Syrian troops reach outskirts of key rebel-held air base

Members of the Syrian civil defense (known as the White helmets) evacuate wounded people in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma following air strikes on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Regime forces upped the pressure on two of the last rebel bastions in Syria, pounding the Eastern Ghouta enclave and the northern province of Idlib. (AFP)
Updated 10 January 2018

Syrian troops reach outskirts of key rebel-held air base

BEIRUT/PARIS: Syrian pro-government forces reached the outskirts of a sprawling rebel-held air base on Wednesday, the target of a wide-ranging offensive in the northwestern Idlib province.
Recapturing the Abu Zuhour air base, which the rebels took in 2015, has been one of the main goals of the government offensive launched in late October. The operations also aim to secure the road linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops are fighting Al-Qaeda-linked militants and other insurgents in different areas near Abu Zuhour. It said troops approaching from the south are now 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the base.
The government offensive has displaced tens of thousands of people, who have fled toward areas close to the Turkish border.
The push into Idlib province, which is mostly held by rebels, is the deepest by the government since it lost much of the area three years ago. The province is covered by a de-escalation agreement reached last year between Russia and Iran, who back President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed “grave concern” over the situation in Idlib, which is home to more than 2.6 million Syrians, including more than 1.1 million who fled fighting elsewhere in the country.
Zeid also condemned the upsurge in civilian casualties in the eastern suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, stressing that all parties are obliged under international law to distinguish between lawful military targets and civilians.
On Wednesday, more than two dozen people were killed in the government bombardment of eastern Ghouta and rebel shelling of the capital itself.
“The suffering of the people of Syria knows no end,” Zeid said in a statement about eastern Ghouta, where nearly 400,000 people are living under government siege.
“In Idlib, ground attacks and airstrikes have escalated as a rapidly-moving government offensive gains momentum, jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” said Zeid.
He said that at least 85 civilians, including 21 women and 30 children, have been killed and at least 183 injured in eastern Ghouta since Dec. 31.
The push toward Abu Zuhour came as the opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported several explosions in the coastal province of Latakia, an Assad stronghold. The Observatory said the blasts were the result of explosions in an arms depot east of Latakia.
State media did not report any blasts in the area.
Meanwhile, France said on Wednesday it was “extremely concerned” by the Syrian government offensive and demanded that commitments made at an international deal in Astana to reduce hostilities be respected.
“France condemns the intense bombardments carried out by the Assad regime’s air force and its allies in the Idlib region in recent days, particularly those targeting the civilian population and several hospitals,” France’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
It added that deliberately targeting health centers constituted a violation of international law.
The Syrian army, supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air power, began an offensive in late October in Hama province. By the end of last week, they had advanced into Idlib, close to an insurgent-held military airport.
The fighting and air strikes have forced more than 60,000 people to leave their homes since Nov. 1, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The area is part of a de-escalation zone agreement in the Kazakh capital Astana last year between Turkey, which supports rebel groups, and Assad allies Iran and Russia.
“We ask that the commitments made in Astana be respected, so that the violence stops as soon as possible. Safe, comprehensive and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need must be ensured immediately,” the ministry added.
It also said it was “outraged” by the ongoing siege in Eastern Ghouta.
In Moscow, the Russian military urged its Turkish counterparts to tighten monitoring of the opposition in northern Syria in the wake of a drone attack on Russian military bases in the country.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces repelled a series of drone attacks Saturday, adding that out of the 13 drones involved, seven were shot down and six were forced to land without inflicting any damage.
The official military daily Krasnaya Zvezda said the ministry sent letters to the Turkish military asking it to deploy observers to Idlib to ensure that rebels don’t launch more attacks.
Russia entered the civil war in 2015 to bolster government forces, helping them to secure a series of victories against Daesh as well as mainstream rebels.


First arrests in Iraq PM’s anti-corruption drive

Updated 7 min 28 sec ago

First arrests in Iraq PM’s anti-corruption drive

  • The arrests represent a rare instance in which current officials — usually deemed too well-connected to touch in Iraq’s graft-ridden system — are subject to judicial procedures
  • Iraq’s court system is known to be profoundly corrupt, with judges paid off to ignore evidence or make certain verdicts

BAGHDAD: Two Iraqi officials and a businessman have been arrested as part of a new anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi, government sources said Friday.
The arrests represent a rare instance in which current officials — usually deemed too well-connected to touch in Iraq’s graft-ridden system — are subject to judicial procedures.
Last month, Kadhemi formed a new committee to fight “major corruption files,” which made its first arrests this week, according to two Iraqi officials with knowledge of the committee’s work.
The head of Iraq’s Retirement Fund, Ahmad Al-Saedi, and the chairman of Baghdad’s Investment Commission, Shaker Al-Zameli, were detained on Wednesday.
Bahaa Abdulhussein, the head of electronic payment company Qi Card, was arrested upon arrival at Baghdad Airport on Thursday, the sources confirmed.
The officials declined to reveal any further details, including the charges against the men, where they were being held or what the judicial process would be.
“The committee is looking at portfolios that have been suspicious for a while, then its judicial commission issues arrest warrants,” one official told AFP.
Iraq’s court system is known to be profoundly corrupt, with judges paid off to ignore evidence or make certain verdicts.
Asked whether the courts could be trusted to see the process through, the official said the committee’s judges were building “solid” cases.
Both officials said the campaign was not targeted against any particular individuals, parties or business sectors.
“There is no target list — but you can expect more names to come,” the second official said.
Iraq is ranked one of the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.
Some $450 billion in public funds have vanished into the pockets of shady politicians and businessmen since the 2003 US-led invasion, a study by parliament found.
Every premier since the invasion has launched their own anti-corruption initiative, with varying degrees of success.
Kadhemi has made new appointments at the Central Bank of Iraq, the Integrity Commission and the Investment Commission in a bid to stem government graft.