Calls for end to Yemen war offer little hope for hungry children

Malnourished Ferial Elias, 2, gestures as she is being weighed at a malnutrition treatment ward at al-Thawra hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

TAIZ, Yemen (Reuters) – Lying on a dust-covered bed in a hospital ward in the Yemen city of Taiz, 10-year-old Ghazi Mohammed barely has enough energy to watch doctors and nurses examine his emaciated body.

The boy weighs 8.5 kg (18 lb), less than a third of the average weight of a child his age. He fled hunger and poverty in his mountain village last year to find only more suffering in Yemen’s third largest city Taiz.

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

“This shows that the humanitarian aid that comes to Yemen does not reach people who really need it. Distribution remains random,” said his doctor, Amen al-Asli.

Western powers who have for three years provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen are now pressing for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

The West toughened its stance after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

His death sparked a global outcry and exposed Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy, including its role in the war in Yemen, which has been criticized by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers.

But calls for an end to the fighting have come far too late for millions of Yemeni civilians, including children, who face acute malnutrition and hunger in a complex, multi-sided war.

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“They need a complete care, here in the hospital and later at home. Of course, it depends on the parents’ financial condition as malnutrition can hit the whole family,” said Youssef al-Salawi, another doctor.

In Taiz, children fighting for their lives in hospitals are traumatized by daily artillery fire, rockets, and anti-aircraft guns as Saudi-backed government forces battle the Iran-aligned Houthis along pulverized streets.

The United Nations says out of 29 million Yemenis, 22 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million are severely hungry.

“We do hope that talk about getting the peace process back on track, that gives us hope, but it is very imperative for the people of Yemen that this conflict stops as soon as possible,” said Stephen Anderson, the World Food Program’s (WFP) country director in Yemen.

OFFENSIVE ON PORT

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the warring parties together before the end of the year.

After seizing the southern port of Aden in 2015, the coalition has made little progress. While it has air supremacy, the Houthis have proved better at guerrilla warfare.

The Houthis still control Yemen’s most populated areas, including the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah.

The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a ceasefire.

Aid groups fear an attack on Hodeidah port would disrupt its operations and endanger more civilians as it remains the main source of food imports as well as much-needed humanitarian aid.

Street fighting and air strikes resumed late on Tuesday in Hodeidah despite a lull in battles as U.N. officials visited the Red Sea city to assess food security.

A resident told Reuters calm descended on Hodeidah on Wednesday after heavy clashes and air strikes rocked the city. “It is very surprising,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Michael Georgy, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, and Angus MacSwan)

Turkey talking to all sides in Syria conflict for Idlib ceasefire: minister

FILE PHOTO: A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it was talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent a government offensive on Idlib ahead of talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides in the looming battle for the rebel-held region.

Ankara failed last week to win agreement for a ceasefire from Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, but there has been a recent lull in air strikes and a pro-Damascus source indicated a ground attack may not be imminent.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

Turkey has reinforced a dozen military posts inside the Idlib region, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist fighters, trying to forestall a government assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria”.

“We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib,” he said, repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.

“We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he said on a visit to Pakistan.

GRAPHIC: Syria’s Idlib assault – https://tmsnrt.rs/2NHAqh3

The United Nations has warned that an offensive in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in an area where 3 million people live. Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, says it cannot take in another wave of refugees.

RUSSIA TALKS

President Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks in Russia on Monday with Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian crisis, 10 days after similar talks in Tehran, Turkish and Russian officials said.

Despite the deadlock at the Iran meeting, calm has largely prevailed in northwest Syria this week following a wave of air strikes which killed several dozen people and generated speculation of an imminent ground offensive.

A pro-Assad source in Syria said: “There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not canceled, but we have time.”

A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a “political tug of war” over Idlib, accompanied by air strikes on militants from Tahrir al-Sham.

Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.

“It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way,” said one of the sources, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, the Interfax news agency reported.

Lavrov, who was speaking in Berlin, was cited as saying that the Russian air force would strike what he called terrorist weapons-making facilities as and when it found out about them, but would also encourage local reconciliation deals.

Putin also discussed the situation Idlib with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, telling them he was concerned by militant activity there, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Taliban reject Afghan ceasefire, kidnap nearly 200 bus passengers

FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban rejected on Monday an Afghan government offer of a ceasefire and said they would persist with their attacks, militant commanders said, while insurgents ambushed three buses and nearly 200 passengers traveling for a holiday.

Two Taliban commanders said their supreme leader rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s Sunday offer of a three-month ceasefire, beginning with this week’s Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday.

In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and militants embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.

But one of the Taliban commanders said the June ceasefire had helped U.S. forces, who the Taliban are trying to drive out of the country. Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada rejected the new offer on the grounds that it too would only help the American-led mission.

“Our leadership feels that they’ll prolong their stay in Afghanistan if we announced a ceasefire now,” a senior Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

An official in Ghani’s office said the three-month-long ceasefire declared by the government was conditional, and if the Taliban did not respect it, the government would maintain military operations.

The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in recent weeks, including on the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting.

Government officials are trying to secure the release of at least 170 civilians and 20 members of the security forces who were taken hostage by Taliban from three buses in the northern province of Kunduz.

Esmatullah Muradi, a spokesman for the governor of Kunduz, said the kidnapping happened when the buses were traveling through Kunduz from Takhar province.

“The buses were stopped by the Taliban fighters, passengers were forced to step down and they have been taken to an undisclosed location,” Muradi said.

A Taliban commander in neighboring Pakistan said civilian hostages were being divided into small groups to be sent back home. However, members of Afghan security forces had been shifted to the Taliban’s secret jail. “Most probably we would exchange them for our prisoners later,” said the commander.

‘TRAVELING FOR HOLIDAY’

The Taliban confirmed they had captured “three buses packed with passengers”.

“We decided to seize the buses after our intelligence inputs revealed that many men working with Afghan security forces were traveling to Kabul,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said by telephone.

“We are now identifying members of the security forces,” he said, adding that civilians would be released.

Kunduz provincial council member Sayed Assadullah Sadat said people on the buses were traveling to be with family in Kabul for the holiday.

A senior interior ministry official in Kabul said officials in the area were talking to Taliban leaders in Kunduz to get the estimated 190 hostages released. “We’re are trying our level best to secure freedom for all passengers,” the official said.

Separately, Mujahid said the Taliban would release at least 500 prisoners, including members of the security forces, on Monday, a day before Eid celebrations begin.

Sporadic clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan forces erupted on the outskirts of Ghazni on Monday as aid workers tried to get help into the city, aid agency officials said.

The government has said its forces had secured the city after the Taliban laid siege to it for five days this month.

At least 150 soldiers and 95 civilians were killed and hundreds were injured. Aid agencies officials said their teams had entered the city but clashes in the outskirts prevented them from launching large-scale operations.

(Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and editing by David Stamp)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce

Fishing boats are seen at the seaport of Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israel allowed commercial goods back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, in a sign of an easing of tensions as neighboring Egypt pursued a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian enclave’s dominant armed faction.

But the prospect of an agreement between Israel and the Islamist group prompted concern within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that Hamas would take advantage of any respite from fighting to build up its rocket arsenal.

At Israel’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza, consignments of fruits and vegetables, fuel and construction material moved into the territory of two million people on Wednesday morning, a Reuters camera crew said.

Israel announced on Tuesday it would lift the commercial goods ban it imposed on July 9 in response to the launching by Palestinians of incendiary balloons across the frontier.

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Boxes containing fish are displayed for sale at a market in Gaza City August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

There have been fewer reports in recent days of such incidents, which have burned large tracts of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel.

Israel also expanded Gaza’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from 3 to 9 nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union said.

The Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s set a 20 nautical mile limit, which was never implemented. Since then the zone has ranged in size between 3 and 6 nautical miles.

“We are hoping for a big catch at nine miles now,” said Khader Baker, 25, who owns two fishing boats. “There had been almost no fish within three miles. We nearly starved.”

Prior restrictions on the import of commercial goods that Israel says could also be used for military purposes remained in effect, a Palestinian border official said. He said they included balloons and tires.

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Bags of cement are seen ahead of their transfer to the Gaza Strip, inside the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal between Israel and Gaza Strip, Israel August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

COMPREHENSIVE TRUCE

Egypt and the United Nations have been trying to broker a comprehensive truce to prevent more fighting and to ease the deep economic hardship in Gaza.

Hamas officials said Palestinian factions were in Cairo to discuss terms for a ceasefire with Israel, whose security cabinet convened on Wednesday to consider the issue.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in the governing coalition, put Netanyahu on notice that his faction would vote against an agreement with Hamas.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity so that it can rearm itself with tens of thousands of rockets,” Bennett said in a statement.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by Hamas and subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has wrecked its economy, creating what the World Bank has described as a humanitarian crisis with shortages of water, electricity, and medicine.

Israel says it has no choice but to enforce its blockade to defend itself against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

Gaza ceasefire ends flare-up, Palestinians resume protests

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

GAZA (Reuters) – An Egyptian-brokered truce ended a two-day wave of rocket barrages and air strikes between Israel and Gaza, but the border remained tense as thousands of Gazans gathered for protests in which two Palestinians were killed and scores wounded.

After a quiet night with no rockets falling in Israel or air strikes in Gaza, residents in southern Israel, who had spent much of the past two days in rocket shelters, were told by the military they could return to their daily routines.

In Gaza, crowds of Palestinians resumed protests against Israel. Reuters TV footage showed plumes of smoke blackening the sky at one area of the border after Palestinians set tires ablaze, and tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather on the remains of a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops killed two Palestinians and wounded about 240 others, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israeli military said rioters hurled stones, explosives, and firebombs at troops and the border fence. The soldiers “responded with riot dispersal means and live fire, in accordance with the standard operating procedures”, a spokeswoman said.

A tank also fired at a Hamas outpost, the military said.

Since the weekly protests began on March 30, the Israeli army has killed 159 Palestinians and a Gaza sniper has killed an Israeli soldier.

Still, the broader truce held on Friday after a two-day escalation during which the Hamas militant group fired scores of rockets, including a long-range missile deep into Israel, and Israeli aircraft struck more than 150 targets in Gaza.

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child were killed in the Israeli attacks, as was a Hamas militant. Seven people were wounded by Palestinian rockets and mortars that struck Israel.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a blockade on Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is home to two million Palestinians, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

A senior Egyptian official said Cairo was working to secure a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Hamas, beginning with a ceasefire and later including economic improvements.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ari Rabinovitch and Cairo newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

Gaza ceasefire largely holding after day-long flareup

A Palestinian woman passes a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire largely held on Sunday along a tense Gaza-Israel border on Sunday following a day of fierce fighting, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defenses in case hostilities resume.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Saturday, killing two teenage boys, and militants fired more than 100 rockets across the border, wounding three people in a southern Israeli town.

The ceasefire, the second between Israel and Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists to be brokered by Egypt this year after a previous day-long flare-up in May, came into force late on Saturday.

“Everyone understands that unless the situation is defused, we will very quickly be back to another confrontation,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov told reporters at his office in Gaza.

Israel’s military said that, after assessing the situation, it was reinforcing its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries in the greater Tel Aviv area and in the south, where thousands of residents spent much of the Jewish Sabbath in shelters.

It also called up a limited amount of reservists to help out its aerial defense command.

Israel said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire militants had fired two rockets across the border, of which one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza.

Later, two mortar bombs were fired towards Israel, which responded by striking the launch tube, the military said.

TENSIONS

Weekly clashes at the Israel-Gaza border have kept tensions at a high for months. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the frontier held every week since March, including a teenager on Friday, Gaza medics said. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the demonstrations, dubbed The Great March of Return, to provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

“Our policy is clear – we hit with great might anyone who harms us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I hope that they (Hamas) have gotten the message. If not, they will yet.”

Netanyahu also instructed the military to keep targeting Palestinian squads that launch incendiary helium balloons and kites into Israeli fields from northern Gaza. Israel’s military fired twice on such groups, wounding three people.

Israel says it has lost at least 7,000 acres (2,830 hectares) of farmland and forests to a recent surge in fires started by Gaza militants using such balloons and kites rigged with flammable material.

Hamas said border demonstrations, at which Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to land lost when Israel was created in 1948, would continue and that the onus was on Israel to show restraint.

“Let the enemy end its aggression first and then the resistance will stop,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a eulogy for Amir al-Namara, 15, and Loay Kheil, 16, who were killed when a half-constructed high rise they were playing in was hit by an Israeli missile.

The Israeli military said the building had been used by Hamas for urban warfare training.

Twelve others, passers-by and visitors of a nearby public garden, were wounded in the attack, one of dozens of Israeli air strikes on the densely populated enclave on Saturday which damaged residential and office buildings, shattered car windows and caused panic among residents.

“He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was just an innocent kid,” said Amir’s grandfather Waleed al-Namara at the boy’s wake. “We want the calm to last, and for them to agree on a solution that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

The surge in violence comes as Palestinian hopes for an independent state have dwindled and peace talks remain stalled. Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of whom depend on foreign aid, has been under Israeli economic sanctions for 12 years.

Separately, a Fatah faction militant and his son were killed in a blast in a building in Gaza on Sunday. Police said the man accidentally set off an old Israeli shell he was trying to dismantle.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)

Israel-Gaza border falls quiet after Egypt brokers ceasefire

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – The Israel-Gaza border fell quiet on Wednesday under an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire after the most intense flareup of hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel since a 2014 war.

Militants from Hamas, the dominant group in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets and mortar bombs at Israel throughout Tuesday and overnight, to which Israel responded with tank and air strikes on more than 50 targets in the enclave.

There were no reports of further fighting after Palestinian and Israeli attacks in the early hours of Wednesday, and both sides appeared to back away from a slide toward a new war after weeks of violence along the border.

Schools opened as usual in Israeli towns near the frontier where rocket warning sirens sounded frequently on Tuesday. Gaza’s streets were filled with morning shoppers and children went to class.

A Palestinian official said Egyptian mediation led to a ceasefire, but the terms of the “understanding” did not go beyond “a restoration of calm by both sides”.

“After the resistance succeeded in confronting the (Israeli) aggression … there was a lot of mediation in the past hours,” Hamas’ deputy chief in Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, said, in a nod to Egypt’s efforts.

“An agreement was reached to return to the (2014) ceasefire understandings in the Gaza Strip. The resistance factions will abide by it as long as the Occupation does the same,” Hayya said in a statement, using militant groups’ term for Israel.

Israel stopped short of officially confirming any formal truce with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it regards along with the West as terrorist organizations.

But it launched no new attacks on Wednesday and signaled it was prepared to halt the hostilities if the cross-border barrages ended. Israeli officials declared that militants had been dealt a strong blow.

The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded by projectiles launched from Gaza. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli strikes.

“Firing has stopped since the morning and Israel conveyed a message that if it resumes, the attacks on Hamas and its associates will be even stronger,” a senior Israeli official added.

“It all depends on Hamas,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said on Israel Radio.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab, acknowledging a ceasefire was in effect, said its success would depend on “whether Israel will refrain from any military escalation against Gaza”.

Both Hamas and pro-Iran Islamic Jihad said they fired their salvoes in response to Israel’s killing of at least 116 Palestinians since March 30 in Gaza border protests.

Islamic Jihad had vowed revenge in response to Israeli tank shelling that killed of three of its men on Sunday after explosives were planted along the Gaza frontier fence.

AIR STRIKES

Violence along the Gaza frontier soared in recent weeks. At least 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations along the border, drawing international condemnation for Israel over its use of lethal force.

The demonstrations and surge in violence come amid growing frustration among Palestinians over the prospects for an independent state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

By late Tuesday, Israeli aircraft had hit 55 facilities belonging to militant groups in Gaza, including a cross-border tunnel under construction, in response to the Palestinian barrages, the military said.

Such potential targets are usually abandoned by militants when violence with Israel flares.

Israel said some 70 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza at its southland. Some were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten before it was due to open.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Only Syrian army should be on country’s southern border: Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting with his counterpart from Mozambique Jose Pacheco in Moscow, Russia May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia said on Monday only Syrian army troops should be on the country’s southern border with Jordan and Israel, after Washington warned of “firm measures” over truce violations in the region.

Rebels control stretches of southwest Syria, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while Syrian army troops and allied Iran-backed militias hold nearby territory.

The United States has voiced concern about reports of an impending Syrian army offensive in a “de-escalation zone” in the southwest, warning Damascus it would respond to breaches.

“Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis, this should be a two-way street,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in on Monday.

“The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel,” he said.

Jordan said on Monday it was discussing south Syria with Washington and Moscow, and all three agreed on the need to preserve the ceasefire, which reduced violence since they brokered it last year.

Israel has raised the alarm about Iran’s expanding clout in the seven-year conflict, calling on Monday for its arch-foe to be denied any military presence in Syria. Washington has also demanded Tehran withdraw all forces under its command from Syria.

“We believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his parliamentary faction on Monday.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will meet Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Thursday.

This month, Israel said it launched intensive airstrikes in Syria after what it described as Iranian rocket fire from the south into the Golan.

A senior Israeli official made clear that Netanyahu’s government would not deem the exclusion of Iranian forces from the border region sufficient.

“When you consider the advanced weapon systems – surface to surface missiles and anti aircraft systems – that the Iranians want to deploy in Syria, it becomes clear that they must be prevented from doing so in all of Syria and not only within a limited distance from the Israeli border,” Chagai Tzuriel, director-general of the intelligence ministry, told Reuters.

Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, brokered a string of de-escalation zones for insurgent enclaves last year, though fighting raged on in some. With the support of Russia and Iran, the Syrian army mounted an offensive on the eastern Ghouta enclave and seized it in April.

The southwest region is home to tens of thousands of people and forms a center of the insurgency.

Syrian state media has reported leaflet drops on rebel territory there urging fighters to accept government rule, and a UK-based monitor has reported army movements into the south – two signs of a potential military offensive.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.N. expert says Myanmar government employs starvation policy in Rakhine

REFILE - CORRECTING TITLE Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee (R) gives her report next to the Chairperson of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Myanmarese government appears to be pursuing a policy of starvation in Rakhine state to force out the remaining Muslim Rohingya population, a U.N. investigator said on Monday.

The military has also started new offensives in Kachin and Kayin states, Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Lee said atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority “bear the hallmarks of genocide”. She called for the council to set up an entity in Bangladesh, where more than 650,000 Rohingya have fled, to collect evidence for potential trials.

Myanmar’s envoy Htin Lynn rejected Lee’s remarks and called for the council to fire her.

Lee said the violence in Rakhine had eclipsed anything seen in recent years in Myanmar, where the government has also fought insurgents in Shan, Kayin and Kachin states.

She had received information that the military mounted new ground offensives last week using heavy artillery in Kachin’s gold and amber-mining area of Tanai.

Myanmar’s military had also advanced into Mutraw District in Kayin State, an area controlled by the Karen National Union, despite a ceasefire agreement, she said.

“This ceasefire violation led to 1,500 villagers from 15 villages having to flee. I am very concerned about these continuing offensives; the path to peace is through inclusive political dialogue, and not through military force,” she said.

In Rakhine state, Myanmar appeared to be pursuing a policy of forced starvation to make life there unsustainable for the Rohingya, Lee said.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a fact-finding mission on Myanmar set up by the council, said his team had received a flood of allegations against the security forces in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and elsewhere.

“All the information collected by the Fact-Finding Mission so far further points to violence of an extremely cruel nature, including against women,” he said.

“The Fact-Finding Mission has met with women who showed fresh and deep bite marks on their faces and bodies sustained during acts of sexual violence.”

Myanmar’s ambassador Lynn did not respond to the criticism in detail but told the council it was wrong to assert that Myanmar’s leadership remained indifferent to the allegations.

“Our leadership and the government shall never tolerate such crimes. We are ready to take action, where there is the evidence,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Russian truce plan fails to halt bombing of Syria’s Ghouta

FILE PHOTO: A man inspects a damaged house in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – A Russian call for a five-hour truce on Tuesday failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the Syrian war, where residents said government warplanes resumed striking the eastern Ghouta region on Tuesday after a brief lull.

Moscow and Damascus blamed rebels for the collapse of the truce, saying fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave. The insurgents denied such shelling.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would press on with a plan to stage similar daily pauses in the fighting, allowing aid to be delivered to eastern Ghouta through what Russia describes as a humanitarian corridor.

The United Nations said it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate the wounded, and said all sides must instead abide by a full 30-day ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“We have reports this morning there is continuous fighting in eastern Ghouta,” U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said. “Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out.”

Hundreds of people have died during 10 days of government bombardment of the eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of Damascus. The assault has been among the most devastating air campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year.

With its Ghouta offensive, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is drawing on the military methods it has used to crush its opponents in other parts of Syria, including eastern Aleppo in late 2016.

Intensifying bombardment of the besieged area has been coupled with probing ground assaults to test rebel defenses.

With no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta seems likely to meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government, where humanitarian corridors eventually became escape routes for defeated rebels.

“A concrete humanitarian corridor has been set up that will be used to deliver humanitarian aid, and, in the other direction, a medical evacuation can take place and all civilians who want to leave can,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in Moscow after meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

ESCALATION

Residents in several towns in the eastern Ghouta described a brief pause in fighting, but said bombardment swiftly resumed. In the town of Hammouriyeh a man who identified himself by his first name Mahmoud told Reuters helicopters and warplanes were in the sky and conducting strikes.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the Civil Defence rescue service, which is funded by Western governments and operates in rebel areas, said artillery and air strikes had hit the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said helicopters and warplanes had struck four towns and artillery shelling killed one person.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country, but did not specify when it should start. It excludes some militant groups which are among the rebels in eastern Ghouta.

That has meant the ceasefire has not been observed in practice. U.N. spokesman Laerke declined to comment on the Russian proposal for a five-hour truce, but called instead on all sides to obey the full 30-day ceasefire.

“It is a question life and death – if ever there was a question of life and death – we need a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria as the Security Council demands,” Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing.

A rebel spokesman said people in eastern Ghouta did not want to leave the area despite the bombardment, because they feared arrest, torture or conscription by the government. Russia said it would guarantee the safety of any civilians who left.

Eastern Ghouta, where the U.N. says around 400,000 people live, is a major target for Assad, whose forces have clawed back numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Rebels based in eastern Ghouta have intensified shelling of government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Syrian state media reported eight people injured by rebel shelling on Tuesday. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

Even before the latest bombardment of the besieged area began, there was growing international alarm over humanitarian conditions in the eastern Ghouta because of shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region. Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)