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.


Militant sentenced to 19 years for role in Benghazi attacks

Updated 39 min 46 sec ago

Militant sentenced to 19 years for role in Benghazi attacks

  • Al-Imam is the second militant convicted in the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel
  • The head of the extremist militia who directed the siege, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was convicted in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison

NEW YORK: A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a Libyan militant to more than 19 years in prison for his role in the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including the US ambassador.
A jury convicted Mustafa Al-Imam last year of conspiring to support the extremist militia that launched the fiery assaults on the US compounds but deadlocked on 15 other counts.
The attacks, aimed at killing American personnel, prompted a political fracas in which Republicans accused the Obama administration of a bungled response.
Al-Imam was sentenced to a total of 236 months behind bars. He is the second militant convicted in the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, communications specialist Sean Smith and security officers Tyrone Snowden Woods and Glen Anthony Doherty.
The head of the extremist militia who directed the siege, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was convicted in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Khattala was accused of driving to the diplomatic mission on Sept. 11, 2012, and breaching the main gate with militants who attacked with assault rifles, grenades and other weapons.
The initial attack killed Stevens and Smith and set the mission ablaze. Woods and Doherty were later killed at a CIA annex.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Washington asked US District Judge Christopher Cooper to send a message to others contemplating attacks on Americans overseas, saying Al-Imam deserved the maximum 35-year sentence.
“In the current geopolitical environment, terrorists must understand that there are harsh consequences for attacking diplomatic posts and harming US personnel — particularly a US ambassador,” Assistant US Attorney John Cummings wrote in a court filing.
Defense attorneys said Al-Imam made a “tremendous mistake” by damaging and looting US property after the attacks. But they insisted there was no evidence he intended to harm any Americans, noting jurors could not reach a verdict on the murder charges Al-Imam faced.
“Mustafa Al-Imam is a frail, uneducated and simple man,” they wrote in a court filing. “He is not a fighter, an ideologue or a terrorist. He is a former convenience store clerk whose main loves in life are soccer and family.”
Al-Imam was tried in a civilian court despite the Trump administration’s earlier contention that such suspects are better sent to Guantanamo Bay. His arrest, five years after the attack, was the first publicly known operation since President Donald Trump took office targeting those accused of involvement in Benghazi.
Prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence that Al-Imam “directly caused” the killings at the US compounds. But they said he aligned himself with Khattala and acted as his “eyes and ears” at the height of the attacks.
During a four-week trial in Washington, prosecutors pointed to phone records that showed Al-Imam was in the vicinity of the mission and placed an 18-minute call to Khattala during a “pivotal moment” of the attacks.
Al-Imam also entered the US compound, prosecutors said, and took sensitive material that identified the location of the CIA annex about a mile away from the mission as the evacuation point for Department of State personnel.
In interviews with law enforcement following his 2017 capture in Misrata, Libya, he admitted stealing a phone and map from the US mission.