Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza

Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel killed a top commander from the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, drawing rocket salvoes that reached as far as Tel Aviv in the worst cross-border fighting in months.

The rare targeted strike which killed Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu Al-Atta in Gaza came as Syrian state media said a separate missile attack had hit the home of an Islamic Jihad official in Damascus, killing two people including one of his sons.

Syria said Israel carried out the Damascus strike. Israel did not comment.

As the sound of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes echoed throughout Gaza and Israeli towns across the border, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Al-Batsh spoke at the midday Gaza funeral of Al-Atta.

“Israel executed two coordinated attacks, in Syria and in Gaza, in a declaration of war,” he said. Mourners fired guns into the air, chanting “revenge!”

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Al-Atta as a “ticking bomb” who was responsible for a string of recent cross-border rocket, drone and sniper attacks and was suspected of planning more very soon.

“Israel is not interested in escalation, but we will do everything required to defend ourselves,” said Netanyahu, who oversaw Israel’s last Gaza war in 2014. “This could take time.”

Financial market reaction in Israel was muted, anticipating no major escalation. Recent such rounds of violence across the Gaza border have ended with the help of Egyptian and U.N. mediation.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, joined Islamic Jihad in condemning Israel.

Though the two factions are sworn to the destruction of Israel, they have not always been in agreement over strategy. Islamic Jihad, free of the burden of governing Gaza’s impoverished two million Palestinians, has at times chafed at Hamas’s efforts to secure a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi, said Al-Atta had been obstructing the truce bid. Hamas said Israel “bears full responsibility for all consequences of this escalation,” and pledged that Al-Atta’s death “will not go unpunished.”

SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN?

The exchange of fire sent civilians on both sides huddling for shelter and forced businesses and schools to close.

Gaza authorities reported seven people killed, including Al-Atta, 42 and his wife in the pre-dawn strike that destroyed a floor in their home, scattering debris around their neighborhood.

Further air-strikes in Gaza, two of which the Israeli military said targeted Islamic Jihad rocket crews, killed five more Palestinian men. Islamic Jihad confirmed one was a member of their group.

Gaza medical officials said 24 Palestinians had been wounded, as ambulances streaked through abandoned streets and Israeli missiles landed, many in open fields, apparently targeting hidden rocket silos.

In Israel, officials said 25 people had sustained mostly light injuries. Among the sites hit by Palestinian rockets were a toy factory in the border town of Sderot and a highway where CCTV footage showed cars and a bus barely escaping the impact.

The shekel <ILS=> was, by the end of the day up 0.1% against the dollar, recovering from an earlier dip. The main Tel Aviv share index <.TA125> closed 0.1% lower.

The Israeli military said that about 200 rockets were fired at Israel, some of them reaching as far as the country’s commercial hub Tel Aviv. Dozens were intercepted and dozens more fell in open areas, the military said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said on Twitter:

“Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Islamist terrorist org backed by Iran, is again attacking Israel with 100’s of missiles aimed at civilians. We stand w(ith) our friend & ally Israel.”

Israel casts rising Gaza tensions as part of a regional struggle with arch-foe Iran that has also played out in Syria.

Right-wing Netanyahu has invoked such scenarios in trying to form a broad coalition government with center-left rivals to secure a fifth term after two inconclusive elections this year.

Islamic Jihad said the target of the Damascus attack was the home of a political leader, Akram Al-Ajouri. Israel’s Army Radio described Al-Ajouri as head of Islamic Jihad’s military wing. It was unclear whether Al-Ajouri was hurt in the strike.

At the scene of the Damascus strike, a Reuters journalist said the top floor of a two-storey building had been completely scorched. A neighbor said he had been woken up at around 4 a.m. by three explosions that had blown open the doors in his house.

Syrian state media said six people were wounded as well as the two people killed, describing the target as a civilian home in Mezzah, a western district of the capital where several embassies are located.

In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iran and the Tehran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, which it calls the biggest threat to its borders.

(Additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Tom Perry in Beirut, Steven Scheer and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Yemeni Houthis halt missile attacks on Saudi coalition, raising peace prospects

FILE PHOTO: A Houthi militant sits guard on the roof of a building overlooking fellow Houthis rallying to denounce the rapid devaluation of the Yemeni Rial in Sanaa, Yemen October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Houthi rebels in Yemen said on Monday they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni allies, responding to a demand from the United Nations.

The Iranian-aligned group, which has been battling the Saudi-backed government for nearly four years, also said it was ready for a broader ceasefire if the Saudi-led coalition “wants peace”.

The Houthis’ decision to halt missile attacks could be a turning point in peace efforts as it ends a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. It is by far the biggest concession from the movement since it left the southern port city of Aden in 2015.

International pressure has mounted on Yemen’s warring parties to end the war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the verge of starvation.

The move from the Houthi group came after the coalition ordered a halt in its offensive against Yemen’s main port city Hodeidah, which has become the focus of the war.

“We announce our initiative…to halt missile and drone strikes on the countries of aggression,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said in a statement.

The decision was based on discussions with U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths to show “good faith” and support peace efforts, he said.

Griffiths welcomed the Houthi announcement and called on all parties continue to show restraint “to create a conducive environment for convening the consultations”.

The envoy is trying to salvage peace talks after a round in September collapsed when the Houthis did not show up. He hopes to convene talks before the end of the year in Sweden to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

Yemen’s parties have given “firm assurances” they are committed to attending peace talks, Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Friday, with Britain asking the council to back a humanitarian truce in Yemen on Monday.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Monday reiterated the kingdom’s support for U.N. efforts to end the war. The Riyadh-backed government also announced its willingness to take part in the next round of consultations.

TIRED OF WAR

Yemenis cautiously welcomed the announcement on Monday.

“We pray that this will be the real beginning of peace in Yemen, we are all tired of this war,” said Mona Ibrahim, a teacher in the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September 2014.

“We just want to live like other humans,” Mohammed al-Ahdal, a resident of Hodeidah said.

The Houthi defense ministry said it would respond to any hostilities from the coalition.

Graham Griffiths, a senior analyst at Control Risks Middle East, said the announcement was potentially important as it comes in response to the coalition’s pausing of operations around Hodeidah.

“Efforts to resume the peace process remain fragile … given the mutual distrust between the warring parties. Nevertheless, given the renewed pressure from the international community, there is a real chance to begin to move the conflict toward a durable de-escalation,” he said.

Houthi-run Al Masirah TV reported on Monday that Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile on Saudi-backed forces in the desert of Midi, bordering Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis say their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia are in retaliation for air raids on Yemen by the Western-backed coalition, which entered Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to restore the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The coalition has carried out thousands of air strikes in the impoverished country that have hit schools, markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of people – though it says it does not target civilians.

Western allies including the United States have called for a ceasefire ahead of the renewed U.N. efforts.

Western countries have provided arms and intelligence to the Arab states in the alliance, but have shown increasing reservations about the conflict since the murder of U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Hesham Hajali in Cairo and Asma Alsharif in Dubai; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Assad renews offensive as missile bombardment raise escalation risk

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus,Syria April 29,2018.REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army unleashed a massive bombardment against one rebel enclave on Monday and prepared for the withdrawal of insurgents from another as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to crush the rebels’ last besieged strongholds.

However, missile strikes against several government military bases on Sunday – not claimed by any party despite speculation in Israel that its military was responsible – underscored the risks of a wider escalation in the seven-year conflict.

More than 140 Syrian army air strikes hit the town of Rastan and surrounding villages in the rebel enclave between the cities of Hama and Homs early on Monday alongside sustained shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Last week a Syrian government minister said the enclave would be the army’s next target after retaking all rebel areas around the capital, a goal it looks closer to achieving with Monday’s expected insurgent withdrawal from south Damascus.

Despite Assad’s ever-stronger position against rebels since Russia’s entry into the war in 2015 brought a string of battlefield victories, the involvement of numerous regional and global powers threatens to inflame the war further.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the missile attacks that struck several bases near Hama and Aleppo overnight, causing large explosions, and the Syrian army has blamed only “aggression” by its enemies.

However, Israel has previously carried out strikes in Syria to stop Assad’s ally Iran getting stronger there or transferring weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, and there is widespread speculation in Israel that it was behind the attack.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israel Katz would not comment on the strikes, but added that Israel “has made it unequivocally clear at all levels that it will not allow an Iranian front in Syria to be established”.

A spokesman for Israel’s military said it would not comment on foreign reports. But Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel was likely behind the strikes.

“Israel has to decide: ‘are we confronting Iran in Syria before they have the full advanced weapons capabilities’ … or do we wait … let them build a huge military capability in Syria and meet them in a future war and pay a very high price?”

Diplomats have warned of a possible major escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria as Assad and his allies take more territory from rebels.

The United States, Jordan and Assad’s main ally Russia have declared a ceasefire zone in southwest Syria, near the border with Israel, and on Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington’s strategy there “remains unchanged”.

The Observatory said at least 26 people – mostly Iranians and members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia – were killed in Sunday’s strikes, and that dozens more people were missing.

Speaking in Israel on Sunday, Pompeo said the United States was “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region” and said it was critical for the two allies to work together to stop it.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said no Iranian base had been hit or Iranians killed. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior Iranian member of parliament met Assad on Monday and said Iran would keep its military advisers in Syria until the war ended.

Tehran and its allies blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike on the Tiyas air base in Syria, in which several Iranian military personnel were killed, and Iran has warned it would not go “without response”.

ASSAULT

The Syrian army’s assault on the pocket between Homs and Hama – the most populous remaining besieged area in Syria – included air strikes and artillery, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Reinforcements arrived in government-held areas before the bombardment, which targeted Rastan, the biggest town in the pocket, and several nearby villages, the Observatory said.

Syrian rebels hold large swathes of both northwest and southwest Syria. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States holds large parts of northern and eastern Syria after an offensive against Islamic State last year.

The pocket in southern Damascus is split between areas held by Islamic State and rebel groups. It has been the focus of a massive bombardment and intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta earlier this month.

Late on Sunday, state media reported that one of the rebel groups there, the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which includes Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, had agreed to withdraw to opposition-held Idlib province in northern Syria.

Footage on state television on Monday showed what it said was preparations for that withdrawal, along with the departure of buses in northern Syria to evacuate civilians from two government-held villages besieged by insurgents.

The surrender deal for Tahrir al-Sham in south Damascus was part of a deal to allow about 5,000 people to leave the two government-held Shi’ite villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, it said.

However, SANA state news agency reported continued intensive bombardment of al-Hajar al-Aswad, another area in the south Damascus pocket where Islamic State fighters are based.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Lesley Wroughton in Amman, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)