RAQQA, Syria (AP) — After two years on the run with the Islamic State group, Um Mahmoud just wanted to return home. When she finally made it to Raqqa with her daughters and grandchildren, she found her home partially burned but livable. She also found a hostile city reluctant to take her back. The 53-year-old seamstress had returned from al-Hol camp, where 73,000 people, most of them families of IS militants, have been kept since the territorial defeat of the group in March. But there is little trust in the returnees in Raqqa, which IS ruled with a brutal hand for years and which suffered massive devastation in the fight to drive it out. Um Mahmoud s neighbors and relatives in Raqqa have shunned her. “No one asks about us,” said the mother of six. “Relatives are … afraid of us.” Her return, in June, is part of an experiment by the US-backed Kurdish-led administration that runs northeastern Syria — an attempt to bring reconciliation to Raqqa after the upheaval that tore apart its social fabric. City administrators have allowed the return of nearly 700 families from al-Hol. The camp includes some 30,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, along with tens of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of foreigners. Most of those foreigners home countries have refused to take them back. The administration here argues it s better to bring the families back into the fold rather than leave them stewing in radicalism. The return is coordinated with Arab tribal sheikhs, who vouch for the returnees, acting as guarantors they will not cause trouble. Thousands more Syrians in the camp have applied to return. The results of the experiment are still uncertain, Um Mahmoud s case makes clear. She and her family spoke on condition they not be identified by their full names because of the stigma they face. Um Mahmoud means mother of Mahmoud in Arabic, a common way of addressing women in the Arab and Muslim world that uses the name of their firstborn son. She and her family fled Raqqa in the summer of 2017 when IS ordered their neighborhood evacuated in the face of advances by the US-backed forces and coalition airstrikes. They moved with the retreating militants from town to town over the following months, until the group s final showdown in the eastern village of Baghouz. Two of her sons and a son-in-law were killed while fighting or working for IS. She emerged from Baghouz and was sent to al-Hol along with her three daughters and three grandchildren. Her husband, father, her surviving 14-year-old son and a son-in-law are in detention with the Kurdish-led forces. The son-in-law was sentenced to a year in prison for membership in IS, though it was determined he didn t fight. Without her male relatives, Um Mahmoud returned to a Raqqa that is trying to move on. Streets that were once unidentifiable under piles of debris have been cleared, and municipality workers are keeping them clean. Many tall buildings in the skyline are still bombed-out skeletons, but residents have moved in, rebuilding apartments or opening shops. New restaurants have sprung up, some along the banks of the river running across the city. Billboards rise over busy streets. One advertised a new wedding planning business that commissions singers, banned under IS. Vegetables from nearby farms color street stands. Public parks brim with children and their families. Officials say more than 800,000 people have returned to the city and its suburbs, nearly eight times the number who were still left in the city when IS was finally expelled in October 2017. Local officials said they restored 18 of 24 water pumping stations damaged by fighting. More than 300 schools, out of 800, now operate with tens of thousands of students. The US-led coalition has trained more than 7,500 men and women for Raqqa s internal security forces and refurbished 20 bridges destroyed in the fighting. A US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said “very targeted” spending has been going into newly liberated areas to ensure that IS doesn t return. Washington, which last year froze its own planned funding for stabilization in northeast Syria, has raised more than $325 million from other nations for recovery operations. The official, however, acknowledged that the “mission is not complete.” IS retreated to desert areas and melted in among the population. It s now waging a counterinsurgency, targeting local officials and security checkpoints. At least six attacks were recorded in Raqqa alone in August, compared to none the month before, according to the Rojava Information Center. The violence only stokes Raqqa residents suspicions. Osama, who runs a shop selling phone credit in Raqqa, said Kurdish-led authorities are too lenient on IS supporters in court and shouldn t allow them back. “Who can guarantee they don t return to their old ways?” he said. He refused to share his last name out of fear for his security. During their rule, IS militants threatened to cut his tongue for his vocal criticism. His shop is on al-Naim Square, which became notorious for beheadings, shootings and other public punishments the group carried out there. Now it has been renamed Freedom Square. “If France and Germany refuse to take their own nationals, it must be for a good reason. Why should we take ours?” he said. Um Mahmoud s sponsor, Sheikh Hweidi al-Shalsh, said that view is short-sighted. Women and children in al-Hol camp are steeped in radical ideology, he said, feeding more radicalism unless they are removed. “If there is no security, the return of the people of Raqqa will ensure it is restored,” al-Shalsh said. He extolled the benefits of tribal restorative justice. If someone is killed, tribal sheikhs get together to find a resolution. “We are a tribal Muslim society first and foremost. Our nature is to forgive … We are a family.” Um Mahmoud scrapes out a living selling second-hand clothes in the market. She sold her gold bracelets to start up the business. Unlike most in the city, she and her daughters still follow the women s dress imposed by IS, covering not only their faces with a veil but also their eyes and hands. “The State is gone, but we are still implementing God s laws,” she said, defending the choice. She is stunned by how her neighbors have ostracized her. “Look at this! They have electricity and we don t. This one and that one,” she said pointing at her neighbors houses. “They don t feel for us. We are women sitting in the dark alone and they have 24 hours a day electricity. Is this what you call freedom?” Since electricity has not been fully restored, residents rely on generators for power and traditionally share among themselves. Um Mahmoud s neighbors refused to share with her. Um Mahmoud admitted her sons and sons-in-law fought for or were members of IS, but she said her family never hurt the neighbors. She accused them of trying to curry favor with the new authorities. Her family also said they encountered problems with city officials, despite promises of reintegration. When her daughter, Somaiya, asked to visit her imprisoned husband, authorities requested proof of marriage. But the local official refused to issue her the document, declaring her an IS supporter. Somaiya went three times, once removing her face veil to avoid the IS label, to no avail. This means she also can t enroll her son in school. A senior Kurdish official, not familiar with this specific case, denied new returnees are refused documents and said the reason must be procedural. The whole point is reintegration, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The American official said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and local authorities are leading the reintegration effort, while the US-backed coalition gives indirect support. Once her husband is released from prison, Somaiya wants to move to a new neighborhood where no one recognizes them. For Um Mahmoud, life would change if her husband, father and son return. She said they never carried weapons and should be allowed back. To prove she wants to fit in, she said her son will join the new Kurdish-led forces once he returns. For now, she doesn t know where they are. “Not a night passes without thinking about them. If we can only learn their news, whether they are well or if they are dead,” she said. “We are patiently waiting until God resolves it and we return to our normal life.”
JERUSALEM (AP) — Seven Palestinians have been wounded after a rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip exploded near a house inside the coastal enclave. Palestinian eyewitnesses said Wednesday that two of the three rockets struck outside a home in the southern city of Rafah, and a third fell near the fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said it had identified “a failed launch attempt” from the Gaza Strip, but that no projectiles entered Israel. Gaza s health ministry said seven people were wounded, but didn t elaborate on their condition. It wasn t clear which Palestinian militant group in Gaza was behind the rocket fire. Israel and Hamas reached an informal cease-fire in May, following the worst bout of fighting since a 2014 war between them, which has largely held.
Afghanistan s Taliban insurgent group on Wednesday warned teachers, students and other education workers to avoid the upcoming presidential vote or risk dying in attacks on election centres. "Do not allow election organisers to turn your schools and institutions into electoral centres, and teachers and students should not work as electoral staff," said the Taliban statement. "We do not want to cause the loss of lives and financial losses for civilians, teachers and students," it said. In 10 days, Afghanistan will hold its fourth presidential election since United States-led forces toppled the hardline Islamist Taliban from power in 2001. The insurgents have sworn to violently disrupt the vote, which comes in the aftermath of collapsed peace talks between the militants and the United States. Schools and universities make up between seven and eight out of every ten polling centres across the country, and though no students, teachers or education officials are being hired as election workers, they can volunteer, said Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan s election commission. "We are committed to holding elections on the announced date, and such threats from the Taliban cannot prevent us from holding them," the spokesman said. The Ministry of Education was not immediately available for comment, but the United Nations and international donors have asked it to help with elections because of its relatively developed infrastructure. On Tuesday, Taliban attackers killed nearly 50 people in separate suicide bombings, one targeting an election rally for incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term. Security across the country has been tight in the run-up to the vote, after threats by the Taliban to attack meetings and polling stations. The group has vowed to intensify clashes with Afghan and foreign forces to dissuade people from voting in the upcoming elections. Last week, peace talks between the United States and the Taliban collapsed. The two sides had been seeking to reach an accord on the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgents. The negotiations, which did not include the Afghan government, were intended as a prelude to wider peace negotiations to end more than more 40 years of war in Afghanistan.
The leader of the “Islamic State” group released an alleged audio recording on Monday calling on followers to free jihadis and family members from prisons and camps in Syria and Iraq. In a 30-minute audio recording released by the terror outfit s propaganda arm, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made what were purported to be his first comments since he appeared in a video in April. “The prisons, the prisons, soldiers of the caliphate,” the elusive IS chief said in a recording published by the Al Furqan network. “Do your utmost to rescue your brothers and sisters and break down the walls that imprison them.” He also said IS continued to carry out operations across the globe. Thousands of suspected jihadis and their family members are being held in overcrowded prisons and camps in Iraq and Kurdish-held areas of Syria. In Syria, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in March pushed IS out of the last sliver of its self-declared “caliphate,” tens of thousands of IS family members are being held in detention camps. One of the largest camps is al-Hol camp in Syria s northeast, where Kurdish forces are holding 70,000 people, many of them families of IS who fled from the group s last bastion in Syria. The International Rescue Committee said this week that those residing at al-Hol face a “purgatory-like existence.” Kurdish authorities say 12,000 foreigners from dozens of countries, including 4,000 women and twice as many children, are in camps it runs in northeastern Syria. Many face uncertainty over repatriation to their home countries. Tens of thousands of suspected fighters are also being held in prisons across Syria and Iraq. Although IS has lost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group still carries out hit-and-run attacks and bombings. Baghdadi, if he is alive, is believed to be hiding out in the desert border regions of Iraq and Syria. IS affiliates are active from the Philippines and Afghanistan to West Africa. The group is also believed to have sleeper cells operating across the globe.
A Damanhour criminal court in Egypt s Behiera governorate sentenced on Sunday six defendants to death, two to life in prison and acquitted eight others over charges of joining a terrorist group and manufacturing and possessing explosives. The court also sentenced two other defendants to 10 years and five years in prison. Those convicted can appeal the verdicts. The prosecution said that the defendants confessed to joining the terrorist-designated Muslim Brotherhood group. The prosecution also said that the defendants had visible burns on their bodies at the time of their arrest in 2015, which they said they sustained when explosives they had been manufacturing in the Wadi Al-Natroun area accidentally detonated.
Egyptian security forces have killed a group of suspected terrorists in North Sinai who were plotting to carry out a series of attacks against police and army troops in the border region, the interior ministry said. The men were killed after they opened fire from their vehicle on security forces who approached them in the Galabana area, the ministry said in a statement. The terrorists were found in possession of ammunition, automatic weapons and materials used in making explosive devices, it said. The ministry did not reveal the number or the identity of the suspects but said all of them were killed, adding that another terrorist was killed nearby after he opened fire on security forces. A total of four policemen were injured in the two shootouts, it added. The ministry released photos of bloodied bodies with their faces concealed lying on the ground. Egypt is fighting an Islamist militancy based in North Sinai which intensified in 2013 following the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Crushing the militants, who have mainly targeted police and army personnel, and restoring security has been a key priority of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Egyptian security forces launched an extensive security operation in February 2018 to eliminate the militants, killing hundreds of them in raids ever since.
An Egyptian criminal court sentenced in a retrial on Wednesday Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie and 10 other leading members of the group to life in prison on charges of spying for the Palestinian Hamas group. Other leading Brotherhood members sentenced on Wednesday include Khairat El-Shater, Saad El-Katatany, Essam El-Erian and Mohamed El-Beltagy. The defendants were charged with sharing Egyptian national security secrets with foreign organisations as well as coordinating with violent militant groups inside and outside the country to launch terrorist attacks inside Egypt. Two other defendants in the case, including Mohamed Refaa El-Tahtawy, were sentenced to seven years in prison. The court also acquitted three other leading Brotherhood members, including Essam Haddad, of the espionage charges, although they were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on other charges. Seven other defendants including El-Hassan Khairat El-Shater and Safwat Hegazy received acquittals. In June 2015, a court sentenced three defendants including El-Shater and El-Beltagy to death for espionage, and others including former president Mohamed Morsi to life in prison. Morsi died of a heart attack during a trial session in an espionage case in June 2019. Badie and other defendants in the trial are already serving various sentences in prison, including life imprisonment, in other cases. Life imprisonment is 25 years in prison according to Egyptian law. The Muslim Brotherhood was designated as a terrorist organisation in December 2013.
GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft struck in Gaza on Wednesday hours after rockets from the Palestinian enclave triggered sirens that forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu off the stage at an election rally in Israel. The Israeli military said 15 targets were hit, including a weapons manufacturing facility, a naval compound used by militants and tunnels belonging to Hamas, the dominant armed force in Gaza. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Hours earlier, bodyguards rushed Netanyahu to shelter in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod when the sirens sounded during a Tuesday evening rally, a week ahead of a general election. Netanyahu was unhurt and several minutes later he continued his speech, which was broadcast live on social media by his right-wing Likud party. However, the spectacle of the prime minister being forced off the podium added fuel to accusations by political opponents that he has not done enough to halt the frequent cross-border rocket strikes against southern Israel. The Israeli military said two rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip towards Ashdod and another port city, Ashkelon, just to the south, and were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. It said Wednesday s strikes in Gaza came in response to the rocket launchings. There was no immediately claim of responsibility for Tuesday s rocket attack, which happened shortly after Netanyahu announced a plan to annex part of the occupied West Bank if re-elected in the national ballot on Sept. 17. Israel seized Gaza in a 1967 war and pulled out its settlers and troops in 2005. It maintains a naval blockade of the enclave and along with Egypt imposes tight restrictions at land borders, citing security concerns. Hamas and Israel have fought three wars in the past decade. Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall
Egyptian authorities have arrested 16 Muslim Brotherhood members associated with plans by the group s fugitive leaders in Turkey to undermine the country s security and economy, the interior ministry said. The suspects were arrested in Egypt after the National Security service uncovered a plot by the fugitives intended to harm the economy and carry out a series of attacks against the police, military and judiciary to create chaos in the country, the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. The plan allegedly involved setting up secret networks designed to smuggle foreign currency and wanted Brotherhood members out of the country to Europe through Turkey, and to offer financial support to Brotherhood members in Egypt to carry out violent attacks. The ministry named four fugitives who it said have been identified by authorities as the orchestrators of the plot. Sixteen other Brotherhood members based in Egypt and linked to the plan have been arrested, it said. Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in 2013, months after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his one-year rule.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed on Monday in his eleventh hour bid to legislate that cameras be installed in polling stations to prevent what his supporters claim is voting fraud in Arab districts. After a stormy session, a parliamentary committee voted it down before it reached the plenum with Netanyahu s backers deadlocked with his opponents. The deciding, dissenting vote was cast by a representative of former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ally-turned-rival of Netanyahu who forced Israel s unprecedented second election of the year and is poised to be the kingmaker again in the vote. With just a week to go to the repeat election, Netanyahu had sought to pass the controversial legislation amid a scorched earth campaign in which he s accused his opponents of conspiring to “steal” the election. Netanyahu insists the proposal was a matter of transparency but it drew renewed accusations that he was promoting racism and incitement against the country s Arab minority. Critics also said he was preemptively claiming to be a victim of electoral fraud as an alibi, in case he loses. Mordechai Kremnitzer, a constitutional law expert, wrote in the Haaretz daily that the bill amounted to pointing a “gun at Israeli democracy s head.” With his career on the line, Netanyahu has increasingly been embracing some tactics of President Donald Trump. Netanyahu routinely lashes out at the media, the judiciary, the police and his political opponents, claiming there is a conspiracy of “elites” to oust him. In a Facebook video Sunday, Netanyahu hinted that Arab forgery prevented him from winning the April vote. Netanyahu s hard-line Likud Party had sent out campaign workers on election day to videotape Arab voters entering polling stations, claiming they were preventing fraud. A Likud-linked PR agency that spearheaded the campaign later boasted it had helped suppress Arab turnout, while Arab leaders accused Likud of trying to intimidate voters. Israel s Central Election Commission banned the practice this time around and the fast-tracked legislation was supposed to override that ruling. Adalah, a legal rights group for Arab minority rights, said even without passing the proposed bill “has already caused harm by injecting bald-faced lies into the public political discourse under the premise of preserving the purity of elections. ” Stifling Netanyahu once again was his nemesis Lieberman, who said any monitoring should be operated by election officials and not “Netanyahu s private militia.” Lieberman, who was once Netanyahu s chief of staff and a staunch partner, has emerged as his chief rival and critic. He passed up the post of defense minister in Netanyahu s government following April s election, leaving the prime minister without a parliamentary majority and forcing the Sept. 17 do-over vote. Opinion polls show Likud in a neck-and-neck race with the main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, with neither side able to secure an outright majority without the support of Lieberman s party.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that Taliban “overreached” with their car bomb attack in a diplomatic area near the US Embassy in Kabul, killing an American soldier — and that led President Donald Trump to pull back from planned Afghanistan peace talks at Camp David. Pompeo said it was now up to the Taliban to “change their behavior.” America s top diplomat isn t saying whether or when peace talks would resume. He said he hopes the insurgents “will recommit to the things that we ve been talking to them about for months.” In the end, Pompeo said, “this will be resolved through a series of conversations. I hope the Taliban will agree to meet with the Afghan government.” Trump tweeted on Saturday night that he had canceled a secret meeting, planned for Sunday at the presidential retreat in Maryland, with Taliban and Afghan leaders, and called off talks with the insurgent group. He cited the Thursday attack. Pompeo, who was booked on five Sunday news shows, said the United States and the Taliban were close to a deal. “And then the Taliban failed to live up to a series of commitments that they had made, and when that happened President Trump said, I m not going to take that deal. I m not going to work with someone that can t deliver on their commitments. ” He said Trump “broke it off,” because he did not want to “reward that behavior,” referring to Thursday s attack. The secretary of state said Trump “broke it off” because he did not want to “reward that behavior,” referring to Thursday s attack. Pompeo acknowledged that the attack was not the first during the period in which peace talks have been held. He also said the US has been attacking the Taliban throughout this period. Pompeo said more than 1,000 Taliban have been killed in battle over the past 10 days alone. The Taliban on Sunday said that Trump s abrupt decision to cancel the meet with the group s leaders on a “finalized” deal to end America s longest war would “damage the credibility” of the US, but they believe the US will return to negotiations. “Both sides were preparing for the announcement and signing of the agreement,” the insurgent group said in a statement, saying they had been invited in late August but wanted to wait until the deal s signing. Now, “we will continue the ongoing jihad (against foreign occupation) and we firmly believe in the ultimate victory.” Trump s move puzzled observers, who pointed out that both the Taliban and US and Afghan forces have increased fighting in recent months to strengthen their position in the talks. Civilians have suffered more than anyone in what was the world s deadliest war in 2018. Trump s announcement Saturday evening was surprising because it would mean that the president was ready to host members of the Taliban just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 2,400 US troops have been killed since the US invaded Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, which were harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for 9/11. Canceling the talks also goes against Trump s pledge to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan and end US involvement in a conflict that is closing in on 18 years. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration s peace envoy in talks with Taliban leaders for months, said less than a week ago that a deal had been reached “in principle” with the group and that it only needed Trump s approval. The president, however, came under increased pressure from the Afghan government and some US lawmakers who mistrust the Taliban and think it s too early to withdraw American forces. “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” Trump tweeted. “They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote. On Thursday, a Taliban car bomb exploded and killed an American soldier, a Romanian service member and 10 civilians in a busy diplomatic area near the US Embassy in Kabul. The bombing was one of many attacks by the Taliban in recent days. Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, was the fourth US service member killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan. “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn t, they only made it worse!” Trump tweeted. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?” It remains unclear if the US-Taliban talks are over or only paused. Trump said he called off the peace negotiations after the bombing, but Khalilzad, the US envoy negotiating with the Taliban, was meeting with leaders of the insurgent group in Doha, Qatar, on both Thursday and Friday. The Afghan government, sidelined from the negotiations, seemed hesitant to directly respond to Trump s announcement, saying simply that “we have always said that a real peace will come when the Taliban stop killing Afghans and implement a ceasefire and start direct negotiations with the Afghan government” on the country s future — talks that were meant to quickly follow a US-Taliban deal. The Taliban s new statement said those talks had been meant to start on Sept. 23, five days before Afghanistan s presidential election. Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi confirmed that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had wanted to go to Washington to speak with Trump about his concerns “but I am not able to go into the details of the particular trip.” The details of the US-Taliban deal that had been shown to Ghani last week “were not convincing,” Sediqqi said. “Let s see the future.” Image: An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, past Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Ortiz was killed in action Sept. 5, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ortiz was supporting Operation Freedom s Sentinel.
Three individuals broke into a mobile phone shop in Kuwait and beat two Egyptians working there. One of the attackers was identified and is being sought by Kuwaiti authorities, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai. According to a security source, two Egyptians working in a mobile phone shop reported the assault to Kuwaiti police, Al Rai added. According to the victims, they disagreed with a permanent customer of the shop. He left the shop and returned with two unidentified persons. The customer and the two unidentified persons assaulted the two Egyptian workers and then fled. According to the security source, the complainants provided security officials with the name of the accused person, and legal measures were taken regarding the incident. Assaults on Egyptian expatriates in some Gulf countries spur anger on social media from time to time. Kuwait s Criminal Court sentenced a male citizen in September 2018 to 17 years in prison for brutal physical assault of an Egyptian expatriate during working hours at a motor repair shop in the industrial Shewaykh District.
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian officials ratcheted up pressure Wednesday ahead of a weekend nuclear deadline for European nations to come up with a solution for Iran to sell its oil abroad in the aftermath of escalated U.S. sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani reiterated a threat that Tehran would take additional steps away from the 2015 nuclear accord on Friday and accelerate nuclear activities if Europe fails to provide a solution, calling it Iran s third, “most important step” away from the deal. “Iran s third step is of an extraordinarily significant nature,” Rouhani said, without detailing what it would entail, but saying a “decree will be announced today or tomorrow.” Meanwhile, Iran s foreign ministry announced that seven members of the 23-member crew of the seized British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero held in the Persian Gulf would be released — an apparent good-will gesture meant to defuse tensions. Iran seized the tanker on July, saying it violated Iranian laws, after authorities in the British territory of Gibraltar seized an Iranian tanker said to be to be carrying fuel to Syria in violation of EU sanctions on oil sales to Damascus. The Iranian vessel — the Adrian Darya 1, formerly known as the Grace 1 — was released earlier this month and set sail for eastern Mediterranean. It turned off its tracking beacon off the coast of Syria this week, leading to renewed speculation that its oil will end up there, despite earlier assurances to the contrary. Both Rouhani and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi expressed doubts Europe would succeed in salvaging the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. U.S. sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal have curbed Iran s oil exports and sent its economy into freefall while what was left of the deal steadily unraveled. At the same time, tensions have spiked across the Persian Gulf over mysterious tanker explosions, the shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone by Iran and America deploying more troops and warplanes to the region. Under the nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But since Trump s pullout, Iran has already taken steps contrary to the terms of the deal although it insisted they remained within the framework of the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last week that Iran s stockpile of low-enriched uranium still exceeds the amount allowed by the deal. The U.N. agency also said Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal but still far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. French President Emmanuel Macron is leading talks seeking relief for Iran and de-escalation of tensions. This week, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif travelled to Moscow while Araghchi went to Paris and elsewhere in Europe to press for a solution. Little seems to have come out of those trips. “I see that it s unlikely a conclusion will be reached with Europe today or tomorrow,” Rouhani said. Araghchi was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying “it is unlikely European countries can take an effective step” before the deadline. Meanwhile, the idea of a phased credit line to pre-purchase Iranian oil has been floated amid the diplomatic efforts, something Araghchi reiterated. Europe, he said, needs to compensate Iran in the “amount of $15 billion over a 4-month span” and “after that, Iran is ready for talks.” Rouhani indicated that after Friday s deadline expires and Iran takes the next step, another two-month deadline to Europe will follow with the aim to resume talks. “They know what we want, and we know what they want,” Rouhani said. Later Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told state TV that while judicial procedure on the British-flagged oil tanker is still underway, the captain of the ship has been asked — under Iran s “humane policy” — to let seven of the crew return to their country. He said the captain decided seven crew members from India would be the ones to leave. Erik Hanell, CEO of the Swedish shipping group Stena Bulk that owns the Stena Impero, said it wasn t immediately clear when the seven would be freed. The remaining 16 crew members are to stay onboard the vessel. “Their ordeal may soon be over, and they may return to their families, however, we cautiously await official confirmation of their release date,” Hannell said, adding the announcement was “a positive step on the way to the release of all the remaining crew, which has always been our primary concern and focus.”
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened Monday to hit “deep inside” Israel, a day after an exchange of fire on the Lebanese-Israeli border sparked fears of a wider conflict between the arch-foes. Sunday s escalation was brief and followed a week of rising tensions, including what the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite movement described as an Israeli drone strike on its Beirut stronghold. Israel has not acknowledged that attack, but accused Hezbollah and Tehran of colluding to produce precision-guided missiles on Lebanese soil. Nasrallah on Monday said there were “no more red lines” in Hezbollah s confrontation with Israel. He said Hezbollah would respond to further Israeli attacks with strikes “deep inside Israel” and not just along the border. “If you attack us, your borders, soldiers and settlements — including those on the border and those deep inside (Israel) — will be threatened and targeted,” he said. “If there is any aggression against Lebanon, there will be no such thing as international borders.” He spoke after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was “prepared for any scenario”. “We shall continue to do everything necessary to preserve Israel s security, at sea, on land and in the air, and we will continue to act against the threat of precision missiles,” Netanyahu said on Monday. On both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border, life returned to normal on Monday a day after Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles into the Jewish state, drawing return fire from Israel which caused brush fires. War can start in a minute Schools were open in the Israeli village of Avivim, from which the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras is clearly visible on a nearby hill. “The war can start in a minute. I am worried it could happen,” said Dudu Peretz, 35, as he dropped his son off at kindergarten. In southern Lebanon, farmers returned to their fields and the United Nations force tasked with monitoring the border area resumed its patrols, an AFP journalist said. “We re used to this kind of thing,” said Ali al-Safari, a resident of Bint Jbeil on the Lebanese side of the border. “We remain determined and calm.” Sunday s exchange of fire began when Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli army base near the border community of Avivim and at a vehicle Israel said was a military ambulance, destroying it. Israel retaliated with around 100 artillery shells targeting the squad that fired the missiles. Hezbollah said it had destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and killed and wounded those inside — a claim refuted by Israel. Hezbollah s Al-Manar TV on Monday aired footage purporting to show a missile being launched towards a moving armoured vehicle, before an explosion sends large clouds of white smoke into the sky. Al-Manar s presenter said two Kornet anti-tank missiles had been fired at the target, 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the border. Drone attack After the flare-up, Lebanon s Prime Minister Saad Hariri contacted senior US and French officials to urge their countries and the international community to intervene. The UN called for restraint and France said it had made “multiple contacts” to avert further fire. The United States slammed the “destabilising role” of Iranian allies in the Middle East and said it “fully supports Israel s right to self defence”. The pre-dawn August 25 attack involved two drones — one exploded and caused damage to a Hezbollah-run media centre and another crashed without detonating due to technical failure, Hezbollah said. President Michel Aoun, a former army chief, denounced it as a “declaration of war”. It came hours after Israel launched strikes in Syria to prevent what it said was an impending Iranian drone attack on the Jewish state, in which Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed. A source connected to Hezbollah called Sunday s fire a response to those deaths, and said a reaction to the alleged drone attack would take place in the air. On Monday the Syrian government threw its support behind Hezbollah, whose fighters have since 2013 been fighting on President Bashar al-Assad s side in Syria s civil war. A source at the ministry of foreign affairs told state news agency SANA that Damascus felt “pride at the… operation” against Israel. Israel has staged hundreds of strikes against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria since the civil war began there in 2011, vowing to prevent its arch-foe Iran from entrenching itself militarily in the neighbouring country. But a drone attack by Israel inside Lebanon would mark a departure — what Nasrallah labelled the first such “hostile action” since a 2006 war between them. The 33-day war killed 1,200 Lebanese — mostly civilians — and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. Sunday s escalation came just over two weeks ahead of Israel s September 17 election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as wanting to avoid a major conflict before the vote.
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran will “take a strong step” away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers if Europe cannot offer the country new terms by a deadline at the end of this week, a government spokesman said Monday as top Iranian diplomats traveled to France and Russia for last-minute talks. The comments from Ali Rabiei reinforced the deadline Iran had set for Friday for Europe to offer it a way to sell its crude oil on the global market. Crushing US sanctions imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal over a year ago have halted those sales. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Moscow, while his deputy was to travel to Paris with a team of economists Monday in a renewed diplomatic push. The developments come after French President Emmanuel Macron surprised the Group of Seven summit in France by inviting Zarif last week. Rabiei described Iran s strategy to journalists at Monday s press conference in Tehran as “commitment for commitment.” “Iran s oil should be bought and its money should be accessible to return to Iran,” Rabiei said. “This is the agenda of our talks.” It s unclear what the terms of negotiation are. In theory, anyone caught buying Iranian crude oil would be subject to US sanctions and potentially locked out of the American financial market. Already, Iran has gone over limits set by the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last week that Iran s stockpile of low-enriched uranium still exceeds the amount allowed by the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA as the deal is known. The U.N. agency also said Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits and is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, the uranium can help power Iran s Bushehr reactor, the country s only nuclear power plant. It remains unclear what further step Iran will take, though it could involve restarting advanced centrifuges prohibited by the deal or further bumping up its enrichment of uranium. Iran insists the steps it has taken so far are easily reversible. “We will announce implementation of the third step in a letter to the Europeans if the Europeans do not impalement necessary measures by Thursday,” said Zarif in a Sunday interview with Iran s parliament news agency, ICANA. The nuclear deal is meant to keep Tehran from building atomic weapons in exchange for economic relief. It has been complicated by the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the deal and Washington s increased sanctions on Tehran, which have been taking a toll on the Iranian economy. That has left the other signatories — Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China — struggling to come up with enough incentives to keep Iran in the deal. Meanwhile Monday, an Iranian oil tanker pursued by the U.S. that has been traveling across the Mediterranean Sea is now off the coast of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. The ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com showed the Adrian Darya 1 moving slowly just outside the Lebanese territorial waters, after it had stood off the coast of Syria a day earlier. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged the ship is bound for a refinery in Syria, which was the reason that authorities had seized the vessel off the coast of Gibraltar in July. The U.S. has warned countries not to accept the Adrian Darya, which carries 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil worth some $130 million.
DUBAI (Reuters) – A Saudi-led military coalition said on Sunday it had launched air strikes on Huthi military targets in southwest Yemen that Huthi-run media said had hit a prison, killing dozens of people. The Sunni Muslim coalition, which has been battling the Iran-aligned Huthi movement for more than four years in Yemen, said in a statement carried on Saudi state television that it destroyed a site storing drones and missiles in Dhamar. Residents told Reuters there had been six air strikes and that a complex in the city being used as a detention center had been hit. The Huthi health ministry spokesman, in comments carried on the group s Al Masirah TV, said 60 bodies had been pulled from rubble at the prison and that the number could rise. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the number of casualties. “The explosions were strong and shook the city,” one resident said. “Afterwards ambulance sirens could be heard until dawn.” The Western-backed alliance intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Huthis after they ousted the internationally recognized government from power in the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014. The movement, which holds most major population centers in the Arabian peninsula nation, has stepped up cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia in recent months. The Saudi-led alliance has responded with strikes on Huthi targets. The coalition, which has come under criticism by international rights groups for air strikes that have killed civilians, said it had taken measures to protect civilians in Dhamar and the assault complied with international law. Al Masirah quoted the head of the Huthis national committee for prisoner affairs, Abdul Qader al-Mortada, as saying the detention center in Dhamar housed 170 prisoners. The United Nations is trying to ease tension in Yemen to prepare for political negotiations to end the war that has killed tens of thousands and pushed the long-impoverished country to the brink of famine. The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis, who deny being puppets of Tehran, say they are fighting a corrupt system. Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen and Nayera Abdallah in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Dale Hudson
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Airstrikes hit Yemeni government forces heading to the southern port city of Aden to fight separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, killing at least 30 troops, a government commander said. It was not immediately clear who was behind the airstrikes but the government side blamed the UAE, which has armed and trained separatist militias in southern Yemen. Officials in the UAE declined to immediately comment. Infighting has raged for weeks between Yemeni government forces and the separatists, even though the two are allies in a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Yemen s Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, and most of the country s north since 2015. The UAE is also part of that coalition. The fighting between forces loyal to the internationally recognized government and the separatists has added another layer to the complex civil war in the Arab world s most impoverished country. Col. Mohamed al-Oban, a commander of the special forces in Abyan province, said the troops were on the road, headed from Abyan toward Aden on Thursday, when the strikes took place. He didn t say who carried them out, saying only the planes were from the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE also maintains warplanes as part of the coalition in Yemen. Yemen s foreign ministry tweeted a statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami, saying: “The government condemns the Emirati airstrike on government forces.” “We hold the UAE fully responsible for this explicit extra-judicial targeting” of the government forces, the statement said, adding that the airstrikes also left several civilians dead but without providing a specific death toll. The government statement also urged the UN Security Council to condemn the airstrikes. The attack came a day after government forces pushed into Aden to try and retake the city from UAE-backed separatists. Earlier on Wednesday, government troops wrested back control of Zinjibar, the capital of neighboring Abyan province, from the separatists and headed toward Aden. Information Minister Moammar al-Iryani said Wednesday that government forces also reclaimed Aden s airport, the main hub for the country s south, but the separatists denied that. According to officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter with reporters, forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni President Mansour Abed Rabbo Hadi gained some ground at the Aden airport complex before the separatists forced them to retreat. Videos showing separatist militia in control of the airport were posted on social media on Thursday by the Southern Transitional Council, the separatists commanding body. The push by the government forces into Aden underscored the seesaw nature of the fighting. Only weeks before, the separatists had gained much territory in southern Yemen, pushing government forces out of strategic cities and areas. Though a coalition partner in the war against the Houthis, the UAE never threw its support fully behind President Hadi, allegedly over his ties to Yemen s Muslim Brotherhood, choosing instead to train and support the separatist militias. Yemen was split into two countries, the North and South Yemen, during much of the Cold War before unifying in 1990 but a separatist movement has continued in the south. The Brotherhood is a pan-Arab Islamist movement that has been designated as a terrorist group by several Arab governments, including the UAE. Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Noha ElHennawy in Cairo contributed to this report. By AHMED AL-HAJ and MAGGIE MICHAEL Photo: In this frame grab from video provided by Yemen Today, Yemeni army vehicles enter Zinjibar, Yemen, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Yemeni officials and local residents say forces loyal to the country s internationally recognized government have wrested control of the capital of southern Abyan province from separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. They say government forces on Wednesday pushed the UAE-backed militia, known as the Security Belt, out of Zinjibar after clasher that left at least one dead and 30 wounded fighters.
BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese militant Hezbollah group is ruling out a wider war with Israel but says it will carry out a surprise attack in retaliation for an alleged Israeli drone assault south of Beirut over the weekend. Naim Kassem told Russia Today in an interview that aired late on Tuesday that Hezbollah will not be “intimidated by threats of war in order not to retaliate. There was an aggression and we said we will retaliate and this is what will happen.” He refused to elaborate, saying that “we want the strike to be surprising and therefore, it is not in our interest to reveal more details.” Kassem s comments came just days after an alleged Israeli drone crashed in a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut while another exploded and crashed nearby. Photo: Lebanese soldiers next to a Hezbollah flag patrol in the southern Lebanese village of Aitaroun, on the Israel-Lebanon border, Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Israeli forces along the border with Lebanon are on high alert, raising fears of a repeat of the 2006 war. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
BEIRUT (AP) — Airstrikes targeted Syria s last major rebel stronghold in the northwestern province of Idlib on Monday, killing at least four people, including a woman and her child, opposition activists said. The attacks come as Syrian government forces turn their focus on another rebel-held town in Idlib, Maaret al-Numan, following gains they made last week. Syrian troops have been on the offensive since April 30, and have also captured all rebel-held areas in the adjoining Hama province, as well as the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. From the town, they are now pushing north. The opposition s Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, also known as White Helmets, said the airstrikes and artillery shelling targeted the village of in Basqala and nearby locations. Three people died in Basqala and the fourth, a man, in another village close by, Maaret Harmeh. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a higher toll, saying the airstrikes killed six people in Idlib, including three in the village of Basqala on the southern edge of the province. Among the three killed in Basqala were a woman and her child, it said. The differences between the Observatory s death toll and that of the White Helmets could not immediately be reconciled. State news agency SANA said troops are pounding insurgent positions in the town of Maaret al-Numan and several nearby villages. It said insurgents fired rockets in government-held villages, inflicting casualties among the civilian population. Maaret al-Numan, like Khan Sheikhoun, sits on the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria s largest. Government forces are trying to eventually open that highway. The months of fighting have also displaced more than half a million civilians toward northern parts of Idlib, already home to some 3 million people, according to United Nations humanitarian officials. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said 15 people, including four children, were reportedly killed over the weekend. In Idlib, he said people have sought shelter in more than 100 schools, with hundreds of thousands staying in the open air outside overcrowded camps and reception centers. “As the new school year is scheduled to begin soon, access to education will be compromised for many children,” he said. Also Monday, Turkey s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said Turkish and U.S. troops will soon begin joint patrols as part of a deal for a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria. He said a joint helicopter flight has already taken place. Akar made the comments days after announcing that a joint U.S.-Turkish operation center for the safe zone had started working under the command of one Turkish and one American general. Turkey has been pressing for a safe zone, running east of the Euphrates River toward the Iraqi border, to push U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militias away from its frontier. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists linked to an insurgency within Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday renewed a threat of a Turkish military offensive in the region if the safe zone is not established. “If we are forced into a path that we don t desire, if we are kept waiting, all of our preparations have been completed and we will execute our plans,” Erdogan said. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report. By Bassem Mroue This photo released by the activist-operated Thiqa News Agency, shows smoke rising after airstrikes hit the town of Ihsem, in Idlib province, Syria, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Syrian opposition activists said Monday that airstrikes targeting the country s last major rebel stronghold, the northwestern province of Idlib, have killed three civilians, including a woman and her child (Thiqa News Agency via AP)
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese President Michel Aoun discussed on Monday the “Israeli assault on the southern suburbs of Beirut” with the country s United Nations Special Coordinator, Aoun s office said. Two Israeli drones crashed early on Sunday in the southern suburbs, which are dominated by Hezbollah, prompting the leader of the Iran-backed movement to warn the Israeli army that his group was preparing an immiment response. Aoun met U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis on Monday to discuss “the latest developments”, the president s office said on Twitter. Separately, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri met Lebanon s interior and defense ministers and with the army chief on Monday to discuss security issues, his office said, though it gave no further details. Hariri, who has said the drones aimed to stir up regional tensions, is also due to meet the ambassadors of the U.N. Security Council s five permanent members, his office said. Israeli drone strikes hit a military position belonging to a Palestinian faction in Lebanon s Bekaa valley early on Monday, the group said. Although Israel has not claimed the Beirut attack, Nasrallah said it was the first Israeli attack inside Lebanon since the two sides fought a deadly month-long war in 2006.
Kamal Zakher Moussa
A few years ago, perhaps months before the arrival of President al-Sisi, fuel and food crises and the spread of chaos and corruption were topical issues. He was not a magician to solve them in a blink of eye, but he needed firmness and discipline that were available only in the military establishment. The president moved from rent-seeking economy to one of the high value added economies, which needed: - New fa