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Russia fires missiles from Mediterranean at IS in Syria

June 23, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on positions of the Islamic State group in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, Moscow’s latest show of strength in the conflict wracking the Mideast country.

The ministry said in a statement that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria’s Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.

Moscow has fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants’ positions in Syria before, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at the targets in the area of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia is one of the strongest backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has been carrying airstrikes in the country since September 2015. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is “nearly 100 percent” sure that the IS top leader was killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

The Defense Ministry first made the claim last week, saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in the May 28 strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was still “being verified through various channels.”

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that Russia’s intelligence about al-Baghdadi’s death is “nearly 100 percent” certain.

“Russia would not want to be on the list of the countries that have said before that he was killed and then al-Baghdadi would resurrect,” Ozerov added. The whereabouts of the shadowy al-Baghdadi, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, have not been known. His last public appearance was almost three years ago in the Iraqi city of Mosul, at the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque from where he declared a “caliphate” in the territory that IS had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.

That mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret, was destroyed on Wednesday night, blown up by IS militants as their control of Mosul increasingly is slipping away. The mosque would have been a symbolic prize for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city.

Nigeria negotiating with Boko Haram for more Chibok releases

May 11, 2017

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Nigeria’s government is negotiating “seriously” for the release of more than 110 kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram and will exchange more detained members of the extremist group for them if needed, an official said Thursday.

“We will not relent until all are back,” the minister of women’s affairs and social development, Aisha Alhassan, told reporters in the capital, Abuja. The mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school three years ago brought world attention to Boko Haram’s deadly rampage in northern Nigeria. Thousands have been kidnapped or killed in the group’s eight-year insurgency, with millions driven from their homes.

On Saturday, 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls were released. Nigeria’s government exchanged them for five detained Boko Haram commanders, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to reporters on the matter. Negotiations with the extremist group, mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, also resulted in the October release of a first group of 21 Chibok girls.

Alhassan said Nigeria’s government had no regrets about exchanging Boko Haram commanders for the schoolgirls’ release. “We’ll do it again if needed,” she said in comments tweeted by Nigeria’s government.

Families in Chibok were meeting with community leaders to identify the newly freed schoolgirls from photos to determine if they will travel to the capital to meet them. The young women were joining those released earlier in government care in Abuja, where they were undergoing medical screening that will take a couple of weeks, Alhassan said. Some must undergo surgery, she said.

The government has been caring for 24 previously released girls and four babies, Alhassan said. A small number of the schoolgirls managed to escape on their own. The group of girls released in October were in “bad shape” and spent two months in medical care, the minister said.

Human rights groups have criticized the government for keeping them so long in the capital, far from their homes. Alhassan said they traveled to Chibok for Christmas but upon their return to the capital said they were scared to go back to their community.

The girls said they wanted to go back to school so a nine-month reintegration program was designed for them, the minister said. The newly released girls will join the program. The parents of the freed Chibok schoolgirls “are free to visit them at any time. We will never prevent them from seeing their daughters,” Alhassan said.

Some of the girls who escaped shortly after the mass kidnapping said some classmates had died from illness, and others were radicalized and didn’t want to come home. Human rights advocates have said they fear some of the girls have been used by Boko Haram to carry out suicide bombings.

Nigeria says 82 Chibok girls free in Boko Haram exchange

May 07, 2017

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Eighty-two Chibok schoolgirls seized three years ago by Boko Haram have been freed in exchange for detained suspects with the extremist group, Nigeria’s government announced early Sunday, in the largest release negotiated yet in the battle to save nearly 300 girls whose mass abduction exposed the mounting threat posed by the Islamic State-linked fighters.

The statement from the office of President Muhammadu Buhari was the first confirmation that his government had made a swap for the girls. After an initial release of 21 Chibok girls in October, the government denied making an exchange or paying ransom.

The April 2014 abduction by Boko Haram brought the extremist group’s rampage in northern Nigeria to world attention and, for families of the schoolgirls, began years marked with heartbreak. Some relatives did not live long enough to see their daughters released. Many of the captive girls, most of them Christians, were forced to marry their captors and give birth to children in remote forest hideouts without ever knowing if they would see their parents again. It is feared that other girls were strapped with explosives and sent on missions as suicide bombers.

As word of the latest release emerged, long-suffering family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names and “our hopes and expectations are high.” Before Saturday’s release, 195 of the girls had remained captive. Now 113 of the girls remain unaccounted for.

The freed girls were expected to meet with Buhari on Sunday in the capital, Abuja. A Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation said the freed girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.

“The location of the girls kept changing since yesterday when the operation to rescue them commenced,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the announcement.

Boko Haram remains active in that area. On Friday, the United States and Britain issued warnings that the extremist group was actively planning to kidnap foreigners in an area of Borno state “along the Kumshe-Banki axis.”

The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years. The mass abduction shocked the world, sparking a global #Bringbackourgirls campaign supported by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities. It has put tremendous pressure on Nigeria’s government to counter the extremist group, which has roamed large parts of the north and into neighboring countries.

“This is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming back again,” Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign told Sky TV. “Their life in captivity has been one that depicts suffering, it depicts the fact that they have been starved, abused, and as we have seen before some of those girls have come back with children, and some of them have also come back with news of how they have been sexually abused.”

The latest negotiations were again mediated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nigeria’s government said. At the initial release of girls in October, the government said the release of another 83 would be coming soon. But at the three-year anniversary of the kidnapping in April, the government said negotiations had “gone quite far” but faced challenges.

Buhari late last year announced Boko Haram had been “crushed,” but the group continues to carry out attacks in northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. Its insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes, with millions facing starvation.

Larson reported from Dakar. Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria, contributed.

Belgium withdraws its jets from the US-led coalition against IS

by Loaa Adel

Apr 9, 2017

Baghdad (IraqiNews.com) Belgium has withdrawn its fighter jets, which are participating in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq, after being accused of massacring civilians in western Mosul.

Belgian Ministry of Defense revealed that it issued a final decree to withdraw its jets from the international coalition against the Islamic State terrorist group.

Belgian Minister of Defense Steven Vandeput declared that that the withdrawal came after accusing Belgian air force of bombing al-Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood, in western Mosul, killing hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, while indicated that his country ordered a probe into the incident.

Meanwhile, the government of Belgium, on Saturday, suspended air force operations above Syria in response to the U.S. cruise missile attack Friday morning that led Russia to end its U.S. – Russian security coordination. The U.S.-led coalition continues operations, but for the time being without Belgian participation above Syria, according to NSNBC News.

Vandeput also hinted at the fact that the Belgian government doesn’t believes the risk of a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO air forces in Syria is too high when he said “The international coalition looks day by day how the situation evolves. … If the coalition says it’s safe enough and asks us to continue the missions, we will do that.”

Source: Iraqi News.

Link: http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/belgium-withdraws-jets-coalition-isis/.

Britain to offer Jordan more trainers in anti-IS strikes

April 03, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has begun a visit to Jordan where she is to announce plans to send more British military trainers to help the kingdom’s air force in the fight against Islamic State group extremists.

Jordan’s royal court said Monday that May and Jordan’s King Abdullah II toured a military facility, inspecting a rapid response force and a joint training program. May is on a three-day visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In Jordan, she is to present a package of measures to boost cooperation between British forces and Jordan’s air force. Jordan has carried out air strikes against IS targets as part of a U.S.-led military coalition against IS. IS controls parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The training is to take place in Jordan and Britain.

Syrian army retakes town of Palmyra as IS defenses crumble

March 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military announced on Thursday it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group as the militants’ defenses crumbled and IS fighters fled in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes.

The development marks the third time that the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures IS had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. It was also the second blow for the Islamic State group in Syria in a week, after Turkish backed opposition fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the militants on Feb. 23, following a grueling three month battle. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni extremist group is fighting for survival in its last urban bastion in the western part of the city of Mosul.

For the Syrian government, the news was a welcome development against the backdrop of peace talks underway with the opposition in Switzerland. “You are all invited to visit the historic city of Palmyra and witness its beauty, now that it has been liberated,” the Damascus envoy to the U.N.-mediated talks, Bashar al-Ja’afari, told reporters in Geneva.

“Of course, counterterrorism operations will continue until the last inch of our territory is liberated from the hands of these foreign terrorist organizations, which are wreaking havoc in our country,” he added.

The Damascus military statement said troops gained full control of the desert town in central Syria following a series of military operations carried out with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with “allied and friendly troops” — government shorthand for members of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group who are fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

IS defenses around Palmyra had begun to erode on Sunday, with government troops reaching the town’s outskirts on Tuesday. The state SANA news agency reported earlier that government troops had entered the town’s archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around mid-day, then the town itself, as IS militants fled the area.

This is the Syrian government’s second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

The Syrian government’s push has relied on ground support from Hezbollah and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets. Archeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to its ruins.

Drone footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier this month showed new damage to the facade of Palmyra’s Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.

A 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control. Opposition factions have also admitted to looting the antiquities for funds.

IS militants have twice used the town’s Roman theater as a stage for mass killings, most recently in January, when they shot and beheaded a number of captives they said had tried to escape their December advance. Other IS killings were said to have taken place in the courtyard of the Palmyra museum and in a former Russian base in the town.

The developments in Palmyra came against the backdrop of the talks in Geneva, which have been without any tangible breakthroughs so far. Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

On Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held another round of meetings with both the government delegation and opposition groups. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.”

After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he had said. Russia is a key sponsor of Assad’s government. A top Syrian opposition negotiator, Nasr al-Hariri, said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony on Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics. In Turkey, the country’s foreign minister said that with the completion of an operation to retake the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, Turkish troops will head to the Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces, which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces. Cavusoglu stressed that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.

That front line in northern Syria was further complicated by a concurrent announcement by the Syrian Kurdish side on Thursday that they had agreed with Russia to withdraw from some of the territory between al-Bab and Manbij, to make room for a buffer.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line with rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Cavusoglu denied any such agreement was reached. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Turkish and Syrian authorities have long regarded each other with thinly-veiled hostility.

Soguel reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Syria army reaches outskirts of IS-held Palmyra

2017-03-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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