More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Netanyahu visits Golan Heights, near Syrian border, and cautions Israel’s enemies

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during an event marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday, peering across the nearby border into Syria and warning Israel’s enemies not to “test” its resolve.

Netanyahu was accompanied to a hilltop observation point, some three kilometers (two miles) from a 1974 ceasefire line, by his security cabinet. He has been cautioning against any attempt by Iran to deepen its military foothold in Syria or construct missile factories in neighboring Lebanon.

“We seek peace but are prepared for any scenario and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they test us,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller)

Talks with rebels in no-man’s land as Russia eyes post-war role in Syria

A man is seen near rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels under siege near Damascus have resorted to talks with the government’s ally Russia, sometimes meeting in no-man’s land, as they seek to hang on to their enclave.

The meetings on eastern Ghouta – the only major rebel bastion around the capital – underline Moscow’s deepening role in trying to shape Syria’s future after the conflict, which broke out in 2011.

The rebels have won almost nothing from the negotiations so far, but they say they have little choice.

They believe the Russians, whose air force all but won the war for the government, will have the final say on Syria’s fate.

The two main rebel forces in the suburbs signed ceasefires with Russia in the summer, but fighting has carried on. Both said they have been talking to Russian officials regularly for several months.

“It’s better to negotiate with the one calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime,” said Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman insurgents. “So the factions are forced to sit down with them. This is the reality.”

The Russian defense and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the talks. Moscow says the reconciliation center at its air base in Syria routinely holds peace talks with armed factions across the country.

The Syrian government’s minister for national reconciliation has said the state intends to get all militants out of eastern Ghouta and restore its full control.

But the insurgents want their enemies to observe the truce, which they say includes lifting the siege, opening crossings, and letting dying patients out. It would also involve evacuating the few hundred fighters of al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

Both factions accuse Moscow of not honoring the deals, or turning a blind eye to Syrian army violations.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants.

“We send them documentation of how the aircraft drops missiles on residential areas,” said Hamza Birqdar, a military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebels.

“Either there is silence … or baseless excuses,” he said. “They say government authorities denied bombing. Then these planes flying over the Ghouta, who do they belong to?”

(Graphic: Syria areas of control http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTrjp1)

TRUCE PROCESS

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. Monitors and opposition activists blame Russian bombing for thousands of civilian deaths and much of the destruction – allegations Moscow denies.

After turning the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has seized the reins of international diplomacy in the past year. It has sought to build a political process outside of failed U.N. peace talks in Geneva.

Other countries including the United States, meanwhile, have wound down support for the array of mostly Sunni rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first sent warplanes to help Assad in 2015, is pushing for a congress of national dialogue between Syria’s many combatants.

With the map of Syria’s conflict redrawn, Russia wants to convert military gains into a settlement that stabilizes the shattered nation and secures its interests in the region.

To this end, Moscow has been negotiating behind the scenes with armed factions across Syria.

“We communicate exclusively with them,” said Birqdar. “Because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions … except under Russian orders.”

With official and secret talks, Russia has built ties to local groups partly to gain influence on the ground, said Yury Barmin, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the foreign ministry.

“There’s one goal. Their inclusion in the truce process,” he said. “All this is done with the aim of populating these Russian processes, ones led by Russia, with such opposition groups.”

NO MAN’S LAND

Since 2013, Syrian government forces and their allies have blockaded eastern Ghouta, a densely populated pocket of satellite towns and farms.

The military has suppressed opposition enclaves across western Syria, with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. Nearly seven years into the war, Assad has repeatedly vowed to take back every inch of Syria.

The Ghouta remains the only big rebel enclave near the heavily fortified capital.

“Our communications with the Russian side are through (their) official in Damascus in charge of this file, by phone and in meetings,” said Yasser Delwan, a local Jaish al-Islam political official.

They meet Russian forces in no-man’s land, the abandoned farmland between rebel and government territory, at the edge of the nearby Wafideen camp.

“We talk about the deal we signed … implementing it from paper into something practical,” he said.

Both rebel forces said Russia instigated the talks. They said Russian officials sometimes blame Iran-backed forces for breaking the truce or use jihadists as a pretext for attacks against the Ghouta.

Failaq al-Rahman only negotiates with Russian officials outside Syria, said Olwan, their spokesman.

“In reality, Russia has never been honest in its support of the political track,” he said. “But with the failure of the international community … the factions were forced to negotiate with the enemy.”

DE-ESCALATION DEALS

Eastern Ghouta falls under ceasefire plans for rebel territory that Russia has brokered across Syria in the past year, with help from Turkey and Iran.

When the insurgents signed the “de-escalation” deal with Russia last summer, residents and aid workers hoped food would flow into the suburbs, home to around 400,000 people. But they say it has brought no relief.

Despite lulls in air strikes, the siege got harsher. In some frontline districts, fierce battles rage on. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled, especially after the shutdown of smuggling tunnels.

A Syrian official in Damascus said the army has only retaliated to militants in the suburbs shelling districts of the capital. “As for the Russian allies, every action takes place on Syrian land in full and total coordination with the Syrian government,” the official said. “They have a big role.”

The Ghouta’s rebel factions, which have long been at odds, say they have no direct contacts with Assad’s government.

“In its communications, Russia has always tried to present itself as the solution,” Olwan said. “We don’t see them as mediators. We see them as the final commander in the regime’s ranks.”

The Damascus government mostly does not play a role in the talks, said Barmin, the Russia analyst. “Damascus is presented with a fait accompli and must either accept it or not.”

(Additional reporting by Moscow bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood and Anna Willard)

Rebel area near Damascus hit by heavy shelling despite two-day truce

Rebel area near Damascus hit by heavy shelling despite two-day truce

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of mortar bombs landed on the last major rebel stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday, a war monitor and a witness said on Wednesday, despite a 48 hour truce proposed by Russia to coincide with the start of peace talks in Geneva.

After a relatively calm morning, shelling picked up later in the day, accompanied by ground attempts to storm the besieged enclave, a witness in the Eastern Ghouta area told Reuters.

The Syrian army stepped up bombardment two weeks ago in an effort to recapture Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held pocket of densely populated agricultural land on the outskirts of the capital under siege since 2012.

Scores of people have been killed in air strikes during the offensive, and residents say they are on the verge of starvation after the siege was tightened.

Russia had proposed a ceasefire on Monday in the besieged area for Nov. 28-29. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura later said Russia had told him that the Syrian government had accepted the idea, but “we have to see if it happens”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one person was killed when dozens of mortars crashed into Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of several “de-escalation” zones across western Syria where Russia has brokered ceasefire deals between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But fighting has continued there.

On Tuesday, shelling killed three people and injured 15, but was less intense than in previous days, the observatory said. It had reported intense bombardment that killed 41 people over two days from Sunday to Monday.

“A two-day truce is not nearly enough for civilians facing grave violations of international law – including bombardment and besiegement – but it is a window of opportunity to save the lives of the most desperately in need of treatment,” said Thomas Garofalo, International Rescue Committee’s Middle East Public Affairs Director, in a statement on Wednesday.

The Syrian delegation arrived in Geneva to participate in the eighth round of United Nation-sponsored peace talks. It delayed its departure for one day after the opposition repeated its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition delegation, told a Geneva news conference on Monday night that he is aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.

The government delegation will be headed by Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, state-run news agency SANA said.

A breakthrough in the talks is seen as unlikely as Assad and his allies push for total military victory in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, and his opponents stick by their demand he leaves power.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Angus McDowall, Jeremy Gaunt and Peter Graff)

Truce near Damascus mostly being observed before Syria talks begin

Truce near Damascus mostly being observed before Syria talks begin

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Russian-proposed ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta area of Syria has been widely observed, a war monitor and a witness said on Wednesday, as a delegation from Damascus arrived in Geneva to join peace talks there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the ceasefire in the besieged rebel-held enclave near Damascus is being “observed in general”.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday that the Syrian government had accepted the Russian proposal to stop fighting in the area on Nov. 28-29.

The observatory, which monitors the war, reported that the ceasefire had seen insignificant breaches on Wednesday morning in the village of Ain Terma, where Syrian forces fired five shells.

On Tuesday, shelling killed three people and injured 15, but was less intense than in previous days, it added.

“We are in peace today,” a witness from the Eastern Ghouta village of Douma told Reuters on a messaging site.

The Syrian delegation arrived in Geneva to participate in the eighth round of United Nation-sponsored peace talks. It delayed its departure for one day after the opposition repeated its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition delegation, told a Geneva news conference on Monday night that he is aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.

The government delegation will be headed by Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, state-run news agency SANA said.

A breakthrough in the talks is seen as unlikely as Assad and his allies push for total military victory in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, and his opponents stick by their demand he leaves power.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Angus McDowall/Jeremy Gaunt)

Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga agree on ceasefire, U.S.-led coalition says

Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga agree on ceasefire, U.S.-led coalition says

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters reached an agreement on Friday to stop fighting in northern Iraq, the media office of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition said.

A spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad told Reuters the ceasefire agreement covered all fronts.

Iraqi government forces and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation launched a surprise offensive on Oct. 16 in retaliation to a Sept. 25 referendum on independence organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

The offensive aims to capture so-called disputed territories, claimed by both the KRG and the Iraqi central government, as well as border crossings and key oil facilities.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk fell to Iraqi forces without much resistance on Oct. 16 but the Peshmerga began to fight back forcefully as they withdrew closer to the core KRG territory.

The most violent clashes happened in the northwestern corner where Peshmerga are defending land crossings to Turkey and Syria and an oil hub that controls KRG crude exports.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Peter Graff and Alison Williams)

Rohingya insurgents open to peace but Myanmar ceasefire ending

A Myanmar soldier stands near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Robert Birsel

YANGON (Reuters) – Muslim Rohingya insurgents said on Saturday they are ready to respond to any peace move by the Myanmar government but a one-month ceasefire they declared to enable the delivery of aid in violence-racked Rakhine State is about to end.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) did not say what action it would take after the ceasefire ends at midnight on Monday but it was “determined to stop the tyranny and oppression” waged against the Rohingya people.

“If at any stage, the Burmese government is inclined to peace, then ARSA will welcome that inclination and reciprocate,” the group said in a statement.

Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.

When the ARSA announced its one-month ceasefire from Sept. 10, a government spokesman said: “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists.”

The rebels launched coordinated attacks on about 30 security posts and an army camp on Aug. 25 with the help of hundreds of disaffected Rohingya villagers, many wielding sticks or machetes, killing about a dozen people.

In response, the military unleashed a sweeping offensive across the north of Rakhine State, driving more than half a million Rohingya villagers into Bangladesh in what the United Nations branded a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar rejects that. It says more than 500 people have been killed in the fighting, most of them “terrorists” who have been attacking civilians and torching villages.

The ability of the ARSA, which only surfaced in October last year, to mount any sort of challenge to the Myanmar army is not known but it does not appear to have been able to put up resistance to the military offensive unleashed in August.

Inevitably, there are doubts about how the insurgents can operate in areas where the military has driven out the civilian population, cutting the insurgents off from recruits, food, funds and information.

The ARSA accused the government of using murder, arson and rape as “tools of depopulation”.

‘NATIVE’

The ARSA denies links to foreign Islamists.

In an interview with Reuters in March, ARSA leader Ata Ullah linked the creation of the group to communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012, when nearly 200 people were killed and 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.

The group says it is fighting for the rights of the Rohingya, who have never been regarded as an indigenous minority in Myanmar and so have been denied citizenship under a law that links nationality to ethnicity.

The group repeated their demand that Rohingya be recognized as a “native indigenous” ethnic group, adding that all Rohingya people should be allowed “to return home safely with dignity … to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

The Rohingya have long faced discrimination and repression in Rakhine State where bad blood between them and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, stemming from violence by both sides, goes back generations.

The ARSA condemned the government for blocking humanitarian assistance in Rakhine and said it was willing to discuss ceasefires with international organizations so aid could be delivered.

Some 515,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh but thousands remain in Rakhine.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced scathing criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although a military-drafted constitution gives her no power over the security forces.

Suu Kyi has condemned rights abuses and said Myanmar was ready to start a process agreed with Bangladesh in 1993 by which anyone verified as a refugee would be accepted back.

Many refugees fear they will not have the paperwork they believe Myanmar will demand to allow them back.

(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates)

U.N. brands Myanmar violence a ‘textbook’ example of ethnic cleansing

A Rohingya refugee man pulls a child as they walk to the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Stephanie Nebehay and Simon Lewis

GENEVA/SHAMLAPUR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The United Nations’ top human rights official on Monday slammed Myanmar for conducting a “cruel military operation” against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, branding it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein’s comments to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva came as the official tally of Rohingya who have fled Myanmar and crossed into southern Bangladesh in just over two weeks soared through 300,000.

The surge of refugees – many sick or wounded – has strained the resources of aid agencies already helping hundreds of thousands from previous spasms of bloodletting in Myanmar.

“We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians,” Zeid said.

“I call on the government to end its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred, and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population,” he added.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on police posts and an army base in the northwestern state of Rakhine on Aug. 25 provoked a military counter-offensive.

Myanmar says its security forces are carrying out clearance operations to defend against ARSA, which the government has declared a terrorist organization.

Myanmar on Sunday rebuffed a ceasefire declared by ARSA to enable the delivery of aid to thousands of displaced and hungry people in the north of Rakhine state, declaring simply that it did not negotiate with terrorists.

 

“COMPLETE DENIAL OF REALITY”

Human rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya accuse the army and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes of mounting a campaign of arson aimed at driving out the Rohingya.

The government of Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country where the roughly one million Muslim Rohingya are marginalized, has repeatedly rejected charges of “ethnic cleansing”.

Officials have blamed insurgents and Rohingya themselves for burning villages to draw global attention to their cause.

Zeid said Myanmar should “stop pretending” that Rohingya were torching their own houses and its “complete denial of reality” was damaging the government’s international standing.

Western critics have accused Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi of failing to speak out for the Rohingya, who are despised by many in the country as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Some have called for the Nobel Peace Prize Suu Kyi won in 1991 as a champion of democracy to be revoked.

 

URGENT AID NEEDED

Monday’s estimate of new arrivals in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh since Aug. 25 was 313,000, an increase of 19,000 in just 24 hours.

“Large numbers of people are still arriving every day in densely packed sites, looking for space, and there are clear signs that more will cross before the situation stabilises,” the International Organization for Migration said in a statement.

“New arrivals in all locations are in urgent need of life-saving assistance, including food, water and sanitation, health and protection.”

Thousands of Rohingya refugees are still stranded on the Myanmar side of the River Naf, which separates the two countries, with the biggest gathering south of the town of Maungdaw, monitors and sources in the area told Reuters.

About 500 houses south of the town were set on fire on Monday, a villager in the Maungdaw region, Aung Lin, told Reuters by telephone.

“We were all running way because the army was firing on our village,” he said. “A lot of people carrying bags are now in the rice fields.”

Reuters journalists in Cox’s Bazar could see huge blazes and plumes of smokes on the other side.

Those still waiting to cross into Bangladesh – many hungry and exhausted after a days-long march through the mountains and bushes in monsoon rain – have been stopped because of a crackdown on Bangladeshi boatmen charging 10,000 taka ($122) or more per person, sources said.

Arshad Zamman, 60, said his family had only 80,000 Burmese kyat ($60) and so he had taken a boat to Cox’s Bazar on his own and would return to pick up his wife and two sons when he had enough for their journey.

“I will try to find money here. I will beg and hopefully some people will help me,” he said.

 

COMMUNAL TENSION

Elsewhere in Myanmar, communal tension appeared to be rising after more than two weeks of violence in Rakhine state.

A mob of about 70 people armed with sticks and swords threatened to attack a mosque in the central town of Taung Dwin Gyi on Sunday evening, shouting, “This is our country, this is our land”, according to the mosque’s imam, Mufti Sunlaiman.

“We shut down the lights in the mosque and sneaked out,” the mufti, who was in the mosque at the time, told Reuters by phone.

The government said in a statement the mob dispersed after police with riot shields fired rubber bullets.

Rumors have spread on social media that Muslims, who make up represent about 4.3 percent of a population of 51.4 million, would stage attacks on Sept. 11 to avenge violence against the Rohingya.

Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered since scores were killed and tens of thousands displaced in communal clashes accompanying the onset of Myanmar’s democratic transition in 2012 and 2013.

 

(Additional reporting by Shoon Naing, Wa Lone and Antoni Slodkowski in YANGON, and by Krishna N. Das in COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

Philippines’ Duterte says no peace talks without communists’ ceasefire

Philippines 'President Rodrigo Duterte stands at attention during a courtesy call with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Ministers in Manila, Philippines, September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Pool/Mark Cristino

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday ruled out a resumption of stalled peace talks with communist rebels if they do not stop guerrilla attacks, two days after lawmakers ousted the last leftist from his cabinet.

An angry Duterte in May ordered the scrapping of formal peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) after the military said fighters from the CPP’s military wing, the New People’s Army, stepped up offensives in the countryside.

“There will be no talks until you declare a ceasefire, period,” he said in a speech in his home city of Davao. “And if you say you want another war, be my guest.”

Duterte gave two cabinet positions to left-wing activists recommended by the CPP when he assumed power last year to show his commitment to ending nearly five decades of conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.

The legislature’s Commission on Appointments on Wednesday rejected the appointment of leftist Rafael Mariano as agrarian reform minister.

Mariano’s exit came less than a month after the same panel ousted Judy Taguiwalo, another leftist, as social welfare minister, in what some commentators say is a move by Duterte’s allies to punish the CPP.

But Duterte’s office in both cases expressed disappointment the ministers had not been approved. In the Philippines, all ministers must be approved by the house panel, but the process can take more than a year.

The president is furious about repeated attacks by the communist rebels who, he said, have killed many soldiers and police.

He is also angered by what he sees as duplicity by the CPP’s exiled political leaders, to whom he says he has made many concessions and has shown good faith by making the peace process a top priority for his administration.

The rebels’ chief negotiator, Luis Jalandoni, has said the government’s demand to stop guerrilla attacks is “ridiculous” because soldiers are attacking villages where rebels are based.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Two Baltimore murders break 72-hour anti-violence ‘ceasefire’

Two Baltimore murders break 72-hour anti-violence 'ceasefire'

(Reuters) – A 37-year-old man was shot and killed in Baltimore late on Saturday, police said, in the second murder since activists called for a 72-hour “ceasefire” this weekend in response to the city’s record homicide rate.

The unidentified victim suffered multiple gunshot wounds just before 10 p.m. on Saturday, a few hours after a 24-year-old man was reported shot and killed. Another shooting, which was not fatal, occurred earlier in the day, police said.

Community leaders had pleaded for a 72-hour pause in the violence during Friday, Saturday and Sunday, using the hashtag #BaltimoreCeasefire on social media. No murders were reported until Saturday afternoon.

The city had recorded a record 204 homicides for the first seven months of the year.

Following the first shooting on Saturday, Baltimore Ceasefire’s organizers said on Facebook that the killing would not stop their mission.

“It’s not that we EITHER keep celebrating life this weekend OR honor the life that has been lost to violence today,” the post read. ” … We will honor the life that was lost to violence, and raise our vibration even higher, and keep celebrating life.”

The Rev. Grey Maggiano, a rector at the Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, said on Twitter: “The victory in #BaltimoreCeasefire is not whether someone got shot or not – it’s that so many ppl mobilized to say ‘we are tired! No more.'”

Despite the shootings, activists held marches, cookouts and vigils on Saturday night, paying tribute to the city’s murder victims and hugging residents affected by the violence, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Riots convulsed the majority-black city in April 2015 after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in police custody.

Prosecutors charged six officers in connection with the incident but secured no convictions. Gray’s death also prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation, which concluded that the city’s police department routinely violated residents’ civil rights.

People participate in the "Peace Walk" event at Patterson Park during the 72 hour community-led Baltimore Ceasefire against gun violence in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

People participate in the “Peace Walk” event at Patterson Park during the 72 hour community-led Baltimore Ceasefire against gun violence in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)