Archive for January, 2017


January 6, 2017

A group of Syrian regime soldiers deflected yesterday from their ranks and joined rebels fighting in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, media spokesman of the Free Syrian Army in the area, Abu Mohammed Al-Baradawi said.

Al-Baradawi told Gulf Online that “the Free Syrian Army forces secured the defection from the pro-regime army soldiers until they reached the opposition-held areas.”

Violent clashes erupted during the early hours of yesterday morning as the Syrian regime forces tried to advance to the village of Busujima in Wadi Barada using tanks.

The rebels managed to destroy one of the regime’s tanks and killing a group of soldiers.

Clashes and shelling against the opposition-held area of Wadi Barada continued despite a UN Security Council decision on 31 December to supports the Russian-Turkish plan for a nationwide ceasefire.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170106-pro-regime-soldiers-join-opposition-in-wadi-barada/.

December 30, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for over five years.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.

The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce. Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.

Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current cease-fire excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the cease-fire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

If it holds, the truce between the Syrian government and the country’s mainstream rebel forces will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan, Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as “quite fragile” and requiring “special attention and patience.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the cease-fire a “major achievement” in a tweet Friday. “Let’s build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror,” he added. Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria’s major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.

A U.N. official said he hopes that cease-fire would allow them to take aid to 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live. Jan Egeland, Special, Advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, told The Associated Press that “we desperately need this ceasefire. The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there’s been a number of violations.”

“We’re willing, we’re able to go to all of the 15 remaining besieged areas beyond east Aleppo. We can go in the next (few) days to all of them. But then we need unimpeded access,” he said. “We need the government to give us all of the permits that they require us to have before we can go. We need security guarantees from all sides and we’re not given them.”

“January needs to be really different,” Egeland added, “If not — there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths.” The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad’s greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family’s four-decade rule.

“The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war,” Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because “terrorists” are still in Syria.

The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria. Assad told TG5 “we are more optimistic, with caution,” about the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.

“We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relation between the United States and Russia,” Assad said, speaking in English. “Mr. Trump, during his campaign – (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced,” Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the cease-fire was announced.

Asked about the possibility of the United States’ participation in the peace process in Kazakhstan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the process would “be open to everyone.” “I hope that this cease-fire holds and turns into a lasting peace so that the deaths of more innocent people, of civilians and children is halted and 2017 brings calm,” Yildirim said.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency meanwhile quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against Islamic State targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the extremist group. The strikes indicated that Russia and Turkey may work together to combat IS once the fighting elsewhere in Syria has been halted.

Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu Minister said the U.S.-led coalition forces resumed aerial operations around al-Bab on Thursday, after Turkey complained that it was not getting support from its allies in its fight against IS there.

The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian air strikes took place, but said they killed 12 IS militants. Separately, 26 IS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 IS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was kill in a IS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.

It said among those killed was an IS commander known as Abu Hussein al-Tunsi. Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of IS militants and curb the advances of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the extremist group.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press video journalist Samira Becirovic in London contributed to this report.

December 24, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — An explosion rocked eastern Aleppo on Saturday as some residents were returning to their homes after the government assumed full control of the city earlier this week, state TV reported while fresh airstrikes on a rebel-held town near Aleppo killed at least five people.

The airstrikes on areas near the northern city of Aleppo show the government has resumed military activities after days of calm that coincided with the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and rebels from east Aleppo.

On Thursday, President Bashar Assad’s forces took control of eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo for the first time since July 2012, marking the government’s biggest victory since the crisis began more than five years ago.

Government forces will likely now try to secure the outskirts of the city as rebels are based in the western and southwestern suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once commercial center. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an airstrike on the town of Atareb, west of Aleppo, killed five people including a man, his daughter and daughter-in-law.

The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said the airstrikes killed seven people including a woman and two children. The Saturday noon airstrike on Atareb came after airstrikes on nearby villages the night before killed three rebels, according to the Observatory.

Earlier Saturday, state TV said the explosion in east Aleppo was caused by a device left inside a school by Syrian rebels, who withdrew from their last remaining enclave under a cease-fire deal after more than four years of fighting. It said three people were wounded in the blast.

A correspondent for Lebanon’s Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV was reporting live from the area when the blast sounded in the background, sending a huge cloud of dust into the air. The correspondent later said that at least three people were killed.

In the capital Damascus, state news agency SANA said militants blew up the Barada water pipeline in the suburb of Kafr al-Zayt. SANA quoted the director of Damascus and Damascus Countryside Water Establishment Hussam Hreidin as saying that the pipeline went out of service due to the attack. He added that the pipeline had been fixed and its service restored on Friday less than a month after a similar attack.

Pro-government media said the government was forced to cut water supplies coming to the Syrian capital for a few days and use reserves instead after rebels polluted the water with diesel. The al-Fija spring which supplies Damascus with water is in the rebel-held Barada valley northwest of the capital in a mountainous area near the Lebanese border.

The cut in water supplies comes at a time when government forces and their allies are on the offensive in the Barada Valley area.

December 23, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government took full control of Aleppo on Thursday for the first time in four years after the last opposition fighters and civilians were bused out of war-ravaged eastern districts, sealing the end of the rebellion’s most important stronghold.

The evacuations ended a brutal chapter in Syria’s nearly six-year civil war, allowing President Bashar Assad to regain full authority over the country’s largest city and former commercial powerhouse. It marked his most significant victory since an uprising against his family’s four-decade rule began in 2011.

The announcement was made via an army statement broadcast on Syrian state TV shortly after the last four buses carrying fighters left through the Ramousseh crossing. “Thanks to the blood of our heroic martyrs, the heroic deeds and sacrifices of our armed forces and the allied forces, and the steadfastness of our people, the General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces announces the return of security and stability to Aleppo,” an army general said in the statement.

Western Aleppo erupted in heavy celebratory gunfire, with Syrian TV showing uniformed soldiers and civilians shouting “Aleppo, Aleppo!” and “God, Syria and Bashar only!” “No more east and west, Aleppo is back for all Aleppans,” said the Syrian TV correspondent, surrounded by people waving Syrian flags.

For Syria’s opposition, it was a crushing defeat that signaled the start of a new struggle to forge a way forward. Ahmad al-Khatib, an opposition media activist who left the city before the siege, said the fall of Aleppo was a date “we’ll never forget and we will never forgive.”

“Let the world bear witness that Bashar Assad has killed and displaced and destroyed Aleppo, and he celebrates in his victory over the blood and offspring of Aleppo … with the agreement of the Arab and Western nations,” he posted on Twitter.

The ancient city had been divided into rebel and government parts since 2012, when rebels from the countryside swept in and took hold of eastern districts. That set the stage for more than four years of brutal fighting and government bombardment that laid waste to those neighborhoods.

The army statement said the victory in Aleppo is a “strategic transformation and a turning point in the war on terrorism and a deadly blow to the terrorist project and its supporters.” It was a further incentive to keep fighting to “eradicate terrorism and restore security and stability to every span of the homeland,” it added.

Earlier in the day, Assad said his forces’ achievements in Aleppo are a “major step on the road to wiping out terrorism” and ending the civil war. The rebel evacuations were set in motion after a months-long siege and Russian-backed military campaign. Years of resistance were stamped out in a relentless campaign over the past month that saw hospitals bombed, bodies left unburied and civilians killed by shells as they fled for safety.

The campaign targeted all remaining hospitals, knocking them out of service. Medical and food supplies ran out and fighters were left demoralized and abandoned by their regional allies. Under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, tens of thousands of residents and fighters began evacuating to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process that took a week.

More than 35,000 fighters and civilians were bused out, according to the United Nations. The ICRC said in a statement that more than 4,000 additional fighters were evacuated in private cars, vans and trucks since Wednesday.

The departure of the last convoy Thursday was a humiliating defeat for the opposition. The rebels’ hold in Aleppo was a major point of pride, and at times the city seemed to be an invulnerable part of what was once a growing opposition-held patch of territory in the north.

The divided northern city has paid dearly as a central theater of the war. In the past month alone, hundreds of civilians were killed by intense bombardment of rebel-held zones. A photo of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh — confused and covered in dust and blood as he sat in an ambulance after being rescued in August from the rubble of a building — became a haunting image in the unforgiving struggle.

Associated Press writers Philip Issa and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.

December 20, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The last Syrian rebels and civilians are awaiting evacuation from the remainder of what was once a rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo, a day after the U.N. Security Council approved sending observers to monitor the exodus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that more than 15,000 people, among them 5,000 opposition fighters, have left the enclave since the rebels effectively surrendered the area under an Ankara- and Moscow-brokered deal. It’s unclear how many remain.

In Moscow, foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting on Tuesday to discuss Syria, but the talks are likely to be overshadowed by the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey the previous night by an Ankara policeman, who after killing his victim cried out: “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”

December 17, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — An agreement was reached Saturday to allow “humanitarian cases” to leave two besieged government-held Shiite villages in northwestern Syria, a step that would allow the resumption of civilian and rebel evacuations from eastern Aleppo which were suspended a day earlier, Hezbollah’s media arm and a monitoring group said.

The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation of some 4,000 people, including wounded, from the villages of Foua and Kfarya was expected to start Saturday. Hezbollah fighters have joined the Syrian war fighting along with President Bashar Assad’s forces. Opposition activists blamed the Lebanese group for blocking the main road south of Aleppo and blocking evacuations from rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city.

The Aleppo evacuation was suspended Friday after a report of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave by both sides of the conflict. Thousands were evacuated before the process was suspended. The Syrian government said the village evacuations and the one in eastern Aleppo must be done simultaneously, but the rebels say there’s no connection.

Hezbollah’s Military Media said the new deal includes the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near the border with Lebanon where tens of thousands of people are trapped under siege by government forces and the Lebanese group.

Syrian State TV correspondent, speaking from Aleppo, said Saturday that the main condition for the Aleppo evacuation to resume is for residents of Foua and Kfarya to be allowed to leave. The cease-fire and evacuation from east Aleppo earlier this week marked the end of the rebels’ most important stronghold in the 5-year-old civil war. The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal, in which civilians and fighters in the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.

In announcing the suspension, Syrian state TV said Friday that rebels were trying to smuggle out captives who had been seized in the enclave after ferocious battles with troops supporting Assad. Reports differed on how many people remain in the Aleppo enclave, ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians, along with an estimated 6,000 fighters.

There also were contradictory reports on the number of evacuees who left on Thursday and early Friday from east Aleppo. Syrian state TV put it at more than 9,000 while Russia, a key Assad ally, said over 9,500 people, including more than 4,500 rebels, were taken out.

January 12, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of people took to the streets on Thursday to protest chronic power cuts in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, in one of the largest unauthorized protests in the territory since the Islamic militant group took power a decade ago.

Hamas has shown little tolerance for dissent, and it moved quickly to contain Thursday’s demonstration. Police fired in the air to disperse a crowd of stone-throwing protesters and blocked journalists from the area. A day earlier, Hamas-run authorities arrested a local comedian who made a viral video lamenting the power shortages during the cold winter season.

The demonstration began in the Jebaliya refugee camp, and as it grew in size, the crowd marched toward the nearby offices of an electricity distribution company, chanting: “Raise your voice, electricity cuts mean death.”

Hamas police made way for the crowd, but took up positions outside the electricity company’s building. When a group of youths threw stones at them, they fired into the air to disperse the crowd. Later, the protesters arrived at the building and gathered peacefully.

Hamas forces blocked journalists from filming the gathering, and an Associated Press journalist was briefly detained at gunpoint until he handed over his mobile phones to plainclothes security men. The Foreign Press Association, which represents international media operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said a photographer with Agence France-Presse was badly beaten in the head by uniformed policemen and required medical care after he refused to hand over his camera. The group condemned the “violent behavior” in the “strongest terms.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad Bozom denied anyone had been injured. He said protesters were dispersed after they “attacked” the electricity company building and that “quiet has been restored” to the area.

Life has become increasingly difficult for Gaza’s 2 million residents, who are squeezed into the tiny coastal territory. Hamas’ violent takeover a decade ago triggered a border blockade by Israel and Egypt that, among other things, sharply aggravated power shortages.

In a sign of the worsening situation, Gaza comedian Adel al-Mashwakhi was arrested just hours after posting a video about the hardships under Hamas rule, friends and rights groups said. By Thursday afternoon, the video had received more than 250,000 views.

In the one-minute video, titled “Hamas, it’s enough,” he lists the basics missing in Gaza, including jobs and the ability to travel. “(Take) everything but electricity, Hamas,” he says, facing the camera.

Bozom declined to comment about the arrest. Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled the territory since 2007, routinely clamping down on critics. Despite the hardships, anti-Hamas protests have been rare, in part because of fear and because even disgruntled Gazans believe there’s no realistic path to toppling the militants.

Gaza is currently experiencing the worst electricity shortage in years, with power supplied to households only three to four hours a day in a cold winter. Residents have tried to improvise, using old kerosene heaters to keep warm and restarting previously disused community ovens for cooking and baking.

In recent weeks, Gaza residents have staged spontaneous demonstrations, including marching at night with torches to demand more electricity. Al-Mashwakhi posted his video late Tuesday. “There is no work, no (border) crossing points, no food, no water and also no electricity,” he shouts in the clip, after getting out of a white car in the dark.

The artist has produced several short mobile phone videos and acted in some. He rose to fame locally with video clips in which he sings songs with nonsensical lyrics. The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights condemned the comedian’s arrest, and said it was the third time since last year that he was taken into custody for criticizing Hamas. During one of the detentions, he was tortured, the group said.

January 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon on Tuesday buried its citizens who perished in the Istanbul nightclub massacre on New Year’s Eve amid an outpouring of grief that has for days dominated local TV channels and discussions among the country’s politicians.

Lebanon — a Mediterranean nation of 5 million people — lost three nationals in the carnage in Turkey. The attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, killed 39. Another six Lebanese nationals were wounded, according to local media.

Funerals were also held in Jordan and in Israel, which lost a citizen each in the assault. One of Lebanon’s victims Rita Chami, 26, had lost her mother to cancer only last July. She had taken time out of her university studies to care for her.

The other two — Haykal Mousallem, 34, and Elias Wardini, 26 — were both personal fitness trainers in Beirut. Wardini was engaged to be married; Mousallem got married four months ago. Both of their partners survived the attack.

Lebanon, accustomed to tragedy in the aftermath of its civil war and occasional bouts of violence, has treated its Istanbul victims as national heroes, their coffins draped in the Lebanese flag as they were brought back home.

In Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood, grieving relatives and friends set off fireworks on Tuesday morning as residents bid Wardini farewell. His funeral was attended by some of the country’s leading Christian politicians. Mousallem was buried in his native Chouf district, outside the Lebanese capital. Chami will be buried on Thursday.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri asked the Lebanese to stand still for five minutes in memory of the dead. But the local press went further than that. The country’s top TV stations sent reporters on intrusive assignments on Sunday, broadcasting live from the homes of the bereaved as they learned of the fates of their loved ones.

On Twitter, Hariri urged the outlets to leave the families in peace. The bodies were repatriated Monday night, sparking another media frenzy, first at the airport and then the hospital morgues where the remains were taken.

Wardini’s funeral was broadcast live on Tuesday on national TV, which called the victims “martyrs in every meaning of the word,” and condemned Islamic State militants as “enemies of God.” The New Year’s attack on Istanbul’s Reina club also touched others across the Middle East. The IS said it targeted Christian revelers in response to Turkish military operations against the militant group in northern Syria — but most of the dead were foreign tourists from Muslim countries. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency said nearly two-thirds of the victims in the upscale club, which is frequented by local celebrities, were foreigners.

In Jordan, hundreds attended the funeral ceremony Tuesday for 44-year-old businessman Nawras Assaf who died in the Istanbul attack. Assaf’s wife was among those wounded. In Israel, thousands attended the funeral Tuesday of 18-year-old Layan Nasser, an Arab Israeli killed in the Istanbul attack. She had gone to Istanbul to celebrate the New Year’s with three friends.

Mourners wept as they marched through the streets of Tira behind Nasser’s wooden coffin. The city’s mayor, Mamoun Abd El Hai, declared a day of mourning, with banks and municipal offices closed. “She had dreams to work, to progress, to study, to raise a family, but unfortunately the terror put an end to her dreams and ended her life,” the mayor told The Associated Press.

Another Israeli traveling with Nasser was wounded in the attack. Nasser’s father told Israeli Channel 10 TV that he had a bad feeling about his daughter’s trip to Istanbul. “I was very concerned about this trip,” Zaher Nasser said. “I asked her not to travel in light of the bad security situation there, but she insisted to go with her friends.”

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

2017-01-06

RABAT – Morocco has ordered the closure of schools it says are linked to a US-based Islamic preacher that Turkey blames for a failed coup last year, the interior ministry said.

“Investigations on the establishments of the Mohamed Al-Fatih group, linked to Turkish national Fethullah Gulen, showed they use education to spread the group’s ideology and ideas contrary to the principles of the Moroccan educational and religious system,” a ministry statement said.

After a series of warnings from the education ministry, “it was decided all the group’s educational establishments would be closed within a delay of one month”, it said.

The statement did not say how many schools or pupils would be affected but said the government would strive to ensure the students continued their education in other schools.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has denied any involvement in the July 15 failed coup aimed at toppling Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The preacher heads the Hizmet group which includes schools, associations and companies.

Turkey, which calls it the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO), has embarked on a massive crackdown of the group.

Since the coup, Turkey has piled pressure on the United States to extradite Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally.

In August, an official Turkish delegation visited Morocco to convince the authorities of the danger of Gulen’s group.

A school director from the Mohamed Al-Fatih group at the time rejected any link with Gulen for seven schools teaching 2,500 students including 2,470 Moroccans.

He said 90 percent of their teachers were also Moroccan nationals.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80692.

2017-01-05

AL-HOCEIMA – Police have dispersed a protest in Morocco’s northern city of Al-Hoceima, a rights group said Thursday, months after a local fishmonger’s death in a garbage truck sparked unrest.

Security forces broke up the protest in the city center late Wednesday as the demonstrators did not have a permit to protest, Mohamed Bassiri of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) said.

Footage circulated on social media showed police chasing dozens of protesters from the city’s main square after asking them to end the sit-in with a megaphone.

It showed protesters on the ground who appeared to have been bruised, and other demonstrators being arrested. The protesters were later released, according to the AMDH.

Mouhcine Fikri, 31, was crushed to death on October 28 in a garbage truck as he tried to protest against the seizure and destruction of swordfish, which were not allowed to be caught at that time of year.

His death in the Rif — an ethnically Berber region long neglected and at the heart of a 2011 protest movement for reform — triggered protests nationwide.

Those protests have now stopped but activists in Al-Hoceima have continued to call for a thorough investigation, alongside broader demands for an end to widespread unemployment and corruption.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80688.