Hamas releases two more hostages, US demands rest be freed

An Israeli woman touches photos of Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza, displayed on a wall in Tel Aviv, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. (AP)
An Israeli woman touches photos of Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza, displayed on a wall in Tel Aviv, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 24 October 2023
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Hamas releases two more hostages, US demands rest be freed

An Israeli woman touches photos of Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza, displayed on a wall in Tel Aviv. (AP)
  • Their release comes days after two other women — American citizens — were freed

RAFAH: Two elderly Hamas hostages were airlifted to an Israeli hospital to be reunited with family Tuesday, as the United States demanded Palestinian militants release 200 other captives before Gaza cease-fire talks are considered.

Hamas militants stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, and killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot or burnt to death on the first day of the raid, according to Israeli officials.

Israel says around 1,500 Hamas fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control of the area under attack.

The militants also took 222 people hostage, among them elderly people and young children, according to the Israeli authorities’ latest count. The hostages also include dozens of foreigners.

More than 5,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed across the Gaza Strip in relentless Israeli bombardments in retaliation for the attacks by the Palestinian Islamist militant group, according to the latest toll from the Hamas health ministry in Gaza.

Early on Tuesday, an AFP journalist saw a military helicopter bring freed hostages Nurit Cooper, aged 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, aged 85, to a medical center in Tel Aviv.

Their release comes days after two other women — American citizens — were freed.

The office of Israel’s prime minister said Cooper and Lifshitz would receive medical treatment and be reunited with family.

The women were wheeled into the facility on a stretcher and wheelchair, as relatives gathered nearby.

Hamas released Cooper and Lifshitz on Monday citing “compelling humanitarian” reasons, after mediation by Qatar and Egypt.

Lifshitz recounted being bundled onto the back of a motorbike and stolen away to Gaza.

“They loaded me on a motorcycle sideways so I wouldn’t fall, with one terrorist holding me from the front and the other from behind,” she told local media.

“They crossed the border fence into the Gaza Strip, and at first they held me in the town of Abesan, which is near Be’eri. After that, I don’t know where I was taken.”

In response to the worst attack in its 75-year history, Israel launched operation “Swords of Iron” — blockading Gaza and firing a near-continuous barrage of strikes against targets in the enclave to “erase Hamas.”

While Israel’s military has claimed success in “eliminating high-ranking commanders” and destroying Hamas infrastructure, humanitarian groups have warned that Palestinian civilians are paying too steep a price for the campaign.

AFP has not been able to independently verify the Hamas-run health ministry’s death toll, but the scale of the destruction is clear.

Thousands of buildings have been levelled and more than a million people are believed to have been displaced in the besieged territory.

Gaza City resident Ayman Abu Shamalah was among the tens of thousands who heeded an Israeli warning to flee to south Gaza.

Despite the move, he told AFP that his pregnant wife, their three-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter were killed in an Israeli air strike on Rafah in southern Gaza.

“They put my son’s shattered body in a blue bag,” he said, sobbing.

Across Gaza, water, food and other basic supplies are running out. Only a trickle of aid is being allowed to cross into Gaza from Egypt.

A few dozen trucks carrying food, medicine and water have entered Gaza since a US-brokered deal entered into operation on Saturday.

The United Nations estimates about 100 trucks are needed every day.

UN rights chief Volker Turk on Monday called for an “immediate humanitarian cease-fire” to relieve the suffering and allow the delivery of aid.

But that suggestion was immediately slapped down by US President Joe Biden, who said any discussions about a cease-fire could only take place if Hamas frees all the hostages.

“We should have those hostages released and then we can talk,” Biden said when asked if he would support a “hostages-for-cease-fire” deal.

Facing mounting public pressure, Israel has shown little sign of slowing its offensive.

On Monday the Israeli military said it had hit “over 320 military targets” overnight, some of the most intense bombing of the war to date.

A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was killed and three others wounded during a ground operation “to dismantle terror infrastructure... and locate missing persons and bodies.”

But the timing of a promised full-scale ground offensive remains unclear.

“We are well prepared for the ground operations in the south,” Herzi Halevi, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces told troops.

“The Southern Command has quality operational plans. There are tactical, operative and strategic considerations that have provided additional time,” he said.

Chief among those considerations may be the labyrinth of tunnels and strong points that Hamas is believed to have developed to thwart any Israeli invasion.

But there are also fears about how Hamas’s allies around the Middle East would respond to a ground war.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War has reported an uptick in attacks on Israeli and US targets from Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

There are daily cross-border clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group.

At least 41 people have been killed in Lebanon, according to an AFP tally — mostly combatants but also at least four civilians, including a Reuters journalist.

And four people have been killed in Israel, including three soldiers and a civilian.

The pace of evacuations has increased on both sides of the border, with the UN saying nearly 20,000 people had fled villages in south Lebanon as the fighting rages.

Israel has also ordered the evacuation of thousands of people from a string of communities near its northern border.

But not everyone has left, with some such as 62-year-old peach farmer Moshe Dadoush, refusing to go.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid. But I have to stay here,” he told AFP.

“I wouldn’t leave for one simple reason: it’s here where I grew up. I have nowhere else to go but this country.”


Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran
Updated 18 min 59 sec ago
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Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran
  • Former PM says ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in West Bank was ‘out of control’ under Netanyahu
  • Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes, cars over weekend in West Bank, where violence has soared since Oct. 7

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.


US destroys about 90 Iranian and Houthi drones, missiles in two days

US destroys about 90 Iranian and Houthi drones, missiles in two days
Updated 5 sec ago
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US destroys about 90 Iranian and Houthi drones, missiles in two days

US destroys about 90 Iranian and Houthi drones, missiles in two days
  • Iran’s ‘continued unprecedented, malign, and reckless behavior endangers regional stability and safety of US and coalition forces,’ CENTCOM says
  • Houthi media said on Sunday that the US and UK had launched strikes on an area under their control in the southern province of Taiz

AL-MUKALLA: More than 90 ballistic missiles and drones fired by Iran and the Houthis in Yemen at Israel and international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were intercepted by US military and navy forces, supported by ships from European Command, on Saturday and Sunday, according to two US military statements on Monday.

The US Central Command, or CENTCOM, said in a statement on Monday afternoon that its troops destroyed four drones fired by the Houthis from controlled areas in Yemen between 4:00 a.m. and 9:15 p.m. on Sunday.

On Saturday, the Houthis fired one anti-ship ballistic missile against US Navy and commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden.

“There were no injuries or damage reported by US, coalition, or commercial ships,” CENTCOM said.

In a separate statement issued early on Monday, CENTCOM stated that its forces, backed by US European Command ships, destroyed more than 80 drones and at least six ballistic missiles launched by Iran and the Houthis in Yemen at Israel on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The intercepted volley of drones and missiles includes a ballistic missile destroyed on its launcher vehicles, as well as seven drones destroyed in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen before launch.

“Iran’s continued unprecedented, malign, and reckless behavior endangers regional stability and the safety of US and coalition forces,” CENTCOM said.

“CENTCOM remains postured to support Israel’s defense against these dangerous actions by Iran. We will continue to work with all our regional partners to increase regional security,” the military said in the second statement.

Iran blasted hundreds of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones toward Israel on Saturday night in retaliation for a purported Israeli airstrike in Damascus that killed senior Revolutionary Guards leaders.

The Houthis have not formally confirmed their participation in Iran’s retaliatory strike, despite reports from the US Central Command that missiles and drones launched by the Yemeni militia at Israel were intercepted.

Ambrey, a UK marine security company, also said that the Houthis launched drones at Israel during the Iran strike.

Since November, the Houthis have shot hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones toward Israel and ships in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden, claiming that their acts are in support of the Palestinian people.

The Houthis claim that they want to put an end to Israel’s heavy shelling of the Palestinian Gaza Strip while also allowing humanitarian aid to reach the territory. 

The US and UK have launched strikes against Houthi sites in Yemen since mid-January, attempting to force the Yemeni group to cease their attacks on ships.

Houthi media said on Sunday that the US and UK had launched strikes on an area under their control in the southern province of Taiz.

Meanwhile, deputy foreign minister Hussein Al-Ezzi has threatened to strike a recently built airport in the Red Sea town of Mokha to prevent what he calls “hostile” countries, such as the US as well as Israel, from using the airport as a platform for operations against them.

“We will not allow any Americans, Israelis or hostile parties to use Mokha Airport,” Al-Ezzi said on X. 

Yemen’s Aviation and Metrology Authority in Aden announced earlier this month that the Mokha Airport in Taiz province was ready for flights into and out of Yemen. 

Sadiq Dwaid, a spokesman for the National Resistance Forces, a military unit commanded by Presidential Leadership Council member Tareq Saleh, refuted the Houthi charges that the airport was open to Americans and Israelis.

“Mokha Airport is a civilian airport built to serve civilians and is not utilized for military operations. Any attempts to target the airport will be met with severe retribution,” Dwaid said on X.


Iraq’s deputy prime minister, in US meeting, calls for regional restraint

Iraq’s deputy prime minister, in US meeting, calls for regional restraint
Updated 20 min 31 sec ago
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Iraq’s deputy prime minister, in US meeting, calls for regional restraint

Iraq’s deputy prime minister, in US meeting, calls for regional restraint
  • “The government of Iraq is warning about escalation in the area to be dragged into a wider war," Tamim says

WASHINGTON: Iraq called on all parties to show restraint amid soaring tensions between neighboring Iran and Israel, Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Tamim said on Monday as he met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“The government of Iraq is warning about escalation in the area to be dragged into a wider war that will threaten international security and safety,” he said at the start of a meeting of the US-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee in Washington.
“And therefore we call on all parties for self restraint and respect the rules of diplomatic works and also international laws.”


Sudden heavy rains in Oman kill at least 17 including schoolchildren

Sudden heavy rains in Oman kill at least 17 including schoolchildren
Updated 32 min 39 sec ago
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Sudden heavy rains in Oman kill at least 17 including schoolchildren

Sudden heavy rains in Oman kill at least 17 including schoolchildren
  • Civil defense officials gave the death toll for the rains, which saw Oman’s North Al Sharqiyah province hardest hit
  • Heavy rains also were expected over Dubai in the neighboring UAE and other regions of the Arabian Peninsula

DUBAI: Heavy rainfall caused flash flooding in Oman on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, killing at least 17 people as rescuers searched for survivors, authorities said Monday. In one incident, a group of school children and a driver died when their vehicle was overtaken, authorities said.
Heavy rains also were expected over Dubai in the neighboring United Arab Emirates and other regions of the Arabian Peninsula.
Civil defense officials gave the death toll for the rains, which saw Oman’s North Al Sharqiyah province hardest hit. The Royal Oman Police and the Omani military deployed to the province to transport citizens out of flooded areas, Oman News Agency reported.
Heavy rainfall often causes flash flooding in the sultanate, drawing the curious from their homes to nearby dry riverbeds, known in Arabic as “wadi.” In flooding, they can quickly fill and wash away people and vehicles.
In Dubai, authorities expected heavy rains to begin Monday night and last into Tuesday morning. The Emirates’ National Center of Meteorology warned of thunder, lightning, rain and possibly hail, with winds reaching up to 70 kph (43 mph). Government schools announced they would hold classes remotely Tuesday and Wednesday.


Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon

Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon
Updated 15 April 2024
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Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon

Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon
  • Injuries as a result of an explosion of an unknown source during activity along the northern border

JERUSALEM: Four Israeli soldiers were wounded in an explosion hundreds of meters inside Lebanese territory, an Israeli military official said on Monday.
Earlier, the military said four soldiers were injured overnight, one severely, as a result of an explosion of an unknown source during activity along the northern border and that the incident was under review.