US-backed force ‘mopping up’ last Daesh holdouts in Raqqa

In this file photo, a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter runs in front of a damaged building as he crosses a street on the front line in Raqqa, Syria. (AP)
Updated 21 September 2017
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US-backed force ‘mopping up’ last Daesh holdouts in Raqqa

BEIRUT: Syrian fighters backed by US special forces battled Thursday to clear the last remaining Daesh militants holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqqa.
Most of Raqqa, long a byword for the militants’ most gruesome atrocities, is now in the hands of US-backed fighters supported by waves of heavy air strikes by a military coalition led by Washington.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces and American special forces began a mopping up operation in Raqqa,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.
The Britain-based monitor said militant holdouts were still hiding in underground shelters in a part of the city center where a football stadium and former government buildings are located.
But the operation was being slowed down by large numbers of mines planted by the militants in the city, where they have been under siege for three months, it said.
The extremists seized Raqqa in early 2014, making it their de facto Syria capital. They are thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.
On Wednesday the SDF said they were in the “final stages” of capturing Raqqa as the Observatory said the US-backed fighters controlled 90 percent of the northern city.
The US-led coalition supporting the SDF estimated that 65-70 percent of Raqqa was under the control of the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
Across the border In Iraq, security forces backed by paramilitary units launched a dawn assault on a besieged Daesh-held pocket around the northern town of Hawija, just days after attacking the jihadists’ only other foothold in the country.
The territory still held by Daesh has been dwindling fast since its defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul in July, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border with Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi predicted the assault on the Hawija region would swiftly bring a new victory against the crumbling jihadists.
After the defeat of Daesh in Mosul and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighboring towns form the last enclave still held by Daesh in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.
“Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God,” Abadi said.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the Daesh-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been massing in recent days.
The US-led coalition fighting Daesh hailed the new offensive by the Iraqi security forces against the jihadist group.
“Daesh is losing ground and failing in every battle. Soon ISIS will have no sanctuary in Iraq,” said coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon.
Humanitarian organizations expressed concern for the fate of civilians caught up in the offensive.
“The 85,000 civilians still in and around Hawija, including around 40,000 children, now face a terrifying time as they worry about getting caught up in the fighting or being hit by an air strike,” said International Rescue Committee acting country director Jason Kajer.
“For those who decide to flee, there is a significant risk of being targeted by Daesh snipers or killed by a mine.”
In Syria, tens of thousands of civilians have fled the Raqqa fighting in recent months but thousands are still trapped inside the city according to the UN’S Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“We now estimate that up to 15,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqqa city, although exact figures remain difficult to verify due to the situation on the ground,” OCHA’s Linda Tom told AFP.
She said the civilians, many of them women and children, “are facing incredibly difficult conditions,” including food, water and medical shortages.
Daesh has seen the territory under its control fast diminish in recent months in the face of multiple offensives against its fighters in both Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched an attack up the Euphrates Valley against the other one of Daesh’s two remaining enclaves in Iraq.
And in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor, IS faces twin assaults — one by Russian-backed government troops and the other by SDF fighters.
Daesh also holds pockets of territory elsewhere in Syria, notably in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, but it has come under attack by Russian-backed government forces there too.


Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

Protesters run for cover from teargas during Friday’s protests in Gaza. (AP)
Updated 20 October 2018
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Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

  • Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948

GAZA: Israeli soldiers shot and wounded 77 Palestinians during protests near the Gaza Strip border on Friday, the enclave’s Health Ministry said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said about 10,000 demonstrators massed at the border and that some threw burning tires, grenades and explosive devices at the troops across the fence. About 30 Palestinians suffered tear gas inhalation, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
But the protest was relatively small — some of the previous gatherings included about 30,000 people, a sign that tensions that have built up in the past few days may be easing.
On Thursday, Israel had ramped up armored forces along the Gaza border, a day after a rocket fired from the enclave destroyed a home in southern Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed “very strong action” if attacks continued. A Palestinian official said Egyptian security officials had held separate meetings in the past few days with Israeli counterparts and with leaders of the Palestinian Hamas group that rules Gaza in an effort to prevent an escalation in violence.
Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948. About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the protests started, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Pale stinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached the Israeli frontier fence. More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.
Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Mideast peace envoy, earlier urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint ahead of the protests. Mosque loudspeakers in the Palestinian enclave urged Gazans to attend Friday’s demonstrations, despite statements by Gaza’s leaders that Hamas seeks to rein in the protests. “In light of today’s planned Gaza march, I urge all to exercise restraint, to proceed in a peaceful manner, and to avoid escalation,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. “The UN is working with Egypt and its partners to avoid violence, address all humanitarian issues and support reconciliation.”
Egyptian intelligence officials met with Hamas and Israeli officials on Thursday in efforts to broker a cease-fire and ease months of deadly border protests. Egypt and the UN have attempted to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas for weeks in a bid to ease tensions in the beleaguered Gaza Strip.
Hamas has organized weekly protests since March that seek, in part, to secure an easing of the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 in an armed coup.
At least 156 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire at the protests, and an Israeli solider was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
The protests have intensified in recent weeks as Egyptian and UN cease-fire negotiations have faltered, and cross-border violence earlier this week has brought tensions to a simmer.
On Wednesday, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip destroyed a house in the Israeli city of Beersheba in the worst bout of violence in recent weeks. Israel retaliated with airstrikes and has beefed up its military forces along the border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet resolved to retaliate more severely to cross-border attacks, but has thus far refrained from further action, suggesting it was giving the Egyptians a chance to restore calm.