US-backed forces battle Daesh in heart of Syria’s Raqqa

This frame grab from video released Thursday, July 6, 2017 and provided by Hawar News Agency, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows Syrian citizens looks to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in the eastern side of Raqqa, Syria. The campaign to seize Raqqa City from IS has begun in earnest last month, when the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by coalition airstrikes and U.S. special forces, launched a multi-pronged campaign on the city, after securing its countryside during months of fighting. (AP)
Updated 17 July 2017
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US-backed forces battle Daesh in heart of Syria’s Raqqa

BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian fighters fought Daesh militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group.

The Kurdish-led group has been one of the most effective forces fighting Daesh in Syria, but has also clashed with Turkish-backed Syrian forces elsewhere in the country. As it battled Daesh in Raqqa, the SDF also fought Turkish-allied Syrian forces in Ein Daqna, in the neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by the US-led coalition, launched their offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken several areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s fighting is concentrated in Raqqa’s southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City.

The SDF says intense fighting is underway in central Raqqa, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque.

The SDF said 11 IS fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The Daesh-linked Aamaq news agency said 14 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqqa on Sunday alone.

The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against Daesh in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest the extremists have held. The loss of Raqqa would deal a major blow to Daesh, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, bordering Iraq.

The Kurdish-run Hawar News Agency says some 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by Daesh, while the Observatory put the number in the hundreds.

The SDF is dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces rolled into Syria last year in order to battle Daesh and halt the advance of the SDF. The US-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the SDF, both of which are allies against Daesh.

EU impose sanctions on scientists, military officials

The EU imposed sanctions on 16 Syrian scientists and military officials on Monday for their suspected involvement in a chemical attack in northern Syria in April, which killed scores of civilians.

Western intelligence agencies accuse the government of Bashar Assad of carrying out the attack, arguing that rebels in the area would not have had the capabilities. The international chemical weapons watchdog said in June the nerve agent sarin was used.

Syrian officials have repeatedly denied using banned toxins.

The measures, agreed upon by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels, target eight Syrian scientists and eight top military officials.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said they showed Europe’s resolve “in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks.”

This takes the number of people placed under EU sanctions related to the Syrian conflict to 255, the Council of EU governments in a statement. Existing EU sanctions are also in place on 67 companies linked to Assad’s government.

Washington issued sanctions in the same month of the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, placing restrictions on hundreds of employees and scientists at a Syrian government agency believed to have developed chemical weapons

Syria joined a chemicals weapons convention in 2013 under a Russian-US agreement, averting military intervention under then US President Barack Obama.

While the EU has no military role in the conflict, it is the biggest aid donor and has said it will not help rebuild Syria until a peace process involving a transition away from Assad’s government is underway.

But the 28-member bloc’s position on Syria is in flux after France’s new President Emmanuel Macron broke with the previous French government position by saying he saw no legitimate successor to Assad and no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the war.


UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

Updated 12 min 25 sec ago
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UN envoy due in Yemen as strains escalate with Houthi missile launch

RIYADH/ADEN: The Iran-aligned Houthi movement fired missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh late on Sunday, escalating tensions ahead of a visit by the UN envoy to Yemen this week to try to avert a military assault on the country’s main port city.
A Houthi spokesman has threatened more attacks in response to the offensive launched by a Saudi-led coalition on June 12 to seize control of Hodeidah port, long a key target, in an attempt to weaken the Houthis by cutting their main supply line.
The United Nations fears that an assault on the Red Sea port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, could trigger a famine imperilling millions of lives.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths is due in the southern city of Aden on Wednesday for talks with ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the legitimate government’s temporary capital, government officials said.
One official said Griffiths would be there only for a few hours for talks focused on averting an assault on the port.
“There is a proposal on the table,” the foreign minister of Hadi’s government, Khaled Al-Yamani, told reporters in Riyadh.
“We would accept a peace initiative on the condition that militias leave the western coast,” he said at a joint press conference to announce a $40 million project launched by Saudi Arabia for de-mining operations in Yemen.
The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of the port to the United Nations, sources told Reuters. A US official said Washington was urging the Saudis and Emiratis to accept the deal.
The coalition said on Monday that eight members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had been killed in battles in the mountainous Saada region in Yemen’s northwest, which is held by the Houthis along with the capital Sanaa.
Hezbollah officials could not be immediately reached for comment, but the group has previously denied Saudi accusations that it is helping Houthi rebels.
MISSILES OVER RIYADH
Saudi air defense forces intercepted two rockets over Riyadh late on Sunday, sending debris measuring up to several meters hurtling toward residential areas.
Pieces fell near the US mission in the Saudi capital and at a school in the diplomatic quarter. Debris sparked a fire at a construction site 10 km (six miles) further south and fell on the roof of a private residence, but Saudi officials said there were no casualties.
“Our rockets will reach places that the enemy will not expect,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said. “The longer the aggression and war continue, the greater our ballistic missile capabilities.”
Coalition spokesman Turki Al-Malki said the alliance’s advances on Hodeidah and other fronts were pushing the Houthis to try to project strength through such attacks.
Coalition-backed forces seized Hodeidah airport last week and have been consolidating their hold in the area as more Houthi fighters, many armed with Ak-47 assault rifles, were deployed in the city and around the port.
The United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in Iranian-made missiles, accusations denied by the group and Tehran.
The coalition has pledged a swift military operation to take over the airport and seaport without entering the city center, to minimize civilian casualties and maintain the flow of goods.