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Civilian Deaths Surge in Raqqa as Islamic State (ISIS) Tactics Slow US-backed Advances

Rights organizations and activists continue to express concerns about the rising death tolls among civilians in the besieged city

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FILE - Smoke rises after an airstrike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 15, 2017. VOA

Syria, August 19, 2017: As U.S.-backed forces continue to make slow progress in their offensive to oust Islamic State (IS) from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, thousands of civilians who are trapped in the city face an increasing danger of getting caught in a crossfire, rights organizations and local activists warn.

Officials from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say their battle against IS has entered a fierce and grueling phase in the densely populated neighborhoods of the city, as the terrorist group tries various tactics to keep its stronghold.

“This fight has become a matter of life and death for both sides,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the SDF, told VOA.

Bali said IS militants are increasingly using suicide car bombs, snipers, drones and tunnels to hinder SDF advances.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces walk at their position during fighting with Islamic State militants in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

“But what distinguishes the operation for Raqqa from all other cities is the degree to which IS thugs use civilians as human shields,” he said.

He added that IS has forced civilians to remain in their homes so coalition forces avoid airstrikes in those areas.

Despite IS tactics, the SDF was able to advance slightly from the southeast of the city, Bali said. As the forces marched forward, SDF’s special units rescued nearly 250 civilians early Thursday.

Claims of civilians killed in airstrikes

Meanwhile, rights organizations and activists continue to express concerns about the rising death tolls among civilians in the besieged city.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday said an escalated shelling of Raqqa by the U.S.-led coalition warplanes since Monday has left nearly 60 residents dead, including 30 children and women.

The group said it expects the death toll to rise as recovery units continue to find missing bodies under the rubble.

Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters on Wednesday that coalition jets have conducted more than 200 airstrikes against IS positions in Raqqa this week alone. He did not directly comment on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ findings.

A banner belonging to Islamic States fighters is seen during a battle with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

Speaking with reporters during a phone briefing from Baghdad, Dillon talked about the stiff resistance the SDF forces are facing from about 2,500 IS fighters who still hold about 45 percent of the city.

He added that the jihadist group has centralized much of its operations and many of its fighters in densely populated areas and high-rise buildings, including the city’s main hospital, in an effort to slow down the ongoing siege.

“They have fortified the complex, created tunnels for access, and are hiding among women and children who have nowhere else to go,” Dillon said.

The United Nations estimates there are still nearly 25,000 civilians trapped inside the city. The agency has called upon the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF to increase their efforts to open safe corridors for the remaining civilians to flee.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces keep guard at their advanced position during fighting with Islamic State militants in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

“The worst place probably today in Syria is the part of Raqqa that is still held by the so-called Islamic state,” Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, told reporters on Thursday.

IS landmines

Hussam Eesa, a founder of the anti-IS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told VOA that many residents who escape airstrikes and IS snipers fall victim to the landmines planted by IS.

Eesa said about 350,000 residents have managed to escape the city, making it to nearby towns and villages under SDF control. But he said they continue to suffer from lack of basic services.

“The SDF areas are safer off course,” Eesa said. “But there is a lack of aid and increased restriction on civilian movement in refugee camps.” (VOA)

 

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US Backtracks on Iraqi, Kurd Cease-fire Claim

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An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri
An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. VOA

Iraq, October 27: The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State announced Friday morning a cease-fire between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Northern Iraq but quickly backtracked on the claim, saying it is not an “official” cease-fire.

Army spokesman Ryan Dillon posted a clarification on Twitter to say “both parties (are) talking with one another,” but that a “cease-fire” had not been reached.

The Iraqi military and the Kurdish minority have been clashing for several weeks after the Iraqi troops moved to secure areas in northern Iraq that had been seized from IS jihadists by Kurdish forces. The Kurdish forces abandoned the land largely without resistance, though low-level clashes have been reported.

Iraqi PM rejects Kurdish offer

The areas Iraqi forces are moving into were mostly under Baghdad’s control in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept into the region. Kurdish Peshmerga and coalition forces recaptured the lands, and the Kurdistan Region has since held them.

The Iraqi leadership said it is retaking the areas to establish federal authority after a Kurdish referendum for independence in September threatened the nation’s unity. More than 92 percent of Kurds in Iraq voted “yes” in a vote Baghdad called illegal, and the international community leaders said was dangerous and ill-timed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday rejected an offer by Kurdish leaders to freeze the results of their independence referendum in favor of dialogue in order to avoid further conflict.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, in a statement, said the confrontations have hurt both sides and could lead to ongoing bloodshed and social unrest in Iraq.

“Certainly, continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life,” the KRG said.

‘Unified Iraq is the only way to go’

Abadi said in a statement his government will accept only the annulment of the referendum and respect for the constitution.

During a briefing Friday morning at the Pentagon, Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. told reporters the U.S. believes “a unified Iraq is the only way to go forward.”

He added, “We’re not helping anyone attack anyone else inside Iraq, either the Kurds or the Iraqis.”(VOA)

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Indians Missing in Mosul: V.K. Singh in Iraq to Co-ordinate Search Opertion

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V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indian
V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indians who went Missing in Mosul. IANS

New Delhi, October 27: After the government sought DNA samples from the next of kin of the 39 Indians Missing in Mosul, Iraq three years ago, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh is again visiting the country to seek an update.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveeh Kumar said on Friday that Singh’s visit “is to talk to people”.

“He has met a range of people in Iraq. And also to get an update on the 39 missing Indians in Iraq,” Kumar said in his weekly media briefing here.

He said that on Thursday Singh was in Mosul city where the Indians went missing.

Last week, the families of the 39 Indians were asked to provide their DNA samples but no reason was provided, the kin said.

It was in June 2014 that the 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab, went missing in Mosul town when it was overrun by the Islamic State. Their families continue to hope the men are alive but also fear the worst.

Singh had visited Iraq in July too in this connection.(IANS)

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Europe Braces for More Attacks From Islamic State

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Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road
Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road, north London, April 28, 2017. British counterterrorism police said they had thwarted an active plot in an armed raid, the second major security operation in the British capital in the space of a few hours. VOA

European counterterror officials say they are taking no solace in the liberation of Raqqa from Islamic State, with some warning that the terror group’s communication and planning units remain “very active.”

The fall of IS’s Syrian capital this month has been heralded as a crushing blow to the group’s aspirations, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it a “critical breakthrough.”

But counterterrorism officials say there is broad consensus that IS still has a considerable reach, especially in the near term.

“We all share the same opinion. The military defeat, the so-called caliphate being scattered, does not mean that the terrorist organization ISIS is defeated,” Dick Schoof, the Dutch national counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters Wednesday, using an acronym for the group.

Ability to communicate

A key concern is that a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has yet to have a considerable impact on the terror organization’s ability to communicate, both with its operatives in Europe and potential recruits.

IS has also been able to leverage relationships with organized crime syndicates, which officials describe as especially worrisome.

“We know that ISIS’s planning unit is still functioning. Also, its communications unit is still functioning,” said Schoof.

The European assessment mirrors that of counterterror officials in the United States, who have repeatedly warned that, at best, there would be a lag between the fall of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria and any impact on its external operations.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” Nick Rasmussen, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in September. He called IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

Also, one of the most anticipated consequences of the collapse of the so-called caliphate has failed to materialize: a substantial flow of foreign fighters to their home countries.

Schoof, the Dutch counterterror coordinator, said that of the Netherlands’ approximately 300 foreign fighters, slightly more than 50 have returned, with only a handful trying to make their way back as IS’s fortunes have waned.

French police and anti-crime brigade members
French police and anti-crime brigade members secure a street during a counterterrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris. VOA

Complex terror threat

Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, has also said that “there is no hard evidence” for a rising tide of returning foreign fighters.

Instead, officials say, Europe is facing a more complex and variable threat picture, even as they have worked to take down, through multiple raids and a series of arrests, most of the IS network thought to be behind the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

At the same time, officials warn al-Qaida operatives have become more active, stepping up their planning for potential attacks on the West.

In particular, there has been growing concern about IS and al-Qaida activity in northern Africa.

“We are very cautious,” Schoof said. “ISIS and al-Qaida are still not very strong but do have footprints.”

Like the U.S., which has sent troops to Niger to track IS operatives and officials, European militaries have also been active in the region.

So far, at least, Western officials have yet to track any significant flow of foreign fighters or top officials from the Middle East to Africa.

But Islamic State, at least, is turning to a familiar strategy.

“What ISIS is absolutely trying to do is leverage local insurgencies now to rebrand themselves,” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, said Tuesday following a meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS. “They’re trying to maintain relevance.”(VOA)