BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of the militant Hezbollah group said Sunday that the region is facing “unprecedented danger” from extremist groups and vowed his fighters will expand their involvement in Syria’s civil war in support of government forces.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah spoke during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, vowing to battle Sunni extremists groups such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. He said such factions are an “existential threat” to anyone who does not agree with their ideology.
Hezbollah openly joined President Bashar Assad forces in the civil war in 2013 and its fighters have been taking part in a major battle in recent weeks against jihadis in the Qalamoun mountain region that borders Lebanon.
“Our presence will grow whenever it is required for us to be present,” Nasrallah said in comments that came after Assad’s forces suffered several defeats over the past two months — mostly in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern region of Daraa. The western city of Palmyra, home to a set of historic Roman-era ruins, was captured by the Islamic State group last week.
“We are present today in many places and I tell you we will be present wherever this battle requires. We are up to it and we are the men for it,” Nasrallah said speaking from a secret location on a giant video screen.
Inside Syria, a military helicopter crashed earlier Sunday at the northern air base of Kweiras, killing all of its crew, state TV said, as an activist group said it was shot down by Islamic State militants.
The TV report quoted an unnamed military official as saying that the helicopter crashed as a result of a technical problem while taking off. The report did not say how many crew members were onboard at the time of the crash.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State militants who have been laying siege to the base for months shot down the helicopter.
Kweiras military air base is in the northern province of Aleppo and is close to the town of al-Bab, which is held by the Islamic State group.
The Islamic State group posted a statement on a militant website claiming responsibility for downing the Syrian helicopter.
Syrian rebels have shot down helicopters in the past.
Meanwhile in Damascus, a bomb exploded Sunday morning near the city center killing a brigadier general and six of his bodyguards, the Observatory said. It added that the attack was claimed by the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group.
The Damascus media center identified the officer as Brig. Gen. Bassam Mehanna al-Ali.
State news agency SANA reported that a bomb exploded in the area without giving further details.
MULTAN, Pakistan (AP) — The captors of a former Pakistani prime minister’s son demanded the release of several al-Qaida prisoners in exchange for his release, the former premier said Sunday.
Yusuf Raza Gilani said he spoke by phone for eight minutes to his son Ali Haider, who he believed was being held somewhere in Afghanistan.
Gunmen seized Haider in May 2013. In a video, later released purportedly by the Taliban, the militants claimed to be holding him hostage.
His son appeared to be in good condition, Gilani said.
“They’re demanding, they’re talking about the release of some al-Qaida men, their children and women,” Ginai said. He said he had previously taken up the issue with the Afghan president and planned to pursue the matter with Pakistani officials.
Gilani, who served as prime minister between March 2008 and April 2012, led major military offensives against Taliban strongholds like Swat and South Waziristan in 2009.
Also on Sunday, a militant video purported to show a Chinese tourist kidnapped by Taliban-allied fighters in Pakistan a year ago asking for his government to assist in his release.
A militant known to belong to a Taliban splinter group called Jaish al-Hadeed, or the “Army of Steel,” provided the video to The Associated Press. While it could not be independently verified by the AP, the man in the video resembled other known photographs of Hong Xudong, kidnapped in May 2014.
In the video, the man identified as Hong asks for the Chinese government to honor his kidnappers’ ransom demands, without ever stating the nature of those demands. Chinese officials and state media did not immediately comment on the video. Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad could not be reached for comment.
Hong went missing after entering Pakistan from neighboring India in April 2014. Police later found his passport, bicycle and personal belongings.
Following Hong’s abduction, the commander of a Taliban splinter group called Shehryar Mehsud claimed responsibility for the abduction.
Associated Press Writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan contributed to this report.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has begun a hunger strike and is calling for a mass anti-government protest next weekend.
The former Caracas area mayor accused authorities in a video leaked to news media on Saturday of killing dozens of people during 2014 protests. More than 40 deaths on all sides were reported in those demonstrations.
Lopez has been held in a military prison for more than a year on charges related to his role in leading last year’s protests against the South American country’s socialist administration.
The video leak came after news broke that fellow opposition Daniel Ceballos was being removed from the military prison outside Caracas where he was held with Lopez and transferred to a public jail away from the capital.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said on Twitter late Saturday that she was “worried” about Ceballos’ transfer without a judicial order and called on the government of President Nicolas Maduro to “release all political prisoners.”
Ceballos’ transfer comes amid worsening economic problems in Venezuela, including the national currency’s loss of a quarter of its value over the last week.
In the video, Lopez repeated his charge that Venezuela’s government is corrupt and incompetent.
“One year and three months after our call for change, the situation has gotten even worse. More lines, more inflation, more scarcity, more crime, more corruption,” he said, standing before what looks like a metal door in a mostly bare white room.
Lopez called for big, peaceful demonstrations next Saturday. He also announced he and Ceballos were starting a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners and an end to government repression, as well as to a set date for legislative elections that the administration has promised to hold sometime in November or December.
Venezuela’s ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, said on Twitter that he met Saturday with Lopez. He said the opposition leader had been disciplined after a mobile phone was found in his cell in violation of prison rules, the third discovered in the cell in four months.
Ceballos’ legal team said earlier that he had phoned his mother before dawn Saturday to say he had been moved to one of Venezuela’s most violent penitentiaries, in the town of San Juan de los Morros.
That was later denied by Saab, who said he met with Ceballos at a different, recently opened jail in the same town. In messages posted on Twitter, Saab said Ceballos is in good health and the ombudsman’s office will continue monitoring his conditions in confinement.
Ceballos was removed as mayor of the western city of San Cristobal during last year’s anti-government protests. It was unclear why he was transferred to a regular prison.
The move comes less than a week after Ceballos won from behind bars a primary in San Cristobal to stand as a candidate for the opposition alliance in this year’s legislative elections. Under Venezuelan law, a win in the general election could free him from jail because legislators receive immunity from prosecution during their terms.
Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 and quickly convicted on charges of disobeying authority for his refusal to remove barricades demonstrators erected in San Cristobal. Although he completed that one-year sentence, he was ordered held pending trial on more serious charges tied to his support for protests in the city, which kicked off a nationwide wave of anti-government unrest.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities said Sunday that they have discovered a series of graves in at least 17 abandoned camps used by human traffickers on the border with Thailand where Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar have been held.
The finding follows a similar discovery earlier this month by police in Thailand who unearthed dozens of bodies from shallow graves in abandoned camps on the Thai side of the border. The grim discoveries are shedding new light on the hidden network of jungle camps run by traffickers, who have for years held countless desperate people captive while extorting ransoms from their families.
Most of those who have fallen victim to the trafficking networks are refugees and impoverished migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, part of a wave of people who have fled their homelands to reach countries like Malaysia, where they hope to find work or live free from persecution.
As Southeast Asian governments have launched crackdowns amid intensified international pressure and media scrutiny, traffickers have abandoned camps on land and even boats at sea to avoid arrest.
Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters that police were trying to identify and verify “mass graves that were found” in the region near the Thai border.
“These graves are believed to be a part of human trafficking activities involving migrants,” he said, adding that police have discovered 17 abandoned camps that they suspect were used by traffickers.
There was no immediate word on how many bodies had been recovered. Zahid said that each grave probably contained anywhere from one to four bodies, and that authorities were in the process of counting.
He said he was shocked at the discoveries, because “just last week, we went there … to see for ourselves.” He said he expected more camps and graves to be found “because they have been there for quite some time … We are still investigating, but I suspect they have been operating for at least five years.”
Local media outlets said the graves were found in two locations in the northern state of Perlis. The state borders southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, where at least 33 bodies were found earlier this month.
According to the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia newspaper, police found 30 large graves containing hundreds of corpses in mid-May in forests around the Perlis towns of Padang Besar and Wang Kelian.
The English-language Star Online said 100 bodies were found in a single grave in Padang Besar. It said police forensics teams had arrived there Friday night to investigate, and the area had been cordoned off.
Human rights groups and activists say the area on the Thai-Malaysia border has been used for years to smuggle migrants and refugees, including Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar.
In many cases, they pay human smugglers thousands of dollars for passage, but are instead held for weeks or months, while traffickers extort more money from families back home. Rights groups say some have been beaten to death, and The Associated Press has documented other cases in which people have been enslaved on fishing boats.
Since May 10 alone, more than 3,600 people — about half of them from Bangladesh and half Rohingya from Myanmar — have landed ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Thousands more are believed to be trapped at sea in boats abandoned by their captains.
Last June, the U.S. downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to Tier 3 — its lowest category — in an annual assessment of how governments handle human trafficking.
On Saturday in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he has been speaking to regional leaders about the crisis and urging them to find a solution.
Malaysia and Indonesia announced last week that they would provide temporary shelter for up to one year for migrants recently found or still stranded at sea. The U.S. has said it will settle some of them permanently.
Four Malaysian navy ships began searching for boats Friday, but their operation is limited to Malaysia’s territorial waters. The Pentagon said Thursday that Washington was readying air patrols to aid in the search, but a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Bangkok said the offer of assistance was still awaiting clearance.
The Rohingya, numbering around 1.3 million in Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Long denied basic rights, they have been driven from their homes in mob attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state several times since 2012.
More than 140,000 were displaced and are now living under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps. More than 100,000 more have fled by sea.
Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press videojournalist Syawalludin Zain contributed to this report.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said he is beginning a hunger strike and called for a mass anti-government protest next week in a video leaked Saturday.
Lopez has been held in a military prison for more than a year on charges related to his role in leading protests against the South American country’s socialist administration last year.
In the video, the former Caracas area mayor repeats his charge that the government is corrupt and incompetent, and he accuses authorities of killing dozens of people during the 2014 protests, which saw more than 40 deaths.
The video comes after Venezuela’s currency lost a quarter of its value over the last week.
Earlier Saturday, news broke that fellow opposition leader Daniel Ceballos was being removed from the military prison outside Caracas where he was being held with Lopez, and transferred to a public jail away from the capital.
Lopez’s video offered a rare glimpse of the Harvard-educated opposition leader who has become an international cause celebre among opponents of President Nicolas Maduro.
“One year and three months after our call for change, the situation has gotten even worse. More lines, more inflation, more scarcity, more crime, more corruption,” he says, standing in front of what looks like a metal door in a mostly bare white room.
Lopez calls for big, peaceful demonstrations next Saturday. He also says he and Ceballos are starting a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners, the end of repression, and a set date for legislative elections, which the administration has promised to hold at some point in November or December.
Venezuela’s ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, said on Twitter that he had met with Lopez on Saturday. He said Lopez had been disciplined after a cellphone was found in his cell in violation of prison rules. He said it was the third mobile phone found in Lopez’s cell in four months.
Ceballos’ legal team said earlier that he had phoned his mother before dawn Saturday to say he had been moved to one of Venezuela’s most violent penitentiaries, in the town of San Juan de los Morros.
That was later denied by Saab, who said he had met with Ceballos at a different, recently opened jail in the same town. In a string of messages posted on Twitter, Saab said Ceballos was in good health and the ombudsman’s office would continue to monitor the conditions of his confinement.
Ceballos was removed as mayor of the western city of San Cristobal during anti-government protests last year. It was unclear why he was transferred to a regular prison.
The move comes less than a week after Ceballos from behind bars won a primary in San Cristobal to stand as the opposition alliance’s candidate in this year’s legislative elections. Under Venezuelan law, a win in the general election could free him from jail because legislators receive immunity from prosecution during their terms.
Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 and quickly convicted on charges of disobeying authority for his refusal to remove barricades set up by demonstrators in San Cristobal. Although he completed that one-year sentence, he was ordered held while awaiting trial on more serious charges tied to his support for protests in the city, which kicked off a nationwide wave of anti-government unrest.
BANGKOK (AP) — Shortly after seizing power in a coup that followed months of debilitating street protests, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed to end Thailand’s decade of political upheaval once and for all. In his words, “to bring everything out in the open and fix it.”
A year later, the military can boast that it has restored stability and kept this Southeast Asian nation calm. But the bitter societal fissures that helped trigger the putsch are still simmering below the surface, unresolved.
“Our differences have just been pushed under the rug by a junta that prohibits freedom of expression,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Nothing has been done to address the root causes of Thailand’s deep divide.”
What is happening now is the imposition of peace by force, Sunai said. “There’s no guarantee that whenever the junta lets go of their iron grip, the country will not to fall back into conflict,” he added.
On Friday, the anniversary of the takeover, police quashed a small, peaceful demonstration in Bangkok, triggering scuffles as those who took part were dragged away. At least 37 students were detained before being released Saturday after 11 hours of questioning. Seven others who staged a similar protest in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen were also freed.
Speaking to reporters the same day, Prayuth acknowledged that seizing power “was wrong.” But he nevertheless defended the overthrow of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, saying “we cannot fix the past, but we can build for the future.”
The problem, critics argue, is that the junta may be sowing the seeds of more conflict by building that future on its own terms — with reform committees, a rubber-stamp legislature and no input from the party it toppled, Pheu Thai, whose supporters likely still represent a majority of the electorate.
The latest point of contention, a constitutional draft released in April, has been criticized even by groups who supported the putsch. If approved, the charter would significantly weaken the power of political parties, shifting it to unelected agencies like a proposed “National Moral Assembly” that would be empowered to investigate politicians for offenses as minor as “impolite” speech — ultimately initiating the path to their removal.
The charter’s drafters say such reforms are designed to check abuse by corrupt politicians, a problem acknowledged by all sides. But Pheu Thai officials say the real aim is to prevent their party from governing effectively if it wins again.
“Nobody knows how these agencies would be made accountable themselves,” said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former premier who was among those who called for Yingluck to resign as prime minister before the coup. Speaking of the junta, he added: “They should be more concerned with making elected governments more accountable, rather than making them weaker.”
Last week, the military government announced it would subject the draft charter to a referendum. But “if you vote yes, you end up with a Frankenstein constitution that undercuts liberal democracy,” said Sunai of Human Rights Watch. “If you vote no, they’ll have to go back to the drawing board, and Prayuth will just stay in power longer.”
The junta has spoken of holding nationwide elections in late 2016, but no date has been set and some believe it could govern for years.
“The big picture for now is, we’re still in a lockdown … there’s still a huge question mark over the future,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
The junta has not been helped by Thailand’s sputtering economy, which has largely remained flat since the coup, with exports and investment down. Thitinan said generals “were not meant to govern Thailand, (and) some have lost their way. They’re not used to accountability, or being in the public eye, being asked questions.”
And they do not tolerate dissent. According to iLaw, a nonprofit group that monitors legal cases, at least 751 people have been summoned by the junta for what the military calls “attitude adjustments.” Before Friday, at least 428 had been arrested, 166 for expressing opinions perceived as critical; many were supporters of the ousted government, as well as students, writers and academics. Some have fled into exile.
The junta argues that it is working to create the foundation for a stable democracy, and that while it does, liberties and freedom of speech that could sow division must be curtailed. “We need an environment that is conducive to dialogue, where people can speak to one another,” said Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a junta spokesman.
“We’re not saying that they would not have any freedom at all in future, we’re not saying that this country will be in this environment forever,” he said. “We’re trying to create … understanding.”
Yingluck’s former education minister, Chaturon Chaisang, who is facing 14 years in prison for not reporting to a junta summons after the coup and then criticizing the takeover, disagreed.
There has been no “attempt to address the reconciliation process at all,” he said. “There has never been any discussion (with us) from people in charge on what the roots of the problem are.”
The coup was the culmination of a political schism laid bare after another putsch in 2006 that deposed billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. The struggle, in broad terms, pits a majority rural poor in the north and northeast who benefited from the Shinawatra’s populist policies against an urban-based elite in Bangkok and the south that is worried over its steady loss of power at the polls.
The conflict has spurred crippling protests. In 2010, one mass demonstration ended with scores dead and parts of central Bangkok in flames. In 2014, a rival group of protesters seized ministries and all but shut down Yingluck’s government amid a wave of increasing violence that killed dozens of people and wounded more than 800 before the army intervened.
Shinawatra supporters say the junta and its allies are now following through on one of their main goals: to dismantle the Shinawatra’s political machine and ensure that the parties it has led can never dominate politics again.
In March, Thailand’s anti-corruption body recommended that 250 former lawmakers, most of them Pheu Thai members, be barred from seeking office on charges of misuse of power. This month, the Supreme Court began hearings against Yingluck for alleged dereliction of duty in overseeing a government rice subsidy scheme that lost billions of dollars.
Yingluck, who is free after posting bail that was set at nearly $1 million, faces 10 years in prison if found guilty. Her supporters argue that the case is politically motivated — evidence, they say, of a biased justice system.
By contrast, criminal charges have been dropped against former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the protests that paved the way for last year’s coup. Suthep’s supporters had brazenly seized government ministries, attacked the prime minister’s office with homemade rockets and disrupted an election Yingluck called in a failed bid to defuse the crisis. No one has been tried for those offenses.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone and video journalist Papitchaya Boonngok contributed to this report.