US-backed force advances in fight for Daesh-held Raqqa

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighters gather at the eastern outskirts of Raqqa city, Syria June 7, 2017. Picture taken June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Updated 09 June 2017
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US-backed force advances in fight for Daesh-held Raqqa

Beirut: US-backed Syrian fighters Friday seized part of a district on the western edge of the Daesh group’s Raqqa bastion and battled to advance inside the city’s east, a monitor said.
The Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke into Raqqa city for the first time earlier this week, months after they launched an operation to capture the jihadist stronghold.
They are backed by the US-led coalition which carried out heavy air strikes on Raqqa and its surroundings overnight and into Friday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said SDF fighters took parts of the suburb of Jazra just west of Raqqa’s city limits on Friday.
The monitor said heavy clashes were continuing in other parts of the neighborhood, where at least 15 civilians were killed on Thursday night in the air strikes that hit an Internet cafe.
The casualties in Jazra were among 23 civilians killed in over two dozen US-led coalition strikes on and near Raqqa on Thursday night, the Observatory said.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said fighters were advancing on several fronts on Friday.
“The SDF has control of Al-Meshleb district (inside eastern Raqqa) and is clearing it of mines and explosives at the moment,” he told AFP.
He said SDF forces had also advanced on the northern front outside the city.
Al-Meshleb was the first neighborhood in Raqqa city entered by SDF fighters.
They are expected to progress from the district into neighboring Al-Senaa, and the Observatory said some of the overnight strikes targeted area between the two districts.
Daesh fighters have been fighting back against the advancing forces with snipers as well as drones armed with explosives, according to the SDF.
They have also reportedly dug defensive trenches and tunnels to try to slow the SDF advance.
“Hundreds” of US military personnel are taking part in the Raqqa offensive, according to the Pentagon, which said Thursday it believed up to 2,500 Daesh fighters were still holed up in Raqqa.
Captured by the jihadists in 2014, Raqqa has become synonymous with Daesh atrocities including beheadings and public displays of bodies, and also emerged as a hub for planning attacks abroad.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under Daesh rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.
But thousands have fled in recent months, and the UN humanitarian office estimates about 160,000 people remain in the city.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF warned Friday that “an estimated 40,000 children remain trapped in dangerous conditions in Raqqa city.”
“Many are caught in the crossfire,” said UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere.
“Children are deprived of the most basic and life-saving necessities,” he added, urging safe passage for those who want to leave the city.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Raqqa and the surrounding area since the SDF launched its Operation Wrath of the Euphrates to capture the Daesh bastion last November.
Many have described harrowing journeys as they fled Raqqa city, with Daesh fighters targeting them as they tried to escape.
Elsewhere in Syria, a US warplane shot down a pro-regime drone on Thursday night near the Jordanian border in the latest incident in escalating tensions in the country’s south.
The US-led coalition said the drone was downed after it fired at coalition forces near the Al-Tanaf garrison, where anti-Daesh Syrian rebels are being trained.
The shooting down came after another incident earlier Thursday in which coalition forces struck “technical vehicles” advancing toward Al-Tanaf.
It was the third time the coalition has struck pro-regime forces near Al-Tanaf in less than a month.
Syria’s government is eager to deploy forces in the area and head off any dispatch of foreign-trained Syrian rebels to fight Daesh in the country’s eastern Deir Ezzor province.


Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

The worshippers forced their way into the area ahead of Friday prayer. (Reuters)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

  • The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area

AMMAN: For the first time since 2003, Muslim worshippers broke an Israeli ban and offered Friday prayers in the Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer hall, which is part of the Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers entered the Bab Al-Rahmeh area inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday for the first time since the area was closed to Muslim worship by Israeli authorities.

The worshippers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein and other religious leaders, forced their way into the area ahead of the weekly Friday prayer, defying the Israeli ban.

The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area, which has only been open during the past 16 years to Jewish fanatics during provocative visits to the Muslim holy place, the third holiest site in Islam, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti and now a member of the newly constituted Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, delivered a short sermon in which he reiterated that “the Haram Al-Sharif is all 144 dunums of land, including the mosques, prayer halls, courtyard musuems and schools within it.” Sabri said that Muslims will not allow anyone to diminish Muslim rights in the entire mosque area.

The Friday prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh went off peacefully in part because of an Israeli decision late on Thursday not to make any further escalations, a reliable source in Jerusalem told Arab News.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the new council who participated in the prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh, told Arab News that the mood was peaceful and upbeat. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim part of our religious site that we were barred from using for so many years.”

The deputy head of the PLO’s Fatah movement, Mahmoud Alloul, praised the unprecedented action by the popular movement in Jerusalem. 

In a statement published on the Wafa website, Alloul called on Palestinians to stay steadfast in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa and Bab Al-Rahmeh and to “continue to stand up to the occupiers and their repeated incursions in Al-Aqsa courtyards.”

Mohammad Ishtieh, a senior Fatah leader who is expected to be the next Palestinian prime minister, issued a statement saying that what happened in Jerusalem today proves beyond a shadow of doubt that all actions and decisions aimed at Judaization of Jerusalem have failed as a result of the steadfastness of our people in our eternal capital. Ishtieh praised the defenders of Jerusalem who screamed for justice and who again forced the Israeli occupiers to back down.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and a new member of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Council, told Arab News that all parties participated and share this success. “Everyone participated and every party should get credit for this success. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa unite us.”

The popular protests that led to the breakup of the 16-year-old Israeli ban began on Feb. 13 when the newly constituted empowered and expanded 18-member Waqf Council decided to hold a symbolic prayer at the barred Bab Al-Rahmeh site. The Israelis responded by placing heavy chains at the gate and making arrests. 

After four days of arrests, Israel allowed the removal of the chains but would not go as far as allowing Muslim worshippers to enter. On Wednesday the Waqf Council called on worshippers to pray at the Bab Al-Rahmeh site. All five daily prayers were held outside the barred prayer hall. A confrontation was expected Friday, but the insistence of the worshippers on reclaiming their site led to the Israelis backing down, Jerusalem sources told Arab News.