Macron Urges Iran To Avoid ‘Escalation’, Voices ‘Solidarity’ With US

Macron Signs Controversial French 'Anti-Rioters' Bill Into Law

 

French President Emmanual Macron on Sunday assured US counterpart Donald Trump of “his complete solidarity” and urged Iran to avoid “military escalation that could aggravate instability in the region.”

Macron noted “mounting tensions in Iraq and in the region”, and expressed concern that Iranian forces that were commanded by slain general Qasem Soleimani could take actions that would destabilise the region, in a statement issued by the Elysee presidential office.

The French president “reiterated the necessity that Iran put an end” to such activities.

“The priority should be pursuing international coalition action against Daesh, with full respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, for its security and for regional stability,” Macron said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State group.

At Least Two Rockets Hit Near US Embassy In Baghdad – Witnesses

President Buhari To Swear In Ministers August 21

 

Two rockets hit near the US embassy in Iraq’s capital Sunday, witnesses told AFP, shortly after the deadline from a hardline pro-Iran faction for local troops to get away from US forces.

The vehemently anti-American group, Kataeb Hezbollah, had warned Iraqi security forces to “get away” from US troops at joint bases across Iraq by 5:00 pm (1400 GMT).

Sunday’s attack marks the 14th time rockets have been fired towards US installations in Iraq over the last two months.

Britain Will Not lament Death Of Soleimani, Says Boris Johnson

 

Britain will not lament the death of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday, though he warned that reprisals would lead to greater violence.

The United States killed top military leader Soleimani outside Baghdad airport in a drone strike on Friday.

In his first intervention on the escalation of tensions in the Middle East, Johnson said he had spoken Sunday with US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He said he would speak to other leaders in the coming days.

“General Qasem Soleimani posed a threat to all our interests and was responsible for a pattern of disruptive, destabilising behaviour in the region,” Johnson said in a statement.

“Given the leading role he has played in actions that have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and Western personnel, we will not lament his death.

“It is clear however that all calls for retaliation or reprisals will simply lead to more violence in the region and they are in no one’s interest.”

Johnson said that following ministerial meetings and further international calls, MPs would be updated on the situation on Tuesday.

Meanwhile London has urged Baghdad to allow international coalition soldiers to stay in Iraq, where the parliament on Sunday pressed the government to oust foreign troops.

The cabinet would have to approve any such decision.

British troops are part of an international coalition of forces stationed in Iraq — invited by the government in Baghdad in 2014 — to help fight against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.

A British government spokesman said: “The coalition is in Iraq to help protect Iraqis and others from the threat from Daesh (IS), at the request of the Iraqi government.

“We urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our vital work countering this shared threat.”

Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing an IS resurgence.

Seven Children Among 14 Killed In Roadside Bomb In Burkina Faso

 

 

Seven children and four women were among 14 civilians, killed when a roadside bomb blew up their bus in northwestern Burkina Faso, the government said.

“The provisional toll is 14 dead,” a statement said, adding that 19 more people were hurt, three of them seriously in Saturday’s blast.

The explosion happened in Sourou province near the Mali border as students returned to school after the Christmas holidays, a security source said.

“The vehicle hit a homemade bomb on the Toeni-Tougan road,” the source told AFP.

“The government strongly condemns this cowardly and barbaric act,” the statement said.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but jihadist violence in Burkina Faso has been blamed on combatants linked to both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups.

Meanwhile, the army reported an assault against gendarmes at Inata in the north on Friday, saying “a dozen terrorists were neutralised”.

The deaths came the week after 35 people, most of them women, died in an attack on the northern city of Arbinda and seven Burkinabe troops were killed in a raid on their army base nearby.

Burkina Faso, bordering Mali and Niger, has seen frequent jihadist attacks which have left hundreds of people dead since the start of 2015 when Islamist extremist violence began to spread across the Sahel region.

In a televised address on Tuesday President Roch Marc Christian Kabore insisted that “victory” against “terrorism” was assured.

The entire Sahel region is fighting a jihadist insurgency with help from Western countries but has not managed to stem the bloodshed.

Five Sahel states — Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad — have joined forces to combat terrorism in the fragile region that lies between the Sahara and the Atlantic.

Increasingly deadly Islamist attacks in Burkina have killed more than 750 people since 2015, according to an AFP count, and forced 560,000 people from their homes, UN figures show.

Trump’s Threat To Target Iran Cultural Sites Sparks Backlash

 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Sunday that any US military action against Iran would conform to international law after President Donald Trump was accused of threatening a war crime by declaring cultural sites as potential targets.

Tehran’s foreign minister drew parallels with the Islamic State group’s destruction of the Middle East’s cultural heritage following Trump’s tweets that sites which were “important to… Iranian culture” were on a list of 52 potential US targets.

And as Twitter was flooded with photos of revered Iranian landmarks in ancient cities such as Isfahan under the hashtag #IranianCulturalSites, leading US Democrats said the president would be in breach of international protocols if he made good on his threat.

“You are threatening to commit war crimes,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the top Democrats hoping to challenge Trump in November’s election, wrote on Twitter.

“We are not at war with Iran. The American people do not want a war with Iran.”

“Targeting civilians and cultural sites is what terrorists do. It’s a war crime,” added fellow Senator Chris Murphy.

In a flurry of interviews on the Sunday talk shows, Trump’s top diplomat said the US would not hesitate to hit back hard against Iran’s “kleptocratic regime” if it came under attack, but pledged that any action would be consistent with the rule of law.

“We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system. We always have and we always will,” Pompeo told the ABC network’s “This Week” program.

“The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed with a singular mission, of protecting and defending America,” he added.

His comments came after his opposite number in Tehran Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME”.

“A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating ISIS war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage: Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries,” said Foreign Minister Zarif.

“Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”

Threat ‘Un-American’

Nicholas Burns, who served as US ambassador to NATO under president George W. Bush, said the Trump administration would be guilty of hypocrisy given it was part of international efforts to deter IS from destroying countless pre-Islamic artefacts, including in the Syrian UNESCO-listed site of Palmyra.

“Donald Trump’s threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites would be a war crime under UN Security Council resolution 2347 – supported by the Trump Administration itself in 2017 to warn ISIS+Al Qaeda of similar actions.

“His threat is immoral and Un-American,” said Burns who is now a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Others drew comparisons with the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in central Afghanistan

Pompeo refused to give any details on the 52 potential targets which Trump said had been drawn up to represent each and every hostage held in the standoff at the US embassy in Tehran four decades ago.

But one former official expressed skepticism that military planners would agree to target cultural sites.

“For what it’s worth, I find it hard to believe the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include Iranian cultural sites,” said Colin Kahl who was National Security Adviser to former vice president Joe Biden.

“Trump may not care about the laws of war, but DoD (Department of Defense) planners and lawyers do… and targeting cultural sites is war crime.”

Iraq Parliament Demands US Troop Ouster After Soleimani Killing

 

 

Pressure against the US in Iraq ramped up Sunday, as rockets hit near the American embassy and parliament demanded the ouster of thousands of US troops over the killing of a top Iranian general.

Ties have deteriorated after an American precision drone strike Friday on the Baghdad international airport that killed Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

A pair of rockets hit near the US embassy in Iraq’s high-security Green Zone for the second night in a row on Sunday just hours after Iraq’s foreign ministry summoned the American ambassador over the strike.

Earlier, caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi attended an extraordinary parliamentary session during which he slammed the US strike as a “political assassination”.

READ ALSO: At Least Two Rockets Hit Near US Embassy In Baghdad – Witnesses

He joined 168 lawmakers — just enough for quorum in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament — to discuss the ouster of US troops.

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.

“The parliament has voted to commit the Iraqi government to cancel its request to the international coalition for help to fight IS,” speaker Mohammed Halbusi announced.

The cabinet would have to approve any decision but the premier indicated support for an ouster in his speech.

“We face two main choices,” he told MPs: either immediately voting for foreign troops to leave or setting limits and a timeframe for withdrawal through a parliamentary process.

US-led coalition ‘pauses’ ops

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the parliament’s move by saying: “We’ll have to take a look at what we do when the Iraqi leadership and government makes a decision”.

Britain, a key member of the US-led coalition against jihadists, urged Iraq to allow soldiers to stay in the country, saying their work was “vital”.

Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, said US troop presence in Iraq after the Iraqi parliamentary decision would be considered an “occupation”.

Hardline parliamentarians with ties to Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a military force close to Iran, had demanded the immediate expulsion of all foreign troops.

No Kurdish and most Sunni MPs boycotted the session as they were more supportive of an American military presence, seen as a counterweight to Iran.

Tom Warrick, a former US official and current fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Soleimani and pro-Iran factions within the Hashed had long sought the US’s ouster.

“If US forces do end up withdrawing, it could grant Soleimani a post-humous victory,” Warrick told AFP.

As the session got under way, the US-led coalition announced it was suspending its Iraq operations due to deadly rocket attacks on their bases.

“This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh (IS) and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” it said.

Late Saturday, two missiles slammed into the Green Zone and another two rockets hit an airbase north of the capital housing American troops.

There had been fears of a volleys of rockets following a warning from a hardline Hashed faction for Iraqis to move away from US forces by Sunday afternoon.

Increased tensions had already prompted NATO to suspend training activities in Iraq and a US defence official told AFP American-led coalition forces would “limit” operations.

‘Blatant violation’

Iraq’s foreign ministry said it summoned US ambassador Matthew Tueller and submitted complaints to the United Nations Security Council over the strikes.

“They were a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” the ministry said in a statement, and “contradict the agreed-upon missions of the international coalition.”

The US strike on Baghdad international airport early Friday killed five Iranian Revolutionary Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed.

After a procession that made its way across various Iraqi cities on Saturday, the remains of the Iranians, plus those of Muhandis and another Hashed member, were flown to Iran where mourners packed the streets to pay tribute to them.

DNA testing was required to separate the Iraqis’ remains so they could be properly buried, the Hashed said.

As head of the Quds Force, the Guards’ foreign operations arm, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s wide-ranging interventions in regional power struggles.

In Iraq, protesters taking to the streets since October had blamed him for propping up a government they see as corrupt and inept.

Demonstrations still rocked the capital and south on Sunday, with many protesting against Iran and the United States.

US President Donald Trump claimed Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on US personnel in the region and threatened Iran — which has promised “severe revenge” — with more strikes.

London Advises Brits To Avoid Travel to Iraq, Iran

Britain Flag

 

The British government on Saturday advised UK nationals to avoid travelling to Iraq and Iran in face of heightened tensions in the Middle East following the US killing of a top Iranian commander in Baghdad.

“Following the death of Qasem Soleimani and heightened tensions in the region… We now advise British nationals against all travel to Iraq (and) we now advise against all but essential travel to Iran,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement.

“The first job of any government is to keep British people safe,” the statement said.

“Given heightened tensions in the region, (we) now advise people not to travel to Iraq, with the exception of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and to consider carefully whether it’s essential to travel to Iran. We will keep this under review.”

On Friday, the US military killed Soleimani in an airstrike outside Baghdad international airport that shocked the Islamic republic and sparked fears of a new war in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed the death of the commander of its Quds Force foreign operations arm, and Tehran’s clerical leadership promised “severe vengeance… in the right place and time”.

In its statement, the British Foreign Office urged UK nationals in the region to “remain vigilant and monitor the media carefully.”

On Friday, foreign minister Dominic Raab had said that while London had “always recognised the aggressive threat” posed by Soleimani and his Quds Force, “following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Pompeo Sees ‘Real Likelihood’ Iran Will Try To Hit US Troops

In this file photo taken on December 11, 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC. AFP

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran will probably try to attack American troops after a US strike killed a top Iranian commander.

“We think there is a real likelihood Iran will make a mistake and make a decision to go after some of our forces, military forces in Iraq or soldiers in northeast Syria,” he told Fox News in remarks aired Sunday.

His comments came as the military advisor to Iran’s supreme leader said there would be a “military” response “against military sites” by Tehran after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of its Revolutionary Guards.

“It would be a big mistake for Iran to go after them,” Pompeo told Fox.

The US has about 60,000 troops in the region, including around 5,200 in Iraq. Washington ordered thousands more soldiers to the region on Friday after Soleimani’s killing.

“We’re preparing for all kinds of various responses,” including cyber attacks, Pompeo told Fox.

Police, Protesters Clash During Huge Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Rally

 

 

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy marchers thronged the streets of Hong Kong for a massive rally on New Year’s Day, looking to carry the momentum of their movement into 2020 as police and hardcore demonstrators faced off again.

Hong Kong has been battered by nearly seven months of often-violent unrest, with frequent clashes between the police and hardcore protesters as the city battles its biggest political crisis in decades.

Despite a peaceful start on Wednesday, violence erupted near the march as it snaked through the Wan Chai district on the financial hub’s main island. Riot police used pepper spray and tear gas, while hardcore protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the umbrella group which organised the march, had permission for the march from city authorities, but they were ordered to end it soon after the clashes began.

“The police have… asked us to dismiss the rally,” the organisers told marchers using megaphones. “Please calmly and slowly leave the scene right now.”

In now-familiar scenes, riot police were seen taking positions at several locations, including the Wan Chai subway station.

Black-clad, masked protesters also gathered to set up makeshift barricades, while some businesses were vandalised in the afternoon.

The unrest in Hong Kong was sparked by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, bringing millions out on to the streets in June last year. It has since morphed into a larger revolt against what many fear is Beijing’s tightening control.

Despite the continued unrest, China and the Hong Kong administration have refused to cede to the protesters’ demands, which include fully free elections in the city, an inquiry into alleged police misconduct, and amnesty for the nearly 6,500 people arrested during the movement — nearly a third of them under the age of 20.

“It is sad that our demands from 2019 need to be carried forward to 2020,” the CHRF’s Jimmy Sham said at the start of the rally.

Activists have accused the police of brutality and rights violations, while city authorities — and the central government in Beijing — have accused pro-democracy protesters of rioting.

China has also alleged that the unrest has been fanned by foreign powers, and has bristled at criticism from rights groups and governments of the way the protests have been handled so far.

‘Hopeless situation’

Hong Kong saw in the new year with an evening of peaceful protests that descended into tear gas-choked clashes between hardcore demonstrators and the police overnight.

Thousands of people linked arms to form human chains that stretched for miles along busy shopping streets and neighbourhoods on New Year’s Eve.

Later, protesters set fire to barricades in some parts of the city as the police launched 2020’s first volleys of tear gas and used water cannon to disperse the crowds.

The protest movement has become quieter since the city’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory in a municipal-level vote in November — seen as a referendum on the Beijing-backed government — and violent clashes at some of the city’s university campuses.

But protesters have vowed to continue their fight for greater freedoms.

“Hong Kong people have been pushed to a hopeless situation. That’s why today we have to come out,” a masked protester said in a speech at the rally on Wednesday.

The unrest that began in June last year is the biggest crisis the former British colony has faced since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Under the terms of that handover, Hong Kong enjoys unique freedoms unseen on the mainland, but fears have increased in recent years that they are being chipped away as Beijing exerts more control over the territory.

Two Indian Soldiers Killed In Kashmir Gunfight

 

 

Two Indian soldiers were killed Wednesday in a gunfight with suspected militants along the border that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir between archrivals India and Pakistan, officials said.

The two were killed during an operation to intercept Pakistani infiltrators who were attempting to cross the heavily-militarised border into India, the Press Trust of India news agency reported officials as saying.

The operation was still in progress, army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand said in a statement.

An armed rebellion against Indian rule has raged for decades in Kashmir, and has left tens of thousands dead, mainly civilians.

READ ALSO: Trump Threatens Iran After Baghdad Embassy Attack

New Delhi accuses Pakistan of arming and training anti-India rebels and sending them across the border to launch attacks on Indian forces.

Islamabad denies the charge, saying it only provides diplomatic support to Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.

Indian-administered Kashmir has been tense since New Delhi revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August and imposed a security and communications lockdown.

Some of the restrictions have since been eased, including SMS services which were restored on Tuesday.

Five local politicians were released from detention last Thursday although several other prominent leaders remain in custody.

Kashmir has been split between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. The archrivals have fought two of their three wars over the territory.

18 Killed In New Militia Attack In Eastern DR Congo

 

 

Eighteen people in eastern DR Congo’s troubled region of Beni have been killed in a fresh attack by a notorious armed group, a local official said on Monday.

“There was an incursion in Apetina-Sana by the ADF last night,” Beni administrator Donat Kibwana told AFP, referring to the Allied Democratic Forces militia.

“(They) hacked 18 civilians to death.”

Apetina-Sana is 16 kilometres (10 miles) west of Oicha, the chief administrative town in the Beni region.

It is a point on the so-called Death Triangle, along with Mbau and Eringeti — the worst-hit area for attacks.

ADF fighters have killed more than 200 people since the army launched an offensive against the militia on October 30, according to a toll compiled by civil society groups.

The toll has sparked anger over the authorities’ response.

“The authorities were tipped off on Sunday evening about the presence of suspicious men west of Oicha,” said Teddy Kataliko, a civil society activist in Beni.

“We continue to ask the DRC armed forces to launch operations on the western side as well, to save civilians.”

There have also been demonstrations in the city of Beni, where local people accuse the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO of failing to protect them.

The ADF began as an Islamist rebellion hostile to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

It fell back into eastern DRC in 1995 and appears to have halted raids inside Uganda. Its recruits today are people of various nationalities.

In a separate incident in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday, “armed bandits” attacked a base used by a Chinese-owned gold mine, killing four people, the military said.

The raid happened in the Irumu district in the northeastern province of Ituri, said Lieutenant Jules Ngongo, the army’s provincial spokesman.

Two soldiers, a policeman and a driver for the mine were killed, he said.

“The assailants have not been completely identified but they must be armed bandits who look for supplies during the year-end festivities,” Ngongo said.

Cattle Gang Launches Deadly Attack In Zamfara

 

A gang of cattle thieves killed 14 people overnight Sunday in a remote village in Zamfara State, police said, the latest assault in a long-running series of tit-for-tat attacks.

Police said the bandits were taking revenge for an earlier killing of nine suspected gang members by local vigilantes in a nearby village in Zamfara on November 3.

In the absence of a robust police force and effective judicial system in Nigeria, villagers created vigilante groups to fight off the gangs, but the villagers have since been accused of extra-judicial killings.

Zamfara officials struck a deal in July with the bandits to end their attacks and vigilantes to stop extra-judicial killings, but sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued.

Zamfara police spokesman Mohammed Shehu said assailants riding motorcycles stormed into a remote village overnight Sunday to Monday, shooting residents and burning homes.

As well as the 14 people who were killed, 10 others were injured, Shehu said.

For several years, rural communities in the agrarian state have been under siege from gangs of cattle rustlers.

The gangs launch their attacks from their camps dotting the Rugu forest — which straddles the states of Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, and Niger.

The peace deal had seen the cessation of bandit attacks in Zamfara state, prompting authorities in nearby Katsina state to start similar peace talks with the bandits.

However, sporadic outbreaks of violence are still reported. Last month bandits killed nine soldiers in reprisal after troops attacked their hideout in Anka district and killed their comrades.