Archive for July 25, 2015


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.

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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.

July 22, 2015

LONDON (AP) — A British university disclosed Wednesday that scientific tests prove a Quran manuscript in its collection is one of the oldest known and may have been written close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The announcement by the University of Birmingham thrilled Muslim scholars and the local community, which boasts one of the country’s largest Muslim populations. The find came after questions raised by a doctoral student prompted radiocarbon testing that dated the parchment to the time of the prophet, who is generally believed to have lived between 570 and 632.

“This manuscript could well have been written just after he died,” David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham said of the fragment written in ink on goat or sheepskin.

“Parts of the Quran that are contained in those fragments are very similar indeed to the Quran as we have it today. This tends to support the view that the Quran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Quran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam.”

Muslim tradition says the prophet received the revelations of the Quran between 610 and 632 — but it wasn’t written down immediately. The first leader of the community after Muhammad’s death, Caliph Abu Bakr, ordered the book to be written and it was completed by the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in 650.

Thomas said the tests conducted by Oxford University suggest the animal from which the parchment was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterward. The two parchment leaves contains parts of suras, or chapters, 18 to 20. The manuscript is written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.

The manuscript has long been part of the university’s Cadbury Research Library. But it had been bound improperly and was attached to the leaves of a manuscript with a similar script that is not as old. The library houses approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books dating from 1471 and around 4 million manuscripts.

The carbon dating was undertaken after an Italian doctoral research student, Alba Fedeli of Milan, noticed the difference in the writing. She also found discrepancies in the documentation that made her question whether the works were the same.

She said the development was just as wonderful as the rest of her work, trying to downplay the attention that followed her discovery. “Every time I have a chance to see an original manuscript, I feel I have a beautiful opportunity,” Fedeli said. “I was very happy to add a further element.”

Birmingham is a center of Islam in Britain, with about 20 percent of the city describing themselves as adherents of the faith. The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history.

Muhammad Ali, the administrator at Birmingham Central Mosque, described his emotion at being among only a handful of people invited to view the manuscript three weeks ago after its importance was recognized.

“There were tears in my eyes,” he said, recalling his thrill at seeing something from the time of the prophet. “It is very much unique. This is something from his life.”