U.N. fears chemical weapons in Syria battle with ‘10,000 terrorists’

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows part of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Russia, Iran, and Turkey on Thursday to forestall a battle in Syria’s Idlib province which would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 fighters designated by the U.N. as terrorists, who he said belonged to the al-Nusra Front and al Qaeda.

There could be no justification to use heavy weapons against them in densely populated areas, he said. Miscalculations could lead to unintended consequences, including the possible use of chemical weapons.

“Avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

“We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, said: “We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.”

“I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them,” he added, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area in Syria, serving as what the U.N. has called a “dumping ground” for fighters and civilians evacuated from other battles. It is one of the areas that Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to “de-escalate” last year at a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But a source said on Wednesday that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as “a festering abscess”.

“Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors?,” de Mistura said, referring to Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The potential battlefield contains two crucial roads, transport arteries between major Syrian cities, which the Syrian government argues must be made safe. De Mistura asked if it was necessary to create a “worst-case scenario” just to secure Syrian government access to the roads.

It would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could prove to be a “perfect storm”, he said.

“The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EASTERN DERAA PROVINCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL SENDS AID, WON’T OPEN FRONTIER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stopped from joining Islamic State fiance in Syria, teen planned London attack

Rizlaine Boular, aged 22 and sister of Safaa Boular, who has pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts, can be seen in this undated Metropolitan Police handout photograph in London, Britain, June 4, 2018. Metropolitan Police/Handout via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – A London teenager who wanted to attack the British Museum with grenades and firearms after she was prevented from traveling to Syria to marry an Islamic State militant was convicted on Monday of planning acts of terrorism.

Safaa Boular, now 18, had started chatting online to fighter Naweed Husain when she was 16. She had decided to join him in Syria so they could marry, then carry out a suicide attack there while holding hands.

Husain had sent Boular’s older sister, Rizlaine Boular, 3,000 pounds ($4,000) to pay for Safaa’s travel arrangements, but the sisters were arrested in August 2016. They were released on bail but had their passport confiscated.

Safaa Boular continued chatting to Husain, and the pair discussed plans for her to attack the British Museum, one of central London’s top attractions for visitors, with what she called “pineapples” – grenades.

“Safaa Boular’s intention was to cause serious injury and death,” said Sue Hemming of the Crown Prosecution Service.

After Husain was killed in Syria on April 4, 2017, Boular wrote that she wanted to be granted “martyrdom”.

“My heart yearns … to be reunited with my dear husband for the very first time,” she wrote.

Instead, she was arrested eight days later, but her sister Rizlaine took on the planning of an attack on targets in central London, supported by the young women’s mother Mina Dich.

The mother and daughter went on a reconnaissance visit to major landmarks in Westminster on April 25, 2017, and the following day they bought knives from a supermarket. They were arrested a day later.

Rizlaine Boular, 22, and Dich, 44, both pleaded guilty in February to planning acts of terrorism. Their pleas could not previously be reported because of the risk of prejudice to Safaa Boular’s trial by jury.

The trio will be sentenced at a later date.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Suicide bomber kills 14 after Afghan clerics outlaw suicide bombings

Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A motorcycle suicide bomber killed 14 people near a gathering of Muslim clerics in the Afghan capital on Monday after they had issued a fatwa against suicide bombings, officials said, in the latest in a series of attacks to hit Kabul.

The bomb exploded at the entrance to a giant tent, near residential buildings in the west of Kabul, after most the clerics had left, a witness said. Women living nearby were crying as they gathered with their families.

The bomb killed seven clerics, four security officers and three people whose identities were unknown, a senior government official said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which underlines deteriorating security ahead of parliamentary and district council elections set for Oct. 20.

The Taliban, fighting to restore strict Islamic rule after their 2001 ouster at the hands of U.S.-led troops, denied involvement.

More than 2,000 religious scholars from across the country began meeting on Sunday at the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) tent, denouncing years of conflict. They issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, outlawing suicide bombings and demanding that Taliban militants restore peace to allow foreign troops to leave.

A series of bombings in Kabul has killed dozens of people in recent months and shown no sign of easing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

On Wednesday, gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the heavily fortified headquarters of the interior ministry, battling security forces for more than two hours.

In April, two explosions in Kabul killed at least 26 people, including nine journalists who had arrived to report on an initial blast and were targeted by a suicide bomber.

A week earlier, 60 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a voter registration center in the city.

Militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Kabul but security officials say several are much more likely to be the work of the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban.

Provincial cities have also been hit as the Taliban have stepped up operations across the country since they announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive in April.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Gaza militants launch barrages across border, Israel hits back with air strikes

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Palestinian militants on Tuesday launched their heaviest barrages against Israel since the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli aircraft struck back in a surge of fighting after weeks of border violence.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from either side after the Israeli military said more than 25 mortar bombs and rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip in several salvoes in the morning and afternoon.

Israeli planes attacked at least seven facilities belonging to armed group Islamic Jihad and the territory’s dominant Hamas movement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “powerful” response.

The Israeli military said several of the projectiles fired from Gaza were shot down by its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and others landed in empty lots and farmland. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten, damaging its walls and scattering the playground with debris and shrapnel, about an hour before it was scheduled to open for the day.

There was no claim of responsibility from any of the militant groups in Gaza, but the attack comes after Islamic Jihad vowed to take revenge after three of its members were killed by Israeli tank shelling.

Violence has soared along the Gaza frontier in recent weeks during which 116 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire at mass demonstrations for a right of return to ancestral lands now in Israel.

A Hamas spokesman defended Tuesday’s attacks as a “natural response to Israeli crimes”. In similarly phrased remarks, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said “the blood of our people is not cheap”.

Gaza residents said at least seven training or security facilities belonging to Islamic Jihad and Hamas were hit in the Israeli air strikes.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the target sites. The powerful explosions shook buildings nearby, causing panic among rush hour crowds on streets and in markets. The Gazan Ministry of Education said shrapnel from one missile flew into a school.

The Israeli military said it was “carrying out activities in the Gaza Strip”, without elaborating.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was deeply concerned by “the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza towards communities in southern Israel”.

Calling for restraint by all parties, he said at least one of the mortar bombs “hit in the immediate vicinity of a kindergarten and could have killed or injured children”.

Amid international condemnation for its use of lethal force at the mass demonstrations, Israel said many of the dead were militants and that the army was repelling attacks on the border fence. Palestinians and their supporters say most of the protesters were unarmed civilians and Israel was using excessive force against them.

BLOCKADE CHALLENGE

Organizers of the Palestinian border protests launched a boat from Gaza on Tuesday in a challenge to Israel’s maritime blockade of the enclave.

“I want to make a future for myself, I want to live,” said Ehab Abu Armana, 28, before he and 14 other protesters boarded the boat. The Israeli navy was widely expected to stop the vessel, which the organizers said would be accompanied for a short distance by several other boats.

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014 and Israeli settlements built on occupied territory which Palestinians seek for a state have expanded.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Islamic State militants renew loyalty pledge to ‘caliph’ Baghdadi

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State militants have restated their loyalty to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is believed to be their first public pledge of allegiance to him since his “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq collapsed last year.

The group continues to carry out bombings, ambushes and assassinations in both countries, as well as in Libya. However, Baghdadi’s whereabouts have been unknown since the cross-border “caliphate” he declared in 2014 disintegrated with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, its strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively.

“To infuriate and terrorize the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him,” militants said in a statement posted on their social media groups.

Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several governments including Iraq’s on Islamic State affairs, told Reuters this was the first known pledge of loyalty to Baghdadi since Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul in July and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias took Raqqa in November, in both cases backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by David Stamp)

Thousands stream out of Syrian rebel enclave as army advances

A child sleeps in a bag in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians fled a rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta on Thursday and crossed by foot to army positions, the largest such outflow in almost a month of fighting, as troops seized more ground in the opposition stronghold.

Men, women and children walked along a dirt road to army lines on the outskirts of Hammouriyeh town, footage on state TV showed. They carried blankets, bags, and suitcases on their shoulders, some of them weeping. A group crammed in the back of pickup truck waved Syrian state flags.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12,500 people left toward government territory. They came out of Hammouriyeh and Jisreen, which the army advanced into on Thursday, and other towns nearby, the UK-based monitor said.

A Reuters witness and state-run media separately said thousands were leaving.

“Every hour, over 800 people are leaving,” Russia’s RIA news agency cited Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin as saying.

It marked the first time such large crowds of people fled the enclave since the government launched a fierce offensive to recapture it nearly a month ago.

Last week, pro-government forces splintered rebel territory into three separate pockets in eastern Ghouta, the largest opposition stronghold near the capital.

A man gestures as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A man gestures as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Earlier this week, smaller groups of sick and wounded people were evacuated from another zone further north, under a deal the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction that controls it and Russia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 25 aid trucks entered that besieged zone and was headed to the town of Douma. “This is just a little of what these families need,” the ICRC in Syria said in a tweet.

ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said the convoy, which entered through the al-Wafideen crossing with the United Nations, contained food aid for 26,100 people for one month, among other items.

The trucks had 5,220 ICRC food parcels and 5,220 World Food Programme flour bags, Jaquemet said. A parcel can feed a family of five for one month.

“STATE’S EMBRACE”

The Syrian army seized swathes of farmland and factories in the northeast of Hammouriyeh, said a military media unit run by Iran-backed Hezbollah, which fights alongside Damascus.

Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman rebel faction that controls the southern pocket, accused the army in a tweet of storming Hammouriyeh and exploiting the plight of civilians fleeing the bombs.

The Observatory said government warplanes and shelling had pounded the Failaq zone overnight. Air strikes on the town of Zamalka there killed 12 people on Thursday, it said.

The army’s onslaught of air and artillery strikes have battered eastern Ghouta for almost a month, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands more, the United Nations has said.

Damascus and its key ally Moscow say their forces only target armed militants and seek to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians and to stop mortar fire on Damascus. They have accused the factions of preventing residents from leaving, which the fighters deny.

“Praise God…the families are coming out to suitable locations to the state’s embrace,” an army officer said on state television on Thursday.

State TV showed interviews with people crossing the front, in which they said the Ghouta insurgents had not let them out before. They were coming through a crossing in Hammouriyeh, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) would move them to temporary shelters in rural Damascus, it said.

Dozens of people crowded into trucks and tractors waved or chanted as they drove by. The sound of explosions briefly rang out in the background.

One man cried and thanked the Syrian army in the broadcast. Another from Hammouriyeh said militants had attacked somebody who tried raising the Syrian flag there in recent weeks. “They fired at him and brought down the flag,” the unnamed man said.

The Reuters witness said some arrived at government positions in the nearby town of Beit Sawa on wheelchairs.

A Hammouriyeh resident, who gave his name as Abu al-Nour, told Reuters the had been in contact with people in army territory since the offensive started to get civilians out.

“For eight days, we have coordinated with the soldiers, telling them we want to get the civilians out,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Ellen Francis and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Kinda Mekieh and Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Ellen Francisediting by John Stonestreet/Tom Perry/William Maclean)

Battle over bodies rages quietly in Iraq’s Mosul long after Islamic State defeat

Local residents carry bodies taken from the rubble in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 17, 2018

By Raya Jalabi

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The Iraqis who have come home to Mosul’s Old City knew it would be hard living in the rubble left by the battle against Islamic State, but there is one aspect of their surroundings they are finding unbearable seven months on.

“I don’t want my children to have to walk past dead bodies in the street every day,” said Abdelrazaq Abdullah, back with his wife and three children in the quarter where the militants made their last stand in July against Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces.

“We can live without electricity, but we need the government to clear the corpses – they’re spreading disease and reminding us of the horrors we’ve just lived through.”

The stench of death wafts from rubble-filled corners in the dystopian wasteland of what was once West Mosul, from rusting cars still rigged with explosives and from homes abandoned as those who could, fled the bloody end of the militants three-year rule.

The corpses lying in the open on many streets are mainly militants from the extremist Sunni group who retreated to the densely-packed buildings of the Old City, where only the most desperate 5,000 of a pre-war population of 200,000 have so far returned.

Local residents and officials in predominantly Sunni Mosul say there are also thousands of civilian bodies yet to be retrieved from the ruins, a view which has put them at odds with the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

“There are no more civilian bodies to be picked up in Mosul,” said Brig Gen Mohammad Mahmoud, the head of Mosul’s Civil Defence, first responders who report to the Interior Ministry and are tasked with collecting them and issuing death certificates.

The Civil Defence says it had collected 2,585 civilian bodies by mid-January – many of them still unidentified – and has completed operations. It does not want to waste resources on the militants.

“Why should we have to give terrorists a proper burial?” Mahmoud said.

The standoff over the dead threatens to stoke the anger of a population already beaten down by a grueling war and the militants’ draconian rule in a place where Islamic State initially found some sympathy. The final civilian death toll is also a highly sensitive political issue in Iraq and beyond.

 

COMMON GRAVES

The municipal government has had to set up its own specialized team to field requests filed by city residents to find more than 9,000 missing people, most of them last seen in the Old City and assumed to be buried under the rubble.

The team is working through a backlog of 300 bodies, dispatching groups to collect them when it can. But these are just the ones where exact coordinates have been given by neighbors, family members or passers-by who saw the bodies.

“We don’t know how many more are under the rubble,” said Duraid Hazim Mohammed, the head of the municipal team. “If the family or a witness who saw the people die doesn’t call us to tell us exactly how many bodies are at a site, we have no way of knowing if one, five or 100 bodies are buried there.”

Locals say common graves were dug as the battle raged. In the courtyard of Um al-Tisaa mosque in the Old City, they say 100 of their neighbors were buried in groups of shallow graves.

“I buried between 50 and 60 people myself, by hand, as planes flew overhead and bombed the city,” resident Mahmoud Karim said.

Several families have since come to excavate the bodies of their relatives, to bury them in proper cemeteries. “But others, we don’t know where their families are,” Karim said. Some are dead, while others are among the thousands lingering uneasily in refugee camps or paying high rents elsewhere in the city.

The municipal government in Mosul has not given an exact figure for civilian casualties, but its head, Abdelsattar al-Hibbu, told Reuters it coincided with estimates of 10,000 civilians killed during the battle, based on reports of missing people and information from officials about the dead. The toll includes victims of ground fighting and coalition bombing.

Asked for comment, a U.S. coalition spokesman directed Reuters to publicly available reports of incidents. A tally based on those reports showed that the U.S. military acknowledges 321 deaths based on “credible allegations” in dozens of reports of civilian casualties from coalition air strikes conducted near Mosul.

A further 100 reports of casualties from coalition air strikes near Mosul, each referring either to one or to multiple deaths, were still under investigation, the data showed.

(To view an interactive graphic on battle for Mosul, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2rEoDr4)

FIGHTERS

While the most visible problem in Mosul is the corpses of fighters left in the streets, residents say they have also found bodies of suspected Islamic State family members in their homes.

The owner of a house in the Old City, who asked Reuters to withhold his name for fear of retaliation from officials, said he had asked the Civil Defence for weeks to come and remove two bodies from the main bedroom of his basement home.

They were badly decomposed but the clothing was clearly that of a woman and child.

“Civil Defence refused, because they say the woman and child are Daesh,” he said using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They said they’re punishing me because they think I supported Daesh.”

The municipality team has collected 348 bodies of militants so far, but there are many more still around. Residents regularly walk by them to collect water from temporary pumps and on one street, young children played not far from two corpses on a doorstep.

Some of the fighters are recognizable from their clothing, some were identified to the government by neighbors, some yet, were found clutching the weapons they used to make their last stand against surrounding Iraqi and coalition forces.

The municipal government team’s efforts are hampered by very limited funds. On several days in January, they had to halt operations amid a shortage of gloves, masks and body bags.

Some families have resorted to digging out their dead themselves, like 23-year-old Mustafa Nader, who came back to look for his great-uncle Abdullah Ahmed Hussain.

“We weren’t sure if we would find him here,” Nader said of his elderly sculptor uncle, tears in his eyes after an hour of digging unearthed his body. “I thought maybe he could have left or gone to a neighbor’s house.”

Others still have resorted to drastic measures.

Ayad came back in early January after six months in a refugee camp and found the corpses of three Islamic State fighters rotting in what remained of his living room. “The flies, the smell, the disease,” he said. “It was awful.”

The municipality team said it would be weeks before they could get to him so Ayad asked a soldier on patrol to look over the bodies and make sure there were no explosives.

Then, Ayad set them on fire.

With most of his money spent on a tarp to cover the gaping hole where his front door once stood, he borrowed $20 from his sister, for bleach to try to erase the traces so his family of ten could move back in.

“The smell still hasn’t fully gone away,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Israel puts tunnel dug under Gaza border on display to show threat

An Israeli soldier stands next to an entrance to what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim, Israel January 18, 2018

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military brought journalists on Thursday to film a 2 km (1.25 mile) tunnel dug by militants from the Gaza Strip to Israel, saying it was putting the construction on display to show the continuing threat it faces from the territory.

The Islamic Jihad militant group has claimed responsibility for building the tunnel, saying its aim was to use it to attack Israel in the next armed confrontation.

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool

Twelve Gaza militants, most of them from Islamic Jihad, were killed in the destruction of the tunnel and in rescue efforts when Israel destroyed the underground passage on October 30.

The tunnel, around the height and width of an upright person, was lined with concrete slabs. It was discovered about 120 meters inside Israel near Kissufim, about six meters below ground, as tunnelers burrowed towards the surface looking to build an exit, the Israeli military said.

“The tunnel that we see here is one of three tunnels that have been destroyed over the last two months,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said. “The threat has not passed and the terror from Hamas has not passed.”

Palestinian tunnel diggers have long operated in border areas of the Gaza Strip, using the underground passageways to bypass tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of goods and people, and to smuggle weapons.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war. It is home to two million Palestinians, who complain that the blockade has left the enclave isolated and impoverished. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, tightened after the Islamist militant group Hamas took power in Gaza more than a decade ago.

(Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Peter Graff)

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)