In this image from amateur video obtained by a group which calls itself Ugarit News, shows rebel fighters celebrating after purportedly capturing an army base in Nairab, northwestern Syria, Thursday, May 23, 2013. The video is consistent with independent AP reporting. Rebel fighters captured an army base late Wednesday, a rare victory after a series of battlefield setbacks, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group said. The group said scores of pro-regime troops and more than a dozen rebels were killed in the battle for the base, near the northwestern town of Nairab. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad fired heavy machine guns and lobbed mortar shells at each other Thursday in some of the worst fighting in the port city of Tripoli in years.
The battles raised the five-day death toll to 16 and fed fears of the Syrian civil war spreading to Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
The violence also added to the urgency to U.S.-Russian efforts to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a peace conference in Geneva. Members of the Syrian opposition began three day meetings in Istanbul to hash out a unified position on whether to attend, while maintaining that Assad's departure from power should be the goals of the negotiations.
Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011. The country, which is still struggling to recover from its own 15-year civil war, is sharply divided along sectarian lines and into pro and anti-Assad camps. The overt involvement by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite militant group alongside Assad's regime has sparked outrage among many Sunnis in Lebanon who identify with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Deadly sectarian street fighting has erupted on several occasions, mostly in Tripoli, Lebanon's largest city and a hotbed for Sunni Islamists. This week's fighting there has been linked to a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held city of Qusair in western Syria that has included Hezbollah fighters supporting Syrian troops against the rebels.
Tripoli is overwhelmingly Sunni but has a tiny community of Alawites, members of Assad's minority sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Residents reported more than six hours of fighting that began late Wednesday and continued through Thursday morning. Mortar shells were used for the first time. Ambulances rushed back and forth, transporting casualties to hospitals as officials used mosque loudspeakers to urge citizens to take shelter in basements. Schools and many businesses were shuttered Thursday as sporadic fighting continued.
Five people were killed, pushing the overall death toll to 16 since fighting began Sunday, with 200 people wounded, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
"It was a frightful night that instilled terror in the heart of every resident of Tripoli," said Shada Dabliz, a 40-year-old peace activist in the city. "Tripoli is part of Lebanon, where is the state? Why doesn't the government do anything?"
Cabinet minister Faisal Karami said the fighting was among the worst in the city since Lebanon's civil war that ended in 1990, according to comments reported by Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.
Ashraf Rifi, a former police chief who has a large Sunni following in Tripoli, said the flare-up in Tripoli was a direct result of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria and accused the group of "trying to deflect attention" from its participation in the fighting in Syria.
Hezbollah and its allies held a dominant role in the Lebanese government, which resigned in March but continues to function on a caretaker basis. Various Lebanese factions have been unable to agree on the formation of a new government.
Fighting in Qusair continued for a fifth day Thursday, after Syrian opposition leaders urged rebels from elsewhere to converge on the town, which is strategically important to both sides.
The regime would solidify control in the heavily populated west if it retakes the town, which links the capital Damascus with the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast. For the rebels, predominantly Sunni Qusair is part of a supply line of weapons and fighters from Lebanon.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said Thursday that 46 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the battle for Qusair. In the past, Hezbollah tried to play down its involvement in the civil war, but its high-profile role in Qusair has made that impossible. Hezbollah has held funerals for fighters who officials close to the group say died at Qusair.
Overall, at least 104 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria in recent months, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria.
Hezbollah's growing involvement has prompted international condemnation. European officials said Wednesday that the European Union is reassessing whether to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, a move it has long shied from despite pressure from the U.S.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Hezbollah's overt engagement across the border puts Lebanon at risk.
"You have this major force in Lebanon, Hezbollah ... which has chosen, on behalf of all of the Lebanese people, to drag them into this," he said at a press conference in Amman, Jordan. "That's exactly the kind of danger that we are trying to avoid."
In Amman, Kerry and U.S. allies from Europe and the Arab world sought to convince Syria's rebels of the need to participate in any peace effort.
However, Louay Safi, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition bloc, said Thursday that only written guarantees that Assad's departure is one of the goals of the negotiations can bring the opposition to the table.
"If the transition and if the removal of Assad is not on the table, this is a non-starter for all the opposition," Safi said by phone from Istanbul.
During its three-day meeting, the coalition is to lay out its positions on peace talks, discuss bringing in other groups and elect a new leadership.
Disagreements over Assad's fate have been a key obstacle to international efforts to end to Syria's civil war.
A Syrian opposition leader who resigned as head of the Western-backed coalition in March called on Assad to hand over power either to his prime minister or vice president within twenty days, as well as the dissolution of the current Syrian parliament.
The proposal by Mouaz al-Khatib, posted on his Facebook page ensures a safe exit for Assad but does not guarantee him legal immunity in the future and is likely to be rejected by Assad regime. Coalition members said it would be discussed at the Istanbul meetings.
On Wednesday, the U.S. along with key European and Arab supporters of Syria's opposition said Assad must relinquish power at the start of a transition period. However, Syria ally Russia, a co-sponsor of the Geneva talks, has not committed to Assad's departure, and the Syrian leader has said he will not step down before elections are held.
Kerry on Thursday acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. "Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is," he said during a visit to Israel.
"But we also understand that the killing that is taking place, the massacres that are taking place, the incredible destabilization of Syria, is spilling over into Lebanon, into Jordan, and has an impact, obviously, on Israel," he said.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Bradley S. Klapper in Jerusalem contributed reporting.
BINAJ GURUBACHARYA, Associated PressAssociated Press
May 23, 2013 | 103 views | 0 | 3 | |
In this photo distributed by MIURA DOLPHINS CO., LTD., 80-year-old Japanese extreme skier Yuichiro Miura, right, who has had four heart operations in recent years, stands atop the summit of Mount Everest as he becomes the oldest person to climb the world's tallest mountain Thursday, May 23, 2013. Miura, who also conquered the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) peak when he was 70 and 75, reached the summit at 9:05 a.m. local time, according to a Nepalese mountaineering official and Miura's Tokyo-based support team. (AP Photo/MIURA DOLPHINS CO., LTD.)
KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — An 80-year-old Japanese man who began the year with his fourth heart operation became the oldest conqueror of Mount Everest on Thursday, a feat he called "the world's best feeling" even with an 81-year-old Nepalese climber not far behind him.
Yuichiro Miura, a former extreme skier who also climbed the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak when he was 70 and 75, reached the summit at 9:05 a.m. local time, according to a Nepalese mountaineering official and Miura's Tokyo-based support team.
It was a moment Japanese news agency Kyodo captured on video from 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, using a camera crew at 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) elevation on another mountain.
"We have arrived at the summit," Miura said in a radio transmission to Kyodo from the world's highest point. "80 years and 7 months. ... The world's most incredible mountaineering team had helped me all the way up here."
Miura and his son Gota made a phone call from the summit, prompting his daughter Emili to smile broadly and clap her hands in footage shown by Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
"I made it!" Miura said over the phone. "I never imagined I could make it to the top of Mount Everest at age 80. This is the world's best feeling, although I'm totally exhausted. Even at 80, I can still do quite well."
Nepalese mountaineering official Gyanendra Shrestha, at the Everest base camp, confirmed that Miura had reached the summit and was the oldest person to do so.
The previous oldest was Nepal's Min Bahadur Sherchan, the 81-year-old on Miura's heels.
Sherchan is preparing to scale the peak next week despite digestive problems he suffered several days ago. On Wednesday, Sherchan said by telephone from the base camp that he was in good health and "ready to take up the challenge."
The two elderly mountaineers have crossed paths before.
Miura, who had become the oldest Everest climber with his ascent at age 70, would have reclaimed the title in 2008 as a 75-year-old, but Sherchan, then 76, reached the summit just a day before he did.
Emili Miura said Wednesday that his father he "doesn't really care" about the rivalry. "He's doing it for his own challenge."
Sherchan's team leader, Temba, who uses one name, said Sherchan will congratulate the new record holder when he returns to the base camp, and that he won't turn back until he completes his mission.
Sherchan got good news Thursday when Nepal's government approved financial aid for his climb. The Cabinet approved 1 million rupees ($11,200) for Sherchan's expedition and waived $70,000 in permit fees, said Bimal Gautam, the press adviser to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Miura conquered the mountain despite undergoing heart surgery in January for an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, his fourth heart operation since 2007, according to his daughter. He also broke his pelvis and left thigh bone in a 2009 skiing accident.
On his expedition's website, he explained his attempt to scale Everest at an advanced age: "It is to challenge (my) own ultimate limit. It is to honor the great Mother Nature."
He said a successful climb would raise the bar for what is possible, a point echoed after his success by Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
"This will be deeply touching to all the people of Japan. And, especially, in an aging society, it will also give much courage and hope to all elderly people," Suga said at a news conference.
Miura became famous when he was a young man as a daredevil speed skier.
He skied down Everest's South Col in 1970, using a parachute to brake his descent. The feat was captured in the Oscar-winning 1975 documentary, "The Man Who Skied Down Everest." He has also skied down Mount Fuji.
It wasn't until Miura was 70, however, that he first climbed to the top of Everest. When he summited again at 75, he claimed to be the only man to accomplish the feat twice in his 70s. After that, he said he was determined to climb again at age 80.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster and Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo.
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge has scheduled a hearing to formally settle lawsuits challenging the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel.
A tentative settlement was reached last month and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is slated to hold a hearing next Wednesday in Charleston.
Environmental groups and a South Carolina agency sued last year, contending deepening the 32-mile shipping channel will dredge up toxic cadmium.
Under the settlement, the Army Corps of Engineers would have to perform more mitigation, the Georgia Ports Authority would provide more than $25 million in conservation efforts and transfer 2,000 acres of salt marsh to South Carolina.
The plaintiffs could go back to court if tests of equipment designed to replenish oxygen in the water do not work.
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says a $652 million plan to deepen the shipping channel to Savannah's seaport remains very much on President Barack Obama's radar.
Reed urged Savannah business and political leaders at a luncheon Thursday to be patient after the president's 2014 budget request last month contained far less money for the harbor expansion than the Georgia Ports Authority hoped to see.
Reed, a Democrat, has helped push the port project with the White House and noted he spent several hours with Obama when he visited Atlanta last weekend. The mayor says the president brought up the Savannah port on his own at a private gathering.
Georgia Ports Authority chief Curtis Foltz says he hopes initial construction can start this year using $231 million the state has already appropriated.