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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

Disaster

‘Horror show’: Massive explosion in Beirut kills dozens, wounds thousands in Lebanon’s capital

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Beirut Blast

BEIRUT : A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the centre of Beirut killed more than 73 people, injured over 3,700 others and sent shockwaves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere – in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion.”

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 25 people had been killed and more than 2,500 were injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

DAY OF MOURNING

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the country’s Supreme Defence Council, according to the presidency’s Twitter account. Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday’s blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had “disappeared” after the explosion.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast bangs. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

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Lifestyle

Saudi Arabia concludes Hajj amid COVID-19 pandemic

This season is only limited to domestic pilgrims who are residents and citizens living in Saudi Arabia.

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Haj Social Distancing

Riyadh: Pilgrims on Monday bade farewell to Mecca after Hajj rituals were concluded, Xinhua news agency reported.

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque had provided all relevant facilities for the pilgrims while ensuring precautionary measures against COVID-19.

The kingdom has organized an exceptional Hajj season with a limited number of pilgrims amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This season is only limited to domestic pilgrims who are residents and citizens living in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry announced on Monday 1,258 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the accumulated infections to 280,093.

The total recovered cases rose to 242,053 with the registration of 1,972 newly recovered cases.

The total death toll reached 2,949 with 32 fatalities reported in the last 24 hours.

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Disaster

One person is dying of COVID-19 every seven minutes in Iran: state TV

The report said that Iran’s official coronavirus figures were based only on the number of deaths in hospitals and those who had already tested positive for the coronavirus.

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Iran Covid Case

DUBAI : One person is dying from COVID-19 every seven minutes in Iran, state television said on Monday, as the Health Ministry reported 215 new deaths from the disease and state media warned of a lack of proper social distancing.

Health Ministry spokesman Sima Sadat Lari was quoted by the state TV as saying the 215 deaths in the past 24 hours took the combined death toll to 17,405 in Iran, and the number of confirmed cases rose by 2,598 to 312,035.

State television showed several Iranians in a busy Tehran street without wearing face masks or social distancing.

Some experts have doubted the accuracy of Iran’s official coronavirus tolls. A report by the Iranian parliament’s research centre in April suggested that the coronavirus tolls might be almost twice as many as those announced by the health ministry.

The report said that Iran’s official coronavirus figures were based only on the number of deaths in hospitals and those who had already tested positive for the coronavirus.

British broadcaster BBC reported on Monday that, based on data from an anonymous source, the number of deaths in Iran might be three times higher than officially reported. Iranian health authorities denied the report and said there had been no covebakingr-up.

With COVID-19 deaths surging since restrictions were eased in mid-April, Iranian authorities have said measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 will be reimposed if health regulations are not observed. Since last month, wearing face masks in public places and covered spaces has been mandatory.

Iran’s National Coronavirus Combat Taskforce was expected to announce later on Monday whether nationwide university entrance examinations, with over 1 million participants, will take place in August. Many Iranians have called on social media for the examinations to be postponed.

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