Lebanon Gives Investigating Committee Four Days To Find Culprits

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C) wears a protective face mask as he visits the site of a massive explosion the previous day in the heart of the Lebanese Beirut on August 5, 2020. (Photo by – / DALATI AND NOHRA / AFP)

 

 

The government of Lebanon has given an “investigative committee” four days to determine responsibility for the devastating explosion in Beirut port on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe told French radio Thursday.

“This morning, a decision was taken to create an investigative committee which in four days maximum must provide a detailed report on responsibility — how, who, what, where? There will be judicial decisions,” he told Europe 1 radio.

“It is serious, and we take it seriously,” Wehbe said.

“Those responsible for this horrible crime of negligence will be punished by a committee of judges,” he added.

 

A Palestinian girls carries the national flag and the Lebanese flag during a candle light vigil in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on August 5, 2020, in support of Lebanon a day after a blast in a warehouse in the port of the Lebanese capital sowed devastation across entire city neighbourhoods. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)
A member of the Lebanese security forces inspects damages in the Parliament building in the central district of the capital Beirut, on August 5, 2020, a day after a massive explosion in the city’s port. . (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

The provisional death toll from the massive blast stood at 137 Thursday, but with dozens missing and 5,000 wounded, the number of victims was expected to rise as rescue workers continued to comb through the rubble.

The Beirut governor estimated up to 300,000 people may have been made temporarily homeless by the disaster, which he said would cost the debt-ridden country in excess of $3 billion.

On Wednesday, the government called for the house arrest of those responsible for the storage of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilisers and explosives, in the port of the Lebanese capital.

 

An injured man sits next to a restaurant in the trendy partially destroyed Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. – (Photo by PATRICK BAZ / AFP)
A view shows the damage inside an apartment in the neighbourhood of Gemmayze on August 5, 2020, a day after a blast in a warehouse in the port of the Lebanese capital sowed devastation across entire city neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. (Photo by PATRICK BAZ / AFP)

According to Lebanese officials, the explosion was caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of the substance in a portside warehouse.

“It is an accident… preliminary reports indicate it is mismanagement of explosive products. This is a very serious neglect that continued for six years,’ said Wehbe.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits behind bars, but trust in institutions is low and few on the streets of the Lebanese capital hold out hope of an impartial inquiry.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday supported mounting calls for an international probe as the only credible option.

 

A picture taken on August 5, 2020, shows a damaged house in the neighbourhood of Ashrafieh of the Lebanese capital Beirut’s eastern suburbs, a day after a devastating blast at the port of Lebanese’s capital, in Israel’s latest gesture towards a country with which it is technically at war. (Photo by Janine HAIDAR / AFP)

“An independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve,” the watchdog said.

In France, prosecutors on Wednesday opened a probe into the blast over injuries inflicted on 24 French citizens.

Flights carrying medical aid, field hospitals, rescue experts, and tracking dogs have been flying into Beirut airport since Wednesday.

 

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C) wears a protective face mask as he visits the site of a massive explosion the previous day in the heart of the Lebanese Beirut on August 5, 2020. (Photo by – / DALATI AND NOHRA / AFP)

And French President Emmanuel Macron was expected in Lebanon later Thursday, the highest-ranking foreign leader to visit since the tragedy.

Macron was due to meet Aoun and other political leaders as well as civil society representatives.

 

Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photos by Mouafac HARB / MOUAFAC HARB / AFP)

 

 

-AFP

Lebanon Blast Killed At Least 137, Injured 5,000

A Lebanese couple inspect the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital.  (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

 

The huge blast at Beirut port has killed at least 137 people, left dozens missing, and at least 5,000 wounded, a Lebanese health ministry spokesperson said Thursday.

 

Lebanese come together for a vigil held at Kensington gardens in central London to honour the victims of the Beirut blast on August 5, 2020. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)
A man holds a sign reading “Solidarity with Beyrouth” and a candle on August 5, 2020, in Toulouse, during a gathering to pay tribute to the Lebanese people a day after a powerful explosion tore through Lebanon’s capital, resulting from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at the city’s main port. (Photo by REMY GABALDA / AFP)

Tuesday’s explosion obliterated part of the port and caused damage over a wide radius in the heart of the city, prompting fears the final death toll could yet rise significantly.

 

Women wearing face masks hold signs reading “History repeats itself as well as the tragedy, Toulouse 2001, Beyrouth 2020” on August 5, 2020, in Toulouse, during a gathering to pay tribute to the Lebanese people a day after a powerful explosion tore through Lebanon’s capital, resulting from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at the city’s main port. (Photo by REMY GABALDA / AFP)
Lebanese come together for a vigil held at Kensington gardens in central London to honour the victims of the Beirut blast on August 5, 2020. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)
Lebanese come together for a vigil held at Kensington gardens in central London to honour the victims of the Beirut blast on August 5, 2020. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)
Lebanese come together for a vigil held at Kensington gardens in central London to honour the victims of the Beirut blast on August 5, 2020. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

 

 

-AFP

Awaiting Disaster, Ammonium Nitrate Was Stored At Beirut Port For Years

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020.(Photo by STR / AFP)

 

 

For at least six years, hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which Lebanese authorities say caused Tuesday’s massive blast, were negligently stored in a Beirut port warehouse, waiting for disaster to strike. 

The odourless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertiliser has caused numerous industrial explosions over the decades — including the massive one in Beirut that killed at least 113 people, wounded thousands, and left 300,000 homeless.

A security source said the explosive power of the stored ammonium nitrate was equivalent to at least 1,200 tonnes of TNT — explaining how the earthquake-strength blast destroyed or damaged so much of the city.

Lebanese port authorities and customs officials knew the chemical was being stored in the port, and one of the country’s top security agencies had called for it to be relocated after launching a probe last year, several security officials told AFP.

 

This combination of pictures created from UGC footage taken on August 4, 2020 and filmed from a highrise shows a fireball exploding while smoke is billowing at the port of the Lebanese capital Beirut. -(Photos by Mouafac HARB / MOUAFAC HARB / AFP)

But authorities did not heed the warning. Only on the day after the massive blast left much of the capital in ruins did the government say it was seeking house arrest for all officials involved in storing the highly-explosive substance.

With Tuesday’s blast damage extending across half the Lebanese capital, the burning questions on everyone’s mind are: how did so much ammonium nitrate get to Beirut in the first place and why was it stored at the port for so long?

 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a view of the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut with its cranes in the aftermath of a massive explosion.  (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

Shady shipment

In 2013, around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate came into Lebanon on board the Rhosus ship, sailing from Georgia and bound for Mozambique, a security official told AFP, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue.

Marine Traffic, a ship tracking platform, said the Moldova-flagged vessel first arrived in Beirut’s port, the country’s busiest, on November 20, 2013 and never left.

According to Lebanese law firm Baroudi & Associates, which represents the vessel’s crew, the Rhosus ship had faced “technical problems”.

“Upon inspection of the vessel by port state control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing,” the firm said in a statement.

 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a general view of destruction along a street in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Several security officials told AFP that it temporarily docked at the port but was later seized by authorities following a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese company against the shipowner.

Port authorities unloaded the ammonium nitrate and stored it in a rundown port warehouse with cracks in its walls, and the ship sank some time later because of damage, the officials said.

The warehouse started to exude a strange odour, which led security forces to launch a 2019 investigation that concluded that the “dangerous” chemicals needed to be removed from the premises.

The agency also noted the walls of the warehouse were unsound, urging the port authorities to repair them.

It was not until this week that workers were dispatched and began repair works, in what might have possibly triggered the blast.

 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A picture shows the scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Gross negligence

Shortly after Tuesday’s blast, the director of customs at the port, Badri Daher, published a letter he said he had sent in December 2017 to a Lebanese prosecutor, claiming it was one of many he had sent to the judiciary over the stored chemicals.

In the 2017 letter, he allegedly requested the dangerous chemicals be exported or sold to a local Lebanese company after the army had said it had no use for them, but neither suggestion materialised.

A judicial source said prosecutors were only involved in ruling whether or not the ammonium nitrate-carrying vessel should be released and were not involved in issues pertaining to the substance’s storage.

Riad Kobaissi, an investigative reporter who specialises in port corruption, charged that Daher was only trying to deflect blame by publishing the letter.

He said what has happened shows “the extent of corruption in Lebanese port customs, which is among the main bodies that bear responsibility” for the blast.

 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Among many, the disaster has only fuelled anger at a government already widely seen as inept, corrupt, and beholden to sectarian interests.

On Twitter, users blamed authorities, using the hashtag “hang them from the gallows”.

One user posted a photo showing several prominent Lebanese politicians with the caption: “You have to pay for burning the hearts of mothers and the future of the youth and terrorising children.”

 

 

-AFP

‘Armageddon’ At Beirut Hospitals After Blast Hurt Medics, Patients Alike

The damaged Wardieh hospital is pictured in the aftermath of yesterday’s blast that tore through Lebanon’s capital and resulted from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at the port, on August 5, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP)

 

 

His head bandaged just like his patients, Dr Antoine Qurban said Tuesday’s enormous blast brought “Armageddon” to Beirut’s overwhelmed hospitals in chaotic scenes reminiscent of a war zone.   

“Wounded people bleeding out in the middle of the street, others lying on the ground in the hospital courtyard — it reminded me of my missions with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Afghanistan many years ago,” he said of his volunteer stint with the medical charity.

The surgeon was among more than 4,000 wounded people who staggered or were taken into badly damaged and massively crowded hospitals across the devastated Lebanese capital on Tuesday evening.

 

Wounded people are pictured outside a hospital following an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

The huge explosion has piled even more pressure on Lebanon’s strained health sector, which before the disaster was already struggling with a wave of coronavirus cases and a severe economic crisis.

“It was Armageddon,” Qurban, who is in his late sixties, told AFP outside the Hotel Dieu Hospital in central Beirut.

The facility is normally his place of work, but on Wednesday he was among throngs of patients, following up on a gash he suffered Tuesday night.

Qurban was at a nearby coffee shop when the blast hit around 6:00 pm local time, flinging him some 20 metres (60 feet) across the room.

 

A wounded woman receives help outside a hospital following an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

His own hospital was overflowing within minutes with wounded, so a stranger on a motorcycle zipped him to another facility.

After an hours-long wait, a medic stitched up his head wound in the street.

 

Two huge explosions rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

‘She’s already dead’

The scenes were no less chaotic on Wednesday, as people wounded overnight by falling shards of glass sought treatment, weaving between smashed equipment and piles of debris in Hotel Dieu’s hallways.

Mothers asked desperately about the fates of their wounded sons. An elderly man begged for news of his wife, who had been transferred from another hospital.

 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Wounded people wait to received help outside a hospital following an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020.(Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

A cacophony of cellphones rang, and fragments of exhausted conversations could be heard, usually retelling survival stories.

“A miracle kept him alive,” one woman was heard saying, while a man with a bandaged leg handed a blinking cellphone to his sister, telling her simply that “I can’t talk anymore”.

Hotel Dieu treated at least 300 wounded Tuesday and registered 13 dead, according to its medical director Dr George Dabar, who was a medical student there during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

 

Wounded people wait to receive treatment outside a hospital following an explosion near the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

“Even then, I didn’t see anything like what I saw yesterday,” he said.

His voice cracking with emotion, Dabar told AFP the hardest moment was telling families their loved ones had died, with nothing left to be done.

“It’s so hard to tell a father carrying his young daughter and trying to save her that she’s already dead.”

 

Valarie Fakhoury, a grandmother with her Lebanese daughter and granddaughter, stand outside the emergency ward of a hospital in the Hamra district of central Beirut following a huge explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. (Photo by Janine HAIDAR / AFP)

According to Lebanon’s health ministry, two hospitals were rendered completely out of service and two more were partly unusable.

At least five nurses died, and several medics and patients were severely hurt.

“The medical teams were already exhausted by everything that has happened in this country and by the coronavirus pandemic,” Dabar said.

“But to face yesterday’s crisis, they came together with amazing solidarity.”

From cooks to maintenance workers, Dabar said, the entire staff was working side by side so Hotel Dieu could stay open.

Evacuating COVID-19 patients

The St. George Hospital was not so lucky. The blast left the facility, one of Beirut’s oldest, with collapsed ceilings and electrical wires hanging over beds showered with glass.

“We are not in service anymore,” said St. George Hospital’s chief of staff Eid Azar.

“Amid the current economic situation, I don’t know how much time it will take to repair,” he told AFP.

Staff worked until just before dawn to evacuate patients, equipment and files.

“We did a hospital evacuation, which very rarely happens,” and which included the highly sensitive transfer of 20 patients being treated for COVID-19, he said.

Azar said the emergency operation reminded him of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating natural disaster that hit the US in 2005.

The courtyard was turned into a field clinic, where doctors in bloodied medical robes treated shell-shocked people in the open.

“There’s nothing harder than evacuating a hospital filled to the brim with patients while even more wounded are coming,” said Azar.

“The hospital staff itself was wounded and we needed to transfer our own employees.”

 

A Lebanese army soldier and a man carry away an injured man at a hospital in the aftermath of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Photo by IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

Medics carried patients from nine separate floors one by one on stretchers, as the blast had knocked out the elevators.

Without electricity or water, nurses took great risks to provide whatever life-saving support they could.

“The hospital lights are usually on 24 hours a day — it was completely dark,” said clinical nurse specialist Lara Daher.

“We stitched up patients by the light of our cellphones last night. I don’t know how we did it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

 

-AFP

Beirut Blast Killed More Than 100, Says Lebanese Red Cross

This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a general view of destruction outside a building in the centre of Lebanon's capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut. STR / AFP
This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a general view of destruction outside a building in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut. STR / AFP

A huge blast at Beirut port that devastated entire neighbourhoods of the city has killed more than 100 people and injured over 4,000, the Lebanese Red Cross said Wednesday.

“Until now over 4,000 people have been injured and over 100 have lost their lives. Our teams are still conducting search and rescue operations in the surrounding areas,” a statement said.

 

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. Anwar AMRO / AFP
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. Anwar AMRO / AFP

Details later…

AFP

Two Huge Explosions Rock Lebanese Capital, Beirut

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. Anwar AMRO / AFP
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. Anwar AMRO / AFP

 

Two enormous explosions rocked the Lebanese capital’s port on Tuesday, killing and wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the Beirut sky.

Video footage of the second blast showed an enormous orange fireball that dwarfed nearby buildings and sent a devastating tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city.

“We heard an explosion, then we saw the mushroom,” said one resident who witnessed the second, deafening explosion from her balcony in the city’s Mansourieh district.

“The force of the blast threw us backwards into the apartment,” she said.

Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, many bloodied, after the massive blasts, the cause of which was not immediately known.

A soldier at the port, who asked not to be named, told AFP: “It’s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead.”

The official National News Agency confirmed deaths in the blast, without citing a number.

The explosions “caused dozens of injuries,” a security source said.

The AFP correspondent said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked.

This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a general view of destruction outside a building in the centre of Lebanon's capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut. STR / AFP
This picture taken on August 4, 2020 shows a general view of destruction outside a building in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, following a massive explosion at the nearby port of Beirut. STR / AFP

 

Injured people were walking in the street, while outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children.

Destroyed cars had been abandoned in the street with their airbags inflated.

A huge cloud of black smoke was engulfing the entire port area, as helicopters flew to dump water on the burning buildings.

The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks and people whose relatives were working inside the devastated area, while others were screaming to be let through.

A huge blaze was burning at the port, where ambulances were rushing away the wounded, their sirens wailing.

The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away.

Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130 metre (420 foot) grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone.

Video stills showed a intense blazing fireball rising higher than a line of towering storage silos, with a subsequent cloud towering into the sky.

‘Like an earthquake’

“Buildings are shaking,” tweeted one resident, while another wrote: “An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away.”

Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling.

A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. STR / AFP
A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. STR / AFP

 

The explosions hit Lebanon as it suffers its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty.

The country’s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting against the dollar, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment.

The country’s worst crisis since the  1975-1990 civil war has sparked months of street demonstrations against the government.

The explosions also come as Lebanon awaits a UN tribunal’s verdict Friday on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge truck bomb attack.

Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at a court in the Netherlands over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.

A woman in the city centre Tuesday told AFP: “It felt like an earthquake … I felt it was bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005”.

Tensions have also been high with neighbouring Israel, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen, a claim denied by the Lebanon-based and Iran-backed group.

 

 

AFP

20 Civilians Dead As Syrian Govt Set To Retake Key Highway

Syrian army units advance in the town of al-Eis in south Aleppo province on February 9, 2020, following battles with rebels and jihadists. Al-Eis, which overlooks the M5, was on a front that saw fierce fighting between the regime and its opponents in 2016. AFP

 

At least 20 civilians were killed on Sunday as Syrian regime forces were poised to retake a key motorway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, after weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region, a monitor said.

The regime and its Russian ally have been engaged in a fierce weeks-long offensive to take back the vital M5 artery which connects Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, to Damascus and the Jordanian border.

A section of the highway southwest of Aleppo city still lies under control of rebels and jihadists who dominate a shrinking, densely populated territory centred on neighbouring Idlib province.

Pro-regime forces have been chipping away at the area in an assault that has sent half a million people fleeing north towards the Turkish border.

Deadly raids on Sunday by regime ally Russia left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, near the last stretch of the M5 still in rebel hands, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian air raids with crude barrel bombs also killed four civilians in the Atareb district east of Aleppo, while another died in artillery fire near the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, it said.

The last civilian was killed in regime airstrikes on Ketian village in southern Idlib.

Recapturing the M5 would allow traffic to resume between war-torn Syria’s main business hubs, helping the regime revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.

After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria’s northwest, only a two-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside government control, according to the Observatory.

Pro-government forces were closing on Sunday on the last segment southwest of Aleppo, neighbouring Idlib, the Britain-based war monitor said.

“Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

Fighting was ongoing in the area early Sunday evening with bombing intensifying, he said.

Half a million displaced

Since December, Russian-backed government forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town.

The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing towards relative safety nearer the Turkish border.

Some three million people are now trapped in the Idlib region, around half of whom have already fled other parts of the country.

The Syrian army said in a statement Sunday it had recaptured 600 square kilometres (232 square miles) in recent days, comprising “dozens of villages and locations” in south Idlib and west Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian government on Sunday approved a plan aimed at “progressively re-establishing services in liberated areas”, official news agency SANA reported.

That came a day after the army captured the Idlib town of Saraqeb, located on a junction of the M5, state media said.

Troops then pressed north along the motorway past Idlib’s provincial borders and linked up with a unit of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory and state agency SANA.

It was the first time in weeks the two units joined up after waging separate offensives against rebels and jihadists in Idlib and Aleppo.

A little more than half of Idlib province remains in rebel hands, along with slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Some 50,000 fighters are in the shrinking pocket, many of them jihadists but the majority allied rebels, according to the Observatory.

The United Nations and aid groups have appealed for an end to hostilities in the Idlib region, warning that the exodus risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the nearly nine-year war.

Just In: Israeli Strikes Kill 12 Pro-Iran Fighters In Syria

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli airstrike at Al-Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City February 6, 2020. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

 

Israeli airstrikes killed 12 pro-Iran fighters near Damascus and in southern Syria early Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Both Syrian and foreign fighters were killed in the strikes in the Kaswa area south of Damascus and the Ezra district of Daraa province, the Britain-based war monitor said.

AFP

Air Strike Kills Eight Iraq Paramilitaries In East Syria

 

An airstrike in eastern Syria killed eight fighters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force overnight, a war monitor said on Friday.

“Unidentified aircraft targeted vehicles and arms depots in the Albu Kamal area, causing a large explosion. At least eight Iraqi Hashed fighters were killed,” the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

He said several others were wounded.

Through a spokesman contacted by AFP, the US-led military coalition operating in Syria and Iraq denied carrying out the strike.

Abdel Rahman said three villages in the Albu Kamal area known for housing forces loyal to Tehran have been targeted by drone strikes since Wednesday, causing no casualties.

READ ALSO: Iranian Missile Brought Down Airliner, Says Canadian PM

The deadly strike comes in a context of spiralling tension between the United States and Iran, much of which has played out in Iraq.

Late last year, a US air strike in Iraq killed 25 Hashed fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah militia, considered one of the closest to Tehran.

Hashed supporters subsequently stormed the huge US embassy compound in central Baghdad, further escalating the situation.

On January 3, a US strike near Baghdad airport killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s feared external operations supremo, in one of the Middle East’s highest-profile assassinations of recent years.

Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a founder of Kataeb Hezbollah and seen as Iran’s man in Iraq.

Tehran has vowed bloody revenge and has so far responded with ballistic missiles on a base in western Iraq housing US and other coalition troops.

Iran claimed the strikes killed 80 people but neither the US nor the Iraqi military reported any casualties.

Nearly Nine Years Of Conflict In Syria

Iraqi protesters set ablaze a sentry box in front of the US embassy building in the capital Baghdad to protest against the weekend’s air strikes by US planes on several bases belonging to the Hezbollah brigades near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria, on December 31, 2019. Ahmad AL-RUBAYE / AFP

 

 

Syria’s war began as a peaceful uprising that was swiftly crushed in a regime crackdown. Almost nine years on, more than 380,000 people have died, and millions more have fled.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key ally of Damascus — on Tuesday made a surprise visit to the country, here is a summary of the main events in the conflict:

Revolt to repression

In March 2011, protests break out to demand political change after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad dynasty.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracks down on demonstrations but rallies continue.

In July an army colonel who has defected from the military sets up the Turkey-based opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).

An armed rebellion erupts, with support from western and Arab countries. The rebels seize key territory, including large swathes of third city Homs and a chunk of the ancient city of Aleppo.

Air strikes

In 2012 regime forces step up their crackdown, carrying out bloody operations, notably in the central city of Hama, a bastion of opposition to the Assad regime.

In July FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.

From 2013 regime helicopters and planes unleash air strikes, some of them using barrel bombs, on rebel zones.

The same year Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah confirms it has deployed fighters to back Syrian government forces.

Iran also boosts its support for Assad.

Chemical attack

On August 21, 2013, chemical attacks blamed on the regime on two rebel-held areas near Damascus reportedly kill more than 1,400 people. The regime denies the charge.

Then US president Barack Obama pulls back from threatened punitive strikes on Syrian regime infrastructure, instead of agreeing a deal with Moscow that is meant to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Islamic State group

In June 2014, the jihadist Islamic State group proclaims a “caliphate” over territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.

In September a US-led coalition launches airstrikes against IS in Syria.

The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, who since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.

Kurds join with Arabs to form the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

They oust IS from key areas including the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa in 2017, and then in 2019 their last Syrian holdout, the village of Baghuz.

In October IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed during a US special services operation in northwestern Syria.

Russia steps in

In September 2015 Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad’s troops, in a campaign that will prove to be a turning point in the war.

In a string of deadly campaigns, the regime retakes key rebel bastions, from Aleppo in 2016 to Eastern Ghouta in 2018.

US strikes

In April 2017 a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people.

US President Donald Trump unleashes missile strikes against the regime’s Shayrat airbase.

In April 2018, the US, with the support of France and Britain, launches retaliatory strikes after an alleged regime chemical attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus.

Turkish offensive against Kurds

On October 9, 2019, Ankara launches an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in Syria, whom it brands “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

It follows Washington’s decision to withdraw US forces from the Turkey-Syria border area.

Turkey and its Syrian proxies have since taken a 120-kilometre by 30-kilometre stretch of the border.

Battle for Idlib

Since mid-December, the Syrian regime and its ally Russia have ramped up their bombardments of Idlib province in the northwest, involving ground battles with jihadists and rebels.

Damascus vows to reconquer the region, run by the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

US Army Will ‘Pay Price’ For Killing Soleimani – Hezbollah Chief

 

 

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday said the US army will “pay the price” for killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi commander in a drone strike.

“The American army killed them and it will pay the price,” the Iran-backed head of the Lebanese Shiite group warned in a televised speech following Friday’s strike in the Iraqi capital.

“The only just punishment is (to target) American military presence in the region: US military bases, US warships, each and every officer and soldier in the region,” Nasrallah said.

He added however that American civilians such as “businessmen, engineers, journalists and doctors” should be spared.

“When the coffins of American soldiers and officers… start to return to the United States, (US President Donald) Trump and his administration will realise they have lost the region,” he said.

Soleimani and top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US drone strike Friday near Baghdad’s international airport, sparking fury in Iran and Iraq.

Nasrallah’s speech was beamed to black-clad supporters who gathered in southern Beirut, waving Hezbollah’s yellow flag or holding up portraits of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Nasrallah also called on Iraq to free itself of the American “occupation”.

“Our demand, our hope from our brothers in the Iraqi parliament is… to adopt a law that demands American forces withdraw from Iraq,” he said.

Iraq’s parliament urged the government on Sunday to end the presence of US-led coalition forces in the country, outraged by the American strike.

Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State jihadist group.

They are deployed as part of the broader international coalition, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help fight IS.

In his speech, Nasrallah said he had last seen Soleimani when the Iranian general visited him on New Year’s Day on Wednesday, without specifying where the meeting took place.

He said the general had flown out of the Damascus airport on Thursday night to Baghdad, where he was welcomed by Muhandis.

Earlier on Sunday, Hezbollah news outlet Al-Manar published undated photos of Nasrallah and Soleimani, including one in which the Iranian commander kisses Nasrallah’s forehead.

In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, Soleimani said he had been in Lebanon during the 34-day 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the fighting.

Hezbollah is the only side not to have disarmed after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The United States has designated it a “terrorist” group and several of its figures are under sanctions, but the party is also a key player in Lebanese politics.

Syria Regime Fire Kills Eight In School Turned Shelter

 

 

Land-to-land missiles fired by Syrian regime forces killed eight civilians including four children in a school in northwestern Syria on Wednesday, a war monitor said.

Part of the building in the town of Sarmeen had been turned into a shelter for the displaced, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the latest round of violence in Syria’s nearly nine-year-old war, regime forces have upped their deadly bombardment of the northwestern opposition bastion of Idlib in recent weeks.

In December alone, the violence pushed some 284,000 from their homes in the jihadist-run region of some three million people, the United Nations says.

The mass movement of people has seen public buildings such as mosques, garages, wedding halls and schools turned into shelters, UN humanitarian agency OCHA says.

Regime ally Russia announced a ceasefire for Idlib in late August after months of deadly Russian and regime bombardment that killed around 1,000 civilians.

But sporadic clashes and bombardment persisted throughout the autumn before a spike in violence in the past month, the Observatory says.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 370,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

In total 11,215 people including more than 1,000 children were killed during the war last year, although it was the least deadly year on record since the beginning of the conflict.