Traumatic brain injuries from strike in Iraq diagnosed as ‘mild’: top U.S. general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Service members suffering from traumatic brain injury following missile strikes by Iran on a base in Iraq earlier this month have all so far been diagnosed with mild cases, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday.

“The diagnosis we have so far for all of the folks that had been diagnosed to date is ‘mild traumatic brain injury,'” said Milley at a press conference. “That’s the diagnosis that’s been reported to us so far.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. says 50 troops now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after Iran strike

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Tuesday 50 U.S. service members were now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after missile strikes by Iran on a base in Iraq earlier this month, 16 more than the military had previously announced.

President Donald Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s Jan. 8 attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members.

“As of today, 50 U.S. service members have been diagnosed” with traumatic brain injury, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said in a statement about injuries in the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

Symptoms of concussive injuries include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and nausea.

Thirty-one of the 50 were treated in Iraq and returned to duty, including 15 of those diagnosed most recently, Campbell said.

Eighteen of the total have been sent to Germany for further evaluation and treatment, and one was sent to Kuwait and has since returned to duty, he said.

“This is a snapshot in time and numbers can change,” Campbell said.

In its previous update on Friday, the Pentagon had put the number of those injured at 34.

Trump last week appeared to play down the injuries, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things.”

That prompted criticism from a U.S. war veterans group. William Schmitz, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said on Friday the group “expects an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks.”

According to Pentagon data, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2000.

Iran fired missiles at Ain al-Asad in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Revolutionary Guard general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December, and both sides have refrained from further military escalation.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S., Iran draw back from brink but new threats show crisis not over

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ahmed Aboulenein

DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran spurned the U.S. president’s call for a new nuclear pact and its commanders threatened more attacks, after both sides backed off from intensified conflict following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Concern the Middle East was primed for a wider war eased after U.S President Donald Trump refrained from ordering more military action on Wednesday and Iran’s foreign minister diplomat said missile strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response.

But each side’s next move in their protracted shadow war was uncertain, although Iranian generals resumed their habitual barrage of warnings to Washington.

Trump’s Democratic critics have accused him of reckleness in his handling of Iran.

But analysts say that in an election year, he wants to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct confrontation with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region as U.S. sanctions bite.

Iran fired missiles on Wednesday at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone attack of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

The actions followed months of tension that has increased steadily since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s oil exports and hammered its economy.

Trump told Americans in an address on Wednesday: “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it”.

The Iranian missiles fired on military bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops, he said. Iran “appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he said.

‘ECONOMIC TERRORISM’

Trump also said it was time for world powers to replace the 2015 nuclear accord with a new deal that would allow Iran to “thrive and prosper”.

But Trump, who was impeached last month, also said he would impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, without giving details.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in response that Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards also issued new threats to Washington, with one senior commander warning of “harsher revenge soon” and another saying Wednesday’s missile strikes were only the start of a series of attacks across the region.

The new head of the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his slain predecessor Soleimani.

“We will continue in this luminous path with power,” Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani said.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well the United States and Israel.

Soleimani was a national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners. The West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

The military comments contrasted with Wednesday’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said Tehran did not want an escalation.

Despite tough talk, analysts said Iran would not seek a conventional war with Washington although it might turn to allied forces in the area.

“I’m not expecting further direct attacks from Iran. We are likely to see more indirect responses through proxies,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He said there might be a chance for a negotiated solution to the latest standoff as “the Trump administration does not appear to actively pursue a war and Iran needs sanctions relief”.

Trump has often criticized his predecessors for involving the United States in long and costly foreign wars.

PATIENCE

Washington said it had indications Tehran was telling its allies to refrain from new action against U.S. troops.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on Fox News, said: “We continue to receive word that Iran is standing down, but at the president’s direction we’re going to remain vigilant.”

In neighboring Iraq, Muslim Shi’ite groups opposed to the U.S. presence there also sought to cool emotions that have been running high for weeks.

Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi’ite cleric opposed to U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, said the crisis was over and called on “Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions”.

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the United States blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a U.S. contractor, said “passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results” of expelling U.S. forces.

Washington said Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles in Wednesday’s strikes, with at least 11 hitting Iraq’s al-Asad air base and one striking a facility in Erbil.

Satellite pictures of al-Asad base before and after the strikes showed damage, including to aircraft hangers.

The images offered limited insight into Iran’s strategy but gave some indication of missile accuracy, an analyst said.

“The impacts are not scattershot across empty fields or airstrips on the southern side of the base,” Dara Massicot, policy researcher at RANDCorporation, said, adding that they did not appear to be purely symbolic strikes.

“Early warning, maybe tip-offs, missile failures, and on-base readiness saved lives,” Massicot said.

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Netanyahu says anyone attacking Israel will be dealt ‘strongest blow’

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, after an Iranian missile strike on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, that Israel would hit back hard against anyone who attacked his country.

Netanyahu reiterated his praise for U.S. President Donald Trump for the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week, calling it a bold move.

The Israeli leader said Soleimani had tried to destabilize the region for decades and was “planning much worse.”

Without directly referencing Iran’s missile strikes overnight, in what Tehran called retaliation for the general’s death in Baghdad, Netanyahu said in a speech in Jerusalem that Israel stood beside the United States.

“Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow,” Netanyahu said, accusing Iran of leading a campaign to “strangle and destroy” Israel.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller and Ari Rabinovitch)

Trump says no U.S. troops hurt in Iran strikes, Tehran ‘standing down’

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday Iranian missile strikes on bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops stationed there and damage was minimal, an outcome he said showed Tehran wanted to prevent an escalation into conflict.

Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq early on Wednesday, saying it was in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone strike of powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.

“All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” the U.S. president said in an address, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and military officers.

He urged world powers to quit a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that Washington withdrew from in 2018 and work for a new deal, an issue that has been at the heart of rising tension between Washington and Tehran. Iran has rejected new talks.

There was no immediate reaction from Iranian officials to Trump’s comments. The semi-official Fars news agency described the U.S. president’s remarks as a “big retreat from threats.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier on Wednesday addressed a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America”, said Iran’s attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

ELECTION YEAR

Trump’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s attacks had been to say on Twitter that “All is well!” and that Washington was assessing damage.

That early tweet and the comment by Iran’s foreign minister had acted to soothe some initial concerns about a wider war and calmed jittery financial markets. Oil prices slipped back after an early spike. [O/R]

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

But an Iranian army spokesman had denied “foreign media reports” suggesting there had been some kind of coordination between Iran and the United States before the attack to allow bases to be evacuated, Fars news agency said.

The U.S. president, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, had at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.

Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil in Iraq were struck.

Iranian television had said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed, without saying how it obtained this information.

Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action. Iraq said its forces did not suffer casualties.

Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.

State media showed footage of what it said were Iran’s missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”.

AVOIDING CONFLICT

But analysts said Iran wanted to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces.

U.S. officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets, although they did not provide evidence.

Before Soleimani was buried, his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds. A stampede at his funeral on Tuesday killed at least 56 people.

After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers.

“His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.

Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.

“We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he said.

Khamenei, in his speech on Wednesday, ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on the 2015 nuclear pact.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order Soleimani’s killing and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Eric Beech in Washington, Writing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Trump says Syria attack ‘could be very soon or not so soon’

FILE PHOTO - The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook sails in the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Yoruk I

By Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin

WASHINGTON/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Fears of a military confrontation between Russia and the West ran high on Thursday but U.S. President Donald Trump cast doubt over the timing of his threatened strike on Syria in response to a reported poison gas attack on a rebel enclave.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” said Trump in his latest early morning tweet.

That appeared a day after he tweeted that missiles “will be coming” after the April 7 chemical weapons attack alleged to have killed dozens of people, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Theresa May prepared to convene a special cabinet meeting at 1430 GMT to weigh whether Britain should join the United States and France in a possible military action.

May recalled ministers from their Easter holiday to debate action over what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack by Syrian government forces on civilians in the formerly rebel-controlled town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus.

There were signs, though, of a global effort to head off a dangerous conflict pitting Russia against the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.

“The situation in Syria is horrific, the use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent,” Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis said on Thursday morning.

“But also it’s a very, very delicate circumstance and we’ve got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well thought-through basis.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would decide whether to strike Syrian government targets after the reported attack by internationally banned chemical munitions in Douma once all the necessary information had been gathered.

“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” Macron said, adding that all the necessary verifications had to be carried out first.

He said he would also strive to prevent an escalation of conflict across the Middle East.

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

SYRIA “MOVES TARGETS”

At the eye of the storm, Assad said any Western action “will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region, threatening international peace and security”, Syrian state television reported.

Russia, Assad’s most important ally in his seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.

“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying.

Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid fallout from possible missile strikes, U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Syria’s attempt to shelter aircraft, perhaps by locating them alongside Russian military hardware that Washington might be reluctant to hit, could limit damage that the United States and its allies might be able to inflict on Assad’s military.

World stocks edged down as anxious investors stayed wary of risky assets.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, striking a cautious tone after Trump’s threat of missile strikes, said on Wednesday the United States was still assessing intelligence about the suspected toxic gas attack.

Both Syria and Russia have said reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.

The Russian military said it had observed movements of U.S. Navy forces in the Gulf. Any U.S. strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

The Syrian conflict has increasingly widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across the Middle East.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Syria, Iran and Russia say Israel was behind an air strike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday and urged him to do nothing to destabilize Syria. Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister reiterated that Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said the Western threats were “based on lies” about the poison gas assault, after meeting Assad.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had spoken to Trump on Wednesday and would speak to Putin on Thursday night about the chemical attack.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin wanted to be consulted before any Western military action. “It’s important at the same time to maintain pressure on Russia,” he said. “If we want to do that, we the Western partners cannot diverge in our approaches.”

May has ordered British submarines to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Syrian military that could begin as early as Thursday night, London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said on Wednesday.

The BBC reported that May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in military action. She would not seek approval from parliament, the BBC said, despite calls from the opposition Labour Party for parliament to be given a say.

Parliament voted down British military action against Assad’s government in 2013 in an embarrassment for May’s predecessor, David Cameron. That then deterred the U.S. administration of Barack Obama from similar action.

British Minister Davis said his decision then to vote against action was based on a lack of clear evidence and a lack of a clear plan. “Those two things, I’m assured, we will get an answer to today,” he said of Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, William James in London,; Andrew Osborn in Moscow and John Irish in Paris, Graham Fahy in Dublin; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria, Russia say Israeli war planes carried out strike on Syrian air base

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

AMMAN (Reuters) – The Russian and Syrian military on Monday said Israeli war planes carried out missile strikes on a Syrian air base, hours after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of a “big price to pay” following reports of a poison gas attack on a rebel-held town.

Syrian state TV initially said the United States was suspected of carrying out a missile attack on the T-4 airfield near Homs, after harsh words by Trump over the reported chemical attack on Saturday in the town of Douma which killed dozens of people.

The United States denied attacking the Syrian base, and France also said its forces had not carried it out.

The Russian military, whose forces are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said two Israeli F-15 war planes had carried out the strikes on the Syrian T-4 air base, the Interfax news agency reported.

Interfax cited the Russian Defence Ministry as saying the Israeli war planes had carried out the strikes from Lebanese air space, and that Syrian air defense systems had shot down five of eight missiles fired.

Syrian state media, citing a military source, then carried a similar report. “The Israeli aggression on the T4 airport was carried out with F-15 planes that fired several missiles from above Lebanese land,” state news agency SANA said.

When asked earlier about the explosions from the air base, an Israeli spokeswoman declined to comment. Israel had no immediate comment to the Syrian and Russian military charges.

Israel has struck Syrian army locations many times in the course of the conflict, hitting convoys and bases of Iranian-backed militias that fight alongside Assad’s forces.

Israel has accused Damascus of allowing Iran to set up a complex at the T-4 base to supply arms to its ally, Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah.

Syrian state TV, in its initial report, said there had been casualties in what it said was a suspected U.S. missile attack on the T-4 airfield near Homs, close to the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. The Pentagon denied U.S. war planes were carrying out any air strikes in Syria at the present time.

“However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable,” it said.

Defence analysts say there are large deployments of Russian forces at the T-4 base and jets fly regular sorties from there to strike rebel-held areas.

The Syrian state broadcaster said there were several dead and wounded in the strike.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said at least 14 people were killed including some fighters of various nationalities, a reference to Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia members, mostly from Iraq, Lebanon and Iran fighting alongside the Syrian army.

Reuters could not independently verify the report.

TRUMP POINTS TO PUTIN

The Syrian opposition blamed the suspected chemical attack on Saturday in Douma on government forces.

As international officials worked to try to confirm the chemical attack, Trump took the rare step of directly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in connection with the incident.

Trump said on Twitter on Sunday there would be a “big price to pay” after medical aid groups reported dozens of civilians, including many children and women, were killed by poison gas in the besieged rebel-held town.

“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” Trump wrote.

The Syrian government denied its forces had launched any chemical assault, while Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, called the reports fake and warned against military action on the basis of “invented and fabricated excuses”.

The Syrian government launched an air and ground assault on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the eastern Ghouta district, on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Trump by telephone and the two agreed they would work together to establish clear responsibility for what Macron’s office said they had agreed was a confirmed chemical attack.

Macron said in February “France will strike” in the event of lethal chemical weapon attack on civilians by government forces in Syria. A French defense ministry official said on Monday France did not carry out the air strike on the T-4 base.

The medical relief organization Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the civil defense service, which operates in rebel-held areas, said in a joint statement 49 people had been killed in the suspected gas attack.

One video shared by activists showed bodies of about a dozen children, women and men, some with foam at the mouth. “Douma city, April 7 … there is a strong smell here,” a voice can be heard saying.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

The United States launched a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base a year ago in response to the killing of dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in an opposition-held town in northwest Syria. The gas attack was blamed on Assad.

U.S. government sources said Washington’s assessment of the Saturday attack was that chemical weapons were used. The European Union also said evidence pointed to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.

A European diplomat said Western allies would work on building a dossier based on photos, videos, witness testimony and satellite images of Syrian flights and helicopters. However gaining access to samples on the ground would be difficult.

The U.N. Security Council will meet twice on Monday following rival requests by Russia and the United States.

U.N. war crimes investigators had previously documented 33 chemical attacks in Syria, attributing 27 to the Assad government, which has repeatedly denied using the weapons.

(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah, Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Ellen Francis, Maria Kiselyova, Dan Williams, John Irish, Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Robert Birsel and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Israel says it destroyed Gaza attack tunnel under Egyptian border

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard near the border between Egypt and Gaza, in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it had destroyed a cross-border attack tunnel that ran from Gaza into Israel and Egypt dug by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave, and that it would destroy all attack tunnels by the year’s end.

Residents in Gaza said Israeli jets bombed an area east of the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian and Israeli borders, late on Saturday night. Israel confirmed the attack immediately after, but gave no details until Sunday.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas or Egypt, or any reports of casualties.

Israel says it has developed new means which it has declined to disclose, to find tunnels. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lauded the breakthrough in an interview on commercial television news, saying they would all be destroyed by the end of the year.

“By the end of 2018, we will eliminate all the Hamas attack tunnels … we may even manage to do this sooner, but the task is to destroy them all by the end of the year,” Lieberman said.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gaza militants have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortar bombs, causing no fatalities or serious injuries in Israel, and 15 protesters and two gunmen have been killed by Israeli fire.

The attacks from Gaza, which Israel has blamed on groups not affiliated with Hamas, have drawn Israeli air strikes, usually on targets that have been evacuated.

“There are those who say the Israeli military attacks sand dunes – that is incorrect,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing criticism from lawmakers who have called for a stronger armed response, told reporters after the tunnel was targeted.

Netanyahu cautioned Hamas that Israel “will respond with even greater force” if rocket strikes continue. Israel has said Hamas, as the dominant force in Gaza, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the enclave.

But Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Army Radio that Israel is “not looking for confrontation with Hamas”. Nonetheless, he said Israel “could not abide by a situation in which Israelis are harmed by fire (from Gaza)”.

Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, described the target hit on Saturday as 1.5 km (one mile)-lone “terror tunnel” running the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel, and into Egypt.

“It could also have served to transfer terrorists from the Gaza Strip into Egypt in order to attack Israeli targets from Egypt,” he said.

Kerem Shalom, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, was shut down on Saturday before the Israeli attack.

Underground tunnels are used to smuggle in all manner of commercial goods to Gaza, and to bring in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups. They have also been used by Hamas to launch attacks inside Israel.

During the last Gaza war, in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces.

The Israeli military said it has destroyed three tunnels in the past two months.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and David Evans)

Japanese towns hold drills for natural disasters, and missiles too

School students take part in an evacuation drill based on the scenario of a launch of North Korean missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam that would fly over their homes, in the town of Kotoura, Tottori prefecture, Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan held annual exercises on Friday to prepare for disasters but this year it was not just the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis that was on the minds of many people – the threat of North Korean missiles also loomed large.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries and it carries out disaster drills every year on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that killed at least 100,000 people and devastated Tokyo.

Military helicopters clattered over Tokyo as authorities practised for a 7.3 magnitude quake directly under the capital.

“In order to save even one additional life, we will promote preventive measures to tackle various types of disasters and a well-balanced disaster prevention plan based on self-help, public assistance and cooperation,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after taking part in a drill.

Towns in north Japan took the opportunity to remind residents what to do, not only when Mother Nature strikes but when a North Korean missile approaches too.

Local residents take part in an emergency drill in the wake of repeated missile launches by North Korea, in Takikawa on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 1, 2017.

Local residents take part in an emergency drill in the wake of repeated missile launches by North Korea, in Takikawa on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 1, 2017. Kyodo/via REUTERS

On Tuesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan, triggering widespread emergency warnings that jolted millions awake, before it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Sirens blared again on Friday in towns like Takikawa in the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and residents took cover inside, in line with government warnings to seek shelter below ground or in a solid building.

Not that residents needed a reminder of the danger.

“The real thing happened before the drills, so today everyone took part with a sense of urgency,” one resident of a northern town told a broadcaster.

The government says there is a 70 percent chance a magnitude 7 earthquake right under Tokyo in the next 30 years.

On March 11, 2011, Japan’s northeast coast was struck by a magnitude 9 earthquake, the strongest quake in Japan on record, which triggered huge tsunami waves.

About 20,000 people were killed and the tsunami triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl a quarter of a century earlier.

 

(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Minami Funakoshi; Editing by Robert Birsel)

 

Exclusive: Situation in Syria constitutes international armed conflict – Red Cross

A Syrian national flag flutters as Qasioun mountain is seen in the background from Damascus, Syria April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The situation in Syria “amounts to an international armed conflict” following U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Reuters on Friday.

The United States fired cruise missiles at a base from which President Donald Trump said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched on Tuesday, the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.

“Any military operation by a state on the territory of another without the consent of the other amounts to an international armed conflict,” ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet told Reuters in Geneva in response to a query.

“So according to available information – the U.S. attack on Syrian military infrastructure – the situation amounts to an international armed conflict.”

Previous air strikes on Syrian territory by a U.S.-led coalition have been against only the militant group Islamic State, which is also the enemy of the Syrian government.

Russia has carried out air strikes in tandem with its ally Syria since Sept. 2015, while Iranian militias are also fighting alongside the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ICRC officials were raising the U.S. attack with U.S. authorities as part of its ongoing confidential dialogue with parties to the conflict, Jaquemet said, declining to give details.

The ICRC, guardian of the Geneva Conventions setting down the rules of war, declared Syria an internal armed conflict – or civil war, in layman’s terms – in July 2012.

Under international humanitarian law, whether a conflict is internal or international, civilians must be spared and medical facilities protected. Warring parties must observe the key principles of precaution and proportionality and distinguish between combatants and civilians.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche)