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WikiLeaks to publish 2 million Syria emails

First documents reveal Italian company kept working with regime after uprising began.

BEIRUT // The whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks yesterday began publishing more than two million emails that the group says could cause embarrassment for both the Syrian regime and its opponents.

The emails, dated between August 2006 and March this year and dubbed the "Syria Files", include correspondence from Syrian politicians, government officials and "associated companies", according to the group.

Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks spokeswoman, said yesterday that the emails reveal interactions between Syrian officials and western companies but declined to go into more detail.

"The material is embarrassing to Syria but it is also embarrassing to Syria's opponents," Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, said in a statement.

"It helps us not merely to criticise one group or another, but to understand their interests, actions and thoughts. It is only through understanding this conflict that we can hope to resolve it."

Mr Assange was not at the launch of the Syria Files in London yesterday. The 40-year-old Australian is currently confined to the Ecuadorean Embassy in the city, seeking political asylum. He faces possible extradition from the UK to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault, charges he has denied.

The first emails released yesterday revealed that Italian defence company Finmeccanica continued to supply support for communications equipment to the Syrian regime after the uprising began in March last year.

Its contract to supply the Syrian Wireless Organisation with high-tech radios dates back to 2008, according to the emails published in Italy's Espresso magazine and by Spanish website Publico. But a subsidiary of the company continued supplying engineers and assistance on the radios until recently, the publications said.

It is still not entirely clear what sort of information may be contained in other email exchanges. The group said the documents originated from hundreds of different domains, including Syria's ministries of presidential affairs, finance and foreign affairs.

WikiLeaks said the emails will be released over the next two months and the group will be publishing stories in collaboration with media partners Espresso magazine, Publico, the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, Al Masry Al Youm in Egypt, ARD in Germany and the Associated Press.

The editor-in-chief of Al Akhbar, Ibrahim Al Amin, said it was "important to sort out what is real and what is fabricated" regarding Syria. "One thing is obvious though - the hypocrisy of global politics has reached a new high when dealing with Syria," he said in a story posted on the newspaper's English-language website.

This is not the first batch of leaked Syria-related emails. In February, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, published what it said were emails hacked from Syrian servers by the internet activist group, Anonymous.

A month later, the UK's Guardian newspaper published a series of emails it said were obtained by opposition activists, which appeared to reveal, among other things, the expensive shopping habits of Asma Al Assad, the Syrian president's wife.

Estimates by Syrian opposition groups place the number of people killed in the last 16 months at more than 15,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said yesterday that more than 50 people were killed across the country.

General Robert Mood, the head of the UN observer mission to Syria, said yesterday that violence in the country had reached "unprecedented" levels and that his team could only resume work once all parties recommitted to the "sustained cessation of violence".

Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, told Turkey's Cumhuriyet daily he would have been toppled like the shah of Iran in 1979 if his people had not been behind him

"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," he was quoted as saying "The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this."

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, yesterday said he had "solid information" that fighters loyal to Al Qaeda were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out attacks.

Mr Al Assad has continued to maintain that foreign-backed terrorists are responsible for the bloodshed.

Also yesterday, the bodies of two Turkish pilots were recovered from the seabed after the US ocean explorer Robert Ballard helped locate them, nearly two weeks after their jet was shot down by Syria. Turkey's military said that the bodies were taken to a base in Malatya.

In other developments, Syria and Iran have resumed working together to fight western sanctions on their oil, as shipping records revealed two Iranian vessels delivered diesel to Syrian ports in the past week, the first fuel shipments from Iran in about three months.

Today, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will attend the Friends of Syria group of western and Arab nations that have sought unsuccessfully to curb the crisis.

China joined Russia yesterday in boycotting the meeting aimed at coordinating efforts to stop the killing in Syria. Moscow confirmed that some western countries had asked it to offer Mr Al Assad a haven in exile, saying it had dismissed the idea as a joke.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, described such rumours of Russia providing asylum as "an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position".

It was also reported yesterday that a general in the elite Syrian Republican Guard has defected to Turkey. "A high-level security source has confirmed the fleeing of General [Manaf] Tlas to Turkey," the Syriasteps website, which has links to the Syrian security apparatus, said.

In Paris, Mrs Clinton will also meet the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the Middle East peace process, which US officials have been trying to revive following the breakdown in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in late 2010.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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