US-backed forces combed the ruins of Raqa for survivors and bombs on Wednesday after retaking the Syrian city from Islamic State group jihadists and dealing their dreams of statehood a fatal blow.
A lightning final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday saw jihadist defences collapse faster than expected as the SDF claimed a landmark victory in the three-year fight against IS.
SDF fighters flushed jihadist holdouts from Raqa’s main hospital and municipal stadium, wrapping up more than four months of fighting to seize what used to be the inner sanctum of IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
On Wednesday, SDF forces fired into the air and danced the traditional Middle Eastern dabke line dance to blaring music amid the otherwise eerie silence of the city.
Inside the stadium, the militia’s flag was raised as bulldozers worked to clear the ground of explosives that IS had strewn throughout the city.
Many roads were still closed off, and access to the hospital was blocked while fighters worked to clear it.
Teams of SDF fighters were deployed across the rubble-strewn streets to look for unexploded ordnance and booby traps left by the jihadists.
“They are making sure there are no more sleeper cells” in Raqa, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told AFP.
“Mine-clearing operations and the re-opening of the city are under way,” he said, adding that his organisation would only formally announce the liberation of the city once they are completed.
– City unsafe –
“We urge our people… who fled IS rule not to return to the city for their own security until it is rid of terrorist explosives,” the Kurdish internal security services said in a statement.
But some SDF fighters are themselves from Raqa.
Under the stadium, SDF member Ahmad al-Hassan returned to an oval hallway lined with makeshift cells where IS locked up civilians accused of breaking its ultra-conservative rules.
“This is where they humiliated us,” he said, near the room where he was kept for seven days with 35 other men after he tried to prevent his wife’s arrest for briefly showing her face in public.
The loss of Raqa left IS ruling over a rump “caliphate” straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and covering a fraction of the territory it held when it declared its “state” in July 2014.
The US-led coalition supporting anti-IS forces in Iraq and Syria said on Tuesday that the jihadists had lost 87 percent of the territory they held three years ago.
Brett McGurk, the White House’s envoy to the multinational coalition, said on social media that IS had lost 6,000 fighters in Raqa.
He described the organisation as “pathetic and a lost cause”.
Raqa was one of the most emblematic IS bastions, at the heart of both its military operations and its propaganda.
Several of the most high-profile attacks IS claimed in the West, including the 2015 massacres in Paris, are believed to have been at least partly planned in Raqa, earning the city the nickname of “terror central”.
Raqa also featured heavily in the propaganda videos, from public beheadings to trainings, that IS used to instill fear among the caliphate’s residents and appeal to new recruits globally.
– ‘Some surrendered, others died’ –
Clara Raqqa, a top SDF commander, smiled and squinted into the sun as she stood at the iconic Al-Naim roundabout where IS carried out some of its most gruesome atrocities.
“Today, after all these years, we are here,” she said. “I remember my childhood here, my teenager years… I’m so happy that we’ve reached the days of freedom.”
Jamila Hami, a volunteer with the Kurdish Red Crescent, said she remembered the dead and wounded people she had seen throughout the months-long operation to take the city.
The 45-year-old said rebuilding the city’s medical infrastructure would pose major challenges.
“Yes, Raqa is now liberated, but the next phase for us will be even harder than the one that has passed,” she said.
The breakthrough in the operation to retake Raqa came last week when a local deal was struck for the safe exit of several thousand civilians who had been used as human shields by IS, while Syrian jihadists surrendered.
Up to 400 mostly foreign IS fighters had been believed to remain in the city, prepared for a bloody last stand.
Yet events since the Sunday announcement of the operation’s final phase gives few clues as to their fate.
“Some surrendered, others died,” Talal Sello, another SDF spokesman said, without providing further details.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor relying on a network of sources across Syria, said most of the foreign fighters surrendered and were being held by Western intelligence services.
It was not immediately possible to corroborate his claim.
Colonel Ryan Dillon, the US-led coalition’s spokesman, only spoke of four confirmed cases of foreign IS fighters surrendering and stressed that they were in SDF custody.
“We as the coalition do not hold or control any of these detainees,” he said, adding the SDF may make separate arrangements with the detained jihadists’ countries of origin for some of them to be handed over and prosecuted.
We won’t yield to sanctions pressure over Ukraine, says Putin.￼
NEWYORKGM– Western sanctions will never make Russia change its position on Ukraine, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
Responding to a barrage of Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “They are counting on forcing us to change our position. This is out of the question.”
Peskov told reporters that President Vladimir Putin had been briefed on a first round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Monday but it was too early to judge the outcome.
There were no plans for talks between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he said, adding that Moscow still recognised Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s leader.
Zelenskiy, he said, could prevent further casualties if he gave the command to lay down arms.
Ukraine has refused to surrender and its forces have put up strong resistance to Russia’s assault from the north, east and south, which Moscow describes as a special operation to demilitarise and “denazify” the country – a justification dismissed by Kyiv and the West as war propaganda.
Peskov dismissed allegations of Russian strikes on civilian targets and the use of cluster bombs and vacuum bombs as fakes. He categorically denied that Russia had committed war crimes.
Ukraine says large numbers of civilians have been killed. Peskov said, without providing evidence, that Ukrainian nationalist groups were using people as human shields.
Peskov declined to comment on whether the Kremlin considers the capital Kyiv to be under the control of Nazis, referring the question to the Russian military.
Iran defies US sanction, sends five fuel tankers to Venezuela!
he news breaking at this hour is that the Iranian regime sent five Oil tankers to deliver a much-needed fuel to Venezuela. The report has it that one of the vessels entered the Venezuelan waters, a moment ago.
The news breaking at this hour is that the Iranian regime sent five Oil tankers to deliver much-needed gasoline to Venezuela. The report has it that one of the vessels entered the Venezuelan waters, a moment ago.
The oil tanker Fortune encountered no signs of US interference as it eased through Caribbean waters toward the Venezuelan coast late on Saturday. Venezuelan officials celebrated the arrival.
In a tweet, the Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza said, “Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in times of difficulty,” “Today, the first ship with gasoline arrives for our people.”
Hassan Rouhani, had earlier warned of retaliatory measures, should the Trump administration takes any action, that would impede the deliveries. The story is still developing. Please expect more updates.
Fact Checks’: Medical journal refutes Trump’s claims about the WHO
A British medical journal Tuesday rebutted claims by President Donald Trump that the World Health Organization had consistently ignored reports of the virus spreading in China in early December, including ones featured in its publication.
In a letter published Monday, Trump’s excoriated WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying the organization had “failed to independently investigate credible reports that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts.”
“This statement is factually incorrect,” The Lancet, a general medical journal, responded in a statement. “The Lancet published no report in December 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.”
The journal said the first reports it published were on January 24, adding that the scientists and physicians who led one of the studies were all from Chinese institutions.
“They worked with us to quickly make information about this new epidemic outbreak and the disease it caused fully and freely available to an international audience,” the statement said.
A second Lancet paper, also published on January 24, described the first scientific evidence confirming person-to-person transmission of the new virus, according to the journal. This report included scientists and physicians from Hong Kong and mainland China, it added.
The Lancet said allegations leveled against WHO in Trump’s letter were “serious and damaging” to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic.
“It is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place in December and January,” the publication added.
Trump’s letter came as tensions ran high at the WHO’s general assembly Monday, with calls for an independent inquiry of the health body’s handling of the crisis and further criticism from the U.S. delegation.
Some observers say the WHO was far too credulous in believing Beijing’s reassurances, which it then amplified uncritically to the wider world.
In his letter, Trump also accused WHO of “missteps” and threatened to make the freeze on U.S. funding for the organization permanent.
Trump’s letter, which was posted to his Twitter account and cane during the World Health Assembly, accused the organization of an “alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China.”
190,000 Africans may die of COVID-19 in 2020 – WHO
On Thursday, the World Health Organisation warned that Africa could lose up to 190,000 lives to COVID-19 in 2020 if containment measures fail.
The UN health agency cited a new study by its regional office in Brazzaville which found that between 83,000 and 190,000 could die and 29 to 44 million be infected during the period.
The research is based on prediction modelling and covers 47 countries with a total population of one billion, the WHO said in a statement.
“The model predicts the observed slower rate of transmission, lower age of people with severe disease and lower mortality rates compared to what is seen in the most affected countries in the rest of the world,” the statement said.
“The lower rate of transmission, however, suggests a more prolonged outbreak over a few years.”
WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti said that “while COVID-19 likely won’t spread as exponentially in Africa as it has elsewhere in the world, it likely will smoulder in transmission hotspots”.
“COVID-19 could become a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region,” he added. “We need to test, trace, isolate and treat.”
Smaller countries as well as Algeria, South Africa and Cameroon were at exceptionally high risk unless effective containment measures were in force, the WHO said.
Africa has so far recorded 53,334 cases and 2,065 fatalities – out of a global death toll of nearly 267,000 -according to an AFP tally.
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