Syria’s Assad close to retaking Ghouta as some rebels prepare to quit

A member of the Syrian regime forces sits in an armed vehicle at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 22, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2018
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Syria’s Assad close to retaking Ghouta as some rebels prepare to quit

BEIRUT: The Syrian government moved closer to ending rebel resistance in eastern Ghouta as civilians streamed out of one of its besieged, bomb-battered towns on Thursday and insurgents prepared to surrender another.
The army assault on eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farmland just outside Damascus, has been one of the most intense in Syria’s seven-year-old war, killing more than 1,500 people in a relentless bombardment with war planes, shells and rockets.
A Reuters witness said buses had driven into the town of Harasta and a Syrian military source said 600 to 700 fighters were expected to be among about 2,000 people leaving in them in the coming hours for opposition areas in northwestern Syria.
Hundreds of people including scores of fighters had already started boarding buses at an assembly point inside Harasta, the military source said. Between 18,000-20,000 people were expected to stay in Harasta under government rule, the source added.
Meanwhile, state television reported that more than 6,000 people had fled the larger rebel-held town of Douma since Wednesday, crossing over into government-held territory.
The Ahrar Al-Sham group’s decision to surrender Harsata leaves only Douma and another rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta that includes the towns of Jobar, Ein Terma, Arbin and Zamalka.
They are all that remain of the main insurgent stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus, the biggest prize for President Bashar Assad in his fight against the rebels since the recapture of Aleppo in late 2016.
Rebels fired rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus on Thursday, killing two people, state media reported. Television showed burning projectile parts on streets and in parks.
Government air strikes had pummelled parts of eastern Ghouta on Thursday morning, striking Arbin and Zamalka and killing 19 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group.

The deal to surrender Harasta is the first by eastern Ghouta rebels and began on Thursday with a prisoner swap. In an interview with state television, a Syrian soldier freed by rebels wept and thanked God and the army for his release.
The Reuters witness at the crossing with Harasta said the army had removed barriers from the old frontline lying across the road into the town to allow the buses to pass.
The Russian Defense Ministry website showed what it said was live footage from the Al-Wafideen crossing point from Douma into government areas. Over a period of several minutes, it showed dozens of people in small groups coming around a corner and trekking along the dirt road past armed soldiers.
Some bore bundles of their possessions, others carried small children or pushed prams. Behind were fields and trees. At one point in the road a man could be seen in a red shirt with the logo of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Douma is the most populous area in eastern Ghouta, and for more than a week it has been entirely surrounded by the government. The Jaish Al-Islam rebel group that holds the town has said it is determined to fight on after a month-long government offensive that has taken 70 percent of the former opposition enclave in eastern Ghouta.
However, the Observatory said people leaving the area were doing so under an agreement between the group and the government’s closest ally Russia.

For the Harasta rebels, the journey to Idlib is one already well trodden by insurgents from other areas surrendered to Assad after prolonged sieges and intense bombardments of the kind used against eastern Ghouta over the past month.
The northwestern province is the biggest remaining area under rebel control in Syria and its population has been doubled by refugees fleeing other areas including many opposition supporters.
A military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah on Wednesday said some 1,500 fighters along with 6,000 family members would depart Harasta under the agreement with the government.
On Thursday the same Hezbollah media unit said the army and Ahrar Al-Sham had started to exchange prisoners as the Harasta deal got under way. 




 


How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 10 min 11 sec ago
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How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Caption

As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS

 

April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.