U.N. urges Iran to stop executions of juveniles on death row

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Beawihart

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official called on Iran on Friday to halt executions of young people convicted of carrying out crimes when they were under the age of 18.

In a “surge” in January, three people were executed for murders committed at 15 or 16, while some of the 80 juvenile offenders on death row are in danger of “imminent execution”, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” Zeid said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities in Iran, which has signed an international treaty strictly banning the execution of people who commit crimes under the age of 18.

In 2017, Iran is known to have executed five juvenile offenders, the U.N. statement said.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other state,” Zeid said, decrying the practice that has gone on for decades.

Among the latest criminals executed was Mahboubeh Mofidi, 20, who was convicted of killing her husband when she was 16, three years after their marriage, the statement said.

A fourth juvenile offender, believed to have been on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months, it said.

“There are appeal processes, but sometimes it’s rather opaque as to exactly what’s happening,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“Often you do get these kind of negotiations going on between the family of the convicted person and the family of the victim in murder cases,” he said, referring to “diyah” or blood money paid to halt an execution.

On Jan. 3, independent U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to spare the life of Amir Hossein Pourjafar, who was convicted of raping and killing a child when he was 15. He is among the three listed in Zeid’s statement as having been executed so far this year.

Zeid welcomed a bill passed in Oct. 2017 under which some drug offences previously punishable by the death penalty were now subject to a prison term, but said that the mandatory death sentence has been retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

France demands end to Syria air strikes as more hit rebel-held Ghouta

People and cars are seen in old town in Aleppo, Syria February 8, 2018.

By Dahlia Nehme and Matthias Blamont

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) – France demanded an end to air strikes in Syria on Friday as warplanes mounted further attacks on a rebel stronghold near Damascus where a war monitor said government bombardments have killed 229 people, the deadliest week in the area since 2015.

President Bashar al-Assad, who has seized a clear advantage in the war with Russian and Iranian help, is hammering two of the last key rebel pockets of Syria – the Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

The multi-sided conflict is raging on other fronts too, with Turkey waging a big offensive in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, the Afrin region, where Ankara is targeting Kurdish militia forces it sees as a threat to its security.

Diplomacy is making no progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes, with millions forced out as refugees.

“We are very worried. The air strikes need to end,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on France Inter radio. “Civilians are the targets, in Idlib and in the east of Damascus. This fighting is absolutely unacceptable.”

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, said on Thursday a ceasefire was unrealistic. The United Nations called on Tuesday for a humanitarian truce of at least one month to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of the wounded.

France and 1the United Nations have repeatedly called in past months for the opening of aid corridors to alleviate Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The Paris government has also urged Moscow in private to consider ways to alleviate the crisis, but those efforts have not materialized into results on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the Syrian peace process by phone on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

“CATASTROPHE”

In the Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel area near Damascus, residents described one of the most extensive bombing campaigns of the war, with multiple towns being hit simultaneously and people driven into shelters for days.

“My brother was hit yesterday in an air strike and we had to amputate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by Reuters on Friday. “He was hit by shrapnel while sitting in his home,” said the resident, who identified himself as Adnan, declining to give his full name.

“The people here have collapsed, people are seen talking to themselves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman with the Civil Defence rescue service in the rebel-held area. “We are living a catastrophe.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using what it describes as a range of sources on all sides, said the air strikes had killed 229 people in the last four days, the Eastern Ghouta’s biggest weekly toll since 2015.

“Children in Eastern Ghouta are being starved, bombed and trapped. Schools are supposed to be safe places for children, protected under international law, yet they are being attacked every single day,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director in a statement.

“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

The World Food Programme, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, reiterated the call for a cessation of hostilities to enable aid deliveries, but also noted that the Syrian government was not giving necessary permits to delivery aid.

“It has been now almost 60 days since we had the last convoy to a besieged area,” Jakob Kern, the WFP country director in Syria, told Reuters in a phone interview from Damascus.

“The frustration is two-fold. One is that we don’t get approvals to actually go but even if we got approvals, there just is too much fighting going on,” he said, pointing to hostilities in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, Afrin and the south.

TURKISH AIR CAMPAIGN

The Turkish army, which launched an air and ground offensive into Afrin on Jan. 20, said it carried out air strikes on Kurdish YPG militia targets in the Afrin region. The Observatory said the strikes killed seven combatants and two civilians.

The overnight attacks came after a lull in Turkish air strikes following the shooting down of a Russian warplane elsewhere in Syria last weekend.

The air strikes destroyed 19 targets including ammunition depots, shelters and gun positions, the Turkish armed forces said in a statement without specifying when the raids were conducted. The raids began at midnight, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on neighboring Turkish soil.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by telephone on Thursday and agreed to strengthen military and security service coordination in Syria, according to the Kremlin.

The YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in Syria’s north, including Afrin, since the war began in 2011.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont and John Irish in Paris; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lebanon vows to block border wall, Israel eyes diplomacy on gas field

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with Lebanon's Higher Defence Council at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 7, 2018

By Ellen Francis and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon vowed on Wednesday to prevent any territorial intrusion by a border wall which Israel is building, and Israel said it wanted foreign mediation to resolve a maritime energy dispute with its northern neighbor.

Lebanese leaders have accused Israel of threatening the stability of the border region. Arguments over the wall and Lebanon’s plans to explore for oil and gas in disputed Mediterranean waters have increased friction between the two enemy states.

“This wall, if it is built, will be considered an assault on Lebanese land,” the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council said in a statement after a meeting of senior government and military officials.

The council “has given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory,” it said, without elaborating.

The council includes Lebanon’s president, prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the army commander.

Israel has said the wall is entirely within its territory.

One Israeli official told Reuters that parts of the wall were being erected closer to the border than a current frontier fence, which in places runs well to the south due to topography.

The Lebanese government says the wall would pass through land that belongs to Lebanon but lies on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, where the United Nations demarcated Israel’s military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Calm has largely prevailed along the frontier since 2006, when Israel fought a war with Lebanon’s heavily-armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement. The month-long conflict killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

In a televised address last month, Hezbollah’s leader cautioned Israel to take the Lebanese government’s warnings over the wall “with utmost seriousness”.

“Lebanon will be united behind the state and the army to prevent the Israeli enemy (violating Lebanese territory),” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said. Hezbollah will “fully handle its responsibility in this regard,” he added.

OFFSHORE ENERGY

Lebanon’s first offshore oil and gas exploration tender drew condemnation last week from Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He called it a “very provocative” move and urged international firms not to participate.

The two countries have an unresolved maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea of around 860 sq km (330 square miles). The zone extends along the edge of three out of five energy blocks that Lebanon put to tender early last year.

In December, Lebanon approved a bid by a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two blocks.

One of these, Block 9, juts partly into waters claimed by Israel. In a conciliatory tack from Lieberman’s remarks, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday mooted negotiations.

“There is a dispute, which is no secret – it’s been going on for years – over the border demarcation between our economic waters and Lebanon’s,” he told the Israeli news site Ynet.

“We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter.”

Steinitz said that, in 2013, U.S. intermediaries had come close to clinching a deal involving “a kind of compromise”.

“The Lebanese too have their own economic waters in which they want to search for gas and oil,” he added. “And they have such a right – so long as they do not threaten and certainly not penetrate our demarcated waters”.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and; Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Defying U.S., Russia says no case for U.N. action against Iran

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia does not believe there is a case for United Nations action against Iran, Russia’s U.N. ambassador said on Wednesday after traveling to Washington to view pieces of weapons that Washington says Tehran gave Yemen’s Houthi group.

The Trump administration has for months been lobbying for Iran to be held accountable at the United Nations, while at the same time threatening to quit a 2015 deal among world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program if “disastrous flaws” are not fixed.

“We only heard some vague talk about some action,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Wednesday. “If there is something (proposed) we will see. How can we pass judgment prematurely before we know what it is about?”

Asked if there was a case against Iran at the United Nations, Nebenzia answered: “No.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took her 14 Security Council colleagues to a military hangar near Washington on Monday to see remnants of what the Pentagon said was an Iranian-made ballistic missile fired from Yemen on Nov. 4 at Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, as well as other weapons.

A proxy war is playing out in Yemen between Iran and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Iran has denied supplying the Iran-allied Houthis with such weaponry and described the arms displayed in Washington as “fabricated.”

“Yemen hosts a pile of weapons from the old days, many countries competing to supply weapons to Yemen during the time of (former) President (Ali Abdullah) Saleh, so I cannot give you anything conclusive,” Nebenzia said. “I am not an expert to judge.”

Independent U.N. experts reported to the Security Council in January that Iran had violated U.N. sanctions on Yemen because “it failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of ballistic missiles and other equipment to the Houthi group.

Nebenzia questioned whether there was conclusive evidence. He said it was up to the Security Council’s Yemen sanctions committee – made up of diplomats from the council’s 15 members – to address the report by the U.N. experts.

Haley has said the United States was considering several possible U.N. options for action against Iran, including tightening ballistic missile restrictions on Tehran or imposing targeting sanctions on Iranian individuals or entities.

Diplomats have said Haley has not signaled which accountability option she might pursue or when.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Howard Goller)

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)

Tests link Syrian government stockpile to largest sarin attack

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria August 29, 2013.

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile has been linked for the first time by laboratory tests to the largest sarin nerve agent attack of the civil war, diplomats and scientists told Reuters, supporting Western claims that government forces under President Bashar al-Assad were behind the atrocity.

Laboratories working for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons compared samples taken by a U.N. mission in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta after the Aug. 21, 2013 attack, when hundreds of civilians died of sarin gas poisoning, to chemicals handed over by Damascus for destruction in 2014.

The tests found “markers” in samples taken at Ghouta and at the sites of two other nerve agent attacks, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, two people involved in the process said.

“We compared Khan Sheikhoun, Khan al-Assal, Ghouta,” said one source who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the findings. “There were signatures in all three of them that matched.”

The same test results were the basis for a report by the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism in October which said the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens.

The findings on Ghouta, whose details were confirmed to Reuters by two separate diplomatic sources, were not released in the October report to the U.N. Security Council because they were not part of the team’s mandate.

They will nonetheless bolster claims by the United States, Britain and other Western powers that Assad’s government still possesses and uses banned munitions in violation of several Security Council resolutions and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW declined to comment. Syria has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the conflict now in its seventh year and has blamed the chemical attacks in the rebel-held territory of Ghouta on the insurgents themselves.

Russia has also denied that Syrian government forces have carried out chemical attacks and has questioned the reliability of the OCPW inquiries. Officials in Moscow have said the rebels staged the attacks to discredit the Assad government and whip up international condemnation.

Under a U.S.-Russian deal after the Ghouta attack in 2013, Damascus joined the OPCW and agreed to permanently eliminate its chemical weapons program, including destroying a 1,300-tonne stockpile of industrial precursors that has now been linked to the Ghouta attack.

But inspectors have found proof of an ongoing chemical weapons program in Syria, including the systematic use of chlorine barrel bombs and sarin, which they say was ordered at the highest levels of government.

The sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April last year prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a missile strike against the Shayrat air base, from which the Syrian operation is said to have been launched.

Diplomatic and scientific sources said efforts by Syria and Russia to discredit the U.N.-OPCW tests establishing a connection to Ghouta have so far come up with nothing.

Russia’s blocking of resolutions at the Security Council seeking accountability for war crimes in Syria gained new relevance when Russia stationed its aircraft at Shayrat in 2015.

Washington fired missiles at Shayrat in April 2017, saying the Syrian air force used it to stage the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack on April 4 a few days earlier, killing more than 80 people.

No Russian military assets are believed to have been hit, but Moscow warned at the time it could have serious consequences.

In June, the Pentagon said it had seen what appeared to be preparations for another chemical attack at the same airfield, prompting Russia to say it would respond proportionately if Washington took pre-emptive measures against Syrian forces there.

“SERIOUS LAB WORK”

The chemical tests were carried out at the request of the U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was searching for potential links between the stockpile and samples from Khan Sheikhoun. The analysis results raised the possibility that they would provide a link to other sarin attacks, the source said.

Two compounds in the Ghouta sample matched those also found in Khan Sheikhoun, one formed from sarin and the stabilizer hexamine and another specific fluorophosphate that appears during sarin production, the tests showed.

“Like in all science, it should be repeated a couple of times, but it was serious matching and serious laboratory work,” the source said.

Independent experts, however, said the findings are the strongest scientific evidence to date that the Syrian government was behind Ghouta, the deadliest chemical weapons attack since the Halabja massacres of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.

“A match of samples from the 2013 Ghouta attacks to tests of chemicals in the Syrian stockpile is the equivalent of DNA evidence: definitive proof,” said Amy Smithson, a U.S. nonproliferation expert.

The hexamine finding “is a particularly significant match,” Smithson said, because it is a chemical identified as a unique hallmark of the Syrian military’s process to make sarin.

“This match adds to the mountain of physical evidence that points conclusively, without a shadow of doubt, to the Syrian government,” she said.

NO CHANCE REBELS BEHIND GHOUTA

Smithson and other sources familiar with the matter said it would have been virtually impossible for the rebels to carry out a coordinated, large-scale strike with poisonous munitions, even if they had been able to steal the chemicals from the government’s stockpile.

“I don’t think there is a cat in hell’s chance that rebels or Islamic State were responsible for the Aug. 21 Ghouta attack,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons.

The U.N.-OPCW inquiry, which was disbanded in November after being blocked by Syria’s ally Russia at the U.N. Security Council, also found that Islamic State had used the less toxic blistering agent sulfur mustard gas on a small scale in Syria.

The Ghouta attack, by comparison, was textbook chemical warfare, Smithson and de Bretton-Gordon said, perfectly executed by forces trained to handle sarin, a toxin which is more difficult to use because it must be mixed just before delivery.

Surface-to-surface rockets delivered hundreds of liters of sarin in perfect weather conditions that made them as lethal as possible: low temperatures and wind in the early hours of the morning, when the gas would remain concentrated and kill sleeping victims, many of them children.

Pre-attack air raids with conventional bombs shattered windows and doors and drove people into shelters where the heavy poison seeped down into underground hiding places. Aerial bombing afterwards sought to destroy the evidence.

The large quantity of chemicals used, along with radar images of rocket traces showing they originated from Syrian Brigade positions, are further proof that the rebels could not have carried out the Ghouta attack, the experts said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Giles Elgood)

Turkey kills at least 260 Kurdish, Islamic State fighters in Syria offensive: military

Turkish army vehicles are pictured near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 23,

By Ece Toksabay, Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey has killed at least 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants in its four-day-old offensive into the Kurdish-dominated Afrin region of northwest Syria, the Turkish military said on Tuesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump plans to raise concerns with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call expected on Wednesday about Ankara’s offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG forces in Afrin, a senior U.S. official said.

French President Emmanuel Macron also voiced disquiet, a few hours after Turkey’s foreign minister said it wanted to avoid any clash with U.S., Russian or Syrian government forces during its offensive but would do whatever necessary for its security.

The air and ground operation has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war and could threaten U.S. plans to stabilize and rebuild a large area of northeast Syria – beyond President Bashar al-Assad’s control – where Washington helped a force dominated by the YPG to drive out Islamic State militants.

The United States and Russia both have military forces in Syria backing opposing sides and have called for restraint on the part of Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch” to crush the YPG in the Afrin region near Turkey’s southern border.

A senior Trump administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Ankara had sent “conflicting signals” about the scope of the offensive.

“We’re going to have to see how this develops on the ground. But our message has been unified. We would appreciate it and we would urge them to limit the incursion as much as possible.”

The official said the phone call would happen soon. Another official – as well as Turkey’s foreign minister – said Erdogan and Trump planned to speak on Wednesday.

A statement by Macron’s office said: “Taking into account Turkey’s security imperatives, the president expressed to his Turkish counterpart his concerns following the military intervention launched on Saturday in Afrin.”

Erdogan told Macron on Tuesday Turkey was taking all measures to prevent civilian casualties in the Afrin operation, sources at the presidential palace said. The two leaders agreed to stay in close contact on the issue.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had also discussed Turkey’s military operation Erdogan by phone and that Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty had to be respected.

A Kremlin statement said both men stressed the importance of continuing their two countries’ joint work to try to find a peaceful resolution to Syria’s crisis. Russia has been Assad’s most powerful ally against rebels and militants in Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated Ankara’s demand that Washington stop supporting the YPG.

Ankara has said the operation will be swift, but Erdogan’s spokesman signaled an open-ended cross-border campaign, saying it would end only when some 3.5 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey could safely return home.

The United States hopes to use the YPG’s control in northern Syria to give it the diplomatic muscle it needs to revive U.N.-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria’s civil war.

NEAR BREAKING POINT

Ankara has been infuriated by the U.S. support for the YPG, which is one of several issues that have brought ties between Washington and its Muslim NATO ally close to breaking point.

“The future of our relations depends on the step the United States will take next,” Cavusoglu said.

Turkey’s military, the second largest in NATO, has conducted air strikes and artillery barrages against targets in Afrin, and its soldiers and allied Syrian rebels tried to thrust into the Kurdish-held district from west, north and eastern flanks.

With heavy cloud hindering air support in the last 24 hours, advances have been limited and Kurdish militia have retaken some territory. Turkish troops and the Syrian fighters have been trying to take the summit of Bursaya Hill, overlooking the eastern approach to Afrin town.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said 23 civilians had been killed in Turkish shelling and air strikes, and thousands were fleeing the fighting.

However, Syrian government forces were preventing people from crossing government-held checkpoints to reach the Kurdish-held districts of nearby Aleppo city, it said.

YPG THREAT

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Turkey’s offensive was distracting from efforts to defeat Islamic State.

Ankara says the jihadist group is largely finished in Syria and that the greater threat comes from the YPG, which it sees as an extension of a Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency inside Turkey.

Erdogan has said Turkey aims to destroy YPG control not just in the Afrin enclave but also in the mainly Arab town of Manbij to the east. “Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots. If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it,” Cavusoglu was reported as saying on Tuesday.

“Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organization,” broadcaster Haberturk quoted him as saying.

“I must take whatever step I have to. If not, our future as a country is in jeopardy tomorrow… We will not live with fear and threats,” Cavusoglu said.

He tweeted that a lieutenant had become the second Turkish soldier to be killed in the operation. The Observatory said 43 rebels fighting alongside the Turks had also been killed, as well as 38 on the Kurdish side.

Later on Tuesday Cavusoglu discussed the crisis with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a conference in Paris.

Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the military operations would continue until Syrian refugees in Turkey “return home safely and the separatist terror organization has been cleansed from the region”.

The Kurdish-led administration of northeastern Syria appealed for a mass mobilization in defense of Afrin. “We call on all our people to defend Afrin and its pride, and contribute in all the related activities,” it said, without elaborating.

A U.N. report, citing local sources, said about 5,000 people in the Afrin district had been displaced as of Monday but that some of the most vulnerable had been unable to flee. It said the United Nations was ready to provide aid to 50,000 in Afrin.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Steve Holland in Washington and Michel Rose in Paris; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Mark Heinrich)