East Syrian city in the grip of fierce fighting

In this still image made from video provided by opposition operated Step News Agency, which is consistent with independent AP reporting, a man views scenes of destruction inside a banquet hall, in Deir Qanoun, Barada Valley, Syria, in this Jan. 15, 2017 photo. (AP)
Updated 18 January 2017
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East Syrian city in the grip of fierce fighting

BEIRUT: Fierce clashes gripped the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor on Wednesday, a monitor said, as the Daesh group set tires ablaze to create a smokescreen from regime warplanes.
Daesh launched the brutal assault on Saturday to capture the government-held third of Deir Ezzor city, as well as the adjacent military airport.
More than 150 people are reported to have been killed in the fighting.
Syrian and Russian warplanes have carried out intense bombing raids in a bid to halt the militant advance, according to a military source and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Daesh on Tuesday tried to generate a smokescreen to shield its positions from fresh air strikes.
The group “set tires and barrels of crude oil on fire in Deir Ezzor... to block Syrian and Russian jets heavily bombing the city,” the Observatory said.
Since Saturday, 46 regime fighters and 75 Daesh militants have been killed, along with more than 30 civilians, according to the Britain-based monitor.
A local activist group told AFP on Wednesday that Daesh had killed at least 10 Syrian government fighters captured during the clashes.
“IS (Daesh) executed them last night by driving over them with tanks,” said Omar Abu Leila of Deir Ezzor 24, which publishes news on the eastern city.
He said the gruesome killings took place inside Daesh-controlled neighborhoods of the city.
“If IS (Daesh)seizes regime-held neighborhoods, it could carry out massacres. This is a huge source of concern for us,” he said. The militant group, excluded from a nearly three-week cease-fire in Syria, has carried out mass killings of military rivals and civilians, often with particularly grisly methods.
As it advanced on the ancient city of Palmyra in 2015, it killed dozens of civilians and then staged mass executions of government troops in the city’s theater.
The World Food Programme (WFP) on Tuesday said the clashes had forced it to suspend aid drops to Deir Ezzor, where more than 100,000 people have lived under Daesh siege since early 2015.
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.

Children return to school
Sifting through ripped up textbooks and writing on broken whiteboards, Syrian children returned this week to a dilapidated small-town school that was used by Daesh militants as a prison for more than two years.
With no chairs or desks, around 250 children huddled in classrooms on mats to stay off the cold concrete at the Aisha Mother of the Believers school in Al-Rai, in the northern Aleppo hinterland near the Turkish border.
The students, aged 5-15, were given notebooks and pens on their first day back on Monday by seven volunteers who teach reading, writing and maths and helped get the school habitable again over the past six weeks.
“(I feel) joy, because I was able to bring back to school this number of students in a short period,” said volunteer Khalil Al-Fayad. “(But also) heartbreak because of the bad condition (of the school).”
The school previously taught 500 students before being seized 2 1/2 years ago by Daesh insurgents, who slapped logos on school bags bearing the slogan “Cubs of the Caliphate,” residents said.
The principal and teachers fled the area when Daesh took over and parents stopped sending their children to the school, which closed after two months and was used to house prisoners of the ultra-hard-line militants.
Volunteers set about trying to return the school to its previous standards last month in Al-Rai after Syrian Free Army rebels backed by the Turkish military ousted Daesh from the area.
With shattered windows, bullet strewn walls, debris and broken equipment still present, there is plenty left to do for the team of volunteers, who say they are seeking funding from local and Turkish authorities.
“(I) fear not being able to continue what we are doing if the situation remains the same and the lack of support continues,” Al-Fayad said.


Daesh releases six of 27 Druze hostages held in southern Syria: monitor

Updated 3 min 41 sec ago
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Daesh releases six of 27 Druze hostages held in southern Syria: monitor

  • Two women and four children were released by Daesh in the province of Sweida
  • Negotiations between the government’s Russian ally and the militants for the release of the captives had stalled

BEIRUT: The Daesh group has released six of 27 Druze hostages it seized during a deadly July attack in Syria’s Sweida province in exchange for a prisoner swap and ransom, a monitor said Saturday.
“Two women and four children from the province of Sweida were released last night,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor group, told AFP.
He added that the releases were the “first wave” and part of an agreement sealed with the Syrian government to exchange all the hostages for “60 Islamic State prisoners held by the regime and a ransom of $27 million.”
The Daesh group abducted around 30 people — mostly women and children — from Sweida in late July during the deadliest attack on Syria’s Druze community of the seven-year civil war.
During the coordinated assaults on July 25, Daesh waged a series of suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings that left more than 250 people dead across the southwestern province, most of them civilians.
Sweida province is the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, which made up around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population — or around 700,000 people.
Daesh executed a 19-year-old male student among the captives in August and then a 25-year-old female captive in early October. The group said a 65-year-old female captive also died from illness.
Families of those kidnapped held protests to demand action by the Syrian government to free them.
Negotiations between the government’s Russian ally and the militants for the release of the captives had stalled.
Government forces have battled Daesh in the volcanic plateau of Tulul Al-Safa in the east of the province since the July attack.