Morocco's King Mohamed VI Saturday called for the reactivation of the Arab Maghreb Union, which has been frozen since its 1989 launch, saying the five-nation body is key for regional development. The union, which is made up of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia has stumbled over disputes among member states since its inception. The issue of the Western Sahara -- a former Spanish colony controlled by Morocco and claimed by the Algeria-backed separatists the Polisario Front -- is the main obstacle for the union. "The Arab Maghreb Union is not an option or political luxury, it is a pressing popular demand and a strategic regional need that cannot be ignored," the king told Tunisia's national assembly.
Bagram Airfield (Afghanistan) (AFP) - The American soldier released Saturday by the Taliban after nearly five years in captivity is in "good" condition and undergoing medical treatment at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, officials said. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is able to walk on his own power and will be flown soon to a US military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany for further medical care and to "decompress" after his ordeal, US defence officials told AFP on condition of anonymity. Bergdahl was handed over to "a few dozen" US special operations forces in eastern Afghanistan earlier Saturday, a senior defence official said. At the US medical center in Landstuhl, Bergdahl will "begin the reintegration process, which will include time for him to tell his story, decompress and begin to reconnect with his family," the senior defence official said.
Syria's electoral commission said on Saturday that 95 percent of registered expatriate voters took part in a presidential election expected to return incumbent Bashar al-Assad to power, state media said. "The president of the foreign ministry's central electoral committee said that voting took place in 43 embassies of the Syrian Arab Republic, and the participation rate by registered voters had exceeded 95 percent," state news agency SANA said. Refugees in Lebanon and Turkey who oppose the Assad regime have protested against the vote, which dissidents see as little more than a show of force by Damascus. Damascus has said its nationals in countries that back the opposition, including the United Arab Emirates and France, were preventing people from voting.
Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the line-up of a unity government will be announced Monday, after a delay over who will head the foreign ministry. Islamists Hamas and the Western-backed Palestine Liberation Organisation, which is dominated by Abbas's secular Fatah party, signed a surprise reconciliation agreement in April to end years of rivalry. Under the deal, the sides are to work to form an "independent government" of technocrats, paving the way for long-delayed elections. "The unity government comprising technocrats and independents will be revealed on Monday," Abbas said on Saturday during a visit by a French delegation to his Ramallah headquarters on the West Bank.
Tens of thousands of people Saturday answered a call by Burkina Faso's opposition to protest against any move by President Blaise Compaore to get a fifth term in office. Crowds poured into the largest stadium in Ouagadougou, filling it to its 35,000 capacity, voicing their anger against any move by the 63-year-old to extend his decades-long hold on power in the landlocked nation. "It's a historic mobilisation... The stadium is full from top to bottom," said opposition leader Zephirin Diabre. Change is here and now," said Benewende Sankara, president of the Union for Rebirth/Sankarist Movement party, one of 30 opposition parties at the rally.
A Christian Sudanese woman sentenced to hang for apostasy will be "freed within days", a foreign ministry official told AFP Saturday, after her case triggered an international outcry. Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag was condemned to death on May 15 under the Islamic sharia law that has been in place since 1983 and outlaws conversions under pain of death. "The lady will be freed within days in line with legal procedure that will be taken by the judiciary and the ministry of justice," said Abdullah al-Azraq, a foreign ministry undersecretary. The court gave her three days to "recant" her faith and when she refused, Ishag was handed the death penalty and sentenced to 100 lashes for "adultery".
Clashes erupted between Iraqi troops and anti-government fighters on the outskirts of Fallujah on Saturday, as the militant-held city's main hospital said 366 people had been killed in the months-long conflict. The latest unrest comes after security forces pressed an apparently unsuccessful assault into the city, which is west of Baghdad and has been out of government control since the beginning of the year. Clashes on the city's northern fringes, in the region of Saqlawiya, broke out earlier on Saturday between Iraqi security forces and anti-government fighters, a tribal leader told AFP on condition of anonymity. "With aerial cover, they tried to enter Fallujah from the Saqlawiya area," he said.
US President Barack Obama said Saturday that an American soldier held for nearly half a decade in Afghanistan has been freed, in what officials indicated was a swap for five Guantanamo detainees. "Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years," said Obama, announcing the release of the army sergeant. Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province, with the Taliban later saying they had captured him. The US leader expressed his "deepest appreciation" to the Emir of Qatar "for his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return."
At least 20 Syrian regime forces were killed Saturday when Islamist rebels planted explosives in a tunnel under an army position in the northern city of Aleppo, a monitor said. Aleppo's historic Old City has seen horrific violence ever since the rebels launched a major offensive against Syria's former economic hub in July 2012. "Islamist rebels detonated a tunnel near the Zahrawi market in the Old City of Aleppo, killing at least 20 army soldiers and pro-regime militiamen," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Fighting broke out after the explosion, and at least one rebel was killed, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Egypt's outgoing interim president enacted a law on Saturday making it illegal to desecrate the national flag or refuse to stand for the national anthem, his office said. The government drafted the law late last year amid heightened nationalistic fervour after the military toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and unleashed a crackdown on his supporters. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who ousted Morsi, wan an overwhelming victory in last week's presidential election and is to take office next month. The law, one of the last that will be enacted by outgoing interim president Adly Mansour, also stipulates a fine of up to 30,000 Egyptian pounds (about $4,300, 3,200 euros) for desecrating the flag or disrespecting the anthem, his office said in a statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that his country could leave the European Union if Luxembourg's former premier Jean-Claude Juncker became the next European Commission president, Der Spiegel reported. Quoting "sources close to the participants" of Tuesday's EU leaders summit in Brussels, the German magazine reported that Cameron had issued the warning to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who backs Juncker for the top commission job. Cameron reportedly told Merkel that picking Juncker for the job would "destabilise his government to such a point that it would bring forward a referendum on whether to exit the EU" -- a move which is likely to result in a popular consensus to leave the bloc.
Tunisia said Saturday it has postponed an emergency meeting with its North African neighbours to discuss the chaotic situation in Libya, citing a lack of "foresight". With lawlessness in Libya rising, Tunisia had been due to hold a session on Sunday with other member states of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) to find a political solution to the unrest in the mostly desert nation. The union is made up of Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco. "It is deemed preferable to postpone the meeting because there is a lack of foresight on the situation in Libya," foreign ministry spokesman Mokhtar Chouachi said Saturday.
The leader of South Sudan's rebels, former vice president Riek Machar, said Saturday he was not completely in charge of his forces, who have been accused of atrocities during a brutal six-month conflict. In an interview with AFP in Nairobi, Riek Machar was asked if he was in control of his troops and replied: "No, I can't say that. Machar's rebels have been battling forces loyal to President Salva Kiir since December 15, when fighting between rival army factions broke out in the capital Juba.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon will lose their status as such if they return home for a visit, the interior ministry said Saturday. At the same time, there are calls for deporting those who voted in an election in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is certain to win. More than a million Syrians have fled their war-torn country for Lebanon in the past three years, according to the United Nations. "Syrian displaced people who are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are requested to refrain from entering into Syria starting June 1, 2014, or be penalised by losing their status as refugees in Lebanon," said the ministry.
US President Barack Obama said Saturday that an American soldier held for half a decade in Afghanistan has been freed. "Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years," said Obama, announcing his release. In his statement, Obama expressed his "deepest appreciation" to the Emir of Qatar "for his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return." He added: "Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery is a reminder of America's unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield," Obama added.