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.


Explosion in north Syria targets Al-Qaeda gunmen, kills 11

Updated 12 min 10 sec ago
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Explosion in north Syria targets Al-Qaeda gunmen, kills 11

  • The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Smart news agency, an activist collective, said the blast occurred on the southern edge of the rebel-held city of Idlib
  • The Observatory said 11 people were killed in the blast, including seven HTS members. Smart said 12 people were killed, many of them militants

BEIRUT: An explosion outside an office belonging to an Al-Qaeda-linked group in northwestern Syria on Friday killed at least 11 people and wounded several others, opposition activists said.
The blast comes a week after members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS, took over control of wide parts of Idlib province and the surrounding countryside after forcing rival insurgents to accept a deal for a civil administration run by HTS in their areas.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Smart news agency, an activist collective, said the blast occurred on the southern edge of the rebel-held city of Idlib.
The Observatory said 11 people were killed in the blast, including seven HTS members. Smart said 12 people were killed, many of them militants.
In the country’s east, an airstrike in the last area held by Daesh killed at least 20 people.
State news agency SANA said 20 people were killed in the airstrike on the Daesh-held village of Baghouz, while the Observatory said 23 people were killed including 10 IS members.
They both blamed the US-led coalition that has been providing air cover to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their monthslong offensive to capture the area from extremists near the Iraqi border.
The SDF has intensified its offensive over the past weeks on the Daesh-held area.
Meanwhile in Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan met with US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to discuss the situation in Syria as the United States prepares to withdraw troops.
Graham, a prominent voice on foreign affairs in the US, met with Erdogan and other Turkish officials Friday for talks that were also expected to include a proposal for the creation of a “safe zone” in northeast Syria.
The visit comes days after a suicide bombing, claimed by Daesh, killed two US service members and two American civilians in the northeastern town of Manbij.
Graham has said he is concerned that US President Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement had emboldened Daesh militants and created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.
The Pentagon identified three of the four Americans killed in the suicide bomb attack in Manbij — Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida, who was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, from upstate New York and based at Fort Meade, Maryland; and a civilian, Scott A. Wirtz, from St. Louis.
The Pentagon hasn’t identified the fourth casualty, a civilian contractor.