Families flee as Syria regime bombards southern city

The regime has ramped up its bombardment of the southern city of Daraa. Reuters
Updated 26 June 2018
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Families flee as Syria regime bombards southern city

  • Government forces have for ramped up their bombardment of the wider province of the same name for nearly a week, as fears rise of a full-blown regime assault to retake the country’s south from rebels
  • The uptick in violence has killed at least 28 civilians in just under a week, the monitor said, with rescue teams struggling to reach affected areas due to the intensity of the bombing

BEIRUT: Regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on Daraa city for the first time in nearly a year on Monday, a rebel and a war monitor said, extending an assault in southwest Syria that has driven thousands from their homes.
Along with the barrels crammed with explosives, the helicopters dropped leaflets saying the army was coming and urging people to “kick out the terrorists as your brothers did in Eastern Ghouta,” the sources said.
“My wife and I left with only the clothes on our backs, because the house was completely destroyed,” Mohammed Abu Qasim, 45, said. Heavy bombing had turned his village northeast of Daraa into “an unbearable hell.”
The region is politically sensitive because of its proximity to Israel and Jordan and because of a “de-escalation” deal there agreed between the US, Jordan and Syrian regime ally Russia.
Washington had warned Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies that violations of the cease-fire would prompt a response, but rebels said the US had told them not to expect any American military support.
A European diplomat said the violation of the de-escalation agreement by Russia and Syria was “deeply troubling.”
“No one is in any doubt about the likely military outcome from this uneven clash, but the consequences could be significant. It not only risks a significant humanitarian crisis, but is likely to destabilize further an already precarious situation. It also casts real doubt about Russia’s willingness to stand by its own commitments,” he said.
The fighting has displaced thousands of people and threatens to uproot many more from their homes, adding to the about 6.5 million people already internally displaced by Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.
After fleeing her home many times since the start of war, 30-year-old widow Um Mohammed has once again been forced to move with her three children, and is now sheltering in a school deeper inside rebel territory in southwest Syria.
“Each of us took only our clothes. Right now there’s bombardment everywhere,” she said.
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying Russian officials hoped to discuss southwest Syria with US National Security Adviser John Bolton soon, and separately with Jordan.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Twitter on Sunday his country, already hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, could not take in Syrians fleeing fighting in the southwest and demanded the de-escalation agreement be respected.
Assad has turned to the southwest after driving opposition forces from their last besieged enclaves in western Syria, including Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, earlier this year.
It is one of two major areas still held by rebel factions, along with Idlib province on the border with Turkey in the northwest. Daraa, the southwest’s largest city, was an early center of the uprising against Assad in 2011 and has been split into rebel and government sectors for years.
Recent fighting has focused on the town of Busra Al-Harir, half way along a narrow rebel salient stretching into regime areas northeast of Daraa. If taken, it would split that salient in half, putting the northern part under siege.
The pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper reported on Monday that the regime forces had advanced into Busra Al-Harir.
The UK-based war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported fierce fighting inside the town between the army, along with allied militia, and insurgents.
But Abu Shaima, spokesman for a central operations room for rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said the insurgents had foiled attempts to advance.
Abu Bakr Al-Hassan, spokesman for the FSA rebel group Jaish Al-Thawra, said Russian planes were carrying out heavy airstrikes to support the strong Busra Al-Harir offensive.
On Sunday, an airstrike hit a medical center in Busra Al-Harir, causing extensive damage but no casualties, said the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a charity that works in opposition parts of Syria.
The bombardment has killed about 30 people since it began on June 19, the Observatory reported.
The Syrian military said it was committed to protecting civilians in the area.
Russia also said on Monday it had helped the army repel an insurgent attack in the southwest, killing 70 rebel fighters. Syrian state media reported that rebels shelled the nearby city of Sweida.


Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

The worshippers forced their way into the area ahead of Friday prayer. (Reuters)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

  • The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area

AMMAN: For the first time since 2003, Muslim worshippers broke an Israeli ban and offered Friday prayers in the Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer hall, which is part of the Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers entered the Bab Al-Rahmeh area inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday for the first time since the area was closed to Muslim worship by Israeli authorities.

The worshippers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein and other religious leaders, forced their way into the area ahead of the weekly Friday prayer, defying the Israeli ban.

The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area, which has only been open during the past 16 years to Jewish fanatics during provocative visits to the Muslim holy place, the third holiest site in Islam, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti and now a member of the newly constituted Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, delivered a short sermon in which he reiterated that “the Haram Al-Sharif is all 144 dunums of land, including the mosques, prayer halls, courtyard musuems and schools within it.” Sabri said that Muslims will not allow anyone to diminish Muslim rights in the entire mosque area.

The Friday prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh went off peacefully in part because of an Israeli decision late on Thursday not to make any further escalations, a reliable source in Jerusalem told Arab News.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the new council who participated in the prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh, told Arab News that the mood was peaceful and upbeat. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim part of our religious site that we were barred from using for so many years.”

The deputy head of the PLO’s Fatah movement, Mahmoud Alloul, praised the unprecedented action by the popular movement in Jerusalem. 

In a statement published on the Wafa website, Alloul called on Palestinians to stay steadfast in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa and Bab Al-Rahmeh and to “continue to stand up to the occupiers and their repeated incursions in Al-Aqsa courtyards.”

Mohammad Ishtieh, a senior Fatah leader who is expected to be the next Palestinian prime minister, issued a statement saying that what happened in Jerusalem today proves beyond a shadow of doubt that all actions and decisions aimed at Judaization of Jerusalem have failed as a result of the steadfastness of our people in our eternal capital. Ishtieh praised the defenders of Jerusalem who screamed for justice and who again forced the Israeli occupiers to back down.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and a new member of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Council, told Arab News that all parties participated and share this success. “Everyone participated and every party should get credit for this success. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa unite us.”

The popular protests that led to the breakup of the 16-year-old Israeli ban began on Feb. 13 when the newly constituted empowered and expanded 18-member Waqf Council decided to hold a symbolic prayer at the barred Bab Al-Rahmeh site. The Israelis responded by placing heavy chains at the gate and making arrests. 

After four days of arrests, Israel allowed the removal of the chains but would not go as far as allowing Muslim worshippers to enter. On Wednesday the Waqf Council called on worshippers to pray at the Bab Al-Rahmeh site. All five daily prayers were held outside the barred prayer hall. A confrontation was expected Friday, but the insistence of the worshippers on reclaiming their site led to the Israelis backing down, Jerusalem sources told Arab News.