Archive for July, 2015


March 29, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A Saudi-led airstrike campaign targeting Shiite rebels who control much of Yemen has pushed them out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in the Arab world’s poorest country, the kingdom has said.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign, now entering its fourth day Sunday, continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads “devastated,” according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

However, he warned Saturday that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated. The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive as leaders at an Arab summit considered creating a military reaction force in the Mideast, raising the specter of a regional conflict pitting Sunni Arab nations against Shiite power Iran. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan planned to dispatch a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen’s airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Ali Hassan, a Pakistani in Hodeida, told Pakistan’s private GEO satellite news channel that hundreds there anxiously waited for a way home. “We had sleepless nights due to the bombardment in Sanaa,” Hassan said.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

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July 28, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — A quiet middle-class Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad was transformed recently into a mini-boot camp, training teenagers for battle against the Islamic State group.

The Shiite boys and young men ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn’t fire them.

In cities from Baghdad to Basra, summer camps set up by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq’s largest militia umbrella group, are training teens and boys as young as middle school age after the country’s top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by The Associated Press, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It’s yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq’s brutal war as the military, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants, who seized much of the country’s north and west over the past year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos.

Among those training this month in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grew up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting with the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he said. Earlier this summer, the AP saw over a dozen armed young boys, some as young as 10, deployed on the front line with the Shiite militias in western Anbar province.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47’s, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

“It’s our honor to serve our country,” Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no. The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which supports the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they receive weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and are trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. was “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIL,” using an acronym for the militant group. “We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so.”

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. His influence was so great that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, most of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to “contribute to (the country’s) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk, if this is required.”

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give “lessons in self-defense” and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office echoed that. There may be “some isolated incidents” of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. “But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle.”

“We are a government that frowns upon children going to war,” he said. But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, “then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention” on the Rights of the Child.

“If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting” the Popular Mobilization Forces, she said. The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

“Governments like to say, ‘Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm’s way,’ but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly,” she said.

July 30, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Two high-ranking Afghan Taliban officials have confirmed the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and say the group’s council has elected a successor.

The two told The Associated Press that the Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, has chosen Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new leader. He has been acting as Mullah Omar’s deputy for the past three years. The two Taliban officials say the seven-member-council has been meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized by the council to talk to the media. They also said the group chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as their new deputy leader.

Gannon reported from Timmins, Canada.

July 28, 2015

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A court in Libya on Tuesday sentenced a son of Moammar Gadhafi to death by firing squad after convicting him of murder and inciting genocide during the country’s 2011 civil war.

It is unlikely, however, that the sentence against Seif al-Islam Gadhafi will be carried out anytime soon, as a militia in western Libya has refused to hand him over to the government for the past four years.

That uncertainty reflects the chaos still gripping this North African nation split between rival militias and governments while facing an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group. The Tripoli court sentenced to death eight others, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, who is in their custody. Also sentenced to death were foreign intelligence chief Abuzed Omar-Dorda and Gadhafi’s former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.

The rulings can be appealed, and a defense lawyer in the case, Ali Aldaa, said he would challenge it before the Libyan Supreme Court. The Tripoli-based top court has in the past ruled the Tobruk government as illegitimate, raising questions over whether it is under pressure from militias that dominate the city.

Only 29 of the 38 Gadhafi-era figures were present in court. Six others were sentenced to life in prison and four were cleared of charges. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the trial was “undermined by serious due process violations,” and called on the Libyan Supreme Court to independently review the verdict. Other international organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, also condemned the verdict.

“This trial has been plagued by persistent, credible allegations of fair trial breaches that warrant independent and impartial judicial review,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The victims of the serious crimes committed during the 2011 uprising deserve justice, but that can only be delivered through fair and transparent proceedings.”

The Council of Europe said the case should have been turned over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which wants Seif al-Islam on charges of crimes against humanity. Libya has slid into chaos since the overthrow and killing of Gadhafi, who ruled the country for four decades. It is now bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government cornered in the country’s east, with little power on the ground, and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west that has seized the capital, Tripoli.

Since the end of the civil war, Seif al-Islam has been held by a militia in Zintan, which is allied with the Tobruk-based internationally recognized government against the Tripoli one. The court that convicted him is affiliated with the Tripoli-based government.

During the trial, Seif al-Islam was accused of recruiting mercenaries who were given Libyan nationality, planning and carrying out attacks on civilian targets from the air, forming armed groups and shooting into crowds of demonstrators. Among the charges he was convicted of were incitement of murder and rape.

Hundreds of militias in Libya are battling for power and turf in a lawless environment has allowed human traffickers and kidnappers to flourish. Meanwhile, extremists returning from fighting in the Syrian civil war have created a local affiliate of the Islamic State group, taking territory and beheading captives.

The U.N. envoy for Libya has urged the Islamist-led government in Tripoli to sign a peace deal that would establish a unity government. Members of the Tobruk government and regional leaders signed the unity accord in Morocco on July 11.

Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.

July 30, 2015

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s Defense Ministry has appointed a new general to head the multinational army it is hoped can defeat the Boko Haram Islamic uprising that has killed 20,000 people and driven nearly 2 million from their homes.

Thursday’s appointment comes as the West African nation’s new president promised deeper collaboration with neighboring states in the fight against Islamic extremism. President Muhammadu Buhari headed home Thursday after two days of talks in Cameroon focused on Boko Haram.

Its attacks have spread across Nigeria’s borders and forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring states. Chad announced Thursday that its troops killed 13 Boko Haram fighters in attacks this week near Lake Chad, where militants slit the throats of three villagers.

It said the extremists had kidnapped about 30 people, and spirited them away on speed boats. Nigeria’s Defense Ministry said Maj. Gen. Iliyasu Isah Abbah will command the 8,700-strong four-nation army based in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital.

Buhari has said it is a disgrace that Nigeria needs foreign troops on its soil. But he noted before leaving Cameroon that “none of us can succeed alone.” Relations with Cameroon have been strained by a long-simmering border dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula, but the two leaders agreed Thursday that demarcation of their border under U.N. auspices should be completed by year’s end.

Nigeria’s military, poorly equipped with soldiers reporting going into battle without rations and just 30 bullets, last year allowed Boko Haram to take control of a large swath of the northeast. Chadian troops earlier this year forced the militants out of Nigerian border towns. Nigerian troops trained by South African mercenaries drove the extremists from most other towns.

But suicide bombings and village assaults have increased recently. Buhari this month fired all the military’s top commanders. The former chief of defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, complained in a retirement address Wednesday that “fifth columnists” in the military and security agencies have leaked information to the insurgents, causing the deaths of many troops ambushed by militants who had advance warning.

Associated Press writer Dany Padire contributed to this report from N’Djamena, Chad.

March 26, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia bombed key military installations in Yemen on Thursday after announcing a broad regional coalition to oust Shiite rebels that forced the country’s embattled president to flee. Some of the strikes hit positions in the country’s capital, Sanaa, and flattened a number of homes near the international airport.

The airstrikes, which had the support of nine other countries, drew a strong reaction from Iran which called the operation an “invasion” and a “dangerous step” that will worsen the crisis in the country.

Iran “condemns the airstrikes against Yemen this morning that left some innocent Yemenis wounded and dead and considers this action a dangerous step,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement. She said military action would complicate and worsen the crisis in Yemen.

“This invasion will bear no result but expansion of terrorism and extremism throughout the whole region,” she said. The Saudi airstrikes came hours after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally, fled Yemen by sea after rebels pushed their way toward the southern port city of Aden where he had taken refuge.

The back-and-forth between the regional heavyweights was threatening to turn impoverished Yemen into a proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News reported that the kingdom had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units in “Operation Decisive Storm.”

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, were calling on their supporters to protest in the streets of Sanaa on Thursday afternoon, Yemen’s Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA reported. TV stations affiliated with the rebels and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, showed the aftermath of the strikes Thursday morning in what appeared to be a residential area.

Al-Masirah TV, affiliated with the Houthis, quoted the ministry of health as saying that 18 civilians were killed and 24 were injured. Yemen Today, a TV station affiliated with Saleh, showed hundreds of residents congregating around a number of flattened houses, some chanting “Death to Al-Saud”, in reference to the kingdom’s royal family. The civilians were sifting through the rubble, pulling out mattresses, bricks and shrapnel.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene in the Sanaa neighborhood near the international airport saw people searching for loved ones in the debris of flattened homes. Residents said at least three bodies were pulled from the rubble. There were traces of blood between the bricks.

Ahmed al-Sumaini said an entire alley close to the airport was wiped out in the strikes overnight. He said people ran out from their homes in the middle of the night. “This was a surprise. I was asleep and I was jolted out of my bed,” he said, waving a piece of shrapnel.

In addition to the airport, targets included the camp of U.S.-trained Yemeni special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to Saleh. Yemeni security officials said the targets also included a missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base.

The Houthis said in a statement that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles. The strikes also hit the al-Annad air base in the southern Lahj province. About 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew over the weekend from base, where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to brief journalists.

Riad Yassin, Yemen’s foreign minister, told Saudi’s Al-Hadath TV that the airstrikes were welcomed. “I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this,” he said.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir announced the military operation in a news conference in Washington. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.

The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes. Other regional players were involved in the Saudi operation: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

On a Thursday conference call with foreign ministers from the council, Secretary of State John Kerry commended the work of the coalition’s military action against the Houthis, according to a State Department official traveling with Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland. Kerry noted U.S. support for coalition efforts, including intelligence sharing and logistical support for strikes against Houthi targets, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private diplomatic call.

Egypt announced political and military support, saying it is ready to send ground troops if necessary. Jordan confirmed it was participating in the operation. Pakistan, Morocco and Sudan were also taking part, the Saudi Press Agency reported Thursday.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Houthis are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran. Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

The Houthis are backed by Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden Wednesday on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told AP. The officials would not specify his destination.

Arab leaders are meeting in Egypt this weekend for a pre-planned summit. It is unclear if Hadi will join them.

March 25, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — With Yemen’s president swept out of power by Shiite rebels, neighboring Saudi Arabia and allies such as Egypt are considering whether and how to intervene to stop a takeover of the country by rebels they believe are backed by Shiite Iran.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has asked Gulf countries for military intervention and asked the United Nations to set up a no-fly zone to shut down rebel-held airports that he claims are being used to fly in Iranian weapons. The question is how Arab nations might act: Experts say a ground operation would be a likely impossibly daunting task, but that airstrikes are an option.

Gulf intervention would have been hard enough when Hadi was clinging to his authority after fleeing from the capital Sanaa to the southern port city of Aden. But it became an even tougher issue Wednesday, when Hadi was forced to flee Yemen by boat as rebel fighters — known as Houthis — and their allies advanced into Aden. The Houthis now control much of the north and a few southern provinces, backed by military forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed in 2011 after a popular uprising.

There does remain resistance to the Houthis and Saleh — chiefly Sunni tribesmen in the north and center of the country, local militias and some units of the military and police remain loyal to Hadi, though they are profoundly weakened by his departure. The scattered nature of the opposition raises the question of whom would any foreign intervention being aiming to help. Also battling the Houthis are militants from al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, which has attracted some Sunni tribesmen as allies.

A summit of Arab leaders being held this weekend in Egypt is due to address a proposal to create a joint Arab defense force, an idea promoted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to intervene in regional crises. Hadi is to attend the summit, being held in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The summit is also likely to address the crisis in Yemen and how to deal with it — opening the door for a possible Arab League stamp of approval for action.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdellaty said that he and his Arab counterparts would discuss the idea of establishing a joint force on Thursday, to prepare for national leaders to decide on Saturday.

Gulf nations also have cited their own pretext for intervention. The Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain, warned earlier this year that they would act to protect the Arabian Peninsula’s security and described the Houthi takeover of parts of Yemen as a “terrorist” act. The Gulf’s emergency military force, known as Peninsula Shield, intervened in Bahrain in 2011 to help the Sunni monarchy crush protests backed by the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear that the Shiite advance in Yemen is putting that strategic country on the southern Saudi borders into the control of Iran. The Houthis and Iran both deny Tehran is arming the rebels. Still, a direct air route recently opened from Tehran to Sanaa, which has been held by the Houthis since September, officially to being aid and medical supplies. Hadi and his allies say the heavy air traffic along the route is delivering Iranian weapons.

This week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.” On Sunday night, Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited troops in the south near the Yemen border. According to the state news agency he ordered the rapid completion of plans on building a naval base and new military camps in the area, apparently part of plans to build up the army presence in the area.

Egypt has said for months that it would act if the Houthis threaten vital shipping lanes that lead to its Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden, an area the Houthis have already approached. Much of the Gulf region’s oil exports destined for the West sail through the area.

But what would a military intervention look like? Not a ground invasion, says Sir John Jenkins, Middle East Executive Director for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think the likelihood of boots on the ground is very low,” he said. “The Houthis are on home terrain, supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have proved themselves effective fighters. They also have heavy weaponry and political support from Iran.”

A ground invasion now would face the tough terrain between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and a fierce enemy that for years beat back Yemeni government forces from its northern highland redoubts. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen against the Houthis once before, in late 2009 to early 2010, when the rebels’ battle at the time with Saleh’s regime spilled over across the border into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia retaliated with airstrikes against the Houthis and a ground incursion. The campaign left more than 130 Saudi troops killed.

More likely now would be airstrikes by some combination of Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain, all of which have advanced versions of American F-16s, or Egypt, which has large numbers of older versions. Egypt would have to send its planes to air bases in Saudi for the raids, and other countries would likely opt to do the same.

Saudi Arabia could also step up its arming of Sunni tribesmen against the Houthis. The kingdom already funds and arms Sunnis in Yemen’s Marib province, which borders the kingdom. But with Hadi driven out, there isn’t a clear front line for international intervention to support. Any intervention would likely be in the name of restoring Hadi — but doing so with airstrikes alone would be a difficult task.

“Air strikes are a possibility, against military targets, particularly Houthi air assets, artillery and tanks, but that brings its own risks,” Jenkins said. “At the moment preserving the integrity of the land border with Saudi Arabia and the key passages in the Red Sea seems to me the priority.”

July 24, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a major tactical shift, Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria on Friday, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost. A Syrian rights group said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia and borders the Middle East, had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. In a related, long-awaited development, Turkey said it has agreed to allow U.S.-led coalition forces to base manned and unmanned aircraft at its air bases for operations targeting the IS group.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said Turkey’s military would also take part in the operations. The ministry would not provide details on the agreement, citing operational reasons, but said it expected Turkey’s cooperation to “make a difference” to the campaign. The statement did not say which bases would be used, but Turkish media reports said they would include Incirlik, Diyarbakir and Batman, all in southern Turkey near the border with Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed earlier that Turkey had agreed to let the U.S. use Incirlik air base for operations “within a certain framework.” A U.S. official said the agreement was reached during a phone call this week with President Barack Obama.

In June 2014, the Islamic State group launched a blitz, capturing large parts of Iraq and of Syria — which has been ravaged by a four-year-old civil war. The group subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it controls. The U.S.-led coalition has been striking the group in both Syria and Iraq.

Turkish police also launched a major operation Friday against extremist groups including the Islamic State, detaining more than 290 people in simultaneous raids in Istanbul and 12 provinces. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the airstrikes Friday had “removed potential threats” to Turkey, hitting their targets with “100 percent accuracy.” He did not rule out further airstrikes, saying Turkey was determined to stave off all terror threats.

“This was not a point operation, this is a process,” Davutoglu said. “It is not limited to one day or to one region … the slightest movement threatening Turkey will be retaliated against in the strongest way possible.”

A government official said three F-16 jets took off from Diyarbakir air base in southeast Turkey early Friday and used smart bombs to hit three IS targets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules requiring authorization for comment.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the three Turkish airstrikes were all near the border, hitting north of the village of Hawar al-Nahr, east of the Rai area and west of the town of Jarablous.

He said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters, wounded 12 others and destroyed at least one IS vehicle and a heavy machine gun. The private Dogan news agency said as many as 35 IS militants were killed in the airstrikes, but did not cite a source.

The Observatory also reported that an airstrike targeted a post near the border with Turkey for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. It said it was not clear if Turkish warplanes or those of the U.S.-led coalition struck the Nusra Front position.

Davutoglu said Turkish planes did not violate Syrian airspace Friday, but he did not rule out incursions in the future. He denied news reports claiming that Turkey had told the Syrian regime about the airstrikes, but said it had contacted NATO allies before the operation.

The agreement on the Turkish air bases follows months of U.S. appeals to Turkey and delicate negotiations. Davutoglu said Friday that an agreement that takes Turkey’s concerns into account had been reached, but did not elaborate.

Turkey’s moves came as the country finds itself drawn further into the conflict in neighboring Syria by a series of deadly attacks and signs of increased IS activity inside Turkey itself. A government statement said the airstrikes were approved Thursday after IS militants fired from Syrian territory at the Turkish military outpost, killing one soldier. A funeral was held Friday for the slain Turkish soldier, Yalcin Nane, where mourners denounced IS violence, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Officials said Friday’s airstrikes were codenamed “Operation Yalcin” in his honor. The agency said as many as 5,000 police officers were involved in Friday’s sweep against suspected extremists, which also targeted the PKK Kurdish rebel group and the outlawed far-left group DHKP-C. Davutoglu said those detained included 37 foreign nationals but did not name their home countries.

One DHKP-C suspect, a woman, was killed in a gunfight with police in Istanbul, Anadolu reported. The agency said those detained in Istanbul included Halis Bayuncuk, an alleged IS cell leader in the city who is suspected of having helped recruit supporters.

On Monday, a suicide bombing blamed on IS militants killed 32 people in Suruc, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. The bombing ignited protests from Turkey’s Kurds, who said the government had not done enough to prevent attacks from the IS group.

Turkish officials say the Suruc bombing could be retaliation for Turkey’s crackdown on IS operations. In the last six months, more than 500 people suspected of working with the IS group in Turkey have been detained, officials say.

Butler reported from Istanbul. Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.

July 23, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Undeterred by scorching heat, Palestinian workers in Gaza on Thursday hammered nails into wooden boards and jolted steel bars as they lay the foundations for the first group of homes to be rebuilt since the war with Israel last summer. The work brought a rare glimmer of hope to a territory that remains devastated a year after the fighting.

The long-awaited reconstruction started in Shijaiyah, one of Gaza’s areas that was hardest hit during the 50-day war between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group. “Thank God!” said Sharif Harara, 50, who stood under the sun as the workers laid the foundation of his new residence. “After a year of suffering in rental homes, our God brought his mercy.”

Last year’s fighting was the third and most devastating war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Palestinian Authority, dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party. Over 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side were killed in the fighting.

The war also destroyed 11,900 homes and damaged about 140,000 dwellings, according to the Palestinian Minister of Public Works Mufeed al-Hasayneh, whose ministry oversees the rebuilding. One year later, thousands of houses with minor or moderate damage have been repaired under strict guidelines agreed to by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But so far, no new homes have been built to replace those that were completely destroyed.

Reconstruction efforts have also been hampered by unmet international funding promises, the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which remains the internationally recognized government for the Palestinians, and continued Israeli security restrictions — though Israel has recently taken steps to increase the flow of goods into Gaza.

Shijaiyah is one of Gaza City’s most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods. Entire city blocks were laid to waste there in fierce fighting between hundreds of Hamas gunmen and Israeli troops.

The first houses are being rebuilt as part of a Qatari-funded project that will see 1,000 housing units reconstructed. For residents in Shijaiyah, where entire blocks remain flattened, it was a rare sign of progress and hope.

Harara used to have a two-floor home for his 10-member family. His new house will only have one floor. But he doesn’t mind, he said. “I quickly signed on it to get rid of the suffering,” he said. Harara’s old home was one of over 60 housing units in a bloc of buildings shared by his extended family that was destroyed by artillery shells and airstrikes last summer.

Only four housing units are being rebuilt in the Qatari project. The four homes were the first to receive Israeli approval for the necessary building materials, according to Al-Hasayneh. But he said Israel has approved requests to build more than 630 additional homes funded by Qatar. In addition, plans are in the works for another 1,000 homes funded by Kuwait, he said.

“I think within two weeks, there will be a revolution in construction,” said al-Hasayneh, the Palestinian minister. Harara’s brother, Ziad, a teacher who also lost his house, said he was excited to see Sharif’s new home begin to take shape. “This gave me a huge hope,” he said, standing outside a tent he erected on the empty lot where his house once stood.

But others were less positive. Among them was Hussam Harara, 37, a cousin of Sharif and Ziad. His home is nearby, in an apartment building that was moderately damaged. “Those with total destruction started rebuilding while nobody gave us any money to repair,” he said.

He frowned as he pointed out a freshly painted white mosque that was quickly repaired by Hamas. “This is a Hamas mosque,” he said. “They repaired the mosque and the house that has children was not repaired.”

July 24, 2015

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Some 100 Moroccan journalists and activists demonstrated Friday in front of the parliament in solidarity with an editor on a monthlong hunger strike over his treatment by the government.

Ali Mrabet, editor of DemainOnline, has been on a hunger strike in front of Geneva’s Palais des Nations since June 24 over what he is calling government harassment preventing him from working. Omar Brouksy, a journalist at the demonstration, said Mrabet was being targeted for his outspoken criticism of the state but also it was an attack on journalists in general despite a reformist constitution and public commitment to press freedoms.

“The problem with Morocco is the flagrant incoherence between the laws and the official discourse, on one hand, and the reality, which is very repressive,” he said. Morocco, a popular tourist destination, is generally considered more stable and open than its North African neighbors, but it still ranks low on press freedom indexes.

Mrabet was banned by a judge from practicing journalism for a decade. During that time he published the French-language DemainOnline, which was critical of the state and often poked fun at it. When the ban expired in April, he announced plans to bring back the print version of his weekly. Since then he said he has been repeatedly harassed and authorities refuse to issue him a certificate of residence so he cannot renew his identity card, passport or set up his newspaper.

Most of Morocco’s print and broadcast media now strictly follow official red lines — avoiding criticism of the king, the country’s policies in the Western Sahara or Islam. Many independent-minded journalists have gone online instead, but in 2014, news website Lakome.com was shut down after its editor was briefly charged with abetting terrorism by writing about an al-Qaida video.