Palestinian Officials Say ‘Agreement Has Been Reached’

Palestinian boy cries as he stands in a debris-strewn street near his family's house in Rafah in the southern Gaza StripPalestinian officials said on Tuesday a Gaza ceasefire deal with Israel has been reached under Egyptian mediation and a formal announcement of an agreement was imminent.

There was no immediate confirmation from Israel, where a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

“An agreement has been reached between the two sides and we are awaiting the announcement from Cairo to determine the zero hour for implementation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in Gaza.

A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the Gaza militant groups that has been firing rockets into Israel, said the announcement could be made within two hours.

Cairo’s initiative, Palestinians officials said, called for an indefinite halt to seven weeks of hostilities, the immediate opening of Gaza’s blockaded crossings with Israel and Egypt and a widening of the enclave’s fishing zone in the Mediterranean.

Under a second stage that would begin a month later, Israel and the Palestinians would discuss the construction of a Gaza sea port and an Israeli release of Hamas prisoners in the occupied West Bank, the officials said.

Both Israel and Egypt view Hamas as a security threat and are demanding guarantees that weapons will not enter the economically crippled territory.

Increasing pressure on Palestinian militants to end their rocket strikes, Israel bombed more of Gaza’s tallest structures on Tuesday, bringing down a 13-storey apartment and office tower and destroying most of a 16-floor residential building.

The strikes flattened the Basha Tower and wrecked the Italian Complex, after occupants were warned to get out, and no deaths were reported.

Declining to comment specifically on the attacks, the Israeli military said it had hit 15 “terror sites”, including some in buildings that housed Hamas command and control centers.

Falana Asks UK To Facilitate Referral Of Israel To ICC Over Gaza

Femi-FalanaHuman rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, has written to British Prime Minister, David Cameron, seeking the investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court for unlawful killings and destruction of civilian property in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Falana urged Prime Minister Cameron to use the Kingdom’s position as President of the United Nation’s Security Council for the month f August, to refer Israel to the court.

“I am writing to request that you use your good offices and position to urgently facilitate the referral of Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order for the court to investigate allegations of the unlawful killings and destruction of property perpetrated by Israel against the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and West Bank” he said.

Falana further noted that since Israel “ has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the only way the court will be able to exercise jurisdiction over Israel is by a referral by the Security Council, pursuant to article 13, paragraph (b) of the Rome Statute”.

In a letter made available to Channels Television, Mr Falana further noted that “this referral will also provide an important opportunity for the court to investigate any allegations of international crimes committed by all parties—whether involved directly or indirectly—in the ongoing armed conflict” adding that he  has “followed very closely the conflict and has no doubt that international humanitarian law, which aims principally to protect civilian population is breached with an almost absolute impunity by Israel”.

The letter noted that “the breach of international humanitarian law is illustrated by the failure to differentiate between military targets and civilians and civilian structures, and the clear intentional and deliberate attacks on civilians or civilian objects in particular, homes, medical facilities, and schools. I should mention that so far there is no evidence that such homes, medical facilities and schools are being used for military purposes. Therefore, there cannot be any justifications for such attacks including the wanton killing of children.

“I therefore urge you to urgently work with other members of the Security Council to ensure referral of Israel to the ICC over alleged international crimes as outlined above. In the meantime, the UK will do well to suspend all transfers of weapons, munitions and other military equipment and technology to Israel so it is not used to continue to perpetrate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”, he said.

He also drew the attention of the British government to the fact that “leaders of some African countries who did not commit such grave crimes against humanity were indicted by the International Criminal Court”, insisting that it will be “in the best interest of justice and international accountability that the UK exercises strong leadership to end the vicious cycle of violence and impunity of perpetrators in the Gaza Strip and West Bank”, he added.

Israel Says Hamas Violated Ceasefire Agreement

Power-plant
Baby Shayma Hussien in an incubator

Israel has purportedly accused Hamas of violating a cease fire agreement after Hamas fired a rocket at the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Saturday.

On Sunday, Hamas decided to call for a ceasefire, but to Israel, it was a joke.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, promised that Israel would do what it must to defend itself not minding the number of civilian casualty, which has been rising consistently over the last few days.

What is worse is that while both sides are yet to agree to a ceasefire through expected talks, there could be more deaths because of lack of food, or treatment materials as hospitals have ran out of medical supplies. What they have can barely dress a wound caused by a shrapnel.

Israel has ignored calls by the international community to scale back its attacks. Hamas on the other hand, has been playing up civilian casualties to its own advantage, saying Israel has been targeting civilian populations.

Early last week, baby Shayma Hussien was delivered by the doctors from her mother, whom they said was killed in an Israeli airstrike in their house. Baby Sheyma lies peacefully in her incubator. Obliviously to the rest of the world, baby Sheyma has a tough future ahead of her.

Doctors had said that her father and siblings had been killed in air strikes.

This is one of the many personal and hapless tales from the Hamas/Israeli conflict in Gaza.

More than 2 weeks now, the Palestinian population in Gaza, have borne the brunt of Israeli’s vengeance on Hamas.

Although, fighting did subside on Sunday, at the end of the Muslim Ramadan holiday, but thus; attacks has not stopped.

Earlier on Sunday, Hamas said it had endorsed a call by the United Nations for a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire, at least for the holiday.

But rocket fire could still be heard,causing Mr Netanyahu, to question the validity of the announcement.

Video shown on Israeli television showed Israeli ground forces as they travelled to Gaza’s Khirbet Khze’a neighbourhood and walked through rubble-filled streets.

They said they were in a Hamas stronghold, indicating a determination that Israel will fully carry out its threat on Hamas.

Nations Stopping Flight To Tel Aviv

PLASMA_MALAYSIA_AIRLINES_FIXEDThe United States and European airlines have suspended flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport after a rocket landed one mile away.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered three US carriers that fly to Israel – Delta, United and US Airways – to halt flights for 24 hours.

European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also said it “strongly recommends” that airlines should avoid operating to and from Tel Aviv.

The suspension prompted Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to ask the US to renew flights to Israel.

Israel Airport Authority also said the U.S. companies made the decisions on their own, and it urged them to reconsider, saying the airport was safe. “There is no reason that American carriers should stop flying to Israel and thus give a prize to terror,” airport authority said.

Even before the announcement, Swiss, Germanwings and Austrian Airlines said they had decided to suspend flights to Israel for two days while KLM also said they had suspended flights ahead of the EASA’s advisory.

The halt in service of the airlines comes less than a week after Israel began a ground operation in Gaza, and as airlines around the world re-think their flight paths over conflict areas in the wake of the crash of Malaysia airlines flight Mh17 in eastern Ukraine.

Israel Resumes Air Strike In Gaza As Egyptian – Proposed Ceasefire Collapse

GazaIsrael has resumed air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire that Tel Aviv agreed to, failed to stop Hamas militants from halting rocket attacks.

Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal and halted operations on Tuesday morning but Hamas defied Arab and Western calls to cease fire and rejected the initiative as a “surrender”.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, rejected the ceasefire deal, a proposal that addressed, in only general terms, some of its key demands, and said its battle with Israel would “increase in ferocity and intensity”.

A top Hamas political official, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who was in Cairo, said the movement, which is seeking a deal that would ease Egyptian and Israeli border restrictions throttling Gaza’s economy, had made no final decision on Cairo’s proposal.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had warned that if the rocket fire continued, Israel would hit back hard.

Israel had also threatened to step up a week-old offensive that could include an invasion of the densely populated enclave of 1.8 million.

Thus, Israel resumed attacks in Gaza hours after implementation of the truce was to have begun.

The military said it targeted at least 20 of Hamas’s hidden rocket launchers, tunnels and weapons storage facilities.

A Palestinian civilian was, reportedly, killed in an air strike in Khan Younis, raising the death toll in the Gaza Strip in eight days of fighting to 188, including at least 150 civilians, among them 31 children, according to Gaza medical officials.

There have been no huge fatalities in Israel, largely due to Iron Dome, but the rocket salvoes have made a rush to shelters a daily routine for hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

The surge in hostilities over the past week was prompted by the murder last month of three Jewish seminary students in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the revenge killing on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem.

Israel said on Monday that three Jews in police custody had confessed to killing the Palestinian.

Israel Boosts Forces Near Gaza As Border Heats Up

A Palestinian inspects a crater which police said was caused by an Israeli air strike in Gaza CityIsrael said on Thursday that it was beefing up its forces along its frontier with the Gaza Strip, in what it called a defensive deployment in response to persistent Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks.

Israel also faced the challenge of a further eruption of Palestinian anger in Jerusalem, where violent protests broke out on Wednesday after the body of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was discovered in a forest on the edge of the city.

Israeli police are investigating the possibility that he was the victim of a revenge killing over the deaths of three Jewish teenagers, whose abduction on June 12 Israel has been blamed on Islamist Hamas militants in the occupied West Bank.

A military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, said troops were taking up “defense positions” in Israeli communities that have been struck by the rockets from Gaza. He did not comment on the scale of the deployment.

It is the first time since the border began to heat up in mid June – in tandem with an Israeli military sweep and search for the three abducted Israeli youths in the West Bank – that Israel has announced troop movements near the Gaza Strip.

“We are moving and we have moved forces,” Lerner said in a conference call with foreign journalists. “Everything we are doing is to de-escalate the situation but on the other hand to be prepared if they don’t de-escalate.”

Israel, he said, has “no interest in deepening the conflict with Gaza – the absolute opposite is true”.

Jerusalem was quiet on Thursday but tensions remained high in anticipation of Mohammed Abu Khudair’s funeral. No time has been set for the burial, an event that will stir strong emotions among Palestinians and could trigger further confrontation.

The military said Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired 14 projectiles into Israel on Thursday and that rockets struck two homes in the southern town of Sderot, causing no casualties.

Israel launched air strikes against at least three Hamas training facilities in Gaza, residents said, adding that 15 people had been injured.

U.N. Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, condemned both Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday for the latest flare-up of violence across the Gaza border and also Abu Khudair’s killing.

“From a Human Rights point of view, I utterly condemn these rocket attacks and more especially I condemn Israel’s excessive acts of retaliation,” Pillay told journalists in Vienna.

Op-Ed: Strange Bedfellows Merge To Fight Insurgency In Nigeria

Mere connection with what is known as a superior race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth- Booker T Washington.

Nigeria’s political history is replete with failed alliances and mergers. While the first and second republics had their own share of unsuccessful mergers, the return to democracy in 1999 saw the Alliance for Democracy (AD), which had swept the South-west in earlier polls, align with the All Peoples Party, APP, that dominated elections in the North with the intention of beating PDP at the presidential poll. It gave the PDP a good fight but failed to win the election.

Similarly in 2007, about 15 parties came together and formed the Action Congress, AC, but the party made little or no impact in the presidential election.

Before the 2011 elections, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) attempted to join forces in order to field a joint presidential candidate to challenge President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP. The move fell like a pack of badly arranged cards when the parties could not reach an agreement on who to field.

After the 2011 elections, leaders of the merging parties kick-started another move and set up various committees. The highlight of the move was the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

However, recent goings on in the country has led to another ‘merger’, this time around in the security apparatchik of the country to capture and return peace to Nigeria. The formation of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to protect borders of Niger, Chad and Nigeria from the growing influence of Boko Haram insurgents was the first step taken in that direction. How that has fared is left for you to ponder upon.

Despite this effort, insurgents have burnt schools, killed students and attacked military formations numerous times without been confronted by either the Nigerian Army or MNJTF when they fled Nigeria to seek safety in neighbouring countries. That is not to say they have never been repelled by the forces, they have, just not as much as they have been successful in carrying out their attacks.

The last straw that drew global attention was the abduction of over 200 girls from a secondary school in the north eastern town of Chibok in Borno state. This incident gave birth to another merger, with due respect to all parties involved, bound to fail, unless the modus operandi is changed.

Following the #BringBackOurGirls protests in and outside Nigeria, world powers- United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Israel- offered to ‘merge’ with Nigerian military officers and combine efforts in fighting Boko Haram and rescuing the abducted girls, whose number now stands at 219, from their abductors.

It is imperative to state that weeks into this ‘merger’ no head way has been made, rather high hopes dashed by the day as officers release conflicting situation reports.

First, it was alleged that satellite images failed to show movement of such a number (274) of people moving out of Nigeria, alleging that if indeed it happened, local material must have been used to cover the girls, making it impossible for modern technology to detect the movement.

Then there was the claim that a deal to swap the girls with detained suspected Boko Haram members was called off at the eleventh hour and the most bizarre and conflicting report on the location of the girls by the Nigerian and United States security officials.

Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh had told some protesters at the Defence Headquarters in Abuja, that the military has information on the location of the girls but would tread softly to get the students out by not using force to rescue them.

“We know what we are doing; we can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.

“If we are fighting an external war, they would have been begging us to withdraw”, he said, adding that the Nigerian Military has shown its abilities in civil war situations, making reference to its role in restoring democracy in Liberia and Sierra-Leone.

The CDS refused to give details of his statement that the military would not use force in its efforts to secure the release of the abducted girls but gave assurances that the war on terror would be won by the Nigerian military. “The President has empowered us to do the work”, he said.

However in a swift reaction, the United States said it does not have information that would support Nigeria’s claim that it knows the whereabouts of the kidnapped schoolgirls.

“We don’t have independent information from the United States to support that statement”, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“We, as a matter of policy and for the girls’ safety and well-being, would not discuss publicly this sort of information regardless.” She added.

Some Europeans also noted that as far as they knew, technical intelligence systems had not produced precise or credible information establishing the girls’ location.

The officials said that if the Nigerians had obtained such information from informants on the ground, it has not been shared with U.S. and allied agencies.

Badeh’s action reminds one of the struggle by merging political parties to outwit the others in the fight for the control and soul of the party they have merged to form. That might have worked out for political parties, but for the rescue effort, it is a fatal blow that will be celebrated in the enemy camp. It will give them more confidence to orchestrate more attacks as the (security) house is not in order.

Worthy of note is the fact that since world powers offered to help Nigeria in its fight against terror and the quest to rescue abducted school girls from the clutches of Boko Haram, there is no structure put in place (only if they have not made it public) by Nigeria, China, U.S, UK, France and Israel on how to go about engaging the insurgents.

Simply put, a five-pronged attack was launched against the insurgents without proper coordination amongst the attackers and a proper channel of sharing intel gathered.

This means the countries involved report to their countries and not to the established (if one exists) chain of command, just to outwit one another to claim the ultimate glory of who would find and successfully rescue the girls.

All parties involved must note that this is a very important mission that has drawn global attention and personal interests must be put aside to fight the common enemy, bring them to justice and rescue the abducted school girls

But most importantly, parties involved in this mission must display individual and collective worth or else their alliance will not move them out of the security quagmire they are fighting at the moment and could liken the situation to that of strange bedfellows coming together to retrieve what has been taken away by the identified opposition.

Despite the foregoing, I must thank the President of the United States of America, President Barack Obama and other national governments like United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, among others, currently assisting Nigeria to #BringBackOurGirls.

Victor Mathias writes from Lagos and tweets @victor_mbidi

 

 

 

Israel Sends Experts To Help Hunt For Missing Nigerian Schoolgirls

Women-protest-Chibok-girls-abductionIsrael has sent intelligence experts to Nigeria to help search for more than 200 schoolgirls abducted last month by Islamist rebel group Boko Haram, an Israeli official said on Tuesday.

The team, which the official said included people experienced in dealing with hostage situations, will join a growing international effort to track down the children.

“These are not operational troops, they’re there to advise,” the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters.

The U.S. military is already flying manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over Nigeria to look for the girls, whose abduction triggered a worldwide outcry.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in its campaign to establish an Islamic state in mostly Muslim northeast Nigeria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his team out about a week ago after discussing the situation with Jonathan, the official added.

Israel has defense ties with a number of African countries, and had sold surveillance drones to Nigeria. Last September, Israel sent advisers to Kenya to help in a stand-off with Islamist attackers at a shopping mall in Nairobi.

 

Israel Shoots Down Rocket Fired At Southern Port From Gaza

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired two rockets at a southern Israeli port city on Monday and Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor shot down one while the other fell into the sea, a military spokeswoman said.

The pre-dawn salvo on Ashkelon, about 12 km (7 miles) north of Gaza, was unusual given the relative restraint of Palestinian militants since last November’s war between the coastal enclave’s Islamist Hamas rulers and the Jewish state.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the launches, which came as Hamas tips into financial and political crisis after being cut off from neighboring Egypt by the new, military-guided interim government in Cairo. Hamas has also been challenged at times by more radical, armed Gaza Islamists.

Hamas has tried to mend ties with Egypt while appealing to rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose administration holds sway in the occupied West Bank, to abandon U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel.

It has also signaled readiness to fight again, taking responsibility last week for a tunnel which the Israelis discovered running into their territory from Gaza and said was likely intended for kidnapping soldiers or setting off underground explosives.

The Israeli military spokeswoman said a mortar bomb was fired across the border from Gaza on Sunday, but caused no damage or casualties.

Jonathan Rededicates Self To Country’s Development During Pilgrimage

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan along with his entourage has kicked off his holy pilgrimage to Israel with a tour of some holy sites in Jerusalem.

The tour was used as a rededication by the President to the development of the country.

The President also took time to tour the holy sites within the walls of old Jerusalem.

The walk down the way of the cross in particular was used by the president to make supplications on behalf of the country.

On the first day, the tour started with a visit to the garden of Gethsemani, the Upper Room in Mount Zion and the Church of St. Peters, where Peter was said to have denied Jesus.

Supplications were made in Chapels to mark every holy site by Christian Ministers, as they prayed for the President, as well as the unity and continued existence of the country back home.

The second day of President Jonathan’s tour started with the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and the President was received by the Rabbi of the Wall, who led the pilgrims to offer supplications.

President Jonathan was led afterwards to the tunnels underneath the Wall to the Station of the Cross, which marked Jesus’ travails from the seat of Pontus Pilate to the Calvary.

The journey ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with President Jonathan offering prayers at every station along the way.

The experience no doubt awakens the sense of sacrifice in officials in the President’s entourage and perhaps an obligation to leave their country better for the next generation.

It will be recalled that the President left Nigeria for the year’s holy pilgrimage on Thursday 23rd October.

According to a statement by the Special Adviser to the President (Media & Publicity), Reuben Abati, the President will also be meeting with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.

There will also be talks between President Jonathan’s delegation and the Israeli government officials, with a focus on the enhancement of bilateral relations between Nigeria and Israel in areas of trade, economic development, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, communications, culture, education and tourism.

According to the statement, President Jonathan will also be meeting with the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas.

Those among the entourage of the President on the holy pilgrimage are Senator Emmanuel Paulker, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Akinwunmi  Adesina, the Minister of Water Resources, Mrs Sarah Ochekpe, the Minister of Works, Arc. Mike Onolememen, the Minister of State (Foreign Affairs), Prof Viola Onwuliri, and the National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki.

The President, who is expected to be back in the country next week, may meet and interact with some other Nigerians who are already in Israel for the holy pilgrimage.

1,500 Settlement Homes Approved By Israel

A 10-minute drive from where negotiators sat down to resume long-stalled Middle East peace talks, Israeli bulldozers were busy on Monday reshaping land that Palestinians want for their future state.

Settler homes are popping up across East Jerusalem and major roads are being built to burgeoning Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel has just approved plans for 1,500 new homes on the territory it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, in a settlement called Ramat Shlomo.

The non-stop building on the land that is at the heart of the conflict raises serious doubts about whether the latest round of U.S.-brokered talks can result in a deal to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, a rights groups says.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the driving force behind the resumption of talks following a three-year hiatus, has said it is a major problem but there is time for a final push.

Israel has rejected criticism of its construction plans, saying the new homes would be erected in settlements within blocs it intends to keep in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

The settler numbers are imposing. In 2010, when the Palestinians quit negotiations over settlement building, some 311,110 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, now, according to Israel’s Army Radio, this has surged to 367,000.

Adding in East Jerusalem, then the number of Israelis living beyond the 1967 lines rises to nearly 600,000. Few, if any, would willingly quit their homes as part of a peace deal.

The sheer quantity of planned new homes has stunned outsiders and prompted condemnation from Nabil Abu Rdaineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Negotiators from both sides have met three times since the talks resumed in Washington last July.

U.S., Russia Push For Rapid Talks To End Syria Carnage

Russia and the United States agreed to bury their differences over Syria and to try to convene international talks with both sides in the civil war to end the carnage that is inflaming the Middle East.

Visiting Moscow after Israel bombed targets near Damascus and as President Barack Obama faces new calls to arm the rebels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia had agreed to try to arrange a conference as early as this month involving both President Bashar al-Assad’s government and his opponents.

An East-West disagreement that has seen some of the frostiest exchanges between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War has deadlocked U.N. efforts to settle the Syrian conflict for two years, so any rapprochement could bring an international common front closer than it has been for many months.

But with Syria’s factional and sectarian hatreds more entrenched than ever after 70,000 deaths, it is far from clear the warring parties are ready to negotiate. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, which has offered reforms but dismisses those fighting it as “terrorists”.

The late hour of the announcement in Moscow – Kerry was kept waiting for three hours by President Vladimir Putin – also meant leaders of the Western-backed opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition were not available for comment. Many on the body have insisted Assad’s exit is a condition for talks.

Inside the country, where rebel groups are numerous and have disparate views, a military commander in the north, Abdeljabbar al-Oqaidi, told Reuters he would want to know details of the U.S.-Russian plan before taking a view. “But,” he added, “if the regime were present, I do not believe we would want to attend.”

Alarmed at the prospect of the conflict spilling across an already volatile and economically important region, however, the major powers have, as Kerry told Putin on Tuesday, “very significant common interests” in pushing for a settlement.

“The alternative,” Kerry later told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos.

“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be even a break-up of Syria.”

GENEVA AGREEMENT

Last year at a conference in Geneva in June, Washington and Moscow agreed on the need for a transitional government in Syria but left open the question of what would happen to Assad, whose departure Obama has called for but which Russia, accusing the West of meddling, says should be a matter for Syrians only.

Rejecting a characterization of Moscow as the protector of Assad, to whose army it has been a major arms suppliers since the days of his father’s rule, Lavrov said Russia was not concerned by the fate of “certain” individuals.

“The task now is to convince the government and all the opposition groups … to sit at the negotiating table,” he said.

Kerry said the conference should be held “as soon as is practical – possibly and hopefully by the end of the month”. Neither he nor Lavrov said where it might take place.

Kerry said there would be “a growing crescendo of nations who will want to push for a peaceful resolution, rather than the chaos that comes with the break-up of a country”.

Kerry said the decision on who takes part in any transitional government should be left to the Syrians.

Lavrov said the aim would be “to persuade the government and the opposition together … to fully implement the Geneva communique” on creating a transitional government.

Russia, backed by China which shares its mistrust of Western enthusiasm for toppling some autocrats, has refused appeals to consider sanctions on Assad, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.

ASSAD DEFIANT

Recent developments have helped focus minds on the risks of wider war in the Middle East: intelligence reports that Assad’s troops may have used chemical weapons had renewed calls for Obama to arm the rebels or even offer U.S. forces; Islamist fighters pledging allegiance to al Qaeda has highlighted how some of the rebels are also hostile to the West; and Israeli air strikes said to target Iranian arms headed for Lebanon’s Hezbollah have underlined the risk of escalation.

In what appeared to be another sign of the country’s travails, Internet connections between Syria and the outside world were cut off on Tuesday, according to data from Google Inc and other global Internet companies.

Google’s Transparency Report pages showed traffic to Google services pages from Syria suddenly stopping shortly before 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT). Most websites within Syria were rendered unreachable as well, other experts said, as the county appeared to shut itself off.

REBELS TAKE U.N. PEACEKEEPERS HOSTAGE

Speaking before the announcement in Moscow, Assad was quoted by a sympathetic Lebanese television channel as saying he would defy Israel, the United States and Arab powers who oppose him.

“The recent Israeli aggressions expose the extent of the complicity between the Israeli occupier, regional countries and the West in promoting the current events in Syria,” he said.

“The Syrian people and their heroic army … are capable of confronting this Israeli adventure, which represents one of the faces of terrorism that is targeting Syria every day.”

While showing little desire to embroil U.S. forces in Syria after winding down engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has rejected criticism that he might back out of a commitment to act if Assad crossed a “red line” of using chemical weapons.

On Tuesday, he pointed to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toppling of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, brought down by a U.S.-backed rebellion, as evidence that “we typically follow through on our commitments”. It is still unclear if chemical weapons were used.

The chaos in Syria, where a fifth of the 25 million population has been driven from their homes, was underlined by the latest incident of rebels taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage on the ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the incident and called for the four Filipinos’ immediate release. They were detained as they patrolled close to an area where 21 Filipino observers were held for three days in March.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said the peacekeepers were seized for their own safety during clashes in the area.

More widely, the violence in a religiously and ethnically diverse country at the heart of the Arab and Muslim world has inflamed a confrontation between Iran and its fellow Shi’ite allies like Hezbollah on the one hand and the Sunni Arab powers, including U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, who back the Sunni rebels against Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Iran, at daggers drawn with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, warned of unforeseeable consequences if Assad were toppled and said only a political settlement to Syria’s civil war would avoid a regional conflagration.

“God forbid, if there is any vacuum in Syria, these negative consequences will affect all countries,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Jordan. “No one knows what will happen.”