Archive for August 9th, 2014

ISIS fight on more than one front in Syria


DAMASCUS- The jihadist Islamic State (IS), which has taken over large swathes of war-torn Syria in just a few months, was on Thursday engaged in fighting Kurds and members of a Sunni tribe.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the well-equipped Kurds, who started fighting IS soon after it emerged in Syria in spring last year, had on Wednesday taken back several hills surrounding the city of Ain al-Arab (Kobane in Kurdish) in the north.

The IS has been trying to take over Ain al-Arab — Syria’s third Kurdish city — and incorporate it into the Islamic “caliphate” it proclaimed last month.

The fighting killed 14 members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PYG) and 35 IS members. Dozens of other fighters were wounded, said the Observatory.

The fighting comes two weeks after some 800 Kurdish fighters entered Ain al-Arab from neighboring Turkey to fight IS.

There are some 3.5 million Kurds in Syria, comprising some 15 percent of the population. With the country swamped in a war that broke out three years ago, the Kurds are seeking autonomy in the areas where they are a majority.

Eastwards, the IS pounded regime positions in Hassakeh, as they tried to surround the city of 200,000 Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and other Christians.

In the eastern, oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, most of which is under IS control, members of the Shaitat Sunni tribe fought the jihadists, tweeting about an “uprising” against the radical group.

The fighting erupted after the IS detained three members of the tribe, “violating an agreement” between the two sides, it said.

According to the Observatory, the Shaitat tribe had promised IS it would not oppose it, in exchange for the jihadists not harassing or attacking its members.

The Sunni Shaitat tribe extends across three villages — Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranij.

On Thursday, a day after fighting broke out, IS members raided the three villages, searching houses and kidnapping or “detaining” an unknown number of people, said the Observatory, adding that fighting was raging in the Shaitat villages.

Meanwhile, IS set up new checkpoints in the Deir Ezzor countryside, but gunmen opened fire at one of the checkpoints.

At least five jihadists were killed in the fighting, including a Belgian.

Syria’s war began as a peaceful movement for democratic change, but erupted into conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.

Many months into the fighting, foreign jihadists began entering Syria.

Also on Thursday, the Observatory reported that IS had imposed a strict dress code for women in Deir Ezzor, forbidding them showing any part of their bodies.

“Women… are completely forbidden from showing their eyes,” said an IS statement that the Observatory said was distributed in areas under jihadist control in Deir Ezzor province.

Women are also forbidden from wearing “open abayas (traditional black gowns) that reveal colorful clothes worn underneath”, it said, adding that women “must not wear high heels”.

It threatened an unspecified punishment for women who violated the dress code, while also banning the sale of cigarettes and narguileh (water pipe) products, as well as smoking in public.

On another front in Syria’s complex war, the number of people killed in army shelling on an opposition-held town northeast of Damascus on Wednesday rose to 17, according to the Observatory.

Among the fatalities were three children. Dozens of other people were injured.

A photographer in Douma, which has been under suffocating army siege for more than a year, said the shelling had hit several parts of the town, including a busy market area.

“The shelling came suddenly. One minute, children were playing in the market, the next, there were body parts and wounded people everywhere,” Abd Doumany said.

The photographer also described graphic scenes at one of the town’s ill-equipped field hospitals.

“The wounded were being treated on the floor,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.


Carnage in Gaza Strip as death toll passes 1,300


By Mai Yaghi

Gaza City

More than 100 Palestinians were killed Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, among them victims of Israeli fire on a crowded market and a United Nations school.

The United States and United Nations condemned the school shelling and Hamas said it fired rockets into Israel in retaliation for both attacks.

But hours after its condemnation the US said it had agreed to sell Israel fresh ammunition to replenish its dwindling supplies.

At least 17 people were killed in the strike on the market in Shejaiya, near Gaza City, as Israel observed a four-hour humanitarian lull in other parts of the crowded coastal strip.

At least 200 people were wounded in the strike, medics said, on a day that saw at least 111 people killed.

Early Thursday two more people died of wounds sustained previously, bringing the death toll from 23 days of unrelenting Israeli attacks to 1,363.

Hamas said Wednesday it fired rockets at Tel Aviv and the southern port city of Ashkelon in response to the market and school strikes.

The Israeli military said that a rocket hit open ground “in the Tel Aviv area” and another two were intercepted over Ashkelon.

It said that a total of 81 rockets fell in Israel on Wednesday, with another nine shot down by missile defenses and that Israel hit 88 targets in Gaza.

Israel had said its brief truce would not apply in places were troops were “currently operating”, hours after the army made what it called a “significant advance” into the narrow coastal strip.

Hamas denounced the four-hour lull as a publicity stunt, saying it had “no value”.

– Furious response –

The market strike came hours after Israeli shells slammed into a UN school in Jabalia refugee camp which was sheltering some 3,300 homeless Gazans, killing 16 and drawing a furious response from the United Nations.

“This morning a UN school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon said on a visit to Costa Rica.

“It is unjustifiable, and demands accountability and justice.”

The attack was also denounced by the White House in a carefully worded statement that avoided mentioning Israel.

“The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians, including children, and UN humanitarian workers,” a statement said.

The Pentagon later said it had granted an Israeli request for ammunition, including some from a stockpile stored by the US military on the ground in Israel for emergency use by the Jewish state.

But Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Israeli counterpart Moshe Yaalon that he was concerned about the deadly consequences of the spiraling conflict, and called for a ceasefire and end to hostilities.

Rights group Amnesty International had urged Washington to halt arms supplies to Israel.

“It is time for the US government to urgently suspend arms transfers to Israel and to push for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict,” it said in a petition to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

– School shelling ‘intolerable’ –

It was the second time in a week that a school run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees was hit, prompting a blistering attack on Israel by UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Kraehenbuehl.

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces,” he said, indicating the school’s location had been communicated to the Israeli army 17 times.

“No words to adequately express my anger and indignation,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, describing it as “intolerable”.

But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday blamed Hamas for the heavy loss of civilian life in Gaza.

“They have initiated and continue this conflict, and continue to seek the destruction of the state of Israel,” Harper a longtime supporter of Israel, said in televised remarks.

In Israel, the army said three soldiers were killed in Gaza, raising the overall number of soldiers killed to 56 since the operation began on July 8.

Public radio quoted Major General Sami Turgeman, the senior officer for the Gaza region, as saying that the destruction of militants’ remaining tunnels into Israel could be complete “in a few days”.

Israel has said uncovering and destroying an apparently sophisticated network of tunnels is a primary goal of its assault.

– Israeli team in Cairo –

But there appeared to be little Israeli appetite for a truce, despite an hours-long meeting of the security cabinet, with a senior official telling Haaretz newspaper that the Jewish state was not even close to a ceasefire.

“When a ceasefire proposal that answers Israel’s important needs is laid on the table, it will be considered,” he said, warning that the military operation would expand.

“The (military) will expand attacks against Hamas and the rest of the terror organizations.”

Nevertheless, a two-member Israeli delegation traveled to Cairo late Wednesday to discuss a possible ceasefire with Egyptian officials, an official at the airport said, adding they were expected to leave after several hours.

Cairo, a key mediator in previous truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas, was also expected to host a Palestinian delegation later this week.

Public radio said that the full Israeli cabinet would convene on Thursday for the first time since the start of the Gaza operation.

Source: Middle East Online.


Syria militants leave Lebanese border town

August 07, 2014

LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) — Militants from Syria who overran a Lebanese border town mostly withdrew back across the rugged hills separating the two countries as a cease-fire appeared to hold Thursday, allowing Lebanese troops to free seven fellow soldiers and ambulances to evacuate dozens of casualties.

The seizure of Arsal over the weekend marked the first time that Islamic extremists from Syria carried out a large-scale incursion into Lebanon and raised fears of a further spillover of the conflict across the porous border.

A senior Lebanese security official said the majority of the fighters had withdrawn by mid-Thursday. As the militants pulled back, the extent of the fighting that began Saturday became clearer. Sunni clerics who negotiated the cease-fire uploaded videos of wounded, wailing children and photographs of dead children.

“We were weeping to see people in need. We had some bread, and people were fighting for the bread,” said Sheik Hussam al-Ghali of the Association of Muslim Clerics, who oversaw the negotiations. “I went to some of the (Syrian refugee) camps. The stench of death was very strong,” he told media on the outskirts of Arsal.

Red Cross official Abdullah Zogheib said the group evacuated 42 wounded people Thursday, most of them women and children. Later, up to 150 cars packed with Syrian refugees were seen leaving Arsal. A security official in eastern Lebanon said arrangements were made for them to cross back into Syria through the Masnaa border crossing.

“We fled from the shelling, terrorists and gunmen,” said a Syrian man who identified himself as Abu Hadi, leaving with his family in a pick-up truck. It was not immediately clear where in Syria the refugees were going, but many may have been fleeing the violence in Arsal for areas inside their country where there has been less fighting recently.

The fighting in Arsal began Saturday when militants from Syria overran the town, seizing Lebanese army posts, soldiers and policemen, and demanding the release of a rebel commander detained in Lebanon. The militants included fighters from the Islamic State group as well as from the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate.

At least 17 soldiers have been killed in the clashes, which trapped tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees in Arsal, and ratcheted up tensions inside Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

As the truce negotiated overnight appeared to hold, the Lebanese army said it had freed seven soldiers who had been captured by the militants, without providing further details. Twelve more soldiers are still missing along with an unknown number of policemen.

A field hospital in Arsal said 38 people had been killed in the fighting by Wednesday. The Association of Muslim Clerics posted photographs of at least two dead little girls it said were killed in Arsal, alongside videos and photographs of wounded children, on its Facebook page.

Cleric al-Ghali and a pro-rebel activist who uses the name Ahmad Alquseir said that some Syrian tent encampments near Arsal were struck and burnt by shelling. In Syria meanwhile, militants from the Islamic State group overran one of the last remaining army bases in the northeastern Raqqa province, activists said Thursday.

The militants seized the Brigade 93 base overnight after days of heavy fighting, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the Raqqa Media Center, an activist collective. The base lies some 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the provincial capital of Raqqa, a stronghold for the Islamic State group.

Abdurrahman said dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed. The Britain-based Observatory obtains its information from activists on the ground in Syria. State media did not report the incident. A video uploaded to social media networks showed heavily armed men with thick beards — who claimed to be from the Islamic State group — walking through the military base, showing off trucks, tanks, assault rifles and boxes of ammunition left behind by fleeing soldiers.

“We will not stop until we liberated the blessed land of the Levant. Our aim isn’t just the Levant. It is the whole world,” said one fighter in broken Arabic, vowing to overrun Saudi Arabia next. Photographs uploaded by supporters of the Islamic State showed fighters posing beside dead bodies, at least one of them beheaded.

The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway, has seized wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, where it is imposing an ultraconservative version of Muslim law, including killing people seen as apostates, and beheading and crucifying rivals.

Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Beirut.

Syria rebels raid Lebanese town, capture troops

August 02, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Rebels fighting in Syria’s civil war crossed into Lebanon and raided a border town Saturday, killing and capturing security force members in the most serious incursion into the tiny country during its neighbor’s 3-year-old conflict.

The rebels, who included foreign fighters, demanded to trade soldiers and police officers it captured in Arsal for some of the “most dangerous detainees,” the Lebanese army said in a statement. Masked gunmen roamed the streets as Lebanese helicopter gunships flew over the town, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) from the capital, Beirut.

A Lebanese army general told The Associated Press that the gunmen attacked army positions near Arsal and troops returned fire. Another official said the gunmen also took control of the main police station in the town.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Arsal residents later freed police officers at the station, though rebels captured some weapons and released several detainees. It said gunmen killed two residents near the police station.

A picture posted online allegedly showed gunmen in Arsal driving away with about a dozen men, two of them in police uniforms. The photograph corresponded to other AP reporting about the attack. Gunmen killed two soldiers and wounded several others, the National News Agency reported.

“What is happening today is among the most dangerous of what Lebanon and the Lebanese are being subjected to,” the army statement said. “The gunmen kidnapped several soldiers and policemen who were spending the weekend with their families … and demanded the release of some of the most dangerous detainees held by the army.

“The Lebanese army will not accept that its members be hostages and will not stay silent about targeting the army and Arsal residents.” The statement said the Lebanese army “will not allow any side to move the battle from Syria” into Lebanon. It added that the army “will not allow any foreign gunman to endanger the security of Lebanon or to harm its soldiers or policemen.”

The Lebanese army general said earlier in the day that gunmen took two soldiers who were driving an army tanker truck. The army’s later statement said the two soldiers were later freed in an army operation.

The general and the official spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Prime Minister Tammam Salam described the attack as a “flagrant aggression against the state of Lebanon” and vowed that his government “will deal with the developments with extreme firmness and strength.”

Saturday’s attacks came hours after the army said troops detained Syrian citizen Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who identified himself as a member of Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. The National News Agency said Jomaa was detained as he was being brought to a hospital in Lebanon after being wounded while fighting Syrian troops.

A resident in Arsal told the AP that masked gunmen roamed the streets. The man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said two shells hit a small Syrian refugee camp in the town, sparking a fire.

“Clashes are continuous and people are staying in their homes,” the man said by telephone as cracks of gunfire could be heard in the background. “Arsal is under the control of gunmen who are driving around.”

Arsal is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and rebels enjoy wide support among its population. Lebanese Sunnis, such as the residents of Arsal, often back the Sunni rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Shiites, like those belonging to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, typically back Assad.

Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions and inflamed sectarian tensions leaving scores dead. However, previous rebel raids never went so deeply into Lebanese territory. The Islamic State group, a powerful extremist rebel group in Syria, recently seized large swaths of territory in neighboring Iraq. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the gunmen in Arsal intended to remain in the town, which is surrounded by Shiite villages where Hezbollah is active.

The violence in Arsal came after an ambush near Syria’s border with Lebanon killed dozens of opposition fighters, activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights said Syrian troops and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group ambushed opposition fighters in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, killing at least 50 of them. It said seven troops and Hezbollah fighters were killed in the fighting.

Government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters have seized nearly all the strategic Qalamoun region since launching an offensive there last November, severing rebel supply lines from neighboring Lebanon.

The Syrian uprising began in the form of peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, but escalated into an insurgency when government forces violently cracked down on dissent. Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in more than three years of fighting, activists say.

Hezbollah commander killed in Iraq

July 31, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Officials say a commander with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was killed in Iraq.

The Lebanese officials, close to the Shiite Hezbollah, say Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haj was killed during the past week while on a “jihadi mission” without providing further details. It is the first known Hezbollah death in Iraq since Sunni extremists captured large parts of the country north and west of Baghdad in June.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Iraqi officials have said that a handful of advisers from Hezbollah are offering front-line guidance to Iraqi Shiite militias fighting jihadi militants north of Baghdad.

Hezbollah fighters openly joined Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces last year in a decision that has fueled sectarian tensions in Lebanon.