U.S. Navy jets begin sorties against IS in Syria from Mediterranean

F/A-18 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, May 5, 2018. Picture taken May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Karolina Tagaris

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Reuters) – A U.S. naval strike force led by aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman began sorties on May 3 against Islamic State in Syria, continuing missions by a U.S.-led coalition against the militants.

The force joined the U.S. Sixth Fleet on April 18, nearly a week after the United States, Britain and France launched air strikes targeting what Western powers said were Syrian chemical weapons installations.

The Navy said it was a scheduled deployment to support coalition partners, NATO allies and U.S. national security interests.

“We commenced combat operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” Truman’s commanding officer Captain Nicholas Dienna said, referring to the coalition operation launched in 2014 against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“That operation demonstrates … our resolve to our partners and allies in the region and our continuing fight to eliminate ISIS and their impact to the region,” he said.

Strike fighter squadrons commenced sorties over Syria from the eastern Mediterranean on May 3, the Navy said in a statement.

The most recent aircraft carrier strike group to operate in the sixth fleet was the USS George H.W. Bush which last conducted combat operations from the eastern Mediterranean Sea in July 2017.

The Truman is capable of carrying 90 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. It currently has “60 or so” aircraft on board, Truman’s air department officer Commander Steven Djunaedi said.

Several fighter jets were catapulted in sequence on Friday and Saturday from the Truman’s 4.5-acre flight deck and thundered into the sky, a Reuters witness said.

The strike group includes the cruiser USS Normandy and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, Farragut, Forrest Sherman and Bulkeley.

“Our fundamental job, by our presence even alone, is to increase the security and stability here in this part of the world,” Dienna said.

The Nimitz-class carrier was at the center of the U.S. Navy’s strikes against Islamic State in 2016. It returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, after an extended eight-month deployment.

Officials on board would not say how long its latest deployment was expected to last.

“We’ll be here as long as they need us and we’ll move on when they decide we need to go do something else,” the strike group’s commander Rear Admiral Gene Black said.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight the group.

April’s intervention was the biggest by Western countries against President Bashar Assad and his ally Russia. The countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

On Friday, the U.S. Navy said it was re-establishing its Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Asked to comment on relations with the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, Dienna said: “We’ve had numerous interactions thus far with the Russians across the Mediterranean.

“I have been involved in virtually all of them and every single one of those has been professional, it’s been courteous and it’s been in accordance with international law.”

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.S. signals open-ended presence in Syria, seeks patience on Assad’s removal

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pictured after a photo op during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, January 16, 2018.

By David Brunnstrom

PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent Islamic State’s resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran’s influence.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, called for “patience” on Assad’s departure – the clearest indication yet of an acknowledgment that Russia and Iran have bolstered Assad and that he is unlikely to leave power immediately.

Billed as the Trump administration’s new strategy on Syria, the announcement will prolong the risks and redefine the mission for the U.S. military, which has for years sought to define its operations in Syria along more narrow lines of battling Islamic State and has about 2,000 U.S. ground forces in the country.

While much of the U.S. strategy would focus on diplomatic efforts, Tillerson said:

“But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” while acknowledging many Americans’ skepticism of military involvement in conflicts abroad, Tillerson said.

U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.

Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had previously disclosed elements of the policy but Tillerson’s speech was meant to formalize and clearly define it.

A U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria, Tillerson said.

As candidate, U.S. President Donald Trump was critical of his predecessors’ military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As president, however, Trump has had to commit to an open-ended presence in Afghanistan and, now, Syria.

The transition to what appears to be open-ended stability operations in Syria could leave those U.S.-backed forces vulnerable to shifting alliances, power struggles and miscommunications as Assad’s allies and enemies vie for greater control of post-war Syria.

After nearly seven years of war, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and a humanitarian disaster, Tillerson asked nations to keep up economic pressure on Assad but provide aid to areas no longer under Islamic State’s control.

Tillerson said free, transparent elections in which the Syrian diaspora participate “will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership,” Tillerson said.

“Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come,” he said.

Syrian opposition member Hadi al-Bahra welcomed Tillerson’s announcement but urged more details.

“This is the first time Washington has said clearly it has U.S. interests in Syria that it is ready to defend,” Bahra told Reuters.

However, he said, more clarity was needed on how Washington will force the implementation of the political process and how it “will force the Assad regime into accepting a political settlement that leads to establishing a safe and neutral environment that leads to a transition through free and fair elections.”

“SWISS CHEESE”

The top U.S. diplomat said Washington would carry out “stabilization initiatives” such as clearing landmines and restoring basic utilities in areas no longer under Islamic State control, while making clear that “‘stabilization’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential.”

Tillerson said the United States would “vigorously support” a United Nations process to end the conflict, a so-far stalled process, and called on Russia, a main supporter of Assad, to “put new levels of pressure” on the Syrian government to “credibly engage” with U.N. peace efforts.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria said on Wednesday he had invited the Syrian government and opposition to a special meeting next week in Vienna.

But it was not immediately clear how or why Moscow would heed Washington’s oft-repeated demands.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who served as a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said that while Tillerson set down the broad parameters of a first comprehensive U.S. strategy for Syria, he left major questions unanswered.

“It’s full of holes like Swiss cheese, but before we just had the holes,” said Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Key questions that Tillerson left unaddressed, he continued, included how long Assad should remain in power and whether he would play a role in any political transition.

Tillerson praised Turkey’s role in taking on Islamic State. Ties between the two countries have been strained over U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic forces, the mainly Kurdish-led militias fighting Islamic State in northern Syria with the help of U.S. forces.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Sunday it was working with the SDF to set up a 30,000-strong force that would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria.

Assad responded by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from Syria. Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control, and Turkey described the force as a “terror army.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish)

New York woman charged with laundering money to help Islamic State

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors said Thursday that they had charged a Long Island, New York woman with laundering more than $85,000 in fraudulently obtained money through Bitcoin to help Islamic State.

Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, was arrested Wednesday on charges of bank fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, the office of Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde in Brooklyn announced. Shahnaz pleaded not guilty on Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen Tomlinson in Central Islip, New York, according to John Marzulli, a spokesman for Rohde’s office.

A lawyer for Shahnaz, Steve Zissou, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said that between March and July of this year, Shahnaz obtained a loan and multiple credit cards by making false representations to financial institutions, and used them to buy Bitcoin.

They said she then laundered the money through illicit transactions involving shell companies in Pakistan, China and Turkey with the ultimate goal of using the money to benefit Islamic State.

In July, prosecutors said, Shahnaz sought to travel to Syria, but was stopped and questioned by law enforcement at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she tried to board a flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.

The most serious charge, bank fraud, carries 30 years in prison, according to Rohde’s office.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

Homegrown attacks rising worry in U.S. as Islamic State weakens abroad

Homegrown attacks rising worry in U.S. as Islamic State weakens abroad

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The online video’s message was clear: Supporters of Islamic State who could not travel overseas to join the militant group should carry out attacks wherever they were in the United States or Europe.

Bangladeshi immigrant Akayed Ullah, 27, followed those instructions on Monday when he tried to set off a homemade bomb in one of New York’s busiest commuter hubs, in an attack that illustrates the difficulty of stopping “do-it-yourself” attacks by radicals who act alone.

While harder to stop than attacks coordinated by multiple people – whose communications may be more easily monitored by law enforcement or intelligence agencies – they also tend to do less damage. Ullah was the person most seriously wounded when his bomb ignited but did not detonate in an underground passageway linking the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Times Square subway statin; three others sustained lesser injuries.

“They tend to be less organized and less deadly,” said Seamus Hughes, a former adviser at the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. “That’s because you’re dealing with more, for lack of a better word, amateurs.”

The do-it-yourself style of attack is on the rise in the United States, according to research by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where Hughes is deputy director.

The United States has seen 19 attacks perpetrated by Islamic State-inspired people since the group declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after capturing broad swaths of Iraq and Syria. Of those, 12 occurred in 2016 and 2017, almost twice as many as in the two preceding years.

“You’re going to see continued numbers of plots and, unfortunately, attacks,” Hughes said.

Ullah began immersing himself in Islamic State propaganda as early as 2014, three years after he arrived in the United States as a legal immigrant, according to federal prosecutors who charged him with terrorism offenses. They said in court papers that Ullah’s computer records showed that he viewed ISIS videos urging supporters of the group to launch attacks where they lived.

Experts said the success of Western allies in retaking most of Islamic State’s territory could inspire more attacks out of anger or vengeance.

“No group has been as successful at drawing people into its perverse ideology as ISIS,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said in congressional testimony last week. “Through the internet, terrorists overseas now have access into our local communities to target and recruit our citizens.”

National security analysts generally divide such perpetrators into three broad categories.

Some attackers act at the direction of a group, like the Islamic State-backed militants who carried out coordinated attacks in Paris in 2015, killing 130; others have some limited contact with an organization but act largely on their own. A third type has no communication with a group but engage in violence after being radicalized by online propaganda.

It is easier for trained, battle-hardened ISIS fighters to travel from the Middle East to Europe than for them to reach the United States. That helps explain why U.S. attacks have largely been the work of “self-made” terrorists, said Brandeis University professor and radicalization expert Jytte Klausen.

“In these recent cases, we’ve seen very few indications that there was any type of direct training,” Klausen said.

Self-directed perpetrators are the hardest for investigators to identify. Their ranks appear to include Ullah, as well as two other recent New York attackers: Ahmad Rahimi, the man who injured 30 with a homemade bomb in Manhattan in September 2016, and Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight by speeding a rental truck down a bike lane in October.

While that type of attacker typically is less destructive, there are important exceptions. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people, and Omar Mateen gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year.

“A single individual or two can still create a lot of damage,” said Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who studies terrorism. “But they’re not able to wage sustained terrorist campaigns.”

(This story has been refiled to restore dropped word “as” in 6th paragraph)

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Philippine Congress gives Duterte green light to extend martial law in south

Philippine Congress gives Duterte green light to extend martial law in south

By Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to extend martial law for all of next year in Mindanao, an island he called a “flashpoint for trouble” and atrocities by Islamist and communist rebels.

The extension, until Dec. 31 next year, would mark the longest period of martial law since the 1970s era of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, one of the darkest and most oppressive chapters of the country’s recent history.

At a joint session of Congress, 240 out of 267 lawmakers agreed with Duterte on the need for tough measures to stop Muslim militants recruiting fighters and preparing a new wave of attacks after occupying Marawi City for five months this year.

Duterte thanked Congress for its support and said the communist New People’s Army and militants loyal to Islamic State were equally threatening.

“There is a need for me to come up with something, otherwise Mindanao will blow apart,” he told reporters.

The government worries that mountainous, jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea that is home to the Muslim minority, could attract international extremists.

The Marawi City assault was the Philippines’ biggest security crisis in decades, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly militants. The armed forces took 154 days to win the battle, and 185 extremists are estimated to still be at large.

Duterte enjoys massive public support, but his frequent threats to expand martial law are contentious in a country that suffered nine years of oppression under Marcos before his ouster in 1986.

AUTHORITARIAN STREAK

Marcos was accused of inventing security threats to justify tightening his grip on power and crushing detractors. Duterte has frequently praised the leadership of Marcos.

Duterte’s opponents lament his authoritarian streak and speculate that his end game is to emulate Marcos by declaring martial law nationwide, as he has often threatened.

Asked several times on Wednesday if he was prepared to go that far, he said, “It depends on the enemies of the state.”

Minority lawmakers said the extension of martial law was illegal because Duterte had cited security threats, rather than rebellion or invasion, the conditions under which martial law can be invoked.

Duterte scoffed at the notion that the conflict in Mindanao, his home for most of his life, did not constitute rebellion.

“There is actually rebellion in Mindnanao, it is ongoing, the fighting is going on,” he said.

Congressman Tom Villarin said martial law would cost a huge amount of money, calling broad support for it a “death blow to our democracy”.

“We have made martial law the new normal, absent of any proof of invasion or rebellion,” he said. “Martial law now desensitizes the people to wrongly equate it with good governance and democracy.”

In his request to Congress on Monday, Duterte had argued that a little-known operative active in Mindanao, Abu Turaifie, was “said to be” Islamic State’s potential point man in Southeast Asia.

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Seeking to extend martial law in Philippine south, Duterte says militants regrouping

Seeking to extend martial law in Philippine south, Duterte says militants regrouping

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday asked Congress to extend martial law on the southern island of Mindanao for a year, arguing that Islamist militants have been regrouping since a five-month urban conflict ended there in October.

He said fighters who survived the battle for Marawi City were determined to establish a Southeast Asian ‘wilayat’ – or governorate – for Islamic State and named militant Abu Turaifie as potentially the radical group’s next regional “emir”.

The previous “emir”, Isnilon Hapilon, and another rebel commander loyal to Islamic State were killed in October as the military closed in on fighters who had occupied the heart of Marawi since May 23.

More than 1,100 people – mostly militants – were killed and 350,000 displaced by the Marawi unrest.

In his letter to the Senate and House of Representatives, Duterte said militants were radicalizing and recruiting local people, reorganizing themselves and building their finances.

“These activities are geared towards the conduct of intensified atrocities and armed public uprisings,” he said, adding that they were aimed at establishing a global Islamic caliphate and a ‘wilayat’, not only in the Philippines but the whole of Southeast Asia.

A group led by Turaifie – who heads a splinter group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and, according to Duterte, is “said to be Hapilon’s potential successor” – was planning bombings in the Cotabato province south of Marawi.

Intelligence reports indicate that militants are plotting to attack another city, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said on Monday.

Duterte placed restive Mindanao, which has a population of 22 million, under military rule after the attack on Marawi, and martial law was due to be lifted there on Dec. 31.

Lawmakers will vote on his request for a one-year extension at a joint session on Wednesday, Congress majority leader Rodolfo Farinas told reporters.

Continuing martial law beyond the initial 60-day limit requires lawmakers’ approval, but the constitution does not limit any extensions.

Martial law allows for tougher surveillance and arrests without warrant, giving security forces greater rein to go after suspected extremist financiers and facilitators.

Duterte has long warned that Mindanao faced contamination by Islamic State, and experts say Muslim parts of the predominantly Catholic southern Philippines are fertile ground for expansion, due to their history of marginalization and neglect.

Critics of Duterte, who has held open the possibility of extending military rule to the whole country, have slammed the imposition of martial law in Mindanao as a misuse of power and evidence of the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, bringing back memories of the 1970s rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of exaggerating security threats to justify harsh measures to suppress dissent.

Human rights group Karapatan questioned why martial law should be extended in Mindanao nearly two months after the military’s victory in Marawi City.

“This is a dangerous precedent that inches the entire country closer to a nationwide declaration of martial rule,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Iraqi PM says Islamic State completely ‘evicted’ from Iraq

Iraqi PM says Islamic State completely 'evicted' from Iraq

By Maher Chmaytelli and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday that Iraqi forces had driven the last remnants of Islamic State from the country, three years after the militant group captured about a third of Iraq’s territory.

The Iraqi forces recaptured the last areas still under IS control along the border with Syria, state television quoted Abadi as telling an Arab media conference in Baghdad.

“Commander-in-Chief @HaiderAlAbadi announces that Iraq’s armed forces have secured the western desert & the entire Iraq Syria border, says this marks the end of the war against Daesh terrorists who have been completely defeated and evicted from Iraq,” the federal government’s official account tweeted.

In a separate tweet later, Abadi said: “Our heroic armed forces have now secured the entire length of the Iraq-Syria border. We defeated Daesh through our unity and sacrifice for the nation. Long live Iraq and its people.”

The U.S.-led coalition that has been supporting Iraqi force against Islamic State tweeted its congratulations.

“The Coalition congratulate the people of Iraq on their significant victory against #Daesh. We stand by them as they set the conditions for a secure and prosperous #futureiraq,” said the tweet. Daesh is the Arabic name for Islamic State.

Last month Iraqi forces captured Rawa, the last remaining town under Islamic State control, near the Syrian border.

Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq, fell in July after a grueling nine-month campaign backed by a U.S.-led coalition that saw much of the northern Iraqi city destroyed.

Islamic State’s Syrian capital Raqqa also fell to a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition in September.

The forces fighting Islamic State in both countries now expect a new phase of guerrilla warfare, a tactic the militants have already shown themselves capable of.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in 2014 had declared in Mosul the founding of a new Islamic caliphate, released an audio recording on Sept. 28 that indicated he was alive, after several reports he had been killed. He urged his followers to keep up the fight despite setbacks.

He is believed to be hiding in the stretch of desert in the border area.

Driven from its two de facto capitals, Islamic State was progressively squeezed this year into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert, straddling the frontier between the two countries, by enemies that include most regional states and global powers.

In Iraq, the group confronted U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces and Iranian-trained paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

By Dominic Evans and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A high-level defector from Kurdish-led forces that captured the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State has recanted his account of the city’s fall, saying thousands of IS fighters – many more than first reported – left under a secret, U.S.-approved deal.

Talal Silo, a former commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the SDF arranged to bus all remaining Islamic State militants out of Raqqa even though it said at the time it was battling diehard foreign jihadists in the city.

U.S. officials described Silo’s comments as “false and contrived” but a security official in Turkey, where Silo defected three weeks ago, gave a similar account of Islamic State’s defeat in its Syrian stronghold. Turkey has been at odds with Washington over U.S. backing for the Kurdish forces who led the fight for Raqqa.

Silo was the SDF spokesman and one of the officials who told the media in mid-October – when the deal was reached – that fewer than 300 fighters left Raqqa with their families while others would fight on.

However, he told Reuters in an interview that the number of fighters who were allowed to go was far higher and the account of a last-ditch battle was a fiction designed to keep journalists away while the evacuation took place.

He said a U.S. official in the international coalition against Islamic State, whom he did not identify, approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.

At the time there were conflicting accounts of whether or not foreign Islamic State fighters had been allowed to leave Raqqa. The BBC later reported that one of the drivers in the exodus described a convoy of up to 7 km (4 miles) long made up of 50 trucks, 13 buses and 100 Islamic State vehicles, packed with fighters and ammunition.

The Turkish government has expressed concern that some fighters who left Raqqa could have been smuggled across the border into Turkey and could try to launch attacks there or in the West.

“Agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” Silo said, adding that all but about 500 were fighters.

He said they headed east to Islamic State-controlled areas around Deir al-Zor, where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.

For three days the SDF banned people from going to Raqqa, saying fighting was in progress to deal with militants who had not given themselves up.

“It was all theater,” Silo said.

“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir al-Zor”, he said, adding that the agreement was endorsed by the United States which wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.

U.S. AT ODDS WITH ALLY TURKEY

It was not clear where the evacuees from Raqqa ended up.

The Syrian Democratic Forces deny that Islamic State fighters were able to leave Raqqa for Deir al-Zor, and the U.S.-led military coalition which backs the SDF said it “does not make deals with terrorists”.

“The coalition utterly refutes any false accusations from any source that suggests the coalition’s collusion with ISIS,” it said in a statement.

However, a Turkish security official said that many more Islamic State personnel left Raqqa than was acknowledged. “Statements that the U.S. or the coalition were engaged in big conflicts in Raqqa are not true,” the official added.

He told Reuters Turkey believed those accounts were aimed at diverting attention from the departure of Islamic State members, and complained that Turkey had been kept in the dark.

Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington’s and a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has disagreed sharply with the United States over its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters who spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Raqqa.

Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Silo spoke to Reuters in a secure location on the edge of Ankara in the presence of Turkish security officers. He said the security was for his own protection and he denied SDF assertions that he had been pressured into defecting by Turkey, where his children live.

A member of Syria’s Turkmen minority, Silo said his decision to speak out now was based on disillusionment with the structure of the SDF, which was dominated by Kurdish YPG fighters at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian allies, as well as the outcome in Raqqa, where he said a city had been destroyed but not the enemy.

The Raqqa talks took place between a Kurdish SDF commander, Sahin Cilo, and an intermediary from Islamic State whose brother-in-law was the Islamic State “emir” in Raqqa, Silo said.

After they reached agreement Cilo headed to a U.S. military base near the village of Jalabiya. “He came back with the agreement of the U.S. administration for those terrorists to head to Deir al-Zor,” Silo said.

The coalition said two weeks ago that one of its leaders was present at the talks but not an active participant in the deal which it said was reached “despite explicit coalition disagreement with letting armed ISIS terrorists leave Raqqa”.

(Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood)

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

Russian military: mission accomplished, Islamic State defeated in Syria

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s military said on Thursday it had accomplished its mission of defeating Islamic State in Syria, and there were no remaining settlements there under the group’s control.

Russian bombers had used unprecedented force in the final stages to finish off the militant group, a senior Russian officer said.

“The mission to defeat bandit units of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the territory of Syria, carried out by the armed forces of the Russian Federation, has been accomplished,” Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, head of the general staff’s operations, said on Rossiya 24 TV channel.

Syrian government forces were now combing and de-mining areas where Islamic State had had their strongholds, he said.

“The final stage of the defeat of the terrorists was accompanied by the unprecedented deployment and intense combat use of Russia’s air force,” he said. The air strikes included 14 sorties of groups of long-range bombers from Russia made in the past month, he said.

Russia’s military deployed in Syria would now focus on preserving ceasefires and restoring peaceful life, he said.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth)

Bus bomb kills eight in Syria’s Homs city: state media

Bus bomb kills eight in Syria's Homs city: state media

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A bomb blast killed eight people and injured 16 others on a bus in Syria’s Homs on Tuesday, state media said, citing the city’s health authority.

Islamic State claimed the attack, saying the blast killed 11 members of the Syrian army, its official news agency AMAQ said.

Many of the passengers were university students, Homs Governor Talal Barazi told state-run Ikhbariya TV. The blast in the government-held city hit the Akrama district, near al-Baath university.

Footage showed people crowding around the burned shell of a vehicle in the middle of a street. State television said “a bomb that terrorists planted in a passenger bus exploded”.

Islamic State militants had claimed responsibility for a similar attack in Homs in May, when a car bomb killed four people and injured 32 others.

A string of bombings have struck cities under government control in Syria this year, including the capital Damascus. The Tahrir al-Sham alliance — led by fighters formerly linked to al-Qaeda — has also claimed some of the deadly attacks.

“Security agencies are constantly chasing sleeper cells,” the Homs police chief said on Ikhbariya. “Today, it could be a sleeper cell or it could be an infiltration.”

Barazi, the governor, said the state’s enemies were trying to target stability as “the stage of victory” drew near.

The city of Homs went back under full government control in May, for the first time since the onset of Syria’s conflict more than six years ago. Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians were evacuated from the city’s last opposition district, al-Waer, which the army and allied forces had besieged.

With the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias, the Damascus government has pushed back rebel factions in western Syria, shoring up its rule over the main urban centers. The army and allied forces then marched eastwards against Islamic State militants this year.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Catherine Evans)