US still unsure who directed Syria attack, despite Russian dead

A picture taken on February 17, 2018 shows people walking down a rain-soaked street past damaged and destroyed buildings in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP)
Updated 18 February 2018
0

US still unsure who directed Syria attack, despite Russian dead

WASHINGTON: The United States is still unsure who directed a Feb. 7 attack on US and US-backed forces in Syria, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday, even as he acknowledged accounts that Russian civilian contractors were involved.
Reuters has reported that about 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria.
The US has estimated about 100 pro-Syrian government forces were killed by US strikes to repel the Feb. 7 attack.
Russian military officers told the United States during the incident that Moscow was not involved. The Pentagon has declined to comment on the exact makeup of the attacking forces and Mattis appeared at a loss to explain the incident 10 days later.
“I still cannot give you any more information on why they would do this. But they took direction from someone,” Mattis told reporters flying back to Washington with him from a trip to Europe, according to a Pentagon transcript.
“Was it local direction? Was it from external sources? Don’t ask me. I don’t know.”
Mattis said he “understood” that Moscow had acknowledged contractors were involved, without elaborating on whether that understanding came from press reports. Russian officials have told reporters that five Russian citizens may have been killed in clashes with US-led coalition forces.
Still, Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.
But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers whose deaths have to be accounted for.
The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.
The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.
The US military has said that in its effort to repel the attack on Feb. 7, US forces on the ground called in coalition strikes for more than three hours, involving F-15E fighter jets, MQ-9 drones, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters.
The US military has said the attacking forces were aligned with the Syrian government and were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
“I doubt that 257 people all just decided on their individual own selves to suddenly cross the river into enemy territory and start shelling a location and maneuvering tanks against it,” Mattis said.
“So whatever happened, we’ll try to figure it out. We’ll work with, obviously, anyone who can answer that question, but I cannot, at this time.”


Libya recovers five bodies, picks up 185 migrants

A total of 900 migrants have been intercepted or rescued by the Libyan navy since Wednesday. (AFP/File)
Updated 14 min 58 sec ago
0

Libya recovers five bodies, picks up 185 migrants

  • The bodies were recovered from an inflatable boat packed with migrants that got into trouble
  • Two coast guard patrols carried out different operations on Friday, picking up 91 migrants in one group and 94 in the second

Tripoli: Libyan coast guards have recovered the bodies of five migrants and picked up 185 survivors off its western coast, a spokesman said on Saturday.

The migrants, who were rescued about 24 km off the town of Qarabulli, were trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in two boats, the Libyan navy said Saturday. Those who lost their lives were from Sudan, Nigeria, Chad and Egypt.

The bodies were recovered from an inflatable boat packed with migrants that got into trouble, the coast guard spokesman Ayoub Qassem told Reuters.

A day earlier, three children and nine women were among 94 migrants rescued on Friday when their inflatable dinghy sank 12 nautical miles from Garabulli, east of the capital Tripoli.

“The migrants are from different sub-Saharan countries including three children and nine women,” he said.

Two coast guard patrols carried out different operations on Friday, picking up 91 migrants in one group and 94 in the second, Qassem said.

A total of 900 migrants have been intercepted or rescued by the Libyan navy since Wednesday as departures pick up due to favorable weather.

Usually in such cases the migrants are taken to detention centers pending repatriation.

Libya’s western coast is the main departure point for migrants fleeing wars and poverty and trying to reach Europe, although the number of crossings has sharply dropped since last July due to a more active coast guard presence with support from the EU.

Libya descended into chaos following the NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, with many armed groups and two administrations vying for power.

Most migrants try to head across the Mediterranean toward Italy, hoping they will be picked up by ships run by aid groups and taken there, although many drown before they are rescued.

Earlier this month, Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, vowed to no longer let charity ships offload rescued migrants in Italy, leaving one ship stranded at sea for several days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered them safe haven.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will try on Sunday to persuade other EU leaders to agree on a common policy on migrants, although her chances of winning support from all 28 member states are deemed slim.