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Friday, November 10, 2017

In Syria's Raqqa, IS makes last stand at city's stadium

October 17, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria on Tuesday captured the city hospital in Raqqa, leaving IS militants holed up at the local stadium, their last stand in the fight over what was once the extremists' de facto capital.

The hospital was one of IS last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center. Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium. Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. The fighting was still underway with militants who had refused to surrender, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a major push by the SDF on the municipal stadium was underway. Clashes are ongoing around the stadium with "a small group" of militants, said a senior Kurdish commander. "We hope it won't take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today."

He said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The stadium served as an arms depot, a security headquarters and one of the Islamic State militants' largest jails in their self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down. On Monday, the SDF captured Raqqa's infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings.

Paradise Square became synonymous with the group's reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in 2014, the militants used Raqqa's central city square to carry out public beheadings and killings, forcing the residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers. Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days, mounted on posts. Residents described how the bodies of those executed would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, Jahim in Arabic. The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The fall of the city would be a huge blow to IS, which has steadily been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.

Syrian refugees return to areas liberated from Daesh

October 14, 2017

Syrian refugees in Turkey have started to return to areas liberated from Daesh in the north of their country, Anadolu news agency reported on Friday. The areas were liberated as part of the Euphrates Shield Operation carried out by the Free Syrian Army with Turkish army support. The operation ended in March this year.

According to Anadolu, around 100 Syrian refugees, including women and children, left the refugee camps in Turkey to go back home. The refugees were transported by minibuses owned by the Disaster and Emergency Department run by the office of the Turkish Prime Minister.

Syrian refugee Farouq K told Anadolu that he has spent five years in the refugee camps and decided to go back to the areas liberated from “terror” in Syria. He expressed his thanks to Turkey for its efforts to provide security to parts of his country.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171014-syrian-refugees-return-to-areas-liberated-from-daesh/.

Syria: Local militants evacuate as Raqqa battle nears end

October 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Saturday that Syrian Islamic State fighters and civilians will be allowed to evacuate Raqqa, a deal that signals the imminent capture of the city but flouts earlier U.S. protests of negotiating safe exits for the extremist group.

Foreign fighters will be excluded from the evacuation deal, the coalition said. The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the final battle for Raqqa was underway, apparently propelled by negotiation efforts that secured the surrender and evacuation of dozens of Syrian militants still holed up in the city.

In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition said a convoy of vehicles was set to leave Raqqa following the deal brokered by a local council formed by their Kurdish allies and Arab tribal leaders. The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow the evacuation of local Islamic State fighters to stem further violence.

"Because our aim is liberation not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city, with our guarantees," the tribal leaders said in a statement.

It was not clear how many evacuees there were or where they would go, but the tribesmen said their evacuation would save the lives of civilians who the extremist fighters have used as human shields. Last week, there was an estimated 4,000 civilians still in the city.

With the push to liberate the Arab-majority Raqqa led by Kurdish-dominated forces, local officials fear a backlash once the city falls. The initiative appeared to be an attempt by local leaders to stem such tension.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the talks were bogged down over the fate of the foreign fighters there, which according to a local Kurdish commander include French, Russian, Azeri, Indonesian and Turkish combatants.

The U.S.-led coalition said it "was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the Coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqah with less risk of civilian casualties." Daesh is an Arabic acronym for IS.

The evacuation deal places the U.S. in a bind as it had earlier said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS fighters in Raqqa, would be accepted. The top U.S. envoy for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, had previously stated that foreign fighters in Raqqa would die in the city. Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, said Friday around 100 militants had surrendered.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters travelling with him Friday that the U.S. would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes. "Right now, as the bottom drops out from underneath (IS), more and more of them are either surrendering — some are trying to surrender, and some amongst them — more fanatical ones aren't allowing them to," he said, using a different acronym for the extremist group.

Only weeks ago, the U.S. coalition obstructed a Hezbollah-negotiated deal to evacuate IS fighters from its borders with Syria toward the border with Iraq. The coalition bombed the road used by the convoy evacuating the militants, only to finally capitulate following Russian calls asking it to allow Syrian troops in the area to advance.

It is also not clear what kind of justice would be meted out to those surrendering militants in the absence of established courts in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria. A senior local Kurdish commander said foreign fighters were unlikely to surrender so his forces are expecting to "comb them out" of at least two neighborhoods. He said it could be a matter of a day or two.

Scores of civilians were seen in a video Friday leaving Raqqa in desperate and terrified conditions. They emerged from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrived at a Kurdish-held area of the city, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-long ordeals.

The U.S.-led coalition said it expects "difficult fighting" in the days ahead to completely oust IS from the city and secure it. SDF and U.S. officials said the remaining militants are mostly suicide bombers who only have small arms and rifles. Backed into a small area, they have no access to their weapon of choice, car bombs, said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman.

Also Saturday, the Syrian and Russian militaries announced that Syrian troops and allied fighters had seized the town of Mayadeen, an Islamic State stronghold in the country's east. The Russian Defense Ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Syrian soldiers had driven IS fighters from the town, which he said was the extremist group's last major stronghold in eastern Syria.

Over the past months, Mayadeen had become a refuge for IS's leaders as they faced an intense crackdown in Syria and Iraq. On the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadeen was also a major node in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province that straddles the border with Iraq. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters could help Iran expand its influence across the region and establish a "Shiite corridor" of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.

Diverting fighters from the battle for Raqqa, the U.S.-backed SDF made a bid for the province to secure territories there, focusing on securing the Iraq border, still mostly controlled by IS. The Syrian government eyed Mayadeen earlier this month, fearing the SDF would get there first. The race accelerated amid fear of potential confrontations as Syrian troops crossed the Euphrates river to reach the oil-rich eastern banks.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, confirmed that government troops, backed by Shiite militias, had taken control of Mayadeen but said they were still combing it for militants. With the fall of Mayadeen and retaking of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters are losing two of their last strongholds in Syria as their self-declared caliphate crumbles. The militants are currently besieged in the city of Deir el-Zour, leaving them with one last major urban bastion, the strategic town of Boukamal, on the border with Syria and Iraq.

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group, and declared it the caliphate of their self-styled caliphate. It became synonymous with IS's reign of terror, with public killings and beheadings — videotaped slayings that have shocked the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS's attacks in the West were plotted.

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants.

Local official: 100 IS fighters surrender in Syria's Raqqa

October 13, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Some 100 fighters from the Islamic State group handed themselves over to U.S.-backed fighters in the northern city of Raqqa Friday as fighting continued with remaining gunmen in a pocket inside the city.

Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council did not give details how the 100 fighters surrendered but said fighting is still ongoing in parts of the city that was once the de facto capital of IS. U.S.-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

IS still controls the city's stadium that is believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small part of northern Raqqa. "There are still fighters but the area they control is getting smaller," said Mohammed Khedher of Sound and Picture Organization, which tracks atrocities by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier Friday, scores of civilians including women and children fled the last few remaining neighborhoods held by the IS in Raqqa, ahead of an anticipated final push by U.S.-backed fighters seeking to retake the city.

A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive. They seemed to be taking advantage of a slowdown in the fighting and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition amid efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

The coalition has said that IS militants are holding some civilians to use as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The video released by the Turkey-based Kurdish Mezopotamya Medya on Friday showed clearly petrified residents running toward safety, some clutching babies or wounded people. "This is my husband, we are civilians!" one woman cried, fearing that fighters from the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces would take him away. Some of the arriving men were searched before being allowed in while others kissed the ground in relief.

"God is stronger than them (IS)," shouted another woman, clutching what appeared to be a large Quran in her hand. Another elderly man hobbled out on crutches, begging for water. After drinking from a bottle handed to him, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.

Gunfire could be heard in the background. SDF fighters have been on the offensive in Raqqa since June 5 and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city that was the de facto capital of IS. IS still controls the city's stadium believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small area north of Raqqa.

Palestinian Authority takes over Egypt border crossing

2017-11-01

RAFAH - Hamas handed over control of the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, an AFP journalist said, in a first key test of a Palestinian reconciliation accord agreed last month.

Nazmi Muhanna, the Palestinian Authority's top official for border crossings, formally received control of the Rafah crossing with Egypt from his Hamas counterpart.

At a separate checkpoint with Israel, an AFP photographer also saw Hamas installations being dismantled.

At the Rafah crossing, Palestinian and Egyptian flags were flying, with large pictures of Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Hisham Adwan, director of information at the Hamas crossings authority, said that Palestinian Authority employees would resume full control of the border.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, the Palestinian Authority is due to take full control of Gaza by December 1.

The checkpoints had been due to be handed over by November 1 and were seen as a first key test of the strength of the reconciliation agreement.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 when the Islamists seized control in a near civil war with Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

A number of issues, including the future of Hamas' vast military wing, remain uncertain.

Multiple previous reconciliation agreements have collapsed.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85704.

Hariri's exit sparks fears of fresh war in Lebanon

2017-11-05

BEIRUT - Saad Hariri's resignation from Lebanon's premiership has raised fears that regional tensions were about to escalate and that the small country would once again pay a heavy price.

Analysts said the Saudi-backed Sunni politician's move on Saturday to step down from the helm less than a year after forming a government was more than just the latest hiccup in Lebanon's notoriously dysfunctional politics.

"It's a dangerous decision whose consequences will be heavier than what Lebanon can bear," Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said.

Hariri announced his resignation in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the entire region.

Hezbollah is part of the government, but the clout of a group whose military arsenal outstrips that of Lebanon's own armed forces is far greater than its share of cabinet posts.

For years now, Lebanon has been deeply divided between a camp dominated by the Shiite Tehran-backed Hezbollah and a Saudi-supported movement led by Hariri.

"Hariri has started a cold war that could escalate into a civil war, bearing in mind that Hezbollah is unmatched in Lebanon on the military level," Khashan said.

The rift in Lebanon's political class led to the assassination in 2005 of Hariri's father Rafik, an immensely influential tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia.

- Iran-Saudi flare-up -

Investigations pointed to the responsibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Other political assassinations in the anti-Hezbollah camp ensued, then a month-long war between the powerful militia and neighboring Israel, as well as violent internal clashes that harked back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Twelve years on, Lebanese politics remain just as toxically sectarian and the threat of another flare-up very real. Hariri even said on Saturday he feared going the way of his father.

His resignation came in a context of high tension between Saudi Arabia, once the region's powerhouse, and Iran, which has played an increasingly prominent political and military role in the region recently.

On Friday, Hariri met Iran's most seasoned diplomat, Ali Akbar Velayati, before flying to Saudi Arabia and resigning from there via a Saudi-funded television network.

"The timing and venue of the resignation are surprising... but not the resignation itself," said Fadia Kiwane, political science professor at Beirut's Saint Joseph University.

"The situation is developing rapidly and we're at a turning point... there could be a deadly clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran," she said.

"In that event, the two main camps in Lebanon will clash too."

Over the past few weeks, a Saudi minister, Thamer al-Sabhan, has unleashed virulent attacks against Hezbollah on social media.

- New war with Israel? -

"The terrorist party should be punished... and confronted by force," he wrote last month.

Other than just an internal conflict, analysts also do not rule out an external attack on Hezbollah, be it by Saudi Arabia directly or by the Shiite militia's arch-foe Israel.

"Hariri is saying 'there is no government any more, Hezbollah is not part of it'... and he is thus legitimizing any military strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon," Khashan said.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, and Israeli politicians have ramped up the rhetoric lately, warning that its military was prepared for war with Lebanon.

Any new war damaging key infrastructure would have a disastrous impact on a country already weakened by ballooning debt, corruption and the demographic pressure from a massive influx of Syrian refugees.

As soon as the news of Hariri's resignation broke, many Lebanese took to social media to voice their fears of a return to violence.

"After Hariri's resignation, a war will be launched against Lebanon," wrote one of them, Ali Hammoud, on Twitter.

On the streets of Beirut, even those who had little sympathy for Hariri expressed concern.

"We're headed for the worst," said one shop owner.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85776.

Refugees in Algeria yearn for homeland

2017-11-04

ALGIERS - Selembouha Dadi can only imagine the homeland she dreams of but has never seen, agonizingly out of reach beyond the Algerian refugee camp where she has spent her whole life.

"They tell me it was beautiful," the 25-year-old said.

The territory that Dadi yearns for is Western Sahara, a sprawling swathe of desert on Africa's Atlantic coast that has been disputed by Morocco and independence fighters from the Polisario Front for decades.

Her father Moulay abandoned everything and fled 42 years ago when Moroccan troops arrived in 1975 during the rush to claim the former Spanish colony as Madrid let it go.

Now, along with tens of thousands of other refugees, their family of nine lives in one of a string of refugee camps just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, beyond the Algerian border and a "defense wall" erected by Morocco in the 1980s.

Morocco and Mauritania were meant to share Western Sahara when Spain relinquished control, but in 1976 the Polisario proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic -- and was determined to fight for it.

Mauritania in 1979 gave up its claim, leaving Morocco to seize most of the 266,000 square kilometer (100,000 square mile) territory, but it was not until 1991 that a UN-backed ceasefire came into force.

Rabat considers Western Sahara an integral part of Morocco and proposes autonomy for the resource-rich territory, but the Algerian-backed Polisario Front insists on a United Nations-backed referendum on independence.

The 2,700-kilometer barrier erected by Morocco slicing from north to south divides the 80 percent of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco from the 20 percent held by the Polisario.

- 'Left everything behind' -

Moulay Dadi, 72, served tea in a large traditional tent, a vestige of the Sahrawis' nomadic past, and cooler than the nearby family cottage with its zinc roof.

He recalled his life back in his desert homeland herding the family's animals. He was 30 when the Moroccan forces arrived.

"We fled and we left everything behind us, our animals, our property, the houses," he said.

"We left everything behind us."

He settled in Algeria's Tindouf region with his wife and parents, who did not live to see their homeland again.

Some 100,000 Sahrawi refugees live today in the camps around Tindouf. They belong to a mosaic of nomadic tribes who have for centuries plied the sandy expanses of the Sahara with their camels.

The Dadi family's Boujdour camp, which, like the other camps, bears the name of an area of the Western Sahara controlled by Morocco, is dotted with brown-walled houses the color of the surrounding desert, one of the most inhospitable in the world.

Their home consists of a large living room, a small dining room and a kitchen. The shower and toilets are in a separate building.

There is intermittent electricity and no running water. Trucks pass regularly to fill a large canvas water reservoir.

Like the Dadis, many Sahrawis have set up traditional tents next to their houses in the camp, where life moves slowly.

After the morning prayer, Selembouha Dadi and her mother, in her sixties, cook and clean.

The youngest of the children, 12-year-old Mellah, goes to school.

Some of her brothers work on building sites and the others are in the army of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Sahrawi refugees in Algeria live mostly on funds from exiled relatives in Europe and on international aid.

The European Union provides some, $11.6 million (10 million euros) a year, despite the Polisario Front being accused of embezzlement in recent years.

Some residents have set up small shops -- groceries, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stalls -- in the camps.

Others work as officials for the SADR, which has its central administration in Rabouni, not far from Tindouf.

Isolated for decades and largely forgotten by the world, many Sahrawis still believe that they will one day return to the lands of their ancestors.

"We want our land whatever we find there," Selembouha said.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85763.