India launches air strike inside Pakistan; Islamabad denies militant camp hit

India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Abu Arqam Naqash and Sanjeev Miglani

BALAKOT, Pakistan/NEW DELHI (Reuters) –

Pakistan said it would respond at a time and place of its choice, with a military spokesman even India said its warplanes killed “a very large number” of fighters when they struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, raising the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, although Pakistan officials denied there had been casualties. alluding to its nuclear arsenal, highlighting the escalation in hostile rhetoric from both two sides since a suicide bombing in Kashmir this month.

The spokesman said a command and control authority meeting, which decides over the use of nuclear weapons, had been convened for Wednesday, adding: “You all know what that means.”

The air strike near Balakot, a town 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, was the deepest cross-border raid launched by India since the last of its three wars with Pakistan in 1971 but there were competing claims about the damage it caused.

The Indian government, facing an election in the coming months, said the air strikes hit a training camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed the suicide car bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said “a very large number” of militants were killed in the strikes in northeast Pakistan.

“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis, could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Gokhale said. Pakistan denies harboring JeM.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed in the strikes and that the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50 miles) inside Pakistan. But no evidence was provided to back up the claims of casualties.

The government said the action was ordered as India said it had intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.

Pakistani officials dismissed the Indian claims, saying the Indian aircraft had dropped their bombs in a wooded area, causing no damage or casualties.

Villagers near the town of Balakot were shaken from their sleep by the air strikes. They said only one person was wounded in the attack and they knew of no fatalities.

“We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.

A resident, who did not want to give his name, said there was a nearby madrasa Islamic college run by Jaish, though most villagers were guarded in talking about any militant neighbors.

JeM is a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been on a U.N. terrorist list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked India’s parliament, which almost led to a fourth war.

HOSPITALS ON ALERT

There has been mounting impatience in India to avenge the Feb. 14 attack, which was the most deadly seen in Kashmir during an insurgency that has last three decades, and as news of the raid broke, celebrations erupted across the country.

“I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to cheers at a rally in western India hours after the raid. “I won’t let the country down.”

Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders rejected India’s comments that it had struck a “terrorist camp” inside Pakistan, warning that they would retaliate.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top officials including Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, said Khan would “engage with global leadership to expose irresponsible Indian policy”. It also warned that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” to Indian aggression.

China, Pakistan’s long-time ally, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both countries to exercise restraint.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Indian diplomats met foreign ambassadors to assure them no escalation was planned.

But as fears grew that the conflict could escalate, hospitals in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were ordered to set a quarter of beds aside for “a national cause”, officials said.

“We put all hospitals in the province on high alert due to the present situation on the border with India and issued directives to all heads of the hospitals to be prepared for any sort of emergency,” provincial secretary health Dr Farooq Jameel told Reuters.

Indian and Pakistan troops exchanged gunfire along several sectors of their contested border in Kashmir later on Tuesday and local officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded.

Giving the Pakistan military’s account of the Indian incursion, spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistani aircraft were patrolling and identified Indian jets on the Indian side of the border near Okara and Lahore in Punjab as well as Muzaffarabad where they crossed and were engaged. They left Pakistani airspace after only four minutes.

He denied the incursion had caused any damage, saying there was no debris, “not even a single brick” and no casualties.

“You have proved you are not a democracy, you have chosen the path of war,” he said, addressing his remarks to India.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Drazen Jorgic, Asif Shahzad, Fayaz Bukhari, Neha Dasgupta, Aftab Ahmed, Nidhi Verma; and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams and James Dalgleish)

In the cellars of eastern Ghouta, Syrians wait in fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some in eastern Ghouta said they dreaded a similar fate.

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

“WE RAN IN THE NIGHT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A MILLION DEATHS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian Observatory: Turkish jets attack pro-government forces in Afrin

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish warplanes attacked pro-Syrian government forces overnight, killing at least 17 people in a village in the north of the Afrin region in northwestern Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

The dead included three members of the Syrian Kurdish YPG force, while the rest came from militias that support President Bashar al-Assad and entered Afrin last week to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Observatory said.

The Turkish military declined to comment on the Observatory report, but the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Friday that Turkish attack helicopters had killed nine YPG fighters in the west of Afrin.

Another Turkish news agency, Dogan, reported that Turkish and allied forces had started an operation on Friday morning to take control of the town of Rajo in Afrin.

Turkey and allied Syrian rebel groups began their operation against the YPG in Afrin in January, aiming to drive out the Kurdish militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group linked to an insurgency inside Turkey’s borders.

Despite making slow progress at first, the offensive has gained control over all Afrin’s border areas adjoining Turkey. Late on Thursday, the Turkish military said eight Turkish soldiers had been killed and 13 injured in clashes in Afrin.

Last month, after the YPG asked the Syrian government to send its army to repel the offensive, pro-Syrian government militias crossed into Afrin and deployed along the frontlines with Turkey.

However, the move did not deter the Turkish offensive and has not so far heralded any wider escalation involving the Syrian government and the forces that support it.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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

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

By Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESCALATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

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)

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)

Russia approves warplane deployment on disputed island near Japan

Japan Coast Guard vessel PS08 Kariba sails off Cape Nosappu, easternmost point in Japan, in Nemuro on Hokkaido island, as part of a group of islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia can be seen in the background April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved the deployment of Russian warplanes on a disputed island near Japan, accelerating the area’s militarization at a time when Moscow’s ties with Tokyo are strained over the roll-out of a U.S. missile system.

In a decree published late on Thursday, Medvedev allowed the Russian Defence Ministry to use a civilian airport on the island of Iturup, as it is known by Russia, or Etorofu, as it is called in Japan, for its warplanes.

The island was one of four seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War Two and is located off the north-east coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s biggest prefecture. The dispute over the islands, known as the Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, is so acrimonious that Moscow and Tokyo have not yet signed a peace treaty to mark the end of the war.

Medvedev’s decree is the latest step in a Russian military build-up that has seen Moscow deploy some of its newest missile defense systems to the islands and plan to build a naval base there even as it continues talks about the territorial dispute.

The decree was published days before deputy foreign ministers from the two countries are due to hold talks about co-operation on the disputed islands and at a time when Russia is concerned that Japan is allowing Washington to use its territory as a base for a U.S. military build-up in north Asia under the pretext of countering North Korea.

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It is unclear whether Russia will permanently deploy warplanes to the island, which hosted a Soviet air base during the Cold War, or use its airport as and when needed.

The newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed military source as saying the move would give the Russian military more options.

“This move should show the aerodrome’s readiness for fighter planes that patrol our borders to be temporarily based there,” the source was quoted as saying.

The same source was quoted as saying that Russia was particularly concerned about a Japanese plan to deploy more Aegis U.S. missile systems in its Akita and Yagamata prefectures.

The Japanese embassy in Moscow said the Russian move ran counter to what Tokyo was trying to achieve.

“We believe this could result in Russia’s military power being strengthened on the four islands and that contradicts Japan’s position on the islands,” it said in a statement.

“We need a solution to the territorial problem itself in order to fundamentally address these kind of problems.”

Tokyo would keep holding talks with Russia to try to resolve the wider territorial dispute, the embassy said.

(Editing by Gareth Jones and Robin Pomeroy)

Turkish warplanes kill six Kurdish militants in northern Iraq: army

A U.S. military commander (R) walks with a commander (C) from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as they inspect the damage at YPG headquarters after it was hit by Turkish airstrikes in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish warplanes hit Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq on Wednesday and killed six militants, the military said, in a second day of cross-border raids.

A military statement said the air strikes targeted the Zap region, the Turkish name for a river which flows across the Turkish-Iraqi border and is known as Zab in Iraq.

The air strikes hit “two hiding places and one shelter, and killed six separatist terrorist organisation militants who were understood to be preparing an attack,” the statement said.

The raids were part of a widening campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has also hit other Kurdish fighters inside Iraq – apparently by accident.

On Tuesday, Turkish planes bombed Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and northeast Syria, killing about 70 militants inside the two neighbouring states, according to a Turkish military statement.

The United States expressed “deep concern” over those air strikes and said they were not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

Five members of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are also deployed in Sinjar, were killed. Kurdish authorities who run their own autonomous region in north Iraq enjoy good relation with Turkey and, like Ankara, oppose the presence of a PKK affiliate in Sinjar.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday told Reuters that he would not allow Sinjar to become a PKK base, adding that Ankara informed its partners including the United States, Russia and Iraqi Kurdish authorities ahead of the operation.

On Wednesday, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said the parties were informed through both military and diplomatic channels.

Turkey had passed on information to the United States and Russian military attaches in Ankara, Muftuoglu said, and Turkish army chief Hulusi Akar also held a telephone conversation with his U.S. and Russian counterparts.

The Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, responsible for providing command and air control in regions including Iraq and Syria, was also informed in advance, Muftuoglu said.

Designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurds.

The army also reported on Wednesday cross-border mortar fire from two areas inside Syria — one believed to be under the control of Syrian government forces and the other by Kurdish YPG militants. It said there were no casualties, and it retaliated.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

China says ‘no such thing’ as man-made islands in South China Sea

Chinese dredging vessels purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

BEIJING (Reuters) – There was “no such thing” as man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, China’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday, and reiterated that any building work was mainly for civilian purposes.

China, which claims most of the resource-rich region, has carried out land reclamation and construction on several islands in the Spratly archipelago, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The building has included airports, harbors and other facilities, involving in some cases the dumping of massive amounts of sand to build up land on what were reefs or structures that may only have been exposed at low tide.

But ministry spokesman Wu Qian implied that was perhaps a misunderstanding, though he said there was construction work which China had every right to do as the Spratlys were inherent Chinese territory.

“There is no such thing as man-made islands,” Wu told a regular monthly news briefing. “Most of the building is for civilian purposes, including necessary defensive facilities.”

The South China Sea is generally stable at present, but some countries outside the region are anxious about this and want to hype things up and create tensions, Wu said, using terminology that normally refers to the United States.

Pressed to explain his comment that were no man-made islands, Wu declined to elaborate, saying China had already provided a full explanation of its construction work.

On Monday, a U.S. think tank said China appeared to have largely completed major construction of military infrastructure on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea and can now deploy combat planes and other military hardware there at any time.

China has repeatedly denied charges it is militarizing the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)