Archive for December 14, 2016

5 December 2016

Syrian forces are arresting and forcibly conscripting civilians fleeing opposition-held east Aleppo, relatives of detainees have told the Telegraph.

Dozens of military-aged teachers, medics and aid workers are reported to have been rounded up and spirited away, as regime troops push further into the city.

The brother of one told how government officials were detaining men under the age of 40 whom they accused of supporting the rebellion.

“I was with him (Mohammed, his brother) when he was taken by the secret service,” said Yussef, who did not wish to give his full name for fear of reprisal. “We just wanted to leave Aleppo to find safety.

“He was not political, he never took part in any anti-government protests,” said Yussef, speaking from the northern Syrian city of Azaz, a few miles south of the Turkish border, where he and his family are now seeking refuge.

He said father-of-three Mohammed, 30, had worked as a nurse at a hospital until a few months ago, when he joined a local medical NGO.

When Syrian troops entered the family’s al-Firdous neighborhood a week ago, they tried to escape the fighting.

“They did not allow us to leave – we were all taken to an old cotton factory in the Jibreen area of southeast Aleppo. Men were separated from women and everyone was questioned, and after a few days were allowed to go,” he said.

But as the family tried to pass through a checkpoint in the Ramousseh district last Friday, secret service officials checked Mohammed’s ID against a list and arrested him on the spot.

“They took his phone and all his belongings. The names on the list were of NGO workers, medics and anyone thought to be aiding the rebel cause. They told my brother ‘We have a situation and you need to help us fix it’.

“I did not speak out, I could not. I knew there was nothing I could not say to stop them,” said Yussef, a 36-year-old factory worker who was not on the government’s blacklist. “I could only think of my own children and wife and did not want to be detained or killed myself.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, estimates that more than 300 people have gone missing from east Aleppo since the regime began its blistering ground offensive late last month.

Yussef said he knew of many others who have suffered the same fate and feared there were likely hundreds more than reported.

The Telegraph spoke to two other families which confirmed the detentions. One father, whose son was arrested 10 days ago, had heard he was already fighting with the Syrian military in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

The army has been looking to bolster its dwindling numbers, having suffered a huge loss of manpower during the bloody five-year-conflict.

“We haven’t heard anything from him since December 1st,” Yussef said. “I think that we will never hear from him again.”

Fares Shehabi, an MP for Aleppo, denied civilians were being held, saying they had been offered shelter in the regime-held western side of the city.

“All civilians leaving the east are being taken care of by the government and various civil society groups,” he told the paper. “None have been detained to my knowledge.”

Since the army swept through the northern part of the rebel enclave a week ago, capturing several large, populous districts, at least 40,000 people have fled across the front lines from the opposition areas.

Thousands more have been displaced and have retreated further into areas still under rebel control, where the situation is becoming more dire by the day.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported on the ground by Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hizbollah fighters, have regained nearly two-thirds of the east in a blitzkrieg assault.

The parts still held by the rebel have been bombed relentlessly by the regime, which is hoping to empty out the east and reclaim full control of Syria’s second city.

A defeat for the rebels in Aleppo – one of their last remaining urban bastions – would be their most devastating loss yet in the intractable war.

Delegates from the US and Russia are due to meet later tomorrow in Geneva to discuss a deal which could see the withdrawal of all rebel fighters from the city.

The opposition remains defiant however, telling Washington they would not pull out despite international concern for the remaining civilians.

Abu Abdel Rahman Al-Hamawi of the Army of Islam group said rebels “would fight until the last drop of blood”.

Source: The Telegraph.


December 04, 2016

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Syrian warplanes, artillery and mortar rounds pounded areas in eastern Aleppo on Saturday drawing rebel rockets, as government troops gain new ground in the shrinking opposition-held enclave.

After four years of holding nearly half of the divided city, rebel fighters have been increasingly squeezed into the center of the eastern enclave. Government and allied troops, including Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian fighters, have concentrated their fight on the northeastern part of the enclave, swiftly taking new districts since their offensive began last week. Another front on the southern outskirts of the city has been slower, as rebel fighters push back government advances there.

The advances have caused massive displacement. The U.N. estimated that more than 31,000 have already fled their homes, either to government or Kurdish areas, or deeper into the besieged enclave. The fighting has also intensified the rebel shelling of government-held areas in Aleppo.

The state broadcaster al-Ikhbariya said “precise operations” by government and allied troops aim to rout out “terrorists,” which is how the government refers to all armed opposition groups. The sound of war prevailed in the city early Saturday. Warplanes made several runs overhead, drawing what appeared to be rebel machine gun fire toward the aircraft.

The Russian Interfax news agency report quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying that a light ground attack aircraft, L-39 jet, was shot down near Aleppo, and its crew was killed. The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said two pilots were killed when rebel fighters targeted the aircraft as it approached Aleppo airport to the east of the city.

Asked about reports of the downed plane, Syrian army spokesman Brig. Gen. Samir Suleiman said “we have no such information about such an incident and when such things happen the army announces them.” He was speaking to reporters in Aleppo.

Suleiman said the Syrian army has regained control of 45-to-50 percent of east Aleppo, and accused insurgents of hiding among civilians. Syria’s Defense Minister and other senior officers visited newly captured areas in Aleppo on Saturday, according to state-run media.

The Syrian Civil Defense in eastern Aleppo said six people were killed in bombings of the central al-Shaar neighborhood. Opposition news agency Thiqa also put the death toll at six. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at three, adding it was likely to rise. In government-held Aleppo, rebel shelling killed five people, according to the state news agency SANA.

To the south of the city, government cannons could be heard firing toward rebel-held areas. Residents in eastern Aleppo also reported intense shelling in al-Sukkari neighborhood on the southern edge of the enclave, where many of the newly displaced have sought refuge.

“The noose is tightening quickly,” said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, a medical official in besieged eastern Aleppo. “Our resources are also running low and beginning to disappear.” The bombings Saturday came hours after government troops made new advances on eastern parts of the enclave, including in Tariq al-Bab and al-Khaterji districts. State media reported that government and allied troops have moved in on new neighborhoods, pushing one kilometer (0.6 mile) deeper into the enclave from the far east.

The new advances tighten the government’s grip on the enclave and reduce the territory the rebels hold by more than half, according to the Observatory. The new advances also secure the airport road east of Aleppo, leading to the city’s international airport and a military airbase. The pan-Arab Mayadeen TV station said intense bombing in eastern Aleppo was designed to ensure rebels have been cleared from the airport road.

Moscow, a main backer of the Syrian government, says its warplanes haven’t bombed Aleppo since Oct. 18. But the Russian military has helped fend off rebel attempts to break the siege of the city. “We and the Russians are allies and everything that is happening is coordinated between Russian and Syrian leadership,” said Syrian army spokesman Suleiman.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow is ready to hold quick talks with the U.S. “‘to ensure the withdrawal of all rebels without exception from eastern Aleppo, ensure humanitarian supplies to the city residents and the restoration of normal life in eastern Aleppo.”

Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet in Geneva early next week. After their meeting in Rome Friday, Lavrov said Kerry gave him Washington’s proposals for settling the situation in Aleppo, which he described as conforming to Russia’s longtime offers. Lavrov said Moscow is ready to immediately send its experts to Geneva for talks with the U.S. to coordinate.

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Aleppo, Syria and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

December 1, 2016

All the armed Syrian opposition factions in the besieged districts of opposition-held eastern Aleppo have decided to dissolve their individual organisations, and will now instead reform as a newly created “Army of Aleppo”, opposition forces have declared.

The announcement means that there no longer exists a multitude of different factions in Aleppo who opposed the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and their unification comes following gains the Assad regime have made over the past week.

The creation of the Army of Aleppo comes after the first major territorial upset suffered by the Syrian opposition in the divided northern city since 2012. Using barrel bombs laced with chemical agents, the Assad regime has advanced into a number of neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo, previously inaccessible to them.

Although the opposition has previously united their command structures, notably leading to a brief breaking of the regime’s siege on eastern Aleppo, this is the first time that they have completely unified as a single entity.

The unification comes at the request of the people of Aleppo who live under opposition control but fear what may happen to them by a vengeful Assad regime should eastern districts fall.

The collapse of the opposition frontline in Aleppo has led to concerns that regime forces and allied Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan may commit a sectarian massacre on an unprecedented scale.

It remains to be seen whether now unofficial divisions between the previously disparate groups will resurface, though it seems unlikely that will happen in the short-term considering the very real danger the Assad regime poses to neighborhoods under opposition control.

Calls to established a safe corridor for civilians

Meanwhile, the president of the Aleppo local council issued calls pleading for the Syrian regime assault to pause and for a corridor to be created to allow civilians wishing to flee the violence in Syria’s largest city safe passage.

“The civilians are calling for the world to help. In the name of humanity, let the civilians leave the city. Help the civilians! Protect the civilians!” said Brita Hagi Hasan at a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor, accused the Assad regime of detaining hundreds of civilians who were forced to flee their homes and neighborhoods as a result of the offensive.

Hasan said that the regime and allied Iran-backed militias were committing reprisals against civilians. “We have documented evidence, proof of executions and reprisals,” he said, adding that men under the age of 40 were being especially targeted by the regime.

Commenting on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, Ayrault said: “We shall see what members of the Security Council can do to save lives. Everyone is against the wall, but we can’t look the other way.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


December 1, 2016

Syrian opposition on Wednesday vowed to fight on in east Aleppo in the face of sudden government advances that have cut the area held by the opposition by a third in recent days and brought insurgents in the city to the brink of a catastrophic defeat.

Gains by the Syrian army and its allies since last week have brought whole districts back under government control and led to a human exodus as thousands have fled their pulverized neighborhoods near the rapidly shifting front lines.

With the opposition now reduced to an area just kilometers across, the leaders of Russia and Turkey, two of the most powerful supporters of the opposing sides in the war spoke by phone on the need for a ceasefire, according to sources in Ankara.

The army and its allies said they had taken the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the city on Wednesday. Opposition denied this, saying the government’s advance had been repelled. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the insurgents retained a third of Sheikh Saeed.

The Observatory reported that the government was detaining and questioning hundreds of those fleeing opposition-held areas for the comparative safety of state-controlled districts.

A Syrian military source denied this, saying there had been no arrests, but adding that displaced people whose identities were not known were being moved into “specific places” in the areas of Aleppo where fleeing civilians were found.

In their attack on Wednesday, government forces stepped up the use of air strikes, including in Aleppo’s Old City, according to an opposition official. Rescue workers in eastern Aleppo said 45 people were killed in an artillery bombardment.

The UN’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, told a Security Council emergency meeting on Aleppo that dozens of humanitarian staff were trapped in Aleppo and that warring parties must protect civilians before the city becomes “one giant graveyard”.

After a year of gradual advances for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, the taking of Aleppo would represent a huge stride forwards in his efforts to end the opposition after nearly six years of conflict.

For the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition groups, the fall of Aleppo would deprive them of their last big foothold in a major city. A leadership council of the opposition groups in Aleppo called on all men able to bear arms to “defend the oppressed”.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful international ally whose air force has pounded opposition for more than a year, said it hoped the Aleppo situation could be resolved by the end of the year. Opposition in the city have vowed no surrender.

No Withdrawal

While opposition lines collapsed unexpectedly in parts of eastern Aleppo at the weekend, sources on the government side say the next phase could be more difficult as they try to take more densely populated areas of the city.

Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim opposition group, told Reuters that opposition groups in the city had rejected any withdrawal.

“This is the decision of the factions. I spoke to them about everything that was tabled and they said they would not withdraw, and other things may also happen,” he said from Turkey, without giving further details.

With tens of thousands of people remaining in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, many say they would rather risk death than surrender to a government they have been trying to overthrow since protests against Assad began in 2011.

Thousands of people who have fled the fighting have gone into the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud district rather than hand themselves over to a government which UN investigators have accused of secretly detaining activists and civilians.

Salem Abu Mudar, an east Aleppo resident reached by Reuters, said that although he had never taken up arms against the government, “I fear the regime will not let me go and I will end up in one of its many prisons”.

Damascus says such reports of arbitrary detention and torture are fabricated.

The Syrian military source said reports of detentions in Aleppo were intended to scare the people into staying under opposition rule, and that identities of people leaving the area had to be checked to ensure they were not militants.

The army has urged Aleppo’s opposition factions to accept a surrender under which they would abandon the city. In previous deals between the government and opposition, insurgents have been given safe passage to the opposition-held province of Idlib.

Renewed assault

Rescue workers in the opposition zone said renewed artillery bombardment had killed more than 45 people, mostly women and children, on Wednesday and injured dozens more, including some of those who had fled from front line areas. The Observatory put the toll from that attack at 26.

“Today there was another massacre, I witnessed it. The displaced people were coming at 6:30 am. There was artillery shelling while they were walking in the streets. Really, it was so, so horrible,” said Aref al-Aref, a nurse and photographer in an opposition-held part of the city.

Footage sent by the Civil Defense rescue operation, purportedly of the aftermath, showed people lying in the street in pools of blood, including a woman dressed in black who had been carrying a large backpack. Reuters could not independently verify the date or location of the video.

Opposition shelling of government-held districts in western Aleppo killed eight people, including two children, and wounded seven, the official SANA news agency reported, citing a source in the city’s police force.

With diplomatic efforts to resolve the war in deadlock, and uncertainty over the position that the next US administration will take on Syria, Moscow said it had been in contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s team on the matter.

Russian soldiers helped distribute food aid to displaced people who had fled eastern Aleppo to government areas, handing out packages stamped with the Russian flag and the slogan “Russia is with you” in Arabic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday on the need for a ceasefire and provision of aid to Aleppo, sources in Erdogan’s office said. Moscow did not immediately comment on the call.

But Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council: “We share the grave concerns of the plight of civilians in east Aleppo, but easing their suffering won’t happen by ceasing the counter terrorist operation.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet his Turkish counterpart in the Mediterranean city of Antalya on Thursday.

The fighting has displaced around 50,000 people in the parts of east Aleppo where fighting has occurred, the Observatory said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Paris, Brita Hagi Hasan, president of the local council in opposition-held Aleppo districts, said the government should set up a safe corridor for civilians to leave.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


December 12, 2016

Libya has seen protests growing across the country following a video which surfaced online of a woman being gang raped by members of one of the country’s many armed militias.

Demonstrations were held in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Sunday with protesters demanding that the rapists be punished and calling for the restoration of law and order. The protests continued today with hundreds of demonstrators marching to the city center calling for justice for the victim of the rape. Her fate remains as yet unknown.

The video of the rape was posted on social media three days ago by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade after the mobile phone which was used during the assault was taken from the commander of Al-Awashr Brigade, Salah Hubaishi; he was killed earlier this month. The Revolutionaries say that they are holding two of those involved in the rape.

The Presidency Council described those involved as “human wolves” and promised retribution for the rapists and anyone else involved in the attack. It has since ordered the Attorney General to investigate the “heinous crime” as a matter of urgency. It went against “Libya’s values, religion and culture,” the council insisted.

The townspeople of Tarhouna, where the woman came from originally, have threatened to attack Tripoli in revenge if those involved have not been handed over by today.

The Tripoli branch of the Libyan Women’s Union, meanwhile, has said that it holds all security organizations in the country responsible for the rape due to the complete collapse of security in Libya. Women’s organizations across Libya were supported by the UN Security Mission; it condemned the attack and reminded Libyans that rape is a grave violation of human rights.

Ironically, the incident came at the conclusion of a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence organised across the country by the Libya office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Monday 5 December 2016

The drawn-out capture of Sirte, the last major Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold in Libya, has been completed after months of fighting and a stubborn resistance by snipers.

Rida Issa, a spokesman for the Misrata brigades, said they had led forces backed by US airstrikes to take the last ISIS-held buildings in the city. He said the brigades “control all of Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya neighborhood and are still securing the area”.

ISIS fighters clinging on in a few dozen buildings in the district had earlier on Monday surrendered to Libyan forces, and at least three women had left militant-held ground, officials said.

In recent days, dozens of women and children had left the last group of buildings controlled by militants, Libyan forces said. But several women carried out deadly suicide attacks on Friday as they were being granted safe passage with their children.

ISIS commanders were also captured trying to escape by sea, along with some Tunisian fighters.

The militant group took over Sirte in early 2015 and at one point had access to 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline. The US claimed about 6,000 ISIS fighters were inside Sirte, but subsequent analysis suggested the true number was closer to 3,000.

The anti-ISIS fight in Sirte has been led by brigades from the western city of Misrata, who have taken heavy casualties, with the support of at least 470 US airstrikes since August.

The absence of any recognizable Libyan intelligence forces means the west has little idea where the defeated fighters escaping the siege may have fled over the past few months, either within Libya or the largely unguarded Libyan borders.

The capture of Sirte does little to help resolve the fundamental political problems dogging the Libyan Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

The GNA has little or no authority, and the Libyan parliament – the House of Representatives – has refused to pass the constitutional amendments necessary to bring the GNA fully into constitutional existence.

Although oil production is slowly rising, government financial reserves are depleted and the Libyan dinar is overvalued. Fighting between rival militias in the capital, Tripoli, has worsened in the past week, with many deaths.

In recent weeks, Russia has become more closely involved in trying to resolve the political stalemate by giving visible backing to Khalifa Haftar, the Egyptian-backed leader of the Libyan National Army. Western governments regard Haftar as an obstacle to developing a political consensus. Last week he met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

Russia has insisted it will not arm Haftar but believes he must be integral to any new political compromise, and a reshaping of the GNA.

Source: The Guardian.


December 1, 2016

Members of the National People’s Congress (NPC) yesterday adopted a verbal amendment to the controversial retirement bill.

The amendment, introduced by the Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Mohamed El Ghazi, will provide a transitional period of two years granting the right to receive the pension benefit for a certain category of workers who have provided 32 years of service.

The minister did not explain the reasons for the draft’s extension but said that it was introduced due to “the instructions of the President of the Republic”.

However the minister reiterated that the pension reforms contained in the draft were completely necessary “to save the pension system” that is currently “programmed to bankruptcy”.

“The day the state will not pay pensions, we will not say that it is the fault of the unions, they will accuse the government,” he added.

The small concession by President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is unlikely to ease the worries of Algerians and independent unionists. Ministers supporting the bill have also been criticized for not being open to dialogue with independent unions against autonomous trade unions not affected by the law.

Tensions across the industrial sector are increasing due to the government’s lack of ability to fairly relocate the economic crisis away from its citizens.

The anger fueled by the Finance Act has been marked by a rise in taxes, undermining the purchasing power of households, with the retirement bill further adding anguish to dwindling social dynamics.

With parliamentary elections to be held in the New Year, a deleterious social climate is not likely to encourage citizens to take to the polls.

Source: Middle East Monitor.