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  1. Two US F-22 Raptor aircraft are seen flying in this Reuters FILE. WASHINGTON: Two US F-22 fighter aircraft fired warning flares on Wednesday after two Russian Su-25 jets entered an agreed upon deconfliction area in airspace east of the Euphrates river in Syria, the US military said. Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the F-22 aircraft were providing air cover to partnered ground forces when the Russian jets came into airspace near Albu Kamal. The incident lasted for about 40 minutes and coalition officials contacted the Russians through a communication link to avoid a miscalculation. At one point, Pahon said, a Russian jet came close enough that one of the F-22 aircraft had to ?aggressively maneuver to avoid a midair collision.? US officials have said that as the battlefield against Daesh (Islamic State) shrinks, they expect Russian and US aircraft to be in closer proximity. Since early November, Russian jets have flown east of the Euphrates river in the deconflicted airspace about six to eight times a day, according to the US military. ?It?s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots? actions are deliberate or if these are just honest mistakes,? Pahon said. ?The Coalition?s greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces,? he added. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the US military will fight Daesh in Syria ?as long as they want to fight,? describing a longer-term role for US troops after the insurgents lose all of the territory they control.
  2. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on Monday for the last leg of a day-long diplomatic dash, during which he ordered the partial withdrawal of Russia?s troops from the war-torn country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Putin at his presidential complex in Ankara for a closed-door meeting. This is the eighth face-to-face meeting between Putin and Erdogan this year, a sign of the intensity of a relationship that had hit rock bottom in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria. Putin was welcomed earlier in the day at Russia?s Hmeimim airbase by Syria?s President Bashar al-Assad on a surprise first visit to the country. In a televised speech to Russian troops, Putin said he had ordered his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to start a partial withdrawal. "I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia," he said at the base in Latakia Province, a government stronghold. Russia first intervened in the conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of Assad, which targeted both Daesh and other extremists as well as rebels fighting government troops. Putin said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the "most battle-ready group of international terrorists," apparently referring to Daesh. "On the whole, the task has been completed. And completed brilliantly." ?Our homeland thanks you? Putin said last month that efforts to end the war were entering a "new stage" as the focus shifted from military intervention to political reforms. He said both Hmeimim and Russia?s naval facility in Tartus would continue to function and warned that Russia would repel any new attacks by militants. Putin made the Syria stopover, the first by a Russian head of state since president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010, en route to Egypt, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Ankara?s prime foes in recent years. Putin thanked the troops for defending Russia from terrorism and helping Syria remain a "sovereign independent state". He said the conflict proved that Russia?s armed forces, including intelligence officers, pilots, sailors, special forces, military police, sappers and military advisers, were on top form, and he also praised the country?s defence industry. "Our homeland thanks you, my friends," he said. ?Deep gratitude? Putin also held talks with Assad, who expressed his "deep gratitude" for Russia?s role in the conflict. "The Syrians will never forget what the Russian forces did," official Syria media quoted him as saying. Putin said he would discuss Russia?s efforts to convene Syria?s political congress with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey, and then brief Assad. While Turkey has backed the anti-regime opposition and Russia along with Iran is the main international supporter of Damascus, Putin and Erdogan have worked closely to resolve the Syrian conflict in recent months. Ankara officially remains opposed to Assad staying in power in any transition but has notably toned down its rhetoric against the Syrian leader in recent months. After talks, Erdogan said the next step to help resolve the Syrian conflict would be to hold a second summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi "as soon as possible". Last month Putin held a summit with Iran?s President Hassan Rouhani and Erdogan in the city to discuss Syria. Putin said at the beginning of 2018 that a congress of national dialogue should be held to seek a political solution for Syria, adding that he spoke to Assad about it. Pentagon scepticism Last week Putin announced he would be standing in the March presidential election that he is widely expected to win, and his lightning visit to Syria was likely to play well with Russian voters. The commander of Russia?s forces in Syria, Sergei Surovikin, said 23 Russian planes, two helicopters and military police would be returning to Russia soon, national television reported. Asked how long the process of bringing back the contingent from Syria would take, Shoigu said: "They have already started coming back, we will see how it goes," Russian news agencies reported. The Pentagon voiced scepticism about Putin?s announcement, saying such declarations were not necessarily reflected by action. The size of the Russian deployment in Syria is not known, but Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military expert, has told AFP that up to 10,000 troops and private contractors may have taken part in the conflict. Putin had ruled out dispatching ground forces in Syria, making the air force the mainstay of Moscow?s Syria campaign. Around 40 Russian servicemen have reportedly been killed in Syria since Moscow?s intervention. The Kremlin has acknowledged some of those deaths. But the losses may be higher given the number of Russian troops and mercenaries believed to be in the country, observers say. More than 340,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad?s rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.
  3. MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Russia would keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria?s Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartous ?on a permanent basis? despite a decision to start pulling some of its forces out of Syria. Putin on Monday ordered Russian forces in Syria to start withdrawing, saying that after a two-year military campaign, Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying Islamic State.
  4. MOSCOW: Russia's defence ministry on Thursday said its mission to oust Daesh militants from Syria had been "accomplished" with the country "completely liberated" from the extremist group. "The Russian armed forces' goal to defeat armed groups of the ISIL terrorist organisation in Syria has been accomplished," said senior military officer Sergei Rudskoi, using an alternative acronym for the group. "There is not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL. The territory of Syria has been completely liberated from fighters of this terrorist organisation," he told reporters. There has been an "unprecedented" involvement by Russia's airforce in recent days, he said, with warplanes making 100 sorties and staging up to 250 strikes daily. At the same time, special forces were active on the ground directing planes and "destroying the most odious leaders of militant groups behind enemy lines," he said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said Thursday that Daesh still holds about eight percent of Deir Ezzor province. Rudskoi said "separate sabotage bands of ISIL" could still be operating but would be fought by Syrian government troops, indicating that Russia's involvement would be scaled down. "With the liquidation of armed bands of the ISIL terrorist group in Syria, the Russian contingent will concentrate its main efforts on providing aid to the Syrian people in rebuilding peace" and ensuring ceasefire commitments were met, he said. Russia began its bombing raids in September 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's beleaguered forces. Those strikes have helped Assad regain control over much of war-ravaged Syria. Last month, President Vladimir Putin said efforts to end the war were entering a "new stage" as the focus shifts from military intervention to political reform. More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad´s rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.
  5. United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference after meetings during the Intra Syria talks in Geneva, Switzerland November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse GENEVA: The United Nations said on Thursday that it was extending a round of Syria talks in Geneva until December 15 aimed at shaping a political solution to end the war, but that the presidency had not yet been discussed. UN mediator Staffan de Mistura said that the talks would focus in particular on a new constitution and UN-supervised parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as on 12 core principles that he declined to enumerate. ?We have not discussed the issue of the presidency. We have been discussing the 12 principles. You will see they are of a broad nature but they have an impact on everything in the future constitution,? he told a news conference. ?These are essential because they do refer to what could be a shared vision of the kind of Syria that the Syrians want to live in,? he said. Syria?s opposition has always said that President Bashar al-Assad must step down, but his negotiators have refused to discuss the issue, and his recent successes on the battlefield have strengthened his hand. ?I want to believe that that issue should come up from the Syrians through UN-supervised elections,? de Mistura said. With more than two weeks ahead, the round was effectively just beginning, he said, noting that the government negotiators had arrived late and might take a few days out to ?consult and refresh? in Damascus before returning to Geneva around Tuesday. On Thursday he began shuttling between the two sides, installed in separate rooms off the same corridor, but he said having a contact in-person was less important than meeting on the substance, and the atmosphere was ?professional and serious? on both sides. He said the talks had solid diplomatic backing, with recent support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump, and Assad, as well as a telephone call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the start of the round. The defeat of Daesh in its main strongholds in Syria had also produced ?a moment of truth?. ?All this takes place against quite a backdrop. It?s just not a normal round of talks,? de Mistura said. ?Have you seen how people are talking to each other, how those who were involved in the conflict for the first time are taking positions that are in the direction of a political dialogue?? And for the first time in eight rounds of Syria talks presided over by de Mistura, the opposition is represented by a unified negotiating team, raising the possibility of direct talks between the two sides.
  6. WASHINGTON: Over 400 US Marines involved in battling Daesh in Syria are being withdrawn as part of a cut in forces after the capture of militant "capital" Raqqa, the US-led coalition said Thursday. The Marines had deployed to Syria in March and used 155mm howitzers to support local forces as they fought to retake Raqqa. "With the city liberated and ISIS on the run, the unit has been ordered home. Its replacements have been called off," the coalition said in a statement. The coalition's director of operations Brigadier General Jonathan Braga called the move "a real sign of progress" as the militants have seen the vast swathes of ground they seized across Syria and Iraq in 2014 reduced to just a few remaining pockets. "We're drawing down combat forces where it makes sense, but still continuing our efforts to help Syrian and Iraqi partners maintain security," Braga said in the statement. A recent report from the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center said that as of September 30, the US military had 1,720 troops in Syria and 8,892 in Iraq. Those numbers were far above the officially released figure of 503 in Syria and 5,262 in Iraq, and even after the announcement of the Marine withdrawal, that supposed 503 figure hadn´t budged. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), retook Raqqa from the militants in October after a brutal onslaught supported by artillery and air power from the US-led coalition. The international group - which began targeting the militants in 2014 - is still supporting the militia in an operation in neighboring Deir Ezzor province. The Syrian government backed by Russian firepower is currently conducting a separate offensive in the same region. As operations change from taking back territory to more of a counter-insurgency, the need for equipment like heavy artillery has diminished, Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said. Now the goal is more to "train local security forces to defend their territory," he said. 'Adjustments to military support' Since Raqqa's capture, coalition strikes have dropped off drastically and, under pressure from Turkey, Washington has promised "adjustments to the military support" for the SDF. Kurdish officials have, however, insisted that cooperation will continue between the two sides, while the US has said coalition forces do not expect to end their mission until a peace deal is negotiated in Syria. In a separate statement released Thursday the coalition said that 801 civilians had been killed unintentionally in the more than 28,000 air strikes it has conducted and that it is still probing 695 reported incidents. Monitoring group Airwars insists that number is well below the true civilian toll of the bombing campaign, estimating that almost 6,000 innocent lives have been lost. As the "caliphate" the militants declared now looks set to be wiped off the map, there are major questions over what comes next in Syria's complex war that has claimed over 340,000 lives since 2011. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - and his main backers Iran and Russia - now have clear military superiority in the country and international players led by Moscow are making their most concerted push to halt hostilities. But any progress towards an overall political settlement remains fraught with obstacles and UN-backed talks involving the regime and opposition currently taking place in Geneva have been clouded by major disagreements.
  7. AMMAN: Around 1,000 Syrians who sought refuge in Jordan have been returning home each month since July when a ceasefire in southern Syria took force, the UN said Monday. The ceasefire brokered by Jordan, Russia and the United States for the southern Syrian provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Suweida has largely held since it came into force on July 9. Since then "the number of Syrians returning to the country voluntarily has increased", Mohammed al-Hiwari, spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Amman, told AFP. "Today that number has risen to around 1,000 (returnee) per month on average," Hiwari added. Jordan shares a border of more than 370 kilometres with Syria, where upwards of 340,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since its conflict broke out in 2011. The United Nations says Jordan is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, but authorities in the kingdom put their actual number at 1.3 million. Hosting the refugees has placed a heavy burden on Jordan, a country lacking natural resources. According to Hiwari, the number of refugees who returned voluntarily to Syria rose to 1,203 in August and 1,078 in September. In the six months before the ceasefire, a total of only 1,700 Syrian refugees returned to their home country, he said. Hiwari stressed that the UNHCR "does not encourage the return to zones in Syria that are deemed unsafe". The ceasefire brokered in the three southern Syrian provinces is part of a broader Russian-backed plan to create four "de-escalation zones" in rebel-held parts of the country. Russia and Iran, main allies of the Syrian government, and rebel-backer Turkey agreed in May to create the four zones in a deal aimed at bringing about a lasting truce.
  8. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with his counterparts, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017. Photo: Reuters LONDON: The trilateral meeting between Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Russian resort of Sochi this week was ?a right step, at the right time? for the future of Syria, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in a phone call. ?Iran will stand by the Syrian people and the Syrian government in the fight against terrorism. Tehran is ready to have an active role in the reconstruction of Syria,? Rouhani was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB on Saturday.
  9. Saudi Minister of the Arabic Gulf affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir and UN special envoy for Syria crisis Staffan de Mistura pose for a group picture during the Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh. -AFP RIYADH: Syrian opposition figures met in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a bid to form an overhauled delegation to peace talks that analysts say may be more willing to compromise on key demands. The meeting comes as Iran, Russia and Turkey hold a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, pressing their diplomatic dash to resolve Syria's six-year conflict with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks set to open in Geneva next Tuesday. The Riyadh meeting is co-chaired by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who said the aim was to reach a "fair solution" to the conflict. De Mistura said the goal was to give momentum to next week's talks in Geneva by forging a unified opposition delegation, as long demanded by the Syrian government. He said he would travel to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian officials. "I'm always optimistic... especially in this moment," he said. The 140 or so delegates from a wide range of opposition platforms are under heavy pressure to row back on some of their more radical demands after a series of recent battlefield victories that gave President Bashar al-Assad's regime the upper hand. Absent are several former leading figures who were seen as unwilling to compromise. Among them is Riad Hijab, who stepped down as head of the opposition High Negotiations Committee ahead of the meeting complaining that there were "attempts to lower the ceiling of the revolution and prolong the regime." Multiple rounds of talks hosted by the UN have failed to bring an end to the war in Syria, which has killed more than 330,000 people and forced millions from their homes. Factions opposed to Assad have been plagued by divisions throughout the maelstrom. Participants in the Riyadh meeting include members of the Istanbul-based National Coalition as well as of rival Cairo- and Moscow-based groups seen as more favourable to the regime, and independent figures. Qadri Jamil, who heads the Moscow-based group, on Wednesday announced he would not be attending the talks, citing what he said was the Syrian opposition's inability to agree on "the bases and principles" of their stance at the Saudi summit. The National Coalition meanwhile said Jamil had pulled out after "disagreement over an article on Bashar al-Assad stepping down with the start of a transitional phase" in Syria. Forming 'the right opposition' Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected that the withdrawal of Hijab and other hardliners in recent days would "help the Syria-based and foreign-based opposition unite on a constructive basis." Observers said it could clear the way for a new negotiating team that would water down some of the opposition´s longstanding demands, notably Assad's immediate ouster. His fate has been one of the chief obstacles to progress in peace talks, with the opposition demanding he step down at the start of any transition. "Riyadh is going to come out with a group, an agreement, on the opposition´s proposal for the constitution and for parliamentary elections," said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute think-tank. "Gone is any kind of emphasis on political transition or on Assad." The outcome of the Riyadh meeting would be "the right opposition that will agree to sign off on the deal that´s going to be negotiated," she said. Ahead of the meeting, dozens of prominent civilian and armed opposition figures appealed to participants not to compromise on the "ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his gang". "No one should back down or quietly circumvent" it, they said in an online statement. HNC member Yehya al-Aridi acknowledged some participants, notably the Moscow platform, were more flexible on the president´s future. But they "do not represent the choices of the revolution or the Syrian people," Aridi told AFP. And Hisham Marwah, another National Coalition member, said his group's "positions toward Assad have not changed". "Whoever is betting on the Riyadh conference to legitimise the presence of Assad is delusional," Marwah told AFP.
  10. Russia´s President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad meet with Russia´s top military officers in Sochi. :AFP SOCHI: President Vladimir Putin said the Russian army had "saved Syria as a state" after meeting with leader Bashar al-Assad, as the Syrian government forces take an upper hand over militants and Daesh. Monday's talks came during an announced "working visit" by Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, ahead of a summit between Putin and the leaders of Turkey and Iran on Wednesday aimed at re-booting the Syrian peace process. "As for our joint work in the fight against terrorism in Syria, this military operation is coming to an end," Putin said, according to a transcript published on the Kremlin´s website. The Russian leader praised Assad and predicted terrorism would suffer an "inevitable" defeat in the country. "Thanks to the Russian army, Syria has been saved as a state. Much has been done to stabilise the situation in Syria," the transcript said. "It is in our interest to advance the political process... we don´t want to look back and we are ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement," Assad said in translated comments. Putin said he would consult world leaders on his talks with Assad, including with US president Donald Trump in a telephone call expected on Tuesday. The Russian army's Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, told Russian news agencies that "despite the fact that there remains a raft of unresolved problems" the military stage "is coming to its logical conclusion". Putin will Wednesday host Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Hassan Rouhani for the first in a series of summits on the peace process, ahead of parallel UN-led talks in Geneva set for November 28. The meeting - the first such three-way summit between the trio - comes as Ankara, Moscow and Tehran cooperate with increasing intensity on ending the over six-year civil war in Syria that has left 330,000 dead and millions homeless. The cooperation comes despite Turkey still officially being on an opposite side of the Syria conflict from Russia and Iran, which are key Assad backers. "Assad's visit...shows that there was a need to relay the Syrian leadership's position on a future settlement to the Kremlin, and that (Assad) was interested in the forthcoming summit with the presidents of Iran and Turkey," said Russian political analyst Azhdar Kurtov. "It is unlikely this was just another demonstration of the Kremlin´s political loyalty to Assad," he told AFP. "The open-war phase in the Syria conflict will soon be over and the question of a political solution will become more pressing than before." Russia, Iran and Turkey have backed negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana that have brought together the representatives of the opposition and the regime seven times this year. 'Relaunch direct negotiations' The talks led to the creation of four so-called "de-escalation zones" that produced a drop in violence, but sporadic fighting and bombardment has continued. Moscow is now seeking to steer the process in a political direction. The Sochi summit will help to "relaunch direct negotiations between the Syrian government and the range of the opposition", said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moscow's military intervention in Syria from 2015 is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict. Since then the Syrian army has reclaimed the ancient city of Palmyra from Daesh and driven militants out of their northern bastion Aleppo. This week regime forces also ousted the Daesh from its last urban stronghold in the country, Albu Kamal. Assad's fate Previous attempts to end the war have stalled over the question of the fate of Assad. But Turkey is showing greater flexibility, even if it remains unlikely that it will officially accept the prospect of the Syrian president remaining in power, said Timur Akhmetov, a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. "For now, to keep a say in the future political negotiations is more important for Turkey than to have Assad departed from power," he told AFP. Different factions of the Syrian opposition will meet from Wednesday in Riyadh in talks hosted by Saudi Arabia. The aim of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee is to reach consensus on a strategy for talks in Geneva, which will focus on a new constitution for Syria and fresh elections.
  11. A civil defence member wears an oxygen mask following a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/Files UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council will vote Friday on a last-ditch bid to salvage a UN-led investigation tasked with identifying those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria, diplomats said. The council will vote at 6:15 PM (2315 GMT) on a Japanese draft resolution that would extend the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) for 30 days, to allow time for negotiations on a compromise.
  12. United Nations headquarters in New York. Photo: File NEW YORK: The UN Security Council was expected to vote, probably on Friday, on a 30-day extension of a UN-led investigation of chemical weapons attacks in Syria to allow for negotiations after Russia vetoed a renewal of the probe. Japan on Thursday presented a draft resolution that would give the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) another 30 days as the United States and Russia work to reach a compromise on the future of the panel. Russia earlier cast its 10th veto on Syria at the council, blocking the one-year extension of the JIM as proposed in a US-drafted resolution that won 11 votes. A Russian-drafted resolution fell short of the nine votes required for adoption, garnering just four votes in favour. The joint UN-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) panel was set up by Russia and the United States in 2015 and unanimously endorsed by the council, which renewed its mandate last year. The expert team is tasked with determining who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia has sharply criticised the JIM after its latest report blamed the Syrian air force for a sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun that left scores dead. The attack on April 4 triggered global outrage as images of dying children were shown worldwide, prompting the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian airbase a few days later. Syria has denied using chemical weapons, with strong backing from its main ally Russia. US Ambassador Nikki Haley assailed the veto as a "deep blow", saying: "Russia has killed the investigative mechanism which has overwhelming support of this council." "By eliminating our ability to identify the attackers, Russia has undermined our ability to deter future attacks." The Japanese move, however, revived hope that the JIM could be salvaged. The draft text obtained by AFP would renew the JIM mandate for 30 days and task UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with submitting to the council in 20 days "proposals for the structure and methodology" of the panel. Japan had requested a vote for Thursday, but diplomats said it was more likely that the council would consider the measure on Friday. A resolution requires nine votes to be adopted at the council, but five countries ? Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States ? can block adoption with their veto power. United Nations Security Council. Photo: File Flawed probe Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the investigation of the Khan Sheikhun attack suffered from "fundamental flaws" and that the US-drafted resolution was "geared toward entrenching the inherent flaws of the JIM." In its draft, Russia had insisted the panel's findings on Khan Sheikhun be put aside to allow for another "full-scale and high-quality investigation" by the JIM. The Russian veto came as the United Nations was preparing to convene in Geneva on November 28 a new round of talks to end the six-year war and underscored deep divisions over Syria. Eleven of the council's 15 members voted in favor of the US-drafted resolution, while Egypt and China abstained. Bolivia joined Russia in voting against the measure. Russia, China, Bolivia and Kazakhstan voted in favour of the Russian draft, while seven countries opposed it. Four countries abstained: Ethiopia, Senegal, Egypt and Japan. French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the Russian veto was a blow to international efforts to curb the use of chemical weapons. "Let there be no doubt: we have unleashed a monster here," said Delattre. Previous reports by the JIM have found that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that the Islamic State group used mustard gas in 2015.
  13. A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/Files UNITED NATIONS: US President Donald Trump on Thursday urged the UN Security Council (UNSC) to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria ahead of planned votes on rival US and Russia resolutions that could spark Moscow?s 10th veto on Syria action. Trump said on Twitter that the joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which decided who is to blame, was needed to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons. The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), found the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent sarin in an April 4 attack. If the Security Council cannot agree on a renewal, its mandate will expire at midnight Thursday. ?Need all on the UN Security Council to vote to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria to ensure that Assad Regime does not commit mass murder with chemical weapons ever again,? Trump said in a note on Twitter. A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted. While Russia agreed to the 2015 creation of the JIM, it has consistently questioned its findings, which also concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine as a weapon several times. Diplomats say there is little support among the 15-member council for the Russian draft, which Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has said aims to correct ?systemic errors? of the inquiry, Diplomats said the United States had amended its draft in a bid to win Russian support. Russia has vetoed nine resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011, including blocking an initial US bid on October 24 to renew the JIM, saying it wanted to wait for the release two days later of the inquiry?s report that blamed a sarin gas attack on the Syrian government. Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
  14. Russian President Vladimir Putin will next week host Turkish and Iranian counterparts Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani for summit talks on Syria. Photo: AFP file ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin will next week host Turkish and Iranian counterparts Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani for summit talks on Syria, officials from Turkey and Russia said Thursday. With the violence in Syria diminishing but still no political solution in sight, the three presidents will meet at Putin?s official residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 22. The meeting ?the first such three-way summit between the trio ?comes as Ankara, Moscow and Tehran cooperate with increasing intensity on ending the more than six-year civil war in Syria. They are sponsoring peace talks in Kazakh capital Astana and also implementing a plan for de-escalation zones in key flashpoint areas of Syria. Turkey?s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that the three leaders would discuss progress in reducing the violence in Syria and ensuring humanitarian aid goes to those in need. Describing Iran, Russia and Turkey as the three ?guarantor? countries, he said the talks would look at what they could do for a lasting political solution in Syria. Confirming the summit, Putin?s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was just these three countries who were the ?guarantors of the process of political settlement and stability and security that we see now in Syria?. There was no immediate comment from Tehran. ?Six meetings in one year? The cooperation comes despite Turkey still officially being on an opposite side of the Syria conflict from Russia and Iran. Russia, along with Iran, is the key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow?s military intervention inside Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict. Turkey, however, has backed the rebels seeking Assad?s ouster in a conflict that has left more than 330,000 dead. But Russia and Turkey have been working together since a 2016 reconciliation deal ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane over Syria. In recent months, Turkey has markedly toned down its criticism of the Assad regime and focused on opposing Syrian Kurdish militia seen by Ankara as a terror group. According to the Anadolu news agency, Putin and Erdogan have already met five times this year and spoken by telephone 13 times. Erdogan last met Putin for talks in Sochi only days ago on November 13, agreeing on the need to boost elements for a lasting settlement. Turkey earlier this month said Russia had decided to postpone a planned Syria peace conference with all parties after Ankara objected to the potential inclusion of Kurdish forces. Moscow denied this was the case, saying a date for the conference had never been set. Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the date for the ?Congress of Syrian National Dialogue? had still yet to be fixed.
  15. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Summit, Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/Files ISTANBUL: Turkey and Russia have agreed to focus on a political solution in Syria, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday. Erdogan said he was glad Turkey had started to send agricultural goods to Russia but wanted the last restrictions on bilateral trade lifted. He was speaking after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
  16. ir strikes on a market killed at least 53 people, including children, in a town in northern Syria on Monday despite a "de-escalation zone" in place there, a monitor said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was not immediately clear whether the strikes on rebel-held Atareb had been carried out by Syrian warplanes, or those of Damascus´s ally Russia. The monitor said three strikes hit the town´s market, adding that five children were among the dead, as well as three policemen. A photographer contributing to AFP saw massive destruction at the scene, with rubble from damaged buildings covering the street and panicked civilians carrying away the injured. Three men helped one of those hit in the attack, his face drenched in blood and his features almost completely obscured. Nearby, the body of a man in a blue shirt and dark trousers lay where he had died. Civil defence workers rushed alongside civilians to evacuate the injured, with one man in a thick beanie hat carrying a wailing child in a pink sweater away from the scene. Elsewhere, the bodies of at least three children were laid out on the ground, partly covered by thick bolts of fabric. Atareb is in the west of Aleppo province, in an area that is part of a "de-escalation zone" agreed under a deal earlier this year between Syria´s allies Russia and Iran, and rebel backer Turkey. The zone mostly covers neighbouring Idlib province, which is largely held by opposition forces and a militant group formerly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Despite the government´s recapture of Aleppo city late last year, rebel groups maintain a presence in the west of the province. Russia, a key ally of Syria´s President Bashar al-Assad, began a bombing campaign in support of his government in 2015. Since then, with Moscow´s support the government has recaptured large swathes of territory from opposition forces. Moscow has steered the so-called Astana process that in May led to a deal to create four so-called "de-escalation zones" across Syria. The zones have produced a drop in violence, but sporadic fighting and bombardment has continued, and promised humanitarian access has not materialised. More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
  17. US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) as they pose for a group photo ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit leaders gala dinner in the central Vietnamese city of Danang, November 10, 2017. AFP/Vietnam News Agency/STR DANANG: The United States and Russia issued a presidential joint statement saying there was "no military solution" to the war in Syria after their leaders met briefly on the sidelines of a regional summit in Vietnam. There had been mixed messages for days from both Moscow and the White House on whether President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would hold face-to-face discussions during the APEC summit in Danang. The statement, issued by officials from both sides, said the two presidents had made progress on Syria, which has been battered by six years of civil war. The US and Russia have backed competing factions in the bloody conflict, and agreement on the next steps towards peace is rare. "The presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria," the statement said, adding that the two sides "confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS" ? an alternative name for Daesh group. The statement added that the two sides had agreed to keep military channels open to avoid potential clashes over Syria and urged the warring sides to participate in UN-led peace talks in Geneva. Russia has run a major bombing campaign in Syria since 2015, when it stepped in to support President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels ? some of them US-backed ? tipping the conflict in his favour. The Russian military has recently accused the United States of merely "pretending" to fight Daesh in Iraq and of hindering the Russian-backed offensive in eastern Syria. But Saturday's joint statement expressed satisfaction with efforts to prevent incidents between their respective forces in Syria. "The Presidents affirmed their commitment to Syria's sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character," it said. According to senior State Department officials, the statement was the result of "months of fairly intense discussions" and was finalised on the margins of the APEC summit between diplomats. It represents Russia's firm committment to the UN backed peace process, one of the officials said. "We made very clear that there will not be any reconstruction aid in Syria until there is a meaningful political process moving along the timeline," he said. "I cannot speak to the Russians, but I think it might be one of the reasons why they clearly committed to the fact that the ultimate resolution to the civil war will be under the Geneva process," he added. A new round of talks is scheduled to be held in Geneva from November 28, the UN special envoy for Syria announced Thursday. There have been seven previous sessions between the Syrian regime and the opposition, which failed to overcome the main obstacle ? the fate of President Assad. Haunted relationship Trump's relationship with Moscow has haunted the first year of his presidency, with key former aides under a US investigation for alleged collaboration with the Kremlin. Putin and Trump last held face-to-face talks at a G20 summit earlier in the year, and there was intense speculation over whether they would so do again in Danang. After the pair met on the sidelines of the APEC summit, Trump said he believes Putin was sincere when he denied meddling in the US election that propelled Trump to power, adding that the Russian leader felt "very insulted" by the allegations. Overly amicable talks between Trump and Putin in Vietnam risked being an awkward sell for the White House, as it vigorously denies any undue links with the Kremlin.
  18. BEIRUT: The Daesh group fully recaptured the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal on Saturday, a monitor said, after a tough fightback for its last urban bastion against pro-regime forces. "Daesh fully recaptured Albu Kamal, and regime forces and allied militia are now between one to two kilometres from the city limits," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The recapture came after ambushes, car bombs and bomb attacks," said Abdel Rahman. Albu Kamal lies on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq and had been the last significant urban centre under Daesh control in Syria. After weeks of advancing on the town, regime forces and allied militia overran it on Thursday but have since faced a string of Daesh counter-attacks. The Britain-based Observatory had earlier reported that Daesh had recaptured most of Albu Kamal, pushing pro-regime forces to its southern and eastern edges. "It was Daesh´s biggest ambush operation, tricking the attacking forces into thinking they had controlled the city," Abdel Rahman said, using the Arabic acronym for Daesh. Albu Kamal lies at the heart of what used to be the sprawling "caliphate" that Daesh declared in 2014 across swathes of Iraq and Syria. Losing it completely would have capped the group´s reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.
  19. DANANG: Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in a joint statement on Syria on Saturday that said they saw no military solution to the conflict and a political one was needed, the Kremlin said. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the Kremlin announcement or the conversation the Kremlin said took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Vietnamese resort of Danang. The Kremlin said the statement on Syria was coordinated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson especially for the meeting in Danang. With Daesh having suffered losses in Syria and beyond, greater attention is turning to the broader conflict between President Bashar al-Assad?s forces and rebel factions. Putin and Trump had agreed to continue joint efforts to fight Daesh, the Kremlin statement said. They confirmed their commitment to Syria?s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and called on all parties to the Syrian conflict to take an active part in the Geneva political process, it said. Moscow and Washington agree there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, according to the text of the joint statement published on the Kremlin?s website. It said the leaders ?had a conversation before the group photo ceremony for the APEC Economic Leaders.? Television pictures from Danang showed Putin and Trump chatting - apparently amicably - as they walked to the position where the traditional APEC summit photo was being taken at a viewpoint looking over the South China Sea. Earlier pictures from the meeting show Trump walking up to Putin as he sits at the summit table and patting him on the back. The two lean in to speak to each other and clasp each other briefly as they exchange a few words. Although the White House had said no official meeting was planned, it also said it was possible they would bump into each other. Trump?s entourage made no comment before he left Danang for Vietnam?s capital Hanoi, the next step on his 12-day tour of Asia. Trump has shown little appetite for holding talks with Putin unless there is some sense that progress could be made on festering issues such as Syria, Ukraine and North Korea. After emphasizing last year on the campaign trail that it would be nice if the United States and Russia could work together on world problems, Trump has had limited contact with Putin since taking office. Trump publicly sitting down with Putin also revives the issue of Russian meddling in last year?s U.S. presidential election, which remains under investigation. Trump?s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted in the probe along with his former deputy, Rick Gates.
  20. DAMASCUS: Syrian troops and allied militiamen on Thursday expelled Daesh fighters from Albu Kamal, the last significant town the militants still held in their disintegrating "caliphate". The militants' latest rout left them with only the dregs of a self-styled "state" that once spanned huge territory in Iraq and Syria, with surviving Daesh fighters melting away into desert hideouts. Anti-Daesh forces stormed into the town just across the border from Iraq on Wednesday and while fighting was initially reported as fierce, the outcome of one of Daesh's last major battles was never in doubt. "Our armed forces units, in cooperation with allied and auxiliary forces, have liberated the town of Albu Kamal in Deir Ezzor province," a statement carried by the official SANA news agency said. "Albu Kamal's liberation is very important because it means the failure of the IS terrorist group in the region," the army statement said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said much of the fighting had been done by allied militias rather than the regular army. The capture of Albu Kamal was the last in a string of setbacks that saw Daesh lose its urban bastions of Mosul and Raqqa within a few weeks and its embryonic state shrink to a rump. Leading the battle for the town were Hezbollah fighters and advisers, as well as fighters from militias, according to Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman. He said that even as Daesh still controlled half of the town and fighting raged earlier Thursday, the militants retained one escape route to the north. Abdel Rahman confirmed that Albu Kamal had been fully retaken but said that "IS withdrew to desert areas in eastern Deir Ezzor" province, where they are likely to encounter US-backed Kurdish-led fighters. Thousands displaced The militants' flight from the town, where Daesh leaders used to meet and were once considered untouchable, caps a process which has seen the group relinquish any ambition as a land-holding force and return to the desert to fight a clandestine guerrilla war. Many of the group's top leaders have been killed as Syrian and Iraqi forces with backing from Russia, Iran and a US-led coalition rolled back the territorial losses that saw the militants declare a "caliphate" roughly the size of Britain in 2014. But the whereabouts of the first among them, self-proclaimed "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains unclear. He has been reported killed or wounded many times but Daesh has never offered ay confirmation. The capture of the group's last urban stronghold had always looked to be a matter of days after Syrian forces last week retook provincial capital Deir Ezzor and Iraqi forces reconquered Albu Kamal's twin town of Al-Qaim just over the border. There was little to slow the advance of the Syrian and its allies after their victories further up the Euphrates valley, but while the military phase of the fight against Daesh was nearing its end, the humanitarian crisis it sparked was still in full swing. "In the last few weeks, an estimated 120,000 people were displaced from Albu Kamal," the United Nations' humanitarian affairs office in Damascus said. Daesh still has a small presence in the east of Homs province, in the southern outskirts of Damascus and in the southern province of Daraa. It also holds the small Iraqi town of Rawa down the Euphrates valley from Al-Qaim. A rival militant alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls much of the northwestern province of Idlib and adjacent areas as well as pockets of territory elsewhere. It has come under attack by Russian-backed government forces and by Turkish-backed rebels.
  21. Visitors look at a sphere displayed at a pavilion in the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, November 8, 2017. AFP/Patrik Stollarz PARIS: Despite signing up to the Paris climate accord Syria has not been invited to a summit on the pact in the French capital in December, the French foreign ministry said Wednesday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joins US President Donald Trump in being omitted from the list of around 100 leaders invited to Paris to strengthen the historic pact to curb global warming, clinched in 2013. At UN climate talks in Bonn on Tuesday, Syria announced it would join the Paris Agreement, leaving the US as the only nation to say it will remain outside the landmark treaty. Syrian government sources told AFP Wednesday that Assad had already promulgated a bill ratifying the agreement adopted by parliament last month. Despite the announcement, the French foreign ministry said Syria was not invited to the Paris gathering. "The December 12 summit aims to bring together key players in the world of climate and finance. Syria has not been invited," the ministry said in a terse statement. War-torn Syria is the 197th country to sign up to the deal on limiting carbon emissions. The move leaves the US, which caused an international outcry in June when Trump announced plans to pull out of the pact, the world's sole hold-out. The US State Department has attempted to downplay the isolation, saying if the Syrian government really cared about air quality "it wouldn't be gassing its own people" ? a reference to a raft of chemical attacks mostly blamed on government forces. The US has been invited to send representatives to the Paris summit. But the French, who are still smarting at Trump's decision to pull out, have not yet invited the president himself. Explaining the omission President Emmanuel Macron's office said the leaders invited were from "those countries that are committed to implementing the deal".
  22. The picture shows destruction inside a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib, Syria, in what was allegedly a sarin gas attack, April 4, 2017. AFP/Omar Haj Kadour/Files PARIS: A presumed chemical attack which just preceded another that killed dozens in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun last April bears the hallmarks of the Damascus regime, Western governments said Wednesday. UN investigators said last month they had evidence that Damascus was behind the Khan Sheikhun attack ? something Syria's ally Russia rejects ? as well as a similar atrocity in the area five days earlier. And a joint statement Wednesday by Boris Johnson, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and Sigmar Gabriel, foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson found an earlier attack on the town of Al Lataminah "bears the hallmarks of the Syrian regime". Their statement followed last month's finding ? by the UN-led collaboration between Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism ? that Damascus was behind the Khan Sheikhun attack. Wednesday's statement underlined the signatory nations' "full trust" in the investigators' "professionalism and independence". It noted the OPCW had indicated a March 30 sarin gas attack which injured some 50 people "more than likely" took place in Al Lataminah, just 15 kilometres (10 miles) from Khan Sheikhun in opposition-held northern Idlib province. "The OPCW did not identify a perpetrator, but the attack it described bears the hallmarks of the Syrian regime," the Western powers stated. The April 4 attack that followed left 83 dead, according to UN sources and 87, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A UN report in October blamed Damascus for that attack but the regime and its Russian ally rejected all blame. Johnson, Le Drian, Gabriel, and Tillerson urged a "robust international response" to hold those responsible to account and seek justice for attack victims, saying the UN Security Council and its members must protect international non-proliferation accords. They added the international community should keep pressure on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of banned arms while noting that Daesh extremists have also been accused of using chemical weapons. The JIM's official mandate to continue its investigations expires on November 16. Investigative panel head Edmond Mulet says experts have established sarin was dropped in an air strike and that Syrian aircraft were in the area when the Khan Sheikhun attack took place. Russia says the report is not credible as experts did not go to Khan Sheikhun but worked off samples Moscow says could have been tampered with. Moscow says it it is willing for investigators to continue their work for another six months on condition they shelve their report into that attack. Washington meanwhile backs an 18-month JIM extension to determine who is behind chemical attacks in Syria's six-year war.
  23. Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) advance towards the city of al-Qaim. -AFP DEIR EZZOR: Daesh on Friday lost control of the last two major towns under its grip in Syria and Iraq, as Syrian troops and Iraqi security forces advanced in the Euphrates Valley border region. The simultaneous assaults on Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and Al-Qaim in western Iraq dealt fresh blows to Daesh in its former heartland, leaving Abu Kamal, on the Syrian side of the border, the last town of note under its control. The militant group that once laid claim to a self-styled "caliphate" spanning swathes of Syria and Iraq has seen its proto-state crumble in recent months under the pressure of multiple offensives. In October, it lost its one-time de facto Syrian capital Raqqa after an assault of more than four months waged by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab alliance. On Friday, Syria's army announced that its Russian-backed assault had recaptured all of Deir Ezzor city, in the oil-rich east of the country, while Iraqi forces captured the Husaybah border post and the nearby town of Al-Qaim. "The army forces... restored security and stability to all of Deir Ezzor city," a spokesman for the Syrian army command said in a statement broadcast live on state television. "Deir Ezzor represents the final phase in the complete elimination of Daesh," the statement added, using the Arabic acronym for the group. The city "was the headquarters of the organisation's leadership, and in losing it, they lose their capacity to direct terrorist operations", it added. State television said engineering units from the army were combing captured neighbourhoods to clear mines and other explosives. Syrian forces entered Deir Ezzor city in September, breaking a Daesh siege of nearly three years on government-held parts of the provincial capital. A reporter contributing to AFP inside the city on Thursday saw entire floors of buildings that had crashed into those beneath, while on others, facades were completely blown away to reveal empty, destroyed interiors. Trenches dug by Daesh fighters were still visible, as were army minesweepers working to locate and defuse explosives laid by the militants. Iraqi forces take Al-Qaim Before Syria's war began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, around 300,000 people lived in the city, the capital of Deir Ezzor province along Syria's eastern border with Iraq. But in 2014, Daesh militants seized the city and much of the surrounding province, including vital oil and gas fields that once served as a key source of revenue for the extremists. Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) advance towards the city of al-Qaim. -AFP Daesh has now been driven from most of its strongholds in Deir Ezzor, but it still controls more than 35 percent of the province, much of it empty desert. Its last major position is the town of Abu Kamal, though it also holds a string of smaller towns and villages and at least one oilfield, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor. Daesh, which at its peak controlled territory roughly the size of Britain, has suffered a string of losses in recent months in both Syria and Iraq. On October 17, it lost the city of Raqqa to the US-backed SDF, a highly symbolic blow that illustrated how its "caliphate" has disintegrated. In Deir Ezzor province, it is under attack from both regime and SDF forces, while across the border in Iraq it had retained a foothold in just a single town, Al-Qaim, after losing its stronghold of Mosul in July and the town of Hawija in October. Iraqi forces captured Al-Qaim on Friday, within hours of seizing an important border crossing nearby, military commanders said. Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Abadi hailed what he called "the liberation of Al-Qaim in record time". Iraq's Joint Operations Command said earlier that troops had "regained full control" of the Husaybah border post on the edge of Al-Qaim. The Britain-based Observatory said several trucks with dozens of Daesh fighters fleeing from Al-Qaim crossed the border and sought refuge in Abu Kamal. Government forces launched the operation last week to seize Al-Qaim and its surroundings, a barren pocket of desert along the Euphrates near the Syrian border. The militants have been squeezed into nearby Rawa and surrounding desert areas of the two towns in Iraq's vast Anbar province. The US-led coalition has said around 1,500 Daesh fighters are left in the area, which it expects to be the scene of the "last big fight" against the group in Iraq. On the other side of the border, Syrian regime forces are still around 30 kilometres from Abu Kamal. Their advance on Abu Kamal is being supported by Russian air power.
  24. DAMASCUS: Syrian government troops and allied fighters captured some of the last parts of Deir Ezzor city from Daesh on Thursday, state media and a monitor said. Syria's army has been battling inside the city since September, when it broke a militant siege of nearly three years on government-held parts of the provincial capital. Syrian state media said Thursday that the army and allied fighters had captured three neighbourhoods in the city, and "tightened the siege" on Daesh fighters in several remaining districts. State news agency SANA said Daesh fighters were using loudspeakers to urge remaining members of the group "not to run away from the fighting, and to kill any member who tried to escape or surrender". The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor also reported the regime advances in the city, provincial capital of surrounding Deir Ezzor, on Syria's eastern border with Iraq. The monitor said Daesh fighters held less than five percent of the city, and government forces were advancing as ally Russia carried out heavy air strikes in support of the offensive. "If the regime's forces succeed in continuing this offensive, they could bring an end to IS´s presence (in the city) in hours or days," the Observatory said. Daesh once held large sections of Deir Ezzor city, and for nearly three years laid siege to other parts of it that remained under government control. In early September, advancing government forces broke the siege, and they have been working since to expel the jihadists from the rest of the city. Oil-rich Deir Ezzor province was once an Daesh stronghold, but the militant group now faces twin assaults there, from the regime and the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces. The militants have already been expelled from neighbouring Raqqa province, and are now confined to just a few pockets of territory in Deir Ezzor.
  25. MOSCOW: Russia dismissed Thursday a report by a UN-led panel that blamed the Syrian regime for a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun and said the use of the substance was part of a "theatrical performance" by militants. A panel including diplomats and military officers presented Moscow's version of events complete with diagrams and satellite imagery, saying the Syrian regime did not carry the blame for the April attack which killed over 80 people. "We believe that the report turned out to be superficial, unprofessional and amateurish," said Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the foreign ministry's security and disarmament department. "The mission did their research from a distance, that in itself is a scandal." He said, "the use of sarin has been confirmed" but insisted it was not delivered by an aerial bomb but rather used "as a theatrical performance, a provocation" by the rebels. At least 87 people died on April 4 this year when sarin nerve agent projectiles were fired into Khan Sheikhun, a town in the Idlib province of northwestern Syria. Images of dead and dying victims, including young children, in the aftermath of the attack provoked global outrage and a US cruise missile strike on a regime air base. A joint panel by the United Nations and the world's chemical watchdog Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that the Syrian regime was responsible and that the air force had dropped a bomb on the town, releasing the deadly nerve agent. Russia and Syria have, however, presented an alternative theory that an explosive device was set off on the ground. Ulyanov on Thursday suggested the sarin gas was poured inside the crater left by the bomb. 'Baseless verdict' Ulyanov spoke as part of a panel of the foreign ministry, air force and other Russian officials presenting slides that showed elaborate diagrams of regime warplanes' trajectories and satellite images in an effort to cast doubt on the UN report. The Russian officials also showed video footage of rescue personnel working in the crater wearing "only respirators and cotton gloves." Ulyanov claimed the video had been filmed after rebels detonated the bomb on the asphalt and before the sarin gas was poured into the crater. "If it were an aerial bomb, the bomb's tail would be in the crater, but there are no traces of an aerial bomb," he said. Ulyanov also said witnesses cited in the UN report were not confirmed to have been in the town on April 4 and "could have been sunning themselves on a beach in the United Arab Emirates." "The verdict against Damascus that has been issued so confidently turned out to be baseless," he said. "You cannot issue a verdict against Damascus based on newspaper publications." Ulyanov's intervention came after US President Donald Trump´s White House issued a string statement denouncing Moscow´s previous attempts to undermine the work of the UN-OPCW´s Joint Investigative Mechanism. "This unconscionable attack marks the fourth time that the JIM has confirmed that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, underscoring the brutal and horrifying barbarism of Bashar al-Assad and making the protection provided by Russia even more egregious," Trump´s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said. "Russia's attempts to undermine and eliminate the JIM show a callous disregard for the suffering and loss of life caused by the use of chemical weapons and an utter lack of respect for international norms," she added. Despite criticising the work of the UN-OPCW on the report, Ulyanov said Russia would on Thursday present a draft resolution extending its mission in Syria, following a veto on a similar US proposal in the Security Council last week. Russia previously opposed renewing the mandate of the panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, prior to the release of the Khan Sheikhun report.