Syrian army bombards rebels in birthplace of uprising

Syrian army bombards rebels in birthplace of uprising
Buses carrying rebels and their families are seen in Deraa, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on August 26, 2021. (SANA/via Reuters)
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Updated 29 August 2021

Syrian army bombards rebels in birthplace of uprising

Syrian army bombards rebels in birthplace of uprising
  • Residents said bodies of six people were pulled out of bombarded houses in the center of the Daraa

AMMAN: Syria’s military bombarded the last rebel enclave in the southern city of Daraa on Sunday, killing at least six people in one of the deadliest attacks in its siege of the birthplace of the country’s uprising, residents said.
The army declined to comment on the reports but said in a statement it was losing patience with what it called “armed groups and terrorists” in the neighborhood.
An elite division of the army, backed by Iranian militias, has been blocking food and fuel deliveries to Daraa al Balad to press rebels to surrender three years after government forces retook the rest of the area near the border with Jordan.
“They are using so-called elephant rockets indiscriminately,” Abu Jehad al Horani, a local official told Reuters, referring to improvised missiles. Explosions could be heard in the background.
Residents said bodies of six people were pulled out of bombarded houses in the center of the Daraa neighborhood which saw the first peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad in 2011.
The Syrian military’s pro-Iranian Fourth Division, the main force in the southern province, backed by Tehran-financed local militias, have encircled the bastion for two months.
Local officials, residents and some army officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the offensive is an attempt to undermine Russian efforts to resolve the standoff without an all-out assault.
Russian generals holding talks with local figures and army commanders announced a plan on Aug. 14 that would allow the army to enter but giving guarantees to residents against reprisals and offering safe passage to former rebels to leave for other opposition areas in northwest Syria.
In 2018, the Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the southern province which also borders Israel’s Golan Heights.
Moscow gave guarantees to Israel and Washington at the time that it would prevent Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the area.
That deal forced thousands of Western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons but kept the army from entering Daraa al Balad, whose administration remained in rebel hands.
“We hold Russia responsible for any child who gets injured This war is being imposed on us by Iran and the Russians are watching,” Abu Yusef al Masalmeh, an elder said.
Washington and major Western powers have expressed concern about Assad forces’ military campaign in Daraa, which they say tests Russia’s pledges to maintain stability and rein in Iranian-militias in the border area.


Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”


Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.


Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.


Arab coalition: Over 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasara

Arab coalition: Over 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasara
Updated 17 sec ago

Arab coalition: Over 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasara

Arab coalition: Over 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasara
  • The coalition said it had carried out 31 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah over the past 24 hours
  • UN says 10,000 were displaced last month alone by fighting in Marib governorate

JEDDAH: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Friday it had killed at least 92 Houthi rebels in airstrikes on two districts near the strategic city of Marib.

The deaths are the latest among hundreds that the coalition says have been killed in recent fighting around Marib, and come during a second week of reported intense bombing.

“Operations targeted 16 military vehicles and killed more than 92 terrorist elements” in the past 24 hours, the coalition said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. The coalition has for the past two weeks reported almost daily strikes around Marib.

Most of the previously announced strikes were in Abedia, about 100 km from Marib — the internationally recognized government’s last bastion in northern Yemen.

The latest airstrikes reported were in the districts of Al-Jawba, some 50 km south of Marib, and Al-Kassara, 30 km northwest.

The Houthis began a major push to seize Marib in February, and have renewed their offensive since September after a lull. Several Yemenis are waiting for help after fleeing fighting in Marib, according to Reuters.

Iman Saleh Ali and her family left Al-Jubah in the dead of night with only the clothes on their back to escape fighting, the second time they have been forced to do so.

The UN says some 10,000 people were displaced last month alone by the fighting in Marib governorate. It is calling for a humanitarian corridor for aid.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen David Gressly told Reuters that access has been most restricted to Abedia, but that they have now been given authorization though security concerns remain.

Luckily, he said, food was distributed in coordination with the World Food Programme just before the fighting, which is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has left millions on the verge of famine and 20 million needing help.


Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya
Updated 22 October 2021

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya
CAIRO: The United Nations said on Friday that it has resumed humanitarian evacuation flights for migrants stranded in Libya after authorities suspended them for several months. The announcement comes after a massive crackdown on migrants by Libyan security forces.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that it had evacuated 127 people to Gambia from the Libyan city of Misrata on Thursday. It said the Gambian migrants were among thousands more who are waiting to go home through the organization’s voluntary return program.
Evacuation flights for migrants have operated sporadically amid Libya’s conflict, and been periodically suspended because of fighting. The latest suspension came from the country’s ministry of interior on Aug. 8, according to the IOM.
Libya was plunged into turmoil by the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The North African nation has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Many set out for Italy, packed by traffickers into unseaworthy boats.
Earlier this month, Libyan authorities started a massive crackdown against migrants in the western coastal town of Gargaresh, detaining more than 5,000 people over the course of a few days. In response, many turned to a community center operated by the UN’s refugee agency’s office in nearby Tripoli, camping outside and asking to be evacuated.
On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said that there are still 3,000 vulnerable people staying outside its community center for fear of government raids. The agency said it had suspended the center’s operations for security reasons but was still able to offer some limited provisions to the migrants there. It welcomed the resumption of humanitarian flights, but also called on the government to urgently address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in a “humane and rights-based manner,” especially those who cannot return to their countries of origin.
Detained migrants in Libya have been held in overcrowded detention centers where torture, sexual assault and other abuses are rife. UN-commissioned investigators said Oct. 4 that abuse and ill treatment of migrants in Libya could amount to crimes against humanity.
The migration agency has operated evacuation flights for those wanting to return home since 2015 and since then returned some 53,000 migrants. The program receives funding from the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Migration Fund, according to the IOM statement.