Authorities still searching for motive in Nashville blast

(Reuters) – Federal, state and local law enforcement officers on Monday were searching for the motive behind a bombing that rocked Nashville on Christmas morning, with evidence pointing to the 63-year-old suspect on a suicide mission that took only his life.

The FBI on Sunday identified the suspect as Anthony Q. Warner and said he died in the blast, which damaged more than 40 businesses in downtown Nashville, Tennessee’s largest city and the United States’ country music capital.

Warner’s motor home exploded at dawn on Friday moments after police responding to reports of gunfire noticed it and heard music and an automated message emanating from the vehicle warning of a bomb. Police hurried to evacuate people in the area, and Warner is the only person known to have died in the blast.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper has said that local officials felt there had to be some connection between the bombing, which occurred near an AT&T Inc transmission building on the city’s busy Second Avenue, and the building.

But officials have maintained it was too early in the investigation to discuss the suspect’s motives.

Council Member Freddie O’Connell, whose district includes Second Avenue, said officials have been reluctant to speculate about motive or to label the bombing an act of terrorism because it was still unclear whether Warner was driven by any ideology.

“It may be some time before we get even close to having some of these questions answered,” O’Connell said.

The explosion injured three people and damaged businesses, disrupting mobile, internet and TV services across central Tennessee and parts of four other states.

Investigators searched Warner’s home on Saturday and visited a Nashville real estate agency where he had worked part-time, providing computer consulting services.

Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee described the damage in Nashville as “enormous” and said he expected President Donald Trump would shortly grant his request to declare a state of emergency to assist the state.

“It was a indescribable blast and it’s destroyed businesses all up and down that downtown block,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. charges Libyan man in 1988 Pam Am Flight 103 bombing

By Mark Hosenball and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Monday unsealed criminal charges against a third alleged conspirator in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people.

The Boeing 747 exploded and killed 190 Americans. “No amount of time or distance will stop the United States and our Scottish partners from pursuing justice in this case,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr told a news conference Monday.

The suspect, Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, a former senior Libyan intelligence official, is charged with two criminal counts related to the bombing. He is in Libyan custody, Barr said Monday, and U.S. officials are hopeful that Libya will allow Masud to be tried in the United States.

The Justice Department said Masud worked in various capacities for Libyan intelligence, including as a technical expert in building explosive devices from approximately 1973 to 2011. It also alleged Masud was involved in the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle Discotheque in West Berlin, Germany that killed two U.S. service members.

In 1991, two other Libyan intelligence operatives were charged in the bombing: Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

Megrahi was found guilty in Scotland of the Lockerbie bombing in 2001 and freed in 2009 on compassionate release grounds before dying of cancer in 2012.

Barr said the breakthrough that led to Masud’s charges came after law enforcement learned in 2016 that the third alleged conspirator “had been arrested after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime and interviewed by a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012.”

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Bombing kills 18 in Afghanistan on eve of Eid ceasefire

A member of Afghanistan's Special Forces unit jumps from a wall during patrol in Pandola village near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 18 people, including Afghan security forces personnel, were killed in a suspected car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, hours before a three-day ceasefire was to begin in the country for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officials said.

The ceasefire, announced by the Taliban, comes at a time violence has risen across the war-torn country as U.S.-brokered peace talks between the militant group and an Afghan government-mandated committee await the completion of a prisoner exchange between the two sides.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the bombing in a statement from spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The explosion targeted Afghan security forces in Pul-e-Alan, the capital of the eastern province of Logar and civilian casualties are also feared, according to Shahpoor Ahmadzai, the spokesman for the provincial police.

He added it was unclear whether it was a car or suicide bombing, but that security forces had gathered for duty in the city to prepare for security measures for Eid al-Fitr, which will be celebrated in Afghanistan on Friday.

The head of the province’s council, Hasib Stanekkzai, told Reuters it was a car-bombing and put the toll at 18 dead and 22 injured.

Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security forces personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report this week that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first six months of the year, mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Wednesday to discuss the need to keep violence down by all sides after the ceasefire and the completion of the prisoner exchange, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Mark Potter)

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement
CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (Reuters) – Shelling could be heard at the Syrian-Turkish border on Friday morning despite a five-day ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States, and Washington said the deal covered only a small part of the territory Ankara aims to seize.

Reuters journalists at the border heard machine-gun fire and shelling and saw smoke rising from the Syrian border battlefield city of Ras al Ain, although the sounds of fighting had subsided by mid-morning.

The truce, announced on Thursday by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from an area controlled by Turkish forces.

The SDF said air and artillery attacks continued to target its positions and civilian targets in Ral al Ain.

“Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.

The Kurdish-led administration in the area said Turkish truce violations in Ras al Ain had caused casualties, without giving details.

The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected U.S. retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.

Trump has praised the deal, saying it would save “millions of lives”. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told Fox News the ceasefire was successful even if halting fighting “takes time”.

Turkey cast it as a complete victory in its campaign to control a strip of territory stretching hundreds of miles along the border and more than 30 km (around 20 miles) deep into Syria, to drive out fighters from the YPG, the SDF’s main Kurdish component.

“As of now, the 120-hour period is on. In this 120-hour period, the terrorist organization, the YPG, will leave the area we identified as a safe zone,” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul. The safe zone would be 32 km deep, and run “440 km from the very west to the east,” he said.

But the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said the agreement covered only a smaller area where Turkish forces were already operating, without giving details of how far along the border Washington believed it stretched.

The Kurds said it was limited to a small strip between two border towns that have seen the bulk of the fighting: Ras al Ain and Tal Abyad, just 120 km away.

RUSSIA, IRAN FILL VACUUM

With the United States pulling its entire 1,000-strong contingent from northern Syria, the extent of Turkey’s ambitions is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, filling the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has already taken up positions in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds.

Jeffrey acknowledged that Turkey was now negotiating with Moscow and Damascus over control of areas where Washington was pulling out, which were not covered by the U.S.-Turkish ceasefire agreement.

“As you know we have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (Islamic State) elements all floating around in a very wild way,” Jeffrey said.

“Now, the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates,” he said. “Whether they incorporate that later into a Turkish-controlled safe zone, it was not discussed in any detail.”

LIFTING SANCTIONS?

The joint U.S.-Turkish statement released after Thursday’s talks said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling Islamic State fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, an important international concern.

Pence said U.S. sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.

In Washington, U.S. senators who have criticized the Trump administration for failing to prevent the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey.

The Turkish assault began after Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way following an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan.

It has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with – according to Red Cross estimates – 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political storm at home for Trump.

Turkey says the “safe zone” would make room to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting, and would push back the YPG militia which it deems a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

A Turkish official told Reuters that Ankara got “exactly what we wanted” from the talks with the United States.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Dominic Evans, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

Sri Lanka blasts were revenge for New Zealand mosque killings: minister

A man holds a cross during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Devastating Easter bombings in Sri Lanka were retaliation for attacks on mosques in New Zealand, a Sri Lankan official said on Tuesday, as Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated blasts that killed 321 people.

Islamic State’s claim, issued on its AMAQ news agency, came shortly after Sri Lanka said two domestic Islamist groups, with suspected links to foreign militants, were believed to have been behind the attacks at three churches and four hotels, which wounded about 500 people.

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People attend a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Islamic State gave no evidence for its claim. The government has said at least seven suicide bombers were involved.

“The initial investigation has revealed that this was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack,” junior minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament.

He did not elaborate on why authorities believed there was a link to the killing of 50 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch during Friday prayers on March 15. A lone gunman carried out those attacks.

Wijewardene said two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts early on Sunday during Easter services and as high-end hotels served breakfast.

U.S. intelligence sources said earlier the attacks carried some of the hallmarks of Islamic State, even though it had not made an immediate claim of responsibility, as it usually does.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament investigators were looking into foreign links.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sri Lankan government and military sources said a Syrian had been detained among 40 people being questioned over the bombs.

“He was arrested after the interrogation of local suspects,” one of the sources said, referring to the unidentified Syrian.

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FUNERALS

Tuesday was declared a national day of mourning and the funerals of some of the victims were held, as pressure mounted on the government over why effective action had not been taken in response to a warning this month about a possible attack on churches by the little-known National Thawheed Jama’ut group.

The first six attacks – on three churches and three luxury hotels – came within 20 minutes on Sunday morning.

Two more explosions – at a downmarket hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital, Colombo – came in the early afternoon.

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans, although government officials said 38 foreigners were killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said 45 children were among the dead.

Footage on CNN showed what it said was one of the bombers wearing a heavy backpack. The man patted a child on the head before entering the Gothic-style St. Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Dozens were killed there.

The bombs brought a shattering end to a relative calm that had existed in the Buddhist-majority Indian Ocean island since a bitter civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

The government imposed emergency rule at midnight on Monday, giving police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders.

An overnight curfew has also been imposed since Sunday.

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

People react as silence is observed as a tribute to victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, during a memorial service in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

FBI TO HELP

U.S. President Donald Trump called Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Monday to pledge U.S. support in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified law enforcement official as saying Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were being sent to Sri Lanka to help with the investigation.

The FBI had offered expertise to test evidence and analysts were scouring databases for information, the Post said. Counter-terrorism officials from Britain were also due on Tuesday, a Western diplomat in Colombo said.

The attacks have also underlined concern over fractures in Sri Lanka’s government, and whether the discord prevented action that might have stopped them.

The government received a tip-off from India this month about a possible attack on churches by the National Thawheed Jama’ut.

It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response. A government minister said on Monday that Wickremesinghe had not been informed about the warning and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year only to be forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court. Their relationship is reported to be fraught.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were possibly plotting more attacks in Sri Lanka.

China’s embassy warned its nationals against traveling to Sri Lanka in the near term because of “huge security risks”.

China is a major investor in Sri Lanka. The embassy said one Chinese national was killed, five wounded and five were missing.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock, Mark Hosenball and Kieran Murray in WASHINGTON, and Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo in BEIJING; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry, Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)

U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive

An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.

It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.

The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.

Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement. The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.

Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months. In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.

The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Party cups as gas masks: Idlib civilians prepare for battle

A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Hudhayfa al-Shahad strapped a colorful paper cup filled with cotton and charcoal to a child’s face and tightened a plastic bag around his head: an improvised gas mask if chemicals once again fall on Syria’s Idlib.

Civilians in Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule are preparing food and digging shelters ahead of an expected army offensive.

They are also putting their faith in neighboring Turkey’s diplomacy to spare them from military action, which could become a humanitarian disaster.

“We are preparing what little we can: small primitive masks we can place on our children’s mouths in case we are hit with chemicals,” 20-year-old Shahad told Reuters from his village south of Idlib city, where he shares a house with his pregnant wife, three children and around 15 other people.

His brother, 35-year-old construction worker Ahmed Abdulkarim al-Shahad, shows off the cavernous space under a cool, vine-covered courtyard the family has been digging and sheltering in from bombardment since 2012.

“Military preparations as we have seen are in full swing … We as civilians have started preparing the caves,” he said, showing glass bottles of pickled vegetables shelved on the damp cave walls.

Around 3 million people live in the rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

About half of them fled fighting or were transferred there by the government under surrender deals from other parts of Syria as Assad has steadily taken back territory from rebels.

In April last year, a government warplane dropped sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, killing more than 80 civilians, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry has said. It also said Syrian forces have used chemical weapons, including chlorine, more than two dozen times during the war.

Damascus and its ally Russia both deny these charges and say they do not engage in chemical warfare. Idlib residents are fearful and Washington has warned Assad against using chemical weapons in any offensive, promising a response if he does so.

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

PROTECTION

Russia, Assad’s ally, resumed air strikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday following weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-Syrian government forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the last major rebel enclave.

But Turkey has said it hopes a summit with Iranian and Russian leaders in Tehran on Friday will avert an offensive.

And some people Reuters spoke to in Idlib suspected an offensive may be avoided.

“I do not believe there will be an attack on Idlib. It’s all a media war,” said 50-year-old former construction worker Jaafar Abu Ahmad from a rural area near Ma’arat al-Nuaman town. “The great world powers have pre-agreed on us and divided the land.”

Nevertheless, seven years of grinding war have taught Ahmad to be prepared. His family is currently expanding a damp dugout they have been digging and sheltering in from strikes for the past five years, stocking it with food.

“We have been digging in the earth for two months non-stop, me, my wife and children,” he said. “This cave is now our protection. We cleaned it recently after it had been neglected for a long time.”

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

With shelling, air strikes and rhetoric about an impending offensive increasing, a number of local councils across Idlib have come together and asked Turkey for protection.

“For us in the liberated areas our only guarantor in negotiations is our Turkish brothers,” said Ahmad Shtaam al-Rashu, the 48-year-old head of Ma’shureen village’s local council.

Turkey has erected observation posts along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, and Rashu said Turkey had told them this was a sign of its commitment to protect the people of Idlib.

Idlib is often described as the “last refuge” for rebels and internally displaced civilians, and any offensive threatens new displacement and human misery.

“As for escaping toward the (Turkish) border, I don’t believe we will move from our houses. The bombardment will get us. There is no place left after Idlib,” said Ahmed al-Shahad.

“We will fight to the last man, we no longer have any option.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Shells hit Syria’s Idlib as rebels brace for assault

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian military shelled the last stronghold of active rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday as a war monitor said insurgents blew up another bridge in anticipation of a government offensive.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing an assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest and resumed air strikes along with Russia on Tuesday after weeks of lull.

Idlib’s fate now appears likely to rest on the results of Friday’s Tehran summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran – a meeting that Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov on Wednesday said would make the situation “clearer”.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said Tuesday’s air strikes had only targeted militants and not struck populated areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said they had killed 13 civilians, including children, but no fighters.

The ministry said it had targeted buildings used to store weapons and explosives including a facility used to assemble explosive-packed drones that rebels have used to attack Russian planes stationed at Hmeymim air base.

Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that pro-government forces focused their shelling overnight and on Wednesday on the western and southern edges of the rebel enclave.

The countryside around Jisr al-Shughour in the west of the enclave was also the main target for Tuesday’s air strikes, rescue workers, a rebel source and the British-based Observatory said.

Turkey, which has a small military presence in observation posts it has erected along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, reiterated its warnings against an offensive.

Its president, Tayyip Erdogan, was quoted by a Turkish newspaper saying an attack on Idlib would be “a serious massacre” and he hoped for a positive outcome from a summit with Russian and Iranian leaders on the matter on Friday.

ALARM

The prospect of an offensive in Idlib has alarmed humanitarian agencies. The United Nations has said displaced people already make up about half of the 3 million people living in rebel-held areas of the northwest.

The human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement on Wednesday that the lives of “millions of people in Idlib are now in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran”, and urged all parties not to attack civilians.

Idlib’s rebel factions are divided, with a jihadist alliance that includes al Qaeda’s former official Syrian affiliate holding most ground. The alliance, Tahrir al-Sham, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

Russia has described Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that must be resolved. The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday urged Russia and Turkey to find a solution and avert a bloodbath.

Several other factions in Idlib, including some that fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, this year joined together into a new alliance backed by Turkey.

This grouping, known as the National Liberation Front, also holds several important areas in and around Idlib. On Wednesday, one of the factions in it, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, destroyed a bridge on the western side of the enclave, the Observatory said.

Two other bridges were destroyed last week in anticipation of a government offensive, which a source close to Damascus has said is ready, and will be carried out in phases.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe in Moscow and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alison Williams)

Russian jets hit Syrian south, U.N. urges Jordan to open border

Syrian army soldiers stand as they hold their weapons in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dark smoke rose over areas held by Syrian rebels near the border with Jordan on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies unleashed heavy air strikes and government forces sought to advance on the ground.

The UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.

With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, government forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining rebel bastions near Damascus and Homs.

State television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.

After four days of reduced bombardment, intense air strikes resumed on Wednesday following the collapse of talks between rebels and Russian officers, brokered by Jordan.

“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Deraa area, the focus of the government offensive.

“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 air strikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.

State media said government forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km (six miles) east of Deraa city. A rebel command center said on Twitter government attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids”, barrel bombs and rocket barrages.

The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city, where some rebels surrendered.

The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.

ASSAD IN ASCENDANT

For the president, the Deraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Deraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.

Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.

State TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Deraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, al-Nuaima, Um al-Mayadan and Taiba.

Its correspondent said the army aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Deraa city, where rebel territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

This would split the territory in two.

The army has been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Deraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the rebel command center Twitter account said.

Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.

Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States to reduce violence.

Near the start of the government’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.

For the anti-Assad rebels, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where U.S. forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)