Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.

An internally displaced Afghan girl stands outside her tent at a refugee camp in Herat province, Afghanistan October 14, 2018. Picture taken October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail - RC1633CE5420

Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.
By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A record 4,313 civilians were injured or killed in Afghanistan’s war against the Islamist Taliban between July and September, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The tally was up 42 percent from the same period last year – in a war that ebbs and flows with the seasonal weather – and included more than a thousand deaths, according to data from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

That made it the bloodiest period in the world’s longest-running war since UNAMA began collecting like-for-like figures in 2009. It brought the total of casualties for the first nine months of 2019 to over 8,000.

“Civilian casualties at record-high levels clearly show the need for all parties concerned to pay much more attention to protecting the civilian population, including through a review of conduct during combat operations,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, one of the U.N.’s top officials in Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Kabul government control more of Afghanistan than at any time since being ousted from power nearly two decades ago.

They have stepped up a campaign of suicide bombings in recent years as Washington tries to pull its forces out.

Around 62 percent of casualties were caused by what UNAMA called “anti-government elements”, though casualties caused by pro-government forces also rose 26 percent.

UNAMA said on Tuesday that 85 civilians had been killed and more than 370 wounded in violence linked to last month’s election.

The two presidential front-runners have both already claimed victory despite the count being delayed.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same U.S. demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line”.

A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.

UNTIL GOALS MET

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.

It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.

Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.

Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.

Ankara views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.

A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.

Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.

The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.

Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.

“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Islamic State fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.

Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.

With U.S. air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam – the country’s largest dam – from Islamic State.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

The Kurdish-led administration in the region said theTurkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.

Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.

In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.

The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

The Battle against the fanatical Islamic State

A boy who just fled a village controlled by Islamic State fighters cries as he sits with his family on a bus before heading to the camp at Hammam Ali south of Mosul, Iraq, February 22, 2017.

(Reuters) – It was an awkward coalition riven by political and sectarian differences, facing an elusive, fanatical enemy dug into an urban maze of narrow streets and alleyways. So, could Iraq’s government really deliver on its vow to vanquish Islamic State?

In the end, the army, Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters mustered rare unity to end Islamic State’s reign of terror in Iraq’s second city Mosul, seat of the ultra-hardline Sunni insurgents’ “caliphate”.

Baghdad’s victory in July 2017 after nine months of fighting was the coup de grace for the caliphate and came three years after a jihadist juggernaut seized one third of Iraq.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017.

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

But even with supportive U.S. air strikes, Baghdad’s triumph came at a devastating cost for the once-vibrant, multicultural city in northern Iraq and the surrounding region.

When Islamic State militants first arrived in Mosul in June 2014 after sweeping aside crumbling Iraqi army units, many Mosul residents initially welcomed them.

The militants were Sunni Muslims, like many in Mosul who had accused the forces of then-Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of widespread sectarian abuses.

Islamic State consequently presented itself as Mosul’s savior. But as jihadists brandishing AK-47 assault rifles began imposing an Islamist doctrine even more brutal and mediaeval than al Qaeda, its popularity soon faded.

Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, had long been seen as an ineffective leader who could not make tough decisions.

However, a U.S.-backed campaign against IS in Mosul offered Abadi a chance to emerge as a steely statesman capable of taking on a group that had terrorized a sprawling city with beheadings in public squares while staging deadly attacks in the West.

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017

A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

REIGN OF TERROR

Just smoking one cigarette, an act IS saw as anti-Islamic, earned you dozens of lashes. Children were used as informers. Women in minority communities were turned into sex slaves.

But taking back Mosul was never going to be easy.

Long before the first shot was fired, Abadi and his advisers and military commanders had to tread cautiously, taking into account sectarian and ethnic sensitivities that could splinter the united front he urgently needed to establish.

Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence agencies had recruited informers inside Mosul, from ex-soldiers and army officers to taxi drivers, who would face instant execution if caught.

Even if an alliance of convenience was struck, glossing over sectarian splits, Mosul itself posed formidable physical obstacles.

Key districts consisted of ancient little streets and alleyways inaccessible to tanks and armored vehicles, and they were so densely populated that U.S.-led coalition air strikes risked heavy civilian casualties.

So, street by street, house by house, fighting was unavoidable.

Such challenges first popped up in Mosul’s hinterland as Kurdish forces slowly advanced against fierce IS resistance.

In one village, a single IS sniper hunkered down in a house held up hundreds of Kurdish fighters, the U.S. special forces advising them and 40 of their vehicles. Eventually, his rifle went silent after three air strikes on the house.

As pro-government forces inched forward, the United Nations warned of a possible humanitarian disaster and expressed fear that jihadists could seize civilians for use as human shields, and gun down anyone trying to escape.

IS fighters – both Iraqis and foreigners – were experts at carrying out suicide bombings and assembling homemade bombs. Many houses were booby-trapped. Iraqi military commanders had to factor these lurking perils into their gameplan.

In interviews, IS insurgents shed light on what Iraqi forces were up against. They were quite open about their ideology and what they were willing to do to transform the Middle East.

One man said he had used rape as a weapon of war against more than 200 women from Iraqi minorities, and had killed 500 people.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces arrest a person suspected of belonging to Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani/File Photo

DEADLY OBSTACLE COURSE

After months of grueling fighting, Iraqi forces finally attained the outskirts of Mosul, but any celebrations were premature. Bombs littered dusty roads. Car bombs were exploding.

A Mosul resident explained that his child no longer flinched as explosions shook his street because many people, including the young, had grown numb to the daily bloodshed.

Each side resorted to desperate measures to gain an edge.

In north Mosul, people walked by fly-infested, bloated corpses of militants who had been left on roadsides for two weeks. Iraqi soldiers explained that the stinking bodies had been left there to send a clear message to residents – don’t join IS or you will suffer the same fate.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017.

A woman injured in a mortar attack is treated by medics in a field clinic as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

Caught in the middle were civilians who had suffered under the IS reign of terror for three years and were now wondering if they would survive a relentless battle to “liberate” them.

Parents waited patiently after weeks of fighting for a largely unknowable right moment to make a dash for Iraqi government lines, clutching their children, risking a run-in with jihadists from places as far away as Chechnya.

As much of east and west Mosul was pulverized by coalition air strikes or IS truck and car bombs, the city was reduced to row after row of collapsed or gutted housing.

In the end, IS suffered its most decisive defeat and watched their self-proclaimed caliphate evaporate in Iraq, then in Syria as Kurdish-led forces retook Raqqa, IS’s urban stronghold there.

 

FUTURE CHALLENGES

But those victories will be followed by tough questions about the future of both Iraq and Syria.

Preserving the shaky understanding forged between the different communities in the run-up to the Mosul campaign will be essential to saving Iraq as a state in the future.

It did not take long for the Mosul coalition to fray.

In October, Iraqi forces dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the oil city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas and Baghdad imposed curbed air travel to and from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in retaliation for a Kurdish independence referendum held in northern Iraq in September.

The battle for Raqqa, which became IS’s operational base in Syria, had a different feel to it as U.S.-backed Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tightened their siege.

The fighting seemed slower and more measured, step by step along abandoned streets where journalists were given access.

In the weeks before Raqqa’s fall in October, young female SDF fighters faced off against hardened militants and suffered losses. But that did not curb their enthusiasm and some said they would eventually like to join Kurdish PKK militants in Turkey and help advance their 33-year-old insurgency there.

The victors in Iraq and Syria now face new challenges as they rebuild cities shattered by the showdown with IS.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017.

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

After IS’s defeat in Raqqa, Raqqa residents formed a council to run the city but they had no budget when it was first set up, just residents streaming into their tin, run-down headquarters demanding everything from instant jobs to getting their damaged farmland back.

Syrian Kurdish fighters were inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK militants who has been imprisoned in Turkey for almost 20 years.

Turkey views the political rise of Syria’s Kurds as a threat to its national security and is fiercely opposed to the idea of Kurdish autonomy on its doorstep.

The Kurdish groups who led the fight against Islamic State in its former capital Raqqa must now navigate a complex peace to avoid ethnic tension with the city’s Arab majority and to secure critical U.S. aid.

So, life for Raqqa’s victors will remain fraught with risk.

 

(Reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

At least 800 civilians killed by coalition strikes in Iraq, Syria: report

At least 800 civilians killed by coalition strikes in Iraq, Syria: report

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 800 civilians have been killed in strikes in Iraq and Syria by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State since the campaign began in 2014, according to a report released by the coalition on Thursday.

The estimate in the monthly report, which said coalition strikes had unintentionally killed at least 801 civilians between August 2014 and October 2017, was far lower than figures provided by monitoring groups.

The monitoring group Airwars says a total of at least 5,961 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes.

“We continue to hold ourselves accountable for actions that may have caused unintentional injury or death to civilians,” the coalition said in its report.

Since the start of the campaign against Islamic State militants, the coalition has carried out more than 28,000 strikes and has received 1,790 reports of potential civilian casualties, the report said.

It was still assessing 695 reports of civilian casualties from strikes it carried out in Iraq and in Syria.

The coalition, battling to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Syria fighting worst since Aleppo, civilian casualties mount: ICRC

Smoke rises at the positions of the Islamic State militants after an air strike by the coalition forces near the stadium in Raqqa, Syria, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

GENEVA (Reuters) – The worst fighting since the battle for eastern Aleppo last year is raging in several regions of Syria, causing hundreds of civilian casualties, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday.

Up to 10 hospitals have been reportedly damaged in the past 10 days, cutting off hundreds of thousands of people from access to health care, the aid agency said in a statement voicing alarm at the situation from Raqqa to Idlib and eastern Ghouta.

“For the past two weeks, we have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties,” said Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Syria. “My colleagues report harrowing stories, like a family of 13 who fled Deir al-Zor only to lose ten of its members to airstrikes and explosive devices along the way.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay”, editing by Tom Miles)

Heavy civilian casualties in Raqqa from air strikes: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

GENEVA (Reuters) – Civilians caught up in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa are paying an “unacceptable price” and attacking forces may be contravening international law with their intense air strikes, the top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday.

A U.S.-led coalition is seeking to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, while Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias are also advancing on the city.

Some 20,000 civilians are trapped in Raqqa where the jihadist fighters are holding some of them as human shields, the world body says.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that his office had documented 151 civilian deaths in six incidents alone in August, due to air strikes and ground-based attacks.

“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times – are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid said in a statement.

“…the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition has said it conducted nearly 1,100 air strikes on and near Raqqa this month, up from 645 in July, the U.N. statement said. Russia’s air force has reported carrying out 2,518 air strikes across Syria in the first three weeks of August, it added.

“Meanwhile ISIL fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers,” Zeid said. We have reports of smugglers also being publicly executed by ISIL.”

U.S.-led warplanes on Wednesday blocked a convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families from reaching territory the group holds in eastern Syria and struck some of their comrades traveling to meet them, a coalition spokesman said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Baby girl ‘teargassed, beaten by Kenyan police’ dies: doctor

Lenzer, mother of six month-old Samantha Pendo, stands next to her bed as the girl remains in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick

KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) – A six-month-old girl has died in Kenya, her doctor told Reuters on Tuesday, after her parents said she was teargassed and clubbed by police in a security crackdown after last week’s disputed election.

Samantha Pendo was asleep in her mother’s arms when police forced their way into their home and beat her and her parents as they searched for protesters, her parents said.

“She remained in coma throughout. She never improved one bit,” said Dr. Sam Oula at the Aga Khan Hospital in the western city of Kisumu.

The baby and her parents were beaten when police were sweeping their neighborhood for opposition protesters on Saturday, residents told Reuters journalists who investigated the incident.

Kisumu is a stronghold of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is contesting results from last Tuesday’s presidential election. An official tally said President Uhuru Kenyatta won re-election by 1.4 million votes.

Odinga’s accusations of rigging have led to protests in Kisumu and in Nairobi slums. Residents there say police have responded with lethal force and many residents were killed in their homes.

Among the dead are an 8-year-old girl, hit by a stray bullet as she played on her balcony, and an 18-year-old student whose mother said was pulled from under the bed and beaten so badly he died the next day.

Police have promised to investigate all incidents but human rights groups say they rarely hold officers to account for extrajudicial killings.

(Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Pace of airstrikes, clashes in Yemen sharply higher in 2017: report

People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike on an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Naif Rahma

By Sami Aboudi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen suffered more airstrikes in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2016, increasing the number of civilian deaths and forcing more people to flee their homes, according to a report by international aid agencies.

The pace of clashes on the ground has also intensified this year, especially around Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, which is besieged by the Iran-aligned Houthis, said the report.

The number of airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 totaled 5,676, according to the report by the Protection Cluster in Yemen, which is led by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), up from 3,936 for all 2016.

Average monthly clashes between the warring sides have increased by 56 percent from last year, the figures also showed.

“(We are concerned by) the increasing impact on the civilian population, particularly in terms of civilian casualties, fresh displacement and deteriorating conditions,” said Shabia Mantoo, UNHCR spokesperson for Yemen.

Yemen’s nearly 30-month-old civil war pits President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s Saudi-backed government, which controls south and eastern Yemen, against the Houthis, who control the more populated north and eastern parts of the country.

The conflict shows no sign of ending and U.N.-sponsored peace efforts remain deadlocked.

The report did not identify any party as being responsible for the airstrikes, but the Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi has controlled Yemeni airspace since the war began in March 2015.

U.S. forces have also conducted occasional airstrikes or raids using drones.

A coalition spokesman declined to comment on the report.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

Most clashes and air strikes have been concentrated in frontline provinces, including Taiz, Saada, Hajjah, Sanaa, al-Jawf and Marib, the report said.

The United Nations has put the death toll since the war began in March 2015 at more than 10,000.

Figures released in a periodic update issued in August by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with input from other aid agencies in Yemen, estimated the civilian death toll as of April 2017 at 8,053, with more than 45,000 injured, but the real figures could be much higher.

“(The figures are considered) to significantly undercount the true extent of the casualties, considering the diminished reporting capacity at health facilities and people’s difficulties accessing healthcare,” the OCHA said.

The war has destroyed much Yemeni infrastructure, including the main Hodeidah port, as well as hospitals, schools and roads, pushing the country to the verge of famine and causing a cholera epidemic that has killed some 2,000 people since April.

The number of displaced people stands at two million, while 946,000 people are internally displaced returnees, so more than 10 percent of Yemen’s 27 million population are either displaced or facing the immediate challenges of return, the OCHA said.

“Ongoing hostilities in Yemen, compounded by cholera and widespread food insecurity, continue to increase the humanitarian needs of an already vulnerable population,” said UNHCR’s Mantoo.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Facing defeat in Mosul, Islamic State mounts diversionary attack to the south

Members of Iraqi federal police carry their weapons during fighting with Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

MOSUL/TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State militants attacked a village south of Mosul, killing several people including two journalists, even as they were about to lose their last redoubt in the city to an Iraqi military onslaught, security sources said on Friday.

The assault on Imam Gharbi village appeared to be the sort of diversionary, guerrilla-style strike tactics Islamic State is expected to focus on as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces regain control over cities IS captured in a shock 2014 offensive.

Security sources said IS insurgents had infiltrated Imam Gharbi, some 70 km (44 miles) south of Mosul on the western bank of the Tigris river, on Wednesday evening from a pocket of territory still under their control on the eastern bank.

Two Iraqi journalists were reported killed and two others wounded as they covered the security forces’ counter-attack to take back the village on Friday. An unknown number of civilians and military were also killed or wounded in the clashes.

In Mosul, IS clung to a slowly shrinking pocket on the Tigris west bank, battling for every meter with snipers, grenades and suicide bombers, forcing security forces to fight house-to-house in densely-populated blocks.

The Iraqi military has forecast final victory this week in what used to be the de facto capital of IS’s “caliphate” in Iraq, after a grinding eight-month, U.S.-backed offensive to wrest back the city, whose pre-war population was 2 million.

But security forces faced ferocious resistance from roughly several hundred militants hunkered down among thousands of civilians in the maze of alleyways in Mosul’s Old City.

Air strikes and artillery salvoes continued to pound Islamic State’s last Mosul bastion on Friday, a Reuters TV crew said.

Mosul was by far the largest city seized by Islamic State in its offensive three years ago where the ultra-hardline group declared its “caliphate” over adjoining parts of Iraq and Syria.

ASYMMETRIC ATTACKS

Stripped of Mosul, IS’s dominion in Iraq will be reduced to mainly rural, desert areas west and south of the city where tens of thousands of people live, and the militants are expected to keep up asymmetric attacks on selected targets across Iraq.

Adhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on jihadist groups, said Islamic State was likely to carry out “more of these raid-type attacks on security forces to try to divert them away from the main battle”, now in Mosul and then in other areas west of Mosul including near the Syrian border still IS control.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the end of Islamic State’s “state of falsehood” a week ago, after security forces took Mosul’s mediaeval Grand al-Nuri mosque – although only after retreating militants blew it up.

Months of grinding urban warfare in Mosul have displaced 900,000 people, about half the city’s pre-war population, and killed thousands, according to aid organizations.

The United Nations predicts it will cost more than $1 billion to repair basic infrastructure in Mosul. Iraq’s regional Kurdish leader said on Thursday in a Reuters interview that the Baghdad central government had failed to prepare a post-battle political, security and governance plan.

The offensive has damaged thousands of structures in Mosul’s Old City and destroyed nearly 500 buildings, satellite imagery released by the United Nations on Thursday showed.

In some of the worst affected areas, almost no buildings appear to have escaped damage, and Mosul’s dense construction means the extent of the devastation might be underestimated, U.N. officials said.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian Observatory says 30 killed in east Syria air strike

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an air strike early on Wednesday killed at least 30 civilians and injured dozens more in a village held by Islamic State in eastern Syria.

The strike, in al-Dablan, about 20 km (13 miles) southeast of al-Mayadeen on the west bank of the Euphrates, is the second in 48 hours that the Observatory says has killed dozens of people.

The identity of the jets that carried out the air strike was not known, the Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

Both a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, and the Syrian military backed by Russia, have targeted the jihadist group in cities and towns along the Euphrates valley.

On Monday a coalition airstrike in al-Mayadeen hit a building used by Islamic State as a prison, killing 57 people, the Observatory said on Tuesday.

The coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether its jets carried out Wednesday’s strike in al-Dablan. On Tuesday it said it had hit targets in al-Mayadeen the previous day in a mission “meticulously planned” to avoid harming civilians.

It says it takes great pains to avoid harming or killing civilians and investigates all reports that it has done so. The Syrian government and Russia also deny targeting civilians.

The coalition is supporting an offensive by Kurdish and Arab militias against Islamic State’s besieged Syrian capital of Raqqa, 200 km (150 miles) northwest of al-Dablan up the Euphrates.

Syria’s army and its allies are pushing through the desert to relieve their own besieged Euphrates enclave in Deir al-Zor, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of al-Dablan. U.S. intelligence officials have said Islamic State has relocated its leadership to al-Mayadeen.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Richard Balmforth)