Archive for March, 2016

A look at Palmyra, the historic Syrian town retaken from IS

March 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A look at Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Syrian troops took back from Islamic State fighters.

LOCATION

A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country’s east and neighboring Iraq. Home to 65,000 people before the latest fighting, the town is located 155 miles (215 kilometers) east of Damascus.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE

A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. Syrians affectionately refer to it as the “Bride of the Desert.”

Palmyra was the capital of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia. Before the war, it was Syria’s top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium B.C., according to UNICEF’s website. The town was the hub of a network of caravan trails that carried silks and spices from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean.

Palmyra became a prosperous region during the Hellenistic period and later became part of the Roman Empire. But its rebellious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome’s authority. The city was plundered in A.D. 272 after she was captured during a long siege.

In more recent times, Palmyra has had darker associations for Syrians. It was home to the Tadmur prison, a notorious facility where thousands of opponents of President Bashar Assad’s government were reportedly tortured. IS demolished the prison after capturing the town.

DESTRUCTION

Last year, IS destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several stories high fronted by six towering columns. The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, which had been built under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211.

The extremists have destroyed ancient sites across their self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as monuments to idolatry. In August, IS militants beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had devoted his life to studying Palmyra. His body was later hung from a Roman column.

A video circulated online purportedly showed IS fighters shooting dead some 25 captured Syrian soldiers in a Palmyra amphitheater. The killings are believed to have taken place in May, shortly after the extremists captured the town. Another video showed militants killing three captives by tying them to Roman columns and blowing them up.

It’s not yet clear whether the ruins were damaged when Syrian forces retook the town. The Antiquities Ministry said ahead of the town’s fall that the remaining ruins are in good condition. It has vowed to restore the site.

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

The loss of Palmyra marks a major setback for IS, which has been losing ground for months in both Iraq and Syria. The capture of the town brings Syrian forces closer to Raqqa, the IS group’s de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is almost entirely held by the extremists.

Despite its battlefield losses, IS retains the ability to carry out large attacks in the Middle East and further afield, such as the bombings in Brussels last week, which killed 31 people.

Iraqi, Syrian refugees block other migrants’ protest

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters’ efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields. People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, have told police that they are not taking part in Sunday’s protest and that the protesters are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also say that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday, urging people to join the

“There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true,” Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press. Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Iraqis and Syrians are allowed into the European Union as war refugees, although the route through the Balkans is now closed and refugees discouraged from taking the perilous sea journey to Greek islands from Turkey.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal. The rumors spread by them that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then protesting that the border has not opened.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border protest.

Russia has no plans to withdraw its air forces from Syria

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said that his country is not planning to completely withdraw its air forces from Syria, stressing that Daesh and Al-Nusra Front are still “legitimate” targets.

“We have made it clear on more than one occasion that our forces in Syria are there to fight terror,” Ryabkov said, “and Daesh and Al-Nusra Front, who are banned in Russia, are still legitimate targets.”

Relatedly, Ryabkov said that the absence of a Kurdish delegation in the Syrian talks in Geneva remains an “obstacle” and this might undermine the negotiations

He reiterated that if Turkey drops its opposition to the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the negotiations this would lead to better results.

Russia had earlier announced the withdrawal of most of its air forces from Syria after a five-month period of active engagement.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24685-russian-has-no-plans-to-withdraw-its-air-forces-from-syria.

Suicide bomb attack in Istanbul kills 5, including Israeli

March 19, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — A suicide attack on Istanbul’s main pedestrian shopping street Saturday killed five people, including the bomber and an Israeli citizen, in the sixth suicide bombing in Turkey in the past year. Several foreigners were among 36 people wounded, according to the health ministry.

Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said the explosion occurred outside a local government office on Istiklal Street, which is also home to cafes, restaurants and foreign consulates. Police swiftly sealed off the area as ambulances and a forensic team rushed to the scene after the bombing about 11 a.m. Normally packed cafes were either closed or virtually empty, with business owners making frantic calls to loved ones to assure them of their safety. Rattled tourists wondered where to go.

“It was one loud explosion,” said Muhammed Fatur, a Syrian who works at a butcher shop near the scene of the explosion. “Police came to the scene and sealed off the area.” Eli Bin, the head of Israel’s rescue service MDA, told Channel 2 TV “there is one Israeli killed whose family has been notified” and said 10 Israelis were wounded in the attack. Turkey’s private Dogan news agency said the Israeli killed in the attack was a woman. Israel was investigating to see if its nationals were purposely targeted.

Turkey’s health minister, Mehmet Muezzinoglu, said the 36 people wounded included six Israelis, two Irish citizens and one person each from Iceland, Germany, Dubai and Iran. Turkey was already on edge following two recent suicide car bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group that is an off-shoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The most recent bombing attack, on March 13, targeted bus stops on Ankara’s busiest street, killing 37 people including two bombers.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu convened a security meeting in Istanbul following the attack. His deputy, Numan Kurtulmus said in televised remarks “it is clear that some people are giving logistic support (to terrorists), that some are giving political support and that they are even providing financial support as well as arms.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack. A senior government official said authorities were still trying to determine who carried it out, with suspicion focusing on Kurdish militants and the Islamic State group. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists on the issue.

British singer Skin wrote on Facebook that the blast went off near her ISTANBUL HOTEL and that buildings “shook like paper.” She also expressed solidarity with the “innocent people and their families caught in this evil situation.”

Turkey has had heightened security in Ankara and Istanbul in the run-up to a Kurdish spring festival of Newroz on March 21, which Kurds in Turkey traditionally use to assert their ethnic identity and demand greater rights.

Cengiz Fidaner, who owns a cafe near the explosion site, told the AP “the explosion was not so big but I felt it in my heart because our people died. They want a war but our people want peace. This is because of Newroz.”

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the attack in Istanbul, describing it as “yet another terrorist outrage targeting innocent civilians and our ally Turkey.” And the U.S. embassy in Turkey expressed shock over the attack on its Twitter account. “We mourn with the families of the lost, and we wish the injured a speedy recovery.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javar Zarif, who was in Istanbul to meet with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, also condemned the “inhumane” attack and offered his condolences. The Irish foreign and trade minister, Charlie Flanagan, expressed “horror and sadness” at the attack and confirmed that a number of Irish citizens were among the injured.

Video posted on social media apparently capturing the aftermath of the blast showed several motionless bodies lined up at the foot of shuttered shops as a second ambulance arrives at the scene. On Thursday, Germany had closed its embassy in Ankara, the German school in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, which is in the same neighborhood as the blast, following a security warning. Twelve German tourists were killed in a January suicide attack in a historic district of Istanbul.

Saturday’s explosion marks the sixth suicide attack in the country since July. The previous five attacks, which have killed more than 200 people, were either blamed on the Islamic State group by Turkish authorities or claimed by the PKK’s off-shoot.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey for three decades in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. A 2-1/2 year peace process between the government and the PKK broke down in July, reviving the conflict. Since then, the country’s security forces have launched large-scale operations against Kurdish militants in several southeast cities and towns, which have raised human rights concerns amid scores of civilian deaths.

Turkey, which is also a partner in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, has also been drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict and forced to absorb 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

Fraser reported from Ankara. Bram Janssen in Istanbul, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

Syria regime retakes Palmyra in major victory over ISIL

27 March 2016 Sunday

Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured the famed ancient city of Palmyra from the ISIL group on Sunday in a major victory over the extremists.

Army sappers were defusing mines and bombs planted by ISIL in the city’s ancient ruins, a UNESCO world heritage site where the extremists sparked a global outcry with the systematic destruction of treasured monuments.

“After heavy fighting during the night, the army is in full control of Palmyra — both the ancient site and the residential neighborhoods,” a military source told AFP.

ISIL fighters pulled out, retreating towards the towns of Sukhnah and Deir Ezzor to the east.

ISIL overran the Palmyra ruins and adjacent modern city in May 2015.

It has since blown up two of the site’s treasured temples, its triumphal arch and a dozen tower tombs, in a campaign of destruction that UNESCO described as a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.

The extremists used Palmyra’s ancient amphitheater as a venue for public executions, including the beheading of the city’s 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

The oasis city’s recapture is a strategic as well as symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, since it provides control of the surrounding desert extending all the way to the Iraqi border.

ISIL, behind a string of attacks in the West including last week’s Brussels bombings, is under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi military offensives to retake key bastions in its self-proclaimed “caliphate”.

On Thursday, the Iraqi army announced the launch of an offensive to recapture second city Mosul, held by the extremists since June 2014.

– ‘Heaviest losses’ for ISIL –

ISIL lost at least 400 fighters in the battle for Palmyra, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

“That’s the heaviest losses that ISIL has sustained in a single battle since its creation” in 2013, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“It is a symbolic defeat for ISIL comparable with that in Kobane,” a town on the Turkish border where Kurdish fighters held out against a months-long siege by ISIL in 2014-15, he added.

Russian forces, which intervened in support of longtime ally Assad last September, have been heavily involved in the offensive to retake Palmyra despite a major drawdown last week.

Russian warplanes conducted more than 40 combat sorties in just 24 hours from Friday to Saturday, targeting “158 terrorist” positions, according to the Russian defense ministry.

Elsewhere in Syria, a ceasefire in areas held by the government and non-extremist rebels has largely held since February 27, in a boost to diplomatic efforts to end a five-year war that has killed more than 270,000 people.

The recapture of Palmyra sets government forces up for a drive on the extremists’ de facto Syrian capital of Raqa in the Euphrates valley to the north.

“The army will have regained confidence and morale, and will have prepared itself for the next expected battle in Raqa,” a military source said on Saturday.

With the road linking Palmyra to Raqa now under army control, ISIL fighters in the ancient city can only retreat eastwards towards the Iraqi border.

Palmyra was a major center of the ancient world as it lay on the caravan route linking the Roman Empire with Persia and the east.

Pledging Russian support for the offensive to retake the city earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin described it as a “pearl of world civilization”.

Situated about 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Damascus, it drew some 150,000 tourists a year before it became engulfed by Syria’s devastating civil war.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/170922/syria-regime-retakes-palmyra-in-major-victory-over-isil.

Syrian Kurds declare federal region amid wide criticism

March 17, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — The main Syrian Kurdish group declared a federal region on Thursday in Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, a move that was immediately rejected by both the government and opposition.

Nawaf Khalil, an official with the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, told The Associated Press that the announcement was made at a conference being held in the town of Rmeilan in the northeastern province of Hassakeh.

The move was rejected by the Syrian Foreign Ministry describing it as “unconstitutional and worthless.” It warned against any attempt to encroach upon the integrity of Syrian territory. The Syrian National Coalition, one of the main Syrian opposition groups, also said it rejects such unilateral declarations and warned of any attempt to form autonomous regions that, “confiscate the will of the Syrian people.”

Khalil said participants in the Rmeilan meeting have approved a “democratic federal system for Rojava-Northern Syria.” Rojava is a Kurdish word that refers to three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under Kurdish control in northern Syria: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin.

Khalil said participants who include Turkmen, Arabs, Christian and Kurds in northern Syria said after they approved the draft that they are now preparing a final statement that will be read later Thursday.

“Federal and Democratic Syria is a guarantee of coexistence and brotherly relations between people,” read a banner posted online from inside the room of the Rmeilan conference. Salih Muslim, the co-president of the PYD, said by telephone that those meeting “are setting up the basis on how constituencies will deal with each other.”

Meanwhile in Moscow, the commander of the Russian Air Force said the withdrawal of the bulk of the Russian forces from Syria should be complete in two to three days. Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev said in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily on Thursday that the Air Force aims to meet President Vladimir Putin’s deadline and pull out in the next two to three days.

Putin on Monday announced the withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria to end a five-and-a-half-month campaign there. The first group of bombers left for Russia on Tuesday. Moscow didn’t specify how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn. It has not revealed how many soldiers it has deployed to Syria, but U.S. estimates of the number of Russian military personnel vary from 3,000 to 6,000.

UNRWA distributes $6m for reconstruction of Gaza

Monday, 21 March 2016

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced yesterday that it would pay around $6 million to reconstruct and repair Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip, Arab48.com reported.

Some $1.78 million has been allocated for rebuilding houses which were destroyed by the Israeli occupation during the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza.

The remaining $4.22 million, UNRWA said, has been allocated for repair works in the partially damaged houses during the same offensive.

UNRWA said repairing and rebuilding damaged homes is a top priority, stressing that it is still committed to supporting families affected by the unrest.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24597-unrwa-distributes-6m-for-reconstruction-of-gaza.