US backed group says it can capture Syrian city of Raqqa

Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) fighters ride a military vehicle north of Raqqa city, Syria. (REUTERS)
Updated 10 March 2017
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US backed group says it can capture Syrian city of Raqqa

BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian militias said on Thursday they have enough forces to capture the city of Raqqa from Daesh with support from the US-led coalition, underlining their opposition to any Turkish role in the attack.
Raqqa is Daesh main base of operations in Syria and the US-backed campaign to capture it has been boosted with the arrival of a Marines artillery unit.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the Kurdish YPG militia and Arab groups, have in recent days cut the road from the Raqqa to Daesh stronghold in Deir Al-Zor province — the last main road out of the city.
Deeply worried by the YPG’s influence, Ankara is pressing Washington to take part in the final assault on Raqqa.
The SDF says it ruled out any Turkish role during meetings with US officials last month, though Turkey said on Thursday no decision had been made yet and the US-led coalition said a possible Turkish role remained a point of discussion.
“The number of our forces is now increasing, particularly from among the people of the area, and we have enough strength to liberate Raqqa with support from the coalition forces,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, an SDF spokeswoman, said.
Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish government.
An SDF spokesman told Reuters on Thursday he expected the forces to reach the outskirts of the city within a few weeks. Its forces began the operation to encircle Raqqa in November. “We have information that the enemy is moving part of its leadership outside the city, as it is also digging tunnels under the ground. We expect they will fortify the city and the terrorist group will depend on street warfare,” Ahmed said.
The SDF and YPG have been the main partners for Washington in its campaign against Daesh in Syria. The US-led coalition has been providing air support and deployed special forces in Syria to help in the campaign against Daesh.


Retired Lebanese soldiers in tense standoff with army during benefit cuts protest

Updated 45 min 51 sec ago
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Retired Lebanese soldiers in tense standoff with army during benefit cuts protest

  • Dressed in military uniforms, large numbers of veterans attempted to force their way through barricades set up to stop demonstrators reaching the city’s parliament building where a final vote on a controversial draft austerity budget was taking place
  • The meeting to vote on the 2019 draft budget came after a marathon three days of discussions

BEIRUT: Retired Lebanese soldiers on Friday came close to clashing with the country’s army when weeks of protests over planned benefit cuts reached boiling point in the capital Beirut.
Dressed in military uniforms, large numbers of veterans attempted to force their way through barricades set up to stop demonstrators reaching the city’s parliament building where a final vote on a controversial draft austerity budget was taking place.
A military source told Arab News that the Lebanese army leadership had decided to block access to Najma Square, in Beirut’s Central District, where Parliament members were sitting.
But former soldiers, joined by the parents of army martyrs and activists from the Sabaa and Communist parties, surrounded the building in nearby streets before attempting to push through barbed wire, concrete and metal barriers erected by the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces.
The protesters, waving Lebanese and army flags, got as far as the entrance to Maarad Street, on which Parliament is located, putting them in direct confrontation with the Lebanese troops.
Ten brigades of reinforcements were drafted in to help push back the veterans before protest leaders eased tensions by calling for a retreat to a nearby square to avoid any further clashes.
The meeting to vote on the 2019 draft budget came after a marathon three days of discussions. Before entering the parliamentary session, Lebanese Minister of Defense Elias Bou Saab said that “misleading the retired soldiers” would be “harmful to the image and demands of the protesters” and called on them to carry out “peaceful demonstrations.” He added that there had been mixed and confused messages regarding benefit cuts.
However, retired Brig. Gen. Georges Nader had vowed that protesters would not back off until the vote on their benefits was dropped.
Discussing the protests in Parliament, Samy Gemayel, president of the Phalange party, objected to the reduction in the army budget, to which Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said: “This has been concluded on the bases of an understanding with the army and the military establishment.”
MP Paula Yacoubian said that “retired soldiers are trying to storm Parliament,” to which Berri said: “Those who want to storm Parliament have not yet been born.”
The row had centered on a controversial article concerning amendments to the country’s income tax act, and Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil insisted on defending it. He said: “It does not cost the retired soldiers, for instance, more than 3,000 Lebanese pounds ($2) per month. This amount rises to 400,000 pounds for brigadiers.” He added: “Which country in the world gives a retiree 85 percent of his salary?”
After a meeting between the minister and Nader in Parliament, the retired brigadier general went out to reassure the veterans that cuts from their salaries in respect of medicine and income tax would be reduced. Less intense protests continued for more than three hours before Parliament approved the relevant article in the budget.
Meanwhile, Berri had started the Parliament session by reading a resignation submitted by Hezbollah MP Nawaf Musawi.