Syrian army closes in on key Aleppo district Moscow and Washington trade barbs
Syrian regime forces were on the verge yesterday of seizing a major rebel district of Aleppo as Moscow and Washington traded barbs over stalled efforts to end fighting in the battle-worn city. After retaking control of about two-thirds of east Aleppo in recent days, forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad were advancing Tuesday on the large residential district of Shaar. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said if the district is retaken rebel forces will be reduced to a “war of attrition” with the army. “It is the most important neighborhood in the heart of east Aleppo, and is on the brink of falling,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that regime forces were already in control of about a third of the district. With the capture of Shaar, the army would hold 70 percent of east Aleppo, four years after rebels first seized it and divided the city.
The regime’s rapid gains have left opposition fighters scrambling to defend the shrinking enclave they still control in Aleppo’s southeastern districts. The international community has also struggled over how to respond, despite widespread concern over the fate of tens of thousands of civilians still in rebel-held areas. Russia, a key Assad ally, had announced talks with the United States in Geneva for Tuesday or Wednesday on organizing a full rebel withdrawal from Aleppo leading to a ceasefire.
‘Attempt to buy time’
But on Tuesday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington, which has backed rebel groups against Assad, of backtracking. “It looks like an attempt to buy time for the rebels to have a breather, take a pause and replenish their reserves,” Lavrov told journalists, adding that Moscow had the impression that “a serious discussion with our American partners isn’t working out.” Washington for its part accused Moscow of stalling for time after Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a seven-day ceasefire.
Russia said the resolution should have been postponed until after the Geneva talks, saying an agreement on organizing a withdrawal was close. The deputy US envoy to the United Nations, Michele Sison, suggested there was no deal, accusing Moscow of using a “made-up alibi” to block the resolution. “We will not let Russia string along the Security Council,” she said. “We will continue bilateral negotiations (with Russia) to relieve the suffering in Aleppo, but we have not reached a breakthrough because Russia wants to keep its military gains.” The rebels have so far rejected any talk of leaving the city, with Yasser AlYoussef of the leading Nureddin Al-Zinki faction describing the proposal as “unacceptable”. “It is for the Russians to leave,” he said. Rebels have been forced to evacuate several of their strongholds in Syria during the conflict, most recently a string of areas near Damascus.
In many cases, they have reached deals with the government after months of siege and fierce fighting, agreeing to lay down their arms in return for safe passage to rebel territory elsewhere. But the loss of Aleppo would be the biggest blow yet to opposition forces in Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 with popular protests calling for Assad’s ouster. More than 300,000 people have since died and millions forced from their homes. Aleppo, once Syria’s celebrated commercial and cultural hub, has been a key battleground of the war and suffered some of its worst violence. The most recent offensive has left more than 341 people dead in east Aleppo, including 44 children, the Observatory says.
Rebel fire into the government-held west of the city has killed 81 people, including 31 children, in the same period, the monitor says. Tens of thousands of east Aleppo residents have also fled to different parts of the city, including to governmentheld areas and other rebel neighborhoods. Escalating bombardment of the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib has also left dozens dead in recent days. At least 85 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed in air strikes on Idlib city and surrounding towns since late Saturday, according to the Observatory. It said both Russian and Syrian government warplanes took part in the bombing raids. —AFP
Severe flooding kills 14 in south Thailand
Severe flooding due to heavy rain in southern Thailand has killed 14 people, including five students, the interior ministry said yesterday. Six days of floods have affected 582,345 people in 11 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, the ministry said in a statement. One person is reportedly missing, while three others suffered injuries. Trains have also been halted in one province off the Gulf of Thailand as the rails there were submerged under rising floodwaters. Southern Thailand is a popular destination for visitors due to its scenic islands and beaches, and the floods are expected to put a dent in the area’s tourist industry, with the high season running from November to February. However, the waters are receding, with three of the 11 provinces now off the list of flooded provinces. A fourth province is expected to be declared clear as well, an official at the interior ministry said. But Thailand’s Meteorological Department forecasts more heavy rains next week for southern Thailand.
Indonesian authorities burn massive drug haul
Police began torching about a ton of illegal drugs in Jakarta yesterday, as Indonesian President Joko Widodo defended his tough war on narcotics. Authorities wheeled out giant furnaces to incinerate some of the massive haul on display, including nearly half a ton of methamphetamine, 190,000 ecstasy tablets and 420 kilograms of marijuana. Widodo and other top officials, wearing protective gloves and masks, inspected the drugs before tossing bags of pills into the incinerator. Indonesia has tough drugs laws but Widodo has made combating narcotics a top priority since taking office in late 2014, resuming the execution of traffickers after an unofficial hiatus. Eighteen convicted drug smugglers-including 15 foreigners-have been sent to the firing squad in Indonesia under his administration. Widodo has defended his hardline stance, claiming Indonesia faces a “drugs emergency” and must act to protect the next generation. “Every year 15,000 Indonesian youth die because of drugs. How many drug dealers and traffickers die every year?” he said.
Cambodia upholds drug sentences for foreigners PHNOM PENH:
A Cambodian appeals court yesterday upheld the prison terms of a Frenchwoman, an Australian woman and a Nigerian man for trying to smuggle heroin to Australia. Judge Pol Sam Ouen said the sentences given by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in May 2014 to then-19year-old Frenchwoman Charlene Savarino, 41-year-old Ann Yoshe Taylor of Australia and 23-year-old Precious Chneme Nwoko of Nigeria were correct and accorded with the law. The lower court had sentenced Savarino to 25 years in prison, Taylor to 23 years and Nwoko to 27 years. Savarino and Taylor were arrested in September 2013 at Phnom Penh International Airport after police found 2.2 kilograms (4.8 pounds) of heroin in Taylor’s luggage as they prepared to fly together to Australia. Nwoko, Savarino’s boyfriend, was believed to have masterminded the smuggling and asked Savarino to make the arrangements. Cambodia is not a major producer of illegal drugs but has increasingly become a smuggling transit route.
Hair today, gone tomorrow: Serial snipper strikes Japan
A suspected serial hair-snipper has been arrested in Japan after being accused of stealing tresses from unsuspecting women on rush-hour trains. Police charged the 23-year-old graduate student with assault on Monday after he admitted cutting the hair of a woman on a packed morning train in Nagoya, a city west of Tokyo. Akiya Yoshida is also being investigated for possible involvement in about 30 other cases over the past several years. Yoshida said he had planned on selling his ill-gotten merchandise online, according to the top-selling Yomiuri newspaper.
IDLIB: A picture taken from a rebel-held area shows smoke billowing from buildings in the pro-regime Shiite town of Foua, in northwestern Idlib province yesterday following a reported rebel shelling. — AFP