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Turkey blasts ‘double standards’ against terrorism

Dilar Baykan

ANKARA: Turkey’s EU affairs minister on Thursday criticized the U.S. and some EU countries for sympathizing with terrorist organizations.

In a Twitter post, Omer Celik said some countries, who ask Turkey’s cooperation against terrorist organizations, support them when Turkey fights against those groups.

“The reactions against Operation Olive Branch show how far the double standards have spread in the fight against terrorism,” Celik added.

On Wednesday, Celik criticized French Foreign Minister Drian’s statement claiming that Turkey had targeted civilians in the operation and “violated international law.”

“Turkey’s fight against terrorism is fully in line with international law. The ones who violate law and commit crimes are the ones who provide arms to the PYD/YPG,” Celik added, referring to the terrorist group that is the primary focus of the operation.

Over the past few years, Turkey’s border provinces of Hatay and Kilis have been subject to over 700 attacks from Afrin.

Since Jan. 21 alone, rocket and mortar attacks launched by the PYD/PKK terrorist group in the Syrian enclave of Afrin have killed seven civilians.


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Erdogan, Rouhani hail increased liaison on security

Sinan Uslu

ANKARA: Turkish and Iranian presidents on Thursday spoke over the phone and hailed the increased cooperation between the two countries on security issues and on fight against terrorism, according to presidential sources.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media, said Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani discussed latest developments in Syria.

The two leaders also hailed progress made at Sochi talks, which was started by Russia and supported by Turkey and Iran.

Syrian National Dialogue Conference was held in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

At the Sochi meeting — which included representatives from Syria and the guarantor countries Russia, Iran, and Turkey — a proposal to form a constitutional committee was agreed by all parties.

Erdogan and Rouhani agreed to hold a summit of the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran in Istanbul on the Syrian conflict.

Earlier on Thursday, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin also agreed to hold a trilateral meeting with Iran on Syria, while the two leaders spoke over the phone.

On Nov. 22, Erdogan, Putin and Rouhani have also met in Sochi to discuss pro-gress made in the Astana pe-ace talks and changes in de-escalation zones across Syria.

Syria has been locked in a devastating civil war since March 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.

While UN officials say hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, regime officials say the death toll is closer to 10,000.

Meanwhile, President Erdogan on Thursday strongly rejected a call by the main opposition leader to establish contact with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

“He says: ‘Sit on a table with Assad and discuss this issue’,” he said referring to remarks by Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

“What will we talk about to a murderer who has killed 1 million of his citizens,” Erdogan said in his address to mukhtars — heads of Turkish villages and neighborhoods — at the presidential complex in capital Ankara.

“You can go arm in arm with terrorists when necessary … But, we haven’t so far walked with those taking that path with permission of terror organizations, and we will not walk in the future,” he added.

On Tuesday, in his address to his party workers, Kilicdaroglu called on the government to establish contact with the Assad regime to resolve the conflict in Syria.

Erdogan said the ongoing operation in northern Syria will pave the way for refu-gees, currently being hosted by Turkey, to return home.

“We will solve the Afrin and Idlib issues. We want our refugee brothers to return to their own lands and homes. Surely, we will not keep 3.5 million [Syrians] here [in Turkey] forever. After all, they want to return to their own lands as soon as possible,” Erdogan added.

On Jan. 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to clear PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, northwestern Syria.

Since the beginning of the operation 1,028 PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists have been “neutralized” — a term which denotes the terrorists have either surrendered or been killed, the Turkish military said Thursday.

According to Turkish General Staff, the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkish borders and the region as well as to protect the Syrian people from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists. The operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law.

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Russian airstrikes kill ten civilians in Idlib

Monitoring Desk

IDLIB: At least 10 civilians were killed in airstrikes carried out by Russian aircraft in the rural countryside of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

According to Mustafa Hajj Youssef, director of the White Helmets civil-defense agency in Idlib, the air raids targeted a hospital and two schools in the village of Meshmishana in Idlib’s Jisr al-Shughour district.

The strikes left 10 civilians dead and another 15 injured, including civil-defense personnel, Youssef told Anadolu Agency.

“Schools in the district have been shut due to ongoing shelling [by the regime], which will likely raise the death toll further,” he said.

Abu Bahr (not his real name), a pro-opposition activist, identified the aircraft that conducted the strikes as a Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter, which, he said, had taken off from Russia’s Khmeimim Airbase in western Syria.

On Wednesday, 10 civilians were killed and another 20 injured when Russian fighter jets targeted the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib’s southern countryside.

Notably, Idlib falls within a network of de-escalation zones — endorsed by Turkey, Russia and Iran — in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

Controlled largely by anti-regime groups, Idlib has remained the target of intense airstrikes for the last two months. In January alone, 211 civilians were killed in the province while another 1,447 were injured.

Syria has only just begun to emerge from a devastating conflict that began in 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on demonstrators with unexpected ferocity.

Meanwhile, Russia on Thursday called the “illegal” U.S. presence in Syria a hurdle to the peace process, accusing it of giving shelter to “militants.”

“The U.S. illegal armed presence in Syria remains a serious challenge to the progress towards peace in Syria and the preservation of its unity and territorial integrity,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zaharova told a press conference.

Zaharova claimed that militants use a 55-kilometer zone created unilaterally by the U.S. around their military base in southern Syria near the village of At Tanf to hide from regime forces.

“Militants hide from the persecution of Syrian government forces, regroup there, arming for new attacks in the Syrian desert,” she said.

Turkey has complained of the U.S. forces in Syria supporting and supplying arms to the terrorist PYD/PKK.


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Libya boat tragedy: FIA confirms 28 Pakistanis confined in Libya

ISLAMABAD (APP): The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) confirmed on Thursday that 28 Pakistani nationals have been confined in Libya after the tragic boat capsize incident, said a report released by the law-enforcing agency.

The boat carrying the migrants capsized off the coast of Zuwara in the early hours of February 2, the International Organization for Migration had confirmed.

“It has been learnt that 28 more Pakistanis are confined in Libya in a safe house in Zawiya district,” said the FIA report.

The agency further stated that some of the Pakistani nationals are in contact with their families.

The report by FIA also requests the concerned quarters to rescue the Pakistanis and save them from further unfortunate events.

An embassy official earlier said victims are mostly from Gujrat in northern Pakistan.

The bodies of 12 Pakistanis who died in the incident have been recovered and brought to a morgue in the capital, Tripoli, awaiting repatriation.

Libya is the main gateway for migrants trying to cross to Europe by sea, though numbers have dropped sharply since July as Libyan factions and authorities – under pressure from Italy and the European Union – have begun to block departures.

Zuwara was a top departure point until a local backlash against smuggling in 2015.

So far this year, just over 3,500 migrants are recorded to have crossed from Libya to Italy, about 60 percent fewer than during the same period last year, according the Italian Interior Ministry.

Pakistanis are the third largest national group, after Eritreans and Tunisians.

Pakistanis resident in Libya for decades, many working in the gold business, have tried to leave because of the collapse in the value of the Libyan dinar and a severe liquidity crisis. Others have found their way to Libya through smuggling networks.

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Four Pakistanis beheaded in Saudi Arabia for rape, murder

RIYADH (AFP): Saudi Arabia executed four Pakistani men on Thursday convicted of raping and murdering a woman and raping her teenage son, the interior ministry said.

The men were also convicted of stealing jewellery and cash after entering the woman’s home in Riyadh and raping and strangling her, according to a ministry statement cited by the official SPA news agency.

The oil-rich Kingdom has executed 20 people since the start of 2018.

On July 10 last year, a Pakistani citizen was among six people convicted of drug trafficking and homicide were executed in Saudi Arabia, the government said, the highest number of executions in a single day in 2017.

The Pakistani man was beheaded for drug trafficking and five Saudi nationals for homicide, the interior ministry said.

Last year, 141 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia, where executions are carried out by the sword.

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US-led strikes on Syria pro-government forces kill 100: US official

BEIRUT (AFP): The US-led coalition said Thursday it killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its allies in eastern Syria, in one its deadliest confrontations yet with forces backing Damascus.

The initial attack was carried out by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on key oil and gas installations in parts of Deir Ezzor province controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces.

According to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), coalition advisers were present in the area that was attacked by pro-government forces in Deir Ezzor province late on Wednesday.

“The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression” against its own personnel and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hosting them, it said.

Oil and gas target

“We estimate more than 100 Syrian pro-regime forces were killed while engaging SDF and coalition forces,” a US military official said on condition of anonymity.

The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air strikes and shelling after “20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres of the SDF headquarters location”, the official said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which only confirmed 45 dead among pro-regime forces, the initial attack took place near Khasham.

The head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the aim of the attack appeared to be the capture of a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area.

The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic metres a day.

Regime and SDF fighters were involved in several skirmishes in the area last year, as they each conducted parallel operations against some of the Daesh’s last bastions.

Damascus and the US-backed Kurdish militia once worked towards the same goal in the region but they were never allied, and the collapse of the Daesh “caliphate” has further strained an already frosty relationship.

Syrian state media confirmed that dozens were killed in the clash but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing the victims as “popular forces”.

De-confliction line

According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to Assad and militia fighting alongside the regime.

CENTCOM said the attack occurred eight kilometres east of the “Euphrates River de-confliction line,” referring to a boundary agreed by Russia and the US, with the former’s area of operations west of the river and the latter´s to its east.

Daesh militants were flushed out of their last strongholds in eastern Syria and over the border in western Iraq late last year.

But the SDF continues to hunt down surviving militants who have reverted to a clandestine insurgency.

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India´s top court demands answers on Taj Mahal protection efforts

NEW DELHI (AFP): India´s top court demanded a detailed plan for the future of the Taj Mahal on Thursday, warning the state government´s “ad hoc” approach jeopardised the centuries-old monument to love.

Smog has been slowly yellowing the Taj´s brilliant marble and conservationists have long fought to close polluting industries near the 17th-century icon.

But years of interventions — including using mudpacks to draw the stain from the stone — have failed to arrest the slow decay of India´s biggest attraction.

The Supreme Court has ordered the state government of Uttar Pradesh to produce a “vision document” outlining its plan for protecting the wonder of the world within a month, the Press Trust of India reported.

In particular the court expressed concern about a “sudden flurry of activities” in the Taj Trapezium Zone — a buffer around the monument to protect it from pollution.

“Leather industries and hotels are coming up there. Why?” the court asked, describing the government conservation plan for the Taj as ad hoc and inadequate.

The state government was also directed to notify the court of how many trees had been planted in the buffer zone before any further greenery was felled for construction works, PTI reported.

The Taj faces numerous threats, from air pollution to insects that leave green stains on the rear wall facing the heavily polluted Yamuna River.

Nearly 6.5 million people marvelled at the monument in 2016 but the government in January announced plans to cap visitor numbers to reduce wear and tear.

Anyone wanting to see the main crypt, which houses the couple´s spectacular marble graves inlaid with semi-precious stones, will also have to pay for a pricier ticket.

Building restoration has dragged into a fourth year, leaving scaffolding clinging to the exterior, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome.

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631.

The Taj has attracted world leaders and royalty, including former US President Bill Clinton. Diana, the late British princess, was famously photographed alone on a marble seat there in 1992.

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Turkey says to host Syria summit with Russia, Iran

ISTANBUL (AFP): Turkey said Thursday it is planning to host in Istanbul a new three-way summit on Syria with the presidents of Russia and Iran, as the three powers seek to salvage increasingly fragile efforts to end the fighting.

The meeting — the second such tripartite summit on Syria — would come as Turkey presses on with its Olive Branch offensive against Kurdish militia inside northern Syria in an area where Russia has an influence.

No date for the summit was announced but Turkey is currently engaged in intense diplomatic activity with visits to Ankara by US national security advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expected in the coming days.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to hold the summit in Istanbul alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in telephone talks Thursday, a Turkish presidential source said.

Putin had already hosted a similar three-way summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in November.

In its readout of the talks, the Kremlin did not confirm the holding of the summit but said new contacts between the three sides were discussed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added a summit had been discussed but no date had been decided.

‘Managing the tempo’

Without giving details, the Turkish statement said Putin and Erdogan also discussed the three-week Turkish offensive against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin region of Syria.

Some Russian officials have expressed concern about the Turkish offensive but analysts believe it would never have gone ahead without at least the tacit assent of Moscow.

An added complication came with the deadly shooting down of a Russian war plane — resulting in the death of the pilot — by Islamist rebels over the neighbouring Idlib province at the weekend.

Moscow has applauded Turkey for its assistance in helping bring the body of pilot, Major Roman Filipov, back home for burial.

But analysts have noted that no Turkish air strikes against the YPG have taken place in the days since the incident, indicating that Russia has likely closed the air space.

“Russia (is) managing (the) operational tempo of Olive Branch by opening/closing air space,” commented prominent Turkish security analyst Metin Gurcan on Twitter.

The Turkish government has insisted there is “no problem” with air space.

‘Just a warm-up’

The summit, if it takes place, will be the latest example of the increasingly intense contact between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran over Syria.

Russia and Tehran are the key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey, however, has backed the rebels seeking Assad’s ouster in a seven-year conflict that has left more than 340,000 dead.

Yet Turkey, Iran and Russia have sponsored peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana that have set out the creation of four so-called de-escalation zones; Idlib, the greater Damascus area, the southern region of Daraa and the city of Homs.

But Erdogan again ruled out talks with Russia’s ally Assad, saying: “What will we talk about with a murderer who killed his one million of his citizens?”

Adding even more nuance, European diplomats say that Russia and Iran are having more discord on Syria, with Moscow much more interested in a political solution than Tehran.

“The Iranians are not up for an inclusive political settlement,” a European diplomat, who asked not to be named, said this week. “Iran would not like to see reforms that weaken Assad’s hold. The Russians are in a different place.”

Meanwhile, tensions have escalated between Turkey and the United States, which considers the YPG a valued ally in the fight against jihadists.

Erdogan has repeatedly vowed to press the offensive east to Manbij, where the US has a presence. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag warned at the weekend Turkey would even fire on troops from its NATO ally if they wore YPG insignia.

Warning of more to come, Erdogan said: “What we have done so far cannot even be considered a warm up tour. We will carry out our main actions and offensives in the coming period.”

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Gaza hospitals, clinics to reopen after Emirati grant: WHO

GAZA (AFP): Nearly 20 medical centres in Gaza will fully reopen in the coming days after the United Arab Emirates provided financing to end a fuel shortage, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Three hospitals and 16 medical centres had stopped offering key services in recent weeks as crippling fuel shortages meant they were unable to keep generators going, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said.

Gaza receives only a few hours of mains electricity a day, so hospitals and other vital services rely on private generators run with fuel provided by the United Nations.

After an emergency UN appeal, the UAE has pledged $2 million for fuel for the coming year, said Mahmoud Dahar, head of the WHO in Gaza.

“We have received an announcement from the UAE that they are going to fund two million, which will make the situation a bit easier for another few months,” he told AFP.

He added that he expected the hospitals and centres to fully reopen “in the coming days.”

The ministry said it was awaiting official confirmation of the UAE funds and did not say when the centres would return to normal operations.

Israel has maintained a crippling blockade of Gaza for a decade which it says is necessary to isolate the territory´s Islamist leaders Hamas. Critics say it represents collective punishment of two million people.

More than two-thirds of Gazans rely on international aid.

Separately on Thursday Egypt, which has also largely sealed its border with Gaza, opened the Rafah crossing for the first time in 2018. It is to remain open for three days.

US President Donald Trump has also withheld tens of millions in aid for Palestinians in recent weeks.

On Thursday, AIDA, a coalition of 70 international charities working in the Palestinian territories, said that decision would particularly affect Gaza.

It said the funding cuts “will lead to increased food insecurity, aid dependency, poverty, isolation, unemployment and hopelessness.”

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Bangladesh court announce five years imprisonment to opposition leader Khalida Zia

Monitoring Desk

DHAKA: Former Bangladesh prime minister and Opposition leader of Bangladesh, Khalida Zia was sentenced to five years imprisonment by a court in Bangladesh on Thursday after she was convicted in corruption case.

Judge of Bangladesh court, Muhammad Akhtar-u-Zaman announced the verdicts and awarded five years imprisonments for the convicted Khalida Zia.

According to international and Bangladesh media reports, the violent clashed started among the protestors and security forces after the verdict.

Security forces trying to disperse the protestors by firing tear gas at thousands of opposition activists who defied heavy security to escort the car taking Zia, a two-time former prime minister, to a Dhaka court for the verdict.

Local media reported that more than policemen were injured and two motorcycles torched during the clashes that broke out several kilometres (miles) from the court premises.

Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is charged with embezzling $252,000 from a trust created for an orphanage and faces life in prison if convicted by the Dhaka magistrates’ court.

She has consistently denied the charges, insisting “not a penny” was stolen and saying the legal action was politically motivated.