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Friday, September 15, 2017

Iraqi PM: We will target Daesh abroad

March 9, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi pledged to target Daesh bases in neighboring countries, namely Syria, if they pose a threat to Iraq, AlKhaleejOnlne.com reported yesterday.

On the margin of his participation in a meeting in the north of the country, Al-Abadi said: “With all respect to the sovereignty of all countries, I will never hesitate to target Daesh bases in the neighboring countries after getting their permission.”

He warned that the continuous battles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya would proliferate terror.

Regarding the losses caused to his country due to Daesh attacks, he said: “The cost of damages to infrastructure caused by Daesh is estimated at about $35 billion.”

Meanwhile, he called for the international community to contribute to rebuilding the country and regaining stability in the areas liberated from Daesh.

Al-Abadi also called for Iraqi forces to unite under a national umbrella that takes the responsibility of protecting the country.

“I call for uniting the Iraqi forces,” he said, “there should not be forces affiliating to parties or political sides, but Iraqi forces for all Iraqis.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170309-iraqi-pm-we-will-target-daesh-abroad/.

Iraqi forces enter IS-held Mosul airport

2017-02-23

MOSUL - Iraqi forces on Thursday thrust into Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.

Backed by jets, gunships and drones, forces blitzed their way across open areas south of Mosul and entered the airport compound, apparently meeting limited resistance but strafing the area for suspected snipers.

"Right now thank God we're inside Mosul airport and in front of its terminal. Our troops are liberating it," Hisham Abdul Kadhem, a commander in the interior ministry's Rapid Response units, said inside the airport.

Little was left standing inside the perimeter and what used to be the runway was littered with dirt and rubble.

Most buildings were completely leveled but Iraqi forces celebrated the latest landmark in the four-month-old offensive to retake Mosul.

While Iraqi forces were not yet deployed in the northern part of the sprawling airport compound and sappers cautiously scanned the site for explosive devices, IS appeared to offer limited resistance.

As Iraqi forces approached the airport moments earlier, attack helicopters fired rockets at an old sugar factory that stands next to the perimeter wall, sending a cloud of ash floating across the area.

The push on the airport was launched at dawn and Iraqi forces stormed it within hours from the southwest.

- US forces -

The regional command said elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service were simultaneously attacking the neighboring Ghazlani military base, where some of them were stationed before IS seized Mosul in June 2014.

Control of the base and airport would set government forces up to enter Mosul neighborhoods on the west bank of the Tigris, a month after declaring full control of the east bank.

All of the city's bridges across the river are damaged.

The US-led coalition has played a key role in supporting Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground, and on Thursday US forces were seen on the front lines.

The American troops are not supposed to be doing the actual fighting but in recent weeks have got so close to the front that they have come under attack, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said.

"They have come under fire at different times, they have returned fire at different times, in and around Mosul," Dorrian told reporters on Wednesday.

He declined to say if there had been any US casualties in the attacks, but an unnamed official later told CNN that several personnel had been evacuated from the battlefield.

The latest push to retake Mosul, the country's second city and the last stronghold of the jihadists in Iraq, was launched on Sunday and involves thousands of security personnel.

They started closing in on the airport four days ago. It is unclear how many jihadists tried to defend the airport but US officials said Monday that only around 2,000 remain in Mosul.

There are an estimated 750,000 civilians trapped on the city's west bank, which is a bit smaller than the east side but more densely populated.

It includes the Old City and its narrow streets, which will make for a difficult terrain when Iraqi forces reach it because they will be impassable for some military vehicles.

- Letters from the east -

The noose has for months now been tightening around Mosul and the living conditions for civilians are fast deteriorating.

Residents reached by phone spoke of dwindling food supplies forcing many families to survive on just one meal a day.

Medical workers say the weakest are beginning to die of the combined effect of malnutrition and the lack of medicines, which IS fighters are keeping for themselves.

An army plane late Wednesday dropped thousands of letters written by residents of the retaken east bank to their fellow citizens across the river.

"Be patient and help each other... the end of injustice is near," read one of them which was signed "People from the east side."

"Stay in your homes and cooperate with the security forces. They are your brothers, they came to liberate you," read another.

A smaller than expected proportion of the east side's population fled when Iraqi forces stormed it nearly four months ago but the United Nations is bracing for a bigger exodus from the west.

It had said 250,000 people or more could flee their homes on the west bank and has scrambled to set up new displacement camps around the city.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81637.

Iraqi Shiite militias push to take villages west of Mosul

February 22, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, made up mainly of Shiite militiamen, have launched a new push to capture villages west of the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants.

The forces' spokesman, Ahmed al-Asadi, said on Wednesday that the villages are located southwest of the town of Tal Afar, still held by the Islamic State group. He didn't provide details but the move by the umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces is likely coordinated with government effort to recapture western part of Mosul from IS.

Iraqi government forces this week took a hilltop area overlooking the Mosul city airport. The Shiite militias already hold a small airport outside Tal Afar, which is s located some 93 miles (150 kilometers) east of the Syrian border.

Iraqi forces launch push to retake western Mosul from IS

February 19, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces launched an operation Sunday to retake the western half of Mosul from the Islamic State group. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation early Sunday morning on state television, saying government forces were moving to "liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression forever", using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Southwest of Mosul, near the city's IS-held airport, plumes of smoke were seen rising into the sky as coalition aircraft bombed militant positions. Further south at an Iraqi base, federal police forces were gathering and getting ready to move north.

Iraqi forces took control of eastern Mosul last month, but the west remains in the hands of entrenched extremists. Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is roughly split in half by the Tigris River. The battle for Mosul's western half is expected to be prolonged and difficult, due to denser population and older, narrower streets.

25 children starve to death in Iraq near Mosul

February 18, 2017

An Iraqi human rights organisation has called on urgent help to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe” after it said that approximately 25 children had passed away after starving to death in areas west of Mosul due to a lack of support from the central authorities in Baghdad or the international community.

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR), based in Iraq itself, said that “the [western] half of the city of Mosul, where 140,000 children live, is afflicted by starvation after food supplies ran out, along with a lack of milk and a lack of potable water.”

The IOHR said that, as a result, children were dying of hunger and thirst.

The Observatory also confirmed that they had seen evidence that 25 children had died of starvation in January alone, as Daesh extremists and the Iraqi government, backed by the US-led coalition and Iran-backed Shia jihadists, fight over Mosul.

Women in Mosul were also starving, and therefore mothers were finding it extremely hard to produce milk to breastfeed their children, leading to an ever deteriorating situation in Iraq’s second city.

The IOHR called on the Iraqi government and international aid organisations to do more to “open up air corridors in order to drop milk and foodstuffs for starving children in the western half of the city of Mosul,” adding that the Iraqi government must “prevent the exacerbation of child mortality rates that has arisen due to starvation.”

“[The Iraqi government] must also prevent Daesh from succeeding in its plan to besiege civilians in Mosul,” the IOHR said in a statement.

The Observatory also called upon the provincial authorities of Ninawa province to do more to challenge Baghdad and the United Nations, and to encourage them to support the people of Mosul who have been victims of not only Daesh extremists, but also Iraqi regime bombardment and the depravations of Shia jihadists.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170218-25-children-starve-to-death-in-iraq-near-mosul/.

Iraq foils jihadist attempts to flee to Syria

2017-02-13

MOSUL - Iraqi forces have thwarted an attempt by around 200 jihadist fighters to flee their bastion of Tal Afar towards Syria, west of the city of Mosul, a security spokesman said Monday.

Forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shiite militia groups, said the Islamic State group used tanks in their bid to break out of Tal Afar.

"The attack by the Daesh (IS) terrorist gangs started at around 7:00 pm (1600 GMT on Sunday), the fighting lasted around six hours," their spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said.

Hashed forces have been deployed in desert areas west of Mosul since federal forces launched a massive operation to retake the city from IS on October 17.

Their main goals are to retake Tal Afar, a Turkmen-majority city which is still held by IS, and to prevent the jihadists from being able to move men and equipment between Mosul and their strongholds in Syria.

"This was an attempt by Daesh to open a breach, flee to the Syria border and exfiltrate some leaders and fighters," Assadi said.

He said that Hashed forces received support from army aviation helicopters when IS attacked them. He added that the fighting left around 50 IS members killed and 17 of their vehicles destroyed.

Assadi did not provide a casualty figure for the Hashed al-Shaabi following the attack, which took place around 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Tal Afar.

IS jihadists are confined to a corridor between Tal Afar and Mosul by tens of thousands of forces deployed on several fronts.

After retaking the eastern side of Mosul last month, Iraqi forces are preparing to launch an assault on the west bank of the city.

The early stages of the Mosul offensive saw IS move fighters between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqa, its other major urban stronghold, but their supply lines have now been cut off.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81417.

UN: 750,000 still living under militant rule in Iraq's Mosul

January 24, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.N. and several aid organizations say an estimated 750,000 civilians are still living under Islamic State rule in Mosul despite recent advances by Iraqi forces. Lise Grande, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement Tuesday that the cost of food and basic goods is soaring, water and electricity are intermittent and that some residents are forced to burn furniture to keep warm.

The statement was co-signed by 20 international and local aid groups operating in the country. Iraqi forces announced the liberation of eastern Mosul earlier this month as part of a three-month-old offensive aimed at driving the militants out of Iraq's second largest city. The U.N. migration agency says the Mosul operation has displaced more than 140,000 people.

Iraq forces 'liberate' eastern Mosul

2017-01-18

MOSUL - Iraqi forces have fully retaken east Mosul from the Islamic State group, a top commander said on Wednesday, three months after a huge offensive against the jihadist bastion was launched.

Elite forces have in recent days entered the last neighborhoods on the eastern side of Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris River that runs through the city.

Speaking at a press conference in Bartalla, a town east of Mosul, Staff General Talib al-Sheghati, who heads the Counter-Terrorism Service, announced "the liberation... of the left bank".

Sheghati added however that while the east of the city could be considered under government control, some work remained to be done to flush out the last holdout jihadists.

The important lines and important areas are finished," he said, adding that "there is only a bit of the northern (front) remaining."

Wednesday's announcement marks the end of a phase in the operation launched on October 17 to retake Mosul, Iraq's second city and the last major urban stronghold IS has in the country.

The offensive, Iraq's largest military operation in years with tens of thousands of fighters involved, began with a focus on sparsely populated areas around Mosul.

CTS entered the city proper in November and encountered tougher than expected resistance from IS, whose fighters launched a huge number of suicide car bombs against advancing Iraqi forces.

The going was tough for weeks but a fresh push coordinated with other federal forces and backed by the US-led coalition was launched in December and yielded quick and decisive gains.

The west bank of Mosul is a bit smaller but is home to the narrow streets of the Old City -- impassable to most military vehicles -- and to some of the city's traditionally most dyed-in-the-wool jihadist neighborhoods.

Brigadier General Yahya Rasool also stressed that despite Sheghati's announcement, there would be more fighting in east Mosul in the coming days.

- Narrow streets -

"Sheghati is the head of CTS and he was talking about areas under CTS control. There are some neighborhoods that are still being liberated and that could take a few days," he told AFP.

All the bridges across the Tigris in Mosul have been either blown up by IS or destroyed by coalition air strikes, which has made it very difficult for Iraqi forces to resupply its fighters in the city's east.

It will also make it difficult for elite Iraqi forces to attack the west bank without redeploying to other fronts west of the river that have been largely static for weeks.

Interior ministry and federal police forces have held positions just south of Mosul airport, which lies on the southern edge of the city and west of the Tigris, since November.

Punching into densely populated areas however and confronting intense resistance from IS in urban environments is a type of operation which is left largely to CTS.

The fighting inside Mosul has been complicated by the continued presence of much of its population, which did not or could not flee when Iraqi forces started advancing.

According to the United Nations, around 150,000 people are currently displaced as a result of the three-month-old offensive.

Mosul lies around 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Baghdad in the country's north and had an estimated population of close to two million when IS overran it in early June 2014.

Jihadist supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling parts of Iraq and Syria from a mosque on the west bank of Mosul days later.

The full recapture of Mosul by government forces would effectively end IS's days as a land-holding force in Iraq and deal a death blow to its claim of running a state.

Observers have said they expect a short lull in operations after east Mosul is brought fully under control.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80937.

Patience wears thin in Iraq's Fallujah

2017-01-18

FALLUJAH - More than six months after Iraqi forces retook Fallujah from the Islamic State group, reconstruction is slow and the government risks alienating those residents who have returned to the city.

"There are no members of the Daesh terrorist organization left in Fallujah," the police chief, Colonel Jamal al-Jumaili, said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"Fallujah is a safe city," he insisted.

Iraqi forces retook Fallujah, an emblematic jihadist bastion just 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad, in June 2016 with relative ease but that victory came at a hefty price.

A large number of homes were destroyed by the fighting and several neighborhoods are still off-limits to civilians due to the possible presence of booby-traps planted by IS in their retreat.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said last month that only about 10 percent of homes in Fallujah were inhabitable.

"Nothing works here, there's no water, no electricity and houses have been destroyed," said Firas Mahmud, a 25-year-old who returned to Fallujah after IS was defeated and is currently unemployed.

Another man met on the street in Fallujah had the same grievances and complained of the lack of services and jobs.

"The authorities must do something," said the young man, who gave his name as Mustafa.

The Fallujah municipality defended its record but Mayor Issa al-Sayer mostly called for "the help of the international community to allow Fallujah residents to live in stability."

- Lack of funds -

Baghdad has promised to enable the speedy return of Fallujah residents, who were all displaced during the reconquest of their city, but the government is cash-strapped.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government "lacks or may lack the focus and resources to adequately budget for an adequate reconstruction effort," said Omar Lamrani, an analyst with the Stratfor think tank.

"Baghdad's finances are already stretched with low energy prices and the costly demands of war, and corruption and cronyism affect the direction of the limited funds available," he said.

The risk that observers were warning against before the operation to retake Fallujah even started is that unkept promises will fuel a sense among its Sunni residents that they are being marginalized by the government, which is dominated by Shiite parties.

Fallujah has long been known as a rebel city and over the past decade and a half been a hub of opposition, first to occupying US-led forces and then to the Iraqi government.

In the winter of 2012-2013, protests spread across Anbar province, in which Fallujah lies, complaining that Iraq's Sunni minority was being stigmatized by then prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

In January 2014, rebels took control of the city, which was eventually overrun by jihadists from what became known as the Islamic State group.

To retake Fallujah, Baghdad relied on its regular forces but also on the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shiite militia groups with close ties to Iran.

- Hashed presence -

The police chief insisted that "only the army and the police are present" inside the city. Hashed al-Shaabi forces hold positions in towns and rural areas around the city, he said.

Some residents of the overwhelmingly Sunni area continue to be afraid of the Hashed al-Shaabi, some of whose components have been accused of sectarian-motivated abuses against civilians.

United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in July that there was strong evidence that Ketaeb Hezbollah, one of the main militias that fought alongside security forces in the operation, carried out atrocities.

Such allegations complicate the government's efforts to win over the population, "a critical step if it wishes to maintain a secure control over the city in the long run," Lamrani said.

Hashed "leadership has increasingly exerted efforts recently to crack down on negative sectarianism, though such behavior unfortunately continues to exist at some level in the lower ranks," he said.

The analyst warned the same concern applied to Mosul, IS's last major stronghold in Iraq.

Three months into a huge operation, the head of Iraq's special forces announced that the eastern side of the city had been "liberated" but the other half is still fully under IS control.

Hashed forces have cleared vast, mostly desert areas southwest of Mosul but not entered the city.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80938.

Bangladesh leader visits Rohingya refugees, assures help

September 12, 2017

UKHIYA, Bangladesh (AP) — The Bangladeshi prime minister on Tuesday visited a struggling refugee camp that has absorbed some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled recent violence in Myanmar — a crisis she said left her speechless.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina demanded that Myanmar "take steps to take their nationals back," and assured temporary aid until that happened. "We will not tolerate injustice," she said at a rally at the Kutupalong refugee camp, near the border town of Ukhiya in Cox's Bazar district.

On Monday night, she lambasted Buddhist-majority Myanmar for "atrocities" that she said had reached a level beyond description, telling lawmakers she had "no words to condemn Myanmar" and noting that Bangladesh had long been protesting the persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

At least 313,000 Rohingya have flooded into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts, prompting Myanmar's military to retaliate with what it called "clearance operations" to root out the rebels.

The crisis has drawn sharp criticism from around the world. Germany has halted several aid projects with Myanmar in protest, and Iran's Supreme Leader called the killing of Muslims a political disaster for Myanmar. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also urged other Muslim countries Tuesday to "increase political, economic and commercial pressures" on Myanmar to stop the violence.

The U.N. human rights chief said Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya minority was facing what "seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." U.N. rights investigators have been barred from entering the country.

"The Myanmar government should stop pretending that the Rohingya are setting fire to their own homes and laying waste to their own villages," Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said Monday in Geneva, calling it a "complete denial of reality."

Meanwhile, a Rohingya villager in Myanmar said security forces had arrived Monday in the village of Pa Din village, firing guns, setting new fires to homes and driving hundreds of Rohingya to flee. "People were scared and running out of the village," the villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

Myanmar police disputed that, saying the houses were burned by terrorists they called Bengalis. That term is used derisively by many in Myanmar to describe the Rohingya, who they say migrated illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Bangladesh has said it would free 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of land for a new camp in Cox's Bazar district, to help shelter newly arrived Rohingya. The government was also fingerprinting and registering new arrivals.

Kutupalong and another pre-existing Rohingya camps were already beyond capacity. Other new arrivals were staying in schools, or huddling in makeshift settlements with no toilets along roadsides and in open fields.

Basic resources were scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid. Aid agencies have been overwhelmed by the influx of Rohingya, many of whom are arriving hungry and traumatized after walking days through jungles or being packed into rickety wooden boats in search of safety in Bangladesh.

Many tell similar stories - of Myanmar soldiers firing indiscriminately on their villages, burning their homes and warning them to leave or to die. Some say they were attacked by Buddhist mobs. In the last two weeks, the government hospital in Cox's Bazar has been overwhelmed by Rohingya patients, with 80 arriving in the last two weeks suffering gunshot wounds as well as bad infections.

At least three Rohingya have been wounded in land mine blasts, and dozens have drowned when boats capsized during sea crossings. Myanmar's authorities said more than a week ago that some 400 Rohingya - mostly insurgents - had died in clashes with troops, but it has offered no updated death toll since.

Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and persecution in Myanmar and are denied citizenship despite centuries-olds roots in the Rakhine region. Before Aug. 25, Bangladesh had already been housing some 500,000 Rohingya who arrived after bloody anti-Muslim rioting in 2012 or amid earlier persecution drives in Myanmar.

AP writers Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh offers land to shelter Rohingya fleeing Myanmar

September 11, 2017

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh has agreed to free a plot of land for a new camp to shelter hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled recent violence in Myanmar, an official said Monday.

The new camp will help relieve some pressure on existing settlements in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox's Bazar, where nearly 300,000 Rohingya have arrived since Aug. 25. "The two refugees camps we are in are beyond overcrowded," said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan.

Other new arrivals were being sheltered in schools, or were huddling in makeshift settlements with no toilets along roadsides and in open fields. Basic resources were scarce, including food, clean water and medical aid.

Still, refugees were still arriving. An Associated Press reporter witnessed hundreds streaming into the border at Shah Puri Dwip on Monday. "Tomorrow we are expecting an airlift of relief supplies for 20,000 people," Tan said.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had offered 2 acres (.8 hectares) near the existing camp of Kutupalong "to build temporary shelters for the Rohingya newcomers," according to a Facebook post Monday by Mohammed Shahriar Alam, a junior minister for foreign affairs.

He also said the government would begin registering the new arrivals on Monday. Hasina is scheduled to visit Rohingya refugees on Tuesday. Aid agencies have been overwhelmed by the influx of Rohingya, many of whom are arriving hungry and traumatized after walking days through jungles or packing into rickety wooden boats in search of safety on the Bangladeshi side of the border.

Many tell similar stories — of Myanmar soldiers firing indiscriminately on their villages, burning their homes and warning them to leave or to die. Some say they were attacked by Buddhist mobs. The government hospital in Cox's Bazar has been overwhelmed by Rohingya patients, with 80 arriving in the last two weeks suffering gunshot wounds as well as bad infections. At least three have been wounded in land mine blasts, and dozens have drowned when boats capsized during sea crossings.

The violence and exodus began on Aug. 25 when Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar police and paramilitary posts in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution by security forces in the majority Buddhist country.

In response, the military unleashed what it called "clearance operations" to root out the insurgents. Accounts from refugees show the Myanmar military is also targeting civilians with shootings and wholesale burning of Rohingya villages in an apparent attempt to purge Rakhine state of Muslims.

Bloody anti-Muslim rioting that erupted in 2012 in Rakhine state forced more than 100,000 Rohingya into displacement camps in Bangladesh, where many still live today. Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and persecution in Myanmar and are denied citizenship despite centuries-olds roots in the Rakhine region. Myanmar denies Rohingya exist as an ethnic group and says those living in Rakhine are illegal migrants from Bangladesh

Alam reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh. AP writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Turkey issues warrants for ex-agents for links to cleric

September 12, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's state-run news agency says authorities have issued detention warrants for 63 people, mostly ex-intelligence agency workers, for alleged ties to the U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused of masterminding last year's failed coup attempt.

Anadolu Agency reported that warrants were issued Tuesday for 45 former employees of the National Intelligence Agency, MIT, and 18 others suspected of being operatives of the cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Anadolu said that nine of the suspects have been detained in the capital, Ankara.

Turkey has launched a large-scale crackdown against Gulen's movement after the July 2016 coup attempt, dismissing more than 110,000 people from government jobs and arresting more than 50,000 people for alleged links to terror groups.

Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Erdogan to Muslim countries: 'use every means available' to stop 'cruelty' against Rohingya

September 10, 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Sunday urged Muslim countries to “use every means available” to stop the “cruelty” perpetrated against Myanmar’s Rohingya.

“We want to work with the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to prevent the humanitarian plight in the region,” he told the opening session of an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Erdogan said Turkey had offered aid and said he expected that Bangladesh authorities admit and help Rohingya Muslims fleeing the violence in Myanmar.

“International organisations, and we as Muslim countries in particular, should fight together by using every means available to stop that cruelty,” he said. Erdogan had previously promised to raise the Rohingya issue at the annual meeting of UN General Assembly later this month.

A final statement was agreed on at Sunday’s OIC summit – the first such summit on Science and Technology. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said it was thanks to the efforts of the Turkish delegation that such a statement was prepared.

OIC statement

Erdogan called on “the brothers around the table” to follow and implement the decisions.

“The meeting called upon the government of Myanmar to accept the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into all alleged violations of international human rights law and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said the statement.

Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

Last October, following attacks on border posts in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, Myanmar security forces launched a five-month crackdown in which, according to Rohingya groups, around 400 people were killed.

The UN documented mass gang rapes, killings – including infants and young children – brutal beatings and disappearances committed by security personnel.

In a report, UN investigators said the human rights violations constituted crimes against humanity.Fresh violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state nearly two weeks ago when security forces launched an operation against the Rohingya community.

Bangladesh, which already hosted around 400,000 Rohingya refugees, has faced a fresh influx of refugees since the security operation was launched. On Saturday, the UN said at least 290,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh.

Erdogan arrived in the Kazakh capital on Saturday for a two-day visit, and has pledged to raise the issue of Rohingya’s at the UN.

Following the summit, the Turkish president also had a closed-door meeting with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid as well as with other leaders.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170910-erdogan-urges-muslim-countries-to-help-rohingya/.

Turkey releases ex-spokesman of opposition party

2017-09-08

ANKARA - A Turkish court on Friday ordered the release of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party's former spokesman Ayhan Bilgen after his arrest in January, a party official said.

"Today a decision was made to release our (former) party spokesman. This is what was necessary," current HDP spokesman Osman Baydemir told reporters in Ankara.

Bilgen, also a lawmaker, was formally charged on January 31 with "belonging to a terrorist organisation" and "incitement to crime", a HDP official said.

He has been released pending trial but faces up to 25 years in prison, the official added.

The accusations are linked to a series of deadly protests in October 2014 by pro-Kurdish activists in support of Syrian Kurds threatened by the Islamic State group.

Officials hold the HDP responsible for the street protests led by demonstrators against Turkey's policy on Syria. Clashes between police and protesters claimed at least 31 lives.

Eight MPs including co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas as well as former party co-leader Figen Yuksekdag, who was stripped of MP status, are currently in detention in Turkey.

Baydemir hit back at the detentions, saying lawmakers' "one and only place" was in parliament rather than prison.

They are accused of belonging to or giving their support to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation proscribed as a "terrorist" group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.

The HDP has always denied being a political front for the PKK.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84753.

Erdogan condemns Rohingya rights abuses

2017-09-05

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday condemned escalating human rights violations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority during a phone call with Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Turkish presidential sources said.

The United Nations said 123,600 had crossed into Bangladesh in the past 11 days following an uptick in fighting between militants and Myanmar's military in strife-torn western Rakhine state, which raised fears of a humanitarian disaster.

The latest violence, which began last October when a small Rohingya militant group ambushed border posts, is the worst Rakhine has witnessed in years, with Erdogan last week accusing Myanmar of "genocide" against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Erdogan has stepped up diplomacy and spoke on the phone with Muslim leaders during the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival, seeking ways to solve the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. He also spoke with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will visit Bangladesh on Wednesday, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

In the phone call with Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner of Myanmar's junta, Erdogan said growing human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims "deeply concerned" the entire world, sources from his office said.

Suu Kyi has come under fire over her perceived unwillingness to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya or chastise the military.

Erdogan said Turkey "condemns terror and operations against innocent civilians", adding that the developments in Myanmar had turned into a "serious humanitarian crisis which caused worry and resentment."

The Turkish leader had previously said he would bring up the issue at the next UN General Assembly in New York later this month.

Guterres on Friday said he was "deeply concerned" by the situation in Myanmar and called for "restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe".

The Rohingya are reviled in Myanmar, where the roughly one million-strong community are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84689.

Erdogan boosts his powers over MIT national intelligence agency

2017-08-25

ISTANBUL - Turkey dismissed hundreds civil servants and boosted President Tayyip Erdogan's powers over the MIT national intelligence agency in two decrees published on Friday, the latest under emergency rule imposed after last year's attempted coup.

Turkey has sacked or suspended more than 150,000 officials in purges since the failed putsch, while sending to jail pending trial some 50,000 people including soldiers, police, civil servants.

The crackdown has targeted people whom authorities say they suspect of links to the network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for the coup.

Under the latest decrees, published in the government's Official Gazette, more than 900 civil servants from ministries, public institutions and the military were dismissed. Those sacked included more than 100 academic personnel.

According to the decrees, the president's permission will be required for the head of the MIT national intelligence agency to be investigated or to act as a witness. The president will also chair the national intelligence coordination board.

The Ankara chief prosecutor's office will have the authority to investigate members of parliament for alleged crimes committed before or after an election, according to one of the measures.

One of the decrees also ordered the closure of the pro-Kurdish news agency Dihaber and two newspapers, all based in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Since the coup, some 130 media outlets have been closed and around 150 journalists jailed.

Such measures have alarmed Turkey's Western allies and rights groups, who say Erdogan has used the attempted coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent.

Some 250 people were killed in last year's coup attempt, and the government has said the security measures are necessary because of the gravity of the threats facing Turkey. Gulen has condemned the coup attempt and denied involvement.

Under the decrees, Turkey will also recruit 32,000 staff for the police, along with 4,000 judges and prosecutors.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84538.

On Syria's Raqa front, anti-IS fighters long for their loves

2017-09-07

RAQA - The melancholy ballad sung by anti-jihadist fighter Nimer echoes through the makeshift outpost in Syria's Raqa. But his sorrow has nothing to do with the surrounding battles: he misses his girlfriend.

His lilting rendition competes with the sound of artillery fire and US-led coalition air strikes targeting the Islamic State group in its one-time bastion.

But Nimer, 18, seems a world away from the battlefield when he speaks about his love.

"I like to play these songs on my mobile phone, and then sing them quietly to my love," the young Syrian Democratic Forces fighter confides timidly.

He has not seen his girlfriend for a month and a half as he battles alongside his Kurdish and Arab comrades against IS.

Each time he has leave, he heads to his sister's house outside the city and tries to see his beloved.

"I want to marry her, have children and build a life from scratch," he says wistfully.

Around him, fellow fighters sit on purple cushions and smoke in silence, enjoying a respite from the offensive.

Their weapons are lined up along the wall next to them in the house, commandeered as an outpost.

Nimer hails from Raqa and lost his parents and brothers to the battles that have raged inside the city since June, when the SDF entered the IS stronghold after battling for months to encircle it.

"When we advance on the front, I revisit my memories in the midst of all the destruction. On each street we have memories together," he says.

- 'I did the impossible' -

Sporting a light beard and digital camouflage, Nimer still recalls the extreme interpretation of Islam imposed by IS's "religious police", including a rigid separation between men and women.

"I couldn't have photos or songs on my phone. I was afraid they would arrest me and accuse me of adultery. That was the way they thought," Nimer says.

"I would risk my life just to see her. I did the impossible."

Many of Raqa's streets are now virtually unrecognizable, with building after building disfigured by the grinding battle to oust IS.

In the distance, a US-led coalition air strike sends up a vast bloom of grey and white dust and rubble, and fighters nearby let off volleys of gunfire.

Yasser Ahmed discreetly moves away from his fellow fighters so he can speak freely about his two-year girlfriend, whom he hasn't seen for ten days.

"Under IS, it was like a prison," says Ahmed, 20, also from Raqa city.

"I couldn't see my beloved. We only talked by landline because we were afraid that IS's people would see us. We were scared all the time," adds Ahmed.

The top buttons of Ahmed's shirt are open to reveal a small gold chain hanging around his neck, a present from his love.

"She always tries to persuade me not to return to the front, but I tell her I must liberate my city from IS so we can live in security," adds Ahmed, his skin tanned a deep brown.

"Love is the most beautiful thing we have. During the war, we lost a lot. We don't want to lose love as well."

- Broken heart -

Abu Shalash, another fighter from Raqa, is battling the jihadists to heal a broken heart.

His lover's parents forced her to break up with him and marry her cousin.

"I went crazy, and I joined the fighting to forget my pain," says the 19-year-old.

He and his ex-girlfriend dated covertly under IS in their native Raqa, but she now lives in Ain Issa, a town further north.

"I left my city, I hated my life. When I passed in front of the house, I would remember the memories we created together," he says.

From time to time, Abu Shalash looks at the ground in exasperation, pausing to take a deep breath before resuming.

"During our last Valentine's Day, we celebrated in secret," he says.

"I brought her a red teddy bear and a cake with our initials on it. We always met at night, so IS wouldn't see us."

Despite everything, Abu Shalash hasn't lost hope that he might find love again.

"Life under IS was torture. I want the battles to end, and for us to live our love freely," he says.

"I want Raqa to become a city for all the lovers who were deprived of their love by IS."

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84723.

Refugees fleeing conflict zones opt for war-torn Syria

2017-09-06

DAMASCUS - Millions of Syrians have fled their country's war as refugees, but for tens of thousands of people escaping conflict elsewhere, Syria is also a place of refuge.

Among them is Zahraa Abdi, who fled her native Somalia in 2012 and lives in a small room with her three children in northern Damascus.

"In Syria, death is organised, you can escape it. But in Somalia, it strikes randomly, at any time or place, there's no escape," she said, her hair wrapped in a turquoise headscarf.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR estimates some 55,000 refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and beyond are currently living in Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict since March 2011.

It provides them with various forms of assistance, though many also work to supplement the aid.

The largest refugee contingent, numbering around 31,000, are Iraqis who crossed the border into Syria to flee their country's many years of violence.

But the UN also counts some 1,500 Afghan refugees, and 1,500 more from Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.

Abdi, 47, chose to come to Syria because she could enter without a visa, and she was desperate to find safety for her family.

She fled her home in a suburb of the Somali capital Mogadishu after her 10-year-old daughter was raped and murdered.

"In Syria, there is bombing, but there are also regions were you can take refuge. In Somalia, the armed men enter homes and kill the inhabitants," said Abdi, dressed in a black robe embellished with rhinestones.

"I don't want anything for myself, I just want safety for my children."

Somalia has been engulfed in violence for most of the past 25 years, and waves of Somalis have fled abroad searching for safety.

But conflict also caught up with Abdi in Syria.

In 2012, she was living in the town of Al-Tal, held then by opposition forces and subject to sporadic government blockade and regular clashes.

She spent two years there before escaping to the relative safety of nearby Damascus.

- 'Syria is part of me' -

While Abdi moved to Syria in the early part of the conflict, most refugees sought safety in the country long before it was consumed by war.

In a modest church packed to capacity in a Damascus suburb, 45-year-old Faten sings hymns in Arabic and English.

A Chaldean Christian from Iraq, she and her family fled to Syria in 2007 after receiving death threats related to her sister's job at a cafeteria serving US forces.

Graffiti was scrawled on the walls of their home accusing them of "treason," and shots were fired at the house.

"When they set fire to the house, we knew it was the end, that we had to go," she said, her curly hair pulled up in a pony tail above her lightly made-up face.

"My brother and sister and I left without anything. We were barefoot so we wouldn't make any noise when we were running away," she said.

She sought refuge at All Saints Church in the Jaramana suburb of Damascus, where she met Alex Amazia, a refugee from Sudan who would become her husband.

Amazia arrived in Syria in 1999, fleeing Sudan's civil war.

Twelve years later, South Sudan announced its independence and he found himself the citizen of a new country, but one Syria's government does not recognize.

He is unable to renew his Sudanese papers, or to obtain South Sudanese ones in Syria, and so lives without documentation.

But he said the violence that has surged in South Sudan makes life in Syria a better option regardless.

"Despite all the difficult circumstances we have lived through in Syria, the situation in South Sudan remains appalling, and doesn't compare to here," he insisted.

He has spent 18 years in Syria now, missing the funerals of his father and brother.

"Syria has become part of me, I am Syrian," he said.

Alex and Faten married in 2014 and he looks after the church, which is attended by a flock that includes dozens of refugees, mostly from South Sudan and Iraq.

Faten feels the conflict she fled in Iraq has caught up with her across the border in Syria.

"We feel that we are stuck with the curse of war," she said.

- 'Weary of war' -

Roqaya Omar, 60, also found herself caught up in the Syrian conflict, after fleeing Somalia a decade ago.

In 2012, she was living in the town of Harna near Damascus, which was a frontline in the fighting.

"We lived all the experiences of war like any Syrian," she said.

"We were besieged and we heard the sound of battle and shelling," she added.

"But I didn't feel the same fear as I did in Somalia, where anyone can be killed with knives and slaughtered."

She was able to flee Harna and move with her 26-year-old son Mohamed into Damascus.

"I'm weary of war," she said, stroking her son's face tenderly.

"I want to spend the rest of my life with my son in any country in the world... any country where there is no war."

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84697.

Catalans begin campaigning for independence referendum

September 14, 2017

TARRAGONA, Spain (AP) — Political tension in Spain mounted Thursday as Catalonia's president opened the "yes" campaign for a regional independence referendum that has been suspended by the courts. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and other supporters of secession gathered at an arena in Tarragona, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Barcelona, to address thousands of people at the kickoff for the two-week campaign.

"Somebody thinks that we won't vote on Oct. 1? What kind of people do they think we Catalans are?" Puigdemont asked the crowd. "In Catalonia, we are democrats." "Hello Republic" was one of the slogans unveiled at the rally. There is no official "no" campaign for the Oct. 1 referendum, as most of the regional and national opposition are refusing to participate in the vote.

Spain's central government insists the referendum is illegal and the Constitutional Court has suspended it pending a formal decision by judges. Police have orders to prevent preparations for the ballot, and Spain's top prosecutor has said that anybody collaborating in its organization would also be legally liable.

The threats have so far had a limited effect beyond making regional authorities take lengths to try to sidestep the legal obstacles. To shield Barcelona's civil servants from possible prosecution, Mayor Ada Colau refused to make municipal premises available as polling places. Colau announced Thursday that voting stations would instead open in facilities owned by the regional government.

The arrangement provided a big boost for backers of the plebiscite because one-fifth of the region's voters are registered in Barcelona. A solid turnout is considered key for the referendum's legitimacy, although there is no minimum required for the results to be valid.

More than 700 mayors in the northeastern region are already under investigation for abetting the vote. The defiance by Catalan separatists — and the pressure put on them by the government in Madrid — has escalated since the regional parliament paved the way for the Oct. 1 referendum last week.

In the latest move, Regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras said Catalonia would stop providing weekly spending reports to Madrid. The central government had ordered them in July to scrutinize that public funds were not being used on the illegal vote.

Speaking at Thursday night's rally, Junqueras said Catalans "have already won" by proceeding with the referendum despite fierce opposition and legal actions against them. "We have reached this moment stronger than what many had thought and wanted, as we are proving by responding firmly to each threat," he said.

A judge shut down the referendum's official website late Wednesday — but minutes later the content had been replicated through servers overseas. Puigdemont told broadcaster TV3 on Thursday the national government in Madrid has created a "climate of hostility and paranoia" around the planned ballot.

But Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said no dialogue is possible with the Catalan authorities until they back down from their plans for a vote. Most Catalans support a vote on whether the prosperous region's future lies within or outside of Spain, but polls show that a referendum approved by the central government is preferred over a vote Madrid opposes.

Citizens also are divided over the independence issue. According to a June survey by the Catalan government's own polling agency, 41 percent supported independence while 49 percent were for staying in Spain.

Outside of Catalonia, most Spaniards reject the idea. __ AP reporters Aritz Parra in Madrid and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.

Greece struggles to mop up oil spill; critics demand more

September 14, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities insisted Thursday they were doing everything they could to clean up the viscous, foul-smelling oil that has coated large parts of Athens' coastline following the sinking of a small oil tanker.

The Agia Zoni II tanker sank Sunday while anchored in calm seas off the coast of Salamina island, near Greece's main port of Piraeus, carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. Two crew members were rescued.

"All the means available in the country" are being deployed to tackle the spill in the Saronic Gulf, Merchant Marine Minister Panagiotis Kouroumplis said Thursday. "Things are developing very well and from day to day there is a huge improvement," he said, adding that authorities estimate the "situation will have completely changed" in 25-30 days.

Greece has requested help from the European Union and a specialized cleanup vessel has been deployed. Critics, however, have accused the government of not acting quickly enough prevent the spill from spreading from Salamina across the coastline.

The Saronic Gulf is home to dolphins, turtles, a wide variety of fish and sea birds. Environmental and wildlife organizations have been posting instructions on social media on how residents can help any stricken wildlife they come across.

It's unclear why the ship sank. The vessel's owner, Theodoros Kountouris, said on Epsilon TV that the ship, built in 1972, had been overhauled in 2014 to make it double-hulled, which would make it safer for leaks.

Breaking down in tears, Kountouris said he had done everything in his power to try and prevent the leaking when the ship sank. "I'm very sorry for what happened," he said. Deputy Environment Minister Socrates Famellos said authorities think the leak had now been sealed.

"We believe that there will be no irreversible consequences to the environment," Famellos said. "I would not call it an environmental disaster. There was a serious environmental accident that is being dealt with."

Mayors of affected coastal areas were threatening to take legal action over the pollution. Glyfada Mayor Girogos Papanikolaou said on Facebook that he planned to file a lawsuit Friday against "all responsible" — a common Greek practice when a culprit has not been identified.

"From dawn today, we have been making a superhuman effort with all means to restore the massive damage that has occurred on the Glyfada seafront," he said. Kouroumplis said the pollution spread because heavy fuel oil can sink during cooler nights, escaping the floating booms deployed to contain the slick, before rising to the sea's surface again in the heat of the day.

Asked on Skai TV who was to blame for the oil spill, Deputy Agriculture Development Minister Giannis Tsironis said "the responsibility lies with an entire society and a global economy dependent on oil."

Jitters in Europe as Russia-Belarus war games get underway

September 14, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Russia and Belarus began major war games Thursday, an operation involving thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft on NATO's eastern edge practicing how to hunt down and destroy armed spies, among other maneuvers.

The Zapad (West) 2017 maneuvers, which are mainly taking place in Belarus this year, have caused concern among members of the Western military alliance and in neighboring countries. Some NATO members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized a lack of transparency about the exercises and questioned Moscow's real intentions.

Russia and Belarus say the exercises, which run until Sept. 20, involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops. Russian military officials have said up to 70 aircraft and about 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships will also be involved.

Estonian Defense Minister Juri Liuk, however, says Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops. "Leaving weapons in Belarus means the Russian army could prepare bases for a sudden broad attack ... right at the NATO border," Lithuanian officer Darius Antanaitis said.

While the Baltic nations fear the Zapad maneuvers may lead to a surprise Russian attack, the exercises have also been criticized by Belorussian opposition leaders. They say Russia could use the occasion to position a large, permanent contingent of troops in Belarus, leaving the country at the mercy of any armed confrontation involving Moscow.

The exercises began Thursday night with units simulating hunting down and destroying reconnaissance agents belonging to illegal armed groups, according to Oleg Belokonev, the Belorussian Deputy Defense Minister.

"Command points have been set up and fully-functioning command systems created," Belokonev told journalists at a press conference in Minsk, the capital. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, formally notified NATO of the beginning of the exercises on Thursday evening, according to Russian media. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told NATO troops in Estonia last week that the alliance will be closely monitoring Zapad exercises.

Russia-West relations nosedived to their lowest level since the Cold War in recent years after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine, clashes that have left over 10,000 people dead.

Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday that elite parachute units in several Russian cities had been placed on alert to be deployed during the exercises. Organizers have invented three "aggressor countries" — Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya — to whose attacks the Russian and Belorussian militaries will simulate a response. The Baltic States and Poland fear that these monikers are just poorly disguised terms for their own countries.

Poland's National Security Bureau head, Pawel Soloch, said Thursday the exercises were a demonstration "of the Russian state's capacity to hold full-scale war action." "The degree of mobilization is really impressive," Soloch said on private Radio Zet.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who often criticizes Russian leaders, said the war games are a sign the Kremlin is preparing for conflict with NATO. "We are anxious about this drill ... it is an open preparation for war with the West," Grybauskaite told reporters.

There is also unease in Kiev, and Ukraine is currently conducting its own military exercises. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that Zapad 2017 appears to be a "preparation for an offensive war on a continental scale."

Both Moscow and Minsk have said repeatedly that the exercises are not a danger for neighboring countries. "We are not threatening anyone," Oleg Voinov, an adviser to the Belorussian Defense Minister, told journalists Thursday. "We have chosen military bases that are significantly removed from the borders with Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia."

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that Russia had been completely open and transparent about its military's involvement in the exercises. The most recent Zapad exercises, which occur every few years, took place in 2013, just before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia had leased a naval base in Crimea from Ukraine prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly take over the Black Sea peninsula.

Some people think fears of Russian aggression are being blown out of proportion. "Worries over Zapad are overkill. Russians will not seek confrontation, because they know that NATO will be watching this event closely and is certainly ready to react," said Kestutis Girnius, a Vilnius University political analyst.

Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Howard Amos in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Syrian army breaks IS siege on Deir Ezzor

2017-09-05

DAMASCUS - Syria's army broke a years-long Islamic State group siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday as it battles to expel the jihadists from a key stronghold.

The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province of the same name would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.

Syria's army and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, and on Tuesday arrived inside the Brigade 137 base on its western edge.

"The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137," state news agency SANA said.

"This great achievement is a strategic shift in the war on terror and confirms the ability of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies," the army command said.

A local journalist said a minesweeper moved ahead of troops as they arrived at the base.

As they reached the soldiers who have been besieged inside the base and adjacent parts of the city, the troops embraced and shouted patriotic slogans.

Others fired in the air and flashed victory signs, as Syrian and Russian warplanes flew overhead.

Civilians gathered on either side of the road connecting the base to neighborhoods of the city to welcome the arriving troops.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad congratulated troops in a call to commanders at the base, his office said.

"Today you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege on the city," he said.

A source in the Deir Ezzor governorate said trucks loaded with food and medicine were expected to arrive inside the besieged city from Aleppo by this evening.

Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under IS siege for over two years, facing food and medical shortages.

Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an IS offensive.

The army's advance Tuesday breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, but a southern section, which includes a key military airport, remains surrounded, with the army now 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS.

Earlier Tuesday, the national flag was raised throughout government-held areas of the city in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers.

Some residents had begun greeting each other with "Good morning of victory."

The army still faces a potentially difficult battle to break the siege on the south of the city and free its remaining neighborhoods, and the surrounding province, from IS.

But for the government, its success would be "one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war," wrote Syria analyst Aron Lund in a recent analysis.

- 'Spiral of defeats' -

"The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats," he added.

IS has lost over half its other Syrian stronghold, the city of Raqa, to an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

And in neighboring Iraq, it has lost 90 percent of the territory it once held, including the city of Mosul.

Inside Deir Ezzor, residents have faced years of privation, with food becoming scare or unaffordable, and medicine and healthcare unavailable.

The government has continued to fly in limited supplies by helicopter, and the UN last year began airdropping humanitarian aid to the city.

Syria's army began its offensive to reach the city in earnest last month, and has advanced on multiple fronts, including from the neighboring Raqa province to the west and central Homs province to the south.

It has been supported by Russia's military, which began an intervention in support of the government in 2015.

The Syrian army's breaking of the years-long siege of Deir Ezzor city is a "very important strategic victory," the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

"Commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin has congratulated the Russian military command (in Syria) as well as the command of the Syrian government troops with this very important strategic victory over the terrorists with the aim of freeing Syria from ISIL," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Earlier Tuesday a Russian warship in the Mediterranean fired cruise missiles at IS fighters near the town of Al-Shula to aid the Syrian army, the Russian defense ministry said.

"As a result of these strikes there was damage to the infrastructure, underground communications, weapon stockpiles of the terrorists, and this allowed the armed contingents of government forces... to rapidly advance, break through IS defenses and unblock the city (of Deir Ezzor)," Peskov said.

Putin has also "sent a telegram to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad" praising the victory, he added.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were violently suppressed, leading the country into a vicious and complex civil war.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84687.

34 Syria regime forces killed in IS counterattack

2017-08-25

LONDON - At least 34 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in an Islamic State counterattack in the east of Raqa province, rolling back regime gains, a monitor said Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the jihadist group had recaptured large swathes of territory from government forces in the fighting on Thursday.

Syria's army is seeking to advance through Raqa province to reach neighboring Deir Ezzor, where jihadists have besieged government forces and civilians in the provincial capital since 2015.

Earlier this month, government troops and allied fighters arrived at the outskirts of Madan, the last IS-held town in the eastern Raqa province countryside before Deir Ezzor.

But in Thursday's counterattack, IS "made major progress and... expanded the area under its control along the southern bank of the Euphrates," the Observatory said.

"IS has managed to push regime forces back 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the western outskirts of Madan," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Syria army operation in the area, backed by air support from ally Russia, is separate from the battle for provincial capital Raqa city.

The effort to oust IS from the city, once the jihadist group's Syrian stronghold, is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The SDF has captured just under 60 percent of Raqa city since it entered in June after months of fighting to encircle it.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84537.

Amman suitable for metro project — field study

By Ana V. Ibáñez Prieto
Sep 09,2017

AMMAN — A study conducted by the Chinese Railway Engineering Corporation (CREM) for the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) has confirmed that the topography of the city allows the implementation of the Amman Metro, a GAM official told The Jordan Times on Saturday.

Following a memorandum of understanding signed in December 2016 between the two parties, CREM started a field study in the capital with the aim of analyzing the potential path the metro would take if established in Amman.

The study concluded that the launch of such a project would be possible on the ground.

The GAM official called these results “very positive” and “encouraging”, noting that CREM is currently preparing a more detailed study on the implementation of the metro in the city — which is expected to connect the north and south of the city through a single line.

Furthermore, the official said that, if the project was found feasible, it would be implemented in parallel with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), with a common station connecting both systems.

 “Amman needs the metro as part of the integrated transportation system, which aims to build a comprehensive transportation network where the two systems would work together,” the official stated.

Once completed, the detailed study will be submitted to the GAM later this year, along with the estimated cost and the detailed plans for the project.

If feasible, the construction and the operation of the Amman Metro will “probably” be conducted under a DBOT (design, construction, operation, transfer) model, the official said, adding that other options are yet to be considered.

The establishment of the Amman metro would reduce the “frustration” of commuters facing daily transportation hustle, the official added, stressing that many complaints were expressed over the lack of regulations in the bus service earlier this year.

 However, the project still raises discrepancies among the population.

“We definitely need a new transportation infrastructure”, said student Ghazal Aburaad. “However, finding the necessary funds and organisations will present great challenges,” she continued, noting that “the government will not be able to do this without partnerships”.

This view was shared by Hazem Zureiqat, founder of the public transportation advocacy campaign Maan Nasel, who stated that “the main challenge is going to be with institutions and management”.

“If the government wants to implement this plan, it will probably have to subsidize it,” said Zureiqat, adding that the metro is a very costly system.

Furthermore, Zureiqat pointed out that this is not the first study on the implementation of a metro line in Amman, referring to the feasibility study conducted in 2010 by a French company.

“When the results of that study came out, the cost of line per kilometer was up to JD140 million, and that is why the priority was given to the BRT,” he said.

“However, the BRT is not enough and Amman needs a rail-based transportation system”, he concluded.

Source: The Jordan Times.
Link: http://jordantimes.com/news/local/amman-suitable-metro-project-%E2%80%94-field-study.

Balloons of peace released over the city of Derna

September 10, 2017

Local and charitable institutions in the city of Derna organized a balloon festival in the city where parents and children participated in releasing dozens of balloons into the city sky from different places.

Each group of balloons carried several messages calling for peace. Balloons were released from the roofs of houses and the local children's park and the Emilia tourist resort.

The aim of this demonstration as a civil initiative is to remove the minds of people from the difficult atmosphere they are experiencing in the city because of the siege imposed by the Dignity Operation forces.

Source: The Libya Observer.
Link: https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/balloons-peace-released-over-city-derna.

Spanish officials crank up pressure on Catalan breakaway bid

September 13, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Spain's top prosecutor is investigating more than 700 Catalan mayors for cooperating with a planned referendum on the region's independence after the nation's constitutional court ordered the vote put on hold, the prosecutor's office said Wednesday.

Catalonia's regional police force is under orders to arrest the mayors if they refuse to appear for questioning, State Prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza's office said. The announcement significantly raised the stakes in an increasingly tense standoff between Catalan independence supporters and national authorities over the referendum planned for Oct. 1.

If mayors and their municipalities cannot help organize balloting, the vote is unlikely to proceed. Maza's order also puts regional police officers in the uneasy position of carrying out commands from Madrid in their towns and cities.

The pro-independence coalition ruling Catalonia has vowed to hold the referendum, defying a prohibition by Spain's Constitutional Court. It has asked the 947 mayors in the northeastern region to provide voting facilities.

Maza ordered the prosecutors in Spain's 17 provinces to investigate the 712 mayors who already have offered to provide municipal premises as polling stations. Most of Catalonia's mayors have said they would cooperate with the referendum. However, the willing mayors represent less than half of the region's voting-age population.

Urban support is key for the pro-independence movement, especially the Catalan capital of Barcelona, which is home to around 20 percent of voters. Barcelona Mayor Ana Colau, who opposes secession but supports a vote, says she wants to help arrange the referendum but won't do so without assurances that she and her staff would be acting legally.

Such assurance is unlikely to materialize, and without Barcelona's participation, the referendum would lack legitimacy. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appealed to Catalans to ignore calls from independence supporters to turn out to vote.

"If anyone urges you to go to a polling station, don't go, because the referendum can't take place, it would be an absolutely illegal act," Rajoy said. Spain's King Felipe VI also entered the fray, stepping up the pressure on Catalonia by vowing that the Spanish Constitution "will prevail" over any attempt to break the country apart.

In his first comments on the growing political crisis, Felipe said the rights of all Spaniards will be upheld against "whoever steps outside constitutional and statutory law."

Spanish police raids aim to halt Catalan independence vote

September 09, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A Spanish judge ordered police to search a printer's shop and two offices of a regional newspaper in Catalonia as part of an investigation into alleged preparations for an illegal referendum on independence for the prosperous northeastern region.

A Barcelona-based court said Saturday that the police searches took place Friday in the towns of Valls and Constanti in southern Catalonia. The court said the searches formed part of an investigation into possible disobedience, prevarication and the embezzlement of public funds by Catalan officials.

The regional Catalan newspaper El Vallenc reported that "4 agents of the Civil Guard entered our newspaper." El Vallenc said "the search took place hours after they had searched the Indugraf business." Indugraf is a printer in Constanti.

Catalonia's president Carles Puigdemont, the regional politician leading the push for independence, said on Twitter that police weren't "looking for ballots, they were looking for a fight." The court did not say what police were looking for in the searches. Media speculation is that the printer and the newspaper could be connected to plans by the regional government to prepare for the independence referendum.

Spain's constitutional court has suspended laws passed by the Catalan parliament this week to call for an independence referendum on Oct. 1. State prosecutors have also targeted Puigdemont and other members of his government with lawsuits for possible disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement charges.

The pro-independence coalition ruling Catalonia says the vote will be binding and says if the "yes" side wins it will lead to the independence from Spain by Oct. 3 no matter what the turnout. Spain's constitutional court has previously ruled that only the national government is allowed to call a referendum on secession and that all Spaniards in the country must have a vote when it comes to sovereignty.

Portugal faces dire drought, the worst in more than 20 years

September 11, 2017

SANTA SUSANA, Portugal (AP) — Portugal's Pego do Altar reservoir looks like disused quarry now, its bare, exposed slopes rising up steeply on each side and shimmering in the sun as it holds barely 11 percent of the water it was designed for.

The huge lake where people used to swim, boat and fish has shrunk to a slither of water, surrounded by baked, cracked earth and a handful of white fish carcasses. It is a desolate and disturbing sight — and one that has become increasingly common in southern Portugal.

While parts of the United States and the Caribbean are drowning in water amid ferocious hurricanes, a drought is tightening its grip on wide areas of Portugal. More than 80 percent of the country is officially classified as enduring "severe" or "extreme" drought — conditions among the country's worst in more than 20 years.

Water has sporadically been scarce in this part of southern Europe for centuries. But Portuguese Environment Secretary Carlos Martins tells The Associated Press that "it has gotten worse with climate change."

The prolonged dry spell is most acute in the Alentejo region, south and east of Lisbon, the capital. Here, the essential river is the Sado, Portugal's seventh-largest. As its flow has dwindled, so the reservoirs in the river basin, such as Pego do Altar, are drying up. In some places now, the Sado is a thin, knee-deep flow.

The receding water at Pego do Altar has exposed a small, 18th-century stone bridge which was last seen in 1999. Locals have been coming to take photos of themselves next to it. The dead fish in Pego do Altar's dried mud are the canary in the mine for authorities. Large numbers of fish dying due to depleted oxygen levels would contaminate the area's public drinking water, so a program to scoop out the doomed fish from four Sado basin reservoirs is now underway. It's a race against the clock.

"It's a preventive measure," says Carlos Silva, a spokesman for EDIA, a state company that helps manage the Alentejo's water supply. "It would be a catastrophe if the fish started dying off" in large quantities.

As gray herons watch from the bank and birds of prey glide silently by, fishermen Tomaz Silva, 25, and Miguel Farias, 29, nudge their boat toward silver nets buoyed by empty plastic water bottles that they had strung across the reservoir the previous day. Chatting in a strong Alentejo accent, they throw the fish into a box where they flap around. Some weigh 5 or 6 kilograms (up to 13 pounds) and are as long as an adult's arm. Many, however, are skinny due to the fierce competition for diminishing food.

With the water level so low, it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Silva and Farias catch on average between 1 and 1.5 metric tons a day. Their haul is taken away to be turned into fishmeal. Over about six weeks, officials expect to harvest more than 100 metric tons from the four Sado reservoirs.

Martins, the environment secretary, said a government drought monitoring committee is working to reconcile the conflicting demands placed on the region's scarce water resources. Making sure there's enough water for drinking faucets is the top priority, he says.

That could end up bringing a ban on the irrigation of farmland, which uses up 80 percent of the region's available water. Farmers are fretting over their parched pasture land and wilting cereal crops. Cattle breeders are demanding drinking water for their livestock. And energy companies want water to flow to keep up their hydroelectric production at dams.

The Alentejo is a famously pretty part of Portugal, with groves of olive trees, stone pines and cork oaks — native varieties resilient enough to survive its weather extremes. But it's also one of the European Union's poorest regions — sparsely populated, covering 34 percent of the country but containing only 7 percent of its population. Almost half of its residents are more than 65 years old.

Many people here make a living from farming, and cutting off irrigation would sound the death knell for their jobs. At Torrao, a 15th-century hilltop village with a panoramic view of the Sado basin's Vale do Gaio reservoir, locals live with daily evidence of the drought.

Antonio Sardinha, an 82-year-old subsistence farmer with thick fingers and a sun-kissed complexion, says he has never seen the reservoir so low. Official records say it's at 18 percent of capacity. The water in his well is so shallow, he says, that his bucket hits the bottom.

"Water is the key to everything," Sardinha said. "You need water to create everything else."

Catalan celebration focuses on right to break from Spain

September 11, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people packed the sunny streets of downtown Barcelona on Monday to celebrate Catalonia's national day, an anniversary that provided a stage for the many Catalans who hope to vote within weeks for the region's independence from Spain.

The Spanish city's broad, tree-lined boulevards were a sea of yellow T-shirts that evoked the yellow-and-red striped Catalan flag. Many participants carried the pro-independence flag, known as the "estelada," which also contains a blue triangle and a white star. The crowd passed a giant banner calling for a secession referendum overhead.

This year's annual celebration came amid growing excitement and tension over the independence vote planned for Oct. 1. Spain's constitutional court has suspended the referendum while it considers its legality, but Catalan leaders say they will go ahead with it anyway.

Spain's national government, based in Madrid, is doing all it can to stop the ballot, which it says is illegal. Catalan independence parties said Monday's huge turnout in the regional capital — estimated by Barcelona's municipal police at 1 million — was a show of strength that would add momentum to their cause.

"Today we have said loud and clear that no orders from any court will stop us," Jordi Sanchez, head of the grassroots movement Assemblea Nacional Catalana, said in a speech to the crowd. While the standoff between Barcelona and Madrid is creating divisions, the good-humored celebration attended by families produced no signs of conflict

Participants sang and clapped along to recordings of the Catalan anthem "Els Segadors" (The Reapers). At one point, the crowd shouted in unison: "Independencia!" — Independence! The symbolic moment came after organizers counted down over a public address system to 5.14 p.m., which on a 24-hour clock is 1714.

That's the year independence supporters regard as the point when Catalonia lost much of the self-governing power it enjoyed for centuries. Among the comparatively wealthy region's grievances is that because it accounts for a fifth of Spain's economic output, it pays more into the central government's coffers than it receives.

Nuria Bou, who wore a pro-independence flag tied around her neck like a cape, said she hoped she would get a chance to vote. "We don't have anything against Spaniards," Bou said. "But for many years the Spanish government has been making cuts to the funds we receive, and what we want is to govern ourselves."

Miquel Puig, 41, a pro-independence Barcelona resident who runs a language school, wore a T-shirt reading "Ara es l'hora," which translates to "Now is the moment." Puig said he was motivated by "a mix of cultural, social and economic issues."

He noted that Catalonia, with a population of 7.5 million, has its own language and culture, that Catalans feel ignored by authorities in Madrid, and that the region can stand alone financially. In a proof of their commitment to holding the vote, Catalan officials on Monday said mail-in voting by Catalan expatriates had already started.

Most Catalans support a vote on whether the prosperous region's future lies within or outside of Spain, but polls show that a referendum approved by the central government is preferred over a vote Madrid opposes.

Citizens also are divided over the independence issue. According to a June survey by the Catalan government's own polling agency, 41 percent supported independence while 49 percent were for staying in Spain. Outside of Catalonia, most Spaniards reject the idea.

Castillo Cancho, 69 and retired, did not go to the city center to join in the traditional march. He complained that what was once a day to celebrate Catalan culture has been usurped by the separatist cause.

Cancho is not in favor of independence and embraces his dual identity of Spanish and Catalan, but even so, he hopes that the Oct. 1 vote is held. "If they don't let them vote, I will be annoyed, and I would almost be pushed to go vote if I could," he said. "Repression make you rebel."

His wife Rosa Maria Descalzo, 60, was wary of the vote because of the lack of legal guarantees such as an official voter roll. "I am not convinced by the reasons they are giving for independence," she said. "When everyone is opening frontiers, why should we be closing them?"

Associated Press reporter Aritz Parra contributed to this story from Madrid. Barry Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.

Spain already is another country for many in Catalonia

September 10, 2017

SABADELL, Spain (AP) — The challenge facing Spain as it moves to stifle the push for independence in its proud and wealthy Catalonia region goes beyond stopping plans by separatist politicians to hold a referendum on secession.

Thousands of Catalans already feel as if they live in another country in all but name. The red and yellow Spanish flag rarely appears on balconies across the region. Instead, pro-independence flags with a white star and blue triangle and red-and yellow stripes adorn streets marked by signs printed in the distinct Catalan language that bears about as much similarity to Spanish as does Portuguese.

"We say, 'What do they say in Spain?' It is an expression that has been said countless times," Montserrat Coca, the owner of a bodega who only will sell wines produced in Catalonia, said. "We are Catalans; it's as simple as that."

Spain's Ministry of Justice has warned that local officials who facilitate the Oct. 1 independence vote the Catalan government called last week risk criminal prosecution, yet over 600 of Catalonia's 948 municipalities say they intend to open polling stations. It remains unclear what position officials will take in Barcelona, the regional capital.

Coca, 59, did not always favor independence. Her transformation mirrors those of scores of people in her hometown of Sabadell and across Catalonia, where the central government in Madrid is often seen as a distant troublemaker that takes more in taxes than it returns in services and roads, schools and hospitals.

Sabadell's pro-secession mayor, Maties Serracant, cites as a tipping point the 2010 ruling by Spain's Constitutional Court that struck down key parts of a proposed charter that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.

The court's decision, combined with an economic downturn from which Spain has only recently recovered, pushed neutral Catalans into the self-government camp previously occupied mainly by residents with generations-long roots and for whom independence is an age-old question of identity.

"For me and for many others, the move from just feeling Catalan to wanting to live in our own country has gone very, very fast," Serracant said. "It's not just economic, it's the sensation that everything that has come from Catalonia in recent years hasn't even been heard or is just ignored."

Many Catalans also have bitter memories of the prohibitions on the use of the Catalan language under the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco. Since the return to democracy, Catalonia has achieved important levels of self-governance. School lessons are conducted mainly in Catalan. The region has its own police force, and runs a public health service.

Catalonia has formed part of Spain since the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon, which encompassed present-day Catalonia, in the 15th century. While Catalans share many customs with other Spaniards, stereotypes paint them as more reserved and hard-working, with a good nose for business.

The caricature is summed up in the Catalan word "seny," which can be roughly translated as the ability to exercise good judgment. An hour's drive northwest of cosmopolitan and touristy Barcelona, Sabadell is a quiet city of 200,000 with an industrial past. People once came from all over Spain to find jobs and opportunities there, but like many towns and villages across Catalonia, it has been swept up in the secessionist fervor.

Serracant brags of his town being "at the forefront of the push for self-determination." He claims it is the biggest municipality in Catalonia with a town hall run by a majority of council members in support of an independence referendum.

"(Sabadell) is a city that does not historically have a separatist tendency, but now it is the city that is the most committed (to the cause)," said the mayor. Serracant spent Wednesday in Catalonia's regional parliament while separatist lawmakers held a marathon session to push through laws that they claim give the regional government legal backing to hold the independence vote.

Spain's constitutional court suspended the scheduled referendum on Thursday after agreeing to review an appeal lodged by the Spanish government. The government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to stop the vote, arguing that a referendum affecting all of Spain would have to be voted on by all Spaniards.

On the outskirts of Sabadell is La Plana del Pintor, a humble neighborhood of ramshackle houses, many of which were built by migrants from southern Spain. There are no pro-independence flags on its sun-baked streets, but even here separatism has made in-roads.

Take 54-year-old Alonso Simon, a computer technician who prefers to speak Spanish instead of Catalan, enjoys traditional Spanish flamenco music and whose parents were from Madrid and southern Spain. Simon complains that Catalonia provides more revenue to the rest of Spain than it should. He cites regular breakdowns on the train line run by Spain's national rail service that passes through Sabadell, comparing it to the commuter train service operated by Catalonia that recently inaugurated a stop nearby.

"If they had had better infrastructure like we have now with the Catalan train, we would not have these problems," Simon said. "The money we spend should stay here." After a surge in recent years, opinion polls show that support for breaking away from Spain among the region's 7.5 million inhabitants has plateaued at around 50 percent. A large part of the half that opposes independence feels comfortable with a dual identity that is both Spanish and Catalan.

Manuel Antunez was walking his dog in a park when he stopped to lament the political crisis in Catalonia. Now 88, Antunez came to Sabadell in 1953, going to work in building Barcelona's subway line. "I feel bad because those who lifted Catalonia up are those who came from elsewhere," Antunez said. "I feel Spanish and Catalan. It makes me sad. I don't know how this can be fixed."

Ukrainian police arrive at Saakashvili's hotel

September 12, 2017

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian border guards and police turned up at the hotel where Mikhail Saakashvili is staying Tuesday after he forced his way across the border from Poland in a move that puts him on a collision course with the authorities in Kiev.

Television footage showed Ukrainian security officials in Leopolis Hotel's lobby in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. But it was unclear whether they had come to arrest the former Georgian president and ex-governor of Ukraine's Odessa region.

Saakashvili poses a challenge to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was once his patron but revoked his Ukrainian citizenship in July. Surrounded by supporters, he broke through a cordon of Ukrainian border guards in chaotic scenes at the Ukraine-Poland border Sunday.

But returning to Ukraine was a risk for Saakashvili, who is stateless because he was forced to give up his Georgian citizenship when he received Ukrainian nationality. Saakashvili denies breaking any Ukrainian laws but Poroshenko has said that he committed a crime by entering the country.

The headstrong and divisive Saakashvili leads a small Ukrainian political party called the Movement of New Forces and has vowed to shake-up Ukrainian politics. In an interview with The Associated Press at his hotel on Monday night, Saakashvili called the current situation in Ukraine "tragic" and said he would devote himself to helping to create a "new political class for an emerging Ukraine."

"We need new people. Ukraine is fed up with old corrupt political class. They want new people, new energy, new faces, new ideas," he told the AP. Saakashvili was appointed governor of Odessa in 2015 on the strength of his record of fighting corruption as Georgian president between 2004 and 2013. However, he resigned from the Odessa post after 18 months, complaining that official corruption in Ukraine was so entrenched he couldn't work effectively.

Saakashvili said Sunday that it is "very important not to allow oligarchs to get away with an imitation of reform." Georgia, where Saakashvili faces accusations of abuse of power and misappropriation of property, has sent an extradition request for him to Ukraine. It is not clear if Ukraine intends to honor that request.