Frenchman convicted to life in Jewish museum attack, tells jury ‘life goes on!’

By Clement Rossignol

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche was sentenced to life in jail on Monday for shooting dead four people in a Jewish museum in 2014, telling the court “life goes on” in his last words to the jury.

The families of victims and survivors of the attacks voiced relief at the end of a two-month-long jury trial dogged by controversy over what they denounced as conspiracy theories put forward by Nemmouche’s defense lawyers.

Nemmouche, 33, who staged the attack after coming back from Syria, spat out just that one short phrase ahead of the jury’s final deliberation on the length of his penalty on Monday.

Nacer Bendrer, another French citizen being tried as Nemmouche’s accomplice told the court, “I am ashamed to be here … I am ashamed to have crossed paths with this guy. He is not a man, he is a monster.”

The 12-person jury convicted Bendrer to 15 years in prison for acting as an accomplice. He was suspected of providing the weapon used in the shooting.

The attack in May 2014 – the first by a Western European who fought with Islamist militant factions in Syria’s civil war – highlights the threat posed by jihadist returning home.

The shooting killed an Israeli tourist couple, Myriam and Emmanuel Riva, and two employees of the museum, Dominique Sabrier and Alexandre Strens.

In final words, the prosecutor Yves Moreau called on the jury to hand down a tough sentence: “He will get out of jail and he’ll go on another crusade and start killing again,” he was cited by the state broadcaster RTBF as saying on Monday.

Turning to Nemmouche, who was largely impassive and refused to speak during the trial, he took aim at his lack of contrition. “The cherry on the cake: you aren’t even capable of taking responsibility for your acts,” he said.

Nemmouche, 33 – who was radicalized in the jail, according to investigators – is also facing charges in France over his role in holding hostage journalists in Syria.

During the high-profile trial, the two French journalists had testified that they remembered Nemmouche as a deeply anti-Semitic, sadistic and full of hatred.

Defense lawyers, who had alleged that prosecutors doctored video footage of the attack and that Nemmouche was framed in a settling of accounts between spies including Mossad agents, said he would not appeal the sentence.

(Reporting by Clement Rossingnol; Additional by Clare Roth; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Jan Strupczewski)

U.S.-led coalition withdrawing equipment from Syria

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Rodi Said and Phil Stewart

QAMISHLI, Syria/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State added to confusion surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria on Friday by declaring that it had started the pullout process but U.S. officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, had exited the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops there stunned allies who have joined Washington in the battle against Islamic State militants in Syria. Senior U.S. officials were shocked too, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.

U.S. Colonel Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”

“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” Ryan said.

After media reports suggesting the departure of U.S. forces had begun, U.S. officials told Reuters that no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against Islamic State was continuing as U.S.-backed forces try to capture the group’s last remaining pockets of territory in Syria. The three U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

But the U.S. officials confirmed that equipment was being moved out of Syria, a sign that despite mixed messages from Washington preparations for a withdrawal of troops was proceeding apace.

Residents near border crossings that are typically used by U.S. forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.

SYRIA UPHEAVAL

The U.S. decision has injected new uncertainties into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are stationed.

On the one hand, Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the United States, and on the other the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the U.S. withdrawal. That drew a rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who called his comments “a serious mistake”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been touring the Middle East this week to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to regional security, said on Thursday the withdrawal would not be scuppered despite the Turkish threats.

The Kurdish groups that control the north have turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.

Russia, which has deployed forces into Syria in support of the Damascus government, said it had the impression that the United States wanted to stay despite the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops, RIA news agency reported.

RUSSIA URGES DAMASCUS-KURDISH DIALOGUE

Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said it was important for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government to start talking to each other in light of the U.S. withdrawal plans.

She also said the territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government.

“In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society,” Zakharova said.

Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights, mostly in southeastern areas near Syria.

A Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the Kurds had presented Moscow with a road-map for a deal with Damascus. Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday he was optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, welcomed what he believed was a slower withdrawal by the United States after pressure from its allies.

“President Macron spoke to him (Trump) several times and it seems that there has been a change that I think is positive,” he said in a television interview on Thursday.

In a rare acknowledgment that French troops were also in Syria, he said they would leave when there is a political solution in the country.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Phil Stewart; Editing by Angus MacSwan and James Dalgleish)

U.S., Turkey agree to try to resolve disputes after relations dive

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, Malaysia August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By David Brunnstrom

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed on Friday to try to resolve a series of disputes, after relations between the NATO allies sank to their lowest point in decades.

Their meeting in Singapore followed Washington’s imposition on Wednesday of sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the case of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor on trial in Turkey for backing terrorism.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described their conversation on the sidelines of a regional ministers’ meeting as constructive. “They agreed to continue to try to resolve the issues between our two countries,” she said.

Cavusoglu said he had repeated Turkey’s message that “the threatening language and sanctions does not achieve anything”, but added that he and Pompeo would take steps to resolve their differences when they returned home.

“Of course you can’t expect all issues to be resolved in a single meeting,” he told Turkish television channels. “But we have agreed to work together, closely cooperate and keep the dialogue in the coming period,” he added, also describing the talks as very constructive.

Washington imposed sanctions on Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, accusing them of playing leading roles in organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Brunson, an evangelical Christian who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. The move sent the Turkish lira to record low.

Within hours Turkey vowed to retaliate ‘without delay’ but since then the tone of comments from Ankara has moderated and so far it has taken no such step. Finance minister Berat Albayrak, who is President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, also said relations with the United States would never break down, despite the temporary escalation.

Pompeo told reporters the United States had put Turkey on notice “that the clock had run and it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned”.

“I hope they’ll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we’re very serious,” he said of the sanctions. “We consider this one of the many issues that we have with the Turks.”

“Brunson needs to come home. As do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government. Pretty straightforward. They’ve been holding these folks for a long time. These are innocent people,” he said. “We are going to work to see if we can find a way forward; I am hopeful that we can.”

The United States has also been seeking the release of three locally employed embassy staff detained in Turkey.

ATTEMPTED COUP

Brunson is charged with supporting a group Ankara blames for orchestrating an attempted coup in 2016. He denies the charges but faces up to 35 years in jail.

He was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed Kurdish PKK militants. Gulen denies the allegations.

Turkey has been trying to have Gulen extradited from the United States for two years.

Finance Minister Albayrak said on Thursday the sanctions would have a limited impact on the Turkish economy, although investors’ deepening concern over ties with the United States, also a major trading partner, sent the lira to record lows.

On Friday, the currency fell to 5.1140 against the dollar. The sell-off also hammered Turkish stocks and debt risk profile.

Brunson was in a Turkish prison for 21 months until he was transferred to house arrest last week. On Tuesday, a court rejected his appeal to be released altogether during his trial.

Washington and Ankara are also at odds over the Syrian war, Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia and the U.S. conviction of a Turkish state bank executive on Iran sanctions-busting charges this year.

Brunson’s case has resonated with President Donald Trump and particularly with Vice President Mike Pence, who has close ties to evangelical Christians. Pence has been pressing behind the scenes for action, aides said.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Macfie, Paul Tait and David Stamp)

U.S. Christian pastor leaves Turkish prison after court ruling

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency, DHA via

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A U.S. Christian pastor on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges left prison on Wednesday after a court ruled he should be transferred to house arrest, a step that could help reduce tension between the NATO allies.

Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years and has been detained for the last 21 months, was escorted out of prison by officials in the coastal city of Izmir, live television footage showed. He departed in a convoy of cars.

Brunson, who is from North Carolina, was detained in October 2016 and charged with helping the group which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup earlier that year.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson has to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is banned from leaving the country.

The same court rejected a week ago a call by Brunson’s defense for his release. The state-owned Anadolu news agency said the court had decided, after re-evaluating the case, that he could leave prison on health grounds and because he would be under effective judicial control.

Brunson’s detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara, who are also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia.

A source in the United States familiar with the developments said the sudden shift came a day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had been set to unveil a harsh new policy on Turkey.

The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said U.S. and Turkish officials had been working on a deal that would lead to Brunson’s release, with Washington expecting him to be freed at the trial last week.

U.S. officials had been under the impression that the deal was in place, the source said, adding that when Brunson was not released, Pence spoke with President Donald Trump and the two agreed harsh new policy measures were needed to force the issue.

Pence spoke by phone on Wednesday with Brunson, who expressed gratitude for the help from Trump and his top officials in securing his move from prison, the source said.

“LONG OVERDUE NEWS

Brunson was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

The pastor, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed what he said was the “long overdue news” of Brunson’s transfer, but said it was not enough. “We have seen no credible evidence against Mr. Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner,” he said on Twitter.

Financial markets took the transfer order as a positive, seeing in it the potential for improvement in ties between Ankara and Washington.

The Turkish lira strengthened to 4.8325 against the dollar from 4.8599 before the report. Shares of Halkbank, whose former deputy general manager was convicted in January of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, jumped 12 percent.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s fate to that of the Muslim cleric Gulen, whose extradition from the United States has been a long-held demand of Turkish authorities. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup bid.

Trump said in a tweet last week that Brunson was being held hostage and that Erdogan should “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father”.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system.

(Additional reporting by Omer Berberoglu in Istanbul; Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; editing by David Stamp and Mark Heinrich)

Turkish court rules that U.S. pastor move from jail to house arrest

FILE PHOTO: A prison vehicle, believed to be carrying jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, leaves from the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court ruled on Wednesday that an American pastor be transferred from jail to house arrest, his lawyer said, after nearly two years in detention on terrorism charges in a case which has strained ties between Ankara and Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was detained in October 2016 and indicted on charges of helping the group which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup earlier that year.

Brunson’s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt confirmed Turkish media reports that the court had ruled for him to be moved to house arrest. He will have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is banned from leaving the country, Halavurt said.

A week ago the same court rejected a call by Brunson’s defense for his release. State-owned Anadolu news agency said the court decided, after re-evaluating the case, that he could leave prison on health grounds and because he would be under effective judicial control.

It said Brunson’s defense had been completed and evidence for the case was almost all collected.

Brunson’s detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara – also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia – and financial markets took his transfer order as a positive sign.

The Turkish lira strengthened to 4.8325 against the dollar from 4.8599 before the report. Shares in Halkbank, whose former deputy general manager was convicted in January of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, jumped 12 percent.

Brunson was indicted on charges of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

The pastor, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

Erdogan has previously linked his fate to that of Gulen, whose extradition from the United States has been a long-held demand of Turkish authorities. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup.

President Donald Trump said in a tweet last week that Brunson was being held hostage and that Erdogan should “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father”.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by David Stamp)

Assad films himself driving to Ghouta to demonstrate victory

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reaches out to shake the hand of a Syrian army soldier in eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 18, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad flaunted government advances in Syria’s seven-year war by filming himself driving to meet frontline soldiers near Damascus, making a video of the journey from the city center into areas recently recaptured.

“The road is open… everything is running now in the city and in Syria,” he said in the video, describing a road that had previously been cut by sniper fire and saying it was now easier to travel around the country.

The video, released overnight after a trip on Sunday, showed Assad in sunglasses at the wheel of his Honda car, speaking about the government’s increasing strength as peaceful scenery behind him gave way to battle-scarred concrete.

His visit to the battle front in eastern Ghouta, where state television showed him cheered by soldiers as smoke rose in the distance, came after tens of thousands of civilians began fleeing the opposition area for government lines.

The army offensive began a month ago with a massive bombardment and has so far retaken most of the area, the biggest rebel enclave near Damascus, cutting it into three zones.

It is the latest in a series of military gains for Assad after Russia entered the war on his side in 2015, ending rebel hopes of toppling him by force. Large areas remain outside his grip, but he now controls the main cities of Syria’s heavily-populated west.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks with Syrian army soldiers in eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 18, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks with Syrian army soldiers in eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 18, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

IN CONTROL

“This is the picture he wants to give… he is in control and finishing off the opposition in eastern Ghouta,” said Nikolaos Van Dam, a former diplomat in Syria and author of two books on the country.

While Assad has increasingly been shown traveling around Syria in recent years, it is unusual for him to visit areas close to the battlefront, as he did on Sunday, meeting cheering soldiers as well as civilians who had escaped the fighting.

There have been numerous other signs of his increasing confidence, including the release last year of a banknote bearing his image for the first time since he became president in 2000.

Wearing a suit without a tie and speaking informally to the in-car camera, Assad gave a running commentary on the areas he was driving through and discussed the military campaign.

He drove into eastern Ghouta from the east – the direction from which the army campaign began a month ago – into the district of Jisreen, which was captured late on Friday.

“When we see that people are returning to the state, it affirms what we are saying: that people want the state, and the state is the mother and father of everybody,” he said as he passed civilians who had left the rebel enclave.

His government and its ally Russia describe the opposition as terrorists and the population in rebel-held areas as human shields for armed groups.

The opposition says residents of eastern Ghouta – an early center of the uprising against Assad – do not want to return to his rule for fear of persecution, which he denies would happen.

Speaking to the camera as his car passed from fields into a town pocked with shell holes, Assad said Syria’s long-term challenge would be to “rehabilitate” children brought up under rebel rule.

“This generation has lived five years with dark thoughts, and with elements that resemble the days of the Middle Ages,” he said, saying they needed to be brought back “onto the right path”.

He said their lost education was the price of the war. “It can’t be avoided one way or another,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)

Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

FILE PHOTO: People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided civil war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.

The Kurdish YPG militia, defending Afrin, said it was battling the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its assault on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border campaign in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.

AIR STRIKES KILL 57, CIVILIANS FLEE

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.

For the first time since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot from rebel-held territory to reach government positions.

Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way to use them as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.

The Observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 47 people in the town of Kafr Batna and another 10 people in Saqba on Friday. It said Russian aircraft had carried out the strikes. Syrians believe they can distinguish Russian aircraft from those of the Syrian army because the Russians fly at higher altitude.

Syrian State TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, to escape rebel-held areas. Some waved to the camera and said the rebels had stopped them from leaving.

Russian news agencies reported that around 3,300 people had come out on Friday morning. An army officer at Hawsh Nasri, where hundreds of people gathered, told Reuters that many more people were expected to leave on Friday.

Around 5,000 people were sheltering at the nearby town of Adra and many more would arrive on Friday, the Adra mayor said. “Today we are expecting a big number,” Jassem al-Mahmoud said.

The exodus began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday.

The eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where many people are sheltering, has been spared the worst of the shelling in recent days, a resident said.

During campaigns to recover other areas, the Syrian government has taken territory by allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists safe passage out to insurgent-held areas at the Turkish border. Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels who leave eastern Ghouta, but so far they have refused.

ALARMING REPORTS

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue the enemies they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had received “deeply alarming reports from Afrin in northwestern Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes, as well as reports that civilians are being prevented from leaving Afrin city by Kurdish forces.”

Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage from the Afrin area showing cars, small trucks, tractors and groups of people on foot leaving the town. An elderly man told the channel he had left on foot at 2 a.m. when shells started falling.

“There are a lot of people leaving the city as well, and a lot still inside,” he said.

Birusk Hasakeh, the YPG spokesman in Afrin, said the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north. The YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were battling the attacking forces.

“They are shelling in order to storm (Afrin),” Hasakeh said by phone. The shelling had killed 18 people and more people were believed to be trapped under rubble, he said.

The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey expected its forces and rebel allies to clear Afrin town of militants “very soon”.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

The pain of Syrian refugees: Parents try to forget as children cling to lost past

Syrian refugee children run in a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Ayat Basma

(Reuters) – Warda, a Syrian refugee, wishes she could erase her old life, so painful have the memories become. By contrast, as the conflict in Syria slides into its eighth year, her younger children have nothing to remember of their homeland – nor to forget.

They are part of a new generation of Syrians whose parents fled war and destruction in their millions but who themselves are too young to remember their homeland.

For Warda’s children, home is a makeshift tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon which they share with their grief-stricken, 34-year-old mother.

“Even though I know I can’t, I want to forget Syria. I would forget my home, I would forget the place where I lived, I would forget my friends – I would forget everything. But one can’t forget,” Warda said as tears ran down her face.

Five million people have fled Syria since the war erupted after anti-government protests were put down with force in 2011. The eight-year anniversary of when these protests began is on March 15.

Warda and her son Bilal, 13, daughter Rayan, 7, and her youngest, a 3-year-old boy named Ibrahim, are among the one million refugees who stayed in neighboring Lebanon. Most live like them in rickety tents with no running water and inadequate sanitation.

“When my oldest son and I sit together, we reminisce about the things we used to do, going to the public garden or when I dropped him at school,” she said.

“But she doesn’t know what Syria is,” she said of her daughter Rayan, who sat on her lap.

“She repeats what everyone else says. She says things like: ‘when I saw my father’ or ‘when I met my uncle and grandmother’ – but she doesn’t know any of them and it really hurts,” says Warda, who managed to get work as a fruit picker on nearby farms a few days a week. She earns $5 a day.

Warda has heard nothing of her husband, who remarried and remained in Syria, for the past two years.

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

OUR CHILDREN DON’T KNOW SYRIA

Moussa Oweid al-Jassem from Aleppo is also struggling to keep the memory of Syria alive for his seven children. His youngest is four years old and the oldest is 16.

“Our youngest knows nothing about Syria, she knows this camp. The children here don’t know,” said Jassem, who is 43 and a former textile factory worker.

His family has nothing to remind them of home or of the lives they lived before. When they left, they had no time to take family albums or even the deeds to the lands they owned, he says.

“We were not prepared to witness the things we have seen. The scale of the violence, the bombings and the airstrikes, we had seen nothing like it before.”

In this small camp on the outskirts of the town of Qab Elias, residents say they are trying their best to make this place feel like a home.

The center of the tented settlement has been kept free to host weddings and wakes, and for the children to play.

On a sunny day, chickens strutted by and a cat looked for scraps as women peeled potatoes and chopped onions on mats spread outside. Black pigeons made nests in tires used as fortifications on tent roofs.

His sons Khaled, 16 and Majed, 14, are among the few whose memories of Syria have not faded completely.

“It felt better than heaven, ” said Majed, when asked to describe what home was like.

What it is like to live in a camp?

“Hell,” replied Khaled.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

In the cellars of eastern Ghouta, Syrians wait in fear

A child gathers wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

EASTERN GHOUTA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Abu Alma has holed up in a basement for two weeks with his wife and baby daughter. Ten other families stay with them, hiding from the bombs that fall on Syria’s eastern Ghouta.

They only venture out to find medicine or bring food they had stored at home months earlier, he said.

“We are living in the basement always,” said Abu Alma, 30, an engineer and local aid worker. “We’re trying to make it work. What can we do?”

Warplanes and artillery have battered the rebel enclave near the capital Damascus for over two weeks in one of the bloodiest assaults of the seven-year war. The bombing has killed hundreds and pushed people into makeshift underground shelters.

Syrian government forces have chewed off bits of farmland and marched into towns, squeezing the pocket in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

As the battles creep closer, thousands of families fled their homes and moved deeper into the enclave, residents say. The cellars were already packed before that.

Russia, the Syrian government’s key ally, has offered insurgents safe passage out. The proposal echoes evacuations in other parts of Syria, where fighters and civilians withdrew to rebel territory near the Turkish border.

Such deals – accept state rule or leave – have helped President Bashar al-Assad’s military claw back control of major cities, with support from Russia and Iran.

Some in eastern Ghouta said they dreaded a similar fate.

“There’s a lot of fear that the regime will enter, and on the other hand people don’t want to leave. They want to stay in their homes,” Abu Alma said in the town of Douma. “It’s harsh in the basements, but it will be much harder in the camps.”

“WE RAN IN THE NIGHT”

Since 2013, troops have encircled eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations estimates 400,000 people live without enough food, water, or medicine. It remains the only big rebel enclave near Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.

Khalil Aybour, a member of the local opposition council, said more than 16,000 people arrived in Douma alone in two weeks. He has prepared an emergency kit in case he has to suddenly run.

“There are families displaced five times, like my parents,” he said. “People are having to open up their shelters.”

Abu Firas, a farmer from the village of Shifouniyeh, escaped to Douma last week when the front lines reached his house.

“The forces advanced into the farms…We lifted the kids and ran in the night…We don’t even have clothes,” he said. “The warplanes and rocket launchers pounced. The bullets were reaching our building.”

With their three children, he and his wife also live in a basement. “It’s disgusting,” Abu Firas added. “We want to return home…We have our lands. We abandoned them, our cows, our sheep.” The army now controls the village.

Moscow and Damascus say their forces only target armed militants and seek to stop mortar salvoes by Islamist insurgents that have killed dozens of people in the capital.

Russian and Syrian forces have opened corridors for civilians to exit the suburbs. But there are no signs that anyone has, and they accuse the Ghouta insurgents of preventing residents from leaving. The two main factions deny this.

Abu Alma said people do not trust the route and worry about an uncertain fate if they go to government territory. “Because there are no guarantees except from the Russians and the regime, and they are the same ones bombing Ghouta.”

To pass the time in the cellar, they read the news or try to check on the status of relatives, he said.

Children gather wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

Children gather wood in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 9, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

“A MILLION DEATHS”

Some people said they did not doubt that a small part of the population wanted to get out, at least for survival.

One resident in Douma said that many now wanted the bombs to stop falling at any price. Their despair has grown and the government onslaught has intensified so much that they now resent the insurgents, the resident said.

Ahmad al-Meshrif, an ex-rebel, left his town of Nashabiyeh with 14 relatives including his mother, wife and son. Air strikes followed them as they moved across towns over the course of two weeks, he said.

“This latest attack…has not spared anything. If only you see the sheep and the cows in the streets, how the shrapnel tore them to pieces.”

When his family stayed in a shelter in Mesraba, he said, they could barely step out to the water pump because of the shelling. “That’s aside from the psychological state they put us in. I cannot find the words to describe it.”

Meshrif, 35, has taken care of his nephews and nieces since two of his brothers died fighting against the army in recent years. His third brother was in a government prison.

“We can no longer bear it. We put our hope in God,” he said. “I would rather die a million deaths than live under (the state’s) control and stop battling it – impossible.”

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and a reporter in eastern Ghouta; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russian truce plan fails to halt bombing of Syria’s Ghouta

FILE PHOTO: A man inspects a damaged house in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – A Russian call for a five-hour truce on Tuesday failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the Syrian war, where residents said government warplanes resumed striking the eastern Ghouta region on Tuesday after a brief lull.

Moscow and Damascus blamed rebels for the collapse of the truce, saying fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave. The insurgents denied such shelling.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would press on with a plan to stage similar daily pauses in the fighting, allowing aid to be delivered to eastern Ghouta through what Russia describes as a humanitarian corridor.

The United Nations said it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate the wounded, and said all sides must instead abide by a full 30-day ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“We have reports this morning there is continuous fighting in eastern Ghouta,” U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said. “Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out.”

Hundreds of people have died during 10 days of government bombardment of the eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of Damascus. The assault has been among the most devastating air campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year.

With its Ghouta offensive, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is drawing on the military methods it has used to crush its opponents in other parts of Syria, including eastern Aleppo in late 2016.

Intensifying bombardment of the besieged area has been coupled with probing ground assaults to test rebel defenses.

With no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta seems likely to meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government, where humanitarian corridors eventually became escape routes for defeated rebels.

“A concrete humanitarian corridor has been set up that will be used to deliver humanitarian aid, and, in the other direction, a medical evacuation can take place and all civilians who want to leave can,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in Moscow after meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

ESCALATION

Residents in several towns in the eastern Ghouta described a brief pause in fighting, but said bombardment swiftly resumed. In the town of Hammouriyeh a man who identified himself by his first name Mahmoud told Reuters helicopters and warplanes were in the sky and conducting strikes.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the Civil Defence rescue service, which is funded by Western governments and operates in rebel areas, said artillery and air strikes had hit the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said helicopters and warplanes had struck four towns and artillery shelling killed one person.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country, but did not specify when it should start. It excludes some militant groups which are among the rebels in eastern Ghouta.

That has meant the ceasefire has not been observed in practice. U.N. spokesman Laerke declined to comment on the Russian proposal for a five-hour truce, but called instead on all sides to obey the full 30-day ceasefire.

“It is a question life and death – if ever there was a question of life and death – we need a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria as the Security Council demands,” Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing.

A rebel spokesman said people in eastern Ghouta did not want to leave the area despite the bombardment, because they feared arrest, torture or conscription by the government. Russia said it would guarantee the safety of any civilians who left.

Eastern Ghouta, where the U.N. says around 400,000 people live, is a major target for Assad, whose forces have clawed back numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Rebels based in eastern Ghouta have intensified shelling of government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Syrian state media reported eight people injured by rebel shelling on Tuesday. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

Even before the latest bombardment of the besieged area began, there was growing international alarm over humanitarian conditions in the eastern Ghouta because of shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region. Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)