Archive for June 15, 2017


19 March 2017 Sunday

Turkey will open its largest military base in the world in Somalia in April. Soldiers from the Somalia National Army and soldiers from many African countries will be trained by the Turkish Army in the base that is being constructed in Mogadishu.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar are expected to attend the official opening.

Somalia’s Defense Minister, General Abdulkadir Ali Dini, visited the military base yesterday with a military delegation.

Minister Dini, who visited the base near its completion, thanked the Turkish military and civilian authorities for preparing the base.

Somali President Mohammad Abdullah Muhammad ‘Farmajo’ tweeted from his official account and announced that the base would be opened very soon. “Turkey’s largest military base in the world is almost complete. Soon the Somali Army will return strongly,” President Farmajo said.

Cost of $50 million

The construction of the $50 million base began in March 2015. It will have the capacity to train 500 soldiers at the same time.

The facility is located close to Mogadishu’s airport and three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital and the Port of Mogadishu.

The base will occupy 400 hectares and house three military schools, dormitories and depots.

Somalia and Turkey share multi-tiered cooperation. Turkey provides Somalia with military aid, education support, infrastructural development and skills training.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/186505/turkey-to-open-its-largest-military-base-in-the-world-in-somalia.

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June 03, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A demonstration in downtown Kabul that left several people dead has entered a second day. More than a thousand people demonstrated Friday demanding more security in the capital following a powerful truck bomb attack in the city that killed 90 people and wounded more than 450.

Scores of protesters passed the night under two big tents on a road near the presidential palace and the blast site. All roads toward the palace and diplomatic areas are being blocked Saturday by police and there is limited movement of vehicles and people.

On Friday, demonstrators rushed toward police who fired warning shots and when they attempted to move closer to the palace, police sprayed them with hoses from a water tanker and later fired tear gas.

June 01, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans mourned the loss of family members, friends and colleagues on Thursday, a day after a massive truck bomb exploded in the capital leaving at least 90 people dead and more than 450 others wounded in one of the worst extremist attacks since the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014.

The city’s acting mayor said the explosion damaged property as far as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the blast site and scores of people waited in hospitals to learn the status of family and friends wounded in Wednesday’s attack.

The bomber drove into Kabul’s heavily guarded diplomatic quarter during the morning rush, leaving behind chaos and destruction. Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children, but the dead also included Afghan security guards.

There was no claim of responsibility. The explosives were hidden in a tanker truck used to clean out septic systems, according to Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the interior minister. The trucks are common in Kabul, a city of nearly four million people with no sewage system that mostly depends on septic tanks, and where open sewers are common.

The blast gouged a crater about 5 meters (15 feet) deep near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign embassies are protected by their own security personnel as well as Afghan police and National Security Forces. The nearby German Embassy was heavily damaged.

Also in the area is Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, the Presidential Palace and its intelligence and security headquarters, guarded by soldiers trained by the U.S. and its coalition partners. The city’s acting mayor said Thursday at a news conference that the bombing caused property damage as far as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the blast site. Abdullah Habibzai said the an initial estimate put the total damage from the bombing at 1 billion Afghanis ($1.5 million), but said that number could rise.

He said city workers had removed around 200 large trucks of garbage and debris by Thursday morning. “We have transported a large number or a large amount of broken glass and windows,” he said. Meanwhile, some people were still missing and families were searching for news about loved ones in local hospitals.

Mohammad Sarwar stood crying behind the gate of an emergency hospital, looking for his nephew, Habibullah, who was missing. “This is the second day that we are searching for my nephew Habibiullah and have been to all Kabul hospitals, still couldn’t find him,” he said.

Afghanistan’s war, the longest ever involving U.S. troops, has shown no sign of letting up and the introduction into the battle of an Islamic State group affiliate has made the country only more volatile.

Although they are small in number, militants from the Islamic State in Khorasan — an ancient name for parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia — have taken credit for several brazen assaults on the capital.

June 01, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker struck the fortified heart of the Afghan capital with a massive truck bomb Wednesday, killing 90 people, wounding 400 and raising new fears about the government’s ability to protect its citizens nearly 16 years into a war with insurgents.

The bomber drove into Kabul’s heavily guarded diplomatic quarter during the morning rush hour, leaving behind a bloody scene of chaos and destruction in one of the worst attacks since the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014.

Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children, said Ismail Kawasi, spokesman of the public health ministry. But the dead also included Afghan security guards at the facilities, including the U.S. Embassy, while 11 American contractors were wounded — none with life-threatening injuries, a U.S. State Department official said.

“I have been to many attacks, taken wounded people out of many blast sites, but I can say I have ever seen such a horrible attack as I saw this morning,” ambulance driver Alef Ahmadzai told The Associated Press. “Everywhere was on fire and so many people were in critical condition.”

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which came in the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban flatly denied any involvement in an email to news outlets and condemned all attacks against civilians.

The explosives were hidden in a tanker truck used to clean out septic systems, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the interior minister. The number of dead and wounded was provided by the Afghan government’s media center, citing a statement from the Afghan Ulema Council, the country’s top religious body that includes Muslim clerics, scholars and men of authority in religion and law.

The blast gouged a crater about 5 meters (15 feet) deep near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign embassies are protected by a battery of their own security personnel as well as Afghan police and National Security Forces. The nearby German Embassy was heavily damaged.

Also in the area is Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, the Presidential Palace and its intelligence and security headquarters, guarded by soldiers trained by the U.S. and its coalition partners. “The terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people,” said President Ashraf Ghani.

President Donald Trump spoke with Ghani after the attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned it as a “senseless and cowardly act.” “The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country,” Tillerson said in a statement.

Afghanistan’s war, the longest ever involving U.S. troops, has shown no sign of letting up, and the introduction into the battle of an Islamic State affiliate has made the country only more volatile. Although they are small in number, militants from the Islamic State in Khorasan — an ancient name for parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia — have taken credit for several brazen assaults on the capital.

“Let’s be clear: This is an intelligence failure, as has been the case with so many other attacks in Kabul and beyond. There was a clear failure to anticipate a major security threat in a highly secured area,” said Michael Kugelman of the U.S.-based Wilson Center.

“The fact that these intelligence failures keep happening suggest that something isn’t working at the top, and major and urgent changes are needed in security policy,” he said by email. Still, there are questions about whether a U.S. pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan will curb the violence.

“The sad reality is that more foreign troops would not necessarily ensure these attacks happen less,” Kugelman said. “But they could help by supplementing training programs meant to enhance Afghan intel collection capacities, which have long been a deficiency in Afghanistan.”

There are currently 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a U.S. promise of more to come. Afghan lawmaker and analyst Nasrullah Sadeqizada bemoaned the abysmal security, saying “the situation is deteriorating day by day.”

In an interview, Sadeqizada criticized U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, saying they have done little to improve protection in the country. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, Afghans will lose all trust in the foreigners who are in Afghanistan as friends,” he warned.

Gen. Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, former deputy interior minister, said more troops won’t help, although he urged the global community to stay committed to Afghanistan. “I don’t think that more U.S. or NATO soldiers can solve the security problems in Afghanistan,” he said.

“When we had more than 100,000 foreign soldiers, they were not even able to secure Helmand province” in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban controls roughly 80 percent of the area, he said. In the past year, U.S. troops have largely focused on thwarting a surge in Taliban attacks.

The stricken neighborhood was considered Kabul’s safest, with the embassies protected by dozens of 10-foot-high blast walls and government offices guarded by security forces. More than 50 cars were either destroyed or damaged.

“I’ve never seen such a powerful explosion in my life,” said Mohammad Haroon, who owns a nearby sporting goods store. All the windows in his shop and others around him were shattered, he added. Shocked residents soaked in blood stumbled in the streets before being taken to hospitals. Passers-by helped them into private cars, while others went to the nearby Italian-run Emergency Hospital.

Besides the German Embassy, damage was reported at the embassies of China, Turkey, France, India and Japan, according to officials from those countries. Other nearby embassies include those of the U.S., Britain, Pakistan and Iran, as well as the NATO mission.

Nine Afghan guards at the U.S. Embassy were killed and 11 American contractors were wounded, with one Afghan guard missing, according to a U.S. State Department official, who was not authorized to talk publicly on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity. None of the wounded Americans appeared to have life-threatening injuries, the official said.

The BBC said one of its drivers was killed and four of its journalists were wounded. Afghanistan’s private TOLO Television also reported a staffer killed; Germany said an Afghan security guard outside its embassy was among the dead.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that along with an Afghan guard who was killed, a German diplomat was slightly wounded and an Afghan staffer had severe injuries. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack, saying that “terrorism has no borders.”

It “targets all of us — whether in Manchester or Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, St. Petersburg or today in Kabul,” she said in the southern German city of Nuremberg. “Today we’re united in shock and sadness across all borders,” she added.

She vowed: “We will lead the fight against terrorism, and we will win it.” Germany has had troops in Afghanistan for 15 years, primarily in the north in and around Mazar-e-Sharif. It is one of the biggest contributors to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, with about 980 soldiers supporting and training Afghan forces.

Neighboring Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the bomb damaged residences of some of its diplomats and staff and caused some minor injuries.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez reported this story in Kabul and AP writer Kathy Gannon reported from Islamabad. AP writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Matthew Lee in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

2017-06-07

ALGIERS – Dozens of Syrian refugees remained stranded in no-man’s land between Morocco and Algeria on Tuesday, non-governmental groups said, despite an Algerian offer to help.

Algiers said last week it would take in the refugees after the United Nations urged both sides to help the Syrians, who include a pregnant woman and have been stranded in the desert area since April 17.

“The Syrian refugee families are still blocked on the border between Algeria and Morocco. Authorities on both sides are passing each other the buck,” said Noureddine Benissad of the Algerian League of Human Rights.

Saida Benhabiles, the head of the Algerian Red Crescent, said a joint team from her organisation and the UN refugee agency have been waiting on the Algerian border since late Monday.

“There’s no obstacle on the Algerian side,” she said. “But the problem is they’re in Moroccan territory and we can’t go to get them.”

In a statement, non-governmental groups including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights and the Algerian League of Human Rights urged “authorities in both countries to find an immediate solution”.

The zone between the two countries has been closed since 1994. The North African rivals have very difficult relations, especially over the question of Western Sahara.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83429.

June 01, 2017

GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival. “We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone. Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.

THE TATTOOED FIGHTER

Nothing blurs Muharram’s vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies. “We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida’s alliance.

The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming “a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates.” He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, “giving up the revolution’s principles … and accepting Assad for a longer period,” he said.

Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.

But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it. The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib’s and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don’t interfere in residents’ affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.

Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara’s side.

The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said. “The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections.”

THE REBEL WITHOUT A LAND

He defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad’s troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.

It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella. Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad’s forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib’s overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.

The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters. “This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us,” al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.

The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in. “We were insulated in Daraya,” he said. “Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many.”

The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to “create a separate state in the north.” Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.

“Syria can’t be one unified state except by expelling all those parties,” al-Nokrashi said. His fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area’s cuisine to Idlib.

A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — “just like the regime’s security agencies,” said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.

Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined, al-Nokrashi said.

The alliance has yet to fight a battle, but he’s hopeful. “I feel there are lessons learned … from previous mistakes.”

THE AL-QAIDA HUNTER

He drives around Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.

Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group’s fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

Al-Saoud’s claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.

Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad’s military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias. “We can’t be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please,” al-Saoud said.

What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. “Aren’t we worthy of defending?” he said. He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds’ determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.

During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds. In one call, he reassured a commander bewildered by the Americans working with the Kurds. Another complained how hard it is to negotiate with Islamist factions, which are also trying out alliances to counter the power of al-Qaida.

Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical. It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his “charisma,” as he puts it.

Moreover, he sees it as imposed by outside powers that can’t agree among themselves, dooming it to fail. “Unify your vision, then pick a leader for a unified (rebel) front,” he said. “My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said. “We will remain the popular face of this fight.”

May 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A deal hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in mostly opposition-held parts of Syria went into effect in the early hours of Saturday. The plan is the latest international attempt to reduce violence in the war-ravaged country, and is the first to envisage armed foreign monitors on the ground in Syria. The United States is not party to the agreement and the Syrian rivals have not signed on to the deal. The armed opposition, instead, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it lacks legitimacy.

The plan, details of which will still be worked out over the next several weeks, went into effect at midnight Friday. There were limited reports of bombing in northern Homs and Hama, two areas expected to be part of the “de-escalation zones,” activists said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

It is not clear how the cease-fire or “de-escalation zones” will be enforced in areas still to be determined in maps to emerge a month from now. Russian officials said it will be at least another month until the details are worked out and the safe areas established.

In the tangled mess that constitutes Syria’s battlefields, there is much that can go wrong with the plan, agreed on in talks Thursday in Kazakhstan. There is no clear mechanism to resolve conflict and violations— like most other previous deals struck by backers of the warring sides.

A potential complication to implementing the plan is the crowded airspace over Syria. The deal calls for all aircraft to be banned from flying over the safe zones. Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operate in different, sometimes same areas in Syria. It is not yet clear how the new plan would affect flightpaths of U.S.-led coalition warplanes battling Islamic State militants and other radical groups — and whether the American air force would abide by a diminished air space.

Russia and Iran — two of the plan’s three sponsors — are key allies of President Bashar Assad’s government and both are viewed as foreign occupation forces by his opponents. Rebels fighting to topple Assad are enraged by Iran’s role in the deal and blame the Shiite power for fueling the sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict, now in its seventh year.

Turkey, the third sponsor, is a major backer of opposition factions and has also sent troops into northern Syria, drawing the ire of Assad and his government. Yet troops from the three countries are now expected to secure four safe zones. An official with Russia’s military general staff said other countries may eventually have a role in enforcing the de-escalation areas.

Russian Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi told reporters on Friday personnel and formations from Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate checkpoints and observation posts. He said “security belts” will be created along the borders of the “de-escalation zones” to prevent incidents and fighting between opposing sides. The checkpoints and observation posts will ensure free movement of unarmed civilians and humanitarian aid and will facilitate economic activities, he said.

Rebels have expressed concerns the deal is a prelude to a de facto partitioning of Syria into spheres of influence. Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions at the Kazakhstan talks, told The Associated Press it was “incomprehensible” for Iran to act as a guarantor of the deal. A cease-fire is unsustainable in the presence of the Iranian-backed militias in Syria, he said.

“We can’t imagine Iran playing a role of peace,” Abo Zayd said. The U.S. sent a senior White House official to the Kazakh capital of Astana, where representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran signed the deal, but had no role in the deal.

The idea of armed monitors is a new element — observers deployed in the early years of the Syrian conflict, including U.N. and Arab League observers, were unarmed. But it’s difficult to imagine how many boots on the ground would be needed to monitor the yet to be mapped areas or how and where exactly Russian, Iranian and Turkish troops would patrol.

“If that happens, we would be looking at a more serious effort than anything in the past,” Aron Lund, a Syria expert wrote in an article Friday. Lund said that from the outside, the agreement “does not look like it has great chances of success” and seems to “lack a clear mechanism to resolve conflicting claims and interpretations.”

Late Friday, a Syrian opposition coalition, the High Negotiations Committee, denounced the deal in a strongly worded statement. The Western, Saudi-backed HNC said the deal lacks legitimacy and seeks to divide the country.

The HNC also said the deal was an attempt to give Syrian government troops military victories they could not achieve on the battleground by neutralizing rebel-held areas. It called on the U.S. and other Arab allied countries, to prevent the implementation of the deal.

A rebel commander in northern Hama said nearly an hour after the deal went into effect, battles raged with government forces. The area, south of Latamneh, is expected to be part of the deal. Jamil al-Saleh, the commander, said government shelling was intense amid an attempt to advance in the area, scene to fierce battles for weeks. “What deal?” he scoffed.

A previous cease-fire agreement signed in Astana on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence in Syria for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have all ended in failure.

The “de-escalation zones” will be closed to military aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition, the Russian official who signed the agreement, Alexander Lavrentye, said Friday. Under the plan, Assad’s air force — and presumably Russian, too — would also halt flights over those areas.

In rebel-held Idlib, a protest was held Friday against the plan, denounced as a plot to “divide Syria.” “Any person or state who enters this land to divide it is the enemy of the Syrian people” activist Abed al-Basset Sarout told the crowd.

Some refugees were skeptical. Ahmad Rabah, a Syrian refugee from Homs now in Lebanon, said he did not trust Assad’s forces and going back to so-called safe zones would be tantamount to living in a “big prison.”

The Pentagon said the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against IS. “The coalition will continue to target ISIS wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary,” said Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Sunni militant group.

Rudskoi also suggested that Syrian government forces, freed up as a result of the safe areas, could be rerouted to fight against IS in the central and eastern part of Syria. Another question left unanswered is how the deal would affect U.S. airstrikes targeting al-Qaida’s positions in Syria.

U.S. warplanes have frequently struck the al-Qaida affiliate in the northern Idlib province, where the militant group dominates. But under Thursday’s deal, the entire province is designated to be one of the four “de-escalation zones.”

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that if implemented the deal will allow for the separation of the opposition from IS fighters and those of the al-Qaida affiliate. He did not elaborate.

Syria’s government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

Berry reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Robert Burs in Washington contributed to this report.

May 29, 2017

A group of Palestinian volunteers have launched their annual campaign to offer dates and water to drivers and their passengers across the occupied West Bank throughout the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Dubbed “Dates and Water”, the campaign has been launched for the third year and caters for travelers who are on the road at Iftar time, sunset.

Mahmoud Abdulmoneim, one of the volunteers responsible for the campaign, told Quds Press that the idea behind the campaign was initiated by a group of youths in the town of Sebastia, near occupied Nablus.

The youths wanted to encourage volunteering in the West Bank, Abdulmoneim said, adding that the location was chosen because it is a central area through which hundreds of Palestinians pass.

The process of distributing dates and water starts shortly before the call for Maghreb prayers, which comes at sunset, Abdulmoneim added.

Around 15 volunteers participate in the campaign, aiming to offer dates and water to around 300 travelers.

A number of local Palestinian companies and donors provide the dates to the volunteers for free.

The campaign was well-received, with some drivers coming out of their cars to help the volunteers distribute their Iftar packs, Quds Press cited Abdulmoneim saying.

The campaign inspired youth to come up with more initiatives, such as volunteering to clean and decorate Sebastia to mark the month of Ramadan.

Abdulmoneim called for utilizing the month of Ramadan to maximize volunteering activities among Palestinians and reinforce the sentiments of support and solidarity in light of the difficult living conditions that Palestinians endure under occupation.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170529-marking-ramadan-palestinian-volunteers-launch-campaign-to-enable-travellers-to-break-their-fast-on-the-road/.

May 06, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Hamas Islamic militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip announced Saturday it had chosen its former Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh as the group’s new political chief.

Haniyeh succeeds Hamas’ longtime exiled leader Khaled Mashaal, and the move comes shortly after Gaza’s rulers unveiled a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation.

Hamas is trying to rebrand itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It has also dropped explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually “liberating” all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group hoped Haniyeh’s election “would see opening to the region.” Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, after securing an overwhelming victory in legislative elections the previous year and ending 40 years of political domination by its rival Fatah party. Hamas captured the coastal strip by violently overthrowing forces loyal to the Fatah movement, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, along with Egypt, has been enforcing a crippling border blockade against them since then. Though it has softened some of its rhetoric, Hamas’ new platform clung to the hard-line positions that led to its isolation. The group reaffirmed it will not recognize Israel, renounce violence or recognize previous interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals — the West’s long-standing conditions for dealing with Hamas.

In its founding charter, Hamas called for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, or the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which also includes Israel. It also included anti-Jewish references.

Over the years, Hamas has carried out shootings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel. Since 2008, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars. Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence, saying it undercuts Palestinian interests. Repeated reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian factions have failed. Hamas has sharply criticized Abbas’ political program, which rests on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Haniyeh’s selection marks the final phase of the secretive Hamas elections. In February, the group chose militant commander Yehiya Sinwar, one of its most hard-line figures, as its new Gaza chief in charge of the group’s core power base.

Haniyeh, 54, was born in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza. He was the private secretary of Hamas’ founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. In 2006, after Hamas won the legislative elections, Haniyeh was chosen by the movement to form its first government. He resigned as prime minister after Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government in 2014 — a government has never taken hold.

For the past four years he has served as Mashaal’s deputy. Haniyeh’s first task will be to cope with escalating tensions between Hamas and Fatah. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.

Gaza resident Rani Abu Samra said he hoped Haniyeh’s election could bridge gaps with Fatah and mark “a new beginning for a real reconciliation on the internal Palestinian level.” In Gaza, where Haniyeh still resides in his home in a refugee camp, some residents saw his election as a sign that could draw attention to the territory’s woes.

“If someone is from outside Gaza, he won’t talk about Gaza’s ordeals and worries properly,” said Ahmed Okasha, a Gaza vendor. Since quitting his longtime base in Damascus in 2012, Mashaal has mostly lived in lavish suites in the capital of the oil rich gulf state of Qatar.

May 14, 2017

SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — Ahmad Dawoud recalls the day 10 years ago when a Lebanese soldier asked to search his taxi. Then 17, the Palestinian didn’t wait for the soldier to find the weapons hidden in the trunk.

He jumped from the car and fled into the nearby Palestinian refugee camp, where the Lebanese army has no authority. But it was not long afterward that Dawoud, who once admired the radical groups that have sprouted in the camps in Lebanon, decided he was tired of running. That same year, in 2007, he surrendered to authorities and spent 14 hard months in jail.

Although he was released without a conviction, he couldn’t erase the biggest strike against him: As a Palestinian in Lebanon, he is a stateless, second-class resident in the only country where he’s ever lived.

On Monday, Palestinians mark 69 years since hundreds of thousands of them were forced from their homes during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. Many settled in the neighboring West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

As refugees, various U.N. charters entitle them and their descendants to the right to work and a dignified living until they can return to their homes or such settlement is reached. But Palestinians in Lebanon suffer discrimination in nearly every aspect of daily life, feeding a desperation that is tearing their community apart.

Many live in settlements officially recognized as refugee camps but better described as concrete ghettos ringed by checkpoints and, in some cases, blast walls and barbed wire. The U.N. runs schools and subsidizes health care inside.

In Lebanon, there are 450,000 refugees registered in 12 camps, where Lebanese authorities have no jurisdiction inside. “Our lot is less than zero,” Dawoud said in a recent interview outside Ein el-Hilweh, the crowded camp in Sidon that is one of the most volatile.

On peaceful days, children play in the damp alleys and merchants park their carts of produce along the camp’s main streets. But the place feels hopelessly divided along factional and militant lines, and it frequently breaks down into fighting between Palestinian security forces and militants or gangs that capitalize on the general despair.

Last month, 10 people were killed in a flare-up that drove out thousands of the camp’s estimated population of 75,000. Palestinians are prohibited from working in most professions, from medicine to transportation. Because of restrictions on ownership, what little property they have is bought under Lebanese names, leaving them vulnerable to embezzlement and expropriation.

They pay into Lebanon’s social security fund but receive no benefits. Medical costs are crippling. And they have little hope for remediation from the Lebanese courts. Doctors are prohibited from working in the Lebanese market, so they find work only in the camps or agree to work for Lebanese clinics off the books, and sign prescriptions under Lebanese doctors’ names. That leaves them open to employer abuse, a condition normally associated with low-skill work.

“If a young boy gets in trouble because he is Palestinian, the prosecutor writes in his note to the judge, ‘He is Palestinian,’ meaning: ‘Do what you wish to him. Be cruel to him. Forget about his rights,'” said Sheikh Mohammad Muwad, a Palestinian imam in Sidon.

The crush of war refugees from Syria has made it even harder for Palestinians here to find work. Nearly six in 10 under age 25 are unemployed, according to the U.N.’s Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, and two-thirds of all Palestinians here live below the poverty line.

UNRWA country director Claudio Cordone said they feel trapped in political limbo and see an “almost total lack of meaningful political prospects of a solution” to their original displacement from Palestine.

Lebanese politicians say that assimilating Palestinians into society would undermine their right to return. But Palestinians say they are not asking for assimilation or nationality, just civil rights.

“They starve us, so we go back to Palestine. They deprive us, so that we go back to Palestine. Well, go ahead, send us back to Palestine! Let us go to the border, and we will march back into Palestine, no matter how many martyrs we must give,” Muwad said.

For those in the camps, the line between hustling and criminality is often blurred. Unemployed and feeling abandoned by the authorities, many turn to gangs for work. Adding to this is a widely shared disaffection with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which many Palestinians now see as having sold out their rights with the failed Oslo Accords of 1994.

This has helped fuel the rise of radical Islam — a shift in the occupied Palestinian territories that is reflected by Hamas’ rising popularity, and one outside the territories in the meteoric trajectory of militant groups such as Fatah al-Islam in the volatile and deprived Nahr al-Bared camp.

Growing up in Nahr al-Bared, a camp much like Ein el-Hilweh, Dawoud felt a strong affiliation for Fatah al-Islam, his gateway to radical extremism. “They were the only ones who seemed honest,” he said. “Of course, later I figured out they were just like everyone else, too.”

In 2007, the Lebanese army razed most of Nahr al-Bared to crush Fatah al-Islam. By that time, Dawoud already was in Ein el-Hilweh, and his arrest was the beginning of a slow falling out with the gangs that once sheltered him and treated him like a brother. After his stint in prison, they began to feel they couldn’t trust him, and he was chased out of Ein el-Hilweh in 2013. Now, he can only enter the parts of the settlement firmly under PLO control.

With no job, no prospects and little wealth, Dawoud now runs errands for others in his white 1980s-era BMW — all done under the table, of course. Palestinians cannot apply for the red license plates that identify taxis and other commercial vehicles.

“I don’t even think about marrying and getting into those situations,” he said, waving off starting a family at age 27. His ambition now is to apply for a visa to leave Lebanon. But first he needs a travel document, and for that he needs to be on good terms with the Lebanese authorities.

Not all Palestinians live in camps, but even the most privileged among them endure discrimination. At a panel on Palestinian labor rights at the American University of Beirut, Muhammad Hussein asked a Lebanese Labor Ministry official why he was denied work even in sectors that are formally open to Palestinian employment.

The 22-year-old graduate showed the official an email he received from a marketing firm in Dubai refusing his job application on the grounds that the Lebanese office had to give priority to Lebanese workers.

“The problem isn’t finding vacancies,” Hussein said. “It’s getting the job.”