Archive for November, 2016

Syrian troops capture northern parts of rebel-held Aleppo

November 28, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces and their allies captured another major eastern Aleppo neighborhood and several smaller areas Monday, putting much of the northern part of Aleppo’s besieged rebel-held areas under government control for the first time in four years, state media reported.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the areas captured by Syrian government troops include 10 neighborhoods and over 3,000 buildings in the past few days. The ministry added in a statement that more than 100 rebels have laid down their arms and exited the Syrian city’s eastern suburbs.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial center, has been contested since the summer of 2012 and a rebel defeat in the city would be a turning point in the five-year conflict. If Syrian forces capture all of east Aleppo, President Bashar Assad’s government will be in control of the country’s four largest cities as well as the coastal region.

The government’s push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods. Medical and food supplies have run short in recent weeks as Syrian warplanes pounded the besieged enclave, rendering all remaining functioning hospitals out of service.

Simultaneous advances by Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces on Sunday set off a tide of displacement inside the divided city, with thousands of residents evacuating their premises to safety in government and Kurdish-controlled areas of the city since Saturday.

Rebel defenses swiftly collapsed as government forces pushed into the Hanano district on Saturday, the first time they had pushed this far into eastern Aleppo since 2012. With Monday’s capture of Sakhour, the rebels are now left boxed in mostly in central and southeastern Aleppo, encircled by government territory on all sides.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian government forces have captured some 10 neighborhoods over the past few days, putting nearly 30 percent of Aleppo’s formerly rebel-held neighborhoods under state control.

State TV said 3,000 people, half of them children, have fled over the past few hours. It showed men, women and children in green buses being taken to government-controlled areas. “It is stinging cold, food is scarce and people are shaken in the streets,” Mohammad Zein Khandaqani, a member of the Medical Council in Aleppo, told The Associated Press in a voice text message from east Aleppo.

He added that some residents are taking refuge in mosques while others moved to homes of displaced people in safer areas. He said although thousands of people have fled to government or Kurdish-controlled areas in Aleppo, many stayed because they are wanted by the state.

Ahmad Araj, senior official with the Syrian National Democratic Coalition that consists of Arab and Kurdish groups, said 8,000 people have fled to the Kurdish-control Sheikh Maqsoud district so far, calling on international aid organizations to help those who are now displaced.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said Syrian government troops had pushed the rebels from Qadisia which it described as the “key neighborhood of eastern Aleppo.”

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Syrian army Aleppo advance displaces thousands

November 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Simultaneous advances by Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces into eastern Aleppo on Sunday set off a tide of displacement inside the divided city, with thousands of residents evacuating their premises, and threatened to cleave the opposition’s enclave.

Rebel defenses collapsed as government forces pushed into the city’s Sakhour neighborhood, coming within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of commanding a corridor in eastern Aleppo for the first time since rebels swept into the city in 2012, according to Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Kurdish-led forces operating autonomously of the rebels and the government meanwhile seized the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, allowing thousands of civilians to flee the decimated district to the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud, in the city’s north, according to Ahmad Hiso Araj, an official with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The government’s push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the occasional cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods.

An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in wretched conditions in the city’s rebel-held eastern districts since the government sealed its siege of the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the U.N. warned Thursday, and a relentless air assault by government forces has damaged or destroyed every hospital in the area.

Residents in east Aleppo said in distressed messages on social media that thousands of people were fleeing to the city’s government-controlled western neighborhoods, away from the government’s merciless assault, or deeper into opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

“The situation in besieged Aleppo (is) very very bad, thousands of eastern residents are moving to the western side of the city,” said Khaled Khatib, a photographer for the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets.

“Aleppo is going to die,” he posted on Twitter. The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the conflict through a network of local contacts, said around 1,700 civilians had escaped to government-controlled areas and another 2,500 to Kurdish authorities.

More than 250 civilians have been killed in the government’s bombardment of eastern Aleppo over past 13 days, according to the Observatory. Locals reported thousands more were moving within the eastern neighborhoods, away from the front lines, but staying inside areas of opposition control.

“The conditions are terrifying” said 28-year-old Modar Sakho, a nurse in eastern Aleppo. Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo and outspoken government opponent, said some families would stay put in the face of advancing government forces.

Syrian state media reported government forces had seized the Jabal Badro neighborhood and entered Sakhour Sunday after it took control of the Masaken Hanano neighborhood Saturday. Syrian state TV broadcast a video Saturday showing a teary reunion between a soldier and his family after nearly five years apart, according to the report. It said the family had been trapped in Masaken Hanano.

The Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel reported from the neighborhood Sunday morning, showing workers and soldiers clearing debris against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings on both sides of a wide thoroughfare. Al-Manar is operated by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group aligned with the Syrian government.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ advance into Bustan al-Basha dealt the opposition a further blow. Rebels and opposition figures have long accused the SDF and its predecessor groups of conspiring with the government to quash a nationwide revolt.

Araj denied there was any coordination between government and Kurdish-led forces. “We were responding to calls from residents in Bustan al-Basha to secure the neighborhood,” he said. He added the SDF had entered the area handily as rebel militants fled.

Aleppo used to be Syria’s largest city and commerce capital before its neighborhoods were devastated by the country’s more than five-year-long civil war. The U.N.’s child agency warned Sunday that nearly 500,000 children were now living under siege in Syria, cut off from food and medical aid, mostly in areas under government control. That figure has doubled in less than a year.

Many are now spending their days underground, as hospitals, schools and homes remain vulnerable to aerial bombardment. “Children are being killed and injured, too afraid to go to school or even play, surviving with little food and hardly any medicine,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “This is no way to live — and too many are dying.”

Activists also reported Sunday tens of civilian casualties from a presumed government or Russian airstrike on a village outside Aleppo. The Local Coordination Committees activist network in Syria reported 15 civilians killed in a Russian airstrike on the village of Anjara, controlled by the opposition in the western Aleppo countryside, and tens of others wounded. Activists usually identify planes by their silhouettes and home base.

The Observatory said the strike was accompanied by raids on other opposition-held villages in the Aleppo countryside. Meanwhile, Anadolu also reported Sunday that the Islamic State group had used chemical weapons against Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters in northern Syria, wounding 22. The report cited a statement by the chief of general staff’s office. The report could not be immediately verified independently.

Later Sunday, Turkey’s emergency relief directorate, which investigated the claim, said it found no trace of chemical warfare. The military was not available for further comment. Elsewhere in Syria, Israeli aircraft struck a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside the country Sunday, killing four Islamic State-affiliated militants on board after they opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, according to the Israeli military.

Associated Press writer Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Lebanon stopped wall construction around Palestinian camp

November 26, 2016

The Lebanese army has halted construction of a security wall around the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, a Lebanese-Palestinian group in the refugee camps said in a statement yesterday.

“The Lebanese army responded to our demands and stopped the construction of the so-called security wall around the Palestinian refugee camp,” a statement by the group known as the Unified National Leadership (UNL) said.

During a meeting held on Thursday between the UNL and representatives of the Lebanese army, the latter said that it would halt the construction of the wall around the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp, though it was not immediately clear if this was a temporary measure.

According to the statement, the meeting came in the wake of different activities and several contacts made during the last week, noting that those efforts led to the army’s halting of construction of the wall.

The UNL thanked the Lebanese army for accepting their request to stop building the wall, stressing it would exert its utmost efforts to maintain the security situation inside the Palestinian camps to allay Lebanese fears that terrorists and organised criminals were operating within refugee camps.

Last week, the Palestinian Hamas organization, who hold sway over the Gaza Strip, called on the Lebanese authorities to stop building the wall around Ain Al-Hilweh.

Hamas’ spokesman in Lebanon, Ali Baraka, called for launching “a dialogue with the leaders of the Palestinian factions about the reality and future of Palestinian existence in Lebanon,” stressing that his movement rejects any policy to isolate the refugee camp.

“Building the wall is bad for Palestinian-Lebanese relations,” he insisted, “and harms the interests of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.”

Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal also denounced the building of a wall around the camp, and communicated with several leading Lebanese politicians, including major players such as Saad Al-Hariri who is likely soon to be Lebanon’s prime minister.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


West Bank settlement evacuated in 5th day of Israeli fires

November 26, 2016

JERUSALEM (AP) — More than 40 homes have been burned in a Jewish West Bank settlement and all 1,000-plus of its residents evacuated as firefighters continue battling blazes across the country for a fifth day.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri says Saturday’s fire in Halamish erupted in several locations and quickly spread throughout the settlement. Several other fires were still raging. The blazes began four days ago near Jerusalem. Backed by dry, windy weather, they later spread elsewhere. The most devastating fire hit Israel’s third-largest city of Haifa.

Though no deaths or serious injuries have been reported, dozens have been hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Hundreds of homes have been damaged and an international fleet of firefighting aircraft has arrived to assist.

The country’s leaders claim Arab arsonists are behind many of the blazes.

Haifa fire overcome but others rage elsewhere in Israel

November 25, 2016

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli firefighters on Friday reined in a blaze that had spread across the country’s third-largest city of Haifa and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, but continued to battle more than a dozen other fires around the country for the fourth day in a row.

Some 60,000 have yet to return to their homes as police forces and firefighting units were still heavily deployed in the Haifa area for fear that the fire could be reignited due to the rare dry, windy weather.

Though no serious injuries were caused, several dozen people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Hundreds of homes were damaged and in a rare move, Israel on Thursday called up military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters and made use of an international fleet of firefighting aircraft sent by several countries.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a small village in the forests near Jerusalem was evacuated overnight as several homes there caught fire. Overall, he said 12 people have been arrested across Israel on suspicion of arson. The country’s leaders have raised the possibility that Arab assailants had intentionally set the blazes.

Israel has been on edge during more than a year of Palestinian attacks — mostly stabbings — that have tapered off but not completely halted in recent months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian incitement for fueling those attacks. Israel’s police chief Roni Alsheich told reporters on Thursday that early indications on the fires pointed toward a series of “politically motivated” arson attacks.

The fires began three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together. Later, blazes erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem before the largest ones spread across Haifa.

The rash of fires is the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the single deadliest wildfire in its history. That blaze burned out of control for four days, killed 42 people and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft arrived from as far away as the United States.

Israel has strengthened its firefighting capabilities since then, buying special planes that can drop large quantities of water on affected areas. Several countries, including Russia, France, Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Italy were also sending assistance to battle this week’s blazes. In a rare gesture, the Palestinians also offered to send firefighting teams to help combat the flames.

Syrian group: Rebels preventing refugees from fleeing Aleppo

November 23, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group alleged Tuesday that rebels are preventing dozens of families from fleeing eastern Aleppo as Russian-backed government forces intensify their bombardment of the besieged quarter.

Such claims are difficult to verify and often distorted owing to the propaganda value of the matter. Syrian and Russian state media maintain that rebels are holding the enclave’s 275,000 remaining inhabitants hostage to use as human shields, even as the government’s air force pounds the east’s hospitals and first responder groups.

Opposition outlets on the other hand want to show that civilians will never accept returning to the government’s heavy-handed rule. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad with vast military support as he fights to put down an uprising that is approaching its sixth year. Over 300,000 people have been killed in the raging war.

A resident of Aleppo’s frontline Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood corroborated the report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which maintains a network of contacts among both government and anti-government institutions.

Hajj Mohammed al-Jasim told The Associated Press his uncles’ families were trying to cross from the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood in the east to the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Sheikh Maqsoud. “They’ve wanted to cross for a while because the circumstances have become very difficult,” said al-Jasim, who confirmed his location near the al-Riz crossing via phone location services.

He said his relatives told him they were prepared to cross during the day but were advised by three rebel groups to wait until dark. “Then in the evening, (the rebels) began to fire at the crossing” to prevent passage, al-Jasim said. He said about fifty families were waiting to cross.

The autonomous Kurdish defense forces, the YPG, have promised housing in Sheikh Maqsoud to any families who cross, or secure passage on to opposition-held Azaz or Kurdish-held Afrin, two towns north of Aleppo, according to the al-Jasim.

The Observatory reported 100 families are waiting to cross, while Ahmad Hiso Araj, a political official for the YPG-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, said 250 civilians were prepared to go. He said they were communicating with their relatives in Sheikh Maqsoud to evacuate Bustan al-Basha.

The government has recently stepped up its bombardment of eastern Aleppo, and by Sunday it had knocked out every hospital in the quarter, according to the World Health Organization. The Observatory says at least 140 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed.

The U.N.’s chief humanitarian official Stephen O’Brien said Monday the conditions had gone “from terrible to terrifying and now barely survivable.” U.N. humanitarian official Jan Egeland warned two weeks ago that the east was running out of food. The area has been under siege by pro-government forces since August.

The government’s air assault has been accompanied by pro-government troops pushing their way into neighborhoods on the edges of eastern Aleppo. Fighting on the southern edge, in the Sheik Saeed neighborhood intensified Tuesday. A major rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, said one of its leading commanders was killed there as they repelled advances by government troops.

In Damascus, Syria’s military command announced it was forming a new anti-terrorism commando force, calling on volunteers interested in “achieving the final victory against terrorism” to apply. The announcement, which named the new anti-terrorism force the Fifth Corps, didn’t specify where the force would be deployed. After nearly six years of combat, the Syrian conscription-based armed forces has become overstretched and has increasingly relied on its regional allies that have boosted its numbers and capabilities. Iran, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have sent in hundreds of fighters who have fought alongside government troops, sometimes leading combat units, in decisive battles against armed opposition groups and extremist militants.

This comes a year after the Syrian armed forces announced the formation of the Fourth Corps, also an anti-terrorism force, soon after Russia began its military operations alongside the Syrian government.

The Syrian army declaration read on State TV also comes as the pace of government warnings to the residents of the besieged rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo city rises. An announcement Tuesday urged armed opposition groups to allow civilians to exit the besieged enclave through government-designated corridors. Another urged residents to cooperate with government forces. A third called on residents to avoid going out in the streets except in “dire need” and to stay clear of areas where armed groups operate.

Also on Tuesday, Syria’s president received a Russian delegation in Damascus, headed by the Russian deputy prime minister, in a show of close ties between the two governments in the face of international criticism.

And the Pentagon on Tuesday said a Nov. 18 U.S. military airstrike killed senior al-Qaida leader Abu Afghan al-Masri, who had ties to militant movements across the Middle East.

Hamas blasts planned wall around Lebanese refugee camp

23 November 2016 Wednesday

Palestinian resistance movement Hamas has criticized plans by the Lebanese authorities to build a concrete wall around a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

The planned wall, the group said in a statement, is “the wrong way to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees”.

On Tuesday, reports emerged that the Lebanese authorities had begun erecting a concrete barrier around Ain al-Hilweh, the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp.

Located southeast of Lebanon’s coastal city of Sidon, Ain al-Hilweh is currently home to more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom came to the camp in recent years after fleeing the conflict in next-door Syria.

“This wall… will only serve to hurt the refugees’ cause, threaten their future, harm their interests and contribute to the deterioration of their already-dire humanitarian condition,” Hamas said.

The group criticized what it described as Lebanon’s policy of “the collective isolation” of Palestinian refugee camps on its territory.

Hamas went on to assert that the planned wall would represent a violation of international law and the principles of human rights, and would likely strain Palestinian-Lebanese relations.

According to UN figures, roughly 460,000 Palestinian refugees are currently living in 12 major camps scattered across Lebanon.

Source: World Bulletin.