Archive for October, 2014

Sweden recognizes Palestinian state; Israel upset

October 30, 2014

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden on Thursday became the biggest Western European country to recognize a Palestinian state, prompting a strong protest from Israel, which swiftly withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm.

The move by Sweden’s new left-leaning government reflects growing international impatience with Israel’s nearly half-century control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. It also comes during increased tensions between Arabs and Jews over Israel’s plans to build 1,000 housing units in east Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Sweden, fulfilling a promise made when the Social Democratic-led government took office earlier this month, believes the Palestinians have met the criteria under international law for such recognition.

“There is a territory, a people and government,” she told reporters in Stockholm, adding that Sweden was the 135th country in the world to recognize a Palestinian state. It is the third Western European nation to do so, after Malta and Cyprus. Some Eastern European countries recognized a Palestinian state during the Cold War.

Israel was quick to condemn Sweden’s announcement, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman describing it as “a miserable decision that strengthens the extremist elements and Palestinian rejectionism.”

“It’s a shame that the government of Sweden chose to take a declarative step that only causes harm,” he added. Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said Israel’s ambassador to Sweden was being recalled for consultations but declined to say how long he would remain in Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed the move by Sweden, a European Union member, as “a principled and courageous decision.” “It is our hope that other EU member states and countries worldwide will follow Sweden’s lead and recognize Palestine before the chances for a two-state solution are destroyed indefinitely,” Ashrawi said.

Israel says Palestinians can gain independence only through peace negotiations, and that recognition of Palestine at the U.N. or by individual countries undermines the negotiating process. Palestinians say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t serious about the peace negotiations.

The latest round of U.S.-brokered talks collapsed in April. American officials have hinted that Israel’s tough negotiating stance hurt the talks, and Netanyahu has continued to settle Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the two areas, greatly complicating hopes of partitioning the area under a future peace deal. The two territories and the Gaza Strip are claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. supports Palestinian statehood but added it can only come through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that resolve status issues and end their conflict.

“Some countries (are) responding to the lack of a resolution of a peace process out there,” she said. Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, said she had anticipated Israeli criticism against Sweden’s decision.

“It happens that ambassadors are recalled for consultations. It is part of the diplomatic toolkit,” Wallstrom said. “I am convinced that both our countries have an interest in maintaining and strengthening our good bilateral ties.”

While the U.S. and European powers have so far refrained from recognizing Palestinian independence, they have become increasingly critical of Israeli settlement construction. The 28-nation European Union has urged that negotiations to achieve a two-state solution resume as soon as possible.

In a symbolic move, British lawmakers earlier this month voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state. Some other Western European countries — including Germany, Denmark and Finland — have said they’re not planning to follow Sweden’s lead.

Associated Press writers Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attack Jerusalem buses over ad

October 21, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police say dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews have attacked buses with ads promoting female worship at a Jerusalem holy site.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Tuesday that the incident happened the previous night, when about 50 men slashed tires and pelted the buses with stones in Mea Shearim, a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The ads are from the Women of the Wall group, which promotes gender equality at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. They show women and girls holding Torah scrolls — an act many Orthodox Jews believe is reserved for men.

In Monday’s incident, the extremists also spray-painted the words “end the obscene pictures” on a bus. Religious extremists have faced criticism for their efforts to separate women and men in public places.

Iran military ready to ship equipment to Lebanon

October 20, 2014

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s defense minister said his country is ready to ship defensive materials to Lebanon to aid its army in the fight against Sunni extremists on Monday, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

The report quoted Gen. Hossein Dehghan, speaking at a joint briefing with visiting Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, as saying the shipment would help thwart extremists who plan to commit “inhuman crimes” in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

“We will provide an Iranian-made consignment of defensive items to the Lebanese army for their use in fighting the group and other terrorist groups,” Dehghan said. The Lebanese troops have been fighting militants from the Islamic State group since fighting spilled into the Mediterranean country from neighboring Syria.

Dehghan did not elaborate on the contents of the shipment but said it was a gift intended for “swift action against a possible threat.” The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Iran in 2007, banning it from importing and exporting weapons.

“The aid mainly includes items for ground forces — for confronting terrorist currents,” he said, adding that Iran was also ready to provide training to the Lebanese army. The shipment now awaits approval from Lebanon, Dehghan said, a country he described as having a “special position” in Iran’s foreign policy. Shiite Iran backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group now fighting alongside forces of key Iran ally President Bashar Assad against the Sunni extremists in Syria.

Iran’s former ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, said the U.S. and some groups in Lebanon are worried about the aid because they are concerned it could be used against Israel. “They say the aid breaks sanctions, but it is just a gift and there is no money in return,” said Roknabadi, adding that Iran had proposed gifting the aid years ago.

Iran, a major weapons manufacturer in the region, has in the past said it exported military products to scores of countries, although it has never revealed details.

For teen with passport, Syria trip can be seamless

October 23, 2014

PARIS (AP) — The teenage sisters told their father they were staying home sick from their suburban Denver school. Instead, they took $2,000 and their passports and headed off for Syria with a 16-year-old friend. They made it as far as Germany before border guards detained them for questioning.

The fact that adolescent girls could make their way across the Atlantic might come as a surprise to many parents, but a patchwork of laws and rules governing international air travel in many cases makes it easy for teenagers to travel with nobody’s permission but their own.

Airlines have a range of rules governing minors’ travel: Many major carriers including United Airlines and Scandinavian airline SAS place no restrictions on children over 12, while others let even young minors travel as long as they are accompanied by someone over 16. Yet others, including American Airlines, require a parent to accompany travelers under the age of 15 to the gate, while those 15 and over face no restrictions.

Countries have a separate set of laws that is no less haphazard, from a Russian requirement for notarized parental permission to the U.S. system where adolescents with valid passports are free to come and go.

In Spain, both parents must fill out a permission form at a police station before a minor can travel alone. In Germany, where the American teens were stopped, border guards are required to verify that minors have parental permission to travel.

And in France, which is Europe’s single largest source of would-be jihadis, parental authorization had to be received by city hall — until January 2013. That’s when a small administrative change took effect suspending the requirement for parental approval. The government said it would streamline unnecessary bureaucracy and officials remarked that few runaways went abroad, and even fewer stayed there.

Fast-forward 22 months, and nearly every week new reports emerge of French adolescents leaving for Syria. Teenagers from France can travel within the European Union with a valid ID; outside the EU, they need only a passport.

Under French law, parents can have their children flagged if they fear they will leave the country to join extremists. But for many of those who have left, their families had no warning. Lawyer Agnes Dufetel-Cordier represents a teenage boy from Toulouse who left in January to join the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, before coming back to his family to face criminal charges. She said the teen — now 16 — gave no sign he was about to bolt for Syria, and his departure came as a shock to his parents. He was not stopped at the airport in Marseille, nor on arrival in Turkey or crossing into Syria.

“If you reverse the regulation that lets them travel without their parents’ permission, you will see right away that minors are no longer leaving,” Dufetel-Cordier said. “Today in France, in the case of most minors who go to Syria, the families have absolutely no idea ahead of time.”

At age 17, Sahra Ali Mehenni went so far as to ask her mother to get her a passport, saying she wanted her paperwork in order before she reached adulthood. When she left for Syria on March 11, departing from the Marseille airport just as the teen boy did, she took her burgundy-bound passport and nobody stopped her before she boarded the flight to Istanbul.

“If I go out and I run a red light, they’re going to get me right away,” said her father, Kamel. “But these minors are going to Istanbul — and if they’re going to Istanbul, it’s to go to Syria. They know it. You can’t say they don’t know it. And no one stops it.”

The same concerns apply in the United States, where parental permission is required to obtain a passport — but none is needed for travel. The teens who flew to Germany were stopped because their parents, part of suburban Denver’s tight-knit East African community, reported them missing quickly, and American authorities contacted German authorities before they landed.

“Kudos to those family members in Colorado,” said Omar Jamal, CEO of American Friends of Somalia. “Time is of the essence. They did the right thing.”

Associated Press writers contributing to this story included Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Ellliot Spagat in San Diego; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; and Lara Jakes in Washington.

Lebanon pulled into war with Islamic State group

October 18, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — With all eyes on the Islamic State group’s onslaught in Iraq and Syria, a less conspicuous but potentially just as explosive front line with the extremists is emerging in Lebanon, where Lebanese soldiers and Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas are increasingly pulled into deadly fighting with the Sunni militants along the country’s border with Syria.

The U.S. has been speeding up delivery of small ammunition to shore up Lebanon’s army, but recent cross-border attacks and beheading of Lebanese soldiers by Islamic State fighters — and the defection of four others to the extremists — has sent shockwaves across this Mediterranean country, eliciting fear of a potential slide into the kind of militant, sectarian violence afflicting both Syria and Iraq, and increasingly prompting minorities to take up arms.

The crisis was slow in coming. For long, Lebanon managed to miraculously avoid the all-out chaos gripping neighboring countries — despite sporadic street clashes and car bombings, and despite being awash with weapons and taking in an endless stream of refugees from Syria who now constitute a staggering one third of its population of 4.5 million people.

Unlike in Syria or Iraq, the al-Qaida-breakaway Islamic State group does not hold territory in Lebanon. But along with Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, it has established footholds in remote mountains along Lebanon’s remote eastern border, from where it launches almost daily incursions further afield.

Jihadi recruitment in impoverished Sunni areas of northern Lebanon is on the rise, and black Islamic State group flags fly freely in some areas, reflecting pockets of growing support for the radical group.

“Lebanon is in the eye of the storm,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. The Lebanese are bitterly divided over Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah fighters have gone to join Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in their battle against Sunni rebels, drawing anger at home from Lebanon’s Sunnis and stoking Sunni-Shiite tensions. This in turn led to tit-for-tat suicide bombings and several rounds of street clashes in Lebanon in the past year.

The Islamic State group threat first came to Lebanon in August, two months after the group’s summer blitz in which it seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. In a surprise attack, Islamic State group and Nusra Front militants crossed over from Syria and overran the predominantly Sunni Lebanese border town of Arsal, hitting Lebanese army positions and killing nearly 20 soldiers.

After weeklong clashes, the militants pulled back to mountain caves near Syria’s border, taking more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen with them. Islamic State fighters have since beheaded two Lebanese soldiers. Nusra Front militants have shot dead a third. In return for remaining hostages, they have issued various demands, including the withdrawal of Hezbollah troops from Syria, and the release of Islamists from Lebanese prisons.

Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji said in comments published this week that the militants from Syria want to ignite civil war and create a passage to Lebanon’s coastline by linking the Syrian Qalamoun mountains with Arsal on the border and the northern Lebanese town of Akkar, an impoverished Sunni area.

Analysts agree that in Lebanon, the Islamic State group fighters also see an opportunity to strike at Hezbollah’s patron, the Shiite powerhouse Iran but that they are not too eager to immediately embark on yet another war.

“The territory of Lebanon is a longer-term goal,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there are fears that eventually, Schenker said, the Islamic State group could stage a spectacular bombing of, for example, the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh south of Beirut, recreating an incident similar to a 2006 attack in the Iraqi city of Samarra, and “unleash this incredible sectarian tension that results in a resumption of civil war.”

In Samarra, the Sunni extremists bombed a major Shiite shrine, setting in motion two years of sectarian bloodletting that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Lebanon is still recovering from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The global war against Islamic State group and its attacks in Lebanon have somewhat bolstered Hezbollah’s narrative that its intervention in Syria was necessary to ward off a Sunni extremist threat to Lebanon.

Paradoxically, it has brought Hezbollah closer to Christians and other Lebanese minorities through their shared fear of the Sunni militants. But the Lebanese Shiite group is hated by most Lebanese Sunnis, many of whom refer to Hezbollah as the “Party of Satan” — a dark play on Hezbollah’s name, which in English means “Party of God.”

In addition to being bogged down in the fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is increasingly embroiled in clashes inside Lebanon. In an unprecedented attack, Nusra Front fighters overran positions manned by Hezbollah along the Syrian border last week, killing eight of its fighters in battles that lasted several hours.

“Such attacks not only erode the stature of Hezbollah, they show it to be vulnerable. I think in the long run or as the months go by we’re going to see more and more of this,” Schenker said. In a rare excursion outside his underground bunkers, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah traveled to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon last week to meet his fighters, Hezbollah official Mohammad Afif said — an apparent move to boost their morale.

“Hezbollah entered a battle that is bigger than Lebanon,” said Kiwan, the political science professor. “Today, Hezbollah is obliged to continue in the battle that it started.” Along with the Lebanese army, Hezbollah is fighting almost daily incursions by Islamic State group militants in Bekaa, prompting accusations that the army is collaborating with the Shiite guerrilla against the Lebanese Sunnis, placing the army in the thick of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation.

Adding to the deadly mix, four Lebanese soldiers, all Sunnis from north Lebanon, have deserted from the army and joined either the IS or the Nusra Front since July. One of the deserters, Abdallah Shehadeh, said in a video posted online by Nusra Front this week that he had initially “enlisted in the army to defend the Lebanese people” — only to find that the army is a “Hezbollah tool.”

Though a handful of desertions do not pose an imminent risk to the stature of Lebanon’s military, such publicized statements may eventually hurt it and make the recruitment of Sunni conscripts more difficult, analysts say.

Because of the Lebanese Sunni-Shiite divisions and the pro- and anti-Assad split, the civil war in Syria has completely paralyzed the government in Beirut. Lebanon has been without a president since May, and parliament is set to postpone elections for the second time, ostensibly because the security situation makes it impossible to hold a vote.

Moreover, the government faces escalating protests by families of the captive soldiers and policemen who have blocked roads and set up protest tents, including several pitched last week near the government building that blocked traffic in Beirut’s commercial center. They families accuse the government of not doing enough to secure the freedom of their loved ones.

“We hope that the state (of Lebanon) will do something that restores its dignity,” said Layal Dirani, the sister of policeman Suleiman Dirani, who was taken captive by the Nusra Front on Aug. 2.

Turkish PM Davutoglu: We oppose ISIL and Assad

10 October 2014 Friday

“Turkey opposes the ISIL as much as the Assad regime in Syria,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Friday.

But Davutoglu rejected as “funny” a motion from the main opposition party to put Turkish ‘boots on the ground’ at Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, the Syrian border town under attack by ISIL.

Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu made the motion in parliament on Thursday. The motion proposes ground troop operations by the Turkish army against ISIL that would be limited to the Kobani region. The opposition has, however, rejected a separate motion that would allow foreign troops to operate on Turkish territory.

Davutoglu spoke to reporters after visiting the Police Chief Atalay Urker of the eastern Bingol province, who was wounded in an attack on Thursday.

The Turkish parliament accepted a government motion on October 2 authorizing military action in Syria and Iraq against any terrorist group, including ISIL.

US senators back Turkey

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have voiced support for Turkey over Ankara’s policy towards the besieged town of Kobani.

Their comments, released on their official website on Thursday, came after 31 people died in a series of illegal pro-Kurdish protests across Turkey, amid accusations the government was failing to act against the ISIL to save the mainly Kurdish-populated Syrian town on the border with Turkey.

The two US senators released a statement saying they backed Turkey’s Kobani strategy and its policy towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

They said: “The growing criticism of Turkey for not acting to save Kobani does not reflect the reality on the ground that both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad must be defeated.”

“We certainly believe Turkey should play a greater role in the fight against ISIS, and we have disagreed in recent years with some of Turkey’s policies and actions in the Middle East, especially on Israel and the management of its border with Syria.”

They went on: “In this instance, however, President Erdogan has said that we need an international strategy not just to destroy ISIS, but also to force Assad to leave power and end the conflict in Syria – for the former objective cannot succeed without the latter.”

“This strategy, Erdogan has said, must include the establishment of safe zones in Syria for civilians and opposition forces, protected by no-fly zones – a strategy we have long advocated and continue to believe is vital to success in both Syria and Iraq.”

The US senators also stressed that many other friends and allies in the Middle East shared their view.

“We are confident that, if President Obama adopted a strategy which took the steps that Turkish leaders are advocating to deal with Assad as well as ISIS, he would have significant support from our regional partners, including Turkish military involvement, which can be so important to success,” they said.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/news/145929/turkish-pm-davutoglu-we-oppose-isil-and-assad.

Kurds struggle to defend besieged Syrian town

October 11, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Syrian activists and Kurdish officials say fierce fighting is underway in a Syrian border town where Kurdish militiamen are struggling to repel advances by the Islamic State group.

The battle for Kobani is raging despite airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting the militants. A Kurdish official, Ismet Sheikh Hasan, says Saturday’s clashes are focused in the southern and eastern parts of the town. He says the situation is dire.

The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, says the town’s Kurdish fighters are putting up a fierce fight but are outgunned by the militants Since the militants launched their onslaught on Kobani in mid-September, at least 500 people have been killed and more than 200,000 have been forced to flee across the border into Turkey.

Syrian women find independence in embroidery

Florence Massena

September 11, 2014

Of the nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees currently sheltered in Lebanon, 52.3% are women, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Coming alone or with their families, they are often subject to violence, but some have been able to find help from the many nongovernmental organizations in the country. One of them, Basmeh wa Zeitooneh, helps Syrians find stability and dignity in sewing and embroidery.

“Women are strong,” proclaims Rihab, a Palestinian Syrian who fled Yarmouk a year and a half ago with her family. “My husband doesn’t work. He only eats and sleeps all day.” Like the 60 other women assisted by Basmeh wa Zeitooneh, she became the breadwinner out of necessity. “Now, Syrian women bring money home. It’s harder for men.” UNHCR provides only $30 a month for each registered refugee in Lebanon, forcing families to scramble to find other sources of income.

Fifty-five women share the studio and equipment in shifts of three hours daily to give everyone a chance to work. Mariam, from Homs, considers herself lucky: Her husband was able to find a “precarious job as a daily worker in construction,” which is enough to pay the one-bedroom apartment’s $250 rent, the most affordable to be found in Beirut. For her part, she has embroidered for 10 months, earning as much as $150 per month, enough for her to take care of the rest, “although three hours a day are not enough.”

The initiative is the creation of Basmeh wa Zeitooneh in the Shatila Palestinian camp in Beirut’s suburb. The Syrian organization was founded in March 2013 and has since spread to Bourj el Barajneh and the Bekaa Valley. “At first, we went door to door in the camp to see what the families needed, and we provided them with what they asked for,” recalls Reem Al-Haswani, an architect from Yabroud. George Talamas and Fadi Hallisso, the other two co-founders, soon developed long term programs: a medical clinic for women and children; a cultural center; lessons for children and adults in reading, writing and computer skills and an embroidery workshop. “We found a trainer and managed over time to bring women to work. We pay them monthly for each piece produced, and then try to sell them.”

It’s a way for them to earn some money, but also to talk safely and privately about their daily issues. “Women are the first victims of the conflict,” says Haswani. “Here, we provide a space for expression, where they can complain of abuses in the family, for example, but also [find] support.”

Women seem to have suffered more than their share of pain since the beginning of the war in Syria. Researches from Yale University found that Syrian women in north Lebanon face serious health issues, including domestic violence and pregnancy complications due to stress. Sexual violence emerged as a deadly epidemic early on in the Syrian conflict.

Jean-Basptiste Pesquet, a French doctoral student in the Middle East French Institute, has conducted interviews in the Syrian refugee camps for over a year. He told Al-Monitor, “Women are the containers of violence for the other family members that suffered arrests and bombings. Often, the husband can neither work nor fight, and thus loses his status. He doesn’t have the capacity to ensure financial independence for his family anymore, and has no function in the household. Therefore, violence can illegitimately compensate a social function’s loss through physical domination.”

It’s hard to picture the NGO’s embroiderers as victims. They show an impressive strength and ability to overcome their difficult situations. Pesquet added, “We must be careful not to [think of] women as passive victims of their circumstances, because they are also actors and can choose to harness situations for other purposes, as well as commit violence themselves.”

We will never know what the women in Basmeh wa Zeitooneh go through daily, or if they use violence at home, too. But one thing is sure: This work within the organization is indeed a foot in the door to a new life for the refugees.

“When I finish a piece and take the money, I really feel that I achieved something. It gives meaning to my life. I do something other than cooking and cleaning the house,” said Mariam. She had worked on her family’s farm before leaving Syria, but for no wages. The Syrian women living in Shatila often come from very conservative circles, Rihab explained with a glint in her eye. “We were only working a little bit, sometimes never. Our husbands didn’t want us to leave the house and see people. Now we are the ones bringing home the money!”

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/09/lebanon-syria-refugees-women-work-ngos.html.

Al-Qaida leader warns of revenge for airstrikes

September 28, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate vowed Sunday that his group would “use all possible means” to fight back against airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and warned that the conflict would reach Western countries joining the alliance.

The U.S. views the affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, as a terrorist group, but Syrian rebels have long seen it as a potent ally against both the Islamic State extremist group — which is the main target of the coalition — and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Syrian rebels, activists and analysts have warned that targeting the Nusra Front will inject more chaos into the Syrian conflict and indirectly help Assad by striking one of his main adversaries. The U.S. insists it wants Assad to step down, but is not targeting his forces, which are best placed to benefit from the airstrikes.

In a 25-minute audio recording, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani portrayed the U.S.-led coalition as a “Crusader alliance” against Sunni Muslims and vowed to fight back. “We will use all that we have to defend the people of Syria…from the Crusader alliance,” al-Golani said. “And we will use all possible means to achieve this end,” he said, without offering more details.

He went on to warn Western countries against taking part in the alliance in words that echoed those of the late founder of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden. “This is what will cause the battle to be transported to the hearts of your own homes; because Muslims will not stand idly by and watch Muslims be bombed and killed in their countries, while you are safe on your countries. The price of war will not be paid by your leaders alone. You will pay the biggest price,” he said.

The recording appeared genuine and corresponded with Associated Press reporting. The United States and five Arab allies launched an air campaign against Islamic State fighters in Syria on Tuesday with the aim of ultimately crushing the extremist group, which has created a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border. The U.S. has been carrying out airstrikes against the group in neighboring Iraq since August.

Some of the initial strikes targeted the Nusra Front, hitting several of its facilities and killing dozens of its fighters. Washington said it was trying to take out an al-Qaida cell known as the Khorasan Group that was actively plotting attacks against Americans and Western interests.

Syrian rebels have expressed anger at the coalition airstrikes, both because they have targeted the Nusra Front — which they see as an ally — and because they are not hitting pro-government forces, which are the best placed to benefit from any rolling back of the Islamic State group. The Nusra Front’s ultimate goal is to impose Islamic law in Syria. But unlike the Islamic State group, it has fought alongside other rebel groups, seeing the overthrow of Assad as its first priority.

Al-Golani warned the airstrikes would weaken the rebels. “Those of our men who were targeted in the shelling… the effect of their loss will be witnessed by the entire conflict, not just on the (Nusra) Front alone.”

The Nusra Front leader also warned other rebel groups not to coordinate with the U.S.-led alliance. Washington has promised to arm and train more Syrian rebels to help fight the Islamic State group. The al-Golani speech came hours after the group’s spokesman warned that Muslims would attack countries taking part in the coalition air raids.

The Islamic State group — an al-Qaida breakaway faction rejected by the global terror network — controls a vast tract of land stretching from the Turkish border in northern Syria to the western outskirts of Baghdad, where it has declared a self-styled caliphate ruled by its brutal version of Islamic law. Its aggressive push across Iraq over the summer spurred the U.S. to form a coalition against the group.

On Sunday, explosions lit the sky for two hours in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad as airstrikes, likely by the coalition, targeted a refinery operated by the militant group, said an eyewitness and activists.

“Our building was shaking and we saw fire, some 60 meters (65 yards) high, coming from the refinery,” said Turkish businessman Mehmet Ozer, who lives in the nearby Turkish border town of Akcakale. The Turkish news agency Dogan said the strikes targeted an oil refinery and the local headquarters of the Islamic State group. U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the air campaign, did not immediately comment on the strikes.

The U.S.-led coalition has been targeting Islamic State-held oil installations across Syria, aiming to cripple the group’s finances. The group is believed to earn some $3 million a day from selling smuggled oil on the black market as well as kidnapping and extortion.

The coalition includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan. Several European countries also are contributing to U.S. efforts to strike the Islamic State group in Iraq, including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Britain.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 19 civilians have been killed so far in coalition strikes in Syria. Most recently, six oil workers in the far northeast province of Hassakeh were killed overnight, said the Observatory, which obtains information from a network of activists on the ground.

Overall, some 190,000 people have been killed in Syria’s three-year conflict, and nearly one-half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people has been displaced.

Butler reported from Sanliurfa, Turkey. Associated Press reporter Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara.

Syrian refugees in Turkey reach 150,000

September 23, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Refugees streaming into Turkey from Syria say their home city, once bustling with 400,000 citizens, has become a ghost town, emptied of all people but a few thousand fighters trying to hold off an onslaught by Islamic militants.

The masses fleeing the brutal offensive by the Islamic State group on the city of Kobani, looming just across the border from Turkey, are part of a wave that has reached 150,000 people since Thursday. Turkey had taken in well over a million Syrian refugees from the 3 ½-year-old conflict already before the latest wave, but this influx is the largest yet, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

Arriving weary in Turkey Tuesday — some walking, some limping, some on stretchers — the refugees brought with them stories explaining why so few remain behind in the besieged city. Osman Nawaf, 59, said that he saw about fifty dead bodies hanging headless in a village called Boras that he passed on his three-day walk from a village on the outskirts of Kobani.

Leyla Kuno, a 55-year-old mother of 10 children, said only the fighters remain in the city. “I came today only because there is no one inside our city,” she said. Kurdish forces trying to fend off the Islamic State on Tuesday expressed hopes that the airstrikes carried out by the United States and five Arab countries against the militants might provide yet provide relief.

Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said airstrikes targeting the Islamic militants would “help” his party’s armed wing in Syria. But fighters staring out at the militants in Kobani said they have seen no let-up so far.

The U.S. and five Arab nations attacked the Islamic State group’s headquarters in eastern Syria in nighttime raids using land- and sea-based U.S. aircraft as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two Navy ships in the Red Sea and the northern Persian Gulf.

But the bombs did not fall on Islamic State group positions near Kobani. One Kurdish fighter protecting the city, reached by phone near the front line, said that the airstrikes had yet to diminish his enemies’ attack, but said that he hoped that it would eventually hinder resupply of heavy weaponry.

It was not immediately clear why the U.S. and allies did not hit the forces besieging Kobani, given the magnitude and urgency of the humanitarian disaster the militants are causing. Selin Unal, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, which has been assisting the Turkish government in caring for the refugees, called the migration in the last few days: “Probably the biggest wave in the region over a short period, and certainly the biggest for Turkey.”

She said that the needs for the refugees were so huge that her organization was considering airlifting in supplies from other countries. She praised Turkey’s efforts and pleaded for help from abroad, noting that despite taking in the largest number of refugees in the region, Turkey has been receiving less support from abroad than neighboring countries coping with refugees.

Late Tuesday, the European Union said it would increase its aid to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria by 215 million euros ($280 million). Among other things, the funding would go toward helping those seeking refuge in Turkey over the past few days, it said.

Many of the refugees at an intake center manned by the Turkish relief agency, AFAD, noted that the fighters are protecting their homes and expressed hopes they would be able to resume their lives in Kobani soon.

Many also expressed reluctance about coming to Turkey. Hussain Mohamed Ibn Mustafa, a middle-aged fighter, who had escorted his family across the border to visit a sick brother in a Turkish hospital, said that life had been good in Kobani until this last week and that his family now dreaded life across the border.

“We are like prisoners here,” he said. But he said he would go back soon to fight, noting that Kobani is a strategic town for the control of the Syrian Kurdish region. “If we lose Kobani it means we have lost Kurdistan,” he said.

The developments across the border are also flaring tensions in Turkey. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of a Kurdish rebel group fighting Turkey for autonomy has now called for a mass mobilization of all Kurds against the Islamic State group.

Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island near Istanbul, leads the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has long fought Turkey for autonomy and is affiliated with Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

The call could raise tensions at the border where Kurds have clashed with Turkish security forces. Near the frontier, hundreds of Kurds from Turkey have fought with Turkish police firing tear gas and water cannons. The Kurds say Turkey is hampering their efforts to enter Syria and help their brethren.

The area around Turkey’s border town of Suruc was heavily militarized on Tuesday with armored vehicles, though clashes had subsided.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Mohammed Rasool in Suruc contributed to this report.