Fighting in northwestern Syria strains truce, kills 15

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A man carries an injured child after the bombing in Bab Al-Nayrab neighborhood of Aleppo, as Damascus has vowed to take back the northwestern region. (Reuters)
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Syrian government bombed two towns, Saraqeb and Nerab, held by insurgents. (AFP/File)
Updated 08 April 2019
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Fighting in northwestern Syria strains truce, kills 15

  • 45 people had been killed in the last five days, mostly by regime shelling of opposition-held area

BEIRUT: At least 15 people were reported killed on Sunday in shelling by regime and insurgent forces in northwestern Syria, further straining a Russian-Turkish cease-fire deal for the region.

The northwest is the last major foothold of fighters opposed to Syria’s Bashar Assad, many of whom were forced to retreat there after military defeats at the hands of regime forces backed by Iran and Russia.

Last year, Damascus was poised to mount an offensive into the northwest, raising fears of a humanitarian catastrophe. The assault was postponed after Moscow struck a deal with Ankara that included the creation of a “demilitarized zone.”

But the agreement has come under strain in recent weeks: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 45 people had been killed in the last five days alone, most of them by regime shelling of opposition-held areas.

On Sunday, regime shelling killed seven people in opposition-held Nerab, the Observatory and the pro-opposition TV station Orient reported. Three more people were killed in opposition-held Saraqeb, civil defense rescue workers said on a Twitter feed.

Syrian state media said five people had been killed in opposition rocket fire that hit regime-held Masyaf.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Canada, the US, Italy, and Japan on Saturday noted “with mounting concern the escalation in Syrian military activity in the de-escalation zone in Idlib over recent weeks,” according to a communique issued on Saturday after a Group of Seven meeting.

The Syrian regime has vowed to take back the northwestern region, comprising Idlib and adjacent areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Last week, Damascus said its ally Russia had started to feel that its patience was running out over the northwest. However Moscow had told Damascus that Turkey was still determined to implement the agreement reached in September.

Turkey has deployed forces into Idlib under an agreement with Russia and Iran. Militant insurgents of the Tahrir Al-Sham group hold sway on the ground.

The UN says Idlib and the adjacent areas are sheltering some 3 million people, half of whom have been uprooted from other parts of Syria by the war.

The UN humanitarian office OCHA has said the escalating violence had already killed 90 civilians in the Idlib region in March, nearly half of them children. The escalation pushed more than 86,500 people to flee their homes in February and March, it added.

At least 370,000 people have died in Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

Updated 25 April 2019
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Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

  • The bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen
  • Govt forces detained the bird on suspicion that the attached GPS tracker was a spy device for Houthi militants

SANAA: Griffon vulture Nelson crossed into war-torn Yemen in search of food but ended up in the hands of Yemeni fighters — and temporarily in jail for suspected espionage.
The sand-colored bird came down in the country’s third city of Taiz, an unusual move for a young vulture that can soar for long distances across continents in search of food and moderate weather.
Nelson, approximately two years old, embarked on his journey in September 2018 from Bulgaria, where his wing was tagged and equipped with a satellite transmitter by the Fund for Wild Fauna and Flora (FWFF).
But he seems to have lost his way, eventually coming down into Taiz — under siege by Houthi rebels but controlled by pro-government forces, who mistook Nelson’s satellite transmitter for an espionage device and detained the bird.
Forces loyal to the government believed that the GPS tracker attached to the bird may have been a spy device for the rebels.
Hisham Al-Hoot, who represents the FWFF in Yemen, traveled from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Taiz to plead with local officials to release the helpless animal.
“It took about 12 days to get the bird,” he told AFP.
“The Bulgarian foreign ministry reached out to the Yemeni ambassador, who in turn contacted local officials (in Taiz) and told them to immediately give the organization the vulture.”
Hoot said that the bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen — where the FWFF lost track of the bird.
Nelson was MIA until April 5, when the conservation group received hundreds of messages from Yemenis concerned about the creatures’ welfare.
Today, the locally-famous vulture is being properly fed and getting stronger every day.
“When we first took him, he was in very bad condition,” said Hoot, adding that the bird was underweight.
Smiling, he puts on gloves and carefully handles the majestic creature — blowing it a kiss.
Hoot said the bird will be released in two months when he believed Nelson will have regained his full strength and his wing — broken somewhere during his journey — will have healed.
“We thought at first it would take six months for him to heal, but now we don’t think it will be more than two months,” he said.
Hoot said that Nelson was not able to find any source of sustenance in Yemen.
“They can eat carcasses of dead animals, but now there is no more with the current situation of war.
“This is what forced him to come down and stopped him from completing his journey.”
The four-year conflict in Yemen has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with millions facing famine.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened to bolster the efforts of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Since then, at least 10,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed and more than 60,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Other rights groups estimate the toll could be much higher.