Archive for October 11th, 2014

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.

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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.

Hezbollah suffers heavy losses in clashes with jihadists

2014-10-06

BAALBEK – Eight fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement were killed in clashes with jihadists in an area on the border with Syria, a Hezbollah source said on Monday.

The source revised an earlier toll of five dead for Sunday’s attack by jihadists on a Hezbollah post and clashes that followed.

The early morning attack targeted the post in mountains around the town of Nabi Sbat, east of Baalbek on the border with Syria.

The source said “dozens” of jihadists were killed in the assault, which Lebanon’s National News Agency said was launched from Assal al-Ward in Syria’s Qalamun province.

Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, claimed involvement in the attack on one of its official Twitter accounts on Monday.

The group said its fighters “launched an attack from Assal” on the Hezbollah post.

“More than 11 of them were killed and their weapons seized,” it added, posting photos it said were of dead Hezbollah fighters.

Lebanon’s border with Syria is not officially defined and much of it is porous and unpatrolled, with local residents, smugglers and others moving freely across it.

Hezbollah maintains several military posts along inaccessible parts of the border, and it rarely gives official details on clashes with jihadists or other fighters.

The clashes come two months after jihadists from the Islamic State group and Al-Nusra attacked Lebanese security forces in Arsal, which also lies on the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon.

The jihadists withdrew into the mountains around Arsal after a ceasefire, but took with them around 30 soldiers and policemen as hostages.

Three of them have since been executed, contributing to rising anxiety in Lebanon over the encroachment of jihadists and spillover from the more than three-year-old war in Syria.

Hezbollah has dispatched fighters to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s troops against an uprising that many of Lebanon’s Sunnis support.

The conflict has exacerbated existing tensions in Lebanon, and made Hezbollah and its strongholds of support a target for extremists who have detonated bombs in several areas.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=68354.

Assad backs all efforts to fight terrorism

September 23, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — President Bashar Assad said Tuesday he supports any international effort against terrorism, apparently trying to position his government on the side of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Assad’s remarks came hours after the opening salvo in what the United States has warned will be a lengthy campaign to defeat the extremists who have seized control of a huge swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border. Damascus said the U.S. informed it beforehand that the strikes were coming.

One Syrian activist group reported that dozens of Islamic State fighters were killed in the pre-dawn strikes, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Several activists also reported at least 10 civilians killed.

Some Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad welcomed the American-led strikes, but others expressed frustration that the coalition was only targeting the Islamic State group and not the Syrian government.

One rebel faction that has received U.S.-made advanced weapons, Harakat Hazm, criticized the airstrikes, saying they violate Syria’s sovereignty and undermine the anti-Assad revolution. “The only party benefiting from the foreign intervention in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of a real strategy to bring it down,” the group said in a statement posted on its Twitter feed.

The air campaign expanded to also hit al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, which has fought against the Islamic State group. Washington considers it a terrorist group threatening the U.S., although Western-backed Syrian rebel groups frequently cooperate with Nusra Front fighters on the battlefield.

In a meeting Tuesday with an Iraqi envoy, Assad voiced his support for “any international anti-terrorism effort,” according to the state news agency SANA. Assad did not specifically mention the coalition airstrikes, but said Syria is “decisively continuing in the war it has waged for years against extremist terrorism in all its forms.”

He also stressed that all nations must commit to stop support for terrorism — an apparent reference to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are strong backers of Syrian rebels, whom the Syrian government calls terrorists.

In recent weeks, Syrian officials insisted that any international strikes on its soil must be coordinated with Damascus or else they would be considered an act of aggression and a breach of Syria’s sovereignty. The United States has ruled out any coordination with Assad’s government.

Still, Damascus appeared to want to show it was not being left out, vowing in a statement to fight extremist faction across Syria and pledging to coordinate “with countries that were harmed by the group, first and foremost Iraq.”

Syria “stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called — whether Daesh or Nusra Front or something else,” it said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State group.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Washington told Damascus’ U.N. envoy of the impending raids shortly before they began. It also said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry passed a message through Iraq’s foreign minister to Syria’s top diplomat to inform Damascus of the plans.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States informed Syria through the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. of its intent to take action, but did not request the Assad government’s permission or coordinate with Damascus.

Syria’s two key allies, Iran and Russia, condemned the strikes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in New York that the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes are illegal because they were not approved by or coordinated with Syria’s government.

Russia warned that the “unilateral” U.S. airstrikes are destabilizing the region and urged Washington to secure either Damascus’ consent or U.N. Security Council support. The Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, which has dispatched fighters to Syria to bolster Assad’s forces, also condemned the strikes.

“We are against an international coalition, whether it is against the regime … or whether it is against Daesh,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. “This is an opportunity, pretext, for America to dominate the region again.”

The strikes, conducted by the U.S., Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, hit Islamic State training compounds and command centers, storage facilities and vehicles in the group’s de facto capital, Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, and the surrounding province, U.S. officials said. They also struck territory controlled by the group in eastern Syria leading to the Iraqi border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 70 Islamic State group fighters were killed and more than 300 wounded. Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory head, said about 22 airstrikes hit Raqqa province in addition to 30 in Deir el-Zour province.

Farther west, the strikes hit the village of Kfar Derian, a stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Around a dozen Nusra Front fighters were killed, as well as 10 civilians, according to two activists based in nearby Aleppo, Mohammed al-Dughaim and Abu Raed. One of the group’s best snipers, known as Abu Youssef al-Turki, was among those killed.

Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Zeina Karam in New York, Omar Akour in Amman, Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Syria refugee flood to Turkey hits 100,000

September 22, 2014

KUCUK KENDIRCILER, Turkey (AP) — The 19-year-old Kurdish militant, who has been fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, brought his family across the border into Turkey to safety Sunday. But in the tranquility of a Turkish tea garden just miles from the frontier, Dalil Boras vowed to head back after nightfall to continue the fight.

Pulling a wad of Syrian bills from his pocket, the young fighter — who has already lost a 17-year-old brother to the Islamic militants’ brutal advance — said that if the Turkish border guards tried to stop him, money would persuade them.

Boras and his relatives are among some 100,000 Syrians, mostly Kurds, who have flooded into Turkey since Thursday, escaping an Islamic State offensive that has pushed the conflict nearly within eyeshot of the Turkish border.

The al-Qaida breakaway group, which has established an Islamic state, or caliphate, ruled by its harsh version of Islamic law in territory it captured straddling the Syria-Iraq border, has in recent days advanced into Kurdish regions of Syria that border Turkey, where fleeing refugees on Sunday reported atrocities that included stonings, beheadings and the torching of homes.

On Sunday, heavy clashes broke out between the Islamic State militants and Kurdish fighters only miles from the Syrian border town of Kobani, where the Islamic State group was bombarding villagers with tanks, artillery and multiple rocket launchers, said Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria’s Kurdish region.

“They are even targeting civilians who are fleeing,” Haj Mansour told The Associated Press. At a border crossing where Turkish authorities were processing the refugees, Osman Abbas said he and 20 relatives were fleeing a village near Kobani when Islamic State fighters shot one of his sons. The 35-year-old had tried to return to their home to recover valuables while the rest of the family fled.

“They took our village, they took our house, they killed my son,” Abbas said. “I saw it with my own eyes.” As refugees flooded in, Turkey closed the border crossing at Kucuk Kendirciler to Turkish Kurds in a move aimed at preventing them from joining the fight in Syria. A day earlier, hundreds of Kurdish fighters had poured into Syria through the small Turkish village, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Clashes broke out as Kurds trying to approach the crossing from inside Turkey scuffled with security forces, who responded with tear gas, paint pellets and water cannons. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the Kurdish protesters had hurled stones at the security forces.

Two people were seriously injured in the clashes, including one Kurdish legislator who was hospitalized, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions’ Party said, adding that the Kurds were protesting the Islamic State group’s attacks as well as the border closure.

The sound of gunfire could be heard from the Syrian side of the frontier, where refugees were piling up after authorities shut the crossing. It wasn’t immediately clear whether they were unable to cross or simply waiting to see what would happen.

Despite the huge number of new refugees, Turkish authorities said they were ready to deal with the influx. The conflict has pushed more than a million Syrians over the border in the past 3 1/2 years. “We have been prepared for this,” said Dogan Eskinat, a spokesman for Turkey’s disaster management agency. “We are also prepared for worse.”

Boras, the young Kurdish fighter, said the lines between Kurdish and Islamic State fighters had held stable near Kobani for months, until the Islamic State group broke through in recent days, armed with more powerful weapons, including tanks. He said he did not know where the heavier weaponry came from.

Two days earlier, his 17-year-old brother was killed in fighting, he said, and another 16-year-old brother, who he had brought to Turkey with his family, slipped back over the border Sunday. The three brothers were fighting with the YPK military wing of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Turkey is wary of YPK militants, who it believes are affiliated with the PKK movement, which waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Boras said the Islamic State has been killing indiscriminately as they rolled through villages and that he had seen the devastation, which included blowing up houses with gasoline bombs. “They captured women, buried them to the neck and stoned them,” he said.

Late Sunday, the AP reached Boras in Syria by cell phone. He said he was heading back toward Kobani to recover his weapons and return to the front lines. While his report about atrocities could not be independently verified, the situation on the Syrian side of the border is dire.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State group has taken control of 64 villages in northern Syria since the fighting began there early Wednesday. It says that the fate of 800 Kurds from these villages is unknown, adding that the Islamic State group had killed at least 11 civilians, including two boys.

The Aleppo Media Center, another activist group, said that Sunday’s battles were concentrated on the southern and eastern suburbs of Kobani. Mansour said the battles are taking place about eight miles (13 kilometers) from the town.

Mohammed Osman Hamme, a middle-aged Syrian Kurdish refugee who managed to make his way into Turkey, told the AP he fled with his wife and small children from the village of Dariya in Syria’s Raqqa province 10 days ago after hearing that the Islamic State group was headed their way.

The family walked for three days, passing the town of Tal Abyad, near the Turkish border, where they saw four severed heads hanging in the streets, he said. As he spoke a tear gas gun went off, causing Hamme’s terrified daughter to start screaming. Later, Turkish police used armored cars to push people back from the border crossing at Kucuk Kendirciler.

UNHCR spokeswoman Selin Unal said most of those coming across the border are Kurdish women, children and the elderly. She urged the international community to step up aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

“Turkey is assisting with all needs but it’s huge numbers,” she said.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Frank Jordans in Berlin, contributed to this report.

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