World briefs 1/19/14

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ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The main, Western-backed Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending a coming peace conference aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year conflict.

The vote in Istanbul came as food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria's capital for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by President Bashar Assad's government ahead of the peace conference, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.

The Syrian National Coalition was under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux.

The Syrian government has already said it will attend the UN-sponsored talks.

The Coalition's leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that they are heading to the conference "without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution and we will not be cheated by Assad's regime."

But many Coalition members are hesitant to attend a conference that has little chance of success and will burn the last shred of credibility the group has with powerful rebels on the ground, who reject the talks. Many members boycotted the Istanbul meetings that began on Friday, forcing the Coalition's legal committee to approve the decision in a simple majority vote.

Spying won't damage relations: President Barack Obama has told German television that he will not allow U.S. spying to damage relations with Germany and other allies. Obama made the pledge in an interview with Germany's ZDF television broadcast Saturday night. The interview appeared to be aimed at repairing the damage to U.S. relations with Germany and other countries following reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had monitored communications of European citizens and had even listened in on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone. Obama says he has built a close relationship with Merkel and could not allow U.S. surveillance operations to damage that trust. Obama, according to a simultaneous German translation of his remarks, says that "as long as I am president of the United States, the German chancellor need not worry about that."

Support wide for new constitution: Almost everyone who cast ballots supported Egypt's new constitution in last week's referendum, results announced Saturday show, but a boycott by Islamists and low youth turnout suggest the country is still dangerously divided. Nearly 20 million voters backed the new constitution, almost double the number of those who voted for one drafted in 2012 under the government of toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Only a narrow sliver of voters -- 1.9 percent -- voted against the charter, after a massive government-sponsored campaign supporting it and the arrest of activists campaigning against it. Egypt's High Election Commission said 38.6 percent of the country's more than 53 million eligible voters took part in the two-day poll Tuesday and Wednesday. Judge Nabil Salib, who heads the commission, called the participation of 20.6 million voters an "unrivalled success" and "an unprecedented turnout." In 2012, some 16.7 million voters cast ballots on the constitution drafted under Morsi, representing a 32.9 percent turnout amid a boycott by liberal and youth groups. In that election, 63.8 percent voted for the constitution.

Inspectors arrive in Iran: A team of international inspectors arrived in Iran on Saturday ahead of the Islamic Republic opening its nuclear program as part of a landmark deal struck with world powers to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions being eased. Iranian state television reported that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations agency, landed in Tehran. It said nuclear engineer Massimo Aparo will lead the team, which will visit Natanz and Fordo, Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. The inspectors will monitor Iran's compliance with terms of a deal reached Nov. 24 in Geneva between the Islamic Republic and the so-called P5+1 world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. The deal takes effect Monday. Under the deal, Iran has agreed to halt production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is just steps away from bomb-making material. Iran will be able to continue enrichment up to 5 percent. It also will eliminate its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.

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