Archive for February 12, 2016

Feb. 01, 2016

Agence France Presse

ADEN, Yemen: Al-Qaeda fighters have taken control of a town in southern Yemen on a major road linking two provincial capitals, a local official and tribal chiefs said Monday.

Militants swept unopposed into Azzan, in Shabwa province, before raising the Al-Qaeda flag over public buildings, the sources said.

“The state is absent and it is not surprising that this vacuum is filled by Al-Qaeda,” a local official told AFP.

Azzan lies on the highway between Shabwa province capital Ataq and the city of Mukalla, the capital of the vast desert Hadramawt province overrun by jihadists in April.

According to tribal chiefs, most of the fighters who seized Azzan come from the surrounding area.

Yemen, home to what the United States considers Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, has been convulsed by unrest since the Iran-backed Houthis seized Sanaa in September last year.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited the turmoil to tighten its grip on parts of southeast Yemen, including Mukalla, imposing a strict form of Islamic law.

AQAP fighters briefly seized the southern town of Jaar in December in what analysts said was a “show of force” to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Islamist militants, including AQAP and the ISIS group, have also gained ground in and around the main southern city of Aden, where Hadi’s government has established its temporary headquarters.

Source: The Daily Star.


December 20, 2015

BERN, Switzerland (AP) — Peace talks between Yemen’s warring sides came to an end on Sunday as fierce fighting wracked the country and the United Nations blamed “numerous violations” of a cease-fire agreement.

Speaking at a news conference in Bern, U.N. special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said the talks between the internationally recognized government and Shiite rebels were hindered by violations of the truce that went into effect last Tuesday.

“There was noticeable progress but not enough to reunite Yemen … unfortunately there were numerous violations (of the cease-fire),” he told reporters, adding that the two sides had agreed on a framework for further negotiations on Jan. 14 at a venue to be determined.

“It’s very clear that unfortunately, the cease-fire that was agreed upon as I said earlier wasn’t respected, and in some cases was violated from the first hours, even of these talks,” he said. Both sides broke the cease-fire during the peace negotiations that began Tuesday in the Swiss village of Macolin.

The Yemen conflict pits the internationally recognized government backed by a Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition against the rebels, known as Houthis, who are allied with a former president and backed by Iran. Local affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have exploited the chaos to grab land and exercise influence.

On Saturday, fierce fighting and airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition pounded the country’s north. More than 40 rebels and 35 government troops were killed in the three days to Saturday, Yemeni security officials and witnesses said, speaking anonymously since they were not authorized to brief reporters.

According to U.N. figures, the war in Yemen has killed at least 5,884 people since March, when fighting escalated after the Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes targeting the rebels.

December 18, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni peace talks in Switzerland were halted on Friday after the country’s Shiite rebel delegation suspended all meetings with the internationally recognized government in protest over its cease-fire violations, members of Yemen’s two warring sides told The Associated Press.

The rebels, known as Houthis, said they would not resume talks unless the U.N. condemned the breaches by government forces of the week-long truce, the delegates said. Houthi fighters have also ignored the cease-fire agreement.

But the United Nations, which is mediating the talks, cast doubts on the alleged suspension. “In my latest meeting with the heads of delegations, they all renewed their commitment for a ceasefire,” the U.N. special envoy for the country, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, tweeted Friday evening.

The deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told the AP that the U.N. had no confirmation of any suspension of talks and that Ahmed “remains in touch with the parties.” The U.N. later said Ahmed “held several sessions with the participants on the fourth day of the peace talks.” Its statement also said Ahmed was “deeply concerned at reports of violations of the cessation of hostilities announced earlier today.”

The U.N. has urged all factions in the conflict to end the violence and is pressing to keep the talks going. The Houthis appeared to be tactically stalling to avoid meeting their obligations under a deal reached with the government a day earlier, government delegates told the AP.

On Thursday, the Houthis agreed to permit the resumption of humanitarian aid deliveries into the besieged city of Taiz and to exchange prisoners, including the government’s Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Sabahi — concessions they were reluctant to make.

The war in Yemen pits the Houthis and army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against pro-government forces, which are backed by a U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition, as well as southern separatists, religious extremists and other militants.

The peace negotiations began Tuesday at the Swiss Olympic House in the village of Macolin, a training center for elite athletes. Police armed with automatic weapons patrolled outside the facility, which was cordoned off with metal barriers requiring journalists to keep about 50 meters (yards) away.

The U.N. mediator has sought to keep a lid on communications about the goings-on inside — with mixed results. Officials have never fully acknowledged the location of the talks, and Ahmad Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman in Geneva, has said participants signed a “non-disclosure” agreement pledging not to speak to the media until they were over.

On the ground, fighters from both sides are refusing to respect the cease-fire, security officials neutral in the conflict said. A member of the Houthi delegation said that U.N. envoy Ahmed had “promised to condemn the government and then he did not.”

“They are using the cease-fire as an excuse although they were the first to break it,” a government delegate said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. __ Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.

February 08, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — As tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing violence massed at Turkey’s border, Turkish and German leaders pledged Monday to redouble diplomatic efforts to end the fighting around the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo and prevent more refugees making their way into Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after talks with Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that she was “not just appalled but horrified” by the suffering caused by the bombing in Syria, primarily by Russia.

Merkel said Turkey and Germany would push at the United Nations for all sides to adhere to a U.N. resolution passed in December that calls for an immediate halt to attacks on civilians in Syria. Merkel was in Ankara for talks on how to reduce the influx of migrants into Europe, mostly via a perilous boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. Turkey’s coast guard said Monday that another 27 migrants had died after their boat capsized in the Bay of Edremit while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.

Her visit came after a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive around Aleppo sent up to 35,000 Syrians fleeing toward the border with Turkey in recent days. Turkey has taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees since the conflict began, and authorities say the country has reached its capacity to absorb refugees. The border crossing remained closed for a fourth day on Monday and aid groups continued to provide assistance to the Syrians massed at a displaced persons camp nearby.

Syrian army troops meanwhile, recaptured another village north of Aleppo on Monday, bringing troops and allied militiamen to within a few miles (kilometers) of the Turkish border. Aleppo “is de facto under siege. We are on the verge of a new human tragedy,” Davutoglu said.

“No one should excuse or show tolerance toward the Russian air attacks that amount to ethnic massacres by saying, ‘Turkey takes care of the Syrian refugees anyway,'” Davutoglu said. “No one can expect Turkey to take on the burden on its own.”

Added Merkel: “We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people by bombing — primarily from the Russian side.”

“Under such circumstances, it’s hard for peace talks to take place, and so this situation must be brought to an end quickly,” Merkel said. Hussein Bakri, an official in the interim government set up by the Syrian opposition, said more than 70,000 people had been displaced from Aleppo and urged the international community to “shoulder the responsibility of protecting the Syrian people by stopping the Russian bombing.”

“If the situation continues like this, it will lead to the displacement of up to 400,000 people from Aleppo province and from Aleppo city,” Bakri said. “It is clear that the Russians are aiming for the encirclement and to lay siege to Aleppo as has happened in other parts of Syria.”

The EU has urged Turkey to open its border and let in the thousands fleeing the Aleppo onslaught. But Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said after a Cabinet meeting on Monday that Turkey’s priority is to keep the fleeing Syrians within the borders of their country “and provide them with assistance there.”

Merkel and Davutoglu said Germany and Turkey would work together to provide aid to the refugees at the border. Another top Turkish government official reacted angrily to the EU pressure on Turkey to open its doors to the Syrian refugees, yet seal them for migrants trying to leave Turkey and reach the EU via the water crossing into Greece.

“On the one hand they say ‘Open your borders, take everyone in,’ and on the other hand they say, ‘Close your border, don’t let anyone through,'” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said. “Why don’t you take them in?”

At the Turkish border gate of Oncupinar, opposite Syria’s Bab al-Salameh crossing, several dozen Syrian refugees waited on Monday in the hope that it would be opened so that their friends or family could cross into Turkey.

“If Aleppo falls, people will come out in the millions to Turkey wearing nothing but the clothes on their backs,” said Aleppo native Yasser, who declined to give his surname out of concerns for his safety. “We thank Turkey because they have stood with us more than our Arab brothers but we ask that this border gate be opened in both directions.”

Turkish officials have not offered a reason for keeping the border closed but aid workers said that opening the gate would spur more arrivals. “We are worried that opening the gates will lead to an increase in refugees,” said Burak Kacacaoglu, a spokesman for the non-governmental Islamic charity group, Humanitarian Relief Foundation. “We are concerned about the airstrikes which are increasingly targeting civilian areas. This is what causes refugees.”

The deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria was further highlighted by a United Nations report on Monday that said thousands of detainees held by the Syrian government have been executed, beaten to death or otherwise left to die on a scale that amounts to “extermination” under international law. The U.N.-backed Commission of Inquiry on Syria called for “targeted sanctions” against high-ranking Syrian officials responsible for such crimes, but did not name any suspects. It also documented mass executions by the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.

Moulson reported from Berlin. Dominique Soguel in Kilis, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Feb. 08, 2016

Agence France Presse

ADEN, Yemen: Al-Qaeda overran a police headquarters in a south Yemen provincial capital Saturday, strengthening their grip on the coast road overlooking the Gulf of Aden, security sources said.

Militants, who hold parts of the lawless south of the war-torn country, seized the headquarters in Zinjibar unopposed by pro-government forces who fled the capital of Abyan province, the sources told AFP.

Militants have controlled other government buildings in Zinjibar for weeks and also have a large presence in the nearby town of Jaar.

Also Saturday, a Saudi patrol was hit in the southwestern region of Assir, killing the soldier, the Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA.

Later in the day, the southwestern city of Najran was struck, leaving dead a foreign resident, a civil defense spokesman said in a statement on SPA.

About 90 civilians and soldiers have died from shelling and skirmish along the border since March, when the Arab-led military coalition began air and ground action on Yemeni territory.

Earlier this week, Al-Qaeda seized the town of Azzan in neighboring Shabwa province.

They have also seized the towns of Shoqra and Ahwar, giving them complete control of the coast road between their stronghold city of Mukalla in the southeast and the city of Zinjibar.

Zinjibar is only about 50 kilometers from Yemen’s key southern city Aden, the government’s temporary home after the capital Sanaa fell to the Houthi rebels in September 2014.

The security sources also said that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has named Tawfiq Belaidi, brother of Jalal Belaidi who was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike Thursday, as the “emir [ruler] of Zinjibar.”

The U.S. State Department said Jalal Belaidi was a regional AQAP emir responsible for multiple provinces in Yemen.

The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information on Belaidi over his alleged involvement in plotting bomb attacks on Western diplomatic officials and facilities in Sanaa in 2013.

The U.S. has kept up strikes on militants during months of fighting between pro-government forces and the Houthi rebels who control large parts of Yemen.

Loyalists backed by a Saudi-led coalition have recaptured Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Daleh from the rebels since July.

But the Saudi-led coalition has so far not targeted militants including AQAP and Daesh (ISIS), who have gained ground in the south, attacking government officials and clashing with loyalist forces.

Source: The Daily Star.


February 11, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — An opposition activist group and a rebel say Kurdish fighters and their allies have captured a military air base in northern Syria.

Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, a local rebel commander in the Aleppo province, said Thursday that Mannagh air base fell to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and their allies after fierce battles. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the offensive came as warplanes believed to be Russian carried out 30 airstrikes in the area. It said the air base and a nearby village, also called Mannagh, fell late Wednesday.

With Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes waging a major offensive between the northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, the Kurds appeared to be exploiting the chaos to expand their nearby enclave, known as Afrin.