Assad, aided by Russia, poised to snuff out ‘cradle’ of revolt

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a Syrian flag in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the place it first began more than seven years ago, as rebels enter talks with his Russian allies on withdrawing from Deraa city or accepting a return of state authority.

Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got underway last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier that was once in opposition hands.

Assad, whose control was once reduced to a fraction of Syria, now holds the largest chunk of the country with crucial help from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Deraa was the scene of the first anti-Assad protests that spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people. The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states alone and many more in Europe.

Rebels in Deraa are due to hold talks with Russian officers on Tuesday, a spokesman for the rebels, Abu Shaimaa, said. The talks were due to take place in the town of Busra al-Sham.

Some are seeking evacuation to opposition-held areas of the north while others are negotiating to remain as a local security force, he said.

“Today there is a session with the Russians over the forced displacement,” he said in a text message, referring to the expected evacuation of a yet-to-determined number of rebels to opposition areas of the northwest at the border with Turkey.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.

As Assad pushes for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.

The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

Government forces began thrusting into Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned rebels surrendered quickly in some places as the United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.

Deraa rebels agreed to a wider ceasefire deal brokered by Russia last Friday and to surrender the province in phases. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan, which has been in rebel hands since 2015.

On Monday, government forces extended their control all the way along Deraa province’s border with Jordan up to a pocket of territory held by Islamic State-affiliated militants, severing a once vital opposition lifeline to Jordan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.

The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.

Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.

“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(The story corrects to show talks over fate of rebels in Deraa city are being held in Busra al-Sham, not Deraa city itself.)

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Russian jets hit Syrian south, U.N. urges Jordan to open border

Syrian army soldiers stand as they hold their weapons in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dark smoke rose over areas held by Syrian rebels near the border with Jordan on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies unleashed heavy air strikes and government forces sought to advance on the ground.

The UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.

With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, government forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining rebel bastions near Damascus and Homs.

State television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.

After four days of reduced bombardment, intense air strikes resumed on Wednesday following the collapse of talks between rebels and Russian officers, brokered by Jordan.

“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Deraa area, the focus of the government offensive.

“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 air strikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.

State media said government forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km (six miles) east of Deraa city. A rebel command center said on Twitter government attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids”, barrel bombs and rocket barrages.

The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city, where some rebels surrendered.

The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.

ASSAD IN ASCENDANT

For the president, the Deraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Deraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.

Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.

State TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Deraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, al-Nuaima, Um al-Mayadan and Taiba.

Its correspondent said the army aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Deraa city, where rebel territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

This would split the territory in two.

The army has been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Deraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the rebel command center Twitter account said.

Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.

Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States to reduce violence.

Near the start of the government’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.

For the anti-Assad rebels, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where U.S. forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

Syrian offensive uprooted 120,000 people so far, U.N. warns of catastrophe

Residents celebrate the army's arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, northeast of Deraa city, Syria in this handout released on June 29, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by a Syrian army offensive in the southwest since it began last week, a war monitor said on Friday, and a senior U.N. official warned of catastrophe as they risked being trapped between warring sides.

Government forces and their allies appeared to be making significant gains in eastern Deraa province, where state media said they marched into several towns. A rebel official said opposition front lines had collapsed.

The Russian-backed offensive has killed at least 98 civilians, including 19 children, since June 19, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It has also driven tens of thousands of people toward the border with Jordan and thousands more to the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the UK-based monitor said.

Israel and Jordan – which is already hosting 650,000 Syrians – say they will not let refugees in.

“We left under bombardment, barrel bombs, (air strikes by) Russian and Syrian warplanes,” said Abu Khaled al-Hariri, 36, who fled from al-Harak town to the Golan frontier with his wife and five children.

“We are waiting for God to help us, for tents, blankets, mattresses, aid for our children to eat and drink.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was a grave risk of many civilians being trapped between government forces, rebel groups and Islamic State militants who have a small foothold there, an outcome he said would be a “catastrophe”.

“The real concern is that we are going to see a repetition of what we saw in eastern Ghouta – the bloodshed, the suffering, the civilians being held, being under a siege,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have turned their focus to the rebel-held southwest since defeating the last remaining besieged insurgent pockets, including eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. The assault has so far targeted Deraa, not rebel-held parts of nearby Quneitra province at the Golan frontier which are more sensitive to Israel.

The campaign has shattered a “de-escalation” deal negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan that had mostly contained fighting in the southwest since last year.

President Bashar al-Assad pressed ahead with the offensive despite U.S. condemnations and warnings of “serious repercussions”. The United States has told rebels not to expect military support against the assault.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri on Thursday decried “U.S. silence” over the offensive and said only a “malicious deal” could explain the lack of a U.S. response.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will have a detailed discussion about Syria when they meet in July.

EASTERN DERAA PROVINCE

The war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015, when he held just a fraction of the country. Today he commands the single largest part of Syria, though much of the north and east is outside his control.

Syrian troops have seized a swathe of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city. State TV broadcast scenes of what they said were locals celebrating the army’s arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, where they said rebels were turning in their weapons.

State media said that government forces seized al-Harak and Rakham towns, and that insurgents in four other towns agreed to surrender their weapons and make “reconciliation” deals with the government.

“Most of the (people in) the eastern villages have fled to west Deraa and to Quneitra,” said Abu Shaima, a Free Syrian Army rebel spokesman.

Another rebel official said some towns were trying to negotiate deals with the state on their own. “There was a collapse in the eastern front yesterday,” he added. “The front in Deraa city is steadfast.”

Al-Manar TV, run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said the army captured a hill overlooking a road linking eastern and western parts of Deraa province – an advance that would mean rebels could no longer safely use it.

The seven-year-long war has already displaced six million people inside Syria and driven 5.5 million abroad as refugees, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

ISRAEL SENDS AID, WON’T OPEN FRONTIER

Many of the civilians on the move have fled from areas east and northeast of Deraa city and from the heavily populated rebel-held town of Nawa to its northwest.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman, speaking by phone, said some people had also crossed into government-held areas, while others had gone to a corner of the southwest held by an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Jordan reiterated its position that newly displaced Syrians must be helped inside Syria. “Jordan has reached its capacity in receiving refugees,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera late on Thursday.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, in an interview with Tel Aviv Radio 102FM, said: “I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases.”

The Israeli military said an increased number of civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations to people fleeing hostilities.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Thousands of Palestinians protest at Gaza-Israel border, one dead

A girl hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – A Palestinian was killed and more than 200 others wounded during clashes with Israeli troops as thousands gathered in protest along the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, Gaza officials said.

Palestinians hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, where Israeli army sharpshooters are deployed. Some in the crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device and tried cross into Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian medical officials said Israeli troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding 220.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and responded “with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Palestinians had arrived en masse at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 31 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

The Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached during the recent clashes, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

In face of Ghouta defeat, Syrian rebels blame each other

FILE PHOTO: Rebel fighters gather and pray before they leave, at the city limits of Harasta, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebel factions are blaming each other for opening the way to their defeat near Damascus, underlining splits that plagued the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad since its earliest days.

The rivalry between the factions of eastern Ghouta – Failaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – had led to the effective partition of the enclave since 2016 and fueled bouts of deadly violence that played to the government’s advantage.

Their rivalry has at some points mirrored tensions between their regional sponsors: Saudi Arabia, which has backed Jaish al-Islam, and Qatar, which supported Failaq al-Rahman.

With the help of Russian air strikes, the army has waged one of the most ferocious offensives of the war to recapture eastern Ghouta, killing more than 1,600 people since Feb. 18 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Still, in media comments late on Sunday, the groups laid blame on each other for speeding up the government’s advances.

The Jaish al-Islam military spokesman, in an interview with al-Hadath TV, said Failaq al-Rahman had rejected a proposal to mount a shared defense of Ghouta and accused it of cutting water supplies needed to fill defensive trenches.

“These trenches dried up which sped up the regime’s advances,” said Hamza Birqdar, the spokesman.

The Failaq al-Rahman spokesman told the same TV station that Jaish al-Islam had staged a weak defense of the enclave, which advancing government forces split into three separate pockets.

“Failaq al-Rahman was stabbed in the back … via the frontlines that Jaish al-Islam was supposed to be at,” said Wael Olwan, Failaq al-Rahman’s Istanbul-based spokesman.

A Syrian official said the “conflict between the terrorist groups” in eastern Ghouta was one of the factors that had helped the military “achieve what it has achieved in a short space of time”.

It echoes a pattern at other key moments in the seven-year-long war: rebels blamed each other as government forces and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias thrust into opposition parts of eastern Aleppo, won back by Assad in 2016.

Thousands of Failaq al-Rahman fighters, accompanied by their families, are leaving their zone of eastern Ghouta in a negotiated withdrawal to insurgent territory in northern Syria.

Jaish al-Islam says it is holding out in its part of the enclave in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma. Assad’s Russian allies said on Monday that Jaish al-Islam fighters were also ready to lay down their arms and leave, which the group denied.

Rebels who have left eastern Ghouta so far have gone to Idlib, an insurgent-held region at the Turkish border. Idlib has also been blighted by fighting between the dominant faction – fighters formerly affiliated to al Qaeda – and other rebels.

The fragmented state of the anti-Assad armed opposition has been seen as one of its critical weaknesses since the start of the conflict, which the UK-based Observatory says has killed half a million people since 2011.

Russian and Iranian military backing for Assad has also far outstripped support that had been offered to rebel groups from foreign states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

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

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, Erdogan says

ILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan looks on ahead of a meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, revisiting an issue that caused outrage among secular Turks and warnings from the European Union when his party raised it more than a decade ago.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party floated the idea in 2004, two years after it first came to power, as part of a broad overhaul of the Turkish penal code. But the proposal caused a backlash from the secular opposition and EU officials said it could jeopardize Turkey’s efforts to join the union.

While Turkey is still technically a candidate to join the union, its accession talks were frozen in the wake of a widespread crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016. In return, Erdogan has been angered by what he sees as EU stalling of the bid and has threatened to walk away from the talks.

“I think it would be very, very well-timed to again discuss the adultery issue, as our society is in a different position with regards to moral values,” Erdogan told reporters following a speech in parliament.

“This is a very old issue, far-reaching. It should be discussed. It was already in our legal proposals (in 2004) in the first place. At that time we took a step in accordance with the EU’s demands, but we made a mistake,” he said.

Erdogan’s comment that by meeting EU standards Turkey made a mistake underscores the growing divide between Ankara and Brussels and may not bode well for a coming summit with the bloc in March.

Turkey decriminalized adultery for women in the late 1990s. It had long been legal for men.

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of crushing democratic freedoms with tens of thousands of arrests and a clampdown on the media since the failed coup, has previously spoken of his desire to raise a “pious generation”.

He has spent his career fighting to bring religion back into public life in constitutionally secular Turkey and has cast himself as the liberator of millions of pious Turks whose rights and welfare were neglected by a secular elite.

Last year, the government announced a new school curriculum that excluded Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, feeding opposition fears that Erdogan was subverting the republic’s secular foundations.

A Reuters investigation last month showed that while students at religious schools make up only 11 percent of the total upper school population, they receive 23 percent of funding, double the spending per pupil at mainstream schools.

While European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially the crackdown, Europe still relies on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank.

Perhaps more immediately, European countries need Turkey to hold up its end of a deal to halt the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan and Hugh Lawson)

U.N. urges Iran to stop executions of juveniles on death row

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Beawihart

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official called on Iran on Friday to halt executions of young people convicted of carrying out crimes when they were under the age of 18.

In a “surge” in January, three people were executed for murders committed at 15 or 16, while some of the 80 juvenile offenders on death row are in danger of “imminent execution”, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” Zeid said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities in Iran, which has signed an international treaty strictly banning the execution of people who commit crimes under the age of 18.

In 2017, Iran is known to have executed five juvenile offenders, the U.N. statement said.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other state,” Zeid said, decrying the practice that has gone on for decades.

Among the latest criminals executed was Mahboubeh Mofidi, 20, who was convicted of killing her husband when she was 16, three years after their marriage, the statement said.

A fourth juvenile offender, believed to have been on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months, it said.

“There are appeal processes, but sometimes it’s rather opaque as to exactly what’s happening,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“Often you do get these kind of negotiations going on between the family of the convicted person and the family of the victim in murder cases,” he said, referring to “diyah” or blood money paid to halt an execution.

On Jan. 3, independent U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to spare the life of Amir Hossein Pourjafar, who was convicted of raping and killing a child when he was 15. He is among the three listed in Zeid’s statement as having been executed so far this year.

Zeid welcomed a bill passed in Oct. 2017 under which some drug offences previously punishable by the death penalty were now subject to a prison term, but said that the mandatory death sentence has been retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

European Union leaders to host Turkey’s Erdogan, the estranged uncle they can’t shut out

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting of the ruling AK Party in Corum, Turkey January 28, 2018.

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders are so discomfited by their relationship with Turkey these days that they relegated their summit next month to Varna, a Bulgarian Black Sea port, rather than hold it in Brussels.

But despite their wariness over President Tayyip Erdogan, who has cracked down hard on critics at home and lashed out at the West, they need him too much to turn their backs.

Turkish and European Union officials both expect an uneasy atmosphere at the summit on March 26. But the European hosts will have little choice but to hear Erdogan out as he asks for more money for Syrian refugees, a deeper customs union and progress in talks on letting Turks visit Europe without visas.

On the one hand, European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially during a crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in 2016. Some of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric toward Europe last year, including comparing the Dutch and German governments to Nazis, has been, for EU leaders, beyond the pale.

But on the other hand, European countries still rely on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank. And an EU deal with Erdogan that halted the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc means the Turkish leader is like an estranged relative that you can’t disinvite from a family dinner, no matter how badly you think he has behaved.

“You intensely dislike the person you have in front of you, but you just cannot do without him,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now an analyst at Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Turkey says it is in Europe’s interest to be warm.

“If the EU gives positive signals to Turkey, the more Turkey will do in terms of reforms,” said Ankara’s envoy to the European Union, Faruk Kaymakci.

“But the more the EU isolates Turkey, the more inward-looking and nationalist it will turn,” he told reporters, calling for more “trust and confidence at the top level”.

A senior EU official said Turkey had sought to have the summit in Brussels, but the bloc decided to hold it in Varna instead to lower its profile. Bulgaria, Turkey’s neighbor, has better relations with Ankara than some other EU states and holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018.

“INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE”

The senior EU official described European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will chair the Varna meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, as furious over Erdogan’s crackdown. Some 50,000 people, including journalists, have been arrested and 150,000, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

“For the EU, this is incredibly uncomfortable. They are backsliding on everything,” the senior EU official said.

Juncker has warned Turkey that it cannot count on any significant rapprochement with the EU as long as it keeps journalists in jail.

The Netherlands formally withdrew its ambassador to Ankara this month, after 2017 was marked by Erdogan calling German and Dutch officials “fascists” for stopping rallies in support of a referendum in Turkey to grant Erdogan broader powers. Germany is particularly angry that some German citizens are among those arrested in Erdogan’s purge.

Turkey is still a candidate to join the EU, having applied decades ago. But after years of on-and-off progress, including under Erdogan who first took power in 2003, the EU froze the accession talks over the crackdown since the botched coup.

Brussels is deeply skeptical that Ankara would reverse the crackdown to deliver the democratic and judicial reforms that would be required to restart those negotiations.

But Kaymakci, the Turkish envoy, said he still hoped the bloc would commit another 3 billion euros ($3.7 bln) for Syrian refugees in Turkey at the Varna summit, and move forward with talks on letting Turks enter Europe without visas.

EU officials say Turkey does not meet criteria for visa-free travel. When it comes to money for refugees, the bloc is looking at how to accommodate Turkey, acknowledging its role in hosting them and committing to look into funding.

Turkey’s request to deepen its customs union, which already allows tariff-free trade with the EU for most goods, is also likely to be politely rebuffed. Germany in particular has opposed further talks on customs for now.

The price Erdogan will have to pay for being invited to Varna, EU officials say, will be listening to his hosts speak frankly. Just weeks after the summit, the European Commission will release what is certain to be a damning report on the situation in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)