Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

FILE PHOTO: People inspect the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Tulay Karadeniz and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who say it keeps the area out of President Bashar al-Assad’s hands.

The deal unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday will create a new demilitarized zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.

Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror”.

The agreement has put a halt to a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.

The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.

But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground: it has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.

Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey and warned against any attack.

In striking the deal, Russia appears – at least for now – to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.

Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate jihadists from other rebels – a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve for some time.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals”. Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.

The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria”. “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.

Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria”. The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission expressed hope that a government offensive was now off the table for good

Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters by telephone it was a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.

The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific timeframe which it did not detail.

“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV. “We do not trust Turkey … but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons.”

“CATASTROPHE” AVERTED

Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise … in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means”.

The European Union said the agreement must protect civilians and allow aid access.

Germany welcomed the deal but noted that past deals in Syria had not been implemented. “Anything that helps to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib is good,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Romania.

The demilitarized zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.

But neither Russia nor Turkey have explained how they plan to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.

Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front – an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.

Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”.

The area is also the last major haven for foreign jihadists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.

FOREIGN FIGHTERS

Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarized zone.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe, said it was unclear how Turkey and Russia would be able to separate radical fighters from other rebels.

The hope is that Syrians “will be more inclined to be part of a demilitarization effort” while foreign fighters “have nowhere to go”, he said.

While it is premature to call the agreement a triumph for Turkey, he said: “it does give Turkey more room to implement this more peaceful vision on the ground and pre-empt an attack on Idlib that could have major and disastrous effects on Turkey”.

Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran. Iran also welcomed the agreement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Beirut and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Thomas Balmforth in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Germany, Daphne Psaledakis, Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean)

Greece must urgently move vulnerable migrants from island camp

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria shout slogans in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste”.

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said.

“It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticized as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticized Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Gareth Jones)

German spy scandal exposes deep divisions in Merkel government

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hans-Georg Maassen, the President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic security agency in Cologne, Germany October 31, 2014. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

By Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) – A scandal over migrants being chased through the streets has exposed a rift between Angela Merkel and Germany’s security establishment that is dividing her coalition and hindering efforts to contain the fall-out from her “open door” refugee policy.

The crisis blew up when Hans-Georg Maassen, chief of the BfV intelligence agency, said he was not convinced far-right extremists had attacked migrants in the eastern city of Chemnitz last month and a video said to show the violence may be fake.

That put Maassen at odds with Merkel, who said the pictures “very clearly revealed hate” which could not be tolerated.

“For a more decisive chancellor, this would have been enough to fire him,” said Carsten Nickel at political consultancy Teneo Intelligence, adding that support for Maassen from Merkel’s conservative Bavarian allies was staying her hand.

Now, Merkel is caught between her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which backs Maassen, and her other coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), who say he has lost credibility and must go.

The upshot is that the chancellor looks weak, her coalition is in crisis and she is less able to deal with pressing issues such as Brexit, European Union reform and trade problems with the United States.

“The migration issue will certainly continue to haunt Merkel until the end of her term,” said Nickel.

The Maassen row has its roots in Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. More than one million came in total.

“Maassen is not an isolated case. Maassen is part of the security community,” said Robin Alexander, author of ‘Die Getriebenen, or ‘Those Driven by Events’, an account of how Merkel and her lieutenants handled the refugee crisis.

“For this security community, autumn 2015 was a disaster – not just for Maassen, but for all of them,” he added. “There is a deep alienation of the whole security community from the chancellor, and that was not the case in Germany previously.”

FRUSTRATED SPIES

The rift opened up in October 2015, when Merkel put her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, in charge of Germany’s response to the refugee crisis, with Emily Haber – a diplomat – acting as point person in the Interior Ministry.

That chain of command effectively shut out the security services, which couldn’t get face time with Merkel.

“That totally frustrated these people … they were horrified,” said Alexander.

In private, Maassen complained about the difficulty of keeping tabs on the refugees and assessing whether they posed a security risk.

His cause got a boost with the 2017 election, when the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into parliament for the first time and Merkel had to reshuffle her government.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who had called Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis a “reign of injustice”, was made interior minister. He gave Maassen political cover to push his security agenda, which he duly did.

In an interview with Reuters in January, Maassen, 55, called for a review of laws restricting the surveillance of minors to guard against the children of Islamist fighters returning to Germany as “sleeper agents” who could carry out attacks.

Maassen also clashed with other more circumspect government officials when he said Russia was the likely culprit behind cyber attacks on Germany.

SPOKE TOO SOON

Then came Chemnitz. This time, Maassen publicly questioned the authenticity of the video before his agency had finished its work on the incident.

“The bottom line is that he spoke before the agency finished its assessment,” said one source familiar with the issue.

In a Sept. 10 letter to the Interior Ministry, seen by Reuters, in which he explained his comments on Chemnitz, Maassen said he wanted to shed light on events after the state premier of Saxony, where the city is located, denied migrants had been hounded.

But the letter failed to draw a line under a scandal that has also revived questions about Maassen’s ties to the far-right AfD.

A former leader of the AfD’s youth wing, Franziska Schreiber, wrote in a book she published this year – “Inside AfD: The report of a drop-out” – that Maassen had advised ex-AfD leader Frauke Petry on how the party could avoid being put under surveillance by his agency. He has denied giving such counsel.

Fresh allegations arose on Thursday, when the BfV was forced to deny a report by public broadcaster ARD that Maassen had told an AfD lawmaker about parts of a report from his agency before it was published.

But Maassen has the backing of Seehofer, who said the intelligence chief “gave a convincing explanation of his actions” to a committee of lawmakers on Wednesday.

The SPD nonetheless called a crisis meeting of governing party leaders on Thursday.

Coalition sources said the decision by the leaders of the three ruling parties to adjourn the Thursday meeting until next Tuesday could mean they hope Maassen will voluntarily step down.

However, the situation could be complicated by a meeting of the CSU on Saturday. If it supports Seehofer’s decision to back Maassen and he does not quit, coalition leaders will be under pressure to take a decision on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Turkey calls for ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib, Russia opposes

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

(Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire in the rebel-held region of Idlib in northwest Syria on Friday and said an anticipated government assault on insurgents there could result in a massacre.

But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow opposed a truce, and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

The three presidents, whose countries’ are key foreign players in Syria’s long civil war, were speaking at a summit in Tehran aimed at charting a way to end the conflict.

The situation in Idlib, the insurgents’ only remaining major stronghold, is an immediate issue as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, prepare for what could be the conflict’s last decisive battle.

The United Nations has warned a full-scale assault could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

But as the leaders gathered in Tehran, Russian and Syrian government warplanes hit rebel-held parts of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.

Their discussions in Tehran mark a crucial point in a seven-year-old war which has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.

Erdogan called on Putin and Rouhani to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib, saying such an accord would be a “victory” of their summit. Turkey could no longer take in any more refugees from any new assault in Idlib, he said.

However, Putin responded that he opposed a ceasefire because Nusra Front and Islamic State militants located there were not part of peace talks. Syria should regain control of all its territory, he said.

“The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table. And more still, there are no representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS or the Syrian army,” Putin said.

“I think in general the Turkish president is right. It would be good. But I can’t speak for them, and even more so can’t talk for terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”

FINAL MAJOR BATTLE

Rouhani also said the battle in Syria would continue until militants were pushed out of the whole country, especially in Idlib, but he added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.

He called on all militants in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.

“The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a “scorched-earth” policy,” Rouhani said.

Erdogan also said Turkey no longer had the capacity to take in any more refugees from Syria should the government offensive in Idlib go ahead. Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the start of the war in 2011.

“Whatever reason there is an attack that has been made or will be made will result in disaster, massacre and humanitarian drama,” he said. “Millions will be coming to Turkey’s borders because they have nowhere to go. Turkey has filled its capacity to host refugees.”

The Assad government was not directly represented at the summit, nor was the United States or other Western powers.

Widely abhorred internationality for the brutal conduct of the war, Assad has largely reclaimed most of Syrian territory though much of it is ravaged.

As the conflict approaches its endgame, Iran, Turkey and Russia are seeking to safeguard their own interests after investing heavily militarily and diplomatically in Syria.

Meanwhile, the fate of Idlib hung in the balance.

“The battle for Idlib is going to be the final major battle,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters before the summit.

“It will be waged irrespective of civilian casualties, even though they will make an effort to minimize it.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Situation at ‘boiling point’ at refugee center on Greek island: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria stand in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency urged Greece on Friday to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception center were “reaching boiling point”.

Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.

Those three groups still comprise more than 70 percent of those arriving in Greece, and typically have high recognition rates for their asylum claims, but the overall flow is far less than in previous years, UNHCR said.

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August, this failed to ease pressure as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month, it said.

“The situation is reaching boiling point at the Moria reception identification center on Lesbos, where more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a Geneva briefing.

Some have been there for over six months and one quarter are children, he said. A reception center on Samos island holds 2,700, nearly four times the number it was designed for, while centers on Chios and Kos are at close to double their capacity.

“We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care,” he said.

Yaxley could not confirm aid agency reports of possible suicide attempts among youth at the centers but said:

“There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment.”

The Greek government has made previous commitments to transfer people to shelters on the mainland, and has received European Union funding for it, Yaxley said.

But other EU countries must help “frontline states” including Greece, Italy and Spain who receive most of the refugees and migrants, he said, adding:

“The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it’s a question of political will.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Illusory to think Syrian refugees can return now, France says

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows refugee tents erected at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen -/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France dismissed on Thursday any suggestion that millions of Syrian refugees could start returning home, as urged by Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said the conditions for a return have not been met, given Assad’s treatment of those who have already gone home and a possible offensive on rebel territory in northern Syria.

In recent weeks Russia has called on Western powers opposed to the Syrian government to help refugees return home and aid reconstruction of areas under his control.

However, Von der Muhll cited a decree depriving refugees and internally displaced people of their properties, the instability of the country and cases of arrest and forced conscription of Syrians returning from Lebanon.

“To consider a return of the refugees is illusory, in the current conditions,” she said.

The seven-year civil war has killed an estimated half a million people, driven 5.6 million out of Syria and displaced around 6.6 million within the country.

Most refugees are from the Sunni Muslim majority, and it is unclear whether Assad’s Alawite-dominated government will allow all to return freely or whether they would want to. Sunnis made up the bulk of the armed opposition to Assad.

France, which backs the opposition, says it will not support reconstruction of areas under Assad’s control until there is a negotiated political transition under U.N. auspices.

“This year has seen the largest movement of displaced people since the beginning of the conflict and … the entire international community has warned of the risks of a major humanitarian and migratory crisis in the event of an offensive against the province of Idlib,” Von der Muhll said.

The Idlib region, a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as jihadist forces, was hit by air strikes and shelling last week, in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by David Stamp)

Russian jets hit Syrian south, U.N. urges Jordan to open border

Syrian army soldiers stand as they hold their weapons in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dark smoke rose over areas held by Syrian rebels near the border with Jordan on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies unleashed heavy air strikes and government forces sought to advance on the ground.

The UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.

With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, government forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining rebel bastions near Damascus and Homs.

State television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.

After four days of reduced bombardment, intense air strikes resumed on Wednesday following the collapse of talks between rebels and Russian officers, brokered by Jordan.

“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Deraa area, the focus of the government offensive.

“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 air strikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.

State media said government forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km (six miles) east of Deraa city. A rebel command center said on Twitter government attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids”, barrel bombs and rocket barrages.

The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city, where some rebels surrendered.

The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.

ASSAD IN ASCENDANT

For the president, the Deraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Deraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.

Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.

State TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Deraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, al-Nuaima, Um al-Mayadan and Taiba.

Its correspondent said the army aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Deraa city, where rebel territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

This would split the territory in two.

The army has been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Deraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the rebel command center Twitter account said.

Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.

Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States to reduce violence.

Near the start of the government’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.

For the anti-Assad rebels, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where U.S. forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

Number of displaced in southern Syria climbs to 270,000: U.N.

Internally displaced people from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – The number of people forced to flee their homes in southwestern Syria as a result of the two week escalation in fighting has climbed to 270,000 people, the U.N. refugee spokesman in Jordan said.

The United Nations said last week 160,000 had been displaced as they fled heavy bombardment and mostly took shelter in villages and areas near the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

“Our latest update shows the figure of displaced across southern Syria has exceeded 270,000 people,” Mohammad Hawari, UNHCR’s Jordan spokesman told Reuters.

The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in the southwest caused by the fighting that erupted after a Russian-backed army offensive to recapture rebel-held southern Syria.

Jordan, which has taken in more than half a million displaced Syrians since the war began, and Israel have said they will not open their borders to refugees.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters on Monday after a meeting with U.N. officials that shipments of aid were waiting to get approvals to enter into Syria from the Jordanian border.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel must prevent entry of refugees from Syria to Israel: minister

An undated image from material released on June 29, 2018 by the Israeli military relates to an Israeli humanitarian aid supply over the border to Syria. IDF/Handout via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel must prevent the entry of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria, a senior Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

The remarks by Yuval Steinitz, energy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, came on the same day that the Israeli military said it had transferred humanitarian aid to southern Syria.

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

More than 120,000 people in southwestern Syria have been forced to flee since the Syrian government launched an offensive to recover an area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from rebels, a monitoring group said.

The Israeli military said an increased number of Syrian 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 Syrians 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.

Israel has refused to accept refugees fleeing the more than seven-year conflict in Syria, a country with which it remains officially in a state of war. Israel also accuses Iran of stationing military bases and personnel in Syria to use the war- torn country as a launchpad for attacks into Israel.

However, Israel has taken in several thousand Syrians for medical treatment since 2011. Wounded Syrians have been treated at field hospitals set up along the frontier with Syria in the Golan, and in Israeli hospitals.

“We will continue to do what is necessary (for the refugees). I don’t want to go into details (but) our greater worry is … that Iran is trying to turn Syria into a forward military post to confront Israel,” Steinitz added.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Hungary approves ‘STOP Soros’ law, defying EU, rights groups

Two soldiers stand in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s parliament on Wednesday approved a package of bills that criminalises some help given to illegal immigrants, defying the European Union and human rights groups and narrowing the scope for action by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door migrant policy and has led eastern European opposition to EU quotas that aimed to distribute asylum seekers around the bloc.

Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party tightened its grip on parliament in an April election fought on a fiercely anti-immigration platform that demonised U.S. billionaire George Soros and liberal NGOs he backs. Orban accuses Soros of encouraging mass immigration to undermine Europe, a charge Soros denies.

Under the new law, officially called “STOP Soros”, individuals or groups who help migrants not entitled to protection to submit requests for asylum or who help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

“The Hungarian people rightfully expects the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sandor Pinter wrote in a justification attached to the draft legislation.

“The STOP Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organisation of illegal immigration a criminal offence. We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants,” he said.

Parliament, where Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, also passed on Wednesday a constitutional amendment to state that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary – a swipe at Brussels over its quota plan.

TOUGH STANCE IS VOTE-WINNER

Immigration has become a major concern for voters across the European Union, helping to propel anti-migrant populists to power in Italy and Austria and threatening to fracture Merkel’s three-month-old coalition in Germany.

Orban has drummed up support for his tough measures by exploiting Hungarians’ memories of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East who surged into the country in the summer of 2015.

The vast majority of them moved on to wealthier western European countries, but Orban has branded the migrants a threat to Europe’s Christian civilisation and built a border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more from coming.

Hungarian statistics show 3,555 refugees living in Hungary, a country of 10 million, as of April. Only 342 people were registered as asylum seekers in the first four months of this year, mostly from the Middle East, and 279 were approved.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights group that often represents migrants, said on Wednesday the narrowing definition of who counts as a refugee essentially means nobody entering Hungary by land would be entitled to such treatment.

“Instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors,” Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi said.

The Orban government expects possible legal action by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, over the new law.

Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticised Hungary’s new law as “arbitrary” and vague and said it contravenes European law.

The Venice Commission, an expert body at the Council of Europe, had asked Hungary to refrain from approving the new law until a report it co-authored with the OSCE is published.

Orban has also tightened state control over the media, major business sectors and the courts since taking power in 2010.

In other constitutional changes approved on Wednesday, parliament agreed to set up a new judicial branch for administrative cases that critics say may increase political influence over judges. Another change narrowed the right to free expression and assembly.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)