Archive for November, 2016


November 13, 2016

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces battled waves of suicide car bombs on Sunday as they attempt to advance deeper into Mosul in the face of heavy resistance from the Islamic State group. Troops are converging from several fronts on the city, Iraq’s second-largest and the extremists’ last major holdout in the country. The special forces have advanced the furthest so far, and hold a handful of urban districts.

Officers say they have cleared the neighborhoods of Qadisiya and Zahra, and are planning to advance further in the coming hours. Over the past week they have inched forward slowly, trying to avoid casualties among their troops and civilians as suicide bombers in armor-plated vehicles rush forward from hiding spots among densely populated areas.

“The only weapons they have left are car bombs and explosives,” said Iraqi special forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi as he radioed with commanders in the field. “There are so many civilian cars and any one of them could be a bomb,” he said.

Several suicide car bombers attacked in the same area on Saturday, wounding around a dozen troops, three civilians, and killing a child, officers said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief reporters.

The troops are building berms and road blocks to prevent car bombs from breaching the front lines. Since last week’s quick advance into Mosul proper, they have struggled to hold territory under heavy IS counterattacks.

The Iraqi armed forces do not release official casualty figures, but field medics have noted dozens of killed and wounded since the operation to liberate the city began on Oct. 17. Meanwhile, a leading U.S.-based rights group released a report alleging that security forces of Iraq’s regional Kurdish government had routinely destroyed Arab homes and even some whole villages in areas retaken from the Islamic State group over the past two years.

The Human Rights Watch report says that between September 2014 and May 2016, Kurdish forces advancing against IS destroyed Arab homes in disputed areas of Kirkuk and Ninevah provinces, while Kurdish homes were left intact. It says the demolitions took place in disputed areas in northern Iraq which the Kurds want to incorporate into their autonomous region over the objections of the central government.

Sunni Arab politicians have previously accused the Kurds of seeking to recast the demographics of mixed areas in northern Iraq. The struggle is particularly intense in the oil-rich Kirkuk region. “In village after village in Kirkuk and Ninevah, KRG security forces destroyed Arab homes — but not those belonging to Kurds — for no legitimate military purpose,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “KRG leaders’ political goals don’t justify demolishing homes illegally.”

All sides fighting in the battle for Mosul have been accused of human rights abuses, with the worst allegations focusing on IS. Kurdish forces have been accused of destroying Arab homes before, with a report last year by Amnesty International alleging that the peshmerga carried out the attacks in retaliation for what they said was the Arab communities’ support for IS.

Kurdish authorities say they abide by human rights laws and deny having any strategy to destroy homes. But they say some villages in which the population fought alongside IS have suffered extensive destruction because of the ferocity of the battles.

Kurdish officials could not be immediately reached for comment on the fresh allegations.

Rohan reported from Baghdad.

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November 11, 2016

BASHIQA, Iraq (AP) — New reports emerged Friday of public killings and other atrocities committed against Mosul residents by Islamic State militants, including dozens of civilians whose bullet-riddled bodies were hung from telephone polls after they were accused of using cellphones to leak information to Iraqi security forces.

The United Nations human rights office said IS fighters killed some 70 civilians in Mosul this week, part of a litany of abuses to come to light in recent days, including torture, sexual exploitation of women and girls, and use of child soldiers who were filmed executing civilians.

The revelations are the latest reports of IS brutality as the group retreats into dense urban quarters of Iraqi’s second-largest city, forcing the population to go with them as human shields. In its report, the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said IS shot and killed 40 people on Tuesday after accusing them of “treason and collaboration,” saying they communicated with Iraqi security forces by cellphone. The bodies, dressed in orange jumpsuits, were hung from electrical poles in Mosul.

A day later, the extremists reportedly shot to death 20 civilians at a military base. Their bodies were hung at traffic intersections in Mosul, with signs saying they “used cellphones to leak information.”

A Mosul resident, reached by telephone, said crowds have been watching the killings in horror. One victim was a former police colonel, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

The violence is part of a disturbing pattern. As the army advances, IS militants have been rounding up thousands of people and killing those with suspected links to the security forces. Soldiers last week discovered a mass grave in the town of Hamam al-Alil, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Mosul, containing some 100 bodies.

At the same time, the militants have gone door to door in villages south of Mosul, ordering hundreds to march at gunpoint into the city. Combat in Mosul’s dense urban areas is expected to be heavy, and the presence of civilians will slow the army’s advance as it seeks to avoid casualties.

IS militants have boasted of the atrocities in grisly online photos and video. The United Nations has urged authorities to collect evidence of IS abuses of civilians to use in eventually prosecuting the militants in tribunals.

Iraqi troops are advancing from four fronts on Mosul, the last major IS holdout in Iraq. As Iraqi special forces battle in eastern neighborhoods of the city, Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding a line north of the city, while Iraqi army and militarized police units approach from the south. Government-sanctioned Shiite militias are guarding western approaches.

In the formerly IS-held town of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, Kurdish commander Gen. Hamid Effendi said his forces were working to secure the area but faced booby traps that were holding up the advance.

More than a thousand unexploded bombs are believed buried in Bashiqa, Effendi said. Over 100 IS fighters have been killed in combat, he added, but wounded fighters likely remain in defensive tunnels built by the militants.

On Friday, teams went building by building into the night detonating explosives left behind in Bashiqa, which was deserted except for a few residents trickling in to check on their homes and businesses.

Among them was 60-year-old Khan Amir Mohammed, who discovered that his home had been turned into a mortar post by the militants, who dug seven tunnels on his family’s 3 1/2-acre property before retreating.

Ammunition tubes and English-language instruction pamphlets for launching mortars littered the floor in one room. Another had been turned into a makeshift mosque, with lines taped to the floor for worshipers to line up to pray.

A nearby shop where Mohammed sold animal feed had collapsed from an apparent airstrike. “What can I say? I feel powerless,” he said, surveying the destruction. Down the road, Kurdish forces were detonating bombs left behind by the militants. First Sgt. Ayub Mustafa said his unit alone had disabled some 250 bombs, the vast majority homemade explosives.

“Apparently they have a smart electrician with them. They’re well-made,” he said. Special forces troops entered the Qadisiya neighborhood on Friday, the 26th day of the campaign to retake Mosul, exchanging small arms and mortar fire with IS positions and advancing slowly to avoid killing civilians and being surprised by suicide car bombers, said Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil.

Regular army troops control 90 percent of the Intisar neighborhood, said one officer, but progress has slowed because “the streets are too narrow for our tanks.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Meanwhile, the U.N. cited new evidence the militants have used chemical weapons, escalating fears IS will resort to chemical warfare to try to hold onto the city, still home to more than a million people.

Rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva that four people died from inhaling fumes after IS shelled and set fires to the al-Mishrag Sulfur Gas Factory in Mosul on Oct. 23. Shamdasani said reports indicated that IS has stockpiled large amounts of ammonia and sulfur and placed them near civilians. “We can only speculate how they intend to use this,” she said. “We are simply raising the alarm that this is happening, that this is being stockpiled.”

She also noted a video posted online by IS on Wednesday showing four children, believed to be aged 10 to 14, gunning down four people accused of spying for Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. U.N. officials say about 48,000 people have now fled Mosul since the government campaign began on Oct. 17.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Susannah George in Qayara, Iraq, contributed to this report.

November 10, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops consolidated gains in their advance on the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, regrouping as they clear neighborhoods and houses once occupied by the Islamic State group. In Mosul proper, where troops have a foothold in a sliver of territory in the city’s east, the special forces control the Zahra neighborhood, once named after former dictator Saddam Hussein, military officials said.

They have taken at least half of the Aden neighborhood and clashes were still ongoing there, while the regular army’s ninth division is stationed in east Mosul’s Intisar neighborhood, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief reporters. Skirmishes also continued in the city’s southern outskirts.

Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led forces operating the key air campaign against IS, said that advancing troops and aircraft have destroyed some 70 tunnels the jihadis had been using to launch surprise attacks from inside densely populated areas.

“They’ve set up elaborate defenses, and we have to assume they’ll do anything among the civilian population because they don’t care about anyone,” he said, noting that airstrikes had hit hundreds of IS positions in the three-week old Mosul campaign.

Iraqi troops are converging from several fronts on Mosul, the country’s second largest city and the last major IS holdout in Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding a line outside the city in the north, while Iraqi army and militarized police units approach from the south and government-sanctioned Shiite militias are guarding the western approaches.

The offensive has slowed in recent days as the special forces, the troops who have advanced the farthest, push into more densely populated areas of the city’s east, where they cannot rely as much on airstrikes and shelling because of the risk posed to civilians who have been told to stay in their homes.

Over 34,000 people have been displaced in the fighting and are settling in camps and host communities in nearby provinces. Troops are trying to screen the crowds for potential IS fighters attempting to sneak out among the civilians, and some have admitted to meting out what they consider swift justice, by executing them.

On Thursday, Amnesty International issued its latest report on the abuses of security forces, urging the government to investigate and stop cases of arbitrary detention, forced disappearances and ill-treatment of prisoners. The London-based rights organization said it visited villages near the Shura and Qayara areas outside Mosul, where it says up to six people were “extrajudicially executed” in late October over suspected ties to IS.

“Men in Federal Police uniform have carried out multiple unlawful killings, apprehending and then deliberately killing in cold blood residents in villages south of Mosul,” said Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf. “In some cases the residents were tortured before they were shot dead execution-style.”

The battle front in that area has moved further north toward Mosul. Forces there are at the town of Hamam al-Alil, said Brig. Firas Bashar, the spokesman for Nineveh operations command. To the northeast, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the city, peshmerga continued to take territory in the town of Bashiqa, believed to be largely deserted except for dozens of IS fighters. They’ve have had the town surrounded for weeks, and have assaulted it with mortar and artillery fire.

At an area church in territory freshly freed from the militants’ grip, priests rang bells for the first time in two years on Wednesday as the peshmerga worked to secure the town. “We are so happy at the liberation,” said the Rev. Elkhoury Alfaran Elkhoury at the Mart Shoomy Church in Bahzani, a village near Bashiqa.

“They want to give a message to the world, and that message is damage, their message is destruction, their message is death,” he said, highlighting damage to the church made by the jihadis while they occupied the area.

In New York, the U.N. said the progress meant that the days were numbered for the self-styled caliphate declared by IS from Mosul in 2014. “This liberation operation marks the beginning of the end of the so-called ‘Da’esh caliphate’ in Iraq,” the U.N. envoy for the country told the Security Council on Wednesday, using the group’s Arabic acronym.

Jan Kubis said that the U.N.’s humanitarian agencies were preparing to shelter even more of the tens of thousands of displaced people as winter approaches. He also warned that reconciliation and restoration of confidence in the government was necessary if the victories against IS are to be lasting.

Associated Press writers Brian Rohan in Baghdad and Susannah George in Qayara, Iraq contributed to this report.

By Maya Gebeily with Delil Souleiman in Ain Issa, Syria

Bashiqa, Iraq (AFP)

Nov 8, 2016

Iraqi Kurdish forces have seized the town of Bashiqa near Mosul from the Islamic State group, an official said Tuesday, as US-backed militia forces advanced on the jihadists’ Syrian stronghold Raqa.

Capturing Bashiqa would be a final step in securing the eastern approaches to Mosul, three weeks into an offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the country’s second city.

Iraqi troops have also seized the town of Hamam al-Alil south of Mosul, and Tuesday investigators carried out an initial examination of a mass grave site discovered in the area.

Bashiqa was under the “complete control” of Kurdish peshmerga forces, Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Kurdish regional ministry responsible for the fighters, told AFP.

“Our forces are clearing mines and sweeping the city,” Yawar said.

An AFP correspondent on the outskirts of Bashiqa said clashes were ongoing, with three air strikes hitting the town and gunfire and an explosion heard.

The peshmerga said there were still some suicide bombers and snipers there, and that about five percent of Bashiqa remained under jihadist control.

Iraqi forces have been tightening the noose around Mosul since launching the offensive on October 17, with elite troops last week breaching city limits.

Upping pressure on the jihadists, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia alliance on Saturday began its own offensive on IS’s other main bastion, Raqa in Syria.

Raqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under IS control, and their capture would deal a knockout blow to the self-styled “caliphate” it declared in mid-2014.

– ‘Determined to succeed’ –

The US-led coalition that launched operations against IS two years ago is providing crucial backing to both offensives, with air strikes and special forces advisers on the ground.

SDF forces have been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa, and alliance spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said Tuesday they had moved to within 36 kilometers (22 miles) of the city.

“Two more villages have been taken since yesterday,” she told AFP, adding that SDF forces had so far advanced 14 kilometers (nine miles) closer to Raqa from Ain Issa, the operation’s main staging point.

“The fighting continues; morale is good and our fighters are determined that this offensive will succeed,” she said.

The fighting has prompted a steady trickle of civilians to flee IS territory, most heading towards Ain Issa.

“We were afraid of the planes, and we were afraid of the IS fighters,” said 34-year-old Wazira Al-Jeely from Al-Tuwaila village.

“When the strikes started, we took off our burqas and said we’re done with you, and we ran away.”

Like in the battle for Mosul, the goal of the Raqa offensive is to surround and isolate the jihadists inside the city before mounting a street-to-street assault.

In both cases officials are warning of long and bloody battles ahead, with IS expected to put up fierce resistance and use trapped civilians as human shields.

More than a million people are believed to be in Mosul. Raqa in 2011 had a pre-war population of some 240,000, and more than 80,000 people have since fled there from elsewhere in Syria.

Iraqi forces scored another victory against IS on Monday by establishing full control over Hamam al-Alil, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the edge of Mosul and the last town of note on the way to the city from the south.

– Mass grave site –

They said a mass grave was found at an agricultural college in the area, with the offensive’s Joint Operations Command saying “100 bodies of citizens with their heads cut off” had been uncovered.

An AFP journalist Tuesday said body parts and bones were visible among rubbish dumped there.

Men in Iraqi security forces uniforms used ropes to pull two bodies, one headless, from the grave, and also removed a decapitated head.

“Today, the team conducted an initial examination,” said Mohammed Taher al-Tamimi, an Iraqi cabinet official.

Tamimi said the victims had been blindfolded with their hands and feet bound.

He said around 25 bodies were initially visible, but investigators believed there “very large numbers” of corpses there.

Dhiyab Tareq, a 32-year-old from the area, said he had heard shots when IS carried out executions at the site.

“I was sitting close to the door and heard the gunshots,” Tareq said, adding that the next day IS members boasted about killing security forces members.

IS’s rule has been marked by atrocities including mass beheadings and other executions that it has documented in photos and videos that its supporters share online.

The United Nations said Tuesday that IS fighters “forcibly moved about 1,500 families from Hamam al-Alil town to Mosul airport” on November 4.

The UN has warned for weeks that IS is making civilians living in districts around Mosul move into the city.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraqi_Kurds_seize_IS-held_town_near_Mosul_999.html.

November 07, 2016

NEAR BASHIQA, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish fighters exchanged heavy fire with IS militants early on Monday as they advanced from two directions on a town held by the Islamic State group east of the city of Mosul.

The early morning offensive to reclaim the town of Bashiqa is part of the broader push to drive IS out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the militants’ last major urban stronghold in the country.

Bashiqa, which is believed to be largely deserted except for dozens of IS fighters, is about 13 kilometers (8 miles) northeast of the edge of Mosul and about 20 kilometers from the city center. Iraqi special forces entered Mosul last week and have made some progress in gaining a foothold on the city’s eastern edges. But progress inside the city has been slowed as troops push into more densely populated areas.

Iraq’s special forces are suffering casualties as militant bog them down with suicide car bombs, booby traps and close-quarters fighting along narrow streets. IS still holds territory to the north, south and west of Mosul.

Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition and joined by government-sanctioned militias, are fighting to drive IS out of those surrounding areas and open additional fronts to attack Mosul itself.

Bashiqa has been surrounded by Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, for weeks but Monday’s push appears to be the most serious yet to drive IS from the town. Kurdish forces launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery into the town on Sunday in advance of the offensive. More artillery and air strikes hit the town early Monday as the Kurdish forces’ advance got underway.

The U.S. special envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, said late on Sunday that the three-week offensive against the extremists in Mosul is proceeding “ahead of schedule.” Speaking to reporters in Jordan, McGurk said the fight to degrade the group and break up its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq was expected to take about three years.

Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Irbil, Iraq, and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

November 28, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces and their allies captured another major eastern Aleppo neighborhood and several smaller areas Monday, putting much of the northern part of Aleppo’s besieged rebel-held areas under government control for the first time in four years, state media reported.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the areas captured by Syrian government troops include 10 neighborhoods and over 3,000 buildings in the past few days. The ministry added in a statement that more than 100 rebels have laid down their arms and exited the Syrian city’s eastern suburbs.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial center, has been contested since the summer of 2012 and a rebel defeat in the city would be a turning point in the five-year conflict. If Syrian forces capture all of east Aleppo, President Bashar Assad’s government will be in control of the country’s four largest cities as well as the coastal region.

The government’s push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods. Medical and food supplies have run short in recent weeks as Syrian warplanes pounded the besieged enclave, rendering all remaining functioning hospitals out of service.

Simultaneous advances by Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces on Sunday set off a tide of displacement inside the divided city, with thousands of residents evacuating their premises to safety in government and Kurdish-controlled areas of the city since Saturday.

Rebel defenses swiftly collapsed as government forces pushed into the Hanano district on Saturday, the first time they had pushed this far into eastern Aleppo since 2012. With Monday’s capture of Sakhour, the rebels are now left boxed in mostly in central and southeastern Aleppo, encircled by government territory on all sides.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian government forces have captured some 10 neighborhoods over the past few days, putting nearly 30 percent of Aleppo’s formerly rebel-held neighborhoods under state control.

State TV said 3,000 people, half of them children, have fled over the past few hours. It showed men, women and children in green buses being taken to government-controlled areas. “It is stinging cold, food is scarce and people are shaken in the streets,” Mohammad Zein Khandaqani, a member of the Medical Council in Aleppo, told The Associated Press in a voice text message from east Aleppo.

He added that some residents are taking refuge in mosques while others moved to homes of displaced people in safer areas. He said although thousands of people have fled to government or Kurdish-controlled areas in Aleppo, many stayed because they are wanted by the state.

Ahmad Araj, senior official with the Syrian National Democratic Coalition that consists of Arab and Kurdish groups, said 8,000 people have fled to the Kurdish-control Sheikh Maqsoud district so far, calling on international aid organizations to help those who are now displaced.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said Syrian government troops had pushed the rebels from Qadisia which it described as the “key neighborhood of eastern Aleppo.”

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

November 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Simultaneous advances by Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces into eastern Aleppo on Sunday set off a tide of displacement inside the divided city, with thousands of residents evacuating their premises, and threatened to cleave the opposition’s enclave.

Rebel defenses collapsed as government forces pushed into the city’s Sakhour neighborhood, coming within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of commanding a corridor in eastern Aleppo for the first time since rebels swept into the city in 2012, according to Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Kurdish-led forces operating autonomously of the rebels and the government meanwhile seized the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, allowing thousands of civilians to flee the decimated district to the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud, in the city’s north, according to Ahmad Hiso Araj, an official with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The government’s push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the occasional cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods.

An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in wretched conditions in the city’s rebel-held eastern districts since the government sealed its siege of the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the U.N. warned Thursday, and a relentless air assault by government forces has damaged or destroyed every hospital in the area.

Residents in east Aleppo said in distressed messages on social media that thousands of people were fleeing to the city’s government-controlled western neighborhoods, away from the government’s merciless assault, or deeper into opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

“The situation in besieged Aleppo (is) very very bad, thousands of eastern residents are moving to the western side of the city,” said Khaled Khatib, a photographer for the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets.

“Aleppo is going to die,” he posted on Twitter. The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the conflict through a network of local contacts, said around 1,700 civilians had escaped to government-controlled areas and another 2,500 to Kurdish authorities.

More than 250 civilians have been killed in the government’s bombardment of eastern Aleppo over past 13 days, according to the Observatory. Locals reported thousands more were moving within the eastern neighborhoods, away from the front lines, but staying inside areas of opposition control.

“The conditions are terrifying” said 28-year-old Modar Sakho, a nurse in eastern Aleppo. Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo and outspoken government opponent, said some families would stay put in the face of advancing government forces.

Syrian state media reported government forces had seized the Jabal Badro neighborhood and entered Sakhour Sunday after it took control of the Masaken Hanano neighborhood Saturday. Syrian state TV broadcast a video Saturday showing a teary reunion between a soldier and his family after nearly five years apart, according to the report. It said the family had been trapped in Masaken Hanano.

The Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel reported from the neighborhood Sunday morning, showing workers and soldiers clearing debris against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings on both sides of a wide thoroughfare. Al-Manar is operated by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group aligned with the Syrian government.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ advance into Bustan al-Basha dealt the opposition a further blow. Rebels and opposition figures have long accused the SDF and its predecessor groups of conspiring with the government to quash a nationwide revolt.

Araj denied there was any coordination between government and Kurdish-led forces. “We were responding to calls from residents in Bustan al-Basha to secure the neighborhood,” he said. He added the SDF had entered the area handily as rebel militants fled.

Aleppo used to be Syria’s largest city and commerce capital before its neighborhoods were devastated by the country’s more than five-year-long civil war. The U.N.’s child agency warned Sunday that nearly 500,000 children were now living under siege in Syria, cut off from food and medical aid, mostly in areas under government control. That figure has doubled in less than a year.

Many are now spending their days underground, as hospitals, schools and homes remain vulnerable to aerial bombardment. “Children are being killed and injured, too afraid to go to school or even play, surviving with little food and hardly any medicine,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “This is no way to live — and too many are dying.”

Activists also reported Sunday tens of civilian casualties from a presumed government or Russian airstrike on a village outside Aleppo. The Local Coordination Committees activist network in Syria reported 15 civilians killed in a Russian airstrike on the village of Anjara, controlled by the opposition in the western Aleppo countryside, and tens of others wounded. Activists usually identify planes by their silhouettes and home base.

The Observatory said the strike was accompanied by raids on other opposition-held villages in the Aleppo countryside. Meanwhile, Anadolu also reported Sunday that the Islamic State group had used chemical weapons against Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters in northern Syria, wounding 22. The report cited a statement by the chief of general staff’s office. The report could not be immediately verified independently.

Later Sunday, Turkey’s emergency relief directorate, which investigated the claim, said it found no trace of chemical warfare. The military was not available for further comment. Elsewhere in Syria, Israeli aircraft struck a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside the country Sunday, killing four Islamic State-affiliated militants on board after they opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, according to the Israeli military.

Associated Press writer Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Thu Nov 17, 2016

By Ayman al-Warfalli

BENGHAZI, LIBYA

At Benghazi University, graduation pictures shot at a wrecked campus symbolize hope for a return to normality in the city after more than two years of war.

It is a war in which the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) has been slowly prevailing against a coalition of Islamists and former revolutionaries. Its commander, Khalifa Haftar, is gaining political influence, his popularity boosted by the army’s advance.

“We can’t pursue our studies here but thanks to our army I’ve been able to return, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be standing here,” said Amal al-Obeidi, a law graduate. “The situation will get back to normal and we hold great hope in our army.”

But while the LNA’s progress has brought relative calm to parts of Benghazi, continued clashes and bomb attacks have exposed the limits of the army’s control and raised questions about its ambitions to dominate Libya’s rival factions.

While Obeidi spoke, the rumble of war could still be heard in the besieged district of Ganfouda, less than 2 km (1 mile) to the south. Residents across Benghazi struggle with deteriorating living conditions and critics are alarmed at the spread of military rule in the city where the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi began.

Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally who fell out with him and returned to Libya during the revolution, is the figurehead for one of two loose alliances that began fighting for power in 2014. His rivals in the Islamist-leaning Libya Dawn faction took Tripoli that year but later splintered and largely swung behind the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which moved to the capital in March.

Haftar and an eastern parliament and government that back him have refused to endorse the GNA, becoming more confident as the GNA has struggled. Two months ago, they gained new momentum when the Libyan National Army seized oil ports south-west of Benghazi from a GNA-aligned faction, fuelling speculation that Haftar had western Libya – and Tripoli – in his sights.

Clashes in Benghazi have been contained to two or three areas. Some residents in the center of the port city of 700,000 feel safe for the first time in years, remembering the bombings and assassinations that preceded the May 2014 launch of Haftar’s Operation Dignity, his campaign against the Islamists, and the fighting that followed.

New measures include electronic traffic surveillance, car bomb detection squads and female police patrols.

“We have brought security back in more than 90 percent of the city,” said Saleh Huwaidi, head of Benghazi’s security administration. “We’re not denying that there are sleeper cells, but they aren’t easily able to activate.”

Such claims have been tested by recent events, however. In the past month two bomb attacks in Benghazi have struck prominent Haftar allies.

RENEWED CLASHES

Violence has flared between the LNA and its main opponent, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC). This week at least 38 LNA troops have died after Haftar launched his latest offensive, which included air strikes over parts of the city.

On Thursday the LNA said it had “liberated” the long-contested district of Guwarsha, with at least 18 of the LNA’s men killed in a single day’s fighting.

In Ganfouda, human rights groups estimate that more than 130 families have been trapped for months without access to fresh food by an LNA siege – though the army says it has offered them a chance to leave. When LNA air strikes have hit civilians, the army has accused its opponents of using human shields.

The LNA’s real power can be hard to gauge. Supporters say training and organization have improved, but the army’s strength depends on complex and shifting local alliances. Analysts attribute its breakthroughs in Benghazi against the BRSC and Islamic State partly to injections of material and intelligence support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France.

Rumors swirl of counter attacks against the oil ports, Benghazi, and in the city of Derna, close to the Egyptian border, where the LNA is fighting a separate coalition and clashes resumed over recent days.

Wissam Bin Hamid, a BRSC leader who along with others has sought refuge in Tripoli, told Al Jazeera this week that his group’s goal remains “to secure Benghazi … remove the intimidation against people who live with Haftar’s militias, and allow the return of our displaced people and loved ones”.

Rivals accuse the LNA of stoking violence by branding all its opponents as terrorists. But as the LNA’s profile has grown in the east, criticizing or even questioning it has become risky. Bloggers and activists fear reprisals, and execution style killings have occurred in neighborhoods taken by the army.

The LNA has replaced municipal councils with military governors in Benghazi and at least seven other towns and cities, a move it says is necessary to restore order and bring back services. As elsewhere in Libya, those have been ruined by years of conflict and political turmoil.

But taking on a bigger role also carries a risk for Haftar and the army, said Mohamed Eljarh, an Atlantic Council analyst based in eastern Libya.

“I don’t know how they will manage to respond to the needs of the people, and they will increasingly be blamed for any shortcomings,” he said. After the recent bombings, “people are saying, ‘hey, LNA where are you?'”

(Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Giles Elgood)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-benghazi-idUSKBN13C1HR.

November 27, 2016

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Opposition members are set to return to Kuwait’s parliament after a more than three-year absence, though only one woman secured a place in the legislature, elections results released Sunday showed.

Kuwaitis voted Saturday for representatives in the oil-rich country’s 50-member parliament, the most empowered among the Gulf Arab states. The election was held against the backdrop of lingering security concerns following a deadly suicide bombing last year, as well as anxiety over the depth of cutbacks to generous state-funded perks driven by a slump in oil revenues.

The gains by the opposition are unlikely to seriously upend the tiny Western-allied country’s political order. Parliament still appears to be controlled by pro-government lawmakers, who have the authority to question government ministers. Power in the country ultimately remains with the hereditary emir.

Six prominent opposition figures who have taken part in street protests secured seats in Saturday’s vote. So did 13 political newcomers, including four backed by different Kuwaiti youth liberal groups and nine representing tribal groupings.

Political parties are illegal in Kuwait, meaning opposition blocs tend to be fluid and form alliances around particular issues. Safaa al-Hashem was the only woman to win one of the 50 seats up for grabs in Saturday’s election. The liberal candidate has served in previous parliaments, and was one of 15 women who ran for seats.

The tribal opposition along with its conservative Muslim allies boycotted the last elections in 2013 in a dispute over changes to the electoral law that they alleged reduced their clout. Members of Kuwait’s substantial Shiite Muslim minority saw their share of seats fall to six from nine previously.

A new Cabinet is now expected to be formed within a week. The 15-seat Cabinet is appointed by the prime minster, who in turn is appointed by the emir.

November 06, 2016

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s special forces worked Sunday to clear neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Islamic State-held Mosul as bombings launched by the extremist group elsewhere in the country killed at least 20 people.

The Mosul offensive has slowed in recent days as Iraqi forces have pushed into more densely populated areas, where they cannot rely as much on airstrikes and shelling because of the risk posed to civilians, who have been told to stay in their homes.

“There are a lot of civilians and we are trying to protect them,” said Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Timimi. “This is one of the hardest battles that we’ve faced till now.” Some civilians are fleeing the combat zone, while IS militants are holding others back for use as human shields, making it harder for Iraqi commanders on the ground to get approval for requested U.S.-led coalition air strikes. Iraq’s special forces are some of the country’s best troops, but they still largely rely on air support to clear terrain.

Iraqi forces first entered the eastern edge of the city on Tuesday. On Friday, forces began pushing into Mosul proper, but so far have advanced just over a kilometer (mile) into the city. On the southern front, Iraqi forces are still some 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the city center. The fighting is centered on the town of Hamam al-Alil, where Associated Press journalists could hear gunfire and saw attack helicopters firing on IS positions.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery at the IS-held town of Bashiqa, about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Mosul. The town, which is believed to be largely empty except for IS militants, has been encircled by Kurdish forces.

The extremists captured Mosul and surrounding areas in 2014, and have had plenty of time to dig trenches, block off roads and mine approaches to the city. “Daesh dug trenches that they filled with water and they have a lot of suicide attackers and car bombs,” said al-Timimi, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group.

The extremists meanwhile struck far from the front lines with a series of bombings. The deadliest attack took place in the city of Samarra, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, which is home to a major Shiite shrine. Provincial spokesman Ali al-Hamdani said the attacker set off a bomb-packed ambulance in a parking lot near Shiite pilgrims before detonating his explosives vest.

The attack killed 11 people, including at least four Iranians, and wounded up to 100 other people. Another suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden car into a busy checkpoint outside the city of Tikrit, killing at least nine people. Al-Hamdani said five female students, a woman and three policemen were killed in the attack, while 25 others were wounded.

IS had also captured Tikrit during its lightning blitz across Iraq in the summer of 2014. Iraqi forces drove the militants from the city, around 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, in April 2015.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the two attacks, which he said had killed 21 people, including 10 Iranian pilgrims, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting tolls, which are common in the chaotic aftermath of attacks.

In an online statement, IS claimed all three bombings and said the ambulance bomb was set off by a second suicide attacker. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the statement, which was posted on a militant website commonly used by the extremists.

In the capital, Baghdad, a series of smaller bombings killed at least 10 people and wounded 21 others, according to police and medical officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. No one immediately claimed the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of IS.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad, Cristiana Mesquita near Bashiqa, Iraq, Balint Szlanko near Hamam al-Alil, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.