The Defence Force is planning to remain in the Golan Heights, despite the temporary abduction of a New Zealand peacekeeper.
The soldier was taken from an observation post yesterday at around 11am NZT, held for five hours then released unharmed. The officer is now at a secure United Nations facility receiving counselling, and intends to stay on in the area, at least for now.
The officer is one of eight New Zealand Army personnel serving as part of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) in the Middle East, and a Defence Force spokesman says the Army has no plans to change its contribution to the force.
Media advisor Major Aidan Shattock revealed there have been several incidents in the Golan Heights. He said when soldiers serve overseas in these types of places they understand there are always risks, although the Army does its best to mitigate those.
There have been concerns about peacekeepers' safety on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria for a number of months. Otago University's expert on international relations says the region where the Kiwi officer was abducted is becoming more dangerous, thanks to the Syrian civil war.
Previously in December last year, a Kiwi Military Observer was briefly detained while on patrol on the Syrian side of the Golan. He was released later that day unharmed.
- Newstalk ZB/ RBG News/ press rls
Turkey says it has arrested nine Turkish citizens over the twin car bombings in a town on the border with Syria.
It is just days since the Turkish prime minister said he believed Syria had used chemical weapons.
At least 40 people are dead, and around 100 people injured. Rescuers are continuing to hunt for possible survivors in the rubble of buildings destroyed in the blasts.
According to Voice of America, the Turkish government says authorities suspect the arrested Turks of having links to Syria's intelligence service.
Turkey's Foreign Minister has called on the UN Security Council to stop the Syrian conflict, saying the international community's inaction has enabled 'a spark to transofrm into a fire'.
Senior officials told a news conference that the detainees include the attack's alleged mastermind and planners, some of whom confessed.
A Turkish minister said some of those detained took part in planning the attack in Reyhanli, conducting a site survey and disguising cars. He said the alleged mastermind of Saturday's attack was among the nine Turkish citizens detained.
He believes the incident was carried out by an organization which is in close contact with pro-regime groups in Syria, and very clearly, with Syrian intelligence.
The Syrian government is denying any involvement.
- Newstalkzb/RBG News
Twice in three days, Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace and fired on suspected weapons caches bound for Hezbollah and nothing has happened in response.
Syrian state media have reported casualties in yesterday's pre-dawn airstrike, with up to 42 Syrian soldiers thought to have been killed, but the Syrian government has not released an official death toll.
A senior Israeli source says the aerial assault took out Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied to the Syrian regime.
A diplomatic source in Beirut says three sites were targeted, including a military facility, a nearby weapons depot and an anti-aircraft unit in Sabura, west of Syria's capital.
US President BARACK OBAMA, says Israel is justified in protecting itself.
Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign minister told CNN on Sunday that the strikes amounted to a “declaration of war.”
But such gestures, analysts say, are merely symbolic. Torn by a civil war now in its third year, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is too beleaguered to fight back.
And Hezbollah, the Lebanese party considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, is considered too preoccupied propping up its Syrian patron to respond.
“Today Israel can act with impunity in Syria,” said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Arab politics at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “The Syrian air force isn’t functioning and there’s no defense system. It’s very exposed and weak.”
- RBG News/Newstalk ZB
U.S. Defense Secretary has admited the United States is rethinking its opposition to arming Syrian rebels.
At a media briefing earlier today with British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, Chuck Hagel said arming rebels is an option that must be considered with the international community.
“It's a rapidly changing situation. We've kept all our options open. We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it's something we will not do.”
Britain’s Defence Secretary said he shared Hagel’s view.
“It is not a static situation; it's a rapidly changing situation. We've kept all our options open. We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it's something we will not do.”
Hammond said they have been subject to an E.U. ban on supplying armaments to the rebels, but when the ban expires in a few weeks they will reconsider the situation.
“We will continue to keep that situation under review. But we will do what we are able to do within the bounds of legality, and we regard that as very important.”
Hammond said the evidence they have is that the regime is largely in control of its chemical weapons and principal weapons sites.
“That is not the same as saying that we are able to account for every last unit of chemical stocks, but there is no evidence that the regime has lost control of significant chemical weapon sites yet.”
“I think we have a great deal of knowledge of location of chemical weapons. That is not the same as saying that I can put my hand on my heart and say we know where every last item is.”
But as for crossing the red line, and their response to that, Hammond referred to the Iraq war, saying they would not want to repeat previous mistakes.
“U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq, which turned out not to be valid.”
He says there is a very strong view they must have very clear, high-quality evidence before making plans and act on that evidence.
“I’m not a technical expert,” said Hammond, ‘But I don't think you need to be to know that after any use of a chemical agent there will be a degradation over time, and the longer the period that is elapsed between the use of such an agent, and the point where you acquire a sample, the less strong that chain of custody will be.”
Any future use of chemical agents, he said, would generate new opportunities to establish clear evidence.
Hagel concurred. “If you're going to exercise certain options - evidence is particularly important.”
Hammond said they continue to believe that a diplomatic solution is needed to end the bloodshed and that Assad and his close associates can have no place in the future of Syria.
“We in the U.K. are stepping up our support to the national coalition and remind the regime that nothing has been taken off the table.”
However, Hammond said as the administrations in London and Washington consider security challenges posed by Syria and Iran, they also face significant budget constraints. Greater military cooperation is at the heart of this, he said.
“The British-American defence relationship is strong and far reaching. It will remain the bedrock of Britain's defence policy, and will continue to be at the heart of our special relationship for decades to come.”
- RBG News/Press Release
The United Nations is moving about half of its 100 international staff still in Syria out of the country because of the growing danger there.
Mortar bombs fell near the hotel in Damascus where they were staying, damaging the building and a U.N. vehicle.
Diplomats say the Damascus office of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be closed and his staff moved to Cairo or Lebanon.
The United Nations has a huge humanitarian operation in Syria aiming to feed and help more than two million Syrians caught in the two-year-old conflict, pitting President Bashar Al-Assad against rebels fighting to oust him.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said, "the United Nations remains active and committed to helping the Syrian sides in their search for a political solution.”
"U.N. agencies and partners also remain committed to providing assistance to millions of people in need in Syria."
- RBG News/Newstalk ZB
An on-going committment to each other and to stability is the message from two key players in the Middle East conflict.
Benjamin Netenyahu has welcomed Barack Obama to Israel today, the US leader's first visit to the Jewish state since taking office. Although their countries are closely allied, the relationship between the leaders themselves has often been cool, ostensibly due to differing positions on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and how to handle Iran's nuclear programme.
Now Mr Netanyahu has alluded to a historic compromise to end the Palestinian conflict 'once and for all'. The U.S. President has made similarly sweeping statements, declaring that America's alliance with Israel is "eternal" and "forever". In an arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion airport on Wednesday local time, Mr. Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres that he had made Israel the first overseas stop of his second term, because he wants to "reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations."
He maintains that it is crucial to have a secure state of Israel alongside a sovereign Palestinian state; but the main focus of this visit appears to be the situation in Iran and Syria. Regarding recent media reports of chemical weapons fuelling terrorism in Syria's violent civil war, Obama said that development would be a "game-changer". But he added that the U.S. and its partners are working to learn the facts, before the international community takes further steps.
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu say they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, which they agree would be a threat not only to Israel, but the region as well. PM Netanyahu stressed that once Iran reaches an "immunity zone" in its uranium enrichment process, there will not be much time left for action. Mr Obama prefers diplomacy over military action as a resolution to Iran's nuclear programme, but acknowledged Israel's right to act on its own discernment in defending herself; however, it remains to be seen if he would endorse airstrikes against Iran's nuclear sites.
Barack Obama says the military and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel has never been stronger and indicated that discussions will start on extending America's military assistance to Israel beyond 2017, which is when the current agreement runs out. He also promised there will be no interruption in funding for Israel's state-of-the-art defence system, Iron Dome, which shoots down missiles before they land.
The US President has three days remaining in his four-day Middle East tour, including a meeting with Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday.
- Newstalk ZB/ RBG News
More than 20 United Nations peacekeepers have been detained by around 30 Syrian rebel fighters near the Golan Heights.
A UN official says the group of unarmed soldiers from the UN's Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was on a regular supply mission when they were taken hostage - it appears no fighting took place. They were seized near an evacuated outpost in the south of the UNDOF's operation zone, and are being held in a de-militarised zone between Israel and Syria.
The captors are reportedly demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops withdraw from a village visible from there they are. However, the UN is brooking no argument and has issued a counter-demand for the unconditional release of the peacekeepers. Negotiations are underway.
The nationalities of the kidnapped soldiers are not known at this stage, but the UNDOF includes troops from India, Croatia, Austria and the Philippines.
- Newstalk ZB/ RBG News
The one millionth refugee to flee the escalating violence in Syria, is expected to be registered in the next 24 hours.
UNICEF NZ is warning that, without urgent funding, the lives and wellbeing of Syrian children will be at serious risk.
The UN's Refugee agency, UNHCR, said today that it had registered 992,000 Syrians into the surrounding countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and expected numbers to hit the one million mark imminently.
Dennis McKinlay, Executive Director of UNICEF NZ says, the conflict, and resulting humanitarian crisis, has been on-going for almost two years now.
During that time UNICEF has been working to support those children and families affected, but with more than 5000 refugees fleeing Syria every day, there is serious pressure on our funding.
"Children and their families who reach neighbouring countries are safe from the horrendous conflict they have experienced, but refugees are now dependent on aid organisations like UNICEF and we are struggling to meet their basis needs," said Dennis McKinlay.
Almost half the total number of Syrian refugees are children, with around 125 babies also born as refugees every day. The needs of refugee children and their families are immense; they need clean water and sanitation, education facilities, nutrition support, child protection services, and healthcare.
UNICEF, alongside their partners, are already running these services and facilities for refugees in camps and host communities, but with refugees now flooding in they need to urgently scale up their work.
In Jordan, which has 225,000 registered refugees, UNICEF has received just 9% of funding needed and, without additional resources, will be forced to scale back on life-saving interventions such as supplying clean water and sanitation.
In Turkey funding gaps are preventing the charity from supporting education for children in camps.
UNICEF is also working across Syria itself, where funding shortages mean they can't buy enough urgent items such as soap and warm winter clothes. Almost 2 million children are affected in Syria. Many have been internally displaced by the on-going conflict, and are living in collective shelters with few belongings and often lacking even the most basic needs.
A mobile health service has just been scaled up to ensure children can get the immediate and long-term healthcare they need, whilst winter clothing, hygiene items, water treatment chemicals and other medical supplies have been distributed to over 220,000 people.
- RBG NEWS/Press Release
New US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has moved the US involvement in Syria’s conflict to another level with its pledge of $60 million in aid to rebel groups.
The announcement was made by Secretary Kerry at a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders and other foreign supporters in Rome.
The US has already contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, which has been used for humanitarian measures.
According to VOA, the Secretary of State says this funding is to be used for local councils in liberated areas - to provide basic services such as medical care, food and sanitation.
The rebel fighters, however, have expressed their frustration that this does not include the weapons, vehicles and body armour they want.
The US fears such resources would fall into the hands of the militants – or as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, ‘antagonise the Russians, whose support they need in Afghanistan, and in nuclear talks with Iran.’
Yet, a report by Pratibha Thaker of the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests the southern activists have received an “infusion of new weaponry identified by military analysts as having originated in Croatia.”
This information was “presented by Eliot Higgins, a U.K.-based blogger using the name Brown Moses, who has exhaustively analysed YouTube footage from rebels, as well as regime videos of captured weaponry.”
According to Higgins, “at least five types of weapon systems manufactured in Croatia and not in use by the Syrian army have recently appeared in large volumes, mainly in the south… including anti-tank missiles and heavy-caliber machine guns.”
Pratibha Thaker believes this suggests that those behind the shipments could be looking to boost the Free Syrian Army forces - partly as a counterweight to the increased activities of jihadi groups.
“The scale of the shipments also points to government involvement, with Saudi Arabia widely reported to be involved in the financing and Jordan presumed to have played a role in the logistics.”
The EU placed an embargo on arms and equipment to Syria in March 2011, Croatia, however, is not bound by that restriction. Also, its government has denied exporting any weapons to Syrian activists.
But, according to a New York Times report, American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats last October had expressed concern that most of the shipments of arms to the rebels, “organised primarily by Saudi Arabia and Qatar” were actually ending up “in the hands of hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.”
VOA’s Al Pessin says Kerry spoke of their concern about the militants, and the balance the international community is trying to achieve, between pressing for an end to the Assad regime and not strengthening the extremists.
“We can't risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists," said Kerry. "In supporting the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, we reject both of those choices.”
Last December President Obama announced they would formally recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the country’s legitimate representative.
Secretary Kerry says American wants to “change the calculation” Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is making as he clings to power.
- Newstalkzb/RBG News
Israel is suggesting it may be responsible for the air strike on Syria last week.
Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has told reporters at the Munich Security Conference it is 'another proof' that when they say something they mean it - although he has refrained from directly confirming it.
According to VoA, Barak said Israel had warned in advance that the transfer of sophisticated weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that must not be crossed.
Syria’s President, Bashar al Assad, was quoted as saying the air strike is proof Israel is conspiring with foreign forces to destabilise Syria.
Damascus has threatened to retaliate, further fuelling fears of a regional spill-over of the country's twenty-two month conflict, which the UN says, has already left more than 60,000 people dead.
According to Israeli National News, the Lebanese newspaper Al Diyar is reporting the armies of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are on high alert, and Syrian troops had joined Hizbollah terrorists near the Israeli border in the area of Har Dov.
Meanwhile, Israel's main political parties have begun intensive coalition talks a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally tasked with forming a new government following last month's election.
Netanyahu's right wing party won a narrow victory with 31 of the Knesset's 120 seats, and now has 28 days to piece together a government.
The Prime Minister says security is his first concern.
- Newstalkzb/RBG News