Archive for April, 2017

Syria army reaches outskirts of IS-held Palmyra

2017-03-01

PALMYRA – Syrian government forces backed by Russian soldiers advanced Wednesday to the outskirts of ancient Palmyra after battles with the Islamic State group, a monitor and a military source said.

“Regime forces and Russian troops are about one kilometer from the city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After seizing a string of hilltops overlooking Palmyra, the troops had “the western half of the city” within firing range, Abdel Rahman added.

“They are close to capturing the citadel. IS withdrew from it, but they may have left suicide bombers inside,” he warned.

Supported by Russian air strikes and ground troops, Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks through the desert in the central province of Homs to reach Palmyra.

IS jihadists first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy the city’s monuments and temples, while also looting its many archaeological treasures.

They were driven out in March 2016 but recaptured the town last December.

Syrian state media confirmed Wednesday that government forces were now in control of key territory near the city.

“Seizing control of the Mount Hilal and other hilltops overlooking Palmyra is an important step towards the collapse of the terrorist groups in the city,” state news agency SANA reported.

A senior military source in Damascus told said on Wednesday that the army had also reached a strategic crossroads leading into Palmyra.

“This crossroads is the key to entering the city,” the source told said.

“Our forces have not yet taken the citadel, but the city is within firing range,” he added.

IS has ravaged the city’s celebrated heritage, blowing up funerary towers and carrying out mass executions in the city’s Roman theater.

Last month, IS destroyed Palmyra’s tetrapylon monument, while satellite images showed damage to the theater’s facade.

The new destruction was condemned by the United Nations as a “war crime.”

On Wednesday, two funeral busts damaged by IS after it first captured Palmyra were brought back to Syria after being restored in Italy.

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Syrian rebels announce capture of flashpoint town from IS

2017-02-23

AL-BAB – Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said Thursday they had fully captured the town of Al-Bab from the Islamic State group, marking a key defeat for the jihadists after weeks of heavy fighting.

As Ankara said its allies now had “near complete control”, the rebel announcement came on the opening day of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and regime in Geneva.

Al-Bab, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander.

“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining IS rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said rebels had “near complete control” of Al-Bab.

“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh (IS) elements,” he said, quoted by state-run Anadolu Agency.

Isik reaffirmed that Turkey was now ready to join any operation by international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqa, the extremist group’s de-facto capital.

Anadolu had earlier reported that rebels had surrounded the town to “break” IS’s will but had held off on storming the center “with the aim of preventing civilian casualties”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said IS fighters were still present in parts of the town and that rebels were in control of less than half of it.

Rebels launched an offensive to capture Al-Bab last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.

Al-Bab was IS’s last remaining stronghold in Aleppo province, after a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seized the town of Manbij in August.

The jihadist group still controls a scattering of smaller villages and towns in the province.

– ‘Tall task’ ahead –

Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town also claimed the capture of Al-Bab.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), we captured the city center, which was IS’s security zone… The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 6 am (0400 GMT) we completed the operation,” said Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza rebel group.

Abu Jaafar, another rebel field commander, said he expected clearing up operations would be wrapped up within hours.

“Dozens of IS fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from inside Al-Bab,” Abu Jaafar said.

Turkey sent troops into Syria in August last year in an operation it said targeted not only IS but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.

The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.

The town was also seen as a prize by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who had advanced to just 1.5 kilometers (one mile) from Al-Bab in recent weeks.

“Al-Bab is important, insofar as its taking from IS will deprive the group of a tax base and an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the West,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council.

“For Turkey, the mission, as was defined back in 2016, is now complete: Turkish forces have forced IS from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons” in northern Syria, he said.

Syria’s Kurds have managed autonomous administrations in swathes of the country’s north since 2012, and Al-Bab falls between the “cantons” of Kobane and Afrin.

“However, Turkey will now have to grapple with the questions of prolonged occupation of a foreign country and help to oversee the transition to civilian rule, a tall task for any foreign military,” Stein added.

More than 310,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad that spiralled into all-out war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81645.

Syria regime executes paediatrician for treating Aleppo children

February 18, 2017

Syrian regime forces have executed the Syrian pediatrician Mahmoud Satu after he was indicted for treating and feeding the children of Aleppo when its eastern districts were controlled by the opposition, the Jordanian Assabeel newspaper reported yesterday.

Citing the London-based news website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Assabeel said that local sources in Aleppo said that Satu and another Syrian resident called Ahmed Assad were executed two months after they were arrested.

According to the sources, the two men were executed in the main square of the Al-Sukarri neighborhood in Aleppo, the area where he and his family had lived.

Sources close to Satu told a Syrian news site El-Dorar that he was arrested on 11 December 2016, when the regime raided the Al-Salihin neighborhood in Aleppo. The Syrian news site also said that the pediatrician and his family were captured when they were trying to leave Aleppo with the other residents.

Satu worked in the city of Aleppo in field hospitals. He was reported as having refused to leave Aleppo along with his family, but they were arrested and the doctor was executed over “treating and feeding the children of terrorists.”

According to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Satu wrote on his Facebook page before he was arrested: “What is going on in Aleppo is heart-breaking and a savage and barbaric act which is not being done except by a dog dealing with pigs. He [Al-Assad] forgets that God is watching.”

The Syrian regime and its Iran-backed Shia jihadist allies, backed by Russian airpower, gained control of Aleppo after three months of fierce ground attacks and airstrikes. Hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded as homes, schools and hospitals were targeted.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170218-syria-regime-executes-paediatrician-for-treating-aleppo-children/.

Uighur minority fighting in Syria says exiled leader

2017-02-13

MUNICH – An exiled advocate for China’s ethnic Uighur minority said Monday that some of the group were fighting and dying in Syria — including for Islamic State (IS) — though she claimed they had been duped into doing so.

Rebiya Kadeer, who heads the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said that among the thousands of Uighurs who have fled to Southeast Asia, Turkey and elsewhere in recent years, a small number have ended up in the war-torn Middle Eastern country and have joined militant groups.

“Some Uighurs… died after Russian airplanes bombed them, they were killed in Syria,” she said at a press conference during a visit to Japan.

Russia’s militarily backs the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 and has left more than 300,000 people dead. Numerous groups, including IS, are fighting for control of the country.

The mostly Muslim Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and number some 10 million, are native to the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang bordering Central Asia and have long complained of religious and cultural discrimination.

China has frequently warned that radical forces from outside have inspired terror attacks in Xinjiang as well as in other regions of the country and has launched a harsh crackdown.

It says among Uighurs who have fled are some seeking to train with extremists in Syria to eventually return and fight for independence in Xinjiang.

In 2015, China’s security ministry said more than 100 Uighurs that were repatriated by Thailand had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq “to join jihad”.

Once a wealthy and prominent businesswoman, Kadeer, now 70, fell out with the Chinese government and was jailed before her 2005 release into exile in the United States where she serves as president of the WUC.

She said Uighurs who end up in Syria are vulnerable and prone to being “brainwashed” into joining the fighting there, but still denounced them.

“We think they are just like criminal groups in our society,” she said.

The WUC describes itself as a “peaceful opposition movement against Chinese occupation of East Turkestan” — their name for Xinjiang.

It says it promotes “human rights, religious freedom, and democracy” for Uighurs and advocates “peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine their political future”.

But China has blamed the WUC, as well as the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), of radicalizing Uighurs and fomenting violence and independence.

Overseas experts, however, have expressed skepticism, with some accusing China of exaggerating the Uighur threat to justify a tough security regime in resource-rich Xinjiang.

Human Rights groups argue that harsh police tactics and government campaigns against Muslim religious practices, such as the wearing of veils, have fueled Uighur violence.

China says it has boosted economic development in Xinjiang and upholds minority and religious rights for all of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81423.

Syria regime hanged 13,000 in notorious prison

07 February 2017 Tuesday

As many as 13,000 people were hanged in five years at a notorious Syrian government prison near Damascus, Amnesty International said Tuesday, accusing the regime of a “policy of extermination.”

Titled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hanging and extermination at Saydnaya prison,” Amnesty’s damning report is based on interviews with 84 witnesses, including guards, detainees, and judges.

It found that at least once a week between 2011 and 2015, groups of up to 50 people were taken out of their prison cells for arbitrary trials, beaten, then hanged “in the middle of the night and in total secrecy.”

“Throughout this process, they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks,” the rights group wrote.

Most of the victims were civilians believed to be opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“They kept them (hanging) there for 10 to 15 minutes,” a former judge who witnessed the executions said.

“For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks,” he said.

Amnesty said the practices amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but were likely still taking place.

Thousands of prisoners are held in the military-run Saydnaya prison, one of the country’s largest detention centers located 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Damascus.

Amnesty accused the Syrian government of carrying out a “policy of extermination” there by repeatedly torturing detainees and withholding food, water, and medical care.

Prisoners were raped or forced to rape each other, and guards would feed detainees by tossing meals onto the cell floor, which was often covered in dirt and blood.

‘Hidden, monstrous campaign’

A twisted set of “special rules” governed the facility: detainees were not allowed to speak and must assume certain positions when guards enter their cells.

“Every day there would be two or three dead people in our wing… I remember the guard would ask how many we had. He would say, ‘Room number one – how many? Room number two – how many?’ and on and on,” said Nader, a former detainee whose name has been changed.

After one fierce day of beating, Nader said, 13 people died in a single wing of the prison.

One former military officer said he could hear “gurgling” as people were hanged in an execution room below.

“If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling,” said Hamid, who was arrested in 2011.

“We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then,” he told Amnesty.

The group has previously said that more than 17,700 people were estimated to have died in government custody across Syria since the country’s conflict erupted in March 2011.

The figure of 13,000 deaths in a single prison, therefore, is a marked increase.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty’s Beirut office.

“The cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners, along with the carefully crafted and systematic programs of psychological and physical torture that are in place inside Saydnaya Prison cannot be allowed to continue,” she said.

A probe by the United Nations last year accused Assad’s government of a policy of “extermination” in its jails.

More than 310,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes since the conflict began with anti-Assad protests.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/184341/syria-regime-hanged-13000-in-notorious-prison.

Syrian IT expert extends web lifeline to fellow migrants

January 29, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Migrants navigating a new language, unfamiliar cultural conventions and Germany’s multitude of rules and regulations are finding help online in their adoptive country courtesy of one of their own.

The website arabalmanya.com — which translates to “Arabs in Germany” — was founded a year ago by Syrian IT expert Talal Mando. The site contains a range of information, including news about Germany, feature stories explaining German culture and crucial job offers for newcomers.

“No one came to Germany to sit around,” Mando, who was part of the flood of 890,000 migrants who came to Germany in 2015, said of the site’s success. “The people want to work and learn new things.” The idea for the site came to Mando shortly after the soft-spoken 28-year-old arrived in Germany and started looking for guidance about how to apply for asylum, learn German, and find work.

He quickly realized that most written information was available only in German or English — not a problem for him as a fluent English speaker, but a major barrier for many fellow Syrians and other migrants who spoke only Arabic.

“That’s when I got this idea to make a website for Arab people that are in Germany,” Mando said in the living room of his Berlin apartment, which doubles as headquarters for the free website. Since the website’s launch in December 2015, it has received more than 1.1 million visits and more than 4 million page clicks, nearly all from users inside Germany, according to Google analytics.

Many German organizations have reached out to help migrants get settled and some television networks offer Arabic language programming. Mando said he thinks arabalmanya.com has resonated particularly well with newly arrived Syrians because he and others working on the site have shared their experience.

He now has five people writing for the website, all Syrian migrants working for free after a small startup grant from a local organization ran out. Mando, who works as a freelance web designer, estimates he has put about 5,500 euros ($5,800) of his own money into the project.

The volunteer staff has written more than 1,400 posts, many of them job listings they’ve translated into Arabic. They also answer about 50 emails a day seeking advice on where to find a doctor, where to learn German, how to register for school, and what documents to bring and clothing to wear to job interviews.

“I do it because people need it. It’s that simple,” he said. “People need information and jobs here in Germany, and we provide it.”

Syrian refugees shocked, sad as Trump bans them from the US

January 28, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Syrian refugee Ammar Sawan took his first step toward resettlement in the United States three months ago, submitting to an initial round of security screenings. His dreams of a better life were crushed when President Donald Trump issued an indefinite ban on displaced Syrians entering the United States.

Sawan said Saturday that he learned of the decision from TV news the night before. “When we heard of the order, it was like a bolt of lightning, and all our hopes and dreams vanished,” said Sawan, 40.

The upholsterer, who supports his family with odd jobs in the Jordanian capital of Amman, said he was especially disappointed for his four children who he had hoped would get a good education in the U.S.

He and other Syrian refugees in Amman bristled at the idea that they posed a potential security threat, saying they were both shocked and saddened by Trump’s ban. “We tell the American people that we hope he (Trump) retracts this decision,” said refugee Mayada Sheik, 37. “We are not going out to harm people of other countries.”

In an executive order Friday, Trump suspended all refugee admissions to the U.S. for four months and banned the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, pending a security review of the admissions program. In a third step, he issued a 90-day ban on all entry to the U.S. from countries with terrorism concerns, including Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Close to 5 million Syrians have fled their homeland since the conflict there erupted in 2011. Millions more are displaced within Syria. Most refugees have settled in overburdened neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey where the struggle for survival has become increasingly difficult. Savings have run out, jobs are scarce and poorly paid, while refugee children learn in crowded classrooms and have very limited access to higher education.

Many refugees say their first choice is to return home as soon as possible. But with the civil war dragging on, that’s not an option and refugees increasingly pursue resettlement to the West because of tough conditions in regional host countries.

International aid agencies harshly criticized Trump’s restrictions imposed on refugees. The International Rescue Committee said the suspension of the refugee resettlement program was a “harmful and hasty” decision. “America must remain true to its core values. America must remain a beacon of hope,” said IRC President David Miliband.

The group said the U.S. vetting process for refugees is already robust — involving biometric screening and up to 36 months of vetting by 12 to 15 government agencies. Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said Trump’s decision hurts innocents fleeing extremist violence in Syria.

“It will not make America safer,” Egeland told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Norway. “It will make America smaller and meaner. It’s a really sad rupture of a long and proud American bi-partisan tradition that America would be there for those fleeing from terror and for the weak and the vulnerable in the world, which are the refugees.”

The NRC is a leading refugee aid agency, assisting more than 1 million Syrians.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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