Two hundred families trapped by Islamic State in Syria, U.N. says

FILE PHOTO: Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drink tea in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Some 200 families are trapped in a shrinking area of Syria controlled by Islamic State, whose forces are stopping many from fleeing, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, calling for the families’ safe passage.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are on the brink of defeating IS in its last pocket in eastern Syria, the village of Baghouz, where it estimates a few hundred Islamic State fighters and about 2,000 civilians are under siege.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Many of the families “… continue to be subjected to intensified air and ground-based strikes by the U.S.-led Coalition forces and their SDF allies on the ground,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“We understand that ISIL appears to be preventing some of them if not all of them from leaving. So that’s potentially a war crime on the part of ISIL,” her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

The SDF attacking Islamic State have an obligation under international law to take all precautions to protect civilians who are mixed in with the foreign fighters, he said.

In Syria’s northwest, Syrian government forces and their allies have intensified a bombing campaign in Idlib and surrounding areas in recent weeks, coupled with attacks by armed groups that have killed civilians, Bachelet said.

Twin explosions in the bustling center of rebel-held Idlib city on Monday killed at least 15 people and injured scores, medics and witnesses said.. Bachelet put the death toll from that incident at 16 with more than 70 injured.

Bachelet also voiced concern for some 20,000 people who fled the ISIL-controlled areas in eastern Deir al-Zor governorate in recent weeks. They are being held in makeshift camps run by the Kurdish armed groups, including SDF, who are reported to be preventing IDPs from leaving the camps, she said.

“Particular care needs to be taken with the civilians and if possible they should be treated humanely, and allowed to leave the camps. They shouldn’t be held in detention unless they are suspected of committing a particular crime,” Colville said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in eastern Ghouta: sources

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A Russian-brokered deal has been reached to evacuate a Syrian rebel group from a town in eastern Ghouta, opposition sources and officials said on Wednesday, the first such deal in the remaining rebel bastion near the capital.

Fighters from the Ahrar al Sham rebel group in control of the besieged town of Harasta had agreed to lay down arms in return for safe passage to opposition-held northwestern Syria and an offer to be pardoned under reconciliation terms with the authorities for those who want to stay, the sources said.

There was no indication when the deal would be implemented and one source familiar with the talks said obstacles may delay it for a few days.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it had opened a new “humanitarian corridor” near Harasta but did not indicate that this could be part of any rebel pullout deal.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave and after weeks of bombardment residents are fleeing by the thousands.

The Syrian army assault backed by Russian air power that began last month has killed hundreds of people as air strikes pound residential areas where thousands had sheltered in basements across the densely populated enclave, according to rescuers and a monitor.

Years of siege and bombardment have been a strategy by the Syrian army to force rebels to surrender and help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover all of Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

“The deal has been finalised and it could come into effect soon after a ceasefire is announced as early as Wednesday,” said one official familiar with the talks.

It would begin with an evacuation of injured civilians, he added, saying the remaining civilians in the town were “facing untold suffering.”

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

People, who were evacuated from the two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, stand near buses at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

EVACUATION OF WOUNDED

A pro-Assad commander confirmed a deal between the Russians and Ahar al Sham had been concluded with an evacuation of wounded from Harasta expected on Wednesday, followed by civilians and fighters evacuated to rebel-held Idlib in northwestern Syria in the “coming days.”

A local official in the opposition-run Harasta council was quoted by opposition news outlets as saying a deal had been reached but did not say when it would be implemented.

Last year, rebels launched an offensive on army barracks on the edge of Harasta that led to retaliatory attacks. The battles were among the fiercest in eastern Ghouta in recent years.

Assad has vowed to end what he says is a terrorist threat near his seat of power in Damascus. Syrian authorities accuse rebels of firing rockets into the suburbs in revenge attacks, which rebels deny.

More than 100 civilians were killed in the last two days of air strikes in eastern Ghouta with most of the raids on Douma city, the largest population center with more than 150,000 people still living there.

Rebels and residents say napalm and incendiary weapons were dropped on several civilian areas to force rebels to surrender.

The Syrian army this month splintered Ghouta into three besieged zones, cutting off Harasta from other areas. The Syrian army had given the rebels of Harasta an ultimatum to withdraw, state media said..

Residents and rescuers say the Russian air force stepped up bombing of Harasta town as talks were going on to broker the deal. Securing the town, near the closed Damascus-Homs highway, will allow the army to make further gains in the remaining parts of the enclave in rebel hands.

“They bomb us to force us to leave our homes and everything behind us and say imminent death faces those who stay,” Iyad Abdul Aziz, head of the local council in Douma, told Reuters.

The plight of civilians in the de facto capital of eastern Ghouta had worsened after air strikes on Sunday on a main warehouse that had stocked United Nations goods delivered this month, Abdul Aziz said. The council has said the city faced “catastrophic conditions”.

The Harasta deal will pile pressure on the two main rebel groups – Failaq al-Rahman in the southern pocket and Jaish al-Islam in the northern enclave – to also reach understandings.

They have said they reject Russia’s offer to leave the enclave but have agreed to evacuation deals to get hundreds of sick and wounded civilians out under U.N. auspices.

But the most likely option was the transfer of Failaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam fighters to opposition-held areas in northern and southern Syria, a rebel official said.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assault and the promise of safe passage out.

The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) has said Syrian troops alongside Iranian-backed militias were reinforcing positions in their strongholds in the southern Deraa province where rebels have control of most of the countryside.

Western diplomats and Jordan, which borders the southern part of Syria, are worried the Syrian army will launch an offensive to regain control of the strategic area that is now covered under a U.S.-Russian deal setting up a “de-escalation” zone that has reduced violence.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

The lives of three men show why Syria’s rebels are losing the war

FILE PHOTO: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The war has cost one man part of his liver and intestines. Another his home and work. A third his homeland and studies.

All three have lost hope.

Abu Farhan, Fouad al-Ghraibi and Abu al-Baraa took the rebels’ side in the violence which began after the government put down street protests that started on March 15, 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Ghraibi, who has a business renting out construction machinery, joined a rebel group and later set up his own fighting unit. Abu al-Baraa, then just 16, joined a militant group, the Nusra Front, and became a jihadist fighter. Abu Farhan, a student and part-time kitchen fitter, joined the first protests in the central Syrian city of Homs and went on to became an opposition activist.

The harrowing tales of the three men — they don’t know each other but all risked their lives by siding against President Bashar al-Assad — help show why the rebellion is failing.

All three quickly became disillusioned with divisions among the rebels and what they saw as various fighting groups’ intolerance of anyone who does not think like them — a trait similar to what they see in Assad.

Two of them have concluded the war is unwinnable, especially as Assad now has heavy military support from Russia and Iran that far outweighs the weapons shipped to rebels by the United States, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.

But hatred of Assad means fighters like Ghraibi battle on. Men such as Abu al-Baraa and Abu Farhan are so disillusioned with both sides that they see no life for them in Syria.

“What happened destroyed my whole future,” Abu al-Baraa, who now lives in exile in Turkey, told Reuters by telephone. He fled across the border after falling out with the Nusra Front, which he says imprisoned and tortured him.

Ghraibi, 37, has recovered from abdomen and hand wounds and lost part of his liver and intestines, and a finger, says he will fight to the death with the rebels but also believes the rebellion’s original ideals are dead.

“We’ll keep fighting to our last breath, even against the whole world,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST

Abu Farhan shares that sense of despair. Now 30, he was forced out of Homs by the fighting in 2014. Although he has found work and an apartment in Syria’s northern Idlib province, he is deeply disillusioned by what has become of Syria and dreams of leaving to start a new life abroad.

“We didn’t want to destroy our country and create this rift among Syrians,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined the protests.”

He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of upsetting rebels in Idlib.

The civil war has killed 511,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and forced over 5.4 million to flee the county, according to U.N. data. It has also caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and western Europe and inspired fatal attacks from Nice to Los Angeles.

(Years of deadly days in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2HB9bkG)

It is a civil war that has laid bare the international community’s inability to resolve conflicts on such a scale, increasing strains between Russia and the West.

Abu Farhan had studied physical education at university in Homs before the war and was working as a kitchen fitter. He threw his lot in with Assad’s opponents when he joined anti-government protesters pouring out of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.

Abu Farhan put aside his studies and his hopes of marriage, and began organizing protests.

His best friend and favorite cousin both disappeared under arrest. Last year he found out that they were killed – a fate which human rights groups say has befallen tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons. The president denies the accusations.

By February 2012, the Syrian army was regularly shelling the district where Abu Farhan lived in the Jouret al Shayyah district of Homs near the Old City. But he chose not to fight.

“I knew that taking up arms would be a curse, not a blessing,” he said.

As fighting intensified and warplanes began bombing city blocks in late 2012, he left his home with his parents and two siblings for al-Waer, a quieter opposition area in another part of the city.

Waer was soon subjected to a siege that lasted until 2017 and food became more scarce. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when people traditionally eat delicacies at night after fasting through the daylight hours, he says the family usually had only bulgur wheat to break their fast.

“Sometimes we didn’t even have that,” he said.

Terrified of arrest by Assad’s security forces – which he believed would lead to torture and summary execution – Abu Farhan and his family joined rebels who left for Idlib in a negotiated withdrawal, surrendering Waer to the government.

Idlib will never feel like home for Abu Farhan. “I am a refugee here,” he said.

After leaving Waer, he and his sister both found jobs in Idlib, with Abu Farhan working as a fitness instructor.

Despite overcrowding caused by the flood of refugees from other parts of Syria, they were able to rent an apartment. For now, though, Abu Farhan is unable to get to work in the southern part of Idlib because bombing by pro-Assad forces makes his journey too dangerous.

The bombing, destruction and what he sees as the intolerance of rebel groups running Idlib have convinced him there is no point staying in Syria. He has started learning Turkish and hopes to gain refugee status.

JIHADIST AND EXILE

Abu al-Baraa was a schoolboy in Waer when the protests began, but volunteered as a hospital orderly and helped injured demonstrators hide from the police. He briefly became a medical student, while it was still possible to travel into the university in central Homs.

Realising he was now a wanted man because of his actions, he joined the Nusra Front. He said the group seemed to represent his conservative religious views and that he became aware of its true nature and violent militancy only later.

“We didn’t know then that the Nusra Front was affiliated to al Qaeda. We had a religious upbringing, and they lured us in with their religious beliefs,” said Abu al-Baraa.

The Nusra Front’s brutal methods were soon evident to Abu al-Baraa, as was the split between jihadist and nationalist groups that has plagued the uprising.

“They established security apparatuses and prisons just like the (Assad government) regime, where they tortured people,” Abu al-Baraa said. “I know of at least one man who died under torture and was later shown to be innocent.”

After only a few months fighting with the group, he was stripped of his gun and mobile phone for opposing its actions and he started volunteering at a medical center.

His disillusionment with the Nusra Front and other rebels grew and he publicly argued with the group’s local commander, who threw him into prison.

He was held in a dark underground cell infested with rats and was tortured, he said.

“They faked 15 accusations against me, including theft and spying for the regime. After 12 days of living hell, I collapsed and confessed to the fake accusations,” he said.

While he wasted in prison the rebellion, undermined by internal wrangling and facing a government strengthened by the arrival of Russian warplanes, was losing ground.

When its enclave in the city of Aleppo fell to Assad in late 2016, it led to a series of surrenders of other small opposition pockets around Syria. Waer was one of them.

Abu al-Baraa was stuck in prison, but he still had friends in the Nusra Front who managed to smuggle him out. He was able to board one of a number of green buses sent by the government to evacuate the rebels, and made it to Idlib.

For Abu al-Baraa, worried he was in danger from the Nusra Front and now using false documents, the misery and poverty of Idlib offered no haven.

“Two or three families shared one small apartment, taking turns to sleep,” he said.

Six weeks after arriving there, he made the dangerous border crossing into Turkey with the help of the same people who had rescued him from prison. It was his seventh attempt.

Mow living in Istanbul with his mother and younger brother, Abu al-Baraa says the trauma of that time, when the sound of jets meant an attack could be imminent, still affects them.

“We live near the airport. Whenever a plane takes off or lands, my brother runs crying to his mother,” he said.

Their father did not make it out of Syria. He died of a stroke in Waer in 2014. Abu al-Baraa still fears his former rebel allies enough to be identified only by his nom de guerre.

REBEL COMMANDER

When anti-government protests began in the city of Idlib in 2011, Fouad al-Ghraibi quickly joined them.

There was never any question where his allegiances lay. Thirteen of his uncles and cousins, all from the family’s home village of Kafr Oueid in Idlib province, were killed or jailed when government forces crushed a years-long revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, in 1982.

Ghraibi was shot in the hand and abdomen when Assad cracked down on the protesters and was taken to Turkey for treatment.

Returning to Idlib months later, he gathered friends to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an alliance of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab countries.

Disappointed by divisions in the FSA, he later joined Jaish al-Islam, a better organized Islamist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia where he was put in charge of 150 fighters.

Three of his brothers, Mokhlis, Khaled and Mustafa, were killed in combat in the northwest, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. An air strike on his village in June 2015 killed 33 civilians, including his niece.

When an alliance of jihadist groups led by the Nusra Front, which changed its name in 2016, took over much of Idlib last year, Ghraibi returned home to Kafr Oueid.

Once there, he set up a group of 45 local fighters which he hopes will defend the village from both Assad and the Islamist factions, and return the revolution to the ideals he believes it originally espoused.

All it has done so far is contribute yet another small armed faction to a civil war that shows no sign of ending.

(Editing by Angus McDowall and Timothy Heritage)

Aid convoy reaches Syria’s Deir al-Zor after three-year siege

FILE PHOTO: A view shows damaged buildings in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of aid arrived at Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria on Thursday, bringing supplies to soldiers and civilians days after the Syrian army broke a three-year Islamic State siege, Syrian state media reported.

The Syrian army and its allies reached Deir al-Zor on Tuesday in a sudden advance into the city after months of steady progress east across the desert, state news agency SANA said.

The United Nations has estimated that 93,000 civilians were living under IS siege in Deir al-Zor in “extremely difficult” conditions, supplied by air drops.

The 40 trucks that reached the area on Thursday carried basic needs such as fuel, food and medical supplies to civilians, and included two mobile clinics, SANA reported.

The army also holds another besieged enclave at the city’s airbase, separated from its advancing forces by hundreds of meters of IS-held ground.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that the army has not yet connected with that enclave, and is working on expanding its corridor from the west.

The advance has led to casualties on both sides, the British-based war monitor added.

The army expanded its control of ground around the corridor after heavy artillery and air strikes, SANA reported on Wednesday.

Separately, the U.S. special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, said on Wednesday that a convoy of the group’s fighters and families from the Syria-Lebanon border was still in open desert.

The coalition is using air strikes to block the convoy from reaching IS-held territory in eastern Syria, to which the Syrian army and its ally Hezbollah were escorting it as part of a truce following fighting on the Syria-Lebanon border.

Islamic State is fighting separate advances from both the Syrian army and its allies in eastern and central Syria, as well as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa.

The group has lost nearly half of its territory across both Iraq and Syria, but still has 6,000-8,000 fighters left in Syria, the United States-led coalition has said.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Philippine army says taking fire from women, children in Marawi battle

Smoke billows from a burning building as government troops continue their assault on its 105th day of clearing operations against pro-IS militants who have seized control of large parts of Marawi city, southern Philippines September 4, 2017.

By Manuel Mogato

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine troops fighting Islamic State-linked rebels in a southern city have encountered armed resistance from women and children, the military said on Monday, as troops make a final push to end a conflict that has raged for more than 100 days.

Ground forces were braced for higher casualties amid fierce fighting in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, where the field of battle has shrank to a small area in a commercial heart infested with snipers, and littered with booby traps.

“We are now in the final phase of our operations and we are expecting more intense and bloody fighting. We may suffer heavier casualties as the enemy becomes more desperate,” Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, who heads the military in Western Mindanao, told reporters.

He said the number of fighters was diminishing and a small number of women and children, most likely family members of the rebels, were now engaged in combat.

“Our troops in the field are seeing women and children shooting at our troops so that’s why it seems they are not running out of fighters.”

More than 800 people have been killed in the battle, most of them insurgents, since May 23 when the militants occupied large parts of the predominantly Muslim town.

The battle is the biggest security challenge in years for the mostly Catholic Philippines, even though it has a long history of Muslim separatist rebellion in Mindanao, an island of 22 million people that has been placed under martial law until the end of the year.

The protracted clashes and resilience of the rebels has fanned fears that Philippine groups loyal to Islamic State, and with ties to Indonesian and Malaysian militants, have formed an alliance that is well-organized, funded and armed, and serious about carving out its own territory in Mindanao.

Citing information provided by four hostages who had escaped from the rebels, Galvez said there were some 56 Christian hostages – most of them women – and about 80 male residents may have been forced to take up arms and fight the military.

The fighting was concentrated in an area around a mosque about a quarter of a square kilometer. He said soldiers were taking control of an average 35 buildings a day and at that rate, it could be three weeks before the city was under government control.

 

AIR STRIKES

Fighting in Marawi was intense on Monday, with heavy gunfire and explosions ringing out across the picturesque, lakeside town, the heart of which has been devastated by near-daily government air strikes.

Helicopters circled above to provide air cover for ground troops as fighting raged, with bursts of smoke rising above the skyline as bombs landed on rebel positions.

Galvez said intelligence showed the rebels’ military commander, Abdullah Maute, may have been killed last month in an air strike.

Postings on Facebook and chatter over the past two days on Telegram, a messaging application used by Islamic State and its sympathizers, had carried tributes to Abdullah, referring to him by one of his pseudonyms, he said.

“There is no 100 percent confirmation until we see his cadaver but this is enough to presume he died already,” he said.

The military has contradictory statements about the status of the rebel leaders over the past few months.

Abdullah Maute and brother Omarkhayam are the Middle East-educated leaders of a militant clan known as the Maute group that has gained notoriety in the past two years due to its ability to engage the army for long periods.

Under the name Dawla Islamiya, the Maute group has formed an alliance with Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of a pro-Islamic State faction of another group, Abu Sayyaf.

Galvez said the army’s intelligence indicated both Omarkhayam and Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, were still in the Marawi battle.

 

 

 

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

 

‘Suicide Squad’ brave bullets to rescue civilians in embattled Marawi City

An explosion is seen following an airstrike.

By Kanupriya Kapoor

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Saripada Pacasum Jr. gagged and turned away the first time he came across a decomposing body in Marawi City, where hundreds have died since Islamic State-inspired fighters attempted to overrun the southern Philippines town six weeks ago.

But the rescue and recovery volunteer had no time to waste as gunfire rang out from government troop positions and militant snipers around him: he put on a pair of rubber gloves and helped carry the remains out of the conflict zone in a pick-up truck.

“I thought of resigning after that,” Pacasum, who works in a disaster relief office told Reuters. “I was scared and not prepared for this kind of job.”

A member of a humanitarian volunteers team walks with a white flag as he searches for survirvors or victims due to the fighting in the center of Marawi City, Philippines J

FILE PHOTO: A member of a humanitarian volunteers team walks with a white flag as he searches for survirvors or victims due to the fighting in the center of Marawi City, Philippines June 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

But Pacasum, 39, continued to lead a team of about 30 young men and women who make near-daily forays to rescue civilians and retrieve victims in an urban battlefield that is infested with rebel snipers and battered by air strikes.

They have come to be known as the “white helmets” or “suicide squad” because of the risks they take when going in unarmed and wearing little protection other than white plastic construction helmets.

More than 460 people have been killed since the battle for Marawi began on May 23, including 82 members of the security forces and 44 civilians.

The military believes hundreds of civilians are still trapped by the conflict, the biggest internal security threat the Philippines has faced in decades and a shock to neighboring countries worried that Islamic State is trying to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia.

 

RESCUE MISSION

Fishermen, farmers, students, and small business owners, mostly from Marawi, are among those who have volunteered for rescue missions.

“We all grew up in Marawi and it breaks our hearts when we hear that Marawi is under siege,” said Abdul Azis Lomondot Jr., a 25-year-old university student, speaking in the team’s one-room office in the town’s capitol complex where many of the “white helmets” grab some sleep.

When the team gets a call from a trapped civilian or their evacuated relative, they first try to determine their location. Team leader Pacasum then asks for volunteers.

“We grab our helmets, IDs, a ladder, some small tools and we are good to go,” said Lomondot.

One such mission around three weeks into the siege almost went awry when the team drove into the conflict area in pick-up trucks but could not immediately find the house where four elderly people were known to be trapped.

“In that moment, I was panicking because I thought this may be an ambush,” Pacasum said as he and Lamondot recalled the mission. “We were just waiting for the sound of gunshots.”

After driving around for 20 minutes, the team finally located the house, but was shot at as they drove out with the civilians on board.

A group of rescue volunteers carry a body they found at the beginning of the fight between government troops and Maute group militants in Marawi, Philippines May 28, 2017. Picture taken May 28, 2017. Lanao del Sur Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management

A group of rescue volunteers carry a body they found at the beginning of the fight between government troops and Maute group militants in Marawi, Philippines May 28, 2017. Picture taken May 28, 2017. Lanao del Sur Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office/Handout via REUTERS

“TOO STRESSFUL”

As the siege drags on and the government pours troops into the lakeside town, soldiers have started providing cover for some of the rescue teams’ missions. Pacasum says that while this has obvious advantages, it can also mean they are more likely to be targeted by the militants.

The team has also received counseling and equipment from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and training on how to properly handle cadavers.

Pacasum, who has led more 10 rescue missions, wants to see the battle through to the end, but will consider changing professions when it’s over.

“It’s too stressful, he said.

“Some of the volunteers … they are just young kids, they are very aggressive. I’m more cautious. I have kids and I want to watch them grow old.”

 

(Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel)

 

Philippines army struggles as city siege enters fourth week

A joint group of police and military forces use a mallet to open a door while conducting a house to house search as part of clearing operations in different sections of Marawi city. REUTERS/Stringer

By Neil Jerome Morales and Simon Lewis

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Fighting in Marawi City in the southern Philippines entered its fourth week on Tuesday with military officials conceding that troops were struggling to loosen the grip of Islamist fighters on downtown precincts despite relentless bombing.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said the urban terrain was hampering the army’s progress because the rebels had hunkered down in built-up neighborhoods, many of them with civilians they had taken as human shields.

Hundreds of other civilians were still trapped in the ruins of the town and – facing capture, starvation or bombardment from above – several have braved sniper fire to dash across a bridge to safety. Some were shot dead, a few made it alive.

Asked when the fighting would end, Padilla said: “I can’t give you an estimate because of compounding developments faced by ground commanders.”

The military had set Monday, the Philippines’ independence day, as a target date to flush out the militants, both local and foreign fighters who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Flags were raised at ceremony in the town on the insurgency-plagued island of Mindanao, but heavy gunfire resumed early on Tuesday, and the military continued to target the militants with mortars and helicopter-mounted machineguns.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23 – hours after several hundred fighters overran parts of the town and tried to seal it off to create an Islamic caliphate – did not show at any independence day events.

Duterte is best known for a brutal war on drugs since he took office a year ago, and he has suggested that funding for the Islamist militants came from the narcotics trade.

Some media reports highlighted the absence of the president at a time of serious conflict, but a spokesman said he was tired and needed to rest.

The Philippines has been fighting twin insurgencies from Maoist-led rebels and Muslim separatists in the south for nearly 50 years. Critics say military action is not enough to bring peace to a region that has long suffered from political neglect and poverty.

‘PURE PROPAGANDA’

The seizure of Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear Islamic State – on a backfoot in Iraq and Syria – is trying to set up a stronghold on Mindanao that could threaten their region.

The ultra-radical group’s news agency, Amaq, said the military in the largely Christian Philippines had “completely failed” to take back Muslim-majority Marawi.

“Islamic State fighters are spread in more than two-thirds of Marawi and tighten the chokehold on the Philippine army that is incapable of maintaining control of the situation,” it said.

Padilla branded the Amaq report “pure propaganda”.

Responding to the report, Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, head of military command in Western Mindanao, told Reuters the militants controlled 20 percent of the town.

That is at least twice the area that the military had given a week ago, when it had said the rebels were holed up in a sliver of urban terrain equal to 10 percent and shrinking.

Almost the entire population of about 200,000 fled after the militants tried to overrun it, but the military believes that beyond the checkpoints now fencing off its main roads there are still some 300-600 civilians trapped or being held hostage.

Padilla said about 100 militants were still fighting, down from the estimated 400-500 who stormed the town.

Former military chief Rodolfo Biazon told ABC-CBN television on Monday that the government seemed to be struggling to control the situation because rebel forces could move freely in an out of the town, raising the prospect of reinforcements.

“Marawi has porous boundaries. You see them in one place of Mindanao today, you see them in another place tomorrow,” said Biazon, also a former legislator.

As of Tuesday, the number of security forces and civilians who had died in the battle for Marawi officially stood at 58 and 26, respectively. The death toll of militants was put at 202.

Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said that at least 200 government troops had been killed and many had abandoned their posts, leaving behind weapons that were seized by the militants.

It released a video showing the insurgents fighting and what it said was the execution of six Christians who were shot simultaneously in the back of the head. Reuters was not able to independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

At dawn on Tuesday, five police officers and five Christian civilians ran through the city’s commercial district to reach a government-controlled area on the Agus River’s west bank.

The military said that, in another incident, the insurgents knocked on the door of a house where 18 people were hiding. They escaped through a back door, but five were shot dead, eight were captured and only five made it to safety at the river.

(For graphic on Islamic State-linked groups in the Philippines south, click: tmsnrt.rs/2rYIHTj)

(For graphic on battle of Marawi, click: tmsnrt.rs/2qBkSPk)

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Civilians lack food, water, medicine as Mosul battle mounts: U.N.

A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of civilians in parts of Mosul held by Islamic State are struggling to get food, water and medicine, the United Nations said, days into a new push by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops to take the northern city.

Up to 200,000 people still live behind Islamic State lines in Mosul’s Old City and three other districts, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande told Reuters late on Sunday.

She spoke a day after Iraq’s army said it had launched a new offensive to take the militant zones on the western side of the Tigris river.

Progress has been slow, an Iraqi government adviser told Reuters, also late on Sunday. “The fighting is extremely intense … the presence of civilians means we have to be very cautious,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

People who had managed to get out of the militant areas “report a dramatic situation including lack of food, limited water and severe shortages of medicines,” Grande said by phone.

“We know that there have been health facilities in these areas, but we don’t know whether they are still functioning.”

Government forces have been dropping leaflets over the districts telling families to flee – but many have remained fearing getting caught in the cross-fire.

“We have been informed by authorities that the evacuation is not compulsory … If civilians decide to stay … they will be protected by Iraqi security forces,” said Grande.

“People who choose to flee will be directed to safe routes. The location of these will change depending on which areas are under attack and dynamics on the battlefield,” she added.

The latest Iraqi government push is part of a broader offensive in Mosul, now in its eighth month. It has taken longer than planned as the militants are dug in among civilians, retaliating with suicide car and motorbike bombs, booby traps, snipers and mortar fire.

Its prime target is the medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque with its landmark leaning minaret in Mosul’s Old City, where Islamic State’s black flag has been flying since mid-2014.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate” declared nearly three years ago by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a speech at the mosque.

About 700,000 people, about a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Syria, Russia pound rebel-held Aleppo but advances halt

A man holds the hand of a boy as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo,

By Laila Bassam and John Davison

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian’s military and Russian warplanes bombarded rebel-held districts of Aleppo on Saturday as Damascus’s allies said victory was near, but insurgents fought back and army advances halted after rapid gains during the week.

The United States said it was meeting a Russian team in Geneva to find a way to save lives, but an agreement looked elusive as the two countries, which back opposing sides, have repeatedly failed to strike a deal to allow evacuations and help aid deliveries.

Russia, whose military intervention helped turn the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, said the Syrian government now controls 93 percent of second city Aleppo, a figure Reuters could not independently verify. Its recapture would deal a major blow to rebels who have fought to unseat Assad in the nearly six-year war.

The insurgents are holed out in a handful of areas mostly south of the historic Old City, having lost nearly three-quarters of territory they controlled for years in the space of around two weeks.

Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, a key military ally of Damascus alongside Russia and Iran, said late on Friday that a “promised victory” in Aleppo was imminent and would change the course of the war.

The advances mean the government appears closer to victory than at any point since 2011 protests against Assad evolved into armed rebellion. The war has killed more than 300,000 people and made more than 11 million homeless.

A win for Assad in Aleppo looks close, but fighting still raged on Saturday.

Russian warplanes and Syrian artillery bombarded rebel-held districts, and rebels responded with shelling of government-controlled areas as gunfire rang out, a Reuters correspondent in Aleppo said.

Russia and Syria said on Friday they had reduced military operations to allow civilians to leave.

But rebels say their counter attacks are what have halted government advances.

“There’s no advance by the regime. They (rebels) have stopped them several times,” Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group told Reuters.

Government forces launched an attack in the Izaa area near the Old City early on Saturday which insurgents repelled, destroying an army tank, he said.

VAST DESTRUCTION

Fighting has killed hundreds of people in recent weeks, monitors say, and devastated large areas of Aleppo.

Parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Old City recaptured by the government were completely destroyed by fighting, a Reuters correspondent said. Old markets and bathhouses had been flattened.

“I found my home destroyed,” said one returning resident, who gave only his family name, Sheikho.

“I didn’t even recognize where it was because of the destruction,” he said.

Mohammed Shaaban, standing outside a destroyed church, was also astounded by the destruction.

“A year and a half ago when I last visited there was not this level of damage. I’m shocked and saddened. They destroyed civilization and humanity,” he said, referring to rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said several people were killed in rebel shelling on Saturday. Hundreds have been killed in recent weeks, mostly in government bombardments, it says.

Thousands of people have left rebel districts. Some fled to government-held areas but others went to areas under rebel control fearing arrest and reprisals by government forces.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to show “a little grace” when American and Russian officials meet in Geneva later on Saturday to try to reach a deal enabling civilians and fighters to leave the besieged city of Aleppo.

“Fighters … don’t trust that if they agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that it will save Aleppo and they will be unharmed,” Kerry told reporters in Paris after a meeting of countries opposed to Assad.

Germany said Syrian opposition backers were seeking a political solution, but there was no agreement in Paris on reaching a truce.

IS ASSAULT STRETCHES ARMY

Russia’s defense ministry said more than 20,000 civilians left eastern Aleppo on Saturday and over 1,200 rebels laid down their arms. The British-based Observatory said hundreds of civilians had left but no fighters surrendered.

Rebel officials have sworn they will never leave.

The army said it reduced operations to allow residents to leave, and that this would enable the military to carry out “wider maneuvers” against insurgents in due course.

Russia’s defense ministry said that after civilians left, government forces would continue to “liberate” eastern Aleppo.

Even once Aleppo is retaken, the multi-sided Syrian war will continue.

The Syrian army said it had sent reinforcements to Palmyra more than 200 kms (130 miles) away to stave off a fierce attack by Islamic State militants, who advanced to the city’s outskirts.

A rebel commander in the Aleppo-based Jaish al-Mujahideen group said the IS offensive had forced the government to divert troops from Aleppo – a possible explanation for the slowed advance there and heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.

The United States, which is leading a separate fight against Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, said it will send 200 additional military personnel, including special forces to create a pressure against the group’s Raqqa hub.

The fight against Islamic State, being waged separately by the group’s many enemies in Syria – Moscow and Damascus; the U.S. coalition; and some of the same Turkish-backed rebels that are fighting Assad in Aleppo – is just one sign that Syria’s complex conflict will not end with a defeat for insurgents in Aleppo.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo, John Davison in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Alexander Winning in Moscow, William Maclean in Manama, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Louise Heavens)

Mosul residents fear cold and hunger of winter siege

People fleeing Islamic State stronghold in Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – No food or fuel has reached Mosul in nearly a week and the onset of rain and cold weather threatens a tough winter for more than a million people still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, residents said on Saturday.

Iraqi troops waging a six-week-old offensive against the militants controlling Mosul have advanced into eastern city districts, while other forces have sealed Mosul’s southern and northern approaches and 10 days ago blocked the road west.

But their advance has been hampered by waves of counter-attacks from the ultra-hardline Islamists who have controlled the city since mid-2014 and built a network of tunnels in preparation for their defense of north Iraq’s largest city.

The slow progress means the campaign is likely to drag on throughout the winter, and has prompted warnings from aid groups that civilians face a near complete siege in the coming months.

A trader in Mosul, speaking by telephone, said no new food or fuel supplies had reached the city since Sunday.

Despite attempts by the militants to keep prices stable, and the arrest last week of dozens of shopkeepers accused of hiking prices, the trader said food had become more expensive and fuel prices had tripled.

“We’ve been living under a real state of siege for a week,” said one resident of west Mosul, several miles (km) from the frontline neighborhoods on the east bank of the Tigris river.

“Two days ago the electricity generator supplying the neighborhood stopped working because of lack of fuel. Water is cut and food prices have risen and it’s terribly cold. We fear the days ahead will be much worse”.

A pipeline supplying water to around 650,000 people in Mosul was hit during fighting this week between the army and Islamic State. A local official said it could not be fixed because the damage was in an area still being fought over.

Winter conditions will also hit the nearly 80,000 people registered by the United Nations as displaced since the start of the Mosul campaign. That number excludes many thousands more who were forcibly moved by Islamic State, or fled from the fighting deeper into territory under its control.

MILITANTS COUNTER ATTACK

Islamic State authorities, trying to portray a sense of normality, released pictures which they said showed a Mosul market on Friday. It showed a crowd of people and a stall selling vegetable oil and canned food but no fresh produce.

They also said they carried out several counter attacks in the last 24 hours against Iraqi troops in eastern Mosul and the mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilisation forces who have taken territory to the west of the city.

Amaq news agency, which is close to Islamic State, said they retook half of the Shaimaa district in southeast of the city on Friday, destroyed four army bases in the eastern al-Qadisiya al-Thaniya neighborhood and seized ammunition from fleeing soldiers in al-Bakr district, also in the east.

A source in the Counter Terrorism Services, which are spearheading the army offensive, said Islamic State exploited the bad weather and cloud cover, which prevented air support from a U.S.-led international coalition.

He said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived.

“This is not the first time it happens. We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.

Amaq also said Islamic State fighters waged attacks on Saturday against the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, showing footage of two damaged vehicles, one with interior ministry markings on it.

A spokesman for the militias said those attacks had been repelled. “Daesh attacked at dawn to try to control the village Tal Zalat,” said Karim Nouri. “Clashes continued for two hours, until Daesh withdrew, leaving bodies (of dead fighters) behind.”

In Baghdad, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in the center of the city on Saturday, killing seven people and wounding 15, police and medical sources said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State fighters have stepped up attacks in the Iraqi capital and other cities since the start of the Mosul operations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched the Mosul offensive on Oct. 17, aiming to crush Islamic State in the largest city it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The campaign pits a 100,000-strong U.S.-backed coalition of army troops, special forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters and the Popular Mobilisation forces against a few thousand militants in the city.

Defeat would deal a heavy blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, announced by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul mosque two years ago.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Clelia Oziel)