'15 dead' in huge blast in northwest Syria

It wasn’t clear what the cause of the explosion was. (File/AFP)
Updated 24 April 2019
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'15 dead' in huge blast in northwest Syria

  • It was not clear if the cause of the blast near the market in the town of Jisr Al-Shughur was a car bomb, or a vehicle carrying explosives
  • All except one were civillians

BEIRUT: A powerful explosion Wednesday killed 15 people including more than a dozen civilians in militant-held northwest Syria, a war monitor said, as rescuers searched for people trapped under the rubble.
An AFP reporter at the scene saw a building of at least four storeys that had collapsed in the town of Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib, a region controlled by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
One opposite had partially caved in while surrounding buildings appeared on the verge of collapse.
A civil defence worker eased himself under a massive slab of fallen concrete to search for victims, as three colleagues crouched by his side to help.
Thirteen civilians were among those killed in the blast, the cause of which was not immediately clear, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
"The explosion hit next to the market," killing 15 people including the daughter of a Turkestani fighter, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
He earlier said the explosion could have been the result of a car bomb or a vehicle carrying explosives that detonated.
But bystanders and the head of the local civil defence unit, Abdelwahab al-Abdu, said they did not know what caused it.
Abdu said 13 civilians had died in "an explosion of unknown origin".
Abu Ammar, a father of two, told AFP he felt the "huge" blast from his home about 50 metres (yards) away.
"We ran to the place of the explosion and saw the rescue teams trying to pull out the wounded," he said.
There were "people still alive under the rubble, and lots of body parts on the ground."
Rescue personnel were seen directing bulldozers to clear rubble from a road.
The Idlib region is under the administrative control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a faction previously known as Al-Nusra Front before renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.
The Turkestan Islamic Party, a group of foreign jihadists from the ethnic Uighur Muslim minority, also has a large presence in Jisr al-Shughur.
The Daesh group has sleeper cells in the wider Idlib region.
Idlib has since September been protected from a massive regime offensive by a fragile ceasefire deal signed by Damascus ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But the region of some three million people has come under increasing bombardment since HTS took full control of it in January.
On Tuesday, regime shelling killed seven civilians, including four children, in the town of Khan Sheikhun.
Increased regime shelling on Khan Sheikhun has sparked one of the largest waves of displacement since the September deal.
Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict began with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.


Missile deal signals hot summer for Turkey’s transatlantic ties

Updated 47 min 58 sec ago
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Missile deal signals hot summer for Turkey’s transatlantic ties

  • Turkey says buying Russian weapons system is aimed at meeting Turkey’s defense needs

ANKARA: Turkey has until next month to cancel a multibillion dollar S-400 missile system deal with Russia, or face harsh US penalties, CNBC reported on Tuesday. 

If Ankara does not cancel in favor of buying the US-made Patriot missile defense system instead, it may also be removed from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet program, costing thousands of jobs. Turkey is currently producing about 800 parts for the world’s most advanced fighter.

The delivery of 100 F-35s to Ankara may also be halted, and other defense and industrial cooperation projects with the US may be put at risk.   

In his latest visit to Turkey in early May, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said its procurement of the S-400 was a national decision. 

However, the system, which cannot be integrated alongside other NATO systems and carries fears around data collection, has been a major source of disagreement between Ankara and Washington. 

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) used to impose sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia, could be used against Turkey should the deal with Moscow proceed, though it is thought not until Ankara takes physical delivery of the missiles, which is expected to take place in July.

Sanctions could include prohibitions on banking and foreign exchange transactions, and the denial of export licenses. 

Individuals involved may also be subject to visa denials and exclusion from the US, as well as partial freezing or confiscation of assets.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says CAATSA would hurt Turkish interests, but would also limit US President Donald Trump. 

“He could technically veto (CAATSA), but the language in the legislation is not as straightforward as other waivers included in sanctions legislation. It is not a question of if Turkey will be sanctioned, it is how, and using which of the 12 available sanctions,” he told Arab News. 

“Turkey would do itself a lot of favors if it stopped saying this was a done deal and delayed acquisition to allow for more talks. But that is Ankara’s choice to make.” 

Turkish military personnel have already traveled to Russia for training on the S-400 system, but Ankara does not believe the deal will affect its involvement in the F-35 program. 

Turkish officials are also evaluating an offer made by the US in late March to sell them the Patriot system, with a decision expected by early June.

In a statement on Tuesday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the country was meeting its responsibilities under the F-35 project and added that buying the Russian system aimed at meeting Turkey’s defense needs. 

“Turkey prepares itself for the possible implementation of CAATSA sanctions. In our meetings with the US, we perceive a general rapprochement on issues including the east of the Euphrates, F-35s and Patriots,” he said. 

Besides pushing Turkey away from the Atlantic alliance, the potential CAATSA sanctions would also hit the Turkish economy, which is already in recession, with the Turkish lira losing more than 40 percent of its value over the past two years.

Timothy Ash, a London-based economist, said Ankara would be taking a huge gamble if they thought Trump would block sanctions, telling Arab News it would be “catastrophic for the Turkish economy.”

Trump already doubled US tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum last year, over the detention of an American pastor on espionage charges in the country. 

“There will be very real and very negative consequences if Turkey goes through with its plans to buy the Russia system,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

An expected state visit by Trump to Ankara in July has not been officially confirmed.