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Found 48 results

  1. This photo ? taken on April 04, 2017 ? shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack. AFP/Omar Haj Kadour/Files UNITED NATIONS: The United States on Wednesday was headed for a showdown at the United Nations with Russia over extending an investigation to determine who is responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The joint UN-OPCW probe is set to present a report on October 26 on who was behind the sarin gas attack in the village of Khan Sheikhun, just weeks before its mandate expires in mid-November. Russia ? a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ? has said that it wants to study the report on Khan Sheikhun before deciding whether to support another one-year mandate for the panel. US Ambassador Nikki Haley pushed the Security Council to vote on renewing the panel ? known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) ? before the report is released. "The Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians suddenly they won't have faith in JIM. If the report doesn't blame the Syrians, then they say that they will," Haley told reporters. "We can't work like that." The United States circulated a draft resolution on Wednesday that would renew the JIM for one-year and Haley said a vote should take place at the Security Council "as soon as possible." Russia could decide to use its veto to block the draft resolution and effectively shut down the investigation of deadly gas attacks in Syria. "It would be a shame if Russia chose to decide whether to have an investigative mechanism based on who is to blame in Khan Sheikhun," said Haley. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres threw his weight behind the US drive to continue the investigation, telling reporters that the JIM was a "very important tool" that he fully supports. Russia says sarin bomb used The United States, France, and Britain have accused Assad's forces of carrying out the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhun, an opposition-held village in Idlib province. At least 87 people including more than 30 children died in the attack, which drew global outrage over the use of banned sarin as a weapon. During a briefing last week to UN member-states, Russian foreign ministry official Mikhail Ulyanov said the sarin attack was most likely caused by a bomb set off directly on the ground and not by a Syrian air strike. Russia will study the report on Khan Sheikhun by the JIM to "judge if it deserves the extension," Ulyanov said. Haley said there was "overwhelming support" in the council to allow the JIM to continue its work and stressed that "we can't go and pick and choose who we want to be at fault and who we don't". The JIM has already determined that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015 and that Daesh extremists used mustard gas in 2015. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) earlier this year presented a report confirming sarin gas was used in Khan Sheikhun but did not assign blame, leaving that determination to the JIM. In total, the OPCW is investigating as many as 45 suspected chemical attacks in Syria since mid-2016, including the recently disclosed use of sarin on an opposition-held village on March 30. Those investigations are then sent to the JIM which seeks to determine who is responsible for the attacks.
  2. Turkish troops entered Idlib on Thursday night as part of efforts to enforce a so-called "de-escalation zone" agreed by rebel backer Ankara and regime allies Russia and Iran at talks in Astana earlier this year. Photo: Reuters file DAMASCUS: Syria on Saturday demanded the "immediate and unconditional withdrawal" of Turkish troops that have deployed in the country´s northwestern province of Idlib, state media said citing a foreign ministry source. Turkish troops entered Idlib on Thursday night as part of efforts to enforce a so-called "de-escalation zone" agreed by rebel backer Ankara and regime allies Russia and Iran at talks in Astana earlier this year. But the Syrian foreign ministry source slammed the "Turkish aggression", saying it had "nothing whatsoever to do with the understandings reached by the guarantor countries in the Astana process." The source added that the deployment was "a violation of these understandings and a departure from them." "The Turkish regime must abide by what was agreed in Astana." Turkey´s military said Friday it had begun "activities to establish observation posts on October 12", days after Turkish troops launched a reconnaissance mission in Idlib. On Friday, Turkey´s Hurriyet daily reported over 100 soldiers including special forces, and 30 armoured vehicles, had entered Idlib. And a new convoy entered on Saturday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor. The province is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda´s former Syria affiliate, which has ousted more moderate rebels in recent months. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops had entered Syria with the Free Syrian Army, the name Ankara uses for rebels seeking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad´s ouster. Turkey says it is backing Syrian rebels in a bid to oust HTS members in the area and allow Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement the zone. The "de-escalation" zone in Idlib is the one of four agreed in Astana and the last to be implemented, after. Idlib is one of the last major areas of Syria beyond the control of the government, which has recaptured vast swathes of territory from opposition fighters since its ally Russia intervened on its behalf in September 2015. Turkey has intervened in Syria before, last year launching its operation Euphrates Shield targeting Daesh and Kurdish fighters. More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
  3. Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), and US Secretary of State John Kerry attend a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Files UNITED NATIONS: Russia on Friday complained that UN investigators, who, this week, travelled to a Syrian airfield allegedly used to launch the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhun, did not take samples, a lapse described as "scandalous". Known as the JIM, the team from the joint UN-OPCW probe travelled to the Shayrat airfield ahead of the release later this month of its much-awaited report that could lay blame for the attack on the Syrian government. Russian foreign ministry official Mikhail Ulyanov told a briefing at the United Nations that four investigators visited the airfield, spoke to military personnel, and checked flight plans, but "did not take samples." "A reliable investigation is simply impossible without sampling," said Ulyanov, adding that this was "a scandalous situation". A spokesman for the JIM declined to comment. Ulyanov ? the foreign ministry's head of non-proliferation ? said the sarin attack at Khan Sheikhun was most likely caused by a bomb set off directly on the ground and not by a Syrian air strike. The United States, France, and Britain have accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of carrying out the April 4 air assault on the opposition-held village. At least 87 people, including more than 30 children, died in the attack that drew global outrage over the use of banned sarin as a weapon. A few days later, the United States launched a missile attack on Shayrat after concluding that Syrian aircraft, loaded with sarin gas, had departed from that airfield to attack Khan Sheikhun. During the UN briefing, Ulyanov showed photographs of children with dilated pupils from sarin exposure that he said had been "poisoned" with narcotics "to heighten the emotions around this chemical incident". After showing video footage of rescuers who quickly arrived at the town, the official said he had the "clear impression" that the team was there "well before it happened", suggesting it was staged. Syria's government has denied any involvement in the Khan Sheikhun attack and maintains it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender them. Russia ? Syria's ally ? helped set up the JIM investigation to identify who is behind the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Moscow, however, is weighing whether to allow the JIM to continue its investigations when its mandate comes up for renewal next month. Ulyanov said Russia will study the JIM's report on Khan Sheikhun, to be released on October 26, to "judge if it deserves the extension".
  4. The World Health Organization said on Friday it had received reports of an attack on medical facilities in eastern Syria that had destroyed a store containing more than 130,000 vaccine doses against measles and polio. If confirmed, the WHO said, the attack would put thousands of children at risk of these serious infectious, viral diseases. Both can spread rapidly in areas of conflict. ?We unequivocally condemn these actions. Vaccines are not a legitimate target of war,? the WHO?s representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said in a statement issued late on Friday. The WHO said the reports it received were of an attack on a vaccine cold room at health facilities in al-Mayadin, near Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. The WHO did not say whether the reports it received gave any detail on who carried out the reported attack. The store had held 100,000 doses of measles vaccine, 35,000 doses of polio vaccine, plus syringes and other equipment. ?Until a new cold room is built and the required cold chain equipment - including solar fridges, cold boxes and vaccine carriers - are delivered, this will delay ... routine immunization for vulnerable children in the area,? Hoff said. Polio - a viral disease that can cripple its victims - and measles - which can cause diarrhoea, blindness and can kill - tend to break out in war zones because low vaccine coverage leaves gaps in population immunity, exposing children to infection. The WHO previously tackled a polio outbreak in the same area of Syria in 2013-2014. The UN health agency said that in its last polio vaccination campaign in Deir al-Zor it reached more than 252,000 babies and children.
  5. Sally Jones Daesh recruiter Sally Jones, considered Britain?s most-wanted woman, has reportedly been killed in a US drone strike in Syria. Once a punk rocker, Jones, dubbed ?White Widow?, had fled to Syria with her son in 2013 before becoming a recruiter for the Daesh group. Now she is believed dead after US spy chiefs reportedly told their counterparts at MI6 that the militant was killed by a predator drone close to the border between Syria and Iraq in June. Sally Jones was a punk musician before fleeing to Syria to join Daesh Jones, 50, was a high priority on the Pentagon's ?kill list? because she was believed to have masterminded dozens of terror plots. It remains unclear if her 12-year old son survived the strike. Jones had fled Britain to join Daesh after reportedly falling for a militant hacker named Junaid Hussain. Her son is believed to have been forced to execute prisoners during his time there after being brainwashed. Hussain was killed in a US drone strike in 2015 aged 21.
  6. A still image taken from a file video footage shows a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 military jet taxiing on the tarmac at the Hmeymim air base near Latakia, Syria. Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS MOSCOW: A Russian military jet crashed while taking off from Russia?s Hmeymim air base in Syria on Tuesday in an incident that killed its two-man crew, Russia?s Defence Ministry said, Russian news agencies reported. The Sukhoi-24 attack aircraft, codenamed Fencer by the NATO military alliance, was heading out on a combat mission, but its crew failed to eject after the plane veered off the runway, the ministry was cited as saying. A technical fault may have been to blame, the ministry said. Russia has used the Hmeymim base in Latakia Province to launch air strikes against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad since it first intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015. Russia lost two other planes - a Sukhoi-33 and a MiG-29 - off the coast of Syria last year in accidents involving its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
  7. DAMASCUS: Syrians in Damascus collapsed into tears of disappointment Tuesday as their war-torn country's hopes of qualifying for its first ever football World Cup were dashed during extra time against Australia. The prospect of the Syrian team qualifying for football's biggest contest brought thousands of cheering fans into public squares and cafes across parts of the country, including the capital Damascus. Excitement had been building for days, and students lobbied to have lectures rescheduled so they could watch the game, which kicked off in Sydney at noon Syrian time. Vendors hiked prices for Syria kit as demand soared for the red, black and white strip of the national team, nicknamed the Qasioun Eagles. Dana Abu Shaar, 18, skipped university classes to watch the match at a cafe in the capital. She was still clutching a national flag in her hand as she glumly contemplated defeat after Australia scored a crucial second goal in the second half of extra time. "I was very excited and I expected the Syrian team to win, but now there´s sadness and a lot of disappointment because we had reached a point where there was hardly anything between us and the championships," she said, her voice cracking. "It's not just about football," she added. "The Syrian people needed this kind of joy, even if it came through sports. The Qasioun Eagles were hope to us. This is a people that has lived seven years of war and was waiting for joy, even if it came through a goal." In the wake of the loss, Damascus streets emptied and shops closed early. President Bashar al-Assad´s office issued a statement praising the team as "heroes" despite their defeat. "You painted joy on the faces of all Syrians," the presidency said. Accountant Ramez Talawi, 29, dressed in the team's red shirt emblazoned with the national flag, had taken a day off work so he could watch the match. "The team managed to do something that politics and men of religion could not, which is to unify the Syrian people," he said. "It's the national team and it united Syrians of all political opinions, loyalists and opposition."
  8. Russia has staged air strikes in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2015/AFP MOSCOW: A Sukhoi military jet crashed while trying to take off from Russia's Hmeimim base in Syria on Tuesday, killing the crew, Russian news agencies quoted a military spokesman as saying. "The Su-24 plane rolled off the runway and broke up while accelerating for takeoff... The plane's crew did not have time to eject and died," the spokesman said. He did not clarify how many people died, but the Su-24 usually has a crew of two. "According to a report from the scene of the accident, the reason could be a technical failure," he added. Russia has staged air strikes in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2015. On Tuesday, the defence ministry said Russian planes are currently carrying out 150 strikes per day in eastern Syria against Daesh militants. The latest casualties put the toll of Russian servicemen officially reported killed in Syria at 37. Last month a Russian general was killed near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where Russian special forces are participating in the regime's ground offensive.
  9. ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday announced pro-Ankara Syrian rebels were launching a new military operation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province to push out the militants who control the region. The move comes as Turkey, along with Russia and Iran, prepare to set up a so-called "de-escalation" zone in Idlib in line with accords in peace talks in Astana aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. Turkish commando units and military vehicles have reportedly massed on the border but are yet to cross, in what will be Ankara's second major Syria operation after its Euphrates Shield incursion last year. "We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue," Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Afyon. He later told reporters the operation was led by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and that the Turkish army was "not yet" operating inside Syria. Aron Lund, fellow with The Century Foundation think tank, told AFP any Turkish operation "is likely to rely on a mix of Turkish and Syrian forces". He said Turkey would contribute special forces, logistics, artillery and tanks but Syria rebels would make up "much of" the ground force. 'No terror corridor' Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, which ousted more moderate rebels in recent months. HTS is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in the province, one of four such "de-escalation" zones across Syria. "If Turkey decides to go head to head with HTS, I'm sure they will meet severe resistance," Lund told AFP. Ousting HTS forces from the area will be needed to allow the arrival of Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement a de-escalation zone. "We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders," said Erdogan. State-run Anadolu news agency said there was a major buildup of commando units and military vehicles around the town of Reyhanli bordering Idlib close to the Cilvegozu border crossing. The Hurriyet daily said ultimately Turkey would ensure security in Idlib city and Russia in the surrounding area. Appearing to confirm this, Erdogan said: "Idlib is a region where we will provide protection on the inside and Russia on the outside." Turkish army cranes had begun removing sections of the security wall Turkey has built on the border in apparent preparation for an incursion, an AFP photographer said. 'New initiatives' Turkey earlier this year wrapped up its half-year Euphrates Shield operation against militants and Kurdish militia in Aleppo province that involved both the Turkish army and Syrian rebels. "Despite all the provocations and the obstacles, we have made significant progress in Syria," said Erdogan. A rebel commander participating in the operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP in Beirut that "all the rebel groups" who took part in Euphrates Shield are participating. "The goal of the operation is to liberate Idlib fully from Tahrir al-Sham," he said. Turkey has also long warned it could also move against Kurdish militia in Afrin to the east. Erdogan warned that "new initiatives" would follow after the Idlib operation. But Ankara is playing no part in the US-backed assault to prise the Syrian city of Raqa from the Islamic State group due to the involvement of Kurdish militia Turkey considers a terror outfit. Russia coordination The Idlib operation comes a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Erdogan in Ankara, with both sides agreeing to push for the Idlib de-escalation zone. Afer those talks Putin declared the right conditions now existed to end the over six-year civil war that has killed an estimated 330,000 people since 2011. Despite being on opposite sides of the conflict, Russia and Turkey have been working together intensely since a 2016 reconciliation deal ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane over Syria. Russia, along with Iran, is the key backer of 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 rebels seeking Assad´s ouster. Commenting on the coordination with Russia, Erdogan said: "Relations with the regime is something looked after by Russia, and we have taken measures in other areas."
  10. MOSCOW: Some 120 Daesh fighters and 60 foreign mercenaries were killed in a series of Russian air strikes in Syria over the past 24 hours, the defence ministry in Moscow said on Saturday. The ministry also said three senior Daesh commanders including Omar al-Shishani had been confirmed dead as a result of an earlier Russian strike. "A command post of the terrorists and up to 80 (Daesh) fighters including nine natives of the Northern Caucasus were destroyed in the area of Mayadeen," the ministry said, adding that another 40 Daesh fighters were killed around the town of Albu Kamal. Mayadeen is one of the Daesh's last bastions in Syria. In another air strike, more than 60 foreign mercenaries from the former Soviet Union, Tunisia, and Egypt were killed in the Euphrates Valley south of Deir Ezzor. The ministry said "large numbers of foreign mercenaries" were coming into the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal from Iraq. It also said Russian forces had killed senior Daesh commanders Omar al-Shishani, Alaa al-din al-Shishani and Salah al-Din al-Shishani, all natives of the Northern Caucasus. Moscow reported their deaths after taking "several days" to confirm the results of an earlier strike on the northern outskirts of Albu Kamal which destroyed an IS command post with more than 30 fighters including the natives of the Northern Caucasus. 'Omar the Chechen' The Pentagon announced in March 2016 that American forces had killed Shishani, one of the most notorious faces of Daesh known for his thick red beard. Shishani, whose nom de guerre means "Omar the Chechen," came from the former Soviet state of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region, which is populated mainly by ethnic Chechens. He fought as a Chechen rebel against Russian forces before joining the Georgian military in 2006, and fought Russian forces again in Georgia in 2008. He later resurfaced in northern Syria as the commander of a group of foreign fighters and became a senior leader within Daesh. The Russian defence ministry was not immediately available for further comment. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, disagreed with Moscow's report. "Salah al-Din al-Shishani is still alive and is somewhere in the regions controlled by militant groups in the west of Aleppo province. He is a famous commander, and his militant group is allied with the militants of the Al-Nusra front but only in their fight against the regime," he said. "He has no links with IS." The advances against Daesh in Deir Ezzor have resulted in a heavy civilian death toll through Russian and coalition air raids. Moscow has been staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both Daesh in Deir Ezzor province and rival militantss led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate in Idlib province in the northwest.
  11. PARIS: New revelations from a probe into ties between Daesh group and Lafarge cast light on why the French cement giant was desperate to stay in Syria and the price it was prepared to pay. To ensure the protection of its staff, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) paid between $80,000 and $100,000 a month to various armed groups, including $20,000 to Daesh, according to a source close to the investigation. The funds went through a middleman, Syrian tycoon Firas Tlass, who was a former minority shareholder in the cement works, Bruno Pescheux, who ran the plant from 2008 to 2014, told investigators. Lafarge's bosses in Paris are suspected of having approved payments by LCS through "false accounting documents". The year-long investigation has heard witnesses describe cooked books enabling oil purchases from Daesh, a laissez-passer allowing Lafarge trucks to circulate in the region and a planned meeting between IS and the top LCS security official. Lafarge, which merged with the Swiss group Holcim in 2015, admitted it had resorted to "unacceptable practices" to keep LCS running in a war zone in 2013-14. 'No one told us to leave' Lafarge began operating in the northern Syrian town of Jalabiya in October 2010 at an investment of $680 million - the biggest outside the oil industry. War broke out six months later and the European Union imposed an embargo on Syrian arms and oil. In 2013, Daesh and other armed groups took control of the oil-rich northern region where Lafarge was operating along with French oil giant Total and other multinationals. But while the others pulled out, Lafarge decided to stay. A source close to the probe said the group's former CEO Bruno Lafont told investigators in January that he believed "things were under control" and there was no reason to flee the war-torn country. But former officials told investigators that a key reason for staying on was to hold the strategic advantage of being on the ground for Syria´s reconstruction once the war ended. The decision allegedly had the blessing of the French government then led by Socialist president Francois Hollande. "The foreign ministry told us that we should hold on, that things would work out," former deputy COO Christian Herrault said. "We would see the French ambassador to Syria every six months and no one told us 'now you have to leave'." Daesh issued the laissez-passers for Lafarge trucks in May 2014, according to a source close to the probe. Investigators also suspect LCS of receiving its oil supplies from Daesh under the cover of fake consulting contracts starting in June 2013 at a time when IS controlled most of Syria's strategic reserves. Frederic Jolibois, who ran the plant from July 2014, admitted: "The Syrian government was not in control of the refineries, so you bought (oil) from non-governmental organisations... completely illegally." On June 29, 2014, the day Daesh proclaimed its "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, it also set up a meeting with the cement plant's security boss, investigators have heard. Locals pressured to stay Senior LCS staff had begun leaving Syria in the summer of 2012, with other Lafarge expatriates leaving in waves starting a few months later. Investigators are examining whether LCS did all it could to ensure the security of its Syrian staff. Jolibois claimed that staying on was a source of pride for the locals, saying: "For them, it was an act of resistance." But 11 former employees and the anti-corruption association Sherpa lodged a complaint last year stating that Syrian staff were pressured to stay or risk being sacked or having their pay withheld. They said they had to fend for themselves when Daesh seized control of the cement works in September 2014. Investigators interviewed three former employees in Paris last month. Contacted Friday, Lafarge reiterated that it "regrets and condemns the unacceptable mistakes committed in Syria."
  12. As qualifying for the 2018 World Cup reaches its climax, Lionel Messi's Argentina find themselves in trouble, Syria face a play-off to keep their remarkable dream alive and European champions Portugal have work to do. AFP Sport looks at the state of play in each of the regions: Argentina in danger Brazil secured their place in next year's finals back in March, but three automatic berths remain up for grabs in South America ahead of the final two rounds of qualifying matches. Two-time World Cup champions Argentina haven't missed the tournament since 1970, but five-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi and his compatriots, runners-up in Brazil three years ago, are currently languishing in fifth place. While that would not spell the end of the road for Argentina, instead sending them into a two-legged play-off against New Zealand, even that is far from assured with Copa America holders Chile lurking just a point behind in sixth. Germany cruising, France on thin ice Europe will provide 14 of the 32 competing teams in Russia, the hosts included. But so far only Belgium have punched their ticket to the finals going into the last two sets of fixtures. World champions Germany, who need just a draw in Northern Ireland on Thursday, lead a handful of other sides who can wrap up qualification this week. England are five points clear in Group F, while Serbia are in control of their section and 2010 champions Spain have the edge over Italy in their two-horse race. The nine group winners progress automatically, while all but one of the runners-up advance to the play-off round to determine the final four qualifiers. Portugal, while sure of at least making the play-offs, face a critical final match at home to Switzerland as Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates look to overturn a three-point deficit in Group B. France hold a tentative one-point cushion over Sweden in Group A and will be all too aware of the dangers posed by a trip to Bulgaria, the country responsible for their absence at the 1994 World Cup. Nigeria and Tunisia within sight Five places are on offer in Africa, but none as yet have been claimed. Nigeria are closing in on a sixth World Cup appearance, with reigning continental champions Cameroon and Algeria out of the running in a challenging section, but Zambia could still deny the Super Eagles. Tunisia are well positioned to end a 12-year World Cup exile, leading nearest rivals the Democratic Republic of Congo by three points, while Egypt are in control of their destiny. But other groups remain wide open with just the first-place finishers qualifying for Russia. Ivory Coast top Group C on seven points, but both Morocco (six) and Gabon (five) still harbour genuine hopes. It is a similar situation in Group D after FIFA's decision to annul South Africa's 2-1 win over Senegal from November 2016 -- a match manipulated by a Ghanaian referee. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde head the pool on six points, but Senegal trail by just a point with their match against Bafana Bafana to be replayed in November. War-torn Syria head into play-offs Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia will represent Asia in Russia next year, but Syria and Australia will attempt to join them via the play-offs. Syria prolonged their fairytale World Cup campaign with a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser in their final group match to set up a double-header against Australia on October 5 and 10. The Socceroos are bidding for a fourth straight finals appearance while Syria, who have never reached the World Cup before, have kept their dream alive despite the brutal civil war that has forced them to play all their home games abroad. They will take on Australia in Malaysia in the first leg before travelling to Sydney for the return. The winner of the tie will meet the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF with a spot in Russia at stake. Mexico and who else? Mexico will compete at their seventh straight World Cup next summer, with Costa Rica also on the verge of direct qualification. But a third automatic berth is still in play, while the fourth-placed side can also qualify through the inter-continental play-offs. Panama, in third, lead the United States and Honduras by a single point with two rounds of games still to play.
  13. SDF fighters advance in Raqqa. -AFP BEIRUT: The Daesh group has lost swathes of territory in its self-declared "caliphate" in recent months, including its former Iraqi hub Mosul and most of its Syrian bastion Raqqa. It is under attack in its remaining enclaves in Iraq and is facing parallel Russian and US-backed offensives in Syria. Here are the main battlefronts: SYRIA Raqqa: The city was once the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh's self-declared "caliphate". But the militants are now breathing their "last gasps" in a pocket of the city, a senior commander of the US-led coalition against Daesh told AFP this week. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, Daesh has lost around 90 per cent of the city to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters worked for months to encircle Raqa, which had become a byword for the worst of Daesh's atrocities during its years under the militant rule. In June, the SDF broke into the city for the first time but the battle slowed down when they reached the more densely populated city centre. Its advance has been assisted by heavy US-led air strikes that have reportedly killed thousands of civilians. The United Nations estimates that up to 15,000 civilians could remain in parts of Raqqa, facing "incredibly difficult conditions". Deir Ez Zor: Daesh's other main stronghold in Syria is the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Daesh-held territory in Iraq. Two separate offensives are underway against the militants there - one by the SDF, the other by government forces supported by Russia. Syrian government troops advanced across the desert from the west to relieve two besieged garrisons in the city of Deir Ez Zor, down the Euphrates Valley from Raqa. The army now controls around 75pc of the city and is battling to oust Daesh from the remainder, said the Observatory. Daesh hit back on Thursday with attacks on government forces around Deir Ez Zor and on their supply lines, killing dozens of troops. Russian Army de-mining teams in Deir Ez Zor. -AFP SDF fighters meanwhile have captured more than 500 square kilometres of territory in northeastern parts of the province, according to the US-led coalition. They advanced from the north to attack Daesh on the east bank of the Euphrates. IS also holds pockets of territory elsewhere, notably in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, where it is the target of a Russian-backed government offensive. The militants are present in smaller numbers in the Yarmuk camp in south Damascus and a group allied with Daesh has a scattered presence in southern parts of Syria. IRAQ Hawija: Iraqi forces on Friday launched an assault on the town of Hawija, one of the last remaining militant pockets in Iraq. The enclave lies to the west of the ethnically divided Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and includes several other mainly Arab towns. Preparations for the offensive were overshadowed by an independence referendum that Iraqi Kurds held on Monday in areas including Kirkuk, to the anger of Baghdad. Hawija has been a bastion of insurgency since the early months after the US-led invasion of 2003 and earned the nickname of "Kandahar in Iraq" from coalition troops for the ferocious resistance it put up similar to that in the Taliban militia's bastion in Afghanistan. Euphrates Valley: Daesh controls one other pocket of territory in Iraq, a stretch of the Euphrates Valley near the border with Syria. Last week Iraqi forces backed by paramilitary units and coalition warplanes launched a push up the valley. After retaking the town of Anna in recent days, they are expected to target Rawa and finally Al-Qaim, which is close to the Syrian border and Daesh-held territory beyond.
  14. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shake hands after a joint press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2017. AFP/Adem Altan ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday agreed to push for the creation of a "de-escalation" zone in Syria's key northern province of Idlib to help end the civil war. Erdogan said after talks in Ankara that the pair agreed to "pursue more intensely" the implementation of a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which is currently under extremist control, in comments echoed by Putin. The Russian leader said Russia and Turkey would work to "deepen coordination" on ending the over six-year civil war, adding the "necessary conditions" now existed for the conflict to end.
  15. Russia and Turkey have been working closely since a 2016 reconciliation ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane over Syria.Photo: AFP ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday meets his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Syria and a key weapons deal, hoping to strengthen an increasingly active relationship that has troubled the West. Despite a regional rivalry that goes back to the Ottoman Empire and the Romanov dynasty, Russia and Turkey have been working closely since a 2016 reconciliation ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane over Syria. "Russia and Turkey are cooperating very tightly," Putin´s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said ahead of the one-day working visit by Putin to Ankara. The two will hold a working dinner before a one-on-one meeting and a press conference at 9:30 pm (1830 GMT) at Erdogan´s palace, the Turkish presidency said on its website. Turkey and Russia have been on opposing sides during the more than six years of war in Syria, with Russia the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey supporting rebels seeking his ouster. But while Turkey´s policy is officially unchanged, Ankara has notably cooled its attacks on the Damascus regime since its cooperation with Russia began to heat up. Both Moscow and Ankara are pushing for the creation of four "de-escalation zones" in Syria, in line with peace talks in Astana, to end the civil war that has raged since 2011. With Moscow´s ally Assad now having the upper hand in the conflict, Russia will be hoping Turkey will bring the rebels it has supported into the political process. Turkey, a NATO member, has signed a deal reportedly worth $2 billion (1.7 billion euros) to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia, a move that has shocked its allies in the alliance. Economic cooperation is also beginning to flourish, with Russian tourists returning to Turkey and the two countries working on a Black Sea gas pipeline. ´Loaded with contradictions´ Yet analysts say that while both countries share an interest in seeking to discomfort the West by showing off close cooperation, their relationship falls well short of a sincere strategic alliance. "Relations between Turkey and Russia may appear to be friendly, but they are loaded with contradictions and set to remain unstable in the near term," Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution wrote in a study this month. Russia´s stance on the non-binding Kurdish independence vote is also troubling for Turkey, for whom opposing Kurdish statehood is a cornerstone of foreign policy due to its own Kurdish minority. The Russian foreign ministry said Wednesday that while Moscow supports the territorial integrity of Iraq, it "views the Kurds´ national aspirations with respect". "Russia has been trying to abstain from taking a clear stance on the issue and Turkey may be wanting to get some assurances and explanations," Timur Akhmetov, Ankara-based Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told AFP. In public, Erdogan has shied away from attacking Russia´s stance on the Kurdish referendum, declaring that Israel was the only state that backed the poll. Deliveries of the S-400s, meanwhile, could be years away due to orders from China, while Ankara´s insistence on a technology transfer as part of the deal may also create problems. But both Moscow and Ankara are, for now, happy to send a message to the West that they are serious about defence cooperation. "They are trying to utilise the issue of the S-400 for their respective political interests," Akhmetov told AFP.
  16. source: Press TV MOSCOW: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday that the "two-faced policy" of the United States was to blame for the death of Russian Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov in Syria, the RIA news agency quoted him as saying. The Russian Defence Ministry said on Sunday that Asapov had been killed by Daesh shelling near Deir al-Zor. Moscow has complained about what it has suggested are suspiciously friendly ties between US - backed militias, US special forces, and Daesh in the area, accusing Washington of trying to slow the advance of the Syrian army. "The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price, for two-faced American policy in Syria," Ryabkov told reporters, according to RIA. Ryabkov questioned Washington´s intention to fight Daesh in Syria. "The American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of Daesh ... but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington," Ryabkov was quoted as saying. Earlier on Monday, American-backed Syrian militias said that Russian warplanes had struck their positions in Deir al-Zor province near a natural gas field they seized from Daesh last week. Russia denied that. Ryabkov also said that Russia wanted to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency and had not violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, rejecting allegations made against it by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month.
  17. UNITED NATIONS: Syria's foreign minister told the United Nations on Saturday that a military victory in the six-year war was "now within reach" following a series of battleground gains by government forces. "The liberation of Aleppo and Palmyra, the lifting of the seige of Deir Ezzor and the eradication of terrorism from many parts of Syria prove that victory is now within reach," Walid al-Muallem told the General Assembly. The foreign minister, who also holds the rank of deputy prime minister in Bashar al-Assad´s government, said Syrian government forces will be remembered as heroes for their role in the war. "When this unjust war in Syria is over, the Syrian army will go down in history as the army that heroically defeated, along with its supported forces and its allies, the terrorists that came to Syria from many countries," he said. Assad's forces have been accused by western powers of carrying out atrocities, targeting civilians and using banned chemical weapons, an accusation that Muallem again rejected in his address. More than 330,000 people have died in the war and more than 5 million Syrians have fled across borders to become refugees. The United Nations is planning to convene a new round of peace talks in the coming weeks between Syria´s government and the opposition, even though past negotiations have failed to yield more than incremental progress. The UN-brokered negotiations have hit a wall over opposition demands for a political transition paving the way for the end of Assad´s rule. The foreign minister laid out what he termed as a "red line" in UN-brokered talks on ending the war, suggesting Damascus will never bow to international pressure for a political transition to end Assad's rule. The Syrian government rejects "any external interference in political decisions regarding Syria´s future," said Muallem. "Only Syrians have the right to make such decisions, whether now or in the future."
  18. source: RT ASTANA: Russia, Iran and Turkey struck a deal Friday to jointly police a fourth safe zone around Syria's Idlib province as part of a Moscow-led plan to ease the six-year conflict. In a joint statement after two days of talks in Kazakhstan, the three powers said they agreed "to allocate" their forces to patrol the zone covering militant-held Idlib province and parts of the neighbouring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions. The talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital, are the sixth round of negotiations Moscow has spearheaded since the start of the year as it seeks to pacify Syria after its game-changing intervention on the side of leader Bashar al-Assad. Regime backers Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey agreed in May to set four "de-escalation zones" in militant-held territory around Syria to halt fighting between the government and moderate opposition. Since then Russia has forged ahead with establishing three of the zones on the ground by deploying military police to patrol the boundaries of safe areas in the south of Syria, in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, and in part of the central Homs province. 'Final stage' However, the three powers had struggled to agree on the details of the final zone around Idlib on the border with Turkey, as Ankara and Tehran vied to expand their influence. Idlib was captured in 2015 by an alliance of militants and remains beyond the control of the government. The statement Friday said Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces would be deployed according to maps agreed earlier this month in Ankara, the Turkish capital, but gave no further details of their exact positions or the timing. A joint Russia-Turkish-Iranian coordination centre will be set up "aimed at coordinating the activities of de-escalation forces", the joint declaration said. Russia's chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev hailed the deal as the "final stage" in the creation of the four safe zones, insisting it would "create a real path to the cessation of bloodshed" and offer hope for "a return to peaceful life". Nevertheless, Lavrentyev acknowledged there remains a "long journey ahead to strengthen trust" between Assad´s government and the armed opposition, both of whom sent delegations to the negotiations. Regime representative Bashar al-Jaafari said Damascus "supports any initiative in Syria that stops the shedding of Syrian blood and decreases suffering". A statement on its Facebook page said that the armed opposition noted that no "monitoring mechanism" had been agreed for the new zone in Idlib. "Assad´s forces or militias will not be present in any area or part of the de-escalation zones and will not have a role in our liberated zones," the statement said. 'Bring the momentum' On the ground the "de-escalation zones" have already seen fighting drop and allowed Damascus and Moscow to turn more of their firepower against jihadists from the Daesh group. The participants agreed to a fresh round of talks in Astana in October. The United Nations envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called to "bring the momentum of Astana" to broader talks on finding a political solution to the war that the UN has hosted without much success in Geneva. "No de-escalation can be sustained without a comprehensive political process, and that is based in Geneva," he said. Some observers have viewed the Astana process as a means for Russia, Iran and Turkey to keep the West on the sidelines of any resolution to the Syrian conflict that has already led to the loss of over 330,000 lives.
  19. A member of the Syria government forces looks at smoke rising on the horizon on the outskirts of Deir Ezzor, on September 7, 2017. Photo: AFP MOSCOW: Russia claimed Friday to have killed several top commanders of the Daesh group in an air strike in Syria, including the US-trained "minister of war" who had a $3 million bounty on his head. "As a result of a precision air strike of the Russian air forces in the vicinity of Deir Ezzor city, a command post, communication centre and some 40 Daesh fighters have been killed," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement posted on Facebook. "According to confirmed data, among the killed fighters are four influential field commanders including Deir Ezzor emir Abu Mohammed al-Shimali," the ministry said. Gulmurod Khalimov, who is known as the Daesh group's minister of war and the highest-ranking defector from ex-Soviet Tajikistan, suffered a "fatal injury," it added. Reports of Khalimov's death have surfaced before, and the Tajik interior ministry said it could not immediately confirm the claim. "We are working with our Russian colleagues to obtain reliable information," a spokesman told AFP. But a spokesman for the Tajik security services, speaking to AFP, suggested that "this time around" he might have been killed. "We're checking the information," he said. In 2016, the United States offered a $3 million bounty for information leading to Khalimov's location or arrest. Russia's SU warplanes dropped "bunker buster" bombs on the fighters as they were meeting near Deir Ezzor to discuss how to respond to the advance of the Syrian army, Moscow said. Backed by Russia, Syrian troops on Tuesday broke through a years-long siege imposed by Daesh militants on tens of thousands of civilians in Deir Ezzor. The Times reported in April that Khalimov, described as the highest-ranking Daesh commander in Mosul, had been killed in an airstrike. The trained sniper and former colonel, he was apparently wounded in 2015 but survived. He headed the Tajik interior ministry's special forces unit and received American training before joining Daesh in 2015, pledging allegiance to the jihadist group in a video released in May 2015. In the footage he warned that he and other Daesh recruits based in the Middle East were "coming" for top officials in the mainly Muslim Tajikistan, including long-ruling President Emomali Rakhmon. The high-profile defection rocked the country. Last year, his second wife, herself a former interior ministry official, fled Tajikistan with her three young children to join Khalimov in Syria. His eldest son, 18-year-old Bekhruz, also tried to join his father in Syria but was detained at the Dushanbe airport, and sentenced this summer to 10 years in prison. In July, police in Tajikistan killed four of Khalimov's relatives in a gun battle, an interior ministry source has said, and three other relatives were detained. The source claimed that all of those killed or detained were Daesh "supporters" and said they were intending to flee to neighbouring Afghanistan, but did not offer any proof to back up the claims.
  20. This photo ? taken on April 04, 2017 ? shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack. AFP/Omar Haj Kadour/Files GENEVA: United Nations war crimes investigators said Wednesday that they had evidence Syrian government forces were behind a chemical attack which killed dozens of people in Khan Sheikhun in April. In the first UN report to officially blame Damascus, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria said it had gathered an "extensive body of information" showing that the Syrian airforce was behind the horrific sarin gas attack on April 4. "All evidence available leads the commission to conclude that there are reasonable grounds to believe Syrian forces dropped an aerial bomb dispersing sarin in Khan Sheikhun," the report said. At least 83 people, a third of them children, were killed and nearly 300 wounded in the attack on Khan Sheikhun, a town in the opposition-held northern province of Idlib, it said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, has previously given a death toll of at least 87. Syria's government has denied involvement and claims it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender its chemical arsenal. A fact-finding mission by the UN's chemical watchdog, the OPCW, concluded earlier this year that sarin gas was used in the attack, but did not assign blame. A joint UN-OPCW panel is currently working to determine whether Syrian government forces were behind the attack. Significant evidence But Wednesday's report is the first from the UN to officially lay the blame for the attack on Damascus. The report also found the Syrian government responsible for at least 23 other chemical attacks in the war-ravaged country since March 2013. The investigators, who were never granted access to Syria, said they based their findings on photographs of bomb remnants, satellite imagery and eyewitness testimony. They determined that a Su-22 fighter bomber, which is operated only by the Syrian air force, conducted four airstrikes in Khan Sheikhun at around 6:45 am on April 4. "The commission identified three of the bombs as likely OFAB-100-120 and one as a chemical bomb," the report said, adding that "photographs of weapon remnants depict a chemical aerial bomb of a type manufactured in the former Soviet Union." The investigators said they had found no evidence supporting Syrian and Russian claims that the chemicals had been released when an air strike hit an opposition weapons depot in the area producing chemical munitions. Their report, which covers the period from March 1 to July 7, also found that Syrian government forces had carried out chemical attacks on at least three other occasions since March ? in Idlib, Hamah, and eastern Ghouta ? using weaponised chlorine. No prosecutions so far The report is the 14th from the Commission of Inquiry, which has been tasked with detailing atrocities in the Syrian conflict that has killed more than 330,000 people since 2011. But despite documenting information about dozens of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, the commission's work has not yet led to any prosecutions. That has fuelled criticism and questions about the panel's usefulness, including from commission member Carla Del Ponte, who announced last month she was quitting, citing the failure to secure indictments. Reacting to Wednesday's finding, Human Rights Watch said that "those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria have faced no real consequences." "As evidence mounts, both the UN Security Council and the OPCW should take concrete measures to increase the pressure on the Syrian government to end the use of chemical weapons and to hold those responsible to account." But Moscow, the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, denounced the report as "amateurish, propagandistic, and not professional or impartial." "Despite claiming depth and even some scientific expertise, it is very superficial and this becomes evident when you read it," the foreign ministry's weapons proliferation chief Mikhail Ulyanov told the Interfax news service. Security Council permanent member Russia ? that supports Damascus militarily ? has consistently fended off accusations that the Syrian regime was responsible for a chemical weapons attack at Khan Sheikhun.
  21. DAMASCUS: Syria's army broke a years-long Daesh siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday, entering into a military base, state media said. "The Syrian Arab Army has advanced on the Brigade 137 base front on the western side of Deir Ezzor city and broken the siege imposed by the Daesh organisation," state news agency SANA said. Syrian government troops and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing for weeks towards Deir Ezzor city, capital of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, which borders Iraq. Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under Daesh siege for over two years, facing severe food and medical shortages. Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an Daesh offensive. The army´s advance to the Brigade 137 base Tuesday breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, to which it is connected by a road. But a southern government-held section, including the key military airport, remains surrounded. Government forces are heading towards the southern sector, however, and are currently around 15 kilometres away, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor. Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS. Earlier Tuesday, a local journalist inside the government-held northern part of Deir Ezzor reported the sound of fierce clashes and heavy artillery as the army approached. He said the national flag had been raised throughout the area in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers. Some residents, who have faced shortages of food and medicine throughout the siege, had begun greeting each other with "Good morning of victory," he added.
  22. MOSCOW: Two Russian servicemen have been killed in Deir al-Zor province after Daesh militants shelled a convoy they were escorting, the Russian Defence Ministry was cited as saying on Monday by the Interfax news agency. The convoy was transporting Russian ceasefire monitoring military staff when it came under mortar attack, the ministry was quoted as saying. One soldier was killed on the spot and the other died in hospital after sustaining serious injuries. Both were awarded posthumous military awards, the ministry said. Russia said earlier on Monday that its air force was helping the Syrian army push ahead with an offensive on the Euphrates city of Deir al-Zor, where Islamic State has besieged 93,000 civilians and an army garrison for years.
  23. Syrian pro-government forces set up an artillery weapon in Bir Qabaqib, more than 40 kilometres west of Deir Ezzor. -AFP1 BEIRUT: Syria's army battled Daesh on the edges of Deir Ezzor Monday, seeking to break the siege of a government enclave and oust the militants from a key stronghold. The militant group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqqa to attacking US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts. Deir Ezzor province borders Iraq, where Daesh has also been expelled from former strongholds Mosul and Tal Afar. The militants hold large parts of Deir Ezzor province, and more than half the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city, the remainder of which is controlled by government forces and under Daesh siege. Syrian troops backed by ally Russia have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor city on several fronts for weeks, and overnight they reached the Brigade 137 base on its western edge, a monitor said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops outside and inside the base were battling to break the Daesh siege of the base. "There have been multiple collapses of the Daesh line in western Deir Ezzor province, allowing the army to move quickly and arrive 10 kilometres from the besieged forces," a military source told AFP. Residents celebrate "The siege on the government troops will be broken within hours," he added. Syrian state media also reported the army was advancing towards the besieged base, which is adjacent to parts of the city still under government control. Provincial governor Mohamed Ibrahim Samra, quoted by state news agency SANA, said besieged residents were already celebrating as the army neared. "Yesterday Deir Ezzor city saw celebrations and rejoicing among all segments of society ahead of the expected victory with the advance of the Syrian Arab Army to the outskirts of the besieged city," he said. Daesh seized large parts of Deir Ezzor province, including its many oil fields, in mid-2014 as it rampaged across Syria and Iraq. By early 2015 it had also seized parts of Deir Ezzor city and laid siege to the remaining parts of it under government control. The siege tightened further earlier this year, when Daesh advanced and cut the government-held parts of the city in two, with a southern section of the key military airport now divided from a northern sector. An estimated 100,000 people remain in government-held parts of the city, which had a pre-war population of some 300,000. The Observatory estimates more than 10,000 people may live in the parts of the city held by IS, although precise information is hard to come by. Humanitarian crisis The siege has created a humanitarian crisis in the city, with food and medical shortages and soaring prices. The government has brought supplies in by helicopter, and the United Nations has periodically airdropped humanitarian aid, but the situation remains difficult for those under siege. Conditions are also reportedly dire for civilians trapped in Daesh-held parts of the city, with activists also reporting food and medical shortages as well as water and electricity cuts. Syria´s army has been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, including from the west through neighbouring Raqqa province, and from the south via central Homs. Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said forces advancing from the southwest were now less than 20 kilometres from the key Deir Ezzor military airport and are also advancing from the north towards the city. Capturing Deir Ezzor would be a key gain for Syria´s government, which has scored a series of military victories in recent months with Russian support. It has moved quickly towards the city, seeking to head off potential rival advances by US-backed fighters including the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces alliance which is conducting a separate battle to oust Daesh from the city of Raqqa. More than 330,00 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011, before spiralling into a multi-front civil war.
  24. Syria's players celebrate after an equalizer against China/REUTERS HONG KONG: Against all odds, Syria?s footballers have overcome more than six years of civil war and internal political rifts to raise hopes of qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Forced to play their home games away due to security concerns, Ayman Hakeem?s Syria have embarrassed a succession of better-resourced opponents to sit third in Group A of Asian qualifying, behind leaders Iran and South Korea. An unlikely win away to Iran on Tuesday coupled with defeat for South Korea by Uzbekistan in the final round would give Syria second spot and direct entry to the finals in Russia next year. Even if results do not entirely go their way, Syria can still hold onto third spot and have a chance to qualify through two rounds of playoffs. Political divisions threatened to gut the team early in the campaign, with players refusing to represent their country in protest over the actions of Bashar al-Assad?s regime during the conflict. But they have softened their stance, with veteran striker Firas Al Khatib ending his exile in March before Omar Al Soma was recently lured back to partner Al Hilal?s Omar Khrbin in attack. Stadiums in Malaysia have offered sanctuary throughout the final phase of qualifying, with only a handful of Syrian fans able to offer their compatriots support. Despite being perpetually on the road, the results have continued to stack up. Syria's coach Ayman Hakeem/REUTERS On Thursday, they defeated Qatar 3-1 at Hang Jebat stadium in Malaysia, eliminating the rich Gulf state and 2022 World Cup hosts from the race to Russia. Syria face a formidable task in Tehran against an Iranian side that has yet to concede a goal in this qualifying phase. Carlos Queiroz?s team have been imperious, booking their Russia ticket in June, but the Syrians are bolstered by the return of Al Soma, a player who could turn the tide in their favour. Syria?s most celebrated footballer due to his goal scoring exploits with Saudi club Al Ahli, Al Soma celebrated his return with victory over Qatar. ?Thanks to God, my return to the national team was good,? he said after the game. ?I hope that we can bring joy to our people, who need such joy. ?I will give my best in the next match in order to win and hopefully we can qualify for the World Cup.? Along with the in-form Khrbin, who struck twice against the Qataris, Syria could have the tools to unlock Iran?s stingy defence. Asian football is no stranger to war-affected nations making a big impact. Iraq won their first Asian Cup in 2007, at the height of the insurgency triggered by the United States-led coalition invasion in 2003.
  25. Turkish and Iranian military leaders held talks on Wednesday over cooperation in the Syrian conflict and counter-terrorism, officials said, during a rare visit to NATO-member Turkey by the Islamic Republic's military chief of staff. REUTERS/Stringer ANKARA: Turkish and Iranian military leaders held talks on Wednesday over cooperation in the Syrian conflict and counter-terrorism, officials said, during a rare visit to NATO-member Turkey by the Islamic Republic's military chief of staff. Turkey's ties with Washington have been strained by US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the visit by Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri is the latest sign that Ankara is increasing cooperation with other powers such as Iran and Russia. Baqeri met his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday and Turkey's Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli on Wednesday in what Turkish media said was the first visit by an Iranian chief of staff since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. He was due to meet President Tayyip Erdogan later on Wednesday. Turkey and Iran have supported rival sides in Syria's six-year-old conflict, with Iran-backed fighters helping President Bashar al-Assad to drive back rebels battling to overthrow him, including some supported by Ankara. Turkey is concerned that the Syrian chaos has empowered Kurdish forces who it says are closely tied to the long-running insurgency in its southeastern regions, as well as Daesh fighters who have waged attacks inside Turkey, and is working with Iran and Russia to reduce the fighting in some areas. An Iranian source said Baqeri was accompanied by the head of the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran's most powerful security entity. "There have been no such visits between the two countries for a long time, but considering regional developments and security issues ? border security and the fight against terrorism ? there was a need for such a visit," Baqeri told Iranian state television on arrival on Tuesday. The Iranian source said that, in addition to the war in Syria, the two sides would discuss the conflict in Iraq as well as dealing with Kurdish militants in the Turkish-Iranian border region, where Turkish media say Turkey has started building a frontier wall. Russian military chief Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed in May to set up "de-escalation zones" in Syria to try to stem the fighting in some parts of the country, including the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey and has since been overrun by militants linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate. That has thrown into question any suggestion that the three countries could deploy a force to police the Idlib region. "The negotiations regarding the Idlib issue are still ongoing," Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish broadcaster TRT Haber on Wednesday. "After the Iranian chief of staff, the Russian chief of staff will also come to Turkey," he added. Turkey has said for months that it is close to buying an S-400 missile defence system from Russia, and Erdogan said in July that the deal had already been signed. Cavusoglu said Russia understood Turkey's sensitivities about arming Kurdish fighters better than the United States, although he said U.S. officials had informed Turkey that the most recent shipments to the YPG did not include guns. "The United States gives us reports about how many weapons they have given to the YPG every month," he said. The latest "said they gave armored vehicles and a bulldozer, but no guns". Turkey's stepped-up military talks with Iran and Russia coincide with a major oil and gas deal involving firms from the three countries. The Turkish firm Unit International said this week it has signed a $7 billion agreement with Russia's state-owned Zarubezhneft and Iran's Ghadir Investment Holding to drill for oil and natural gas in Iran. Turkey is also discussing transporting more goods through Iran to the Gulf state of Qatar, which is locked in a dispute with its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.