Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

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)

Assad steps up efforts to crush last besieged enclaves

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al Assad is seen outside eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Angus McDowall and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian government stepped up its efforts on Thursday to retake the opposition’s last besieged enclaves, as rebels prepared to withdraw from one and a newspaper reported an ultimatum against another.

President Bashar al-Assad scored a major victory this month by retaking eastern Ghouta, the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus, putting his forces in by far their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old civil war.

The United States, Britain and France launched a volley of air strikes on Saturday against three Syrian targets in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons strike during the Ghouta assault.

But the limited Western intervention, far from any contested battlefront, has shown no sign of having any impact on the ground, where Assad’s forces have pressed on with his offensive.

The last rebels withdrew from eastern Ghouta hours after the Western bombing. Since then, the government has focused on regaining four less populous encircled enclaves.

Their capture would leave the opposition holding only its two main strongholds, located in the northwest and southwest along Syria’s international borders.

Diplomacy this week has focussed on the accusations of poison gas use in Douma, the last town to hold out against the government advance in eastern Ghouta.

Western countries say scores of people were gassed to death in the April 7 chemical attack. Syria and its ally Russia deny it. Now that the rebels have surrendered, the area is under government control, and a team of international inspectors has so far been unable to reach it.

The inspectors have delayed their visit to Douma after their security team were shot at during a reconnaissance trip on Tuesday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said.

The Western countries say Moscow and Damascus are preventing the inspectors from reaching the site and may be destroying evidence. Russia and Assad’s government deny this.

Meanwhile, the Western intervention has had no measurable impact on the wider war, with rebels continuing to surrender under deals that allow them to withdraw to the opposition pocket in the northwest in return for abandoning territory.

SURRENDER

State television showed live footage of buses entering the town of Dumayr, northeast of Damascus, to bring out fighters and their families, while soldiers stood by the roadside.

Twenty buses would be used to transfer about 5,000 people, including 1,500 rebels, to north Syria after they surrendered their heavy weapons, Syrian state TV said.

Dumayr has been covered by an informal ceasefire for years, but its recovery is important for the government because it makes it possible to guarantee the safety of vehicles travelling on the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

Said Saif, a senior official with one of the rebel groups in the area, said his group had no choice but to go along with a Russian-backed deal to leave the town, because there were no other outside forces that could guarantee their safety.

“We hope the Russians keep their promises, even though we have no trust in them,” he said.

In the nearby enclave of Eastern Qalamoun, which consists of several towns and an area of hills and has also been covered by an informal ceasefire, rebels said they were also negotiating a withdrawal deal with Russia.

The army has put military pressure on rebels in Eastern Qalamoun to start negotiations to withdraw, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group said.

A military news service run by the government’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah reported on Thursday that the army had moved into positions inside the enclave to entirely encircle one of its towns, al-Ruhayba.

The Observatory said there were also talks under way between Russia and rebels over the fate of an enclave in central Syria around the town of Rastan.

Separately, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported on Thursday that Islamic State militants had been given 48 hours to agree to withdraw from an enclave centred around the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugee south of Damascus.

“If they refuse, the army and supporting forces are ready to launch a military operation to end the presence of the organisation in the area,” al-Watan said.

Most residents have fled the camp, once Syria’s largest for Palestinian refugees, but thousands of civilians are still inside. Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which looks after Palestinian refugees said it was deeply concerned for their safety.

A commander in the regional military alliance that backs the Syrian government said the Syrian army had begun shelling the jihadist enclave on Tuesday in preparation for an assault.

Islamic State lost most of its territory last year, but it still holds small areas of desert in eastern Syria on either side of the Euphrates river. On Thursday neighbouring Iraq carried out air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria in coordination with Damascus, the Iraqi military said.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Raya Jalabi in Baghdad; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)

Arab leaders call for probe into Syria chemical attacks, condemn Iran

Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

By Stephen Kalin and Sarah Dadouch

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – An Arab League summit called on Sunday for an international probe into the “criminal” use of chemical weapons in Syria and condemned what it saw as Iran’s interference in the affairs of other countries.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have for decades been locked in a struggle for regional supremacy that is now being played out in proxy wars in several countries, including Yemen and Syria.

“We stress our absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and we demand an independent international investigation to guarantee the application of international law against anyone proven to have used chemical weapons,” said a statement distributed to journalists.

It emphasized the need for a political solution to the multi-sided Syrian war.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have expressed support for Saturday’s missile strikes by the United States, Britain and France against alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria, while Iraq and Lebanon condemned the strikes.

Damascus denies using or possessing chemical weapons and called the strikes an act of aggression.

Military help over the past three years from Russia and Iran, which also backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shi’ite Muslim militias in Iraq, has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The communique called for more international sanctions on Iran and urged it to withdraw “its militias” from Syria and Yemen.

“The summit condemned Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries, either through igniting sectarian strife or planting militias in Arab countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and harboring al Qaeda terrorists,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference.

Iran, which denies the accusations, rejected the condemnation as the result of Saudi pressure.

“The heavy shadow of destructive Saudi policies is evident in … the final statement of the summit,” Iranian state media quoted Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying in Tehran.

“JERUSALEM SUMMIT”

Saudi Arabia, which takes over the rotating chair of the Arab summit from Jordan, announced that this gathering would be named the “Quds (Jerusalem) Summit”, a reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which Arab states condemned.

Delegates pledged to support the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. King Salman said Saudi Arabia was donating $200 million to help them, including $50 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Qatar did not send a senior official, a sign that its 10-month-old dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt is still a long way from being resolved.

The four countries severed diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charges and says the boycott is an attempt to impinge on its sovereignty.

Its delegation was headed by its permanent representative to the Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam al-Buainain, Qatar’s state news agency said.

Most of the 22 other countries sent heads of state or government. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed Qatar’s delegation at last year’s summit in Jordan.

Sheikh Tamim returned to Doha on Saturday from a U.S. trip where he met Trump. Trump publicly sided with the Saudis and Emiratis early in the crisis but is now pushing for a resolution to restore Gulf Arab unity and maintain a united front against Iran.

Asked why Qatar was not on the summit’s agenda, the Saudi foreign minister said: “Because Qatar is not on the agenda. It’s not a big issue. It’s not a big problem. It’s a very, very small problem.”

He said the issue would be resolved if Doha met the boycotting countries’ demands, which include closing the Al Jazeera television station and reducing ties with Iran.

Tunisia will host the next Arab League summit in 2019.

(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom, writing by Maha El Dahan and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, Kevin Liffey and Daniel Wallis)

Special Report: How a secret Russian airlift helps Syria’s Assad- Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/ via REUTERS/File Photo

By Rinat Sagdiev, Maria Tsvetkova and Olena Vasina

MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination.

When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.

“You too,” he warned.

The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.

The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.

The Airbus they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and U.S. aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions – moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.

The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organization has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.

The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel they need to wage their military campaign.

It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria – a deployment the Kremlin insists does not exist. Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.

Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a U.S. government blacklist.

Asked about the flights and the activities of Russian private military contractors in Syria, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin referred Reuters to the Defence Ministry – which didn’t reply to the questions. The Syrian government also didn’t reply to questions.

In response to detailed Reuters questions, Cham Wings said only that information on where it flies was available on its website.

The flights to Rostov aren’t mentioned on the site. But the journeys do appear in online flight-tracking databases. Reporters traced flights between the Rostov airport and Syria from Jan. 5, 2017, to March 11, 2018. In that time, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers.

The issue of military casualties is highly sensitive in Russia, where memories linger of operations in Chechnya and Afghanistan that dragged on for years. Friends and relatives of the contractors suspect Moscow is using the private fighters in Syria because that way it can put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers, whose deaths have to be accounted for.

Forty-four regular Russian service personnel have died in Syria since the start of the operation there in September 2015, Russian authorities have said. A Reuters tally based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials suggests that at least 40 contractors were killed between January and August 2017 alone.

One contractor killed in Syria left Russia on a date that tallies with one of the mysterious nighttime flights out of Rostov, his widow said. The death certificate issued by the Russian consulate in Damascus gave his cause of death as “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo

TRYING TO CHOKE OFF ASSAD’S ACCESS TO AIRCRAFT

To sustain his military campaign against rebels, Assad and his allies in Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militia need access to civilian aircraft to fly in men and supplies. Washington has tried to choke off access to the aircraft and their parts through export restrictions on Syria and Iran and through Treasury Department sanctions blacklisting airlines in those countries. The Treasury Department has also blacklisted several companies outside Syria, accusing them of acting as middlemen.

“These actions demonstrate our resolve to target anyone who is enabling Assad and his regime,” John E. Smith, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in testimony to a congressional committee in November.

In recent years, dozens of planes have been registered in Ukraine to two firms, Khors and Dart, that were founded by a former Soviet marine major and his onetime military comrades, according to the Ukraine national aircraft register. The planes were then sold or leased and ended up being operated by Iranian and Syrian airlines, according to the flight-tracking data.

One of the companies, Khors, and the former marine major, Sergei Tomchani, have been on a U.S. Commerce Department blacklist since 2011 for allegedly exporting aircraft to Iran and Syria without obtaining licenses from Washington.

But in the past seven years, Khors and Dart have managed to acquire or lease 84 second-hand Airbus and Boeing aircraft by passing the aircraft through layers of non-sanctioned entities, according to information collated by Reuters from national aircraft registers. Of these 84 aircraft, at least 40 have since been used in Iran, Syria and Iraq, according to data from three flight-tracking websites, which show the routes aircraft fly and give the call sign of the company operating them.

In September, the U.S. Treasury Department added Khors and Dart to its sanctions blacklist, saying they were helping sanctioned airlines procure U.S.-made aircraft. Khors and Dart, as well as Tomchani, have denied any wrongdoing related to supplying planes to sanctioned entities.

The ownership histories of some of the aircraft tracked by Reuters showed how the U.S. restrictions on supplies to Iranian and Syrian airlines may be skirted. As the ownership skips from one country to the next, the complex paper trail masks the identity of those involved in Syria’s procurement of the planes.

One of the Cham Wings Airbus A320 jets that has made the Rostov-Syria trip was, according to the Irish aircraft register, once owned by ILFC Ireland Limited, a subsidiary of Dublin-based AerCap, one of the world’s biggest aircraft-leasing firms.

In January 2015, the aircraft was removed from the Irish register, said a spokesman for the Irish Aviation Authority, which administers the register. For the next two months, the aircraft, which carried the identification number EI-DXY, vanished from national registers before showing up on the aircraft register in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian register gave its new owner as Gresham Marketing Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands. The owners of the company are two Ukrainians, Viktor Romanika and Nikolai Saverchenko, according to corporate documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Ukrainian business records show they are managers in small local businesses. Contacted by phone, Romanika said he knew nothing and hung up. Saverchenko couldn’t be reached by phone and didn’t respond to a letter delivered to the address listed for him.

In March 2015, Gresham leased EI-DXY to Dart, according to the Ukrainian aircraft register. The identification number was changed to a Ukrainian number, UR-CNU. On Aug. 20, 2015, Khors became the aircraft’s operator, the register showed.

A Cham Wings aircraft is seen at Rostov Airport in Russia, January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A Cham Wings aircraft is seen at Rostov Airport in Russia, January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A representative of the Ukraine State Aviation Service said the register was not intended as official confirmation of ownership but that there had been no complaints about the accuracy of its information.

From April that year, the aircraft was flown by Cham Wings, according to data from the flight-tracking websites.

Gillian Culhane, a spokeswoman for AerCap, the firm whose subsidiary owned the plane in 2015, didn’t respond to written questions or answer repeated phone calls seeking comment about what AerCap knew about the subsequent owners and operators of the plane. Dart and Khors didn’t respond to questions about the specific aircraft.

Four lawyers specializing in U.S. export rules say that transactions involving aircraft that end up in Iran or Syria carry significant risks for Western companies supplying the planes or equipment. Even if they had no direct dealings with a sanctioned entity, the companies supplying the aircraft can face penalties or restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, the lawyers said.

The lawyers, however, said that the legal exposure for aircraft makers such as Boeing and Airbus was minimal, because the trade involves second-hand aircraft that are generally more than 20 years old, and the planes had been through a long chain of owners before ending up with operators subject to sanctions.

Two of the lawyers, including Edward J. Krauland, who leads the international regulation and compliance group at law firm Steptoe & Johnson, said U.S. export rules apply explicitly to Boeing aircraft because they’re made in the United States. But they can also apply to Airbus jets because, in many cases, a substantial percentage of the components is of U.S. origin.

Boeing said in a statement: “The aircraft transactions described that are the subject of your inquiry did not involve The Boeing Company. Boeing maintains a robust overall trade control and sanctions compliance program.” An Airbus spokesman said, “Airbus fully respects all applicable legal requirements with regard to transactions with countries under U.N., EU, UK and U.S. sanctions.”

WAR-ZONE FLIGHTS

When Reuters sent a series of questions to Khors and Dart about their activities, Tomchani, the former marine major, called the reporter within minutes.

He said he was no longer a shareholder in either firm but was acting as a consultant to them, and that the questions had been passed on to him. He invited the reporter to meet the following day at the high-end Velyur restaurant in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

In the 90-minute meeting, he denied providing aircraft to Iran or Syria. Instead, he said, Khors and Dart had provided aircraft to third parties, which he did not identify. Those third parties, he said, supplied the planes on to the end users.

“We did not supply aircraft to Iran,” Tomchani, a man of military bearing in his late 50s, said as he sipped herbal tea. “We have nothing to do with supplying aircraft to Cham Wings.”

Neither Dart nor Khors could have sold or leased aircraft to Cham Wings because they were not the owners of the aircraft, he said.

Tomchani used to serve in a marine unit of the Soviet armed forces in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast. In 1991, after quitting the military with the rank of major, he set up Khors along with two other officers in his unit. Tomchani and his partners made a living by flying Soviet-built aircraft, sold off cheap after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in war zones.

Khors flew cargoes in Angola for the Angolan government and Defence Ministry and aid agencies during its civil war. Tomchani said his companies also operated flights in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, transporting private security contractors.

Ukraine’s register of business ownership showed that Tomchani ceased to be a shareholder in Khors after June 2010 and that he gave up his interest in Dart at some point after April 2011. He told Reuters he sold his stakes to “major businessmen,” but declined to name them.

He did say, however, that the people listed at the time of the interview in Ukraine’s business register as the owners of the two companies were merely proxies. One of the owners in the register was a mid-ranking Khors executive, one was an 81-year-old accountant for several Kiev firms, and another was someone with the same name and address as a librarian from Melitopol in southeast Ukraine.

According to the business register, the owner of 25 percent in Khors is someone called Vladimir Suchkov. The address listed for him in the register is No. 33, Elektrikov Street, Kiev. That’s the same address as the one listed in Ukrainian government procurement documents for military unit No. A0515, which comes under the command of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate.

Tomchani said he and Suchkov were old acquaintances. “He wasn’t a bad specialist,” Tomchani said. “A young lad, but not bad.” He said he believed Suchkov was living in Russia.

Reuters was unable to contact Suchkov. A telephone number listed for him was out of service. The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate’s acting head, Alexei Bakumenko, told Reuters that Suchkov doesn’t work there.

Reuters found no evidence of any other link between the trade in aircraft and Ukraine’s broader spy apparatus. Ukrainian military intelligence said it has no knowledge of the supply of aircraft to Syria, has no connection to the transport of military contractors from Russia to Syria, and hasn’t cooperated with Khors, Dart or Cham Wings.

On Jan. 9 this year, Dart changed its name to Alanna, and listed a new address and founders, according to the Ukrainian business register. On March 1, a new company, Alanna Air, took over Alanna’s assets and liabilities, the register showed.

CONTRACTORS COME BACK IN CASKETS

Although Moscow denies it is sending private military contractors to Syria, plenty of people say that’s untrue. Among them are dozens of friends and former colleagues of the fighters and people associated with the firm that recruits the men – a shadowy organization known as Wagner with no offices, not even a brass plaque on a door.

It was founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer, according to people interviewed during this investigation. Its first combat role was in eastern Ukraine in support of Moscow-backed separatists, they said. Reuters was unable to contact Utkin directly. The League of Veterans of Local Conflicts, which according to Russian media has ties to Utkin, declined to pass on a message to him, saying it had no connection to the Wagner group.

Russia has 2,000 to 3,000 contractors fighting in Syria, said Yevgeny Shabayev, local leader of a paramilitary organization in Russia who is in touch with some of the men. In a single battle in February this year, about 300 contractors were either killed or wounded, according to a military doctor and two other sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian private military contractor who has been on four missions to Syria said he arrived there on board a Cham Wings flight from Rostov. The flights were the main route for transporting the contractors, said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Vladimir. He said the contractors occasionally use Russian military aircraft too, when they can’t all fit on the Cham Wings jets.

Two employees at Rostov airport talked to Reuters about the men on the mysterious flights to Syria.

“Our understanding is that these are contractors,” said an employee who said he assisted with boarding for several of the Syria flights. He pointed to their destination, the fact there were no women among them and that they carried military-style rucksacks. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Reuters wasn’t able to establish how many passengers were carried between Russia and Syria, and it is possible that some of those on board were not in Syria in combat roles. Some may have landed in Damascus, then flown to other destinations outside Syria.

Interviews with relatives of contractors killed in Syria also indicate the A320 flights to Rostov are used to transport Russian military contractors. The widow of one contractor killed in Syria said the last time she spoke to her husband by phone was on Jan. 21 last year – the same day, according to flight-tracking data, that a Cham Wings charter flew to Syria.

“He called on the evening of the 21st … There were men talking and the sound of walkie-talkies. And by the 22nd he was already not reachable. Only text messages were reaching him,” said the woman, who had previously visited her husband at a training camp for the contractors in southern Russia.

After he was killed, she said, his body was delivered to Russia. She received a death certificate saying he had died of “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

The widows of two other contractors killed in Syria described how their husbands’ bodies arrived back home. Like the first widow, they spoke on condition of anonymity. They said representatives of the organization that recruited their husbands warned of repercussions if they spoke to the media.

The two contractors had been on previous combat tours, their widows said. The women said they received death certificates giving Syria as the location of death. Reuters saw the certificates: On one, the cause of death was listed as “carbonization of the body” – in other words, he burned to death. The other man bled to death from multiple shrapnel wounds, the certificate said.

One of the widows recounted conversations with her husband after he returned from his first tour of duty to Syria. He told her that Russian contractors there are often sent into the thick of the battle and are the first to enter captured towns, she said.

Syrian government forces then come into the town and raise their flags, he told her, taking credit for the victory.

((Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Joel Schectman and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Kari Howard and Richard Woods))

Thousands more leave enclave in Syria’s Ghouta as Assad takes back control

A convoy of buses that carry rebels and their families waits at Harasta highway outside Jobar, in Damascus, Syria March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of people departed eastern Ghouta for Syrian rebel territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday, the third group to leave under a deal brokered by Russia to surrender the enclave near Damascus to the Syrian government.

Some 7,000 people – most of them fighters and their families – left on 100 buses in the early hours of the morning, to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More buses drove into eastern Ghouta ahead of a further evacuation.

Rebels have been leaving Ghouta in batches with their families since Thursday, accepting safe passage to the Idlib region in northwestern Syria after they were beaten into retreat in a fierce assault by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

It marks the biggest defeat for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.

“We faced two choices: go to Idlib or make peace with the regime,” said Sakhr Yousef, a 24-year-old fighter with the Failaq al-Rahman faction as he was preparing to leave eastern Ghouta with his wife and four young siblings.

“Making peace with the regime is very difficult, making peace with those who bombed us with criminal Russia,” he added in a voice message to Reuters, referring to Assad’s main backer in the conflict.

The rebels being evacuated on Tuesday are leaving from a tract of territory centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka that was controlled by Failaq al-Rahman rebels.

The last remaining insurgent-held area in Ghouta is the town of Douma. The United Nations said it is highly concerned for 70,000-78,000 people it said were trapped inside.

The Islamist group that controls Douma, Jaish al-Islam, is in talks with Russia that have yet to yield a result.

DISPLACED PEOPLE SUBJECTED TO “SCREENING PROCESS”

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to Idlib. The opposition has called this a policy of “demographic change” aimed at forcing dissidents out of Syria’s main cities.

State television, broadcasting from the outskirts of Arbin, showed buses moving along a dusty road through a wasteland of heavily damaged buildings.

A correspondent with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said it could take four to five days to evacuate the tens of thousands of people who had agreed to leave Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed Lebanese group backed by Iran, has fought on Assad’s side during the war.

The Russian news agency TASS said 13,190 rebels had left eastern Ghouta in the last three days.

Many tens of thousands of people have fled eastern Ghouta this month into areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 80,000 people had left formerly besieged parts of eastern Ghouta as control shifted since March 9.

The displaced “have to proceed to collective shelters and are not permitted to leave, until they have undergone a screening process and are able to prove a sponsor”, OCHA said in a situation report.

Syrian state TV said the army freed 28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin. The Observatory said their release was part of the deal agreed by rebels.

The Syrian military split eastern Ghouta into three separate zones during its assault that began on Feb. 18 and has killed more than 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.

The government says the offensive is securing Damascus from insurgent mortar fire that regularly used to hit the capital including its Old City.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory along the southern frontier with Jordan and Israel, and enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Additional reporting Katya Golubkova; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

U.N. chief warns of nightmare scenario if Israel, Hezbollah clash

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres gives a speech during a ceremony at Lisbon University where Guterres received his honoris causa degree, Portugal February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

LISBON (Reuters) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was worried about the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Guterres said the latest signals from Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah showed the will to not let this happen but “sometimes a spark is enough to unleash this kind of a conflict”.

Hezbollah said last week it could act against Israeli oil facilities if necessary in an Lebanon-Israel offshore energy dispute. U.S. diplomats have been mediating between the two countries after a rise in tensions also involving a dispute over a border wall and Hezbollah’s growing arsenal.

“I am deeply worried about hard-to-foresee escalations in the whole region,” Guterres told reporters in his native Lisbon, also referring to Israel’s concerns about various militia groups in Syria approaching its borders.

“The worst nightmare would be if there is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah…the level of destruction in Lebanon would be absolutely devastating, so there are major points of concern around this situation.”

The powerful Shi’ite movement is part of Lebanon’s coalition government. Israel sees Hezbollah as the biggest security threat on its borders.

Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s as a resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. The two remain bitter enemies but there has been no major conflict between them since a month-long war in 2006.

(Reporting By Andrei Khalip; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Lebanon vows to block border wall, Israel eyes diplomacy on gas field

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with Lebanon's Higher Defence Council at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 7, 2018

By Ellen Francis and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon vowed on Wednesday to prevent any territorial intrusion by a border wall which Israel is building, and Israel said it wanted foreign mediation to resolve a maritime energy dispute with its northern neighbor.

Lebanese leaders have accused Israel of threatening the stability of the border region. Arguments over the wall and Lebanon’s plans to explore for oil and gas in disputed Mediterranean waters have increased friction between the two enemy states.

“This wall, if it is built, will be considered an assault on Lebanese land,” the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council said in a statement after a meeting of senior government and military officials.

The council “has given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory,” it said, without elaborating.

The council includes Lebanon’s president, prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the army commander.

Israel has said the wall is entirely within its territory.

One Israeli official told Reuters that parts of the wall were being erected closer to the border than a current frontier fence, which in places runs well to the south due to topography.

The Lebanese government says the wall would pass through land that belongs to Lebanon but lies on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, where the United Nations demarcated Israel’s military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Calm has largely prevailed along the frontier since 2006, when Israel fought a war with Lebanon’s heavily-armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement. The month-long conflict killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

In a televised address last month, Hezbollah’s leader cautioned Israel to take the Lebanese government’s warnings over the wall “with utmost seriousness”.

“Lebanon will be united behind the state and the army to prevent the Israeli enemy (violating Lebanese territory),” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said. Hezbollah will “fully handle its responsibility in this regard,” he added.

OFFSHORE ENERGY

Lebanon’s first offshore oil and gas exploration tender drew condemnation last week from Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He called it a “very provocative” move and urged international firms not to participate.

The two countries have an unresolved maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea of around 860 sq km (330 square miles). The zone extends along the edge of three out of five energy blocks that Lebanon put to tender early last year.

In December, Lebanon approved a bid by a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two blocks.

One of these, Block 9, juts partly into waters claimed by Israel. In a conciliatory tack from Lieberman’s remarks, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday mooted negotiations.

“There is a dispute, which is no secret – it’s been going on for years – over the border demarcation between our economic waters and Lebanon’s,” he told the Israeli news site Ynet.

“We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter.”

Steinitz said that, in 2013, U.S. intermediaries had come close to clinching a deal involving “a kind of compromise”.

“The Lebanese too have their own economic waters in which they want to search for gas and oil,” he added. “And they have such a right – so long as they do not threaten and certainly not penetrate our demarcated waters”.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and; Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Netanyahu flies to Moscow for talks on Syria with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday to discuss Israeli concerns about any expansion of Iran’s military foothold in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I will discuss with President Putin Iran’s relentless efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, which we strongly oppose and are also taking action against,” said Netanyahu, without elaborating, before boarding a plane for the visit, scheduled to last several hours.

Israel’s air force said last year it had struck suspected arms shipments to Iran’s ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, around 100 times.

Netanyahu said he and Putin “meet periodically in order to ensure the military coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian forces in Syria”.

Russia intervened in the civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite Muslim militias also back Assad.

Israel fears Iran could be left with a permanent garrison in Syria, extending a threat posed from neighboring Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has an extensive missile arsenal and last fought a war with the Israeli military in 2006.

Netanyahu said he also planned to discuss with Putin “Iran’s effort to turn Lebanon into one giant missile site, a site for precision missiles against the State of Israel, which we will not tolerate”.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Janet Lawrence)