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‘Significant Progress’ Against Islamic State in Syria, Claims U.S. Defense Chief

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said Sunday they had recaptured 41 positions held by Islamic State militants in eastern Syria.

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Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, left, arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 11, 2019, to consult with Army Gen. Scott Miller, right, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, and senior Afghan government leaders. VOA

Acting U.S. Defense chief Pat Shanahan said Monday the Islamic State group remains a “global presence,” as U.S.-backed fighters work to clear the last enclave the militants hold in eastern Syria.

Shanahan told reporters traveling with him on a trip to Afghanistan that when it comes to the degree of Islamic State’s capabilities, that varies from “residual pockets to sleeper cells.”

“But in the context of military operations, I think the characterization of progress within Syria has been that they have been decimated and that we’re making significant progress” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, Shanahan said.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies the United States would not abandon efforts to destroy Islamic State when it withdraw its troops from Syria. Shanahan said Monday he plans to discuss the situation this week with NATO allies, including support and security operations that he says are important when shifting away from a significant military operation.

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“There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing,” an SDF field commander told AFP Sunday. Pixabay

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said Sunday they had recaptured 41 positions held by Islamic State militants in eastern Syria.

Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, tweeted that SDF forces had destroyed fortifications in the Village of Baghuz, but that heavy fighting continued.

“#SDF have advanced on northern and western axis into Baghuz since 19:00 yesterday evening, capturing 41 positions of ISIS and destroying fortifications. IS counterattack was foiled at 4 am this morning. Heavy fighting is going on inside the last village at the moment,” he wrote.

“There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing,” an SDF field commander told AFP Sunday.

The SDF, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, is fighting IS in a 4-square-kilometer area that includes Baghuz and is near the Iraqi border.

SDF officials and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated there were about 3,000 battle-hardened IS jihadists, mostly foreigners, in the region. The observatory also estimated that several hundred civilians remained in the area as well.

More than 23,000 Syrian civilians and foreign nationals fled eastern Syria this past week as the SDF, which includes Kurdish YPG militia fighters, prepared to move on IS in Deir el-Zour governorate, according to local officials and activists.

The displaced residents, mostly women and children, have been placed in the Kurdish al-Hol camp in al-Hasakah governorate, in northeast Syria.

The administrator of the camp, Nabil Hassan, told VOA that many of the women and children from the new wave of displacement this week were foreign nationals and family members of IS.

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SDF began an operation in September to rid Deir el-Zour of IS militants. The U.S.-backed fighters’ advance has been slowed by fierce fighting from the IS militants.

The civil war that has engulfed Syria began with Arab Spring protests in 2011. The United Nations estimates more than 400,000 Syrians have died since fighting began in 2011. More than 6 million Syrians have been displaced internally and about 5 million have sought refuge outside the country, with Turkey hosting nearly 3.5 million of them, according to the United Nations. (VOA)

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Vice President Mike Pence Claims, United States “Will Not Tolerate” Detention of Roberto Marrero of Venezuela

A collapse in world energy prices, corruption and failed socialist policies have destroyed oil-rich Venezuela's economy.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to the media at the White House in Washington, Jan. 9, 2019. VOA

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said the United States “will not tolerate” the continued detention of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff of Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Marrero was arrested Thursday during a pre-dawn raid on his home. Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol explained the arrest, saying a “large number of weapons” were found in Marrero’s house.

Pence made the statement in an op-ed piece for the Miami Herald Friday. He warned that the United States would not tolerate Marrero’s detention or intimidation of the Guaido government, which the U.S. recognizes as the legitimate government of Venezuela.

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 21, 2019.
Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 21, 2019. VOA

​Pence also called out Cuba, Russia, and China for supporting the administration of embattled president Nicolas Maduro and profiting from it.

He said Cuba is allowing its military and intelligence services to train, support, and equip Venezuela’s secret police; Russia vetoed a resolution at the United Nations calling for unfettered aid to Venezuela; and China is refusing to grant a visa to economist Ricardo Hausmann to attend the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting, which it is hosting.

Pence called Maduro a “corrupt dictator” and said those nations are holding Venezuela back in its “steady march towards freedom.”

“Nicolas Maduro must go,” he said.

Guaido, head of the National Assembly, has declared himself interim president after disputed elections. The United States and about 50 other countries have recognized him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. But Maduro has vowed to remain, leaving the two men in a struggle for power.

U.S. citizens detained

Also Friday, the State Department issued a statement of concern for “all U.S. persons” detained in Venezuela. Prison officials reportedly are preventing lawyers and families of detained Americans from seeing or bringing food to the detainees.

Six U.S. citizens, executives of the oil company Citgo, have been in jail since November 2017 for alleged money laundering and embezzlement.

The two U.S. senators from Texas, home to five of the six detainees, say the six are being held in deteriorating conditions. The legislators also say Venezuelan authorities have denied the detainees a trial and contact with the State Department.

Citgo is a U.S.-based refinery and gasoline marketer primarily owned by Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA.

President Donald Trump has said all options are on the table for Venezuela, but he has not said under what circumstances he might consider using U.S. military force.

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A collapse in world energy prices, corruption and failed socialist policies have destroyed oil-rich Venezuela’s economy.

Food and medicine are scarce, and more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country. (VOA)