More than 200 companies have Israeli settlement ties: U.N

A construction site is seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, in the occupied West Bank December 22, 2016.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights office said on Wednesday it had identified 206 companies so far doing business linked to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and it urged them to avoid any complicity in “pervasive” violations against Palestinians.

Israel fears that companies in the U.N. “blacklist” could be targeted for boycotts or divestment aimed at stepping up pressure over its settlements, which most countries and the world body view as illegal.

“Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements,” the U.N. report said.

The settlements alter the demographic composition of the occupied Palestinian territory, seized by Israel in 1967, and threaten the Palestinians’ right to determination, it said.

The majority of the companies, or 143, are domiciled in Israel or the settlements, followed by 22 in the United States, it said. The remainder are based in 19 other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain.

The report, which did not name the companies but said that 64 of them had been contacted to date, said that the work in producing the U.N. database “does not purport to constitute a judicial process of any kind”.

But businesses operating in the occupied area have a responsibility to carry out due diligence and consider “whether it is possible to engage in such an environment in a manner that respects human rights”, it said.

The office’s mandate was to identify businesses involved in the construction of settlements, surveillance, services including transport, and banking and financial operations such as loans for housing that may raise human rights concerns.

Human rights violations associated with the settlements are “pervasive and devastating, reaching every facet of Palestinian life,” the report said. It cited restrictions on freedom of religion, movement and education and lack of access to land, water and jobs.

Israel assailed the Human Rights Council in March 2016 for launching the initiative at the request of countries led by Pakistan, calling the database a “blacklist” and accusing the 47-member state forum of behaving “obsessively” against it.

Israel’s mission in Geneva said on Wednesday that it was preparing a statement responding to the U.N. report. There was no immediate reaction by its main ally, the Untied States.

“We hope that our work in consolidating and communicating the information in the database will assist States and businesses in complying with their obligations and responsibilities under international law,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

Zeid’s office deferred the report last February saying it needed more time to establish the database. It is to be debated at the U.N. Human Rights Council session of Feb 26 – March 23.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Arab states believe U.S. aid secure despite defying Trump Jerusalem move

Members of the United Nations Security Council vote on an Egyptian-drafted resolution regarding recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem, during a meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., December 18, 2017.

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and John Davison

AMMAN/CAIRO (Reuters) – Leading Arab allies threatened with cuts in aid by Donald Trump said on Friday they had no choice but to defy the U.S. president over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and did not believe he would follow through.

More than 120 countries, including every Arab nation, voted at the U.N. General Assembly late on Thursday to urge the United States to withdraw its decision, announced earlier this month.

Trump threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the U.N. resolution, drafted by Egypt and supported by all members of the U.N. Security Council except Washington.

He repeated his threat on Friday, writing on Twitter: “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!”

In Egypt and Jordan, among the top recipients of U.S. aid but long the most heavily invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Trump’s threats were not taken seriously enough to backtrack on firm opposition to the U.S. move.

“The Americans know more than any one else that a stable Jordan is crucial for U.S. interests in the region,” a government minister who asked not to be named said.

For its cooperation in defense and other fields, Jordan receives some $1.2 billion annually from Washington.

“We do not expect the American administration to touch assistance but if it does this will only add to Jordan’s economic woes,” the minister said.

UNPREDICTABILITY

Former Jordanian prime minister Taher al-Masri said Jordan’s role as an ally in a volatile region where unrest has led to attacks on U.S. soil would likely keep the aid safe.

“Trump is not giving us aid as charity. Jordan performs a regional role in stability that we have not gone back on delivering,” he said.

In a sign of concern over Trump’s unpredictability, some Jordanian officials privately expressed worry, however.

Masri said the U.N. resolution would have received many more votes from member states had Trump not made his threat.

For Arab and Muslim states, anything less than total rejection of Trump’s Jerusalem decision would have been impossible, he said.

Nations around the world have criticized the move as damaging chances to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected any further U.S. role in the peace process.

As home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, Jerusalem’s status has long been fought over in rounds of failed negotiations, and ignited deadly conflict between Israeli and the Palestinians.

Jordan’s monarchy is custodian of Jerusalem’s holy shrines, making Amman sensitive to any changes of status of the disputed city.

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

Egypt, which led regional efforts to reject Trump’s decision as having a “negative impact” on security in the region, has been a key broker of past peace deals. Egypt’s foreign ministry and presidency could not be reached for comment after several attempts following the General Assembly vote.

H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert at the Atlantic Council, said Egypt likely felt secure over its $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid despite Trump’s threats.

“I don’t think Egypt will be worried … certainly Trump’s inner circle will not be too impressed – but I doubt that it will extend beyond that,” he said.

Egypt is an important military partner for the United States and is fighting its own Islamist insurgency in part of the vast Sinai Peninsula.

Arab countries are unanimous in their rejection of Trump’s Jerusalem move. Key allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq reiterated their stance at the General Assembly vote.

Iraq’s foreign ministry described the result as a “triumph for international law”.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation said their vote on the Palestinian cause reflected a “policy priority since the time of the founder (of Saudi Arabia), King Abdul Aziz.”

It is unclear if U.N. votes and strong rhetoric alone will force Washington to reverse course, however.

Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, has heaped praise on Trump. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed his decision, which reversed decades of U.S. policy, as a “historic landmark”.

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Maha El Dahan in Dubai, Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Editing by William Maclean)

Syrian walkout from talks ‘an embarrassment to Russia’: opposition

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian government’s decision to quit peace talks last week was an embarrassment to its main supporter Russia, which wants both sides to reach a deal quickly, opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said on Monday.

The delegation left the U.N.-backed talks in Geneva on Friday, blaming the opposition’s demands that President Bashar al-Assad should play no role in any interim post-war government.

“I don’t think that those who support the regime are happy with such a position being taken by the regime. This is an embarrassment to Russia,” Aridi said at the hotel where the opposition delegation is staying in Geneva.

“We understand the Russian position now. They are… in a hurry to find a solution.”

There was no immediate comment from Russian officials at the talks on the withdrawal of the government delegation.

Russia helped to turn the Syrian war in Assad’s favor and has become the key force in the push for a diplomatic solution. Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said a political settlement should be finalised within the U.N. Geneva process.

The opposition, long wary of Russia’s role, now accepts it. Western diplomats say Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev was present at the Riyadh meeting last month where the opposition drew up its statement rejecting any future role for Assad.

Asked if the opposition was willing to compromise on Assad’s role in any post-war government, Aridi said his delegation’s demands were based on the wishes of the Syrian people.

“I believe that our mere presence in Geneva is in itself a compromise. We are sitting with a regime that has been carrying out all these atrocities for the past seven years. What other compromise could we make?”

A source close to government delegation told Reuters on Monday that Damascus was still studying the feasibility of participation in the talks and when a decision was reached it would be sent through ordinary diplomatic channels.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

 

Death toll from Somalia bomb attacks tops 300

A general view shows the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 14, 2017.

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU (Reuters) – More than 300 people died after twin bomb explosions in Mogadishu, an official said on Monday, as locals packed hospitals in search of friends and relatives caught up in Somalia’s deadliest attack in a decade.

The death toll has steadily risen since Saturday, when the blasts – for which no organization had claimed responsibility by Monday morning – struck at two busy junctions in the heart of the city.

“We have confirmed 300 people died in the blast. The death toll will still be higher because some people are still missing,” Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of the city’s ambulance service, told Reuters on Monday.

Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said they had recorded 258 deaths while Ahmed Ali, a nurse at the nearby Osman Fiqi hospital, told Reuters five bodies had been sent there.

Nur said 160 of the bodies could not be recognized. “(They)were buried by the government yesterday. The others were buried by their relatives. Over a hundred injured were also brought here,” he told Reuters at the hospital.

Some of the injured were being evacuated by air to Turkey for treatment, officials said.

Locals visiting their injured relatives or collecting their bodies filled every available space in Madina hospital.

“My last time to speak with my brother was some minutes before the blast occurred. By then he told me, he was on the way to meet and was passing at K5,” Halima Nur, a local mother, told Reuters, referring to one of the junctions that was struck.

“I am afraid he was among the unrecognized charred bodies that were buried yesterday. I have no hope of getting him alive or dead. But I cannot go home.”

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15,

Somali government forces and civilians gather at the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

DEADLIEST SINCE INSURGENCY BEGAN

Saturday bomb attacks were the deadliest since Islamist militant group al Shabaab began an insurgency in 2007.

Neither it nor any other group had claimed responsibility, but al Shabaab, which is allied to al Qaeda, stages regular attacks in the capital and other parts of the country.

The group is waging an insurgency against Somalia’s U.N.-backed government and its African Union allies in a bid to impose its own strict interpretation of Islam.

The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 and have been steadily losing territory since then to the combined forces of AU peacekeepers and Somali security forces.

But Al Shabaab retains the capacity to mount large, complex bomb attacks. Over the past three years, the number of civilians killed by insurgent bombings has steadily climbed as al Shabaab increases the size of its bombs.

Some of those seriously injured in Saturday’s bombing were moved by ambulance to the airport on Monday morning to be flown to Turkey for further treatment, Nur added.

Workers unloaded boxes of medicine and other medical supplies from a Turkish military plane parked on the tarmac, while Turkish medical teams attended to the cases of injuries moved from the hospital for evacuation.

 

 

 

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; editing by John Stonestreet)

 

Russian-North Korea projects foundering because of missile tests

A guard walks along a platform past signs, which read "Russia" (L) and "DPRK"(Democratic People's Republic of Korea), at the border crossing between Russia and North Korea in the settlement of Tumangan, North Korea July 18, 2014.

By Polina Nikolskaya and Katya Golubkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Commercial ventures planned between Russia and North Korea three years ago are not being implemented because of Pyongyang’s missile testing program, the Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East, Alexander Galushka, said.

Russia has been under international scrutiny over North Korea because it has taken a more doveish approach to Pyongyang than Washington, and Russian trade with North Korea increased sharply at the start of this year.

The United States government earlier this month imposed new North Korea-related sanctions that targeted Russian firms and individuals for, it alleged, supporting Pyongyang’s weapons programs and providing oil.

However Galushka, in an interview with Reuters, said Moscow was faithfully implementing the international sanctions regime on North Korea, and held up the stalled bilateral projects as an indication that Pyongyang was paying an economic price for its weapons program.

“Russia has not violated, does not violate and will not work outside the framework (of the resolution) that was accepted by the U.N. Security Council,” said Galushka, who also heads a Russia-North Korean Intergovernmental Commission.

Russian businesses discussed a number of projects with North Korea in 2014. But then North Korea conducted military tests, including some involving nuclear weapons, and the projects became difficult to implement, Galushka said.

One such project, called “Pobeda”, or “Victory,” would have involved Russian investments and supplies that could be exchanged for access to Korean natural resources.

“We told our North Korean partners more than once … that it hampers a lot, makes it impossible, it restricts things, it causes fear,” Galushka said, referring to the weapons testing.

Another joint project between the two countries is a railway link with North Korea, from the Russian eastern border town of Khasan to Korea’s Rajin.

It is operating but below its potential. The link could work at a capacity of 4 million tonnes a year, officials have said previously, but now it only carries around 1.5 million tonnes of coal per year, according to Galushka.

UN sanctions also prohibit countries from increasing the current numbers of North Korean laborers working in their territories.

According to Galushka, around 40,000 employees from North Korea worked in Russia. Mainly they are engaged in timber processing and construction.

Russian business is interested in access to the North Korea workforce, Galushka said, but the numbers will stay in line with what the sanctions permit.

He said 40,000 workers from North Korea “is a balance formed in the economy, neither more nor less.”

Bilateral trade between the two countries has been decreasing for the last four years, from $112.7 million in 2013 to $76.9 million in 2016, according to Russian Federal Customs Service statistics.

But it more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017 in year-on-year terms. Most of Russia’s exports to North Korea are oil, coal and refined products.

Asked to explain why trade was rising if political issues were hurting commercial projects, a spokeswoman for Galushka’s ministry said in an email: “According to the latest data, there was an objective increase due to exports to North Korea, primarily oil products. But the export of oil does not violate the agreements of the UN countries in any way.”

The interview with Galushka took place before the U.S. imposed the sanctions targeting Russian entities and individuals for trading with North Korea.

Galushka’s ministry referred questions about the new sanctions to the Russian foreign ministry.

Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters Washington’s unilateral sanctions worsened tensions on the Korean peninsula, and that Russia is fulfilling its international obligations in full.

 

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

 

China issues order to implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Commerce Ministry issued a ban effective from Tuesday on several imports from North Korea, including coal, iron ore, lead concentrates and ore, lead and seafood, a move that is in line with U.N. sanctions announced this month.

Beijing issued the banning order on Monday.

U.N. sanctions must be implemented 30 days after the resolution was approved in a vote on Aug. 6.

The Chinese government said any cargoes already on their way to China would be cleared by customs as usual before the U.N. sanctions deadline.

 

(Reporting by Josephine Mason; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Edmund Blair)

 

Pence warns North Korea of U.S. resolve shown in Syria, Afghan strikes

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence looks toward the north from an observation post inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea,

By Roberta Rampton and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence put North Korea on notice on Monday, warning that recent U.S. strikes in Syria and Afghanistan showed that the resolve of President Donald Trump should not be tested.

Pence and South Korean acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn, speaking a day after a failed missile test by the North and two days after a huge display of missiles in Pyongyang, also said they would strengthen anti-North Korea defences by moving ahead with the early deployment of the THAAD missile-defence system.

Pence is on the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour intended to show America’s allies, and remind its adversaries, that the Trump administration was not turning its back on the increasingly volatile region.

“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said in a joint appearance with Hwang.

“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said.

The U.S. Navy this month struck a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles after a chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, the U.S. military said it had dropped “the mother of all bombs”, the largest non-nuclear device it has ever unleashed in combat, on a network of caves and tunnels used by Islamic State in Afghanistan.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency on Monday carried a letter from leader Kim Jong Un to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marking the 70th anniversary of Syria’s independence.

“I express again a strong support and alliance to the Syrian government and its people for its work of justice, condemning the United States’ recent violent invasive act against your country,” Kim said.

On a visit to the border between North and South Korea earlier in the day, Pence, whose father served in the 1950-53 Korean War, said the United States would stand by its “iron-clad alliance” with South Korea.

“All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country,” he told reporters as tinny propaganda music floated across from the North Korean side of the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ).

“There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

ECONOMIC TALKS

Pence is expected to discuss rising tension on the Korean peninsula with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday when he travels to Tokyo to kick off economic talks with Finance Minister Taro Aso.

Pence will meet business leaders in Seoul before departing – a “listening session” he will reprise at other stops on his tour in Tokyo, Jakarta and Sydney.

His economic discussions will be closely watched to see how hard a line Washington is prepared to take on trade. Trump campaigned for office on an “America First” platform, and has vowed to narrow big trade deficits with nations like China, Germany and Japan.

But Trump has also shown he is willing to link trade to other issues, saying he would cut a better trade deal with China if it exerts influence on North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump acknowledged on Sunday that the softer line he had taken on China’s management of its currency was linked to its help on North Korea.

The United States, its allies and China are working on a range of responses to North Korea’s latest failed ballistic missile test, Trump’s national security adviser said on Sunday, citing what he called an international consensus to act.

China has spoken out against the North’s weapons tests and has supported U.N. sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.

But Pence and Hwang said they were troubled by retaliatory economic moves by China against the deployment in South Korea of a U.S. anti-missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

South Korea, which accuses China or discriminating against some South Korean companies working in China, and the United States say the sole purpose of THAAD is to guard against North Korean missiles.

China says its powerful radar can penetrate its territory and undermine its security and spoke out against it again on Monday.

‘RECKLESS’

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing the situation on the Korean peninsula was “highly sensitive, complicated and high risk”, adding all sides should “avoid taking provocative actions that pour oil on the fire”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow could not accept North Korea’s “reckless nuclear actions” but the United States should not take unilateral action against it.

Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, indicated on Sunday that Trump was not considering military action against North Korea for now, even as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike group was heading for the region.

“It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” programme.

The Trump administration is focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang.

Tensions have risen as Trump takes a hard rhetorical line with Kim Jong Un, who has rebuffed admonitions from China and proceeded with nuclear and missile programmes seen by Washington as a direct threat.

China says the crisis is between the United States and North Korea. Lu said China efforts to help achieve denuclearization were clear, adding: “China is not the initiator of the Korean peninsula nuclear issue.”

China banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off its most important export and Chinese media has raised the possibility of restricting oil shipments to the North if it unleashed more provocations.

Pyongyang has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the U.S. mainland.

U.S. officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturising a nuclear warhead.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and James Pearson in SEOUL, Daniel Trotta in NEW YORK, Lucia Mutikani and Caren Bohan in WASHINGTON and Michael Martina in BEIJING:; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

Syria talks may surprise by meeting the low bar of expectations

General view at the start of a meeting between UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, 2nd R, and Syrian government delegation during Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Xu Jinquan/Pool

By Tom Miles, John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – No breakthrough was promised at Syria peace talks in Geneva, and no breakthrough has occurred. But as the first U.N.-led talks in almost a year neared their end on Friday, neither side has walked away and both claim small wins.

Russia, seen as holding the balance of power, has met both sides behind the scenes, and Western diplomats expect the talks to conclude later on Friday with an “agreed agenda” and a plan for a return to the Swiss city later this month.

In eight days of talks, the warring sides have not negotiated face-to-face, but haggled over the agenda with U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura, who wants to discuss a new constitution, elections and reformed governance.

As the text was still being finalised, the opposition met de Mistura to ensure the process would focus squarely on “political transition”, Western diplomats said.

Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari wants “counter-terrorism” to be included on the agenda.

“There is movement from both sides. The difficulty is that the opposition wants to be sure how the question of terrorism will be dealt with and in what order,” one diplomat said.

“They need language that ensures the process is not hijacked by the government to distract from political transition. De Mistura has to ensure that both sides don’t feel trapped.”

The scope of the negotiation is much narrower than a year ago, when de Mistura also had to hear demands for a ceasefire and release of prisoners. A shaky ceasefire has been in place since December and separate talks in Kazakhstan, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, are dealing with military matters.

Past peace efforts have failed, often as a fractured opposition succumbed to pressure from events on the battlefield, having failed to penetrate Ja’afari’s steely intransigence.

The latest round rode out the fallout from a militant attack on two security offices in the city of Homs last Saturday that killed dozens and which de Mistura said was a deliberate attempt to derail the talks.

FINAL SPRINT

A Western diplomat said agreement was near but it was the “final sprint and it can still derail”.

“I think the regime would do anything to get out of it as long as they can blame the other side like they tried yesterday (Thursday),” he said.

Russian diplomats met representatives of Syrian armed groups late on Thursday, diplomats and opposition sources said, the second contact in days between Moscow and the opposition, whom Assad’s government regards as terrorists.

Despite those contacts, Russia accused the main opposition of trying to sabotage the talks by refusing to unite with two smaller dissident groups which have no military muscle but have Moscow’s blessing as opposition voices.

Jihad Makdissi, head of the dissident “Cairo group” at the talks, said he met de Mistura on Friday. He said he expected an agreement on the agenda, format and date for a next round of talks, but that the U.N. envoy would clarify later.

Creating a unified opposition delegation is seen as the key to holding face-to-face talks. But a second Western diplomat said Russia’s push to unify the opposition was an underhand tactic.

“Russia is trying to do that to destabilize the talks. They insist on the opposition becoming one. This is a tactic to weaken the process. I hope that Staffan can push back on it.

A new round of Astana talks is due on March 14, and Russian officials have said the Geneva negotiations could resume on March 20.

(Editing by Richard Lough)

U.S. backed Iraqi forces battle their way toward Mosul airport

By Stephen Kalin and Maher Chmaytelli

SOUTH OF MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fought Islamic State fighters on Monday to clear the way to Mosul’s airport, on the second day of a ground offensive on the jihadists’ remaining stronghold in the western side of the city.

Federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response are leading the charge toward the airport, located on the southern limit of the Mosul, trying to dislodge the militants from the nearby hilltop village of Albu Saif.

The Iraqi forces plan is to turn the airport into a close support base for the onslaught into western Mosul itself.

Islamic State militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 750,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after 100 days of fighting.

“They are striking and engaging our forces and pulling back toward Mosul,” Major Mortada Ali Abd of the Rapid Response units told a Reuters correspondent south of Mosul. “God willing Albu Saif will be fully liberated today.”

Elite Counter-Terrrorism Service units headed to frontlines around the western side of Mosul, a city that is divided into two halves by the Tigris River.

Helicopters were strafing the Albu Saif hill to clear it of snipers, while machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades could be heard. The advancing forces also disabled a car bomb – used by the militants to obstruct attacking forces.

The Iraqi forces have been advancing so far in sparsely populated areas and there were no families seen escaping. The fighting will get tougher as they get nearer to the city itself and the risk greater for civilians.

Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters on Saturday.

Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of the city, which Iraqi forces took control of last month after three months of fighting. Tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to residents.

Western Mosul contains the old city center, with its ancient souks, government administrative buildings, and the mosque from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The city is the largest urban center captured by Islamic State in both countries.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both of Islamic State’s major strongholds – Mosul and the city of Raqqa in Syria – within the next six months.

Islamic State was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government’s offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than 1,000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.

The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.

The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut in November by the Shi’ite paramilitary known as Popular Mobilization forces. The militants are in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar, a town they control 60 km (40 miles) to the west.

CIVILIAN LIVES

Coalition aircraft and artillery have continued to bombard targets in the west during the break that followed the taking ofeastern Mosul.

The United States, which has deployed more than 5,000 troops in the fighting, leads an international coalition providing key air and ground support, including artillery fire, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad on Monday on an unannounced visit to assess the war operations.

“The coalition forces are in support of this operation and we will continue … with the accelerated effort to destroy ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group.

Mattis also said the U.S. military was not in Iraq to seize the country’s oil, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump.

A U.S. serviceman died on Monday in a non-combat related incident outside the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the U.S.-led coalition said, giving no further details.

Islamic State imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul, banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. Citizens who failed to comply risked death.

Capturing Mosul would effectively end the Sunni group’s ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq. The militants are expected to continue to wage an insurgency, however, carrying out suicide bombings and inspiring lone-wolf actions abroad.

About 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the start of the offensive in October, U.N. officials say. Medical and humanitarian agencies estimate the total number of dead and wounded – both civilian and military – at several thousand.

“This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay – or execution and snipers if they try to run,” Save the Children said, adding that children make up about half the population trapped in the city.

The involvement of many local and foreign players with diverging interests in the war, heightens the risk that they could clash between themselves after Islamic State is defeated.

Influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is openly hostile to Washington’s policies in the Middle East, on Monday said U.S. troops should leave as soon as Mosul is captured.

”The Iraqi government has to demand that all occupying and so-called friendly forces leave Iraq in order to preserve the prestige and the sovereignty of the state,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Baghdad and Isabel Coles in Erbil; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Israel postpones vote on new East Jerusalem homes before Kerry speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pulled back from approving hundreds of new homes for Israelis in annexed East Jerusalem on Wednesday before a speech in which the U.S. Secretary of State was to give further voice to international opposition to settlement building.

The projects, in areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians seek as part of a future state, are part of building activity the U.N. Security Council demanded an end to on Friday in a resolution made possible by a U.S. abstention.

John Kerry will discuss Washington’s withholding of its veto when he delivers a speech at the State Department at 11 a.m. ET (1600 GMT) laying out his vision for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a senior State Department official told reporters on Tuesday.

With applications for 492 building permits in the urban settlements of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo on its agenda, members of Jerusalem city hall’s Planning and Building committee said a planned vote was cancelled at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request.

The panel’s chairman, Meir Turgeman, said at the session that Netanyahu was concerned approval would have given Kerry “ammunition before the speech”.

A spokesman for the Israeli leader declined immediate comment.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called on Israel “to take the high ground and declare a cessation of settlement activities, including East Jerusalem, so we can give the peace process the chance it deserves by the resumption of meaningful negotiations”.

“SHAMEFUL”

Washington’s move at the United Nations broke a longstanding policy of diplomatic shielding of Israel by the United States. Condemned by Israel as “shameful”, it was widely seen as a parting shot by President Barack Obama against Netanyahu and his pro-settlement policies.

The two leaders have had a rocky relationship, divided over the decades-old Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied territory as well as on how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Washington considers the settlement activity illegitimate and most countries view it as an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees, citing a biblical, historical and political connection to the land – which the Palestinians also claim – as well as security interests.

Some 570,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid mounting international concern that a two-state solution to the dispute is in jeopardy, with peace talks stalled since 2014.

“The prime minister said that while he supports construction in Jerusalem, we don’t have to inflame the situation any further,” Hanan Rubin, a member of the Jerusalem municipal committee told Reuters, citing Kerry’s upcoming speech.

The panel meets regularly and the building projects could come up for a vote at a future session.

Since learning last week of Kerry’s planned speech, Israeli officials have been concerned he might use the address to lay out parameters for a Middle East peace deal.

Netanyahu’s aides are confident Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration will likely ignore any Obama principles and pay no heed to the U.N. resolution. But they fear Kerry’s remarks will put Israel on the defensive and prompt other countries to apply pressure.

Trump tweeted his opposition to the U.S. decision to withhold a veto and lobbied Egypt, an original sponsor of the resolution, to drop plans to bring it to a vote last Thursday.

He has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital – a status that is not recognised internationally. And he has appointed his lawyer, who has raised funds for a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as the new ambassador.

“Who’s Obama? He’s history,” Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said on Army Radio on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by John Stonestreet)