News & Current Affairs

November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

August 23, 2008

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Gaza protest boat

The boats are carrying 40 activists, 200 hearing aids and 5,000 balloons

Two boats carrying members of a US-based pro-Palestinian group have left Cyprus in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The boats left the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Friday morning. The journey is expected to take about 30 hours.

The Free Gaza protest group said about 40 activists from 14 countries were on board the boats.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June 2007 when the militant group Hamas took control of the territory by force.

Since then, Israel has allowed in little more than basic humanitarian aid as a means of isolating Hamas and persuading militant groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The closure of Gaza’s borders by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities has also meant that very few Gazans have been able to leave.

‘Supporting Hamas’

Before Free Gaza’s boats set sail on Friday, the Israeli foreign ministry warned them to steer clear of the Gazan coastline, which it said was “the subject of an [Israeli Navy] advisory notice” that warns off foreign vessels from the “designated maritime zone”.

Gaza/Cyprus map

“We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza,” the ministry wrote in an open letter.

The two vessels – named Liberty and Free Gaza – are carrying 200 hearing aids for children and 5,000 balloons.

“No matter what happens we have already achieved our goal by proving that ordinary citizens with ordinary means can mobilize a defense of human rights for Palestinians,” organizer Paul Larudee told the AFP news agency.

“We want people to see the Palestinian problem as one of human rights, not feeding them rice,” he added.

The activists include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British PM Tony Blair, who is now an international Middle East peace envoy. Also on board is left-wing Greek MP Tasos Kourakis.

Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it still controls its coast, airspace and borders, and, until a ceasefire with Hamas was agreed in June, carried out regular military operations in the territory.

However, correspondents say the truce has not improved the situation for Gaza’s population, except to reduce the number of Israeli incursions and the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

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