Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover
Above, fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect the bunker of the Daesh militants under a stadium in Raqqa, Syria on October 18. (Reuters)
Updated 20 October 2017

Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

RAQQA, Syria: US-backed forces who captured Raqqa from the Daesh group prepared to hand the Syrian city over to a civilian authority, with some of their fighters already headed to the next battle.
Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central Al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory.
The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh’s self-styled “caliphate.”
They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing.
Raqqa’s capture leaves the jihadists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighboring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to carry on the campaign.
“Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council,” said SDF commander Rojda Felat.
“After the end of military operations, a large part of the forces have moved out of Raqqa to other areas, including Deir Ezzor,” added Mustefa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.
At least 16 civilians including several children were killed in air strikes in Deir Ezzor Thursday believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, a monitor said.
“The civilians were killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates river near the town of Abu Kamal,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Abu Kamal is one of the few remaining urban strongholds of Daesh in Syria.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said two days of mopping-up operations in Raqqa had so far uncovered no additional Daesh fighters, but that interrogations of those who were captured or surrendered during the battle were ongoing.
“SDF intelligence is investigating them, including a number of foreigners,” he told AFP.
The city’s capture Tuesday came after the SDF seized Daesh’s last two main positions, the municipal stadium and national hospital, in quick succession.
Both sites have been heavily mined and remain to be cleared, SDF commanders said.
“There are bodies inside the hospital itself that we haven’t yet removed because of the mines,” said commander Clara Raqqa.
Responsibility for the city, which lies in ruins and empty of civilians, will be assumed by the Raqqa Civil Council, a body of local officials formed six months ago.
The official handover is expected to come as early as Friday, but the body has already spent months working on reconstruction plans.
They will inherit responsibility for a ghost town that lacks basic services and infrastructure.
On the city’s streets, blankets that had been hung in front of windows to shield residents from the view of snipers fluttered in the wind, but there was no movement otherwise.
A few scrawny cats and dogs picked their way over the rubble that is strewn across the city, up to 80 percent of which was described as uninhabitable by the UN last month.
In Al-Naim square, fighters of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female branch of the YPG, gathered to hold a press conference celebrating their contribution to the city’s capture.
Some of the battle’s commanders were female, a point of pride for Kurdish forces, particularly given Daesh’s infamous oppression of women.
“Raqqa was liberated by the will of free women,” the YPJ said in a statement.
SDF flags now cover Al-Naim, where the jihadists once displayed the severed heads of their enemies.
In the center of the square, a large yellow flag has been raised, featuring a photograph of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan heads the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, where it is considered a “terrorist” group.
He is idolized by many in the YPG, which Ankara says is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Daesh captured mostly Sunni Arab Raqqa in 2014, and under its rule the city became infamous for gruesome abuses and as a planning center for attacks abroad.
Its loss deals a major blow to the jihadists’ dreams of statehood, and comes after their July defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul, their other major urban stronghold.


Yemen’s President says Houthis reacted with violence to peace efforts

Updated 1 min 20 sec ago

Yemen’s President says Houthis reacted with violence to peace efforts

Yemen’s President says Houthis reacted with violence to peace efforts
  • The Yemeni President said the Houthis went on committing crimes and massacres against the civilians
  • The FM of the UK Raab called on the Houthis to meet with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen and end their blocking of peace

DUBAI: Yemen’s president said the government has reacted constructively to peace efforts, but said the Houthi militia responded with more violence, state news agency SabaNew reported.
“We have dealt constructively with all efforts and calls for peace by the UN and International Community, we frequently offered concessions in order to stop bloodshed and put an end to our peoples’ suffering after more than six years, but this terrorist militia responded with more escalation,” SabaNew quoted Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s address to the people on the occasion of Eid.
He said the Houthis “went on committing crimes and massacres against the civilians, firing ballistic missiles and drones on the cities, residential areas in our country and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a move [that] reflected the behavior of these militias of terrorism, malice, criminal tendency and acting to serve the Iranian intention to trigger wars and crises,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister of the United Kingdom Dominic Raab called on the Houthis to meet with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen and end their blocking of peace.
“We continue to witness harrowing stories of Yemeni children being forced into battle and women being kidnapped in Houthi territory. The UK calls on the Houthis to meet with @OSE_Yemen and end their Marib offensive & the blocking of peace,” he tweeted.


UN Security Council urges immediate cease-fire in Yemen

UN Security Council urges immediate cease-fire in Yemen
Updated 13 May 2021

UN Security Council urges immediate cease-fire in Yemen

UN Security Council urges immediate cease-fire in Yemen
  • Council singles out military escalation by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in the oil-rich central province of Marib

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council called for an immediate halt to fighting in Yemen on Wednesday, saying that only a lasting cease-fire and political settlement can end the six-year conflict in the Arab world’s poorest nation and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In calling for a cessation of hostilities, the council singled out the military escalation by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in the oil-rich central province of Marib, the internationally recognized government’s last stronghold in Yemen’s northern half. The offensive has put at risk an estimated 1 million civilians who have fled there since 2015 to escape fighting elsewhere.
The council’s press statement followed a briefing by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who said he couldn’t emphasize enough that the more than yearlong Houthi offensive “has caused an astonishing loss of life, including children who have been mercilessly thrown into the battle.”
Displaced people in Marib are living in fear for their lives, he said, “and the offensive has been until now constantly disrupting peace efforts.”
In 2014, the Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen’s north, driving the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile. A US-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year against the Houthis seeking to restore Hadi’s rule.
The intensified fighting in Marib has come amid an international and regional diplomatic push to end the conflict.
“The longer the Marib offensive goes on, the greater the risk to Yemen’s broader stability and social cohesion,” Griffiths warned. “It may lead to the transfer of conflict to other areas in Yemen, including those which have remained mercifully far from the main theaters of conflict. Yemen is an unstable country, easily destabilized.”
Griffiths expressed fear the Marib offensive may suggest to some that the war can be won militarily, but he said military conquest will only fuel further cycles of violence and unrest. He said Yemen can only be governed effectively by an “inclusive partnership” of “different political forces and components.”
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that about 25,000 people have fled the fighting in Marib, many for the second or third time. If the fighting doesn’t stop, he said, “aid agencies fear up to 385,000 people could be displaced in the coming months.”
Lowcock warned that “famine is still stalking the country, with five million people just a step away from starving,” and COVID-19 cases are still surging, “pushing the health care system to collapse.” Famine, disease and other miseries are the result of the war and that is why “it is so important to stop the fighting,” he said.
Since March 2020, Griffiths has been trying to get the Houthis and the government to commit to a nationwide cease-fire, to reopen Sanaa airport to commercial traffic, ensure an uninterrupted flow of fuel and commodities through the main port of Hodeida, and to resume a political process aimed at reaching a political settlement.
“I am here to say that a deal is still very much possible,” Griffiths told the council.
“There is strong international backing and there is regional momentum for the UN’s efforts,” he said, expressing gratitude to Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United States and others. They are working closely and “without any differences between us,” he said.
Griffiths said the differences between the parties in Yemen “are not unbridgeable” and “a deal can be achieved easily, very quickly,” if both sides agree.
But he told the council that on several occasions during negotiations, the Houthis refused to meet with him, including recently. “To say this sends a wrong signal is an understatement,” he said.
Security Council members expressed support for Griffiths “and expressed their expectation that the Houthis meet him soon.”
Shortly after the council meeting ended, Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres announced the appointment of Griffiths as the UN’s next humanitarian chief, replacing Lowcock. But Guterres said Griffiths will continue to serve as the UN’s top envoy for Yemen “until a transition has been announced.”
In the coming weeks, Griffiths said, all countries should push the parties, in particular the Houthis, to conclude negotiations so the fighting stops.
“And I would like to be able to resolve that before we meet again,” he said.


President Abbas says will continue to do ‘everything possible’ to defend the Palestinian people

President Abbas says will continue to do ‘everything possible’ to defend the Palestinian people
Updated 13 May 2021

President Abbas says will continue to do ‘everything possible’ to defend the Palestinian people

President Abbas says will continue to do ‘everything possible’ to defend the Palestinian people
  • Abbas says they would not accept the fait accompli that Israel wants to impose in Jerusalem
  • The Palestinian president demanded that US and Israel end to the occupation

LONDON: President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday that his government is doing everything possible to defend the Palestinian people.
The aging Palestinian leader said he was working to stop Israeli forces and settlers harming Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories.
His comments came at the start of a leadership meeting at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah to discuss the repercussions of “Israel’s aggression toward the Palestinian people.”
“The continued aggression of the occupation forces against our people everywhere, including the aggression on the Gaza Strip, exceeded all limits, throwing out all international norms and conventions,” Abbas said.
“This puts us in front of very difficult choices imposed by the national duty in defending our sanctities, our rights and our people,” he added.
The president said that “Jerusalem is a red line, it is the heart and soul of Palestine and its eternal capital, and there is no peace, security or stability except with its complete liberation.”
The Palestinian president said they would not accept the fait accompli that Israel wants to impose in Jerusalem by targeting the Palestinian presence.
He said Israel was carrying out war crimes and ethnic cleansing to remove the Arab Islamic identity of Jerusalem.
An angry Abbas, said this was being done by stealing homes and desecrating religious sites such as the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Directing his speech to the US and Israel, Abbas demanded an end to the occupation, adding that the Palestinians will never leave their homeland.
He said the Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood who are facing eviction by Israel, will not leave.


How Muslim faithful in Jerusalem savored the essence of Ramadan

How Muslim faithful in Jerusalem savored the essence of Ramadan
Updated 13 May 2021

How Muslim faithful in Jerusalem savored the essence of Ramadan

How Muslim faithful in Jerusalem savored the essence of Ramadan
  • The last 10 days of Ramadan are always special but in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque they are unique
  • Worshippers and students often have questions about life and sought solutions for daily issues

JERUSALEM: The last 10 days of the holy month of Ramadan are always special. In Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque they are unique — and charged.

On May 10, Israeli police, firing tear gas and rubber bullets, stormed the Haram Al-Sharif, which houses both Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. More than 300 people were injured in the ensuing violence.  

Before the unrest erupted there, Arab News spent four days in Jerusalem and talked to the faithful as they awaited Laylat Al-Qadr, the night of fate that falls on the 28th day of Ramadan and marks the date, according to Muslim scholars, when the Holy Qur’an was revealed.

Most worshippers stressed the spiritual dimension of their visits.

Mohammed Abdo, a laborer from Jerusalem’s Sur Baher neighborhood, said he liked to go to the mosque as often as possible but due to his work he usually visited for afternoon and evening prayers. “But my favorite is the dawn prayer. It feels very spiritual and heavenly,” he added.

Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic studies at Al-Quds University and holder of the Ghazali chair, said he is almost always at Al-Aqsa Mosque for noon prayers. “I give daily lectures and the best time for these spiritual talks is just before the noon prayers.”

He noted that worshippers and students often have questions about life and sought solutions for daily issues.

Palestinian worshippers arrive to pray outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on April 30, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“We try and deal with how the Islamic faith has a direct influence on our behavior. Whether it is in personal relations, work ethics, or issues of the environment, we talk about all these issues during our discussions,” he added.

He pointed out that there was great interest in international academic circles in the doctrines and thinking of Al-Ghazali, an influential Islamic theologian and a famous preacher.

Getting to Al-Aqsa is not easy. The nearest parking lot for those coming from outside the Old City is several kilometers away. A fleet of electric carts carry older and disabled people, but the majority have to make the long walk on cobbled streets.

Some enter via the Damascus Gate to the north and make their way up the Khan Al-Zayt and the Suq Al-Wad, two ancient thoroughfares, to the higher ground of Haram Al-Sharif.

Israeli security forces stand guard on Sept. 25, 2020 in front of the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem to prevent worshippers from reaching the Al-Aqsa mosque compound amid COVID-19 restrictions. (AFP file photo)

Others come via Lion’s Gate in the city’s eastern wall. Once inside the compound, there are separate entrances for men and women in the Dome of the Rock mosque. Inside, a small wooden barrier divides the genders.

In the separate Al-Aqsa structure, the southern Al-Qibly is reserved for men while the part close to the Bab Al-Rahmeh, another prayer section, is divided with men on the right side and women on the left.

The whole compound, which forms an esplanade that dominates the Old City, is maintained by the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf. Jordan held the Old City and the West Bank until 1967.

During Ramadan, the Waqf sets up special areas for hundreds of worshippers to break their fast. Many come from out of town either from within the 1948 borders of Israel or from various parts of the West Bank.

Israeli security forces keep watch as Palestinian worshippers attend the prayers of Eid al-Fitr outside the closed Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (AFP file photo)

This year and last, entering Israel from the West Bank has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only those who have been vaccinated have been able to obtain a permit to travel from the West Bank.

Before the May 10 incursion by the Israeli police into the Haram Al-Sharif, Israeli commanders had ordered the green-bereted border guards and plainclothes security to adopt a low profile.

At the beginning of the holy month, Israeli security forces cut off electricity to four minarets and blocked a plaza in front of the Damascus Gate, a major entrance to the Old City northwest of Al-Aqsa.

The commanders were trying to silence the call to prayer on the same evening as a Jewish remembrance event for fallen Israeli soldiers. On another date, they attempted to head off clashes between Palestinians and hardline Jewish protesters who shouted, “Death to Arabs.”

The atmosphere was further soured by attempts to evict Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood outside the Old City from buildings claimed by Jewish settlers. The US and EU appealed for calm.

Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian who tried to break through a security barrier to enter the the closed Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020.  (AFP file photo)

The mosque’s guards, who are employed by the Jordanian government, also kept a low profile as worshippers moved into and around the complex.

The Palestinian guards were monitoring visitors to ensure that they did not violate an agreement reached in 2014 in Amman between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then US Secretary of State John Kerry, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

The unwritten understanding stated that only Muslims may pray in Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock while all others may visit. The esplanade is, however, claimed by Jews to be the site of the First and Second Temples, which are sacred to the Jewish tradition. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

In Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the last 10 days of the holy month of Ramadan are always special. (Photo Credit: We One Agency, Jerusalem, Palestine)

The Waqf guards seek to head off attempts by hardline Jewish groups, such as the Temple Mount Faithful, who want to rebuild the third temple on the site. They may attempt to recite Jewish prayers as a sign of claiming sovereignty.

In the few hours separating the afternoon prayers from the evening prayers that follow the breaking of the fast or iftar, Al-Aqsa was quieter. Locals from the Old City returned to their homes to break the fast with their families, while outsiders were invited to a special corner of the mosque compound by various charities to share in a hot meal, drinks, and sweets.

Washing areas were available as well as drinking water for those who fasted through the day without drinking or eating.

In the evening, residents of the Old City came out of their houses to hold joint Taraweeh prayers with those who stayed in the mosque. Late evenings were spent in small and large group talks and religious studies.

Palestinian worshippers gather outside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound ahead of the third Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, on April 30, 2021. (AFP file photo)

Some stayed up all night for the suhoor breakfast. Many slept before being awakened to partake in a light meal before the imsaq (the time of abstaining) as the sun rose.

Early risers returned to the mosque for the special time in the early morning hours for the dawn prayers.

Some do not have the luxury of being able to spend a night in the Haram Al-Sharif, in what is the third-holiest site in Islam.

Nemeh Quteneh, from Beit Safafa, another district in east Jerusalem, was with her mother and aunt as they walked toward the Dome of the Rock, which houses the tip of Mount Moriah, for afternoon prayers.

She said: “My mother, Sufiana, can only come in the afternoon, but I prefer the early morning prayers. The air is calm and the quiet allows one to have that spiritual connection that this holy place allows.”

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Twitter: @daoudkuttab


UN peace envoy warns of ‘all-out war’ as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues

UN peace envoy warns of ‘all-out war’ as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues
Updated 12 May 2021

UN peace envoy warns of ‘all-out war’ as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues

UN peace envoy warns of ‘all-out war’ as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues
  • Tor Wennesland: Cease fire immediately. We are escalating toward an all-out war. Leaders on all sides must take responsibility for de-escalation
  • Wennesland: The cost of the war in Gaza is devastating and paid for by ordinary people. The UN is working with all parties to restore calm. Stop the violence now

GAZA CITY: The UN’s Middle East peace envoy on Wednesday warned of “all-out war” unless there was an “immediate ceasefire” as Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip saw a dramatic rise in the Palestinian death toll.

Loud explosions continued throughout the day as Israel pounded Hamas targets and forces in Gaza responded by launching hundreds of rockets deep into Israeli territory.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health said that at least 56 people had so far been killed, including 14 children, five women, and an elderly man, while more than 335 had been injured.

In a statement, Tor Wennesland, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said: “Cease fire immediately. We are escalating toward an all-out war. Leaders on all sides must take responsibility for de-escalation.

“The cost of the war in Gaza is devastating and paid for by ordinary people. The UN is working with all parties to restore calm. Stop the violence now.”

Palestinian and Israeli reports said efforts were being made by Egypt, the UN, and a number of other countries to restore calm and return to the ceasefire agreement.

The bloodshed was triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Military exchanges have escalated over recent days, sparking international pleas for an end to the violence.

On Wednesday, Israel targeted a number of Hamas government buildings and houses, private cars, agricultural plots, and military training sites belonging to the movement and Islamic Jihad were also hit.

Bombing was stepped up following the destruction of two residential towers in Gaza City, and Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, retaliated by firing a barrage of rockets toward Tel Aviv and Beersheba. The commander of the Gaza brigade, Basem Issa, along with others were reported to have been killed during the strikes.

The Islamic Jihad announced that a number of its leaders belonging to its missile unit, most notably Muhammad Abu Al-Ata, died when an apartment in the center of Gaza City was hit.

Al-Qassam Brigades and Al-Quds Brigades fired hundreds of rockets toward Tel Aviv and Beersheba — cities far from Gaza that had not previously been targeted.

Mother-of-three Sherine Awad, 38, told Arab News: “The terror and fear do not stop. After the towers were hit, I moved from my apartment because it is in a high-rise. I moved to my friend’s house with my children, but last night a house was bombed near the place I took shelter in.

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“This is not life. We cannot bear all this. The bombing does not stop, and the terrifying sounds are nonstop. My children are in a state of fear and shock. Our life has taken a U-turn from what was planned for the Eid reception.”

The streets of Gaza City were mostly empty on Wednesday except for some pedestrians and cars, while most of the shops remained closed barring some grocery stores.

Ahmed Al-Kahlout, a grocer on Nasr Street, told Arab News that on the last day of Ramadan people still needed supplies and “fear does not prevent them from buying food.

“There are deaths, but people in their homes want to eat. This is not the first time Gaza has faced an escalation, but this time it is the most severe since the 2014 war,” he said.

Despite both sides in the conflict threatening further bombing, Palestinians in Gaza are hoping the latest round of bloodshed and destruction will end soon.

“We hope this will end. It will definitely end, but when? Nobody knows. Hopefully, it will be soon,” Awad said.