Category Archives: Middle East


IS resists ‘final push’ by US-backed force in eastern Syria

US-backed fighters in Syria say they are meeting fierce resistance in the last enclave held by Islamic State (IS) militants near the Iraqi border.

A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told the AP news agency “the most experienced” jihadists are defending their last stronghold.

Two years ago IS controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq.

But they are now holed up in a tiny pocket in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi border.

UAE arming Yemen militias with Western weapons – Amnesty

On Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow some 20,000 civilians to leave the area, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the group was launching the “final battle to crush IS” in the border village of Baghuz.

Overnight he told the Associated Press (AP): “The battle is very fierce. Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting.”

The SDF, backed by air strikes carried out of the US-led coalition, has driven out IS from towns and villages in north-eastern Syria in recent months.

Saudi Arabia ends major anti-corruption campaign..,

Latifa travelled from her home in Morocco after her son died fighting for the Islamic State group
Latifa travelled from her home in Morocco after her son died fighting for the Islamic State group

At its peak in 2014, IS established a “caliphate” stretching across Syria and Iraq that was similar in size to the UK and ruled over more than 7.7 million people.

In December, US President Donald Trump said IS militants were “mostly gone” and announced the US would withdraw all of its 2,000 troops from Syria.

On Wednesday he said: “It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate.”

Presentational grey line

IS’s last stand?

Analysis by BBC Arab Affairs editor Sebastian Usher

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaks at Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri on 5 July 2014
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been seen in public since July 2014

Over the past few months, the US-backed SDF has patiently driven IS out of every town and village in the northeast of Syria. The jihadists have been reduced to just a few square kilometres/miles of territory.

In recent days, President Trump has said the total defeat of IS could be declared next week. This suits his agenda of withdrawing all US troops from Syria.

But it’s not the full picture – IS still holds another sliver of territory in Syria further west – while its sleeper cells remain active.

It’s the same story in Iraq. Its ability to continue a guerrilla insurgency persists.

The fate of its hostages, such as the British journalist, John Cantlie, remains unclear as does that of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

How many militants are left?

IS has suffered substantial losses, but the UN says it still reportedly controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners.

Kurdish protesters storm Turkish military camp in Iraq

Meanwhile, there are significant numbers of IS-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, South-East Asia and West Africa, and to a lesser extent in Somalia, Yemen, Sinai and the Sahel.

Individuals inspired by the group’s ideology also continue to carry out attacks elsewhere.

Syria map

Families and fighters flee IS’s last village’ Syria war:

Islamic State group (IS) members and their families have been fleeing the group’s last sliver of territory in eastern Syria, as US-backed militia advance towards them.

Men, women and children, some with serious injuries, others describing running out of food, have been leaving the group’s rapidly shrinking enclave, which the US military on Tuesday said amounted to about 50 sq km (20 sq miles).

They have been arriving at the village of Baghuz to surrender to the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

On Wednesday US President Donald Trump said said territory held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could be “100%” liberated as early as next week

Saudi Prince al-Faisal warns against US Syria pullout.

Syria’s Kurds say Trump US troop pullout harms anti-IS fight

People fleeing from IS-held territory in Baghuz

Many of those arriving in Baghuz have injuries, including those sustained from incoming strikes by the array of forces battling IS.

SDF commanders were negotiating with IS over a possible deal to free several SDF members held captive by IS and possibly give the militants safe passage to the province of Idlib in north-western Syria, which is not under Syrian government control, the New York Times reported.

Woman and children arrive in Baghuz
A woman waits to be screened by members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces

Most of those emerging from the desert over the past two weeks have been IS militants’ wives and children, reports say. Once they have arrived they wait to be screened by the SDF before being told they will be taken to detention camps in northern Syria.

Germans Sabine and Leonora arrived in Baghuz on 31 January

However, fighters themselves have also been fleeing. Germans Sabina (L) aged 34 and Leonora (R), 19 are two of the three wives of German jihadist Martin Lemke, who also fled and was detained by the SDF, his wives said. They arrived in Baghuz at the end of last month.

Map showing last IS-held territory in Syria (7 February 2019)

The fighters include Syrians, Iraqis who had earlier moved to IS strongholds in Syria as the US-backed Iraqi army retook IS-held territory in Iraq, and foreign fighters from European countries and elsewhere who travelled to the region to join the group.

Some are taken to detention camps, others to prison, the New York Times reported.

SDF fighters in an IS prison in Hajin

In the nearby town of Hajin, SDF fighters have found evidence of how IS administered it. Here they are seen examining an IS prison.

Hajin's mayor shows an IS document

The town’s mayor Ali Jaber has found documents including this one urging residents to review their accounts with the local alms tax centre.

Syrians return to their homes in Hajin

Some displaced Syrians have already begun returning to their homes in Hajin after it was retaken by the SDF last month, but much of the town was destroyed in the fighting.

Syria map

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UAE arming Yemen militias with Western weapons – Amnesty

The United Arab Emirates is recklessly arming militias in Yemen with advanced weaponry supplied by the US and other states, Amnesty International alleges.

Armoured vehicles, mortars and machine-guns are being diverted illegally to unaccountable groups accused of war crimes, according to a report.

The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s government in its war with the rebel Houthi movement.

It has not commented on the report, but denies violating US arms exports rules.

Saudi Prince al-Faisal warns against US Syria pullout.

A top US general said on Tuesday that officials would investigate whether weapons were being transferred to unintended recipients by the coalition.

Yemen has been devastated by a conflict that escalated in early 2015, when the Houthis seized control of much of the west of the country and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad.

Where the fighting in Yemen has stopped… but not the suffering

Alarmed by the rise of a group they saw as an Iranian proxy, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and seven other Arab states intervened in an attempt to restore the government.

At least 6,800 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured in the fighting, according to the UN.

Thousands more civilians have died from preventable causes, including malnutrition, disease and poor health.

Amnesty said publicly available data showed that since 2015, Western states had supplied the UAE with at least $3.5bn (£2.7bn) worth of weaponry.

The human rights group analysed video footage and photographs from the battle for the key Red Sea port city of Hudaydah and found that the same makes and models of military vehicles and weapons as those sold to the UAE appeared to be in use by pro-government militias on the ground.

Pro-government fighter fires a heavy machine-gun in the city of Hudaydah, Yemen (26 January 2019)
The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemeni pro-government forces

It said US-supplied armoured vehicles equipped with heavy machine-guns, including M-ATV, Caiman and MaxxPro models, were seen in the hands of three UAE-backed militias – the Security Belt, Shabwani Elite Forces, and The Giants.

Belgian Minimi light-machine guns, Serbian-made Zastava MO2 Coyote machine-guns, and Agrab armoured-truck-mounted Singaporean 120mm mortar systems were also being used by UAE-allied militias in Hudaydah, it added.

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Amnesty said the militias were not accountable to any government and that some stood accused of committing war crimes, including during the offensive on Hudaydah, which was halted in December after the UN brokered a local ceasefire.

“Only a handful of countries have done the right thing and stopped the conveyor belt of arms to the Yemen’s devastating conflict,” said Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty’s arms control researcher.

“Others must follow in their footsteps or they will share responsibility for the devastating toll these billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers are wreaking.”

Map showing control of Yemen (9 August 2019)

There was no response from the UAE. But on Tuesday a senior official was quoted by CNN as denying “in no uncertain terms that we are in violation” of US arms export controls, which do not allow the retransfer of equipment without prior US government authorisation.

It came after CNN said it had evidence that US-made weaponry and equipment provided to the UAE and Saudi Arabia had ended up in the hands of allied fighters from a Salafist militialinked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the Abu al-Abbas Brigade – and even Houthi rebels.

Gen Joseph Votel, head of the US military’s Central Command, expressed concern about the report at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“We have to look more closely at the allegations in this particular situation to find out what happened,” he said. “We will have to examine that better.”

Saudi Arabia ends major anti-corruption campaign..,

Princes and other senior figures were held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh last year

Saudi Arabia says it has ended its anti-corruption drive, launched in 2017, that saw hundreds of princes, tycoons and business chiefs rounded up.

More than $100bn (£76bn) in assets – including property and cash – has been recouped by the state, officials in the Gulf kingdom say.

They say settlements were reached with 87 individuals who confessed to the charges against them.

Eight others refused to do so and have been referred to the public prosecutor.

Another 56 cases have not been settled because of criminal charges yet to be resolved.

The crackdown was launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November 2017.

More than 200 princes, ministers and business officials have been held, many of them in hotels in the capital, Riyadh, including the five-star Ritz-Carlton.

Kurdish protesters storm Turkish military camp in Iraq

Iran arrested 7,000 in crackdown on dissent during 2018 – Amnesty

Israeli teenager charged with killing Palestinian woman in stone attack

The purge of Saudi Arabia’s elite was a huge shock to the system, the BBC’s Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher says.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. File photo
The blitz was launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The campaign has also unsettled some foreign investors.

The crown prince must now hope that drawing a line under the purge will convince investors it is safe to put money into Saudi Arabia, our editor says.

Mohammed bin Salman has also been under intense pressure since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 2 October 2018.

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Kurdish protesters storm Turkish military camp in Iraq

Civilians stormed a Turkish military camp near Dohuk, Iraq

At least one person has died and 10 have been injured after an angry crowd stormed a Turkish military camp in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Residents set light to vehicles and buildings in protest against Turkish airstrikes in the area, which are said to have killed several people.

Turkey conducts frequent raids against the militant group, the PKK, which is based on the Iraqi side of the border.

In pictures: Cairo turns orange as sandstorm sweeps Egypt

It accuses insurgents of disguising as civilians to fuel conflict in the area.

Local official Najib Saeed said Turkish soldiers had shot at protesters and then left, and that the fires had caused several explosions.

Iran arrested 7,000 in crackdown on dissent during 2018 – Amnesty

He said it was not yet clear what caused the death near the city of Dohuk.

Turkey’s defence ministry said the attack happened as a result of “provocation by the PKK terrorist organisation”.

The Kurdish government in Erbil in northern Iraq condemned Saturday’s incident, accusing “saboteurs” of instigating the attack on the Turkish camp.

Egypt TV host Mohamed al-Ghiety jailed for interviewing gay man

The PKK, also known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, has bases in Turkey and northern Iraq and has fought an insurgency in Turkey spanning decades.

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Iran arrested 7,000 in crackdown on dissent during 2018 – Amnesty

By Emmanuel Justices

Iran’s hijab protests: The Girls of Revolution Street

Amnesty International says Iran arrested 7,000 people last year in a “shameless campaign of repression”.

Those swept up by the crackdown included protesters, students, lawyers, journalists, environmental and women’s rights activists, and trade unionists.

Hundreds were sentenced to prison or flogging. At least 26 protesters were killed and nine others died in custody.

The crackdown was a response to unrest over poverty, corruption and the lack of political and social freedoms.

“From underpaid teachers to factory workers struggling to feed their families, those who have dared to demand their rights in Iran today have paid a heavy price,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Women’s rights defenders

Amnesty said at least 112 were arrested or remained in detention during 2018, when women began standing on raised structures in public places and taking off their headscarves to protest against the compulsory hijab law.

The prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who defended women arrested over the protests, was herself arrested in June and faces several national security-related charges. Ms Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan, who had campaigned for her release, was jailed for six years on Wednesday.

Egypt TV host Mohamed al-Ghiety jailed for interviewing gay man

Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria – military

Environmental campaigners

At least 63 activists and researchers were reportedly detained in 2018.

Without providing evidence, the authorities accused a number of them of collecting classified information about Iran’s strategic areas under the pretext of carrying out environmental and scientific projects, according to Amnesty.

Five activists – Morad Tahbaz, Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani and Taher Ghadirian – were charged with “corruption on earth”, a capital offence.

Workers and trade unionists

People gather during a protest against the collapse of Iran's currency in central Tehran (25 June 2018)
People took to the streets of Tehran in June to protest against the collapse of the rial

Iran’s deepening economic crisis – the result of sanctions reimposed by the United States, government mismanagement, and corruption – triggered strikes and protests by people demanding better working conditions and higher wages.

At least 467 people, including 23 teachers, lorry drivers and factory workers, were arrested and dozens were sentenced to prison. Thirty-eight people got lashes.

Religious minorities

Amnesty said more than 200 members of Iran’s largest Sufi Muslim order, the Gonabadi dervishes, were sentenced to prison and lashes after taking part in peaceful protests that were violently suppressed by security forces in February.

One man, Mohammad Salas, was executed in June after being convicted of the murder of three policemen who were run over by a bus at a protest. Amnesty said a witness who provided him with an alibi was not allowed to testify at his trial.

Media workers

At least 20 were handed long prison or flogging sentences after what Amnesty said were unfair trials.

Mohammad Hossein Sodagar, a journalist from the Azerbaijani Turkic ethnic minority, was given 74 lashes after being convicted of “spreading lies”.

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Israeli teenager charged with killing Palestinian woman in stone attack

Aisha Rabi’s husband said he believed more than one person was involved in the attack

Israel has charged a 16-year-old Jewish seminary student with the manslaughter of a Palestinian woman who died after a stone was thrown at her car in October.

Aisha Rabi, a 47-year-old mother-of-eight, was driving through the occupied West Bank when her car was targeted in what prosecutors called a terrorist act motivated by hostility towards Arabs.

She was hit in the head when the stone smashed through the car’s windshield.

The unnamed student, who denies the charge, has been remanded in custody.

Four of his classmates at the Pri Haaretz seminary in the settlement of Rehelim were detained in late December and early January, but they were subsequently released on house arrest.

Mrs Rabi was travelling in a car being driven by her husband along Route 60 near the northern West Bank city of Nablus on 12 October when it was hit by a stone weighing about 2kg (4.4lb).

The stone went through the windshield on the passenger’s side and struck Mrs Rabi in the head. Her husband rushed her to a nearby clinic but she was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

Map of Israel and West Bank showing locations of Rehelim and Nablus

According to the indictment filed by Israeli prosecutors, the 16-year-old charged over the killing threw the stone at the car from a nearby hilltop “out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility towards Arabs everywhere”.

Israeli media reported that on Wednesday a judge had revealed that the student’s DNA was found on the stone that struck Mrs Rabi.

But a lawyer for the student, Amir Bracha, said he doubted the DNA evidence would stand up in court.

The student’s father described the indictment as an “injustice” and said he was confident his son would be acquitted.

Mrs Rabi’s husband, Yacoub, said he believed more than one person was involved in the attack and that he hoped they would be brought to justice.

“When they hit our car with stones there were more than four people,” he told AFP news agency. “I want all those who killed my wife to be tried in an international court.”

The attack on Mrs Rabi’s car came days after

a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis at the Barkan Industrial Zone in the northern West Bank.

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Egypt TV host Mohamed al-Ghiety jailed for interviewing gay man

By Emmanuel Justices

An Egyptian TV presenter has been sentenced to one year of hard labour for interviewing a gay man last year.

A court in Giza also fined Mohamed al-Ghiety 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($167; £130) for “promoting homosexuality” on his privately owned LTC TV channel.

The gay man, whose identity was hidden, had talked about life as a sex worker.

Homosexuality is not explicitly criminalised in Egypt, however, the authorities have been increasingly cracking down on the LGBT community.

They routinely arrest people suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct on charges of “debauchery”, immorality or blasphemy.

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The most recent case came about after lawyer Samir Sabry, who is well known in Egypt for taking celebrities to court, filed a lawsuit against Ghiety for his interview which took place in August 2018.

The TV host, who has voiced homophobic views on a number of occasions, spoke to a gay man who expressed regret over his sexuality and described life as a prostitute. The man’s face had been blurred to conceal his identity.

Egypt’s top media body, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, immediately took the channel off air for two weeks, citing “professional violations”.

The prosecuting lawyer, Mr Sabry, accused the TV host of revealing there to be financial gains of “practising homosexuality”, state-owned al-Ahram newspaper reports.

In addition to the jail term and fine, the misdemeanours court also ordered Ghiety to be put under surveillance for one year after serving his sentence, Mr Sabry said.

The verdict could be appealed against and suspended if Ghiety paid bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds, pending the appeal’s outcome, he added.

Image posted on social media purportedly showing two people holding rainbow flags at a Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo on 22 September 2017
Egyptians have seen a crackdown on homosexuals intensify since the rainbow flag incident two years ago

Egypt’s media council banned homosexuals from appearing on any media outlet after a rainbow flag was raised at a concert in Cairo in 2017, in a rare public show of support for the LGBT community in the conservative, mainly Muslim country.

With dozens of people arrested, in a move decried by human rights groups.

A crackdown was also launched on suspected homosexuals with dozens of people arrested, in a move decried by human rights groups. The authorities rely on a 1961 prostitution law that criminalises “habitual debauchery” to charge people who they suspect of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct.

Mr Sabry was also the lawyer who filed a case against Egyptian actress Rania Youssef on charges of “inciting debauchery” over a see-through outfit she wore at an awards ceremony last year. He later dropped the case after Ms Youssef apologised.

He has filed hundreds of similar cases in recent years.

Facing jail for wearing a dress

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Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria – military

By Emmanuel Justices

Israel’s military says it has started hitting Iranian targets in Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says its operation is against the Quds Force – a elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It provided no details. But on Sunday the IDF said it had intercepted a rocket fired at the Golan Heights from Syria.

Syria’s Sana state news agency says the country’s air defences had repelled “an Israeli aerial attack” in the south.

On Monday, the IDF tweeted that it had “started striking Iranian Quds targets Syrian in territory”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says its operation is against the Quds Force – a elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It provided no details. But on Sunday the IDF said it had intercepted a rocket fired at the Golan Heights from Syria.

Syria’s Sana state news agency says the country’s air defences had repelled “an Israeli aerial attack” in the south.

On Monday, the IDF tweeted that it had “started striking Iranian Quds targets Syrian in territory”

The reported operation comes after Israel said on Sunday that a rocket fired at the northern Golan Heights had been intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system.

Israel rarely admits carrying out attacks on targets inside Syria.

But in May 2018, Israel said it had struck almost all of Iran’s military infrastructure therein its such biggest assault since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Those strikes came after rockets were fired at Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights.

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In pictures: Cairo turns orange as sandstorm sweeps Egypt

An orange cloud has swept through Cairo, forcing people to take cover in buildings as strong winds brought thick dust to the Egyptian capital.

Several ports were reportedly closed and officials at Cairo airport said the sandstorm had caused flight delays.

Egypt’s health ministry advised people with respiratory problems to avoid leaving their homes until the storm on Wednesday had passed.

A man covers his face during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt, 16 January 2019
While some used surgical masks to filter the dust, others chose to hide under their coats

Sandstorms and harsh weather are blowing through parts of the Middle East, with visibility down in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, 16 January 2019
Motorists complained of reduced visibility on the main roads in and out of the city

A police speedboat travels on the River Nile during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt, 16 January 2019
A police speedboat travels on the River Nile during the sandstorm

A view of the sandstorm by the River Nile in Cairo, Egypt, 16 January 2019
Witnesses said “the colour of the air is changing”, describing it as “some kind of fog”

Some took to social media to post images of the effects of the storm.

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