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.


Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

Updated 19 April 2019
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Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

  • Divers find pottery and stone in shipwrecks dating back 2,300 years
  • Discoveries are from Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre in 332 BC

BEIRUT: Forty meters down, on the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Lebanon, the divers knew they were looking at history.

Among the shipwrecks they investigated this month at 11 sites south of the city of Tyre, they found pottery and stone that had been there for more than 2,300 years.

“The shape of the pottery confirms that it dates back to more than 332 BC,” said the Lebanese archaeologist Dr. Jafar Fadlallah.

Mohammed Al-Sargi, captain of the diving team that found the wrecks, is even more certain. “The pottery and stone found on these wooden ships indicate that they were part of the campaign of Alexander the Great, who in 332 BC attempted to capture the city of Tyre, which was then an island,” he said.

“According to the history books, Alexander built a causeway linking the mainland to the island. These vessels might have been used to transport the stone required for the construction of the road, but due to the heavy loads and storms, they might have sunk.”

UNESCO recognized the archaeological importance of Tyre in 1979, when it added the city to its list of World Heritage Sites. Lebanon’s Directorate of Antiquities, in cooperation with European organizations, has carried out extensive excavations since the 1940s to uncover its historical secrets. They have revealed that the ancient maritime city included residential neighborhoods, public baths, sports centers, and streets paved with mosaics. The discoveries date back to the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods.

During the Phoenician era, Tyre played an important role as it dominated maritime trade. It contributed to the establishment of commercial settlements around the Mediterranean and the spread of religions in the ancient world. It also resisted occupation by the Persians and the Macedonians, choosing to remain neutral in the struggle between the two bitter enemies. However, Macedonian king Alexander the Great considered gaining control of the island and establishing a naval base there to be a key to victory in the war, and he set out in January 332 BC to conquer it at any cost.

The area in which the diving team discovered the wrecks is “an underwater desert with no valleys or seaweed, a few hundred meters from the coast of Tyre,” said Al-Sargi.

“We found 11 sites, some of them close to each other and others far apart. In each location, there were piles of stones and broken pots.

“We continued to explore the sites quietly to keep away fishermen and uninvited guests. We sought the help of archaeologists, who assured us that the discovery rewrites the history of the city, and specifically the campaign of Alexander the Great. So, we decided to put the discovery in the custody of the General Directorate of Antiquities for further exploration and interpretation.”

The most recent find, which Al-Sargi described as a “time capsule,” is only the latest important discovery made by the team in Lebanon.

“In 1997, the divers discovered the submerged city of Sidon,” Al-Sargi continued. “In 2001, we discovered the city of Yarmouta opposite the Zahrani area. In 1997, we discovered sulfuric water in the Sea of Tyre. We conducted studies on fresh-water wells in the sea off the city coast.

“We are not archaeologists and we cannot explain what we have seen. Our role is to inspect and report to the relevant Lebanese authorities and abide by the law.”

Fadlallah, an archaeologist with 40 years experience of working at Lebanon’s ancient sites, picks up the story to explain what he believes to be the significance of the discovery at Tyre.

“The sites are about 700 meters from where Tyre beach was when it was an island,” he said. “The piles of stones were 50 meters to 200 meters apart and the pots seemed to have been broken by a collision because there was not one left intact. This means that these stones and pots were on ships and there was a violent collision between them.”

He said that studies of the remains of the pots suggest that they are of Greek origin.

“There are various forms of them,” he said, “and it is clear that the ships that were carrying them were related to the ships of Alexander the Great during his campaign on Tyre, and they appear to have been hit by storms.”

There are, of course, always skeptics — among them Dr. Ali Badawi, director of archaeological sites in the south at Lebanon’s General Directorate of Antiquities. The pots alone did not constitute sufficient “evidence that the ships belonged to the campaign of Alexander the Great,” he said.

“What was published by the captain of the divers contains unclear details, and the subject should be based on scientific explanations. I think that the sea is wide and piracy was possible at the sites of the submerged ships.

“Exploration operations are taking place in the breakwater area, involving a French mission and Lebanese archaeologists. Before that, a Spanish expedition along with marine archaeologists participated in examining the remains of a ship dating back to the BC era.

“Ship exploration is very expensive, and the city of Tyre was subjected to numerous military siege campaigns and many ships sank. But this does not mean that we will not investigate this new discovery, according to the instructions of the minister of culture.”