Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows

Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows
FILE - Syrian refugees gather near trucks with their belongings, as they prepare to go back home to Syria as a part of a voluntary return, in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. For more than a decade, a steady flow of Syrians have crossed the border from their war-torn country into Lebanon. But anti-refugee sentiment is rising there, and over the past two months, hundreds of Syrian refugees have gone the other way. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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Updated 12 June 2024
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Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows

Some Syrian refugees risk returning to opposition-held areas as hostility in host Lebanon grows
  • As precarious as the situation is in Lebanon, most refugees still prefer it to northwest Syria, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups

IDLIB: For more than a decade, a steady flow of Syrians have crossed the border from their war-torn country into Lebanon. But anti-refugee sentiment is rising there, and in the past two months, hundreds of Syrian refugees have gone the other way.
They’re taking a smugglers’ route home across remote mountainous terrain, on motorcycle or on foot, then traveling by car on a risky drive through government-held territory into opposition-held northwestern Syria, avoiding checkpoints or bribing their way through.
Until this year, the numbers returning from Lebanon were so low that the local government in Idlib run by the insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al Sham had not formally tracked them. Now it has recorded 1,041 people arriving from Lebanon in May, up from 446 the month before. A Turkish-backed local administration overseeing other parts of northwest Syria said arrivals from Lebanon have increased there, too.
Tiny, crisis-wracked Lebanon is the host of the highest per capita population of refugees in the world and has long felt the strain. About 780,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN refugee agency there and hundreds of thousands more are unregistered.
For years, and particularly since the country sank into an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, Lebanese officials have called for the refugees to be returned to Syria or resettled elsewhere. Tensions flared in April when an official with the Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces party, Pascal Suleiman, was killed in what military officials said was a botched carjacking by a Syrian gang.
That prompted outbreaks of anti-Syrian violence by vigilante groups. Lebanese security agencies cracked down on refugees, raiding and closing down businesses employing undocumented Syrian workers.
In hundreds of cases, authorities have deported refugees. The Lebanese government has also organized “voluntary return” trips for those willing to return to government-held areas, but few have signed up, fearing retaliation from Syria’s government and security forces.
As precarious as the situation is in Lebanon, most refugees still prefer it to northwest Syria, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups under regular bombing by Syrian government forces. It also suffers from aid cuts by international organizations that say resources are going to newer crises elsewhere in the world.
For Walid Mohammed Abdel Bakki, who went back to Idlib in April, the problems of staying in Lebanon finally outweighed the dangers of return.
“Life in Lebanon was hell, and in the end we lost my son,” he said.
Abdel Bakki’s adult son, Ali, 30, who he said has struggled with schizophrenia, disappeared for several days in early April after heading from the Bekaa valley to Beirut to visit his sister and look for work.
His family eventually found him at a police station in the town of Baabda. He was alive but “his body was all black and blue,” Abdel Bakki said. Some reports by activist groups said he was beaten by a racist gang, but Abdel Bakki asserted that his son had been arrested by Lebanese army intelligence for reasons that are unclear. Ali described being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, he said. He died several days later.
A spokesman for army intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. Faysal Dalloul, the forensic doctor who examined Ali, said he had multiple “superficial” wounds but scans of his head and chest had not found anything abnormal, and concluded that his death was natural.
Abdel Bakki was distraught enough that he borrowed $1,200 to pay smugglers to take him and his 11-year-old son to northwestern Syria, a journey that included an arduous trek through the mountains on foot.
“We spent a week on the road and we were afraid all the time,” he said.
They now stay with relatives in Idlib. Their own house had been damaged in an airstrike and then gutted by thieves.
Mohammad Hassan, director of the Access Center for Human Rights, an nongovernmental organization tracking the conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said an “orchestrated wave of hate speech and violence against refugees, justified by political leaders” is pushing some to leave out of fear that otherwise they will be forcibly deported.
While Lebanese officials have warned against vigilante attacks on refugees, they also regularly blame Syrians for rising crime rates and called for more restrictions on them.
Hassan said the route from Lebanon to Idlib is “controlled by Lebanese and Syrian smuggling gangs linked with local and cross-border militias” and is not safe.
The route is particularly risky for those who are wanted for arrest in Syria’s government-controlled areas for dodging army service or for real or suspected affiliation with the opposition.
Ramzi Youssef, from southern Idlib province, moved to Lebanon before Syria’s civil war for work. He remained as a refugee after the conflict began.
He returned to Idlib last year with his wife and children, paying $2,000 to smugglers, driven by “racism, pressure from the state, the economic collapse in Lebanon and the lack of security.”
In Aleppo, the family was stopped at a checkpoint and detained after the soldiers realized they had come from Lebanon. Youssef said he was transferred among several military branches and interrogated.
“I was tortured a lot, even though I was outside the country since 2009 and had nothing to do with anything (in the war),” he said. “They held me responsible for other people, for my relatives.”
Syria’s government has denied reports of torture and extrajudicial killings in detention centers and accuses Western governments of launching smear campaigns against it and supporting “terrorists.”
In the end, Youssef was released and sent to compulsory military service. He escaped weeks later and made his way to Idlib with his family.
He said he has not looked back.
“Despite the poverty and living in a tent and everything else, believe me, I’m happy and until now I haven’t regretted that I came back from Lebanon,” he said.


US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks
Updated 6 sec ago
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US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks
  • Centcom: It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region.
  • Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned crude oil tanker

AL-MUKALLA: US naval forces in the Red Sea destroyed a barrage of drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis as the militia increased drone, boat and missile strikes on ships in international commercial channels.

The US military said in a statement on Tuesday that its forces intercepted three Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles over the Red Sea and two more over Houthi-held areas of war-torn Yemen during the past 24 hours, all of which were aimed against international commercial and navy ships.

“It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region. These actions were taken to protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure,” US Central Command said on X.

During the last 24 hours, the Houthis targeted a Panama-flagged, Israel-owned, Monaco-operated tanker vessel, MT Bentley I, which was transporting vegetable oil from Russia to China. The militia deployed three surface ships, one explosive-laden drone boat and two small boats, causing no damage to the ship or casualties, according to the US military.

The Houthis subsequently launched a ballistic missile from Yemeni territory toward the same ship in the Red Sea.

The Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned crude oil tanker operating under the Liberian flag in the Red Sea, inflicting damage to the ship but no reported casualties.

The US statement came hours after Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea claimed in a televised statement that the militia’s naval, drone and missile forces launched a joint attack against MT Bentley I in the Red Sea, and struck the Chios Lion oil tanker ship with a drone boat.

The two ships were targeted because their owners defied the militia’s warnings against traveling to Israeli ports.

Sarea said that a third operation was carried out with the assistance of the Iraqi Islamic Resistance, targeting the Olvia ship in the Mediterranean.

Olvia was recognized by ship monitoring apps as a crude oil tanker flying the Cyprus flag when it left the Israeli port of Haifa on Saturday.

Since November, the Houthis have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones and drone boats at more than 100 ships on international trade routes near Yemen, forcing major commercial firms to divert ships away from the Red Sea and on to longer and more costly routes via Africa.

The Houthis maintain that they solely strike Israeli-linked and Israeli-bound ships to put pressure on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Critics say that the Houthis are using Yemenis’ fury over Israel’s war in Gaza to silence vocal voices calling for salary payments and public service improvements, as well as to recruit fighters.

On Tuesday, Houthi militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi promised to keep striking ships until Israel stops its war in Gaza.

“Our missile and naval operations will continue and expand until the aggression ends and the Israeli embargo on Gaza is removed,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s internationally recognized government reiterated on Tuesday its request for international groups to shift their offices from Houthi-held Sanaa to the southern city of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital.

Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council, demanded during a meeting with US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin that international donors fulfill their commitments to the humanitarian response plan in Yemen and that international organizations relocate their main offices to Aden after the Houthis kidnapped dozens of aid workers in Sanaa.

Yemeni Minister of Interior Ibrahim Haidan reiterated the same request during a meeting with Mahmoud Salah, head of the Foreign Committee of the Red Cross mission in Aden on Tuesday.


US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts

US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts
Updated 16 July 2024
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US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts

US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts
  • A sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition
  • Former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician: ‘it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit’ made in the United States

JERUSALEM: Israel’s deadly strike on Al-Mawasi, one of the bloodiest attacks in more than nine months of war in Gaza, used massive payload bombs provided by the United States, according to weapons experts.
The bombing of the Israeli-declared “safe zone” transformed the tent city on the Mediterranean coast into a charred wasteland, with nearby hospitals overrun with casualties.
According to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, the barrage killed at least 92 people and wounded more than 300.
The Israeli military said it targeted two “masterminds” of the October 7 attacks by Hamas that triggered the war. It said a top commander, Rafa Salama, was killed in the strike, but uncertainty remains over Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif.
AFP videos of the attack showed a white mushroom cloud billowing over a busy street, leaving behind a huge crater strewn with the wreckage of tents and a building blown to bits.
Here is what we know about the weaponry used in the attack:
Two weapons experts said that a sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). AFP could not independently verify the video.
The GPS-aided kit converts unguided free-fall bombs — so-called “dumb bombs” — into precision-guided “smart” munitions that can be directed toward single or multiple targets.
The United States developed the kit to improve accuracy in adverse weather after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The first JDAMs were delivered in 1997 and, according to the US Air Force, have a 95 percent system reliability.
Trevor Ball, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, concluded from images of the Al-Mawasi strike “it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit” made in the United States.
He said that given the types of bombs compatible with the guidance system and the size of the fin fragment, the JDAM was most likely used with either a 1,000 or 2,000 pound (450 or 900 kilogram) payload.
He said the fragment could also be compatible with the BLU-109 “bunker buster” warhead, which is designed to penetrate concrete.
Ball said it was not possible to definitively determine where the payload itself was made without “very specific fragments of the bomb body.”
Repeated use of such large bombs in the densely populated Gaza Strip has sparked humanitarian outcry and heaped pressure on US President Joe Biden to reconsider the munitions supplied to Israel.
On July 12, Israel’s main military backer announced it was ending a pause on supplying 500-pound bombs, though Biden said the 2,000-pound type would be withheld.
The White House has repeatedly voiced frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza as Israel attempts to eradicate Hamas.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told two top Israeli officials on Monday that the civilian toll was “unacceptably high,” his spokesman said.
Israeli officials said their “precise strike” in Al-Mawasi hit an open area that housed a Hamas compound and not a civilian camp.
When contacted by AFP regarding the weapons used, the Israeli military declined to comment.
Based on Israel’s stated target, Wes Bryant, a retired US Air Force master sergeant and strike and joint targeting expert, said it would have been feasible to avoid collateral damage in the surrounding area.
“My assessment is that any civilians killed in this strike were in the compound — not in the surrounding vicinity. So the IDF either failed to assess presence of civilians, or... deemed the risk to civilians proportional to the military advantage of taking out the Hamas leaders.”
The strike left Al-Mawasi a scene of “absolute destruction” with no water, electricity or sewage treatment, the Islamic Relief charity said.
It condemned Israel for its willingness “to kill innocent men, women and children in pursuit of its end goals.”
Hamas said that by arming Israel, the Biden administration is “legally and morally responsible” for spawning a “major humanitarian catastrophe.”
It said US-supplied weapons used by Israel included GPS-guided bombs, dumb bombs, bunker busters and JDAMs.
After repeated high-casualty strikes in recent days, a Hamas official said the group was withdrawing from indirect talks for a truce and hostage release deal with Israel.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,664 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.


Oman says oil tanker capsized off coast, 16 crew missing

Oman says oil tanker capsized off coast, 16 crew missing
Updated 16 July 2024
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Oman says oil tanker capsized off coast, 16 crew missing

Oman says oil tanker capsized off coast, 16 crew missing
  • The vessel was headed for the Yemeni port city of Aden

MUSCAT: A Comorian-flagged oil tanker capsized off Oman on Monday, the sultanate’s Maritime Security Center (MSC) said, adding that a search was under way for its missing crew of 16.
The MSC, which is run by the Omani defense ministry, did not specify the cause of the capsize.
In a post on social media platform X, it said a “Comoros-flagged oil tanker capsized” 25 nautical miles southeast of Ras Madrakah, near the port town of Duqm on Monday.
Search and rescue operations were “initiated with the relevant authorities,” it added, without providing further details.
In a statement on Tuesday, the MSC identified the vessel as Prestige Falcon, saying it had 16 crew on board — 13 Indians and three Sri Lankans.
“The crew of the ship are still missing,” it said, as the search continued.
The vessel was headed for the Yemeni port city of Aden, according to shipping website marinetraffic.com.


Israeli strikes across Gaza kill at least 17, Palestinian health officials say

Israeli strikes across Gaza kill at least 17, Palestinian health officials say
Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli strikes across Gaza kill at least 17, Palestinian health officials say

Israeli strikes across Gaza kill at least 17, Palestinian health officials say
  • Israeli military say troops continue ‘intelligence-based’ activities in Rafah
  • Air strikes had targeted militants, tunnels, and other Hamas military infrastructure

CAIRO/GAZA: Israeli forces battled Hamas-led fighters in several parts of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, and Palestinian health officials said at least 17 people were killed in Israeli bombardments of southern and central areas.

The Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas has accused Israel of stepping up attacks in Gaza to try to derail efforts by Arab mediators and the United States to reach a ceasefire deal. Israel says it is trying to root out Hamas fighters.

In Rafah, a southern border city where Israeli forces have been operating since May, five Palestinians were killed in an airstrike on a house. In nearby Khan Younis, a man, his wife and two children were killed, they said.

In the historic Nuseirat camp in central Gaza, at least four Palestinians were killed in separate shelling and aerial strikes in central Gaza, medics said. An Israeli airstrike killed four in Sheikh Zayed in northern Gaza, they said.

The Israeli military said troops continued “intelligence-based” activities in Rafah, and that airstrikes had targeted militants, tunnels, and other Hamas military infrastructure.

It said the Israeli air force had struck around 40 targets across the enclave, including sniping and observation posts, military structures, and buildings rigged with explosives.

The armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a Hamas ally, said their fighters had attacked Israeli forces in several locations with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs.

Islamic Jihad’s armed wing said it had fired missiles at Sderot in southern Israel. There was no word of any deaths or serious damage.

Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas after its militants killed 1,200 people and took over 250 hostages in an attack on southern Israeli communities last Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies.

More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive, according to health authorities in Gaza, much of which has been devastated. Israel also says 326 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

Relatives visited Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza to say farewell to relatives before funerals.

“This is so unfair the number of martyrs (victims), every minute there is a martyr,” elderly Palestinian Sahar Abu Emeira said. “We’re exhausted, we’re devastated, we are extremely tired, our patience is over. Whether Hamas or the others (Israel) they need to agree as soon as possible.”

TALKS PAUSED

Efforts mediated by Egypt and Qatar to end the conflict and release the hostages, as well as Palestinians in Israeli jails, had appeared to be making some progress, negotiators had said.

The talks stalled on Saturday after three days of intense negotiations failed to produce a viable outcome, Egyptian security sources said, and after an Israeli strike targeting Hamas’ top military chief, Mohammed Deif.

The attack in the Khan Younis area killed more than 90 people and wounded hundreds, Gaza health authorities said.

A Palestinian official close to the negotiations told Reuters Hamas was keen not to be seen as halting the talks despite the stepped-up Israeli attacks.

“Hamas wants the war to end, not at any price. It says it has shown the flexibility needed and is pushing the mediators to get Israel to reciprocate,” said the official.

He said Hamas believed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to avoid a deal by adding more conditions that restrict the return of displaced people to northern Gaza and to maintain control over the Rafah border with Egypt,

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday that two senior advisers to Netanyahu had said Israel is still committed to reaching a ceasefire.


Weapons experts: US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’

Weapons experts: US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’
Updated 16 July 2024
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Weapons experts: US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’

Weapons experts: US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’
  • A sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition
  • Former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician: ‘it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit’ made in the United States

JERUSALEM: Israel’s deadly strike on Al-Mawasi, one of the bloodiest attacks in more than nine months of war in Gaza, used massive payload bombs provided by the United States, according to weapons experts.
The bombing of the Israeli-declared “safe zone” transformed the tent city on the Mediterranean coast into a charred wasteland, with nearby hospitals overrun with casualties.
According to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, the barrage killed at least 92 people and wounded more than 300.
The Israeli military said it targeted two “masterminds” of the October 7 attacks by Hamas that triggered the war. It said a top commander, Rafa Salama, was killed in the strike, but uncertainty remains over Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif.
AFP videos of the attack showed a white mushroom cloud billowing over a busy street, leaving behind a huge crater strewn with the wreckage of tents and a building blown to bits.
Here is what we know about the weaponry used in the attack:
Two weapons experts said that a sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). AFP could not independently verify the video.
The GPS-aided kit converts unguided free-fall bombs — so-called “dumb bombs” — into precision-guided “smart” munitions that can be directed toward single or multiple targets.
The United States developed the kit to improve accuracy in adverse weather after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The first JDAMs were delivered in 1997 and, according to the US Air Force, have a 95 percent system reliability.
Trevor Ball, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, concluded from images of the Al-Mawasi strike “it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit” made in the United States.
He said that given the types of bombs compatible with the guidance system and the size of the fin fragment, the JDAM was most likely used with either a 1,000 or 2,000 pound (450 or 900 kilogram) payload.
He said the fragment could also be compatible with the BLU-109 “bunker buster” warhead, which is designed to penetrate concrete.
Ball said it was not possible to definitively determine where the payload itself was made without “very specific fragments of the bomb body.”
Repeated use of such large bombs in the densely populated Gaza Strip has sparked humanitarian outcry and heaped pressure on US President Joe Biden to reconsider the munitions supplied to Israel.
On July 12, Israel’s main military backer announced it was ending a pause on supplying 500-pound bombs, though Biden said the 2,000-pound type would be withheld.
The White House has repeatedly voiced frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza as Israel attempts to eradicate Hamas.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told two top Israeli officials on Monday that the civilian toll was “unacceptably high,” his spokesman said.
Israeli officials said their “precise strike” in Al-Mawasi hit an open area that housed a Hamas compound and not a civilian camp.
When contacted by AFP regarding the weapons used, the Israeli military declined to comment.
Based on Israel’s stated target, Wes Bryant, a retired US Air Force master sergeant and strike and joint targeting expert, said it would have been feasible to avoid collateral damage in the surrounding area.
“My assessment is that any civilians killed in this strike were in the compound — not in the surrounding vicinity. So the IDF either failed to assess presence of civilians, or... deemed the risk to civilians proportional to the military advantage of taking out the Hamas leaders.”
The strike left Al-Mawasi a scene of “absolute destruction” with no water, electricity or sewage treatment, the Islamic Relief charity said.
It condemned Israel for its willingness “to kill innocent men, women and children in pursuit of its end goals.”
Hamas said that by arming Israel, the Biden administration is “legally and morally responsible” for spawning a “major humanitarian catastrophe.”
It said US-supplied weapons used by Israel included GPS-guided bombs, dumb bombs, bunker busters and JDAMs.
After repeated high-casualty strikes in recent days, a Hamas official said the group was withdrawing from indirect talks for a truce and hostage release deal with Israel.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,664 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.