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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Police terror raids continue after man arrested in connection with Manchester attack

Bomb squads swooped on a home in the Manchester suburb of Fallowfield to carry out a “controlled explosion” as part of an ongoing terrorism investigation, according to police.

Residents in Fallowfield posted footage of armed police close to a house on Elsmore Road. Some took to Twitter to report “loud explosions.”

@TTBXXX @SkyNews FALLOWFIELD MANCHESTER

Police have also raided a property in nearby Whalley Range.

“Police have executed warrants, one in Whalley Range, and one in Fallowfield, where a controlled explosion took place, as part of the investigation into last night’s horrific attack at the Manchester arena,” police said in a brief statement.

@AYoung0305 Believe a bomb has gone off outside my house in Fallowfield?? @MENnewsdesk

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DAgonkLXsAIfkRo.jpg

@the_mubarak Apparent explosion in fallowfield with Swat teams responding. Stay safe everyone

@CallumCIowes Explosion in Fallowfield Manchester, possibly controlled by police, top of my street

A 23-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the Manchester bomb attack, police say.

“With regards to the ongoing investigation into last night’s horrific attack at the Manchester arena, we can confirm we have arrested a 23-year-old man in South Manchester,” Greater Manchester Police said in a statement.

@gmpolice With regards to last night’s incident at the Manchester arena, we can confirm we have arrested a 23-year-old man in South Manchester.

The attack on Monday night at Manchester Arena, which killed 22 people, including children, was carried out by a suicide bomber who died at the scene. Some 59 people were also injured in the blast.

Detectives are investigating whether the attacker acted in connection with others.

Another man was arrested in the Arndale Centre, but this is not currently believed to be connected to Monday night’s attacks.

@gmpolice A man has been arrested at the Arndale Centre – This is not currently believed to connected to last night’s attacks.

Speaking outside Downing Street on Tuesday, prime minister Theresa May said security services believe they know the identity of the attacker but that he could not yet be named.

She said he had chosen the time and the place to attack and cause "maximum carnage and to kill and injure indiscriminately." 

May said security services "believe the attack was carried out by one man" but need to find out whether "he was acting alone or part of a wider group."

If others are responsible for the attack, they will be brought to justice, she said.

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Wave of ‘more dangerous, skilled’ ISIS jihadists bound to hit Europe – UN counterterrorism chief

Europe will have to come to grips with an exodus of “dangerous and disillusioned” Islamic State jihadists, defeated in Syria and Iraq earlier this year and possibly seeking revenge, the head of the UN Security Council's counterterrorism agency has warned.

Scores of foreign Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters, determined to come back to Europe, are “more dangerous” than previous waves of returnees, Jean-Paul Laborde told reporters on Thursday. Some may be eager to seek revenge after defeats on the battlefield, including in recent confrontations in Mosul.

 
© Dado Ruvic

The first wave of the returnees was mainly made up of young people who went to Syria and Iraq “for T-shirts and photos,” Laborde said, RTBF reported. They came back “disillusioned and dismayed.” The second wave may contain much more extreme individuals, who had more time to build contacts with criminal organizations that can assist them in committing attacks.

Between 40 to 50 percent of foreign fighters, who left for Syria and Iraq, have already left territories controlled by IS, Laborde added.

“On average, these people are much more committed, more experienced and more skilled,” he told reporters, as cited by Reuters.

“In spite of the travel restrictions ... still you will have a number of foreign terrorist fighters which will probably slip through the borders and go back, come back to these countries, especially with smuggling networks,” he added.

Over the last 18 months, the flow of departures of fighters from Europe to Syria or Iraq fell by some 90 percent, the UN official said, calling for international cooperation not only between EU member states, but also between countries involved in armed conflicts and their neighbors.

Some 5,000 EU nationals are currently fighting in Syria among the ranks of IS and other jihadist groups, a senior Syrian official said last month, warning that it’ll be a disaster for European security if these militants are allowed to return.

 
© Eric Gaillard

“We have statistics that about five thousand terrorists fighting in Syria have come from the EU countries,” Syria's Deputy Minister of Expatriates and Foreign Affairs Ayman Susan told Sputnik in mid-April.

“Imagine that these 5,000 terrorists will return to Europe ... they can do it,” the diplomat warned.

IS provides free passage to Europe to refugees willing to join the terrorist group, offering potential recruits up to $1,000 while actively infiltrating migrant communities in countries of destination, a British anti-extremism think tank warned in February.

The report by Quilliam think tank also found that underage asylum seekers are at increasing risk of being radicalized by IS preachers infiltrating refugee camps and local migrant communities.

“Groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram recruit using financial incentives within refugee camps and work with smugglers and traffickers to facilitate the journey to asylum,” Quilliam said.

According to the think tank, IS is clearly aware of the value of migrant routes in the Eastern Mediterranean as it offers free passage and “a degree of security” to those willing to join IS.

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Putin: I discussed de-escalation zones in Syria with Trump, Erdogan

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has discussed introducing de-escalation zones in Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during talks in Sochi on Wednesday and with US President Donald Trump in a phone call the previous day.

Consultations with Tehran and Damascus have also been held on the issue, Putin said.

"For the development of the political process [in Syria], a ceasefire must be provided... Russia, Turkey and Iran have all the time been thinking of how to secure this practice of a ceasefire. One of the methods is creating safe zones, or de-escalation zones," Putin said on Wednesday during a joint press conference with Turkish President Erdogan in Sochi.

Moscow has already conducted "preliminary consultations" with Damascus and Tehran on the matter, Putin said, adding that the issue has also been discussed with US President Trump, who appears to support the idea of safe zones.

"We all reason from [a position] that mechanisms to guarantee the end of bloodshed and provision for the beginning of a political dialogue must be created," the Russian president said, adding that Turkey also fully supports this position.

However, the different sides in the Syrian conflict should themselves make "the final decision," Putin added.

"In the end, only they are in charge of their country's fate. On our side, we – Russia, Turkey and Iran – as guarantors of a ceasefire, will make everything for such mechanisms to improve and be efficient," he told the media.

READ MORE: Putin, Trump speak by phone, discuss Syria, N. Korea – Kremlin

Moscow and Ankara both agree that "the creation of safe zones must lead to further conciliation and strengthening of the ceasefire regime" in war-torn Syria, Putin said.

The Russian president pointed out that regardless of safe zones, the fight will continue against terrorist organizations in Syria such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Al-Nusra Front and other groups seen as terrorist by the United Nations.

The question of ceasefire monitoring in possible de-escalation zones is "an issue for separate talks," Putin added, saying that international military officials are in contact on the subject.

"In terms of air force flights, aviation will also not be deployed in de-escalation zones, on condition of no military activity there," the Russian president told journalists in Sochi.

The Turkish leader said that while he and the Russian president had discussed the issue of safe zones in Syria during their Sochi negotiations, it is the Astana peace talks participants who will work on the question. "I hope that a de-escalation zone will be implemented," Erdogan said.

The topic of de-escalation zones is especially related to the province of Idlib, where "many people from Aleppo have found refuge," the Turkish president pointed out.

READ MORE: Some trade restrictions between Russia and Turkey to remain for now – Putin

Having reiterated calls to stop the bloodshed of innocent people in Syria, the Turkish president said that both Moscow and Ankara back punishment for those behind an alleged chemical attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria's Idlib province.

"Such a barbaric attack must not be left unpunished," Erdogan said.

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Pentagon: 45 civilians killed by coalition strikes on Islamic State

Investigations conducted during the month of March reveal that US-led coalition airstrikes targeting Islamic State killed 45 civilians, mostly in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul, according to a Pentagon statement released on Sunday.

In each incident, the Pentagon said "all feasible precautions were taken," but the strikes still resulted in "unintentional" loss of civilian life.

The report did not include findings from an ongoing investigation into a March 17 strike targeting Islamic State fighters in Mosul. That strike resulted in more than 100 civilian deaths, according to reports from residents. Last month, the US acknowledged coalition planes conducted a strike "at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties," but did not confirm the reports of high civilian casualties.

A car bomb explodes next to Iraqi special forces armored vehicles as they advance towards Islamic State held territory in Mosul in 2016A bomb explodes next to Iraqi special forces armored vehicles as they advance towards Islamic State held territory in Mosul in 2016 Credit: AP

The March 17 strike sparked outrage in Iraq and beyond with calls from local government officials as well as the United Nations for greater restraint in the fight against IS for Mosul. The United Nations reported nearly 2,000 civilians have been treated for trauma since the fight for western Mosul began in February following the formal launch of the operation to retake Mosul in October 2016.

Coalition officials have declined to give a time frame as to when the investigation into the incident will be complete.The Pentagon acknowledged at least 352 civilians have been killed by coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria since the start of the air campaign against Islamic state, also known as Isil, in 2014. Activists and monitoring groups put the number much higher. The London-based monitoring group Airwars reported that coalition strikes have killed more than 3,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014. 

Iraqi forces declared Mosul's eastern half "fully liberated" in January, but have since struggled to retake the city's western side. Claustrophobic terrain and tens of thousands of civilians being held by the extremists as human shields have bogged Iraqi and coalition forces down.

The Sunday statement also included the findings of an audit begun in March that inspected the way the US-led coalition reports and tracks civilian casualties in the fight against Islamic State. The statement said the audit found that 80 civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes had not been previously publicly reported and two civilian deaths previously reported were found to have not been caused by the coalition.

The US began the campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State in 2014 after the extremists pushed into Iraq from Syria, overrunning Mosul and large swaths of Iraq's north and west. Since then Iraqi forces have slowly clawed back territory. Now a cluster of western Mosul neighborhoods are the last significant urban terrain under Islamic State control in Iraq. 

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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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