Work starts to clear mines from traditional site of Jesus’s baptism

Christian Orthodox pilgrims march towards the Jordan River from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St John the Baptist before a baptism ceremony at Qasr Al-Yahud as part of the Feast of the Epiphany in the West Bank. The HALO Trust has begun work to clear about 3,000 pieces of ordnance scattered around the holy site. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2018
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Work starts to clear mines from traditional site of Jesus’s baptism

JERUSALEM: Israeli and international experts have started clearing thousands of wartime land mines and explosive devices from one of Christianity’s holiest sites, in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli defense ministry said Tuesday.
It said work began this week to clear about 3,000 pieces of ordnance believed to be scattered around the Qasr Al-Yahud Greek Orthodox monastery, on the banks of the River Jordan, at the spot where many believe Jesus was baptised by his cousin John.
The mines date from the Six-Day War of 1967 in which Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan.
“Of the 3,000, some of them are Israeli, some of them are Jordanian and some of them we’ll only know when we find them,” defense ministry spokeswoman Arielle Hefez told AFP.
Britain-based HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearing organization, is working with the Israel National Mine Action Authority (INMAA) to clear what the defense ministry described as “roughly one million square meters (10.8 million square feet) of land.”
HALO said on its website that there are an estimated 2,600 anti-personnel and anti-tank land mines at the Qasr Al-Yahud site, restricting access for the more than 400,000 pilgrims who visit each year.
“It is home to ancient churches and monasteries, which haven’t been safe to visit for nearly 50 years,” it added.
It said that according to testimonies of former soldiers, an unknown number of booby traps were also laid.
“This makes the clearance of the site a complex task.”
HALO estimated that the clearance work would take two years and cost around $1.5 million.
The defense ministry said the site houses churches of eight different denominations.
“Once the clearance is complete and INMAA and HALO officials can assure the site is safe, the church plots will be returned to their respective denominations and visitors will once again be able to visit these holy sites.”
Another site on the Jordanian side of the river — Wadi Al-Kharrar, or Bethany Beyond the Jordan — is also venerated as the place of Jesus’s baptism.


US-backed Syria offensive kills 35 Daesh fighters: monitor

Updated 20 October 2018
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US-backed Syria offensive kills 35 Daesh fighters: monitor

BEIRUT: An offensive by US-backed forces against Daesh’s last redoubt in eastern Syria killed 35 militants on Saturday, a Britain-based war monitor said.
Twenty-eight Daesh members were killed in air strikes by the US-led coalition around the town of Hajjin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Another seven militants were killed in ground fighting with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who launched a coalition-backed offensive against the Daesh-held pocket in the Euphrates Valley last month.
Fighting has killed 414 militants and 227 SDF fighters in total since the assault began on September 10, the Observatory said.
Coalition air strikes on Daesh targets in another part of the pocket on Thursday and Friday killed at least 41 civilians, 10 of them children, the monitor said.
Daesh overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” across the land it controlled.
But the militant group has since lost most of its territory to various offensives in both countries.
In Syria, its presence has been reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and the Hajjin pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.