Syria denies & condemns use of chemical weapons – foreign minister

Syria’s foreign minister has dismissed allegations that the Syrian Army had deployed chemical weapons in the city of Idlib, saying the military will never use such weapons against its own people or even terrorists.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem denied claims that the military used chemical weapons in the western city of Idlib. Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Muallem said an airstrike by Syrian military had targeted an arms depot where chemical weapons stockpiles were stored by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front militants.

He said it’s impossible that the army – which has been making significant gains in almost all theaters of the Syrian war – would use banned chemical weapons against its “own people” and even terrorists.

 
Foreign Ministers and officials pose for a group photo as they take part in an international conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium, April 5, 2017. © Yves Herman

Asked if Damascus would allow a fact-finding mission into the Idlib incident, Muallem said past experience of similar investigations was “not encouraging.” He also said that he could not predict “the reality of US intentions” in Syria.

Muallem added that such a mission must not be politicized and must start its operations “from Damascus, not Turkey,” apparently referring to the latest statements by Ankara condemning the incident, as well as the fact that some victims were taken to Turkey for autopsy.

'Monstrous crime'

Meanwhile, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian president, said the Kremlin believes the Syrian military will do its utmost to prevent chemical agents from falling into the hands of terrorists.

“This was indeed a dangerous and monstrous crime, but in our opinion, it would be wrong to point fingers,” Peskov told reporters on Thursday. The Kremlin spokesman said Moscow does not agree with assessments provided by certain Western countries.

“Immediately after the tragedy no one had access to this area, so no one could have hard verifiable data. Consequently, any information which the US side or our colleagues from other countries might have had access to, could not be based on objective facts,” Peskov told reporters.

Though Peskov rejected “hasty assessments” of the alleged use of chemical weapons, he emphasized that there are always disagreements between Moscow and Washington, but mutual discords over the Idlib incident are unlikely to affect “the spirit of our cooperation.”

READ MORE: Rebels ‘only people who benefited’ from Idlib chemical weapons attack – analyst

Earlier in the day, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed as “unsubstantiated” statements by US Vice-President Mike Pence that Moscow and Damascus had failed to fulfill their obligations under a landmark 2013 deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals.

“I wouldn’t use profane language, especially when it comes to the second-most powerful man in the US administration, but I do believe that this is ignorance rather than irresponsibility,” Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the ministry’s Arms Control Department, said.

“The new administration has only recently begun reviewing its policy. Once that’s done, American officials’ statements, I hope, will become more accurate. There is no reason to say the US-Russia agreements [on eliminations Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles] did not work,” Ulyanov stated.

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Russia to continue Syria military op in support of Assad after ‘chemical attack’ claims – Kremlin

Moscow will continue to support Syrian Army troops in their anti-terrorism effort, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, after being asked whether Russian policy had changed following a reported chemical attack in the Idlib province.

Peskov cited the opinion of the Russian military, which said the contamination may have been caused by damage to a rebel chemical weapons storage site.

 
Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib province. April 4, 2017. © Mohamed Al-Bakour

“You have heard the statement from the Russian Defense Ministry and I have nothing to add to the facts they stated. The Russian Federation and its military are continuing the operation to support the anti-terrorism operation and liberation of the country, which is being conducted by the Syrian armed forces,” Peskov said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested later on Wednesday that the Security Council should urge the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to launch a fact-finding mission, provided that full access to the incident site is allowed.

“It is crucial to call upon an OPCW fact-finding mission in charge of investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria to collect evidence of the incident under the following condition – the composition of the fact-finding mission will be submitted to the UN Security Council for approval, and it will be balanced in terms of geographical [representation],” Zakharova said, according to Interfax.

The acting Russian envoy to the UN will voice this position during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, which was called following the chemical incident, Peskov added.

 
Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017 © Ammar Abdullah

At least 70 people, including 11 children, have been reported killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun after a suspected chemical weapons attack on Tuesday morning. Rebels accused the Syrian government of bombing the town with chemical munitions.

The accusations have been backed by a number of Western governments.

Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, said reliable evidence would be needed to confirm the alleged use of chemical weapons, let alone establish who was responsible for it.

“We have no yet any official or reliable confirmation,” he said on Wednesday. “We will be stimulating all those who have the capacity of finding out technically what had happened.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also said there was no evidence yet to draw any conclusion on what had happened in the Idlib governorate, but stated that the Syrian government held “primary responsibility” for the situation.

 
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley © Mike Segar

Amid the public condemnation of Damascus for the attack and Moscow and Tehran for their support of the Syrian government, some experts pointed out that the Syrian Army had no rational reason for using chemical weapons against rebels in Idlib.

Iran, an ally of Damascus, condemned on Wednesday any use of chemical weapons and offered help to the victims.

“We are ready to bring the victims to Iran and help them,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said, as quoted by Tasnim news agency.

Earlier Turkey, an opponent and frequent critic of Damascus, reported treating dozens of victims of the alleged attack in hospitals located in the border province of Hatay, AP said.

The incident in Khan Sheikhoun happened days after Washington stated that ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad was no longer a priority for the US. The “Assad must go” premise was one of the cornerstones of Washington’s Syrian policy under Barack Obama. The Trump administration has been dismantling many of Obama’s policies.

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‘Time to sound the alarm bells’ as Mosul plight has ‘escalated to the limit,’ Moscow says

The humanitarian plight of war-torn Mosul has “escalated to the limit,” with the Iraqi president comparing it to a “full-on catastrophe,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.

“It’s time to toll the alarm bells,” the official added.

“The Mosul humanitarian situation has escalated to the limit. The Iraqi president has compared it with a full-on catastrophe,” Zakharova said.

© Suhaib Salem

The city “is running out of essential food and medical supplies,” with “experts warning about a threat of mass famine if the assault on the city lasts longer.”

So far, it seems like such a turn of events is highly likely, Zakharova said, saying that the Iraqi forces’ advance has seen little success and become bogged down in intense city battles.

Another frequently-voiced danger for the locals is the US-led coalition’s airstrikes targeting residential areas.

“With such population density, what kind of pinpoint strikes are our Western partners talking about?” Zakharova asked.

According to the latest UN data, 307 people died in western Mosul on March 17-22, and “these are only the deaths that have been confirmed,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson added.

“We still have to fully estimate the real scale of casualties.”

The Russian official’s concerns have been echoed by Katharina Ritz, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq.

“The concern for us is that the highest standard should be maintained when it comes to protecting the civilian population in any conflict, in any area. To have military warfare in densely populated areas in western Mosul, precautions and care need to be the priority,” she told RT.

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Syrian Army Strikes ISIS in Damascus Countryside

Syrian Army units reportedly carried out a successful special operation against an ISIS concentration in south east Damascus Countryside wiping out terrorists from that area, while engaging anti-Syrian groups in other parts of the country.

A military spokesman told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) that army artillery stroke the terrorist gathering in Beer al-Qasab, killing all the terrorists and destroying all their weaponry.

That is a hard blow to anti-Syrian forces following the failed attempt

by Al-Nusra Front, now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) to take control of Jobar, also in Damascus Province.

The military General Command announced on Friday that army units reclaimed all the points and blocks of buildings which were infiltrated by terrorists north of Jobar.

The head of the Syrian delegation to the fifth round of peace talks in Geneva, Bashar al-Jaafari, said the Government is focused on counter-terrorism while assessing and following up the Geneva and Astana tracks.

In the northern province of Deir Ezzor, heavy losses were inflicted on ISIS terrorists in combined operations carried out by land and air forces against their positions and fortifications in the surrounding of Deir Ezzor City, particularly around the local airport, SANA reports Sunday.

SANA reporter in Deir Ezzor described that over the past 24 hours, the army air force carried out intensive air strikes against positions of ISIS terrorists in the areas of al-Maqaber, Jounid Battalion and in the surrounding of the airport, the Electricity Company, Liwa al-Taamin, block factories and al-Jafra village.

In the fighting, a number of ISIS terrorists were killed and others injured in the air strikes, in addition many of their hideouts and equipment were destroyed.

Meanwhile, in Daraa (southern Syria) army units launched operations targeting Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham groups -former Al-Nusra Front) breaking their positions in that souther province bordering Jordan.

The military reported that the Syrian Air Forces destroyed scores of ISIS and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham terrorists' tanks and armoured vehicles in Akerbat, south of Taybet a-Immam, Halfaya, al-Latamneh, Tal Hawash, North of Souran, Tal Othman and in Mourek in the countryside of Hama province .

Government forces also stroke Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's fortifications in Mas'hara town in Quneitra province, killing and injuring terrorists and destroying their vehicles and heavy weapons, according to a military source.

Terrorist threat higher in Europe than anywhere else except war zones – EUCOM chief

The threat posed by violent extremism is higher in Europe than anywhere else in the world, apart from actual war zones and hotspots, US European Command head General Curtis Scaparrotti said, commenting on Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London.

“The number of threat streams that we have of this type within Europe – it’s probably higher in Europe than any other part of the globe, with the exception of the places we’re actually physically fighting [terrorists], like Syria […] Afghanistan and Iraq,” the senior US military leader in Europe, who is also NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

He said that Europe is faced with a “difficult challenge” posed by extremists.

 
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Europe is challenged by both the flow of terrorists returning from Syria and other places. They’re challenged by an internal threat of those inspired by ISIS [Islamic State or IS] or directed by ISIS and this is another, an example of the attacks that we’ve seen in Europe in the past year. It’s a difficult challenge.”

On Wednesday five people, including the assailant, were killed in the attack in central London, after a car plowed into pedestrians near the British Parliament. Police identified the attacker as 52-year-old British citizen and Muslim convert Khalid Masood, born Adrian Russell Ajao. Eight more people were detained in connection with the case in raids at six different UK locations.
IS claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the terrorist group’s ‘news agency’ Amaq.

Scaparrotti expressed his condolences to those injured or killed in the tragedy, noting that the United States is ready to further support its NATO ally, the UK.

 
© Denis Balibouse

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to these victims and their families impacted by this senseless attack. We strongly condemn this attack, and will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO ally, and our partners, to defeat terrorism,” he stated.

Asked by committee Chairman John McCain whether there is any “connection” between the increased European terrorism threat and the inflow of refugees from the globe’s hotspots, Scaparotti said he is particularly concerned by the criminal groups that smuggle asylum seekers into Europe illegally.

He stated that apart from people whose identities it is difficult to establish given the circumstances of their arrival into Europe, these groups “are more than willing to move equipment, personnel, weapons” to carry out terrorist plots.

Before reports of the London attack broke on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted a meeting of 68 nations of the global anti-IS coalition, aimed at finding ways to defeat the jihadists and reduce the spread of terrorism on a global scale.

READ MORE: Brussels district hosts 51 NGOs with suspected terrorist links – report

While stressing the importance of IS’ defeat, Tillerson warned against a possible spillover of the terrorist threat to other areas once the group is defeated in the Middle East.

“As we stabilize areas encompassing ISIS' phony physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, we also must prevent their seeds of hatred from taking root elsewhere,” he said, as cited by Military.com.

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Whether from ISIS shells or US-led coalition bombs, civilians suffering in Mosul

The fight for Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq, is taking a heavy toll on the city’s civilian population. RT recounts the horrifying stories of some of the victims.

While the US-led coalition claims it does everything possible to avoid “collateral damage” when conducting airstrikes on Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), in reality, civilians wounded in their attacks are suffering just the same as those hurt by the shells and snipers of the jihadists.

Here are some of the stories that victims told RT’s sister video agency, Ruptly, about the siege in Mosul.

Iraq: Severely injured 5-yo girl sole survivor of Mosul airstrike

Five-year-old Hawraa was severely injured on March 16, when an airstrike destroyed her family’s home in the Jadeda neighborhood, said her father Ala, who believes the bombs were intended for IS fighters manning a shooting position in a house nearby.

“There were four people in the house, only she survived,” he said. Hawraa’s mother was among those killed in the coalition airstrike.

Iraq: Civilians trapped under rubble after deadly airstrikes destroy Mosul homes *GRAPHIC*

When airstrikes destroyed several houses on Tal Alruman street on March 11, as many as 25 people were left trapped under the debris, and their neighbors and relatives were unable to get them out, Fath Ahmad Abdulla, whose brother was among the victims, told Ruptly.

“ISIS was fighting here, behind the house. They tried to run behind the school. Then the house was bombed by aircraft,” he explained.

Another resident, Abdulhamed Mahmud, said more than 100 houses had been hit by airstrikes in the neighborhood since the siege began.

Ibrahim Rfaee was burying his grandmother Khalas when Ruptly interviewed him on March 12. Khalas was killed by a stray bullet while fleeing Mosul’s Tal Alruman district, which has been subjected to what he called “random bombing” by the coalition.

“Daesh go on the rooftops of the houses and the families don’t know. Then the aircrafts come and bomb it,” he explained, referring to the terrorist group by its Arabic acronym. “We are asking the coalition planes to be specific when they bomb. They were bombing randomly,” he stressed.

Iraq: Victims of Iraqi forces and IS fighters treated at hospital in Kurdistan

On March 7, Ruptly interviewed several patients at West Erbil Emergency Hospital in Iraqi Kurdistan, who were being treated for injuries received during the Mosul siege.

“When the army entered our neighborhood, they started fighting with ISIS, and we were in the middle, on the receiving end of both sides,” one Mosul resident said.

“ISIS came and kicked us out of our house. We ran looking for a safe place, and suddenly there was an explosion,” said another. “My father was injured and my brother was killed. My younger brother and sister were hit on the head and I was hit on the shoulder.”

READ MORE: 360° car bomb: Death machine filmed by RT Ruptly in bombed-out Mosul house (VIDEO)

There are an estimated 600,000 civilians caught in the crossfire of the Mosul operation, with tens of thousands fleeing the violence over the past month. The number of civilian deaths is difficult to estimate, and it is even harder to attribute them to either IS attacks or US-coalition airstrikes.

The US has given a conservative figure of 200 for civilian deaths inflicted by coalition airstrikes in Mosul, but a UK-based monitoring group, Airwars, says the true number may be more than ten times higher.

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‘They were bombing randomly’: Mosul civilians doubt coalition’s careful targeting claims

The US-led coalition fighting to retake Mosul says it takes every precaution to assure civilians are not harmed in its airstrikes on Islamic State militants, but those who have lost family members in coalition attacks doubt the veracity of that claim.

“Daesh [Islamic State, IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL] go on the rooftops of the houses and the families don’t know, then the aircraft come and bomb it,” Mosul resident Ibrahim Rfaee told RT’s Ruptly, referring to the terrorist group by its derogative Arabic acronym.

Iraq: Civilians trapped under rubble after deadly airstrikes destroy Mosul homes *GRA

Ibrahim’s grandmother, Khalas, was killed last week, apparently by an IS sniper, as she was trying to escape from Mosul’s jihadist-controlled Tal Alruman neighborhood into Mahmoun, which had already been seized by Iraqi special forces. RT’s sister video agency caught up with Ibrahim and his family on Sunday as they were burying Khalas at a local cemetery.

 

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Ibrahim said the coalition is not as precise and careful in targeting its airstrikes as it claims to be in media conferences.

“We are asking for bombing specific targets. There are still families inside the houses and the aircraft keep bombing. We are asking the coalition planes to be specific when they bomb. They were bombing randomly,” he said.

Similar reports have been coming from other media outlets. The Daily Telegraph reported from the Samood neighborhood that an airstrike apparently targeting a single IS fighter had killed a dozen civilians instead, according to witnesses.

“The planes waited until one of the Daesh walked out into the street and then they struck. The fighter was only injured, but 11 members of one family in the house next door were instantly killed,” a resident named Hashem Abdullah told the British newspaper.

“They dropped leaflets over the city telling us not to worry about the strikes, saying that they were extremely precise and would not hurt the civilians,” said Yusuf Ahmed, who lost his brother and his young family to a coalition airstrike. “Now it feels like the coalition is killing more people than [Islamic State],” he said.

Iraq: Coalition planes stop 'bombing randomly' pleads Mosul resident

 The Iraqi army says it has captured about a third of the western part of Mosul. The UN estimates that 5,000 people on average have been fleeing the city every day since the siege intensified in February.

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US confirms deployment of hundreds of Marines to Syria to fight ISIS

Hundreds of US Marines have arrived in Syria to establish an outpost in support of the operation to retake the city of Raqqa, the de-facto Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) capital in the country, the US-led coalition confirmed on Thursday.
 

"We are talking about an additional 400 or so forces in total, and they will be there for a temporary period," coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said, as cited by Reuters.

The deployment is an addition to the existing 500 US forces already in Syria and is aimed at accelerating the defeat of IS in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa city, Dorrian said.

According to the official, the additional forces would be working with local partners in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition. He stressed they would not have a frontline role.

Dorrian said the new forces comprised a Marines artillery unit and Army Rangers.

Reports of the new deployment first surfaced in US media on Wednesday.

The Washington Post, which was the first to break the news citing anonymous defense officials, stated that the marines will be working to establish an outpost from which they can fire artillery in support of the fight for Raqqa.

According to the newspaper, the new deployment is part of an amphibious task force of the 11th US Marine Expeditionary Unit, which left San Diego on Navy ships in October. It includes part of an artillery battery that can fire 155mm shells from M777 Howitzers.

The Washington Post said that the marines will be based within no more than 32km (20 miles) from the frontline outside Raqqa, as that is the maximum range of their artillery.

“The marines answer a problem that the [operation] has faced. [They now provide] all-weather fires considering how the weather is this time of year in northern Syria,” an official was cited as saying.

NBC on its part reported that the taskforce was pulled from Kuwait, also citing US defense officials, adding that the deployment is part of the new effort to “accelerate the fight” against the militants. 

READ MORE: 'Russia practically mediating between NATO members US & Turkey over Syria'

The news of the US deployment comes after American soldiers were spotted traveling in an armored convoy near the Syrian city of Manbij, some 100km northwest of Raqqa, over the weekend in Strykers – heavily-armed, eight-wheel armored vehicles. The US-led coalition in Syria confirmed the presence of American forces around Manbij on Saturday, with US spokesman calling it a “deliberate action” aimed at ensuring that forces within the US-led coalition “keep the focus on defeating ISIS.”

Raqqa has an estimated 3,000-4,000 IS fighters, but the group’s leaders have been rapidly fleeing the city lately - with the advance of liberation forces, the New York Times said on Wednesday citing a US defense official. The operation to liberate the city from terrorists, codenamed Operation Euphrates Rage, was launched by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on November 5, 2016.

In the most recent development, on Monday, the SDF announced that they had severed the road between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur to the east, cutting off a supply route for the extremist group and further isolating the militants in the city, Rudaw media network reported.

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