Syrian warplanes strike near Damascus during fragile truce

Syrians walk past a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, on December 30, 2016, on the first day of a nationwide truce. Clashes erupted between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters in an area outside Damascus, despite a nationwide truce that began at midnight, a monitor said. (AFP photo)
Updated 02 January 2017
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Syrian warplanes strike near Damascus during fragile truce

BEIRUT: Syrian government warplanes resumed their bombardment of a rebel-held valley near Damascus on Sunday after nearly 24 hours with no air raids, a rebel official and monitors said, during the third day of a fragile cease-fire.
The truce deal, brokered by Russia and Turkey which back opposing sides in the conflict and welcomed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council, has been repeatedly violated since it began, with warring sides trading the blame.
Rebels on Saturday warned they would abandon the truce if the government side continued to violate it, asking the Russians, who support President Bashar Assad, to rein in army and militia attacks in the valley by 8 p.m.
Bombardments ceased before that time — although some clashes continued — but began again late on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels would abandon the truce as a result. Like previous Syria cease-fire deals it has been shaky from the start with repeated outbreaks of violence in some areas, but has largely held elsewhere.
The raids hit areas of Wadi Barada, where government forces and their allies launched an operation more than a week ago, a spokesman for the Jaish Al-Nasr rebel group and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was a “fierce attack and attempt by Assad and Shiite militias to raid Wadi Barada” from nearby hills, the rebel spokesman, Mohammed Rasheed, said.
State media and the Observatory said hundreds of people had left Wadi Barada in the past day for government-controlled areas nearby.
Earlier on Sunday government warplanes carried out several air strikes in the southern Aleppo countryside, the Observatory and rebel officials said.
Government forces also advanced overnight against rebels in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus, seizing 10 farms, the Observatory said.
A second rebel official suggested that low-level clashes on the ground would not necessarily derail the truce, but that air strikes were a “clear violation.”
Russia’s defense ministry has accused the insurgents in turn of violating the cease-fire numerous times.
A military news outlet run by Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, said the Syrian army had been targeting militants from the former Nusra Front both in southern Aleppo province and in Wadi Barada.
The army has said the group, previously Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, is not included in the cease-fire deal but rebels say it is — just one point of friction and confusion in the deal which could lead to its collapse.
The latest truce agreement is the first not to involve the United States or the United Nations — a reflection of Moscow’s growing diplomatic influence after a long campaign of Russian air strikes helped Assad recapture the northern city of Aleppo last month.
That victory has greatly strengthened the president’s position as the warring sides prepare for peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana this month.


Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

Updated 25 April 2019
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Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

  • The bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen
  • Govt forces detained the bird on suspicion that the attached GPS tracker was a spy device for Houthi militants

SANAA: Griffon vulture Nelson crossed into war-torn Yemen in search of food but ended up in the hands of Yemeni fighters — and temporarily in jail for suspected espionage.
The sand-colored bird came down in the country’s third city of Taiz, an unusual move for a young vulture that can soar for long distances across continents in search of food and moderate weather.
Nelson, approximately two years old, embarked on his journey in September 2018 from Bulgaria, where his wing was tagged and equipped with a satellite transmitter by the Fund for Wild Fauna and Flora (FWFF).
But he seems to have lost his way, eventually coming down into Taiz — under siege by Houthi rebels but controlled by pro-government forces, who mistook Nelson’s satellite transmitter for an espionage device and detained the bird.
Forces loyal to the government believed that the GPS tracker attached to the bird may have been a spy device for the rebels.
Hisham Al-Hoot, who represents the FWFF in Yemen, traveled from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Taiz to plead with local officials to release the helpless animal.
“It took about 12 days to get the bird,” he told AFP.
“The Bulgarian foreign ministry reached out to the Yemeni ambassador, who in turn contacted local officials (in Taiz) and told them to immediately give the organization the vulture.”
Hoot said that the bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen — where the FWFF lost track of the bird.
Nelson was MIA until April 5, when the conservation group received hundreds of messages from Yemenis concerned about the creatures’ welfare.
Today, the locally-famous vulture is being properly fed and getting stronger every day.
“When we first took him, he was in very bad condition,” said Hoot, adding that the bird was underweight.
Smiling, he puts on gloves and carefully handles the majestic creature — blowing it a kiss.
Hoot said the bird will be released in two months when he believed Nelson will have regained his full strength and his wing — broken somewhere during his journey — will have healed.
“We thought at first it would take six months for him to heal, but now we don’t think it will be more than two months,” he said.
Hoot said that Nelson was not able to find any source of sustenance in Yemen.
“They can eat carcasses of dead animals, but now there is no more with the current situation of war.
“This is what forced him to come down and stopped him from completing his journey.”
The four-year conflict in Yemen has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with millions facing famine.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened to bolster the efforts of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Since then, at least 10,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed and more than 60,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Other rights groups estimate the toll could be much higher.