Archive for April 1, 2017


2017-03-18

HOMS – Hundreds of rebels and civilians left the last opposition-held district of Homs on Saturday under a controversial Russian-supervised deal to bring Syria’s third city under full government control.

The evacuation of Waer, a northwestern district of the city that has been under siege by the army for years, is the latest in a series of “reconciliation” deals struck by the government that the rebels say amount to starving them out.

It comes ahead of a new round of UN-brokered talks that open in Geneva on Thursday in an attempt to end the conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Thousands are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks in the final phase of the evacuation agreement, which had stalled in recent months.

An AFP correspondent saw a first wave of three green buses carrying civilians including children as well s dozens of fighters, their rifles slung over their shoulders.

Throughout the day, people lined up to load their luggage onto the buses under the watchful eye of Russian military police.

“Russia is a guarantor of the Waer agreement’s implementation and will monitor its execution,” said the Russian colonel overseeing the operation.

“Russian forces came to Syria for this — to help their friends and allow people to live safely in this country again.”

Moscow is a decades-old ally of the Damascus regime, and in September 2015 launched an air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

That backing has helped government forces recapture swathes of territory, including the whole of second city Aleppo as well as the famed desert city of Palmyra.

– 12,000 expected to leave –

Three waves of rebels and their families have already left Waer under an agreement first reached in December 2015, but evacuations have since stalled.

In a new deal reached last week, government and rebel representatives agreed that up to 100 Russian troops would deploy inside Waer to oversee the final phase of evacuations.

Between 400 and 500 people are expected to leave on Saturday, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.

“Syrian police, Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent will protect the convoys and accompany them from Homs onto Aleppo province,” Barazi said.

Syrian state television reported about a dozen buses had left so far.

Under the agreement, evacuees will be bused to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the rebel-held town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that a total of 12,000 people, 2,500 of them rebels, will leave under the deal.

Over the past month, government forces have stepped up their bombardment of the district, killing dozens of people, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

No aid has reached Waer in at least four months. A UN convoy attempted to reach the district in February but it was seized by gunmen who diverted the assistance to a government-held area.

The government has agreed “reconciliation” deals for several rebel-held areas, and touts such agreements that grant safe passage to surrendering fighters as key to ending six years of war.

But rebels say they are forced into such deals by siege and bombardment, and the UN has sharply criticized them.

The most notorious of the agreements was the December evacuation of the rebel-held east Aleppo after months of government siege.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria earlier this month said the deal “amounts to the war crime of forced displacement of the civilian population” because it had left civilians with “no option to remain.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82127.

Advertisements

March 12, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Twin blasts Saturday near holy shrines frequented by Shiites in the Syrian capital Damascus killed at least 40 people and wounded over a hundred, most of them Iraqis, according to Syrian and Iraqi officials.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. Islamic State militants have carried out similar attacks before against Shiite shrines in the Syrian capital and elsewhere. Extremist Sunni groups, such as IS, view Shiites as apostates and consider shrines a form of idolatry.

Syrian State TV aired footage from the scene showing blood-soaked streets and several damaged buses in a parking lot, apparently where the explosions went off near Bab al-Saghir cemetery. The cemetery is one of Damascus’ most ancient and is where several prominent religious figures are buried.

Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar visited the wounded in local hospitals. He said 40 were killed and 120 were wounded. He said the attacks targeted civilians, including Arab visitors, who were touring area’s shrines.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that at least 40 Iraqis were killed and 120 wounded. Ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said buses carrying Iraqi pilgrims to the shrines were targeted. He said a crisis response team has been formed to expedite the identification and transport of the killed and wounded.

“The ministry calls on the international community to condemn this heinous terrorist crime that targeted civilian Iraqi visitors to the holy shrines. It also urges a firm and decisive stand against the takfiri groups responsible for them,” Jamal said in a statement. Takfiri is an Arabic derogatory term referring to extremist Sunni Muslims — such as members of the Islamic State group — who accuse other Muslims of being infidels.

Iraqi, Iranian and other Asian Shiites often visit shrines in Syria. U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Ali al-Za’tari condemned the attacks, saying “targeting civilians is a terrorist act, condemned and rejected by anyone who has a conscience in this world.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah group also condemned the attacks, saying they stem from a “Takfiri ideology that uses religion as a cover to stab religion and believers everywhere.” There were conflicting reports about what caused the explosions. State news agency SANA said the blasts were caused by bombs placed near the cemetery and that at least 33 were killed and more than a hundred wounded.

Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV quoted Syrian officials saying twin suicide attacks killed 40. The military media arm of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant group close to Damascus, said two suicide bombers blew themselves up 15 minutes apart near the shrines, leading to the large number of casualties. Arab TV Al-Mayadeen, airing the conflicting reports, also said at least 40 were killed. The area was sealed after the explosions.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group with activists on the ground, said at least 46 were killed in the twin explosions. The group said the first blast came after a suicide bomber blew himself up among the pilgrims near the shrines. It was not clear what caused the second explosion, the group said, adding that the death toll is likely higher because dozens were wounded.

Mohammed Haytham al-Hosseini, head of the National Hospital in Damascus, told pro-government Sama TV that 41 killed arrived to his facility. He said at least three wounded were in critical condition. A similar attack in Damascus last year targeted one of the most revered Shiite shrines and was claimed by Islamic State militants.

Bab al-Saghir is one of the seven gates of the old city of Damascus and houses a cemetery where a number of early Islam religious figures, including family members of Prophet Muhammad and figures revered by Shiites, are buried.

Also Saturday, Syria’s President Bashar Assad said in an interview that his military’s priority is to reach the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa — toward which U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces are also advancing.

The interview with Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV was aired Saturday and shared by the Syrian Presidency website. Assad said another IS stronghold, Deir el-Zour, may be targeted in parallel. Syria’s battlefields have become increasingly crowded. U.S-led coalition forces in collaboration with Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Turkish troops and Syrian allies and Syrian government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, are all converging to clear northern Syria of the remnants of Islamic State militants. In some incidents, the teeming battlefield has caused friction between rival groups, as well as several civilian casualties.

Assad said that “in theory” he shares the same priority with U.S. President Donald Trump of fighting terrorism but that they have had no formal contact yet. He said Russia, a major ally, hopes it can urge the U.S. and Turkey to cooperate with Moscow and Damascus in the fight against terrorism in Syria. Assad’s government views all armed opposition as terrorist groups.

Assad said all foreign troops on Syrian soil without invitation or consultation with the Syrian government are considered “invaders.” Meanwhile, Syria’s armed opposition groups called for postponing a meeting planned and sponsored by Russia and Turkey, scheduled to take place in the Kazakh capital Astana next week. In a statement, the rebel groups said violations of a Russia-backed cease-fire have persisted, and called for the meeting to be rescheduled for after March 20, when a limited cease-fire expires.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

March 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military announced on Thursday it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group as the militants’ defenses crumbled and IS fighters fled in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes.

The development marks the third time that the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures IS had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. It was also the second blow for the Islamic State group in Syria in a week, after Turkish backed opposition fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the militants on Feb. 23, following a grueling three month battle. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni extremist group is fighting for survival in its last urban bastion in the western part of the city of Mosul.

For the Syrian government, the news was a welcome development against the backdrop of peace talks underway with the opposition in Switzerland. “You are all invited to visit the historic city of Palmyra and witness its beauty, now that it has been liberated,” the Damascus envoy to the U.N.-mediated talks, Bashar al-Ja’afari, told reporters in Geneva.

“Of course, counterterrorism operations will continue until the last inch of our territory is liberated from the hands of these foreign terrorist organizations, which are wreaking havoc in our country,” he added.

The Damascus military statement said troops gained full control of the desert town in central Syria following a series of military operations carried out with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with “allied and friendly troops” — government shorthand for members of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group who are fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

IS defenses around Palmyra had begun to erode on Sunday, with government troops reaching the town’s outskirts on Tuesday. The state SANA news agency reported earlier that government troops had entered the town’s archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around mid-day, then the town itself, as IS militants fled the area.

This is the Syrian government’s second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

The Syrian government’s push has relied on ground support from Hezbollah and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets. Archeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to its ruins.

Drone footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier this month showed new damage to the facade of Palmyra’s Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.

A 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control. Opposition factions have also admitted to looting the antiquities for funds.

IS militants have twice used the town’s Roman theater as a stage for mass killings, most recently in January, when they shot and beheaded a number of captives they said had tried to escape their December advance. Other IS killings were said to have taken place in the courtyard of the Palmyra museum and in a former Russian base in the town.

The developments in Palmyra came against the backdrop of the talks in Geneva, which have been without any tangible breakthroughs so far. Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

On Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held another round of meetings with both the government delegation and opposition groups. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.”

After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he had said. Russia is a key sponsor of Assad’s government. A top Syrian opposition negotiator, Nasr al-Hariri, said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony on Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics. In Turkey, the country’s foreign minister said that with the completion of an operation to retake the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, Turkish troops will head to the Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces, which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces. Cavusoglu stressed that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.

That front line in northern Syria was further complicated by a concurrent announcement by the Syrian Kurdish side on Thursday that they had agreed with Russia to withdraw from some of the territory between al-Bab and Manbij, to make room for a buffer.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line with rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Cavusoglu denied any such agreement was reached. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Turkish and Syrian authorities have long regarded each other with thinly-veiled hostility.

Soguel reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

2017-03-01

DAMASCUS – Worried over Turkish advances in Syria’s north, the Damascus regime has formed an alliance of convenience with the country’s Kurds to prevent their common enemy from gaining ground.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has repeatedly criticized Turkey’s operation in Syria, which saw Ankara in late August send troops across the border where they are working with local rebels.

Turkey’s invasion has also been fiercely opposed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters.

“For the government, just as for the Syrian Kurds, the enemy is (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. They want to counter his project of invading the border territory,” said Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s Al-Watan daily.

“It’s completely normal that the forces present on the ground would ally with each other to block any Turkish advance in Syrian territory. Now, Turkish forces are totally encircled,” said Abed Rabbo, whose paper is close to the government.

With help from Turkish air strikes, artillery, and soldiers, Syrian rebels last week overran the town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State group’s last bastion in the northern province of Aleppo.

Syrian troops had advanced to the southern edges of the town, but had been ordered by their ally Russia not to enter Al-Bab after Moscow struck a deal with Ankara.

Instead, regime fighters headed east, sweeping across previously IS-held villages to link up with the SDF south of its stronghold in Manbij.

– ‘Surrounded on all sides’ –

In just 15 days, Assad’s army seized nearly two dozen villages, including Taduf south of Al-Bab, gaining approximately 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of territory in Aleppo province.

The advance brought Syrian troops to territory just southwest of Manbij and adjacent to SDF forces there, said US-based Middle East expert Fabrice Balanche.

By sealing off that territory, Balanche added, the regime has stemmed Turkish ambitions of heading further east.

“The road to Raqa via Al-Bab is now cut for the Turks. They also can’t attack Manbij from the south,” Balanche added.

Erdogan has insisted that Ankara wants to work with its allies to capture Raqa, the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s so-called “caliphate”, without the SDF.

Turkey considers the SDF’s biggest component — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — as “terrorists” because of their links to an outlawed Kurdish militia in southeast Turkey.

But the SDF has a head start. Since November, it has been battling to encircle Raqa with the help of US-led coalition air strikes and is much closer to the city than the Turkish-backed fighters.

The regime’s recent advance has boxed Turkey in, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“They’re surrounded on all sides. The Kurds are to the east, southeast, and west. The regime is south,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“They don’t have a single road to Raqa except via territory controlled by the Kurds or the Syrian army,” Abdel Rahman said.

– ‘Regime has not changed’ –

“If they really want to go, they only have two options: opening up a front with the army or the Kurds, or striking a deal with them.”

Such a deal would require the mediation of either Russia — who has long backed the Syrian regime and has recently developed closer cooperation with Turkey on Syria — or the United States, an ally to Ankara and SDF backer.

“The risk of confrontation is there. But if the Turkish army heads towards Raqa, it will only be after a deal with the United States,” said Sinan Ulgan, who heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM) in Istanbul.

While the SDF and Syria’s regime have a shared interest in countering Ankara’s influence, the alliance is not foolproof.

Regime forces and Kurdish fighters have clashed several times across the northeastern province of Hasakeh, and government officials frequently criticize a Kurdish announcement last year of a “federal system” to run affairs in northern Syria.

“The regime is against Kurdish independence, but it doesn’t have the means to retake Kurdish territory,” Balanche said.

A high-level security source in Damascus insisted that “Syria does not recognize the SDF because the constitution stipulates that the only military presence in Syria is the Syrian army.”

“But really, there are several legitimate and illegitimate organisations involved in the Syrian conflict,” the source conceded.

Leading SDF adviser Nasser al-Hajj Mansour denied that his group had struck a deal with the regime, but acknowledged that the current situation is an incentive for cooperation over confrontation.

“The regime has not changed. When it can, it will attack us. But today, local and international dynamics will not allow it to do so,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81768.

2017-03-01

PALMYRA – Syrian government forces backed by Russian soldiers advanced Wednesday to the outskirts of ancient Palmyra after battles with the Islamic State group, a monitor and a military source said.

“Regime forces and Russian troops are about one kilometer from the city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After seizing a string of hilltops overlooking Palmyra, the troops had “the western half of the city” within firing range, Abdel Rahman added.

“They are close to capturing the citadel. IS withdrew from it, but they may have left suicide bombers inside,” he warned.

Supported by Russian air strikes and ground troops, Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks through the desert in the central province of Homs to reach Palmyra.

IS jihadists first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy the city’s monuments and temples, while also looting its many archaeological treasures.

They were driven out in March 2016 but recaptured the town last December.

Syrian state media confirmed Wednesday that government forces were now in control of key territory near the city.

“Seizing control of the Mount Hilal and other hilltops overlooking Palmyra is an important step towards the collapse of the terrorist groups in the city,” state news agency SANA reported.

A senior military source in Damascus told said on Wednesday that the army had also reached a strategic crossroads leading into Palmyra.

“This crossroads is the key to entering the city,” the source told said.

“Our forces have not yet taken the citadel, but the city is within firing range,” he added.

IS has ravaged the city’s celebrated heritage, blowing up funerary towers and carrying out mass executions in the city’s Roman theater.

Last month, IS destroyed Palmyra’s tetrapylon monument, while satellite images showed damage to the theater’s facade.

The new destruction was condemned by the United Nations as a “war crime.”

On Wednesday, two funeral busts damaged by IS after it first captured Palmyra were brought back to Syria after being restored in Italy.

2017-02-23

AL-BAB – Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said Thursday they had fully captured the town of Al-Bab from the Islamic State group, marking a key defeat for the jihadists after weeks of heavy fighting.

As Ankara said its allies now had “near complete control”, the rebel announcement came on the opening day of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and regime in Geneva.

Al-Bab, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander.

“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining IS rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said rebels had “near complete control” of Al-Bab.

“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh (IS) elements,” he said, quoted by state-run Anadolu Agency.

Isik reaffirmed that Turkey was now ready to join any operation by international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqa, the extremist group’s de-facto capital.

Anadolu had earlier reported that rebels had surrounded the town to “break” IS’s will but had held off on storming the center “with the aim of preventing civilian casualties”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said IS fighters were still present in parts of the town and that rebels were in control of less than half of it.

Rebels launched an offensive to capture Al-Bab last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.

Al-Bab was IS’s last remaining stronghold in Aleppo province, after a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seized the town of Manbij in August.

The jihadist group still controls a scattering of smaller villages and towns in the province.

– ‘Tall task’ ahead –

Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town also claimed the capture of Al-Bab.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), we captured the city center, which was IS’s security zone… The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 6 am (0400 GMT) we completed the operation,” said Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza rebel group.

Abu Jaafar, another rebel field commander, said he expected clearing up operations would be wrapped up within hours.

“Dozens of IS fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from inside Al-Bab,” Abu Jaafar said.

Turkey sent troops into Syria in August last year in an operation it said targeted not only IS but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.

The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.

The town was also seen as a prize by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who had advanced to just 1.5 kilometers (one mile) from Al-Bab in recent weeks.

“Al-Bab is important, insofar as its taking from IS will deprive the group of a tax base and an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the West,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council.

“For Turkey, the mission, as was defined back in 2016, is now complete: Turkish forces have forced IS from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons” in northern Syria, he said.

Syria’s Kurds have managed autonomous administrations in swathes of the country’s north since 2012, and Al-Bab falls between the “cantons” of Kobane and Afrin.

“However, Turkey will now have to grapple with the questions of prolonged occupation of a foreign country and help to oversee the transition to civilian rule, a tall task for any foreign military,” Stein added.

More than 310,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad that spiralled into all-out war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81645.

February 18, 2017

Syrian regime forces have executed the Syrian pediatrician Mahmoud Satu after he was indicted for treating and feeding the children of Aleppo when its eastern districts were controlled by the opposition, the Jordanian Assabeel newspaper reported yesterday.

Citing the London-based news website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Assabeel said that local sources in Aleppo said that Satu and another Syrian resident called Ahmed Assad were executed two months after they were arrested.

According to the sources, the two men were executed in the main square of the Al-Sukarri neighborhood in Aleppo, the area where he and his family had lived.

Sources close to Satu told a Syrian news site El-Dorar that he was arrested on 11 December 2016, when the regime raided the Al-Salihin neighborhood in Aleppo. The Syrian news site also said that the pediatrician and his family were captured when they were trying to leave Aleppo with the other residents.

Satu worked in the city of Aleppo in field hospitals. He was reported as having refused to leave Aleppo along with his family, but they were arrested and the doctor was executed over “treating and feeding the children of terrorists.”

According to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Satu wrote on his Facebook page before he was arrested: “What is going on in Aleppo is heart-breaking and a savage and barbaric act which is not being done except by a dog dealing with pigs. He [Al-Assad] forgets that God is watching.”

The Syrian regime and its Iran-backed Shia jihadist allies, backed by Russian airpower, gained control of Aleppo after three months of fierce ground attacks and airstrikes. Hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded as homes, schools and hospitals were targeted.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170218-syria-regime-executes-paediatrician-for-treating-aleppo-children/.

2017-02-13

MUNICH – An exiled advocate for China’s ethnic Uighur minority said Monday that some of the group were fighting and dying in Syria — including for Islamic State (IS) — though she claimed they had been duped into doing so.

Rebiya Kadeer, who heads the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said that among the thousands of Uighurs who have fled to Southeast Asia, Turkey and elsewhere in recent years, a small number have ended up in the war-torn Middle Eastern country and have joined militant groups.

“Some Uighurs… died after Russian airplanes bombed them, they were killed in Syria,” she said at a press conference during a visit to Japan.

Russia’s militarily backs the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 and has left more than 300,000 people dead. Numerous groups, including IS, are fighting for control of the country.

The mostly Muslim Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and number some 10 million, are native to the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang bordering Central Asia and have long complained of religious and cultural discrimination.

China has frequently warned that radical forces from outside have inspired terror attacks in Xinjiang as well as in other regions of the country and has launched a harsh crackdown.

It says among Uighurs who have fled are some seeking to train with extremists in Syria to eventually return and fight for independence in Xinjiang.

In 2015, China’s security ministry said more than 100 Uighurs that were repatriated by Thailand had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq “to join jihad”.

Once a wealthy and prominent businesswoman, Kadeer, now 70, fell out with the Chinese government and was jailed before her 2005 release into exile in the United States where she serves as president of the WUC.

She said Uighurs who end up in Syria are vulnerable and prone to being “brainwashed” into joining the fighting there, but still denounced them.

“We think they are just like criminal groups in our society,” she said.

The WUC describes itself as a “peaceful opposition movement against Chinese occupation of East Turkestan” — their name for Xinjiang.

It says it promotes “human rights, religious freedom, and democracy” for Uighurs and advocates “peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine their political future”.

But China has blamed the WUC, as well as the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), of radicalizing Uighurs and fomenting violence and independence.

Overseas experts, however, have expressed skepticism, with some accusing China of exaggerating the Uighur threat to justify a tough security regime in resource-rich Xinjiang.

Human Rights groups argue that harsh police tactics and government campaigns against Muslim religious practices, such as the wearing of veils, have fueled Uighur violence.

China says it has boosted economic development in Xinjiang and upholds minority and religious rights for all of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81423.

07 February 2017 Tuesday

As many as 13,000 people were hanged in five years at a notorious Syrian government prison near Damascus, Amnesty International said Tuesday, accusing the regime of a “policy of extermination.”

Titled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hanging and extermination at Saydnaya prison,” Amnesty’s damning report is based on interviews with 84 witnesses, including guards, detainees, and judges.

It found that at least once a week between 2011 and 2015, groups of up to 50 people were taken out of their prison cells for arbitrary trials, beaten, then hanged “in the middle of the night and in total secrecy.”

“Throughout this process, they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks,” the rights group wrote.

Most of the victims were civilians believed to be opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“They kept them (hanging) there for 10 to 15 minutes,” a former judge who witnessed the executions said.

“For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks,” he said.

Amnesty said the practices amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but were likely still taking place.

Thousands of prisoners are held in the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of the country’s largest detention centers located 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Damascus.

Amnesty accused the Syrian government of carrying out a “policy of extermination” there by repeatedly torturing detainees and withholding food, water, and medical care.

Prisoners were raped or forced to rape each other, and guards would feed detainees by tossing meals onto the cell floor, which was often covered in dirt and blood.

‘Hidden, monstrous campaign’

A twisted set of “special rules” governed the facility: detainees were not allowed to speak and must assume certain positions when guards enter their cells.

“Every day there would be two or three dead people in our wing… I remember the guard would ask how many we had. He would say, ‘Room number one – how many? Room number two – how many?’ and on and on,” said Nader, a former detainee whose name has been changed.

After one fierce day of beating, Nader said, 13 people died in a single wing of the prison.

One former military officer said he could hear “gurgling” as people were hanged in an execution room below.

“If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling,” said Hamid, who was arrested in 2011.

“We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then,” he told Amnesty.

The group has previously said that more than 17,700 people were estimated to have died in government custody across Syria since the country’s conflict erupted in March 2011.

The figure of 13,000 deaths in a single prison, therefore, is a marked increase.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty’s Beirut office.

“The cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners, along with the carefully crafted and systematic programs of psychological and physical torture that are in place inside Saydnaya Prison cannot be allowed to continue,” she said.

A probe by the United Nations last year accused Assad’s government of a policy of “extermination” in its jails.

More than 310,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes since the conflict began with anti-Assad protests.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/184341/syria-regime-hanged-13000-in-notorious-prison.

January 29, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Migrants navigating a new language, unfamiliar cultural conventions and Germany’s multitude of rules and regulations are finding help online in their adoptive country courtesy of one of their own.

The website arabalmanya.com — which translates to “Arabs in Germany” — was founded a year ago by Syrian IT expert Talal Mando. The site contains a range of information, including news about Germany, feature stories explaining German culture and crucial job offers for newcomers.

“No one came to Germany to sit around,” Mando, who was part of the flood of 890,000 migrants who came to Germany in 2015, said of the site’s success. “The people want to work and learn new things.” The idea for the site came to Mando shortly after the soft-spoken 28-year-old arrived in Germany and started looking for guidance about how to apply for asylum, learn German, and find work.

He quickly realized that most written information was available only in German or English — not a problem for him as a fluent English speaker, but a major barrier for many fellow Syrians and other migrants who spoke only Arabic.

“That’s when I got this idea to make a website for Arab people that are in Germany,” Mando said in the living room of his Berlin apartment, which doubles as headquarters for the free website. Since the website’s launch in December 2015, it has received more than 1.1 million visits and more than 4 million page clicks, nearly all from users inside Germany, according to Google analytics.

Many German organizations have reached out to help migrants get settled and some television networks offer Arabic language programming. Mando said he thinks arabalmanya.com has resonated particularly well with newly arrived Syrians because he and others working on the site have shared their experience.

He now has five people writing for the website, all Syrian migrants working for free after a small startup grant from a local organization ran out. Mando, who works as a freelance web designer, estimates he has put about 5,500 euros ($5,800) of his own money into the project.

The volunteer staff has written more than 1,400 posts, many of them job listings they’ve translated into Arabic. They also answer about 50 emails a day seeking advice on where to find a doctor, where to learn German, how to register for school, and what documents to bring and clothing to wear to job interviews.

“I do it because people need it. It’s that simple,” he said. “People need information and jobs here in Germany, and we provide it.”