Archive for February 18, 2016


February 17, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey said Tuesday it is pressing for ground operations in Syria, hoping for the involvement of the U.S. and other allies as a force dominated by Kurdish fighters pushed through rebel lines and captured more territory near the Turkish border.

In Damascus, the U.N. envoy to Syria suggested that humanitarian aid would be allowed into several besieged areas Wednesday, calling it the “duty of the government of Syria.” “Tomorrow we test this,” Staffan de Mistura said after meeting with Syria’s foreign minister. The U.N. later announced the government of President Bashar Assad has approved access to seven such areas across the country and that convoys would head out in the coming days.

De Mistura has been trying to secure aid deliveries to improve the chances of restarting peace talks before the end of February. But those efforts have been clouded by the intense fighting north of Aleppo, where various forces backed by regional and international rivals are clashing over a crucial strip of land linking Syria’s largest city to the border with Turkey.

Syrian government troops and allied militias, backed by heavy Russian bombardment, are closing in on the area, hoping to seal off parts of Aleppo held by rebels since 2012 in what would be a major blow to the opposition. Syria’s state news agency SANA and opposition activists said government forces have seized two more villages.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which had mainly battled the Islamic State group and remained largely neutral in the civil war, are advancing in the same region, fighting rebels and other insurgents opposed to Assad in a bid to expand a nearby enclave.

A Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul that his country is pushing for ground operations in Syria, hoping for the involvement of the U.S. and other allies against IS. “Without ground operations, it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria,” the official said, adding that Turkey has pressed the issue in recent discussions with the U.S. and other Western nations.

But he ruled out the possibility of Turkey undertaking unilateral action or the prospect of a joint Saudi-Turkish venture without broader consensus in the U.S.-led coalition against IS. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

In Lebanon, the leader of Hezbollah said Turkey and Saudi Arabia are using the fight against IS as a “pretext” to launch a ground operation in Syria. Both countries are ready to start a regional and international war because of defeats suffered by rebels they support, said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, addressing supporters in Beirut via satellite link from his hideout elsewhere in the city. Hezbollah’s fighters are in Syria, supporting Assad’s forces.

The main Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, dominates the group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab fighters. The latest advances by the SDF have alarmed Ankara, which views Syria’s Kurds with suspicion. Turkey is also a leading backer of militants trying to overthrow Assad.

SDF official Ahmad Hiso said Turkish troops shelled northern Syria. Since the shelling began three days ago, six civilians have been killed, including a woman and a child, he added. The Kurdish forces have continued to advance, however, and the SDF captured the village of Sheikh Issa, cutting lines between the rebel stronghold of Marea and other parts of Aleppo province.

The SDF have also captured the major town of Tel Rifaat, formerly one of the largest militant strongholds in the province, as well as the village of Kfar Naseh to the south. SDF official Ahmad al-Omar said dignitaries from northern Syria are mediating a deal to open a corridor for militants to leave Marea for the northern town of Azaz near the border. The move would lead to SDF forces entering Marea without fighting in what would save the town from wide destruction by Russian warplanes.

Once in Marea, SDF forces would face off against IS. The SDF has been one of the most effective forces in fighting the extremists and has liberated large parts of northern Syria. Turkey, a NATO member and part of the U.S.-directed coalition conducting airstrikes against IS, views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and other Western nations.

Russia, meanwhile, denied accusations it carried out airstrikes on a Syrian hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 11 people Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition activist groups had said Russian warplanes targeted the hospital in Idlib province.

In a conference call with journalists, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said those making the allegations should rely on the “primary source” — official announcements from the Syrian government.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador told reporters his government has “credible information” that the U.S.-led alliance struck the hospital. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said it was not a U.S. attack. The Syrian ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, also accused Doctors Without Borders of being a branch of French intelligence. The hospital was installed without prior consultation with the government, and the aid group must “assume the full consequences of their act because … they did not operate with the Syrian government permission,” he said.

The U.S., Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 in Munich to bring about a pause in hostilities that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the revival of peace talks. The projected truce was to begin at the end of this week but is still very much in doubt.

Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Moscow, Albert Aji in Damascus, Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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2016-02-15

ANKARA – Turkey’s air force on Monday began five days of air defense exercises with Saudi Arabia, the Turkish military said, as the two countries forge an increasingly tight alliance on Syria.

Six Saudi F-15 fighter jets will take part in the air defense training in the central Turkish region of Konya, the military said in a statement.

The exercises are within the framework of cooperation and military training between the two countries and had been scheduled in advance, it added. They will last until Friday.

But the start of the exercises comes just two days after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Saudi jets would be based at Turkey’s air base of Incirlik in Adana province to fight Islamic State (ISIS) militants.

He also said that Turkey and Saudi could even launch a ground operation in Syria against ISIS, while emphasizing no decision had been taken.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey both see the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as essential for ending Syria’s five-year civil war and are bitterly critical of Iran and Russia’s support of the Syrian regime.

The two overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim powers have in recent months moved to considerably tighten relations that had been damaged by Riyadh’s role in the 2013 ousting of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a close ally of Ankara.

Turkey and Saudi back rebels who are seeking to oust Assad and both fear the West is losing its appetite to topple Assad on the assumption he is “the lesser of two evils” compared to the ISIS jihadists.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=75265.

2016-02-14

QAMISHLI (Syria) – Lined up in a chilly schoolyard in northeast Syria, primary school students say good morning to their teachers in the Kurdish language before rushing inside for class: “Roj bas, mamuste!”

The Kurdish language was once banned by the government in Damascus, but now the local semi-autonomous government has rolled out an entire curriculum for primary school students in Kurdish in parts of the territory under its control.

The curriculum is currently being taught alongside the government’s Arabic-language program at institutions like the Musa Bin Nasir School in the city of Qamishli.

“I’m learning and writing the Kurdish alphabet in my notebook,” said six-year-old Brefa Hussein proudly.

“Our teachers tell us stories and teach us the names of animals and flowers,” said Brefa, whose parents were forbidden from learning Kurdish.

The new curriculum has been developed by the autonomous Kurdish administration, which runs its own government institutions, security forces and now schools in parts of northern and northeast Syria.

The administration took over when government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas in 2012, a year after Syria’s popular uprising erupted.

There were around three million Kurds in Syria before the war, though not all identified primarily as Kurdish.

The minority was heavily discriminated against prior to Syria’s uprising, with their language banned in official contexts and hundreds of thousands denied passports and banned from public sector jobs.

But with the withdrawal of government forces from majority Kurdish areas, the minority has begun to assert itself, including reviving its language.

Bundled in coats and hats to stay warm, children sprint into different classrooms at the school.

While Arab students will follow the existing Arabic program developed by Syria’s government, Kurdish students now study a Kurdish curriculum that their own administration began implementing in the 2015-2016 academic year.

More than 86,000 students are being taught by about 3,830 instructors in schools run by the autonomous administration, says deputy head of education Samira Haj Ali.

The new curriculum has already been rolled out for primary school students, though older pupils are still studying the government’s curriculum until an alternative is developed.

Haj Ali says the autonomous administration eventually plans to also implement its own Arabic- and Syriac-language curricula next year.

It has set up teaching institutes to train instructors on the Kurdish curriculum and is planning to open similar centers once its Arabic and Syriac programs are ready.

The administration’s move has been controversial: Syria’s government has shuttered its schools in the affected areas and refused to pay teachers using the Kurdish curriculum.

And even some Kurdish parents have pulled their children out of the new independent schools.

Amina Berro, an English language teacher and a Kurd, transferred her children to a government-run school in protest at the new Kurdish program.

Her children were studying the Arabic curriculum, but she said she was uncomfortable having the new programs side-by-side.

“The Kurdish curricula is not recognized and the teachers are not capable enough,” she said.

Berro said she supports teaching the Kurdish language as a subject matter, but not an entire curriculum being taught in the language.

Some of the students in Qamishli’s schools are Arabs displaced from elsewhere in the country.

Nine-year-old Riham al-Ahmad and her family sought safety there after fleeing clashes in Syria’s second city Aleppo.

After trying the Kurdish curriculum, she moved to the Arabic section at Musa Bin Nasir.

“I’m really happy when I’m with my classmates. In the beginning, it was hard to get used to them. Qamishli is a foreign city for me and people speak a language I don’t understand,” she said.

“But now things are easier because I understand very well,” she added excitedly.

For Kurdish families, learning the native language represents the realization of a childhood dream.

Jana Musa, a 21-year-old Kurdish language teacher, said she hopes “that all students will learn their mother tongue”.

“We’re teaching them the alphabet and the subject of social issues,” Musa said, wearing a thick green coat as she corrected students’ assignments.

Jamil Murad, a 44-year old director, learned the Kurdish language in secret while growing up.

He is thrilled that his eight-year-old son, Raman, can now do the same in the open.

“Language is part of the survival of a people,” he said.

In a candle-lit room in northeast Syria, Murad was helping Raman complete his homework.

For Murad, teaching the Kurdish language is an investment in his people’s future.

“The biggest achievement by the autonomous administration… was in teaching tens of thousands of its children their mother tongue,” he said.

“They are our future, even if the scales are tipped against us.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=75244.

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 10 2011 (IPS) – What was once a glaring weakness in the seven-month Syrian revolution and uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad is now slowly transforming into one of its strengths with the coalescence of opposition groups into the Syrian National Council (SNC) earlier this month.

Yet many questions and concerns about strategies, both domestic and international, remain, especially in the wake of the latest failure in the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the violence in Syria.

On Oct. 2, the SNC convened in Istanbul to announce its official formation, outline its structure and goals, and publish a founding statement.

Members of the international community have welcomed its creation, even as the Syrian government threatened “tough measures” against countries that recognized the opposition council.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday that France intends to establish relations with the SNC, while the European Union hailed its formation, calling it a “positive step”.

Syrians began protesting in March 2011, calling for reforms and an end to government corruption, among other demands. The Syrian government initially responded with promises of reform that went unfulfilled. As protests grew, it turned to tanks and bullets in a brutal crackdown that has killed nearly 3,000 civilians, according to U.N. estimates.

Fledgling opposition

A core of the national council was announced in mid-September, followed by negotiations to include more political groups.

The SNC, with a general assembly membership of 230, and executive committee of 29 and presidential committee of seven, spans the political spectrum from leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Four Kurdish and one Assyrian representative are among those included in the 29-member executive committee. Many Christians, Druz and Alawite are also members.

The council’s immediate concern is “having a well-founded and solid entity”, Monajed said. Until the leadership and structure is finalized, the council is not seeking meetings with world leaders.

The organisation’s vision is the “formation of a national body to represent the Syrian Revolution, embody its aspiration in toppling the regime, achieve democratic change, and build a modern civil state”, according to a council document.

It sees itself as a “political umbrella for the Syrian revolution in the international arenas” that aims to “deliver the message of the Syrian people in the field of international diplomacy”.

Saying that it was “inspired by previous initiatives and attempts at unifying opposition groups”, the council subtly acknowledged the difficulties, especially over the past six months, to consolidate Syrian opposition.

“It’s an agreement in terms of all the committees on the ground and it’s an agreement in terms of all the opposition,” an activist, who goes by the pseudonym of Alexander Page, told IPS.

Based in Damascus until early October, Page escaped Syria after he learned his identity had been compromised. He has been on CNN, Huffington Post and other outlets.

Page’s perspective was that a better opposition council could not be formed at this point. “After this, there’s not going to be any council that’s going to go through,” he said.

Politically, the council’s immediate concern is “having a well- founded and solid national council”, Ausama Monajed, a member of the council, told IPS. Until the leadership and structure is finalized, the council is not seeking meetings with world leaders.

In both its declaration and the words of Ghalioun, the Council has explicitly rejected foreign intervention “that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people”, as Ghalioun said.

Page, who was involved and remains in contact with various revolution groups on the ground in Syria, said that the SNC has garnered notable popular support domestically.

Intervention: a highly sensitive topic

A wide array of concerns accompanies discussion of international intervention, which remains a prominent issue that is highly sensitive both in Syria and for the international community because of the Syria regime’s domestic propaganda campaign and because of the looming shadow of NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

The Syrian government has claimed since March that armed gangs are launching attacks inside the country and that Syrian security forces have responded by quelling those attacks.

Aiming to discredit the international community, the Syrian government would use international intervention to support its claims that foreign governments are trying to undermine Syrian sovereignty. Giving the Syrian government the opportunity to legitimize those claims through foreign intervention could be detrimental.

Many, Syrians included, are wary of any intervention that could follow in the footsteps of NATO’s in Libya.

At most, the SNC would call for would a no-fly zone or possibly a buffer zone, Page said.

But Monajed emphasized that from the international community, the SNC would seek measures to ensure civilian protection, such as a Security Council resolution that called for U.N. observers that might help prevent some of the violence.

Similarly, the international community should “protect the civilians by all the legal means commensurate with the U.N. charter and international conventions”, Hozan Ibrahim, spokesperson for the coordinating network Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) of Syria and member of the SNC, told IPS.

Complications in the Security Council

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has been criticized as it struggles to find a unified voice condemning the violence, civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests and torture.

Most recently, a rare double veto by China and Russia on Oct. 4 thwarted a Western-backed resolution that would have condemned Syrian authorities’ “continued grave and systematic human rights violations” and called for a “an inclusive Syrian-led political process” free from violence and intimidation.

In addition to the Russian and Chinese vetoes, Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa abstained – results that indicate underwhelming international solidarity regarding how to respond to the current situation in Syria.

Russia has strong business ties to Syria. Reuters reported in August 2011 that Russia’s top arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, would continue selling arms to Syria.

The European Union (EU) and the U.S. have already imposed sanctions on Syria, and Turkey announced last week that it would as well.

“Russia is waiting for the right price to sell, unfortunately,” Monajed told IPS. For Russia, Syria is a matter of money, regional interest and influence, he said.

He said the SNC was hoping the West would be able to pressure or reach a deal with Russia to allow a Security Council resolution to pass that would permit U.N. observers into the country to help prevent civilian deaths and hold the Syrian government accountable.

Martin Nesirky, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, had no specific comment on the SNC’s formation, but noted, “The Secretary-General has called consistently, repeatedly, for there to be a dialogue, inclusive dialogue,” in Syria and so the SNC could be understood “in that context”.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/10/support-builds-for-syrian-national-council/.

2016-02-16

TRIPOLI – Five years after the uprising began against dictator Moamer Gathafi, many Libyans have lost hope of seeing the rule of law return to a divided country threatened by jihadist expansion.

The Islamic State (IS) group has exploited the chaos engulfing the oil-rich North African nation since the 2011 revolution to gain a foothold and expand its influence.

Last June, it seized Gathafi’s coastal home town of Sirte — 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of Tripoli — and has since transformed it into a training camp for Libyan and foreign militants.

“The Islamic State likely sees Libya as the most favorable country in which to establish a regional hub of its caliphate,” Ludovico Carlino of the IHS Jane’s think-tank said.

With a port and airport, there are growing fears that IS — which seized large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 — may try to use Sirte as a base from which to attack Europe.

Despite the jihadist threat, there are also signs of hope on the political front.

On Monday, a UN-backed council of rival factions announced the formation of a revised government of national unity line-up to be put to lawmakers.

Approval of the cabinet — headed by prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj — would be a vital step in resolving Libya’s political disarray, capping off months of difficult diplomacy.

“The journey to peace and unity of the Libyan people has finally started,” UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler wrote on Twitter.

– Africa’s largest oil reserves –

Beyond Libya’s current political and security vacuum, “the availability of large stockpiles of weapons and porous borders, made it the main transit point for North African militants seeking to reach Syria and Iraq to wage jihad there,” Carlino said.

The country also sits atop the largest oil reserves in Africa, estimated at 48 billion barrels, although output has slumped since 2011.

“The presence of large oil assets, the existence of well-established and lucrative smuggling routes to sub-Saharan Africa, and porous borders all make Libya as attractive as Iraq and Syria to the Islamic State, if not more so,” Carlino said.

Last month, the group launched attacks from Sirte on facilities in the “oil crescent” along the coast.

The Soufan Group think-tank in a report last month said jihadists existed in Libya under Gathafi, but have thrived in the turmoil since his downfall.

“Libya has a long violent jihadist tradition dating back to the Soviet Afghan War, though the oppressive and authoritarian Gathafi regime was largely able to keep militant jihadist activities in check,” it said.

“With the collapse of the regime, the long-suppressed militant Islamist factions sought to fill the resulting vacuum.”

Since a coalition of Islamist-led militias overran Tripoli in August 2014, the country has had two administrations.

– Living day to day –

An Islamist-dominated legislature, the General National Congress, sits in Tripoli while the internationally recognized government has been driven to the country’s far east.

As Libya on Wednesday marks five years since the uprising began, its people are still waiting for a panel elected in February 2014 to draft their first constitution since Gathafi seized power in 1969.

With anniversary preparations under way in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, the mood remains gloomy among many residents.

“The last five years have been nothing but one mistake after another,” said Karima Leguel, a bank employee in her fifties.

“Our daily lives have become increasingly difficult. We have to plough on despite the high prices, no proper health care, long power cuts and — recently — no cash at the bank.”

Libya’s conflict has left 1.9 million people with serious health needs in a country that lacks medical professionals, medicines and vaccines, the World Health Organization said last month.

No foreign airline has flown to Tripoli since its airport was destroyed in summer 2014, and few countries allow Libyan aircraft to land on their soil.

Libyans who want to travel abroad struggle to obtain the required visas as most foreign missions have been closed for 18 months.

Florence, a Frenchwoman in her fifties who is married to a Libyan, said the cost of living was increasing and cashpoints were empty.

“We live day to day,” the mother-of-two said. “But if things don’t get better we’ll leave.”

“My greatest fear is that IS will reach Tripoli.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=75270.

February 17, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Germany revived calls Wednesday for a no-fly zone in northern Syria — an idea that once might have greatly helped the beleaguered rebels and protected civilians from bombardment but now is more complicated, dangerous and unlikely due to Russia’s air campaign supporting President Bashar Assad.

The proposal came amid international efforts to coax at least a temporary truce and as the government allowed humanitarian aid to head for besieged areas around the country, part of an effort described by a Russian official as a first step toward implementation of an agreement reached among world powers in Munich last week.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has been trying to secure aid deliveries and to improve the chances of restarting peace talks before the end of February. But those efforts have been clouded by a major government offensive north of Aleppo, where various forces backed by regional and international rivals are clashing over a crucial strip of land linking Syria’s largest city to the border with Turkey.

The violence in Aleppo, which has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the border, led to the collapse of indirect talks between the Syrian government and its opponents earlier this month. It appears also to have revived a longstanding proposal to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which was floated repeatedly by Turkey and other Assad opponents throughout the 5-year-old war.

A no-fly zone would potentially create a safe haven for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians and help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. But Washington has long rejected the idea, fearing it would draw U.S. forces further into the civil war.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed support Tuesday for the idea and repeated it Wednesday in parliament. She said it could be done by an agreement with Assad, his backers and the coalition fighting the Islamic State group — a proposal that analysts say is now unrealistic and more an attempt to appease Turkey.

At a news conference, Merkel said such an agreement would be “a sign of good will,” suggesting she was referring to a more informal deal to halt aerial attacks, and that this could help lead to the overall cessation of hostilities agreed upon in Munich.

Enforcing a no-fly zone has become considerably more difficult since Moscow began its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov shrugged off Merkel’s proposal, saying it would require Damascus’ consent and U.N. Security Council approval.

Asked by reporters about Merkel’s initiative, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov snapped: “It’s not Merkel’s initiative, it’s Turkey’s initiative.” Kristian Brakel, an expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Merkel’s idea could be directed at Turkey, which sees “all their stakes in the Syrian war are just floating away.”

Olaf Boehnke, a political scientist with the MERICS think tank in Berlin and former head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the idea could even be more for a domestic audience in Germany, where Merkel has been under increasing pressure to slow the flood of asylum seekers.

“My gut feeling is there’s not even a lot of conceptual thinking behind it,” he said. “Maybe it’s even wishful thinking, because if you look into the technical details of a no-fly zone like we’ve seen in Libya, it’s quite complicated.”

A U.S.-led bombing campaign helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but that came with a resolution from the U.N. Security Council and agreement among NATO’s 28 members. Such a scenario is almost impossible to imagine in Syria. Moscow has made it clear that it won’t sign off on any such mission and has exercised its veto to block all efforts at the Security Council to sanction Damascus, its closest ally in the Middle East.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the U.S. for not backing his country’s proposals, adding that a no-fly zone would have prevented Russia’s air campaign in the region and saved the lives of thousands of civilians.

“Oh America! You did not say ‘yes’ to ‘no-fly zone.’ Now the Russian planes are running wild over there, and thousands and tens of thousands of victims are dying,” Erdogan said. “Weren’t we coalition forces? Weren’t we to act together?”

His words reflected the resentment felt by Syrian rebels, who believe a no-fly zone would have robbed Assad of his biggest asset, the aerial bombardment. Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said not enforcing a no-fly zone is the “single biggest mistake” the West has made in Syria.

“Had the West intervened early on and denied Assad the ability to bomb his own citizens, the moderate opposition would have been ascendant and the radical opposition would not have gained as much traction,” he said. Five years later and with the Russian air campaign, it is “more difficult, more complicated, more expensive and less likely,” he said.

The U.S., Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 on a deal calling for the ceasing of hostilities within a week, the delivery of urgently needed aid to besieged areas of Syria and a return to peace talks in Geneva.

Gatilov said “the implementation of the Munich agreements on (the) Syrian settlement has started.” A working group on humanitarian access to the besieged areas has met and is to again meet Thursday to take stock on the status of access to the areas under siege., according to de Mistura’s office.

Moscow expects that another working group to deal with specifics of the planned truce would start working this week, according to a Russian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the envoy was not authorized to talk to the media due to the sensitivity of the discussions. The diplomat said the Russian side is ready for that.

Hopes of a temporary cessation of hostilities — due to start Thursday, according to the Munich agreement — have all but faded. At least 25 people have been killed in an airstrike on a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in northern Syria, the group said.

The U.N.-facilitated aid operation was going ahead, a development that U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York was “an incredibly important first step.” “We’ve had a lot of conferences, we’ve had a lot of speeches and commitments,” Dujarric said. “I think the Syrian people want to see hard evidence that these conferences serve a purpose.”

After a delay, more than 100 trucks headed to the besieged areas. Convoys of food, medicine and other assistance reached the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani, northwest of the capital, while a 35-truck convoy was to deliver aid to the rebel-held suburb of Moadamiyeh southwest of Damascus.

According to the agreement, aid would simultaneously be delivered to two communities in the northern province of Idlib that are under sieged by rebels. “Today, we reached five besieged towns in urgent need of humanitarian assistance,” said Yacoub el-Hillo, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria.

The aid was expected to reach over 100,000 people, said Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The convoys represent the third aid delivery to the blockaded communities after two other efforts last month. The U.N. estimates that 18 Syrian communities are under siege, affecting about half a million people.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

2016-02-15

VIENNA – Austria announced Monday it will place six nations including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on its list of “safe countries of origin”, as it seeks to curb the number of economic migrants.

The decision, which will also see Georgia, Ghana and Mongolia added to the list, was taken after the government carried out a “thorough examination of the situation”, the interior ministry said.

“In the case of economic migrants, we need unambiguous signals that there is no protection for them in Austria,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned.

The cabinet will sign off on the decision during its weekly meeting Tuesday.

Last month, neighboring Germany — the favored destination for most migrants — also declared Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia safe countries of origin.

The classification means that their citizens will have little chance of being granted asylum.

It will also allow Vienna to speed up case procedures and deport migrants more quickly.

The combined number of arrivals in Austria from Algeria and Morocco remains well below the 2,000-mark — a tiny fraction of the 55,000 Syrians and Iraqis who sought asylum between January and November last year.

In total, the nation of almost nine million people received 90,000 asylum claims in 2015, one of the EU’s highest rates per capita.

The Austrian government has noticeably hardened its stance as the bloc grapples with its worst migration crisis since World War II.

In 2015, over a million people reached Europe’s shores — nearly half of them Syrians fleeing a civil war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people.

In response to the influx, Austria is due to announce this week a daily cap on migrants allowed to enter from fellow EU member Slovenia, the next country down the migrant trail along the Balkans.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=75258.

Wed Feb 17, 2016

A group of families in Mali, who lost their loved ones in the last September Hajj tragedy, are planning to file complaints against Riyadh, they lawyer says.

Marcel Ceccaldi on Tuesday criticized Saudi Arabia’s response to the deadly human crush which took place in Mina, near the Saudi city of Mecca, and said that the families of the victims are considering filing complaints against Riyadh in Mali and with the European Union.

Ceccaldi also rapped the response of the Mali government to the crush.

Some 320 pilgrims from Mali lost their lives in the Mina disaster which took place on September 24, 2015 when two large masses of pilgrims were directed by Saudi authorities toward one another and fused at a crossroads in Mina. The pilgrims were on their way to participate in the symbolic stoning of Satan in Jamarat.

Saudi Arabia claims nearly 770 people were killed in the incident, but officials with Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization say about 4,700 people, including 465 Iranians, lost their lives in the tragedy.

The AP record says 2,426 pilgrims died in the incident.

Saudi Arabia has come under harsh criticism over its role and handling of the Mina incident.

Iran says Riyadh’s incompetence in handling safety at the rituals caused the deadly incident.

The Mina disaster came days after a massive construction crane collapsed into Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing more than 100 people and leaving over 200 others wounded.

Separately, a fire at a 15-story hotel in Mecca on September 21, 2015 forced the evacuation of some 1,500 people. A fire also broke out at another hotel in the city days earlier, which left a number of foreigners injured.

Source: PressTV.

Link: http://presstv.ir/Detail/2016/02/17/450765/Mali-Saudi-Arabia-Hajj-Mina-Mecca.