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. 




 


Macron fires bodyguard filmed beating protester; critics say too late

Updated 4 min 21 sec ago
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Macron fires bodyguard filmed beating protester; critics say too late

  • Alexandre Benalla, who as Macron’s top bodyguard has long been a fixture by his side, was taken into custody for police questioning over the incident, which took place when Benalla appeared at May Day protests in a riot helmet and police tags.
  • Lawmakers have launched a parliamentary inquiry into the incident itself, the lenient initial punishment and the failure of the authorities to report Benalla promptly to the judiciary.

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron fired the head of his personal security detail on Friday but faced criticism for failing to act sooner, after a video was released showing the man posing as a police officer and beating a protester while off duty in May.
Alexandre Benalla, who as Macron’s top bodyguard has long been a fixture by his side, was taken into custody for police questioning over the incident, which took place when Benalla appeared at May Day protests in a riot helmet and police tags.
He had initially been suspended for just 15 days and allowed to return to work. Just days ago he was seen in public helping to organize security for celebrations for the return of France’s World Cup champion soccer team.
Lawmakers have launched a parliamentary inquiry into the incident itself, the lenient initial punishment and the failure of the authorities to report Benalla promptly to the judiciary.
In the footage, which was released on Wednesday by Le Monde newspaper, Benalla can be seen dragging a woman away from a protest and later beating a male demonstrator. On Friday, French media released a second video which showed Benalla also manhandling the woman.
He had been given permission by the president’s office to attend the protests as an observer of the security operation, but had no authorization to take part in police work.
The president’s office brushed off accusations that it had responded only because the nearly three-month-old videos had become public. It said the decision had now been taken to fire Benalla because the bodyguard had improperly obtained a document while trying to make his case over the accusations.
“New facts that could constitute a misdemeanour by Alexandre Benalla were brought to the president’s attention,” an official at the presidential palace told Reuters. “As a result ... the presidency has decided to start Alexandre Benalla’s dismissal procedure.”
Critics of Macron called the president’s delayed response a characteristic sign that he is out of touch. It follows controversies over government spending on official crockery, a swimming pool at a presidential retreat and cutting remarks by the president about the costs of welfare.
After hours of debate in the lower house on Thursday, lawmakers agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry.
“Why did he protect this person? Does he head up a parallel police force? Refusing to answer makes (Macron) complicit in these acts of violence,” Eric Ciotti, a senior member of the conservative Republicans party, said on Twitter.