News Live Blog

Syria's War Live

Breaking news coverage of developments in Syria's War and the broader regional conflict, including allegations of the deadly use of chemical weapons and the international community's response

  • Pro #Syria government clergy still awaiting arrival of nuns freed from #Yabroud and coming via #Lebanon http://pbs.twimg.com/media/BiS2J8ZIcAA_zO6.jpg

  • #Syria 9 Maaloula nuns are released plus 4 workers from the monastery in exchange of 153 prisoners from Syrian government prison
  • #UNSC - sp envoy Brahimi briefs Thursday on prospects for political talks on #Syria conflict, after disappointing last round in Geneva.
  • A Syrian journalist has been killed covering clashes between government forces and opposition fighters in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, a regional broadcaster said.

    Beirut-based Al Mayadeen said on its website that its cameraman Omar Abdelqader was shot in the neck on Saturday and was pronounced dead in hospital shortly afterwards.

    Syria was the deadliest place for journalists in 2013 for the second year, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media rights group based in New York, said in December.

    At least 29 journalists were killed last year in a three-year-old conflict that turned into civil war after a crackdown on peaceful protests, and has claimed more that 140,000 lives.

    Al Mayadeen quoted a local Syrian military commander as saying Abdelqader was shot by a sniper while he was filming government forces advancing on an area in the rebel-held city.

    His sister was quoted as saying the family was preparing to celebrate his 27th birthday when news of his death arrived.

    [Reuters]
  • #Syria the Syrian government will release 153 prisoners in exchange of the release of #Maaloula nuns
  • At VIP lounge #Syria customs near #Lebanon border & just got confirmation 13 #Maaloula nuns freed, awaiting arrival http://pbs.twimg.com/media/BiSl7usIYAA5MLy.jpg

  • #Syria the nuns of Maaloula will reach he border within an hour .
  • #Syria the nuns of Maaloula are being released now
  • Opinion: Syrian refugees need more than just food

    Nearly 2.5 million people have fled Syria to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey since the conflict erupted in 2011. By the end of 2014, Syrian refugees are expected to number more than 4.1 million.

    “Syria has become the great tragedy of this century — a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” said Antonio Gutteres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last September.

    Of the current refugees, more than 1.3 million are under the age of 18. Syria’s children, both refugees and those internally displaced, desperately need access not just to basic necessities but to education as well. Many of the Syrian children have been out of school for almost three years now. And, according to the United Nations refugee agency, two-thirds of school-age Syrian refugees are not getting any education.

    During a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan late last year, the U.N. envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, emphasized the need to ensure that young Syrians have access to education and vocational training. Yet prioritizing education to support refugee youth is a hard sell in emergency-response efforts. Only 14 percent of the $4.26 billion required to implement the Syrian Regional Response Plan has been allocated, according to the U.N. The proposed allocation for education under the plan (9 percent of total funding) is relatively small compared with other priority sectors such as food (28 percent). This is a reflection of competing priorities and the lack of emphasis placed on secondary education or the employability needs of youth under the U.N.’s Education for All initiative and the Millennium Development Goals.

    Humanitarian relief is typically about serving immediate, short-term needs. Education, however, is another integral part of relief requiring long-term investment with returns that will take years or even decades. Given the protracted crisis in Syria, the public education systems in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey face decisions that could commit them to 10 to 15 years of providing education to Syrian refugees. This raises critical questions about which curriculum to use (the Syrian national curriculum or the host-country curriculum, with its language variances), whether to hire national or refugee teachers, and which post-primary options to make available. Meanwhile, these countries’ formal education systems are already grappling with overcrowded classrooms and overage children as well as linguistic, cultural and religious differences.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • #Syria opposition groups say regime forces control an area called Hosrajiyeh on fringes of Al Zara town west of #Homs and not town itself
  • Some pro #Syria regime outlets reporting now that pro government forces have captured town of Al Zara west of #Homs after months of clashes
  • The US State Department tells Reuters that the June 30 deadline for Syria's chemical weapons disposal is 'at risk' but can still be met.
  • Syria will miss March 15 chemical weapons destruction deadline

    Syria will miss a major deadline next week in the program to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities, sources at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Thursday.

    Syria declared 12 production facilities to the OPCW and has until March 15 to destroy them under a deal agreed with the United States and Russia. Damascus has already missed several deadlines laid out in the agreement.

    "That will definitely be missed," said an official involved in discussions with Syria, referring to the March 15 deadline.

    The official, who asked not to be identified, said there were seven "hardened" aircraft hangars and five underground facilities.

    "None of them have been destroyed at the moment," the official said.

    Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syria will miss a major deadline next week to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities, sources at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Thursday.

    Syria declared 12 production facilities to the OPCW and has until March 15 to destroy them under a deal agreed with the United States and Russia. Damascus has already missed several deadlines laid out in the agreement.

    [Reuters]
  • UN report: Security Council 'bears responsibility' for war crimes in Syria

    All sides fighting in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish civilians, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) "bears responsibility" for allowing such war crimes to continue, a U.N.-appointed human rights commission said Wednesday.

    The independent investigators, presenting their most recent report documenting atrocities in Syria, specifically called out the UNSC for failing to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.

    "The Security Council bears responsibility for not addressing accountability and allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with total impunity," Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the U.N. commission of inquiry, told a news conference.

    "One of most stark trends we have documented is the use of siege warfare, the denial of humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities such as medical care and clean water have forced people to choose between surrender and starvation," he said.

    The UNSC, whose five permanent members wield veto power over resolutions that could force the international body to intervene on behalf of Syrian civilians, is divided over the conflict, with Russia — and to a lesser extent China — blocking measures aimed at punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

    More than 140,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, which enters its fourth year next week. Intense fighting has caused an estimated 2.5 million Syrians to flee the country as refugees and has left 6.5 million people internally displaced.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • State Dept: #Syria has removed additional chemical weapons stocks. 60% now shipped. Improvement but still behind schedule. #CW
  • Q. Are you worried Brahimi will resign? State: Can't speak to his intentions. We have confidence in him & he did a good job on #Geneva
  • State Dept: Sent diplomatic note to Syria #UN envoy saying he's restricted to 25-mile travel radius. Note was sent at end of February
  • #Syria March a critical month for CW elimination, good briefing today at SC, continued strong support for Joint Mission
  • Syria's population is about 23 million; at least 3 million fled, 6 million displaced inside, 130,000+ dead. Exact #s lacking #NatGeoLive
  • #UN : more than 250,000 people remain under siege in #Syria
  • The United Nations is blaming world powers for failing to stop Syria war crimes, Reuters reported early Wednesday morning.

    From Reuters:

    All sides in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish civilians and big powers bear responsibility for allowing such war crimes to persist, U.N. human rights investigators said on Wednesday.


    In their latest report documenting atrocities in Syria, they called again on the U.N. Security Council to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.


    "The Security Council bears responsibility for allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with impunity," the report by the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria said.


    "Such inaction has provided the space for the proliferation of actors in the Syrian Arab Republic, each pursuing its own agenda and contributing to the radicalization and escalation of violence."


    Divided world powers have supported both sides in Syria's three-year-old conflict and a diplomatic deadlock has exacerbated the bloodshed.


    The independent investigators, led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, said that fighters and their commanders may be held accountable for crimes, but also states which transfer weapons to Syria.


    Syrian government forces under President Bashar al-Assad have besieged towns including the Old City of Homs, shelling relentlessly and depriving them of food as part of a "starvation until submission" campaign, the report said.


    It said the Syrian air force had dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo with "shocking intensity", killing hundreds of civilians and injuring many more.


    Insurgents fighting to topple Assad, especially foreign Islamic fighters including the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS, have stepped up attacks on civilians, taken hostages, executed prisoners and set off car bombs to spread terror, it said.


    The 75-page report, covering July 15-January 20, is the seventh by the United Nations since the inquiry was set up in September 2011, six months after the anti-Assad revolt began.


  • As the civil war and humanitarian crisis rage on, Syrian doctors are struggling to care for the mentally ill and traumatized, Reuters reports.

    From Reuters:

    It was cold and dark in the psychiatrist's office in downtown Damascus. The electricity had just gone out, a regular occurrence these days in the Syrian capital, and he wore a jacket and scarf for warmth.


    Patients used the light from their mobile phones to climb a narrow staircase up five floors. The doctor, who asked that his name not be used, says his clients used to drive from all over the country. But Syria's civil war means many can no longer reach the capital across frontlines.


    When pro-democracy protests started three years ago, Syrians had access to government-subsidized health care. But in the armed revolt that followed a government crackdown on the protesters, many hospitals have been destroyed, and psychiatric facilities have become almost non-existent.


    Family networks have also collapsed under the pressure of war. Like other Arab countries,Syria had a long tradition of community involvement in the individual's wellbeing. But since the war began, communities have been uprooted and entire villages and towns have been destroyed, leaving society's most vulnerable people without a safety net.


    The demand for psychiatric care has never been greater. Psychiatrists find themselves overwhelmed by cases of war-related trauma.


    Today in Damascus, it is not unusual to see flyers with photos of patients who have disappeared after being displaced.


    Even the more fortunate patients who live at home in relatively safe central Damascus, with access to the few remaining psychiatrists, find the stress of war can precipitate a crisis.


    In the case of Sawsan, a 40-year-old woman living with schizophrenia, the sounds of war trigger her agitation and paranoia.


    "On bad nights, when we can hear a lot of shelling and gunfire, she gets stressed," her mother said. "(Sometimes) she locks herself in her room for days, barely coming out to eat. It's been very difficult for us."


  • Syrian forces pressed an assault on a strategic town near Lebanon, Reuters reported Tuesday.

    From Reuters:

    Gunfire crackled and warplanes buzzed overhead as Syria's military fought on Tuesday to take a town that would help President Bashar al-Assad seal a link between his coastal bastions and Damascus.

    Government fighters backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and local paramilitaries bombarded the areas around Yabroud, the last major town held by mostly Sunni Muslim rebels near the Lebanese border.

    Journalists were given a state-led tour of government-held areas around Yabroud on Tuesday including Al-Sahl, a town about 2 km (a mile) to Yabroud's north which the army took this week.

    Buildings in the town appeared undamaged and electricity was running, but shops were closed and the streets empty except for Syrian soldiers who patrolled with assault rifles, many smiling and flashing V for victory signs.

    Thousands of people fled Yabroud, a town of an estimated 40,000-50,000 people roughly 60 km (37 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the assault.

    A Syrian military officer who asked that his name not be used told reporters that civilians were still leaving Yabroud, meaning fighting was still light. Some who "had problems" with the government chose to flee across the border to the Lebanese town of Arsal, he added.


  • The Dutch diplomat leading an international mission to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program said Tuesday the pace of removing chemicals from the civil war-torn country is picking up and an end-of-June deadline for total destruction of the program is still achievable.

    A spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also said Damascus has said it can remove all chemicals from the country by the end of April.

    In an interview with The Associated Press, Sigrid Kaag said Syria has agreed a 60-day timetable to accelerate and intensify efforts toward removal of the chemicals that will be destroyed outside the country.

    "We anticipate a lot of action in the month of March," Kaag told the AP after briefing the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' executive council in a closed-door meeting.

    "But of course our message is always one of continued expectation to achieve more, to do more and to do it safely and securely."

    OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan called the new timeline "very welcome news."

    The international community is aiming to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tons of chemicals. Syria has been criticized for the slow pace of the operation and the Pentagon last week urged Damascus to speed up. Kaag said that to date nearly one third of the material has been removed or destroyed inside the country.

    The international effort was sparked by an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and was blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which denied involvement.

    Syrian ally Russia has been seen as a playing an important role in pressing Syria to get rid of the chemicals it stockpiled to turn into poison gas and nerve agents. It remains to be seen if tensions between the West and Moscow over Ukraine will have any effect on the Syria mission.

    "I expect and certainly hope that the unity of purpose that has so far supported the joint mission and the implementation in country is retained," Kaag said, when asked if the Ukraine tensions could affect the mission.

    Truckloads of chemicals are being driven from Syrian storage depots to the port of Latakia and loaded onto Norwegian and Danish cargo ships protected by warships. The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special equipment that will neutralize hundreds of tons of the most toxic chemicals under close supervision by OPCW experts.

    [The Associated Press]
  • Syria has shipped out about a third of its chemical weapons stockpile, including mustard gas, for destruction abroad, the global chemical arms watchdog said on Tuesday.

    The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague said Damascus had now handed over six consignments of the toxic agents it declared to the OPCW as part of a Russian-U.S. deal struck last year.

    The OPCW said it had confirmed two more shipments headed for the northern Syrian port of Latakia. They are to be transferred to the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray and commercial destruction facilities in the United Kingdom and Germany.

    Syria had also submitted a revised plan to remove all chemicals from its territory by the end of April 2014, the OPCW said. That proposal was being negotiated at an executive council meeting at the OPCW that began Tuesday morning.

    But Western diplomats said the revised timetable was too slow for several Western countries, which say the chemical agents must be shipped out by the end of March if a final June 30 deadline agreed for complete destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program is to be met.

    The United States said it needs 90 days to destroy roughly 500 metric tons of the most poisonous substances in the arsenal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria declared a total of 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons to the OPCW, the Nobel Peace prize winning body that is jointly overseeing the destruction process with the United Nations.

    [Reuters]
  • OPCW: Nearly 1/3 of #Syria CW material removed or destroyed. It is good progress but effort should be accelerated
  • Syria has submitted a revised proposal to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for the removal of chemicals. The country also accelerated the pace of deliveries to Latakia, according to the OPCW: 

    The Syrian Arab Republic has submitted to the OPCW a revised proposal that aims to complete the removal of all chemicals from Syria before the end of April 2014. 


    The OPCW-UN Joint Mission also verified that two more consignments of chemicals have left the port of Latakia, including a quantity of mustard gas - a Priority 1 chemical - which was previously reported last Wednesday. Another movement, a significant consignment of other Priority 1 chemicals, is scheduled to arrive in Latakia during this week, which will bring the total number of movements thus far to six. 


    The six movements represent more than 35% of all chemicals that must be removed from Syria for destruction, including 23% of Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of Priority 2 chemicals. In addition, the OPCW has verified that Syria has destroyed in situ more than 93% of its stock of isopropanol. 


    In his report to the opening session of the Executive Council, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said that all materials and equipment required by Syria are now in place for the expeditious removal of its remaining chemicals, including armoured jackets for the protection of containers. 


    “Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum,” the Director-General told the Council. “For its part, the Syrian Government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.


    The Special Coordinator for the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, Ms Sigrid Kaag, also briefed the Council on recent progress in the Syria mission. 


    "Nearly one third of Syria's chemical weapons material has now been removed or destroyed," the Special Coordinator told the Council. "This is good progress and I expect further acceleration and intensification of effort."


    Prior to initiating operations in January to remove its chemicals, in late 2013 Syria completed the functional destruction of its chemical weapons production facilities, mixing and filling equipment, and all of its munitions that were designed for use with chemical warfare agents. 

  • Syria criticized United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, accusing him of taking sides in the country’s three-year civil war.

    The Foreign Ministry statement came after Ban today appeared to pin more of the blame for failed peace talks that began in January on the delegation of President Bashar al-Assad. The two parties, “particularly” government representatives, “have not been constructively engaging in the dialogue,” Ban said in Geneva.

    The ministry, in remarks reported by the state news agency SANA, said Ban’s comments were “regrettable,” adding he should’ve addressed the roots of the Syrian conflict by pushing for the implementation of UN resolutions on eradicating terrorism.

    The Syrian government frequently portrays its opponents -- who include local rebel fighters and Islamist groups that have joined by war -- as terrorists allied to al-Qaeda and backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

    “Syria will continue its fight against terrorism by all means even as it seriously seeks a political solution and national reconciliation,” the ministry said in the statement.

    In a press conference during which he condemned “horrendous crimes” taking place around the world, Ban said Syria’s use of barrel bombs -- improvised ordnance in which explosives are packed in sections of pipe and dropped from the air -- in densely populated civilian areas were “acts for which there must be justice.”

    A second round of peace talks ended inconclusively last month after the government team refused to discuss a transitional administration that would replace Assad. Both sides blamed each other for the lack of progress.

    No date has been set for further talks, which sought to explore ways to end a conflict that has killed at least 140,000 people and driven more than 2 million into neighboring countries.

    [Bloomberg]
  • #Syria govt forces advancing on sheikh Najjar industrial zone; control of area will isolate rebel held east of #Aleppo city from countryside
  • Speaking at a conference at Tufts University over the weekend former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford placed the blame for the failure of the first two round of peace talks squarely on the regime's shoulders, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

    He also addressed a myriad of other issues facing the country, including whether the U.S. should use force to resolve the ongoing civil war.

    From the Monitor:

    1. It’s the regime’s fault.

    Ford placed the blame for the failure of two rounds of peace talks in Geneva squarely on the regime. Citing private comments by the United Nations special envoy to Syria, he said:

    “The major reason for the deadlock, I want to be clear with everyone here. The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has decades, decades of experience negotiating transitions and negotiating cease-fires, negotiating political settlements… was extremely clear as to what was the problem. He said it is – and this is a quote – 100 percent the fault of Jaafari,” he said, referring to Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, who led the regime delegation at peace talks.

    “I’ll give you this little detail about it. Most of the discussions behind closed doors were the regime throwing out insults at the opposition delegation, basically saying they weren’t representative.

    2. But the opposition isn't helping its cause.

    Assad’s Alawite support base is much shakier than it appears, Ford said, noting that there have been anti-government demonstrations even in his family hometown of Qerdaha. What keeps the Alawites and other minorities from deserting is a genuine fear that they will be massacred by foreign terrorists if Assad falls. Only the opposition can assuage those fears, he said.

    “The Syrian opposition itself has done a miserable job distinguishing itself from the Al Qaeda elements. There are some really bad people in Syria right now, on the opposition side. Can the opposition show that it is willing to reach out and figure out a way security-wise and politics-wise to reunify across that sectarian divide?” he said.

    “The sooner the opposition does that, the faster Assad’s support base will crumble.”

    At the last round of talks, international representatives were surprised at the number of messages they got from Damascus saying that they hoped the talks succeeded. “Even in the Alawi community, they want an out. They don’t like where they are,” he said.


    7. The end game is a bunch of cantons controlled by armed local factions.

    So what happens?

    Ford was unsparing in his summary: The state is “little by little collapsing.” It lacks the manpower to take back places like Raqaa province and Deir al-Zour, or the Kurdish north. The foreign fighters the regime increasingly relies on cannot be compelled to take on that fight. But neither can the opposition overcome the regime in much of the country.

    The most likely end game? De-facto cantons, some of them controlled by local armed factions. Certainly nothing like the Syria Ford saw when he arrived in Damascus in 2010.


  • A U.N. spokesman says the latest clashes that erupted in a blockaded area of the Syrian capital have disrupted efforts to distribute food to thousands of people there.

    Chris Gunness issued a statement on Monday, calling on all warring parties in the city's Palestinian-dominated Yarmouk to "immediately allow" the resumption of aid to the area.

    For nearly a year, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have prevented food distribution and medical aid to tens of thousands of Yarmouk residents. As a result, over 100 people have died of hunger or hunger-related illnesses.

    The U.N. began distributing food to Yarmouk in January but those efforts have been frequently hindered by violence.

    Syrian officials and activists in Yarmouk say the latest clashes, which erupted on Sunday, are the most serious yet to bedevil truce efforts and food distribution.

    [The Associated Press]
  • A Spanish journalist kidnapped in Syria has been freed, according to The Associated Press.

    From the AP:

     Spanish journalist kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria crossed the border into Turkey on Sunday, his newspaper reported, as activists said government airstrikes killed at least 13 people in a northwestern border town.

    Veteran war correspondent Marc Marginedas was abducted on Sept. 4 near Hama by jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway al-Qaida group. He was "moved repeatedly" while in captivity and accused him of spying for the West before his release, his newspaper El Periodico said.

    The newspaper did not elaborate on how Marginedas was released or whether a ransom was paid. It said he was undergoing medical tests in Turkey under the watch of Spanish state officials after speaking by telephone with his family in Barcelona and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

    The Spanish federation of journalist associations said in a short statement that it was delighted with the news and hoped for a similar outcome with Spanish journalists Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, also currently held in Syria.

    Syria, engulfed in a nearly three-yearlong civil war, has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, and the number of abductions has soared to an unprecedented level over the past year.

    Many of the kidnappings go unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the abductions out of public view may help with negotiating the captives' release. The scale of the abductions — more than 30 are believed to be currently held — and the lack of response to individual mediation efforts have encouraged some families and employers to speak out.


  • A British man once held at Guantanamo Bay turned human rights campaigner told a court in London on Saturday he would plead not guilty to providing training and funding terrorism in Syria, police said.

    Moazzam Begg, 45, who was released without charge from the U.S. military prison in Cuba in 2005, was detained at his home in Birmingham in central England last week and charged with terrorism offences dated between October 2012 and April 2013.

    He appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court on Saturday and was remanded in custody to appear at London's Old Bailey criminal court on March 14.

    It is the first time he has ever faced any charges.

    Begg was held by the U.S. government at Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, then Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, for nearly three years after being arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.

    After his release, he founded Cage, a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of people detained during counter-terrorism operations.

    Cage accused British authorities of "retraumatising" Begg by refusing to grant him bail, saying this was part of a campaign to criminalize legitimate activism.

    "This is a politically motivated arrest and very much bears the hallmarks of trying to criminalize legitimate Muslim activity by reinforcing a climate of fear," said Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage.

    Begg was one of four Britons arrested last Tuesday in central England on suspected Syria-related terrorism offences.

    Another of those, 44-year-old woman Gerrie Tahari, also appeared in Westminster Magistrates Court on Saturday charged with facilitating terrorism overseas.

    "When asked to give an indication of how they intended to plead they both replied not guilty," said a statement from West Midlands police.

    Tahari was also remanded in custody to appear on March 14.

    Two other men, aged 20 and 36, who were arrested the same day, remain in police custody, police said.

    The arrests came as concerns mount in Britain over the number of its nationals travelling to Syria to help rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

    Police fear they may become radicalized by Islamists or attend terrorist training camps before returning to Britain where they could pose a security risk.

    British police had already arrested 16 people on suspicion of terrorism offences related to Syria this year, some as young as 17, compared to 24 such arrests in all of 2013.

    Security assessments estimate that up to 500 Britons have gone to Syria in the past two years of which about half are thought to have returned home. This number includes those engaged in aid or humanitarian efforts.

    British law was changed last year to make it easier for the government to confiscate the passport from anyone whose "actual or suspected" activities are deemed contrary to the public interest.

    [Reuters]
  • Rebel infighting kills thousands of Syrians

    GAZIENTEP, Turkey — Syria’s rebel fighters have, over the past two months, suffered some of their heaviest casualties of the three-year civil war — not at the hands of the Assad regime, but in fierce internecine bloodletting that has put opposition medical resources under strain.

    The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — an armed group so radical that it has been disowned even by Al-Qaeda — has turned the war against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad into a complicated multi-front conflict where rapidly changing alliances and allegiances have led to confusion on the battlefield and an escalating casualty count.

    “We are now in the middle of a war with (ISIL) — it’s more severe than any fight with the regime,” said Salaheddin Safadi, a Syrian neurologist who directs a hospital and rehabilitation center run by the Liwa Tawhid, or the “Monotheists Brigade,” in the Turkish border town of Gazientep. The brigade is a part of the Islamic Front, a loose alliance of some 13 rebel groups claiming a combined strength of up to 60,000 fighters.

    ISIL’s actions have become so divisive among rebel groups that the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, issued an ultimatum on Feb. 25 demanding that the group accept mediation to end the infighting or face expulsion from the region by Nusra fighters.

    The Nusra Front has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., but has stayed out of the fighting between ISIL and other opposition groups.

    In response to the Nusra ultimatum, ISIL fighters reportedly withdrew from some areas in northern Syria on Friday.

    An Islamic Front fighter from Tel Rifaat named Mohammad said the Islamic State had put the town under siege.

    “I fought against them seven days with my kids inside the house,” the 48-year-old former stone merchant said as he walked across the border from Syria into Turkey in mid-February. “There was no bread.”

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syria has agreed a new timetable to remove its chemical weapons by late April after failing to meet a deadline to ship out the arsenal earlier this month, diplomats said on Wednesday.

    Under a U.S.-Russian deal reached after a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, President Bashar al-Assad's government should have handed over 1,300 tonnes of toxic chemicals by Feb. 5 for destruction abroad.

    But only three cargoes have been shipped out of the country so far, barely 10 percent of the total stockpile declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) overseeing the process along with the United Nations.

    Amid growing international frustration at the slow pace of progress, Syria last week submitted a new 100-day plan to remove the remaining chemicals, which would have set a target of late May or early June for completion.

    But the OPCW said the work could be done quicker, despite fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.

    Diplomats said the latest timetable would see Syria committing to transport most of the remaining chemicals to its Mediterranean port of Latakia by April 13, from where they would be shipped out for destruction.

    Consignments from two sites where security was precarious would be delivered to Latakia by April 27, they said.

    The diplomats also said two more shipments were expected to leave Latakia port on international vessels by the weekend.

    "There's likely to be some movements in the next few days," a senior Western envoy said. "This is something on which the Russians are continuing to keep up the pressure on the regime."

    "This process is going forward, it hasn't been completely derailed."

    No OPCW spokesman declined to comment.

    Assad agreed to destroy his chemical weapons following global outrage over a sarin gas attack in August last year.

    The world's deadliest chemical attack in 25 years, it drew a U.S. threat of military strikes which was dropped after Assad - who blamed rebels for the attack - pledged to give up chemical arms.

    The latest timetable appears to be a compromise between Damascus and Western powers who said last week that the shipment of the chemicals could be completed by the end of March.

    The United States has sent the MV Cape Ray, a ship outfitted with special equipment to neutralize the worst of Syria's chemicals at sea, and says it will need 90 days to complete the destruction.

    [Reuters]
  • The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed the shipment of chemical agents out of Syria:

    The Government of Syria today transported a fourth consignment of chemicals, a quantity of sulfur mustard, to the port of Latakia where it was loaded onto a cargo ship and removed from the country. The sulfur mustard is one of five “priority chemicals” in Syria’s chemical weapons programme and will be destroyed at sea aboard a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray. 

    “The removal of this sulfur mustard is an encouraging and positive development,” said the OPCW Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü. “Much work nonetheless remains to be done, and we look to the Syrian Government to accelerate its efforts to transfer the remaining chemicals in regular, predictable and systematic movements."


  • Special Coordinator of the Joint Mission in Syria Sigrid Kagg released the following statement about the recent shipment of the country's chemical stockpile:

    Today, a shipment of the Syrian Arab Republic's stockpile of sulphur mustard, commonly known as "mustard gas," has left its territory. I welcome this shipment as an important step in the elimination of the Syrian Arab Republic's chemical weapons programme, said Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag. 
    The Joint Mission looks forward to the Syrian Arab Republic continuing its efforts to complete the removal of the remaining chemical materials in a safe, secure and timely manner, through systematic, predictable and high0volume movements. 
    The Joint Mission encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to maintain momentum in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) , and the relevant Decisions of the OPCW Executive Council.

  • UN says a shipment of #Syria 's stockpile of mustard gas left its territory today.
  • FM #Steinmeier : We will continue to strengthen moderate opposition forces in #Syria , including thru int'l trust fund established by Germany.
  • Report: Syrian army kills 175 rebels in ambush

    Syrian army troops killed 175 rebel fighters in an ambush south of the capital Damascus on Wednesday, state media reported.

    Syrian state news agency SANA said the attack happened at dawn in the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta.

    A field commander in the area told SANA that most of the rebels belonged to the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front anti-government rebel group.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • #Syria Observatory for Human Rights: Some 3,300 people killed in fighting btw rebels & ISIL in northern #Syria since January
  • State media in Syria says army troops have killed 175 rebels in an ambush south of the capital, Damascus.

    Syrian state news agency SANA reported Wednesday that the attack happened at dawn in the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta.

    SANA quoted a field commander in the area saying most of rebels belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the killings, saying that 70 rebels were killed in Wednesday's assault.

    The Observatory, which has been documenting Syria's nearly 3-year-old conflict by relying on activists' reports on the ground, says the number of those killed likely will rise because 89 rebels have been reported missing.

    [The Associated Press]
  • According to state media in Syria, army troops have killed 175 rebels in an ambush south of Damascus, The Associated Press reports.
  • The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has released this startling picture of Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.


    “I am deeply disturbed and shaken by what I observed today," UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi stated. "The Palestine refugees with whom I spoke were traumatized by what they have lived through, and many were in evident need of immediate support, particularly food and medical treatment. What I have seen and heard today underlines the timeliness of the UN Security Council resolution 2139 on Humanitarian Access and the need for all sides to implement the resolution without fail.

    The camp has been sealed since July 2013, UNRWA said on its website. 


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