Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town
A convoy of ambulances and other vehicles evacuating fighters and injured members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a well as wounded civilians, leaves the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain on Oct. 20, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2019

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town
  • The evacuation opens the way for Turkish-backed forces to take over in first pullback under US-brokered cease-fire
  • The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad

RAS AL-AIN, Syria: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fully withdrew from a Turkish-encircled town in northern Syria on Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider pullout under a cease-fire deal.
Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the war-torn country’s north.
A US-brokered cease-fire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a buffer area Ankara wants to create on Syrian territory along its southern frontier.
The deal requires the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria — to pull out of the border zone extending 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory, the length of which is not clear.
The Kurds have agreed to withdraw from an Arab-majority stretch of border from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ain, around 120 kilometers (70 miles).
But Turkey ultimately wants a much longer “safe zone” to stretch 440 kilometers along the frontier.
On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the 120-kilometer zone as soon as they were allowed out of Ras Al-Ain, which was besieged by Turkey’s troops and Syrian proxies.
The SDF later said its fighters had completely evacuated the border town as part of the truce agreement, after Turkey’s defense ministry confirmed they were departing.
An AFP reporter on the ground saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.
Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.
In the town of Tal Tamr, Samira, 45, was among women and men carrying SDF flags awaiting the convoy from Ras Al-Ain.
“I can’t believe Sari Kani has fallen,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Ras Al-Ain.
“We’re saluting our fighters who defended us, though the great powers betrayed our people,” she told AFP.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US special forces from northern Syria in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.
The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against Daesh in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered up to 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.
The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armored vehicles escorted by helicopters drive eastwards on the highway, some flying the American flag.
The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone.
Sunday’s pullout, the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week, left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa empty of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.
Since October 9, Turkish-led bombardment and fire has killed 114 civilians and displaced at least 300,000 people from their homes, the Observatory says, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
More than 250 SDF fighters and 190 pro-Ankara combatants have lost their lives, it says.
Ankara says it has lost five soldiers.
On Sunday, the Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters executed three civilians who were hiding in an industrial part of Ras Al-Ain.
On Twitter, Trump cited Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the cease-fire was “holding up very nicely.”
“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.
The Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syrian said they were “perplexed” by Trump’s statement on a successful truce.
“Turkey and its mercenaries have absolutely not abided by it and repeatedly violated it,” they said in a statement.
“Trump saying the Kurds have been resettled in new areas opened the way to ethnic cleansing,” it warned, calling for international protection for the displaced.
International observers have warned that Turkey’s incursion could force Kurdish fighters to redeploy from prisons and camps where they are guarding thousands of suspected Daesh fighters and family members, making way for jailbreaks.
That has raised fears of a resurgence by the extremists, whom the SDF expelled from their last scrap of territory in March but who continue to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas.


Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles
Updated 25 min ago

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles

Abu Dhabi to reopen cinemas with reduced capacity, Dubai bans cafes offering drinks in baby bottles
  • Earlier in February, the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee approved closing all cinemas
  • Dubai authorities have banned local cafes from serving drinks in baby bottles to prevent the spread of coronavirus

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi will reopen its cinemas at a reduced 30 percent capacity while adhering to coronavirus precautionary measures, state news agency WAM reported.
Earlier in February, the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis and Disasters Committee approved closing all cinemas.
Meanwhile, Dubai authorities have banned local cafes from serving drinks in baby bottles to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Dubai Economy said in a tweet.
“The Commercial Compliance & Consumer Protection (CCCP) Sector in Dubai Economy directed coffee shops to stop serving drinks in baby bottles,” DED said.
There has been a spike in new daily cases since the beginning of the year, largely due to the high number of tourists traveling to the country over the holiday period.

The UAE has recorded 2,959 new coronavirus infections, 1,901 recoveries and 14 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of cases now stands at 408,236 with 391,205 recoveries and 1,310 deaths.


Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source
Updated 36 min 59 sec ago

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

Fighting in Yemen’s Marib kills 90 in 24 hours: govt military source

DUBAI: Fierce fighting between Yemeni pro-government forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels has killed at least 90 combatants on both sides in the past 24 hours, government military sources said Saturday.
The Shiite rebels launched an offensive last month to seize Marib, the last stronghold in northern Yemen of pro-government forces who are backed by a Arab-led military coalition.
The clashes in the oil-rich province left 32 dead among government forces and loyalist tribes, while 58 Houthi rebels were killed in coalition air strikes, the sources told AFP.
They said heavy clashes broke out on six fronts as government forces were able to counter attacks by the Houthis who managed to advance only on the Kassara front northwest of Marib city.
The fighting also left dozens of people wounded, the sources added.
The loss of Marib would be a huge blow for the Yemeni government, but would also threaten catastrophe for civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in desolate camps in the surrounding desert.
It would also be a major setback for Saudi Arabia, which has been the target of increasingly frequent Houthi missile attacks in recent weeks.
Shrapnel from Houthi drones intercepted by the Saudis on Friday wounded two civilians, including a 10-year-old, in the southwest of the kingdom, the official SPA news agency reported.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged the Houthis to halt their offensive in Marib, as he announced $191 million in aid at a donors' conference.
"Aid alone will not end the conflict. We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war... so the United States is reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war," he said.
The United Nations had sought to raise $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors, but only $1.7 billion was offered.


Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
Updated 06 March 2021

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace

Top Shiite cleric tells pope Iraq Christians should live in peace
  • The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history
  • Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,”

NAJAF, Iraq: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the authority for most of the world’s Shiite Muslims, told Pope Francis in a historic meeting in the Iraqi city of Najaf Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in “peace.”
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history.
Pope Francis is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.
The meeting between the two elderly men lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani’s office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis, 84, for visiting the holy city of Najaf.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,” it said.
His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.
The Pope had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Muhammad’s relative, who is buried in the holy city.
“People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity,” read the banners.
The meeting is one of the highlights of Francis’s four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades.
It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.
“We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr Al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.
Pope Francis, a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, has met top Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Sistani, meanwhile, is followed by most of the world’s 200 million Shiites — a minority among Muslims but the majority in Iraq — and is a national figure for Iraqis.
“Ali Sistani is a religious leader with a high moral authority,” said Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a specialist in Islamic studies.
Sistani began his religious studies at the age of five, climbing through the ranks of Shiite clergy to grand ayatollah in the 1990s.
While Saddam Hussein was in power, he languished under house arrest for years, but emerged after the US-led invasion toppled the repressive regime in 2003 to play an unprecedented public role.
In 2019, he stood with Iraqi protesters demanding better public services and rejecting external interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
On Friday in Baghdad, Pope Francis made a similar plea.
“May partisan interests cease, those outside interests who don’t take into account the local population,” Francis said.
Sistani has had a complicated relationship with his birthplace Iran, where the other main seat of Shiite religious authority lies: Qom.
While Najaf affirms the separation of religion and politics, Qom believes the top cleric — Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — should also govern.
Iraqi clerics and Christian leaders said the visit could strengthen Najaf’s standing compared to Qom.
“The Najaf school has great prestige and is more secular than the more religious Qom school,” Ayuso said.
“Najaf places more weight on social affairs,” he added.
In Abu Dhabi in 2019, the Pope met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and a key authority for Sunni Muslims.
They signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue, which Catholic clerics hoped Sistani would also endorse, but clerical sources in Najaf told AFP it is unlikely.
While the Pope has been vaccinated and encouraged others to get the jab, Sistani’s office has not announced his vaccination.
Iraq is currently gripped by a resurgence of coronavirus cases, recording more than 5,000 infections and more than two dozen deaths daily.
Following his visit to the grand ayatollah, the pope will head to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur — believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, common patriarch of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — where he will host an interfaith service, with many of Iraq’s other religious minorities in attendance.


Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo
Updated 06 March 2021

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

Officials: 18 killed as truck crashes into bus outside Cairo

CAIRO: A trailer-truck crashed into a microbus, killing at least 18 people and injuring five others south of the Egyptian capital, authorities said.
The country’s chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement the crash took place late Friday on a highway near the town of Atfih, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Cairo.
The Cairo-Assiut eastern road, located on the eastern side of the Nile River, links Cairo to the country’s southern provinces and is known for speeding traffic.
Police authorities said the truck’s tire exploded, causing it to overturn and collide with the microbus. The victims were taken to nearby hospitals, the statement said. The truck driver was arrested.
Traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
The country’s official statistics agency says around 10,000 road accidents took place in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.


Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday
Updated 06 March 2021

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday

Israel to further ease its coronavirus restrictions from Sunday
  • Green passport holders can enter cafes and restaurants and choose to sit indoors or outdoors
  • At the airport, Israel will only allow 3,000 Israelis to enter the country per day

DUBAI: Israel announced it will further ease its coronavirus measures from Sunday, national daily The Jerusalem Post reported.
Students between grades seven and 10 will attend classes physically in green, yellow and orange cities, the report said.
The country’s “traffic system” has identified “green” cities as those with lowest COVID-19 cases, while the second lowest infection rates are “yellow,” followed by “orange” and “red.”
Israel had also required people entering cafes, restaurants and hotels to submit a green passport, which can be obtained through the health ministry for anyone who has taken the two shots of the coronavirus vaccine for at least a week.
But “children below the age of 16, who are not allowed to be vaccinated, will not be able to accompany their vaccinated parents,” the report added.
Green passport holders can enter cafes and restaurants and choose to sit indoors or outdoors.
Non-vaccinated people can only sit outside. Hotels will also reopen, allowing holders of the passport to access a wide range of activities.
At the airport, Israel will only allow 3,000 Israelis to enter the country per day.
New arrivals will be required to quarantine and must present a negative COVID-19 test result and be tested on arrival.
Meanwhile, the Coronavirus Knowledge and Information Center has warned that the country may witness another outbreak, as around 5 percent of Israel’s population have tested positive each day.
The health ministry said more than 4.9 million people have taken at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 3.6 million who have already taken their second shot.
More than half of the country’s 9 million-strong population have already received the two recommended doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine since the inoculation drive began in December.
Israel has registered more than 796,000 cases of Covid-19, including over 5,800 deaths.