TPM World News

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group.

The Kurdish-led group has been one of the most effective forces fighting IS in Syria, but has also clashed with Turkish-backed Syrian forces elsewhere in the country. As it battled IS in Raqqa, the SDF also fought Turkish-allied Syrian forces in Ein Daqna, in the neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by the U.S.-led coalition, launched their offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken several areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s fighting is concentrated in Raqqa’s southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City.

The SDF says intense fighting is underway in central Raqqa, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque.

The SDF said 11 IS fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said 14 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqqa on Sunday alone.

The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against IS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest the extremists have held. The loss of Raqqa would deal a major blow to IS, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, bordering Iraq.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency says some 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by IS, while the Observatory put the number in the hundreds.

The SDF is dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces rolled into Syria last year in order to battle IS and halt the advance of the SDF. The U.S.-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the SDF, both of which are allies against IS.

The website of Turkey’s pro-government A Haber television said Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters launched a “large” operation against the SDF in Ein Daqna, close to the Turkish border. The website quotes unnamed local sources as saying that intense clashes are ongoing.

The Observatory said Monday’s fighting killed two Turkey-backed fighters and left several SDF fighters wounded. A Haber said at least one Turkish-backed fighter was killed and some 14 were wounded.

Rezan Hiddo, an SDF political officer, said the group had repelled the assault on Ein Daqna. Hiddo said Turkish artillery struck the village as well as near a Russian military outpost in nearby Kafr Janneh, which is also under SDF control. Russia deployed what it called observer units into the region earlier this year to discourage clashes between Turkey and the SDF.

“We are waiting for the American government to apply diplomatic pressure on Turkey to halt the aggression,” said Hiddo.

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HARGEISA, Somalia (AP) — Somalia’s internet has returned after an outage of more than three weeks cost the Horn of Africa nation about $10 million a day, authorities said Monday.

Hormuud Telecom, the country’s largest telecom company, announced the restoration of service in a message to subscribers.

The loss of internet service sparked anger across Somalia and affected the central and southern parts of the country including the capital, Mogadishu. The government called it a “major disaster.”

Officials and internet providers attributed the problem to a commercial ship that they said cut an undersea cable.

Major companies reported millions of dollars in revenue losses. University studies were disrupted.

The internet outage also complicated efforts to combat a nationwide drought that has half of the country’s 12 million people in need of assistance.

Residents in the capital celebrated the return of service. “This is really good news. We had faced weeks of blackout that hit our businesses so hard,” said Ahmed Mohamed, the manager of a travel agency that had to close during the outage.

The lack of internet service also stranded patients who were seeking medical attention abroad as they couldn’t access online paperwork.

“The internet outage had my father stuck in Mogadishu. Now we can take him to India having received all medical paperwork via internet,” said Nur Hussein.

Somalia is trying to emerge from a quarter-century of conflict. The fragile central government remains a target for the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, which often carries out deadly attacks in the capital.

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Monday considered tougher sanctions on North Korea over its first intercontinental ballistic missile test to prevent the isolated country from funding further nuclear weapons development.

And the EU nations insisted North Korea shouldn’t expect the 28-nation bloc to make any early concessions.

“There are some people who think we should engage early with Pyongyang. We absolutely disagree. They got to make a serious move towards denuclearizing their country,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.

In a statement Monday, the EU foreign ministers condemned the test earlier this month as a “serious threat to international peace and security” and urged an end to such actions.

In addition to existing sanctions, the statement said that the EU “will consider further appropriate responses” in coordination with allies and U.N. efforts.

The EU also offered European support for South Korean efforts to negotiate with North Korea.

The missile launch has stoked international security fears. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he would never negotiate his weapons programs unless the U.S. abandons its hostile policy toward his country.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of a Qatari government news site in May, planting a false story that was used as a pretext for the current crisis between Qatar and several Arab countries, according to a Sunday report by The Washington Post.

The Emirati Embassy in Washington released a statement in response calling the Post report “false” and insisting that the UAE “had no role whatsoever” in the alleged hacking.

The report quotes unnamed U.S. intelligence officials as saying that senior members of the Emirati government discussed the plan on May 23. On the following day, a story appeared on the Qatari News Agency’s website quoting a speech by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in which he allegedly praised Iran and said Qatar has a good relationship with Israel. Similarly incendiary statements appeared on the news agency’s Twitter feed.

The agency quickly claimed it was hacked and removed the article. But Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt all blocked Qatari media and later severed diplomatic ties.

The ongoing crisis has threatened to complicate the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State group as all participants are U.S. allies and members of the anti-IS coalition. Qatar is home to more than 10,000 U.S. troops and the regional headquarters of the U.S. Central Command while Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

President Donald Trump has sided strongly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the dispute, publicly backing their contention that Doha is a supporter of Islamic militant groups and a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently concluded several days of shuttle diplomacy in the Gulf, but he departed the region without any public signs of a resolution.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s protracted war killed a record number of civilians during the first six months of this year, according to a U.N. report released Monday, which blamed the majority of the deaths on bombings by insurgents.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the “horrifying” figure of 1,662 people killed between January and June of this year “can never fully convey the sheer human suffering of the people of Afghanistan.”

“Each one of these casualty figures reflects a broken family, unimaginable trauma and suffering and the brutal violation of people’s human rights,” he added.

The report confirmed that a massive truck bomb in the center of Kabul on May 31, which killed at least 90 people, was the deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001. It also noted that more women and children were among the dead this year.

Insurgent attacks killed 1,141 civilians, a 12 per cent increase over the same period last year, according to the report, which said such attacks wounded another 2,348 people.

The report commended Afghanistan’s security forces, saying fewer civilians were caught in the crossfire compared to last year. It said 434 civilians were killed during military operations against insurgents.

Gen. Dowlat Waziri, a Defense Ministry spokesman, blamed the high toll on the insurgents’ use of human shields. “The army is being very careful during operations to prevent civilian deaths,” Waziri told The Associated Press.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rejected the “biased” report, saying it did not take into account civilians killed by Afghan and coalition forces in areas controlled by the Taliban. He did not provide any figures and there was no way to verify his claims.

The insurgents have expanded their footprint in Afghanistan since U.S. and NATO forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014, and the Taliban now control a number of districts across the country.

The Afghan government said Monday that troops retook a key district in the southern Helmand province from the Taliban. The fighting in the Naway district was fierce, with more than 50 Taliban killed, according to Waziri, who said just five security forces were wounded. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.

Naway is located just 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Lashkar Gah, and had been a staging area for militant attacks on the provincial capital. U.S. and NATO forces are assisting Afghan troops in Helmand.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban snatched three border police officers from their car in the western Herat province, including a woman, and killed them, said Jelani Farhad, the provincial governor’s spokesman.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Foes of President Nicolas Maduro said more than 7 million Venezuelans cast symbolic votes rejecting his plan to retool the constitution in a strong but not overwhelming showing that left the opposition facing tough choices two weeks before the socialist leader seeks to reshape the political system.

The vote was marred by violence when a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in a church in western Caracas.

Analysts said the 7,186,170 ballots the opposition says were cast across Venezuela and around the world on Sunday was an impressive show of support. However, it fell short of the opposition’s 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought Maduro to power in 2013. Opposition leaders said that was because it was only able to set up 2,000 polling places in a symbolic exercise the government labeled as illegitimate.

Still, some supporters said they were disappointed.

“I thought it was going to be more,” said Mariela Arana, a 56-year-old school counselor. “But these seven million people spoke and it was plenty.”

David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela, said the result would likely rally the international community even more strongly against the July 30 vote Maduro has called to elect members of the assembly that will rewrite Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. The opposition says that vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.

Inside Venezuela, Smilde said leaders of the 20-odd groups in the Democratic Unity opposition coalition were now faced with choosing between tactics ranging from calling a general strike to forming a parallel government to simply working to rally international condemnation of Maduro’s plans.

“Overall, this vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned,” Smilde said. “I think it’s going to embolden the international community to reject it.”

Canada and Mexico were among the countries that issued statements Sunday evening lauding the opposition exercise.

Late Sunday, Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on Twitter that he was declaring former Mexican President Vicente Fox persona non grata and banning him from the country for conspiring to promote violence and foreign intervention. Fox traveled to Venezuela Saturday with a group of Latin American former presidents to show support for the referendum. Moncada offered no evidence to support his accusations.

The opposition released only turnout numbers Sunday night, not tallies of responses to those questions, although virtually all who voted were believed to have answered “yes” to the central rejection of the constitutional rewrite.

Pro-government paramilitary groups attacked voters outside the Our Lady of Carmen Church around 3 p.m., according to the opposition mayor of the Caracas borough of Sucre, Carlos Ocariz. The chief prosecutor’s office said Xiomara Soledad Scott, a nurse, had been killed and four others wounded in the incident.

Video posted to social media showed massive crowds outside the church, then hundreds of people running in panic outside the church as motorcycle-riding men zoomed past and shots rang out.

Maduro called for an end to violence that he blamed on the opposition.

“I’m calling on the opposition to return to peace, to respect for the constitution, to sit and talk,” Maduro said. “Let’s start a new round of talks, of dialogue for peace.”

In smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters went to polling stations in a rehearsal for the July 30 vote.

“Our president Chavez supported the poor, the people,” said Yveth Melendez, a 41-year-old homemaker waiting outside a school in the south Caracas neighborhood of El Valle, a stronghold of government support that has been weakening in recent years. “Today we’re following his legacy, with President Nicolas Maduro … The constitutional assembly is something that benefits the people.”

But Isabel Santander, a 67-year-old retired auditor, said she was voting against the constitutional assembly as a protest against the country’s economic collapse.

“I signed because there’s no medicine, no food, no security,” she said. “There’s no separation of powers, no freedom of expression.”

Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the congress and holds three of 23 governorships. The country’s chief prosecutor has recently broken with the ruling party.

The opposition called backers to 2,000 sites across the country to fill out ballots featuring three yes-or-no questions. Do they reject the constitutional assembly? Do they want the armed forces to back congress? Do they support the formation of a government comprised both of Maduro backers and opponents?

Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.

Clashes between protesters and police have left at least 93 people dead, 1,500 wounded and more than 500 behind bars.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Monday offered talks with North Korea to ease animosities along their tense border and resume reunions of families separated by their war in the 1950s.

It was unclear how North Korea will react since it remains suspicious of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s outreach to it. But Moon’s overture, the first formal offer of talks since his inauguration in May, indicates he wants to use dialogue to defuse the international standoff over North Korea’s weapons programs, despite having condemned the North’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4 and vowed a firm response.

If realized, the talks would be the first inter-Korean dialogue since December 2015. Ties between the Koreas have plunged over the North’s expanding missile and nuclear programs and the hard-line policies of Moon’s conservative predecessors.

South Korean Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo Suk proposed on Monday that defense officials from the two Koreas hold talks at the border village of Panmunjom on Friday on how to end hostile activities along the border. South Korean acting Red Cross chief Kim Sun Hyang told a news conference that it wants separate talks at the border village on Aug. 1 to discuss family reunions.

North Korea’s state media didn’t immediately respond to South Korea’s proposals. But analysts say North Korea may accept the defense talks because it wants the South Korean army to halt loudspeaker broadcasts at the border that began after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016. Prospects for talks on family reunions are less good because North Korea has previously demanded that South Korea repatriate some North Korean defectors living in the South before any reunions take place, according to the analysts.

Earlier this month, Moon said in a speech in Germany that he’s willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if certain conditions are met. Moon also said the two Koreas must halt hostile activities along the border, restart family reunions and cooperate on the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Moon has said he will use both dialogue and pressure to resolve the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But he has achieved little progress, with North Korea test-firing a series of newly developed missiles.

North Korea is believed to possess hundreds of missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan. It recent test of an ICBM put it one step closer to its goal of developing nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the United States.

After the ICBM launch, Kim said he would never negotiate over his weapons programs as long as U.S. hostility and nuclear threats persist.

The two Koreas have been divided since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea.

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MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — There was a smell of death in Mosul’s Old City when Ayman Hashem came back this week to see what happened to his home. His neighborhood was unrecognizable.

“All that’s left is rubble and the bodies of families trapped underneath,” the 23-year-old said. He flipped through photos on his phone, showing picture after picture of wreckage. His own house was “cut in half,” he said. He had to cover his nose with his tee-shirt because of the smell of buried, rotting bodies.

Iraq’s U.S.-backed forces wrested Mosul from the Islamic State group at the cost of enormous destruction. The nearly 9-month fight culminated with a crescendo of devastation — the blasting of the historic Old City to root out the deeply dug-in militants.

Nearly a third of the Old City — more than 5,000 buildings — was damaged or destroyed in the final three weeks of bombardment up to July 8, according to a survey by U.N. Habitat using satellite imagery. Across the city, 10,000 buildings were damaged over the course of the war, the large majority in western Mosul, the scene of the most intense artillery, airstrikes and fighting during the past five months. The survey only covers damage visible in satellite photos, meaning the real number is likely higher.

The population, once numbering 3 million, is battered and exhausted, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Without a swift campaign to rebuild Mosul, aid and rights groups warn the current humanitarian crisis will balloon and resentment will likely give way to extremism, undermining the victory.

“If the western half is ignored it will produce a social disaster and this social disaster will create bigger destruction if it’s not addressed,” said Khatab Mohammed al-Najjar, a resident of eastern Mosul who watched the Old City burn from across the Tigris River during the operation.

“West Mosul produced Daesh, and it is very possible it may produce a new Daesh,” he said, referring to west Mosul’s historically more religious and traditional residents. He used the Arabic acronym for IS.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul Monday, he pledged reconstruction would begin soon. But his government still struggles to finance day-to-day workings of the state amid low oil prices.

Thousands of Mosul families have been left without a home. Schools have been leveled, utility grids wrecked, highways pounded into broken dirt roads.

All five of the city’s bridges spanning the Tigris River have been damaged. The main hospital complex where a battle raged for more than a month is a burned out shell. Mosul’s airport looks like a derelict parking lot, booby-trapped with explosives by fleeing IS fighters.

In eastern Mosul, the destruction was less intense. More than 160,000 of the 176,000 people who fled the east have returned, according to the U.N. Residents have begun rebuilding homes, shops have reopened, and demining is underway.

But west of the Tigris, neighborhoods have been rendered into ghost towns. There, coalition strikes killed some 5,805 civilians between Feb. 19 and June 19, according to Airwars, a London-based monitoring group tracking civilian deaths resulting from coalition actions.

Fewer than a tenth of the more than 730,000 people who fled western Mosul have filtered back.

Saif Mohammed recently re-opened his sandwich shop on a main avenue in the west, repairing war damage with the help of a $5,000 loan from relatives. On the same street, only two or three other shops are open. The other storefronts are bombed out and burned, the corrugated Iron doors warped by explosions.

His shop is a bet that residents will return. “But what people really need is government help,” he said. “If the government doesn’t give money, there won’t be any rebuilding.”

Hiyam Mohammed hid in her home with her family on the edge of the Old City throughout the fight. They could see the cemetery from their house.

“Some days the funerals lasted from dawn into the night. There were so many bodies piled up, it looked like a hill,” she said. “I thought I was going crazy seeing this. They didn’t even have time to wash the dead.”

She said the only way to justice is if the government and coalition pay compensation to those who lost relatives or property.

“The government brought Daesh to us,” she said, referring to sectarian rule that fueled Sunni extremism and corruption that weakened the country’s security forces. “This mess is God’s revenge for that.”

But some in the security forces have resentments of their own, blaming Mosul residents for supporting IS.

“The people here have always had a rebellious nature, so they should take some responsibility for what has happened,” said Maj. Imad Hassan, a federal police officer from Baghdad.

During the campaign, his unit fought to capture a stretch of the corniche running along the Tigris, hammering it with artillery for weeks to clear out IS resistance. The former municipal center was shredded, rows of buildings blackened, palm trees lining the boulevard burned.

“I hope this destruction teaches them their lesson,” he said.

Iraqi and coalition officials say the devastation was the result of the Islamic State group’s tenacious grip. IS transformed the city into a fortress. Its fighters used hospitals and schools as military bases, moved civilians from the rural outskirts into central neighborhoods to use as shields from airstrikes and rigged hundreds of houses and roads with explosives.

Nearly 10 years ago, Maj. Maher Aziz Khalaf fought IS’ predecessor, al-Qaida, in Mosul alongside U.S. forces. But when he rolled into western Mosul with the first wave of Iraqi special forces troops in early February he said he immediately realized this battle would alter the city in a way previous fights hadn’t.

“In 2008 it was different. We would just identify which houses the terrorists were living in, come in at night and arrest them,” he said. “We were fighting gangs, not an entire city.”

A coalition spokesman, Col. Joe Scrocca, said the forces had to balance between protecting non-combatants and infrastructure on one hand and moving quickly on the other. Another factor, he said, was that the longer it took to free the city, the more danger civilians were in, whether from lack of food or IS retaliation.

Hesitant to risk casualties along their own troops, Iraqi military commanders relied on airpower and artillery to clear neighborhoods where a handful of IS fighters armed with light weapons and civilians as human shields repeatedly stalled entire units of Iraq’s military.

As the fight moved to the Old City, rights groups and the U.N. warned the coalition and Iraqi forces against using large munitions. Still, the U.S.-led coalition repeatedly approved the use of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs inside the densely populated district.

As waves of civilians fled the Old City, more than a dozen individuals told the AP they knew of multiple families killed under their homes by what they believed to be airstrikes.

“The buildings can be rebuilt, but the human lives lost cannot,” said Iraqi special forces Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi from a base on the edge of Old City on Tuesday.

“But the buildings in the Old City were all very old anyway,” he said. “Now we can demolish them and build apartment buildings.”

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that it would have to expel U.S. diplomats and shut down some U.S. compounds in Russia if the United States does not reopen two Russian recreational estates in the U.S. that were shut down last year.

In response to reports of Russian meddling in the presidential election, the outgoing Obama administration last year expelled 35 Russian officials from the U.S. and shut down two Russian estates that President Barack Obama said were being used for spy operations.

New President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week discussed the two diplomatic compounds but did not reach an agreement.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on Friday that Moscow “will have to take reciprocal measures” if the issue is not resolved.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and U.S. Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon are scheduled to meet on Monday for much-anticipated talks that Moscow abruptly canceled last month in response to new Ukraine-related sanctions announced by the Trump administration. Russia is hoping that Shannon will have “detailed suggestions on how to resolve the situation” with the Russian property in the U.S., Zakharova said.

The State Department wants a deal that could include restarting U.S. adoptions of Russian children. It also has to deal with concerns at home — the FBI and some U.S. intelligence professionals fear giving back the sites would aid Russian spy efforts.

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s government says a Jerusalem holy site that was the site of a deadly attack earlier in the day won’t reopen before Sunday, after additional security assessments.

The shrine was closed after three Palestinian assailants opened fire from there on Friday, killing two Israeli police officers before being shot dead.

The Muslim-administered site is revered by both Muslims and Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that an investigation of the attack would continue over the weekend. It says that “in accordance with security assessments to be held Sunday,” the shrine would open gradually to worshippers and visitors.

Jordan, a custodian of the sacred compound, called for its immediate reopening.

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Israel must not take any steps that “would change the historic situation in Jerusalem” and at the shrine.

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