Archive for July, 2013

Syrian Islamist rebel leader freed after clashes among rival rebels

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT | Sun Jul 21, 2013

(Reuters) – The local commander of a Syrian rebel group affiliated to al Qaeda was freed on Sunday after being held by Kurdish forces in a power struggle between rival organizations fighting President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.

However, the pro-opposition activists gave conflicting reports of how the Islamist brigade commander in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border had come to be free.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamist rebels had exchanged 300 Kurdish residents they had kidnapped for the local head of their group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Other activist groups challenged this account, saying Islamist fighters had freed Abu Musaab by force, with no Kurdish hostages released.

Sporadic fighting over the past five days in towns near the frontier with Turkey has pitted Islamists trying to cement their control of rebel zones against Kurds trying to assert their autonomy in mostly Kurdish areas.

The trouble highlights how the two-year insurgency against 43 years of Assad family rule is spinning off into strife within his opponents’ ranks, running the risk of creating regionalized conflicts that could also destabilize neighboring countries.

The factional fighting could also help Assad’s forces, who have launched an offensive to retake territory.

BELT OF TERRITORY

Assad has been trying to secure a belt of territory from Damascus through Homs and up to his heartland on the Mediterranean coast and, with the help of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, has won a string of victories in Homs province and near the capital.

On Sunday his forces ambushed and killed 49 rebels in the Damascus suburb of Adra, the Observatory said.

The town was once a critical point along the route used by rebels to bring weapons to the capital, but Assad’s forces recaptured it a few months ago and have been working to cut off rebel territories in the area.

To the north, activists reported Turkish troops reinforcing their side of the frontier near Tel Abyad, but the army could not be reached for comment. Turkish forces exchanged fire with Syrian Kurdish fighters in another border region earlier in the week.

The Observatory said the alleged prisoner exchange was part of a ceasefire agreed after a day of fierce clashes in Tel Abyad, but other activists said there was no deal and reported that many Kurdish residents were being held by ISIS fighters.

The Observatory said the fighting in Tel Abyad started when the local ISIS brigade asked Kurdish Front forces, which have fought with the rebels against Assad, to pledge allegiance to Abu Musaab, which they refused to do.

Other activists said the clashes were an extension of fighting that broke out last week in other parts of the northern border zone.

Opposition activists also reported the killing of at least 13 members of a family in the Sunni Muslim village of Baida on Sunday, in what they described as a second sectarian massacre there.

FIGHTING NEAR THE COAST

The killings followed a rare eruption of fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels in the coastal province of Tartous, an enclave of Assad’s Alawite minority sect that has remained largely unscathed by the civil war.

Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority has largely backed the insurrection while minorities such as the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have largely supported Assad, himself an Alawite.

The Observatory said four women and six children were among those killed in Baida.

“A relative came to look for them today and found the men shot outside. The women’s and children’s bodies were inside a room of the house and residents in the area said some of the bodies were burned,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory.

In May, pro-Assad militias killed more than 50 residents of Baida and over 60 in the nearby town of Banias. In those killings, some bodies, many of them children, were found burned and mutilated.

The anti-Assad revolt has evolved from its origins as a peaceful protest movement in March 2011 into a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people and turned markedly sectarian.

The ethnic Kurdish minority has been alternately battling both Assad’s forces and the Islamist-dominated rebels. Kurds argue they support the revolt but rebels accuse them of making deals with the government in order to ensure their security and autonomy during the conflict.

The Kurdish people, scattered over the territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, are often described as the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil and Jonathan Burch in Ankara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/07/21/us-syria-crisis-idUKBRE96J06D20130721.

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Russia subs military with civilians at Syrian base

June 27, 2013

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has withdrawn all military personnel from its naval base in Syria and replaced them with civilian workers, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

The ministry did not say when the switch at the base at Tartus took place or how many personnel were deployed there. The minor facility is Russia’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. It consists of several barracks and depots used to service Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean.

The ministry statement said that Tartus has continued to service the Russian navy ships. “They are continuing to work in a regular mode, and there is no talk about their evacuation from Tartus,” the statement said. “Tartus remains the official base and repair facility for the Russian ships in the Mediterranean and is continuing to fulfill its mission.”

The ministry didn’t explain why it was replacing military personnel with civilians, but the move could be part of efforts by Moscow to pose as an objective mediator trying to broker Syria peace talks.

Moscow, however, also has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian-built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals. Russia has been the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding his regime from the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons despite the two-year civil war that has killed more than 93,000 Syrians, according to the U.N. estimates.

The ministry’s statement followed reports Wednesday in the Al Hayat newspaper and Russia’s business daily Vedomosti, which claimed that Moscow had withdrawn all of its military and civilian personnel from Tartus along with all military advisers.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused conjecture about the Russian move, but pointed at the “deteriorating security situation.” “I just can’t speculate if that’s their reasoning,” he added.

Russia announced earlier this month that it will keep a fleet of about dozen navy ships in the Mediterranean, a move seen as an attempt to project power and protect its interests in the region. Russian navy ships have been making regular visits to the Mediterranean in recent months, but the latest announcements by President Vladimir Putin and other officials mark an attempt to revive a Soviet-era practice, when Moscow had a permanent navy presence in the area.

But experts say the current plan will stretch the Russian fleet capability and note that the base in Tartus can’t provide a sufficient backup for a permanent navy presence in the region. The base is also too small for big ships.

Military officials have said in the past that Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean could be used to evacuate equipment and personnel from Tartus. Previous Russian deployments in the area have invariably included amphibious landing vessels, which could serve the purpose.

AP writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

EU declares Hezbollah’s military wing terror group

July 22, 2013

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union has declared the military wing of Lebanese party Hezbollah a terrorist group.

A French diplomat says that the Monday decision by the EU’s 28 foreign ministers was reached unanimously. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The Iranian-backed group plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011, and has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad forces in their assault of rebel-held areas.

Hezbollah Regions Targeted As Syria War Spreads to Lebanon

July 18

There are ghosts hunting Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, over a wide expanse of the country stretching from Beirut’s southern suburbs all the way to Lebanon’s south and north to the Bekaa. These areas, predominantly inhabited by Hezbollah’s social base, face daily alarms and reports of suspicious objects that may contain explosive devices. These incidents are quickly checked out and dealt with by members of the party or the Lebanese army. Reporting suspect objects or vehicles has become a daily occurrence that reflects the growing concern inside Hezbollah’s areas of influence about their continued targeting with explosive devices.

Since Hezbollah directly entered the fray in Syria on the side of the regime, it has worked to neutralize reactions such as the ones taking place today. The party has sealed off its territory by adopting security measures that include installing surveillance cameras on all the entrances to its neighborhoods, as well as, some say, electronic explosive-detection devices and roving patrols by members of its security teams.

Hezbollah has also established neighborhood-watch squads that monitor, around the clock, the comings and goings of any outsiders to the area. Yet despite all these measures, an explosive-laden car succeeded in infiltrating the most tightly surveilled of the southern suburbs’ neighborhoods, Bir el-Abed, where it was detonated. Undoubtedly, the most dangerous aspect of the Bir el-Abed attack was the message that it conveyed to Hezbollah’s social base, informing them that their neighborhoods can be infiltrated and that there would be a price to pay for their party’s participation in the fighting in Syria.

Hezbollah is intensifying its efforts on the security level to counteract this message by proving that its intelligence services are capable of protecting its social base’s neighborhoods, and that its followers will never be left at the mercy of explosive devices planted by hostile organizations.

The front on which Hezbollah is being targeted with explosive devices is expanding by the day. On July 16, two of the party’s vehicles, while heading along the Chatoura highway toward Syria, were targeted by an explosive device that wounded some of their occupants. At least two other similar incidents have taken place recently.

The fear is that the factions targeting Hezbollah have decided to open against it a security front that encompasses all of Lebanon, adopting a type of guerrilla warfare involving assassinations with both bullets or explosives. According to sources close to the party, the main conclusion reached by analyzing the prevalent data on the ground, as reflected by the attempts against the party and its areas of influence, is that an important faction, and not a mere organization, has decided to wage a wide-scale security war against Hezbollah and its social base in Lebanon.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/hezbollah-targeted-lebanon-bombs-syria.html.

Massive Al-Aqsa prayers on second Friday of Ramadan

Friday  19/07/2013

JERUSALEM (AFP) — Some 155,000 Muslims attended prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the second Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Israeli police said.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP the prayers passed “without incident”.

Last Friday’s prayers at the site were participated by some 80,000 worshipers.

After the prayers on Friday, hundreds of Hamas supporters took part in a rally in favor of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi and against army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Demonstrators held posters with Mursi’s picture and chanted “Morsi is the Egyptian president, Sisi is an American collaborator”.

A similar demonstration took place last Friday at the site.

Mursi was ousted by the Egyptian army on July 3.

More than 3,000 Israeli police were deployed in the walled Old City, where the compound is located, and elsewhere in occupied East Jerusalem, police said.

Israeli authorities relaxed usual restrictions on entry to Jerusalem by Palestinians in the West Bank for the second week, enabling access to women of all ages and men over 40 years of age.

Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are usually barred from Israel and from East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day war and then unilaterally annexed.

The Al-Aqsa compound, which lies in Jerusalem’s Old City, houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the compound is a deeply sensitive location where clashes frequently break out between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli forces.

Jews are not allowed to pray inside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=615243.

Top pro-Assad official eliminated in southern Lebanon

17 July 2013

A prominent Syrian pro-Assad figure was eliminated outside his home in southern Lebanon early on Wednesday, regime-run media in Damascus reported.

Mohammed Darrar Jammo, a political analyst who often appeared on Arab TV stations, was gunned down outside his home in the coastal town of Sarafand by gunmen, the SANA news agency reported.

The town is in predominantly Shiite southern Lebanon where Assad enjoys wide support.

SANA blamed an “armed terrorist group” for the killing which took place at around 2 a.m.

Jammo was head of the political and international relations division of the International Organization for Arab Immigrants.

He was one of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s strongest defenders, according to The Associated Press.

Source: Agencies

Kavkaz Center

Source: Kavkaz Center.

Link: http://kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2013/07/17/18070.shtml.

Kurds drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of Ras al-Ain

July 18, 2013

BEIRUT: Kurdish fighters expelled jihadists from the Syrian flashpoint frontier town of Ras al-Ain and the nearby border crossing with Turkey, activists said Wednesday, in escalating fighting that could signal another front in Syria’s fractious civil war.Kurdish fighters took total control of Ras al-Ain “after 24 hours of fighting.

The [jihadist] groups were expelled from the whole of Ras al-Ain, including the border post” with Turkey, said director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman.

Earlier, the Britain-based opposition group had reported clashes between Kurds, Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other groups.

Ras al-Ain has a majority Kurdish population and is of strategic importance because of its location close to Turkey.

Kurdish fighters are trying to ensure that neither the regime of President Bashar Assad nor the opposition takes control of the area.

The clashes between Kurdish fighters and jihadists erupted after Nusra Front attacked a convoy of Kurdish women fighters, Abdel-Rahman said.

Nine jihadists and two Kurdish fighters have been killed since the fighting broke out, the Observatory said.

Activists in Ras al-Ain said members of the jihadist groups had taken advantage of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week, to try to impose their extreme version of Islam.

In the early days of the Syria conflict, when opponents of Assad’s regime were desperate for help from any quarter, jihadist fighters were welcomed but a spate of abuses has fueled a major backlash.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, pointed out that tensions between Kurdish fighters and Islamist rebels go back months, and have persisted despite a series of cease-fires.

Other fighters perceive the Kurds as “interested only with Kurdish interests, rather than those of Syria or of Islam,” he said.

Additionally, “the predominance of more liberal values – in terms of lifestyle, appearance, and culture – make Kurds a typical target of Islamist derision.”

He said the Ras al-Ain clashes “emphasize the potential for damaging distractions to emerge for Syria’s anti-government opposition.”

A reporter at the scene told The Daily Star the Kurdish fighters with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were trying to extend control of the area and fighting was expected to spread to the Iraqi border.

“Nusra need oil,” he said, “they cannot leave the oil near the Iraqi border.”

The reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said he expected heavy fighting to break out in Tal Abyad, east of Ras al-Ain, next.

The fighting also risked raising tensions with Turkey, after fighting spilled over the border, killing a Turkish teenager and wounding two others.

That prompted a response from Turkey’s military, which said it fired into Syria in retaliation for bullets that struck Turkish territory.

In another border spillover of Syria’s civil war Wednesday, gunmen from Syria infiltrated a disused army outpost in the Israeli-occupied area of the Golan Heights just beyond the cease-fire line, a military spokeswoman said. The incident, which occurred overnight, saw an unspecified number of Syrian gunmen entering the position and firing toward an Israeli army patrol, which returned fire.

“Yesterday evening, suspicious movement was spotted in an unmanned … [Israeli army] position east of the fence in the southern Golan Heights,” the army spokeswoman said, indicating the post was in Israeli territory.

“Then shots were fired at the patrol in the area and they returned fire at the source,” she said, adding that there were no injuries or damage on the Israeli side.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the Syrian gunmen had been hurt in the exchange.

The incident came a day after several mortar rounds hit the Israeli side of the Golan, causing several fires to break out along the cease-fire line as Syrian rebels battled regime forces near the Qunaitra crossing.

Elsewhere in Syria, a child and six men were killed when a car bomb attack hit Kanaker in Damascus province, the Observatory said.

In the north of the capital, troops renewed their shelling campaign of rebel areas in Barzeh, while clashes also raged in the neighborhood, the group added.

And in the central city of Homs, an army onslaught aimed at taking back rebel districts was in its 18th day, activists said.

Troops began a new attempt to break into the rebel area of Bab Houd, which like other districts of Homs has been under tight army siege for more than a year, Homs-based activist Yazan told AFP via the Internet.

Source: The Daily Star.

Link: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Jul-18/224103-kurds-drive-al-qaeda-fighters-out-of-ras-al-ain.ashx.

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