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.

Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa

Updated 31 min 58 sec ago

Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa

  • Sabafon, Yemen’s oldest and largest mobile operator, has almost four million subscribers

AL-MUKALLA: A major Yemeni mobile operator is relocating its main offices and operations from Houthi-held Sanaa to Aden, citing harassment and blackmail by the rebels.

Sabafon, Yemen’s oldest and largest mobile operator, has almost four million subscribers. It said it was moving its headquarters and servers to the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the internationally recognized government.

“The company has recently faced many difficulties and obstacles as a result of the Houthi militia seizure of the company’s headquarters in Sanaa,” the company said.

The Iran-backed Houthis had seized control of Sabafon’s headquarters, dismissed its manager, replaced him with an allied military officer and looted the company’s revenues, it added.

The government has long sought to convince Yemeni companies and banks to move their headquarters and main operations from Houthi-controlled territories, including Sanaa, to liberated areas in order to deprive the rebels of revenue. 

Government officials believe the Houthis are using the revenue from banks, telecom firms and Hodeidah seaport to finance their military activities. 

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the relocation of the central bank’s headquarters to Aden in 2016 to end the rebels’ plundering of bank reserves.

Sabafon said the president, his government and the Arab coalition had blessed the move and urged the remaining mobile operators to follow suit. 

Abdullah Al-Awadhi, a Sabafon spokesman, said that the company and other telecom firms in Sanaa had been subjected to Houthi extortion and harassment. “The companies in areas controlled by the Houthis would have to either shutter to move (to Aden),” he told Arab News.

When the Houthis heard about the company’s intention to leave Sanaa, they stepped up their attacks on the company’s facilities and harassed the workers. 

“We are paying a price for our move," Al-Awadhi said, adding that the Houthis retaliated by blocking Sanaa-based mobile companies from calling Sabafon subscribers and cutting off internet services. 

On Wednesday Sabafon subscribers complained that they could not receive or make calls to other companies. “We demand the ministry (of telecommunication) pressure the other operators to reconnect with us and to connect us with the international internet provider,” Al-Awadhi said.

Yemeni army commanders and military experts believe that the Houthis’ monopoly on telecom services have given them leverage on the battlefield. 

The Houthis have been accused of tapping the phones of their enemies, even inside government-controlled areas. The Houthis sometimes cut off mobile, landline and internet services before invading new areas, Yemeni officers said.

Abdul Basit Al-Baher, a Yemeni army spokesman in Taiz, said that the relocation of mobile companies to Aden would remove an important financial source for the Houthis as well as prevent them from spying on government forces. 

“Liberating the telecommunication system from the Houthis would mean securing the most important factors for victory which (are) communications, control and confidentiality of military information,” Al-Baher told Arab News, adding that the Houthis usually identified the location of government officers and military gatherings after monitoring their mobiles and calls.