Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

In this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 image from video provided by Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, civilians flee fighting near Baghouz, Syria. (AP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

  • Seven children among the dead, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
  • The SDF announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border

NEAR BAGHOUZ: US-led coalition air strikes on the last Daesh pocket in Syria on Monday killed 16 civilians, including at least seven children, a war monitor said.
Eight women and one elderly man were also among the civilians killed while trying to flee towards the Iraqi border, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The coalition was not immediately available for comment, but has repeatedly said it does its utmost to avoid targeting civilians.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition continued to battle a fierce extremist fightback Monday.
Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled extremist holdout in eastern Syria, as missiles and a warplane streaked through the sky.
More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.
The SDF on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last Daesh pocket on Monday after an early morning Daesh counterattack caused several SDF casualties.
“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP.
The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometers away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from SDF territory.
Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages held by IS” inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed on Monday morning in the face of tough obstacles.
“The SDF are advancing slowly in what remains of the IS pocket” on the edges of the village of Baghouz, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But land mines, Daesh snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defense are hindering the advance, he said.
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the extremists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to Daesh fighters, have fled to SDF territory.
US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential extremists for questioning.
On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Some 600 people were able to reach SDF territory on Sunday after fleeing the fighting, the Observatory said.
Among them, were 20 suspected IS members, including two French women, seven Turks, and three Ukrainians, said the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.
The SDF — which has said it expects the final offensive to be over in days — announced Sunday that it had taken some 40 positions from the extremists following direct combat involving light weapons.
The alliance had earlier said that up to 600 jihadists as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside a patch four square kilometers (one mile square).
Spokesman Bali said Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.


Ethiopia pays tribute to slain military chief

Updated 23 min 32 sec ago
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Ethiopia pays tribute to slain military chief

  • Hundreds of soldiers and officers in uniform gathered for the ceremony in a huge hall in central Addis Ababa

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia held a memorial on Tuesday for the army chief of staff slain with four other senior officials in weekend attacks that posed the biggest threat yet to the prime minister's reforms.
Abiy Ahmed, who survived a grenade attack at a rally in his honour last year, sat in the front row at the memorial and wiped tears from his eyes with a white handkerchief.
Abiy took power 15 months ago and has won widespread international praise for kickstarting political and economic reforms. But his shake-up of the military and intelligence services has earned him powerful enemies at home.
His government is also struggling to contain discontent from Ethiopia's myriad ethnic groups fighting the federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.
The foiled plot to seize control of the northern Amhara region and the assassinations in the national capital Addis Ababa underscored the threat of spiralling violence in Africa's second-most populous nation.
In addition to the killing of the chief of staff in the capital, Amhara state president Ambachew Mekonnen and an adviser were killed in the region's main city Bahir Dar.
The attacks were led by Amhara's head of state security General Asamnew Tsige, who had been openly recruiting fighters for ethnic militias in a state that has become a flashpoint for violence.
Asamnew, the alleged coup plotter, was shot on Monday near Bahir Dar, according to the prime minister's office. He had served nearly a decade in jail for a previous coup plot, but was released as part of an amnesty last year.
RISKS
Hundreds of soldiers and officers in uniform gathered for the ceremony in a huge hall in central Addis Ababa.
Roads in the capital were blocked for the ceremony and security was tight. Access to the internet appeared to be blocked across Ethiopia for the third straight day, users reported.
The coffins of army chief of staff Seare Mekonnen and a retired general, both shot dead on Saturday by Seare's bodyguard in the national capital Addis Ababa, were wheeled into the hall, draped in Ethiopian flags.
Photographs of the men in formal military dress were adorned with yellow roses. Seare will be buried in his home region of Tigray on Wednesday.
At the memorial, the army's deputy chief of staff General Birhanu Jula spoke of the chief of staff's bravery in the guerrilla war against the Communist Derg regime that was toppled in 1991, and of his leadership role in Ethiopia's war against neighbouring Eritrea in the late 1990s.
The weekend killings came as Ethiopia prepares to hold parliamentary elections next year, although the electoral board warned this month that they were behind schedule and that instability could delay polling.
SECURITY FORCES
Ethiopia's ruling coalition, itself a grouping of ethnically-based parties, is facing an unprecedented challenge from strident ethno-nationalist parties, global think-tank Crisis Group said in a briefing note on Tuesday.
Asamnew, who allegedly orchestrated the killings, had been appointed by state authorities as regional security chief in an effort to claw back support from Amharas supporting more his more hardline policies, including expansion of Amhara's borders, the group said.
"The 22 June killings confirm the dangers in handing security portfolios to hardliners like Asamnew who are ready to pander to extreme ethno-nationalists, from whichever of Ethiopia’s ethnicities," the note read.
Ethiopia analysts say the prime minister must tread carefully to restore security. Too strong a response risks derailing his reforms and angering a polarised population. But failure to punish those responsible could see violence could spiral out of control.
Mehari Taddele Maru, an independent Ethiopian analyst, said the government should channel public anger through dialogue, but if ethnic rivalries spread to the federal armed forces, that could destroy the state, he said.