Archive for October, 2015


October 24, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Shiites rallied to demand greater government protection on Saturday after a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite religious procession, killing at least 18 people and wounding 40 others.

The bomber struck a public Ashoura rally Friday night in Jacobabad, a city in the southern province of Sindh, senior police officer Zafar Malik said. Local media reported a higher death toll than the government, saying as many as 24 people were killed.

Malik added that mourners were preparing for mass funerals Saturday and that the government had protectively deployed extra troops to handle any “untoward situation.” Shiite Muslims, a minority in Pakistan, hold public rallies to mark Ashoura, a 10-day ritual that commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an iconic Shiite martyr. Some mourners whip themselves with knives attached to chains and women and children beat their own chests as they march in the streets.

Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. On Thursday, a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in southwest Pakistan, killing 10 people in Baluchistan province. The attacks have sparked Shiite anger at the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for failing to protect Shiite citizens. On Friday in Jacobabad after the bombing, angry Shiites ransacked local government offices.

Shiite community leader Syed Hamid Ali Shah Moosavi called for mourners to participate peacefully in Saturday’s funeral processions, and demanded that the government provide greater protection and arrest those responsible for the bombings.

Pakistani authorities have put heightened security arrangements in place to protect Ashoura events, sealing off procession routes, assigning paramilitary troops to escort processions and suspending cell phone service in certain areas.

August 31, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s prime minister vowed he would not quit over a $700-million financial scandal, and accused protesters of showing “poor national spirit” by holding a massive rally to demand his resignation on the eve of the country’s National Day on Monday.

After a weekend of demonstrations, the government took back the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Cabinet ministers attending a gala parade involving 13,000 people. They watched jets whizz by above the landmark Independence Square, which over the weekend was surrounded by tens of thousands of protesters.

In his National Day speech late Sunday, Najib slammed protesters for showing a “shallow mind and poor national spirit.” He said the protests can disrupt public order and were not the right way to show unhappiness in a democratic country.

Najib said Malaysia was not a failed state and slammed protesters for tarnishing the country’s image. He vowed not to bow to pressure. “Once the sails have been set, once the anchor has been raised, the captain and his crew would never change course,” he said.

Police sealed off the square over the weekend. Large crowds of protesters in yellow shirts of the Bersih movement — a coalition for clean and fair elections — camped overnight around the square, even after authorities blocked the organizer’s website and banned yellow attire and the group’s logo.

The rally ended peacefully after protesters ushered in the country’s 58th National Day at midnight Sunday amid tight security. Police estimated the crowd size at 35,000, but Bersih says it swelled to 300,000 on Sunday from 200,000 on Saturday.

“What is 20,000?” Najib said, downplaying even the police number. “We can gather hundreds of thousands,” he said in a speech in a rural area in a northern state earlier Sunday. “The rest of the Malaysian population is with the government,” he was quoted as saying by the local media.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib’s resignation, added momentum to the rally when he turned up at the rally with his wife on both days. Mahathir, who clamped down on dissent during his 22-year rule, said people power was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law. He stepped down in 2003 but remained influential.

Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East and fired his critical deputy, four other Cabinet members and the attorney general investigating him.

Many of the protesters, such as Azrul Khalib, slept on the street. “This is a watershed moment. Malaysians are united in their anger at the mismanagement of this country. We are saying loudly that there should be a change in the leadership,” said Azrul.

He said he was aware that the rally will not bring change overnight, but he still participated because he wanted to be “part of efforts to build a new Malaysia.” Some used colored chalk to scrawl their demands on the street, writing slogans such as, “We want change,” and “We want clean and fair (elections).”

Two previous Bersih rallies, in 2011 and 2012, were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. Analysts said the rally attracted a largely urban crowd with a smaller participation of ethnic Malays, which could be the reason why the Najib government allowed it to go on.

A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim, who form the core of the ruling party’s support. The country also has significant Chinese and Indian minorities who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government recent years.

Malaysia’s ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib’s increasing authoritarianism. Still, the government feels “safe because it has not really affected the rural Malay segment, their bedrock support,” said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian. However, he said this doesn’t mean that rural Malays are happy with the government, as many are upset with the plunging currency and economic slowdown.

Support for Najib’s National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance. Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low earlier this month.

In his speech, Najib rejected fears that the economy is crumbling. “We are stable, with strong fundamentals and will continue to survive and remain competitive,” he said.

Monday, 26 October 2015

An Iraqi tribal leader has accused Shia Popular Mobilization Forces of burning mosques and killing dozens of people in Baiji in the Salahuddin province in Iraq.

Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Al-Shammari said: “Eight mosques were burned and destroyed in the city of Baiji by the Popular Mobilization Forces in the past days,” adding that dozens of people were arrested and taken to an unknown destination.

Al-Shammari explained that the city of Baiji is currently witnessing “genocide” after the forces destroyed the mosques and then burned them.

On 12 October, Iraqi national army, with the support of the Popular Mobilization Forces, launched large-scale military operations that aimed at restoring the city of Baiji after it was seized by Daesh.

Baiji is located 210 kilometers north of Baghdad and has the largest oil refinery in Iraq.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/21890-iraq-popular-crowd-militias-burn-mosques-and-kill-dozens-in-baiji.

October 26, 2015

KAWERGOSK, Iraq (AP) — The young Syrian refugees at the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq have already lost so much — and now they’re losing their teachers.

One after another, school teachers have packed up and left for Europe — searching for opportunity, safety and a better life. With the school year just kicking off in Iraq, schools like this one are scrambling to accommodate the refugee students left behind. Nine of Kawergosk’s teachers fled to Europe this summer and the remaining teachers are doubling up on students.

Mizgeen Hussein, 28, is among those teachers left behind. A refugee from Derik, Syria, Hussein admits that despite her commitment to the students, she would leave if she had the money. “The reason for me to leave is to have a future”, said Hussein, who teaches a class of 37 children at the camp’s school. “For sure this has an effect on us,” she added. “For now, we’ll solve it with the people who are here until they will bring other teachers.”

Camps across Iraq are experiencing the same exodus of teachers heading to Europe. Meanwhile student numbers are on the rise as fighting continues to tear through Syria and Iraq, forcing people to flee their homes. An increasingly chaotic civil war has gripped Syria for nearly five years, and the Islamic State militant group has claimed territory in a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Four of the 21 teachers at the Kobani primary school in Domiz camp have left in the past month. With over 1,000 students, manager Abdullah Mohammed Saeed said the school’s future is in jeopardy. “We need new people, otherwise we have to close the school,” he said.

“Our problem is that now our teachers are escaping to Europe,” said Mazhar Mohammed, Kawergosk’s principal. “We don’t have any other problems. The government is providing us with enough books.” Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region hosts approximately 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more than a third of them living in camps. Many have found work, opened shops and pursued some form of education. But their uncertain future has caused those in doubt to flee the region, either back to Syria or across the border to Turkey and beyond.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Syrians leaving northern Iraq for Europe has tripled in recent months. Among them are many Syrian teachers who have been getting paid by the Kurdish regional government to teach at the various camps. But the region is facing a severe financial crisis, and many teachers have not received salaries — another reason to leave.

On the first day of school at Kawergosk, children gripped the school’s fence waiting for the gates to open. Hundreds flooded into the schoolyard, anxious to get back into their classrooms. The lessons are shortened, as there are not enough teachers to handle all the students. “We dropped the last lessons, so we send the students home earlier,” Mohammed, the camp principal, said. The lack of teachers has forced many instructors to give lessons in areas outside their specializations, with history teachers covering geography and math teachers expanding into physics.

Some teachers, like Jeveen Salah Omer, have nevertheless vowed to stay, whatever the cost. “The education of students is more important than anything,” she said. “They became refugees and had to come here. This is the least we can do for them.”

September 23, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Egypt has agreed to buy two assault ships from France, the French government said Wednesday, dramatically increasing its capabilities on- and off-shore as the country tries to assume a more prominent role against Islamic State militants.

The assault ships, which can each carry 16 helicopter gunships, 700 troops and up to 50 armored vehicles, were originally intended for Russia. France continued building to Russia’s specifications — including stenciling Cyrillic writing throughout the vessels — until the deal finally fell apart because of the Ukraine crisis. It was originally supposed to be the biggest arms sale ever by a NATO country to Russia.

France agreed to refund 950 million euros ($1 billion) already paid by Russia. France didn’t say how much Egypt has agreed to pay, but denied losing money. A military official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the deal said Egypt would pay 950 million euros ($1 billion) for both ships, which will be delivered next March.

Russia had traditionally supplied Egypt’s military, but the country has turned more recently toward Western arms purchases, with France taking a leading role. Egypt bought 24 advanced fighter jets from France earlier this year for nearly $6 billion, as it sought international help to bomb IS targets.

President Francois Hollande said he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi closed the deal Tuesday after several weeks of talks. “France will assure delivery of these boats while losing nothing, and by doing so protecting Egypt,” Hollande said. He noted French military cooperation with Egypt and Egypt’s “important role” in the Middle East.

He said el-Sissi underscored the role of the Suez Canal and “how important it is for Europe, for the Middle East, for trade that the Suez Canal be protected.” Analysts said it was unlikely that Egypt would re-sell the ships to Russia given the increasing value of its relationship with France. And the military official said it was not permitted for the buyer of a warship to re-sell without permission from the original seller.

But, conveniently, Egypt already owns Russian-made helicopters that are of the same kind originally planned for the decks of the two Mistrals, the official said. The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the northern Sinai region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule, and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local IS affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in the area.

Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former Royal Navy officer, said Egypt’s military is shifting its focus, previously on the Sinai, to a more regional outlook.

“It does provide an interesting window into the decision-making of Egypt’s leaders at this moment,” he said. Analysts said the purchase showed Egypt’s attempt to take a more muscular role in the region, notably with the disintegration of Yemen and Libya.

“The reality is that Egypt isn’t going to try to conquer Libya or Yemen,” said Ben Moores, an analyst with IHS Janes. “It’s not trying to change those countries. It’s just trying to keep a lid on them.”

October 26, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A strong earthquake in northern Afghanistan shook buildings from Kabul to Delhi, cut power and communications in some areas and caused more than 150 deaths, mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said that at least 147 people were killed and nearly 600 others wounded across the country, while Afghan officials said 33 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of the 7.5-magnitude earthquake was in the Hindu Kush mountains, in the sparsely populated province of Badakhshan, which borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. It said the epicenter was 213 kilometers (130 miles) deep and 73 kilometers (45 miles) south of the provincial capital, Fayzabad.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sent his condolences to families who had lost relatives and property, and appointed an “assessment committee” to ensure emergency relief reached the needy as soon as possible, his office said.

In Takhar province, west of Badakhshan, at least 12 students at a girls’ school were killed in a stampede as they fled shaking buildings, said Sonatullah Taimor, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Another 42 girls were taken to the hospital in the provincial capital of Taluqan.

In Pakistan, Inayatullah Khan, the provincial minister for local bodies, said the death toll in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone had jumped to 121. The toll from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province was likely to rise as reports came in from remote areas. The province is often struck by earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low.

The province also suffers from floods, snowstorms and mudslides, and despite vast mineral deposits is one of Afghanistan’s poorest regions. It has recently also been troubled by Taliban-led insurgents, who have used its remote valleys as cover to seize districts as they spread their footprint across the country.

Power was cut across much of the Afghan capital, where tremors were felt for around 45 seconds. Houses shook, walls cracked and cars rolled in the streets. Officials in the capital could not be immediately reached as telephones appeared to be cut across the country.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah tweeted that the earthquake was the strongest felt in recent decades. He had earlier called an emergency meeting of disaster officials, which was broadcast live on television. He instructed doctors and hospitals to be prepared to receive and treat casualties.

Abdullah said telecommunications have been disrupted in vast parts of the country, preventing officials from getting a precise picture of damage and casualties. He also warned of aftershocks from the earthquake.

In Pakistan, Zahid Rafiq, an official with the meteorological department, said the quake was felt across the country. In the capital, Islamabad, buildings shook and panicked people poured into the streets, many reciting verses from the Quran.

“I was praying when the massive earthquake rattled my home. I came out in a panic,” said Munir Anwar, a resident of Liaquat Pur in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, ordered troops to the quake-affected areas, the military said in a statement. It gave no further details.

The quake was also felt in the Indian capital New Delhi, though no damage was immediately reported. Office buildings swayed and workers who had just returned from lunch ran out of buildings and gathered in the street or in parking lots.

In Srinagar, the main city in the India-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir, the tremors lasted at least 40 seconds, with buildings swaying and electrical wires swinging wildly, residents said. “First I thought somebody had banged the door. But within seconds, the earth began shaking below my feet, and that’s when I ran out of the building,” said government official Naseer Ahmed.

People ran outside, shouting, crying and chanting religious hymns in an effort to keep calm. “I thought it was the end of the world,” shopkeeper Iqbal Bhat said. Srinagar Police Inspector General Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gilani said that “some bridges and buildings have been damaged,” including a cracked highway overpass.

Two elderly women died from heart attacks suffered during the earthquake, including a 65-year-old woman in the northern Kashmiri town of Baramulla and an 80-year-old in the southern town of Bijbehara, officials said.

Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Anwarullah Khan in Khar, Pakistan, Sherin Zada in Mingora, Pakistan, Aqeel Ahmed in Mansehra, Pakistan, Asim Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, and Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.

September 12, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s government resigned Saturday in the face of intense criticism from state-friendly media that reflects growing discontent but stops short of faulting President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led the overthrow of an Islamist president two years ago.

The office of the president said he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and his Cabinet but that the ministers would continue to serve until a new body is appointed. El-Sissi tasked Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail with forming a new Cabinet within a week.

Prior to handing in his resignation, Mehleb provided a report detailing the performance of the government, which two officials from the president’s office said el-Sissi found “unsatisfying.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.

Egypt’s president is generally in charge of major affairs of state while the prime minister, whom he appoints, handles day-to-day running of the government. El-Sissi in recent months has had to perform tasks that normally should fall to Mehleb, such as arranging meetings with ministers and negotiating business deals with foreign investors, according to the two officials. Mehleb also failed to pressure his ministers into following through on memorandums of understanding that el-Sissi signed during a much-publicized economic summit in March, they said.

The country’s private media, while lavishing praise on el-Sissi, have slammed the government in recent weeks, accusing ministers of incompetence and of being out of touch with ordinary citizens suffering from years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

“El-Sissi and the armed forces are responsible for the accomplishments we see,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent journalist and popular TV host, who called Mehleb and his Cabinet a “burden” on the president. “All of the ministers that failed were Mehleb’s choices,” Eissa told viewers earlier this week.

The government suffered a major blow when Agriculture Minister Salah el-Din Helal was detained Monday after tendering his resignation amid an investigation into allegations that he and others received over $1 million in bribes.

The Egyptian government has long been plagued by corruption allegations, particularly regarding land deals. El-Sissi routinely insists that he is rooting out corruption. Mehleb walked out of a press conference in Tunisia earlier this week after being asked about the allegations, a move widely ridiculed by the pro-Sissi private media.

“Didn’t you watch el-Sissi’s speeches?” television host Youssef el-Hosseiny said, before playing clips of the president’s past press conferences for comparison. The corruption allegations have fed into the perception that the government is detached from the people and engaged in the sort of cronyism that was widespread in the Mubarak era and was a central grievance of the protesters who overthrew him.

Last week, the higher education minister reportedly tried to exempt the children of judges, army and police officers from unpopular regulations that restrict where Egyptians can attend university. In May, the justice minister suggested the children of sanitation workers could never aspire to be judges.

Mehleb, a former construction magnate and prominent member of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party, angered many in July when he suggested the country’s youth consider driving auto-rickshaws, known as tok-toks, instead of counting on government employment.

El-Sissi has approved a new civil service law that many believe will dramatically reduce the country’s 6 million-strong public workforce. There have been few public expressions of discontent with the government. A draconian law restricting protests, and a wide-ranging crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as well as secular activists, have largely silenced dissent.

The dismissal of the Cabinet could further bolster support for el-Sissi ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, furthering the image he has cultivated of himself as a leader who is above the political fray.

October 21, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister says he wishes that Syrian President Bashar Assad stayed in Moscow longer to give his people “relief” and start the political transition.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke Wednesday in response to journalists’ questions about Assad’s visit to Moscow a day earlier. It was the Syrian leader’s first known trip abroad since the war broke out in 2011.

Davutoglu said: “If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact he should stay there so the transition can begin.” Davutoglu also reiterated Turkey’s position that Assad should have no role in Syria’s future, insisting that efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis should focus “not on a transition with Assad, but on formulas for Assad’s departure.”

October 17, 2015

CAMLIBEL, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey’s president expressed hope Saturday that an undersea pipeline carrying fresh water from Turkey to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus could help reunify the island amid Greek Cypriot protests that the project is a Turkish ploy to cement its grip on the island.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials inaugurated the pipeline by symbolically turning open a large valve, starting the flow of water through the 107-kilometer (66.5-mile) pipeline at a ceremony at the Mediterranean town of Anamur in Turkey. At a second ceremony in Cyprus, Erdogan, who flew in by helicopter, and other Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, symbolically pushed buttons to mark the water’s arrival at a nearby dam as confetti showered a cheering crowd.

The project is aimed to meet the north’s irrigation and drinking waters needs for the next half century, supplying around 2.6 billion cubic feet (75 million cubic meters) of water annually. Turkey has said the water could be shared with Greek Cypriots once the island is reunified. But Greek Cypriot officials have said the pipeline violates international law, serves to “integrate” the north and to “augment Turkey’s influence and control over Cyprus.”

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and only recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence while still maintaining 35,000 troops in the north.

With Turkey geared toward an election on Nov. 1, both ceremonies had the feel of an election campaign. Spectators at a balloon and flag-festooned water treatment plant in the north of the island broke out in a chant in support of Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister when the project was initiated.

“Our wish is for the whole of Cyprus to benefit from this water as a result of a fair and lasting solution,” Erdogan said. “Let’s hope that the waters of (Turkey) lead to an environment where unity takes root and lives forever.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at Anamur that Turkey and north Cyprus “have been interlocked in such a way that they will never be separated.” The project comes at a time of renewed peace talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

Akinci said the water would turn the drought-prone island into a “green island.” “When the time comes and by increasing the volume, this water can be shared with the south too. Then it will become a true ‘water of peace,'” a reference to the name of the project.

Akinci also said Cyprus could serve as a conduit for east Mediterranean natural gas to Europe. Cyprus has one proven deposit off its southern coast that’s estimated to contain more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The Cyprus government says any future gas revenues could be shared with Turkish Cypriots after a reunification accord is reached. Ilhame Yildiz, 57, was among several hundred spectators who arrived at a water treatment plant in the north of the island.

“This is good for Cyprus. The government on this side can take water and the government on the other side can take water too,” Yildiz said. Farhan Kul, a 76-year-old from Nicosia, said: “If they give water to south Cyprus, this will help bring peace.”

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

 

October 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey shot down an unidentified drone that flew into its airspace Friday near the Syrian border, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s air campaign backing a Syrian government offensive has killed hundreds of militants.

A U.S. official said the downed drone was Russian, but Moscow staunchly rejected the claim. The incident underlined the potential dangers of clashes involving Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition planes in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria. Russian and U.S. military officials have been working on a set of rules to prevent any problems.

The Turkish military said it issued three warnings before shooting down the aircraft with its fighter jets. It didn’t specify how it had relayed the warnings to the operators of the drone. The drone crashed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) inside Turkish territory, said Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu. “We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory,” he added.

Earlier this month, Turkey had protested two incursions by Russian warplanes, which also drew strong condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies. The U.S., Russia and the Syrian government all operate drones in the region.

The drone was definitely not American, and the U.S. believes it was Russian, said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow strongly denied ownership of the drone. “I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base,” said Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, speaking at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

The Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that no Syrian or Russian warplane or drone was shot down over Turkey. Seeking to soothe Turkey’s anger over violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft, Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to discuss preventing such incidents.

“They apologized a few times, said it happened by accident, and that they have taken measures so that it will not occur again,” Sinirlioglu said of Thursday’s talks in Ankara with the Russian delegation.

Since 2013, Turkey has shot down a Syrian military jet, a helicopter and a surveillance drone that strayed into Turkish airspace. The incidents occurred after Ankara changed its rules of engagement following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria.

Turkey, which patrols the border with F-16s, has also reported numerous incidents of harassment by Syrian fighter planes or Syria-based surface-to-air missile systems locking radar on the aircraft. Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive in central Syria a week later. They have so far met stiff resistance from rebels using U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have impeded swift breakthroughs, although they have taken a few villages from rebels in the past week.

On Friday, Syrian troops supported by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group pressed an assault against rebels in central Syria and launched another offensive in the northern province of Aleppo to try to recapture territory, according to activists and the government. The multiple-front offensives appear aimed at stretching rebel lines and keeping the insurgents off-balance.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised statement that the army launched an operation in the Damascus rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Harasta. He added that troops now control of all hills that overlook Harasta and the nearby suburb of Douma, a stronghold of Islam Army rebel group.

The attack appears aimed at securing President Bashar Assad’s seat of power that has been shelled recently from rebel-held areas. The fighting is particularly intense in the central province of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed in Russian airstrikes and fighting. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network that follows the war, put the death toll at 57.

The Russian military has rejected claims of civilian casualties, saying its planes haven’t targeted populated areas. At a meeting in Kazakhstan of leaders of former Soviet nations, Putin said his air force has achieved “impressive” results in Syria.

“Dozens of control facilities and ammunition depots, hundreds of terrorists and a large number of weapons have been destroyed,” he said. Putin said the Russian air campaign against the Islamic State group and other radicals in Syria will continue “for the period of the Syrian troops’ offensive operations against terrorists.” He would not elaborate.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, he said. “We can’t allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home,” he added.

Russian jets have flown 669 sorties since Sept. 30, including 394 this week, said Kartapolov, the Russian general. He emphasized the urgent need for a U.S.-Russian agreement on avoiding clashes, which is being negotiated.

“The sky over Syria is swarming with aircraft,” Kartapolov said. “Such intense and uncoordinated use of air power in Syria’s relatively small airspace may sooner or later lead to an incident.” In a bid to dispel claims by the U.S. and its allies that Moscow is focused on moderate rebels instead of its declared targets of Islamic State militants, Kartapolov said the Russian Defense Ministry would send a detailed map showing positions of the IS and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate targeted by the Russian aircraft.

“Our aircraft have been used on targets outside of populated areas,” he said. Kartapolov also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for striking a power plant near Aleppo, leaving the city without electricity and paralyzing its water supply and sewage system, something he said could only increase the flow of refugees.

In a separate interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kartapolov shrugged off the U.S. claim that four of 26 cruise missiles launched at targets in Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran.

“The Pentagon may say whatever it wants,” he said. “All our missiles reached their targets.” Kartapolov said the Russian jets haven’t yet faced any surface-to-air missiles and warned that their use by rebels would signal a foreign involvement.

Following a similar statement by Putin, the general ruled out Russian military involvement in ground action in Syria. He said Russian air and land assets in Syria will be pulled together with its Soviet-era Tartus navy facility in one base.

Kartapolov wouldn’t offer any further details, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the issue. Russian warships in the Mediterranean helped provide cover for its air base in the coastal province of Latakia and could take part in attacks on targets in Syria, Kartapolov said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.