Syria claims 'terrorists' blow up pipeline

Written By Ivan Kolev on Monday, January 30, 2012 | 1:13 PM

Monday, January 30, 2012

BEIRUT – Syria's state news agency says an armed "terrorist" group has blown up a gas pipeline.

SANA said the pipeline carries gas from the central province of Homs to an area near the border with Lebanon. Further details on Monday's blast were not released.

There have been several pipeline attacks since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March, but it is not clear who is behind them.

President Bashar Assad's regime blames "terrorists" for the country's 10-month-old uprising.

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Syrian activists report gunfire near capital

BEIRUT – Syrian activists report hearing gunfire and explosions in suburbs of Damascus as the country's conflict moves ever closer to the capital.

Monday's reports by the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, could not be independently confirmed.

On Sunday, Syrian troops in dozens of tanks and armored vehicles stormed rebellious areas near the capital, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters.

Activists and residents said at least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide.

The widescale Sunday offensive suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, the seat of President Bashar Assad's power.

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Magnitude 6.3 earthquake shakes Peru

LIMA, Peru – The U.S. Geological Survey says an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 has struck on the coast of central Peru.

The quake was recorded at 11 minutes after midnight, nine miles from the city of Ica, which was badly damaged by a major 8.0 earthquake in August 2007 and also suffered damage in a quake last October.

Monday's quake was at a depth of 24.4 miles. USGS maps showed the epicenter exactly on the Pacific Ocean coastline.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. No tsunami warning was issued.

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Fearing detention, American workers shelter at US embassy in Cairo

Several American workers facing prosecution at the hands of the Egyptian government took shelter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sunday, fearing they could be detained.

"A handful of U.S. citizens opted to stay at the U.S. embassy compound while waiting for permission to leave Egypt," State Department spokesman Noel Clay told FOX News Channel.

The irregular action, which effectively protects the Americans from being arrested (because the embassy is considered to be on U.S. soil), was taken after several U.S. workers at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were barred from flying out of Cairo a week ago.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the director of the Egyptian program for the International Republican Institute (IRI), is among those on the Egyptian government's "no fly list."

Egyptian authorities raided more than a dozen offices belonging to local and foreign rights groups in late December, including at least two American ones, drawing a sharp rebuke from the State Department, which said it was "deeply concerned" by the actions.

The raids, part of an investigation into alleged illicit foreign funding, targeted the American groups National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the IRI -- an NGO operating throughout the world that has close ties to GOP congressional leadership.

A State Department official told The Washington Post, who first reported the story, that it was not believed the "handful" of NGO staff who had decided to take shelter at the Cairo embassy were in "immediate physical danger."

Several Washington lobbyists announced Saturday they are ending their contract with the Egyptian government, as the controversy deepens over raids conducted on the offices of American advocacy groups.

Sam LaHood told FOX by phone Friday that an Egyptian judge claims he, along with the other Americans barred from leaving the country, worked for an unregistered NGO and took a salary.

"We're kind of expecting the worst," LaHood said. "There hasn't been a lot of movement nothing has really changed. If it does go to trial, a trial could last up to one year in a case that's as wide-ranging as this one is. But the penalty for that is six months to five years in jail so these are very serious charges."

Meanwhile, a group of senior Egyptian generals landed in Washington on Sunday to try to mend the rift between the two countries, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Egyptian delegation will be in Washington for more than a week, U.S. officials told The Journal, for meetings at the State Department, with members of Congress and at the Pentagon. The raids and travel bans are likely to be discussed, these officials said.

They said the State Department will make clear that U.S. financial assistance to Egypt could be cut if more progress is not made on democratic reforms in coming months.

"This isn't something we want to see happen," said a U.S. official. "But the Egyptians need to understand that there are certain requirements they need to meet in order to placate Capitol Hill."

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Afghanistan plans talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia

KABUL – Afghan officials say they plan to meet Taliban representatives in Saudi Arabia in the near future in an attempt to put the government of President Hamid Karzai in a lead role in peace negotiations.

So far, the Taliban have only publicly acknowledged their willingness to talk with the U.S. in discussions that could end the 11-year war in Afghanistan. The Taliban were not immediately available for comment Sunday. News of the Saudi meeting was first reported by the BBC.

The main purpose of the coming talks is to put Karzai's government in the lead "by any avenues necessary," an Afghan official said. Saudi Arabia remains "an important player" in negotiations and "has facilitated talks in the past and now," he said.

The Afghan government has long complained that the U.S. and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar have negotiated with the Taliban while leaving Karzai in the dark, which America denies.

In protest, Afghanistan recalled its ambassador to Qatar in December and said the ambassador would not return until the Gulf state sends a delegation to Kabul to apologize and promise to put the Afghans in the lead role in discussions.

The Taliban earlier this month agreed to open a representative office in Doha, Qatar's capital. U.S. officials have agreed to kick start negotiations by saying they will release five top level Taliban insurgents from detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer them to Qatari custody.

But Marc Grossman, the top US official in charge of talks, said in Kabul last week that a detainee release would ideally receive the consent of Congress first. Congress will likely thwart such a deal.

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Officials say it may take 10 months to remove wrecked Costa Concordia

GIGLIO, Italy – The cruise ship that capsized off Italy's coast will take up to 10 months to remove, officials said, as rough seas off the Tuscan coast forced the suspension of recovery operations.

Officials called off both the start of operations to remove 500,000 gallons (1.8 million liters) of fuel and the search for people still missing Sunday after determining the Costa Concordia had moved four centimeters (an inch and a half) over six hours, coupled with waves of more than one meter (three feet).

A 17th body, identified as Peruvian crew member Erika Soria Molina, was found Saturday. Sixteen crew and passengers remain listed as missing, with one body recovered from the ship not yet identified.

Officials have virtually ruled out finding anyone alive more than two weeks after the Costa Concordia hit a reef, but were reluctant to give a final death toll for the Jan. 13 disaster. The crash happened when the captain deviated from his planned route, creating a huge gash that capsized the ship. More than 4,200 people were on board.

"Our first goal was to find people alive," Franco Gabrielli, the national civil protection official in charge of the operation, told a daily briefing. "Now we have a single, big goal, and that is that this does not translate into an environmental disaster."

University of Florence professor Riccardo Fanti said the ship's movements could either be caused by the ship settling on its own weight, slipping deeper into the seabed, or both. He also could not rule out the ship's sliding along the seabed.

Gabrielli noted that the body of a man recovered from the ship remains unidentified, despite efforts to obtain DNA samples from all of the missing, meaning that officials cannot preclude that the deceased is someone unknown to authorities. Costa has said that it runs strict procedures that would preclude the presence of any unregistered passengers.

Experts have said it would take 28 days to remove fuel from 15 tanks accounting for more than 80 percent of all fuel on board the ship. The next job would be to target the engine room, which contains nearly 350 cubic meters of diesel, fuel and other lubricants, Gabrielli said.

Only once the fuel is removed can work begin on removing the ship, either floating it in one piece or cutting it up and towing it away as a wreck. Costa has begun the process for taking bids for the recovery operation, a process that will take two months.

Gabrielli said the actual removal will take from seven to 10 months -- meaning that the wreck will be visible from the coast of the island of Giglio for the entire summer tourism season.

Residents of Giglio have been circulating a petition to demand that officials provide more information on how the full-scale operations can coexist with the important tourism season. At the moment, access to the port for private boats has been banned and all boats must stay at least one mile (1.6 kilometers) from the wrecked ship, affecting access to Giglio's only harbor for fishermen, scuba divers and private boat owners.

"We are really sorry, we would have preferred to save them all. But now other needs and other problems arise," said Franca Melils, a local business owner who is promoting a petition for the tourist season. "It's about us, who work and make a living exclusively from tourism. We don't have factories, we don't have anything else."

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Israeli drone capable of reaching Iran crashes

JERUSALEM – The Israeli military says a drone that can fly as far as Iran has crashed in central Israel on a routine experimental flight.

The military says there were no injuries in Sunday's crash, and it was investigating the incident.

The Heron TP drone is also known locally as the Eitan. It has a wingspan of 86 feet, making it the size of a Boeing 737 passenger jet. It is the largest unmanned aircraft in Israel's military arsenal.

The drone figures to be featured prominently in any potential Israeli operation against Iran and its expanding nuclear program.

Heron TP could provide surveillance, jam enemy communications and connect ground control and manned air force planes. It's unclear if is could carry a deployable payload in a potential strike.

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Jury finds Afghan family guilty in 'honor' killings

KINGSTON, Ontario – A jury on Sunday found an Afghan father, his wife and their son guilty of killing three teenage sisters and a co-wife in what the judge described as "cold-blooded, shameful murders" resulting from a "twisted concept of honor" in a case that shocked and riveted Canadians.

Prosecutors said the defendants allegedly killed the three teenage sisters because they dishonored the family by defying its disciplinarian rules on dress, dating, socializing and using the Internet.

The jury took 15 hours to find Mohammad Shafia, 58; his wife Tooba Yahya, 42; and their son Hamed, 21, each guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

After the verdict was read, the three defendants again declared their innocence in the killings of sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar 17, and Geeti, 13, as well as Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, Shafia's childless first wife in a polygamous marriage.

Their bodies were found June 30, 2009, in a car submerged in a canal in Kingston, Ontario, where the family had stopped for the night on their way home to Montreal from Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The prosecution alleged it was a case of premeditated murder, staged to look like an accident after it was carried out. Prosecutors said the defendants drowned their victims elsewhere on the site, placed their bodies in the car and pushed it into the canal.

Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Maranger said the evidence clearly supported the conviction.

"It is difficult to conceive of a more heinous, more despicable, more honorless crime," Maranger said. "The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honor ... that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."

In a statement following the verdict, Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson called honor killings a practice that is "barbaric and unacceptable in Canada."

Defense lawyers said the deaths were accidental. They said the Nissan car accidentally plunged into the canal after the eldest daughter, Zainab, took it for a joy ride with her sisters and her father's first wife. Hamed said he watched the accident, although he didn't call police from the scene.

After the jury returned the verdicts, Mohammad Shafia, speaking through a translator, said, "We are not criminal, we are not murderer, we didn't commit the murder and this is unjust."

His weeping wife, Tooba, also declared the verdict unjust, saying, "I am not a murderer, and I am a mother, a mother."

Their son, Hamed, speaking in English said, "I did not drown my sisters anywhere."

Hamed's lawyer, Patrick McCann, said he was disappointed with the verdict, but said his client will appeal and he believes the other two defendants will as well.

But prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis welcomed the verdict.

"This jury found that four strong, vivacious and freedom-loving women were murdered by their own family in the most troubling of circumstances," Laarhuis said outside court.

"This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy," he said to cheers of approval from onlookers.

The family had left Afghanistan in 1992 and lived in Pakistan, Australia and Dubai before settling in Canada in 2007. Shafia, a wealthy businessman, married Yahya because his first wife could not have children.

Shafia's first wife was living with him and his second wife. The polygamous relationship, if revealed, could have resulted in their deportation.

The prosecution painted a picture of a household controlled by a domineering Shafia, with Hamed keeping his sisters in line and doling out discipline when his father was away on frequent business trips to Dubai.

The months leading up to the deaths were not happy ones in the Shafia household, according to evidence presented at trial. Zainab, the oldest daughter, was forbidden to attend school for a year because she had a young Pakistani-Canadian boyfriend, and she fled to a shelter, terrified of her father, the court was told.

The prosecution said her parents found condoms in Sahar's room as well as photos of her wearing short skirts and hugging her Christian boyfriend, a relationship she had kept secret. Geeti was becoming almost impossible to control: skipping school, failing classes, being sent home for wearing revealing clothes and stealing, while declaring to authority figures that she wanted to be placed in foster care, according to the prosecution.

Shafia's first wife wrote in a diary that her husband beat her and "made life a torture," while his second wife called her a servant.

The prosecution presented wire taps and mobile phone records from the Shafia family in court to support their honor killing allegation. The wiretaps, which capture Shafia spewing vitriol about his dead daughters, calling them treacherous and whores and invoking the devil to defecate on their graves, were a focal point of the trial.

"There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this," Shafia said on one recording. "Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows ... nothing is more dear to me than my honor."

Defense lawyers argued that at no point in the intercepts do the accused say they drowned the victims.

Shafia's lawyer, Peter Kemp, said after the verdicts that he believes the comments his client made on the wiretaps may have weighed more heavily on the jury's minds than the physical evidence in the case.

"He wasn't convicted for what he did," Kemp said. "He was convicted for what he said."

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