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Friday, January 10, 2014

Fury in Sri Lanka at U.S. Embassy Tweet on Killing of Tamils

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense expressed shock and anger on Friday at what it called a “baseless allegation” against the nation’s military in a photo caption posted on the official Twitter feed of the United States Embassy the day before.

The photograph showed the American ambassador to Sri Lanka, Michele J. Sison, and Stephen J. Rapp, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes issues, during a visit to the Tamil-dominated north of the country, where government forces routed Tamil Tiger rebels in the bloody final days of a civil war in 2009. The caption that enraged the ministry referred to the “killing of hundreds of families by army shelling” at the site that the United States diplomats were pictured visiting.

That photograph was preceded by another on the embassy Twitter feed that showed the diplomats at the site of a United Nations compound in a supposedly safe area that was strafed with shelling during the final phase of the civil war.

A United Nations panel reported in 2011 that the Sri Lankan Army, in the course of what the government called a “humanitarian rescue operation,” caused the deaths of as many as 40,000 civilians in the final stages of its war against the Tamil separatists.

The Defense Ministry issued an indignant statement that suggested that the American officials might have published the images and remarks as part of a plot to support Tamil separatists by insisting on an international investigation into claims that war crimes were committed in the last days of the conflict.

It is surprising to see a baseless allegation of this nature being released by the U.S. Embassy without any credible verification. Although the reason for this release is best known to them, this could be part of a much larger campaign that they intend launching in the near future. It could also be an attempt to give credence to otherwise baseless allegations that have been propagated by some governments and separatist elements with the support of some international media organizations.

The BBC correspondent Charles Haviland reported that an unnamed embassy source confirmed to him that the message posted on Twitter about the killing of hundreds of families did reflect the official stance of the United States government.

Two additional images from the visit, showing the diplomats meeting with Tamil leaders who have accused Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated army of genocide, were posted on Ambassador Rapp’s Twitter feed, which uses an image of the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a backdrop.

One woman the diplomats posed for a photograph with, Ananthi Sasitharan, who now serves on the regional Northern Provincial Council, says she saw Sri Lankan soldiers taking away her husband, who was a political leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, at the end of the war in 2009. Ms. Sasithran’s husband never returned and graphic video evidence later surfaced that appeared to show that the army had carried out summary executions of some prisoners.

Ambassador Rapp’s visit, and reports that the United States plans to call for a war crimes investigation within months, had already inflamed government supporters in the capital, Colombo. Protesters there marched to the U.S. Embassy on Thursday carrying banners that read, “We Condemn Unfair Allegations of War Crimes,” “Probe Into Crimes Committed by British in Ireland,” and “Stephen Rapp Your Army Killed Civilians for Your Safety.”

Video of protesters marching to the U.S. Embassy in the Sri Lankan capital on Thursday.

A similar tone was struck in a long opinion article published Thursday in Sri Lanka’s Daily News, under the headline, “Stephen Rapp, Are U.S War Crimes Legal?”

The author of that piece, Shenali D. Waduge, began: “Does the U.S. Government and its officials actually believe they have done the world a favor by maiming, killing and making homeless over 20 million people since Vietnam? The U.S. Government seems to have a very haughty opinion that the entire world except for America is guilty even if proved innocent and the U.S. thinks it can go bombing people and places to smithereens and get away with it.”

An Invitation to Geneva Two

An international summit to address the conflict in Syria, called Geneva Two, is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. (Hotels in Geneva were fully booked by attendees to a watch convention.) The United Nations this week began sending out invitations, and Ayman Abdel Nour, a dissident Syrian exile who was once a friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s, posted one Thursday on his popular Arabic-language blog, All4Syria.

The letter lays out the principles governing the conference and details the ground rules of the meeting. Neither have changed much since the first Geneva conference on Syria in June 2012, a reminder of how challenging the issues are and how most of them have only become more intractable with time. Indeed, Syria analysts say talks could go on for years. The biggest accomplishment for now may be getting the parties in the same room.

We dissect the U.N. invite here:

Ethnic Segregation at a U.N. Camp in South Sudan

A BBC News video report on civilians seeking refuge at a United Nations base outside the town of Bentiu in South Sudan on Friday.

Reporting from South Sudan on Friday, the BBC correspondent Alastair Leithead discovered that civilians taking refuge from fighting at a United Nations base outside the town of Bentiu were being segregated along ethnic lines by the peacekeepers.

One image from the video report filed by the BBC News crew, showing a hand-painted sign directing members of the Dinka and the Nuer tribes to opposite sides of the camp, caught the attention of Alun McDonald, an Oxfam media officer who has worked with refugees in South Sudan.

According to Mr. Leithead, civilians from both tribes have been forced to seek safety as the fighting raged between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir â€" a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka â€" and followers of his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Writing on the BBC News website, Mr. Leithead explained:

There are far more than 8,000 people here now. Many are Dinka, the biggest ethnic group in South Sudan and the tribe of the president. They claimed that the night the violence started they were targeted by the Nuer.

Among them are 2,000 Sudanese traders caught up in the crisis and desperate for their country to send planes to take them home.

Now that government troops appear to be closing in, the latest arrivals here have been Nuer â€" afraid of what may happen if the town changes hands.

Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping office in New York, told The Lede that the division of tribes at the base near Bentiu reflected the wishes of “community leaders,” rather than a policy of the peacekeepers. “The initiative is on request of community leaders. They’ve advised that this is the best way to keep things calm and stable inside the base,” Mr. Dwyer said. “If there is any policy here it’s not ethnic separation. It’s to work with community leaders.”

Still, many close observers of the conflict were taken aback by the partition of the camp. In a conversation on Twitter, both Rebecca Hamilton, a human rights lawyer who has written about the impact of citizen advocacy on U.S. policy in the region, and Amir Ahmad Nasr, a Sudanese blogger, criticized the United Nations Mission in South Sudan for dividing the civilians.

The criticism echoes complaints about the role U.N. agencies played in the 1990s in transporting Bosnian Muslim civilians out of areas of the country seized by Serb forces, helping to tear apart the fabric of communities that had been intertwined for centuries.

American Man, After Jail Term in U.A.E., Says He Was Tried by ‘Kangaroo Court’

Footage from The Associated Press of Shezanne Cassim on his return to the United States.

An American man who was accused of endangering national security in the United Arab Emirates â€" after making a satirical video about a fictitious combat school â€" said on his return to the United States on Friday that he was given the one-year jail term by a “kangaroo court.”

The man, Shezanne Cassim, told reporters when he returned to Minnesota that he did nothing wrong. He said, in part:

“I was tried in a textbook kangaroo court and I was convicted without any evidence. To me this verdict was meaningless. We were not actually told what our crime was until about five months later, after we were taken in.”

The video comedy sketch, created by Mr. Cassim and four other men, was about the fictitious Satwa Combat School, set in the Dubai neighborhood of the same name, with an instructor named Saloom Snake, who trained combatants to throw sandals, use the thin ropes of an Arab headdress as weapons and summon help on Twitter for fights that never actually occur.

Mr. Cassim and the others were detained in April 2013 after the video was posted on YouTube.

The U.A.E. released him this week for time served of about nine months, which is customary under federal laws to be equivalent to a year in jail, according to a representative of his family.

Mr. Cassim, 29, added that the United Arab Emirates authorities were “scared of democracy.”

“They wanted to send a message to the U.A.E. public saying that, look what we will do to people who do just a silly YouTube video,” he said. “So imagine if you do something that is actually critical of the government. So it is a warning message and we are scapegoats.”

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.

Reaction to Resignation of Central African Republic President

Residents in the Central African Republic celebrated the resignation of their president, Michel Djotodia, as a potential turning point in the recent fighting in their country. Many hoped it would signal an end to the violence between Mr. Djotodia’s Muslim rebel group, Seleka, and the Christian militia groups who oppose it.

But as my colleague Adam Nossiter reported, pent-up anger over months of repression was still evident, and sporadic fighting and looting continued. There were also questions of what would happen in the two weeks until a new “transitional president” is chosen.

Video and social media footage highlighted the celebrations as well as the security struggles ahead. Alex Thomson from Channel 4, who has been working extensively from the Central African Republic, reported on the initial euphoria and then the outward signs of some of the unrest that flared in the wake of the resignation.

Tristan Redman, a producer for Al Jazeera English, also highlighted the mix of celebration and uncertainty that reigned in the streets, as did his colleague Barnaby Phillips.

In New York, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in a news conference that the African-led mission there needed to be strengthened to prevent violence from spreading,

“I urge all political actors in the country to work urgently to restore security and law and order, and to address the root causes of the persisting instability,” he said.

Mr. Ban also said humanitarian needs were escalating. Aid groups have been reporting that the violence has made it hard to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced during the conflict.

World Food Programme footage on Thursday of challenges of delivering food aid to the displaced.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.

‘Paranoia Is the Mother-in-Law of Invention,’ Puppet Accused of Terror in Egypt Tells BBC

In an English-language interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation on Friday, the Egyptian puppet recently accused of acting as a terrorist mouthpiece protested her innocence. The puppet, Abla Fahita, rejected allegations from a pro-military blogger that unseen hands had manipulated her into sending coded instructions to Islamist terrorists during an ad for a phone company.

A BBC News video interview with Abla Fahita, an Egyptian puppet accused of terrorist links.

“My humor is not for everyone, you have to work for it,” the puppet explained to Mukul Devichand of #BBCTrending. “Some people, when they don’t get your humor, they think it must be something else. Paranoia is the mother-in-law of invention.”