Damascus in early March paused a military offensive on rebels and jihadists in Syria’s northwest, after a ceasefire brokered by regime ally Russia came into effect.
The Moscow-backed campaign had displaced nearly a million people in the region since December, piling pressure on informal settlements already brimming with families forced to flee previous bouts of violence.
The fate of the displaced has been a key concern of aid groups amid an outbreak in the country of the novel coronavirus, which has killed two and infected eight others.
The United Nations has appealed for a nation-wide ceasefire to tackle the novel coronavirus threat, while aid groups have warned of a health catastrophe if the pandemic hits overcrowded displacement camps or crammed regime prisons.
Regime airstrikes on a city in Syria’s last major opposition bastion killed at least 18 civilians Wednesday, striking bustling areas of Idlib city despite a fresh Russian-sponsored truce, a war monitor said.
The raids hit a vegetable market and repair shops in Idlib, capital of the jihadist-held province of the same name, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based monitoring group had earlier reported nine civilians dead and at least 20 wounded but warned that the death toll was likely to rise as many were seriously injured.
It said two children and a rescue worker were among the dead.
The bombardment engulfed several vehicles in the industrial zone, leaving torched corpses of motorists trapped inside, an AFP correspondent said.
One man was seen running towards the site of the attack, slapping his forehead with both hands in despair.
Mustafa, who runs a repair shop in the area, was lucky to escape with his life. He had just left the store to pick up some spare parts.
He told AFP he returned to find the shop destroyed and his four employees trapped under rubble. It was not immediately clear if they had survived.
“This is not the neighbourhood I left two minutes ago!” Mustafa said, tears rolling down his face.
The Observatory also reported dozens of regime and Russian airstrikes in the broader Idlib province, particularly in the southern zone close to regime-held territory.
It said one person had died in the village of Al-Has.
Idlib has come under mounting bombardment in recent weeks, displacing tens of thousands of people in the northwestern province home to some three million.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said that since December 1, almost 350,000 people had fled their homes, mainly heading northwards from southern Idlib which has borne the brunt of regime strikes.
A truce brokered this month by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey was in principle to have taken effect from Sunday.
It follows a truce announced in late August, after strikes by the regime and its ally Russia killed some 1,000 civilians in four months, according to the Observatory.
The Damascus government has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib, which is run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people including over 115,000 civilians since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Flag-waving Parisians in period costume thronged the streets Sunday as armoured vehicles rumbled through the city in a re-enactment of the liberation of the capital from Nazi Germany 75 years ago.
A column of military vehicles entered the city from the south, using the same route taken by the first Allied division — led by French General Philippe Leclerc — to reach the city in August 1944.
To try recreate the scenes of rejoicing that their arrival triggered, some residents and business owners along the route decorated their balconies and shopfronts with French flags.
Some participants in the “Freedom Parade” also gamely answered a call by the city of Paris to sport 1940s garb — high-waisted skirts for the women and trousers with braces and berets for the men.
Rene Gonin, a 99-year-old retired mason, recalled the long wait for the Allied forces to to arrive — and the ensuing euphoria when they rolled in, with women clambering onto tanks to offer roses to the soldiers and crowds dancing in the streets through the night.
“People were acting like crazy…. There was an incredible atmosphere,” he told AFP.
A week before the Allies arrived in Paris, Resistance members had already launched a bid for freedom, erecting barricades and carrying out attacks on German troops, triggering bloody street clashes.
Nearly 1,000 Resistance members, 130 Allied troops and around 600 civilians were killed in the week of fighting that led up to the surrender of German forces on August 25, 1944.
A new museum on the Nazi occupation and liberation of Paris was inaugurated Sunday in the south of city.
Thousands of Gazans began gathering to mark the first anniversary of mass protests along the Israeli border on Saturday, testing a fragile truce only 10 days ahead of an Israeli general election.
Egypt has sought to mediate between Israel and Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas to rein in violence and avoid the sort of deadly response from the Israeli army that has accompanied past protests.
But warnings to stay far back from the heavily fortified fence that marks the border were already not being heeded by some.
“We will move towards the borders even if we die,” said Yusef Ziyada, 21, his face painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag.
“We are not leaving. We are returning to our land.”
Dozens of Palestinians were seen approaching the border fence east of Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip at around midday (0900 GMT) before retreating as Israeli troops fired tear gas.
The protesters threw stones at the Israeli soldiers and burnt tyres.
Further south, an Egyptian security delegation visited a protest site east of Gaza City.
The city’s mosques were using loudspeakers to call on people to attend, but rainy weather could affect turnout.
“There are about 5,500 rioters gathered at several locations along the fence,” the Israeli army said at around 1 pm (1000 GMT).
“Some of them are throwing stones and setting tyres on fire,” it said, adding soldiers were responding with “riot dispersal means.”
Before dawn Saturday, a Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire during an overnight protest ahead of the main demonstration, the enclave’s health ministry said.
Israel’s army had not commented on the death, but late Friday said explosive devices were thrown at the fence “throughout the evening.”
A tank “struck a Hamas military post in the northern Gaza Strip” in response, it said.
Protesters were marking the first anniversary of often violent weekly demonstrations in which around 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed.
The anniversary comes only days after another severe flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas. An Egyptian-brokered ceasefire restored calm.
The timing is especially sensitive for Israel, which holds a keenly contested general election on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a stiff challenge from centrist former military chief Benny Gantz.
He is widely seen as wanting to avoid a major escalation, but has at the same time faced political pressure over accusations of being soft on Hamas.
The protests peaked on May 14, when Israeli forces shot dead at least 62 Palestinians in clashes on the same day Washington moved its embassy to Israel to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
The demonstrators are calling for Palestinians to be allowed to return to land their families fled or were expelled from during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation.
Israel says any such mass return would spell the end of a Jewish state and that its actions have been necessary to defend the border.
It accuses Hamas of orchestrating violence, but its soldiers’ use of live fire has come under heavy criticism.
Last month, a UN probe said Israeli soldiers had intentionally fired on civilians in what could constitute war crimes.
Two million Palestinians live in impoverished Gaza, crammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Analysts highlight desperate living conditions and lack of freedom of movement as driving forces behind the protests.
Israel, which has fought three wars with Hamas, has blockaded the enclave for more than a decade, and Egypt often closes Gaza’s only other gateway to the outside world.
The UN says more than 90 percent of the water is unsafe for drinking and residents receive less than 12 hours of mains electricity a day.
Many protesters have remained far back from the fence and have demonstrated peacefully, but others have approached in numbers and clashed with soldiers.
Small groups have attached incendiary devices to balloons to float them over the border in an attempt to set fire to nearby Israeli homes and farmland.
The Israeli army has increased its presence along the border in recent days deploying several thousand troops, including dozens of snipers.
On Monday, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a house north of the Israeli commercial capital Tel Aviv, wounding seven people.
In response, Israel struck dozens of Hamas targets, drawing further rocket fire before calm was restored.
Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said Hamas was trying to use the protests to get concessions from Israel.
“Hamas seems to think that the run-up to Israeli elections, and Netanyahu’s desire to maintain calm in Gaza, has given it increased leverage,” he said.
“But as we have seen with Israel’s military build-up along the Gaza border, this could be a risky strategy.”
China will work to straighten out trade frictions with the US this year, the country’s commerce minister told state media, following talks with US negotiators this week.
A large US delegation ended a three-day visit to Beijing Wednesday in the first face to face trade talks since President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in December pledged a three-month truce in the escalating tariff spat.
China said the talks had “laid the foundation” to resolve mutual concerns on trade.
“We will properly handle the China-US economic and trade frictions” this year, commerce minister Zhong Shan said, according to a Saturday report by state media outlet Xinhua.
Zhong said Beijing will also promote outside investment, work to pass a foreign investment law and improve its dispute resolution system, Xinhua reported.
China’s policymakers have long promised a more open and free market with better protections for foreign investors, but officials have been slow to make good on those pledges — leading the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China to coin the term “promise fatigue”.
Zhong said China’s negative list — which restricts investment in certain industries — will be further slimmed down, while Beijing also intends to expand economic sectors open for foreign investment without the need for a Chinese joint-venture partner.
The minister specifically outlined a push for foreign investment in manufacturing, high-tech industries and investment in China’s inner regions — pledges which are similar to promises made last year.
Pushing Beijing to implement economic reforms and further open up areas for US investment is a focus in trade negotiations with Washington.
Pope Francis used his Christmas message Tuesday to appeal for peace in conflict zones such as Syria and Yemen, whose populations face some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“My wish for a happy Christmas is a wish for fraternity. Fraternity among individuals of every nation and culture. Fraternity among people with different ideas… Fraternity among persons of different religions,” he said in his traditional “Urbi and Orbi” (To the City and to the World) address in Saint Peter’s Square.
The pontiff said he hoped a truce in conflict-ravaged Yemen would end a devastating war which has killed around 10,000 people since 2015 and pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine.
“My thoughts turn to Yemen, in the hope that the truce brokered by the international community may finally bring relief to all those children and people exhausted by war and famine,” he said.
The Pope also evoked the war in Syria, from where US President Donald Trump has decided to pull out some 2,000 troops in a controversial decision, arguing that the Islamic State has been defeated.
“May the international community work decisively for a political solution… so that the Syrian people, especially all those who were forced to leave their own lands and seek refuge elsewhere, can return to live in peace in their own country,” he said.
He also said he hoped for renewed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians “that can put an end to a conflict that for over 70 years has rent the land chosen by the Lord to show his face of love.”
The raids targeted IS positions in Al-Shaafa, one of the two main villages in the last pocket of territory still controlled by IS in the Euphrates River valley.
Close to 1,000 IS fighters have been killed since Kurdish-led forces, backed by coalition air strikes, launched an operation on that pocket in September.
Trump said he was ordering a withdrawal of the estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria because IS had been defeated, an assessment rubbished by many, including in his own camp.
On Friday, the leadership of the Kurdish force that has spearheaded the fight against IS warned it might have to pull back from the anti-jihadist front if a US withdrawal invites a Turkish military assault against them.
According to the Observatory, 545 members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were killed battling IS since the start of the operation on September 10.
Despite long-standing restrictions, new weapons have continued to reach South Sudan’s battlefields, often via neighboring countries, a detailed report by an arms monitoring group said on Thursday.
A four-year investigation, by London-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR), into the supply of weapons that have helped keep South Sudan’s civil war alive since December 2013, has revealed the important role played by neighboring countries, particularly Uganda, in circumventing arms embargoes.
While the UN Security Council did not impose an arms embargo on South Sudan until July 2018, more than four years into a war that has killed an estimated 380,000 people, the EU has banned direct sales of weapons by member states to Sudan since 1994, amending the embargo to include newly-independent South Sudan in 2011.
Nevertheless, the government army — known as the SPLA, or Sudan People’s Liberation Army — has been kept well supplied with weaponry, often funneled through Uganda and sometimes originating from Europe or the US.
The rebel SPLA-IO (SPLA In Opposition) has had less success in sourcing weapons, the researchers found, relying heavily on scavenging arms.
CAR executive director James Bevan said his group’s “comprehensive, on-the-ground survey of the weaponry used” included documenting hundreds of weapons and more than 200,000 bullets.
“The result is a forensic picture of how prohibitions on arms transfers to the warring parties have failed,” he said.
Weapons ‘shopping list’
CAR found that, despite numerous allegations and rumors, no new Chinese weapons reached South Sudan after May 2014, six months into the war.
Nevertheless, two large shipments of Chinese weapons to Juba, via Mombasa in Kenya, while legal due to the lack of an arms embargo, ensured the SPLA was well-supplied for the ongoing civil war: the shipments included more than 27 million rounds of small-caliber ammunition, as well as rockets, grenades, missiles, pistols assault rifles, and machine guns.
CAR found that, while Chinese ammunition had previously accounted for “less than two percent” of bullets in circulation in South Sudan, once the shipments arrived over half the ammunition in use was Chinese.
“The logical conclusion is that the 27 million rounds of small-caliber ammunition legally transferred to the SPLA from China in 2014 have sustained SPLA operations in the years since,” CAR said.
Meanwhile, Uganda “has continued to be a conduit for material” to the SPLA, CAR said. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is a stout supporter of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir.
Kampala is alleged to have transferred to South Sudan weapons legally supplied to Uganda in 2014 and 2015 from manufacturers in Europe and the US, most likely without the knowledge of the companies involved.
The re-transfer of weapons may contravene clauses contained in the so-called end-user certificates that are intended to ensure weapons are used by the countries they are originally sent to.
The armaments have included military aircraft as well as ammunition sold to the Ugandan military.
CAR also found evidence of long-suspected Sudanese weapons deliveries to SPLA-IO, but not recently.
The researchers’ work also underscored how isolated the rebels, under former vice president Riek Machar, have been, leaving fighters short of both external supporters and bullets.
“Despite allegations made by the SPLA during 2017, CAR has found little indication of external resupply to the SPLA-IO since mid-2015,” the report said.
Efforts by Machar in early 2014 to seek delivery of a “shopping list” including 43 million rounds of ammunition, mortars, rockets, rifles and surface-to-air missiles failed.
Instead, rebels have been forced to rely on defections or capturing weapons after battles.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross arrived in Beijing Saturday for talks aiming to ease tensions over tariffs that have heightened fears of a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies, officials and Chinese state media said.
Despite announcing a truce earlier this month, the United States is working to finalise planned sanctions on Beijing — including restrictions on Chinese investment, export controls and 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese tech goods.
China has threatened to hit back with tit-for-tat tariffs on tens of billions of dollars in US goods.
Ross will stay in the Chinese capital until Sunday and is set to meet Vice Premier Liu He, a US government official told AFP.
His visit comes as fears of an all-out global trade war intensified after the European Union, Canada and Mexico drew up retaliatory measures to Washington’s stinging steel and aluminium tariffs that came into effect on Friday.
US President Donald Trump first announced trade sanctions on China in March, largely focused on the Asian giant’s theft of US intellectual property.
Beijing on Wednesday lambasted “sudden flip-flops” in US policy after the Trump administration said it would still move to impose the sanctions — just over a week after the two sides said they had agreed to avert a trade war.
But as Ross arrived, China appeared to soften its position.
“China’s door for negotiation remains open,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday.
The US and China “should adopt a sincere attitude and follow the spirit of equality and mutual respect to seek a win-win solution through dialogue and consultation”, she added.
The final list of Chinese imports covered by the US tariffs list will be announced June 15 and imposed shortly thereafter, while the proposed investment restrictions and enhanced export controls will be announced by June 30, according to the White House.
Trump has accused China of forcing American firms to hand over their industrial secrets to Chinese companies in order to do business in the country, a charge that Beijing has rejected.
The US leader has also threatened to impose tariffs on an additional $100 billion in Chinese goods if Beijing retaliates.
Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, told AFP he was “not very optimistic” about the outcome of the latest trade negotiations.
“The chance that there will be no trade war at all is low. I’m afraid that the most practical option for the two sides is now to limit the extent of the conflict,” he said.
More Syrian health facilities were attacked in the first four months of 2018 than all of last year combined, the United Nations said Friday, slamming the escalation as “shocking”.
They included four facilities hit after their locations were provided by the UN to the United States and Russia, which co-chair a humanitarian task force on Syria, in an effort to “de-conflict” the clinics.
“Syria is the worst place in modern history in terms of attacks against health care,” said Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.
“Syria today accounts for nearly 70 percent of all reported attacks on health facilities worldwide.”
Speaking to reporters in Beirut, Moumtzis said 79 health facilities were hit from the start of 2018 until May 4, killing 89 people including medical staff and patients.
That was more than the entirety of 2017, when the UN said 73 medical facilities were targeted in attacks that left 73 people dead.
Nearly half of this year’s attacks took place in Ghouta, a sprawling suburb of Damascus that Syria’s government seized from rebels in mid-April after a blistering two-month offensive.
Another 37 attacks took place in the northwestern province of Idlib, where hospitals, blood banks, and ambulance stations have been hit this year. The increase came despite a mechanism introduced by the UN earlier this year to try to reduce attacks on health facilities by informing warring parties of their locations.
– ‘Not collateral damage’ – The GPS coordinates of 661 health facilities had been shared since the start of this year with Russia and the United States, said Moumtzis, adding the system “came pretty late” in a conflict infamous for its impact on health infrastructure.
“There were four specific incidents where despite the notification, an attack took place. Two were in Eastern Ghouta, and two were in northern Homs,” he said.
According to the UN, the two sites hit in Ghouta were a hospital in the town of Arbin in late March and a children’s hospital in the town of Douma in early April. In Homs, two facilities in the town of Zafraniyeh were hit in late April. Troops also recaptured opposition-held villages in the northern part of Homs province this week.
“The assumption is not that these attacks have been on accident. If a health facility gets targeted, some of them multiple times, it’s not collateral damage,” said Moumtzis.
Reports of the incidents were submitted to the UN’s humanitarian task force.
The US has denied being militarily active in either area and Russia is conducting investigations into the incidents, according to taskforce head Jan Egeland.
Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against the government but has since evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people and trigged a staggering humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of Palestinians marched near the Gaza-Israel border on Friday in a major protest leading to clashes with Israeli forces, in which more than 50 Gazans were wounded.
At least 10,000 Gazans gathered in different spots along the border, AFP journalists said, with smaller numbers entering within a few hundreds metres (yards) of the heavily fortified fence.
Israeli tanks and snipers were positioned on the other side of the border, using tear gas and live fire to force back the protesters.
Moe than 50 people were wounded by live fire, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.
Israel’s military said in a statement that “thousands of Palestinians are rioting in six locations throughout the Gaza Strip, rolling burning tyres and hurling stones at the security fence and at (Israeli) troops, who are responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.”
Earlier Friday, before the main protests began, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli tank fire near the border.
The Israeli military said the tank fire came after “two suspects approached the security fence … and began operating suspiciously.”
The march kicks off up to six weeks of protests dubbed “The Great March of Return,” in the runup to the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem around May 14.
Among those taking part on Friday was Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Islamist movement Hamas that controls Gaza.
“There is no alternative to Palestine and no solution except to return,” he said in a statement, referring to Palestinian refugees seeking to go back to land they fled or were expelled from in 1948 that is now inside Israel.
Israel has accused Hamas of seeking to stir up protests to encourage violence.
Syria’s lacerating conflict entered its eighth year Thursday with the country riven by international power struggles, as Turkey encircled a besieged northern Kurdish enclave, while Russian-backed regime forces pounded into shrinking rebel areas near Damascus.
The bloodshed, which has devastated huge swathes of the country since it started on March 15, 2011 when the government of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on mostly peaceful protests, has splintered into ever more complicated conflicts.
In the latest fighting, Ankara-backed forces launched a bombardment of Afrin and closed in on the main city, in an offensive that could redraw the map in northern Syria.
The development came as regime forces, backed by Moscow, broke into a key town in the beleaguered rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta late Wednesday, driving further into the last opposition bastion outside Damascus.
More than 1,220 civilians — a fifth of them children — have been killed in the rebel-held enclave since the Syrian regime launched a ferocious air and ground offensive on February 18.
International efforts have consistently failed to stop one of the deadliest wars of the century, with more than 350,000 people killed since the conflict first erupted, and more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 20 million displaced.
While the past few months saw the collapse of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate” — an experiment in jihadist statehood declared in 2014 in swathes of Syria and Iraq — world powers have since sought to carve out increased influence in the region.
US-backed Kurds hold oil-rich territory in northeastern Syria covering 30 percent of the country and a motley assortment of Turkey-backed Arab rebels are cutting a third haven in the northwest.
Ankara, which launched a deadly ground and air offensive against the Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin on January 20, vowed on Wednesday that its encirclement of the main city “will have been completed by the evening”, a Turkish presidency source said.
The claim was laughed off by a top official in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls Afrin.
“It sounds like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight,” Redur Khalil told AFP.
On Wednesday, Turkish bombing raids killed 10 fighters loyal to the Syrian regime, which has deployed pro-government forces to the fray after the Kurds asked for help.
Shells rained down on Afrin city, killing 10 civilians including four children.
Displaced families have swelled the city’s population to around 350,000, and officials feared a humanitarian crisis should Turkish forces draw closer.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that Turkey-led forces controlled 70 percent of the wider Kurdish enclave, after seizing several villages.
‘Anything that moves’
On the outskirts of Damascus, hundreds of kilometres (miles) south of Afrin, another humanitarian emergency was unfolding in Eastern Ghouta.
The Observatory said regime forces had penetrated into the town of Hammuriyeh in the enclave and were able to take control of parts of it amid heavy bombardment.
On Wednesday, an AFP correspondent saw a man in the doorway of a building holding the bodies of his two dead children.
A doctor in the area said rescue teams could not get to victims because of the intensity of the bombardment.
“The wounded are on the roads. We can’t move them. The war planes are targeting anything that moves,” Ismail al-Khateeb said.
The United Nations has called for urgent medical evacuations for more than 1,000 people who desperately need medical treatment outside the besieged area.
A trickle of evacuations from Ghouta’s largest town Douma began Tuesday under a deal with rebels, and more patients were allowed out Wednesday.
At a Red Crescent centre in Douma on Wednesday morning, people crowded around buses and ambulances to be evacuated.
Among them, 18-year-old Omran stood leaning on crutches. Badly wounded two years ago in bombardment on Ghouta, he was missing his left leg, right arm, and left eye.
“We haven’t been able to treat some of these cases for more than a year,” said Mohammed al-Marhum, a doctor.
The patients were transported to the government-controlled Wafideen checkpoint on the edges of Ghouta.
The Observatory said more than 220 people including 60 patients had left the rebel enclave in two days of evacuations.
The UN Security Council demanded a 30-day truce last month to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations from Ghouta.
Such evacuations in Syria typically see people taken out of a besieged area for care, and then transported back in after treatment.
The Syrian government’s assault on Ghouta has split the enclave into three sections, each controlled by different rebels.
The regime has reportedly been pursuing separate tracks of negotiations to secure local truces or evacuations from each zone.
The Russian military said the situation in Douma had “significantly stabilised” and an aid convoy of 20 vehicles was planned to enter the enclave on Thursday.
Fresh regime and Russian bombardment Wednesday killed at least 31 civilians in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta, the Observatory said.
State news agency SANA said five civilians died of their wounds after shelling on Damascus.
Moscow’s strikes also killed a dozen rebels from the Faylaq al-Rahman faction controlling the area, including two top commanders, the monitor said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday Ghouta rebels were planning to stage a chemical attack to give the US-led coalition the pretext to strike Damascus.
His comments came as his Turkish counterpart visited Moscow for talks.