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23 Hezbollah members killed in Syria: report


BEIRUT: Syrian government forces pushed deeper into a strategic rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, battling rebels in fierce street fighting, Syrian state-media said on Monday. An activist group said at least 23 elite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group have been killed in the clashes.
 The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the country’s civil war, said that in addition to the deaths more than 100 Hezbollah members have been wounded in the fighting around the town of Qusair. If confirmed, it would be a blow to the Shia group that has come under harsh criticism in Lebanon for its involvement in Syria’s civil war.
 The Observatory director, Mr Rami Abdul-Rahman cited “sources close to the militant group” for the death toll but declined to reveal their identity. The Observatory relies on a wide network of activists in the ground in Syria.
 For weeks, fighting has raged around Qusair, located in the central province of Homs. The regime launched a push Sunday to regain control of the town, which has been in rebel hands since early last year.
 Before Sunday’s offensive, Qusair had been ringed by regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an Assad ally, for several weeks.
 The town lies along a land corridor between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Mr Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Many rebel fighters are Sunni Muslims and Qusair, overwhelmingly Sunni, had served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to the rebels.
 Lebanese security officials confirmed at least four funerals were being held Monday morning for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
 In the mostly Shiite Lebanese border village of Qasr, located opposite Qusair, pillars of smoke could be seen billowing from the Syrian side of the border the crackle of gunfire along with the heavy thud of artillery and airstrikes forced residents to keep their children away from school.
 The Syria’s state news agency said that the President, Mr Bashar Assad’s troops took control of most of Qusair on Monday. But the state news service also said government forces are still fighting “terrorists” in several town districts.
 The Syrian regime claims there is no civil war in the country but that the army is fighting foreign-backed terrorists trying to topple Assad’s government.
 More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.

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Rights, liberties threatened in Sri Lanka, says rights body


COLOMBO: Respect for basic rights and liberties has declined in Sri Lanka in the four years since the government defeated the Tamil Tigers, Human Rights Watch said Monday.  This week marks the fourth anniversary of the brutal civil war’s end.
 Since the end of the 26-year-long civil war, the government of the President, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa has resisted taking meaningful steps to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by government forces and the LTTE, it said.
 The government has also cracked down against the independent media and human rights activists and end ongoing abuses against suspected supporters of the vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
 “Government pledges to address the concerns of the ethnic Tamil population have gone unfulfilled,” it said. 
 “Four years after Sri Lanka’s horrific civil war ended, many Sri Lankans await justice for the victims of abuses, news of the ‘disappeared,’ and respect for their basic rights,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.
 “Instead, the Rajapaksa government has rejected investigations, clamped down harder on the media, and persisted in wartime abuses such as torture.”
 Mr Rajapaksa’s assurances to the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon to investigate allegations of war crimes by all sides remain unmet, Human Rights Watch said. 
 The government disregarded the Ban’s Panel of Experts report, which found that up to 40,000 civilians had died in the final months of the fighting, many from indiscriminate government shelling. 
 The government has similarly not implemented most of the accountability-related recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
 Since 2009 the government has increasingly restricted fundamental liberties, imperiling Sri Lanka’s democratic system, the rights body said.
 Government officials have threatened, and unknown assailants have attacked members of the media, civil society and the political opposition, it said.
 Activists who advocated for the 2012 Human Rights Council resolution were publicly denounced and threatened by officials. 
 The Rajapaksa government orchestrated Parliament’s impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in December 2012 after she had ruled against the government in a major case.
 Publications, including electronic media, critical of the government have been subject to government censorship, and some have been forced to close down, it said. 
 The leading Tamil newspaper, Uthayan, has faced repeated physical attacks against its journalists and property.
 Tamils with alleged links to the LTTE remain targets of arbitrary arrest and detention, and were at risk of torture and other ill-treatment, it said. 
 Sri Lankan security forces have used rape and other forms of sexual violence against alleged LTTE supporters. 
 The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be used to detain individuals for long periods without charge or trial. 
 While there has been considerable economic development in Sri Lanka’s war-torn north, much hardship remains for the predominantly Tamil population.
 Many families seek to learn the fate of loved ones, some of whom are still detained as LTTE suspects without charge or trial. 

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Provocative missile launches by North Korea


SEOUL: South Korea Sunday condemned North Korea's latest short-range missile launches as "provocative" and again urged it to hold talks about a suspended jointly-run industrial park. The North on Saturday launched three short-range guided missiles off its east coast, apparently as part of a military drill, at a time when cross-border relations remain icy after months of simmering tension.
The South and US forces had earlier been on heightened alert for any test of medium-range Musudan missiles by the North, which for weeks made threats of nuclear or conventional attacks on Seoul and Washington.
 The latest launch only involves short-range missiles. But it poses threats to the region and should be "stopped immediately", said the Seoul ministry that handles cross-border affairs.
 "We find it deplorable that the North does not stop provocative actions such as the launch of guided missiles yesterday," said the unification ministry spokesman, Mr Kim Hyung-Seok.  "We call on the North to take responsible actions for our sake and for the sake of the international community."
 The US State Department Saturday urged the North to exercise restraint, without specifically commenting on the launches.
 Tensions had shown signs of abating after a US defence official said early in May that two Musudan missiles had been moved from their launch site.
 Mr Kim also urged the North to respond to the South's repeated calls for talks about the jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex, where work has been suspended because of the political 
 Kaesong, established just north of the border in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was the most high-profile casualty of two months of elevated military tensions that followed the North's atomic test in February.
 The North barred South Korean access to the zone and pulled out its own 53,000 workers early last month. Seoul withdrew the last of its nationals early this month.
 When the South Koreans left, they loaded up cars with bundles of products, but were still forced to leave many stocks behind.
 The North last week rejected the South's call for talks on removing goods from the complex, calling it "a crafty ploy" to deflect blame for the suspension of operations.
 "It is very regrettable that the North denigrates our offer for talks... and shifts blame for the suspension of the Kaesong complex to us," Kim said, urging Pyongyang to come forward for talks as soon as possible.

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Jerusalem family tattoos pilgrims for centuries


JERUSALEM: Orthodox Christians visiting the Holy Land often return home with more than just spiritual memories. Many drop by a centuries-old tattoo parlor in Jerusalem's Old City, inking themselves with a permanent reminder not only of their pilgrimage but also of devotion to their faith.
The same Jerusalem family has been tattooing pilgrims with crosses and other religious symbols for hundreds of years, testament to the importance of the ancient ritual. While Catholics can get a written certificate of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Orthodox Christians opt for a tattoo, a permanent reminder of their visit.
In contrast to the bustling streets of the Old City outside, the Razzouk parlour is quiet, with only the buzz of an electric needle zigzagging across a pilgrim's arm.
Pilgrims said the pain of the needle is worth the sacrifice.
"The pain I feel is like the pain that Jesus Christ felt when he was on the cross with his crown of thorns," said Etetu Legesse, a nurse from Ethiopia, as a scene depicting the crucifixion was etched on her triceps.
Another Ethiopian woman wailed a song as an image of the Virgin Mary was tattooed onto her arm.
"I'm singing, God, I'm thinking about God; he died for us on the cross, that's why I'm singing," the 35-year-old woman, who gave her name as Mebrat, said.
Anton Razzouk, the family's 72-year-old patriarch, says the business can be traced back to a Coptic ancestor who traveled by camel and donkey from Egypt to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage about 300 years ago and decided to stay.
Today, the Razzouk business is the oldest tattoo parlor in the Old City catering to Christian tourists. Razzouk says that up until the 1950's his father's business was unchallenged and that he was the only one in the Old City, though a handful of competitors have sprouted up since then.
The art form was passed on from father to son and countless pilgrims have returned home over the centuries with the markings. Razzouk said his father, Jacob, tattooed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as hundreds of allied troops stationed in the region during World War II. He said the markings remind the faithful not to sin.
"A tattoo on the hand is the best certificate of pilgrimage because it stays there forever. It stays until the person is dead. It stays with him until the grave," said Razzouk.
Whereas Judaism and Islam prohibit marking the body, for Orthodox Christian denominations like Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians and Copts, tattoos are both decorative and a sign of faith. Roman Catholicism does not ban tattooing, but the practice is not as common.
Razzouk says he tattoos 300 to 400 pilgrims each year. His service is so popular that the family often goes to nearby hotels to tattoo travelers as well.
Designs include crosses in different shapes, as well as elaborate Virgin Mary and crucifixion motifs. Orthodox pilgrims traditionally get them done during Easter after wandering through the Old City and praying at the Holy Sepulcher Church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Tattoos cost between 20 and 100 dollars, depending on how elaborate they are.
Orthodox Christians, who follow the older Julian calendar, marked Easter at the beginning of May. Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations that observe the newer Gregorian calendar held their Easter celebrations at the end of March.
The shop is unassuming, with a simple sign reading ‘Tattoo & Change’. To supplement their income, the family runs a money-exchange business and sells a variety of religious objects and books, from crowns of thorns to rosaries, as well as crosses and tour guides.
Razzouk can rest assured that his family will carry on the tradition. He has been training his son Wassim, 40, to take over the family business. On a recent day, Wassim was busy tattooing customers. Anton's 10-year-old grandson Nizzar has also shown interest in the business.
"A lot of people, when they sit down to make the tattoo, say that they've been waiting for this all their lives," Wassim Razzouk said.

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Karzai seeks Indian military aid amid Pakistan row


KABUL: Afghan President, Mr Hamid Karzai will seek increased military aid from India during a three-day visit starting Monday and will discuss recent cross-border clashes with Pakistan, an aide said.
“Yes, we will ask for assistance for the strengthening of our security forces,” Mr Karzai spokesman, Mr Aimal Faizi said in a briefing Saturday ahead of the trip.
Mr Karzai’s visit could irk Pakistan, especially if any arms deal materialises. Pakistan considers Afghanistan as its own backyard and suspects India of seeking greater influence there as a strategy to hem in the country from both sides.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since they were divided into two countries when they gained independence from Britain in 1947.
Afghanistan and India signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011 that has included Indian military training of Afghan security forces.
Mr Faizi indicated Saturday that Mr Karzai would seek to expand that cooperation. “Whatever our Afghan security forces would need for assistance and help, India would help us,” he said.
Afghan analyst, Mr Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University, says the timing of Mr Karzai’s India trip is likely related to recent border skirmishes with Pakistan.
Each side has been accusing the other of firing across the mountainous border region for months, including a skirmish earlier this month that killed an Afghan border policeman.
Both countries have also accused each other of providing shelter for insurgents fighting on the other side of the border. Afghan accusations that Pakistan is allegedly trying to torpedo efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban have also contributed to deteriorating relations. 
Pakistan is considered crucial to nudging Taliban leaders, many of which are in hiding in Pakistan, to the table a key goal of the US and its allies ahead of the final pullout of foreign combat forces by the end of next year.
Mr Karzai has long been deeply suspicious of the motives of Pakistan’s government and military, which backed the Taliban regime before it was toppled in the 2001 US-led intervention and has since seemed unable or unwilling to go after militant leaders taking refuge inside its borders.
The killing of al-Qaida chief, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan only strengthened Afghan wariness of his neighbour.
“Maybe at this moment, Karzai wants to show to the neighbor (Pakistan) that if they don’t take part in bringing peace in Afghanistan, then he can increase relations with other countries with whom Pakistan has longtime disagreements,” Mr Safi said.
Mr afi warned, however, that any increased military cooperation with India would likely only contribute to tensions. “Of course, it will anger Pakistan,” he said.
Aside from regional strategic rivalries, Mr Karzai is expected to discuss economic issues and will visit an engineering university where he will receive an honorary degree, Mr Faizi said.
India has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan infrastructure, including highways and hospitals and rural electricity projects.
New Delhi is hoping to gain some influence in the country after 2014, when Afghan forces become responsible for the entire country’s security.
Mr Karzai, who earned his college degree in India, has visited New Delhi more than a half dozen times in the past few years, most recently in November 2012. 

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