Israel launches US-backed missile shield on Syria frontier

An Israeli television station aired footage of what appeared to be an aeriel interception. (File Photo: AFP)
Updated 23 July 2018
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Israel launches US-backed missile shield on Syria frontier

  • Hundreds of war refugees return home from Lebanon
  • Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar Assad regains ground from southern fighters

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT: Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’ Russian-backed forces have been routing fighters, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu met Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its armed forces chief, Gen. Valery Gerasimov — a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar Assad regains ground from southern fighters, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which the Israeli military later said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first published operational use of the mid-range missiles, which are jointly manufactured by US firm Raytheon. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan.

Israel deployed the system last year to complement its short-range Iron Dome and long-range Arrow interceptors.

Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister's trip was “urgent and important.”

Netanyahu earlier said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honoured for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out.”

Syrian pro-regime television said on Sunday an Israeli airstrike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. An Israeli military spokeswoman said it does not comment on foreign reports.

Also on Monday, hundreds of Syrian refugees left Lebanon for their neighboring home country — the latest such return coordinated between Beirut and Damascus.

In Lebanon's eastern border town of Arsal, men, women and children of all ages piled into vehicles.

Security forces checked the identity papers of those about to make the journey back to Syria with suitcases, boxes of food and even live poultry, an AFP photographer said.

“The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started” on Monday morning.

Syria’s pro-regime news agency SANA said the first of “hundreds of Syrians coming from Lebanese territory” were heading to Qalamun outside the capital. 

Russia has also put forward plans to the US to cooperate for the safe return of refugees to Syria.

Moscow has proposed the establishment of working groups in Lebanon and Jordan, to where many refugees have fled, a Russian Defense Ministry official said on Friday.

An advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has met Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to find out more about the initiative, the premier's office said on Saturday.

The step would "help solve the refugees' crisis in Lebanon and put an end to their suffering and its social and economic repercussions on the host countries, mainly Lebanon," it said in English.


Iran faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019
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Iran faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.