Syrian army preparing assault to end rebel siege of base east of capital

A government forces plane flies over the al-Mushrifa area, near the town of Khan Sheikun in Syria's northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, during ongoing clashes between opposition fighters and government forces on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 03 January 2018
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Syrian army preparing assault to end rebel siege of base east of capital

AMMAN: The Syrian army backed by Russian jets escalated bombing of the last rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus as they prepared to break a siege of an army base encircled by opposition forces, residents and witnesses said on Wednesday.
They said the army was amassing elite forces to prepare for a major assault on the Military Vehicles Administration, which is besieged by rebels. At least 200 troops were believed to be trapped within its sprawling, heavily defended grounds.
Since Sunday, rebels mainly belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al Sham faction widened their control of parts of the army base in Harasta that penetrates the Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion around the capital.
They stormed the base last November in a drive to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta’s towns and villages, which have seen escalating aerial attacks in the last week.
State media did not report the assault but said “terrorists” had fired mortars on residential areas in Harasta and the army responded by strikes in Eastern Ghouta that led to losses in the ranks of the insurgents. No further details were given.
Civil defense sources said that in four days of heavy aerial strikes since Friday 38 civilians have been killed and at least 147 people have been injured. Five civilians were killed on Tuesday.
The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission. More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013.
The advances bring rebels closer to the heart of the capital once again, after they were pushed out of their remaining pockets last year by months of siege and bombardment.
The army setback comes against a backdrop of successive battlefield victories that allowed the Syrian army with heavy reliance on Russia and Iran to regain in the last year large tracts of territory from insurgents.
Residents said at least 30 aerial strikes hit residential areas of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday. Shelling of a market in the city of Douma, the main urban center in the Ghouta, left one dead and scores injured.
“The frontlines of Ghouta are witnessing battles and clashes and big losses inflicted on (Syrian President) Assad’s forces and his militias,” said Hamza Biriqdar, the spokesman for Jaish al Islam, a main rebel faction.
Further northwest, rebels ranging from jihadists to mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) were retreating from more villages seized by the army in southern Idlib province and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside.
The strikes have escalated in the last week on this major front with at least 50 villages retaken by the Syrian army and its allies in their push into the last major province in rebel hands that borders Turkey.
The intensity of strikes by Russia and the Syrian Air Force has driven tens of thousands of villagers in these areas to flee to the relative safety of the northern part of Idlib province near of the Turkish border, where many families have spread makeshift tents on main roads and agricultural land.


Libyan authorities blamed for migrants’ deaths

Updated 1 min 52 sec ago
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Libyan authorities blamed for migrants’ deaths

MADRID: A migrant aid group has accused Libya’s coast guard of abandoning three people in the Mediterranean Sea, including a woman and a toddler who died, after intercepting 160 Europe-bound migrants near the shores of the North African nation.
Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish rescue group, said it found one woman alive on Tuesday and another dead, along with the body of a toddler, amid the drifting remains of a destroyed migrant boat some 80 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
The organization posted images and videos of the wreckage and the dead bodies on social media, accusing both a merchant ship sailing in international waters and Libya’s coast guard for failing to help the three migrants.
A spokesman for Libya’s coast guard responded to the Spanish aid group’s criticism late on Tuesday, saying guard members carry out rescues of Europe-bound migrants “in accordance with international standards in saving lives at sea.”
“All disasters happening in the sea are caused by human traffickers who are only interested in profit and the presence of such irresponsible, non-governmental groups in the region,” coast guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim said in a statement.
The head of Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, on Tuesday blamed the Italian government’s cooperation with Libyan authorities for the death of the woman and the toddler.
Camps said the two women and the toddler had refused to board the Libyan vessels with the rest of the intercepted migrants and were abandoned in the sea after the Libyan coast guard destroyed the migrants’ boat.
In a later statement about Tuesday’s deaths, Camps said, “The blame for this crime falls on Matteo Salvini’s policies,” a reference to Italy’s hard-line interior minister.
Some 1,443 people are dead or missing in the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route up to July 15 this year, according to the UN migration agency.
Libya has emerged as a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East, as traffickers exploit the lawlessness and chaos that has engulfed the country since an uprising in 2011.
Gassim, the coast guard spokesman, said earlier Tuesday that a boat carrying 158 passengers including 34 women and nine children had been stopped Monday off the coast of the western town of Khoms. He said the migrants were given humanitarian and medical aid and were taken to a refugee camp in Khoms. He said the coast guard has rescued more than 80,000 migrants who departed Libya for Europe in recent years.
Both Italy and Malta have blocked aid groups from operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean, either by refusing them entry to their ports or by impounding their vessels and putting their crews under investigation.
But Salvini on Tuesday rejected any criticism of his country’s stance on migration.
“Lies and insults from some foreign NGO confirm that we are right: Reducing the departures and disembarkations means reducing deaths and reducing the earnings of those who speculate on clandestine migration,” Salvini said in a Facebook post.
The International Organization for Migration reported on Tuesday that the number of migrants and refugees reaching Spain by sea this year has overtaken those who have arrived in Italy. It said Spain saw 18,016 migrants come in up to July 15, while 17,827 people landed in Italy during the same period.
Aid groups have reported a rise in the number of sea crossings to Spain and Greece compared to the previous year, while migrant arrivals in Italy are down almost 80 percent from 2017.
The overall number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea this year totals 50,872, less than half the 109,746 who came in by mid-July last year, the agency said. In the same period in 2016, 241,859 migrants came to Europe.