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  1. Syrians from the rebel-held eastern Ghouta region, just outside Damascus, walk through a regime-controlled corridor in Hamuria on March 16. Photo: AFP Air strikes killed dozens of civilians in Eastern Ghouta on Friday and forced thousands more to flee, as Syrian troops pressed their blistering assault on the last rebel stronghold near Damascus. The latest deaths brought the toll for the nearly month-old offensive to 1,364, with world powers still unable to stop one of the devastating conflict´s worst crises. Syria´s war enters its eighth year with another deadly assault also unfolding in the north, where Turkish-led forces pressed an operation to seize the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin. The operation has sent thousands onto the roads, with bombing of the city of Afrin on Friday killing 43 civilians, a third of them killed in a deadly strike on a hospital. On the edge of Ghouta, a sprawling semi-rural area within mortar range of central Damascus, more than 2,400 civilians streamed out of destroyed towns, carrying scant belongings in bags and bundles. Crowds crammed into a government centre on the edge of Eastern Ghouta on Friday, unsure what the next step would be after walking straight into the arms of the forces that have relentlessly pounded their homes for weeks. Exodus "We were afraid of leaving -- they had told us the army would arrest us," said 35-year-old Abu Khaled, who used to run a retail clothing shop in Ghouta. "We reached the army and didn´t find that, but now we´re basically living in a camp," he told AFP. Syria´s envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said 40,000 people fled Ghouta on Thursday, and the sudden exodus appeared to have caught the government flat-footed. Long lines formed outside the public bathrooms, and displaced families complained of a lack of access to water or mattresses. The Syrian army in a message broadcast on state television urged all residents to use "corridors" it had established to leave the enclave, saying it had recaptured 70 percent of rebel territory. The ground offensive pressed by Syrian troops and allied militia has splintered Eastern Ghouta into three pockets, each held by a different faction. Those three Islamist groups said Friday they would be willing to negotiate directly with Russia on a ceasefire for Ghouta, but did not mention talks with the Syrian government. Their statement came hours after UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said talks were ongoing between Russia and one of the groups, Jaish al-Islam. That negotiations track had already produced six days of calm for Ghouta´s largest town of Douma, he said. Douma has also seen deliveries of food, and hundreds of civilians have been bussed out as part of medical evacuations. Hospital bombed The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 96 civilians were killed in Russian and regime air strikes on the southwestern Ghouta pocket on Friday. The Observatory says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used, but Russia on Friday denied its jets were taking part in the Ghouta operation. The heaviest of Friday´s raids were on Kafr Batna, where at least 70 civilians died and where the Observatory said incendiary weapons were used. A reporter in the town contributing to AFP saw eight charred bodies in the streets and said wounded people were left in the roads as rescue centres had been put out of service by bombing. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has in recent months recovered swathes of territory lost at the beginning of the conflict and Ghouta was one of his key remaining targets. An exodus of similar proportions was under way hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the north in the city of Afrin, where Kurdish forces have been nearly encircled by Turkish troops. The Observatory said Thursday more than 30,000 people had fled the city in 24 hours, and another 15,000 escaped on Friday, fearing a siege. The monitor said a Turkish strike on Friday hit Afrin´s hospital, killing 16 civilians, including two pregnant women. "There was bombing on the city during the day that got close to the hospital, but this evening it was directly hit," Serwan Bery, co-chair of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told AFP. "It was the only functioning hospital in Afrin city," he said. The deadly strike brought to 43 the number of civilians killed in the town on Friday, the Observatory said. Turkey´s military denied hitting the hospital, saying on Twitter that its operation in Afrin "is carried out in such a way as to not cause any harm to civilians." The UN said it was worried the forces staying inside were not allowing civilians to flee, as that would leave them more exposed to Turkey´s superior firepower. Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN´s Rights Office decried "reports that civilians are being prevented from leaving Afrin city by Kurdish forces ... (and) are being held to be used as human shields."
  2. Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gesture as they drive down a road in the area of Hallubi, north of Afrin. -AFP JANDAIRIS: Turkey has reached a key milestone in its operation against Kurdish militia inside Syria by taking the town of Jandairis, boosting its chances of successfully completing a tough campaign that has claimed the lives of dozens of Turkish troops. Ankara launched operation "Olive Branch" against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on January 20, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowing it would be "finished in a very short time". The operation in the northern Afrin region has been a watershed in Turkey's modern relations with the West, pitting the Turkish army against a militia force allied with fellow NATO member the United States in the battle against Daesh. But Turkey initially made slow progress, with the battle-hardened YPG putting up fierce resistance and the army making only the most gradual of indents inside the border towards Afrin town, the main target of the campaign. Forty-two Turkish soldiers have been killed, each one hailed as a martyr and buried with full honours in a campaign where the support of the Turkish public is crucial. But the capture of Jandairis, the key town in the district after Afrin itself, is a major success for Turkey and gives the army and allied Syrian rebels a clear shot at Afrin town to the east. "The Turkish-led operations seem to be progressing slowly but fairly steadily," said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation. "Turkey and its rebel allies spent the first few weeks banging their heads against the Kurdish perimeter but since then they are eating their way through YPG defences," he told AFP. 'One direction battle' Elizabeth Teoman, Turkey analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), described the seizure as a "key milestone in Turkey's line of advance towards Afrin city". "Operation Olive Branch appears to be progressing as the Turks hoped," she commented. Lund described Jandairis as an "important step along the way" for Turkey. "Maybe it's slower and more painful than they would have liked, but so far the battle only flows in one direction, which is towards Kurdish defeat." The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Turkish army and allied forces took control of Jandairis on Thursday after heavy bombardment. Turkey's Anadolu news agency also said they were in control of the town while sporadic fighting continued. An AFP reporter in Jandairis saw bodies of male and female YPG fighters in the streets as Faylaq al-Sham, one of the main pro-Ankara groups, raised its flag above the building the YPG had used as headquarters. The town was empty of civilians with most shops shuttered down after civilians apparently left in a hurry. Turkish security expert Abdullah Agar told AFP the capture had given Turkey a bridgehead on one of the three key routes heading to Afin. "It means that whatever they do, the YPG will not be able to stop the advance of the Turkish army, even if they said they were sending reinforcements to Afrin," he added. 'More costly fight' What happens next is less clear and dependent partly on a complex web of diplomatic intrigue that includes all the players in the Syrian conflict such as the United States, Russia, Iran and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The YPG had been counting on a degree of support from Russia and Moscow's allies in Damascus, but this has yet to materialise in any meaningful form. Turkey despises the YPG, seeing it as the Syrian branch of its own Kurdish militants, and fears the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in postwar Syria risks inciting separatism at home. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said that Turkey's ultimate aim was now clear - to take control of the entire area including Afrin itself. He said Turkey could besiege Afrin, as has been threatened by Erdogan. But he added the YPG was looking to block civilians in Afrin as human shields and send in more troops. "Turkey, as a NATO member, will not be able to allow the deaths of thousands of civilians in Afrin," Balanche said, adding Ankara would also not want its military losses to rise above 200. "We may see a more costly fight for Turkish forces in the weeks ahead despite gains thus far," said Teoman of the ISW.
  3. UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council met behind closed doors Wednesday to press Syria and Russia to comply with a ceasefire endorsed eleven days ago to allow humanitarian aid and medical evacuations from Eastern Ghouta. France and Britain requested the urgent meeting as the Syrian government sent militias as reinforcements to the militant enclave and heavy airstrikes battered key towns. Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog, who negotiated the ceasefire resolution along with Kuwait, said implementation of the truce remains "totally and completely inadequate." "So far we see minimal signs only from the Syrian authorities to implement the resolution and we are very, very disappointed about that," Skoog told reporters ahead of the meeting. Backed by Russia, the council unanimously adopted on February 24 a resolution demanding the 30-day cessation of hostilities to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid and evacuations of the sick and wounded. A first aid convoy reached Eastern Ghouta on Monday but the delivery was cut short as air strikes pounded the enclave. Aid workers offloaded 32 of the 46 trucks. Nearly half of the food carried on the convoy which had been approved by the Syrian government could not be delivered and part of the medical and health supplies were removed from trucks by Syrian authorities, the UN said. The Swedish ambassador said the council would push for another aid convoy to be allowed to return to Eastern Ghouta on Thursday to deliver food and medicine. Skoog said the safety of the aid workers must be guaranteed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 800 civilians - including at least 177 children - have been killed since Russia-backed Syrian forces launched an assault on the besieged enclave outside Damascus on February 18.
  4. OPCW head Edmond Mulet, left, Syrian UN envoy Ramzy Ezeldine Ramzy, and US envoy Nikki Haley discuss the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism at the UN SEcurity Council on November 7, 2017. Photo: AFP file1 UNITED NATIONS: The United States is asking the UN Security Council to set up a new inquiry of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following reports of suspected chlorine use in Eastern Ghouta, according to a draft resolution obtained by AFP on Thursday. The US push to establish the new panel comes three months after Russia killed off a previous UN-led investigation by vetoing the renewal of its mandate, arguing that the probe was flawed. A draft resolution presented to the council on Wednesday would establish the United Nations Independent Mechanism of Investigation (UNIMI) for a period of one year "to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in" Syria. A council diplomat said it was unlikely, however, that Russia would back the measure, which calls for investigators to operate in "an impartial, independent, and professional manner." In January, Russia presented its own draft resolution setting up a new panel, but Western powers expressed reservations, saying Moscow?s proposal would give the Syrian government an upper hand over any investigation of attacks on its territory. It was unclear when the US or Russian draft resolutions on the Syrian chemical inquiry would come to a vote. The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and Russia, its ally in the war has questioned UN findings that it carried out sarin and chlorine attacks. New reports of chlorine attacks UN diplomats met Thursday to discuss the US-drafted measure, which comes days after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a child suffocated to death and 13 other people fell ill from a suspected chlorine attack. A doctor who treated the patients following an airstrike Sunday on the village of Al-Shifuniyah in Eastern Ghouta said he believed it was "probably a chlorine gas attack." Russia and the United States agreed in 2015 to set up the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has identified dozens of incidents of chemical weapons used in Syria, but its mandate does not allow it to determine who carried out the attack. After the OPCW said that sarin had been used in the militant-held town of Khan Sheikhun in April 2016, the JIM investigated and determined that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack, that killed scores of people. The panel also found that President Bashar al-Assad?s forces used chlorine in at least three attacks on militant-held villages in 2014 and 2015, and members of Daesh had used mustard gas in 2015. The Observatory reported 21 cases of suffocation in Eastern Ghouta on 22 January. Residents and medical sources said they suspected a chlorine attack. A similar attack targeted the outskirts of Douma on January 13. The council is scheduled to hear a briefing from OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu on March 20.
  5. We are at a juncture of humanity where the world has been stripped from having any hope for war-torn Syria. People dying by the minute, innocent lives being tossed away, children being separated from families, it's a world crisis like no other. While the media is highlighting what this civil war is leading to and celebrities are urging people to pray for Syria, let's face the reality. How does an Instagram post about your heart bleeding for the war victims actually helping them? Amidst this social media chaos, the Khalsa Aid is what heroes are made of. It is an international organisation which has always been volunteering whenever a country has been hit by a tragedy. The volunteers of Khalsa Aid are currently in Syria and doing whatever they can for the people there. Supporting children of #Syria Khalsa Aid has been supporting the #Syrian refugees since 2014. These beautiful Syrian twins were in great discomfort due to skin disorder. We funded the medical treatment. Our work continues .. pls support. pic.twitter.com/RqxraUuarW — Khalsa Aid (@Khalsa_Aid) February 28, 2018 Syrian Refugee Children. We have been assisting #Syrian refugees since 2014 in 4 countries Inc Lebanon & Turkey. We have recently set up a breakfast program for 3-5year old Syrian children in Lebanon with @JusoorSY #Syria pic.twitter.com/1CADUeQ41A — Khalsa Aid (@Khalsa_Aid) February 27, 2018 The Khalsa Aid has been helping people in Turkey and Syria since 2016 and volunteers of all faiths and communities travel together to make life liveable for the victims of civil war. Needless to say, they are winning every heart on the internet today. Where there is a need, guru's Sikh @Khalsa_Aid is there. War reasons could be any, but where there is a need of 'Langer' , @RaviSinghKA and team act for wellness of survivors. Thanks to @Khalsa_Aid @JustinTrudeau @HarjitSajjan @randeepssarai @JarnailSinghAAP @ArvindKejriwal pic.twitter.com/4xXpDNSDUB — Baljinder Singh Ubhi (@Ubhicanada) February 28, 2018 Hats off to you ððð @Khalsa_Aid@LangarAid @RaviSinghKA for rescue in syria रबà¥à¤¬à¤¾ à¤à¤¢à¤¼à¤¦à¥ à¤à¤²à¤¾ बà¤à¥à¤¶à¥ ðð#SaveSyrianChildren #StopKillingInSyria pic.twitter.com/TTcRSywfBD — Manjeet Kaur (@Manjeet64576767) February 28, 2018 @Khalsa_Aid is doing a commendable job against all odds. Hats off to you guys for being at the front line of every human catastroph, be it in myanmar or syria. May the almighty allah bless you in all your efforts & hard work for humanity ððð https://t.co/Bea0j1aGB5 — ikhtisar (@ikhtisar1) March 1, 2018 In case it strikes a chord with you and you wish to help, one can donate here (https://www.khalsaaid.org/donate). We need to understand that this is a war we need to fight as humans and helping hands are any day better that just praying lips.
  6. Photo: AFP DOUMA: A humanitarian "pause" announced by Russia in Syria?s deadly bombardment of Eastern Ghouta took effect Tuesday, offering a short window for the enclave?s traumatised residents to emerge from their basements. The daily five-hour respite, which began at 9:00 am (0700 GMT), was announced by Russia under pressure from international powers anxious to stop more than a week of air strikes, artillery fire and rockets that killed more than 500 people. Moscow said it would allow some of the nearly 400,000 people living in the rebel-held area to leave the battered enclave through safe corridors. Russia hinted regime forces had not ruled out targeting certain areas or groups. Rocket fire was reported at least once after the start of the truce but no major breaches were immediately recorded. A spokesman for the UN?s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva said it was not yet clear when aid could be sent in. "We cannot send people on a convoy in any area on the promises of whomever. We have to see a ceasefire actually taking place on the ground" before aid trucks can be deployed, Jens Laerke told AFP. The "pause" falls short of the month-long ceasefire the United Nations had supported in a bid to stop one of the bloodiest assaults in Syria?s seven-year-old conflict. "Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see an end to all hostilities extended by 30 days, as stipulated by the Security Council," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, more than 550 civilians ? almost a quarter of them children ? were killed in nine days of bombardment. Air strikes, barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft and heavy artillery shelling have turned several towns in Eastern Ghouta into fields of ruins. Rockets and shells fired from the enclave -- which lies within mortar range of central Damascus -- have also claimed around 20 lives in regime-controlled areas in recent days. ?Truce is a farce? Residents in the enclave were relieved to have some respite from the bombs that have rained on their homes since February 18, but many remained defiant and reluctant to leave the enclave. Some residents left the basements they had been cowering in for days to check on their property and buy food despite skyrocketing prices in the enclave, besieged since 2013. "This Russian truce is a farce. Russia is killing us and bombing us every day," said Samer al-Buaidhani, a 25-year-old resident of Douma, which is the main town in Eastern Ghouta. "I don?t believe it?s safe for me or my family to leave by this system," he told AFP, when asked about the Russian pledge to open humanitarian corridors. A statement by Russia?s Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria said the decision to enforce a "humanitarian pause" was made jointly with Damascus. "The Syrian government forces will cease combat actions against terrorists during this pause," it said, adding however that the measure was effective only in certain areas of Eastern Ghouta. "The required number of buses and ambulance cars has been prepared" at a checkpoint to evacuate the sick and wounded, said the statement by the centre, a Russian body monitoring humanitarian efforts and peace initiatives in Syria. According to the United Nations more than 700 people need urgent medical evacuation from Eastern Ghouta. Syrian state television aired live footage of the checkpoint area but no civilians could be seen boarding the waiting buses. In Hammuriyeh, another town in the sprawling semi-rural enclave, Mohammed Abdullah said the pause left civilians with a choice between two evils. "The truce is not in the people?s interest, we have two options: death or displacement," said the 30-year-old. "The campaign we were targeted with was an extermination campaign, not a simple bombardment. What we want is a full and permanent ceasefire for all of Ghouta," he said. The scenario put in place by the regime and its Russian ally was reminiscent of the deal that saw civilians bused out of the northern city of Aleppo in late 2016.
  7. Syrians walk past destroyed buildings in Arbin in the militant-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta. -AFP DOUMA: Russia called a daily "humanitarian pause" in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, bowing to international pressure to halt the carnage in the militant-held enclave where fresh strikes claimed more civilian lives on Monday. A UN Security Council resolution for a 30-day truce had remained a dead letter since it was passed on Saturday, and Moscow, the Syrian regime's main backer, ended up setting its own terms to stem one of the worst episodes of bloodletting in Syria's seven-year-old conflict. The United Nations, France and Germany had made pressing appeals for Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand its Damascus ally enforce a ceasefire, including in Eastern Ghouta. He eventually agreed to a five-hour daily window that would allow residents of the battered enclave east of the capital to come out of the underground shelters they have been cowering in. "On the instructions of the Russian president, with the goal of avoiding civilian casualties in Eastern Ghouta, from February 27 - tomorrow - from 9:00 to 14:00 there will be a humanitarian pause," Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said. According to a statement sent to AFP, he said there should be similar pauses in the southern Al-Tanf border region and Rukban, near the Jordanian border. Shoigu said "humanitarian corridors" would be opened to allow civilians to leave, adding that their locations would soon be divulged. UN chief Antonio Guterres had expressed frustration with the lack of results the resolution yielded and stressed Monday in Geneva: "Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It is high time to stop this hell on earth." The intensity of the bombardment on Eastern Ghouta had eased somewhat over the weekend but deadly strikes and shelling never stopped. Trapped in rubble An AFP correspondent in Douma said the bombardment had been very heavy overnight and impeded rescuers in their work. The regime intensified its air campaign against Eastern Ghouta, which has been outside government control since 2012, at the beginning of the month. On February 18, the Syrian government further turned up the heat on the territory controlled by terrorist groups. The UN said in a statement Monday that a staggering 76 percent of private housing in Eastern Ghouta was damaged. Much of the nearly 400,000-strong population of Eastern Ghouta has moved underground, with families pitching tents in basements and venturing out only to assess damage to their property and buy food. Russia dismissed reports of a chemical attack as "bogus stories". The regime has reinforced its deployment around the enclave over the past month, raising fears of a ground offensive that aid groups have warned could cause even worse suffering. Other flashpoints With Daesh's once-sprawling "caliphate" now wiped off the map, the regime has looked bent on completing its reconquest and Eastern Ghouta is a key target. The militants only control an estimated three percent of Syria territory, small pockets which various anti-Daesh forces continue to flush out. The Observatory reported that at least 25 civilians were killed in a wave of air strikes on holdout Daesh fighters in eastern Syria on Sunday. It said the strikes were carried out by the US-led coalition but a US military spokesman said "there were no reported coalition strikes conducted in Syria" that day. Another flashpoint in Syria has been the northern region of Afrin, where Kurdish forces have come under attack from neighbouring Turkey since January 20. Turkey has warned it did not consider that the UN ceasefire resolution, which is not limited to Eastern Ghouta but whose wording excludes operations against terror groups, should affect its offensive on Afrin. Macron on Monday called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be "terrorist", to stress the truce should apply there too.
  8. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley smiles as she speaks to members of the Security Council before the vote for ceasefire to Syrian bombing in eastern Ghouta. -Reuters1 UNITED NATIONS: A UN Security Council meeting to vote on a 30-day ceasefire in Syria failed to start as scheduled at 1700 GMT on Saturday as negotiations continued in an effort to avert a Russian veto, diplomats said. It was not immediately known if the vote would be postponed on a draft resolution demanding a truce to allow humanitarian aid deliveries and the evacuation of the sick and wounded. US Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters as she went into the council chamber: "Today we are going to see if Russia has a conscience." Russia is supporting the Syrian government, and the UN negotiations have stumbled over Russian demands that militant groups fighting government forces comply with the truce. Negotiations on Friday led to amendments to the proposed measure, which now states that the ceasefire will begin "without delay," not after 72 hours as provided in a previous draft. The text demands the lifting of all sieges including in Eastern Ghouta, where Syrian government forces are waging a fierce bombing campaign. The vote, initially expected on Thursday, was delayed to Friday and finally rescheduled for Saturday. Sweden and Kuwait presented the measure two weeks ago.
  9. People inspect missile remains in the besieged town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT: The U.N. Security Council on Friday delayed a vote on a demand for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, where pro-government warplanes have been pounding the last rebel bastion near Damascus in one of the deadliest bombing campaigns of the seven-year civil war. A draft resolution aimed at ending the carnage in the eastern Ghouta district and elsewhere in Syria will be put up for a vote in the 15-member council at noon (1700 GMT) on Saturday, Kuwait?s U.N. Ambassador Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi said. The 24-hour delay followed a flurry of last-minute negotiations on the text drafted by Sweden and Kuwait after Russia, a veto-holding ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, proposed new amendments on Friday. ?Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria,? U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley posted on Twitter. Talks have centered on the paragraph demanding a cessation of hostilities for 30 days to allow aid access and medical evacuations. A proposal for the truce to start 72 hours after the resolution?s adoption has been watered-down to instead demand it start ?without delay? in a bid to win Russian support. Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moscow does not want to specify when a truce should start. It was not immediately clear how Russia would vote on Saturday. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France to be adopted. ?We?re not going to give up. ... I hope that we will adopt something forceful, meaningful, impactful tomorrow,? Olof Skoog, Sweden?s U.N. ambassador, told reporters. Previous ceasefires, however, have had a poor record of ending fighting in Syria, where Assad?s forces have gained the upper hand. The towns and farms of eastern Ghouta have been under government siege since 2013, with shortages of food, water and electricity that worsened last year. Earlier on Friday, the densely populated enclave was bombed for a sixth straight day, witnesses said. The civilian casualties and devastation there are among the worst in Syria since the government captured rebel-held parts of Aleppo in 2016. At least 462 people have been killed, including at least 99 children, and many hundreds injured, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Friday. Syrian state media reported one person was killed and 58 injured in rebel shelling of sites in Damascus, including a hospital. Clouding any potential ceasefire is the Syrian government?s frequently used tactic of pushing rebels to surrender their strongholds after long sieges and military offensives. Insurgents in eastern Ghouta have vowed not to accept such a fate, ruling out an evacuation of fighters, their families and other civilians of the kind that ended rebellions in Aleppo and Homs after heavy bombardment in earlier years. ?We refuse categorically any initiative that includes getting the residents out of their homes and moving them elsewhere,? Ghouta rebel factions wrote in a letter to the Security Council. Eastern Ghouta has 400,000 people spread over a larger area than other enclaves the government has recaptured. Late on Thursday, government aircraft dropped leaflets urging civilians to depart and hand themselves over to the Syrian army, marking corridors through which they could leave safely. Pressure on Russia Leading up to the Security Council vote, all eyes have been on Russia. Moscow has a history of standing in the way of Security Council measures that would harm Assad?s interests. Germany and France were among the nations to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to support the resolution. Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted guarantees that rebel fighters will not shoot at residential areas in Damascus. Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants. They have said their main aim is to stop rebel shelling of the capital, and have accused insurgents in Ghouta of holding residents as human shields. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government planes and artillery hit Douma, Zamalka and other towns across the enclave in the early hours of Friday. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Medical charities say more than a dozen hospitals were hit, making it nearly impossible to treat the wounded. A witness in Douma who asked not to be identified said by telephone that the early morning bombing was the most intense so far. Another resident, in the town of Hamouriyeh, said the assault had continued ?like the other days.? ?Whenever the bombing stops for some moments, the Civil Defence vehicles go out to the targeted places. They work to remove the debris from the road,? Bilal Abu Salah said. The Civil Defence there said its rescuers rushed to help the wounded after strikes on Hamouriyeh and Saqba. The emergency service, which operates in rebel territory, says it has pulled hundreds of people out from under rubble in recent days. Hamza Birqdar, the military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, said it had thwarted nine attacks by pro-government militias trying to storm a front in the southeast of Ghouta.
  10. ANKARA: Turkey on Wednesday said it would consider a "legitimate target" any group that comes to the aid of Kurdish militia in Afrin in northern Syria. The threat from presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin came a day after Syrian pro-regime forces entered Afrin, only to come under fire from Turkish forces. Last month Ankara launched a cross-border air and ground offensive backing Syrian rebels against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. Turkey says the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, and is blacklisted as a terror group by the United States and the European Union. "Today, tomorrow could they attempt this again? It's possible. But the relevant measures have been taken," Kalin said, after Turkey said it fired "warning shots" at Syrian pro-regime forces in Afrin. "Every step taken in support of the YPG terror organisation would mean (any forces intervening on the Kurdish militants' side) are on the same level as terror organisations. And for us, that would make them legitimate targets," Kalin told reporters in Ankara. "It doesn't matter who makes such an attempt, there will be serious consequences." Syrian state media on Monday said that pro-Damascus forces would head to Afrin to "join the resistance against the Turkish aggression". The YPG has controlled Afrin since Syrian government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in the country's north in 2012. The US has been working closely with the YPG against Daesh in Syria, sparking anger in Ankara. Turkey has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster and supported opposition fighters throughout the seven-year conflict. Kalin said Ankara does not have any official contact with Damascus, but that if necessary, Turkish and Syrian intelligence could enter into "direct or indirect" contact.
  11. A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region HAMMURIYEH, SYRIA: Heavy Syrian bombardment killed at least 77 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on Monday, a monitor said, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. The escalation came as pro-government forces were also expected to enter the northern Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, to take a stand against a month-old Turkish assault there. Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition pocket around Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad has dispatched reinforcements there in an apparent concerted effort to retake it. As the United Nations decried the "senseless human suffering", a barrage of air strikes, rocket fire and artillery slammed into several towns across Eastern Ghouta on Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 children were among 77 civilians killed in the assault, while around 300 other people were wounded. "The regime is bombing Eastern Ghouta to pave the way for a ground offensive," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. The main opposition National Coalition, which is based in Turkey, denounced the "war of extermination" in Eastern Ghouta as well as the "international silence". In a statement, it also accused regime ally Russia of seeking to "bury the political process" for a solution to the conflict. Residents of Hammuriyeh could be seen rushing indoors in panic as soon as they heard the sound of jets. Alaa al-Din, a 23-year-old Syrian in Hammuriyeh, said civilians were afraid of a potential government offensive. "Ghouta´s fate is unknown. We´ve got nothing but God´s mercy and hiding out in our basements," he told AFP. "There´s no alternative." Wailing children Shelling also hit the town of Douma, where an AFP correspondent saw five toddlers brought to a hospital, covered in dust and wailing uncontrollably. The hospital was full of distraught civilians: one father slapped his forehead after finding his two dead children, another erupted into tears as he discovered the body of his newborn on a purple sheet next to a pool of blood. Eastern Ghouta is held by two main factions, while militants control small pockets including one directly adjacent to the capital. The Observatory and Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan had said negotiations were under way for the evacuation of militants from Eastern Ghouta. But escalating military pressure indicate that the regime would opt for a ground assault instead of talks, the monitor said. Government troops carried out a relentless five-day bombing campaign earlier this month that killed around 250 civilians in the enclave and wounded hundreds. Around the same time, the monitor said, the regime began dispatching military reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta. After days of relative calm, the government sent more than 260 rockets crashing into Eastern Ghouta on Sunday. The regime is keen to regain control of Eastern Ghouta to halt the deadly salvo of rockets and mortars that rebels fire on Damascus. The United Nations said Monday that the targeting of civilians in Eastern Ghouta "must stop now". "It´s imperative to end this senseless human suffering," Panos Moumtzis, the UN´s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis said in a statement. About half a dozen rockets hit the capital Sunday night, AFP correspondents said. State news agency SANA reported that one person was killed. More than 20 civilians have been killed by rebel fire this month alone in regime-held Damascus. Regime to enter Afrin? All was quiet in the capital on Monday but since rumours of an imminent assault on Eastern Ghouta started spreading, people living close to the rebel enclave started packing their bags. Jawad al-Obros, 30, said he was looking to move to a hotel in the western sector of the city to escape his home in an east Damascus neighbourhood that has been regularly hit by rockets from Ghouta. "We´re tired of this situation. It seems that there´s no solution but a full-blown military one," he told AFP. More than 340,000 people have been killed since Syria´s conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad´s government. It has since evolved into a war that has carved up the country into rival zones of influence among the regime, rebels, militants and Kurdish forces. The Kurdish People´s Protection Units (YPG) control the northwestern region of Afrin, target of a month-old assault by the Turkish army and allied Syrian rebels. Turkey sees the YPG as a "terror" group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), outlawed by Ankara, and wants to clear it from its southern border. The YPG has controlled Afrin since 2012, when Syrian troops withdrew from it and other Kurdish-majority areas. Syrian state media said Monday that pro-regime forces were preparing to enter the area to "join the resistance against the Turkish aggression".
  12. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Shake hands during a joint press conference ANKARA: Turkey and United States on Friday agreed to work together in Syria after weeks of tensions over Ankara's latest cross-border operation that raised fears of a military confrontation between the two NATO allies. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu said after talks in Ankara that the two sides would set up working groups to solve key issues that have bedevilled relations. They gave few details on how this could be achieved but indicated that solving a dispute over the control of the flashpoint town of Manbij was a priority. "We are not going to act alone any longer, not US doing one thing, Turkey doing another," Tillerson said after the talks. "We will work together... we have good mechanisms on how we can achieve this, there is a lot of work to be done," he added. Cavusoglu said Turkey and the US were agreed on the need to normalise relations. He said that ties were at a "critical phase" and vowed to create "mechanisms" to discuss the issues that were causing problems. A prime task of Tillerson on his trip to Ankara is to allay Turkish anger over US policy in Syria, a dispute which has ignited the biggest crisis in bilateral ties since the 2003 Iraq war. Washington has warned that Turkey's operation against the People's Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia in the Afrin region of Syria risks distracting from the fight against militants. Tillerson called on Ankara to "show restraint in its operation" while insisting that Turkey and the United States "share the same objectives in Syria". Tillerson the day earlier held over three hours of talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with presidential sources saying the Turkish leader "openly" laid out Turkey´s expectations and priorities. In a hugely unusual break from protocol, the only other official present at Tillerson´s meeting with Erdogan at the presidential palace was Cavusoglu who also acted as translator, US sources said. 'Solve Manbij' Analysts say the level of tension was similar to 2003 when Turkey refused to let US troops operate from its territory for the Iraq war, or even the aftermath of Ankara's invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Turkey's operation against the YPG, which Ankara blacklists as a terror group, has seen Turkish troops fighting a militia which is closely allied with the US in the battle against Daesh. For Ankara, the YPG is a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terror outfit by the US and the EU. Erdogan this month upped the ante by warning US troops to leave Manbij, a YPG-held town east of Afrin, raising fears of a clash between the allies. The United States has a military presence in Manbij. He even warned that the US risked being dealt an "Ottoman slap" in Syria - a backhand thwack which, according to legend, could kill an opponent at a stroke. But Tillerson added that Turkey and the United States had to solve the tensions surrounding Manbij as a "priority". "Manbij is going to be given priority in our joint working effort," he said. The town was once held by Daesh before they were pushed out by Kurdish militia and Tillerson said it was vital it did not fall again into militant hands. In a joint statement, Washington and Ankara agreed they would "decisively stand against all attempts to create faits accomplis and demographic changes within Syria" as part of their commitment to the preservation of Syria's territorial integrity. Detained US citizens The squabble over Syria is, however, just one of a litany of issues burdening Turkey-US relations. Ties were damaged after the failed coup of 2016 with Turkey stung by a perceived lack of US solidarity and angered by Washington's refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of ordering the putsch. Tillerson has also urged the release of Turkish citizens who have been caught up in the post-coup crackdown. Last week, NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for being a member of Gulen's movement. US pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in Izmir, has been held on similar charges since October 2016.
  13. MOSCOW: Five Russian citizens may have been killed in Syria in clashes with US-led coalition forces this month, but they were not Russian military personnel, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman told a news briefing on Thursday. The spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said media reports about dozens or hundreds of Russian dead in Syria were "disinformation". Associates of Russian private military contractors fighting alongside government forces in Syria have said there were large-scale casualties among the contractors when US-led coalition forces clashed with pro-government forces in Syria´s Deir al-Zor province on February 7.
  14. A general view shows damage at a site hit by airstrikes on Tuesday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria April 5, 2017. Photo: AFP file DAMASCUS: The Syrian government on Wednesday denied it possessed chemical weapons and branded the use of such arms "immoral and unacceptable", following a French warning of punitive strikes. "Syria?s government categorically denies possessing... chemical weapons. We consider the use of such arms as immoral and unacceptable, whatever the context," said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, quoted by state news agency SANA. On Tuesday, France?s President Emmanuel Macron warned his country would launch strikes if proof emerged that the Syrian regime had used banned chemical weapons against its civilians. According to Washington, at least six chlorine attacks have been reported since early January in rebel-held areas, resulting in dozens of injuries. Damascus last month also denied carrying out chemical attacks and its ally Moscow denounced such charges as a "propaganda campaign", stressing the perpetrators had not been identified. France, like the United States, suspects the Syrian regime but says it does not yet have concrete evidence on the nature and origin of the attacks. Damascus has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons, with the United Nations among those blaming government forces for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun that left scores dead. In retaliation for that alleged attack the US carried out cruise missile strikes on a Syrian regime airbase.
  15. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: AFP file JERUSALEM: Israel issued stark warnings on Sunday over Iran?s presence in neighbouring Syria after a confrontation threatened to open a new and unpredictable period in the country?s seven-year civil war. Israel carried out major air raids in Syria on Saturday, including against what it described as Iranian targets ? the first time it had publicly acknowledged doing so since the war began. The raids came after an Israeli F16 fighter was shot down by Syrian air defences. The pilots survived, but it was Israel?s first loss of a warplane in battle since 1982. "We inflicted on Saturday a heavy blow to Iranian and Syrian forces," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday?s cabinet meeting. "We made clear to everyone that our rules of engagement will not change in any way. We will continue to harm anyone who tries to harm us. This was our policy and this will remain our policy." Other Israeli ministers spoke of refusing to accept Iran entrenching itself militarily in Syria, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly. Tehran denies it is doing so. While several analysts said they did not expect a further escalation in the coming days, some spoke of the possibility of the Syrian war entering a new phase. Syria has become more emboldened to try to stop Israeli strikes inside the country, while Israel wants to maintain its ability to operate there when it sees fit, said Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think tank. Israel has sought to stay out of direct involvement in the Syrian war, but it acknowledges carrying out dozens of air strikes there to stop what it describes as deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Israel fought a devastating war in 2006 with Hezbollah, which along with Iran and Russia backs the Syrian regime in the conflict. "I think this incident is more likely to be contained because fundamentally it is a gradual attempt to renegotiate the so-called rules of the game," Zalzberg said, adding that Russia should mediate. Witnesses said Israel had deployed a missile defence system in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the demarcation line with Syria on Sunday morning. ?Playing with fire? Saturday?s events began with Israel shooting down what it described as an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli airspace from Syria ? which Tehran has denied. On Sunday, Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus alleged the drone was a copy of a US model captured by Iran in 2011. He said the conclusion was made from an analysis of the drone?s debris. Israel responded on Saturday with a raid on what it said was the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the drone. During that raid, the Israeli F16 met heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and was hit, Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Amnon Ein Dar told army radio. The pilots ejected and the plane crashed inside Israel. One crew member was severely wounded, but his condition was said to be improving on Sunday. Israel then carried out what it called "large-scale" air strikes inside Syria, including against what it described as Iranian targets. Conricus warned on Saturday that Syria and Iran were "playing with fire", but stressed that Israel was not seeking an escalation. "This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty" in recent years, Conricus said. Iran dismissed Israeli "lies" and said Syria had the right to defend itself against Israeli attacks. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said "Iran does not have a military presence in Syria, and has only sent military advisers at the request of the Syrian government." Russia stressed the need to "avoid any measure that could lead to a dangerous escalation". United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate de-escalation. Netanyahu spoke with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after Saturday?s confrontation. Washington backed Israel and blamed Iran for the escalation. Tillerson on Sunday begins a Middle East tour that will take him to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait. Netanyahu has met regularly with Putin in recent months in a bid to convince Russia to keep Iranian forces away from Israeli territory. Russia and Israel have also established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria. Israel is technically at war with Syria and occupies a swathe of the Golan Heights that it seized in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
  16. Israeli security forces examine the remains of an F-16 Israeli warplane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun JERUSALEM/BEIRUT: Anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria on Saturday in the most serious confrontations yet between Israel and Iranian-backed forces based across the border. The F-16, one of at least eight Israeli planes despatched in response to what Israel said was an Iranian drone?s incursion into its airspace earlier in the day, was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, an Israeli official told Reuters. Both pilots ejected and were injured, one critically. Israel then launched a second and more intensive air raid, hitting what it said were 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria, including Syrian air defence systems. Lebanon?s Iran-backed Hezbollah group said the downing of the plane marked the ?start of a new strategic phase? that would limit Israel?s ability to enter Syrian airspace. Iran?s involvement in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in a nearly 7-year-old civil war - including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat. But Israel and Syria signalled they were not seeking wider conflict, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to military headquarters in Tel Aviv and the pro-Assad alliance pledged a strong response to any Israeli ?terrorist action?. ?Israel seeks peace but we will continue to defend ourselves steadfastly against any attack against us or any attempt by Iran to establish itself against us in Syria,? Netanyahu said in a televised statement. Russia, whose forces began intervening on behalf of Assad in 2015, expressed its concern and urged both sides to exercise restraint and avoid escalation. Netanyahu said he had spoken by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that they agreed Israel-Russia military coordination in regard to Syria would continue. Putin told Netanyahu in the phone call that there was a need to avoid any steps that would lead to a new confrontation in the region, Interfax news agency reported. A Western diplomat in the region said: ?My impression is that it seems to be contained at this point. I don?t think anybody wants to escalate further.? A Pentagon spokesman said the United States fully supported Israel?s right to defend itself, and a State Department spokeswoman said the United States is ?deeply concerned? about the ?escalation of violence over Israel?s border.? UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is closely watching the ?alarming? military escalation throughout Syria and calls on all sides to exercise restraint and work for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation of violence, a UN spokesman said. Chain of events Saturday?s chain of events began at 4:30 AM (0230 GMT) when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone over the northern town of Beit Shean, the Israeli military said. The drone had been sighted taking off from a base in Syria, and was intercepted after it crossed into Israeli territory, spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said. Israeli planes then struck an Iranian installation in Syria from which, the Israeli military said, the unmanned aircraft had been operated. The Israeli military released grainy black and white footage of what it said was the drone?s control vehicle in Syria being destroyed. The F-16 crashed on its return from the mission, coming down in an empty field near Harduf, east of Haifa. ?We heard a big explosion and then sirens. We didn?t know what was happening, we heard helicopters and planes,? said Yosi Sherer, 51, who was staying at a hostel in Beit Shean. Flights at Tel Aviv?s international airport were briefly halted. The area was quiet by mid-afternoon. Conricus said missile remnants were found near the crash site. ?We don?t know yet if it?s an SA-5 or SA-17, but it?s a Syrian anti-aircraft missile,? he said. Israel then launched a second bombing raid in Syria. The pro-Assad military alliance said Israel had attacked a drone base in central Syria but denied any of its drones had entered Israeli airspace. Iran rejected the Israeli version of events as ?ridiculous?. David Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force chief, told Reuters he believed it was the first time an Israeli F-16 was brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s. Air superiority Israel has long maintained air superiority in the region, mounting air strikes in Syria on a regular basis, targeting suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah. Hezbollah said in a statement: ?Today?s developments mean the old equations have categorically ended.? Iranian and Iran-backed forces, including Hezbollah, have deployed widely in Syria in support of Assad. Iran?s military chief warned Israel last October against breaching Syrian airspace and territory. Netanyahu, visiting the Golan on Tuesday, peered across the border into Syria and in public remarks warned Israel?s enemies not to test its resolve. An official in the pro-Assad alliance said after the downing of the F-16 that a ?message? had been sent to Israel. But he added: ?I do not believe matters will develop to a regional war.? The Israeli military said it did not seek escalation, calling its action a defensive response to an Iranian act of aggression. The US administration has backed Israel?s hawkish stance on Iran and declared containing Tehran?s influence an objective of its Syria policy. On a visit to Israel last month, US Vice President Mike Pence called Iran the world?s ?leading state sponsor of terror?. Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the United States fully supports Israel?s right to defend itself. ?We share the concerns of many throughout the region that Iran?s destabilizing activities ... threaten international peace and security, and we seek greater international resolve in countering Iran?s malign activities,? Rankine-Galloway said. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to visit the region in the coming week to discuss Syria and other issues and is scheduled to visit Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries. Netanyahu said he and Tillerson discussed the flare-up on Saturday. Tensions also have spiked across the frontier between Israel and Lebanon over Israeli plans for a border wall, and Lebanese plans to exploit an offshore energy block partly located in disputed waters. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and has occupied it since, annexing the territory in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally. There has been an uneasy standoff since a ceasefire that followed a war in 1973, with United Nations observer forces manning a buffer zone between the two armies. In November, Israel said it had shot down a Syrian reconnaissance drone over the demilitarized zone, and on Feb. 8 shots were fired from Syrian territory at an Israeli drone, hitting a house in Majdal Shams, in Israeli-occupied Golan.
  17. File photo. -AFP BEIRUT: The US-led coalition said Thursday it killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its allies in eastern Syria, in one its deadliest confrontations yet with forces backing Damascus. The initial attack was carried out by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on key oil and gas installations in parts of Deir Ezzor province controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces. According to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), coalition advisers were present in the area that was attacked by pro-government forces in Deir Ezzor province late on Wednesday. "The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression" against its own personnel and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hosting them, it said. Oil and gas target "We estimate more than 100 Syrian pro-regime forces were killed while engaging SDF and coalition forces," a US military official said on condition of anonymity. The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air strikes and shelling after "20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres of the SDF headquarters location", the official said. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which only confirmed 45 dead among pro-regime forces, the initial attack took place near Khasham. The head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the aim of the attack appeared to be the capture of a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area. The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic metres a day. Regime and SDF fighters were involved in several skirmishes in the area last year, as they each conducted parallel operations against some of the Daesh's last bastions. Damascus and the US-backed Kurdish militia once worked towards the same goal in the region but they were never allied, and the collapse of the Daesh "caliphate" has further strained an already frosty relationship. Syrian state media confirmed that dozens were killed in the clash but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing the victims as "popular forces". De-confliction line According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to Assad and militia fighting alongside the regime. CENTCOM said the attack occurred eight kilometres east of the "Euphrates River de-confliction line," referring to a boundary agreed by Russia and the US, with the former's area of operations west of the river and the latter´s to its east. Daesh militants were flushed out of their last strongholds in eastern Syria and over the border in western Iraq late last year. But the SDF continues to hunt down surviving militants who have reverted to a clandestine insurgency.
  18. The United Nations Security Council votes to approve a resolution endorsing the planned halt in fighting in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters in New York February 26, 2016. Photo: AFP UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council will hold a closed-door meeting on Thursday to discuss an appeal from UN aid officials for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire in Syria, diplomats said. Sweden and Kuwait requested the meeting of the top UN body on Wednesday as Syrian government forces continued to shell militant-held Eastern Ghouta, killing scores in some of the worst bloodshed in years. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, has called for a month-long ceasefire to allow aid convoys to reach civilians in Eastern Ghouta. "We are particularly concerned about attacks against civilians and civilian objects, such as hospitals. These attacks further compound civilian suffering, and are leading to large numbers of new displacements," said Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog. Senior UN aid official Ursula Mueller told the council last month that the Syrian government blocked all aid convoys to besieged areas in January. "There has been no progress on cross-line humanitarian access for the UN and its partners to besieged and hard to reach areas," said the Swedish ambassador. "A humanitarian ceasefire would enable the delivery of life-saving assistance and the evacuation of hundreds of critically ill patients urgently needing medical treatment" in Eastern Ghouta, he said. More than 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid including 6.1 million who have been displaced within the country.
  19. A man is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh BEIRUT: The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month, as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed scores of people in the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus. Separately, UN war crimes experts said they were investigating several reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday?s bombardment of Eastern Ghouta had killed 63 people. A local official, Khalil Aybour, put the toll at 53. On Monday, air strikes killed 30 people in Eastern Ghouta, the Observatory said. ?Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,? Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters. ?Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighbourhoods.? Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported. Air strikes also killed at least six people in rebel-held Idlib including five in Tarmala village, the Observatory said. UN officials in Syria called for the fighting to stop to enable aid deliveries and the evacuation of sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria?s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive. ?For the last two months, we have not had a single (aid-delivery) convoy. This is really outrageous,? said Panos Moumtzis, assistant UN secretary general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria Crisis. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria. Ghouta and Idlib There were air raids on towns across Eastern Ghouta including Douma, where an entire building fell, a witness said. The UN representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November. ?Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,? said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday. They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels. Some two million people now live in Idlib, one million of whom have already been displaced. Since the most recent Syrian army offensive began in mid-December, 300,000 people have been displaced within Idlib, said Moumtzis. ?We?re running out of solutions where we put these people.? Syria?s protracted war, which spiralled out of street protests against Assad?s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees. Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured ?the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population?. Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours ?make a mockery of so-called ?de-escalation zones?, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there. ?There is a misperception that the de-escalation areas have resulted in peace and stability... if anything, these have been serious escalation areas,? said Moumtzis. France?s Foreign Ministry said it was concerned by the reports of chlorine used on civilians in Syria, but it was too soon to confirm them. French President Emmanuel Macron said last May that ?any use of chemical weapons would result in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned?. The conflict has been further complicated since January by an offensive that neighbouring Turkey launched against the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin. 'US calculations' The YPG has been an important US ally in the war against Daesh militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the US role in Syria on Tuesday, saying US forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a US-led anti-Daesh coalition. ?If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh, we don?t believe this,? Erdogan said. ?It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.? In accord with Iran and Russia, Turkey?s military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But militants firing rockets and mortars killed one soldier on Monday as Turkish forces moved to set up such a post south of Aleppo, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces, the military said. It was the second attack on the soldiers in a week. In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defences and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas. ?They cover the airspace of the Syrian north,? the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.
  20. MOSCOW: The body of a Russian pilot killed in fighting with terrorists in Syria has been brought back to his home country, the defence ministry in Moscow said Tuesday. "In cooperation with Turkish colleagues, Russian military intelligence brought back to Russia the body of an attack pilot, Major Roman Filipov, who died as a hero on February 3," the defence ministry said. In a separate statement, the Kremlin said that the Hero of Russia award, the country's top honour, had been posthumously bestowed upon Filipov for his "heroism, courage and bravery". Filipov will be laid to rest on Thursday with military honours in line with his family's wishes in the city of Voronezh, some 500 kilometres south of Moscow, the defence ministry said. After Filipov's warplane was shot down over Syria's Idlib province on Saturday he parachuted to the ground and was killed in a clash with terrorists as they tried to take him hostage. Moscow said its Su-25 warplane had been shot down by a portable anti-aircraft missile system. Armed with an automatic pistol, the badly wounded pilot opened fire on the terrorists closing in on him and then blew himself up with a hand grenade to avoid capture. Before taking his own life he shouted "This is for our guys!", according to video footage released by terrorists and broadcast by national television in Russia. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful terrorist-dominated alliance, said the Russian warplane had been shot down in retaliation for a ferocious bombing campaign by Russian warplanes over Idlib. Moscow says Filipov's plane was shot down during a mission to monitor a ceasefire in the so-called Idlib de-escalation zone set up by Russia, Turkey and Iran to reduce violence in the war-torn country. Russia's defence ministry also said it had asked Turkey for help in receiving the wreckage of the Su-25 warplane. Russian experts want to identify the origin of the anti-aircraft missile system used to shoot down the plane. President Vladimir Putin announced on a visit to Syria in December that the task of Russian forces in Syria had been largely completed. More than 40 Russian servicemen have reportedly been killed in Syria since Moscow's intervention in the conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.
  21. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un UNITED NATIONS: North Korea violated United Nations sanctions to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 from banned commodity exports, according to a confidential report by independent UN monitors, which also accused Pyongyang of supplying weapons to Syria and Myanmar. The report to a UN Security Council sanctions committee, seen by Reuters on Friday, said North Korea had shipped coal to ports, including in Russia, China, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, mainly using false paperwork that showed countries such as Russia and China as the coal origin, instead of North Korea. The 15-member council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for Pyongyang?s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capping imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products. ?The DPRK (North Korea) is already flouting the most recent resolutions by exploiting global oil supply chains, complicit foreign nationals, offshore company registries and the international banking system,? the UN monitors wrote in the 213-page report. The North Korean mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the UN report. Russia and China have repeatedly said they are implementing UN sanctions on North Korea. Syria, Myanmar The monitors said they had investigated ongoing ballistic missile cooperation between Syria and Myanmar, including more than 40 previously unreported North Korea shipments between 2012 and 2017 to Syria?s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which oversees the country?s chemical weapons program. The investigation has shown ?further evidence of arms embargo and other violations, including through the transfer of items with utility in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs,? the UN monitors wrote. They also inspected cargo from two North Korea shipments intercepted by unidentified countries en route to Syria. Both contained acid-resistant tiles that could cover an area equal to a large scale industrial project, the monitors reported. One country, which was not identified, told the monitors the seized shipments can ?be used to build bricks for the interior wall of a chemical factory.? Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013. However, diplomats and weapons inspectors suspect Syria may have secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the UN report. The UN monitors also said one country, which they did not identify, reported it had evidence that Myanmar received ballistic missile systems from North Korea, along with conventional weapons, including multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles. Myanmar UN Ambassador Hau Do Suan said the Myanmar government ?has no ongoing arms relationship, whatsoever, with North Korea? and is abiding by the UN Security Council resolutions. Banned exports, imports Under a 2016 resolution, the UN Security Council capped coal exports and required countries to report any imports of North Korean coal to the council sanctions committee. It then banned all exports of coal by North Korea on Aug. 5. The UN monitors investigated 16 coal shipments between January and Aug. 5 to ports in Russia, China, Malaysia and Vietnam. They said Malaysia reported one shipment to the council committee and the remaining 15 shipments violated sanctions. After the coal ban was imposed on Aug. 5, the UN monitors investigated 23 coal shipments to ports in Russia, China, South Korea and Vietnam. The UN monitors said all those shipments ?would constitute a violation of the resolution, if confirmed.? ?The DPRK combined deceptive navigation patterns, signals manipulation, transshipments as well as fraudulent documentation to obscure the origin of the coal,? the monitors said. The UN monitors ?also investigated cases of ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products in violation (of UN sanctions) ... and found that the network behind these vessels is primarily based in Taiwan province of China.? The monitors said one country, which they did not name, told them North Korea had carried out such transfers off its ports of Wonsan and Nampo and in international waters between the Yellow Sea and East China Sea between October and January. The report said several multinational oil companies, which were not named, were also being investigated for roles in the supply chain of petroleum products transferred to North Korea.
  22. UN chemical weapons experts, wearing gas masks, inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus' suburb of Zamalka, Syria, August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammad Abdullah/Files DAMASCUS: Syria on Saturday denied recent accusations by the United States that it had used chemical weapons on opposition forces near the capital Damascus, shrugging them off as "lies." "The foreign ministry condemns the false claims by the United States that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta," a foreign ministry source said, cited by Syrian state news agency SANA. Eastern Ghouta is a rebel-controlled enclave adjacent to Damascus. On Friday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters his government was concerned sarin gas may have been recently used in Syria. The Pentagon chief cited reports from NGOs and rebel groups in the battlefield who say the toxic gas has been used, although he stressed that the United States currently has no proof to support those accusations. Syria?s foreign ministry seized on his comments, saying even the US acknowledged their own statements were "not based on evidence". "Claims that the Syrian state used chlorine gas one moment and sarin gas the next prove that these are nothing more than lies," the statement said. "These are lies based on stories from America?s so-called partners on the ground." Last month, 21 people were treated for respiratory problems after rockets were fired on the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. Syria has staunchly denied the claims, pointing to its 2013 handover of its chemical stores as part of a deal between the United States and Russia. That agreement came after accusations that Damascus used sarin gas on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013. But the United Nations found that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks in Syria in 2014 and 2015, as well as sarin use in 2017. The April 2017 attack on Khan Sheikhun left scores dead and prompted the US to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield. On Thursday, senior US administration officials said Washington was not ruling out a fresh military action in the wake of new suspected attacks.
  23. Turkish forces in Syria- AFP/File ANKARA: Three more Turkish soldiers were killed Saturday in Turkey's offensive against Kurdish militia inside Syria, including one in an attack on a tank, the army said. The latest clashes brought to 10 the number of Turkish troops killed so far in operation "Olive Branch", launched by Turkey on January 20 against Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia seen by Ankara as a terror group. The Turkish army and allied Ankara-backed Syrian rebel forces are seeking to oust the YPG from its western border stronghold of Afrin but the operation so far has been marked by fierce clashes. The army said that one of the soldiers was killed in a clash and another on the border area, without giving further details. In a separate statement, it added a Turkish army tank had been hit in another attack, killing one serviceman and wounding another. In retaliation, Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes on the area from where the attack was carried out, destroying shelters and munitions dumps, it added. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday the Turkish army and Ankara-backed rebels had suffered 25 fatalities between them in the operation so far. Meanwhile, seven civilians have been killed in mortar fire on the Turkish side of the border that Ankara blames on the YPG. Ankara says that major progress has been made in the operation, with hundreds of YPG fighters killed so far although it is not possible to verify these figures. Erdogan said in a speech Saturday that the Turkish forces were beginning to take mountain positions and would now head towards Afrin itself. "There is not much to go," he said. Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin meanwhile told journalists in Istanbul that the operation was going as planned but there was no timetable for its duration and it would "continue until we clear all those areas." But analysts and monitors say Turkey so far has taken control of limited clumps of territory around the border without yet approaching near Afrin town. Turkey says the YPG is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers´ Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state. But the YPG has been working closely with the United States to fight Daesh in Syria. The offensive by Washington's fellow NATO member Ankara on a US-allied force has even raised fears of a military confrontation between two alliance powers.
  24. A Russian Air Force Sukhoi-25 fighter jet flying over the Syrian city of Saraqib, southwest of Aleppo. BEIRUT: Militant fighters shot down a Russian plane over Syria's northwest Idlib province on Saturday and captured its pilot, a monitor said. "Rebel factions shot down a Sukhoi 25. The Russian pilot came down in a parachute, before being captured," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He could not immediately confirm which faction had downed the plane but the militant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other terrorist groups are active in Idlib. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Syrian troops launched a fierce offensive on Idlib in late December, with backing by Russian warplanes. "There have been dozens of Russian air strikes in the area over the past 24 hours. This plane was also carrying out raids there," said Abdel Rahman. Militant factions have shot Syrian regime planes in the past, but downing Russian warplanes is much rarer. In August 2016, a Russian military helicopter was shot down over Syria and all five people on board were killed. Moscow began conducting air strikes in Syria in September 2015. Two months later, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, leading to the worst crisis in ties between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.
  25. A UN chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria, August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah/Files WASHINGTON: The Syrian government may be developing new types of chemical weapons, and US President Donald Trump is prepared to consider further military action if necessary to deter chemical attacks, senior US officials said on Thursday. President Bashar al-Assad is believed to have secretly kept part of Syria?s chemical weapons stockpile despite a US-Russian deal under which Damascus was supposed to have handed over all such weapons for destruction in 2014, the officials said. Assad?s forces have instead ?evolved? their chemical weapons and made continued occasional use of them in smaller amounts since a deadly attack last April that drew a US missile strike on a Syrian air base, the officials told reporters in a briefing. Characteristics of some of those recent attacks suggest that Syria may be developing new weapons and methods for delivering poison chemicals, possibly to make it harder to trace their origin, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity, but they declined to provide specifics. A deadly sarin attack on a rebel-held area in April prompted Trump to order a missile strike last year on the Shayrat air base, from which the Syrian operation is said to have been launched. ?We reserve the right to use military force to prevent or deter the use of chemical weapons,? one official said, while declining to specify how serious a chemical attack would have to be to draw a fresh US military response. A second official said, however, that the Trump administration hopes that stepped-up international sanctions and diplomatic pressure will help rein in Assad?s chemical weapons program. If the international community does not act quickly to tighten the screws on Assad, Syria?s chemical weapons could spread beyond its borders and possibly even ?to US shores,? the second official said. ?It will spread if we don?t do something,? the official warned. The officials echoed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?s recent accusation that Russia, Assad?s ally in Syria?s multi-sided civil war, bears some responsibility for failing to enforce the chemical weapons ban. Russia has denied any complicity, and the Syrian government has said it has not carried out any of the attacks. The US officials suggested that if left unchecked there would be more smaller chemical attacks as an ?instrument of terror? to compensate for Assad?s lack of adequate manpower to retake some opposition-held areas. ?They think they can get away with it if they keep it under a certain level,? an official said. Western officials have cast suspicion on the Syrian government for a chlorine gas attack on a rebel-held enclave east of Damascus last week that sickened at least 13 people. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday the United States was ?extremely concerned? about reports that Syrian forces had carried out another chlorine gas attack this week in the eastern Ghouta area. The US officials also said Daesh militants have sporadically used chemical weapons such as sulfur mustard and chlorine, some via improvised explosive devices, a more rudimentary tactic than those of the Syrian government.