Field Marshal Tantawi phones Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to discuss means to enhance fraternal ties

Tantawi says Saudi Arabia contributed $4 billion to support Egyptian economy

Egypt decides opening Rafah crossing daily as of May 28

Recent developments in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud received a telephone call from the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

During the telephone conversation, Field Marshal Tantawi expressed his thanks and appreciation to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for supporting Egypt's economy by the recent soft loans, deposits and grants.

Tantawi also emphasized the depth of historical relations between the two brotherly countries as well as the Kingdom's current support for Egypt.

The telephone conversation also dealt with the latest developments in the region in addition to means of enhancing relations between the two brotherly countries in all fields.

Field Marshal Tantawi expressed his thanks and appreciation to King Abdullah as well as the government and people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for supporting Egypt's economy with nearly $4 billion.

In a statement, he said the amount of $4 billion is provided as soft loans, deposits and grants, adding that this support reflects the depth of historical relations between the two brotherly countries.

Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Qattan, Saudi Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt and Permanent Representative of the Kingdom to the Arab League stressed that the size of the nearly four billion dollars integrated economic program offered by the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Egypt is reflecting the keenness of the King to stand by the brotherly Egyptian people and support the Egyptian economy, especially in these current difficult circumstances.

In a statement, Ambassador Qattan said that the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques has confirmed to the President of the Council of the Egyptian armed forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in a message conveyed to him by Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs the strength and durability of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

He added that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, leadership, government and people are fully confident of the ability of Egypt and its leadership and its people to overcome this emergent crisis in the near future, God willing.

Meanwhile, Egypt will permanently open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip this weekend, the government announced Wednesday, underscoring how dramatically the uprisings that are roiling the Arab world could reshape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt’s interim military leaders, who had been instrumental in implementing the blockade under orders from then-President Hosni Mubarak, appeared to be responding to an increasingly vocal and empowered constituency that wants Egypt to decisively back the Palestinian cause.

The Rafah crossing is the only official entry point outside Israel into the Gaza Strip, an area slightly more than twice the size of Washington that is home to about 1.5 million Palestinians. Opening it will ease the blockade imposed by Israel — and supported by Egypt — after the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the strip in 2007. Israel fears the move could make it easier for the Iran-backed group to stockpile weapons.

The move comes as President Obama is stepping up pressure on Israel to acknowledge the new realities that the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East may bring. In a speech last week, Obama endorsed a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with mutually agreed upon land swaps.

But during a state visit to Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented uncompromising positions on negotiations for a Palestinian state, dimming already slim hopes for the resumption of peace talks.

A report by Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said the Rafah crossing is being opened to “end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation,” a reference to Palestinian factions in Gaza and the West Bank.

Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, said in a telephone interview that Egypt linked opening the border to the recent reconciliation pact it brokered between Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction that administers the West Bank.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi announced a day after the reconciliation deal was struck last month that his country would soon take steps to ease the blockade, describing the nation’s involvement in it as “shameful.” The formal announcement Wednesday set the timing and terms and made clear that the initiative has the backing of the military generals who are serving as the country’s interim rulers until elections later this year.

“This is a very positive step,” Hamad said, adding that it could herald “a new era” in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptians have long supported the idea of a Palestinian state, and many harbor animosity toward Israel, fueled by a succession of Arab-Israeli wars. As Egyptians have continued to take to the streets in recent weeks to call for an array of reforms, Palestinian flags have become increasingly visible in those gatherings.

Earlier this month, hundreds of demonstrators were wounded and dozens were detained after riot police used tear gas and bullets to disperse protesters outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo who were marking the anniversary of the 1948 establishment of Israel.

Meanwhile, Egypt's prosecutor general ordered Tuesday former President Hosni Mubarak put on trial on charges of corruption and conspiring in the deadly shootings of protesters during the uprising that ousted him, a stunning step against a leader whose power was nearly unquestioned for three decades.

The announcement that Mubarak would face a criminal court grants a major demand of Egyptians who have threatened a second revolution amid growing worries about the slow pace of change under the country's new military rulers. The charges could carry the death sentence, said the prosecutor-general spokesman Adel el-Said.

It would be the first time an Arab leader is sent to trial solely by his own people in modern history. Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein was toppled during the U.S. invasion in 2003 and sentenced three years later to death for killing 140 Shiites.

"It is the first time that a living president is going to face victims of his abuse before an ordinary court in the region," said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human rights activist. "It is precisely because of this unique and unprecedented nature that we need for this trial to be as credible as possible."

Mubarak was forced to step down after an 18-day popular uprising that was met with a heavy security crackdown. A government fact-finding mission said at least 846 people were killed and thousands injured.

Mubarak transferred power to a military council on Feb. 11, which promised to guide Egypt's democratic transformation to a civilian rule.

But the prosecution of the 83-year old Mubarak remained a sore point under the new leadership. Protesters pressed demands that Mubarak face justice, taking to the streets a number of times and criticizing the military for stalling.

The statement from public prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who also served under Mubarak, came ahead of a planned Friday protest that was to have focused on calls for Mubarak be put on trial and for remnants of his regime to be uprooted. Flyers promoting the protest also call for an end to military trials for civilians.

Reformers also object to the hated emergency laws that remain on the books more than three months after Mubarak's ouster.

"This (referral) is for the millions who suffered under Mubarak," said Zuhra Said, the sister of torture victim Khaled Said whose deadly beating at the hands of police agents was one of the main driving force behind the popular uprising. "This is the least that needs to be done."

Earlier this month, Tunisia's toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was charged along with his wife of inciting violence in the bloody crackdown on the popular uprising there. Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, which has not answered a Tunisian request to extradite him.

The charge sheet against Mubarak said he "conspired with the former security chief and other senior police officers — already on trial in a criminal court — to commit premeditated murder, along with attempted murder of those who participated in the peaceful protests around Egypt."

This, according to the charges, was through "inciting some policemen and officers to shoot the victims, running some of them over to kill them, and terrorizing others ... to sway them from their demands and keep (Mubarak) in power."

Wael Abdel-Fattah, a columnist who participated in the protests, said the referral might have been an attempt by the military rulers to absorb the public anger. "But this means much more. It gives hope to the public...that the pharaoh can be broken down and put in a cage," Abdel-Fattah said.

Mubarak and his two sons also were charged with abusing power to amass wealth, enriching associates and accepting bribes, the prosecutor-general's office said. A close associate of Mubarak, Hussein Salem, also was charged with bribery. He is at large. The two sons, who are in detention in a Cairo prison, are facing investigation for other accusations.

The Mubaraks are accused of accepting bribes to facilitate for Salem to get business deals including land in the Sinai and a business deal to export gas to Israel.

Mubarak has been in custody in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since last month, but these were the first formal charges filed against him.

The decision to put him on trial is a very "symbolic" move toward accountability in a system in which impunity for abuses were in the norm, said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch.

The Mubaraks and other members of the former regime have been the subject of legal efforts to bring them to trial since the ex-president was forced to resign. Egypt's former security chief, Habib el-Adly, and four of his top aides are already on trial in the shooting of protesters.

Lawyer Nasser Amin said Mubarak can face trial as soon as next month. "This is the first step toward transitional justice," Amin said.

Mubarak's prosecution has been complicated by health concerns. He has been interrogated in the hospital, but an order by the prosecutor to transfer him to prison during the investigation was overturned on grounds the prison health facilities were not ready to receive him. He was never moved to a military hospital as suggested by the prosecutor.

The prosecutor had earlier ordered the freezing of the assets of Mubarak and his family. His 70-year-old wife Suzanne was released after she relinquished assets and property valued at $4 million. The move aimed to settle corruption allegations against her, but it was unclear whether she would still face trial.

Protester calls were energized by reports last week suggesting the military rulers might grant Mubarak amnesty, although the military rulers quickly denied the report.

Activist Hossam Hamalawi said the Friday protests will go ahead because there are other unmet demands besides trying Mubarak.

Essam el-Erian, a leading member of the newly launched Muslim Brotherhood political party called Freedom and Justice, said holding officials accountable, let alone the former president, was a "long awaited day."

"This is a new dawn for the Arab world, and a message that this is the democratic model that the Arabs are seeking," he said.

In Tripoli, Libya is calling on Russia to mediate a cease-fire, a sign that Moammar Gadhafi's regime may be ready to bring about an end to the months-long war.

In a telephone call, Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi asked for help in achieving a cease-fire and starting talks without preconditions, according to a statement posted by late Thursday by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The request comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was asked by the Group of Eight to mediate a settlement. It was unclear what role, if any, Medvedev would be willing to play.

Russia has been a staunch critic of the NATO-led bombing campaign that began in March. It operates under a U.N. Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians by any means necessary as Gadhafi's forces battle rebels calling for an end to his 42 years of rule.

It is unclear what role, if any, Russia will take. The country, a permanent member of the Security Council, abstained during the U.N. vote.

During the conversation with al-Mahmudi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Libya would have to comply with Security Council resolutions and stop any action that would cause harm to civilians, the statement said.

Medvedev was among eight world leaders attending the G8 summit in Deauville, France.

At the summit, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said they remain committed to the Libya campaign.

"We agreed that we have made progress on our Libya campaign, but that meeting the U.N. mandate of civilian protection cannot be accomplished when Gadhafi remains in Libya directing his forces in acts of aggression against the Libyan people," Obama said after a meeting of the two leaders. "And we are joined in resolve to finish the job."

And a spokesman for Libya's transition government said Gadhafi must leave before the opposition could consider negotiations or a cease-fire.

"There is no more room for him in or near Libya," said Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council.

NATO member Spain said Thursday that Libya had sent a message to Madrid and other European capitals, listing "a series of proposals that could lead to a cease-fire," but the allies have so far rebuffed earlier Libyan proposals for an end to the fighting.

Meanwhile, NATO warplanes bombed the Libyan capital late Thursday, with a tribal site near central Tripoli the target of the latest attacks, a Libyan official said.

Five explosions, most large enough to shake buildings some distance away, struck Tripoli shortly before midnight. The Libyan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the target was the tribal compound at Bab Al-Azizya, about 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) from the center of Tripoli.

CNN could not independently confirm the report.

The site is a former military base now used to welcome tribal visitors to Tripoli, offering them guest houses during their stay, the official said. It has been used as a center for people volunteering to support Libyan authorities since the revolt against longtime strongman Gadhafi erupted in February.

In Syria, pro-democracy movement has reached out to the army ahead of Friday protests, urging soldiers to join their cause as a global rights group accused the military of a "shoot-to-kill" policy.

"We urge our supporters to deliver a message to free soldiers in the Syrian army so that hand in hand the guardians of the homeland join our peaceful revolution," said Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group spurring anti-regime protests that have swept the country since mid-March.

This week's protests are being promoted under the slogan "Friday of the guardians of the homeland," a reference to the army and a play on words used in the first verse of Syria's national anthem.

"The army, the people, one hand," said the group on Facebook alongside a picture of Yusuf al-Azmah, a national hero who stood up to the French army during the colonial era.

However it was unlikely the army would break ranks with the regime, given that top commanders are fiercely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and hail mostly from his minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The army's feared 4th division, which was sent in to put down protests in the southern flashpoint town of Daraa, is also controlled by the president's brother Maher.

Thursday's appeal came amid mounting condemnation by rights groups of the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters, with Amnesty International saying it had evidence the military was implementing a "shoot-to-kill" policy.

"Amnesty International has obtained video footage that points to a 'shoot to kill' policy being used by the Syrian security forces to quell reform protests," said the London-based human rights watchdog.

It said the footage was shot in late March and April in and around Daraa.

"Images of unarmed civilians shot in the head help explain why there have been so many fatalities," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

A Syrian rights group also slammed the regime's use of force, saying arbitrary arrests were widespread with security forces even storming hospitals and "kidnapping" patients.

"Syrians have been brutalized beyond imagination for 48 years by the (ruling) Baath regime. Now they have reached a tipping point," the Cairo-based National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said in a statement.

"Reports have shown that patients have been... kidnapped from hospitals and moved to the military prisons, depriving them of basic treatment and care, and subjecting them to permanent disability and death," it added.

Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed and 10,000 arrested since the unrest broke out on March 15. A Syrian army official told AFP on Thursday that 112 soldiers and security troops had also been killed and 1,238 wounded.

An interior ministry official said 31 police officers have been killed, with 619 wounded.

The government insists the unrest posing the greatest challenge to Assad's 11-year rule is the work of "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

It initially responded to the revolt by offering some concessions, including lifting the state of emergency in place for nearly five decades. Earlier this week it also cut diesel prices by 25 percent.

The opposition, however, has dismissed calls for dialogue, saying that could only take place once the violence ends, political prisoners are released and other reforms are adopted.

But the regime has remained defiant even amid mounting international condemnation and punitive US and EU sanctions slapped on Assad and top aides.

European nations on Thursday pressed a campaign to get the UN Security Council to warn Syria that its deadly crackdown on opposition protests could be a crime against humanity.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said reinforced sanctions against Assad's regime will be on the agenda of the G8 summit of the world's most powerful leaders "because the violence being used against demonstrators is unacceptable."

International Committee for the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger criticized Syria for denying it access to detainees.

The ICRC head told journalists in Geneva his staff have been denied access to several cities where people have been detained.

"We have so far received no access... and I do not hide from you that I am extremely worried about that from what I hear and know," he said, but added that ICRC staff had been given some access to prisoners in Daraa.

In Sanaa, more than a hundred tribal fighters overran a military checkpoint to the northeast of the Yemeni capital Friday, killing several soldiers and taking control of an important eastern gateway to the city, according to tribesmen and witnesses. Five tribesmen were also killed, they said.

The battle continued into Friday afternoon, the tribesmen said, with the Yemen military launching airstrikes by helicopter on areas around the checkpoint, known as Al Fardha, in an effort to dislodge the opposition tribesmen.

Located on a mountain, Al Fardha is the main checkpoint between Sanaa and the eastern province of Mareb, and an important strategic location for the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which has attempted to seal off the capital to prevent tribal fighters from joining battles there.

But even as fighting raged outside Sanaa, the violence that has gripped Yemen’s central city since Monday appeared to ebb.

Saleh canceled his weekly rally, which had in the past included thousands of government supporters from outside of the capital, and opposition protests were not as large as in previous weeks amid continuing fears of violence.

The relative calm came as representatives of Saleh’s government engaged in mediation late Thursday and again on Friday with tribesmen loyal to the Ahmar family, whose members play leading roles in the political opposition. The two sides fought fierce street battles this week after Saleh refused for a third time to sign a deal to transfer power in the face of vast street protests.

More than 100 people have died in the clashes. Tribesmen, speaking to the local news media, have vowed to avenge the deaths of men from their tribes who had been killed in the fighting.

Previous efforts at mediation between government forces and Ahmar fighters broke down earlier this week after a group of tribal sheiks came under fire almost immediately after arriving at the Ahmar compound. Tribal mediators were again at the Ahmar home on Friday, and talks appeared to be proceeding without any violent interruption.

Sadiq al-Ahmar, the oldest of the Ahmar brothers and the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, spoke at an opposition protest on Friday and confirmed the mediation efforts. He also defended the actions of his fighters. “We wanted our revolution to be peaceful but were forced to use the weapons,” said Ahmar, who had sought to rally Yemen’s tribes against Saleh. “Now we would say we are ready for anything peaceful or not peaceful.”

Protesters at the main antigovernment sit-in remained divided over how to react to the violence. Some were angered at Ahmar’s comments. “He introduced himself as a leader for our peaceful revolution,” a protester at Friday’s rally, Tawfik Al Ammari, said doubtfully. “We want Saleh to go, but we do not want the Al Ahmar family to replace him.”

As the country moved towards a broader civil conflict, Ahmar’s efforts to widen the struggle appeared to be working, with Friday’s fighting at the northeastern checkpoint and battles on Wednesday in Arhab, a village north of the capital.

Western leaders condemned the “use of violence in response to peaceful protest throughout Yemen” in a joint communiqué issued Friday during the Group of Eight meeting in France, Reuters reported.

Saleh has been an ally of the United States on counterterrorism, but now American officials are considering pushing for United Nations resolutions or even sanctions in order to press him to put an end to the violence by signing the agreement and leaving power.

Amid the fighting this week, residents in the capital hoarded cash from banks and thousands packed into cars and taxis to flee.

Though Yemen has had its share of conflicts over the past 20 years, including a bloody civil war in 1994 and a drawn-out war against Houthi rebels in the north, most battles were fought outside Sanaa.