Regime-Russia assault kills 6 in Syria

Onlookers gather at the scene of a reported Russian air strike in the village of Al-Daher in Syria’s northwestern Idlib on September 11, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2019

Regime-Russia assault kills 6 in Syria

  • On Tuesday, Russia carried out its first air strikes in the area since the cease-fire began
  • The cease-fire is the second since Damascus escalated its operations in the area in April

BEIRUT: Regime and Russian fire has killed at least six civilians in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, a war monitor said on Saturday, two weeks after Moscow declared a cease-fire in the opposition-dominated region. The truce, which brought a halt to four months of devastating bombardment on Idlib province by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia, had largely held apart from sporadic artillery fire and airstrikes.
But on Tuesday, Russia carried out its first airstrikes in the area since the cease-fire began, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On Friday, regime rocket fire on the towns of Maaret Al-Numan and Kafranbel in southern Idlib province killed five civilians including a child, the Observatory said.
A sixth civilian was killed in a Russian airstrike in the rural west of the province, it added.
That brought to 11 the number killed since the cease-fire came into effect, according to the Britain-based monitor, which has a network of contacts across the war-torn country.
The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The region of around 3 million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition to forces backing Syria’s Bashar Assad.
The Observatory on Saturday reported regime fire in various parts of southern Idlib, including close to a Turkish military observation post.
Russian air raids have also targeted hard-line fighters in Idlib’s western countryside and nearby parts of Latakia, it said.
The cease-fire is the second since Damascus escalated its operations in the area in April, which have since left at least 980 civilians dead, according to Observatory figures, and which the UN says have forced more than 400,000 people to flee.
Besieged
Meanwhile, Syrian state media is accusing militant groups of preventing civilians on Saturday from leaving the last opposition-held stronghold in the country’s northwest through a corridor government troops are securing.
The government has used such passageways before to allow residents to flee areas it is besieging ahead of a military offensive.
Last month, Syrian officials declared a “humanitarian corridor” at the southern tip of the stronghold while troops besieged the area.
State-run TV Al-Ikhbariya said no civilians came out via the corridor from Idlib province, controlled by militants dominated by opposition groups, for the second straight day. Al-Ikhabariya said 20 vehicles were barred by militants from reaching the Abu Dhuhur crossing, including by shooting at those looking to leave.
State news agency SANA also said militants shot at motorists in Idlib, denying them an exit. There was no independent confirmation.
The Abu Dhuhur crossing links between opposition-controlled Idlib, home to nearly 3 million people, and government-controlled areas. State television stations showed buses and medical teams waiting at the crossing.
UN and aid groups question the government’s use of such corridors amid military offensives and sieges and in the absence of any independent monitors. The UN says such exit corridors should be guaranteed from all sides to allow people to use them voluntarily.
Syrian forces have made major ground advances on opposition-held Idlib in recent weeks despite a short-lived cease-fire. The government military offensive since late April has forced nearly half a million people to be displaced within the stronghold, and left about 1,000 killed.
David Miliband, who heads the aid group International Rescue Committee, told a UN panel on northwest Syria on Friday that the breakdown of the recent cease-fire “makes us fear that the worst may be yet to come.” He called for an immediate end to the violence against civilians and an accountability mechanism to investigate attacks against civilians.
IRC supports 24 health facilities and 19 ambulances across northwest Syria, including eight who came under attack. Since April, 51 health facilities have come under attack, mostly in government airstrikes.


Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

Updated 38 min 6 sec ago

Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

  • “Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Al-Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father said
  • Twenty-four hours later, hei was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home”

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi blogger resurfaced Friday a day after he was seized by masked gunmen, his father said, as Amnesty International denounced a “climate of fear” in the country after protests and deadly violence.
Shujaa Al-Khafaji’s family said armed men had snatched him from his home on Thursday without identifying themselves or showing an arrest warrant.
Khafaji’s Facebook page, Al-Khowa Al-Nadifa (Arabic for “Those Who Have Clean Hands“), carries posts on political and social issues and has some 2.5 million followers.
“Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father, Fares Al-Khafaji, told AFP.
He said they seized his son’s phones and computers, but were not violent.
Twenty-four hours later, Khafaji was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home,” his father added.
The report of Khafaji’s seizure sparked an outcry from activists and influential political leaders.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault against activists in Iraq” by authorities.
“The Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in the security forces and dismantle the climate of fear they have deliberately created to stop Iraqis from peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, the group’s Middle East research director.
The group said other activists, including a doctor and a lawyer, were “forcibly disappeared more than 10 days ago,” and called on Iraqi authorities to reveal their whereabouts.
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr wrote on Twitter that “any act of aggression (against journalists or activists)... by the state constitutes an attack on freedom of speech.”
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s parliamentary bloc called on the government “to stop abuses of free media.”
Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces.
During the protests, unidentified armed men in uniforms raided several local television stations in Baghdad, destroying their equipment and intimidating their staff.
Journalists and activists also reported receiving threats, mostly by phone, from unidentified callers accusing them of having sided with the protesters.
Khafaji faced online harassment last month after a string of attacks on bases of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups.
The group on Thursday denied any involvement in the disappearance of activists, threatening legal action against anyone making such accusations.
But according to Amnesty, the Hashed was involved in at least one abduction — that of lawyer Ali Hattab, who represented protesters and was seized on October 8 in the southern city of Amara.
He was snatched by “suspected members of a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed),” Amnesty said quoting Hattab’s relatives.
It happened two days after “two armed men from the PMU came to (his) home to warn him to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill him,” Amnesty added.