Syria tells Lebanon it wants refugees to return

Lebanese general security member holds Syrian refugee children, who fled to Lebanon, as they wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, Lebanon April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria has told Lebanon it wants refugees to return to help rebuild the country, its envoy to Lebanon said on Monday, after Beirut expressed concern that a new land redevelopment law could discourage them from going home.

Lebanon, which is hosting some 1 million registered Syrian refugees, wrote to the Syrian government last month over “Law 10”, which aid and rights groups fear could result in Syrian refugees losing their property in the country.

“Law 10” came into effect in April as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria. The law has yet to be applied.

One of big concerns with the law is that it gave people just 30 days to stake ownership claims once an area is designated for redevelopment, according to rights activists and aid groups. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said on Saturday this time period had been extended to one year.

Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, had expressed concern over the limited time frame in a letter to the Syrian government last month.

Ali Abdul Karim, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, delivered a letter from Mualem to Bassil, foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, on Monday.

Abdul Karim told reporters that the letter responded to questions posed by Bassil. The letter said that “Syria is in need of … all its sons and is eager for the return of all its sons”, he said.

Last week, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and head of the General Security agency, said Beirut was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.

A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions for returns were not yet fulfilled, and that present conditions were not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.

President Michel Aoun has called the large numbers of Syrian refugees an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will upend the fragile balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.

Amnesty International has said “Law 10” effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the law is not about dispossessing anyone.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian Observatory: Israeli raid in Syria killed Iranians

An Israeli tank can be seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Angus McDowall and Jeffrey Heller

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday an Israeli attack on Iranian military facilities south of Damascus had killed at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.

The reports of an Israeli attack in Kisweh late on Tuesday emerged after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

The UK-based Observatory said the missile strikes hit depots and rocket launchers, killing 15 individuals including eight Iranians. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

A commander in the regional alliance fighting alongside Damascus said that Israel had hit a Syrian army base without causing casualties.

Trump’s hard tack against the nuclear deal, while welcomed by Israel, has stirred fears of a possible regional flare-up.

Within hours of the White House announcement on Tuesday night, Syrian state media said that its air defenses had brought down two Israeli missiles.

Israel’s military declined to comment on the reports, shortly after it said it had identified “irregular activity” by Iranian forces in Syria and went onto high alert. The military had instructed authorities in the Golan Heights bordering Syria to ready bomb shelters and mobilized some reservist forces.

Iran and its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military with critical support in the seven-year-old war, beating back rebels and Islamic State.

Tehran’s growing clout in Syria alarms arch foe Israel, which has struck what it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Hezbollah scores of times during the conflict.

Last month, an air strike on the T-4 air base near Syria’s Homs city killed seven Iranians. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate.

Israeli-Iranian confrontation would likely remain limited after Washington abandoned the nuclear deal, but conflict between the two regional powers will flare on in Syria, experts said on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to press its leader, Vladimir Putin, to rein in the Iranians along the Syrian front.

FLARE UPS

Ghaleb Kandil, a Lebanese political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah and Damascus, said he expected the two enemies to exchange “limited, calculated attacks” in Syria’s war as deterrents.

“It’s clear that everyone realizes the risks of a big confrontation … Iran does not want (this) confrontation, and Israel knows its consequences,” he said.

The occupied Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war, was quiet on Wednesday.

“The children are in kindergartens and the crop pickers are out in the fields, all agricultural work is continuing as normal and tourists are arriving. There have been very few tour group cancellations,” said Diti Goldstein, a local tourism official.

Still, experts said they expected flare ups to persist.

“Israel has military dominance and free hand to carry out those kinds of attacks” on targets inside Syria, said Gary Samore, who served as a deputy national security adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Sooner or later, Shi’ite militias which Tehran has deployed in Syria will also likely attack Israeli military sites near the border, he said at an annual security conference near Tel Aviv.

But Samore added that Russia, a leading powerbroker in Syria and key Assad ally, wants to keep things “under control” and avoid “a big war between Israel and Iran” on Syrian territory.

In 2015, Russia and Israel set up a hotline to prevent accidental clashes between their forces in Syria.

In an interview with Israeli news site YNet, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said the government’s strategy was “to get Iran out of Syria without starting a war”.

“We want the Iranians to be forced into making the decision to strategically retreat from Syria,” Katz said.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut; Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in BeirutWriting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Assad renews offensive as missile bombardment raise escalation risk

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus,Syria April 29,2018.REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army unleashed a massive bombardment against one rebel enclave on Monday and prepared for the withdrawal of insurgents from another as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to crush the rebels’ last besieged strongholds.

However, missile strikes against several government military bases on Sunday – not claimed by any party despite speculation in Israel that its military was responsible – underscored the risks of a wider escalation in the seven-year conflict.

More than 140 Syrian army air strikes hit the town of Rastan and surrounding villages in the rebel enclave between the cities of Hama and Homs early on Monday alongside sustained shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Last week a Syrian government minister said the enclave would be the army’s next target after retaking all rebel areas around the capital, a goal it looks closer to achieving with Monday’s expected insurgent withdrawal from south Damascus.

Despite Assad’s ever-stronger position against rebels since Russia’s entry into the war in 2015 brought a string of battlefield victories, the involvement of numerous regional and global powers threatens to inflame the war further.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the missile attacks that struck several bases near Hama and Aleppo overnight, causing large explosions, and the Syrian army has blamed only “aggression” by its enemies.

However, Israel has previously carried out strikes in Syria to stop Assad’s ally Iran getting stronger there or transferring weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, and there is widespread speculation in Israel that it was behind the attack.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israel Katz would not comment on the strikes, but added that Israel “has made it unequivocally clear at all levels that it will not allow an Iranian front in Syria to be established”.

A spokesman for Israel’s military said it would not comment on foreign reports. But Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel was likely behind the strikes.

“Israel has to decide: ‘are we confronting Iran in Syria before they have the full advanced weapons capabilities’ … or do we wait … let them build a huge military capability in Syria and meet them in a future war and pay a very high price?”

Diplomats have warned of a possible major escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria as Assad and his allies take more territory from rebels.

The United States, Jordan and Assad’s main ally Russia have declared a ceasefire zone in southwest Syria, near the border with Israel, and on Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington’s strategy there “remains unchanged”.

The Observatory said at least 26 people – mostly Iranians and members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia – were killed in Sunday’s strikes, and that dozens more people were missing.

Speaking in Israel on Sunday, Pompeo said the United States was “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region” and said it was critical for the two allies to work together to stop it.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said no Iranian base had been hit or Iranians killed. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior Iranian member of parliament met Assad on Monday and said Iran would keep its military advisers in Syria until the war ended.

Tehran and its allies blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike on the Tiyas air base in Syria, in which several Iranian military personnel were killed, and Iran has warned it would not go “without response”.

ASSAULT

The Syrian army’s assault on the pocket between Homs and Hama – the most populous remaining besieged area in Syria – included air strikes and artillery, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Reinforcements arrived in government-held areas before the bombardment, which targeted Rastan, the biggest town in the pocket, and several nearby villages, the Observatory said.

Syrian rebels hold large swathes of both northwest and southwest Syria. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States holds large parts of northern and eastern Syria after an offensive against Islamic State last year.

The pocket in southern Damascus is split between areas held by Islamic State and rebel groups. It has been the focus of a massive bombardment and intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta earlier this month.

Late on Sunday, state media reported that one of the rebel groups there, the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which includes Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, had agreed to withdraw to opposition-held Idlib province in northern Syria.

Footage on state television on Monday showed what it said was preparations for that withdrawal, along with the departure of buses in northern Syria to evacuate civilians from two government-held villages besieged by insurgents.

The surrender deal for Tahrir al-Sham in south Damascus was part of a deal to allow about 5,000 people to leave the two government-held Shi’ite villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, it said.

However, SANA state news agency reported continued intensive bombardment of al-Hajar al-Aswad, another area in the south Damascus pocket where Islamic State fighters are based.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Lesley Wroughton in Amman, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Exclusive: Russian civilians helping Assad use military base back home – witnesses

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors leaving an airport outside Rostov-on-Don, Russia. REUTERS/Stringe

By Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev

MOLKINO, Russia (Reuters) – The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with Russian civilians fighting in Syria but on three recent occasions groups of men flying in from Damascus headed straight to a defense ministry base in Molkino, Reuters reporters witnessed.

Molkino in southwestern Russia is where the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade is based, according to information on the Kremlin website.

The destination of the Russians arriving from Syria provides rare evidence of a covert Russian mission in Syria beyond the air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops acknowledged by Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 14 Russians may be in Syria but “they are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. He referred Reuters to the defense ministry when asked why civilians fighting in Syria return to a military base. The ministry did not immediately respond.

A duty officer at the 10th special forces brigade, asked why non-military people were entering the military base, said: “Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware … You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything … You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?”

More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.

The contractors are transferred by Syrian airline Cham Wings, the sources said.

Reuters reporters saw a Syrian Cham Wings charter flight from Damascus land at the civilian airport in Rostov-on-Don on April 17 and watched groups of men leave the terminal through an exit separate from the one used by ordinary passengers.

They boarded three buses, which took them to an area mainly used by airport staff. A luggage carrier brought numerous oversized bags and the men, dressed in civilian clothes, got off the buses, loaded the bags and got back on.

The three buses then left the airport in convoy and headed south; two made stops near cafes along the way and one on the roadside. All three reached the village of Molkino, 350 km (220 miles) south, shortly before midnight.

In the village, each bus paused for a minute or two at a checkpoint manned by at least two servicemen, before driving on. About 15-20 minutes later the buses drove back through the checkpoint empty. Publicly available satellite maps show the road leads to the military facility.

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

EXCURSION?

The buses took men along the same route from the airport to Molkino on Mar. 25 and Apr. 6, a Reuters reporter saw.

Several relatives, friends and recruiters of fighters told Reuters Russian private contractors have had a training camp in Molkino since the time they fought in eastern Ukraine alongside pro-Russian separatists.

The military facility is known for its recently renovated firing range, where the military trains for counter terrorist operations, tank battles and sniper shooting, the Russian defense ministry website says.

Reuters contacted the owners of some of the buses transporting the groups of men from the airport. They said they rent out their buses but declined to say who to: one said a trip to Molkino could have been an excursion.

One of the buses, a white 33-year-old Neoplan with a slogan of a tourist company on its boards, was imported into Russia in 2007 and initially registered in the town of Pechory. Dmitry Utkin, identified by three sources as leader of the contractors, previously commanded a special forces unit based in Pechory.

Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2K5I3MR

(Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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

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

By Laila Bassam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE SANCTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIR STRIKES KILL 57, CIVILIANS FLEE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALARMING REPORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. warns it may act on Syria as onslaught against Ghouta grinds on

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the U.N. Security Council on Syria during a meeting of the Council at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Michelle Nichols and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

UNITED NATIONS/AMMAN (Reuters) – U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned on Monday that Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” if the U.N. Security Council fails to act on Syria, as the Syrian army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta continued unabated.

The United States asked the Security Council to demand an immediate 30-day ceasefire in Damascus and rebel-held eastern Ghouta, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, say they are targeting “terrorist” groups which are shelling the capital.

The army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta, backed by air and artillery strikes, has killed about 1,160 people since Feb. 18, a war monitoring group said, as Assad seeks to crush the last big rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.

“It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again,” Haley told the 15-member Security Council. “When the international community consistently fails to act, there are times when states are compelled to take their own action.”

The United States bombed a Syrian government air base last year over a deadly chemical weapons attack.

The Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire across Syria in a unanimously adopted Feb. 24 resolution.

Russia and Damascus say a ceasefire ordered by the U.N. Security Council does not protect the fighters in eastern Ghouta, arguing that they are members of banned terrorist groups.

“There has been no cessation of hostilities,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday. “Violence continues in eastern Ghouta and beyond – including in Afrin, parts of Idlib and into Damascus and its suburbs.”

“No sieges have been lifted … To our knowledge, not one critically sick or wounded person has yet been evacuated.

Russia’s U.N. envoy Vassily Nebenzia also said some states were accusing the Syrian government of carrying our chemical weapons attacks in a bid to “prepare the ground for the unilateral use of force against sovereign Syria.”

“We have heard hints of that in the statements of some delegations today,” Nebenzia said. “Basically steps are being weighed which could hit regional stability very, very hard.”

Elsewhere, Syrian jets also struck rebel-held towns in the country’s south, the first aerial attacks on the area since the United States and Russia brokered a deal making it a “de-escalation zone” last year, rebels and residents said.

The Trump administration frequently points to the de-escalation zone as a sign of progress it can achieve with Moscow on reducing the violence in Syria. But on Monday, the U.S. State Department said it was very concerned by the violence and called an “urgent meeting” in Jordan to ensure maintenance of the de-escalation zone.

“If (reports of the strikes are) true, this would be a clear violation of the (southwest) ceasefire by the Syrian regime that broadens the conflict,” a State Department official said.

“We urge all parties in the southwest de-escalation zone not to take actions that would jeopardize the ceasefire and make future cooperation more difficult.”

HEAVY ONSLAUGHT

The assault on Ghouta is one of the heaviest in the war, which enters its eighth year this week.

Thousands of families are sleeping in the open in the streets of the biggest town in the enclave, where there is no longer any room in packed cellars to shelter from government bombardment, local authorities said.

At least 70 people had been buried in a town park because air strikes made it unsafe to reach the cemetery on the outskirts, it said.

In a video filmed inside Douma, one man cowering in a heavily damaged shelter said: “It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people.”

Douma residents said dozens of people were trapped alive under rubble, with rescuers unable to reach them due to the intensity of the raids.

Government forces have now captured more than half the rebel enclave, entirely besieging Douma and the large town of Harasta, cutting them off from each other and neighboring areas with advances on Saturday and Sunday.

In an apparent sign of local discontent with the rebel policy of holding out, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that hundreds of people protested in the town of Kafr Batna to demand a deal to end the onslaught.

Jaish al-Islam, one of eastern Ghouta’s main rebel groups, said on Monday it had reached an agreement with the government’s ally Russia to evacuate wounded people, after communicating with Moscow through the United Nations.

A U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman said the United Nations was not part of that deal and still called for the urgent evacuation of more than 1,000 sick and wounded people in eastern Ghouta.

State television broadcasts from the government-controlled side of the battlefront showed dark grey clouds of smoke billowing from several places across a landscape of shattered buildings.

Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, February 27. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, February 27.
REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

HALF-MILLION DEAD

The Observatory, said on Monday the death toll in the civil war had passed half a million people.

It has confirmed the deaths of 511,000 people, it said, and has the names of more than 350,000 of them. About 85 percent were killed by government forces and their allies, it said.

Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad’s rule in 2011 that triggered the slide into civil war. The United Nations says 400,000 people live in the enclave, already suffering shortages of food and medicine even before the massive assault began in mid-February.

Assad says the assault on eastern Ghouta is needed to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the civilian population and to stop mortar fire on nearby Damascus.

The United Nations has warned of dire shortages of food and medicine, where international deliveries have long been erratic and often obstructed before they could reach the enclave.

The expulsion of the rebels from eastern Ghouta would represent their biggest defeat since they lost their enclave in Aleppo in December 2016. They still control large areas in the northwest and southwest and a few scattered pockets elsewhere but have been driven from most major population centers.

(Additional reporting by a reporter in eastern Ghouta, Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)

In the cellars of eastern Ghouta, Syrians wait in fear

A child gathers wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

EASTERN GHOUTA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Abu Alma has holed up in a basement for two weeks with his wife and baby daughter. Ten other families stay with them, hiding from the bombs that fall on Syria’s eastern Ghouta.

They only venture out to find medicine or bring food they had stored at home months earlier, he said.

“We are living in the basement always,” said Abu Alma, 30, an engineer and local aid worker. “We’re trying to make it work. What can we do?”

Warplanes and artillery have battered the rebel enclave near the capital Damascus for over two weeks in one of the bloodiest assaults of the seven-year war. The bombing has killed hundreds and pushed people into makeshift underground shelters.

Syrian government forces have chewed off bits of farmland and marched into towns, squeezing the pocket in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

As the battles creep closer, thousands of families fled their homes and moved deeper into the enclave, residents say. The cellars were already packed before that.

Russia, the Syrian government’s key ally, has offered insurgents safe passage out. The proposal echoes evacuations in other parts of Syria, where fighters and civilians withdrew to rebel territory near the Turkish border.

Such deals – accept state rule or leave – have helped President Bashar al-Assad’s military claw back control of major cities, with support from Russia and Iran.

Some in eastern Ghouta said they dreaded a similar fate.

“There’s a lot of fear that the regime will enter, and on the other hand people don’t want to leave. They want to stay in their homes,” Abu Alma said in the town of Douma. “It’s harsh in the basements, but it will be much harder in the camps.”

“WE RAN IN THE NIGHT”

Since 2013, troops have encircled eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations estimates 400,000 people live without enough food, water, or medicine. It remains the only big rebel enclave near Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.

Khalil Aybour, a member of the local opposition council, said more than 16,000 people arrived in Douma alone in two weeks. He has prepared an emergency kit in case he has to suddenly run.

“There are families displaced five times, like my parents,” he said. “People are having to open up their shelters.”

Abu Firas, a farmer from the village of Shifouniyeh, escaped to Douma last week when the front lines reached his house.

“The forces advanced into the farms…We lifted the kids and ran in the night…We don’t even have clothes,” he said. “The warplanes and rocket launchers pounced. The bullets were reaching our building.”

With their three children, he and his wife also live in a basement. “It’s disgusting,” Abu Firas added. “We want to return home…We have our lands. We abandoned them, our cows, our sheep.” The army now controls the village.

Moscow and Damascus say their forces only target armed militants and seek to stop mortar salvoes by Islamist insurgents that have killed dozens of people in the capital.

Russian and Syrian forces have opened corridors for civilians to exit the suburbs. But there are no signs that anyone has, and they accuse the Ghouta insurgents of preventing residents from leaving. The two main factions deny this.

Abu Alma said people do not trust the route and worry about an uncertain fate if they go to government territory. “Because there are no guarantees except from the Russians and the regime, and they are the same ones bombing Ghouta.”

To pass the time in the cellar, they read the news or try to check on the status of relatives, he said.

Children gather wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

Children gather wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

“A MILLION DEATHS”

Some people said they did not doubt that a small part of the population wanted to get out, at least for survival.

One resident in Douma said that many now wanted the bombs to stop falling at any price. Their despair has grown and the government onslaught has intensified so much that they now resent the insurgents, the resident said.

Ahmad al-Meshrif, an ex-rebel, left his town of Nashabiyeh with 14 relatives including his mother, wife and son. Air strikes followed them as they moved across towns over the course of two weeks, he said.

“This latest attack…has not spared anything. If only you see the sheep and the cows in the streets, how the shrapnel tore them to pieces.”

When his family stayed in a shelter in Mesraba, he said, they could barely step out to the water pump because of the shelling. “That’s aside from the psychological state they put us in. I cannot find the words to describe it.”

Meshrif, 35, has taken care of his nephews and nieces since two of his brothers died fighting against the army in recent years. His third brother was in a government prison.

“We can no longer bear it. We put our hope in God,” he said. “I would rather die a million deaths than live under (the state’s) control and stop battling it – impossible.”

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and a reporter in eastern Ghouta; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)