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US-backed force clearing last IS fighters from Raqa, monitor says

After seizing swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, IS has seen the territory under its control fast diminish in recent months.

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US-backed fighters said Wednesday they were in the “final stages” of capturing Raqa from the Islamic State group as waves of air strikes pounded the jihadists’ Syrian bastion.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have now seized 90 percent of the extremists’ de-facto Syrian capital, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

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Children flash victory signs as a convoy carrying US-made Oshkosh armoured vehicles heads to the Syrian city of Raqa on September 19,

Their advance is the latest in a string of setbacks for IS in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, where the jihadists were defeated in second city Mosul in July.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, said it had mounted a “surprise attack” on IS in the north of Raqa, where the jihadists have been under siege for three months.

“We consider this the final stages of the Wrath of the Euphrates campaign, which is nearing its end,” a statement said.

The US-led coalition backing the SDF with air strikes, equipment and advisers said it had been bombing IS near Raqa for two days, targeting the jihadists with 42 air strikes on Monday and 30 on Tuesday.

“Because of the heavy coalition air strikes, IS withdrew from at least five key neighbourhoods over the past 48 hours,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“This allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces to control 90 percent of the city,” he said.

IS pulled out of the north of the city and abandoned its grain silos and mills and was now confined to the city centre, in government administrative buildings, stadiums and tunnels, he added.

Coalition spokesman, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said on Twitter that the SDF were keeping the pressure on IS and that 65-70 percent of Raqa was now under the control of the US-backed forces.

The jihadists seized Raqa in early 2014, transforming the northern city into a key hub in the “caliphate” they declared after taking control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

– ‘Not resist much longer’ –

Raqa quickly became synonomous with the group’s most gruesome atrocities, including public beheadings, and IS is thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.

The SDF spent months encircling the city before entering it in June and sealing off all access routes.

Abdel Rahman said the siege had worn down IS’s defensive capabilities.

“After hundreds of their fighters were killed in recent weeks, the remaining IS fighters will not be able to resist much longer in Raqa as their military equipment and basic necessities are dwindling,” he said.

Without food or medical equipment, IS was unable to treat its own wounded and had retreated to the city centre, which it considered “the most secure,” he said.

The jihadists have fought back using mines, snipers, car bombs, and weaponised drones.

Abdel Rahman said the SDF began operations to clear mines from the districts they seized.

“The jihadists had buried hundreds if not thousands of mines” in those areas, he said.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting in recent months, with up to 25,000 believed to be still trapped inside according to the UN.

The SDF said on Wednesday it had helped hundreds of civilians escape from the city in recent days.

“We will continue the campaign until we achieve our aim,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF’s spokeswoman for the Raqa offensive, told AFP.

AFP journalists on Tuesday saw a convoy transporting US-made armoured vehicles and other military equipment through northeastern Syria towards Raqa.

– ‘Impact for years to come’ –

More than 330,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced since civil war broke out in Syria following protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

It has since evolved into a complex, multi-front conflict involving government forces, rebels, Kurdish fighters and jihadist groups including IS.

After seizing swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, IS has seen the territory under its control fast diminish in recent months.

On Monday, Iraqi forces launched an attack up the Euphrates Valley against one of IS’s two remaining enclaves in Iraq.

And in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor, IS faces twin assaults — one by Russian-backed government troops and the other by the SDF.

S also holds pockets of territory in central and southern Syria and around the capital Damascus, though some of those too are under attack.

“I don’t think it is a simple question of taking away the Islamic State’s territory and then the Islamic State idea evaporates,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London.

IS had made its mark by establishing its so-called “caliphate” and calling on hundreds of thousands of people around the world to join it, Winter said.

“The ideological impact of that is going to be immense for years and years to come.”

AFP Report

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Middle East

Syria rebels in south announce return to talks with Russia

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Syrian rebels

Daraa (Syria) : – Rebels in Syria’s battered south were returning to talks with government ally Russia on Thursday after the most intensive bombing campaign yet in the regime’s two-week offensive.

Moscow has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of beleaguered rebels in southern Syria, a highly strategic zone bordering both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan.

More than 30 towns have already agreed to fall back to regime control, and negotiations this week focused on remaining rebel territory in Daraa’s western countryside and the southern half of the provincial capital.

But those talks fell apart on Wednesday because of Russia’s tough demands, rebels said, ushering in a ferocious blitz of air strikes, barrel bombs, and missiles.

An AFP correspondent on the edge of the rebel-held south of the city of Daraa, the divided provincial capital, said the bombing was the heaviest since the launch of the Russian-backed offensive on June 19.

Twenty-four hours into the onslaught, rebels announced they were willing to return to negotiations.

“The talks will resume,” Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for joint rebel command in the south, told AFP.

He had earlier accused Russia of pursuing a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to return to the negotiating table.

The joint command also issued a statement saying it would be willing to hold “a new round of negotiations” if a halt to hostilities was immediately put into place.

As rebels made their announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported a halt to both Russian and Syrian government air strikes over the south.

Read : Syria rebels say talks with Russia over south ‘fail’

The day-long volley began on Wednesday evening, after rebels announced the failure of talks with Russian negotiators over the south’s fate.

They said Russia had insisted opposition factions hand over their heavy weapons in one go, while rebels wanted to do so in several phases.

Moscow also reportedly refused requests from some rebels for safe passage to opposition-held territory in other parts of Syria, as was done in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo.

The resumption of strikes hit areas near the border with Jordan and further west, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

Six civilians, including a woman and four children, were killed in strikes on the town of Saida.

Hours later, regime forces fully retook the town and also seized control of a security checkpoint on the Jordanian border for the first time in more than three years, the monitoring group said.

Rebels subsequently handed over a large swathe of the border area, amounting to 275 square kilometres, to regime forces without a fight, said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

But the main prize, the Nasib border crossing, remains in opposition hands.

Syrian state media said government forces were targeting rebel positions in the southernmost parts of the province, and reported one person killed in opposition fire on government-held districts of Daraa city.

The bombing on rebel areas throughout the day Thursday sparked a new wave of displacement, with people streaming into olive groves and arid fields in search of safety.

Bahaa Mahameed, a doctor working in Daraa’s western countryside, said wounded civilians were streaming into his clinic after several days of calm.

“The warplanes are bombing like crazy. We can’t even find a safe place to put the wounded,” Mahameed told AFP.

– UN to meet –

Rebel territory in southern Syria was already included in a ceasefire agreed last year between Washington, Amman, and Moscow, but that did little to halt the regime’s attack.

The onslaught has sparked calls for restraint, and the United Nations Security Council is set to hold a closed-door emergency meeting on the offensive later Thursday.

Daraa is considered the cradle of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that triggered Syria’s devastating civil war.

Nearly 150 civilians have died since the assault in the south began, according to the Observatory.

The offensive has also displaced 320,000 people, according to the United Nations, many south to the border with Jordan or west to near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Both countries have kept their borders closed, despite mounting calls to let Syrians escape to safety.

The International Rescue Committee said displaced families were struggling to cope with 45-degree heat, dry desert winds and scorpions and snakes.

Children were reported to be hit with cases of diarrhoea and lice after spending more than a week on the border.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the hostilities were hindering UN efforts to provide cross-border aid from Jordan.

“Thousands of innocent lives are going to be lost, once again, if urgent action is not taken,” he warned.

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Middle East

US withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal benefits no one: Rouhani

As the United States is reinstating sanctions on Iran, Rouhani is trying to seek supports from EU countries to secure Tehran’s interests under the nuclear deal.

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Vienna, July 5 (IANS) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who’s on a visit here on Wednesday, said that no one will get benefits from US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

“Not the US, not any other country would benefit from this decision to withdraw from the accord,” he said.
He told a press conference that Tehran would prefer to stay in the deal and continue to cooperate and meet its obligations, if the remaining signatories respect its interests, Xinhua reported.

Rouhani was in Vienna on Wednesday on his second leg of his European tour, which also brought him to Switzerland.

As the United States is reinstating sanctions on Iran, Rouhani is trying to seek supports from EU countries to secure Tehran’s interests under the nuclear deal.

Iran signed the landmark nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany in 2015 to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief.

However, US President Donald Trump decided on May 8 to quit the deal and vowed to re-impose sanctions, including oil embargo, on Tehran, on grounds that the deal had failed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or supporting terrorism in the region.

The US withdrawal from the landmark nuclear deal has been widely criticized, as some of its major European allies have been working to prevent the 2015 deal from falling apart.

Rouhani also discussed other issues in the Middle East region with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

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Middle East

Syria rebels say talks with Russia over south ‘fail’

The talks with the Russian enemy in Bosra al-Sham have failed because of their insistence on handing over heavy weapons.

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Asad Putin

AMMAN, July 4 – Syrian rebel negotiators and Russian officers failed on Wednesday to reach an agreement that would end fighting in southern Syrian, a rebel spokesman said.

“The talks with the Russian enemy in Bosra al-Sham have failed because of their insistence on handing over heavy weapons,” Abu Shaima, a spokesman of the central operations room representing main FSA factions negotiating with the Russians told Reuters.

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