Heavy clashes on edges of Syria's Ghouta despite ceasefire: Monitor

A civil Defence volunteer, known as the White Helmets, checks the site of a regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Saqba, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 23, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018

Heavy clashes on edges of Syria's Ghouta despite ceasefire: Monitor

DOUMA/BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces were engaged in heavy fighting with rebels in southern areas of opposition-held Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, a day after a UN call for a ceasefire, a monitor said.
The clashes on the edges of Eastern Ghouta killed at least 13 members of pro-regime forces and six fighters from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Violent clashes are taking place in the Al-Marj area, which is a frontline" of the rebel-held enclave near Damascus, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
"They are the most violent clashes to take place since the beginning of the month," he added.
Mohamed Alloush, a key figure in the Jaish al-Islam, tweeted that the rebels were "resisting" against bids by regime forces to enter the region.
According to the Observatory and a Syrian pro-regime newspaper, the clashes are aimed at paving the way for a ground offensive by government forces against Eastern Ghouta.
New regime strikes hit the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire to end one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria's civil war.
After days of diplomatic wrangling, the Security Council on Saturday adopted a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria "without delay", to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations.
The main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, where more than 500 people have died since the bombing campaign was launched a week ago, welcomed the UN vote and said they would abide by a ceasefire.
Rocket and artillery fire also hit at least three parts of Eastern Ghouta, including Douma on Sunday, Abdel Rahman said.
A woman was killed in artillery fire on the town of Hammuriyeh, said Abdel Rahman, whose group uses a network of sources across Syria to monitor the country's conflict.
Abdel Rahman said there were also clashes in the south of Eastern Ghouta between regime forces and fighters from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group. Fighting in the area is frequent so it was not immediately clear if the clashes represented a change on the ground.
Eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, is surrounded by government-controlled territory and its residents are unwilling or unable to flee.
Iran, Syria to continue attacking "terrorists" in Damascus suburbs
Iran and Syria will continue attacks on Damascus suburbs held by "terrorists", but elsewhere respect the UN resolution across Syria to allow aid access and medical evacuation, the Iranian military chief of staff was quoted as saying on Sunday.
"We will adhere to the ceasefire resolution, Syria will also adhere. Parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up (operations) will continue there," the semi-official news agency Tasnim quoted General Mohammad Baqeri as saying. 

Rebel groups welcome ceasefire
The two main rebel groups controlling the enclave -- Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman -- welcomed the Security Council demand, but vowed to fight back in case of renewed attacks.
Jaish al-Islam said it was "committed to protecting humanitarian convoys" but warned it would "immediately respond to any violation".
Faylaq al-Rahman said in a statement: "We confirm our full commitment to the (UN) resolution... Nevertheless, we reserve the right to defend the civilians of Eastern Ghouta in case of renewed attacks."
UN diplomats say Saturday's Security Council resolution was watered down to ensure it was not vetoed by Russia, which has provided diplomatic and military support to Assad's regime.
Language specifying that the ceasefire would start 72 hours after adoption was scrapped, replaced by "without delay," and the term "immediate" was dropped in reference to aid deliveries and evacuations.
In another concession, the ceasefire will not apply to operations against Dash or Al-Qaeda, along with "individuals, groups, undertakings and entities" associated with the terror groups.
Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate is present in Eastern Ghouta and Assad's regime routinely describes all of its opponents as "terrorists".
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has described Eastern Ghouta under the bombardment as "hell on Earth," said the ceasefire must be "immediately" implemented.


Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

Updated 06 August 2020

Beirut wakes up to a nightmare after port explosion kills 135

  • Cost of damage estimated at $15 billion
  • Port officials under house arrest

BEIRUT: Most people experience nightmares only when they sleep. On Wednesday, Beirut woke up to one.

The once bustling port area of the Lebanese capital, the site of Tuesday’s massive explosions, lay in ruins. Amid the flattened remains of warehouses, one of which had been used for years to store 2,750 tonnes of confiscated, highly explosive ammonium nitrate, all that remained standing was the twisted, mangled ruin of a grain silo, its precious contents now unusable.

Farther into the city, where the shock wave from the main blast caused devastation over a radius of more than five kilometers, residents mourned the dead, continued to search for missing loved ones and surveyed the ruins of their homes and businesses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated the cost of the damage at up to $15 billion, an impossible amount for an already bankrupt economy. Maroun Helou, the president of the Lebanese Contractors Syndicate, estimated that about 50,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The official death toll rose on Wednesday to 135. More than 5,000 people were injured and dozens are still missing, many of them believed to be port workers buried under the rubble at the heart of the explosion. The Lebanese flag flew at half-staff across the country as a mark of respect for the victims.

Lebanese Red Cross chief George Kettana described the blast and its aftermath as “an unprecedented disaster.” He added: “Seventy-five of our ambulances have transported 100 dead and more than 4,000 injured so far and there are (still people) missing.”

Surgeons continued to operate on the injured on Wednesday, after hospitals were overwhelmed on Tuesday. Some of the wounded told how they were taken to hospital on motorcycles driven by passers-by because ambulances were unable to reach them.

Security forces cordoned off central Beirut to prevent theft and looting. The few pedestrians that could be seen found it difficult to walk on streets covered in shattered glass.

One shop owner said: “I experienced all the wars that took place in Beirut, and the attacks against it, but I have never witnessed such devastation in my life. How will we survive? Everything has been destroyed. We are tired. We want salvation.”

Eleven members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, who were on boats anchored at the port, were injured by the blast. They were taken to Sidon for treatment, as emergency departments in Beirut struggled to cope with the flood of wounded. The tourist ship Orient Queen sank in the port. Two crew members were killed and seven injured.

Pierre Ashkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, said: “Ninety percent of Beirut’s hotels have been damaged and there are large numbers of wounded people in hotels, including employees and customers.”

Although silos used for storing wheat — which were rebuilt 15 years ago after suffering damage during the Civil War — were destroyed in the blast, analysts said this is not expected to cause a bread shortage. One expert said: “Wheat will not be stored during reconstruction of the silos. Instead, it will be unloaded from ships directly to trucks that will transport it to the mills.”

The Lebanese cabinet, which met for an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday, has declared a state of emergency lasting two weeks, which gives the military the authority to maintain national security. It also ordered that all those responsible for the management, storage, guarding and scrutiny of the chemicals in the warehouse at the port be placed under house arrest, and vowed that those responsible for the explosion would be identified.

While visiting the port to survey the damage, President Michel Aoun said: “The city of Beirut has turned into a disaster city. But the enormity of the shock will not prevent us from carrying out investigations and revealing the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, holding the officials and inattentive people accountable and imposing the most severe penalties against them.”

A senior judge instructed the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces to carry out swift investigations into the circumstances of the explosion, including identification of those tasked with ensuring the safe storage of the chemicals, and those in charge of maintenance work reportedly being carried out at the warehouse shortly before the blast.

The details of the confiscation of the ammonium nitrate about six years ago are still somewhat unclear. The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, said there had been correspondence about the chemicals at the time of the seizure and guards were assigned to them, but that port authorities had no authority to move or dispose of them. He added that the judiciary had issued instructions for a gap in a gate to be closed to protect the chemicals from damage or theft and this was implemented by port authorities.

There have been suggestions that welding work at or near the warehouse caused a fire that triggered the explosion.

Meanwhile, messages of support and promises of aid poured in from world leaders. The cabinet was informed that French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Lebanon on Thursday to “stress solidarity with the Lebanese in the ordeal that befell them.”

In a call to Prime Minister Hassan Diab, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged “the support of the United States for Lebanon, and its willingness to provide urgent assistance,” the PM’s office said.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri also visited the scene of the explosion. He was greeted at the nearby memorial to his father, Rafic Hariri, by protesters tried to throw stones at him.
Meanwhile dozens of aircraft loaded with medical aid, including field hospitals, were sent to Lebanon by Arab and other foreign countries.

However, Suleiman Haroun, the president of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, said: “The stock of medical supplies for hospitals is exhausted. We do not need field hospitals, but rather tools and supplies.”