Archive for April, 2015

Near Syrian border, wounded fighters and civilians recover

April 30, 2015

KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Sitting up in bed, 16-year-old Anas Baroudi lifts up an orange blanket to show where his left foot used to be, before he lost it almost three years ago in Syria’s civil war.

“It’s not painful,” the Syrian teenager says quietly as he covers the leg again. Lying in the next bed is Hassan, 26, a rebel fighter who lost his right eye and mobility in his right leg when a tank shell struck close to him on the front lines of Aleppo.

They both tease 23-year-old Khaled Qatrib, another Syrian war amputee who is sharing their room, about being a “Facebook addict,” with a smartphone seemingly attached to his hand. The mood is relatively upbeat among the young Syrian men, their lives forever scarred by war, at the Dar Al-Salameh center for recovery and physiotherapy in the Turkish border town of Kilis.

The men follow the news from their homeland on TV and via social media, and encourage each other as they wait for the day when they can return to Syria, once they get their prosthetics and adjust to their new lives.

“This is a temporary home where Syria’s many wounded people who have nowhere else to go can stay until they recover,” said Yasser Abu Ammar, a Syrian physician. The center is one of several in the border area that were established to help deal with the massive number of wounded streaming in from the war next door.

Syria’s conflict, which entered its fifth year last month, has killed more than 220,000 people and wounded close to a million. An untold number of those — there’s no reliable estimate — suffered traumatic injuries that have left them physically disabled. Turkey, a major supporter of the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, has served as a staging area for the fighters and is also the place where many come to rest and recover.

The two-story building in Kilis is less than an hour’s drive from Syria’s contested northern city of Aleppo and had been receiving a steady stream of people with traumatic injuries asking to stay. The number dropped sharply last month, when Turkey closed the crossing with Syria as a security precaution.

At the center, only a kilometer (half mile) away from the border crossing, patients share the pain of displacement and loss. Baroudi was wounded in the leg by a drive-by shooting in mid-2012 as he was taking part in a demonstration against Assad in in the central city of Homs.

“When I came to, there was still shooting everywhere, so I crawled a long way to safety, dragging my wounded leg with me,” he said. His leg developed gangrene and his foot was amputated at a nearby hospital. He moved from one location to another across Syria’s rebel territory until his brother and friends brought him to Kilis last month.

Baroudi is now waiting to be fitted with a prosthetic, which he hopes will be ready in the next few weeks. His parents are trapped in the Homs neighborhood of Waar, which has been besieged by government forces for two years, and he plans to go stay with his brother in Istanbul.

One day, he would like to resume school, to become a lawyer. “I want to defend people,” he said timidly. The others in the room chuckle at the teenager’s ambition. Hassan, who fought with an Islamic rebel group in Aleppo, said the only thing he wants to do is return to the front lines, even though he has lost an eye and a leg.

“Maybe I cannot fight anymore, but I still want to do something to serve the jihad and the mujahedeen,” he said of the “holy war” against Assad.

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Rebels seize northwest Syrian town as government retaliates

April 25, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Syrian rebel groups seized a strategic town Saturday in northwestern Syria, sending government troops fleeing after intense clashes that have seen the opposition take nearly all of a crucial province.

The takeover prompted retaliatory government air raids in the town center — as many as 30 airstrikes according to one activist group — that left an unknown number of people killed and wounded. Among those wounded was a TV reporter for an opposition station who entered the town with the rebels.

If they can hold the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, rebel fighters from Islamic factions — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front — will have gained in only a few days a gateway to the Mediterranean coast, a refuge of embattled President Bashar Assad, and cut government supply lines from the coast to northern and central Syria. The town is one of the last bastions of Assad’s government in the area and fighting around it continued Saturday.

The offensive, which rebels have called the “Battle of Victory,” comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition. Opposition television station Orient News aired images inside the town showing rebel fighters milling in the town’s central square, raising their black flag. Meanwhile, fighting continued Saturday in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town, and activists said rebel fighters were gaining new ground.

A Twitter account affiliated with the Nusra Front posted pictures apparently from inside Jisr al-Shoughour Saturday, calling it “liberated.” Other pictures posted on social media showed bodies of government troops piled in the street as rebels sat atop tanks in the town’s center.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the rebels completely controlled Jisr al-Shughour after government troops and allied forces fled south. The group said there were clashes on the outskirts of the town. A video the group posted showed civilians leaving the town accompanied by a number of government troops.

The government conceded its forces had left the town. A military official, quoted by Syrian state media, said government forces redeployed to surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties after fierce battles with “armed terrorist groups” in Jisr al-Shughour.

Later, state TV said government aircraft targeted a convoy of fighters east of the town. But the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group that tracks the conflict, said the air raids were in the town center. The Observatory counted at least 30 raids in the town and its environs. The LCC said at least six raids were in a square in the town’s center. There were no immediate casualty figures.

The Orient News television network, which was airing live coverage of the rebels’ takeover, said one of its reporters was injured and its broadcast vehicle destroyed in one of the raids. The reporter, Ammar Dandash, emotionally told the broadcaster that he was returning to Jisr al-Shughour, his hometown, for the first time in years with the rebels. “Today I return to my home after four years of being deprived of it,” he said, before he was injured.

Asaad Kanjo, an activist in touch with residents of the town, said most civilians had stayed indoors, fearing government retaliation. The Observatory said members of a government security agency also killed 23 detainees before they withdrew. Pictures shared on social media by the Nusra Front showed bodies of civilians piled in what they said was a local prison, near a hospital where fighters had earlier said government troops were taking cover.

Government fighters had reportedly also carried out a similar mass killing before withdrawing from Idlib city last month. The fight for Jisr al-Shughour began Wednesday and activists have said thousands of fighters took part in the offensive, which first targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside of town.

The town of Jisr al-Shughour was one of the first towns to rise against Assad’s regime, but has largely remained under government control despite briefly falling to the rebels in early 2011. The government accused the rebels there of killing over 100 soldiers, a charge they denied.

Activists say the fall of the town is of also of symbolic significance because a military camp on the town’s outskirts had been used to target much of Idlib’s countryside, leading to many casualties. The Nusra Front and Syrian rebels have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012. After the fall of Idlib, the government moved its offices and staff to Jisr al-Shughour.

Assad has blamed Turkey for the fall of Idlib to Islamic fighters, saying Ankara provided “huge support” — logistical and military — that played the key role in the defeat of his forces. Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed some 220,000 people, and wounded at least 1 million. At least 4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly double that figure are displaced inside Syria because of the conflict.

Powerful former Syrian army general dies in hospital

April 24, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Rostom Ghazali, the Syrian general once considered the most powerful man in Lebanon and a key suspect in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, has died in a hospital in the capital Damascus, a Syrian activist and local media reported on Friday.

Ghazali, in his early 60s, was once head of his military’s powerful political security branch and one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most trusted generals. There was no official government comment and the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said Ghazali died nearly two months after he was admitted with a head injury. Abdurrahman said Ghazali had been clinically dead for weeks, quoting informed medical officials in the hospital.

The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has access to Syrian officials, and other Lebanese TV stations also reported Ghazali’s death, quoting officials. Reports at the time of Ghazali’s injury said he was beaten by the bodyguards of another Syrian general, in a dramatic escalation of a political dispute.

The reports said the disagreement between the two generals started after Ghazali’s men were not allowed to play a bigger role in a government offensive against opposition fighters battling the government.

Lebanese media reported that both Ghazali and his rival general were sacked. Reshuffles in Syria’s security and military apparatuses are generally not made public. Ghazali, a Sunni Muslim from the southern village of Qarfa, rose in the military to become the intelligence chief in Lebanon in 2002, replacing long-serving general Ghazi Kenaan who became Interior Minister.

Ghazali kept the post until 2005 when Syrian forces had to withdraw from the tiny Arab country, ending nearly three decades of military presence following massive anti-Syrian protests after Hariri’s February 2005 assassination.

A U.N. probe later that year concluded that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese security officials, including Ghazali, plotted Hariri’s assassination. A U.N.-backed tribunal is currently trying five Hezbollah members in absentia over the killing. Both Damascus and Hezbollah have strongly denied involvement.

In 2012, after a bomb killed four of the country’s top generals in Damascus, Ghazali was named by Assad as head of the Political Security Department and stayed in the job until mid-March. With Ghazali’s death, several people accused by anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians of being involved in Hariri’s killing have died.

Kenaan, the Interior Minister, died in his Damascus office in late 2005 about a month after speaking with investigators about Hariri’s assassination. Syrian officials said he shot himself to death, but some in Lebanon believe he was killed.

Syria’s Deputy Defense Minister Asef Shawkat was among several top generals killed in a Damascus bombing in July 2012. In 2005, an inadvertently released passage of a U.N. investigative report on the killing cited a witness saying that Shawkat, head of military intelligence at the time, was among those behind Hariri’s assassination. Shawkat was the brother-in-law of Assad.

In October 2013, Maj. Gen. Jameh Jameh was killed while fighting rebels in eastern Syria. At the time of Hariri’s assassination, Jameh was the second highest ranking Syrian intelligence official based in Lebanon and was Syria’s intelligence chief in Beirut.

Meanwhile, Syrian state TV said a plane on a training mission in the country’s south crashed because of a technical failure and the pilot is missing. The Observatory however reported that Islamic State fighters downed the plane.

There was no way to independently verify the conflicting reports.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Turkey ‘has spent $5.5bn on Syrian community’

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Turkey has spent $5.5 billion supporting Syrians in Turkey to date, Fuat Oktay, the president of the Turkish Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Administration, has said.

“The international community has spent $306 million for the Syrians, unfortunately,” Oktay said.

He also said a Turkish delegation will visit refugee camps in the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep and Kilis on April 15 and 16, before going on to Lebanon and Jordan, countries which also host Syrian refugees.

Donor Support Group Denmark representative Carsten Ulrich Staur thanked Turkey for its aid to Syrian refugees.

He said: “Turkey has played a great role as a regional actor since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.”

He also thanked Oktay for his leadership on the national and international level and said he hoped Turkey will continue to do a “great job.”

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, also praised Turkey last week for hosting Syrian refugees.

The four-year-old Syria conflict has created an acute refugee crisis, with as many as 3.8 million Syrian refugees currently registered in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Turkey is currently hosting nearly 1.7 million Syrian refugees, according to the Turkish Development Ministry.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/18044-turkey-has-spent-55bn-on-syrian-community.

New Gaza-bound ‘Freedom Flotilla’ expected to sail this summer

Simona Sikimic

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A new “Freedom Flotilla” is scheduled to embark for Gaza in two months’ time, organizers said on Tuesday.

The voyage is scheduled to begin in the first half of the year, which means the flotilla could set sail within weeks, Mazen Kahel, an organizer with the European Campaign to end the Siege on Gaza, told MEE.

Like its 2010 predecessor, this year’s flotilla aims to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip which has been in place since 2007.

Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki has given his “full support” to the mission. He is expected to take part and will be on one of the boats, several organizers have confirmed.

“Marzouki has always been engaged with the cause and has openly supported the Palestinians in his time of power,” Kahel told MEE.

Negotiations are currently underway with other political, religious and business figures, but their names have yet to be confirmed and will be announced at a later date, Kahel added.

Activists from across Europe, the US and the Middle East will participate in the flotilla, organised by a string of civil society groups and NGOs working under the Freedom Flotilla Coalition.

Three to four boats are currently undergoing preparation for the voyage, but several more could yet join. The boats are expected to depart from several European ports, including one in Greece and possibly Turkey, although no specific information is being released as yet.

For now, much of the information about the flotilla is being kept under wraps for security reasons, although more details are expected to emerge in the coming weeks.

“There is a huge problems there [in Gaza]. It is an open prison,” Kahel said.

“The situation there is unhuman. It is criminal and human beings cannot continue like this. We need to see an end to this blockade.”

The first flotilla that set sail in 2010 was attacked by Israeli soldiers in international waters. Nine activists were killed in the attack that sparked widespread international outrage.

A second flotilla was set to sail in 2011 but the voyage never materialized.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/new-gaza-bound-freedom-flotilla-expected-sail-summer-1262594650.

Islamic fighters led by al-Qaida in Syria seize major city

March 28, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic fighters led by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria seized almost full control of the northwestern city of Idlib on Saturday, taking over major roundabouts and government buildings in a powerful blow to President Bashar Assad whose forces rapidly collapsed after four days of heavy fighting, opposition activists and the extremist group said.

Idlib, a major urban center with a population of around 165,000 people, is the second provincial capital to fall into opposition hands after Raqqa, now a stronghold of the Islamic State group. Its capture by the Nusra Front underscores the growing power of extremist groups in Syria who now control about half the country.

Opposition fighters including Nusra have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012, but Assad’s forces have managed to maintain their grip on Idlib city, near the border with Turkey, throughout the conflict.

On Saturday, Islamic fighters jubilantly swept in, taking over key buildings and tearing down posters of Assad. Videos posted online by activists and the Nusra Front showed a group of heavily armed fighters kneeling down in prayer in the city’s sprawling Hanana square as others fired their guns in celebration.

“Allahu Akbar!” — God is great — they shouted. The fighters then took down a Syrian flag flying in the center of the square and set it on fire to the backdrop of incessant shooting. The video appeared genuine and consistent with AP reporting on Idlib’s takeover Saturday.

On its Twitter account, Nusra posted pictures of the Clock Tower and other landmark locations now under its control. The Nusra Front is leading a group of ultra-conservative rebels in a major offensive that began earlier this week to take Idlib. They include the hardline Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa groups and a few smaller groups loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

With the takeover of Idlib, an island of government territory in the midst of mostly opposition terrain, the Nusra Front further cements its hold over an impressive stretch of land it controls from the Turkish border to central and southern Syria.

With the world’s attention focused on the Islamic State group, the Nusra Front has quietly consolidated its power in Syria in recent months, crushing moderate rebel groups the West may try to work with while increasingly enforcing its own brutal version of Islamic law.

Idlib, besides being a major population city, is located near the main highway linking the capital Damascus with Aleppo. The main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group said the wresting of Idlib from government control is an “important victory on the road to the full liberation of Syrian soil from the Assad regime and its allies.” However, it said more “decisive” assistance to Syrian rebels was needed for that to happen.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel fighters seized control of Idlib in a push Friday evening and early Saturday after rapidly collapsing government forces withdrew. The group, which relies on an extensive network of activists across Syria, said some fighting continued Saturday amid heavy artillery shelling from both sides. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition activist collective in Syria, also reported the “almost complete” capture of Idlib by rebels.

An unnamed Syrian military official quoted by state-run news agency SANA said army forces were fighting “fierce battles” against “armed terrorist groups” to regain control in Idlib. The government claimed earlier this week that “thousands of terrorists” streamed in from Turkey to attack Idlib and its suburbs. Turkey is one of the main backers of the rebels.

The humiliating losses in Idlib mark the second blow to government forces this week, after rebels, also led by Nusra, captured the ancient and strategic town of Busra Sham in southern Syria. Also Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was angry and shamed by the failure of the world to stop Syria’s raging civil war. He promised to step up diplomatic efforts in comments at a summit of Arab leaders in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which began with popular protests amid Arab Spring uprisings in March 2011 and turned into an insurgency following a brutal military crackdown.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Hamza Hendawi in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt contributed to this report.

International court welcomes Palestinians as 123rd member

April 01, 2015

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Palestinian Authority became a member of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, with a low-key ceremony at the court’s headquarters marking the high-stakes move.

Joining the court is part of a broader effort by the Palestinians to put international pressure on Israel and comes at a time when the chances of resuming negotiations on Palestinian statehood are seen as slim following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent election victory and tough campaign rhetoric.

Palestinians signed the court’s founding treaty in January and Palestinian membership came into force Wednesday. International justice activists hailed the occasion as an opportunity to bring accountability to years of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, but the country’s military and civilian leaders could now face charges if they are believed to have committed crimes on Palestinian territory. Israel had no immediate comment Wednesday.

The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, opened a preliminary investigation in mid-January after the Palestinians formally accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to just before last year’s Gaza conflict.

Bensouda was not at the behind-closed-doors welcoming ceremony attended by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki as she was out of the country. Human Rights Watch welcomed the Palestinian Authority as the court’s 123rd member and stressed it is now up to Bensouda to weigh whether there is strong enough evidence to merit a full-scale investigation. It is not clear how long her preliminary analysis could take.

“The ICC prosecutor examines allegations of serious crimes no matter the perpetrator, and makes her own determinations about how to proceed based on the evidence” said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Any decision whether to pursue an investigation and against whom is not in the hands of the Palestinians or the Israelis.”

Prosecution spokeswoman Florence Olara said there are “no timelines” for how long a preliminary examination can take. Some have taken months, others are continuing after years. The review will likely focus initially on last year’s Gaza conflict. The Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties in the war, prompting allegations by some rights groups that Israel committed war crimes. Leaders of Hamas, which rules Gaza, could also face charges because the militant group fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas.

Prosecutors could also look at the issue of Israeli settlement building, considered illegal by much of the world. Since 1967, Israel has moved more than 550,000 of its civilians to occupied lands. However, prosecutors in The Hague do not have jurisdiction over events that happened before the Palestinians joined the court.

William R. Pace, convener of the Coalition for the ICC which supports and promotes the court’s work, said Palestinian membership “gives hope to victims in both Palestine and Israel that they might see justice done and the conflict brought to a peaceful end.”