Battle for last Islamic State enclave edges toward its end

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria looked close to an end on Wednesday, with no sign of clashes as U.S.-backed fighters said they were combing the area for hidden jihadists.

Reuters reporters overlooking Baghouz from a hill on the bank of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border said the area was calm, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia searched for tunnels and landmines, an SDF official said.

The SDF on Tuesday captured an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave, pushing diehard fighters onto a sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.

There was no immediate update from the SDF on Wednesday on the fate of these remaining militants. A group of women and children were seen being evacuated from the Baghouz area.

Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.

(GRAPHIC: How Islamic State lost Syria – https://tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.

Some of the group’s fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.

For the SDF, it would cap a four-year military campaign in which its fighters drove Islamic State from swathes of northeastern Syria with the help of a U.S.-led coalition, taking the city of Raqqa after a months-long battle in 2017.

The group was also forced into retreat by numerous other local and foreign forces roused by its public displays of bloodletting and the attacks it plotted abroad.

Its enclave at Baghouz was the last part of the massive territory it suddenly seized in 2014, straddling swathes of Iraq and Syria, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate.

His fate, along with other Islamic State leaders, is not known, though the United States has said it believes him to be in Iraq.

The group’s supporters in Baghouz faced months of siege, pounded by coalition air strikes. Over the past two months, some 60,000 people poured out of the shrinking IS territory.

About half of that number were civilians, the SDF has said, including some Islamic State victims such as enslaved women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious community.

The others were the group’s supporters including about 5,000 fighters. In recent days, as the enclave shrank, the SDF said hundreds more of them started to surrender, or were captured trying to escape.

Most of those who left were moved to displacement camps in northeast Syria. The fighters were detained, but the SDF has urged foreign countries to take back their citizens, causing a dilemma for some Western states who see them as a threat.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Baghouz, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

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)

Exclusive: Bangladesh protests over Myanmar’s suspected landmine use near border

FILE PHOTO: A Rohingya man carrying his belongings approaches the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Bandarban, an area under Cox's Bazar authority, Bangladesh, August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Krishna N. Das

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh lodged a protest after it said Myanmar had laid landmines near the border between the two countries, government officials said on Wednesday, amid growing tensions over the huge influx of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar.

An army crackdown triggered by an attack on Aug. 25 by Rohingya insurgents on Myanmar security forces has led to the killing of at least 400 people and the exodus of nearly 125,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, leading to a major humanitarian crisis.

When asked whether Bangladesh had lodged the complaint, Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said “yes” without elaborating. Three other government sources confirmed that a protest note was faxed to Myanmar in the morning saying the Buddhist-majority country was violating international norms.

“Bangladesh has expressed great concern to Myanmar about the explosions very close to the border,” a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. The source asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

A Myanmar military source said landmines were laid along the border in the 1990s to prevent trespassing and the military had since tried to remove them. But none had been planted recently.

Two Bangladeshi sources told Reuters they believed Myanmar security forces were putting the landmines in their territory along the barbed-wire fence between a series of border pillars. Both sources said Bangladesh learned about the landmines mainly through photographic evidence and informers.

“Our forces have also seen three to four groups working near the barbed wire fence, putting something into the ground,” one of the sources said. “We then confirmed with our informers that they were laying land mines.”

The sources did not clarify if the groups were in uniform, but added that they were sure they were not Rohingya insurgents.

Manzurul Hassan Khan, a Bangladesh border guard officer, told Reuters earlier that two blasts were heard on Tuesday on the Myanmar side, after two on Monday fueled speculation that Myanmar forces had laid land mines.

One boy had his left leg blown off on Tuesday near a border crossing before being brought to Bangladesh for treatment, while another boy suffered minor injuries, Khan said, adding that the blast could have been a mine explosion.

A Rohingya refugee who went to the site of the blast on Monday – on a footpath near where civilians fleeing violence are huddled in a no man’s land on the border – filmed what appeared to be a mine: a metal disc about 10 centimeters (4 inches) in diameter partially buried in the mud. He said he believed there were two more such devices buried in the ground.

Two refugees also told Reuters they saw members of the Myanmar army around the site in the immediate period preceding the Monday blasts, which occurred around 2:25 p.m.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the planted devices were land mines and that there was any link to the Myanmar army.

The Myanmar army has not commented on the blasts near the border. Zaw Htay, the spokesman for Myanmar’s national leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was not immediately available for comment.

On Monday, he told Reuters clarification was needed to determine “where did it explode, who can go there and who laid those land mines. Who can surely say those mines were not laid by the terrorists?”

The Bangladesh interior ministry secretary, Mostafa Kamal Uddin, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The border pillars mentioned by the Dhaka-based sources mark the boundaries of the two countries, along which Myanmar has a portion of barbed wire fencing. Most of the two countries’ 217-km-long border is porous.

“They are not doing anything on Bangladeshi soil,” said one of the sources. “But we have not seen such laying of land mines in the border before.”

Myanmar, which was under military rule until recently and is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, is one of the few countries that have not signed the 1997 U.N. Mine Ban Treaty.

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone in YANGON and Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Editing by Philip McClellan and Nick Macfie)

Explosions rock Myanmar area near Bangladesh border amid Rohingya exodus

Rohingya refugees sit as they are temporarily held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

By Simon Lewis and Wa Lone

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) – Two blasts rocked an area on the Myanmar side of the border with Bangladesh on Monday, accompanied by the sound of gunfire and thick black smoke, as violence that has sent nearly 90,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh showed no sign of easing.

Bangladeshi border guards said a woman lost a leg from a blast about 50 meters inside Myanmar and was carried into Bangladesh to get treatment. Reuters reporters heard explosions and saw black smoke rising near a Myanmar village.

The latest violence in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state began on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of villagers to Bangladesh.

A Rohingya refugee who went to the site of the blast – on a footpath near where civilians fleeing violence are huddled in no man’s land on the border – filmed what appeared to be a mine: a metal disc about 10 centimeters (3.94 inches) in diameter partially buried in the mud. He said he believed there were two more such devices buried in the ground.

Bangladeshi border guards said they believed the injured woman stepped on an anti-personnel mine, although that was not confirmed.

Two refugees also told Reuters they saw members of the Myanmar army around the site in the immediate period preceding the blasts which occurred around 2:25 p.m.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the planted devices were landmines and that there was any link to the Myanmar army.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The spokesman for Myanmar’s national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Zaw Htay, said that a clarification was needed to determine “where did it explode, who can go there and who laid those land mines. Who can surely say those mines were not laid by the terrorists?”

“There are so many questions. I would like to say that it is not solid news-writing if you write based on someone talking nonsense on the side of the road,” said Zaw Htay.

The treatment of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of not speaking out for the minority that has long complained of persecution.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come under increasing diplomatic pressure from countries with large Muslim populations such as Turkey and Pakistan to protect Rohingya civilians.

Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” responsible for a string of attacks on police posts and the army since last October.

On Monday, Reuters reporters saw fires and heard gunshots before the explosions near the Myanmar village of Taung Pyo Let Way.

 

‘NO FOOD … NO TREATMENT’

Myanmar officials blamed Rohingya militants for the burning of homes and civilian deaths but rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh say the Myanmar army is trying to force Rohingya out with a campaign of arson and killings.

The number of those crossing the border into Bangladesh – 87,000 – surpassed the number who escaped Myanmar after a series of much smaller insurgent attacks last October that set off a military operation. That operation has led to accusations of serious human rights abuses.

The newest estimate, based on calculations by U.N. workers in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar, takes to about 174,000 the total number of Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh since October.

The new arrivals have strained aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.

“We are trying to build houses here, but there isn’t enough space,” said Mohammed Hussein, 25, who was still looking for a place to stay after fleeing Myanmar four days ago.

“No non-government organizations came here. We have no food. Some women gave birth on the roadside. Sick children have no treatment.”

Hundreds of Rohingya milled beside the road while others slung tarpaulins over bamboo frames to make shelters against the monsoon rain.

Among new arrivals, about 16,000 are school-age children and more than 5,000 are under the age of five who need vaccine coverage, aid workers said over the weekend.

 

INTERNATIONAL ANGER

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who said on Friday that violence against Myanmar’s Muslims amounted to genocide, last week called Bangladesh’s President Abdul Hamid to offer help in sheltering the Rohingya, Dhaka said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met Suu Kyi and other officials in Myanmar on Monday, to urge a halt to the violence.

Suu Kyi’s office said Marsudi expressed the Indonesian government’s “support of the activities of the Myanmar government for the stability, peace and development of Rakhine state”.

They also discussed humanitarian aid and the two countries would collaborate for the development of the state, Suu Kyi’s office said without giving further details.

There were more anti-Myanmar protests in Jakarta on Monday.

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on Suu Kyi to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya, saying “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

In addition to tens of thousands of Rohingya, more than 11,700 “ethnic residents” had been evacuated from northern Rakhine state, the Myanmar government has said, referring to non-Muslims.

The army said on Sunday Rohingya insurgents had set fire to monasteries, images of Buddha as well as schools and houses in the north of Rakhine state. It posted images of destroyed Buddha statues.

 

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR’; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel, Martin Howell)

 

North Korea lays new landmines near border truce village: report

truce village between North and South Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has laid landmines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported on Tuesday, as tension rose on the divided peninsula after the start of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and a string of rocket tests since then, regards the joint exercises as akin to war and has threatened to launch a military strike in retaliation.

North Korea had laid the mines near the DMZ “truce village” of Panmunjom, which is controlled by both of the Koreas and the U.S. military.

“North Korean’s military was seen laying several landmines last week on the North’s side of the Bridge of No Return,” Yonhap quoted an unidentified South Korean government source as saying.

The bridge crosses over a river along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) border, near the scene of a 1976 attack by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers in which two U.S. soldiers were killed.

Yonhap said the mines were laid on the North’s side of the MDL border.

The DMZ is littered with mines planted over the years but neither side is meant to lay new ones. Last year, two South Korean soldiers were wounded by what the South said were mines laid by the North. The North expressed regret for the incident, without directly admitting to planting them.

South Korea’s defense ministry declined to comment on the Yonhap report of new mines saying the area was under the control of the U.N. Command.

The U.N. Command, headed by the U.S. military, which jointly supervises security in Panmunjom with the North, expressed concern about activities by the North’s military but did not confirm the report about mines.

“The presence of any device or munition on or near the bridge seriously jeopardizes the safety” of people near the border, the U.N. Command said in a statement.

It declined to speculate on the reason for recent unspecified activity by the North’s military.

Yonhap cited the government source as saying the mines may have been laid to prevent North Korean soldiers from defecting to the South.

On Monday, the North’s military said it was prepared to launch a retaliatory strike against the South and the United States in response to the annual drills called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, in which about 25,000 U.S. troops are participating.

Tension has been inflamed in recent days by the defection of a senior North Korean diplomat to the South in an embarrassing blow to the North.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel)