Archive for July 6, 2014

March 19, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops pressed an offensive near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, capturing a village from rebels whose forces appear to be collapsing along a key central front, state media and activists said.

Ras al-Ayyn was the latest area in the Qalamoun region to fall to government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. On Sunday, they captured Yabroud, a town that had served for months as a main rebel logistics hub.

“It was a fast and crushing operation,” an unidentified Syrian army officer in Ras Al-Ayn said on state television. “The operation will continue day and night until all terrorists are wiped out,” he said, referring to the rebels. A brigadier general, also unidentified, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that “tens” of rebels were killed in the village.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops captured the village after fighting several rebel factions — including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front — for two days. For months, Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region, aiming to cut rebel supply lines crossing the porous Lebanese border.

Also Wednesday, Syria criticized Washington for ordering the closure of its diplomatic and consular missions in the United States, requiring all personnel who are not legal U.S. residents to leave the country.

“This American move reveals the real goals of America’s policies against Syria and the interests of Syrian citizens,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement about Tuesday’s decision. “It forms another step of the American support to terrorism and to shedding blood in Syria.”

The American order should not affect Syria’s mission at the United Nations, although the State Department earlier this month already imposed restrictions limiting its ambassador to New York. The Syrian Foreign Ministry described the American order as an “arbitrary act” that it said came in violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.

Syria’s uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people. Damascus says it is facing a Western conspiracy because of its support for groups opposed to the United States and Israel in the region.

Earlier in the day, Lebanese security officials said Lebanese government troops dismantled roadblocks and reopened a key road to a predominantly Sunni town near the Syrian border. The officials said the road leading to the town of Arsal reopened Wednesday morning and that reinforcements were sent to secure the area. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters otherwise.

The development comes after days of high tension in the area, where Shiite Hezbollah gunmen and local residents had blocked off the road to the Sunni town of Arsal. The Shiites blamed the townspeople and Syrian rebels who fled to Arsal for recent rocket fire on their villages and a car bombing that killed three people. The standoff prompted angry Sunnis to close off roads elsewhere around Lebanon on Tuesday.

Also Wednesday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said two rockets fell in the Qaa area, causing damage but no casualties. Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog said more than 45 percent of raw materials for Syria’s poison gas and nerve agent program slated for destruction outside the country have been shipped out.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced Wednesday that two shipments were loaded onto cargo ships in recent days at Latakia port. Syria has missed several deadlines on a timetable agreed last year to eradicate its chemical weapons by June 30, but the government recently pledged to remove all chemicals by the end of April.

The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been fitted with equipment to neutralize hundreds of tons of the most toxic chemicals under supervision by OPCW experts.

Associated Press writers Mike Corder in the Hague and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

March 16, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — With rebels fleeing into neighboring Lebanon, Syrian government troops and Hezbollah fighters captured a strategic town near the frontier Sunday, ousting opposition fighters from their last stronghold in the vital border area.

Yabroud was a major smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The town’s fall is the latest in a string of strategic gains by Assad’s forces that have consolidated authority in the past months in Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus.

Militants from Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed fighters appears to have tipped the balance into the government’s favor in Yabroud. However, the fact opposition fighters fled into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, suggests the conflict could bleed further into Syria’s neighbor. The civil war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites.

“It’s a good day for Assad,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “He has not only survived the past three years, but his army is intact and on a rebound, with his allies Hezbollah firmly behind him.”

However, Gerges warned the fall of Yabroud will reverberate in neighboring Lebanon, “pouring gasoline on sectarian divisions and likely bring more violence” into the country. Outgunned by Assad’s army and Hezbollah, rebels abandoned their positions on the hills surrounding Yabroud overnight Sunday, collapsing the fighter ranks inside the town and allowing government forces to move in from the east shortly after dawn, a spokesman for the rebel coalition and the Syrian army said.

Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon. The town overlooks an important cross-country highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs. “There’s no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance,” said Capt. Islam Alloush, a spokesman of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition who had fought in Yabroud but were now streaming into Lebanon. The biggest immediate loss, Alloush said, would be that rebels now had no way of supplying fighters outside of Damascus, where Syrian forces have surrounded a series of opposition-held areas, denying them food, power and clean water.

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij hailed the army’s latest triumph while inspecting troops in Yabroud on Sunday. “We are moving from one victory to another,” al-Freij said in comments carried by state news agency SANA. He said the army troops are now “chasing terrorists and gangs, and soon, all their hideouts will be destroyed.” Syrian officials routinely refer to rebels as terrorists.

The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been nearly a yearlong advance against opposition fighters. Government warplanes chased the fleeing rebels into Lebanon, state media said, firing two rockets in the outskirts of the border town of Arsal, a logistical base for the Syrian rebels. The surrounding fields and hills have serve as shelter for tens of thousands of refugees.

Syrian helicopters dropped bombs on villages outside Yabroud, said the deputy mayor of Arsal, Ahmad Fliti, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The bombing killed at least six people, including two children, in the nearby village of Muarat, they said.

Syrian aircraft also fired at least four rockets near Arsal’s barren hills targeting rebels, Lebanon’s state-run news agency reported. The NNA said Lebanese soldiers also detained fleeing rebels who tried enter the country with their weapons, and opened fire on a vehicle whose driver did not stop at an army checkpoint.

The sectarian tones of Syria’s war have triggered violence in Lebanon, which shares a similar patchwork of minorities. The chaotic mix of rebels fighting Assad forces are overwhelmingly Sunni, while Syria’s minorities, including Christians, Shiites and Alawites, largely have sided with the government or remained neutral. Assad himself is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In Beirut, Hezbollah supporters celebrated Yabroud’s fall with celebratory gunfire in Shiite-dominated areas. Youths on motorbikes waving Hezbollah’s yellow flag noisily roared through the city’s upscale central district.

Near the Syrian border, however, an extremist Sunni group in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for firing rockets at a Shiite-dominated town near Arsal, local media reported.

One man was killed in the town of Nabi Sheet, while other rockets landed in the nearby town of Labweh on Saturday, the NNA said. In retaliation, Shiite gunmen surrounded Arsal, resident Mohammed Ezzidine said. He said the gunmen prevented dozens of people from entering the town.

The Syrian war also has exacerbated tensions in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which date back to Lebanon’s own 1975-1990 civil war. Two impoverished neighborhoods there belonging to rival sects have had dozens of clashes. The fighting has left 12 people dead in Tripoli since Thursday, the NNA said. The agency said the latest fatality from the fighting was a soldier.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

March 15, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops advanced in a major rebel-held town near the Lebanese border amid heavy bombardment from warplanes, artillery and tanks as the country’s bloody conflict marked its third anniversary Saturday, state media and activists said.

The conflict, which began amid Arab Spring protests across the region, started off as protests that turned into an armed insurgency and eventually became a full-blown civil war that activists say has killed more than 140,000 people and has seen 2 million people flee the country. Peace talks between the government of President Bashar Assad and Syria’s divided opposition haven’t found a diplomatic solution to the crisis, which has seen sectarian violence rise as Islamic extremists entered the fight.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, vowed in a statement Saturday marking the conflict’s third anniversary “to bring down the Assad regime that is the main source of the Syrian people’s suffering.” The coalition’s chief Ahmad al-Jarba attacked Assad’s main backer Iran, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite fighters who came from Iraq to fight with government forces. He urged countries backing the opposition “to commit to their promises of giving sophisticated weapons” to rebels.

“We are fighting a brutal war and facing enemies who have no values or morals such as the gangs of (Hezbollah leader Sheik) Hassan Nasrallah … mercenaries of hypocrisy coming from Iraq all the way to the head of the snake in Tehran,” al-Jarba said in a speech in Istanbul. “Oh Syrians: Our revolution will be victorious and the chemical terrorist regime will go. The battle is not long because we have passed the most difficult part.”

State media in Syria did not mention the anniversary. In Beirut, international aid agencies said that every statistic tracking the lives of Syrian children has worsened as the conflict grinds on, warning an entire generation of is at risk.

Suggesting how badly Syria has unraveled, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said an estimated 2.3 million children last year were in need of shelter, food, health care, education or psychological help for the trauma they suffered. That number has nearly doubled to 5.5 million children this year, he said.

“Every one of those numbers has a face. Every one of those numbers is a child who has lost a future, or whose future is at risk,” said Lake, who called Saturday “a sad and infuriating anniversary.” The aid groups said little has been done despite a U.N. Security Council resolution last month calling on Syria’s warring sides to allow aid deliveries.

“I think we have to be honest. The situation in Syria is getting worse, not better, and it hasn’t got better since the security council resolution,” said Justin Forsyth of Save the Children. “More people have been killed, more people have fled. In terms of on the ground, changing lives, saving children, we are not even close to getting impact.”

On Saturday, Syrian state television said troops advanced in the town of Yabroud, near Syria’s border with Lebanon, and now control of much of the area between the two countries. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian air force conducted at least 15 air raids on the town as heavy clashes raged on the town’s outskirts. It said at least five opposition fighters were killed fighting government forces backed by Hezbollah members.

Yabroud is the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where Assad’s forces have been waging an offensive for months to try to sever rebel supply lines across the porous border.

Hezbollah officials say many of the car bombs that exploded in the group’s strongholds in Lebanon over the past months were made in Yabroud. Hezbollah openly joined Syria’s civil war last year, fighting along Assad’s forces and tipping the battle in its favor in areas close to Lebanon.

Lebanese broadcasters Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar aired live footage from outside Yabroud showing bombs landing over the city. Al-Manar showed footage of dead men, some of them bearded. It also showed Syrian troops shooting and firing rocket-propelled-grenades at rebels in the area.

One of the Syrian commanders in the area told Al-Mayadeen that troops advanced “hundreds of meters (yards) inside Yabroud.” He added that troops captured the nearby Saint Maroun Hill that overlooks Yabroud.

“We will cut supply lines with neighboring countries and the fighters will be besieged in specific areas then wiped out,” the officer, who did not give his name, said. An opposition activist in the area who goes by the name Amer al-Qalamouni denied that troops advanced into Yabroud, saying instead they attacked southeastern parts of the town.

Earlier in the day, the Observatory and Qalamouni said the Yabroud fighting killed a Kuwaiti commander of the al-Qaida-linked Nursa Front late Friday. Al-Qalamouni and the Observatory said al-Kuwaiti was a key mediator for the release of a dozen nuns earlier this week who were held by rebels.

Also Saturday, Lebanon’s state-run National News agency said two rockets, apparently fired by Syrian rebels, struck the Lebanese border villages of Nabi Othman and Labweh, killing one person and wounding two. Syrian rebels have been shelling Lebanese border villages where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.


DAMASCUS – Syria has decided to close its embassies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because they have refused to accept the accreditations of its envoys, diplomats posted in Damascus said on Wednesday.

“Syria’s embassies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are to close because these countries have been refusing to accredit the diplomats sent by Damascus since the start of the crisis,” one of the sources said.

The Arab monarchies of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the three-year-old armed revolt in Syria and called for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad.

Source: Middle East Online.


July 04, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police clashed with rock-throwing Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands mourned at the funeral for an Arab teen who Palestinians say was killed by Israeli extremists in a revenge attack.

Palestinian militants, meanwhile, fired rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and the Jewish state later carried out several airstrikes on what it described as “Hamas terror targets” in Gaza. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Also, the Israeli military said its troops opened fire after spotting two Palestinians planting explosives near the Gaza border fence. An ambulance carried the body of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, wrapped in a Palestinian flag and traditional headscarf, to a mosque in the east Jerusalem neighborhood where he lived. Then mourners carried the open casket through the crowd to a cemetery.

During the procession, scores of masked Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli police on duty nearby, and they responded with stun grenades, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. He said more than 2,000 people attended the funeral.

Rosenfeld said police also clashed with hundreds of Palestinian protesters in other neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, which has been rocked by violence since Abu Khdeir’s burned body was found Wednesday in a forest after he was seized near his home.

At least 13 Israeli officers were injured by rock-throwers, with six taken to the hospital, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. The Red Crescent said about 30 Palestinians were hurt by rubber bullets fired by Israeli forces. Dozens of others were treated for tear gas inhalation.

Police had beefed up security in and around Jerusalem as the funeral coincided with the first Friday prayer services of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers, including one with U.S. citizenship, were abducted in the West Bank on June 12, sparking a huge manhunt that ended with the gruesome discovery of their bodies early this week.

Israel has blamed Hamas for the abduction and murder of the teens and launched a crackdown on the Islamic militant group in the West Bank, drawing rocket attacks out of Gaza and Israeli airstrikes in a near-daily cycle of retaliation.

Hamas, which has abducted Israelis in the past, praised the kidnapping of the teenagers but did not take responsibility for it. Palestinians immediately accused Israeli extremists of killing Abu Khdeir in revenge for the deaths of the Israeli teens. Israeli police said they have not yet determined who killed the boy or why.

The killing of the youngster was widely condemned by Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We don’t know yet the motives or the identities of the perpetrators, but we will. We will bring to justice the criminals responsible for this despicable crime, whoever they may be,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “Murder, riots, incitement, vigilantism — they have no place in our democracy.”

On Friday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired at least 14 rockets and mortars at Israel, the military said. It was far fewer rockets than the dozens of barrages reported in previous days, and when Israel did not immediately respond, waiting until late in the day to attack, there was talk that a cease-fire was in the works.

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said in Gaza, “There are some contacts and mediations regarding a truce.” There was no official comment from Israel regarding a possible truce. In Jerusalem, Abu Khdeir’s family set up a large tent outside the home for those seeking to pay condolences. Mourners chanted, “With our soul, with our blood, we would sacrifice anything for you, (Palestine)” and “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great”

Waving a Palestinian flag and with a traditional scarf covering his face at the funeral, Rami, 20, said he came to chant and to mourn his friend Mohammed. He would not give his last name, saying he feared retribution.

“I am happy and sad,” he said. “I am happy because he died a martyr, but I am sad because they kidnapped him, killed him and then burned him.”

29/6/2014 Sunday

GAZA STRIP (Ma’an) — The “Miles of Smiles 28” aid convoy arrived in Gaza Strip on Sunday through Rafah crossing, a Palestinian official said.

Alaa al-Din al-Batta, deputy director of the governmental convoy-welcoming committee, told Ma’an that the convoy included 18 people from European and Arab countries.

The convoy will stay in Gaza for 24 hours, and will check on humanitarian projects in the area, al-Batta said.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.


July 04, 2014

MAAN, Jordan (AP) — An al-Qaida linked Jordanian militant leader warned on Friday that the kingdom was “not immune” to the chaos befalling neighboring countries, although he acknowledged that a Sunni extremist group’s recent declaration of a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq was threatening to divide the jihadi movement.

Mohammed al-Shalabi, a senior leader of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis in Jordan, told The Associated Press that the fighting between rival militant factions in Syria already has already undermined the battle against President Bashar Assad.

Al-Shalabi, who spent 11 years in Jordanian jails on charges including plotting to attack a U.S. military base in the kingdom, said Jordanian Salafis have stopped sending their supporters to join the rebel ranks in Syria, fearing they will end up fighting other Muslims. More than 1,600 Jordanian have fought in Syria and 250 of them have been killed, al-Shalabi said.

Al-Shalabi spoke in a rare interview with a Western media organization at his home on the outskirts of the southern city of Maan, an impoverished area that has seen protests by supporters of the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and announced it has established a long-sought Muslim caliphate.The announcement has been rejected and even derided by many of the rival Islamic rebel factions fighting in Syria.

Al-Shalabi urged Jordan — a U.S. ally that relies heavily on donations from the U.S. and oil-rich Gulf Arabs to keep its fragile economy afloat — to implement Islamic Shariah laws and more balanced economic and social policies.

“Jordan is not immune to what is happening in neighboring countries,” he said. Despite facing protests amid the Arab Spring wave of revolutions in the region, King Abdullah has remained in power by promising to speed up reforms he initiated since he ascended to the throne in 1999. Although Jordan’s multiparty system was revived in 1991, following a 34-year ban after a 1957 leftist coup attempt, opposition parties have yet to gain real power. They say they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.

The rapid expansion of the Islamic State group, whose fighters captured the Iraqi side of the border with Jordan last month, is causing new concern in a country already grappling with fallout from the Syrian civil war.

While any imminent cross-border foray is unlikely, the country is jittery and the army has dispatched reinforcements to its 110-mile (180-kilometer) border with Iraq to boost security. Jordan’s Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali told lawmakers last week that the kingdom is “surrounded by extremism.”

Jordan also has a peace agreement with neighboring Israel, considered by the Jewish state to be vital to its security. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested last week that Israel would have to maintain a long-term military presence in the West Bank to keep jihadis from potentially powering their way to the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Wearing a long white robe and red traditional head cover, al-Shalabi said fighting Israel is a priority for the Salafis.”One day Israel will be removed,” he said, adding that the closed borders were a problem for now.

Jordan is home to a growing movement of Islamic militancy and ultraconservative Salafis. In Maan, supporters of the Islamic State group have held protests, carrying banners that declared the city the “Fallujah of Jordan,” a reference to the Iraqi city that has been a militant hotbed. Gunmen have also attacked the police and set two banks on fire.

AP journalists on Friday saw a black Salafi flag in the main square and another supportive of the Islamic State group hung on the burned facade of Al-Arabi Bank, Jordan’s leading bank. Al-Shalabi said he was not for or against the Islamic State group but he was worried it would splinter the global jihadi movement.

“The Muslim clerics said the caliphate shouldn’t be declared at the moment for many reasons, because this declaration will create division among jihadi groups in the world,” he said. “For example in Chechnya, in the Caucuses, in Afghanistan and Somalia, there are groups that announced that they belong to al-Qaida. These groups will be divided, one hundred percent these groups will be divided between a supporter to the caliphate and a reluctant,” al-Shalabi added.

By Sinan Salaheddin and Zeina Karam

30/6/2014 Monday

BAGHDAD (AP) — The audacious declaration of the establishment of a new Islamic state made by the al-Qaida breakaway group that has overrun much of northern Syria and neighboring Iraq sparked celebrations in the group’s Syrian stronghold but was condemned by rival rebels and authorities in Baghdad and Damascus.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant unilaterally announced the creation of a new Islamic caliphate — a state governed by Shariah law — in an audio recording released late Sunday. The group proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of its new state, and demanded that Muslims everywhere pledge allegiance to him.

Through brute force and meticulous planning, the Sunni extremist group — which said it was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant — has carved out a large chunk of territory that has effectively erased the border between Iraq and Syria and laid the foundations of its proto-state. Along the way, it has battled Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias and the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.

Following the group’s announcement, Islamic State fighters in their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa paraded through the city to celebrate. Some of the revelers wore traditional robes and waved the group’s black flags in a central square, while others zoomed around in pick-up trucks against a thundering backdrop of celebratory gunfire. Video of the celebrations was posted online, and activists in the city confirmed the details.

The announcement was greeted with condemnation and even ridicule elsewhere in Syria, including from rival Islamist rebel groups who have been fighting the Islamic State since January across northern and eastern Syria.

“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it,” said Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam, an Islamist rebel group. “You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”

Speaking over Skype from Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, al-Shami described the declaration as “psychological warfare” which he predicted will turn people against the Islamic State.

In Iraq, where the government has launched a counteroffensive to try to claw back some of the territory lost to the Islamic State in recent weeks, the declaration is viewed through the prism of the country’s rising sectarian tensions.

“This is a project that was well-planned to rupture the society and to spread chaos and damage,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker. “This is not to the benefit of the Iraqi people, but instead it will increase the differences and splits.”

The Islamic State has seized upon widespread grievances among Iraq’s Sunni minority and opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government to help fuel its blitz through northern and western Iraq. Its offensive has prompted Shiite militias to reconstitute themselves, deepening fears of a return to the sectarian bloodletting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas, Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.