JEDDAH: A top Daesh bomb maker and explosives expert was captured in a raid in northern Syria on Thursday by special forces from the US-led coalition.
Hani Ahmed Al-Kurdi, known as Salim, was the Daesh leader in charge of the Syrian city of Raqqa when it was the de facto capital of the group’s so-called “caliphate” in much of Iraq and Syria.
American defense officials said he was now in US custody and was being questioned. The anti-Daesh coalition said the operation to capture him had been “successful,” with no civilians harmed and no injuries to the coalition forces.
“The mission to capture Al-Kurdi was meticulously planned to minimize the risk of civilian harm or collateral damage,” it said.
“He was instructing others on making explosive devices, supporting the construction of improvised explosive device facilities, and facilitating attacks on US and partner forces.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor based in Britain that has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said Thursday’s operation began with two helicopters landing near the targeted area in the village of Al-Humaira in Aleppo province, about 4 km from the Turkish border.
It said there were clashes with gunmen hiding in houses in the village in the northern Aleppo countryside as they were chased by coalition forces.
Iraqi intelligence officials said Al-Kurdi was a Syrian national who rose through Daesh ranks to become one of their most senior and dangerous leaders, and an expert on manufacturing booby-traps and explosives.
Coalition forces declared victory over Daesh in March 2019 after retaking the group’s last piece of territory in Syria. But the militants continue to operate and carry out deadly attacks in both Iraq and Syria through sleeper cells, and they also maintain several affiliates in other countries.
The coalition has conducted raids in the past to take out Daesh leaders. In February, the group’s leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi blew himself up along with members of his family as American forces raided his Syria hideout.
His predecessor, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, died similarly along with his family in 2019 by detonating a suicide vest in a tunnel in northwest Syria in a military operation authorized by the Trump administration.
The Daesh group at the height of its power controlled more than 100,000 square km stretching from Syria to Iraq and ruled over 8 million people. Its attacks in the region included a major assault last year to seize a prison in northeast Syria holding at least 3,000 terrorist detainees.
Egyptians mourn 41 killed in Cairo Coptic church fire
Witnesses to the fire Sunday morning described people rushing into the multi-story house of worship to save those trapped, but the rescuers were soon overwhelmed by heat and deadly smoke
Updated 15 August 2022
CAIRO: Funerals were held in two Cairo churches Sunday evening for 41 victims of a fire that ripped through a Coptic Christian church during mass, forcing worshippers to jump out of windows.
The blaze, blamed on an electrical fault, hit the Abu Sifin church in densely populated Imbaba, a working class district west of the Nile River, part of Giza governorate in greater Cairo.
Hundreds gathered to pay their respects in and around the two Giza churches where clergymen prayed for the victims, according to AFP correspondents.
Pallbearers pushed through crowds of weeping mourners who reached for the coffins, including that of a priest at the church, Father Abdel-Messih Bekhit.
The Egyptian Coptic Church and the health ministry reported 41 dead and 14 injured in the blaze before emergency services brought it under control.
Witnesses to the fire Sunday morning described people rushing into the multi-story house of worship to save those trapped, but the rescuers were soon overwhelmed by heat and deadly smoke.
Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, making up at least 10 million of Egypt’s 103 million Muslim-majority population.
“Everyone was carrying kids out of the building,” said Ahmed Reda Baioumy, who lives next to the church. “But the fire was getting bigger and you could only go in once or you would asphyxiate.”
Another witness, Sayed Tawfik, told AFP that “some threw themselves out of windows to escape the fire.” He pointed to a car bearing dents “left by a person who is now lying in the hospital with a broken arm and back.”
A resident of the area, Mina Masry, said emergency services were slow in responding. Ambulances took “over an hour to arrive” and fire trucks “nearly an hour, though their station is five minutes away.”
“If the ambulances had come on time, they could have rescued people,” Masry added.
A statement from the public prosecutor’s office indicated that asphyxiation caused the deaths, as there were “no visible injuries.”
The interior ministry said “forensic evidence revealed that the blaze broke out in an air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the church building” which also houses social services.
Father Farid Fahmy, of another nearby church, told AFP a short circuit caused the fire.
“The power was out and they were using a generator,” he said. “When the power came back, it caused an overload.”
In the morning, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said on his Facebook page that he had “mobilized all state services” in response. He later said he had “presented his condolences by phone” to Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
He also directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to “take over the reconstruction and renovation” of the church, the presidency said in a statement.
Christian communities often complain that reconstruction of churches after devastating fires is marked by long delays and bureaucratic hurdles.
Giza’s governor ordered “urgent aid of 50,000 pounds (around $2,600) for the families of the deceased and 10,000 pounds for the injured.”
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost Muslim institution, expressed his condolences for “the tragic accident” and affirmed “the readiness of Al-Azhar hospitals to receive the injured.”
A statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered his “deepest condolences” to the families of the victims.
Accidental fires are not uncommon in the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo, where millions live in informal settlements.
Baioumy, the neighbor, told AFP that firefighters were hampered by the church’s location “on a very narrow street.”
Egypt, with its often dilapidated and poorly maintained infrastructure, has suffered several deadly fires in recent years.
The Coptic minority has endured attacks and complained of discrimination in the north African country, the Arab world’s most populous.
Copts have been targeted in deadly attacks by Islamist militants, particularly after El-Sisi overthrew former Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in 2013, with churches, schools and homes burnt down.
Copts also complain they have been left out of key state positions and they have deplored restrictive legislation for the construction and renovation of churches.
El-Sisi, the first Egyptian president to attend the Coptic Christmas mass every year, in February appointed the first ever Coptic judge to head the Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest.
Houthi weapon-smuggling ring reveals information about routes, techniques
Cell members said they received money from the militia, training from the Iranians
The smugglers mentioned Iran’s Bandar Abbas as a key starting point for shipments of weapons
Updated 14 August 2022
JEDDAH: A newly busted smuggling cell loyal to the Houthis in Yemen has given more information about Iran’s routes and techniques for transporting weapons and added more evidence of its military support to the militia, Yemeni officials have said.
The Yemeni government’s Joint Forces, an umbrella term for three major military units on the country’s western coast, released a video on Saturday showing confessions from four members of a Houthi cell who were involved in smuggling Iranian weapons into Houthi-controlled areas.
The Joint Forces said they had recently busted Houthi cells along the western coast involved in smuggling weapons, espionage, and targeting military and security officials in Yemen.
The four men have been smuggling weapons from Iran to Yemen for the past five years.
Cell leader Ali Mohammed Halhali is still at large, the Joint Forces said, and vowed to release more videos of other Houthi smugglers and operatives in the coming days.
Based on the confessions, the Yemeni smugglers usually sailed from different coastal cities such as Sheher in the southeastern province of Hadramout and Al-Ghaydah in the eastern province of Mahra.
They met another group of Yemeni smugglers at a location in the Gulf of Oman, where they transported Iranian weapons from their boats before moving to a transit point in Somalia.
Later, another group of smugglers would take the same shipment to Yemen.
Some boats docked at Houthi-controlled areas in the Red Sea, while other weapon-laden vessels entered government-controlled areas in the Arabian Sea or the Red Sea.
Cell member Ibrahim Omer Hassan Akad said he and several smugglers sailed from Sheher to the Gulf of Oman, where they met other smugglers carrying weapons from Iran.
The smugglers later headed to the Somali port of Berbera, where they delivered the shipment to other Yemeni smugglers who took the goods to Yemen.
After successfully delivering the weapons, Akad would embark on another trip using the same routes through Sheher, the Gulf of Oman, and the Somali coast.
During one of his trips, he and other smugglers were asked to sail to Iran where they received weapons directly from the Iranians and handed them to other Yemenis.
Akad said that he had also smuggled fuel and fertilizer to the Houthis through some Somali ports.
The other smugglers, Mustafa Ahmed Gadad, Ali Mohammed Halhali, and Hussein Yahiya Futaini, said the Houthis gave some of them YER1.5 million ($5,994) for each voyage and that they were captured by the US navy in 2018 while transporting weapons from Iran to Yemen.
The US confiscated the weapons and handed the smugglers to authorities in Aden, who later released them.
The smugglers mentioned Iran’s Bandar Abbas as a key starting point for shipments of Iranian weapons and said they received smuggling training from the Iranians.
Yemeni government officials, journalists, and activists called for the Iranians to be punished for undermining peace in Yemen by arming the militia, arguing that the Houthis’ smuggling of weapons showed they were preparing for war.
Yemeni journalist Hassan Ghaleb said the confessions contradicted the Houthis’ claims that they manufactured missiles, drones, and other weapons in Yemen and refuted their denial of receiving military support from Iran.
“Smuggling is the most important source that the Houthis rely on to obtain various weapons, especially guided missiles, drones, and Iranian military technology,” Ghaleb said.
Israeli government accused of increasing settlement activities
Lapid accelerates ‘colonization’ of Palestinian land to win more votes in coming election, West Bank official says
Updated 14 August 2022
RAMALLAH: Senior Palestinian official sources have accused the Israeli government of speeding up settlement activities in the West Bank to harvest the votes of right-wing parties in the lead-up to Israeli parliamentary elections on Nov. 1.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s caretaker government has stepped up plans to colonize Palestinian land and build hundreds of other settlement units, they said.
Ghassan Daglas, director of settlement affairs in the northern West Bank affiliated with the Palestinian Presidency Office, told Arab News: “It is clear that Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid believes that his access to power and the success of his party in the upcoming elections comes at the expense of confiscating Palestinian land and blood.”
“From a war on Gaza to murder in Nablus . . . to the confiscation of Palestinian lands and the approval of the establishment of settlements . . . we do not know what his next steps will be in this direction.”
Daglas said that Lapid had accelerated the implementation of settlement plans due to the approaching Israeli elections.
“After the Israeli leaders classified the settlements between a strategic settlement and an isolated one, their policy has now become to build a settlement between each settlement and to encircle the Palestinian cities and isolate them with a settlement belt that extends geographically and cuts off their geographical contiguity,” he said.
Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian land in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, has increased dramatically under the recently dissolved Israeli coalition government and reached 62 percent compared to the previous Benjamin Netanyahu leadership.
Settlement activity across the West Bank flourished during former US President Donald Trump’s time in power, even though it was considered illegal under international law and threatened the two-state solution for Palestinians to establish an independent state based on the 1967 borders.
The Israeli settlement in the Palestinian Territories is a program approved by all Israeli governments, as they look forward to reaching 1 million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by 2025.
The current number is 650,000 in the West Bank and 150,000 in East Jerusalem, living in 160 settlements and 126 outposts on a built-up area that constitutes 1.6 percent of the total area of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, the National Office for Defending the Land and Resisting Settlements said that Israeli authorities recently approved a plan to establish a new settlement on 259 dunums of Palestinian land belonging to the town of Deir Istiya in the Salfit governorate.
The plan calls for the establishment of 381 settlement units in the new settlement and public buildings, open areas and streets to connect the new settlement with its outer perimeter, the National Office said in a report.
The new settlement is located in the middle of the settlements of “Revava” to the east and “Kiryat Netiavim” to the west. This indicates the intention of the occupation authorities to create a new settlement bloc that includes the three settlements in addition to the industrial settlement of “Burkan” in the south.
Salfit governorate, a population of 70,000 distributed among 19 localities, has experienced the expansion of settlements projects in the region since 1975, with extension plans focusing on linking the Palestinian coast to the Jordan Valley.
The strategic location of the governorate has made it a target for the Israeli occupation, which confiscated large areas of land with 24 settlement blocs surrounding Salfit — the largest of which is the “Ariel” settlement, inhabited by about 25,000 settlers.
It is the second-largest settlement in the West Bank after the settlement of “Maalem Adumim” on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The towns and villages of Salfit governorate are undergoing hardship due to the practices of the occupation.
The Palesinians’ plight is made worse by escalation of the settlement rate, the racial isolation wall, and the environmental pollution resulting from the settlements’ waste, especially industrial areas, and the theft of agricultural land, groundwater sources, and obliteration of its historical and religious features, the report said.
It added that the occupation authorities were also accelerating the building of more settlement units in the Palestinian lands in Jordan Valley.
All indications confirm the existence of a new Israeli plan to promote and support settlements in the northern Jordan Valley as part of efforts to expel residents, implementing “a clear policy of ethnic cleansing and looting and stealing more lands and areas, especially in the village of Al-Farisiyah,” the report said.
According to sources from the National Office, the Israeli settlement committee has been harassing the residents of the village for more than a month, in addition to bulldozing the surrounding mountains and putting up advertisements for a project to establish a university for settlers, in addition to vital facilities such as parks and areas.
The Israeli army provides support to settlers, bulldozers destroy features of the mountains near Al-Farsiyah, and move the material to residential areas and close to their homes, the sources said.
Syria reports Israeli missile attack on coastal region, three soldiers
In June, Israeli airstrikes temporarily put Damascus International Airport out of commission
Updated 14 August 2022
DAMASCUS: Israeli air strikes on Syria killed three soldiers and wounded three others on Friday, state media said, after the latest such incident in the war-torn country.
“The aggression led to the death of three soldiers, the wounding of three others,” Syria’s official news agency SANA said, quoting a military source.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes inside the country, targeting government positions as well as allied Iran-backed forces and Hezbollah fighters.
The latest Israeli strikes targeted sites in the countryside around the capital Damascus and south of coastal Tartus province, SANA said, adding that Syria’s air defense systems intercepted some of the missiles.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor also gave the same toll of killed and wounded from the strikes near an air defense base in Tartus province, where Iranian-backed groups are active.
The targeted site in Tartus is located eight kilometers (five miles) from a Russian base, said the monitor, which has a wide network of sources in Syria.
It said ambulances had rushed to the scene of the strikes in Tartus.
In early July Syria’s defense ministry said an Israeli strike conducted from the Mediterranean Sea near the town of Al-Hamadiyah, south of Tartus town, had wounded two civilians.
On Friday, Israeli shelling wounded two civilians in southern Syria near the occupied Golan Heights, according to state media.
Last month, an Israeli strike near Damascus killed three Syrian soldiers, state media said at the time. The Observatory said that strike targeted a military facility and an “Iranian weapons depot.”
After the latest incident Israeli authorities told AFP that they “do not comment on reports in the foreign media.”
While Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria, the military has defended them as necessary to prevent its arch-foe Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.
The conflict in Syria started with the brutal repression of peaceful protests and escalated to pull in foreign powers and global jihadists.
The war has killed nearly half a million people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.
Russia’s military intervention in 2015 helped turn the war in favor of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, whose forces once only controlled a fifth of the country.
Last month the Observatory said a Russian air strike killed seven people, four of them children, in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region, in the country’s north
Iraq judiciary dismisses Al-Sadr’s demand to dissolve parliament
Followers of Sadr, in defiance of his Shiite rivals of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, have been staging a sit-in protest at Iraq’s parliament
Updated 14 August 2022
BAGHDAD: Iraq’s judiciary said Sunday it lacks the authority to dissolve parliament as demanded by populist Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who is engaged in an escalating standoff with political rivals.
Followers of Sadr, in defiance of his Shiite rivals of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, have been staging a sit-in protest at Iraq’s parliament.
In the latest twist to the political turmoil, the firebrand cleric has urged the judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of this week to pave the way for new legislative elections.
But the judiciary replied that “the Supreme Judicial Council has no jurisdiction to dissolve parliament,” citing “the principle of a separation of powers.”
Under the constitution, parliament can only be dissolved by an absolute majority vote in the house, following a request by one-third of deputies or by the prime minister with the approval of the president.
Nearly 10 months on from the last elections, Iraq still has no government, new prime minister or new president, due to disagreement between factions over forming a coalition.
In the latest turmoil to strike the oil-rich but war-scarred nation, Sadr has called for “early democratic elections after a dissolution of parliament.”
Although it did not endorse the dissolution of parliament, the Supreme Judicial Council said it agreed with Sadr’s criticism of the system’s “failure to elect a president of the republic, a prime minister and the absence of a government formed within the constitutional timeframe.”
“This is an unacceptable situation that must be remedied,” it said.
The Coordination Framework opponents of Sadr launched their own Baghdad sit-in on Friday, nearly two weeks after the cleric’s supporters stormed parliament and began an open-ended protest, first inside, then outside the legislature.
The opposing encampments are the latest turn in a standoff which has so far remained peaceful.
On Twitter, a close associate of Sadr, Saleh Mohamed Al-Iraqi, said it was time to show “which of the two sides has the most support” among the Iraqi people.
He called on Sadr’s supporters across the country to rally in Baghdad for a “million-man demonstration.”
The demonstration would take place at 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Saturday, he said, calling for it to be “unprecedented in terms of numbers.”
Sadr’s camp launched the sit-in two weeks ago after the Coordination Framework nominated a candidate they saw as unacceptable for prime minister.
The cleric’s bloc emerged from the October elections as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
In June, 73 of his lawmakers quit in an aborted bid to break the months-long political logjam.