Russia may have tampered with chemical attack site, U.S. envoy says

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Western countries accused Moscow on Monday of preventing inspectors from reaching the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria and said Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground.

The United States, Britain and France launched air strikes on Saturday against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7.

Syria and its ally Russia deny using poison gas during their offensive this month, in which they seized the town that had been the last major rebel stronghold near the capital.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) went to Syria last week to inspect the Douma site but have yet to gain access to the town, which is now under government control after the rebels withdrew.

“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward said at a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday.

“It is our concern that they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation,” he said. His comments at the closed-door meeting were obtained by Reuters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow had interfered with any evidence: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” he told the BBC in an interview.

Earlier, Britain’s delegation to the OPCW accused Russia and the Syrian government of preventing the international watchdog’s inspectors from reaching Douma.

The inspectors aim to collect samples, interview witnesses and document evidence to determine whether banned toxic munitions were used, although they are not permitted to assign blame for the attack.

“Unfettered access is essential,” the British delegation said in a statement. “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”

Moscow blamed the delay on the Western air strikes. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the British accusation that Russia was to blame for holding up the inspections was “groundless”.

“We called for an objective investigation. This was at the very beginning after this information [of the attack] appeared. Therefore allegations of this towards Russia are groundless,” Peskov said.

CHEMICAL BOMBS

Witnesses and Western governments say helicopters dropped chemical bombs that killed many children and women hiding in cellars from bombardment. Washington has said it has conclusive evidence the attack used chlorine gas, and suspects sarin nerve agent was also used although this was not confirmed.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013 and submit to OPCW inspections to avert U.S. retaliation after a suspected nerve gas attack in Douma killed hundreds of people.

It is barred from having, storing or using nerve agents, and while it is permitted to possess chlorine for civilian uses, is banned from using that chemical as a weapon.

The British envoy to the OPCW said the body had recorded 390 allegations of the use of banned chemicals in Syria since 2014, and that a failure by the OPCW to act risked allowing “further barbaric use of chemical weapons”.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said the weekend air strikes accomplished their aim of undermining efforts by the Syrian government to produce and use chemical weapons.

Members of the 41-seat executive council of the OPCW were due to discuss the alleged use of prohibited toxins in Syria, but were not expected to reach any agreement about a response.

The organisation, which needs a two-thirds majority to take decisions, has been undermined by political divisions over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

A joint United Nations-OPCW mission concluded that troops under President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons several times in recent years, including a sarin attack a year ago in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 100 people.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Inspectors push to visit suspected Syria gas attack site after Western strikes

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – International inspectors were to try on Monday to visit the site of a suspected gas attack which brought U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria and heightened the diplomatic confrontation between the West and President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday more Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, and Washington prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions.

Moscow also condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspection team on the alleged attack before launching the strikes.

But the U.S. envoy to the global watchdog said on Monday Russia may have tampered with the site of the incident on April 7 in Douma outside of Damascus.

“It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability those responsible for these heinous acts,” U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward said in comments seen by Reuters.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May was facing criticism over her decision to bypass parliament and take part in the air strikes against Syria.

The United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for the suspected poison gas attack in Douma on April 7.

The Western countries blame Assad for the Douma attack, which a Syrian medical relief group said killed dozens of people and which thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict into the forefront of global concern once again. The Syrian government and its Russian ally deny involvement.

Inspectors for the Hague-based OPCW met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official in Damascus for about three hours on Sunday.

The inspectors were due on Monday to attempt to visit Douma, but the British delegation to the OPCW said they had not yet been granted access, citing the agency’s director general.

Douma, which lies in the eastern Goutha district on the outskirts of the capital, was one of the last bastions near Damascus of rebels fighting to topple Assad, and the alleged attack took place amid a ferocious government offensive.

In the aftermath, the remnants of the rebel army evacuated, handing Assad one of the biggest victories in a war that has killed about half a million people and laid waste to whole cities.

The U.S.-led strikes did nothing to alter the strategic balance or dent Assad’s supremacy and the Western allies have said the aim was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to intervene in the civil war or topple Assad.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made this clear on Monday as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, telling reporters: “I’m afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we’ve had enough of the use of chemical weapons.”

MORE SANCTIONS

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Sunday the United States would announce new economic sanctions aimed at companies dealing with equipment related to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Responding to Haley’s remarks, Evgeny Serebrennikov, deputy head of a Russian parliamentary defence committee, said Moscow was ready for the penalties.

“They are hard for us, but will do more damage to the USA and Europe,” RIA news agency quoted Serebrennikov as saying.

Although U.S. President Donald Trump had declared: “Mission accomplished” after the strikes, U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie at the Pentagon acknowledged that elements of the program remained and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which fights alongside the Syrian army, said the U.S. military had kept its strikes limited because it knew a wider attack would spark retaliation from Damascus and its allies and inflame the region.

The Western leaders were also facing scrutiny at home over their actions.

Britain’s May will make a statement to parliament on Monday on her decision and will repeat her assertion that Assad’s forces were highly likely responsible for the attack. The allies could not wait “to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks”, according to excerpts of her speech.

But she will be questioned over why she broke with a convention to seek parliamentary approval for the action, a decision that she and her ministers say was driven by the need to act quickly.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has questioned the legal basis for Britain’s involvement.

Britain has said there are no plans for future strikes against Syria, but Johnson warned Assad that all options would be considered if chemical weapons were used against Syrians again.

(This version of the story has been refiled to add Assad title in lead)

(Reporting by Leila Bassam in Damascus, Jack Stubbs and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, ing by Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Joel Schectman in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Barzeh, Syria, Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Laurence Frost, Michel Rose and Ingrid Melander in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Braced for air strikes on Syria, some airlines re-route flights

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Eurocontrol, Europe's air traffic regulator, is seen on the facade of its headquarters in Brussels July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Jamie Freed

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some major airlines were re-routing flights on Wednesday after Europe’s air traffic control agency warned aircraft flying in the eastern Mediterranean to exercise caution due to possible air strikes into Syria.

Eurocontrol said in a notification published on Tuesday afternoon that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used over the following 72 hours and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption to radio navigation equipment.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action to punish Syria’s President Bashar Assad for a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held town that had long held out against government forces.

A spokeswoman for Air France said the airline had changed some flights paths following the warning, including for Beirut and Tel Aviv flights, while budget airline easyJet said it would also re-route flights from Tel Aviv.

Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, and so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

Trump on Tuesday cancelled a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus on responding to the Syria incident, the White House said.

Trump on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the attack was established.

The Eurocontrol warning on its website did not specify the origin of any potential missile threat.

“Due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area,” it said, referring to the designated airspace.

Aviation regulators in countries including the United States, Britain, France and Germany have previously issued warnings against airlines entering Syrian airspace, leading most carriers to avoid the area.

The only commercial flights above Syria as of 0115 GMT on Wednesday were being flown by Syrian Air and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24. At other periods later in the day, there were no flights using the airspace.

HEIGHTENED SURVEILLANCE

Eurocontrol included a broader area outside the airspace controlled by Damascus in its statement.

A spokesman for Germany’s Lufthansa said on Wednesday its airlines were aware of the Eurocontrol warning and were in close contact with authorities.

“As a proactive precaution, Lufthansa Group airlines have already avoided the airspace in the eastern Mediterranean for some time now,” he said.

Ryanair, British Airways, Etihad Airways, and Royal Jordanian representatives said flights were operating normally at their respective airlines, but the situation was being monitored closely.

Emirates also said it was closely monitoring the situation and that it would “make adjustments as needed”.

EgyptAir is not currently planning changes to flight paths following the warning, a source close to the matter said.

Israel’s flag carrier El Al declined to comment. EgyptAir and several other major airlines that fly in the area did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The Nicosia flight information region named in the Eurocontrol statement covers the island of Cyprus and surrounding waters, according to a map on the agency’s website.

The same map did not designate any specific territory as being the “Eastern Mediterranean” region.

Last year, North Korea tested missiles without warning, leading some airlines to re-route flights to avoid portions of the Sea of Japan.

Eurocontrol’s warning cited a document from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Europe’s safety regulator.

EASA warned of a danger to aircraft flying over Iran, Iraq, and the Caspian sea in October 2015 after Russia fired cruise missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea.

An EASA spokesman said it had informed member states and Eurocontrol of its cautionary message on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE; additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in HAMBURG, Alexander Cornwell in DUBAI, Sarah Young in LONDON, Conor Humphries in DUBLIN, Tova Cohen in Tel Aviv and CAIRO Bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel, Mark Potter and David Evans)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)

In face of Ghouta defeat, Syrian rebels blame each other

FILE PHOTO: Rebel fighters gather and pray before they leave, at the city limits of Harasta, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebel factions are blaming each other for opening the way to their defeat near Damascus, underlining splits that plagued the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad since its earliest days.

The rivalry between the factions of eastern Ghouta – Failaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – had led to the effective partition of the enclave since 2016 and fueled bouts of deadly violence that played to the government’s advantage.

Their rivalry has at some points mirrored tensions between their regional sponsors: Saudi Arabia, which has backed Jaish al-Islam, and Qatar, which supported Failaq al-Rahman.

With the help of Russian air strikes, the army has waged one of the most ferocious offensives of the war to recapture eastern Ghouta, killing more than 1,600 people since Feb. 18 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Still, in media comments late on Sunday, the groups laid blame on each other for speeding up the government’s advances.

The Jaish al-Islam military spokesman, in an interview with al-Hadath TV, said Failaq al-Rahman had rejected a proposal to mount a shared defense of Ghouta and accused it of cutting water supplies needed to fill defensive trenches.

“These trenches dried up which sped up the regime’s advances,” said Hamza Birqdar, the spokesman.

The Failaq al-Rahman spokesman told the same TV station that Jaish al-Islam had staged a weak defense of the enclave, which advancing government forces split into three separate pockets.

“Failaq al-Rahman was stabbed in the back … via the frontlines that Jaish al-Islam was supposed to be at,” said Wael Olwan, Failaq al-Rahman’s Istanbul-based spokesman.

A Syrian official said the “conflict between the terrorist groups” in eastern Ghouta was one of the factors that had helped the military “achieve what it has achieved in a short space of time”.

It echoes a pattern at other key moments in the seven-year-long war: rebels blamed each other as government forces and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias thrust into opposition parts of eastern Aleppo, won back by Assad in 2016.

Thousands of Failaq al-Rahman fighters, accompanied by their families, are leaving their zone of eastern Ghouta in a negotiated withdrawal to insurgent territory in northern Syria.

Jaish al-Islam says it is holding out in its part of the enclave in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma. Assad’s Russian allies said on Monday that Jaish al-Islam fighters were also ready to lay down their arms and leave, which the group denied.

Rebels who have left eastern Ghouta so far have gone to Idlib, an insurgent-held region at the Turkish border. Idlib has also been blighted by fighting between the dominant faction – fighters formerly affiliated to al Qaeda – and other rebels.

The fragmented state of the anti-Assad armed opposition has been seen as one of its critical weaknesses since the start of the conflict, which the UK-based Observatory says has killed half a million people since 2011.

Russian and Iranian military backing for Assad has also far outstripped support that had been offered to rebel groups from foreign states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory at the frontier with Jordan and Israel, and small enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

Barrage of missiles on Saudi Arabia ramps up Yemen war

Houthi performers dance during a rally to mark the third anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni conflict in Sanaa, Yemen March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Marwa Rashad, Sarah Dadouch and Abdulrahman al-Ansi

RIYADH/SANAA (Reuters) – The Houthi movement that controls northern Yemen vowed on Monday to fire more missiles into Saudi Arabia unless it stops bombing the country, after missiles crashed into Riyadh overnight causing casualties in the Saudi capital for the first time.

Saudi forces said they shot down three missiles over Riyadh shortly before midnight. Debris fell on a home in the capital, killing an Egyptian resident and wounding two other Egyptians.

Air defenses also repelled missiles fired at the southern Saudi cities of Najran, Jizan and Khamis Mushait, Saudi-led coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki said.

A top Houthi leader hailed the attack, which took place on the eve of the third anniversary of the entry into the Yemen war by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies.

“We praise the successful advance of military capabilities,” Houthi political council chief Saleh al-Samad told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

“If they want peace, as we have said to them before, stop your air strikes and we will stop our missiles,” he said. “If you continue your air strikes we have a right to defend ourselves by all means available.”

The war in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, which pits a coalition of Sunni Arab states friendly to the West against a Shi’ite armed movement sympathetic to Iran, has unleashed one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The Houthis control the north of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. Saudi Arabia and its allies have been fighting on behalf of an exiled government with a foothold in the south.

EXPLOSIONS

Khattab Gamal, a 27-year-old Egyptian electrician who lived in the Riyadh house hit by the debris, told Reuters he and his 15 housemates were awoken by loud explosions.

“We knew something fell on the room where Abdulmuttalib was asleep. There were three others in the same room with him. All were asleep at the time of explosion. They all rushed and ran out and then we realized he was missing.

“We kept looking for him and realized he was still inside, we went back and tried to enter the room and save him but we couldn’t,” he said by telephone. “There was a lot of dust and the smell was suffocating…. A few minutes later the civil defense came and got him out but he was already dead.”

The Saudi-led coalition has launched thousands of air strikes on Yemen in the past three years, some of which have hit hospitals, schools and markets, killing hundreds of civilians while bringing Riyadh little closer to military victory.

The kingdom has said hundreds of its own soldiers and civilians have been killed in Houthi mortar and short-range missile attacks across their rugged southern border.

The United Nations says 10,000 people have died in the conflict so far, and millions face potential famine and disease because of disruption to food and medical supplies.

Around 22 million civilians, or 75 percent of Yemen’s population, require humanitarian aid, according to latest U.N. data. The conflict has caused the worst cholera outbreak in modern history, with over 1 million reported cases.

Last year, when the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh which were intercepted without doing damage, the Arab coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports, a blockade that the United Nations said raised the prospect of mass starvation before it was partially lifted.

Western countries have urged Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies to protect civilians and find a quick end to the war. But they also support Riyadh’s argument that it needs to defend itself from cross border strikes and limit the spread of Iranian influence in territory overlooking important trade routes.

The Saudi military depends on service contracts with Western arms companies to keep its planes flying. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed the war with U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit to the White House last week, and with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London the previous week.

Saudi Arabia viewed the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthis as part of a regional strategy by arch-foe Tehran to encircle it. Independent U.N. experts reported to the Security Council in January that Houthi missiles they had examined and other military equipment had been manufactured in Iran.

The Houthis deny they are Iranian pawns, and say their spread throughout Yemen is a national revolution against corrupt government officials and Gulf Arab states in thrall of the West.

Diplomats and Yemeni political officials reported this month that the Houthis and Saudi Arabia were conducting secret peace talks after years of U.N.-mediated dialogue yielded no results.

(Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Peter Graff)

Assad closer to Ghouta victory, as some rebels prepare to quit

A woman holds a child during evacuation from the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – The Syrian government moved closer to ending rebel resistance in eastern Ghouta as civilians streamed out of one of its besieged, bomb-battered towns on Thursday and insurgents prepared to surrender another.

The army assault on eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farmland just outside Damascus, has been one of the most intense in Syria’s seven-year-old war, killing more than 1,500 people in a relentless bombardment with war planes, shells and rockets.

A Reuters witness said buses had driven into the town of Harasta and a Syrian military source said 600 to 700 fighters were expected to be among about 2,000 people leaving in them in the coming hours for opposition areas in northwestern Syria.

Hundreds of people including scores of fighters had already started boarding buses at an assembly point inside Harasta, the military source said. Between 18,000-20,000 people were expected to stay in Harasta under government rule, the source added.

Meanwhile, state television reported that more than 6,000 people had fled the larger rebel-held town of Douma since Wednesday, crossing over into government-held territory.

The Ahrar al-Sham group’s decision to surrender Harsata leaves only Douma and another rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta that includes the towns of Jobar, Ein Terma, Arbin and Zamalka.

They are all that remain of the main insurgent stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus, the biggest prize for President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against the rebels since the recapture of Aleppo in late 2016.

Rebels fired rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus on Thursday, killing two people, state media reported. Television showed burning projectile parts on streets and in parks.

Government air strikes had pummeled parts of eastern Ghouta on Thursday morning, striking Arbin and Zamalka and killing 19 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group.

An army officer interviewed on state television urged rebels who had not yet negotiated a deal to quit. “Death is coming for you if you do not surrender,” he said.

On Sunday, Assad drove himself to a newly captured battlefront in eastern Ghouta, a demonstration of his seemingly unassailable position in the war that has been going his way since Russia sent its air force to help him in 2015.

The deal to surrender Harasta is the first by eastern Ghouta rebels and began on Thursday with a prisoner swap. In an interview with state television, a Syrian soldier freed by rebels wept and thanked God and the army for his release.

The Reuters witness at the crossing with Harasta said the army had removed barriers from the old frontline lying across the road into the town to allow the buses to pass.

The Russian Defence Ministry website showed what it said was live footage from the al-Wafideen crossing point from Douma into government areas. Over a period of several minutes, it showed dozens of people in small groups coming around a corner and trekking along the dirt road past armed soldiers.

Some bore bundles of their possessions, others carried small children or pushed prams. Behind were fields and trees. At one point in the road a man could be seen in a red shirt with the logo of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Douma is the most populous area in eastern Ghouta, and for more than a week it has been entirely surrounded by the government. The Jaish al-Islam rebel group that holds the town has said it is determined to fight on after a month-long government offensive that has taken 70 percent of the former opposition enclave in eastern Ghouta.

However, the Observatory said people leaving the area were doing so under an agreement between the group and the government’s closest ally Russia.

FEROCITY

The Syrian government and Russia have both accused rebels in eastern Ghouta of stopping civilians leaving the area. They say their assault, which the Observatory says has killed more than 1,500 people so far, is needed to end Islamist militant rule over the area’s people.

They also say it is needed to end rebel shelling of Damascus and other nearby areas. On Tuesday, a rocket struck a marketplace in a government-held town, killing dozens.

However, the ferocity of the Syrian army’s offensive in eastern Ghouta has prompted Western condemnation and urgent pleas from United Nations humanitarian agencies for a ceasefire.

Over the past week, tens of thousands of people have fled across the frontlines into government territory.

For the Harasta rebels, the journey to Idlib is one already well trodden by insurgents from other areas surrendered to Assad after prolonged sieges and intense bombardments of the kind used against eastern Ghouta over the past month.

The northwestern province is the biggest remaining area under rebel control in Syria and its population has been doubled by refugees fleeing other areas including many opposition supporters.

A military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah on Wednesday said some 1,500 fighters along with 6,000 family members would depart Harasta under the agreement with the government.

On Thursday the same Hezbollah media unit said the army and Ahrar al-Sham had started to exchange prisoners as the Harasta deal got under way.

(Reporting by Firas Makdesi and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall, editing by Angus MacSwan/Tom Perry)

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in eastern Ghouta: sources

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A Russian-brokered deal has been reached to evacuate a Syrian rebel group from a town in eastern Ghouta, opposition sources and officials said on Wednesday, the first such deal in the remaining rebel bastion near the capital.

Fighters from the Ahrar al Sham rebel group in control of the besieged town of Harasta had agreed to lay down arms in return for safe passage to opposition-held northwestern Syria and an offer to be pardoned under reconciliation terms with the authorities for those who want to stay, the sources said.

There was no indication when the deal would be implemented and one source familiar with the talks said obstacles may delay it for a few days.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it had opened a new “humanitarian corridor” near Harasta but did not indicate that this could be part of any rebel pullout deal.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave and after weeks of bombardment residents are fleeing by the thousands.

The Syrian army assault backed by Russian air power that began last month has killed hundreds of people as air strikes pound residential areas where thousands had sheltered in basements across the densely populated enclave, according to rescuers and a monitor.

Years of siege and bombardment have been a strategy by the Syrian army to force rebels to surrender and help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover all of Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

“The deal has been finalised and it could come into effect soon after a ceasefire is announced as early as Wednesday,” said one official familiar with the talks.

It would begin with an evacuation of injured civilians, he added, saying the remaining civilians in the town were “facing untold suffering.”

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

EVACUATION OF WOUNDED

A pro-Assad commander confirmed a deal between the Russians and Ahar al Sham had been concluded with an evacuation of wounded from Harasta expected on Wednesday, followed by civilians and fighters evacuated to rebel-held Idlib in northwestern Syria in the “coming days.”

A local official in the opposition-run Harasta council was quoted by opposition news outlets as saying a deal had been reached but did not say when it would be implemented.

Last year, rebels launched an offensive on army barracks on the edge of Harasta that led to retaliatory attacks. The battles were among the fiercest in eastern Ghouta in recent years.

Assad has vowed to end what he says is a terrorist threat near his seat of power in Damascus. Syrian authorities accuse rebels of firing rockets into the suburbs in revenge attacks, which rebels deny.

More than 100 civilians were killed in the last two days of air strikes in eastern Ghouta with most of the raids on Douma city, the largest population center with more than 150,000 people still living there.

Rebels and residents say napalm and incendiary weapons were dropped on several civilian areas to force rebels to surrender.

The Syrian army this month splintered Ghouta into three besieged zones, cutting off Harasta from other areas. The Syrian army had given the rebels of Harasta an ultimatum to withdraw, state media said..

Residents and rescuers say the Russian air force stepped up bombing of Harasta town as talks were going on to broker the deal. Securing the town, near the closed Damascus-Homs highway, will allow the army to make further gains in the remaining parts of the enclave in rebel hands.

“They bomb us to force us to leave our homes and everything behind us and say imminent death faces those who stay,” Iyad Abdul Aziz, head of the local council in Douma, told Reuters.

The plight of civilians in the de facto capital of eastern Ghouta had worsened after air strikes on Sunday on a main warehouse that had stocked United Nations goods delivered this month, Abdul Aziz said. The council has said the city faced “catastrophic conditions”.

The Harasta deal will pile pressure on the two main rebel groups – Failaq al-Rahman in the southern pocket and Jaish al-Islam in the northern enclave – to also reach understandings.

They have said they reject Russia’s offer to leave the enclave but have agreed to evacuation deals to get hundreds of sick and wounded civilians out under U.N. auspices.

But the most likely option was the transfer of Failaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam fighters to opposition-held areas in northern and southern Syria, a rebel official said.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assault and the promise of safe passage out.

The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) has said Syrian troops alongside Iranian-backed militias were reinforcing positions in their strongholds in the southern Deraa province where rebels have control of most of the countryside.

Western diplomats and Jordan, which borders the southern part of Syria, are worried the Syrian army will launch an offensive to regain control of the strategic area that is now covered under a U.S.-Russian deal setting up a “de-escalation” zone that has reduced violence.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

FILE PHOTO: People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided civil war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.

The Kurdish YPG militia, defending Afrin, said it was battling the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its assault on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border campaign in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.

AIR STRIKES KILL 57, CIVILIANS FLEE

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.

For the first time since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot from rebel-held territory to reach government positions.

Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way to use them as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.

The Observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 47 people in the town of Kafr Batna and another 10 people in Saqba on Friday. It said Russian aircraft had carried out the strikes. Syrians believe they can distinguish Russian aircraft from those of the Syrian army because the Russians fly at higher altitude.

Syrian State TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, to escape rebel-held areas. Some waved to the camera and said the rebels had stopped them from leaving.

Russian news agencies reported that around 3,300 people had come out on Friday morning. An army officer at Hawsh Nasri, where hundreds of people gathered, told Reuters that many more people were expected to leave on Friday.

Around 5,000 people were sheltering at the nearby town of Adra and many more would arrive on Friday, the Adra mayor said. “Today we are expecting a big number,” Jassem al-Mahmoud said.

The exodus began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday.

The eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where many people are sheltering, has been spared the worst of the shelling in recent days, a resident said.

During campaigns to recover other areas, the Syrian government has taken territory by allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists safe passage out to insurgent-held areas at the Turkish border. Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels who leave eastern Ghouta, but so far they have refused.

ALARMING REPORTS

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue the enemies they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had received “deeply alarming reports from Afrin in northwestern Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes, as well as reports that civilians are being prevented from leaving Afrin city by Kurdish forces.”

Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage from the Afrin area showing cars, small trucks, tractors and groups of people on foot leaving the town. An elderly man told the channel he had left on foot at 2 a.m. when shells started falling.

“There are a lot of people leaving the city as well, and a lot still inside,” he said.

Birusk Hasakeh, the YPG spokesman in Afrin, said the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north. The YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were battling the attacking forces.

“They are shelling in order to storm (Afrin),” Hasakeh said by phone. The shelling had killed 18 people and more people were believed to be trapped under rubble, he said.

The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey expected its forces and rebel allies to clear Afrin town of militants “very soon”.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

Aid convoy delivers food in Syria’s besieged Ghouta despite bombardment

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An emergency aid convoy crossed front lines into the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta and delivered its supplies on Friday, braving shellfire and air strikes in the area amid a fierce government offensive.

The 13 food trucks unloaded all their food aid in the town of Douma and returned to government-held territory despite fighting which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said came “extremely close” to the convoy.

In less than two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken nearly all the farmland in eastern Ghouta under cover of near ceaseless shelling and air strikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns – about half the territory – still under insurgent control.

The onslaught has killed more than 1,000 people, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Thursday. The war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Friday gave a death toll of 950 civilians in the campaign.

For eastern Ghouta’s civilians, trapped in underground shelters but deprived of food and water, there is a constant dilemma – whether to seek supplies or stay inside.

“People were hopeful after the bombardment decreased and went out onto the streets. But then air strikes began again, and there are still people under the rubble that we couldn’t get out,” said Moayad al-Hafi, a man in the town of Saqba.

Damascus and its main ally Moscow have both said the assault is needed to stop rebel shelling of the nearby capital Damascus and end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians in eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people live.

But U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said, in comments criticized by Syria’s government, that the assault was “legally, and morally, unsustainable”.

There was a pause in the government’s bombardment overnight, but it soon resumed air strikes and shelling after the convoy carrying food parcels crossed into eastern Ghouta, according to residents and the Observatory.

Syrian state television and a witness later said bullets and mortars were fired from inside the rebel enclave at the al-Wafideen crossing point, through which the convoy had entered eastern Ghouta.

“Shelling in proximity of Douma (in) eastern Ghouta today is putting the…convoy at risk,” U.N. resident coordinator Ali al-Za’tari said in a statement.

The fighting had resurged, he added, “despite assurances of safety from parties including the Russian Federation”.

Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s Middle East director, said in a statement: “We were taken aback by the fighting that broke out despite guarantees.”

A Douma resident, in a voice message over which loud explosions were audible, said four jets were in the sky and residential areas had come under air attack.

The food was supposed to be delivered on Monday when another aid convoy entered Douma, but fighting forced it to leave early without unloading everything.

The 2,400 food parcels delivered can sustain 12,000 people for one month, and 3,248 wheat flour bags were also unloaded, according to the ICRC.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would deal the rebels their biggest blow since the fall of Aleppo – Syria’s second city – in December 2016 by forcing them from their only big stronghold near Syria’s capital.

For President Bashar al-Assad, it would mark a victory as he builds on the military momentum created by Russia’s 2015 entry into the war, which has restored his rule over swathes of Syria.

In many cases, rebels have surrendered terrain in return for safe passage to other opposition areas along with relatives and other civilians loath to fall back under Assad’s rule.

“ONE MEAL IN SEVERAL DAYS”

Bilal Abu Salah, a resident of Douma, said shortages were causing great hardship. “Entire families eat one meal in several days,” he said.

U.N. aid agencies have pleaded with the Syrian government and its ally Russia to halt the campaign and let aid in.

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Fridayaid agencies in Syria often struggled to access besieged areas even with permission from political leaders.

“It’s very much the checkpoint on the ground that doesn’t allow you to go through. This is the reality of that terrible war,” he said in Beirut.

The Syrian government has opened what it calls safe routes out of the enclave, but no inhabitants are known to have left yet.

Damascus and Moscow accuse the insurgents of shooting at civilians to prevent them fleeing the fighting into government areas. A Reuters witness said there was small arms and mortar fire from rebel areas on the al-Wafideen crossing on Friday.

Rebels deny stopping anyone leaving and say people have not crossed into government territory for fear of persecution.

The terror of the bombardment and the increasingly unbearable living conditions may push people to brave the fighting and flee, according to one resident of Douma.

“I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want any harm to happen to my family,” said Abu Ahmad al-Ghoutani, who said he has two children.

State media have reported people in eastern Ghouta raising Syrian government flags and holding small protests in support of Assad. The Observatory has reported protests in one village to demand an end to the bombardment and the departure of rebels.

Tens of thousands of people have fled further into the enclave in the face of the warfare, a U.N. official said on Thursday, and residents of Douma said shelters are crowded with the new arrivals.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Yara Abi Nader in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Angus McDowall; editing by Mark Heinrich)