NEAR BAGHOUZ: Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce extremist fightback Monday as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Daesh group.Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled extremist holdout in eastern Syria, as missiles and a warplane streaked through the sky.More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border.The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last Daesh pocket on Monday after an early morning Daesh counterattack caused several SDF casualties.“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP, using an acronym for Daesh.The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometers (miles) away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from SDF territory.Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages held by IS” inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed on Monday morning in the face of tough obstacles.“The SDF are advancing slowly in what remains of the IS pocket” on the edges of the village of Baghouz, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.But land mines, Daesh snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defense are hindering the advance, he said.Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the extremists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to Daesh fighters, have fled to SDF territory.US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential extremists for questioning.On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.Some 600 people were able to reach SDF territory on Sunday after fleeing the fighting, the Observatory said.Among them, were 20 suspected IS members, including two French women, seven Turks, and three Ukrainians, said the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.The SDF — which has said it expects the final offensive to be over in days — announced Sunday that it had taken some 40 positions from the extremists following direct combat involving light weapons.The alliance had earlier said that up to 600 jihadists as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside a patch four square kilometers (one mile square).Spokesman Bali said Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.
German far-right holds congress with COVID ‘hotspot potential’
About 600 members of AfD due to meet Saturday at an unused nuclear plant in Kalkar city defying pandemic warnings.Hundreds of AfD delegates will gather Saturday for a congress that authorities have warned could become a coronavirus hotspot, as the German far-right party increasingly aligns itself with activists protesting coronavirus restrictions. Six hundred members of…
About 600 members of AfD due to meet Saturday at an unused nuclear plant in Kalkar city defying pandemic warnings.Hundreds of AfD delegates will gather Saturday for a congress that authorities have warned could become a coronavirus hotspot, as the German far-right party increasingly aligns itself with activists protesting coronavirus restrictions.
Six hundred members of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant party are due to meet at an unused nuclear plant in western Germany’s Kalkar city to draw up their first concept on pensions.
To win approval for the huge gathering at a time when Germans are asked to limit their contacts to just two households at a time, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had signed up to stringent rules including compulsory mask-wearing and distancing in the huge hall.
The party’s own security officers are due to ensure that the rules are met, alongside officials from Kalkar city.
Hundreds of police officers will also be deployed to ward off any unruly scenes, as anti-AfD protesters have also announced plans to demonstrate outside.
The event can “become a hotspot,” warned Kalkar’s mayor Britta Schulz, adding that, while it was “irresponsible” to hold such a big event, the political gathering could not be prohibited.
Because new appointments are also due to be made to the AfD’s board during the meeting, the congress is exempted from rules banning large gatherings in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
More than 15,000 COVID deaths
In contrast, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party has twice postponed its congress to elect a new leader because of the risks of coronavirus contagion. The Greens held their meeting online last weekend.
Shrugging off possible risks, the AfD’s health policy spokesman Detlev Spangenberg claimed, “The coronavirus is comparable to the influenza in terms of the course taken by the illness as well as in terms of its lethality. So the serious measures [taken to fight it] are not proportionate.”
Germany has recorded more than a million coronavirus infections. A total of 15,586 people have died from the illness, according to official data.
The AfD has been the focus of repeated controversies since it began life as a eurosceptic outfit seven years ago.
In 2015, as public opinion soured against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, the AfD morphed into an anti-immigration party.
It was rewarded for its Islamophobic positioning at elections in 2017, when voters sent it into the Bundestag for the first time to become the biggest opposition group in parliament.
A year before national elections, the party is once again positioning itself at the side of groups railing against the government – this time over curbs imposed to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Party co-chief Alexander Gauland recently accused the government of using “war propaganda” to champion its “corona-dictatorship”.
AfD politicians are now also regularly marching side by side demonstrators against coronavirus curbs.
During the latest round of protests in central Berlin, when violence reached a level that the capital’s police chief said had been unseen in decades, an AfD politician was charged for using a forged medical certificate to claim he could not wear the required nose and mouth covering.
In a separate incident recently, Gauland was forced to apologise after two of the party’s legislators invited to parliament two far-right YouTubers who went on to harass politicians in the building.
Nevertheless, the AfD’s ratings have held at about 10 percent, compared with highs of 15-16 percent at the height of the refugee crisis.
In 2017, German voters sent AfD into the Bundestag for the first time to become the biggest opposition group in parliament [File: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]Toxic infighting between ultra-conservatives and others in the party has weakened the AfD. Some voters are also turned off by association with neo-Nazi skinheads, as the AfD’s most radical faction “Fluegel” is now the object of official surveillance by Germany’s intelligence agency.
Instead, approval ratings for Merkel – who is due to retire from politics next year – have soared to new heights, as the vast majority of the population voiced satisfaction at her handling of the pandemic.
Saudi Aramco says customers unaffected by Houthi attack on Jeddah
Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah. One of the facility’s tanks…
Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah.
One of the facility’s tanks was hit by a missile in early on Monday.
The attack knocked out 10 percent of all fuel that was stored at the plant, a Saudi Aramco official said on Tuesday, adding that the tank – one of 13 at the facility – is currently out of action.
The official described the site as a “critical facility” that distributes more than 120,000 barrels of products per day.
A fire caused by the attack was extinguished in about 40 minutes with no casualties, he said.
The attack was confirmed by a Saudi official who told the Saudi state news agency (SPA) it was a “terrorist attack with a projectile”.
The oil company’s production and export facilities are mostly in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, more than 1,000km (621 miles) away from Jeddah, across the country.
Announcing the attack, a military spokesman for the Houthis warned that “operations will continue”.
Yahya Sarea said the attack was carried out with a Quds-2 type winged missile. He also posted a satellite image with the label: “North Jeddah bulk plant-Saudi Aramco”.
“The strike was very accurate, and ambulances and fire engines rushed to the target,” Sarea said.
That facility is just southeast of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, an important site that handles incoming Muslim pilgrims en route to nearby Mecca.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore the Yemeni government, which had been removed from power in the capital Sanaa by Houthi forces in late 2014.
Cross-border attacks by Houthi forces have escalated since late May when a truce prompted by the novel coronavirus pandemic expired. The Saudi-led coalition has responded with air raids on Houthi-held territory.
The Houthis control most of north Yemen and most large urban areas. They say they are fighting a corrupt system.
Sarea said the attack was carried out in response to the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen.
The claimed attack came just after a visit by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The kingdom also just hosted the annual G20 summit, which concluded on Sunday.
US appoints first Venezuela ambassador in a decade amid tensions
The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations. James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a…
The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations.
James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a US Senate voice vote.
The South Carolina native takes the job that he will carry out from the capital of neighbouring Colombia as Venezuela endures an historic economic and political crisis.
The US and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations first started to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.
The two nations totally broke diplomatic ties last year, each withdrawing its diplomats shortly after Washington backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s leader.
Story, 50, will likely play a key role in helping guide US policy on Venezuela during the transition of President-elect Joe Biden.
Biden’s win has sparked debate among those who back President Donald Trump’s hardline approach of isolating his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro and others who say it is time for a new course.
The critics say heavy sanctions have failed to remove Maduro from power, opening Venezuela to US competitors such as China, Russia and Iran, while making life harder on millions of residents of the South American nation.
The US leads a coalition of dozens of nations that rejected Maduro following his election in 2018 to a second term in a vote Washington called fraudulent.
The US has since heavily sanctioned Maduro, his inner circle and the state-run oil firm, attempting to isolate them.
The Trump administration offered a $15m reward for Maduro’s arrest after a US court indicted him on drug charges.