base at El Obeid. Fire aboard the Russian-made aircraft broke out because of a “technical problem,” AFP said, citing an army spokesman. There is no rebel activity in the base’s area.
The anti-government Free Syrian Army has pledged to stop offensive operations, according to the rebels’ commander, Colonel Riad al-Asaad. The opposition group is expected to meet with the Arab League observers. The operations against the government forces were stopped from the day the committee entered Syria last Friday, al-Asaad told Reuters. He complained that no response from the monitors has been received so far, and no one has contacted the rebel army from the observer mission. Its presence in Syria has sparked new anti-government protests.
Five police officers in Bahrain will face trial in January over the death by torture of two detainees who had taken part in anti-regime protests earlier this year. The office of Public Prosecution said the investigation of cases of torture and ill treatment was over. Two policemen are accused of having beaten to death two of the detainees, while the three others failed to report the case. The Shiite-led demonstrations in the Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain earlier this year were crushed by government.
Bank Markazi, Iran’s central bank, will demand the release of about US$2 billion of its frozen funds at Citigroup’s Citibank unit. Markazi is preparing to file a motion in a New York federal court early in February, the Wall Street Journal said, citing the bank’s attorneys. The funds were frozen in 2008. At the time a group of victims sought the funds as partial payment for a $2.7 billion legal judgment made against Iran for its alleged role in a 1983 Beirut bombing. Bank Markazi will show that its property “is immune from seizure,” the lawyers from a US law firm acting for the bank said, citing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Western countries have targeted Bank Markazi and Tehran’s oil revenues recently over suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program.
Kurds in Turkey should retaliate with an uprising over an air force raid that killed 35 villagers near the Iraq border, the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) said on Friday. Bahoz Erdal from the armed wing of the PKK said in a statement that Kurds should “seek a settling of accounts through uprisings,” AFP reports. Officials in Ankara said on Thursday the smugglers were mistaken for Kurdish rebels. It could have been an “operational accident” by the military, Huseyin Celik, vice-president of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), said.
South Korean authorities have said they want Finland to unfreeze a shipment of Patriot missiles as soon as possible. Finland had detained 69 missiles and explosives carried by the vessel Thor Liberty in Kotka because the shipment was legal but lacked the transit papers needed to leave the country. South Korean Ambassador Dong-sun Park said the point of origin was in Europe and it was a European shipping company. He added that South Korea has nothing to do with the explosives aboard the vessel. Germany’s Defense Ministry said the missiles were an official shipment that had all necessary clearances from the German authorities.
North Korea’s policy will not change following the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s leadership said on Friday. The State Defense Commission warned in a statement released in Pyongyang that “that stupid politicians around the world, including the puppet forces in South Korea, should not expect any changes from us,” Itar-Tass reports. The commission also stressed that Pyongyang will not have any relationship with the current authorities in South Korea.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was convoyed from Kiev’s Lukyanovsky detention center to a penal colony on Friday, the Ukrainian Penitentiary Service said. The service representative gave no details as to where Tymoshenko was transferred. Her followers, however, assumed she would be sent to one of penal colonies in the Kharkov Region. The former PM’s Batkivshchyna party said she was ill and it had even been impossible to take her to an appeals court building from the detention center. Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years for abusing power while signing gas contracts with Russia in 2009.
The NATO coalition in Afghanistan claimed on Friday that joint raids with the Afghan forces have led to the killing of at least three Taliban commanders. A senior insurgent leader, two of his commanders and a number of facilitators who provided logistical support and weapons to insurgents were killed in an operation earlier this week in the Bakwah district of Farah province, AP reports. Eleven Taliban fighters and sympathizers were killed in five separate operations across the country early on Friday. President Hamid Karzai earlier demanded that foreign troops stop breaking into homes during nighttime raids.
The fire on the strategic nuclear submarine Yekaterinburg has been fully localized, the information department of the Defense Ministry said on Friday morning. Seven servicemen and two emergency workers were hospitalized with smoke inhalation. The reactor on the submarine, which is in the dock of the shipyard in Roslyakovo, Murmansk Region, has been halted and no radiation contamination was reported. Several crewmen remain on board the nuclear submarine.
North Korea has conferred its highest state honor to its late leader Kim Jong-il, the country’s state media reported on Friday. Kim Jong-il was given the “hero” title by a parliamentary decree proclaimed on December 19, the Korean Central News Agency said. KCNA said the former leader "placed the country's dignity and power on the highest level in the history of the Korean nation, which spans 5,000 years." It also praised Kim Jong-il for having devoted all his effort, wisdom and energy to building a thriving nation and improving the standard of living for his people. Kim Jong-il died of a heart failure on December 17 at age of 69 leaving the future of one of the world’s most impoverished countries unclear.
Some 1,500 students and employees have been evacuated from the main building of the Lomonosov Moscow State University after fire broke out in one of Moscow’s best-known landmarks. It was soon extinguished by firefighters who arrived at the scene. Two people have been reported as suffering from smoke poisoning, one of whom, a Chinese national, has been taken to the hospital. The cause of the incident is still unknown. The landmark building, built in 1953, comprises a full university campus with student dormitories, lecture halls, offices and professors' apartments.