Unexploded landmines continue to kill and maim indiscriminately in Syria’s northeast

Special After the defeat of Daesh, the SDF and its international allies were left with the daunting task of clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance from the battlefield so that families could return to their land. (Ali Ali)
After the defeat of Daesh, the SDF and its international allies were left with the daunting task of clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance from the battlefield so that families could return to their land. (Ali Ali)
Short Url
Updated 03 April 2022

Unexploded landmines continue to kill and maim indiscriminately in Syria’s northeast

After the defeat of Daesh, the SDF and its international allies were left with the daunting task of clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance from the battlefield so that families could return to their land. (Ali Ali)
  • Security concerns and lack of funding keep region awash in unexploded munitions, years after war ended
  • International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action is observed every year on April 4

QAMISHLI, Syria: Three years ago, the world watched as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS battled the remnants of Daesh in the extremist group’s last territorial holdout of Baghouz.

Having once controlled an area the size of England, the terror group had been forced to retreat into an area covering just a few hundred square meters, where they dug in behind razor wire, earthworks and fields laid with thousands of landmines.

When the fighting was finally over and the last Daesh positions had been cleared, SDF morale skyrocketed and there were days of celebrations across the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

But after the guns had fallen silent, the SDF and its international allies were left with the daunting task of clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance from the battlefield so that families could return to their land.

Years later, the work continues, hampered by security threats posed by Daesh holdouts, a lack of funding from international aid agencies, and the political complexities of the region.




An expat de-miner, near Jurniya in Syria. (Ali Ali)

On Dec. 8, 2005, the UN General Assembly declared that an International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action would be observed on April 4 each year.

Since the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, opened for signatures in 1997, 164 countries have ratified or acceded to it. In 2014, the signatories agreed to the complete the clearance of all landmines by 2025. However, these indiscriminate weapons continue to be used by state and non-state actors alike in conflict zones.

From Daesh’s final strongholds in Deir ez-Zor and its former de-facto capital of Raqqa, to areas such as Kobane, which was liberated as long ago as 2015, roads, fields and even residential buildings are still dotted with landmines that continue to claim lives and limbs.

The task of clearing these explosive remnants of war has fallen to the Roj Mine Control Organization, a non-governmental humanitarian organization working in coordination with the Northeast Syria Mine Action Center, the de-facto umbrella group for mine-clearing efforts in Syria’s autonomous northeast.

Local and international agencies say they have collectively removed about 35,000 anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines throughout the region but thousands more remain.




Disarmed testing mine, near Jurniya in Syria. (Ali Ali)

At every checkpoint on the main highways between Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, signs are posted that show pictures of various types of mines and explosive ordnance alongside a message in giant red letters that warns: “Danger! Stay away! Don’t touch! Report quickly! Spread awareness! Protect yourself from the threat of mines, remnants of war, and suspicious and dangerous areas. Don’t go exploring. If you see something suspicious, tell the concerned authorities.”

From all accounts, such warnings are amply justified.

“I was 9 or 10 years old,” Omar Al-Omar, who is now 13, told Arab News at his home in Raqqa. “I was playing in front of our house when a mine exploded. I was in the hospital for two months and 10 days. I was unable to move around.”

FASTFACT

* International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, on April 4, aims to raise awareness about landmines and progress toward their eradication.

Both of Omar’s legs had to be amputated. He has regained some mobility thanks to prosthetic limbs that were provided by the Hope Makers Center in Raqqa, a charitable organization that has since had to suspend many of its services as a result of lack of funding. Someday, he said, he hopes to become a doctor.

The Social Affairs and Labor Committee of Raqqa Civil Council has documented about 2,500 individuals who, like Omar, were maimed by landmines in the city alone. Council worker Amira Hussein believes the true figure is much higher.




The scarred arm of 16-year-old Ahmed, wounded by a mine in October last year, in Kobane. (Ali Ali)

“If you look around Raqqa, on every street you will see a man, woman or child with a missing limb,” she told Arab News, scrolling through photos on her laptop of local children with missing limbs and scars from burns.

“Even in 2022, the issue of mines is still relevant. People thought that once Raqqa was liberated their lives would return to normal. But when they went back, mines went off in their homes.”

Much of the work carried out by local and international mine-disposal agencies has been focused on Raqqa, as the city was heavily mined during the years from 2014 to 2017 when it was under Daesh control.

Although crude improvised explosive devices left behind by retreating Daesh militants are still frequently discovered in the city, the bulk of the mine-disposal work is taking place in the countryside.

“There were a lot of mine explosions in the beginning but now there are far fewer,” Yusuf, a team administrator at the Raqqa Internal Security Forces’ Explosives Ordnance Disposal Unit, told Arab News.

“We maybe see mines only 1 percent of the time. Our team has cleared 80 percent of the city of Raqqa of mines.”




A Raqqa Internal Security Forces (Asayish) EOD team member in Syria. (Ali Ali)

However, not all of the explosive devices cleared by the Raqqa EODU are remnants of the battle to liberate the city. Daesh sleeper cells continue to operate here, planting explosives along roadsides and in buildings.

The 60-member Raqqa EODU team can respond to a report of an explosive device in less than 10 minutes, said Yusuf. This efficiency and dedication comes at a cost, however: 19 of its members have been killed in the line of duty.

While clearly highly dangerous, mine-disposal work can also be tedious and time-consuming. An international aid agency operating in Raqqa, which asked not to be identified for security reasons, has been systematically clearing the Tal Othman to Jurniya road for months now, often progressing just a few meters each day.

Locals said they watched Daesh militants lay mines along the road for seven months before the area was finally liberated in 2017. After three weeks of painstaking work, mine-disposal experts were able to locate and destroy two anti-tank mines.

Rocks painted red, marking the boundaries of safe areas, line the edge of the road where the disposal crews work, while rocks painted white denote safe paths. Once the road has been made completely safe and repaved, communities in Raqqa’s western countryside will once again have access to markets in Manbij city.

“We are making a sacrifice for the future,” one foreign mine-disposal expert working at the site told Arab News, his face obscured by a protective visor. He cannot be named for security reasons.

“The last time I went on holiday, two children died in Raqqa. This stays with you.”




De-mining markers, near Shaddadi in Syria. (Ali Ali)

As is the case in Raqqa, parts of Deir ez-Zor in the east of the country are also plagued by the explosive remnants of Daesh’s last stand. Here the group’s sleeper cells, operating close to the border with Iraq, continue to pose a threat to landmine-disposal teams.

The Monitoring and Observation Desk, an independent conflict observatory in northeastern Syria, documented 15 attacks on local security forces by Daesh remnants in the Deir ez-Zor region in February alone, two of which were carried out using landmines.

Besides the difficult task of removing and destroying mines, local and international agencies operating in Deir ez-Zor also work to raise community awareness of the threat, erect warning signs, and distribute literature about the threats posed by explosive remnants and how people can stay safe.

Agencies such as the Roj Mine Control Organization work directly with farming communities and schools to teach agricultural workers and children — two of the groups most at risk — how to recognize explosive devices and what to do if they stumble upon one.

The RMCO said it has conducted more than 1,400 mine-awareness sessions, during which it has spoken to about 17,700 people across northern and eastern Syria. Meanwhile, its mine-clearance teams claim to have removed more than 19,000 devices.

Although the RMCO operatives work to established international standards, they often lack the heavy armored machinery and personal protective equipment used by better-funded foreign agencies, making their work slower and at times much more dangerous.

The same is true in the far north of Syria, close to the border with Turkey, where the countryside is still littered with landmines and other explosives left over from the battle to liberate Kobane in 2015.

In a small village to the west of the city, a pair of Russian helicopters buzz overhead. On the brow of a nearby hill, a Turkish military post looks down from the imposing border wall.

Mohammed Sheikhmous, a farmer who lives just 50 meters from the border, lost one of his sons to a landmine.




Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division. (AFP/File Photo)

“My son went out with the sheep and stepped on a mine,” Sheikhmous told Arab News. “There was nothing left of him. We had to gather his body parts.”

Before that incident, another of his sons had suffered serious injuries from a landmine blast, he said, which put the boy in hospital for two months and left him with permanent scars on his arms and legs.

In 2021 alone, 12 people in villages around Kobane lost their lives to mines, half of them children.

Because of the political complexities in this part of Syria, it is difficult for landmine-clearance teams to get permission to gain access and work. Agencies must somehow find a way to coordinate with local militias, Syrian regime forces, and the Russian and Turkish forces that have jointly patrolled the countryside around Kobane since October 2019 as part of a “de-escalation” agreement.

Until such complexities are resolved, farming communities straddling the border wil be compelled to live with this invisible, yet lethal threat.

“This is a burden that will never end, even with the end of the war,” said Hussein, the Raqqa Civil Council worker. “The mines that were planted are still there.

“Many people are still facing these threats. They can’t go home because they never know at what moment their lives will be threatened.”


One killed in shooting at Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran

Updated 11 sec ago

One killed in shooting at Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran

One killed in shooting at Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran
  • The attack led to the death of the head of the security team and injured others
One person was killed and two wounded when a shooter opened fire at a guard post outside Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said on Friday.
“The attacker broke through the guard post, killing the head of security with a Kalashnikov assault rifle,” it said.

Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid

Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid
Updated 27 January 2023

Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid

Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid

JERUSALEM: Gaza militants fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes early Friday as tensions soared following an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank that killed nine Palestinians, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.
It was the deadliest single raid in the territory in over two decades. The flare-up in violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and casts a shadow on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week.
Palestinian militants fired five rockets at Israel, the military said. Three were intercepted, one fell in an open area and another fell short inside Gaza. Israel carried out a series of airstrikes at what it said were militant targets. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Thursday’s deadly raid in the Jenin refugee camp was likely to reverberate on Friday as Palestinians gather for weekly Muslim prayers that are often followed by protests. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, had earlier threatened revenge for the raid.
Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority said it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship and also due to US and Israeli pressure to maintain it.
The Palestinian Authority already has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp. But the announcement could pave the way for Israel to step up operations it says are needed to prevent attacks.
The Israeli strikes early Friday targeted training sites for Palestinian militant groups, the military said. Witnesses and local media reported that Israeli drones fired two missiles at a Hamas militant base before fighter jets struck it, causing four large explosions.
Air raid sirens went off in southern Israel as the initial two rockets were fired and then again after the airstrikes, when the militants fired the other three rockets.
On Thursday, Israeli forces went on heightened alert as Palestinians filled the streets across the West Bank, chanting in solidarity with Jenin. President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning, and in the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Abbas had decided to cut security coordination in “light of the repeated aggression against our people.” He also said the Palestinians planned to file complaints with the UN Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.
Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said the Biden administration was deeply concerned about the situation and that civilian casualties reported in Jenin were “quite regrettable.” But she also said the Palestinian announcement to suspend security ties and to pursue the matter at international organizations was a mistake.
Thursday’s gunbattle that left nine dead and 20 wounded erupted when Israel’s military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Israelis. The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of near-nightly Israeli arrest raids.
Hamas’ armed wing claimed four of the dead as members, while Islamic Jihad claimed three others. An earlier statement from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia loosely affiliated with Abbas’ secular Fatah party, claimed one of the dead was a fighter named Izz Al-Din Salahat, but it was unclear if he was among those seven militants.
The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the 61-year-old woman killed as Magda Obaid, and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death.
The Israeli military circulated aerial video it said was taken during the battle, showing what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs on Israeli forces below. At least one Palestinian can be seen opening fire from a rooftop.
Later in the day, Israeli forces fatally shot a 22-year-old and wounded two others, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, as Palestinians confronted Israeli troops north of Jerusalem to protest Thursday’s raid. Israel’s paramilitary Border Police said they opened fire on Palestinians who launched fireworks at them from close range.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.
Israel’s new national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians, posted a video of himself beaming triumphantly and congratulating security forces.
The raid left a trail of destruction in Jenin. A two-story building, apparently the operation’s target, was a charred wreck. The military said it entered the building to detonate explosives.
Palestinian Health Minister May Al-Kaila said paramedics struggled to reach the wounded during the fighting, while Akram Rajoub, the governor of Jenin, said the military prevented emergency workers from evacuating them.
Both accused the military of firing tear gas at the pediatric ward of a hospital, causing children to choke. Video at the hospital showed women carrying children into a corridor.
The military said forces closed roads to aid the operation, which may have complicated rescue efforts, and that tear gas had likely wafted into the hospital from nearby clashes.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Thursday marked the single bloodiest West Bank incursion since 2002, at the height of an intense wave of violence known as the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which left scars still visible in Jenin.
UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply alarmed and saddened” by the violence. Condemnations came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Turkiye, which recently reestablished full diplomatic ties with Israel. Neighboring Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries also condemned the Israeli raid.
The Islamic Jihad branch in Gaza has repeatedly fought against Israel, most recently in a fierce three-day clash last summer that killed dozens of Palestinians and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Hamas, which seized power from the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 2007, has fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes with Israel.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to B’Tselem. So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed. So far this year, not including Thursday, one-third of the Palestinians killed by Israeli troops or civilians had ties to armed groups.
Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim those territories for their hoped-for state.
Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.


France, Iraq sign comprehensive strategic partnership agreement — Elysee

France, Iraq sign comprehensive strategic partnership agreement — Elysee
Updated 27 January 2023

France, Iraq sign comprehensive strategic partnership agreement — Elysee

France, Iraq sign comprehensive strategic partnership agreement — Elysee

French President Emmanuel Macron met with Iraq Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani on Thursday, the French presidency said, signing a set of strategic agreements meant to boost Iraq’s economic cooperation with the European country.
In the meeting, France and Iraq signed a treaty that seeks to strengthen bilateral relations in anti-corruption, security, renewable energy and culture, the Elysee Palace said on Friday.


S. Sudan’s displaced hope pope’s visit will bring peace

S. Sudan’s displaced hope pope’s visit will bring peace
Updated 26 January 2023

S. Sudan’s displaced hope pope’s visit will bring peace

S. Sudan’s displaced hope pope’s visit will bring peace
  • Pope Francis is due to go to Congo from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 and then spend two days in South Sudan

JUBA: After spending nearly a decade in a camp for the displaced in South Sudan’s Juba, Mayen Galuak hopes that Pope Francis’ visit to the capital city next week will inspire political leaders to finally restore peace, allowing him to go home.

The 44-year-old entered the UN camp, just a few kilometers from his residence, in search of safety three days after conflict broke out in 2013.

In the ensuing years, he has watched as South Sudan’s leaders forged peace deals and broke them; as militias carried out and denied ethnic massacres; and as relentless conflict pushed parts of the country into famine.

Pope Francis is due to go to Congo from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 and then spend two days in South Sudan. 

The pope has wanted to visit South Sudan for years but plans were postponed due to the instability there and a scheduled trip last June was canceled due to the pope’s knee ailment.

The Vatican’s envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo has said the trip will remind the world not to ignore decades-long conflicts.

“We are in a bad situation ... since 2013, we have not seen any good peace,” said Galuak, who says he can’t travel to his birth home in the country’s north because of the risk of attack. Sporadic clashes continue to kill civilians throughout the country.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011.


Jailed Kurdish leader urges unity against Erdogan

Jailed Kurdish leader urges unity against Erdogan
Updated 26 January 2023

Jailed Kurdish leader urges unity against Erdogan

Jailed Kurdish leader urges unity against Erdogan
  • The Peoples’ Democratic Party or HDP — parliament’s third-largest — faces the threat of being banned ahead of polls in which Erdogan will seek to extend his rule into a third decade

ISTANBUL: Turkiye’s pro-Kurdish party should back the main opposition candidate instead of fielding its own against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May elections, its elder statesman told AFP from jail.

“I am in favor of backing a joint candidate” Selahattin Demirtas, who ran against Erdogan twice, told AFP through a lawyer from his jail in the western city of Edirne.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party or HDP — parliament’s third-largest — faces the threat of being banned ahead of polls in which Erdogan will seek to extend his rule into a third decade.

Erdogan portrays the HDP as the political wing of outlawed Kurdish militants who have been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

The party says it is being singled out for standing up for Kurdish rights and resisting Erdogan’s crackdown on civil liberties.

Turkiye’s top court is expected to rule on a prosecutor’s request to shut it down in the coming months.

The party’s legal problems add a new layer of uncertainty to the parliamentary and presidential polls — widely viewed as Turkiye’s most important in generations.

The HDP has been excluded from a six-party opposition alliance now trying to agree on a single candidate to run against Erdogan.

But after securing 12 percent of the vote in 2018 elections, the HDP’s future could prove decisive in what promises to be a tight race.

Demirtas’s second presidential challenge came from behind bars, where he has languished since 2016 on a myriad of charges, some of them terror-related.

The 49-year-old denies them all and the European Court of Human Rights agrees, repeatedly calling for his release.

Demirtas has been convicted on some counts since the last election, making him ineligible to run again.

But the party’s co-chairwoman, Pervin Buldan, suggested this month that the party should still field its own candidate, even without its brightest star.

Demirtas conceded that Buldan might ultimately get her way.

“At this stage, it seems more likely that the HDP will nominate its own candidate,” he said.

But a “compromise with the HDP through negotiations” could still produce a joint candidate representing Turkiye’s entire opposition — including the Kurds, he said.