White House Denies Any Collusion Between The Trump Campaign And Russia

White House Denies Any Collusion Between The Trump Campaign And Russia

IMAGE: White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (L) and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (R) watch as U.S. President Donald Trump announces his nominee for the  empty associate justice seat at the U.S. Supreme Court, at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Islamic State Video Purportedly Shows Killing Of Christians In Libya

Islamic State Video Purportedly Shows Killing Of Christians In Libya

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CAIRO — In a gruesome replay of beheadings of captive Christians, an Islamic State video disseminated on social media Sunday purportedly shows the point-blank shootings and decapitations of two groups of Ethiopian Christians in Libya.

It depicts the killings taking place in what were apparently two locations, one described as being in the country’s south and the other showing a sunny Mediterranean beach. The same English-speaking fighter who presided over similar killings in a video released in February declares, “We are back again.”

The Ethiopian Christians, if their identity is ascertained, join a long list of victims of Islamic State. In Iraq and Syria, the group has taken particular aim at religious minorities, including Yazidis and Assyrians, while enforcing a more widespread reign of terror with such tactics as public executions, mass abductions, and sexual enslavement, together with the destruction of cultural treasures.

The nearly half-hour-long video, carrying the imprint of the militant group’s production arm, Al-Furqan Media, echoed the choreographed savagery of the February one, which showed the simultaneous beheadings of 21 men, 20 of them Egyptian Coptic Christians, on a Libyan beach.

Egypt at the time retaliated with airstrikes and tried without success to marshal regional support for military action against Islamist groups in Libya. But Egypt is a major military power, whereas Ethiopia’s use of force has mainly been confined to war with its neighbor, Eritrea.

Many of the executed Copts were from the same few wretchedly poor villages in southern Egypt. Impoverished and desperate laborers from nearby countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, continue to seek employment in Libya despite the mortal risks they run merely by being present in the collapsing North African nation. Christians have been at particular peril.

In the new video, released one week after Eastern Rite Christians celebrated Easter, the black-clad apparent ringleader informs “the nation of the cross” that Christians falling under Islamic State’s control face death if they do not accept Islam, according to a transcript provided by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant activity. The killings were carried out to “take revenge for Muslim blood,” the chief executioner said.

“We swear to Allah … you will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam,” he said. “Our battle is a battle between faith and blasphemy.”

In the video, black-clad captives kneel before a line of masked fighters dressed in military-style camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic weapons, with a few scrubby tree branches in the background. Most of the kneeling men bow their heads, but in a still photo, one directs an abjectly terrified gaze at the camera.

Elsewhere, more African-appearing men are forced to kneel on the beach, their orange jumpsuits — like those seen in previous videos — contrasting with the bright blue water behind them. Like the February video, this one lingers on the aftermath of their beheadings, with the waves stained red with blood and the executed men’s severed heads placed atop their corpses with faces plainly visible.

The exact number of victims could not be determined from the videos, which panned along the lines of men, but the two groups together appeared at least as large as that of the slain Coptic Christians. They were identified in a caption as adherents of “the hostile Ethiopian church.”

The video’s date and locations could not be independently verified, but depictions of previous killings have been authenticated by Western intelligence services.

Libya has fallen into chaos, with an array of heavily armed militias battling for political power and energy wealth. They are organized loosely into two factions loyal to either the Islamist-leaning former parliament or an internationally recognized government based in the country’s east.

Neither has gained the upper hand in months of fighting that has caused tens of thousands of Libyans to flee their homes, and international mediation efforts have failed.

Islamic militant groups across North Africa have declared allegiance to the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State, whose home base lies in a swath of Iraq and Syria. In Libya, militants identifying themselves as Islamic State loyalists had carried out previous strikes, including the deadly bombing of a luxury hotel in Tripoli in January.

The violence against Christians by Islamic State and other groups has drawn expressions of horror from Christian leaders, including Pope Francis. On Sunday, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was visiting Egypt to express condolences over the Copts’ executions.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: A flag of the Islamic State (IS) is seen in Rashad, Iraq, on September 11, 2014

Roadside Bomb Kills 6 Egyptian Police Officers In The Sinai Peninsula

Roadside Bomb Kills 6 Egyptian Police Officers In The Sinai Peninsula

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Six policemen were killed Tuesday when a bomb blast tore through their armored vehicle in the Sinai Peninsula, security officials said — the second such deadly attack this month.

Egyptian security forces have recently stepped up their offensive against armed Islamist groups in the Sinai, raiding hideouts and targeting militant leaders, and the insurgents have fought back with powerful roadside bombs.

The explosion occurred near the town of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip. In addition to the six killed, two police were injured, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. The vehicle was traveling in a convoy made up of police and soldiers, it said.

Security forces immediately launched a search for those who planted the buried bomb, the ministry said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but the militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for a similar attack on Sept. 2, which killed 11 members of the security forces.

The Sinai conflict remains relatively small in scope, but has escalated in ferocity. A recent militant tactic has been the beheading of accused spies.

The Egyptian military said on Monday that raids staged over the past two weeks had killed more than 50 insurgents and netted caches of weapons and explosives. An Egyptian news website, Aswat Masriya, reported that five other militants were killed Tuesday.

The Egyptian military offensive in the Sinai was launched after last summer’s deposing of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. The government says Morsi allowed militant groups in the rugged peninsula to flourish during his year in office.

The offensive has coincided with a broad crackdown, now in its second year, on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. The ex-president is behind bars and on trial for a variety of capital offenses. Thousands of his supporters are jailed as well, and more than 1,500 have been killed in clashes with security forces.

AFP Photo

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Libya Fighters May Be Guilty Of War Crimes, Rights Group Warns

Libya Fighters May Be Guilty Of War Crimes, Rights Group Warns

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Human Rights Watch warns that some tactics of rival militias in Libya amount to war crimes.

In the latest marker of Libya’s descent into chaos, a leading human rights group warned Monday that some battle tactics being employed by rival militias — looting and burning, indiscriminate fire and the seizing of civilian captives — amount to war crimes.

The report by New York-based Human Rights Watch represents the latest note of alarm sounded by international organizations in response to the fighting in Libya, which has led to a de facto partitioning of the oil-rich North African nation. Last week, a United Nations report cited grave abuses by the various combatants.

Libya had been restive for months, but veered toward all-out civil war when fighting broke out in July between mainly Islamist-linked militias from the coastal city of Misrata and rival armed groups from the mountain town of Zintan and their allies. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, and the Misrata-based faction, which calls itself the Libyan Dawn, asserted control of the capital, Tripoli, two weeks ago.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented attacks by Libyan Dawn in the aftermath of the Tripoli takeover that included the burning of homes belonging to figures the fighters considered to be political enemies, death threats against some of them, and two attacks on a private television station. Both armed factions appeared to have taken noncombatants as prisoners and engaged in indiscriminate fire in civilian areas, the group said.

“Commanders on both sides need to rein in their forces and end the cycle of abuses or risk being first in line for possible sanctions and international prosecution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “All warring parties, as well as the Libyan government, should respect their obligation to protect civilians at all times and to hold their forces accountable when they commit crimes.”

Separate fighting has been taking place in and around Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, where rogue former general Khalifa Hiftar since May has been waging an armed campaign against Islamist militias. He has vowed to take the battle to the capital.

The outbreak of violence, the worst since the uprising that toppled and eventually killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, has left Libya largely cut off from the world. The main international airports in Tripoli and Benghazi have been shuttered by fighting. Libyan Dawn now holds the Tripoli airport, which had been previously guarded by the Zintan militias.

Foreign diplomatic missions in the capital, including the U.S. Embassy, shut down over the summer as the fighting intensified. Last month, video posted online showed militiamen frolicking in a swimming pool at what was identified by diplomats as a residential annex of the American mission, which was abandoned in July.

Libya now has two rival governments, with an self-proclaimed legislative body in the capital and the internationally recognized parliament having retreated to the eastern city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border.

Deepening its isolation, Libya faces the prospect of broadened international sanctions in the wake of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last month, targeting those who “threaten the peace, stability or security” of the country.

AFP Photo/Mahmud Turkia

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Bomb Attack Kills 11 In Ambush Of Egyptian Security Forces

Bomb Attack Kills 11 In Ambush Of Egyptian Security Forces

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Egypt’s battle against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula heated up Tuesday when a security convoy was ambushed, killing 11 members of the nation’s security forces and wounding four more, the state news agency reported.

The attack came two days after Egyptian forces raided a village in the northern Sinai, with officials claiming afterward that six militants were killed and 10 others arrested.

Egypt has waged a more than yearlong campaign against Islamist groups that took root in the peninsula during the yearlong tenure of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was ejected from office last summer in a coup led by Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah Sisi.

In Tuesday’s attack, near the border with the Gaza Strip, two members of the security forces were reported to have been killed in an initial bomb blast, with the remainder dying in a hail of gunfire that followed.

The Sinai conflict has remained at relatively low intensity with occasional spasms of more serious violence. Last month, at least half a dozen decapitated bodies were found in the northern Sinai, and a militant group based in the peninsula claimed that the beheaded men had been executed as spies.

Egypt’s army has deployed helicopters and ground troops to attack militant strongholds, and the outgunned insurgents have fought back with roadside bombs and surprise attacks on isolated outposts or traveling convoys. Several hundred police officers and soldiers have been killed in the last year.

The fighting has harmed tourism in the peninsula, although most foreign visitors head to Red Sea resorts at Sinai’s southern tip, which has been largely unaffected.

AFP Photo

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Syrian Rebels Seize Border Crossing Into Israel-Held Golan Heights

Syrian Rebels Seize Border Crossing Into Israel-Held Golan Heights

By Laura King and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — Fighting in Syria’s civil war reached Israel’s doorstep on Wednesday, with rebels seizing the Syrian side of a crossing into the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights and the Israeli army reporting that stray gunfire wounded one of its officers.

The spillover of the Syrian conflict, though limited, rattled nerves, coming just a day after Israel and the Palestinian militant faction Hamas agreed to a truce after a 50-day battle in the Gaza Strip. That cease-fire held throughout the day on Wednesday.

The rebel group that overran the Quneitra crossing includes small elements of al-Qaida-linked groups such as the Nusra Front, which would place Israeli army positions within firing range of some of the more radical Islamists battling Syrian President Bashar Assad.

An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, confirmed that the crossing was no longer controlled by Syrian government forces.

Lerner said the Israeli army had declared a closed military zone in the border area and had “substantial forces” in the area holding defensive positions. However, he and other officials signaled Israel’s determination to avoid being drawn into Syria fighting.

With heavy explosions and gunfire audible from across the Syrian frontier, Israeli authorities ordered farmers to stay away from orchards and fields near the Quneitra crossing and closed some tourist sites and lookout posts to civilians, Israeli media reported. The Haaretz newspaper quoted tourism officials as saying visitors some distance from the crossing had not been given any special instructions in response to the fighting.

The Golan, filled with streams, forests and wildflowers, is a popular summertime vacation destination for Israelis.

Hours before the officer was wounded, the Israeli military said three mortar shells landed on the Israeli side of the border, and that Israeli forces had responded with artillery strikes aimed at Syrian army positions. Several similar incidents have taken place in recent weeks; last week a mortar shell fired from Syria struck Israeli-controlled territory, and in July a rocket hit an open field near an Israeli army post.

The fire was not believed to have been deliberately aimed at Israel, but as a matter of policy, Israel holds Syrian government forces responsible for any errant shelling. It has also complained to the U.N. peacekeeping force that operates along the frontier.

Amos Gilad, head of the defense ministry’s political-military bureau, told Israel Radio that Israel’s policy of a measured response to cross-border fire from Syria was intended to convey a message: “Leave Israel out of this.”

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, and fought off a Syrian attempt to retake the rugged plateau in 1973. Israel in effect annexed the Golan in 1981, but the step was not internationally recognized.

Photo: Roybb95 via Wikimedia Commons

Israel, Palestinians Agree To Long-Term Cease-Fire In Gaza Conflict

Israel, Palestinians Agree To Long-Term Cease-Fire In Gaza Conflict

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — The warring parties in the Gaza Strip agreed Tuesday to a long-term cease-fire, both sides said, raising hopes that a 50-day-old conflict that has killed more than 2,200 people might be at an end.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced the accord, mediated by Egypt, and a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the agreement had been accepted.

Exchanges of fire continued up until the moment that the truce was to have taken hold, at 7 p.m. local time. One Israeli fatality was reported in a strike that hit the south — one of dozens of rockets and mortars lobbed into Israel on Tuesday.

The outlines of the cease-fire plan — the longest of the truces agreed to during the fighting — called for a lifting of the blockade on Gaza by Israel and Egypt to allow for reconstruction and humanitarian aid in the coastal enclave. Israel was also to halt its targeting of leaders and commanders from Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and Gaza’s fishermen were allocated a larger zone, extending six miles offshore.

Those concessions depended on an end to rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. But many thornier issues were left for negotiations later.

Celebratory shouts and gunfire broke out in the streets of Gaza at the time the truce was to take effect.

Earlier Tuesday, Israel had inflicted punishing airstrikes on Gaza that reduced one high-rise building to rubble and badly damaged another, leaving hundreds homeless and injuring about two dozen people. The thunderous predawn bombardment — preceded by warning telephone calls and texts, together with nonlethal drone strikes — targeted a 15-story apartment and office tower and a high-rise complex containing dozens of shops, offices, and cafes.

Residents fled nearby homes as well while glass and chunks of concrete rained down, sending aloft enormous clouds of dust and smoke.

The Israeli military did not cite a specific reason for striking the buildings, though it warned over the weekend that any structure used by Hamas or other militant groups could be targeted. Up until Saturday, when the first high-rise was toppled, airstrikes had sometimes targeted a particular apartment or office in a tall building but refrained from leveling it altogether.

During the past week of renewed fighting, which broke out after the collapse of a previous truce, Israel also targeted individual Hamas commanders and officials.

The death toll in Gaza since the conflict erupted on July 8 has topped 2,200, with most of the fatalities reported by the U.N. to be civilians. Sixty-nine people have died on the Israeli side, all but four of them soldiers.

Meanwhile, the economic effects of the fighting were being increasingly felt in Israel. On Tuesday, the Bank of Israel cut its benchmark lending rate by a quarter of a point, bringing it to 0.25 percent. Economists were forecasting a slowdown in economic growth brought on by the conflict, which has damaged tourism and industry in the country’s south.

AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed

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After Israeli Airstrikes, Hamas Kills 18 Suspected Informers

After Israeli Airstrikes, Hamas Kills 18 Suspected Informers

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — At least 18 Palestinians accused of spying for Israel were executed Friday in the Gaza Strip on the orders of a self-appointed Palestinian “revolutionary court,” Hamas-linked media and witnesses reported.

Meanwhile, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, a rocket fired from Gaza made a direct hit on a synagogue, badly damaging the structure and causing minor injuries to at least two people, Israeli media said.

The escalating violence in the 6-week-old war follows this week’s collapse of a series of cease-fires and an abrupt suspension of interim negotiations that had been taking place in Cairo, the Egyptian capital. Since Tuesday, Palestinian militants have fired dozens of rockets into Israel, while the Israeli military has responded with a wave of hits against what it describes as terrorist targets.

The executions in Gaza came after pinpoint Israeli airstrikes earlier in the week killed three senior Hamas commanders and took aim at the chief of the group’s military wing, killing his wife and two of his children. Analysts said that to so accurately target the Hamas commanders, Israel’s military would almost certainly have needed human intelligence to supplement electronic surveillance.

Notices posted on walls in Gaza declared that those lined up and shot — apparently including two women, according to a Palestinian human rights group — were “traitors” who had “given information to the enemy” about the location of infiltration tunnels, weapons caches, rocket-launching sites, and the homes of fighters.

Eleven of the accused collaborators were shot and killed in Gaza City’s Katiba Square near Azhar University, according to a Hamas-affiliated radio station, and the other seven were executed near the Omari mosque after Friday prayers. Photos posted on Hamas-linked websites purportedly showed some of the condemned, their heads covered in paper bags, being forced to their knees in front of a wall, with bloodstains marking the ground in the aftermath.

Most Palestinians are well aware of the lethal consequences of cooperating in any way with Israeli forces, but informants often play a major role in pinpoint attacks against wanted fugitives from Palestinian militant factions. Some collaborators are offered inducements such as exit permits in order to provide information to Israel; others have reported being blackmailed or coerced into spying. And some are wrongly accused by Palestinian militant groups.

Thursday’s killing of three Hamas commanders in the southern town of Rafah was a major blow against the command structure of the group’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades. Another strike on Tuesday, in the Gaza neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, was aimed at the top Hamas military commander, Mohammed Deif, and killed his wife, an infant son and toddler daughter. Israeli media reports strongly suggested that Deif might have been killed as well, but officials did not report any definitive proof and Hamas insisted he was still alive.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.

AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams

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Israeli Airstrike Kills 3 Senior Hamas Leaders

Israeli Airstrike Kills 3 Senior Hamas Leaders

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — The militant group Hamas said three of its senior military leaders were killed early Thursday in an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip that also killed at least seven other people.

The Israeli military confirmed carrying out the attack in response to continuing rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The latest strikes appeared to mark a tactical shift on the part of Israel, which until this week had largely refrained from targeting specific Hamas leaders. On Tuesday, Israeli forces made an apparent attempt to assassinate Hamas’ top military commander, killing his wife and infant son in an airstrike. Hamas said the commander, Mohammed Deif, was not present at the time.

Thursday marked a third day of renewed hostilities in Gaza after two weeks of relative calm, during which the two sides had for the most part observed a series of temporary cease-fires while holding indirect talks in Cairo. The negotiations collapsed along with the calm; there was no word on when or whether those talks would resume.

Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, said in a brief announcement that the three men killed in the southern town of Rafah were Mohammad Abu Shamaleh, Raed Attar, and Mohammad Barhoum. Witnesses said Israeli warplanes fired a volley of missiles at a five-story building in the Tel Sultan neighborhood, leveling it.

Rafah was the scene of heavy fighting earlier in the Israeli offensive.

The three Hamas men killed were known to be senior members of the Qassam command structure. Attar was the local commander in Rafah, and was believed to have overseen the building of a network of tunnels in the area, and the smuggling of weapons from Egypt. Abu Shamaleh was a commander in southern Gaza, and Israel says he and Attar masterminded the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held prisoner in Gaza for five years before being freed in a large-scale prisoner exchange.

Attar was years ago sentenced to death by the Palestinian Authority for killing a police officer, but that sentence was commuted by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The death toll in Gaza since fighting broke out on July 8 is now above 2,000. Sixty-seven people have died on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.

Los Angeles Times special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Thomas Coex

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Egypt Authorities Likely Committed Crimes Against Humanity, Group Says

Egypt Authorities Likely Committed Crimes Against Humanity, Group Says

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

A leading international human rights group asserted Tuesday that Egyptian authorities likely committed crimes against humanity in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators last August, most of them supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt sharply disputed the findings of New York-based Human Rights Watch and barred senior representatives of the organization from entering the country to publicly present their report, which was based on a yearlong investigation.

The group urged that an international commission of inquiry be convened to investigate the “widespread and systematic” killings in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square and several other locales. At least 817 people and possibly more than 1,000 were killed by security forces at Rabaa alone, Human Rights Watch said.

The document calls for an independent probe of the role of President Abdel Fattah Sisi, the then-military chief, and other senior military and security officials. It alleges that the security forces were essentially given carte blanche to use deadly force against protesters, and that the official plan for dealing with Morsi backers envisioned the likely deaths of several thousand demonstrators.

The violence erupted six weeks after the military removed Morsi from office after mass demonstrations demanding an end to his rule. Morsi, who is now on trial for a variety of capital offenses, was Egypt’s first freely elected president.

The Egyptian government conducted its own investigation of the deaths in mid-August of last year, when pro-Morsi sit-in camps were dispersed by police and soldiers. A government-backed human rights panel put the death toll at less than 700, and found — without implicating particular officials — that both sides had used excessive force.

Responding to Tuesday’s Human Rights Watch report, Egypt’s official State Information Service said the findings were characterized by “negativity and bias” and “ignored terrorist acts carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters.”

In the year since the killings, Egyptian authorities have carried out a wide-ranging crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s oldest and largest Islamist movement, and curtailed a range of basic rights, including freedom of speech and assembly. The judiciary system has also rendered a series of harsh mass verdicts against alleged Brotherhood backers.

Many government opponents, both Islamist and secular, have been imprisoned under a tough anti-protest law. Academics, activists, filmmakers, and journalists have faced prosecution for activities allegedly endangering national security, including three journalists from the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera English, who were sentenced earlier this summer to seven-year prison terms on terrorism-related charges.

AFP Photo

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As Israel, Hamas Claim Victory, Gaza Residents Ask What Was Gained

As Israel, Hamas Claim Victory, Gaza Residents Ask What Was Gained

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the wake of any ugly conflict, the question of who won can seem beside the point. Still, as fighting in the Gaza Strip gave way to a truce on Tuesday, Israel and Hamas both were quick to claim victory.

And it was left to those who took the pounding during the four-week war, particularly residents of this luckless sliver of seaside territory, to question whether anything of worth could be found.

On the first day of the most durable-seeming cease-fire since the conflict erupted July 8, each side claimed to have dealt the other a damaging blow while achieving significant aims of its own.

Hamas depicted Israel as irretrievably tarred in the eyes of the world and as having proved vulnerable to the elaborate warren of tunnels under Gaza and its boundaries. Israel portrayed Hamas as a willing executioner of its own people, a fighting force left crippled by the Israeli onslaught, and a pariah to its Arab neighbors.

“Mission accomplished,” the Israeli army spokesman’s office said on Twitter as the 72-hour cease-fire, which went on to last throughout the day, took hold at 8 a.m. “We have destroyed tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel. All of Israel is now safer.” The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to send a delegation to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for indirect negotiations with Hamas.

Hamas official Sami abu Zuhri, speaking to the movement’s Al Aqsa television, boasted that the tenacity of Gaza’s defenders — popping in and out of their tunnels, often inflicting multiple casualties on Israeli forces, coming close to capturing two Israeli troops who were ultimately declared dead — had deprived Israel of its traditional power of deterrence.

“Netanyahu has failed 100 percent in Gaza,” he said, adding that Hamas still had “much that we can do.”

For Gaza residents, the picture was sadder and more complicated. To Mustafa Taha, shepherding his family of nine back to their half-ruined house in Beit Hanoun, in Gaza’s battered northern tier, the suffering of these past weeks seemed pointless.

“What did anyone gain by this?” he asked, teetering atop a jumble of household possessions — flowered mattresses, pink dish towels, cracked dinner plates — piled into a donkey-drawn cart.

Some on the Israeli side agreed that the country’s third war with Hamas in six years had yielded little in the way of strategic advantage, especially when weighed against the degree of devastation. “Neither side won,” said Israeli newspaper columnist Danny Rubinstein.

In Gaza, particularly in areas that lie close to Israel, whole districts were leveled, with piles of rubble where homes once stood.

Nearly 1,900 Palestinians were killed, about 400 children among them, by the estimate of Palestinian officials and human rights groups. Already feeble infrastructure was smashed and about 400,000 people — nearly a quarter of the territory’s population — were displaced by fighting.

In a theme that will probably be sounded in coming days, disputes broke out over how many of the Palestinian dead were noncombatants. Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said up to 900 of those killed were fighters from Hamas or other militant groups. Other Israeli military sources have estimated the figure to be around 300.

As the truce held through the day on Tuesday, the gravediggers of Gaza were busy carving out narrow niches in the sandy ground, as more bodies were retrieved from under rubble. Shops and businesses reopened. Children played in the surf at Gaza’s seafront. Fishermen cast their nets. Barbers did a brisk business in haircuts, a tradition for the Eid holiday that came and went during the fighting.

“Pizza tomorrow!” crowed Mahmoud Yaghi, the proprietor of a small restaurant. Traffic was flowing, though not at its usual chaotic volume. The occasional sound of Israeli drones made some passersby glance anxiously upward.

Palestinians made the rounds of bomb-wrecked homes, salvaging what they could. Tarek Aijlah, 30, wryly held up a find: a roll of gauze. “Enough destruction,” he said.

On the Israeli side, civilian deaths over the last month could be counted on one hand — three, including a foreign farm worker. But in a country where army service remains an instrument of national solidarity, the deaths of 64 troops amounted to military loss on a scale not seen in nearly a decade.

For weeks, continual rocket fire disrupted lives and rattled nerves across Israel, even though nearly all the projectiles that would have struck populated areas were intercepted by a sophisticated U.S.-funded anti-missile system. Israel estimated that Hamas had embarked on the fight with an arsenal of about 10,000 rockets and missiles. About two-thirds of those were fired at Israel or destroyed.

On Tuesday, parents of Israeli soldiers drove south to military staging grounds to visit sons they hadn’t seen for at least a month. Some had come out of Gaza only hours before.

Closed military areas adjacent to Gaza were reopened, and heavy movement of military vehicles caused traffic jams on roadways in southern Israel. Authorities also eased restrictions that had been imposed on large public gatherings because of the threat of rockets fired from Gaza. Major universities and colleges announced plans to resume classes in coming days.

The extent of the threat from Hamas’ elaborate network of tunnels stirred dread among Israelis. Military video of the “Gaza Underground” showed well-engineered subterranean passageways ready to funnel fighters under the fence surrounding the strip for large-scale assaults.

Hamas boasted it would build more, but that would be difficult without the cement and other materials that flowed freely through Egyptian smuggling tunnels during the yearlong rule of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled last summer by the military.

As the Palestinian death toll spiraled, Israel came under a wave of international opprobrium, including unusually sharp criticism from its closest ally, the United States. International experts said Israel faced the very real threat of war crimes prosecution. But the Netanyahu government insisted that the fact that more Palestinians died than in the last two wars in Gaza combined was a direct consequence of Hamas and other militant groups having tunnels and weaponry in crowded neighborhoods.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said that because Hamas had spurned a cease-fire proposal by Egypt three weeks ago that was nearly identical to the one accepted late Monday meant it and not Israel bore responsibility for subsequent deaths.

“The people of Gaza are not our enemy,” Regev told CNN.

Israel’s hope that Gazans would blame Hamas for the carnage appeared largely unrealized. Even at the height of the fighting, at still-smoking bombardment sites and in hospital emergency rooms with blood-slicked floors, Palestinians tended to offer only the most muted criticism of the militant group. If they did criticize Hamas, they did so gingerly, and coupled their words with far harsher condemnation of Israel.

In a compound across the street from a bombed-out building in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where Israel killed a leader of Hamas ally Islamic Jihad and at least six other men in an airstrike Monday, a tiny boy of no more than 4 approached a pair of Western visitors, eager to speak.

“May God take vengeance upon Israel!” he squeaked, to the approving nods of adult onlookers.

Pro-Hamas sentiment could shift, however, if the movement and its allies are unable, after so many deaths, to make headway in the upcoming negotiations on their principal demand: that Israel and Egypt ease their tight curtailment of goods and people in and out of the tiny coastal strip.

“All the industries are dying, and there are no jobs for the young,” said a 50-year-old gold merchant in Gaza’s old city who wanted to be identified only by the nickname Abu Mohammed. “It’s a kind of suffocation. So if we can’t change that, this has all been for nothing.

“In bombings you die instantly,” he said. “Maybe that is better than dying slowly in this blockade.”

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Gaza Tunnel Network Threat Leaves Israelis Shaken

Gaza Tunnel Network Threat Leaves Israelis Shaken

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

KIBBUTZ EREZ, Israel — Beneath the wheat and watermelon fields surrounding this farm community just outside the Gaza Strip lies a threat that helps explain the overwhelming public support in Israel for the war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A little more than a week ago, assailants dressed in Israeli military uniforms clambered out of an underground passageway about halfway between this hamlet of 400 or so people and a neighboring kibbutz, Nir Am. Israeli troops killed nine of them, but not before the attackers killed four soldiers.

The specter of such assaults via a large and sophisticated network of subterranean passageways has profoundly shaken Israelis long accustomed to a different threat from the coastal strip, that of rocket and mortar fire. Four such infiltrations have taken place since the start of the Gaza offensive, killing at least 11 Israeli soldiers and haunting the collective psyche.

“From this, you can’t protect yourself,” said Ruti Sheves, 64, who has lived in Kibbutz Erez for 40 years. “You don’t have a shelter where you can run and be safe. You can’t be safe from this.”

Troops operating in and near Gaza have tracked 36 tunnels with dozens of access points, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Wednesday, as the Israeli offensive in Gaza entered its fourth week. Miles of passageways, many stocked with weapons and reinforced against explosions from above, pass near or directly beneath schools, mosques and hospitals, threading their way under some of the most densely populated terrain on Earth.

“We already finished destroying more than 22, and it’s going on day and night,” Hanegbi said. “We want to go as fast as possible.”

Hamas for years has boasted that tunnels are an equalizer in an asymmetric battle. This week, Israelis were horrified by video Hamas released of an attack outside Nahal Oz, another farming community just outside the Gaza boundary, that left five Israeli soldiers dead.

Grainy but gripping, the attacker’s-eye images begin underground, emerging to open fields and blue sky. Lasting nearly four minutes, the video shows the assailants — faces blurred to prevent identification — exchanging fire with Israeli soldiers. They stand over one body and fire repeatedly at close range. One attacker triumphantly displays a seized machine gun.

The army has countered with its own brand of tunnel video, releasing almost daily images of specially trained troops gingerly dismantling booby traps and uncovering dark passageways.

The presence of the tunnel network has long been known to Israel; one was used to stage the 2006 attack that resulted in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He was held captive in Gaza for five years before being freed in a massive prisoner exchange.

But the underground grid’s scope, scale, and sophistication, which has become clear over the course of the current offensive, has caught many by surprise. Concrete-lined, with electricity and metal tracks for transport, the carefully ventilated passageways appear to have been designed as the conduit for large-scale assaults and clandestine abductions. Israel says it has found “kidnap kits” consisting of handcuffs and tranquilizers in some of the tunnels.

In the heated rhetoric surrounding the fighting in Gaza, which has killed more than 1,200 Palestinians, many of them women and children, the tunnels have emerged as the key Israeli rationale for keeping up the fight rather than agreeing to a cease-fire lasting for longer than a matter of hours. The tunnels are also cited as the principal reason for military operations taking place in the heart of jam-packed Palestinian residential neighborhoods, which have exacted a heavy civilian toll.

“We will not complete the mission, we will not complete the operation, without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week.

Fueling the anxiety among Israelis, the Maariv newspaper cited intelligence sources as saying that Palestinian militants had planned to use the tunnels to infiltrate Israel with a force consisting of hundreds of fighters disguised as Israeli soldiers, in an assault timed to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, in late September.

Under heavy international pressure as the bloodletting mounts in Gaza, Israel appears to be trying to buy time to continue destroying the tunnel network.

“We are only a few days away from destroying the attack tunnels,” said Maj. Gen. Sami Turjeman, the head of Israel’s southern command, said in a televised briefing Wednesday night. He sounded a note often echoed by Israeli officialdom: Hamas could have built “two hospitals, 20 schools, 20 clinics, and 100 kindergartens” with the cement and other materials used to construct the tunnels.

Attention to the tunnel network has supplanted even the alarm over the more than 2,500 rockets and missiles fired at Israel during the offensive. Debate about whether the discovery of the scope of the problem represents an intelligence failure has been muted by reluctance to criticize the army at what is seen as a time of crisis.

How best to deal with the threat in the long term has been dissected and discussed by a parade of technical experts. Destroying the tunnels is almost as much of an engineering challenge as constructing them must have been, military officials say.

Although technology plays a role in uncovering the passageways, Reserve Brig. Gen. Shimon Daniel, a former head of the army’s combat engineering corps, said intelligence and surveillance collected over a long period played an equally important role.

Like other officers who have been immersed in tunnel tracking, he cited the unnerving psychological dimension of the tunnels in the eyes of the Israeli public.

“Most threats you hear and see,” he said. “But this has the element of surprise, of the unknown, and that’s very frightening to people.”

Kibbutzniks expressed sympathy for the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. But like Israelis as a whole, according to a series of public surveys, most felt there was no choice but to uproot the tunnels by whatever means necessary. Many had curtailed routines like walking alone on pathways skirting farm fields, green expanses that were once a soothing sight.

“This is our home, and we’re not leaving,” said Orna Naim, 52, who together with her husband had raised three children at Kibbutz Erez. “We wish we could live as neighbors, in peace. But this has to stop.”

Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed

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No Breakthroughs As Kerry Joins Talks For Gaza Cease-Fire

No Breakthroughs As Kerry Joins Talks For Gaza Cease-Fire

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip yielded no apparent breakthrough on Tuesday, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry reiterated U.S. support for an Egyptian-authored truce initiative, while also opening the door to wider negotiations.

More than 600 Palestinians and at least 29 Israelis have died in a blistering two-week Israeli offensive against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. A rising international chorus has called for a halt to the hostilities, which have exacted a heavy toll on civilians in the impoverished coastal territory.

“We are continuing to work, and there is more work to be done,” Kerry said after a round of high-level meetings in Cairo with officials including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Arab League president Nabil Elaraby, and the intelligence chief for the Palestinian Authority, Majid Farraj.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry, who also met with Kerry, said at a joint news conference that his government had no plans to alter the terms of its truce proposal, which was accepted by Israel but spurned by Hamas.

Israel’s stated aim is to destroy infiltration tunnels leading out of Gaza and wipe out Hamas’ ability to fire rockets and missiles at Israel.

But with round-the-clock bombardment hitting homes and mosques in tightly packed residential neighborhoods, there have been numerous instances of whole families being killed and wounded. About three-quarters of the Palestinian dead in Gaza are civilians, many women and children among them.

In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and declared afterward that “the international community must hold Hamas accountable” for repeatedly rejecting cease-fire offers and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Ban, who has sharply criticized Israel’s actions in recent days, said he recognized its right to self-defense, but also stressed that all combatants had a responsibility to protect civilians.

“My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting,” he said.

In Cairo, Kerry and Shukry took no questions from reporters, but said they shared the goal of not only achieving a swift truce to halt the fighting, but also crafting a durable accord to prevent periodic outbreaks of conflict in Gaza. The current fighting is the third round of warfare in the strip since 2009.

“We have a common vision,” said Shukry, citing the need to “put an end to the bloodshed and killing of innocent children.”

He praised a U.S. pledge of $47 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza, announced by Kerry when he arrived in the Egyptian capital late Monday.

Kerry did not publicly commit to an attempt to revive overall Israeli-Palestinian talks that collapsed in April, but said “just reaching a cease-fire, clearly, is not enough.” He said it was imperative to also address “all the concerns that have brought us to where we are today” in Gaza.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Carolyn Cole

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Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan To Run For President

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan To Run For President

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — To the surprise of almost no one, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan formalized his bid for the presidency on Tuesday, with his ruling Justice and Development Party announcing that he would be its candidate.

Erdogan is widely expected to win the Aug. 10 vote, despite a difficult year that encompassed a harsh crackdown on protests, a corruption scandal that touched his inner circle and a brusquely insensitive response to a disaster that killed more than 300 coal miners. The prime minister was also mocked for a heavy-handed move against Twitter and other social media networks.

Winning the presidency would make Erdogan one of modern Turkey’s most durable political leaders, surpassed only by founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His Islamist-leaning party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, came to power in 2002, and Erdogan has been at center stage ever since — so much so that some refer to him as “the Sultan.”

Erdogan, 60, would hit a term limit as prime minister next year, so he had been expected to seek the presidency and to take what steps he can to enhance the powers of what is largely a figurehead post. The current president, party cohort Abdullah Gul, said over the weekend that he would not run for a second term.

The balloting on Aug. 10, which would be followed by a runoff round on Aug. 24 if there were no initial winner, marks Turkey’s first direct presidential election. There are two other candidates in the race, but neither is thought to have levels of support approaching those of Erdogan.

The prime minister’s track record in more than a decade of leadership is a mixed one. In his early years, Erdogan presided over strong economic growth and was held up as proof that democracy and a moderately Islamist worldview were not incompatible.

But the last year or more has seen a sharp slide toward authoritarianism and an accompanying erosion of ties with the West. Security forces violently put down demonstrations that were initially spurred by efforts to save a park in the congested heart of Istanbul but soon grew to reflect much broader discontent. The optics appeared to matter little to Erdogan; last month, Turkish police dragged away CNN correspondent Ivan Watson in the midst of a live broadcast on the protests.

Once aspiring to a role as regional conciliator, Turkey has lately quarreled with neighbors, alienating Egypt with outspoken support of its ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, allowing passage to rebels heading to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar Assad, and backing away from a role as Israel’s closest strategic partner in the Muslim world.

AFP Photo / Adem Altan

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Egyptian Leader Says He Won’t ‘Interfere’ In Verdicts Against Journalists

Egyptian Leader Says He Won’t ‘Interfere’ In Verdicts Against Journalists

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Striking a defiant tone amid a cascade of international criticism, President Abdel Fattah Sisi declared Tuesday that he would not intercede in the case of three journalists from the broadcaster Al Jazeera, who were sentenced a day earlier to lengthy prison terms.

The sentencing of the three men to seven years in jail on terror-related charges, with an additional three-year term handed down to one of them for allegedly possessing ammunition, triggered denunciations by rights groups and calls for Sisi to step in. Western governments, including the Obama administration, condemned the court proceedings as unfair and the verdict as gravely harsh.

Rights groups and other observers maintain that Egyptian authorities’ claim that the three aided the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamist movement banned as a terror group — was motivated by Egypt’s anger at Qatar, which owns and operates Al Jazeera. The Persian Gulf emirate has been a vocal backer of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed last summer in a military coup after nationwide protests demanding he step down.

The three journalists — Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, all with long resumes of work at well-regarded international outlets — have been held since December. Colleagues around the world have sought to keep the case in the public eye with online protest campaigns calling for their release.

The journalists’ families and others had expressed hopes that Sisi might commute the sentences or pardon them outright. But the former military man appeared to dash those hopes in a televised address at a military graduation ceremony, in which he insisted — as Egyptian officials have done with regard to other extreme rulings, such as mass death sentences — that the independence of the courts must be respected.

“There has been a lot of talk over the verdicts issued yesterday,” the President told his audience. He said he had spoken with the Justice Minister and “I told him one thing: We won’t interfere in judiciary matters, because the Egyptian judiciary is independent and lofty.”

Sisi’s remarks echoed the Foreign Ministry guidance given to Egypt’s diplomats around the world for discussions with governments objecting to the verdict. A number of envoys had already been summoned by the governments in question, including Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands. Two Britons and a Dutch national received 10-year jail terms in absentia in the same case.

Monday’s sentencing came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had visited Cairo and raised concerns about the case, while publicly promising the swift restoration of military aid suspended last year amid concern over the Cairo government’s campaign to crush the Brotherhood.

Kerry himself is now being sharply criticized by supporters of the convicted journalists for an overly accommodating stance toward the Egyptian leadership, which has enacted a range of repressive measures in the past year. Sisi took office as president this month, but had been the main power since the toppling of Morsi.

Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.

Image: Egyptian state television Al-Masriya

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Kerry Meets el-Sissi In Cairo, Walks A Fine Line

Kerry Meets el-Sissi In Cairo, Walks A Fine Line

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Sunday’s hours-long visit to Cairo by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the highest-level American official to meet with newly inaugurated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, was a study in nuance. On the one hand, Kerry telegraphed concern over the Cairo government’s crackdown on dissidents of all stripes; on the other, he praised Egypt as a crucial strategic partner and suggested that frozen U.S. military aid would be quick to thaw.

Relations between Cairo and Washington have been fraught during the more than 11 months since el-Sissi, elected president by a landslide vote last month, supplanted his elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi. The Egyptian military, with el-Sissi at its helm, removed Morsi from office last July after huge nationwide protests demanding an end to the Islamist president’s rule.

The Obama administration declined to describe the deposing of Morsi as a coup, which would have triggered an automatic aid cutoff. Nonetheless, U.S. officials expressed growing concern as well-documented human rights violations mounted in the ensuing months.

“For Egypt, this is … a moment of high stakes as well as a moment of great opportunity,” Kerry said at a news conference. He said the American administration hoped to see improvements in Egypt’s crippled economy in concert with enhanced rights, including press freedom.

The secretary’s visit came on the eve of what is expected to be the final session in the trial of three journalists from Al Jazeera English, who have been jailed for nearly six months on terrorism-related charges. The Qatar-based broadcaster says the charges are politically motivated, galvanized by Egypt’s anger over the tiny Gulf emirate’s outspoken support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated as a terrorist organization.

The day before Kerry arrived, an Egyptian court upheld death sentences for 183 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused in connection with a violent riot that left a police officer dead. Mass tribunals and harsh penalties meted out to alleged Brotherhood supporters have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and legal advocacy organizations.

Kerry described the current climate as a “critical moment of transition” for Egypt. “There are issues of concern,” he said. “But we know how to work at these.”

As Kerry embarked on his visit, U.S. officials cited what they characterized as encouraging signs. Those included the Egyptian government’s self-declared crackdown on sexual violence, in the wake of horrific assaults on women in public spaces including Tahrir Square, epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak.

El-Sissi overwhelmingly won last month’s presidential election with promises of an emphasis on security and repairing Egypt’s battered economy.

Despite Washington’s concerns about widespread human rights violations, the firestorm in Iraq has heightened the strategic importance of a stable alliance with Egypt.

The United States last year froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of American foreign assistance, but the White House has been moving to restore much of it, though lawmakers have delayed that effort.

From Cairo, Kerry traveled on to Amman, Jordan.

AFP Photo/Fadi Arouri

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Egyptian Activist, Icon Of Tahrir Square, Gets 15-Year Prison Term

Egyptian Activist, Icon Of Tahrir Square, Gets 15-Year Prison Term

By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — In the first such verdict under Egypt’s new president, a criminal court on Wednesday handed down a 15-year prison sentence against one of the leading figures of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

The heavy jail term for activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was arrested in November on charges that included violating a tough anti-protest law, appeared to bode ill for any easing of a wide-ranging crackdown on political dissent over the last 11 months in Egypt.

Two dozen others on trial along with Abdel Fattah also received 15-year terms and fines of nearly $14,000 each, making it the latest instance of a mass sentencing by an Egyptian court. International rights groups and legal advocacy organizations have said any semblance of due process is unlikely to occur in tribunals and verdicts involving dozens or even hundreds of defendants at once.

During the Tahrir Square uprising more than three years ago, the 32-year-old Abdel Fattah became internationally known as one of the young and social-media savvy faces of the pro-democracy movement. He comes from a family of prominent activists; his father is a distinguished human rights lawyer jailed under Mubarak, and his aunt is the novelist Adhaf Soueif, whose works have been translated into many languages. Abdel Fattah’s wife and sister are also well-known activists.

Abdel Fattah had been freed in March after being held for nearly four months. He was re-arrested immediately after Wednesday’s sentencing, for which he was not allowed into the courtroom.

The co-defendants in his case were among the first to be prosecuted under a law enacted in November, which criminalized street protests unless sanctioned by the government. Other charges levied against Abdel Fattah included assaulting a police officer. His backers say video evidence does not support that claim.

Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Sisi, took office on Sunday with pledges of political inclusiveness for all but those who advocate or commit violence. The interim administration that assumed power last July — in which Sisi, as defense minister, served as Egypt’s de facto leader — jailed thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood of toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, together with much smaller numbers of liberal secular activists.

Egyptian authorities say there are no political prisoners in the country, a claim dismissed by rights groups. This week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly declared that Sisi was taking office amid “a human rights crisis as dire as any period in the country’s modern history,” and urged him to implement swift reforms.

The rights groups cited ongoing abuses, including use of excessive force by police and soldiers, mass arrests and torture, and sharply curtailed freedom of speech and assembly.

AFP Photo