Syria regime forces enter Daesh-held town following Russian air strikes

This frame grab provided on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, by Russian Defense Ministry press service, showing what they say is a long-range Kalibr cruise missile launched by the a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP)
Updated 06 October 2017

Syria regime forces enter Daesh-held town following Russian air strikes

BEIRUT: Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on Friday broke into the eastern town of Mayadeen, one of the Daesh group’s last bastions in the country, a monitor said.
“With support from Russian aviation, regime forces entered Mayadeen and took control of several buildings in the west of the town” in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
Hours before that, Russian air strikes killed 14 people fleeing across the Euphrates river on rafts in Mahadeen, the monitor said.
“They were crossing the river on makeshift rafts in a village south of Mayadeen,” Abdel Rahman said, adding that three children were among those killed overnight.
Russia has in recent days intensified its air raids in support of Syrian regime forces battling jihadists across the country.
Abdel Rahman said the civilians were fleeing the village of Mahkan, south of Mayadeen, which lies about 420 kilometers (260 miles) east of Damascus and is one of the Daesh group’s main remaining bastions.
Mayadeen has been under Daesh control since 2014, when the group swept across swathes of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a “caliphate,” but regime forces have tightened the noose around the town.
The state news agency SANA said government forces advancing from desert areas northwest of Mayadeen had moved to within five kilometers (three miles) of the town.
In Deir Ezzor province, Daesh still controls Mayadeen, eastern neighborhoods of the city of Deir Ezzor further up the Euphrates Valley, the town of Albu Kamal downstream on the Iraqi border, and several other smaller towns.
Moscow has been carrying out relentless air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both IS in Deir Ezzor province and rival jihadists led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate in Idlib province in the northwest.
The Daesh group, which once controlled a territory roughly the size of Britain, has seen its “caliphate” shrink steadily over the past two years and has lost all but a few of its main hubs in both Iraq and Syria.
A Kurdish-led alliance is currently fighting Daesh in Raqqa, the group’s biggest bastion since the recapture by Iraqi forces of Mosul in July.
The city, further up the Euphrates, was the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh’s now collapsing “state.”
On Wednesday, a Russian air strike killed 38 civilians trying to flee the fighting in Deir Ezzor province, according to the Observatory.
The Observatory relies on a network of sources inside Syria, and says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.
The group has reported hundreds of civilians killed in operations against Daesh in Deir Ezzor and neighboring Raqqa province. On Tuesday, it said a US-led coalition strike in Raqqa killed at least 18 civilians.
Russia has not acknowledged any civilian deaths from its strikes since it intervened in Syria in 2015, and dismisses the Observatory’s reporting as biased.
On Thursday, the Red Cross said Syria was experiencing its worst levels of violence since the battle for second city Aleppo late last year.
“For the past two weeks, we have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties,” Marianne Gasser, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Syria, said.


Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

Updated 28 min 21 sec ago

Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS: Rarely has the outcome of an election been so uncertain in Tunisia, the cradle and partial success story of the Arab Spring, as some seven million voters head to the polls Sunday to choose from a crowded field.
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living, and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August is politically inspired.
The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes, albeit one with few clear political differences, brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi.
He had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but one thing appears sure — many voters remain undecided, due to difficulties in reading a shifting political landscape.
“I am undecided between two candidates — I will decide in the polling booth,” smiled one citizen, Sofiene, who added “honest candidates don’t have much chance of winning.”
Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.
One key newcomer is Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party.
Instead, he has gone door-to-door to drum up support for his conservative platform.
Another independent candidate is Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who is running for the first time.
However, he has the backing of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
The crowded field of 26 has been narrowed slightly by the last minute withdrawal of two candidates in favor of Zbidi — former political adviser Mohsen Marzouk and businessman Slim Riahi, just ahead of Saturday’s campaign blackout.
But it is Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of the campaign, which has been one of the biggest talking points.
Studies suggest his arrest boosted his popularity.
A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.
On Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian mogul released from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said, two days after he began what his defense team said was a hunger strike.
The polarization between the different camps risks a derailment of the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate,” such as Karoui.
Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living of close to a third since 2016.
Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), although overseas voting stations for Tunisia’s sizeable expatriate population have been open since Friday.
Some stations will remain open until 6:00 pm, while others will close two hours earlier, for security reasons.
Some 70,000 security agents will be deployed on Sunday, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Exit polls are expected overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results are not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.
The date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls — October 6.
Those polls are supposed to be more significant, as Tunisia is an emerging parliamentary democracy.
But several candidates have called for presidential powers to be beefed up, despite years of dictatorship under Ben Ali.