Middle East Updates / Syria Opposition Group: Assad Must Go for Any Peace Plan to Work

Assad makes rare trip to embattled Damascus district; Former Lebanese prime minister Omar Karami dies; Egypt court orders retrial for three Al-Jazeera English journalists.

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Assad speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Syria, December 31, 2014.
Assad speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Syria, December 31, 2014.Credit: AP

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6:18 P.M. Syria opposition group: Assad must go for any peace plan to work

A new Syrian opposition group linked to a prominent cleric said on Thursday President Bashar Assad would have to step down as part of any political solution to the civil war, setting out its position ahead of possible peace talks in Moscow this month.

Assad's ally Russia is seeking to gather Syrian government and opposition figures at the end of January to discuss ways to end the nearly four-year conflict which has killed around 200,000 people according to the United Nations.

Moaz al-Khatib, a former opposition chief and former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, posted a statement on his Facebook page on Thursday which said there would not be a solution "without the departure of the head of the regime."

Assad has dismissed calls to step down by Khatib and other figures in the past.
Opposition groups and their Western and Arab allies say the Syrian president has lost legitimacy and must go.

Khatib said the statement was on behalf of the "Syria al-Watan" (home) organization and was addressed to the Syrian people. It was not immediately clear whether he was the head of the group and which other members it included. He was not immediately available for comment.

The statement also said any talks would only be taken seriously if they ordered the government to stop the "brutal bombardment" of the Syrian people which it described as "one of the biggest crimes in the history of humanity." (Reuters)

4:23 P.M. Syria: 76,021 people killed in 2014

The conflict in Syria killed 76,021 people in 2014, just under half of them civilians, a group monitoring the war said on Thursday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33,278 civilians were killed last year in the conflict, which started with protests in 2011 and has spiralled into a civil war. 

The United Nations in August estimated the total number of people killed since the start of the conflict at 191,000 but activists say the actual figure is likely much higher. (Reuters)

3:40 P.M. Former Lebanese PM Omar Karami dies

Lebanon's former prime minister Omar Karami has died aged 80 after an illness, state news agency NNA reported on Thursday citing a statement from his family.
Karami, who served twice as prime minister, passed away in a hospital in Beirut, it said, without giving details.

He served as prime minister from 1990-1992 and was forced to resign after protests over the economy. He held the post again in 2004 but stepped down the following year along with the government after the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri triggered mass protests.

1:00 P.M. Video purports to show two Italians held by Syrian militants

A video released late on Wednesday purported to show two Italian women held by militants in Syria, with one of them saying they are in danger of being killed.

The title of the video says the women are Italian workers and have been detained by Al-Qaida's Syria wing Nusra Front, but websites and Twitter accounts used by the militant group did not mention the video, which did not include any logos of the group.

The video published on YouTube shows two young women sitting and dressed in black robes and veils. One holds a sign which gives the date as Dec. 17, 2014.

"We supplicate our government and its militaries to bring us back home before Christmas," the other woman says in English, appearing to read from a prepared statement.

"We are in big danger and we could be killed. The government and its militaries are responsible (for) our lives."

An Italian foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment. In August the ministry said two Italian aid workers had been kidnapped in Syria, without giving their names. (Reuters) 

10:00 A.M. Update - Egyptian court annuls jail sentence for Al Jazeera journalists

An Egyptian appeals court ordered a retrial Thursday in the case of three imprisoned Al-Jazeera English journalists.

The decision by Egypt's Court of Cassation that lasted only a few minutes. However, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, who have been held their arrest December 2013, were not granted bail.

The three journalists did not attend the brief hearing that began around 9 a.m. local time (0700 GMT, 2 a.m. EST) in Cairo. Reporters gathered to report on the hearing were not allowed in for those arguments, but later entered the court.

Defense lawyer Negad Al-Borai told journalists after the hearing that he hoped for a "happy end" to the case. "The court has the right to release them today," he said. (AP)

8:05 A.M.  Al-Jazeera English journalists jailed in Egypt to appeal convictions

Three Al-Jazeera English journalists imprisoned in Egypt for over a year will appear in court Thursday to appeal their convictions, as thawing relations between Egypt and Qatar have raised hope they could be freed.

Egypt's Court of Cassation will hear the appeal by Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohammed, all held since December 2013. Their arrests came after the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member.

Authorities accused Qatar-based Al-Jazeera of acting as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. The station denied the accusations and said the journalists were doing their job.

At trial, prosecutors offered no evidence backing accusations the three falsified footage to foment unrest. Instead, they showed edited news reports by the journalists, including Islamist protests and interviews with politicians. Other footage submitted as evidence had nothing to do with the case, including a report on a veterinary hospital and Greste's past reports out of Africa.

Fahmy and Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohammed got 10 years — three more because he was found with a spent bullet casing. Rights groups dismissed the trial as a sham and foreign countries, including the U.S., expressed their concern over the journalists' detention. (AP)

12:05 A.M. Assad makes rare trip to embattled Damascus district

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited a district on the outskirts of Damascus and thanked soldiers fighting "in the face of terrorism", his office said on its Twitter account on Wednesday, posting pictures of the rare trip.

The account said the visit took place in Jobar, northeast of Damascus, on the occasion of the New Year. The district came under heavy Syrian air force strikes on Wednesday according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the nearly four-year conflict.

"If there was an area of joy which remained in Syria, it is thanks to the victories that you achieved in the face of terrorism," Assad told troops, according to the Twitter account.

It showed a photo of Assad shaking the hand of a man in military fatigues. The image appeared to have been taken outside and after nightfall. Another photo showed Assad in a thick jacket standing with soldiers.

State news agency SANA also reported the visit on Wednesday. Assad is not frequently pictured in public, though he has visited troops in the past during the conflict, according to state media. (Reuters)


5:32 P.M. U.S.-led forces launch 10 air strikes in Syria, Iraq

The U.S.-led coalition launched seven air strikes in Syria and three in Iraq on Wednesday against Islamic State militants, the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.

In Syria, five of the air strikes were near Kobani and two were near al Hasakah, the task force said in a statement.

Two of the strikes in Iraq hit Islamic State positions near Fallujah and one hit targets near Mosul, the statement said.(Reuters)

4:09 P.M. Saudi Arabia beheads 83 people in 2014, the most in years

Saudi Arabia's official news agency says authorities have beheaded a Pakistani man convicted of smuggling "large quantities" of heroin, bringing the number of publicly announced executions to its highest level in at least five years.

An Associated Press tally of announcements from the official Saudi Press Agency shows 83 people have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia in 2014, including Wednesday's announced execution.

Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world. The group lists 79 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2013 and 2012, and 82 in 2011 and 2010. The London-based rights group says at least 69 people were executed in 2009. Amnesty says the countries carrying out the most executions last year were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. (AP) 

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