Posts Tagged ‘Jihadists’

Iran hosts Russia, Turkey for ‘crunch’ Syria summit

September 7, 2018

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey meet Friday in Tehran for a summit set to decide the future of Idlib province amid fears of a humanitarian disaster in Syria’s last major rebel bastion.

Hundreds of civilians fled the northwestern province Thursday as government forces and their allies readied for what could be the last — and bloodiest — major battle of Syria‘s devastating seven-year civil war.

Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control, which is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.

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Neighbouring Turkey, which has long backed Syrian rebels, fears the assault could prompt an influx of desperate Syrians attempting to find safety on its territory.

But regime backers Russia and Iran have sworn to wipe out “terrorists” and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are also guarantors of the Astana process, a track of negotiations that has eclipsed the UN-led Geneva process and helped Assad re-assert his authority over the country.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani hosts his Russian and Turkish counterparts Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Friday’s summit.

© Tolga Bozoglu, AFP archive | Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and at a tripartite summit in Ankara, Turkey in April 2018.

While Turkey has backed rebels opposed to the Syrian regime, Moscow has been Assad’s most militarily powerful ally since the start of the uprising.

Friday’s meeting in Tehran is a “crunch summit,” said Nick Holdsworth, reporting from Moscow for FRANCE 24.

“Russia has a very sophisticated foreign policy on Syria. They won’t make war if they don’t have to make war, they will if they need to. They don’t want to see a massive humanitarian crisis, they don’t want to see a massive refugee situation,” explained Holdsworth. “They’ve got very complex relations with Turkey, they don’t want to see tens, hundreds of thousands of people flooding into Turkey. They want to see stability in Syria. They also want to have a big foreign policy win. They would like to see this war resolved, they would like to see Assad fully in-charge of his country again and they’d like to see that done without massive bloodshed and a massive refugee crisis. So it all hinges on today’s summit in Tehran and what comes out of that.”

UN Security Council meeting on Syria

The UN Security Council is also meeting Friday, at Washington’s request, to discuss the situation in Idlib.

Both the US and Russia say they are fighting jihadist groups in Syria and there was periodic cooperation between the two countries against the same jihadist groups operating in Idlib until mid-2017.

Idlib is dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by the former al Qaeda branch in Syria.

Neighbouring Turkey has limited sway over the jihadists who control an estimated 60 percent of the province but it backs rebel groups there and has 12 military “observation points” across the province.

On Thursday, the new US envoy for Syria said there was “lots of evidence” that the Syrian government was preparing to use chemical weapons in Idlib.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Jim Jeffrey, who was named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s special adviser on Syria  cautioned that, “any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation”.

While US President Donald Trump had signaled that he wanted US forces out of Syria, in April he agreed to keep troops there a little longer.

Trump will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Iran during an annual gathering of world leaders in New York later this month, which is expected to focus on Tehran’s nuclear programme and its involvement in the Syrian war.

France has invited the US, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Britain for talks on the sidelines of the UN meeting to discuss Syria.

Healthcare workers in Idlib prepare to cope

Idlib’s population has swelled as the regime chalked up a series of victories in other parts of the country, reaching evacuation deals that saw tens of thousands of people bussed to the northwestern province.

Russia has conducted a massive naval build-up in the Mediterranean near Syria as Assad’s regime forces are amassing around the northeastern province for a likely ground assault.

The timing and scope of any attack remain unclear, but healthcare and aid workers are preparing to cope for the worst.

The UN has warned of a “bloodbath” in the province, fearing that an offensive will cause a humanitarian catastrophe unprecedented since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 350,000 people dead since 2011.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Thursday of the risk of humanitarian disaster in Idlib, describing the province as a “ticking time bomb, both in humanitarian and security terms”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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UN urges Putin, Erdogan to talk to avert Idlib ‘bloodbath’

September 4, 2018

The UN’s Syria peace envoy called Tuesday on the Russian and Turkish presidents to urgently speak to each other to help avert a “bloodbath” in rebel-held Idlib, as a military offensive appears imminent.

Staffan de Mistura appealed to “President Putin and to President Erdogan, … to make a telephone call,” even before they are set to meet with their Iranian counterpart in Tehran on Friday.

“Let’s try to avoid that the last probably major battle of the Syrian territorial conflict … ends in a bloodbath,” he told reporters in Geneva, insisting Russia and Turkey held “the key for the soft solution to the Idlib issue”.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel via Reuters

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel via Reuters

His comments came with Syrian forces poised to launch an attack on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major region in Syria still controlled by rebels and jihadists.

After retaking a succession of rebel bastions this year, Damascus has set its sights on Idlib, which is held by a complex array of rebels and jihadists.

The province bordering Turkey is home to nearly three million people, up to half of whom are rebels and civilians transferred en masse after pro-government forces retook formerly rebel-held areas.

A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria to where people could be evacuated.

Turkish and Russian officials have held several rounds of talks hoping to avert an assault, but de Mistura warned Tuesday that the “meetings so far between the Turkish side and the Russian side have not been conclusive”.

He stressed the urgency of the situation, pointing to press reports indicating that Syria has set a September 10 deadline for finding a solution before it begins an all-out offensive on the province.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

“That’s why our appeal, if I may to president Putin and to President Erdogan to talk and go beyond perhaps technical discussions and (to) find the solution, which can be a soft solution to this crisis.”

AFP

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Death toll in southwest Syria attacks climbs to 50: al-Manar TV

July 25, 2018

The death toll in a series of attacks in Sweida province in southwest Syria on Wednesday has climbed to 50, said al-Manar TV, run by Damascus ally Hezbollah.

It cited the head of the Sweida health authority as saying 78 people were wounded.

© SANA/AFP | A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 25, 2018 shows a member of the Syrian security forces walking past a truck damaged in a suicide attack in the southern city of Sweida

Islamic State militants killed dozens of people in a string of attacks on government-held parts of the southwest, including multiple suicide blasts in Sweida city, official sources said.

Reuters

Dozens dead in Islamic State attacks on southern Syria: monitor

July 25, 2018

A string of Islamic State group suicide attacks in southern Syria has killed at least 40 people, mostly pro-regime fighters, in one of the jihadists’ deadliest assaults in months, a monitor said Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the blasts hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida, where IS retains a presence in a northeastern desert region.

The attacks came almost a week into a deadly Russia-backed regime campaign to oust IS fighters from a holdout in a neighbouring province of the country’s south.

© SANA/AFP | A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 25, 2018 shows a member of the Syrian security forces walking past a truck damaged in a suicide attack in the southern city of Sweida

“Three bombers with explosive belts targeted Sweida city alone, while the other blasts hit villages to the north and east,” the Observatory said. Later on, a fourth suicide attack hit the city.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, said the jihadists then followed up with further attacks, seizing three of the seven villages they had targeted.

He said 26 pro-government fighters had been killed and more than 30 people wounded in the assault on populated areas close to Sweida city.

Syria’s official news agency SANA confirmed the attacks had killed and wounded people in the provincial capital.

State television also reported casualties in villages to the north and east, adding that the army was targeting IS positions in Sweida province’s eastern countryside.

– Abandoned shoes –

SANA published images of the aftermath of the attack in Sweida city.

The remains of a victim lay sprawled on a staircase near a damaged wall, while abandoned shoes lay in the middle of the road among fruit that had spilled out of cartons.

Abdel Rahman said unidentified warplanes were also targeting IS fighters in the area.

Despite pro-government forces ousting the group from urban centres in eastern Syria last year, surprise IS raids in recent months have killed dozens of regime and allied fighters.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has in recent weeks ousted rebels from a majority of the country’s south, part of which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

His forces are now closing in on a patch of territory in nearby Daraa province held by jihadist group Jaish Khaled bin al-Walid, which has pledged allegiance to IS.

The group, which has around 1,000 fighters in the region, has been the target of an intense campaign of bombing by Russian and Syrian jets in recent days.

SANA said the attacks in Sweida “aimed at diminishing the military pressure… on IS remnants facing their inevitable end in the western Daraa countryside”.

– Desert holdouts –

A Syrian military source accused Israel on Tuesday of firing at one of its warplanes as it carried out operations against jihadists in southern Syria.

Israel’s army earlier said it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had infiltrated Israeli airspace, risking another escalation in the sensitive border zone.

The Damascus regime has long accused Israel of backing IS and other opposition factions.

Clashes raged Tuesday between regime troops and IS jihadists on the northern edges of the border town of Saida, the Observatory said.

SANA later said “army units blocked an IS attack on a number of villages in northeastern Sweida, killing a large number” of the jihadists.

IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a self-styled “caliphate” in territory it held.

The jihadists have since been ousted from all major urban centres in both countries, but they retain a presence including in desert border areas.

In Syria, IS controls a pocket of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border, and is present in parts of the vast central Badiya desert including in Sweida.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

AFP

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‘Jihadists should be prosecuted for treason’ — Former UK security and law chiefs call for medieval statute to be updated

July 25, 2018

BRITAIN’S archaic treason law should be updated and used to prosecute jihadists who have fought in Syria, a former home secretary, a head of MI5, a lord chief justice and a head of counterterror policing say today.

The Treason Act of 1351 has not been used since 1945, but there are now calls for it to be revised to prosecute terrorists amid growing fears that British laws are not tough enough to deal with returning jihadists.

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Amber Rudd, the former Home Secretary

The recommendation, in a report by the Policy Exchange think tank, has been backed by leading figures including Amber Rudd, the former home secretary, and Lord Evans of Weardale, the former head of MI5.

It follows the disclosures by The Daily Telegraph that Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, abandoned Britain’s blanket opposition to the death penalty to allow two members of the “Beatles” group of Isil terrorists to be sent to US.

By 

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Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary

In a letter to Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, Mr Javid raised concerns that Britain’s anti-terror laws might not be robust enough to ensure a successful prosecution. He said he believed US laws were more effective.

Mr Javid was yesterday warned by human rights lawyers that he faced a court challenge over his decision.

There is growing concern over the treatment of returning jihadists, with only a fraction of those who have travelled to Syria facing prosecution.

Yesterday, Max Hill QC, the Government’s counter-terrorism watchdog, was appointed as the next director of public prosecutions despite having previously apparently advocated an even more liberal approach to returning jihadists.

The medieval Treason Act still remains law but is considered “unworkable”. The last person to be convicted under the law was William Joyce, more commonly known as Lord Haw-haw, who was convicted in 1945 and hanged in 1946 for assisting Nazi Germany.

The report argues that a new offence would “mark out treasonous acts” and allow the courts to impose “justifiably severe punishment”. It would have the added effect of deterring other potential offenders and “incapacitate those who threaten our country”.

Ms Rudd said: “The time has come for us to consider additional measures, such as those set out in this report, that we need to deal with those who betray this country.”

In a foreword to the report, Lord Judge, the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, wrote: “If a citizen of this country chooses to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan against British forces, his crime is more than terrorism. It is treason, and should be prosecuted accordingly.”

Lord Evans said the report was “timely and balanced”, while Richard Walton, the former head of counter- terrorism at Scotland Yard, said being prosecuted for treason was “appropriate” for jihadists.

The Treason Act of 1351 is focused on those who “compass or imagine” the death of the “Sovereign, of the King’s wife or of the Sovereign’s eldest child or heir”. It also includes anyone who “levies war against the Sovereign” or “slays the chancellor, treasurer or King’s justices”. The Policy Exchange report says it is “not fit for purpose”

and there are “grave doubts” about what is meant by the “antiquated and cumbrous” language.

The report says that the offence should be updated based on the laws of Australia and New Zealand.

The new treason law would make it an offence to aid a state or organisation that is either attacking the UK or preparing to attack the UK. It would apply to all British citizens, wherever they are in the world.

Tom Tugendhat, a co-author of the paper and chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said: “The law must be written to ensure they can be stopped and their betrayal is recognised as a distinct crime.”

Between 2006 and 2017, 193 people were jailed for terrorism offences. More than 80 of them are due for release this year.

Until 1998, the Treason Act allowed for people to be hanged. Under the Crime and Disorder Act, the maximum sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/07/24/british-jihadis-should-face-new-treason-law-former-home-secretary/

Mali: Troops killed 11 jihadists

July 23, 2018

Malian troops killed 11 jihadists who had ambushed them in the centre of the country, in clashes that also left one soldier dead, the defence ministry said.

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Malian soldiers

Armed Tuareg groups supporting the government also reported assailants executed more than 20 people on Friday in a village in the northeast.

The attacks highlighted the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to hold elections on July 29, in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is seeking a second term.

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President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta

A army patrol was ambushed by “terrorists” on Sunday morning in a forest in the central region of Segou, the ministry said in a statement.

The patrol suffered “one dead and one wounded. On the enemy side, we counted 11 dead”.

In a separate incident on Friday, “armed men” attacked the village of Tindinbawen, near the border with Niger, according to a joint statement from the Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Force (Gatia) and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA).

The two mainly Tuareg groups support the French and Malian forces.

The “attackers proceeded to summarily execute more than 20 people including elderly people and at the same time some members of the security post of the coalition”, the statement said.

Mali’s unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Touareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north.

The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

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But large stretches of the country remain outside of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in 2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.

AFP

Deal reached to evacuate pro-regime Syria towns, watchdog says

July 18, 2018

Residents of Fu’ah and Kafriya, besieged by rebel forces, to be allowed to leave in exchange for the release of hundreds held in government detention centers

A view of the pro-Syrian government village of Fu'ah in the northwestern province of Idlib, July 17, 2018. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP)

A view of the pro-Syrian government village of Fu’ah in the northwestern province of Idlib, July 17, 2018. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — A deal was reached on Tuesday for the evacuation of two pro-regime towns in Syria, allowing thousands to leave after three years of encirclement by hardline rebels.

Fu’ah and Kafriya are the last remaining towns under siege in Syria, where the medieval tactic was mostly made notorious by government forces in the seven-year war.

Surrounded and bombed by hostile factions, the Shiite-majority towns became both a rallying cry for the government and a playing card in callous rebel hands.

Their residents are all expected to leave under a major agreement reached Tuesday between government ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, a war monitor said.

“The deal provides for the total evacuation of residents in the two towns, which are besieged by rebels and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to regime territory in nearby Aleppo province,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, is a jihadist alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.

Hundreds of people would be released from the regime’s notorious detention centers in exchange, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

A view of the pro-Syrian government village of Fu’ah in the northwestern province of Idlib, July 17, 2018. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP)

A source from HTS also confirmed the deal, telling AFP that more than 100 buses would evacuate 6,900 people including fighters and civilians from Fu’ah and Kafriya.

The source said 1,500 people would be freed from government-run jails.

The agreement has not been confirmed by any government involved, but Syrian state media reported Tuesday that it had preliminary information on a deal to free “thousands” of people from Fu’ah and Kafriya.

‘Haven’t forgotten’

The towns came under siege in 2015, as rebels and jihadists overran the surrounding province of Idlib.

That cut off access to food and medicine for their residents outside of United Nations aid deliveries.

The evacuation deal reached Tuesday is not the first for the two tiny towns.

In April 2017, thousands were bused out Fu’ah and Kafriya in exchange for parallel evacuations from two towns near Damascus that were being besieged by the government.

But a blast targeting a convoy of evacuees from Fu’ah and Kafriya left 150 people dead, most of them civilians and including 72 children.

Traumatized residents left behind are now afraid that scenario might happen again.

“What are we going to do with our land and property? Oh my hometown,” said a 42-year-old resident of Kafriya who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I pray this will go well — we still haven’t forgotten those that died in the blast,” he told AFP on Tuesday.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad that later spun out into full-fledged war.

Early on in the uprising, Turkey began providing support to rebel groups as Russia and Iran steadfastly backed their man in Damascus.

Those three countries have become the main powerbrokers in Syria, agreeing last year to create four “de-escalation” zones to pave the way for a nationwide ceasefire.

Members of the Russian military stand past a banner showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad, at Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in the western countryside of Idlib province on June 1, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN)

Idlib is part of one such zone. It borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise almost totally surrounded by regime territory, prompting fears the government would eventually attack it.

No Idlib attack?

But the Observatory said the terms of the new Russia-Turkey deal included keeping the regime from waging a military operation there.

The Britain-based monitor said Turkish and Russian forces would also jointly patrol a part of the key M5 highway which cuts through Idlib.

The M5 connects Damascus to second city Aleppo in the north.

Analyst Nawar Oliver at the Turkey-based Omran Centre said the evacuation could pave the way for a grand bargain on Idlib.

“Change is inevitably coming to Idlib, but There are numerous predicaments that need to be resolved, including Fu’ah and Kafriya, before reaching a final deal,” Oliver told AFP.

Assad’s forces have already recaptured two of the “de-escalation” zones this year: Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and an area in central Homs.

They sealed their control over those areas with a blend of military pressure and negotiated surrenders of rebel groups there.

Using the same tactics, they are now close to seizing the third zone in southern Syria, which includes the key provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.

Heavy air strikes on Tuesday battered an area straddling the two governorates, killing 15 civilians across two towns, according to the Observatory.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain displaced in a part of Quneitra just a handful of kilometers (miles) from the Israeli Golan Heights.

But Israel, like Jordan to Syria’s south, has kept the border closed to desperate displaced families fleeing the assault in recent weeks.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/deal-reached-to-evacuate-pro-regime-syria-towns-watchdog-says/

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Boko Haram overruns Nigeria military base in second attack in days

July 15, 2018

Boko Haram jihadists overran a military base in northeast Nigeria after a ferocious firefight, security sources said Sunday, the second major assault on the country’s forces in two days.

The militants invaded a base holding hundreds of soldiers in Yobe state — where they abducted over 100 girls from a school earlier this year — in an hours-long onslaught Saturday night, a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The attack took place after Boko Haram fighters ambushed a military convoy in neighbouring Borno state on Friday, highlighting the tenuous hold Nigerian forces have on the remote region despite claims from Muhammadu Buhari’s government the country is in a “post-conflict stabilisation phase.”

© BOKO HARAM/AFP/File | Boko Haram still launches regular raids against military and civilian targets in northern Nigeria, such as this one filmed by the group in January

“Boko Haram terrorists attacked troops of the 81st Division Forward Brigade at Jilli village in Geidam district. The terrorists came in huge numbers around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) and overran the base after a fierce battle that lasted till 9:10 pm,” said the military source.

“The base had 734 troops. Currently the commander of the base and 63 soldiers have made it to Geidam (60 kilometres away) while the remaining 670 are being expected,” he said.

“We don’t know if there were any casualties among the troops. That will be known later,” he said, adding that the base was new and the troops had recently arrived from Lagos, the commercial capital.

A leader of a local anti-jihadist militia said that the soldiers sustained casualties, but was unable to give a toll, attributing the attack to the Abu-Mus’ab Al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram, which is known for targeting Nigerian forces.

“We learned that they drove from Lake Chad through Gubio (in nearby Borno state) and attacked the base,” he said.

Geidam resident Fannami Gana said that Boko Haram jihadists “overwhelmed” the troops.

“We don’t know the details of what happened but we learnt they were overwhelmed by hundreds of Boko Haram gunmen,” said Gana.

– Second attack –

On Friday, 23 Nigerian soldiers went missing after Boko Haram ambushed a convoy outside Bama, leading to the loss of several military vehicles.

According to a military officer, “around 100 terrorists” attacked the convoy.

The sophisticated attacks highlight the continued threat — and evolution — of Boko Haram, an Islamic State group ally, said Yan St-Pierre, counter-terrorism advisor and head of the Berlin-based Modern Security Consulting Group.

St-Pierre suggested that the attacks could be because Boko Haram fighters are vying for control of the faction led by Abubakar Shekau, the long-time jihadist leader who is reportedly ill.

“When a near-mythical leader is on his way out there’s always a battle to establish who could be next,” said St-Pierre.

The attacks show the persistent threat of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, said the security expert.

As the jihadists exploit rampant poverty in the region, the Nigerian army, which is overstretched and under-resourced, struggles to keep the insurgency in check.

“The supply of Boko Haram fighters is always there, either through kidnapping or economic reasons, they tap into a wide pool of personnel, they find a way to replenish their strength,” St-Pierre said.

President Buhari, a 75-year-old former military ruler, came to power three years ago on a promise to defeat Boko Haram.

But while there have been clear military gains since a counter-insurgency was launched in 2015, suicide bombings and raids remain a constant threat, particularly to civilians.

Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency has devastated the region since 2009, leaving at least 20,000 dead, displacing more than two million others and triggering a humanitarian crisis.

AFP

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Syria, Islamic State (IS) using civilians as ‘pawns’: UN rights chief

June 29, 2018

Civilians fleeing attacks on rebel-held towns in southern Syria are being used as “pawns”, the UN rights chief said, lamenting reported demands for payment at government checkpoints and jihadist’s blocking movement.

With Russia’s help, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army has battered Daraa province for over a week with air strikes, rocket fire and crude barrel bombs.

In this Thursday, April 5, 2018 photo, rubble of buildings line a street that was damaged during fighting between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria.(AP/Hussein Malla)

Syria: Rubble of buildings line a street that was damaged during fighting between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The bombardment has already forced more than 66,000 to flee their homes in search of safety, according to the UN, while others huddle in their basements to wait out the raids.

UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned in a statement of the “grave risk that the intensified fighting will see many civilians trapped”.

He said many risked being caught between pro-government forces on one side and armed opposition groups and the Islamic State jihadists on the other.

The rights chief condemned how “civilians in Syria continue to be used as pawns by the various parties”.

Zeid said his office had received reports that “in the last few days, civilians at some government checkpoints in the southern-eastern and western parts of Daraa have only been allowed through to government-held areas in Daraa City and As Suwayda governorate for a fee.”

“To add to the bleak situation facing civilians, there are also reports that ISIL fighters in control of the Yarmuk Basin area in the western part of Daraa governorate are not allowing civilians to leave the areas under their control”, he said.

© AFP | With Russia’s help, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army has battered Daraa province for over a week with air strikes, rocket fire and crude barrel bombs

Zeid stressed that international law requires all sides to “do their utmost to protect civilians” and urged the parties to the conflict “to provide safe passage to those wishing to flee.”

“Those wishing to stay must be protected at all times,” he added.

Zeid said his office had documented at least 46 civilian deaths in the region since the escalation began on June 19. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the toll at more than double that, at 96.

The UN has warned that more than 750,000 lives are at risk in the south, which is meant to be protected by a ceasefire put in place last year by Russia, Jordan, and the United States.

The onslaught has sparked fears of a re-run of the offensives last year against the rebel enclaves of Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, including deadly bombardments followed by a retaking of territory and an accord to evacuate rebels from the areas.

“I have spoken of the cruel irony of Eastern Ghouta being a de-escalation zone, and how the conduct of the war has been utterly shameful from the outset and a stain on us all,” Zeid said Friday.

“Now another supposed ‘de-escalation’ zone risks becoming the scene of large-scale civilian casualties,” he said.

“This madness must end.”

AFP

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Top Bangladeshi Islamist extremist killed — Police use extrajudicial killings to “clean up” as in the Philippines?

June 28, 2018

Bangladeshi police said that a top Islamist extremist in police custody was killed on Thursday, in the latest in a string of what activists suspect are extra-judicial killings.

Abdur Rahman was a regional military chief of a group blamed for a 2016 attack on a Dhaka cafe that killed 22 hostages including 18 foreigners, police said.

Held since July 24 over the murder of a secular publisher, Rahman died on Thursday morning in an ambush by extremists as he accompanied officers on a search operation in the central town of Sirajdikhan, they said.

“He was shot dead during a gunfight with the extremists,” district police chief Zaidul Alam told AFP.

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Two policemen were also injured, police said.

Over the past two years, security forces have shot dead more than 80 alleged militants. Hundreds of suspected Islamists have also been arrested and scores sentenced to death

The murder on June 11 of Shahzahan Bachchu, 60, a publisher and a former Communist Party official, reawakened worries over a renewal of extremist attacks in the Muslim-majority country.

Police said Rahman had admitted that his group was behind the murder.

Police were initially slow to finger Islamists as it was the first such killing in more than two years, but counter-terrorism officers later told local media that they thought extremists were indeed to blame.

Rahman was the “Dhaka regional military wing chief” of Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Alam said.

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JMB, founded by Bangladeshi jihadists who took part in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, regrouped after the execution of its founder and top leadership in 2007, attacking the Holey Artisan Bakery in July 2016.

The subsequent crackdown has raised concerns among activists and rights groups.

“We have said from the very beginning there are questions about these crossfire or gun battle deaths,” Nur Khan Liton, a prominent activist and formerly the head of rights group Ain o Salish Kendra, told AFP.

“There are reasons to believe that these suspected extremists were in fact victims of extra-judicial killings,” he said.

“Had he been alive, police would have the opportunities to get key information about his network and the murder of the publisher.”

AFP