Battle rages for Libya’s capital, airport bombed

A Member of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepares himself to go to the front line in Tripoli Libya April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A warplane attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on Libya’s capital disregarded global appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

The fighting threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

Casualties are mounting.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in Gaddafi’s army – said 19 of its soldiers had died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

The United Nations said 2,800 people had been displaced by clashes and many more could flee, though some were trapped.

“The United Nations continues to call for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from areas of conflict,” it said in a statement.

But that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Matiga airport, in an eastern suburb, said it was bombed and a resident confirmed the attack. No more details were immediately available.

Haftar’s LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the coastal capital.

Seizing Tripoli, however, is a much bigger challenge for the LNA. It has conducted air strikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road toward the center from a disused former international airport.

MACHINE GUNS ON PICKUPS

However, the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from nearby Misrata port in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southwards.

Serraj who comes from a wealthy business family, has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar. His Tripoli government has reported 11 deaths in the last few days, without saying on which side.

U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame met Serraj in his office in Tripoli on Monday to discuss “this critical and difficult juncture”, the world body’s Libya mission said.

The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi eight years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency expressed anxiety about thousands caught in cross-fire and detention centers in conflict zones in a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”.

As well as the United Nations, the European Union, United States and G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar’s advance and return to negotiations.

Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.

MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning), numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.

Islamic State staged some high profile attacks in Tripoli last year, but the militant group has largely retreated to the desert of southern Libya since the loss of its former stronghold in Sirte late in 2016.

France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.

France established close relations with Haftar under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande and his defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris doubled down support to Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

France’s stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony that has played into the hands of militants and smugglers.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Additional reporting by Hani Amara in Tripoli, Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Tom Miles in Geneva, Robin Emmott in Luxembourg, Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

‘I lived alongside death and didn’t die’: a Syrian frontline breathes again

Muhammad al-Masri, 75, gestures at his house in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By Laila Bassam

JOBAR, SYRIA (Reuters) – Muhammad al-Masri spent the Syrian war in a house the 75-year-old described as being on the frontline with death.

In his partly roofless, cobweb-filled house on a government frontline with the formerly rebel-held eastern Ghouta district of Jobar, al-Masri stayed put through years of conflict.

“Many said I was crazy … Everyone fled.”

But since the fighting ended three weeks ago, a trickle of life has returned to the war-ravaged, deserted streets around him.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, regained eastern Ghouta, an area of farms and towns just outside Damascus, in early April in a ferocious assault.

The army offensive to capture it, heralded by one of the heaviest bombardments in the seven-year war, killed more than 1,600 people, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.

Today the boom of mortars around al-Masri has been replaced with voices.

“Listen!” he says, as the sound of girls singing a traditional Syrian song reached him. “Life has returned to the neighborhood!”

Former residents are starting to come back, hoping to see what years of grinding warfare have done to their homes.

Near al-Masri’s house, soldiers yell at children and teenagers to stop exploring the barricades, trenches and war debris which had previously been off limits to them.

Most of the Jobar district is still uninhabited. Classified as a security zone by the Syrian army, the streets are strewn with destroyed buildings, bullets and explosives.

Underground, the army is still discovering a network of tunnels used by eastern Ghouta’s fighters and smugglers during years of siege.

Al-Masri’s house was the last inhabited position in his neighborhood before a bank of earth marked Damascus’s frontline with Jobar.

The house, shared at times with his son and daughter-in-law, was shelled three times. Shrapnel injured his son on one occasion.

“The mortars fell while I was inside. I didn’t leave. We cleaned up and sat back down,” he said.

“I lived here alongside death and didn’t die.”

His house was surrounded by Syrian government security forces who would bring him his food. He spent his days sweeping war debris from streets around him, watching television and telephoning family.

In the early days of the conflict he was scared and unsure of what might happen.

“For more than a month I slept with my shoes on, on full alert.”

Jobar adjoins government-held central Damascus. Parts of Jobar are just 500 meters from one of Damascus’s most famous public spaces: Abbasid Square.

Although Damascus has remained largely peaceful during the seven-year conflict, the proximity of formerly rebel-held areas like Jobar to the capital means rockets sometimes killed and injured people in the city.

“I didn’t take a single step from here. Not at night, not during the day. There was just 10 meters between me and the tanks. I was the only one in this area, no other buildings, no nothing. Me and the army were like brothers,” he said.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Firas Makdesi; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Yemen’s ex-president Saleh shot dead after switching sides in civil war

A supporter of Yemen's then President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves a poster featuring him during a rally to show support for him in Sanaa September 9, 2011.

By Noah Browning and Sami Aboudi

SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) – Veteran former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in a roadside attack on Monday after switching sides in Yemen’s civil war, abandoning his Iran-aligned Houthi allies in favor of a Saudi-led coalition, foes and supporters said.

Sources in the Houthi militia said its fighters stopped Saleh’s armored vehicle with an RPG rocket outside the embattled capital Sanaa and then shot him dead. Sources in Saleh’s party confirmed he died in an attack on his convoy.

Unverified footage of his bloodied body lolling in a blanket circulated just days after he tore up his alliance with the Houthis following nearly three years in which they had jointly battled the Saudi-led coalition that intervened to try to reinstate Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

Saleh’s death, close watchers of Yemen say, will be a huge moral boost for the Houthis and a major blow to the Saudi-led coalition. Any hope of the coalition that Saleh could have been bought off to help them against the Houthis has now been dashed and the Houthis have destroyed a powerful new adversary.

The coalition must either continue its long war in Yemen or offer compromises to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.

In a televised speech on Monday, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi congratulated the Yemeni people for what he described as a victory against a “conspiracy of treason” engineered by the group’s Gulf Arab enemies. He did not mention Saleh’s death.

Supporters of the Houthis drove through city streets blasting celebratory war songs.

Saleh, 75, had said in a speech on Saturday that he was ready for a “new page” in ties with the coalition and called the Houthis a “coup militia”, leading them to accuse him of betrayal.

Warfare between the former allies has torn densely populated Sanaa for days as Houthi fighters seized control of much of the capital and on Monday blew up Saleh’s house while coalition jets bombed their own positions.

A Houthi militant mans a checkpoint as clashes with forces loyal to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh continue in Sanaa, Yemen December 4, 2017.

A Houthi militant mans a checkpoint as clashes with forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh continue in Sanaa, Yemen December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The end of their alliance could transform the course of war in the Arabian Peninsula country after two years of attrition along mostly static front lines, which gave the Saudi-led coalition a new advantage over the Houthis.

Stalemate in Yemen has contributed to a human catastrophe as a Saudi-led blockade and internal fighting has thrust millions of people to the brink of famine and accelerated the spread of deadly epidemics.

Eyes will now turn to Saleh’s political allies and military commanders, whom analysts credited with aiding the Houthi march southwards in 2014 to dominate swathes of western Yemen.

“What happens now and whether his family and political allies fight on is not yet clear,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“His people will be angry, and many will certainly be out for blood, but there are many in the middle especially among the tribes who will fall with whoever appears stronger,” he said.

“The (Saudi-led) coalition may have put a lot of their eggs in Saleh’s basket, only for it to fall over now. They appeared to strongly support his attempt to confront the Houthis and now that bid may have failed.”

 

HEADS OF SNAKES

A Western diplomat told Reuters: “Brutal revenge could be the only way forward for the Saleh clan.”

The Saudi-led coalition, the diplomat added, could aim for a lightning attack on key urban centers that have eluded their grasp in years of war.

“Let’s see if they take advantage of the fog of war and try to take Sanaa or (the Red Sea port) of Hodeidah.”

Saleh once compared his 33-year rule over Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”, a period that included unification of conservative north and Marxist south Yemen, civil war, uprisings, Islamist militant campaigns and tribal feuds.

But he was forced from power in 2012 after an Arab Spring uprising that left him wounded by an attempted assassination, leading to a Saudi-brokered political transition.

He fled to Saudi Arabia, his former ally, for treatment of his injuries and the princes in Riyadh allowed him to return to Yemen months later – something they came to bitterly regret as he undermined the transition plan and later joined the Houthis.

That set the stage for his final role – that of ally to the Houthi movement which he had previously fought six times during his own presidency, and to Iran, the Houthis’ political backer.

But Houthi and Saleh loyalist forces jostled for supremacy over the territory they ran together, including Sanaa, which the Houthis seized in September 2014, and their feud burst into open combat on Nov. 29.

The maneuvering ended on Monday, as footage circulating on social media appeared to show his corpse, a deep wound in the side of its head, wrapped in a red blanket and being loaded onto a pick-up truck as tribal fighters waved their weapons.

“Praise God!” and “Hey Ali Affash!” (another name for Saleh) they were shouting.

Officials in his own General People’s Congress party said Saleh was killed outside Sanaa in an RPG and gun assault on his convoy along with the GPC’s assistant secretary general Yasser al-Awadi.

His death was confirmed by Saleh’s nephew and former chief of Yemen’s security forces, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who hailed him as a martyr on his official Facebook page.

 

STREET BATTLES EASE IN SANAA

Residents reported that the situation in Sanaa had calmed. Most people were indoors, and streets were deserted amid a state of fear as the Houthis asserted full control. Saudi-led aircraft continued to fly overhead.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam claimed significant gains in the battle for Sanaa on Monday.

“With the aid and approval of God, the security forces backed up by wide popular support were able last night to cleanse the areas in which the militias of treason and betrayal were deployed,” he said in a statement.

The Houthi movement’s TV channel al-Masirah and witnesses said Houthi fighters had seized the downtown home of Saleh’s nephew Tareq, an army general.

Residents said the warring sides traded heavy automatic and artillery fire as the Houthis advanced in the central Political District, which is a redoubt of Saleh and his family.

“We lived through days of terror. Houthi tanks have been firing and the shells were falling on our neighborhood,” said Mohammed al-Madhaji, who lives in the frontline district.

“The fighting has been so violent we feel we could die at any moment. We can’t get out of our homes.”

Houthi media and political sources also reported the Houthis advancing towards Saleh’s birthplace in a village outside Sanaa where he maintained a fortified palace.

Saleh cultivated Yemen’s national army for decades and put key units under the command of relatives, but the speed of the Houthis’ apparent gains over his partisans indicates they have a strong upper hand in the lands they once held together.

Nearly three years of Houthi control over key ministries and state media has helped convert much of Yemeni society toward their brand of religiously-inspired militarism while key tribal and military commanders did not flock to Saleh’s uprising.

This may mean that Houthi positions in nationwide battlefronts against pro-Saudi forces will remain robust with the overall stalemate dragging on.

 

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Noah Browning, Angus McDowall and Samia Nakhoul; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

Israel’s ‘flying car’ passenger drone moves closer to delivery

A worker works on a prototype of the Cormorant, a drone, at Urban Aeronautics' workshop in Yavne, Israel

By Elana Ringler

YAVNE, Israel (Reuters) – After 15 years of development, an Israeli tech firm is optimistic it will finally get its 1,500 kg (1.5 tonne) passenger carrying drone off the ground and into the market by 2020.

The Cormorant, billed as a flying car, is capable of transporting 500kg (around half a tonne) of weight and traveling at 185 km (115 miles) per hour. It completed its first automated solo flight over terrain in November. Its total price is estimated at $14 million.

Developers Urban Aeronautics believe the dark green drone, which uses internal rotors rather than helicopter propellers, could evacuate people from hostile environments and/or allow military forces safe access.

“Just imagine a dirty bomb in a city and chemical substance of something else and this vehicle can come in robotically, remotely piloted, come into a street and decontaminate an area,” Urban Aeronautics founder and CEO Rafi Yoeli told Reuters.

Yoeli set up the company, based in a large hanger in Yavne, central Israel, in 2001 to create the drone, which he says is safer than a helicopter as it can fly in between buildings and below power lines without the risk of blade strikes.

There is still plenty of work required before the autonomous vehicle hits the market.

The Cormorant, about the size of a family car and previously called the ‘Air Mule’, is yet to meet all Federal Aviation Administration standards and a test in November saw small issues with conflicting data sent by on board sensors.

With 39 patents registered to create the vehicle, Yoeli has little concern about competitors usurping him.

One industry experts said the technology could save lives.

“It could revolutionize several aspects of warfare, including medical evacuation of soldiers on the battlefield,” said Tal Inbar, head of the UAV research center at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.

(Writing by Patrick Johnston in LONDON Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)