Up to 20,000 Mosul civilians facing ‘extreme danger’ as battle against ISIS continues – UN official

As many as 20,000 civilians are still trapped in the last remaining area of Mosul held by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants, a senior UN official has confirmed, adding that they are in "extreme danger."

"Our estimate at this stage is that in the final pockets of the Old City, there could be as many as 15,000 civilians, possibly even as high as 20,000," the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told AFP.

"The people that are still trapped inside of these pockets are in terrible condition," Grande said, adding that they are facing food shortages.

 
Civilians fleeing the fighting between the Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants © Alkis Konstantinidis

"They're in extreme danger from bombardment, from artillery crossfire. The (IS) fighters that are still there are still directly targeting civilians if they try and leave."

In the past eight months, IS militants have gone from fully controlling Mosul to holding only a small pocket of territory on the west bank of the Tigris River. That pocket is about 500 sq meters, AP reported.

The battle has decreased the number of IS militants fighting in Mosul from thousands to just a couple of hundred, according to the Iraqi military.

However, those military gains have come at a cost. More than 8,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, according to the UN. That estimate is somewhat rough, as it only counts people transferred to hospitals from frontline clinics.

Of the approximately 915,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes, nearly 700,000 are still displaced.

"We exceeded our worst-case scenario more than a month ago. In our very worst-case scenario, we thought that 750,000 people would flee," Grande said.

Of the 44 residential neighborhoods in the northern Iraqi city, six are nearly completely destroyed, according to Grande. Twenty-two are moderately damaged, while 16 are lightly damaged.

 
A destroyed mosque is seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, June 27, 2017 © Alaa Al-Marjani

Meanwhile, the US-led coalition fighting IS in Mosul has come under international criticism for its use of white phosphorus in the city, which was confirmed by a New Zealand general last month. 

“We have utilized white phosphorus to screen areas within west Mosul to get civilians out safely,” Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan told US broadcaster NRP.

However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the use of white phosphorus can have unintended - and extremely dangerous - effects on civilians.

"Its incidental effects can cause terrible injuries – burns, smoke inhalation,” Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of HRW’s arms division, told RT last month. She urged the US to be “extremely careful and sparing” when it comes to white phosphorus.

The eventual stabilization of Mosul - which was overrun by IS in 2014 - will cost an estimated US$707 million. That figure is nearly double the amount originally estimated, because "the level of damage in western Mosul is far higher than what we feared it would be," Grande said.

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Report on alleged April Idlib chemical attack based on questionable evidence – Russian OPCW rep

The latest OPCW report on the April Idlib chemical incident lacks sufficient evidence and is based on data provided mostly by only one side of the Syrian conflict without necessary verification, the Russian OPCW representative, Aleksandr Shulgin, told RT.

“The conclusions of this report are based on questionable data provided primarily by all kinds of the Syrian armed opposition groups and NGOs, including the infamous White Helmets,” Shulgin said, referring to the report of the fact-finding mission (FFM) reviewed by the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on Thursday.

The Russian representative drew attention to the fact that the report itself repeatedly says that the FFM investigative team decided not to visit the incident scene due to “security factors” and was thus unable to gather the necessary material evidence directly on the spot.

The team then had to rely on evidence provided by “various NGOs” that were working on the scene and testimonies of the alleged attack victims as well as those of the medical specialists, who treated the victims in “one of the neighboring countries.”

READ MORE: US slams Damascus as chemical weapons monitor says sarin used in April Syria attack, silent on blame

The report further says that the team was unable to implement the chain of custody for the samples they obtained from third parties, despite the fact that it is a standard basic procedure for such types of investigation, Shulgin noted.

The FFM report seen by RT indeed says that “the team was unable to implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source.” Shulgin explained that the lack of the full chain of custody makes such evidence questionable, as its source cannot be verified with certainty.

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‘US info campaign against Syria is intervention warning sign’ – Russian Foreign Ministry

The US information campaign on Syria is a warning sign that an American-led intervention may be in the works, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

"The campaign, which was started by the US and is being backed by London and Paris, on the alleged chemical attack that is claimed to be prepared by Damascus, is not original, it's a textbook script, which has already been used in several countries in the region," Zakharova said.

 
FILE PHOTO. A Russian Su-30 fighter aircraft takes off from the Hmeimim airbase in Syria. © Maksim Blinov

In 2013, for example, "a provocation with the alleged use of chemical weapons became an excuse for a [potential] direct Western intervention in Syria. The situation was salvaged only by Russia's decisive stance," the official said.

Following the incident in April of this year, when the US leadership claimed a chemical weapons attack had been carried out by Syrian government forces in Khan Shaykhun, Washington is not doing anything that hasn’t been seen before, Zakharova added.

"The current information attack is very likely a warning sign of an intervention. The story will be the same: an incident happens on the territory controlled by the terrorists, civilian casualties follow. The so-called opposition – de facto the same jihadists, not very different from IS [Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL] and Al-Qaeda, but who are still getting help from the US and allies – announce yet another ‘crime by the regime,’" Zakharova said.

The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman even pointed out potential locations for such incidents: Sarrakab and Ar-Riha, where Moscow “believes that such a staged [chemical weapons] attack is being prepared.”

 
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley © Joshua Roberts 

The US’ claims on an alleged chemical attack being prepared by Damascus aren’t only aimed against the Syrian authorities, but also against Russia, the Zakharova said.

“The situation seems to be a massive provocation, both military and information-wise, a provocation which targets not only the Syrian leadership, but also Russia,” the spokeswoman said.

“These accusations and threats sound cynical amid the background of the blatantly illegal activities of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition fighting against the sovereign state of Syria,” the official added, referring to the US attack in April on the Shayrat airbase, as well as “mass civilian casualties in the coalition strikes in Raqqa and elsewhere.”

“Only during Ramadan, AFP reported the death toll of 500 civilians, who weren’t connected to the terrorists in any way,” Zakharova said.

On Wednesday, Moscow warned Washington against any “incendiary, provocative action” in Syria, stating there is no threat from the Syrian military.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, slammed the potential action as “unacceptable” and something that “breaches Syria’s sovereignty [and] isn’t caused by any military need.”

 
Smoke is seen while Philippines army troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines June 28, 2017. © Jorge Silva

It came after the White House claimed on Monday that the Syrian government was gearing up for a chemical attack, and threated that the country’s leadership would “pay a heavy price,” should the supposed attack take place.

Also on Monday, the Pentagon issued a statement that the US had spotted “activity” at Shayrat airfield that showed “active preparations for chemical weapons use.”

The US did not offer any further explanations or evidence that such an attack was due to happen, though, and State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert rebuffed questions on the issue as “an intelligence matter.”

On Wednesday, the US suggested that the Syrian leadership had promptly changed its mind about an alleged attack. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as cited by Reuters, said: “it appears that they [Syria’s authorities] took the warning seriously. They didn’t do it.”

The Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied any allegations against them, as has the Russian leadership.

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‘Repugnant’: Iran slams Trump’s condolences to Tehran attacks victims

Iran’s foreign minister has branded condolences sent by the White House over recent Tehran attacks as “repugnant.” The US administration sent sympathies to Iran, but lectured that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

“Repugnant White House statement … as Iranians counter terrorism backed by US clients. Iranian people reject such US claims of friendship,” Javad Zarif tweeted.

@JZarif Repugnant WH statement & Senate sanctions as Iranians counter terror backed by US clients.Iranian people reject such US claims of friendship

At least 13 people died and dozens were injured in gun and bomb attacks at the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine in Tehran on Wednesday. The attacks were claimed by Islamic state (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), said Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the terrorists.

The five attackers were Iranian citizens who had joined IS before returning to Iran in summer 2016, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry confirmed on Thursday.

“The five known terrorists... after joining the IS terrorist group, left the country and participated in crimes carried out by this terrorist group in Mosul and Raqqa,” the ministry said.

READ MORE: Sponsors of terror ‘falling victim to evil they promote’ ‒ Trump on Tehran attacks

On Wednesday evening, the White House sent condolences to Iran, including the controversial cautionary note.

“We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” the White House said in a statement. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards [IRGC] accused Saudi Arabia of masterminding the attacks, saying that the assaults “happened only a week after the meeting between the US president [Donald Trump] and the [Saudi] backward leaders who support terrorists.”

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, IRGC deputy commander, vowed to “take revenge” for the attacks.

“Let there be no doubt that we will take revenge for today's attacks in Tehran, on terrorists, their affiliates and their supporters,” he said, Mehr news agency reported.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, rejected Tehran’s accusations.

“We condemn terrorist attacks anywhere they occur and we condemn the killing of the innocent anywhere it occurs,” Jubeir said.

According to the director of the Crisis Research Institute, Mark Almond, it is highly possible IS was, as it claims, behind the attacks in Iran as the group is interested in stirring up a Sunni-Shiite conflict. However, other groups and regional player involvement can’t be ruled out, he added.

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Multiple Dead in Suicide Attacks on Iran Parliament

Four gunmen reportedly burst into Tehran’s parliament complex with rifles and a pistol, and one of the attackers blew himself up on the fourth floor.

Gunmen and suicide bombers reportedly carried out a coordinated attack on Iran’s parliament.

RELATED: Ayatollah: Saudi Arabia Is a 'Cow Milked' by U.S.

Four gunmen reportedly burst into Tehran’s parliament complex with rifles and a pistol, and one of the attackers blew himself up on the fourth floor, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

At least 12 people have died and dozens injured, the head of Iran's emergency department, Pir-Hossein Kolivand, was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB.

There were also other unsubstantiated sources reporting that a number of members of parliament were taken hostage.

It is unclear how the attackers breached the security checkpoints to enter the parliament building.

Police helicopters were hovering over the building, entrance and exit gates were closed, and mobile phones were jammed.

Chamber reporters were ordered to stay put.

A Jamaran News image said to be of the moment the attacker detonated a suicide belt at the Khomeini shrine.

Witnesses said the attackers were shooting from the fourth floor of the parliament building down at people in the streets below.

Ebrahim Ghanimi, who was passing the building when the attack occurred told the Associated Press: “I thought that children were playing with fireworks, but I realized people were hiding and lying down on the streets.”

Approximately half an hour after the first attack, three to four individuals entered the western entrance of Khomeini’s tomb complex and opened fire. One attacker also reportedly detonated a suicide belt.

The ILNA agency said security forces were dismantling a bomb at the mausoleum, which is in southern Tehran, about 12 miles from the parliament building.

Iran’s intelligence ministry said a third plot was foiled.

The state broadcaster Irib reported that the ministry said: “Members of a third group were arrested before being able to carry out any attack.”

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100,000 people displaced by fighting in Raqqa, Syria, since April – UN

Some 100,000 people have been displaced due to heavy fighting near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, since April this year, a UN human rights chief says. Children are the worst hit, many subjected to torture, sexual violence and executions.

“We need to see a step-change in access to the increasingly dire situation in northeastern Syria…With some 100,000 people displaced due to fighting around Raqqa since April, access is needed now through every possible modality,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in a statement to the UN Security Council on Syria on Tuesday. 

According to O’Brien, the protection space is “shrinking, humanitarian conditions are worsening, and the level of despair is rising” across the entire country. In Idlib alone, there are over 900,000 displaced people, he said.

READ MORE: US begins arming Kurdish militia fighting ISIS near Raqqa

This is “not due to insecurity or poor infrastructure, but by increasingly strict limitations by local authorities, non-state-armed groups, as well as terrorist organizations, and the actions of some neighboring countries.”

The city of Raqqa, some 40km from Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest reservoir, was captured by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) back in 2013. Since then the city has been a scene of heavy battles and numerous offensives.

Clashes and airstrikes have recently intensified near the city as US-backed Syrian rebels reached the northern entrance of Raqqa, AP reported on Tuesday, citing activists.

Airstrikes in mid-May killed nearly two dozen farmworkers in a village in eastern Raqqa, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said earlier in May.

Hussein called on all forces operating in Syria to be more careful to correctly distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians.

READ MORE: Safe zones in Syria come into force: Here’s what we know about

In the meantime, O’Brien praised efforts of Iran, Russia and Turkey which established a memorandum on the creation of four de-escalation zones which came into force earlier in May.

This “memorandum that stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that fighting must significantly decrease and unhindered humanitarian access be enabled to these four areas,” he said.

‘Children tortured, subjected to sexual violence & executed’

Children remain the worst-affected group of population amid Syrian crisis, O’Brien said, adding that some 7 million children are now living in poverty in the war-torn country.

“Tens of thousands of children have been killed, and for those who have survived till today, the outlook remains bleak,” he said.

According to O’Brien, Syrian children “have been forcibly detained, they have been tortured, subjected to sexual violence, forcibly recruited and in some cases executed.”

READ MORE: Dozens of civilians, incl women & children, killed in US airstrikes in Syria – state media

He reminded that outside the country, Syrian children are “left to face an uncertain and traumatic future on their own”.

“They have become stateless, abandoned by the world,” he said.

“How are these children meant to function as adults? What future do these children have – illiterate, orphaned, starved, traumatized and maimed?” O’Brien said in an emotional plea to the UNSC.

“What future does a country have when its next generation is a lost generation? For these suffering children, what’s at stake isn’t politics. It’s their lives and their futures. It is their innocent voices, their suffering that need advocating,” he added.

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West bears responsibility for chaos & terrorist attacks in MidEast and N. Africa – Lavrov

The western states that supported regime changes and financed militants in the Greater Middle East, particularly in Libya, bear responsibility for the chaos ravaging the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during his visit to Cairo.

Lavrov arrived in Cairo on Monday with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu for a joint meeting of the Russian and Egyptian foreign and defense ministers. The fight against terrorism was top of the meeting’s agenda.

Both sides reiterated that for counter-terrorist efforts to have any effect, the fight against this global threat must be carried out jointly.

“The recent attack on the Coptic Christians once again highlights the need for vigilance. We stand united in our attempt to boost anti-terrorist efforts around the globe,” Lavrov said during a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart that followed the meeting.

Lavrov was referring to Friday’s terrorist attack in the town of Minya, which claimed the lives of 28 people, including children, and left dozens injured. Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack, which prompted Egypt to launch what it called responsive strikes against jihadist positions in neighboring Libya.

On Saturday, the Egyptian Defense Ministry said in a statement that Egypt’s armed forces have successfully completed the destruction of all planned targets abroad, including the militants’ concentration areas and training camps.

During the press conference, Lavrov addressed the issue of the ongoing Libyan crisis that poses a security threat for neighboring countries, including Egypt, and once again drew attention to the fact that western involvement in the crisis in the North African country led only to the dismantling of its statehood and eventually turned it into “a backyard for terrorists.”

“Libya was bombed and its government was violently overthrown. It was turned into a backyard for terrorists and criminals. The regime was changed with the help of those [militants], who came from Europe. They were free to leave their countries because everybody knew where they were going and what they were going to do there. And then they were welcomed back,” he said.

“Now, we just see the consequences of these irresponsible policies,” Lavrov told reporters at the press conference, adding that western countries should bear responsibility for the chaos that resulted from their actions.

Earlier, Lavrov also met with the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. The Secretary-General later told RT’s Maria Finoshina that he “very much” approves of Egypt’s airstrikes against terrorists in Libya.

Shoigu also discussed issues related to combating terrorism and extremism with his Egyptian counterpart. The two sides agreed to continue sharing intelligence and discussed joint exercises and military training.

The Russian and Egyptian foreign and defense ministers also held a joint meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and discussed regional conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

In October 2015, 224 people, mostly Russian citizens, were killed after an improvised explosive device went off on board an Airbus A321 flying from Sharm El Sheikh International Airport to St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed as it was flying over the northern Sinai Peninsula. Islamic State’s supporters in Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack. The bombing led to several countries suspending flights to Egypt over concerns of lack of airport security. While Moscow has continued to uphold the ban, the steps undertaken by Cairo to improve security have led to an agreement to resume the flights “in the shortest term,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said following Monday’s meeting in Cairo.

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US & Saudi Arabia say it's necessary to maintain Syria whole & united – White House

The Syrian conflict must be solved through political means with the country’s unity and territorial integrity maintained, the US and Saudi Arabia has said in a joint statement released by the White House on Tuesday.

Washington and Riyadh “emphasized the importance of reaching a permanent solution to the conflict in Syria based on the Geneva declaration and Security Council resolution 2254, in order to maintain the unity and integrity of Syrian territory,” the statement read.

 
U.S. President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and arab leaders pose for a photo during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh © Jonathan Ernst

The announcement, which summed up the discussions of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last weekend, said that after the end of hostilities, Syria must become “a country that represents the entire spectrum of the Syrian community and free from sectarian discrimination.”

The Geneva II Communique (2014) and UNSC resolution 2254 (2015) envisages a roadmap for a political solution of the Syrian conflict, urging a ceasefire, transitional government and free elections in the country.

Saudi Arabia has also backed “President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at Shayrat Airbase” Tuesday's statement said further.

The US President ordered a barrage of Tomahawk missiles fired at Syria’s Shayrat airbase in response to an alleged chemical attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the country’s Idlib province on April 4. Washington immediately labeled Bashar Assad’s government as the perpetrators of the attack despite Russia calling for an impartial investigation and Syria denying the charge.

“The two sides emphasized the importance that the Syrian regime adhere to the 2013 agreement to eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons,” the statement read.

During Trump’s visit to the Gulf kingdom, the US President and King Salman ”agreed to boost cooperation in order to to eliminate Daesh, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations,” the statement also said.

“The two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to curb the flow of foreign fighters and cutting off funding supplies for terrorist organizations.”

Saudi Arabia had previously been blamed for backing extremists in Syria, with Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails saying the Saudis are “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups.”

READ MORE: Trump strikes arms deal with Saudis worth $350bn, $110bn to take effect immediately

The US has provided weapons to the so-called “moderate” rebels fighting the Syrian government with the arms often ending up in the hands of Islamic State or the al-Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington and Riyadh also supported the Iraqi government’s efforts to tackle the Islamic State (IS, Daesh, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group while underlining the importance of “preserving the unity and integrity of Iraqi territory.”

Trump and the Saudi monarch then turned on Iran, saying they need to “contain Iran’s malign interference in the internal affairs of other states, instigation of sectarian strife, support of terrorism and armed proxies, and efforts to destabilize the countries in the region.”

READ MORE: US changes tactics against ISIS, working on plan with 'enthusiastic' Russians

They also said “the nuclear agreement with Iran (signed under the Obama administration) needs to be re-examined in some of its clauses,” the statement read.

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