Pro-Turkiye Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash

Pro-Turkiye Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash
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Abed, a 30-year-old pro-Turkish Syrian fighter using a pseudonym who has been displaced with his family for more than a decade, sits with an assault rifle near his children inside their family's shelter at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Syria's northern Aleppo province on April 26, 2024. (AFP)
Pro-Turkiye Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash
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Ahmed, a 30-year-old pro-Turkish Syrian fighter using a pseudonym, sits with his son in a field at a location in Syria's northern Aleppo province on April 26, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 16 May 2024
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Pro-Turkiye Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash

Pro-Turkiye Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash
  • At least 1,000 fighters have been sent to Niger in recent months “to protect Turkish projects and interests,” says Syrian war monitor SOHR
  • Niger borders oil-rich Libya, and in 2020, Washington accused Turkiye-linked SADAT of sending Syrian fighters to Libya

BEIRUT: Like hundreds of other pro-Turkish fighters, Omar left northern Syria for mineral-rich Niger last year, joining Syrian mercenaries sent to the West African nation by a private Turkish military company.

“The main reason I left is because life is hard in Syria,” fighter Omar, 24, told AFP on message app WhatsApp from Niger.
In northern Syria “there are no job opportunities besides joining an armed faction and earning no more than 1,500 Turkish lira ($46) a month,” Omar said, requesting like others AFP interviewed to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons.
Analysts say Ankara has strong ties with the new military regime in Niamey, in power since a July 2023 coup.
And in recent months, at least 1,000 fighters have been sent to Niger “to protect Turkish projects and interests,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
For the past decade, Turkiye has been increasing its footprint in Niger, mostly through “humanitarian aid, development and commerce,” said Gabriella Korling, a researcher focusing on the Sahel at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
“The defense component of the relation between Niger and Turkiye has become more important over time with the signing of a military cooperation agreement in 2020 and the sale of armed drones,” Korling said.
Niamey often refers to Turkiye, Russia and China as “partners that are respectful of Niger’s sovereignty,” she added.
Omar, who supports his mother and three siblings, said since leaving his home in August he receives a “very good” monthly salary of $1,500 for his work in the West African nation.
He hopes his earnings will help him start a small business and quit the battlefield, after years working as a fighter for a pro-Ankara faction.
Tens of thousands of young men have joined the ranks of jihadist factions and others loyal to Ankara in Syria’s north and northwest, where four million people, half of them displaced, live in desperate conditions.

Omar said he was among a first batch of more than 200 fighters who left Syria’s Turkish-controlled north in August for Niger.
He is now readying to return home after his six-month contract, renewed once, ended.
He and two other pro-Ankara Syrian fighters who spoke to AFP in recent weeks said they had enlisted for work in Niger with the Sultan Murad faction, one of Turkiye’s most loyal proxies in northern Syria.
They said they had signed six-month contracts at the faction’s headquarters with private firm SADAT International Defense Consultancy.
“SADAT officers came into the room and we signed the contract with them,” said fighter Ahmed.
“They handle everything,” from travel to accommodation, added the 30-year-old, who was readying to travel from northern Syria to Niger.
The company is widely seen as Ankara’s secret weapon in wars across North Africa and the Middle East, although its chief denied the allegation in a 2021 interview with AFP.
Niger borders oil-rich Libya, and in 2020, Washington accused SADAT of sending Syrian fighters to Libya.
Turkiye has sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya to buttress the Tripoli government, which it backs against rival Russian-backed authorities in the east according to the Observatory and the Syria Justice and Accountability Center.
The Center said SADAT was “responsible for the international air transport of mercenaries once they crossed into Turkish territory” to go to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkiye has also sent Syrian fighters to bolster Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, but its efforts to send mercenaries to Niger have been shrouded in secrecy.
Turkiye’s defense ministry told AFP: “All these allegations are false and have no truth.”
Omar said his journey took him to Gaziantep in Turkiye, then to Istanbul, where he boarded a military plane to Burkina Faso before being driven under escort to camps in neighboring Niger.
After two weeks of military training, he was tasked with guarding a site near a mine, whose name he said he didn’t know.
He said he and other Syrians worked alongside Nigeriens in military fatigues, but was unable to say if they were soldiers.
“They divided us into several groups of guards and fighters,” he said.
Another group “was sent to fight Boko Haram (jihadists) and another was sent to Lome” in neighboring Togo, he said, without providing details about their mission.
His family collects his monthly salary, minus a $350 fee for his faction.


Ahmed, who has been a fighter for 10 years, said he had been told his mission would consist of “protecting military positions” after undergoing training.
He said “there could be battles” at some point, but did not know who he would be fighting.
The father of three said he spent six months in Libya in 2020 earning more than $2,000 a month.
In July 2023, the army seized power in Niger, ending security and defense agreements with Western countries including France, which has withdrawn forces who were fighting jihadists.
“The coup in 2023 did not disrupt diplomatic relations between Turkiye and Niger,” researcher Korling added, pointing to the appointment of the first Turkish defense attache to Niger earlier this year.
Last year, Turkish state television opened a French-language channel covering Africa, and Ankara operates daily flights to Niamey.
“Turkiye, given its religious proximity and lack of political and historical baggage, is looked upon quite favorably in Niger especially in comparison to” Western countries, said Korling.


Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Turkiye was “exploiting” impoverished men in areas under its control “to recruit them as mercenaries in military operations” serving Ankara’s foreign interests.
The war monitor and other human rights groups said promises of lucrative payments to mercenaries sent abroad are not always kept.
Mohammad Al-Abdallah of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center said his organization had for example documented “false promises of granting Turkish citizenship” to those sent to Azerbaijan or Libya.
Abdul Rahman noted reports that about 50 Syrian fighters had been killed in Niger, mostly after they were attacked by jihadists, but he said his organization had only verified nine deaths, with four bodies having been repatriated.
A source within a faction whose members have been dispatched to Niger said about 50 bodies were expected to return in the coming days.
For Abed, a 30-year-old Syrian who has been displaced with his family for more than a decade, death is a risk he has decided to take.
The father of four and sole breadwinner told AFP: “I’m scared of dying... but maybe I could die here” too.
The difference, he said, is that in Syria “I would die for 1,000 Turkish liras ($30), and (in Niger) I would die for $1,500.”
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WHO voices alarm at swelling West Bank health crisis

WHO voices alarm at swelling West Bank health crisis
Updated 15 June 2024
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WHO voices alarm at swelling West Bank health crisis

WHO voices alarm at swelling West Bank health crisis
  • Israel has killed at least 37,266 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry

GENEVA: The World Health Organization decried Friday an escalating health crisis in the occupied West Bank, where growing restrictions, violence and attacks on health infrastructure are increasingly obstructing access to care.
In a statement, the UN health agency said it was calling “for the immediate and active protection of civilians and health care in the West Bank.”
It noted that a spike in violence in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, since the war in Gaza erupted on October 7 had by June 10 left 521 Palestinians dead, including 126 children.
Palestinian officials have put the West Bank death toll even higher, saying at least 545 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops or settlers since the Gaza war broke out.
In addition to the deaths, more than 5,200 people — 800 of them children — have been injured, the WHO said, stressing that this only added to “the growing burden of trauma and emergency care at already strained health facilities.”
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has experienced a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza erupted more than eight months ago.
That war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,266 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The war has repeatedly seen health facilities in the Gaza Strip come under attack.
And the WHO said Friday that health care in the West Bank was also facing increasing attacks.
Between October 7 and May 28, it said it had documented a full 480 such attacks in the West Bank, including on health facilities and ambulances, and the detention of health workers and patients.
Those attacks had left 16 people dead and 95 injured, it said.
At the same time, checkpoint closures, growing insecurity, and sieges and closures of entire communities were making movement within the West Bank increasingly restricted, making access to care ever more difficult.
The WHO warned that a long-standing fiscal crisis — made worse since October 7 as Israel increased its withholding of tax revenue meant for the Palestinian territory — was also taking its toll on health care.
This, it said, had resulted in “health workers receiving only half of their salary for nearly a year and 45 percent of essential medications being out of stock.”
And hospitals were operating at only around 70 percent capacity, it said.
It had also become more difficult for patients to seek medical care outside the West Bank, with 44 percent of requests to go to facilities in East Jerusalem and Israel denied or pending since October 7.
 

 


Crew evacuated from Greek-owned vessel hit by Houthis

Crew evacuated from Greek-owned vessel hit by Houthis
Updated 15 June 2024
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Crew evacuated from Greek-owned vessel hit by Houthis

Crew evacuated from Greek-owned vessel hit by Houthis
  • The attack near the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Wednesday caused severe flooding and damage to the engine room and left Tutor unable to maneuver
  • Tutor’s 22 crew members are mostly Filipino. A Greek ship has been assigned to tow Tutor, which is carrying 80,000 tons of coal

MANILA/LONDON: The crew of a Greek-owned vessel damaged in an attack by Yemeni Houthi militants has been evacuated, and the abandoned ship is drifting in the Red Sea, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said on Friday.

One sailor from Tutor, the Liberia-flagged coal carrier, remains missing, officials in the Philippines said.
The attack near the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Wednesday caused severe flooding and damage to the engine room and left Tutor unable to maneuver.
Iran-aligned Houthis claimed responsibility for the missile strike on Tutor and another vessel, Verbena, in the Gulf of Aden, over the past days. Their attacks also damaged two other ships in the last week, “marking a significant increase in effectiveness,” British security firm Ambrey said.
The Houthis have used drones and missiles to assault ships in the Red Sea, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden since November, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war. They have sunk one ship, seized another vessel and killed three seafarers in separate attacks.
“This situation cannot go on,” International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Arsenio Dominguez said in a statement.
Tutor’s 22 crew members are mostly Filipino, Hans Cacdac, the Philippines’ Department of Migrant Workers secretary, told a press conference in Manila.
Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr said the country’s authorities were coordinating with the UKMTO to take the crew members to Djibouti and bring them home.
The missing crew member was believed to be trapped in the engine room, maritime sources said.
“We are still ... trying to account for the particular seafarer in that ship. We are praying we could find him,” Cacdac said.
The ship’s Athens-based manager Evalend Shipping has not responded to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Tsavliris Salvage Group has been assigned to tow the ship, which is carrying 80,000 tons of coal, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters. The project will involve two vessels. The first is expected to reach Tutor on Monday morning and the second on Tuesday evening.
The Houthis’ air and sea campaign has disrupted global shipping, causing delays and costs to cascade through supply chains. At least 65 countries and major energy and shipping companies — including Shell, BP, Maersk and Cosco — have been affected, according to a report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency.
INTERCARGO, which represents dry cargo ship owners, urged states to enhance maritime security in the area.
“We demand that all involved parties cease their deliberate and targeted attacks on innocent seafarers with immediate effect,” it said. (Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and Renee Maltezou and Yannis Souliotis in Athens, Jonathan Saul in London, Adam Makary and Enas Alashray in Cairo, and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)


Tunisia sentences five over missing migrants

Tunisia sentences five over missing migrants
Updated 15 June 2024
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Tunisia sentences five over missing migrants

Tunisia sentences five over missing migrants
  • Tunisia and neighboring Libya are major departure points for migrants attempting perilous sea crossings to Europe

TUNIS: A Tunisian court has sentenced five people to prison for organizing an illegal migrant sea crossing that resulted in 18 deaths or disappearances, a spokesman said Friday.
The boat carrying the migrants, all Tunisians, went missing off the coast of the southeastern city of Zarzis during an attempt to reach Italy in September 2022.
The five Tunisian defendants, including two still at large, received prison terms ranging from four to 10 years on Thursday night, said Lassad Horr, spokesman for the Medenine court.
The incident sparked protests and a general strike in Zarzis. President Kais Saied later ordered an investigation to uncover what happened.
The court spokesman said Friday that a boat, two cars and a GPS device had been seized as part of the investigation.
Tunisia and neighboring Libya are major departure points for migrants attempting perilous sea crossings to Europe.
Each year, tens of thousands of migrants — mainly Sub-Saharan Africans — attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia, whose shores are about 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
On May 19, the Tunisian National Guard said 23 people had been missing for two weeks off Nabeul in the northeast. On May 29, four others disappeared off Mahdia on the central coast, while 17 were rescued.
More than 1,300 people died or went missing last year in shipwrecks off the North African country, according to the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, a non-governmental organization.
The International Organization for Migration has said more than 27,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the past decade, including more than 3,000 last year.
 

 


US Navy faces its most intense combat since World War II against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels

US Navy faces its most intense combat since World War II against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels
Updated 15 June 2024
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US Navy faces its most intense combat since World War II against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels

US Navy faces its most intense combat since World War II against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels
  • The Houthis say the attacks are aimed at stopping the war in Gaza and supporting the Palestinians, though it comes as they try to strengthen their position in Yemen

ABOARD THE USS LABOON IN THE RED SEA: The US Navy prepared for decades to potentially fight the Soviet Union, then later Russia and China, on the world’s waterways. But instead of a global power, the Navy finds itself locked in combat with a shadowy, Iran-backed rebel group based in Yemen.
The US-led campaign against the Houthi rebels, overshadowed by the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, has turned into the most intense running sea battle the Navy has faced since World War II, its leaders and experts told The Associated Press.
The combat pits the Navy’s mission to keep international waterways open against a group whose former arsenal of assault rifles and pickup trucks has grown into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of drones, missiles and other weaponry. Near-daily attacks by the Houthis since November have seen more than 50 vessels clearly targeted, while shipping volume has dropped in the vital Red Sea corridor that leads to the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.
The Houthis say the attacks are aimed at stopping the war in Gaza and supporting the Palestinians, though it comes as they try to strengthen their position in Yemen. All signs suggest the warfare will intensify — putting US sailors, their allies and commercial vessels at more risk.
“I don’t think people really understand just kind of how deadly serious it is what we’re doing and how under threat the ships continue to be,” Cmdr. Eric Blomberg with the USS Laboon told the AP on a visit to his warship on the Red Sea.
“We only have to get it wrong once,” he said. “The Houthis just have to get one through.”
Seconds to act
The pace of the fire can be seen on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, where the paint around the hatches of its missile pods has been burned away from repeated launches. Its sailors sometimes have seconds to confirm a launch by the Houthis, confer with other ships and open fire on an incoming missile barrage that can move near or beyond the speed of sound.
“It is every single day, every single watch, and some of our ships have been out here for seven-plus months doing that,” said Capt. David Wroe, the commodore overseeing the guided missile destroyers.
One round of fire on Jan. 9 saw the Laboon, other vessels and F/A-18s from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower shoot down 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and a ballistic missile launched by the Houthis.
Nearly every day — aside from a slowdown during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan — the Houthis launch missiles, drones or some other type of attack in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the waterways and separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.
The Navy saw periods of combat during the “Tanker Wars” of the 1980s in the Arabian Gulf, but that largely involved ships hitting mines. The Houthi assaults involve direct attacks on commercial vessels and warships.
“This is the most sustained combat that the US Navy has seen since World War II — easily, no question,” said Bryan Clark, a former Navy submariner and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “We’re sort of on the verge of the Houthis being able to mount the kinds of attacks that the US can’t stop every time, and then we will start to see substantial damage. … If you let it fester, the Houthis are going to get to be a much more capable, competent, experienced force.”
Dangers at sea and in the air
While the Eisenhower appears to largely stay at a distance, destroyers like the Laboon spend six out of seven days near or off Yemen — the “weapons engagement zone,” in Navy speak.
Sea combat in the Mideast remains risky, something the Navy knows well. In 1987, an Iraqi fighter jet fired missiles that struck the USS Stark, a frigate on patrol in the Arabian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 37 sailors and nearly sinking the vessel.
There’s also the USS Cole, targeted in 2000 by boat-borne Al-Qaeda suicide bombers during a refueling stop in Yemen’s port city of Aden, which killed 17 on board. AP journalists saw the Cole patrolling the Red Sea with the Laboon on Wednesday, the same day the Houthis launched a drone-boat attack against a commercial ship there that disabled the vessel.
That commercial ship was abandoned on Friday and left adrift and unlit in the Red Sea, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center said.
Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, the Navy’s commander for its Carrier Strike Group Two, which includes the Eisenhower and supporting ships, said the Navy had taken out one underwater bomb-carrying drone launched by the Houthis as well during the campaign.
“We currently have pretty high confidence that not only is Iran providing financial support, but they’re providing intelligence support,” Miguez said. “We know for a fact the Houthis have also gotten training to target maritime shipping and target US warships.”
Asked if the Navy believed Iran picks targets for the Houthis, Miguez would only say there was “collaboration” between Tehran and the rebels. He also noted Iran continues to arm the Houthis, despite UN sanctions blocking weapons transfers to them.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations told the AP that Tehran “is adept at thwarting the US strategy in a way that not only strengthens (the Houthis) but also ensures compliance with the pertinent resolutions.”
The risk isn’t just on the water. The US-led campaign has carried out numerous airstrikes targeting Houthi positions inside Yemen, including what the US military describes as radar stations, launch sites, arsenals and other locations. One round of US and British strikes on May 30 killed at least 16 people, the deadliest attack acknowledged by the rebels.
The Eisenhower’s air crews have dropped over 350 bombs and fired 50 missiles at targets in the campaign, said Capt. Marvin Scott, who oversees all the air group’s aircraft. Meanwhile, the Houthis apparently have shot down multiple MQ-9 Reaper drones with surface-to-air missile systems.
“The Houthis also have surface-to-air capabilities that we have significantly degraded, but they are still present and still there,” Scott said. “We’re always prepared to be shot at by the Houthis.”
A stalemated war
Officers acknowledge some grumbling among their crew, wondering why the Navy doesn’t strike harder against the Houthis. The White House hasn’t discussed the Houthi campaign at the same level as negotiations over the Israel-Hamas war.
There are several likely reasons. The US has been indirectly trying to lower tensions with Iran, particularly after Tehran launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel and now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
Meanwhile, there’s the Houthis themselves.
The US directly fighting the Houthis is something the leaders of the Zaydi Shiite group likely want. Their motto long has been “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse the Jews; victory to Islam.” Combating the US and siding publicly with the Palestinians has some in the Mideast praising the rebels.
While the US and European partners patrol the waterways, Saudi Arabia largely has remained quiet, seeking a peace deal with the Houthis. Reports suggest some Mideast nations have asked the US not to launch attacks on the Houthis from their soil, making the Eisenhower’s presence even more critical. The carrier has had its deployment extended, while its crew has had only one port call since its deployment a week after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Houthi attacks continue to depress shipping through the region. Revenue for Egypt from the Suez Canal — a key source of hard currency for its struggling economy — has halved since the attacks began. AP journalists saw a single commercial ship moving through the once-busy waterway.
“It’s almost a ghost town,” Blomberg acknowledged.

 


Turkish writer, son accused of fleeing after crash arrested in US

A Turkish police armoured vehicle drives in Istanbul, Turkey. (REUTERS file photo)
A Turkish police armoured vehicle drives in Istanbul, Turkey. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 15 June 2024
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Turkish writer, son accused of fleeing after crash arrested in US

A Turkish police armoured vehicle drives in Istanbul, Turkey. (REUTERS file photo)
  • Turkiye is seeking Cihantimur’s extradition so he could be prosecuted for causing reckless killing and injury, while Tok is wanted on the charge of protecting an offender

BOSTON: US authorities on Friday arrested a Turkish author and her 17-year-old son wanted by Turkiye on charges he was involved in a fatal car crash in Istanbul then fled the country with the help of his mother.
Turkish novelist and poet Eylem Tok and her son, Timur Cihantimur, were arrested pursuant to an extradition request from Turkiye as they were about to tour an expensive private school in Boston, according to court papers.
Their arrests were announced on the social media platform X by Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc, who said they were “captured in the United States in line with our extradition request.”
According to prosecutors, the teenager was driving a Porsche on the night of March 1 when, while speeding around a corner, he crashed into a group of people on all-terrain vehicles. One person, Oguz Murat Aci, died and four others were injured.
Prosecutors said the teenager immediately fled the scene after saying something like “my life is over.”
He was picked up by the family’s driver, and within three or four hours Tok had bought one-way plane tickets for herself and her son from Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt, according to court papers. Authorities said they continued to the United States, landing in New York on March 2.
Turkish law enforcement had as of May believed they were in Miami and that they may have attempted to secure fraudulent passports to travel to Cuba, according to court papers.
Turkiye is seeking Cihantimur’s extradition so he could be prosecuted for causing reckless killing and injury, while Tok is wanted on the charge of protecting an offender.
US Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell scheduled a Tuesday hearing at Boston’s John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse to consider whether to keep them detained pending their extradition, after prosecutors in court papers argued the pair had the resources to flee given the chance.
They noted that Tok’s ex-husband is a well-known plastic surgeon and said that at the time of her arrest, Tok was carrying $5,000 in cash and that the mother and son were touring a private school where annual tuition costs $46,000.
Brendan Kelley, a lawyer for Tok, argued she should be released, saying that under Turkish law her alleged offense carries no penalty if committed by a parent, potentially making it ineligible for extradition under a US-Turkiye treaty.
“She’s being detained in custody for something that might not even be extraditable,” he said.