Armenia calls for probe into ‘foreign mercenaries’ in Karabakh

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia’s prime minister called on Monday for an international investigation into the presence of “foreign mercenaries” in Nagorno-Karabakh after ethnic Armenian forces said they had captured two mercenaries from Syria.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied the presence of foreign combatants in the conflict zone. Its ministry of defense was not immediately available for comment.

Fierce battles continued near the front line of the conflict over the mountain enclave and seven surrounding regions in which more than 1,000 people, and possibly many more, have been killed since fighting erupted more than a month ago.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

The conflict has brought into sharp focus the increased influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a formerly Soviet region considered by Russia to be in its sphere of influence. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said on Monday the Artsakh Defense Army, its name for the ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, had captured a second Syrian combatant over the weekend.

It said the fighter was from Syria’s Idlib province. Another fighter, from the city of Hama, was captured on Friday, it said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in a Facebook post, said the involvement of “foreign mercenaries” was “a threat not only to the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia but also to international security, and this issue should become a subject of international investigation.”

The ethnic Armenian-controlled, Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry said battles took place overnight along the northwestern part of the front line. It said it had repelled a platoon of Azeri troops in fierce fighting.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said it had repelled an attack on its positions in the high ground of the Zangilan district, between the enclave and the Iranian border, while army units in the Gazakh, Tovuz and Dashkesan regions also came under fire.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev wrote on Twitter that Azerbaijan had retaken a further eight settlements in Zangilan, Gubadli and Jabrayil regions.

Azerbaijan’s advances on the battlefield since fighting began on Sept. 27 have reduced its incentive to strike a lasting peace deal and complicated international efforts to broker a truce. Three ceasefires have failed to hold.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s army says 1,177 of its soldiers have been killed. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, while Russia has estimated as many as 5,000 deaths on both sides.

(Reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku, Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russian-led assault in Syria leaves over 500 civilians dead: rights groups, rescuers

FILE PHOTO: A street vendor sells toys next to rubble of damaged buildings in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 544 civilians have been killed and over 2,000 people injured since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria began two months ago, rights groups and rescuers said on Saturday.

Russian jets joined the Syrian army on April 26 in the biggest offensive against parts of rebel-held Idlib province and adjoining northern Hama provinces in the biggest escalation in the war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his enemies since last summer.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights,(SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various UN agencies, said the 544 civilians killed in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army include 130 children. Another 2,117 people have been injured.

“The Russian military and its Syrian ally are deliberately targeting civilians with a record number of medical facilities bombed,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters.

Russia and its Syrian army ally deny their jets hit indiscriminately civilian areas with cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, which residents in opposition areas say are meant to paralyze every-day life.

Moscow says its forces and the Syrian army are fending off terror attacks by al Qaeda militants whom they say hit populated, government-held areas, and it accuses rebels of wrecking a ceasefire deal agreed last year between Turkey and Russia.

Last month U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the Russian-Syrian joint military operation had used cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in the attacks along with large air-dropped explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated civilian areas, based on reports by first responders and witnesses.

Residents and rescuers say the two-month-old campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins. According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for the safety of areas closer to the border with Turkey.

“Whole villages and towns have been emptied,” said Idlib-based Civil Defence spokesman Ahmad al Sheikho, saying it was the most destructive campaign against Idlib province since it completely fell to the opposition in the middle of 2015.

On Friday, 15 people, including children, were killed in the village of Mhambil in western Idlib province after Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a civilian quarter, the civil defense group and witnesses said.

The heads of 11 major global humanitarian organizations warned at the end of last month that Idlib stood at the brink of disaster, with 3 million civilian lives at risk, including 1 million children.

“Too many have died already; even wars have laws” they declared, in the face of multiple attacks by government forces and their allies on hospitals, schools, and markets, the U.N.-endorsed statement said.

Last Thursday an aerial strike on Kafr Nabl hospital made it the 30th facility to be bombed during the campaign, leaving hundreds of thousands with no medical access, according to aid groups.

“To have these medical facilities bombed and put out of service in less than two months is no accident. Let’s call this by what it is, a war crime,” Dr. Khaula Sawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which provides aid in the northwest, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.N. shares locations of Idlib hospitals and schools, hoping to protect them

FILE PHOTO: A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. officials have notified Russia, Turkey and the United States of the GPS coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in the Syrian province of Idlib, in the hope the move will help protect them from being attacked.

“We share these coordinates so there is no doubt that a hospital is a hospital,” Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, told a briefing.

“We would like to see civilians not targeted, hospitals not bombed, people not displaced.”

An estimated 2.9 million people live in Idlib, the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian government and Russian warplanes began air strikes last week in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive.

Four hospitals in Hama and Idlib have been hit by air strikes in the past week, constituting “serious attacks” that violate international law, Moumtzis said. “A hospital is a hospital and has to be respected by all on the ground.”

Moumtzis called on all warring sides to ensure that civilians in Idlib were able to move freely in any direction to flee fighting or bombing, and for aid workers to have access to them.

He quoted a Russian official as telling a humanitarian task force meeting in Geneva on Thursday that “every effort to find a peaceful solution to the problem is being made”.

The United Nations is working 24/7 to ensure delivery of shelter, food and other assistance if, as feared, hundreds of thousands of people flee, he said.

“In no way am I saying we are ready. What is important is that we are doing our maximum to ensure a level of readiness,” Moumtzis said. “As humanitarians, while we hope for the best we are preparing for the worst.”

An estimated 38,300 people have fled hostilities in Idlib this month, U.N. figures show. About 4,500 of them have returned to their homes following a slight calming, Moumtzis said, calling it a “barometer”.

At least 33 people have been killed and 67 wounded in aerial and ground-based bombing, according to a partial U.N. toll from Sept. 4-9.

Moumtzis said he was going to Turkey for talks with government officials and to oversee preparations for stepping up cross-border aid deliveries to Idlib, where the U.N. is providing supplies to two million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Fierce clashes persist in Syria ahead of renewed peace talks

People walk at the Abbasiyin area in the east of the capital Damascus, in this handout picture provided by SANA on March 21, 2017, Syria. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Jihadists and other rebel groups made advances against the Syrian army north of Hama on Thursday, a war monitor said, part of their biggest offensive for months, underscoring the bleak prospects for peace talks which resume later in the day.

Since the Hama offensive began late on Tuesday, the rebels have captured about 40 positions from the army including at least 11 villages and towns, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

A Syrian military source acknowledged that insurgents had launched a widescale assault in rural parts of Hama by what the source called a large number of terrorists, but said the attack had been contained.

The assault coincides with clashes in the capital Damascus, where rebels and the army are fighting on the edge of the city center in the Jobar district for a fifth day amid heavy bombardment, state media and the war monitor reported.

It seems unlikely to reverse 18 months of steady military gains by the government, culminating in December’s capture of the rebel enclave in Aleppo, but it has shown the army’s difficulty in defending many fronts simultaneously.

Increased fighting, despite a ceasefire brokered in December by Russia and Turkey, casts further doubt on peacemaking efforts in Geneva, where talks resume on Thursday after making no progress towards peace in recent rounds.

“We hope to see some serious partner on the other side of the table,” Salem al-Muslet, spokesman for the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC), said in Geneva.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, is attending the Geneva talks. Both sides accuse each other of violating the ceasefire.

Near Hama, rebels spearheaded by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance, but including groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, made new advances overnight and fighting continued on Thursday, the Observatory said.

By Thursday lunchtime they had defeated army forces in about 40 towns, villages and checkpoints, north of Hama, having advanced to within a few kilometers of the city and its military airbase, it said. In one area, the rebels took the village of Shaizer, nearly encircling the army-held town of Moharada.


On Wednesday, the Syrian military source said reinforcements were headed to the Hama front.

Tahrir al-Sham’s strongest faction is the former Nusra Front group, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria until they broke formal ties last year.

One of the villages involved in the fighting is inhabited mainly by Christians.

The United States, which has supported some FSA groups during the war along with Turkey and Gulf monarchies, has carried out air strikes targeting Tahrir al-Sham leaders since January.

Samer Alaiwi, an official from the Jaish al-Nasr FSA group, which is fighting near Hama, said on a rebel social media feed that the offensive was aimed at relieving pressure on rebels elsewhere and stopping warplanes from using a nearby airbase.

“After the failure of political conferences and solutions, the military operation is an urgent necessity,” he said.

In Damascus, the intensity of clashes around the industrial zone in Jobar increased after midnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

A military media unit run by the government’s ally Hezbollah reported clashes on Thursday in Jobar and heavy bombardment aimed at rebel positions and movement in the area.

State TV showed a reporter speaking in the capital’s Abassiyin district at morning rush hour, but the road appeared quiet with only one or two cars and a few pedestrians, and with the repeated sound of blasts in the background.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Fighting further buries hopes for Syria truce

A man carries an injured child after airstrikes on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 21, 2016.

By Tom Perry and John Davison

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels and pro-government forces battled each other on major frontlines near Aleppo and Hama, and air strikes reportedly killed a dozen people including four medical workers, as a ceasefire appeared to have completely unraveled.

The renewed battles demonstrated the thin prospects for reviving a truce that collapsed into fresh fighting and bombardments on Monday, including an attack on an aid convoy which U.S. officials believe was carried out by Russian jets. Moscow denies involvement.

The U.N. Security Council was due to hold a high-level meeting on Syria later on Wednesday.

Despite accusing Moscow of being behind the bombing of the aid convoy, the United States says the ceasefire agreement it sponsored jointly with Russia is “not dead”.

But the deal, probably the final hope of reaching a settlement on Syria before the administration of President Barack Obama leaves office, is following the path of all previous peace efforts in Syria: still being touted by diplomats long after the warring parties appeared to have abandoned it.

Overnight fighting was focused in areas that control access to Aleppo city, where the rebel-held east has been encircled by government forces, aided by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, for all but a few weeks since July.

Syrian state media and a TV station controlled by its Lebanese ally Hezbollah said the army had recaptured a fertilizer factory in the Ramousah area to the southwest of the city. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring body, confirmed the advance and said government forces had pressed forward near an apartment complex nearby.

A rebel fighter in the Aleppo area said warplanes had been bombing all night in preparation for an attack. But “the regime’s attempts to advance failed,” said the rebel, speaking to Reuters from the Aleppo area via the internet.

A Syrian military source said insurgent groups were mobilizing to the south and west of Aleppo, and in the northern Hama area. “We will certainly target all these gatherings and mobilizations they are conducting.”

The army reported carrying out air strikes on seven areas near Aleppo. The Observatory said an air strike killed four medical workers and at least nine rebel fighters in the insurgent-held town of Khan Touman south of Aleppo, saying the rebels were part of the Islamist alliance Jaish al-Fatah.

The medical staff killed were working for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), it said. UOSSM confirmed in a statement that at least four of its staff had been killed.

Syrian government forces also launched a major advance in Hama province in the West of the country.

“It is a very intense attack, for which Russian jets paved the way, but it was repelled by the brothers, praise God,” Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, a rebel commander fighting as part of the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah alliance, told Reuters.

He said rebels had destroyed four tanks and inflicted heavy losses on government troops. Syrian state TV said government forces had killed a number of insurgents and destroyed their vehicles.

Rebel sources also reported an attempt by pro-government forces to advance in the Handarat area to the north of Aleppo, saying this too had been repelled. Pro-government media made no mention of that attack.

The Observatory reported that a Syrian jet had crashed near Damascus, saying the cause of the crash and fate of the pilot were unknown. Islamic State said it had been shot down.

People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 21, 2016.

People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail


The truce brokered by the United States and Russia took effect on Sept. 12 as part of a deal meant to facilitate aid access to besieged areas.

Foreign ministers of 20 countries including the United States and Russia met to discuss it on Tuesday and gave the agreement their support. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after the meeting: “The ceasefire is not dead”.

In the pact, the details of which remain secret, Washington and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the war between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and insurgents, agreed to jointly target jihadists that are their common enemy.

But such unprecedented cooperation, at a time when trust between the Cold War-era foes is at its lowest for decades, was always a risky gamble. Kerry agreed the deal despite scepticism among other senior U.S. administration figures, and has acknowledged that it is fragile and uncertain.

Tensions between the United States and Russia escalated over a Sept. 17 attack by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in the eastern Deir al-Zor province. Washington said that strike was carried out by mistake with the intent of hitting Islamic State.

Monday’s attack on the aid convoy, which the Syrian Red Crescent says killed the head of its local office and around 20 other people, brought furious international condemnation.

The United Nations suspended aid shipments. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used his farewell speech to the General Assembly in New York to denounce the “cowards” behind it.

“Just when you think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower,” Ban said.

However, the United Nations, which initially described the attack as an air strike, rowed back from that characterization, saying it could not be certain what had happened.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday that two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes were in the skies above the aid convoy at the time it was struck late on Monday, citing U.S. intelligence that led them to conclude Russia was to blame.

Moscow says the convoy was not hit from the air and has implied rebels were to blame, saying only rescue workers affiliated to the opposition knew what had happened. Russia’s foreign ministry told reporters at the United Nations the U.S. administration “has no facts” to support its assertions.

Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war, has been a focal point of the war this year as Assad and his allies have sought to encircle the insurgent-held east and cut opposition supply lines to Turkey.

Having blockaded eastern Aleppo, the government and its allies aim to clear insurgents from areas to the south and west, to take back territory including the main Damascus-Aleppo highway. Shi’ite militia from Iraq, Lebanon and Iran play a big role fighting on the government’s side.

But rebel groups still have a strong presence in the area which abuts the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province. The powerful group formerly known as the Nusra Front has played a big role in fighting against the government.

Long al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, Nusra has changed its name and disavowed al Qaeda, but is still characterized by both the West and Moscow as a terrorist group excluded from the ceasefire. Other rebels say Russia and the Syrian government exploit this to justify broader attacks.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)