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2017-01-24

IDLIB – Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria battled a range of rebel groups in the north of the country on Tuesday, as the government and opposition wrapped up new peace talks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the clashes began early in the day with an attack by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front on a base belonging to the Jaish al-Mujahideen faction.

Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, is listed internationally as a “terrorist” group, despite formally renouncing its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in 2016.

But it has also been a key partner at times for rebel groups in Syria, and it leads a powerful alliance that controls all of Syria’s Idlib province.

Despite the ties, tensions have occasionally flared between the jihadist group and other rebel forces, which accuse Fateh al-Sham of seeking hegemony.

The morning attack prompted further clashes which continued Tuesday afternoon along the border between Idlib province and northern Aleppo province, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Rockets fired during the fighting killed five members of a family, most of them children and women, he added.

The monitor said Fateh al-Sham had seized territory from rebel groups in Aleppo, while rebels advanced against the jihadist group in Idlib.

There was no official statement from either side on what sparked the clashes, which came after days of tension in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including infighting between other rebel groups.

But Fateh al-Sham has been hit in recent weeks by a series of deadly air strikes, most believed to have been carried out by the US-led coalition fighting jihadists.

Abdel Rahman said the group appeared to believe that local rebels were providing coordinates for the air strikes.

The latest clashes come as Syria’s government and rebel groups conclude fresh peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, building on a ceasefire in force since December 30.

Fateh al-Sham is excluded from the ceasefire and has rejected the negotiating process, creating fresh tensions with opposition groups.

The powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction, a close ally of Fateh al-Sham in Idlib, declined to take part in the talks, saying it wanted to avoid isolating the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

But on Tuesday, its fighters were battling the group, and a leading Ahrar al-Sham official warned Fateh al-Sham that it was “at a crossroads”.

“It either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Daesh,” said Labib al-Nahhas on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it started in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81055.

January 22, 2017

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — The street looks as if it was hit by an earthquake and the bombed-out building in a former rebel-held northeastern neighborhood of Aleppo is deserted — except for the second-floor apartment where Abdul-Hamid Khatib and his family are staying.

There is no electricity or running water. The apartment windows are covered with nylon sheets and a hole caused by a shell in the sitting room wall is closed with a piece of metal, pierced by the exhaust pipe for the wood-burning heater.

Khatib and his family are the only occupants of the six-story building and they keep its main gate locked with a metal chain, fearing looters. At night, they fumble around the two-bedroom apartment with candles.

But the family has nowhere else to go. The 56-year-old blacksmith had been jobless for months and could not afford to continue paying rent. He was worried their apartment in Aleppo’s Ansari neighborhood would be completely looted if they stayed away.

“A few days ago a man who brought some stuff over told me, ‘Is it possible that you live here?’ I said where can we go? At least this is our house and no one will ask us to leave,” said Hasnaa, Khatib’s wife.

Life and war have been very unkind to the Khatib family. The eldest son Mohammed was killed in the bombardment of east Aleppo in 2013 and their granddaughter Hasnaa, 4, was killed a year later by a bullet as she played on the balcony of her parents’ apartment. Their son Mahmoud died at work of severe burns while welding a metal container filled with gas.

Since rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad stormed east Aleppo in July 2012, the family had to leave the house twice to move to safer areas, before returning back home. But in August 2016, when government forces intensified their offensive on east Aleppo, an airstrike near their home forced them to flee for the third time.

“It was so dangerous and our kids were terrified so we could not tolerate it anymore. We used to tell the gunmen to move away from here but they would not listen to us,” Abdul-Hamid said. In late December, government forces and their allies took control of east Aleppo, bringing the whole city under state control in the biggest victory for Assad since the country’s conflict began in March 2011.

The Khatib family — like many of east Aleppo’s residents — were taken to shelters in the village of Jibrin, just south of Aleppo, where they spent a week before returning to their hometown during the first week of January.

Having little money left to rent an apartment, they returned to their abandoned home in Ansari and fixed it as much as possible. They found many of their belongings looted including the refrigerator, stove, a microwave and seven gas cylinders. When asked who was behind the looting, Khatib blamed both rebels and pro-government gunmen.

The couple now lives in the apartment with their daughter Rasha, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Abdul-Hamid and Rimas. Their apartment appears in relatively good shape compared with nearby housing units. The buildings on either side of theirs are uninhabitable. Most buildings in their area are either a pile of metal and stones, or so damaged they’re no longer suitable to live in. Their home now attracts attention from curious passersby as it’s the only apartment on the street with washed laundry hanging from the balcony and wood smoke coming from the heater.

Thousands of other families from east Aleppo have returned to their homes because they have nowhere else to go. Others come in every day to look at their homes and take whatever they can carry with them — especially those in heavily damaged buildings. One neighboring family came to check on their home about 50 meters away and found it could collapse at any moment.

Despite everything, Abdul-Hamid Khatib is optimistic that the situation in his city can only get better. But his wife, Hasnaa, wishes they had fled Syria and joined the nearly four million refugees who settled in neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon and Turkey.

“I feel life was so unjust to me. Although I am alive, I feel as if I am dead,” she said, sitting on a plastic chair in her living room.” I wish we left at the beginning of the crisis, even if we had to stay in the street.”

January 20, 2017

As many as 177,568 babies have been born to Syrian refugees in Turkey over almost six years.

Sources in the Turkish health ministry told Anadolu news agency that about three million Syrians who are subject to the law of temporary protection benefit from health services free of charge across the country’s public hospitals.

According to the same sources, Turkey has established 65 specialized health centers to provide medical services for Syrian refugees while the health ministry will establish an additional 500 centers across the country.

During the period from April 2011 till the end of September last year, Turkish hospitals and health centers have treated millions of cases for the almost three million Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170120-almost-180000-syrian-refugee-babies-born-in-turkey/.

2017-01-18

DEIR EZZOR – As the Islamic State group closes in on Syria’s Deir Ezzor, residents said they are terrified of falling victim to the mass killings for which the jihadists have become infamous.

Besieged by IS since early 2015, the government-held third of Deir Ezzor city is home to an estimated 100,000 people.

Since Saturday, IS has steadily advanced in a fresh assault on the city, sparking fears among residents of widespread atrocities.

“Civilians in the city are terrified and anxious, afraid that IS will enter the city since they accuse us of being ‘regime thugs’,” said Abu Nour, 51.

He spoke by phone from inside the city, roughly one kilometer (less than one mile) from approaching IS forces.

Deir Ezzor sits in the oil-rich eastern province of the same name, most of which is controlled by IS.

Abu Nour said that residents were haunted by previous abductions and mass executions carried out by IS in the broader province.

“The way they killed them is stuck in people’s minds here,” he said.

IS is notorious for using particularly gruesome methods to kill military rivals and civilians alike, including beheading, lighting them on fire, or launching rockets at them from just meters (feet) away.

As the group advanced on ancient city Palmyra in 2015, it killed dozens of civilians, accusing them of being regime loyalists, then staged mass executions of government troops in the city’s theater.

According to one activist group, IS has already begun executing Syrian soldiers it took captive during the clashes in Deir Ezzor.

IS executed 10 soldiers “by driving over them with tanks”, said Omar Abu Leila, an activist from Deir Ezzor 24, which publishes news on the city.

“If IS seizes regime-held neighborhoods, it could carry out massacres. This is a huge source of concern for us,” he said.

– ‘Hunger will ravage us’ –

In its push for Deir Ezzor, the jihadist group has launched salvos of rockets on the neighborhoods it besieged.

“Shells have rained down on us for five days,” Umm Inas, another resident, said by phone.

“There’s very little movement in the street because people are afraid of these shells, which spare no one,” the 45-year-old said.

She warned the humanitarian situation was getting increasingly dire, after the World Food Program said on Tuesday it could no longer carry out air drops over the city because of the fighting.

“If the situation continues like this, hunger will ravage us. The air drops were our only lifeline,” Umm Inas said.

The WFP has been dropping humanitarian aid into Deir Ezzor since April 2016, and the government-held area is the only place in Syria where the agency has permission for the drops.

In the past, government and Russian warplanes have also delivered desperately needed humanitarian aid to the city via air drops.

A medical source in the city said more than 100 civilians had been wounded in the recent fighting, and some were taken north to the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

“Some intractable cases were flown to Qamishli because they need special treatment that isn’t available in Deir Ezzor,” the source said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80942.

2017-01-18

DAMASCUS – Key Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Wednesday it will not take part in peace talks between the regime and opposition factions in the Kazakh capital next week.

The group decided not to participate in the negotiations in Astana that start on Monday due to “the lack of implementation of the ceasefire” in force since December 30 and ongoing Russian air strikes over Syria, it said in a statement.

Ahrar al-Sham was among rebel groups that signed the ceasefire deal brokered by regime supporter Russia and rebel backer Turkey last month.

The truce has largely held across Syria although fighting has persisted in some areas, allowing Russia, Turkey and regime supporter Iran to organize the peace talks in Astana.

Ahrar al-Sham said “the regime’s offensive against our people in Wadi Barada”, an area 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of Damascus that is the capital’s main source of water, was among the reasons it would not attend the talks.

Assad’s forces have pressed an assault to retake the area from rebels after mains supplies were cut last month, leaving 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs without water.

Ahrar al-Sham said however that it was giving its support to other rebel groups represented at the Astana talks.

Mohammad Alloush, a prominent figure of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction, will in Astana head a “military delegation” of around eight people, backed by nine legal and political advisers from the High Negotiations Committee umbrella group.

Russia started air strikes in support of Assad’s regime in 2015.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80945.

January 17, 2017

Daesh laid siege to a military airport which is under the control of Syrian regime forces in the city of Deir ez-Zor yesterday, as forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad struggle to maintain any effective presence in the eastern Syrian city.

After days of fierce fighting, Daesh fighters managed to cut off all supply routes and divide the territories held by the Assad regime while taking control of important sites in the vicinity of the airbase.

Deir ez-Zor, which is the largest city in the eastern part of Syria,has long been under siege by Daesh.

However, the Syrian army forces were in control of certain neighborhoods, including the city’s airport. For long periods residents of Deir ez-Zor and the servicemen needed air drops for food and essential supplies.

The military airbase has been described as a “small island” surrounded by the territories under Daesh control. Since opposition forces took control of the region in 2014, militants made countless attempts to take control and besiege the airbase but had failed to take full control.

Safa news agency reported a military official who commented on the latest siege of the military airport saying that “this attack was the fiercest onslaught initiated by [Daesh] on the airport and the region.”

Daesh has now successfully cut through the only land supply route between the base and Deir ez-Zor.

If Daesh manages to control the airbase and Deir ez-Zor,it will be seen as a bigger blow to the regime than its defeat in Palmyra which, unlike Deir ez-Zor did not have an airbase with Syrian forces to defend it.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170117-daesh-lays-siege-to-syria-regime-airbase-in-deir-ez-zor/.

March 19, 2017

ROME (AP) — Italy’s president, whose brother was murdered by Cosa Nostra, traveled on Sunday to an organized crime stronghold to honor hundreds of Italians slain by the country’s crime clans over the past decades.

President Sergio Mattarella also praised the judges, prosecutors, police officers, union leaders, businessmen and politicians who courageously combatted or denounced organized crime. During the ceremony in Locri, a Calabrian town that is a long-time base of the ‘ndrangheta crime syndicate, the names of innocent victims — some caught in the crossfire of turf wars — were read aloud. Among the names was that of the president’s brother, Piersanti Mattarella, the Sicilian governor assassinated in Palermo in 1980.

The event anticipated Italy’s annual remembrance day, occurring later this week, for victims of organized crime. Near Naples, hundreds of scouts filled a church in the mobster-infested town of Casal di Principe to pay tribute to a priest, Giuseppe Diana, who denounced the local Caselesi crime clan of the Camorra syndicate. Diana was shot to death in the church sacristy in 1994.

Mattarella lamented the “Mafia is still strong” and controls or tries to infiltrate much of Italy’s economy. He denounced “gray areas, those of complicity,” which mobsters exploit, a reference to corruptible politicians and public administrators who, investigations have found, help mafiosi win lucrative contracts in construction and social services, such as hospitals.

While rooted for generations in Italy’s underdeveloped south, the ‘ndrangheta, Camorra and other syndicates have also infiltrated businesses in affluent northern Italy. Mobsters have been laundering illicit profits in popular restaurants and cafes in Rome and elsewhere. Legitimate manufacturing businesses in the north turned to the Camorra to illegally dispose of toxic waste to save money and avoid bureaucracy.

Still, progress has come. Young people in Sicily inspired many shopkeepers and industrialists there to stop paying Cosa Nostra “protection” money. Locri Bishop Francesco Oliva insisted Calabria wants to break with a past “stained by the blood of crime feuds that sowed death and desperation.”

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