Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Syria rebel group upbeat on Douma talks but denies deal

People walk on rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Syrian rebel group said on Friday that U.N.-mediated talks with Russia were “heading in the right direction” but denied it had agreed to evacuate the last insurgent-held enclave in eastern Ghouta.

The town of Douma, controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, is the last patch of eastern Ghouta still held by insurgents who have been routed in a ferocious offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian military that began in February.

Its recovery would seal a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad, crushing the last big rebel stronghold near Damascus seven years into a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Thousands of people – fighters from other rebel factions, their families and other civilians – have been leaving for northwestern Syria from other parts of eastern Ghouta in convoys of buses that have been given safe passage to Idlib province.

Jaish al-Islam has so far refused such an evacuation, saying it amounts to forced demographic change by Assad and his allies.

The Russian news agency Interfax quoted the Russian military’s general staff as saying it had reached agreement with insurgents in Douma to leave, without saying where they would go.

“Agreement was reached today with the leaders of illegal armed groups on the departure in the near future of the rebels and their family members from the town of Douma,” it cited Sergei Rudskoy, an official with the general staff, as saying.

The Jaish al-Islam military spokesman quickly denied the report. “Our position is still clear and firm and it is rejecting forced displacement and demographic change in what remains of eastern Ghouta,” Jaish al-Islam military spokesman Hamza Birqdar said in a message posted on his Telegram feed.

But Mohammad Alloush, the group’s political official, said the talks over Douma were moving in the right direction and the “chances (of agreement) are getting stronger day after day”.

Alloush, who is based outside Syria, made the comments in a report whose accuracy he confirmed to Reuters.

Douma is surrounded by Syrian government forces. There are tens of thousands of civilians in the town.

Syrian state TV said a deal had nearly been reached for Jaish al-Islam to leave Douma to the Idlib, citing preliminary information.

The government offensive in eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says. It said a total of 144,000 people have now been displaced from eastern Ghouta.

While thousands have gone to rebel-held territory near the Turkish border, the bulk of the displaced have fled the fighting to shelters in government-held areas near eastern Ghouta.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Tom Perry in Beirut; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russian truce plan fails to halt bombing of Syria’s Ghouta

FILE PHOTO: A man inspects a damaged house in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – A Russian call for a five-hour truce on Tuesday failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the Syrian war, where residents said government warplanes resumed striking the eastern Ghouta region on Tuesday after a brief lull.

Moscow and Damascus blamed rebels for the collapse of the truce, saying fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave. The insurgents denied such shelling.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would press on with a plan to stage similar daily pauses in the fighting, allowing aid to be delivered to eastern Ghouta through what Russia describes as a humanitarian corridor.

The United Nations said it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate the wounded, and said all sides must instead abide by a full 30-day ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“We have reports this morning there is continuous fighting in eastern Ghouta,” U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said. “Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out.”

Hundreds of people have died during 10 days of government bombardment of the eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of Damascus. The assault has been among the most devastating air campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year.

With its Ghouta offensive, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is drawing on the military methods it has used to crush its opponents in other parts of Syria, including eastern Aleppo in late 2016.

Intensifying bombardment of the besieged area has been coupled with probing ground assaults to test rebel defenses.

With no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta seems likely to meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government, where humanitarian corridors eventually became escape routes for defeated rebels.

“A concrete humanitarian corridor has been set up that will be used to deliver humanitarian aid, and, in the other direction, a medical evacuation can take place and all civilians who want to leave can,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in Moscow after meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

ESCALATION

Residents in several towns in the eastern Ghouta described a brief pause in fighting, but said bombardment swiftly resumed. In the town of Hammouriyeh a man who identified himself by his first name Mahmoud told Reuters helicopters and warplanes were in the sky and conducting strikes.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the Civil Defence rescue service, which is funded by Western governments and operates in rebel areas, said artillery and air strikes had hit the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said helicopters and warplanes had struck four towns and artillery shelling killed one person.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country, but did not specify when it should start. It excludes some militant groups which are among the rebels in eastern Ghouta.

That has meant the ceasefire has not been observed in practice. U.N. spokesman Laerke declined to comment on the Russian proposal for a five-hour truce, but called instead on all sides to obey the full 30-day ceasefire.

“It is a question life and death – if ever there was a question of life and death – we need a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria as the Security Council demands,” Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing.

A rebel spokesman said people in eastern Ghouta did not want to leave the area despite the bombardment, because they feared arrest, torture or conscription by the government. Russia said it would guarantee the safety of any civilians who left.

Eastern Ghouta, where the U.N. says around 400,000 people live, is a major target for Assad, whose forces have clawed back numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Rebels based in eastern Ghouta have intensified shelling of government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Syrian state media reported eight people injured by rebel shelling on Tuesday. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

Even before the latest bombardment of the besieged area began, there was growing international alarm over humanitarian conditions in the eastern Ghouta because of shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region. Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)

Egypt’s military says kills 53 militants in week-long offensive

Egyptian Army's Armoured Vehicles are seen on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Ismailia, Egypt, in this undated handout picture made available by the Ministry of Defence February 9, 2018. Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

By Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s military and police forces have killed a total of 53 Islamist militants and arrested 680 suspects in a week-long offensive to crush insurgents that is focused on the Sinai Peninsula, a military spokesman said on Thursday.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is seeking re-election in March, ordered the armed forces in November to defeat militants within three months after an attack on a mosque in Sinai killed more than 300 people.

The attack was the deadliest of its kind in Egypt, which is the Arab world’s most populous country and a main regional ally of the United States.

The security operation, which involves the army, navy, air force and police, began last Friday and targeted “terrorist and criminal elements and organizations” in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert, Colonel Tamer al-Rifai told a news conference broadcast on state television on Thursday.

He said forces have destroyed over 1000 kg (2205 lbs) of explosives, 378 militant hideouts and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants.

He added that 680 people, some of them suspected militants or wanted criminals, were also detained in the operation.

The air force, which has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai since the operation began, has focused on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians, air force Brigadier General Alaa Dawara said.

Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of the Military Operations Authority said the operation would end when Sinai was free of “terrorists”.

“It could be extended or shortened according to the situation and that is what will be determined in the coming days,” Abdel Aziz told journalists.

He said after the military operation, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.

Outside the peninsula, the Egyptian military said the operation would cover parts of the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, where other militants have waged attacks, some believed to be staged out of neighboring Libya.

The insurgency poses the greatest challenge to the government in a country that is both the most populous in the Arab World and a main regional ally of the United States.

Islamist insurgents have been targeting security forces since 2013 when the army led by Sisi, then the army chief, ousted President Mohamed Mursi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, following mass protests against his rule.

Some local residents have raised concerns over food and medicine shortages in the peninsula after the army blocked all access to the area.

Rifai said the armed forces has cooperated closely with local authorities to coordinate the delivery of food, medical assistance and other supplies in compliance with local and international laws and human rights norms.

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

At least 43,000 Cameroonian refugees flee to Nigeria: local aid officials

A still image taken from a video shot on December 9, 2017 shows Cameroonian refugees standing outside a center in Agbokim Waterfalls village, which borders on Cameroon, Nigeria.

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 43,000 Cameroonians have fled as refugees to Nigeria to escape a crackdown by the government on Anglophone separatists, local aid officials said on Thursday.

The figure is almost three times as high as that given by the United Nations and Nigerian officials two weeks ago.

Cameroon is a majority French-speaking country but two southwestern regions bordering Nigeria are Anglophone. Last October, separatists declared independence for a state they want to create called Ambazonia, sparking a military crackdown by the government of President Paul Biya.

In Nigeria’s Cross River state, which borders southwest Cameroon, more than 33,000 Cameroonians have taken refuge from violence, John Inaku, director general of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told Reuters by phone.

In neighboring Benue state, there are 10,216 refugees, said Emmanuel Shior, director general of the regional SEMA.

Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency had said more than 8,000 refugees were in Cross River state.

Explaining the disparity, Inaku told Reuters the UN agency was only registering people in Cross River coming in through conventional routes.

“This is a war situation and refugees are trooping in by the minute through the bush paths, rivers and every other unconventional routes open to them,” he said.

“During our advocacy to our border communities we told them to allow the refugees in and not be hostile to them so our communities have been receiving them warmly and accommodating them. These are very remote areas, hard to reach without good roads,” Inaku said.

Inaku said community facilities were becoming overstretched and so people were getting hostile toward the refugees, who were in “deplorable condition”, hungry and in need of medicine.

The Benue SEMA director general said the agency had also had difficulty counting refugees because they were in remote areas.

Early on Thursday, gunmen crossed from Nigeria to attack a border post in Cameroon’s southwest, security force witnesses said, with the incident likely to further damage relations between the neighbors.

The separatists pose the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of Biya, who will seek re-election this year. The conflict is also fuelling tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Cameroonian military officials and pro-government media accuse Nigeria of sheltering the insurgents, who since last year have waged a guerrilla campaign to establish an independent homeland for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.N. seeks rapid increase in Rohingya aid; Myanmar finds more bodies

People wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

By Rahul Bhatia

DHAKA (Reuters) – Muslim refugees seeking shelter in Bangladesh from “unimaginable horrors” in Myanmar face enormous hardship and risk a dramatic deterioration in circumstances unless aid is stepped up, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.

The warning came as Myanmar government forces found the bodies of 17 more Hindu villagers, taking to 45 the number found since Sunday, who authorities suspect were killed by Muslim insurgents last month, at the beginning of a wave of violence that has sent 436,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

The violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and the refugee exodus is the biggest crisis the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced since it came to power last year in a transition from nearly 50 years of military rule.

It has also threatened to drive a wedge in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Muslim-majority Malaysia disavowing a statement on the Myanmar situation from the bloc’s chairman, the Philippines, as misrepresenting “the reality”.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees Filippo Grandi told a news conference in Bangladesh that “solutions to this crisis lie with Myanmar”.

But until then, the world had to help the “deeply traumatized” refugees facing enormous hardship, whom he had met on a weekend visit to camps in southeast Bangladesh.

“They had seen villages burned down, families shot or hacked to death, women and girls brutalized,” Grandi said.

He called for aid to be “rapidly stepped up” and thanked Bangladesh for keeping its border open.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar regards the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Fighting between Muslim insurgents and government forces has flared periodically for decades.

The latest violence began on Aug. 25 when militants from a little-known group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp.

The United Nations has described a sweeping military response as ethnic cleansing, with refugees and rights groups accusing Myanmar forces and Buddhist vigilantes of violence and arson aimed at driving Rohingya out.

The United States has said the Myanmar action was disproportionate and has called for an end to the violence.

Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying it is fighting terrorists. It has said more than 400 people have been killed, most of them insurgents.

 

HINDUS KILLED

Members of Myanmar’s small Hindu minority appear to have been caught in the middle.

Some have fled to Bangladesh, complaining of violence against them by soldiers or Buddhist vigilantes. Others have complained of being attacked by the insurgents on suspicion of being government spies.

Authorities have found the bodies of 45 Hindus buried outside a village in the north of Rakhine State, a government spokesman said, and they were looking for more.

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A search was mounted after a refugee in Bangladesh contacted a Hindu community leader in Myanmar to say about 300 ARSA militants had marched about 100 people out of the village on Aug. 25 and killed them, the government said.

Access to the area by journalists as well as human rights workers and aid workers is largely restricted and Reuters could not independently verify the report.

An ARSA spokesman dismissed the accusation that the group had killed the Hindus, saying Buddhist nationalists were trying to divide Hindus and Muslims.

“ARSA has internationally pledged not to target civilians and that remains unchanged, no matter what,” the spokesman, who is based in a neighboring country and identified himself only as Abdullah, told Reuters through a messaging service.

The government spokesman, Zaw Htay, said Myanmar had asked Bangladesh to send Hindu refugees home. Suu Kyi has said any refugee verified as coming from Myanmar can return under a 1993 pact with Bangladesh.

A Reuters reporter in Bangladesh said Rohingya refugees were still arriving there, with about 50 seen on Monday.

In a public display of discord within ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, Malaysia disassociated itself from a statement issued by group chair the Philippines as it misrepresented the situation and did not identify the Rohingya as one of the affected communities.

Myanmar objects to the term Rohingya, saying the Muslims of Rakhine State are not a distinct ethnic group.

This month, Malaysia summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express displeasure over the violence, as well as grave concern over atrocities.

 

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone, Shoon Naing in YANGON, Andrew Marshall in BANGKOK, Joseph Sipalan in KUALA LUMPUR, Tommy Wilkes in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

At least 71 killed in Myanmar as Rohingya insurgents stage major attack

FILE PHOTO: A Myanmar border guard police officers stand guard in Buthidaung, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Simon Lewis/File Photo

By Wa Lone and Shoon Naing

YANGON (Reuters) – Muslim militants in Myanmar staged a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine state on Friday, and at least 59 of the insurgents and 12 members of the security forces were killed, the army and government said.

The fighting – still going on in some areas – marked a major escalation in a simmering conflict in the northwestern state since last October, when similar attacks prompted a big military sweep beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which instigated the October attacks, claimed responsibility for the early morning offensive, and warned of more.

The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya has emerged as majority Buddhist Myanmar’s most contentious human rights issue as it makes a transition from decades of harsh military rule.

It now appears to have spawned a potent insurgency which has grown in size, observers say.

They worry that the attacks – much larger and better organized than those in October – will spark an even more aggressive army response and trigger communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhist ethnic Rakhines.

A news team affiliated with the office of national leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said that one soldier, one immigration officer, 10 policemen and 59 insurgents had been killed in the fighting.

“In the early morning at 1 a.m., the extremist Bengali insurgents started their attack on the police post … with the man-made bombs and small weapons,” said the army in a separate statement, referring to the Rohingya by a derogatory term implying they are interlopers from Bangladesh.

The militants also used sticks and swords and destroyed bridges with explosives, the army said.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship and are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite claiming roots in the region that go back centuries, with communities marginalized and occasionally subjected to communal violence.

FIRE AND FEAR

The military counter-offensive in October resulted in some 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, where they joined many others who have fled from Myanmar over the past 25 years.

The United Nations said Myanmar’s security forces likely committed crimes against humanity in the offensive that began in October. On Friday, the United Nations condemned the militant attacks and called for all parties to refrain from violence.

The military said about 150 Rohingya attacked an army base in Taung Bazar village in Buthidaung township.

Among the police posts attacked was a station in the majority-Rakhine village of Kyauk Pandu, 40 km (24 miles) south of the major town of Maungdaw.

Police officer Kyaw Win Tun said the insurgents burned down the post and police had been called to gather at a main station.

Residents were fearful as darkness approached.

“We heard that a lot of Muslim villagers are grouping together, they will make more attacks on us when the sun goes down,” said Maung Maung Chay, a Rakhine villager from the hamlet.

The attack took place hours after a panel led by the former U.N. chief Kofi Annan advised the government on long-term solutions for the violence-riven state.

Annan condemned the violence on Friday, saying “no cause can justify such brutality and senseless killing”.

‘RUNNING FOR OUR LIVES’

Military sources told Reuters they estimated 1,000 insurgents took part in the offensive and it encompassed both Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships – a much wider area compared with October.

The leader of ARSA, Ata Ullah, has said hundreds of young Rohingya have joined the group, which claims to be waging a legitimate defense against the army and for human rights.

“We have been taking our defensive actions against the Burmese marauding forces in more than 25 different places across the region. More soon!” the group said on Twitter.

Chris Lewa of the Rohingya monitoring group, the Arakan Project, said a major concern was what happened to some 700 Rohingya villagers trapped inside their section of Zay Di Pyin village which had been surrounded by Rakhine vigilantes armed with sticks and swords.

“We are running for our lives,” said one of the Zay Di Pyin’s Rohingya villagers reached by telephone, adding that houses had been set on fire. The government said the village had been burned down but blamed the fire on the Rohingya.

Amid rising tension over the past few weeks, more than 1,000 new refugees have fled to Bangladesh, where border guards on Friday pushed back 146 people trying to flee the violence.

Mohammed Shafi, who lives in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, said his cousin in Myanmar had told him of the trouble.

“The military is everywhere. People are crying, mourning the dead,” Shafi said.

“Things are turning real bad. It’s scary.”

(Additional Krishna N. Das in DHAKA, Yimou Lee in YANGON, Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR, Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie)

Battle of Aleppo ends after years of fighting as rebels agree to withdraw

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria

By Laila Bassam and Stephanie Nebehay

ALEPPO, Syria/GENEVA (Reuters) – Rebel resistance in Syria’s Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody collapse of their defenses this week, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and insurgents and the civilians who have been trapped in the tiny pocket of territory they hold in Aleppo would leave the city for opposition-held areas of the countryside to the west.

News of the deal, confirmed by Russia’s U.N. envoy, came after the United Nations voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

“My latest information is that they indeed have an arrangement achieved on the ground that the fighters are going to leave the city,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. It could happen “within hours maybe”, he said.

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo would mean the end of the rebellion in the city, Syria’s largest until the outbreak of war after mass protests in 2011.

By finally dousing the last embers of resistance burning in Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military coalition of the army, Russian air power and Iran-backed militias will have delivered him his biggest battlefield victory of the war.

However, while the rebels, including groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, as well as jihadist groups that the West does not support, will suffer a crushing defeat in Aleppo, the war will be far from over.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

Govermental Syrian forces fire into sky as celebrating their victory against rebels in eastern Aleppo, Syria

Govermental Syrian forces fire into sky as celebrating their victory against rebels in eastern Aleppo, Syria December 12,2016. REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

“MELTDOWN OF HUMANITY”

The rout of rebels from their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo has sparked a mass flight of civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people as human shields”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the 15-member U.N. Security Council at 12 p.m. (1700 GMT) at the request of Britain and France. France said it had called for a meeting to focus on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

Colville said the rebel-held area was “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometer, adding its capture was imminent.

The Syrian army and its allies could declare victory at any moment, a Syrian military source had said, predicting the final fall of the rebel enclave on Tuesday or Wednesday, after insurgent defenses collapsed on Monday.

(Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Pravin Char and Peter Millership)

Syrian Rebels battle each other north of Aleppo

People walk past rubble of damaged buildings in a rebel-held besieged area in Aleppo, Syria

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian insurgents clashed in a town near the Turkish border on Monday as inter-rebel tensions spilled over, playing to President Bashar al-Assad’s advantage with the government tightening its grip on rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

The confrontation in Azaz pitted a prominent Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group, the Levant Front, against factions that also fight under the FSA banner and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, sources on both sides and a group that reports on the war said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said headquarters and checkpoints held by the Levant Front had been seized in the fighting, which a Levant Front official said had forced the group to withdraw some fighters from a battle with Islamic State in the nearby city of al-Bab.

The fighting in Azaz, some 60 km (35 miles) north of Aleppo, also prompted Turkey, which backs a number of FSA rebel groups, to close the border crossing at Oncupinar. Adjacent to Bab al-Salam in Syria, it is a major conduit for traffic between opposition-held northern Syria and Turkey.

Rebel officials described the fighting as a blow to the opposition in the Aleppo region. Many of the insurgent groups operating in the Azaz area also have a presence in eastern Aleppo, where rebel groups had also clashed on Nov 2.

The Syrian army backed by Russian air strikes and Shi’ite militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah have been waging a fierce campaign against the insurgents in the city, before the war the country’s most populous.

MAJOR WEAKNESS

Rebel infighting has been a major weakness of the anti-Assad revolt since its earliest days. Rebel factions have been divided by both ideology and local power struggles.

Jihadist groups have crushed less well-armed nationalist factions, while Islamists have also fought each other, notably in the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus this year.

Sources on opposing sides of Monday’s fighting gave different accounts of events.

The Levant Front official described it as an attack on his group by rivals including the Nour al-Din al-Zinki faction,

which also fights under the FSA banner but has coordinated closely with Islamist groups. He called the confrontation a potentially lethal blow to the rebellion.

A source on the other side of the conflict said groups including Ahrar al-Sham and the Zinki group had launched a campaign to “cleanse” northern Syria of groups that were guilty of acting like gangs. A statement declaring the start of the campaign identified targets including the leader of the Levant Front and the head of its security office.

Earlier this month, rebel factions clashed in eastern Aleppo itself. In that clash, the Zinki group and the allied jihadist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham tried to crush the Fastaqim faction, which is part of the FSA.

Fateh al-Sham changed its name from the Nusra Front in July and said it was breaking its formal allegiance to al Qaeda. Officials from Ahrar al-Sham did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Syrian army and its allies have completely encircled eastern Aleppo this year, and in September launched a major campaign aimed at seizing the insurgent-held areas.

Rebels launched a counter attack last month, aimed at the city’s government-held western districts. But that has failed, with the army and its allies on Saturday recapturing the last piece of territory they had lost.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by John Stonestreet)