Archive for July 9th, 2014

Rebels evacuating strongholds in Syria’s Homs

May 07, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces, opposition activists and the city’s governor said.

The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de-facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s rule, earning its nickname as “the capital of the revolution.”

Gaining full control of Syria’s third largest city is a major win for Assad on multiple levels. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north. Politically, gains on the ground boost Assad’s hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3.

By early afternoon Wednesday, over 400 fighters had boarded several batches of buses that departed from a police command center on the edge of Homs’ rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.

An activist who goes by the name of Abu Yassin al-Homsi said all fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city before the end of the day. According to the deal, the rebels were being taken a few kilometers (miles) north to the rebel held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province — a short drive away.

Al-Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings with him. One rocket propelled grenade launcher and a machinegun were also allowed on each bus in line with the agreement, he said.

“We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response,” al-Homsi said. “We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”

The evacuation appeared to be taking place in an organized manner with no violations by either side. Homs governor Talal Barazi confirmed that the rebels started leaving the old districts. State TV said government forces would enter the evacuated neighborhoods once rebels leave entirely.

The rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs’ Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were underway for a similar deal there.

The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city.

The rebels include hardcore fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamic factions. Homs, with a prewar population of 1.2 million was among the first to rise up against Assad in early 2011 with waves of exuberant anti-Assad protests. As Syria’s conflict turned into outright civil war, rebels took control of nearly 70 percent of the city, whose population represents Syria’s mix — with a largely pro-rebel Sunni majority and a pro-Assad Alawite minority, along with Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.

The city quickly came under a series of crushing government offensives, turning into a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins. Thousands of people were killed and almost all its residents fled. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings rose, reflecting the increasingly religious dimension of the conflict nationwide.

Rebels were slowly pushed back. For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in around a dozen districts around its ancient bazaars. The siege caused severe shortages in food and medicine, and heavy bombardment blasted the rebel-held areas. A first major group — around 1,400 people, including fighters and residents — evacuated earlier this year in a U.N.-mediated operation.

The last die-hards held out for weeks. But they agreed Friday to the cease-fire deal, leading the way to evacuation. In videos of Wednesday’s evacuation posted online by activists, two green public buses carrying rebels drive along a dusty, battered road past shattered, bombed-out buildings, their upper floors collapsed.

In one video, fighters with bags of belongings, some with their faces covered, board a bus as men in black uniforms labeled police oversee the process. At least one U.N.-marked vehicle was parked nearby. The videos appeared genuine and matched the AP’s reporting on the evacuation.

While the agreement represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs’ collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government saves manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without spilling more blood.

In exchange for their evacuation, activists say opposition fighters will allow aid into two northern pro-government villages, Nubul and Zahra, besieged by the rebels for more than a year. Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said roads to Nubul and Zahra in northern Syria were opened and aid arrived on the edge of the villages Wednesday as the evacuations from Homs were underway.

Also as part of the Homs deal, rebels would also release up to 70 pro-government gunmen and an Iranian woman they hold captive in the northern city of Aleppo, several activists said. It was not immediately clear whether they had been released. Abdurrahman said that among those released by the rebels was a group of people captured in the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold, where opposition fighters seized dozens of women and children in an offensive in August.

He said rebels also released 15 soldiers they were holding in Aleppo province.

Syrian army pounds rebels in Assad’s home province

March 31, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces backed by militia fighters and warplanes pounded rebel units in Latakia province on Monday in a desperate effort to regain control of towns and villages in President Bashar Assad’s ancestral homeland recently lost to an opposition offensive.

Activists said fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels was concentrated in the northern edge of Latakia province. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human said government troops bombarded rebel positions with artillery as they tried to capture several strategic hilltops. Fighter jets also carried out several airstrikes.

State TV said army troops captured one of the hilltop positions known as the Observatory 45. It is a strategic post that is key to both sides because it has a commanding view of the contested surrounding mountains and green plains below. The rebels and opposition groups have not confirmed its capture.

It later showed footage of what it said were rebels killed in the area during the government offensive. Several bearded men in military uniforms lay dead, covered with blood, as government troops stood in the background.

Opposition fighters from several conservative and hard-line Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, launched their assault on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier March 21. So far, they have seized a border crossing, several villages and the predominantly Armenian-Christian town of Kassab. They’ve also gained control of an outlet to the sea for the first time since Syria’s uprising began three years ago.

Their push for the area from which Assad’s family hails from appeared to have caught Damascus off guard. Government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have recently triumphed against the opposition along the border area with Lebanon, ousting rebels from their border strongholds inside Syria and cutting off supply routes from the neighboring country.

Syria’s information minister lashed out at Turkey, accusing Ankara of sending foreign fighters across the border to fight Syrian government troops in Latakia. Hours after Omran al-Zoubi’s comments, Turkey said its artillery fired into Syrian territory in retaliation for a rocket that hit a mosque in a Turkish border town, wounding a 60-year old Syrian woman refugee.

The governor’s office for Turkey’s Hatay province said Monday three mortar rounds fired during fighting between the Syrian regime and opposition forces also landed on Turkish territory, but did not hurt anyone.

It said Turkish artillery aimed at the origin of the rocket and mortar rounds. Turkey frequently retaliates against stray fire from Syrian government or opposition forces. Hostilities have flared along the Syrian-Turkey border on several occasions during the 3-year-old conflict and last week Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet, saying it violated its airspace. Syrian government vehemently denied the claim, with state media saying that the jet was flying in Syrian airspace, 7 kilometers (5 miles) from the border when it was shot down.

Speaking to Syrian state TV late Sunday, al-Zoubi, said neighboring Turkey is facilitating the entry of “groups of foreigners, armed to their teeth” into the province. Turkey, a NATO member, once had good ties with Syria. But the two countries had a falling out over Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition after an uprising started in March 2011. The revolt started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule but gradually turned into a civil war. More than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say, and millions have been forced out of their homes.

Syrian warplanes bombed the northern town of Harem near the border with Turkey on Monday, Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu reported. It said 23 people wounded in the raids were brought across the border to the Turkish town of Reyhanli for treatment. One of them died.

The Observatory said the raid on Harem killed eight men, including rebels, and wounded dozens. It gave no further details. In the Latakia offensive alone, more than 1,000 people have been killed and wounded on both sides of the fighting, according to a statement by the Observatory, which has documented the conflict by sending a daily tally of those killed and wounded in the conflict. Among those killed were at least 194 soldiers and Assad-loyal fighters and 27 army officers, including a second cousin of the president, Hilal Assad.

More than 128 rebel fighters were also killed in the 10-day battle for Latakia, the Observatory said. The number included 56 foreign fighters. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the state-run National News Agency said Lebanese troops captured an SUV rigged with explosives in the town of Arsal on the border with Syria.

Monday’s capture came two days after a suicide attacker blew himself up in a Lebanese army post in Arsal killing three soldiers. Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions and inflamed sectarian tensions. Lebanese Sunnis often back the Sunni rebels and Shiites frequently support Assad.

The Arsal region is a particular flashpoint after rebels fled across the border earlier this month fleeing a government offensive.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

Syrian rebels capture town near Turkish border

March 24, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Islamic rebels captured a small town in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border as part of their offensive in the rugged coastal region that is a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, activists said Monday.

Fighters from an array of armed opposition groups seized the predominantly Armenian Christian town of Kassab on Sunday. The rebels, including militant from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, have also wrested control of a nearby border crossing to Turkey.

The advances, while minor in terms of territory, provided a boost to a beleaguered rebellion that has suffered a string of battlefield losses in recent weeks. Forces loyal to Assad have captured several towns near Syria’s border with Lebanon as part of a government drive to sever rebel supply lines across the porous frontier.

Rebels launched their offensive on Friday in Latakia province, which is the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect, the Shiite offshoot community that is a main pillar of support for his rule. Since then, the fighting has focused around Kassab and the nearby border crossing.

A member of the president’s family who was also an army commander was buried in Latakia on Monday a day after he died in the battle for Kassab, the Syrian state news agency SANA said. Hilal Assad was the commander of the pro-government National Defense Forces.

Rebels were in control of the center of Kassab on Monday but clashes were raging in the hills outside of town, said Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Government warplanes were conducting airstrikes on several positions in the area, including Nabeh al-Murr and the scattering of homes and fields surrounding Kassab, the Observatory said. There was no immediate word on casualties.

A Syrian state reporter speaking on TV from outside Kassab Monday said the government had captured several Nusra Front fighters, and that the army is determined to take back the ground it has ceded. A pillar of white smoke could be seen rising above the green, forested hills behind the reporter.

In an amateur video posted online, two opposition fighters stand on a rooftop in Kassab and raise their arms in celebration. A checkpoint near the post office, replete with sandbags and oil drums painted like the Syrian flag, sits abandoned. The streets are deserted. The camera pans past the base of a smashed statue that the narrator says was of Assad’s late father and Syria’s former leader, Hafez.

The video appears genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting. Damascus claims the rebels entered Syria from Turkey, and has accused Ankara of pursuing “aggressive policies” toward Syria. On Sunday, Turkey’s military said it shot down a Syrian MiG-23 after it entered Turkey’s airspace. Syria says the jet was flying over Syrian territory when it was hit.

Turkey, a NATO member, is one of the main backers of the 3-year-old rebellion against Assad. Ankara allows rebels to use Turkish territory as a logistical and support base, and weapons and fighters move fairly freely across the border into opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

The ongoing rebel offensive in Latakia is not the opposition’s first significant incursion in the province. Last August, a mix of moderate and extremist rebel brigades captured around a dozen villages in the Latakia mountains, before a government counteroffensive expelled them.

Afterward, Human Rights Watch said nearly 200 civilians, including children, the elderly and the disabled, were killed in the attack. It said rebel abuses during the operation amounted to war crimes. Now in its fourth year, Syria’s conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge abroad, and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis across the region.

The U.N. Security Council last month demanded immediate access everywhere in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need. It also called for an end to sieges of populated areas, and a halt to all attacks against civilians, including indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks using barrel bombs in populated areas.

In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said the Assad government has continued its sweeping aerial campaign against opposition-held areas of the divided city of Aleppo in defiance of the U.N. resolution.

“New satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutality unleashed on parts of Aleppo,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group. “Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes.”

Barrel bombs are makeshift devices packed with hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives as well as scraps of metal. Pushed out of the back of helicopters, the crude weapons cause massive damage on impact.

The right group’s report said it used satellite imagery to identify at least 340 places in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo that were damaged between early November and Feb. 20. The majority of the sites bore signatures of damage consistent with barrel bombs, it said.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria, including on the purchase or servicing of helicopters. It said such a measure would limit the government’s ability to carry out airstrikes.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

Israeli army launches offensive on Gaza Strip

July 08, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli army said it launched an offensive operation early Tuesday against the Gaza Strip to quell rocket attacks, and a Palestinian official said Israeli airstrikes injured at least nine Palestinians.

The Israeli airstrikes come after Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel on Monday, setting off air raid sirens and forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to stay indoors. The military rushed more forces to the border late Monday and had warned that such an offensive was likely.

A Twitter statement from the Israeli army said the offensive, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” is intended to “stop the terror Israel’s citizens face on a daily basis.” The army said it was carrying out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday. It did not elaborate.

Gaza health official Ashraf Al-Kedra said at least nine Palestinian civilians were brought to a Gaza hospital with light to moderate injuries from the airstrikes, including several who suffered from shock. He said some of the injured Palestinians were treated and released.

The latest violence came as Israel pressed forward with its investigation of six Jewish youths suspected of abducting and killing a Palestinian teenager, and Israeli leaders sought to calm an emotional debate over whether the country’s politically charged atmosphere led to the gruesome crime. An Israeli official said three of the youths had confessed to the attack.

Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers kidnapped June 12 in the West Bank were later found dead, followed by last week’s slaying of the Palestinian youth in what many suspect was a revenge attack. Throughout the unrest, Gaza militants have launched more than 200 rockets and mortars into Israel, including close to 100 on Monday alone.

Israel has responded with dozens of airstrikes, but has not been able to halt the attacks. Eight Palestinian militants were killed in fighting Monday, the highest death toll yet. The army said at least 70 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza on Monday, including 40 launched in a single hour after nightfall, setting off air raid sirens up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Gaza, the military said.

Twelve rockets were intercepted by rocket-defense batteries, it added, while the others landed in open areas. It was the deepest penetration of rocket strikes in the current round of fighting and raised the likelihood of an even tougher Israeli response.

The army later said that eight more rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza starting shortly before midnight and into early Tuesday, and an additional rocket was intercepted above the Israeli town of Sderot, close to the border with Gaza.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, a senior military official, gave a special interview in Arabic to Al-Jazeera, warning that Hamas would bear the consequences for the escalation. Among the dead were six Hamas militants who Israel said were killed in an accidental blast in a tunnel packed with explosives. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, vowed revenge, saying “the enemy will pay a tremendous price.”

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, had said the army was moving more infantry forces to the Gaza border and had received authorization to mobilize up to 1,500 reservists. The deaths of the Hamas militants had made a “substantial influence” on the situation, he said.

“There is a potential of deterioration due to their death. Therefore the IDF has to continue to reinforce capabilities in the south, with the potential that things could escalate further,” he said. Israeli security officials had said late Monday that Israel was leaning against a massive operation and would likely increase the pressure gradually with stronger and more numerous retaliatory attacks. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal military deliberations with reporters. Israeli Cabinet ministers voted in favor of more intense airstrikes, Channel 2 TV said.

In Washington on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. condemns the rocket fire. “We also support Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks,” she said. President Barack Obama called for Israelis and Palestinians alike to show restraint and put an end to acts of retribution, in some of his first public comments on the matter since the murder of three Israeli teenagers touched off a new round of violence and deepening mistrust.

In an op-ed published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Obama called it a “dangerous moment” for the region where a vaunted U.S. peace effort recently collapsed. Writing in emotional terms, he said he couldn’t imagine the pain suffered by the parents of the three Israeli teens, but was also heartbroken by the senseless murder of a Palestinian teenager who many suspect was killed in revenge.

“All parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution,” Obama said. Obama’s comments — published in Hebrew, Arabic and English — reflected growing U.S. concern about tit-for-tat violence spiraling out of control as the fragile situation in Israel appears to deteriorate.

After the bodies of the three Israelis were discovered, Obama issued a brief written statement, but hasn’t spoken about the situation publicly. Haaretz said the op-ed published late Monday was intended for the newspaper’s upcoming peace summit and written before June 30, the day the three Israeli teens were found dead. But it referenced events that occurred later, suggesting the op-ed was updated.

Obama also offered strong praise for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is under pressure as Israel seeks to use the murder of the three Israelis to discredit his newly formed unity government with Hamas.

“In President Abbas, Israel has a counterpart committed to a two-state solution and security cooperation with Israel,” Obama said. He offered no parallel praise for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During the day Monday, lines of Israeli tanks and buses were gathered near the border area as soldiers milled about. Late Monday, with roads in southern Israel all but empty, a flatbed truck carrying an armored vehicle made its way toward the border area.

Israel has launched two broad military operations in Gaza in the past five years, most recently in 2012, when eight days of heavy fighting ended in an Egyptian-mediated truce. The increased rocket fire followed the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from east Jerusalem who was abducted and burned to death last week.

Israeli officials Sunday announced the arrests of six Jewish youths in the killings – ruling out earlier theories that criminal activity or personal reasons might have been a factor. They said the suspects, including some minors, were from the Jerusalem area.

Abu Khdeir’s death triggered several days of violent protests in Arab areas of Jerusalem and northern Israel as Palestinians accused Israeli extremists of killing the boy to avenge the earlier deaths of the Israeli teens.

Israel’s Shin Bet agency, which handles top security cases, imposed a gag order, blocking key details, including the identities and backgrounds of the youths, as well as most of the evidence from being made public.

An Israeli official said three of the youths had confessed to the crime and even re-enacted it for authorities. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the gag order. The official said the suspects included two brothers, and that one of the suspects is the son of a rabbi. Three minor suspects were allowed to meet with lawyers Monday, while the primary suspects were not.

Naftali Werzberger, a lawyer for one of the suspects, said he didn’t even know what his client looked like, adding that the young man was prohibited from receiving details that he is being represented by a lawyer.

“The families are in shock,” Werzberger added. “No one among the suspects has a violent past or tendency and they can’t explain how we got to this point where their children were arrested as suspects for acts that are very, very serious.”

Despite the gag order, some additional details have begun to emerge. Israel’s Channel 10 TV said the suspects were the son and five grandsons of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, without further identifying him. It said two suspects used the rabbi’s car for the kidnapping without his knowledge. It added that a Jerusalem district court presented its suspicions Monday against the suspects, including “belonging to a terror organization.” It did not elaborate, and Israeli officials did not confirm the details in the report.

The news that the suspects were Jewish set off nationwide soul-searching over how Israelis could possibly carry out such a gruesome crime. A preliminary autopsy found that Abu Khdeir was still alive when he was set on fire.

“I am ashamed on behalf of my nation and grieve with you,” President Shimon Peres told Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, in a phone call. “The only thing left for all of us to do is to ensure that no more children are murdered, and no more tears are shed by mothers.”

Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, was among top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reached out to the family in person or by telephone. Netanyahu, who has condemned Abu Khdeir’s death and tried to calm the public, said he had expressed his condolences to the family.

“I would like to express my outrage and that of the citizens of Israel over the reprehensible murder of your son,” a statement quoted Netanyahu as saying. Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the slain Israeli teenagers, said that even from the “abyss” of her own pain, she could not describe her distress over the killing of the Arab boy.

“No mother and father should endure what we are going through now. We feel the pain of Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s parents,” she said. Also Monday, Israeli police said a border policeman had been temporarily suspended from special operations and transferred to a different position until the completion of an investigation into the apparent police beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American teenage cousin of the murdered Palestinian youth.

Despite his home detention, Tariq Abu Khdeir traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah to meet President Mahmoud Abbas.

Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report.