‘Russian’ bombardment threatens Syrian cease-fire

Syrian men look at a destroyed sheep pen following a Russian airstrike in the village of Al-Daher in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2019

‘Russian’ bombardment threatens Syrian cease-fire

  • UN investigators link US, Syrian and Russian forces to war crimes

BEIRUT, GENEVA: Jets believed to be Russian bombed opposition-held areas in northwest Syria on Wednesday amid increased shelling of towns by the Syrian army that threatened the collapse of a fragile Russian-brokered cease-fire, two opposition sources and residents said. The jets that flew overnight at high altitudes struck a village near Kafr Takhareem and an area near the town of Darkoush, both in rural areas in western Idlib province, two opposition sources and a resident in the area said.
The overnight bombing raid came hours after airstrikes hit a part of the northwest for the first time since the truce was declared 11 days ago, according to activists and a monitor. Moscow denied conducting the first strikes.
Russia said the Syrian regime unilaterally agreed to a truce on Aug. 31 in opposition-controlled Idlib, where a “de-escalation zone” was brokered two years ago between Russia and Turkey.
The opposition says Russian special forces and Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian forces have also breached the cease-fire by trying several times to storm opposition-held areas in the last week only to be repelled so far.

UN report
Meanwhile, UN investigators said on Wednesday that airstrikes by US-led coalition forces in Syria have killed or wounded many civilians, indicating that required precautions were ignored and war crimes may have been committed.

FASTFACT

The opposition says Russian special forces and Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian army have also breached the cease-fire by trying several times to storm rebel-held areas in the last week only to be repelled so far.

Syrian regime and allied Russian warplanes are also conducting a deadly campaign that appears to target medical facilities, schools, markets and farmland and which may also amount to war crimes, the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.
The investigators also accused Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an opposition alliance formerly known as Nusra Front that is the dominant armed group in Idlib, of firing rockets indiscriminately and killing civilians.
The eight-year-old war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and forced 13 million people from their homes, half of whom have left their shattered homeland.
Backed by US-led coalition air power in a fight to oust Daesh, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include Kurdish fighters, retook the group’s last major stronghold of Hajjin in eastern Syria in late December.
The coalition’s Al-Jazeera Storm operation resulted in a high number of civilian casualties, including in a series of strikes on Jan. 3 in Sha’fah, south of Hajjin, that killed 16 civilians including 12 children, the UN report said.
“The Commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that international coalition forces may not have directed their attacks at a specific military objective, or failed to do so with the necessary precaution,” it said.
“Launching indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians amounts to a war crime in cases in which such attacks are conducted recklessly,” it added.
Coalition officials could not be reached immediately for comment on the report.
Night raids by SDF forces backed by coalition helicopter gunships killed and wounded civilians in Shahil and other parts of Deir Ezzor province, in further apparent violations of international law, the investigators said.
Syrian regime forces carried out repeated airstrikes in Saraqib, in northwest Idlib province on March 9, damaging Al-Hayat women’s and children’s hospital, despite pro-regime forces being aware of its coordinates, the report said.
In Idlib on May 14, pro-regime forces “airdropped between two and four missiles on a fish market and primary school for girls in Jisr Al-Shughur,” killing at least 8 civilians, it said.
“Such attacks may amount to the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel,” it said.
The Syrian army denies its strikes target civilians and says its forces only bomb militants associated with hard-line groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
The report covers the year to July and is based on nearly 300 interviews and analysis of satellite imagery, photographs and videos.


Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

Updated 26 min 13 sec ago

Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS, Tunisia: A jailed media magnate and an independent outsider appeared likely to face off in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, after a roller coaster first-round race in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.

Official preliminary results are expected in the next couple of days from Sunday’s voting, in which corruption, unemployment and Islamic extremism were among key campaign issues. A second-round vote is expected by Oct. 13, the electoral commission chief said.

An exit poll by agency Sigma Conseil forecast what would be a surprising result: A top showing of 19.5% for independent Rais Saied, a constitutional law professor without a party.

Tycoon Nabil Karoui, jailed since last month on money laundering and tax evasion charges, was predicted to come in second with 15.5%, according to the poll.

Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory, and his wife Salwa said his legal team is pushing for his release as soon as Monday. She read a letter he wrote from jail in which he said the apparent results reflected “the Tunisian people’s wish to see change, to say no to injustice, no to poverty, no to marginalization and yes to a fair state.”

The polling agency projected the candidate of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, would come in third, followed by Defense Minister Abdeldrim Zbidi and then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who had been considered a top contender.

Sigma Conseil said it questioned 38,900 people at 778 of Tunisia’s 4,554 polling stations, spread out over 27 of the country’s 33 regions. It claimed the poll had a margin of error of 1%.

The electoral commission announced that overall turnout was a relatively low 45%. If no candidate wins more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, the election goes to a second round. The exact date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

Both Saied and Karoui promised to fight unemployment, a key problem in Tunisia that also helped drive its 2011 revolution.

Saied has no political background but notably picked up support among young voters with his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background. Corruption frustrates many voters, which might have increased the appeal of an outsider candidate.

Karoui meanwhile positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity. His arrest appears to have mobilized voters in the struggling provinces or those who feel sidelined in the Tunisian economy. Karoui was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite challenges. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the European Union and the United States, monitored the vote.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday as 7 million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active.

Sunday’s election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. His widow, Chadlia Saida Farhat, died Sunday at age 83, as Tunisians were voting.

This is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since the 2011 popular uprising brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered uprisings across the Arab world.

“The most important thing is that the vote be transparent ... and reflect the choice of voters,” said retired journalist Radhia Ziadi, alluding to the days when Ben Ali won election after election with well over 90% of the votes.

Tunis voter Sonia Juini summed up the overall sentiment as she cast her ballot, expressing hope the new president would make Tunisia more secure and “improve living conditions and take care of marginalized areas.”

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.