Syrian army bombards Yarmouk camp, war monitor says

Smoke rises from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus. Air strikes and shelling hit the Palestinian refugee camp and Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad area, part of a small enclave divided between warring militants and other rebels south of the capital. (Reuters)
Updated 20 April 2018
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Syrian army bombards Yarmouk camp, war monitor says

  • Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma
  • Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria, where the displaced will go, are poor

BEIRUT: The Syrian army bombarded militants in the last area outside government control near Damascus overnight, as President Bashar Assad accelerated his push to retake remaining enclaves.
US, British and French air strikes on Saturday to punish Assad for suspected use of chemical weapons have done nothing to slow the advance of his forces, now in their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old war.
Air strikes and shelling hit the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad area, part of a small enclave divided between warring militants and other rebels south of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
Assad is accelerating his campaign to retake the remaining enclaves his forces encircle around Syria, which would leave rebels with only their two major strongholds in the northwest and southwest.
Western countries launched their first coordinated action against Assad on Saturday to punish him for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured the town of Ghouta near the capital.
But the single volley of air strikes, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.
International inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.
Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.
Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby — Eastern Qalamoun — said they had also agreed to withdraw.
Thousands of civilians, including the fighters’ families, are expected to leave with them for northern Syria before the areas come back under Assad’s rule under deals similar to others carried out across the country as Syrian forces advance.
The UN has voiced concern that such “evacuations” involve the displacement of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced conscription, though the government denies that.
“The UN expects further displacements in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations reportedly are happening,” the world body said in a humanitarian note.
Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria where the displaced will go are poor.
After the army’s recovery of eastern Ghouta this month in a ferocious battle that began in February, the surrender Dumayr and Qalamoun would leave only the pocket in south Damascus outside government control in the area around the capital.
Yarmouk was the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria before the war. Although most residents have fled, up to 12,000 remain there and in the neighboring areas under militant or rebel control, said the UN agency that helps them.


Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

Updated 22 min 47 sec ago
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Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

  • Turkish president has threatened to "send home in coffins" visitors from Australia, New Zealand
  • Aussie and NZ leaders want Turkey to explain the "vile" and "offensive" remarks

JEDDAH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was condemned on Wednesday for “vile, offensive and reckless” comments after last week’s Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks.

Australia summoned the Turkish ambassador in Canberra to explain the remarks, and New Zealand dispatched its foreign minister to Ankara to “set the record straight, face to face.”

Brenton Tarrant, 28, an Australian white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday after he shot dead 50 people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Erdogan, in election campaign rallies for his AK Party, urged New Zealand to restore the death penalty and said Turkey would make the killer pay if New Zealand did not.

He said anti-Muslim Australians who came to Turkey would be “sent back in coffins, like their grandfathers at Gallipoli,” and he accused Australian and New Zealand forces of invading Turkey during the First World War “because it is Muslim land.”

But an international affairs scholar in Riyadh said Erdogan’s comments should not be taken as representative of Muslims. 

"He is a propagandist and an unpredictable politician,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. “He keeps saying these things and then he issues an apology. Right now, he is making these incendiary comments to win elections.”

It was inappropriate behavior for a head of state, Al-Shehri said. “Which president would use such language and issue these kind of comments?”

In his speech, Erdogan said that the Gallipoli peninsula campaign in 1915 was in fact an attempt by British colonial forces to relieve their Russian allies. The attack was a military disaster, and more than 11,000 Australian and New Zealand forces were killed. Thousands of people from both countries travel each year to Turkey for war memorial services, and the anniversary is marked on Anzac Day every April 25.

“Remarks have been made by the Turkish President Erdogan that I consider highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after summoning the Turkish ambassador and dismissing the “excuses” offered.

“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn.” Morrison described claims about Australia and New Zealand’s response to the white supremacist attack as “vile.” He accused Erdogan of betraying the promise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to forge peace between the two countries.

A memorial at Gallipoli carries Ataturk’s words: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets ... after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

“Ataturk sought to transform his country into a modern nation and an embracing nation, and I think these comments are at odds with that spirit,” Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her deputy, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, would travel to Turkey to seek clarification of Erdogan’s comments. “He is going there to set the record straight, face-to-face,” she said.