Get Adobe Flash player

Daily Archives: September 29, 2008

Syria hunts for Damascus bombers


by Roueida Mabardi*

Counter-terrorist officers in Syria yesterday hunted for those responsible for a car bomb attack that killed 17 people in Damascus, one of the deadliest attacks in the country in more than a decade.
The bombing Saturday near a Shiite shrine in the Syrian capital, which left 14 people wounded, drew condemnation from around the world, including from the United States, which has repeatedly accused Syria of fuelling unrest in Iraq.
The car packed with 200 kilograms of explosives blew up near a security checkpoint on a road to Damascus airport in what Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid described as "a terrorist act."
All the casualties were civilians, he told state television.
"A counter-terrorist unit is trying to track down the perpetrators," he said.
The rare attack in a country known for its iron-fisted security struck the teeming neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, the state-run SANA news agency said.
The district draws tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon each year to pray at the tomb of Zeinab, daughter of Shiite martyr Ali and granddaughter of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
"It felt like an earthquake. The force of the explosion threw me out of bed," one man who lives near the scene told state television.
"Thank God this was Saturday. The catastrophe would have been bigger if the attack had taken place [yesterday] when schools were open."
Another man said the blast was heard some 10 kilometres away.
The attack prompted the US State Department to announce it was temporarily closing its consular section in Damascus for all but emergency services for American citizens. The Damascus Community School was also shut.
The facilities will be closed "in light of heightened security," but will reopen on October 5 following the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, spokesman Rob McInturff said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the bombing as "concerning."
"This attack is particularly abhorrent as it comes during the holy month of Ramadan. We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
Gordon Duguid, another State Department spokesman, said there was no evidence any US citizens were killed or injured in the incident, or of specific threats against the American community or embassy in Damascus.
Neighbouring Lebanon, which has been riven by tensions between pro- and anti-Damascus factions, also condemned the bombing, as did the UN Security Council, Arab and European states, and Syrian allies Iran and Russia.
Morocco's King Mohammed VI branded the bombing a "vile terrorist attack".
The UN Security Council "underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors of this reprehensible act of terrorism to justice and urged all states to cooperate actively with Syrian authorities."
The Council, in a statement, said that "all acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable regardless of their motivation."
In a separate statement, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for those responsible "to be brought to justice."
The exiled head of Syria's banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, said the attack could be the work of extremist groups or part of a "struggle between security forces."
"The security agencies have set up terrorist groups and sent them to neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. I don't rule out that they have slipped from their control and are carrying out such acts," he said by telephone from Saudi Arabia..
"There is a mood of oppression in Syria and this breeds extremism," he said.
Dubai-based Arab political analyst Fawaz Najia linked the attack to "mounting Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region," and Sunni fears of Shiite Iran's "penetration" of predominantly Sunni Arab countries.
"A recent report by a London-based Syrian study centre said that Iran was pouring millions of dollars into Syria to convert Sunnis to Shiism," he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hails from the country's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The blast was the deadliest since a spate of attacks in the 1980s blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood that left nearly 150 dead. In December 1996, 13 people were killed in a Damascus bus bombing.
It was the first attack since February when Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh was killed in a Damascus car bombing.



US House approves historic India nuclear deal

by Virginie Montet*

The House of Representatives Saturday passed a civilian nuclear pact with India that lifts a three decade-old ban on civilian nuclear trade with India.
The agreement, passed by a 298-117 vote, will now head to the Senate for its vote, but it was unclear if it would be passed before Congress adjourns ahead of the November 4 elections.
Signed by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, the deal offers India access to Western technology and cheap atomic energy provided it allows UN nuclear inspections of some of its nuclear facilities.
Bush on Saturday congratulated the House on the vote.
"The passage of this legislation by the House is another major step forward in achieving the transformation of the US-India relationship," he said, urging Senate now to adopt the bill.
But the deal has faced criticism from opponents who argue that India, which first tested an atomic weapon in 1974, is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Representative Edward Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, denounced the vote, saying in a statement: "This is a terrible bill that threatens the future of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime."
And he argued during a late night debate Friday that opposing the bill did not mean opposing India.
"This is a debate about Iran. This is a debate about North Korea, about Pakistan, about Venezuela, about any other country in the world that harbors the goal of acquiring nuclear weapons," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to allay any lasting concerns, saying the legislation would boost US oversight on any US civilian nuclear assistance to the South Asian nation.
She welcomed the vote saying in a statement that the accord "furthers our countries' strategic relationship while balancing nuclear non-proliferation concerns and India's growing energy needs.
"The legislation recognizes India's past support for non-proliferation initiatives and strengthens congressional oversight of any future US decision to assist India's civilian nuclear program."
Democrat Representative Joseph Crowley said Saturday's vote was a "historic moment."
"We are uniting the world's oldest and the world's largest democracies in an effort to expand peaceful and responsible development of nuclear technology," he said.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee member also recognized "the Indian American community for their incredible advocacy and efforts to educate members of Congress on the importance of this agreement and the US-India relationship."
The agreement had long been stalled in Congress, and on Thursday Bush told the visiting Singh that he was working hard to get it passed as quickly as possible."
New Delhi, which is critically short of energy to fuel its booming economy and its burgeoning population of 1.1 billion people, is looking at investments worth billions of dollars in its power sector.
The draft bill proposed by the White House says: "Civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India pursuant to the agreement will offer major strategic and economic benefits to both countries, including enhanced energy security."
It also promised "an ability to rely more extensively on an environmentally-friendly energy source, greater economic opportunities and more robust non-proliferation efforts."
If the Senate now endorses the agreement it would finally end a three decades-old ban on nuclear trade with India imposed after it carried out its first nuclear test in 1974 and refused to sign the NPT.
But New Delhi, which agreed to open some of its reactors for inspection, now has approval to buy fuel and technology from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which controls global atomic trade.
Washington spearheaded the efforts that led this month in the Vienna-based NSG lifting a global ban on trade with India.