Coalition hits back over reported civilian deaths in east Syria

The US led coalition launched strikes on Saturday, killing 43 people, including 36 family members of Daesh fighters. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018

Coalition hits back over reported civilian deaths in east Syria

  • 43 people were killed in the strikes launched by the coalition
  • The US-led coalition has consistently denied reports by the Observatory in recent days

BEIRUT: The US-led anti-militant coalition hit back Sunday at reports its air strikes on a Daesh group holdout in eastern Syria had killed civilians, appearing to accuse regime forces of targeting the area.
The militant Daesh group overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” in territory it controlled, but has since lost most of it to various offensives.
In war-torn Syria, multiple offensives have now whittled down territory Daesh once controlled to a small pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border.
A Kurdish-led alliance backed by the coalition is battling to expel Daesh from that holdout on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, while Russian-backed regime forces have been fighting the militants west of the river.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said coalition strikes on Saturday killed 43 people, including 36 family members of Daesh fighters in the village of Abu Al-Husn in the militant pocket.
But the coalition denied that its air raids there had killed any non-combatants.
The US envoy for the coalition, Brett McGurk, on Sunday appeared to blame regime forces stationed “across the river” for bombarding the area.
“Reports of civilian casualties attributed to coalition strikes are false. All other forces should cease uncoordinated fires from across the river immediately,” he said on Twitter.
In a statement late Saturday, the coalition reported 19 coalition strikes on Daesh targets “free of civilian presence” between late Friday and Saturday afternoon in the militant enclave, which includes the town of Hajjin.
But the coalition “detected a total of ten additional strikes in the same area of Hajjin that did not originate from the coalition or partner forces,” it added.
It called “on all other actors to cease uncoordinated fires across the Euphrates.”
The Observatory said regime forces and Daesh fighters exchanged fire across the river on Saturday, but pro-government shelling did not hit Abu Al-Husn.
The Britain-based war monitor says it obtains its information from sources inside Syria, and determines who carries out air strikes according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions involved.
The US-led international coalition has consistently denied reports by the Observatory in recent weeks that its air raids have killed civilians.
It says it investigates allegations of civilian casualties thoroughly.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Since 2014, the US-led coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for over 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups put the number much higher.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the coalition, launched an assault to seize the eastern pocket around Hajjin from Daesh in September.
The SDF assault was slowed by a fierce militant fightback, and then briefly put on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
An SDF commander Saturday said his forces were advancing cautiously due to “fields of land mines, trenches, tunnels and barricades set up by IS,” referring to another acronym for Daesh.
On another front, regime forces on Saturday regained control from Daesh of a volcanic plateau in the south of the country after weeks of fighting.
Pro-government fighters took over Tulul Al-Safa between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida “after IS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State news agency SANA reported regime forces had made “a great advance in Tulul Al-Safa” and were combing the area for any remaining militants.
Government forces had been fighting Daesh in Tulul Al-Safa since a deadly militant attack against the country’s Druze minority in Sweida province on July 25.
In the deadliest attack against the Druze in the seven-year war, Daesh killed more than 260 people, most of them civilians, in suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings.
Saturday’s victory in Tulul Al-Safa leaves Daesh contained in the Deir Ezzor pocket, although it also has a presence in the vast Badia desert stretching across the country to the Iraqi border.
After pushing back the militants from parts of northeastern Syria, analysts say the SDF is also likely to oust Daesh eventually from its eastern holdout.
“IS does not have great chances to remain in control of the pocket of Hajjin,” said Julien Theron of the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
The coalition-SDF alliance “has already shown a great efficiency against IS-held territory in the recent past,” he said.

Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

Updated 10 December 2018

Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

  • Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry
  • Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites, organizers said

QASR AL-YAHUD, Palestinian Territories: Efforts to clear thousands of land mines and other ordnance around the site where many believe Jesus was baptized have reached a milestone and officials allowed a rare glimpse Sunday of abandoned churches there.

The church grounds around the site in the occupied West Bank have sat empty and decaying for around 50 years, though pilgrims have been able to visit a nearby restricted area at the traditional baptismal spot on the banks of the River Jordan.

Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry, de-mining charity Halo Trust and Israeli firm 4CI.

According to the ministry, the project covers around 1 square kilometer (250 acres) as well as some 3,000 mines and other explosive remnants.

It is expected to cost 20 million shekels ($5.3 million, €4.7 million).

The work began in March and would require another eight months to a year to complete, said Moshe Hilman of Israel’s Defense Ministry.

Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites as well as a Franciscan chapel, organizers said.

Other grounds belonging to Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox churches are yet to be cleared.

The plan once complete is to return the plots to the various church denominations and allow visits. At the crumbling, brick-and-concrete Ethiopian monastery on Sunday, a fading fresco of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist could still be seen inside.

Signs hung on the walls with notifications that the location had been cleared of explosives.

A collection of pieces of mortars and other explosive remnants sat alongside a nearby roadside as a demonstration of some of what had been found.

“The Halo Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the baptism site of land mines and other remnants of war,” the charity’s CEO James Cowan said in a statement.

He added that “we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches.”

The majority of the mines were laid by Israeli forces after the country seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from Jordanian troops. Other unexploded ordnance from both Israel and Jordan has remained lodged in the ground, including around the churches, which were evacuated by Israel in the 1970s.

Israel’s control of the West Bank has never been recognized by the international community, which considers the land occupied Palestinian territory.