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.


First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

Updated 39 min 14 sec ago
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First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

  • President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
  • EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says the gathering is about much more than migration
CAIRO: European and Arab leaders are to hold their first summit Sunday, in what the top EU diplomat sees as a chance to boost cooperation across a troubled Mediterranean region.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss topics like security, trade, development and migration.
Wars and conflicts in places such as Syria and Libya are on the agenda at a summit guarded by the security forces who are fighting a bloody jihadist insurgency a short distance to the north.
But analysts voiced doubts over how much progress can be made, with Europe split over migration and Arab countries still grappling with the fallout from Arab Spring revolutions.
European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria in September amid efforts to agree ways to curb the illegal migration that has sharply divided the 28-nation bloc.
But checking migration is only part of Europe’s broader strategy to forge a new alliance with its southern neighbors.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insists that the gathering in Egypt of more than 40 heads of state and government is about much more than migration.
“We will have frank, open discussions, not only on migration, definitely not,” Mogherini told journalists in Brussels on Monday.
“We will have first of all discussions on our economic cooperation, on our common region,” she said.
“That is a troubled region but also full of opportunities.”
Attending will be Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU member countries, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
EU officials said 25 European heads of state and government will attend.
These include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who could also discuss the stalemate over Brexit on the sidelines.
Apart from El-Sisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend from the 22-member Arab League, which is based in Cairo. It is not yet clear who else will be present.
A UN official warned that Europe’s failure to bridge divisions on migration “risks blocking all the other discussions” at the summit.
“How do you discuss an issue if you can’t even mention it!” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said EU countries like Hungary refuse to mention migration because they oppose asylum seekers and migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.
The EU has struck aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has sharply cut the flow of migrants since a 2015 peak.
But the official said broader cooperation with the Arab League, which includes Libya, is limited without the EU being able to speak in one voice.
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, said the summit will struggle “to establish a dialogue between two sides who are confronted with their own challenges.”
The meeting comes as “the Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the revolutions started in 2011,” Pierini told AFP.
“Arab League unity is in trouble,” said Pierini, now an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank.
With expectations low for EU-Arab progress, the focus may shift to EU efforts to break the logjam over Britain’s looming exit from the bloc on March 29.
Britain’s Philip Hammond said May would have an “opportunity” in Egypt to discuss Brexit with her EU counterparts who have balked at her requests for concessions to sell the divorce to her parliament.
But officials in Brussels and London have played down the prospect of a Brexit “deal in the desert” to try to ensure an orderly departure.