Monthly Archives: March 2011

Syrian Cabinet Quits Amid Unrest

President Bashar al-Assad sought to deflect the greatest challenge to his 11-year rule by mobilizing tens of thousands of Syrians in mass rallies across the country on Tuesday in response to pro-democracy protests.

Assad also accepted the resignation of his government, ahead of a long-awaited speech in which he is expected to lift emergency law which has been in place for nearly half a century since his Baath Party took power in a coup.

Abolishing emergency rule has been a key demand of protests, which erupted nearly two weeks ago and in which more than 60 people have been killed, drawing international condemnation.

But the government-organized show of mass support suggested Assad was seeking to address his people from a position of strength, adopting a strategy to counter unrest that was once unthinkable in this most tightly controlled of Arab states.

Protesters at first had limited their demands to greater freedoms. But, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, especially in the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, they later demanded the “downfall of the regime.” (Reuters)

The calls echo those heard during recent Arab uprisings that have toppled autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and also motivated rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“In a series of side meetings I also had the chance to discuss a number of issues, including Syria,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after a London meeting of international powers on Libya. “I expressed our strong condemnation of the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrators, in particular the violence and killing of civilians in the hands of security forces,” she added. (Toronto Star)

State television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus and cities including Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Tartus waving the national flag and chanting “God, Syria, Bashar” in what were dubbed “Loyalty Marches.” (Reuters)

“Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed!” declared one banner, referring to government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs are behind the unrest. “With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity,” another said. (Reuters)

On Monday, the armed forces in Daraa fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the pro-democracy demonstrators; it was unclear if there were any casualties.

“They were marching peacefully, asking for their rights, when the army opened fire at them,” said one witness who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. “But this is not the end.” (New York Times)

“Sectarian was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria,” said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad. “The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us,” she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad. (Toronto Star)

Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms. “This dirty conspiracy will be short-lived, we are all behind him,” he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest. (Toronto Star)

All gatherings and demonstrations not sponsored by the state are banned in Syria, a country of 22 million at the sensitive heart of generations of Middle East conflict.

Media organizations operate in Syria under restrictions. The government has expelled three Reuters journalists in recent days – its senior foreign correspondent in Damascus and then a two-man television crew who were detained for two days before being deported back to their home base in neighbouring Lebanon.

“President Assad accepts the government’s resignation,” the state news agency SANA said, adding that Naji al-Otari, the prime minister since 2003, would remain caretaker until a new government was formed. (Reuters) The president plans to make “a very important speech” on Wednesday, Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry said. The speech will “reassure the Syrian people,” the state-run SANA news agency has reported. (CNN)

Sacking the government is seen as a cosmetic change since it has little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.

Earlier more than 200 protesters gathered in Deraa chanting, “God, Syria, and Freedom” and “O Hauran rise up in a revolt,” a reference to the plateau where Deraa is located. (Reuters)

Deraa is a center of tribes belonging to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs. Latakia, a religiously mixed port city, has also seen clashes, raising fears the unrest could take on sectarian tones.

The government has said Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife. “If things go south in Syria, bloodthirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence,” wrote Patrick Seale, author of a book on late  president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, on the Foreign Policy blog. (Reuters)

Bordered by Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, Syria maintains a strong anti-Israel position through its alliances with Shi’ite Muslim regional heavyweight Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas. It has also reasserted influence in smaller neighbour Lebanon.

Last week Assad made a pledge to look into ending emergency laws, consider drafting laws on greater political and media freedom, and raise living standards. However Syrian officials, civic rights activists and diplomats doubt that Assad, who contained a Kurdish uprising in the north in 2004, would completely abolish emergency laws without replacing them with similar legislation. Emergency laws have been used since 1963 to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free reign to a pervasive security apparatus.

“We believe President Assad is at a crossroads. He has claimed to be a reformer for over a decade but he has made no substantive progress on political reforms and we urge him to … address the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. (Reuters)

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged Syria to adopt political reform, but said it was not time for sanctions or intervention by the United States.

Protesters want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.

The British-educated president was welcomed as “reformer” when he replaced his father in 2000. He allowed a short-lived “Damascus Spring” in which he tolerated debates that criticized Syria’s autocratic rule, but later cracked down on critics. Assad’s crackdown on protests has drawn international condemnation, including from close ally, neighbouring Turkey. But, Syria is unlikely to face the kind of foreign military intervention seen in Libya.

By cultivating rapprochement with the West in recent years, while at the same time consolidating its ties with anti-Israel allies in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria poses a headache for the West which has few options beyond condemning the violence and making calls for political reforms.

The United States, long critical of Syria’s support for anti-Israeli militant groups and its involvement in Lebanon, restored full diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador to Damascus in January after a nearly six-year gap.

“Iran is very involved with this regime. Iran would defend it with all means possible,” said Antoine Basbous, head of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab countries. “What’s at stake if the Syria regime falls is not just a matter of Syria internally, the stakes are above all geopolitical ones on a regional scale.” (Reuters)

“There must be a very harsh debate going on” around the president, said Elizabeth Picard, a political science professor and expert on Syria who is based in France. “We’re nearing a zero-sum game. Once you let go a little, you take the risk of losing everything. Some people are going to cling to power.” (New York Times)


Radiation in Japan Seawater Spreads North

Highly radioactive iodine seeping from Japan’s damaged nuclear complex may be making its way into seawater farther north of the plant than previously thought, officials say, adding to radiation concerns as the crisis stretches into a third week.

Mounting problems, including badly miscalculated radiation figures and no place to store dangerously contaminated water, have stymied emergency workers struggling to cool down the overheating plant and avert a disaster with global implications.

The coastal Fukushima Daiichi power plant, 220 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, has been leaking radiation since a magnitude-9.0 quake on March 11 triggered a tsunami that engulfed the complex. The wave knocked out power to the system that cools the dangerously hot nuclear fuel rods.

On Monday, workers resumed the laborious yet urgent task of pumping out the hundreds of tons of radioactive water inside several buildings at the six-unit plant. The water must be removed and safely stored before work can continue to power up the plant’s cooling system, nuclear safety officials said. That process alone could take weeks, experts say.

The contaminated water, discovered last Thursday, has been emitting radiation that measured more than 1,000 millisieverts per hour in a recent reading at Unit 2 – some 100,000 times the normal amounts, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.

Airborne levels outside the unit are more than four times the level that the government deems as safe for humans.

Crews also found traces of plutonium in the soil outside the complex on Monday. Plutonium – a key ingredient in nuclear weapons – is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for over two weeks, so experts had expected some to be found once crews began searching for evidence of it this week. As such, its presence is no threat to public health, officials insisted. Only some of the plutonium samples were from the leaking reactors, they said. The rest came from earlier nuclear tests. Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world.

Highly radioactive seawater has also been detected at a turbine building and inside a deep trench outside the reactor buildings. The trench is used as a pathway to allow workers to lay out drainage pipes or electrical wires.

As officials scrambled to determine the source of the radioactive water, chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeated Monday that the contaminated water in Unit 2 appeared to be due to a temporary partial meltdown of the reactor core. He called it “very unfortunate,” but said the spike in radiation appeared limited to the unit. (CBC) “Somehow, we understand water is being moved from one place to another,” Edano said. “We need to hear an explanation from experts.” (CNN)

However, new readings show contamination in the ocean has spread about 1.6 kilometres farther north of the nuclear site than before. Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered just offshore from Unit 5 and Unit 6 at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters Monday. He had said earlier there was no link between the radioactive water leaking inside the plant and the radiation in the sea. On Monday, though, he reversed that position, saying he does suspect that radioactive water from the plant may indeed be leaking into the ocean.

“While it’s not the level harmful to human health, I am not optimistic,” Nishiyama was quoted as saying by Jiji news agency. (Reuters)

Environmental group Greenpeace said its experts had confirmed dangerous radiation of up to 10 microsieverts per hour in Litate village, 40 km northwest of the plant. It called for the extension of a 20-km evacuation zone. “It is clearly not safe for people to remain in Litate, especially children and pregnant women, when it could mean receiving the maximum allowed annual dose of radiation in only a few days,” Greenpeace said in a statement. It urged Tokyo to “stop choosing politics over science.” (Reuters)

Police stationed in the area have noticed more people returning to gather belongings and “there is a risk” of returning home now, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. Many families fled quickly after the earthquake and tsunami with only the clothes they were wearing. (Washington Post)

Closer to the plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal last week and climbed to 1,850 times normal over the weekend. Nishiyama said the increase was a concern, but also said the area is not a source of seafood and that the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health.

Confusion in the plant has intensified fears that the nuclear crisis will last weeks, months or years amid alarms over radiation making its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far as Tokyo.

On Sunday, TEPCO officials said radiation in leaking water in the Unit 2 reactor was 10 million times above normal – an apparent spike that sent employees fleeing the unit. The day ended with officials saying the huge figure had been miscalculated and offering apologies.

“The number is not credible,” TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita said. “We are very sorry.” (CBC)

A few hours later, TEPCO vice-president Sakae Muto said a new test had found radiation levels 100,000 times above normal – far better than the first results, though still very high. “We will work hard to raise our precision in our work so as not to repeat this again,” he said, but he ruled out having an independent monitor oversee the various checks despite the errors. (CBC)

“Considering the fact that the monitoring of radioactivity is a major condition to ensure safety, this kind of mistake is absolutely unacceptable,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. (BBC)

Muto acknowledged it could take a long time to clean up the Fukushima complex. “We cannot say at this time how many months or years it will take,” he said. (CBC) Up to 600 people are working inside the plant in shifts. Nuclear safety officials say workers’ time inside the crippled units is closely monitored to minimize their exposure to radioactivity, but two workers were hospitalized Thursday when they suffered burns after stepping into contaminated water. They were to be released from the hospital Monday.

Cham Dallas, an expert on radiation and public health at the University of Georgia, told CNN’s “American Morning” that the level suggests operators are facing “a deteriorating situation” at the No. 2 reactor. “Fortunately, that’s in the reactor area, not outside and not in Tokyo or even in the area in Fukushima province,” Dallas said. “But in the reactor area itself – that’s concerning to me. We’re starting to see levels now that are dangerous to reactor workers if they’re in those contaminated areas.” (CNN)

The chairman of the United States Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, was in Tokyo on Monday meeting with senior Japanese government officials and representatives from Tokyo Electric. Mr. Jaczko reiterated that the commission is prepared to provide assistance but did not provide details. “the unprecedented challenge before us remains serious and our best experts remain fully engaged to help Japan address the situation,” he said in a statement. (New York Times)

Mr. Jaczko’s visit came as Japan asked the French nuclear industry for help. A spokeswoman for the French nuclear power company Areva said the firm was providing support to TEPCO. “The whole French nuclear industry has received a request for help from TEPCO,” said Fleur Floquet-Daubigeon in Paris. “We’re not sending people at this time; we are just sharing technical expertise… We’re basically in a brainstorming phase right now.” (New York Times)

The French energy minister, Eric Besson, said the call for help had also come from the Japanese government, Reuters reported. “Japan explicitly asked EDF, Avera and France’s nuclear research body (CEA) to help them,” Mr. Besson said. (New York Times)

U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called a summit, possibly in June, to coordinate the international response to mounting concern over nuclear safety in the wake of Japan’s crisis.

Meanwhile, a strong earthquake shook the region and prompted a brief tsunami alert early Monday, adding to the sense of unease across Japan. The quake off the battered Miyagi prefecture coast in the northeast measured magnitude 6.5, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

No damage or injuries were reported, and TEPCO said the quake would not affect work to stabilize the plant. Scores of strong earthquakes have rattled Japan over the past two weeks. The death toll for the March 11 disasters officially surpassed 11,000 on Monday. More than 17,000 people are still missing and more than 190,000 people are living in temporary shelters.

The BBC’s Roland Burek in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, said prefabricated houses are being wired for electricity, but there is initially room for only 150 of the 1,000 survivors there.

In Miyagi prefecture – another of the worst-hit areas – the authorities estimate it will be three years before all of the rubble and debris has been cleared.

Some 20,000 US troops are bolstering Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, delivering aid in what is said to be the biggest bilateral humanitarian mission the US has conducted in Japan.

As well as shortages of food, water and fuel, survivors are also having to endure frequent aftershocks.

For the first time since the disaster, the government has permitted a foreign medical team to enter the country to treat victims, the Japan Times reports. The health ministry has lifted a ban on holders of foreign medical licenses from practicing in Japan, allowing a team of 53 medical aid workers from Israel, including 14 doctors and seven nurses, to work.


Earthquake Hits Myanmar Near China and Thailand Borders

A powerful earthquake hit Myanmar Thursday near its borders with China, Thailand and Laos, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The quake hit in eastern Myanmar, about 55 miles (89 km) north of Chiang Rai, Thailand, the survey reported. It had a magnitude of 6.8, the survey said, revising the estimate down from an initial reading of 7.0.

A woman in an area north of Chiang Rai, just four kilometres from the border, died when a brick wall collapsed on her, according to police Capt. Weerapon Samranjai.

Tremors were felt in the capital Bangkok, 479 miles (772 km) south of the epicenter. It was a relatively shallow quake, which can be very destructive.

The Geological Survey initially said the quake had a depth of 142 miles (230 km), but it later revised its estimate to say the quake was 6 miles (10 km) deep, putting it fairly close to the surface.

An aftershock hit about half an hour later, with a preliminary magnitude of 4.8 and a depth of 6 miles, the USGS said.

The center of the quake was 365 miles (589 km) northeast of Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar. It was 104 miles (168 km) south-southwest of Yunjinghong, Yunnan, China.

“Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist,” said a report posted on the monitoring agency’s website shortly after the quakes. “The predominant vulnerable building types are wood and unreinforced brick masonry construction.” (CBC)

A destructive tsunami is not expected, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has been badly hit by natural disasters in the past few years. A powerful cyclone in 2008 left an estimated 100,000 people dead, and another one two years later left 70,000 people homeless, the United Nations estimates.

The quake was significantly less than the one that hit Japan two weeks ago, causing a tsunami, leaving thousands dead or missing, and prompting fears of a nuclear meltdown.

It was roughly comparable in magnitude and depth to last year’s Haiti earthquake, which measured 7.0. More than 200,000 people died in the Haiti earthquake, and millions were affected.

That quake’s center was only 9 miles below the surface and near congested population centers. Scientists said if the quake had been centered deeper down, the damage would not have been as sever.


Jerusalem Bomb Kills One, Wounds Dozens

Israeli police are blaming Palestinian militants for a bomb attack that killed at least one person and wounded more than 20 others, several of them critically, in central Jerusalem Wednesday. State-run Israel Radio said a 60-year-old woman died from a bomb blast at a crowded bus stop. Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of public security, said militants planted the one-kilogram device in a bag on the sidewalk. There had been no claim of responsibility for the attack, the first bombing in Jerusalem in years.

Witnesses said the force of the blast – just after 1500 local time (1300 GMT) – shook buildings over a wide area. Dozens of ambulances converged on the scene near the entrance to the city, and police sealed off the area. It is believed that the bomb exploded as a bus pulled up at the stop, but it is not clear if passengers on the bus were among the casualties.

A correspondent for AFP news agency at the scene said people were lying on the ground covered in blood and many cars and buses had shattered windows.

“(We believe) the device weighed about 1-2 kg,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Israel’s Channel 2 television. “It exploded in a small suitcase on the sidewalk next to the bus stop.” (BBC)

Motti Bukchin, a volunteer with the Israeli emergency service Zaka, said he and his colleagues were in a meeting nearby when they heard the blast. “When we arrived at the site of the attack we saw two women lying in huge pools of blood on the pavement. We began resuscitation immediately and were soon joined by other medical personnel. The two women were evacuated to hospital in serious to critical condition,” he said. (BBC)

The explosion took place in a crowded area with “a lot of civilians and two buses,” said Yonatan Yagadovsky, a spokesman for Israel’s emergency services. “Three to four are in serious condition. The rest of the casualties are moderately to lightly injured,” he said before the woman’s death was announced. The injuries came from both the force of the blast and from flying shrapnel, he said. (CNN)

The blast “brings very bad memories to us,” Yagadovsky told reporters. “It was relatively very quiet,” he said, adding that Israel had not had “this type of terror attack for a very, very long time.” (CNN)

“I knew instantly that it was a terrorist attack,” Yair Zimmerman, a volunteer medic who was on one of the buses, said in an interview. “I told the driver to move forward several meters and to open the door,” he said, speaking at Shaare Zedek hospital where he and 13 others had been taken. “When I went out, I saw that a kid had been thrown six or seven meters. I saw four or five people lying on the ground badly hurt, including a woman in a pool of blood. There was a terrible smell of burnt plastic and blood.” (New York Times)

The woman who was killed suffered a chest injury in the blast and died a short time later, according to officials at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. They did not provide any information on her identity.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfield told the BBC that they were searching for a suspect and a vehicle believed to have been used in planting the bomb. Dozens of police officers and soldiers combed through debris for fragments of the bomb. The police were searching for a car that they said had been seen fleeing the scene, and checkpoints were set up on roads across the country as police searched for suspects.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Cairo, denounced what he called “a horrific terrorist attack” but said he did not think the situation in Israel was deteriorating. (Reuters)

Jerusalem was hit by a series of bombings – mostly targeting buses and restaurants – during the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. However the attacks have stopped in recent years. Jerusalem last experienced a bus bombing in 2004.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement saying, “We will not tolerate the harming of Israeli citizens, not in the towns in the south and not in Jerusalem.” The Israel Defence Force will continue to protect citizens, he said. “There will be ups and downs, not everything will end tomorrow, but we are determined to bring back security and calm.” (CNN)

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad strongly condemned the bombing as a “terrorist act” and said it was counter-productive for the Palestinian cause. “It is disgraceful… and greatly damaging to the struggle… that there is still a Palestinian party that insists on these actions and the disgraceful scenes under empty slogans that are no longer valid for our people,” he said in a prepared statement. “These actions are in contravention with the legitimate quest to obtain freedom by peaceful means,” he said. (CNN)

The latest attack comes amid heightened tension in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country will react “aggressively, responsibly and wisely” to a recent wave of Palestinian violence. He issued his statement just hours after the bomb blast. (CBC) Netanyahu said he spent the evening huddled with top security officials to discuss the situation. He spoke to reporters just before boarding a flight to Russia, where he said he would discuss Israel’s security situation with that country’s leaders.

“It could be that this matter will entail exchanges of blows, and it may take a certain period of time, but we are very determine to strike at the terrorist elements and deny them the means of attacking our civilians,” he told parliament. (Reuters)

The leaders of the Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank also condemned the deadly bombing.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad denounced it in “the strongest terms,” while his boss, President Mahmoud Abbas, traveling in Russia, issued a similar statement. (CBC)

Meanwhile, Gaza militants barraged southern Israel with rockets and mortars Wednesday, drawing retaliatory Israeli strikes in a worrisome escalation of the gravest hostilities in the area since Israel went to war in the Palestinian territory two years ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed decisive action against militants. “No state would tolerate ongoing rocket fire on its cities and its citizens, and the state of Israel obviously will not tolerate it,” Netanyahu said in parliament following the latest escalation. (CBC)

A text message from Gaza’s Hamas rulers said the territory’s prime minister had been in contact with militant factions trying to keep the postwar truce from unravelling. The Islamic Jihad militant group said it fired rockets at four Israeli cities to avenge Israel’s killing of eight militants and civilians in Gaza the day before. The group said one of its fighters was killed Wednesday in an Israeli airstrike, and Israeli police said an Israeli civilian was wounded by rocket shrapnel in southern Israel’s largest city, Beersheba.

A small faction allied with Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group claimed responsibility for a volley of mortars that struck Israel.

The killing of three children and their uncle Tuesday in what Israel called an errant shelling dramatically escalated the recent flare in violence. Hamas declared a day of mourning Wednesday and appealed to all Gazans to take part in the day’s funerals. Dozens of weeping women dressed in black gathered at the house of three of the victims. Pieces of flesh stuck to the outer wall of the house, which was pocked by shrapnel. Relatives fired their personal weapons into the air in mourning.

Thousands, meanwhile, participated in the funerals of the four Islamic Jihad fighters killed on Tuesday. Gunmen fired in the air, chanting “God is Great” and “Revenge, revenge.” (CBC)

Israel and Hamas have largely observed a truce since the Israeli military offensive in Gaza ended in January 2009. But with the ceasefire fraying in the past week, Netanyahu threatened to respond vigorously to the stepped-up attacks from Gaza. “It’s possible that blows will be exchanged, it’s possible it will continue for some time. But we are very resolved to strike at terror elements and block their ability to hurt our citizens,” he said. Netanyahu did not elaborate. But Israel Radio reported that he planned to huddle with security officials to discuss strategy. (CBC)

Earlier in the day, Israeli Home Front Minster Matan Vilnai predicted that a military confrontation with Hamas was “only a matter of time… We are taking all appropriate steps in this direction,” Vilnai told Army Radio. (CBC)

The Hamas text message said Gaza Prime Minister Ismali Haniyeh had made a round of calls to militant leaders, including Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shalah, trying to defuse the violence. Both Israel and Hamas are thought to be reluctant to engage in another war, after the 2009 conflict killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and heavily damaged thousands of homes and businesses. Thirteen Israelis also died, and Israel’s image was badly tarnished by allegations of war crimes that the Israeli government denies.

But although the war inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, the Iranian-backed group has replenished its arsenal with bigger and better weapons. Last week, Israel intercepted a cargo ship that it said was loaded with sophisticated anti-ship missiles and other arms sent from Tehran to Gaza.

Over the weekend, Gaza militants launched their heaviest mortar barrage against Israel in years following an Israeli airstrike, stoking a new round of violence. The mortar shells fired Saturday were the same type as those intercepted last week on the cargo ship, Israel said.

U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the Jerusalem attack “as well as the rockets and mortars fired from Gaza in recent days. We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to do everything in their power to prevent further violence and civilian casualties,” he said. (BBC) “There is never any possible justification for terrorism,” he added. (CNN)

Condemnation also came from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who said “such attacks are unacceptable.” (BBC)

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague described the attack as “shocking and deeply distressing.” (BBC)

The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, called on the public to be alert but to “return to regular routine as quickly as possible… When terror attempts disrupt our way of life, the best solution is to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Events in Jerusalem will not be cancelled and Jerusalem will not stop running,” he said. (BBC) Mayor Barkat condemned the “cowardly terrorist attack” in which “innocent people were hurt.” (CNN)

“Israel and Jerusalem are relatively very safe recently,” Barkat told CNN. “This is something that happens rarely, and we hope to keep it that way.” He said he hopes security forces will find the people responsible and “bring them to justice.” (CNN)


U.S. Jet’s Crew Safe After Bailing Out Over Libya

As Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi crowd, “I do not scare,” the Untied States Tuesday got back two crew members whose F-15E malfunctioned and said it will be able to hand over command of the coalition that has hammered loyalist military positions over four days.

Meanwhile, fighting raged in Misrata, east of the capital, where a witness claimed Gaddafi has placed snipers on the tops of buildings.

Also Tuesday, the commander of the U.S. Naval forces in Europe and Africa said multinational air strikes would continue until Gaddafi compiles with a United Nations mandate to stop attacking civilians.

Americans “are going to be satisfied that lives were saved” by the U.S. military action, President Barack Obama said during a visit to El Salvador. He said the timetable for a transition of military leadership will be in coming days, rather than weeks. (CNN)

So far, the LIbyan leader is violating the Security Council resolution by “continued aggressive actions his forces have taken against the civilian population,” Adm. Samuel Locklear Ill said. (CNN)

Gaddafi vowed Tuesday to emerge victorious in his battle with international forces seeking to impose a no-fly zone in his country and to halt his forces from attacking civilians. “We will not give up,” he said to a crowd of supporters, many of them waving green flags in a speech broadcast on state television. “They will not terrorize us. We are making fun of their rockets. The Libyans are laughing at these rockets. We will defeat them by any method.” He said Libyans “are leading the international war against imperialism, against despots and I tell you, I do not scare.” (CNN)

The U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle had flown from Aviano air base in Italy to Libya when the fighter experienced mechanical problems, the U.S. military command for Africa said in a statement. Both the pilot and the weapons officer ejected and were rescued within hours – one retrieved by the U.S. military, the other by anti-Gaddafi Libyans. The aviators, who suffered minor injuries when they landed, were both out of Libya and in U.S. hands, Locklear said.

The U.S. military dispatched a pair of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, about 100 miles off the coast of Libya, to rescue the downed aviators, said Capt. Richard Ulsh, spokesman for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

But the two men landed in different places when they parachuted down, and the U.S. rescue crew was able to pick up only the pilot. He was flown to the Kearsarge, which has extensive medical facilities.

Libyan rebels recovered the second crew member and treated him with “respect and dignity” until coalition forces were able to reach him, Locklear said. (CNN) Residents in the area, some of whom witnessed the crash, told CNN they combed farmlands to search for the two Americans. They also expressed their gratitude to coalition members for the United Nations-authorized attack on Libyan air defence targets meant to protect civilians.

One Libyan who came across the crashed jet told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that one pilot held his hands in the air and said, “OK, OK,” but was quickly thanked by locals for his participation in the air strikes. Younis Amruni told the Telegraph: “I hugged him and said ‘don’t be scared, we are your friends’.” (BBC)

Locklear said he would investigate reports villagers were injured when allied forces opened fire during rescue operations. “The recovery mission from my perspective was executed as I would have expected it to be given the circumstances,” he said. (CNN)

Criticism and questions persist about the Libyan campaign, with no clear answer on who will take over command of the military operation and what the end game or exit strategy will be. But U.S. officials said the international mission has succeeded in halting Gaddafi’s momentum.

Locklear told reporters that initial military strikes by the French followed by attacks by Britain and the United States have rendered Gaddafi’s long-range air defences and his air force largely ineffective. And the Libyan opposition’s newly formed administration urged the international community to continue enforcing the United Nations Charter.

“The interim national council has called on the international community to take all forceful deterrent measures, based on the U.N. charter and international covenants, to help the Libyan people put an end to further crimes against the humanity,” the statement from the Transitional National Council said. (CNN)

Missiles rained down Tuesday and anti-aircraft fire pierced the night sky in Tripoli hours before dawn.

In Tripoli, Reuters correspondents said some residents, emboldened by a third night of air strikes, dropped their customary praise of Gaddafi and said they wanted him gone. “My children are afraid but I know it’s changing,” one man said. “This is the end. The government has no control any more.” (Reuters)

The Libyan government took international journalists to a port area that appeared to have been damaged by missile strikes that left craters 15 feet deep. A destroyed mobile rocket launcher system lay smoldering. Several warehouses were hit. Some directed journalists to the rebellious neighbourhoods of Tajura and Feshloom. “People are very afraid, honestly,” one man said. “They killed a lot of people in Tripoli, including one of my relatives. You have to be careful. They are watching right now.” (New York Times)

The United States fired 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya during a 12-hour period, said military spokeswoman Cmdr. Monica Rousselow. A total of 159 Tomahawks have been fired by the United States and Britain since the start Saturday of Operation Odyssey Dawn, which includes enforcement of a no-fly zone.

The international operation has targeted air defence sites and command centers, but Gaddafi himself has not been targeted, and there are no plans to kill the leader, said Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. forces in Africa. “I could see accomplishing the military mission, which has been assigned to me, and the current leader would remain the current leader,” he said. “We think we have been very effective in degrading his ability to control his regime forces.” (CNN) Ham said no Libyan aircraft have been observed flying since the military operations began Saturday. And air attacks have stopped Libyan ground forces from approaching the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

But fighting raged in Misrata, a city under siege two hours east of Tripoli. Four children in the same family were killed among 13 civilians killed in Misrata fighting Tuesday, said Dr. Khaled Mansouri of Misrata Central Hospital. About 30 people were injured, he told CNN. The death toll from the clashes between Gaddafi forces and rebels in the city stands at 90 over the last five days.

An opposition spokesman who would give only his first name, Mohamed, told CNN the situation in the city is dire and worsening by the hour as Gaddafi forces have taken control of the main street that leads from the city center to a highway that connects Misrata to Tripoli. Loyalist snipers are on top of buildings, he said. The hospital is running out of medical supplies and are turning patients away, he said. “I have seen a man whose broken arm is hanging being discharged because of lack of space,” said Mohamed, who said he was not divulge his full name because of concern for his safety. He said the city has been without water and electricity for nine days. (CNN)

Violence has raged in Libya following protests calling for democracy and demanding an end to Gaddafi’s almost 42-year rule. Protesters have been met by force from the Gaddafi regime, and numerous world leaders – including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – have denounced the killings of civilians by Gaddafi’s troops.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution Thursday that allows member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country… while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” (CNN) It also imposed a no-fly zone.

Barak Barfi, a research fellow with the New America Foundation, said “it’s certainly not clear” that the allied coalition has stymied the onslaught of Gaddafi troops against rebels in eastern Libya. “Before the decision in the U.N. was taken Thursday, it seemed like Gaddafi was going to overrun the opposition in a matter of days,” he said. But “it’s unclear if the rebels can form under any type of organized command and move forward now that the airstrikes have taken away Gaddafi’s offensive capabilities,” Barfi said Tuesday. “It’s unclear at this point in time who would take control after Gaddafi leaves. We know that there are really no state institutions in Libya.” (CNN)

Sheltering from tank fire behind sand dunes near Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters lack leadership, experience and any plan of action. One fighter, Mohamed Bhreka, asked who was in command, shrugged and said: “Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan.” (Reuters)

A former Gaddafi aide told CNN Tuesday that the Libyan strongman would not go down easily. Abubaker Saad said Gaddafi has several bunkers deep underground and is likely hiding in one of them. “As you probably all have noticed that now he is giving all of his statements by phone to the Libyan television,” Saad said. (CNN)

The Spanish parliament Tuesday approved the nation’s military participation in the coalition operating in Libya. Canadian and Belgian forces joined coalition forces Monday, and aircraft carriers from Italy and France have added “significant capability” in the region, Ham said.

Russia, which abstained in last week’s UN Security Council vote on the resolution authorizing force in Libya, has since criticized the air strikes. China has also urged all parties to “immediately cease fire and resolve issues through peaceful means.” (BBC)

The French on Tuesday suggested a new, overseeing political body to “unite the foreign ministers of the states that are intervening, along with those in the Arab League.” (BBC)

Turkey has also opposed a NATO command role as it said coalition air strikes had gone beyond what was authorized by the United Nations. However, its concerned had largely been settled, a senior U.S. official told reporters.

Qatar’s air force is expected to begin flying as part of the mission by the weekend, Locklear said.

The United Arab Emirates have been prepared to send two squadrons to participate in the international effort, said retired Maj. Gen. Khaled Abdullah Al-Buainnain, the former commander of the Emirates’ air force and air defence. However, he said, those plans have changed because of criticism by the United States and the European Union of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s deployment of troops to help the monarchy stabilize Bahrain. The UAE has chosen not to take a military role in Libya until Washington and the European Union clarify their position on the use of troops in Bahrain, but it will contribute to the humanitarian effort in Libya, Al-Buainnain said.


Japanese Engineers Aim to Restore Power to Avert Catastrophe

Japanese engineers raced on Friday to restore a power cable to a crippled nuclear power plant in the hope of restarting pumps desperately needed to pour cold water on overheating fuel rods and avert a catastrophic release of radiation.

Officials could not forecast when the cable might be connected, but said work would stop on Friday morning to allow helicopters and fire trucks to resume pouring water on the Daiichi plant, about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

“Preparatory work has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped,” an official of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) told a news briefing, adding that a cold snap was hampering the effort, as was the need to constantly check radiation levels were safe for the engineers to work. (Reuters)

Washington and other foreign capitals have expressed growing alarm about radiation leaking from the plant, severely damaged by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami a week ago that triggered a series of destructive explosions, which compromised the nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage tanks.

Worst case scenarios would involve millions of people in Japan threatened by exposure to radioactive material, but prevailing winds are likely to carry any contaminated smoke or steam away from the densely populated Tokyo area to dissipate over the Pacific ocean.

President Barack Obama, however, said the Japan crisis posed no risk to any U.S. territory – although he nevertheless ordered a comprehensive review of domestic nuclear plants. “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or U.S. territories in the Pacific,” Obama said. “That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts.” (Reuters)

Obama also made an unannounced visit to the Japanese Embassy and signed a condolence book. “My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy. Please know that America will always stand by one of its greatest allies during this time of need,” Obama wrote. “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever. And as it recovers, the memory of those who have been lost will remain in our hearts, and will serve only to strengthen the relationship between our two countries. May God bless the people of Japan.” (Washington Post)

Yukiya Amano, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was due back in his homeland later on Friday with an international team of experts after earlier complaining about a lack of information from Japanese authorities on the crisis.

Graham Andrew, his senior aide, said the situation at the plant was serious but “reasonably stable… It hasn’t got worse, which is positive,” he said. “The situation remains very serious but there has been no significant worsening since yesterday.” (Reuters)

“The current situation at units 1, 2 and 3, whose cores have suffered damaged, appears to be relatively stable,” Andrew added. “Unit 4, in particular, remains a major safety concern.” (CNN)

Even if TEPCO manages to connect the power, it is not clear the pumps will work as they may have been damaged by the natural disaster or subsequent explosions. Work has been slowed by the need to frequently monitor radiation levels to protect workers.

Rebecca Johnson, founder of the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, which promotes international security, disarmament and arms control, told CNN that Japanese engineers were “flying by the seat of their pants now… Everything they try goes wrong. They’re focusing on reactors, then spent fuel becomes damaged,” Johnson said. “They’ve just got to get water in there, keep the water pumping.” (CNN)

And nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson told CNN that the effort will likely need to be sustained “for months, if not years… What’s pushing the firemen back is the radiation that’s coming from the spent fuel pool,” he said. If the spent fuel rods in that pool are uncovered, “There’s an awful lot of gamma rays flooding that site, forcing the workers to stay further away.” (CNN)

U.S. officials took pains not to criticize Japan’s government, but Washington’s actions indicated a divide with its close ally about the perilousness of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The top U.S. nuclear regulator said the cooling pool for spent fuel rods at the complex’s reactor No. 4 may have run dry and another was leaking. Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a congressional hearing that radiation levels around the cooling pool were extremely high, posing deadly risks for workers still toiling in the wreckage of the power plant. “This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks, as eventually you remove the majority of the heat from the reactors and then the spent-fuel pools,” Jaczko told reporters at a White House briefing. “So it’s something that will be ongoing for some time.” (Washington Post)

Japan’s nuclear agency said it could not confirm if water was covering the fuel rods. The plant operator said it believed the reactor spent-fuel pool still had water as of Wednesday, and made clear its priority was the spent-fuel pool at the No. 3 reactor.

On Thursday, military helicopters dumped about 30 tons of water, all aimed at this reactor. One emergency crew temporarily put off spraying the same reactor with a water cannon due to high radiation, broadcaster NHK said, but another crew later began hosing it. Latest images from the plant showed severe damage, with two of the buildings a twisted mangle of steel and concrete.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric said radiation levels showed a very small decrease after the helicopter missions. But, noting the minuscule drop in radiation readings, the World Nuclear Association said the water drops by helicopter “did not appear accurate enough to be effective,” adding that “the effect at present seems marginal at best.” (Washington Post) The London-based organization, which promotes nuclear energy, said one attempt was made to douse the unit 4 reactor building but that the pilots withdrew “after encountering high levels of radiation.” (Washington Post)

“The worst-case scenario doesn’t bear mentioning and the best-case scenario keeps getting worse,” Perpetual Investments said in a note on the crisis. (Reuters)

General Electric said it would sent about 10 gas turbine generators to Japan to help replace lost power generating capacity. Michael Tetuan, a spokesman for the company, said that the operators of the damaged plant had requested generators, but he did not know what they would be used for. The units can produce roughly the same amount of power as the diesel generators at nuclear plants.

Financial leaders of the world’s richest nations will hold talks on Friday on ways to calm global markets roiled by the crisis amid concern it will unravel a fragile global economic recovery. Japanese Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano told Reuters the country’s markets were not unstable enough to warrant joint G7 currency intervention or government purchases of shares. That said, the yen surged to a record high against the dollar on market speculation Japan would repatriate funds to pay for the massive cost of post-disaster reconstruction, rising as high as 76.25 to the dollar and surpassing the previous record high of 79.75 reached in the wake of the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

Japan’s Nikkei average fell sharply on opening on Thursday, but ended the day down just 1.44 percent. The Nikkei has fallen more than 12 percent this week.

U.S. markets, which tanked on Wednesday on the back of the crisis, rebounded on Thursday, but investors were not convinced the advance would last.

The government warned Tokyo’s 13 million people to prepare for a possible large-scale blackout but later said there was no need for one. Still, many firms voluntarily reduced power, submerging parts of the usually neon-lit city in darkness. In a possible sign of panic, one bank, Mizuho, said all its automated teller machines in the country crashed twice on Thursday after excessive transactions.

On Thursday, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo urged citizens living within 80 km (50 miles) of the Daiichi plant to evacuate or remain indoors “as a precaution,” while Britain’s foreign office urged citizens “to consider leaving the area.” (Reuters)

The latest warnings were not as strong as those issued earlier by France and Australia, which urged nationals in Japan to leave the country. Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats on Friday, and Hong Kong urged its citizens to leave Tokyo as soon as possible or head south. Japan’s government told everyone living within 20 km (12 miles) of the plant to evacuate, and advised people within 30 km (18 miles) to stay indoors.

At worst, radiation in Tokyo has reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour this week, 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a dental x-ray. On Thursday, radiation levels were barely above average.

Many Tokyo residents stayed indoors, however, usually busy streets were nearly deserted and many shops were closed. At the second-floor office of the Tokyo Passport Center in the city’s Yurakucho district, queues snaked to the first floor. “Since yesterday we have had one-and-a-half times more people than usually coming to apply for a passport or to enquire about getting one,” said Shigeaki Ohashi, a center official. (Reuters)

The plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami worsened following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas. Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.

A city partially within the 20-kilometer evacuation zone, Minami Soma, was preparing to move 30,000 people out of the prefecture. Shelters within the prefecture were already full. Thousands of people have poured out of the area surrounding the plant. “About 600 people, many of whom lived in the immediate vicinity of the reactors, made their way here,” CBC’s Curt Petrovich said from an evacuation centre in Niigata, about 170 kilometers west of the Fukushima plant. “They are all over the floor on neatly ordered blankets. There are men, women, children, babies,” he said. “Many people are here with just the clothes on their backs, and many people are afraid of what lies ahead.” (CBC)

About 30,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.6 million households lacked running water.

The National Police Agency said on Friday it had confirmed 5,692 deaths from the quake and tsunami disaster, while 9,522 people were unaccounted for in six prefectures.

As Japan struggled to avert a nuclear disaster, ripple effects from the crisis spread to other countries in the region. In China, panic-buying swept from the country’s eastern coast all the way to Beijing, with residents rushing to stores to stock up on salt. People apparently believe the iodine in salt will protect them from radiation; others feared that sea salt would become scarce if the East China Sea becomes contaminated because of Japan’s nuclear plant crisis.

In Beijing and elsewhere, several supermarkets also ran out of imported milk powder, soybean sauce and instant noodles, as people stocked up on provisions even as the government issued repeated assurances that there was no radiation threat to China. “I don’t know when I can replenish our stock,” said Chen Zhonghai, manager of Jinli Super Market in Wenzhou City. “The residents worry that the salt produced in the future will be contaminated and can’t be eaten. It’s totally unnecessary.” (Washington Post)


In Libya, Gaddafi’s Tanks Split Rebel Forces

Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on Wednesday positioned tanks for the first time along the main road connecting the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, effectively splitting the forces opposing Gaddafi in two, according to rebel commanders, fighters and witnesses.

Gaddafi’s troops coming from the west had blocked parts of Ajdabiya and were now barring entry from the northeast, they said. Rebel forces remained inside the city and had engaged in fierce fighting with Gaddafi loyalists who stormed the city on Tuesday before withdrawing to the outskirts. Ajdabiya, a city of 170,000 people, is the last line of defence before Benghazi, the cradle of the populist uprising that seeks to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

“They started at the western gate to the city, then encircled Ajdabiya and arrived at the eastern gate,” said Zaid Al-Libi, who described himself as a military advisor and used a nom de guerre. “Gaddafi’s forces are now near the eastern gate.” (Washington Post)

Other fighters on this front line, about 10 miles away from Ajdabiya, confirmed his assessment on Wednesday afternoon. “A few of their tanks are down the road,” said Yahya el Mugasabi, a fighter who arrived form the direction of Ajdabiya. “We’ve been firing a lot of weapons at each other.” (Washington Post)

Along the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, the rebels appear to be preparing for a possible offensive by Gaddafi’s forces on Benghazi. Three rebel tanks, each roughly a mile apart, were parked along the road, their turrets pointed in the direction of Ajdabiya. Rebel fighters congregated at towns along the way, some waiting for orders, others headed back to Benghazi or returning towards the front line in Zuwaytinah and beyond.

In interviews, many said they were prepared to fight hard to prevent forces from seizing Ajdabiya. “Tonight, we will fight them inside the city,” predicted Al-Libi. (Washington Post)

In the distance, the heavy thuds of bombardment could be heard. Civilians and fighters said Gaddafi’s forcer had barraged Ajdabiya with artillery and rockets on Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday morning. Gaddafi’s forces appeared to be deploying similar tactics they had used to capture other rebel-held towns such as Zawiyah: A combination of shelling and staging raids into urban areas, engaging in firefights, then retreating to the outskirts of the town at night.

Hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, fled Ajdabiya Tuesday with whatever they could carry.

Libyan state television asserted that Ajdabiya had “been cleansed of mercenaries and terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda organization,” referring to the rebels. (Washington Post)

An activist hiding out in Ajdabiya said rebel holdouts in the city were experiencing reinforcements from Benghazi to arrive and help them regroup. He said that the shelling stopped at about 2 p.m., but clashes continued on the southern and eastern fringes of the city. “We are optimistic,” Abdel-Bari Zwei said by cell phone as he headed to a nearby mosque for night prayers. “Yes, the families left but the youths and the men are still here.” (The Star)

The assault on Tuesday was the latest sign that the forces that have fueled the Arab spring over the past few weeks are coming under pressure that might prove insurmountable. In Bahrain, the government has declared a state of emergency and invited Saudi troops to quell unrest. In Yemen, police fired bullets and tear gas at protesters on Sunday, a day after security forces killed seven demonstrators in protests across the country.

Mohammed Ali, an opposition activist based in Dubai, said he was in contact with people in Misrata and water, electricity and cell phone service had been cut off. At least eight people were killed and 11 injured in the attack, he said, although the toll could not be confirmed. (The Star)

In Libya, the rebels are up against a military force that is far superior and have ben able to persuade foreign powers to intervene militarily. On Tuesday, recommendations from France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya were rebuffed by foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe lamented that Western powers had “missed an opportunity to shift the balance… If we had used military force last week to neutralize some runways and the several dozen airplanes at Gaddafi’s disposal, maybe the reversal that is happening now to the opposition’s disadvantage would not have taken place,” Juppe told Europe 1 radio. (Washington Post)

The seizure of Ajdabiya by Gaddafi’s forces would deliver a severe tactical and psychological blow to the rebel movement and bring Benghazi, 99 miles north of Ajdabiya, within their sights. Ajdabiya sits at the nexus of highways that would allow Gaddafi’s forces to either mount a frontal assault on Benghazi or encircle and place a chokehold on it and other pro-rebel cities along the Mediterranean coast.

On the front lines, rebel fighters increasingly accused the movement’s leadership of not providing them with adequate military equipment or experienced officers to lead them, despite public promises by senior commanders.

On Sunday, Abdul Fattah Younis, the head of the rebel armed forces and Gaddafi’s former interior minister, declared that conventional forces, most of them defected soldiers from Gaddafi’s army, were playing a significant combat role. But they were nowhere to be seen Tuesday on what was perhaps the most pivotal battlefront of the rebellion.

“See the scars on my face. Since the morning, I have been fighting on the front. I am tired,” said Mohammed Gassar, 31, a former water company employee. “Where is the army? We need heavy weapons, we need leadership.” (Washington Post)

Others expressed anger at the international community, accusing it of betraying their cause and leaving them to face Gaddafi on their own. “These politicians are liars. They just talk and talk, but they do nothing,” said Mohammed al-Gunati, 30, a driver who stood behind a machine gun. “Where is America? Where are the Europeans? Even the Arabs, they are all just the same. They keep quiet. They just watch us as we die.” (Washington Post) Minutes later, fighters spotted two reconnaissance planes high in the sky and began to futilely fire their machine guns in the air, wasting scores of bullets.

“People are fed up. They are waiting impatiently for an international move,” said Saadoun al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata, the last rebel-held city in the west, which came under heavy shelling Wednesday. “What Gaddafi is doing, he is exploiting delays by international community. People are very angry that no action is being taken against Gaddafi’s weaponry.” (The Star)

Jamal Mansour, a rebel commander, said: “There’s heavy fighting around Ajdabiya, they’re carrying out a scorched-earth policy… There’s heavy, sustained tank shelling and earlier there were air strikes, but now the revolutionaries managed to take seven tanks from those dogs and, God willing, we will succeed.” (BBC)

Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, warned the rebels the regime was closing in on them and urged them to leave the country. “We don’t want to kill, we don’t want revenge, but you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: leave, go in peace to Egypt,” he said in an interview with Lyon, France-based EuroNews TV. “Military operations are over. Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi. Whatever the decision, it will be too late.” (The Star)

Opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said rebels in Benghazi would be ready for an attack. “A large percentage of Benghazi’s population is armed. Can Gaddafi bomb the city? Sure he can. Can he go in? I don’t think so,” he told the Associated Press. “Also, I think it is too far for his supply lines.” (The Star)

Gheriani said anti-aircraft equipment has been deployed, and the army mobilized, although he didn’t know where. There have been few signs in recent days of the rebels digging in defensive preparations on the city’s outskirts.

Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for four decades, has remained defiant through the four-week uprising to oust him. The Libyan leader appeared on national state television Tuesday, calling the rebels “rats” and accusing Western nations of wanting the country’s oil. Earlier in the week, Gaddafi said he was not like Tunisian and Egyptian leaders who fell after massive anti-government protests earlier this year. “I’m very different from them,” he said in an interview published Tuesday in the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “People are on my side and give me strength.” (CBC)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to accept an immediate cease-fire and warned that “a campaign to bombard such an urban centre would massively place civilian lives at risk.” (The Star)

One encouraging sign for the rebels were growing indications that the Obama administration was changing course and had now decided to ask the United Nations Security Council to act decisively to halt the Gaddafi forces before they reach Benghazi.

“We are moving as rapidly as we can in New York to see if we can get addition authorization for the international community to look at a broad range of actions, not just a no-fly zone but other actions as well,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. “The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday. That was an extraordinarily statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.” (New York Times)

Meanwhile, four journalists covering the fighting in Libya for the New York Times are missing, the newspaper said Wednesday. The New York Times said the journalists, who included two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, were last in contact with their editors Tuesday morning from the town of Ajdabiya. Also missing were Stephen Farrell – a reporter and videographer who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2009 and rescued by British commandos – and two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, the newspaper said.

“We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists,” Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, said in a statement. (Reuters) He said the Libyan government had assured the Times that if the journalists have been captured, they would be released promptly and unharmed. “Their families and their colleagues at The Times are anxiously seeking information about their situation, and praying that they are safe,” Keller said. (CNN)

Addario, a freelancer based in India, recently won a MacArthur Fellowship – known as a “genius grant” – for her photography around the world In an e-mail Monday to CNN correspondent Ivan Watson, Addario called the Libya story “one of the most dangerous” of her career. The e-mail said, “Gaddafi’s forces heading back east, and the rebels are surrendering along the way… so exhausted. This story has been one of the most dangerous I have ever covered. Getting bombed from the air and by land.” (CNN)

A Brazilian reporter was freed by government forces in Libya last week, but a journalist from Britain’s Guardian newspaper remains missing.

A BBC news team also said last week it had been detained by Libyan security forces, beaten and subjected to mock execution after they were arrested at a checkpoint.