Syrian forces have laid mines near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey along routes used to escape the conflict in Syria, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The report documented multiple accounts from witnesses in Turkey, Lebanon and inside Syria who had either seen Syrian troops laying mines or been injured by mines.
Opposition activists who have waged a year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule use Lebanon and Turkey to bring food, medicine and weapons into Syria. Thousands of Syrians have also fled the violence into Turkey and Lebanon.
"Any use of anti-personnel landmines is unconscionable," Steve Goose, Arms Division director at HRW, said. "There is absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons by any country, anywhere, for any purpose."
Syria last used anti-personnel mines during the 1982 conflict with Israel in Lebanon, the report said. Syria's stockpile is believed to consist mainly of Soviet/Russian-manufactured mines, it added.
The report quoted a 15-year-old boy from Tal Kalakh in Syria who lost a leg in a landmine explosion in February while trying to transport a wounded person to Lebanon for medical treatment.
Opposition activists in Syria say they fear arrest, torture and death at the hands of Syrian security forces if they seek treatment in Syrian state hospitals when they are wounded in protests or clashes with police and security forces. Turkey acceded to the international Mine Ban Treaty on September 25, 2003. Syria and Lebanon have refused to sign the treaty, which would require all landmines in their countries to be cleared.
Nadim Houry, HRW's researcher for Syria and Lebanon, told Reuters that is was very hard to get the exact figure for the number of wounded by Syrian-placed landmines because most casualties occur on the Syrian side of the border.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied access into the country to rights groups and journalists.
The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed in unrest against Assad's government. Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Turkey Presses Annan For Quıck Action In Syria
The Turkish government has urged UN-Arab League Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan to expedite action to help the civilian population of Syria, as the Syrian opposition repeated their calls for intervention on Tuesday in a crisis which experts increasingly describe as a civil war.
Annan, who had talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday, met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Ankara after his Syria mission. Davutoğlu expressed concerns over the situation of civilians when he met with Annan on Monday, according to Turkish officials close to the talks. "A decision should be made immediately on the feasibility of delivering aid and action must follow," Davutoğlu was quoted as telling Annan.
But with reports of civilian casualties mounting, Turkey is getting increasingly anxious.
"The international community should do whatever it is going to do. Scores were killed even when you were in Syria," Davutoğlu told Annan. The foreign minister said the number of Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey went up to 13,000 -- from 7,000-8,000 just two weeks ago. "And the number keeps increasing," he said.
Annan, who spoke at a news conference on Tuesday after an unexpected meeting with members of the Syrian opposition, tried to address the sense of urgency, saying that he expected the Syrian government to respond to a set of proposals on Tuesday.
"I also indicated to them that I am expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today, since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider," Annan said, in reference to his talks with Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, after meeting Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, or SNC, and other council members in Ankara. He has not disclosed what his proposals entailed.
Opposition Wants Intervention
The SNC's Ghalioun also highlighted the need for urgent steps, saying Syria is now at a "turning point."
"We are racing against time. The Syrian government will either respond to its people's demands or things will get worse," he said.
Another member of the opposition reiterated call for foreign intervention.
"We need concrete steps from the international community," SNC member Khaled Khoja told Today's Zaman on Tuesday. "Concrete steps, such as expanding sanctions, and protective military measures like establishing a no-fly zone and agreeing to arm [the military opposition group] the Free Syrian Army."
Khoja, who did not attend talks with Annan but says the group's demands have been constant in the face of an international community which has proven hesitant to intervene, said that the UN and the coalition of anti-Assad nations known as the "Friends of Syria" should intervene "in order to prevent future massacres" by the regime.
"This is an increasingly desperate situation, and the international community needs to stand with the existing opposition," Khoja said. "Without supporting the council, they are risking the opposition slipping entirely into military hands. If the opposition to Assad is to stay in the hands of the people, it should be led by a civil group, not through military control."
Repeated efforts by the SNC to secure a firm commitment to military intervention on the part of the West, Arab states, or Turkey have so far come up empty handed. The U.S. and European states have voiced concerns over arming opposition groups, citing growing reports that al-Qaeda may be operating among Syria's militias. Gulf State countries which have been rumored to be funneling arms to the opposition have limited any transfers of money and arms on similar grounds, according to a Wall Street Journal report in late February.
Full scale military intervention also remains unlikely, with senior U.S. defense officials telling the Washington Post last week that establishing air supremacy in Syria, the first step in a military intervention, would be extremely challenging. The officials said that Syria possesses "five times" the air defense assets as Libya, where an extensive NATO air campaign helped topple strongman Muammar Qaddafi last year.
Istanbul Meeting On April 2
While military intervention remains unlikely in the foreseeable future, the anti-Assad alliance of around 70 nations known as the "Friends of Syria" will meet on Aug. 2 in İstanbul to discuss future measures to take against the regime, Erdoğan announced on Tuesday.
The "Friends of Syria" first met in Tunisia in February after Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN security council stalled efforts to implement a peace plan in Syria.
As Erdoğan confirmed on Tuesday his plans to host the "Friends of Syria" meeting, he expressed his optimism about the international community's campaign to isolate the Assad regime.
"We are continuing our intense efforts to sustain the international effort to stop the flow of blood and tears in Syria," he said.
Turkısh Intelligence, Police Join To Deny Rift Allegations
In a joint press statement released in an unprecedented show of solidarity Tuesday, National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, and police headquarters denied allegations of a rift between the two institutions.
"Special care needs to be taken to observe the principle of informing the public truthfully, and to avoid wearing [the police and MİT] down in news stories about these two institutions, which jointly execute critical tasks in the struggle against terrorism," the statement read, the Doğan news agency reported.
Police and MİT officials met Tuesday morning to discuss recent media reports that claimed the existence of a rift between Hakan Fidan, the head of MİT, and Police Chief Mehmet Kılıçlar. The officials then decided to issue a joint press statement as a sign of cooperation between the two institutions, according to sources.
A specially authorized prosecutor called Fidan, his predecessor Emre Taner, MİT's former deputy chief Afet Güneş, and two other agency officials to testify in connection with the Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, probe on Feb. 8. The prosecutors had alleged that MİT had colluded with the KCK, the alleged urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and that its operatives had engaged in violence.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, then rushed a bill through Parliament in order to shield MİT's chief, while the prosecutor who issued the summons has since been removed from his post. The unexpected affair, however, has led to speculation concerning a divide between MİT and the judiciary.
Heron General Retires
Meanwhile, a general who presided over a unit in charge of evaluating footage obtained from unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in the Uludere incident retired amid speculation that the move may be connected to the botched air strike, the daily Cumhuriyet reported Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Salim Cüneyt Kavuncu presided over the General Staff Command and Control Department, which was in charge of evaluating Heron UAV footage taken during the Uludere strike that killed 34 civilians on Dec. 28.
Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz denied there was any link between the two incidents.
"Kavuncu applied for retirement last November," he said.
Journalists Enjoy First Day of Freedom After Release
Upon release from prison on Monday, journalist Nedim Şener enjoyed his freedom by taking his daughter to school first thing in the morning .
"I missed taking my daughter to her school," Şener told reporters as he was leaving prison Monday evening.
Journalists Şener and Ahmet Şık, as well as columnists Sait Çakır and Coşkun Musluk, were released from prison late Monday evening, after having been held for over a year, for alleged connections to a terrorist network.
Speaking to journalists after their release, Şık said there were still over 100 journalists behind bars in Turkey and that the court's ruling would not immediately democratize the country by itself.
"Around 100 journalists are currently [serving time] in prison, but freedom of expression is not merely a problem for journalists in this country. There are currently about 600 university students [behind bars] and over 6,000 under arrest in the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) trials [...] We are going to keep waging this struggle," Şık said. "The police, prosecutors and judges who executed this conspiracy will later enter this prison. I make a vow for this."
Meanhile, both government and opposition figures have hailed the court's decision to release Şık and Şener, while the spokesman for the European Union's Enlargement Commission, Stefan Füle, expressed contentment regarding the verdict, according to the Doğan news agency.
Füle's Spokesman Peter Stano also called for the amendment of clauses in the Turkish Penal Code and anti-terror laws restricting the freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış, expressed their satisfaction with the court's decision.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also expressed contentment with the ruling, saying it was a source of chagrin that the journalists had to stay behind bars for 375 days. As the Oda TV case continued Tuesday in Istanbul's Çağlayan courthouse, opposition People's Republican Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also issued a written statement expressing his wish that the four journalists' release would pave the way for the release of arrested deputies and others imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression.
CIA Chief Hınts At Closer Cooperation 'In Months'
The United States' top spy paid an unannounced two-day visit to Ankara to discuss deepening instability in Syria, the joint fight against terrorism and closer cooperation on pressing regional issues "in coming months."
CIA Chief David Petraeus held meetings with top Turkish officials on Monday and Tuesday, the Hürriyet Daily News reported. Petraeus met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Tuesday and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, Monday.
An official from the U.S. Embassy said that Turkish and Amerian officials discussed "more fruitful cooperation on the region's most pressing issues in the coming months." Turkish officials said Erdoğan and Petraeus exchanged views on the Syrian crisis and anti-terror fight.
The officials further discussed an intelligence-sharing mechanism launched in 2007.
Petraeus' visit coincided with that of Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League's special envoy to Syria. Though both officials stayed in the same hotel in Ankara, there was no confirmation of a potential meeting between the two.
Annan, who is trying to push the Syrian leadership to end its measures against anti-government rebels, is the latest international figure to have met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan Blames Israel As Truce Claimed In Gaza
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Israel of attempting to commit genocide against Palestinians through "state terrorism" while calling on Israelis who suffered in the Holocaust to stand against its administration.
Erdoğan's comments come as Israel and militants in Gaza agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce deal after 25 were killed by Israeli strikes.
"I am repeating my calls to Israel to end its inhuman attacks against Gaza and the Palestinian territories," Erdoğan said Tuesday during his weekly address to his parliamentary group, in reference to recent Israeli air strikes on Gaza to fight militants who have launched rockets into southern Israel.
Erdoğan used the term "genocidal attempts" for the first time after previously accusing Israel of committing "state terror" against Palestinians. A slow but systematic massacre against Palestinians has been carried out since the beginning of the 20th century, Erdoğan said, adding that Turkey would continue to speak out about the massacres, the unfairness and the cruelty.
Erdoğan also called on the media not to describe the Gazans who fight against Israel as "militants or terrorists" but "resisters," saying their only aim was to defend their territories against Israeli forces.
Meanwhile, Israel and militants in Gaza agreed Tuesday to an Egyptian-brokered truce deal after four days of violence in which 25 Gazans died and 200 rockets were fired at Israel, the Agence France-Presse reported. Erdoğan also targeted French President Nicholas Sarkozy in his speech, calling him shameful and irresponsible for allegedly provoking xenophobia and Islamophobia just to win more votes in France's upcoming parliamentary elections.
"We are expecting and calling on European leaders and institutions to see this dangerous rise and to take immediate measures. It's going to be a historical mistake if Europe, which suffered a lot from fascism, remains silent to this rising and new wave of fascism," Erdoğan said.
Israel's Visa Crisis With U.S.
Meanwhile, Israel's parliamentary speaker called off a legislative delegation's visit to the United States after Washington denied an ultranationalist lawmaker a visa, citing his links to a terror group.
Three lawmakers were to attend a women's empowerment conference in the U.S. capital in late March. But Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said he canceled the trip because the unrelated visa denial was "an affront to the entire Knesset."
Belgium Arsonist Kills Imam
An ax-wielding arsonist burst into a Shiite mosque in Belgium on Monday evening, killing an imam and destroying much of the building in an attack local Muslims say was the work of Sunni extremist Salafis.
Police said the man, detained after mosque personnel trapped him inside the building, apparently used fuel to set fire to the Rida mosque near Brussels' international rail hub, killing 46-year-old imam and father of four, Abdallah Dadou.
The victim, who died of smoke inhalation, was described by worshipper Abdel Adouzeyneb, a 39-year-old real estate agent, as "a person who was loved by everybody -- he was open, well integrated, smiling and happy."
A second person who was with the victim at the time of the attack was slightly injured. Police were unable to immediately name the 34-year-old suspect as he lacked identity papers, but authorities said the man described himself as a Muslim born in 1978. Authorities are investigating his motives and whether he had accomplices.
Jean-Marc Meilleur, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, Tuesday said the suspect, who was apprehended in the mosque, had given investigators three different names and ages. Meilleur said the suspect, who is probably in his mid-thirties, gave no reason for his actions.
Azzedine Laghmich, an official at the mosque, told the Agence France-Presse the attacker was "a Salafist," who sprayed gasoline inside the mosque before setting it alight and left shouting Sunni slogans on his way out -- cries related to the conflict in Syria.
"All the eyewitness accounts said [the same]," Laghmich said.
Isabelle Praile, another senior official in Belgium's organized Muslim community, said the Rida mosque "had already been placed under police protection several years ago," citing direct threats from members of the ultra-conservative Salafist movement.
Condemnation From Turkey
Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said she was "very shocked by the events that have occurred," which she condemned "with firmness and indignation." Milquet suggested inter-religious strife may be to blame.
"This person went in (the mosque) hurling statements linked to the Syrian conflict. It appears to be a problem between Sunnis and Shiites," Milquet said, adding that investigators still had to confirm the motive.
The mayor of the city's Anderlecht ward, Gaetan Van Goidsenhoven, appealed for calm at an overnight press conference, saying it was "not only necessary to live side by side, but also to allow justice and the police to do their work." Meilleur said the arson suspect had come armed with a knife and an ax, but that "people inside the mosque managed to lock him in the building" before police arrived.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ömer Çelik condemned the attack via his Twitter account, saying:"I strongly condemn the arson committed at the Shiite mosque in Brussels. May Allah bless the imam who was martyred in this vicious attack."
Turkish European Union Minister Egemen Bağış wrote via his Twitter account that the condemnations of the attack were not enough to "remove the dagger stabbed into the heart of the EU," calling on authorities to bring those responsible to justice and saying he would follow the case.
The area around the 2,000-person capacity mosque, one of four Shiite centers of worship in the city's overwhelming majority Sunni Muslim community, has a large immigrant Muslim population.
The last time an imam was targeted in Brussels was in 1989, when Saudi-born Abdullah Muhammad al-Ahdal was shot dead. He served as imam in the Grand Mosque of Brussels and was killed by an armed man inside the mosque. A small pro-Iranian group in Lebanon claimed responsibility for al-Ahdal's killing, saying he was too moderate and had rejected the death fatwa issued against writer Salman Rushdie.
Trial On Sivas Massacre Dropped Despite Protests
An Ankara court dropped a high-profile case over the deadly 1993 torching of a Sivas hotel Tuesday, ruling that the charges against the suspects exceeded the statute of limitations.
Thousands of people protested the ruling outside the court, and clashes broke out between the police and demonstrators, as lawyers for the families of the victims said they would appeal the ruling.
Commenting on the dropped case, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: "Let it be for the best."
Thirty-three intellectuals and two hotel employees perished during an Alevi cultural festival on July 2, 1993, when an Islamist mob torched the Madımak Hotel in the Central Anatolian province of Sivas. The mob was agitated mainly by the presence of popular atheist writer Aziz Nesin, who was then translating Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." Two of the arsonists also died.
Judge Dündar Örsdemir said the torching could not be exempt from the statute of limitations as a crime against humanity because such exceptions apply only to cases in which the perpetrators are public servants. Lawyer Şenal Sarıhan had argued the torching must be considered a crime against humanity and urged the court "to stop evil by making it known that crimes against humanity will always be prosecuted."
The Tuesday trial was attended by relatives of the victims, as well as deputies of the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. Thousands of protestors gathered outside the Ankara Courthouse to protest the ruling. Police clashed with a group that attempted to march down Atatürk Boulevard. The crowd threw sticks and stones at the police, who responded with pepper spray and water cannons.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called the ruling a "disgrace" and said the suspects had gone on to live their lives for years without being caught.
"The [ruling] Justice and Development Party [AKP] is responsible for this. For the most part, it was AKP deputies who worked as lawyers for the perpetrators. They are now in Parliament. I'm sure that the prime minister is saying 'good, we were saved by the statue of limitations,'" Kılıçdaroğlu said at his party's parliamentary group meeting Tuesday.
BDP Deputy Gültan Kışanak said democracy had been "massacred" and vowed activists would continue to pursue the case.
Verdict No Suprise, Says Poet Victim's Daughter
A Turkish court's decision to drop the case into the 1993 Sivas massacre due to the statute of limitations is unsurprising, a daughter of one of the victims said while expressing determination to continue pursuing the matter nonetheless.
"There is the judicial process that proceeded lawlessly for 19 years. Some 15,000 people were involved in the [massacre], according to police records, [but] only 160 of them were referred to court. They were all released on various grounds, and a handful of activists are all that is left behind," Zeynep Altiok , daughter of prominent Turkish poet Metin Altiok, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Metin struggled for weeks with severe burns before finally succumbing to his injuries, according to Zeynep, who was 23 when her father died.
"[We] could carry the case all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, but I am not so enthusiastic about complaining to Europe about my country. I [prefer] the case be resolved here," she said.
Zeynep also said she had never visited Sivas, where the incident took place, and would only go if a "Museum of Disgrace" were to be established there in place of the hotel burnt down.
"The state [merely] watched as this eight-hour long massacre [unfolded]; firefighters did not intervene, and the police and the army failed to fulfill their duties," she said.
New massacres could take place in Turkey at any moment, Zeynep said, noting the racist slogans shouted during the controversial Khojaly Massacre demonstration on Feb. 26 in Istanbul and the recent marking of Alevi homes in the eastern province of Adıyaman.
Minister Confident About Natural Gas Imports
Turkey's natural gas projects will probably not fall within the scope of possible planned international sanctions against Iran, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız said Tuesday at an energy forum held in Kuwait.
Turkey imports about half of its crude oil from Iran as it is a bordering country, Yıldız said at the 13th International Energy Forum, adding that Turkey is the sole country involved in the possible sanctions that has a border with Iran.
"In this sense, Turkey is in a different position compared with other countries. Iran's crude oil takes up a 1 or 2 percent share in the total oil imports of Britain and France. Our position is different from theirs," he said, adding that while diversification in energy supplies is a reasonable policy for the future, this is where Turkey stands in reality.
Turkey continues to import crude oil from Iran, he said, noting that the country imports crude oil from 11 countries, including Iran, and imports natural gas from five countries. Energy and oil ministers of 66 states participate in the forum, which brings together energy producers,
consumers and transporters, making it one of the largest events of its kind.
Yıldız held a bilateral discussion at the forum with European Commissioner for energy Guenther Oeittinger on developments regarding the Shah Deniz II consortium, the natural gas supply safety of European Union member states, and oil and natural gas projects.
Tripartite or quadripartite meetings may be held in Vienna or Stuttgart on these issues in the future, Yıldız said.