Qaeda-linked Syria group kills 21 regime forces: monitor

Syrian government forces members patrol in the Abu Duhur military airport area in Idlib province in this January 21, 2018 photo. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2019
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Qaeda-linked Syria group kills 21 regime forces: monitor

  • Ansar Al-Tawhid has ties to the larger Hurras Al-Deen group, which is also active in the area
  • Both are considered semi-official franchises of Al-Qaeda in Syria

BEIRUT: A Syrian militant group linked to Al-Qaeda killed 21 regime and allied forces Sunday near Idlib province, in one of the deadliest breaches of a six-month-old truce deal, a monitor said.

“At dawn, 21 fighters from the regime forces or allied militia were killed in an attack by Ansar Al-Tawhid militants,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Five militants were also killed,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

Ansar Al-Tawhid has ties to the larger Hurras Al-Deen group, which is also active in the area. Both are considered semi-official franchises of Al-Qaeda in Syria.

The area of Idlib and small parts of the adjacent provinces of Hama and Aleppo are mostly controlled by the rival Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham organization.

HTS is led by fighters who formerly belonged to Al-Qaeda’s ex-affiliate in Syria.

Sunday’s deadly attack was carried out against regime positions in the village of Masasna, in the north of Hama province, the Observatory said.

“It was one of the highest casualty figures among regime ranks since the Putin-Erdogan deal,” Abdel Rahman said.

He was referring to an agreement reached in the Russian resort of Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Under the September 17 deal, Turkey was supposed to exert its influence over anti-regime groups in the Idlib region to get them to pull back their fighters and heavy weapons from a demilitarized zone.

The agreement was meant to stave off a planned offensive by the regime and its Russian backers that aid groups feared could spark the eight-year-old Syrian conflict’s worst humanitarian crisis yet.

The government assault on the last major bastion of forces opposed to President Bashar Assad’s rule has indeed been held off but the deal’s provisions have not been implemented and the de facto truce looks shakier than ever.

Since the Sochi agreement, HTS has consolidated its grip on the Idlib province and Turkey appears to be in no position to deliver on its commitment.

Breaches of the demilitarized zone have spiked in recent days. Another 20 regime and allied forces were killed in three days of clashes about a week ago.


UN agency to donors: Back Palestine efforts anew, keep funding at 2018 levels

The UN Relief and Works Agency provides food assistance to 1 million people in Gaza every three months, which is half of the area’s population. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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UN agency to donors: Back Palestine efforts anew, keep funding at 2018 levels

  • ‘Exceptional’ contributions enabled the UN Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion
  • ‘Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution’

UNITED NATIONS: The head of the UN agency that helps 5.3 million Palestinian refugees on Monday urged donors who filled a $446 million hole in its budget last year after the Trump administration drastically cut the US contribution to be equally generous this year.
“Last year we had an extraordinary crisis and an out of the ordinary response,” Pierre Krahenbuhl said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Our humble request to all the donors is: Please keep your funding levels at the same level as 2018.”
He said he has been thanking donors for their “exceptional” contributions that enabled the UN Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion.
Krahenbuhl said the agency, known as UNRWA, also adopted a $1.2 billion budget for 2019, and this year it is getting nothing from the United States. Last year, the Trump administration gave $60 million, a dramatic reduction from the $360 million it provided in 2017, when the United States was the agency’s largest donor.
US President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money — a comment that raised alarm from leaders of 21 international humanitarian groups, who protested that the administration’s link between aid and political objectives was “dangerous.”
Krahenbuhl said the campaign that UNRWA launched immediately after the US slashed its contribution succeeded as a result of “very important donations,” starting with the European Union, which became the agency’s biggest donor. He said 40 countries and institutions increased funding to UNRWA, including Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Australia. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait each gave $50 million, he said.
“Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution,” Krahenbuhl said.
Last year, he said, the number of multi-year funding agreements with donors rose to 19.
So UNRWA right now is in “a somewhat better position” than it was last year, with a shortfall of just over $200 million, Krahenbuhl said.
So far this year, the agency has received $245 million and is expecting $100 million more, he said, which means it should be financially OK until about May.
“But from then on we’ll start to ... reach some crisis points,” Krahenbuhl said.
He said UNRWA is thinking about holding some events in the next two or three months “to collectively mobilize the donor community.” In June, he said, there will be a pledging conference at which the UN and donors will take stock of the agency’s financial situation.
Krahenbuhl said he is committed to making up for the $60 million that UNRWA is losing from the United States this year through internal cost saving measures to reduce the agency’s expenditures.
“That’s going to hurt, but that’s where we feel our financial responsibility, so that we preserve the trust that was generated by the level of donors,” he said, noting that UNRWA last year saved $92 million.
Krahenbuhl said donors recognize the agency does important work. He pointed to the 280,000 boys and girls in UNRWA schools in Gaza and the food assistance the agency provides to 1 million people there every three months. “That’s half of Gaza’s population,” he said.
The UNRWA chief also said that continuing the agency’s services to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and elsewhere in the Mideast “is in everybody’s interest” and important for stability in the region.
“If you take Gaza right now ... it’s continuously at the razor’s edge,” Krahenbuhl said, stressing that any shift in humanitarian assistance or conditions that people live in “can trigger the need for justification, or the excuse ... to go back to war.”
Noting his own experience in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, Krahenbuhl said, “this is absolutely devastating and needs to be avoided.”