​Kremlin Spokesman Admits Troops Stationed At Ukraine Border

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has confirmed that Russia does have troops near the Ukrainian border and that some of those forces are stationed there “on a permanent basis.”

Peskov said additional forces are in the area along Russia’s border with Ukraine but only “as reinforcement aganst the background of what is going on in Ukraine.”

Pskov also said Washington’s threats of additional sanctions against sanctions on Russia if Moscow does not adhere to the terms of an agreement reached on April 17 in Geneva between top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and European Union were “absolutely unacceptable.”

Peskov said, “We can mobilize our whole society if someone starts driving Russia into a corner,” and added, “Thank God, it is impossible to drive Russia into a corner.”

Based on reporting by ITAR-TASS and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Assyrians Fleeing to Turkey Urge Change of Border Crossing Policy

Syrian Assyrian refugees in Midyat, Turkey.Syriacs [Assyrians] are calling on Turkey to let their relatives who have fled from Syria to have a stamp that allows them to migrate to European countries where large Syriac communities are living.

The number of Syriacs fleeing to Turkey, particularly from the border city of Qamishli, has massively increased after the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) spread throughout Northern Syria.

Syriacs mostly transit from Turkey to Europe through illegal routes by paying between five and 10 thousand-euros to smugglers and human trafficking networks. However, countries such as Germany and Sweden refuse the entry of Syriacs from legal routes without an entry stamp to Turkey.

“Our relatives have fled to Europe. But Sweden and Germany will not give us visas without an entry stamp to Turkey in our passports. Turkey should find a solution to this. We did not come under normal conditions, we fled for our lives,” Nahir Corc, a Syriac refugee temporarily living with four other families in Midyat’s Syriac Cultural Association told Hürriyet, adding ISIL militants target the Christian community.

“They abduct our priests and our nuns. They are using religion and sects to redraw the Middle East’s map,” Corc says, adding 300 young people were armed against ISIL’s looting and murders in Qamishli.

Properties extorted

Other members of the community flee to the Mor Barsavmo Church in Midyat, in the southeastern province of Mardin, to seek help from Turkish Syriacs.

The head of the Syriac Cultural Association, Ayhan Gürkan, said many Syriacs living in Syria have had their properties and goods extorted.

The priest of the parish, ?shak Ergün, stressed that they have to deal with people sustaining serious psychological problems.

“They come here with hope, knowing they will meet other Christians, but the majority have psychological problems and cannot sleep because of nightmares. There are also soldiers who fled after being abducted by the Free Syrian Army,” he said.

Russia to send troops to Qamishli

Syriacs in Midyat also say their community disapproves of Turkey’s Syria policy. A Syriac senior army official claimed the Christian community in Syria reached an agreement with Russia after asking Moscow to send troops to protect them.

According to his claim, Russia will send soldiers to Qamishli, arming Christians against abductions and looting.

Assyrian International News Agency

Syrian army seizes towns near Lebanon border

Syrian government troops have seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from rebels, a day after President Bashar al-Assad said the three-year old civil war was turning in his favour.

During the operation on Monday, Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV said three of its staffers were killed.

“The army has taken full control of Maaloula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamun,” a security official said.

An AFP news agency journalist in Maaloula said the Al-Safir hotel, which rebels had been using as a base, was almost completely destroyed, with a facade that gave on to a cliff having collapsed.

Downhill from the hotel, the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery was also damaged, its walls pierced by mortar rounds, and icons and other religious objects strewn on the ground inside.

“The village was taken quickly. This morning we took Al-Sarkha village” on a hill overlooking the town, “then we came towards Maaloula,” a soldier told AFP.

During the operation, Al-Manar said correspondent Hamza al-Hajj Hassan, technician Halim Allaw and cameraman Mohammad Mantash were killed by “armed groups,” and expressed its condolences.

The three were fired on when they approached an area of town not yet been secured by the army, according to journalists at the scene.

Their deaths bring to more than 30 the number of journalists killed covering Syria’s war, which Reporters Without Borders describes as the world’s most dangerous conflict to report on.

Fall of towns confirmed

The regime has prioritised capturing the area to protect the highway linking Damascus to Homs that runs through the region, as well as to sever rebel supply lines across the border with Lebanon.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, confirmed that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.


In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

The seizure of the towns comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Muslim group Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Rankous.

Rebels seized Maaloula in early December, even as they were under fire from pro-Assad forces at the time.

Elsewhere in Syria on Monday, fighter jets struck parts of the central city of Homs that have been under suffocating government siege since June 2012, the Syrian Observatory said.

Activist Abu Ziad, who is trapped inside, told AFP via the internet that there has been a marked escalation in the bombing of besieged areas, with the army “trying to storm [the rebel areas] under cover of fire.”

Earlier this year the UN oversaw the evacuation of about half of some 3,000 people trapped in the area.

According to Abu Ziad, up to 180 civilians including 60 activists and more than 1,200 rebel fighters, remain inside.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria has surrendered “65.1 percent” of its chemical weapons arsenal, “including 57.4 percent of priority chemicals”.

Under the terms of a US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical weapons.

Syria had temporarily halted the transfer of its chemical stockpile, citing security reasons, but resumed the operations earlier this month.



Syrian army seizes towns near Lebanon border

Syrian government troops seized two towns, one of them an ancient Christian hamlet north of Damascus, as part of the military’s relentless offensive along the rugged frontier with Lebanon, state media and activists said.

Syria’s state news agency said that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured Sarkha early on Monday before also quickly sweeping rebels out of the nearby town of Maaloula.

The Lebanese TV channel al-Mayadeen, which closely follows the Syrian conflict, briefly broadcast footage that it said was from inside Maaloula, a predominantly Christian village, showing a cluster of buildings set in hilly terrain.

“The army has taken full control of Maaloula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamoun [the region where Maaloula is located],” AFP news agency quoted a security official as saying.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, confirmed that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.

Government offensive

The seizure of the towns comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Muslim group Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Rankous.

The push is part of an offensive that government forces have been waging since November in the Qalamoun area along the border with Lebanon. Assad’s troops have captured a string of rebel strongholds in region as they look to cut a vital opposition supply line across the frontier used to support rebels around the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Rebels seized Maaloula in early December, even as they were under fire from pro-Assad forces at the time. The rebels included fighters of the Nusra Front, who abducted 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting. The nuns were released unharmed in March in exchange for the Syrian government releasing dozens of Syrian women from prison.

At the time, the abduction added to fears that hard-line Sunni Muslim rebels were targeting Christians as the three-year Syrian conflict grows increasingly sectarian.



Lavrov Says Russia Withdrawing Troops From Ukraine Border Area

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said some Russian troops near the Ukrainian border will return to permanent bases after completing military drills, and called for the “de-escalation” of rhetoric over the Ukrainian crisis.
At a news conference in Moscow with Kazakh counterpart Erlan Idrisov on April 3, Lavrov said one battalion involved in the drills has already returned to base in the Rostov region.
“[Russian] President [Vladimir Putin] informed German Chancellor [Angela Merkel during their phone call] that, following the [military] exercises in the Rostov Oblast, one of the participating battalions has returned to its permanent base in the Samara Oblast. Once the other participants of the exercises are done with their duties, they will also be returning to their permanent bases.”
Lavrov said “there are no restrictions on the movements of military units within the territory of the Russian Federation” and he added, “our Western partners recognize this.”
The Russian foreign minister also said Moscow has asked NATO questions about the alliance’s activities in East Europe.
“Our point is that Russia and NATO are also bound by a certain set of rules, including the Rome Declaration and the Fundamental Act of the NATO-Russian Council, according to which there must be no permanent excessive military presence on the territories of the Eastern European states,” he said. “We addressed the relevant questions to NATO and we do not simply expect an answer but a response that would be fully anchored in the respect of the rules that have been coordinated with us.”
Lavrov also responded to a question about a U.S. Navy vessel again entering the Black Sea following a U.S. warship’s participation in exercises with NATO allies there last month.
“We have noticed that recently U.S. military vessels on a number of occasions have extended their presence [in the Black Sea] beyond the established limits and these extensions at times failed to meet the rules of the Montreux Convention [which restricts how long naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states can remain in its waters],” he said. “We pointed this out both to the U.S. and of course to Turkey, which is in control of the [Bosphorus] Strait [and the Dardanelles]. Our position is that all the paragraphs of the convention ought to be strictly adhered to. We will monitor it.”
Lavrov’s comments come as NATO announced on April 3 that it was suspending “all practical civilian and military cooperation” with Moscow over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton said Western efforts to tone down tensions with Russia continue.
“Our first priority continues to be to work to de-escalate the situation and to call upon Russia to take clear steps in that respect,” she said. “We have been clear about Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it is just unacceptable.”
Ashton also said the West’s relations with countries in Eastern Europe are “not exclusive” and that Eastern European nations are free to make their own choices about “good relations with their own neighbors.”

With reporting by Rossiya 24 TV, ITAR-TASS, and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Gunmen Injure 3 Border Police In Kosovo

Three border police officers have been wounded in northern Kosovo when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle.

The attack occurred late on March 31 near the village of Banja in a predominantly ethnic Serb part Kosovo.

Police spokesman Besim Hoti said a border police vehicle was “ambushed” while it drove along a road leading to Serbia.

Hoti said the injuries to the police are not life-threatening.

The incident took place the same day that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hosted a meeting between Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic to discuss an EU-brokered deal on a normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Belgrade and most Kosovar Serbs don’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

More than 100 countries and most EU members have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia Announces Partial Troop Withdrawal From Near Ukraine Border

Russia has announced it is withdrawing some troops from along Ukraine’s eastern border.

The German government said Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chancellor Angela Merkel about the partial withdrawal in a telephone call.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said a motorized infantry battalion was being withdrawn from the southern Rostov region after ending military drills.

There was no information on the number of troops involved. A battalion can include between 300 and 1,200 troops.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that if the reports are confirmed, “it would be a welcome preliminary step.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had not yet seen a drawdown of Russian forces.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the Russian announcement, calling it a “small signal” that the situation might be improving. 

Russia in the past month massed thousands of soldiers on its border with Ukraine, raising concerns that after annexing Crimea it might invade other parts of Ukraine.

The Kremlin said Putin also told Merkel in their telephone call that Ukraine needs constitutional reforms to protect the interests of residents of the country’s different regions.

Putin has previously spoken of the need to protect the interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry was cautious in its statements regarding Russian troop movements. 

“We have information that the Russian Federation is carrying out unfathomable maneuvers on the borders with Ukraine — in some border places they are taking away troops, in others they are coming closer,” ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis told reporters in Kyiv. “Such actions cannot fail to cause concern especially since we today do not have a clear explanation from the Russian Federation about the aims of these movements.”

Moscow Eyes Transdniester

Merkel’s spokesman said that the two leaders talked about further steps to “stabilize” the situation in both Ukraine and in Moldova’s Russian-speaking separatist Transdniester region.

The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that measures were needed to remove what a Russian statement called a “blockade” on Transdniester.

Putin made a similar claim of a Transdniester “blockade” in a telephone call with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 28.

Moldova’s government and the United States have rejected the Russian claim.

Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990. The two sides fought a brief war in 1992 that ended when the Russian military intervened on the side of Transdniester.

Transdniester’s independence is not recognized by any country.

Russia still has around 1,400 troops in the territory. There has been some concern about a possible Russian incursion across Ukraine to occupy Transdniester

Diplomatic Efforts

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken by telephone.

The talk came one day after Kerry and Lavrov met in Paris and agreed to try to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

Kerry has called for the withdrawal of Russian forces from the border to deescalate the situation.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on March 31 visited Crimea, in the highest-level visit by an official from Moscow since Russia seized the territory.

Medvedev toured the regional capital Simferopol at the head of a delegation of cabinet ministers, and later visited Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a base.

Medvedev announced that Crimea would become a “special economic zone” to attract investors.

Ukraine denounced Medvedev’s visit, describing it as a “crude violation of the rules of international behavior.”

NATO foreign ministers are due in Brussels to discuss the Ukrainian crisis on April 1.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan in an interview that ”we have agreed with Ukraine to strengthen our cooperation within our NATO-Ukraine partnership within the NATO-Ukraine Commission,” adding, “[T]omorrow we will have a political level meeting in the NATO-Ukraine Commission and I expect assistance to be made as to how we can further develop our partnership with Ukraine.”

NATO member countries have denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law and say they will not recognize it.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, RFE/RL, and AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia partly withdraws from Ukraine border

Russia has pulled out a motorised infantry battalion from a region near Ukraine’s eastern border, the Russian defence ministry said.

Monday’s announcement pointed out that the battalion was heading back to its permanent base in Russia’s Samara region after completing trainings, but did not make clear whether other Russian troops near the border would pull back.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin told Germany’s Angela Merkel in a phone call on Monday that he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian army from the region, Merkel’s spokesman said in a statement.

The move came after US Secretary of State John Kerry said – after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday – that progress on resolving the crisis over Ukraine depended on a troop pullback from the border.

Earlier on Monday Ukraine’s defence ministry said there has been a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from its border.

“In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradually withdrawing from the border,” Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesman, told AFP news agency.

US and EU officials estimated over the weekend that Russia’s sudden military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern frontier had reached between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers.

Kiev’s Centre for Military and Political Studies analyst Dmytro Tymchuk said on Monday that his sources had told him that Russia had only 10,000 soldiers remaining near the border by Monday morning.

The Ukrainian defence ministry official said Kiev had not been formally notified of the drawdown by Moscow and therefore did not know precisely why the troops were being moved.

“This could be linked to a regular rotation of soldiers,” said Dmytrashkivskiy. “Or it may be linked to the Russian-US negotiations.”

Crimea economic zone

In Crimea, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on Monday that Moscow would declare the peninsula as a special economic zone with tax breaks to attract investors, according to Reuters news agency.

He made the announcement during his visit to the former Ukrainian region, flaunting his country’s grip on the Black Sea peninsula following its annexation.

Crimean officials have said that the local economy is facing a shortfall and needs economic stimulus from Russia.

Medvedev promised to raise the level of salaries for municipal employees and pensions to average Russian levels and to modernise the region’s hospitals, which he said were outdated.

“As a result of joining Russia, not one resident of Crimea, not one resident of Sevastopol should lose anything. They can only gain,” Medvedev promised during the special cabinet meeting.

Local officials, including Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, were also present at the meeting that was aired live on Russian state television.



Some Crossings Reopen On Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border had been closed since an exchange of gunfire injured several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards in January. (file photo)

By RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service

After a diplomatic dispute over border violence, some checkpoints along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have opened for the first time since mid-January.
Kyrgyz Border Service Chairman Raiymberdy Duishembiev told RFE/RL on March 31 that the Karamyk and Bordobo border crossings have started functioning fully.
Meanwhile, checkpoints at Kulundu and Kairagach are allowing residents who live close to the border to cross as pedestrians.
Other checkpoints remain closed.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border had been closed since an exchange of gunfire on January 11 injured several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards.
The shootings were in a disputed area where Kyrgyzstan is constructing a new highway around a Tajik exclave inside Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz authorities have suspended the highway construction since then and a joint Kyrgyz-Tajik commission has been working on border demarcation.
Rallies In Bishkek Square Banned
Elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, a court in Bishkek has banned rallies on the central square of Kyrgyzstan’s capital until May 1. 
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and government buildings are located on the square.
Bishkek’s Birinchi Mai District Court ruled on March 31 that all public gatherings during the next month should be held at the nearby Gorky Park instead.
The court said the decision was made after a Birinchi Mai District administration asked for the rally ban to be imposed ahead of the fourth anniversary of the April 2010 protests that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Some opposition groups had earlier announced plans to conduct rallies on the central square this week.

With reporting by KyrTAG and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Rival Koreas trade fire across sea border

South Korea has returned fire into North Korean waters after the North conducted live-fire drills near disputed sea boundary.

Officials on the South Korean border islands of Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong said residents were being evacuated to shelters as a precaution following the incident on Monday.

“Some of the shells fired by North Korea dropped in our area and our side responded with fire,” a spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) told AFP news agency.

There was no indication that either side was firing at any particular target.

Some of the shells fired by North Korea dropped in our area and our side responded with fire.

South Korean military spokesman

Earlier on Monday, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill, further ratcheting up tensions a day after threatening a “new form” of nuclear test.

South Korea’s military had warned of immediate retaliation if any ordnance is fired across the border.

The precise nature of the exercise was unclear, but the Yellow Sea border is an extremely sensitive region that has been the scene of brief but bloody clashes in the past.

Pyongyang has carried out a series of rocket and short-range missile launches in recent weeks, in a pointed protest at ongoing annual South Korea-US military exercises.

On Wednesday it upped the ante by test-firing two mid-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan.

It was the first medium-range missile launch since 2009 and coincided with a trilateral summit attended by the South, the United States and Japan that focused on presenting a united front to the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said North Korea will likely continue doing its own test while the South Korea-US military exercises are going on.

“I don’t think that we have seen the end of this yet,” Delury said, adding that the North had even threatened on Sunday to conduct a fourth nuclear test.

UN resolutions prohibit the North from firing any ballistic missiles and the UN Security Council said it would consider taking “appropriate” action — a response that triggered the North’s “new” nuclear test threat.

In November, 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island near the border, killing four people and triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.

It is not unusual for North Korea to carry out a live-fire exercise, but it does not normally take the precaution of notifying the South in advance.



Fear of War Grips Turkish Border Province

Turkish soldiers march during a ceremony to mark the 89th anniversary of Republic Day in central Antakya, in the southern border province of Hatay, Oct. 29, 2012 (photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer).ANTAKYA — A fisherman’s boat bobs on the sapphire blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. A stray puppy gambols on a deserted sand beach. In normal times, this small seaside Eden in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay would buzz with summer holidaymakers. But the coming season threatens to be different in Meydankoy. “We are on the frontline of the war,” says Ozgur Kaya, a fisherman, pointing toward the Syrian side of the coast. The thud of artillery fire drowns out his voice

In the nearby township of Yayladag, a group of students paces nervously, their faces etched with fear. A stray rocket launched during the ongoing battle between Syrian forces and assorted opposition fighters over the predominantly Armenian town of Kassab has just landed on the edge of town. “That rocket could have hit us. We could have been killed,” says a female student who declines to identify herself by name. The students have petitioned the government to provide a new campus so they can complete the semester out of harm’s way. “And if they don’t, we will just have to quit school,” says a male student, who also chooses to remain anonymous.

Fears that the country might be sucked into the Syrian conflict escalated after Turkey shot down a Syrian air force jet on March 23, not far from Meydankoy, on the grounds that it violated Turkish airspace.

The leader of Turkey’s main secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, told Al-Monitor in a recent interview that the downing of the Syrian jet was part of a government scheme to provoke war with Syria. “They want to deflect public attention away from their thievery,” he claimed. Kilicdaroglu was referring to the corruption probe launched on Dec. 17 linking the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his children and his cabinet ministers to massive graft charges

Until recently, Kilicdaroglu’s assertions would have been dismissed as sniping. But an illegally taped conversation that allegedly took place between Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the country’s national spy chief, Hakan Fidan, and the deputy chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, may yet vindicate the CHP leader. In the recordings posted on YouTube (the government blocked access to the site soon after) the men weigh options to spark a war with Syria. Coming only days before nationwide local elections, the leak has had a chilling effect. In Hatay, the elections are widely viewed as a referendum on the government’s Syria policy, with Erdogan’s pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the CHP running neck to neck. The government has denied accusations that it is plotting war and called the leak “villainous.”

In a small teahouse in Meydankoy, a group of men play cards while keeping an eye on Syrian state television news, which they watch via satellite dish. “We don’t watch Turkish channels, they lie,” growls Ishak Kucuk, a white-haired regular. Like most residents in Meydankoy and surrounding villages in the township of Samandag, he is an Arab Alawite, that is, a co-religionist of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And like most, he is viscerally opposed to Erdogan’s efforts to overthrow Assad by supporting the armed opposition. “We know Erdogan wants a war. Why else did they go after Kassab?” Kucuk asks.

Kucuk is referring to the claim that Turkey helped plan the fall of Kassab last week by allowing opposition fighters to use its territory to launch the attack. The claims have been echoed by Assad and members of the Armenian diaspora.

Pressed about where exactly the fighters crossed, Kucuk gestures vaguely toward a row of craggy hills, saying, “from a village around there.” The village in question turns out to be the mainly Sunni Gozlekciler, and nobody is prepared to take a journalist there.

“It’s full of terrorists [opposition fighters]. It’s unsafe,” claims Muhsin Capar, an Alawite from the town of Samandag. Gozlekciler was evacuated on March 21 after stray shells reportedly struck several houses and the local mosque. The attack on Kassab began the same day. Journalists have been barred from entering the village.

Capar says that prior to the war it would have been unthinkable for an Alawite to feel insecure in a Sunni village. Indeed, Hatay’s Sunnis and Alawites have long prided themselves on remaining immune to the sectarian tensions that have plagued the region.

“In Hatay, it is considered rude to ask people about their faith. We have co-existed peacefully for centuries. But the war [in Syria] is making things difficult and Erdogan is adding fuel to the flames,” Timur Rencuzogullar, an Alawite intellectual, tells Al-Monitor.

Erdogan has been accused of promoting Sunni sectarianism, not only in Turkey but also in countries like Egypt, where his unabashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood has cooled relations with the army-backed government.

Both Alawites and Sunnis were shocked when Erdogan said that “53 Sunni citizens were martyred” in the aftermath of the double suicide car bomb attack that shook the township of Reyhanli last May. Erdogan blamed Assad, but Hatay’s Alawites felt targeted. The presence of an estimated one million Syrian refugees has added to tensions. “It’s bad enough that our relatives are fighting each other in Syria,” says Naci Akkaya, a Sunni and a member of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Two of Akkaya’s maternal uncles who joined the opposition Free Syrian Army were killed in battle. “It’s a quagmire over there, may God protect Turkey,” he says.

Assyrian International News Agency

US tells Russia to leave Crimea border area

Barack Omaba, the US president, has urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops from near the Ukraine border, in the first direct contact between the leaders since the takeover of Crimea.

The White House said on Saturday that Obama had urged Putin in a “frank and direct” telephone conversation to ease tensions by removing troops, and respond to a diplomatic resolution put forward by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at a meeting in the Netherlands earlier this week. 

The Kremlin, however, said that Putin had used the conversation to warn Obama that the interim government Ukraine was allowing a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilise the situation’.

The Friday telephone conversation is believed to have been the first between Obama and Putin since the US and EU began imposing sanctions on Russia over the takeover of the peninsula.

The Russian president has recently ordered troops to assemble by the border with Ukraine, with the US estimating on Friday that Russia’s total forces in Crimea numbered about 40,000. 

Obama had earlier told CBS news that Russian troops were “massing along that border under the guise of military exercises.”

He insisted that Russia needed “to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community”.

He denied Russian statements that the West was trying to encircle Russia.

“We have no interest in circling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives,” he said.

Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, meanwhile said his country was completely in control of Crimea, and that all Ukrainian soldiers had left Crimea, Interfax news agency has reported.

Putin congratulated the Russian armed forces. “The recent events in Crimea were a serious test. They demonstrated the new capacities of our armed forces in terms of quality and the high moral spirit of the personnel,” he said, quoted by Russian news agencies.



Obama Urges Russia To Move Troops Away From Ukrainian Border

U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the area of the Ukrainian border and to become a “responsible international citizen.”

Obama was speaking in an interview with CBS News on March 28 before leaving Rome.

He disputed Russia’s reasons for having so many troops along the border with Ukraine.

“I think it is well known and well acknowledged that you’ve seen a range of [Russian] troops massing along [the Ukrainian] border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing,” Obama said.

“And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they’ve got additional plans.”

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Service, Andriy Parubiy, told the Atlantic Council in Washington via webcast on March 27 that some 100,000 Russian troops were massed on Ukraine’s border. Western officials and officials have cited far lower figures.

In his interview, Obama again encouraged Russia to open up a dialogue with the new government in Ukraine to de-escalate tensions along the Russian-Ukrainian border.

“What we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community,” he said.

Those tensions have been developing since former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power at the end of February.

Pro-Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and a few weeks later Crimea held what Obama has called a “sloppily” organized referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Soviet Throwback

Obama also said Russian President Vladimir Putin might be acting in part from a desire to return to the days of the Soviet Union.

“On this, I think [Putin] has been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,” Obama said.

“You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that were so prevalent during the Cold War, but in fact to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”

Obama’s comments were the latest in a series of Western criticisms of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

At a UN General Assembly session on March 27, 100 of the 193 countries represented at the United Nations voted in favor of a resolution that declared Crimea’s referendum to secede from Ukraine “invalid.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated on March 28 that the Kremlin should pay attention to what that vote meant.

“I would like to say only that if I were Russia I would not be satisfied with the result of the UN General Assembly vote,” Merkel said. “We are only citing ‘yes’ votes forgetting the abstaining votes. In total it is a clear poll on behalf of the international community that they are not happy about what has happened.”

However, Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, one of the 11 countries that voted against the UN resolution, said, “De facto, Crimea is the territory of Russia.”

Russian officials have stressed Crimea’s historical ties to Russia dating back to the 18th century to help justify its reabsorption into Russia.

With reporting by CBS News, Reuters, and ITAR-TASS

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Baku Says Two Injured By Armenian Forces Along Border

Azerbaijan has again accused Armenia of violating the cease-fire along the border, saying a military officer and a local resident were injured.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Armenian military forces had fired on the village of Alibeyli in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district near the Armenian border earlier the same day.

An officer of the Azerbaijani Army and a local resident were hospitalzed with gunshot wounds.

The incident took place days after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, pledged to continue peace talks during a meeting in The Hague.

The two countries have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway, mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh for many years.

International diplomatic efforts have failed to settle the conflict.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

U.S. Defense Secretary: Russia Building Up Forces On Ukraine Border

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says Russia has moved forces closer to the border with Ukraine in recent days, despite assurances it would not invade.

At a meeting with British counterpart Phillip Hammond on March 26, Hagel said, “They [the Russians] continue to build up their forces.”

Hagel said he had received guarantees from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last week that Russia would not invade Ukraine.

Hammond said that “other Russian players, including Minister Shoigu, may express their views, but it’s a moot point.”

Hammond added, “All evidence suggests that the Russian agenda is being very much run by President [Vladimir] Putin personally.”

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

NATO Concerned About Russian Military Buildup Near Ukraine Border

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has expressed concern about a large increase in Russian troops and armaments along Ukraine’s eastern frontier following its annexation of Crimea.

“I can assure you that we are very much concerned about the Russian military buildup along the borders of Ukraine,” Rasmussen said. “We are, as an alliance, focused on providing effective deterrence and defense. And all NATO allies can be assured of our determination to provide effective defense.”

Speaking in Brussels on March 25, Rasmussen said NATO is ready to defend all its members and offer assistance to Kyiv.

“We are also in the process of discussing with Ukraine how we can enhance our support for Ukraine,” Rasmussen said.

RFE/RL LIVE BLOG on the Ukraine Crisis

In The Hague, the United States accused Russia of violating its commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by seizing and annexing Crimea from Ukraine.

In a joint statement issued at a nuclear security summit, the United States and Ukraine said Russia’s actions in Crimea “undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security.”

G7 leaders also warned Russia it faces economic sanctions if it continues to destabilize Ukraine after annexing Crimea.

The G7 leaders issued the statement after an emergency meeting in The Hague on March 24 on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit.

They also said they were suspending cooperation with Russia in the G8 until Moscow “changes course.” They also canceled a planned G8 summit in Sochi in June.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — also in The Hague — dismissed the G8 boycott.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Kyiv approved the resignation of acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh over his handling of the Crimea crisis and approved the nomination of General Mykhaylo Koval as his replacement.

Tenyukh submitted his resignation on March 25 amid criticism that he had failed to give timely orders to Ukrainian military units in Crimea during its occupation and annexation by Russia.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov had requested that Tenyukh be relieved of his duties.

In Berlin, the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) says two Ukrainian political activists were beaten and one tortured by pro-Russian forces in Crimea.

HRW says Andriy Schekun and Anatoliy Kovalsky — who had gone to Crimea to organize pro-Ukraine rallies ahead of the March 16 referendum on Crimea’s status — were detained, interrogated, and beaten for 11 days before being released.

HRW said Schekun had received electric shocks, was tied up, and often kept naked.

Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, said “these horrendous arbitrary detentions and the allegation of torture in Crimea urgently demand a thorough investigation.”

The fates of up to six Ukrainian military officers remain unknown following the takeover of Crimean bases in recent days by Russian forces.

The commander of a Ukrainian air base in Crimea, Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, was captured last weekend after Russian forces stormed the Belbek air base.

Mamchur’s aides believe he is being held in the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s home port of Sevastopol.

HRW says five other Ukrainian military officers and three activists also remain missing in Crimea.

In the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, a leader of the ultranationalist Right Sector movement, Oleksandr Muzychko, was killed overnight on March 24-25.

First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Yevdokimov said he was fatally wounded while security forces were trying to detain him during a special operation.

An international arrest warrant was issued for Muzychko this month for his alleged killing of Russian military personnel during the Chechen war in the mid-1990s.

Based on reporting by Reuters, dpa, AP, and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Possible Land Exchange May Help In Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Dispute

Tensions have been high following a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards in January that left several people injured. (file photo)

BISHKEK — Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are discussing possible land exchanges to resolve long-festering border disputes.
The head of the village of Kok-Tash, Raziya Osorova told RFE/RL on March 24 that Kyrgyz villagers living along the border may be relocated into Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region if the land they are currently living on is exchanged with Tajikistan for other disputed territory.
A joint Kyrgyz-Tajik commission is discussing the possible relocation of residents in the Kyrgyz villages of Maseit, Aryk-Asty, and Tash-Tumshuk.
The joint commission has been discussing the border issue since January after a shooting incident along the border left several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards injured.
The shootings were caused by the Kyrgyz construction of a new highway across a disputed area around a Tajik exclave inside Kyrgyzstan.
The border has been closed since then.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Lebanese army deploys in restive border town

Lebanese army deployed in the town of Arsal along the border with Syria, reopening the main road linking the town to the rest of Lebanon after a night of violent protests.

The mainly Sunni town had been sealed off by residents from the mostly-Shia neighbouring town of Labweh, where one person was killed last week by rocket fire.

The closure of the main road out of Arsal prompted fury among Sunnis in other parts of Lebanon, and many took to streets across the country on Tuesday night to burn tires in protest.

In the wake of the tensions, President Michel Sleiman was meeting on Wednesday with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and top security officials, the official National News Agency reported.

Residents of Labweh blame Sunni Arsal for the rocket fire, although it was reported to have originated across the border in Syria.

Rising tensions

Tensions between residents of the two towns have increased since the fall of the Syrian rebel bastion Yabroud, just across the frontier, on Sunday.

Yaborud’s capture prompted an exodus of hundreds of Syrians to Arsal, where residents are sympathetic towards the Syrian uprising.

Angry Sunnis during the night blocked roads in Beirut, along the coast and in the Beqaa valley to protest what they called a “siege” of Arsal by Labweh residents.

The unrest led to the death of one man and the injury of four others in a Beirut suburb.

The army reacted on Tuesday night by announcing it would deploy in the northern Beqaa border area, “particularly in the areas of Arsal and Labweh and inside them”.

It said it would open the roads between the towns and work to “maintain security and stability in the region”.

Aerial bombardment

The deployment began deploying in the early hours of Wednesday, Arsal municipal council member Bakr Houjairi told AFP news agency.

“The army arrived around 5:00am, they have deployed in Arsal and they have opened the road leading out of the town towards Labweh,” he said.

“So far the situation is very calm, we will see what will happen later, but we are happy to see the army here and opening the road up.”

The conflict in neighbouring Syria has exacerbated existing sectarian tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Sunni and Shia residents.

Many Sunni Lebanese back the Sunni-dominated Syrian uprising, while many Shia support Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, which is allied with Syria’s government and fighting alongside it.

The border region has become particularly fragile, with Arsal hosting some 51,000 civilian refugees and facing accusations that it allows rebel fighters to establish bases in the area around it.

On Wednesday, Syrian air force launched strikes on the outskirts of Arsal, Al Jazeera’s correspondent reported.

Warplanes belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s army have frequently bombarded the mountainous border region.



Lebanon Sends Troops to Syrian Border

LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese army sent commandos to the tense border with Syria on Monday, as fears rose that the ongoing flight of rebels from one of their fallen strongholds into a flashpoint region of Lebanon would trigger the latest spillover of the Syrian civil war into its neighbor.

Lebanon has been on edge since the central Syrian town of Yabroud was taken by President Bashar Assad’s troops on Sunday. Its rebel defenders started pouring into the Lebanese Sunni-dominated town of Arsal, which is surrounded by Shiite villages guarded by pro-Assad Hezbollah militants.

Sectarian violence between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites linked to Syria’s civil war has left scores of people dead in recent months. The presence in the same area of Lebanon of Hezbollah and Sunni rebels — who have just fought each other in Syria — risks a polarizing new flare-up.

Many Lebanese Shiites back Assad’s government, dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Hezbollah has fought alongside Assad’s troops. On the other side, many Lebanese Sunnis back Sunni-dominated rebels.

On Monday, three rockets struck the predominantly Shiite towns of Labweh and Nabi Othman near Arsal, wounding at least one person and causing some damage, the army said. The army said the rockets were fired from inside Syria.

The barrage nonetheless appears to have sparked sectarian tensions in the area. Some angry Labweh residents claimed the rockets were fired from Arsal and closed off the main road between the two towns with sand barriers, guarded by dozens of Hezbollah fighters. They later closed other, smaller roads leading to Arsal, isolating the town from the rest of Lebanon.

Hezbollah fighters kept a close eye on Arsal from a distance and prevented journalists from going inside. Only Lebanese troops were able to drive on the road.

Syrian rebels and their sympathizers are believed to have considerable power in Arsal. Ramez Amhaz, the mayor of Labweh, called on the residents of Arsal to let Lebanese security forces take charge of the town “because now you cannot control the Syrians in Arsal.”

“The people here will not be shelled and be subjected to rockets, then say that (Arsal residents) are our brothers,” Amhaz told Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV.

Earlier in the day, Lebanese troops and commandos in desert camouflage patrolled the rugged border area on foot. On one patrol, near the northeastern village of Fakiha, they came across an abandoned SUV and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at it, turning the vehicle into a fireball and leaving a four-meter-wide (yard-wide) crater on the ground. They could not take the chance of it being a car bomb.

“We took the decision to blow it up immediately, without searching it,” an officer told The Associated Press at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

In footage broadcast live on state television in Damascus, Syrian army officers raised the national flag in Yabroud’s main square and covered a rebel flag with banners praising Assad’s troops.

The fall of Yabroud, a smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow Assad, was a major gain for Syrian government troops. It was also the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold in the vital border area. The campaign consolidated the government’s hold on the capital Damascus and the central Syrian city of Homs.

Yabroud’s fall came after months of fighting in the mountainous Qalamoun region between Assad’s forces and Hezbollah fighters on one side and the rebels, mostly Islamist militant groups, on the other.

The Hezbollah fighters have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed group appears to have tipped the balance into the government’s favor in Yabroud.

In Lebanon, Sunni militants have in the past weeks carried out several suicide bombings and car bomb attacks in Shiite-dominated towns and suburbs of Beirut that are Hezbollah strongholds.

A Lebanese militant Sunni group claimed responsibility Monday for a car bombing the previous night in Nabi Othman, a predominantly Shiite town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that also has a significant Christian community.

The Nusra Front in Lebanon said in a statement posted on its Twitter account that the attack, in which two people were killed and 14 were wounded, was in revenge for Hezbollah’s support for Assad and “a quick response” for the fall of Yabroud into Syrian government hands.

Syria’s 3-year-old conflict has devastated the country, killing more than 140,000 people and forcing millions from their homes.

The crisis started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. It turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

From the start, the rebels have been outgunned by the Syrian military, which has relied heavily on its air force to batter rebel-held regions. However, the rebels’ resolve to overthrow Assad was significantly weakened after rival rebel groups, often backed by local tribal militias, turned on each other in battles over areas they had previously captured together from government forces.

More than 3,000 rebels have been killed in the infighting, and a spokesman for the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front in Syria’s Qalamoun region blamed the fall of Yabroud on rebel-on-rebel clashes and rivalries.

“Yabroud did not fall. Yabroud was handed over to the (Syrian) regime and Hezbollah,” said the spokesman, Abdullah Azzam al-Shami in comments posted on a militant website Monday.

He said Nusra front fighters in Yabroud were determined to hold the town but had to withdraw after rebels from other groups abandoned their positions in the surrounding hills, opening the way for Assad’s troops to push in from the east.

The Syrian Nusra Front’s relation to the much smaller Nusra Front in Lebanon is unclear.

Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Assyrian International News Agency

Al Qaeda Civil War Rages In Iraq Border Zone

Despite continuing attacks by ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are going their own way by helping the Syrian Kurds to consolidate their hold on northeastern Syria. On January 21 st the Kurds declared an autonomous provincial government in the northeast. With the help of the autonomous Kurdish government of northern Iraq and the many Kurds in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds are keeping most of the war out of their territory. The Syrian Army considers the Kurds more trouble than they are worth at the moment and something that can be tended to once the other rebels are crushed. Many rebel groups get along with the Kurds and respect their desire to concentrate on protecting their own. Since the northeast is geographically out of the way the Kurds can do that. The Kurds do allow free passage for rebel groups they trust. The Kurds are 15 percent of the Syrian population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast. They have long opposed the Assads and are hated by the largely Iraqi ISIL (which has always hated the Iraqi Kurds). Allied with the Kurds are the Christians who are about ten percent of the population. Together have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense). The Iraqi Kurds are about 20 percent of the Iraqi population and followed the same plan in the early 1990s with assistance from the United States and Britain (who provided air support, weapons and trainers) to keep the Iraqi forces out. The Syrian Kurds appear to be trying the same strategy.

Meanwhile the civil war between ISIL and most other rebels continues in Syria. This fighting has killed over 3,000 Syrian rebels since it began in January. This has weakened ISIL efforts to grab control of western Iraq. The civil war within the rebel movement has cost the rebel side nearly 10,000 dead and wounded. Worse, ISIL is still around, especially in eastern Syria. In part this is done to prevent more desertions by foreign volunteers, who are not enthusiastic about fighting fellow Sunni rebels. However, ISIL has gained some recruits in Syria who defected from Islamic terrorist groups still loyal to al Qaeda. That’s because ISIL represents the most extreme Islamic terrorist thinking and some guys when they get into the Islamic radical life get ambitious and ISIL is known to be the baddest of the bad. Despite that ISIL has been weakened, losing more than half its Syrian strength so far this year and about as much of their territory. Completely destroying ISIL appears to be less of a goal for other al Qaeda groups. A lot of the fighting in the last two months was over shared resources and these ownership disputes have largely been settled. Rebel commanders were unable to persuade many ISIL factions to switch sides and have settled with local agreements to leave each other alone and cooperate when mutual interests were involved. That may work, because the rebel coalition still contains many loyal al Qaeda groups. The main thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and Iraq is their savagery, which appears to be getting worse.

The war in Syria has had impact all over Iraq. In Anbar ISIL gunmen still control parts of the province. But in largely Shia Basra in the south there are now over a hundred dead a month coming from Syria, casualties of the Syrian fighting. Efforts are made to return the bodies of those killed in Syria and bring them back for burial in Iraq. For over a year now pro-Iran Shia militias in Basra and other Shia areas of Iraq have been recruiting young men to fight (for good pay, plus a death benefit to the family if killed) for the pro-Iran Syrian government. These volunteers are more enthusiastic than most Syrian soldiers and, along with Hezbollah militia fighters from Lebanon have halted the rebel advance in Syria. Iran pitches this service in Syria as part of the centuries old Shia-Sunni conflict as the most fanatical rebel troops in Syria are from the Sunni ISIL, which is responsible for most of the terror attacks on Shia civilians in Iraq. So thousands of Iraqi men have gone off to fight in Syria, where nearly 20 percent of them are killed or injured. Iran covers all the costs (equipment, transportation, medical and good monthly pay). It’s a job as well as a Mission From God.

In Anbar fighting continues in Fallujah which has, for over two months been the center of the action because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. The city is actually a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Euphrates River and the banks not covered by the city are full of date palms and other cover for armed men. The city itself is densely populated with lots of marrow streets and alleys. No wonder a quarter of the American dead during the Iraq war were in and around Fallujah. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, it is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. Initially the local Sunni tribes convinced the government to not launch a major military assault, which would probably succeed but likely destroy the city (again, it’s happened many times over the centuries). The tribes sent in their gunmen and negotiators in and hope to outtalk, outmaneuver or simply kill all the Islamic terrorists there. That did not work and for the last month the government has used airpower (aircraft and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles) and groups of soldiers and allied tribesmen to take out ISIL positions one at a time. For most of the time since January 1st there have been ceasefires in Fallujah, at the behest of local pro-government tribes who want to avoid destroying the city with a major military assault. So for days at a time the tribes get ceasefires enforced although it is usually the ISIL that breaks it and the army and police go back into action. Arrests of ISIL men continue elsewhere in Anbar. But the province is too large for the government to completely control and there are still thousands of armed ISIL men hiding out in remote locations. Using cars, SUVs and trucks these Islamic terrorists can quickly move to most anywhere in the province and launch an attack. The army checkpoints control the main roads, but not the many dirt tracks found in the semi-desert province. It is still a fluid situation but the ISIL are losing. To survive the ISIL increasing turns to looting and just taking what they need. This creates anger even among Anbar residents who have long been sympathetic to the Islamic terrorists.

Fallujah is not the only city that ISIL has tried to take over. Across the border in eastern Syria ISIL has taken control of the city (population 500,000) of Raqqa and turned it into an “Islamic city.” Strict lifestyle rules have been imposed and local Christians have to pay an extra tax to avoid persecution. ISIL has pulled out of many towns and villages they controlled in northern Syria and apparently plan to concentrate in Raqqa for a last stand.

Al Qaeda has officially disowned ISIL, after many attempts this year to get ISIL to cooperate. ISIL has refused and declared itself the true Islamic radicals and defenders of Islam. Such splits in radical organizations are common and this one has been in the works for a decade. The Iraqi Sunni Islamic terrorists always had a very high opinion of themselves and that clashed with the largely Saudi and Egyptian leadership of al Qaeda. The main area of disagreement was the ISIL insistence on going after Shia (and other minority Moslem sects) and non-Moslems. Al Qaeda leadership considers there attacks counterproductive and prefers to work with other Moslems (including Shia) to replace the governments of Moslem nations with religious dictatorships. ISIL is seen as just out to kill and out of control.

Iraqi police complain that ISIL in Iraq have now started waging Information War as well. This consists of releasing rumors of police misbehavior (corruption, looting, rape and murder). Some of this does happen but the new ISIL effort has become widespread and continuous in some parts of Iraq. ISIL will try to coerce media (radio and newspapers) in areas where it is very active to report these allegations as truth (or risk having the station or newspaper offices attacked).

Responding to Iraqi requests for help with training their commandos the United States has set up a training program in neighboring Jordan, where Iraqi troops are being sent for training courses. The Iraqis still cannot muster the political will to provide the United States with a Status of Forces agreement so that American troops can operate inside Iraq. The U.S. is sending about a hundred Special Forces personnel to Jordan where two other nations will also provide trainers. No one from the West will send trainers to Iraq without a Status of Forces agreement so Jordan is the best alternative. In 2013 Iraq, beset by a resurgence of Sunni Islamic terrorism, appealed for international support, especially from America. The U.S. responded with some intelligence support and a few experts (with diplomatic passports) on the ground. Because Iraq refused to provide American troops with protection from corrupt Iraqi police and courts, there was no Status of Forces agreement and the only Americans available in Iraq are the few who can use diplomatic immunity. Iraq may yet come across with the Status of Forces type immunity and is under great pressure from Iran to not do so. Refusing to sign a Status of Forces agreement (which is actually quite common) is seen as a matter of honor among Iraqis and no politician has yet dared to point out that countries like German, South Korea and Japan disagreed with this stand. U.S. troops won’t return without the Status of Forces agreement and that assumes the Americans can be persuaded to let their troops get involved in Iraq again. Worst of all, just bringing back American counter-terrorist forces will not solve the fundamental problem; corruption. This condition cripples the Arab world, and especially Iraq, culturally, economically and militarily. Even though a growing number of Arabs admit this is a major, if not the major problem, there’s not been a lot of progress in dealing with it.

Assyrian International News Agency

Syrian army captures strategic border town

Syrian forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, are in full control of Yabroud after clearing out rebels holed up in the strategic Syrian town for months, Syrian state media and opposition activists have reported.

Capturing Yabroud, the last major rebel bastion near the Lebanese border north of Damascus, will help President Bashar al-Assad secure the land route linking his Mediterranean coastal stronghold with the capital Damascus, and choke off a cross-border rebel supply line from Lebanon.

“The Syrian army is now in full control of the town of Yabroud in Damascus [province] and are now combing through the city and the dismantling the roadside bombs planted by terrorists,” SANA news agency reported on Sunday.

A military source told Reuters news agency that most of the rebels had pulled out of Yabroud around dawn on Sunday, a day after pro-government forces had entered eastern districts of the town and captured several strategic hilltops in the surrounding Qalamoun mountains.

Abu al-Huda al-Homsi, an activist in Qalamoun, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian regime soldiers and Hezbollah stormed into Yabroud under a cover of heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.

“They used a scorched-earth policy, showering us with tens of shells every day until he fighters were forced to withdraw,” he said.

A fighter in Yabroud from Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, said the rebels were heading towards nearby rebel-held villages including Hosh Arab, Rankous and Flita.

Air strikes on Lebanon

Meanwhile, a Lebanese military source was quoted by Lebanese local channel LBC on Sunday as saying that more than 1000 fighters fled to the mountainous border area near the Lebanese town of Arsal, a crossing point 20km to the northwest which rebels and refugees have used regularly.

The Jabhat al-Nusra fighter, however,  told Reuters the rebels did not plan to withdraw to Arsal.

Ahmad Fliti, the vice mayor of Arsal, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian airforce launched two strikes on the outskirts of Arsal on Sunday. The Sunni town has been exposed to frequent aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime over the past year. 

Al-Manar TV, the mouthpiece for Hezbollah, which spearheaded the fight to dislodge fighters from Yabroud, aired footage showing soldiers searching the town.

With the fall of Yabroud, Hezbollah managed to sever a key rebel supply line to Arsal.

The Syrian regime has been making incremental gains along the land route as well as around Damascus and Aleppo in the past months, regaining the initiative in a conflict entering its fourth year.

More than 140,000 people have been killed in the increasingly sectarian civil war, which began with mass street protests against Assad but turned into an armed conflict after a violent security crackdown on demonstrators.



Economic Chaos At Iraq’s Anbar Border Crossings

An Iraqi police vehicle patrols near the Iraq-Syria border at the Abu Kamal-Qaim crossing in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, Sept. 8, 2012 (photo by REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani).For months, security incidents in Iraq’s Anbar province — the result of military operations conducted by Iraqi government forces against strongholds of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — have been hindering and sometimes paralyzing the movement of trucks transporting goods into Iraq. These trucks, which enter through the Trebil and al-Walid border crossings of Jordan and Syria respectively, then pass through the cities of Anbar to reach different Iraqi provinces. Traders and average citizens, as well as the government, have experienced huge losses as a result of security incidents.

Since the end of 2013, Anbar has been subjected to wide-scale military operations that extend along the Jordanian and Syrian borders, and target terrorist organizations and ISIS. This has led more than once to the closing of border crossings to avoid the infiltration or escape of terrorists. However, these crossings were later reopened.

The Federation of Iraqi Chambers of Commerce recorded a significant increase in the prices of goods in Iraqi markets, notably the price of food products. According to Jaafar al-Hamadani, the head of the federation, the increase is due to the difficulty of transporting imported goods through border crossings in Anbar and other Iraqi provinces.

Hamadani told Al-Monitor that Anbar has the largest and most important border crossings in Iraq, namely Trebil and al-Walid. He explained that, in addition to the border shutdowns, traders were unable to import goods due to the fighting taking place in various Iraqi cities. Hamadani said that while some traders wait to cross the border and remain parked with their loaded trucks, others return to their countries of origin or find alternate and more costly routes.

According to Hamadani, traders suffered huge losses due to the hold-ups and the use of alternate routes. Citizens have to bear these costs through the rising prices of goods. Even the state is facing the consequences due to a decrease in taxes and custom duties levied on imported goods. Experts in the federation estimate the losses at around $ 155 million per month, Hamadani noted.

Ahmad Khalaf al-Dulaimi, governor of Anbar, said in a phone interview with Al-Monitor that border crossings are operating only six to eight hours a day because of the security situation and the decreased flow of trucks. He noted that the province, which has been the most impacted economically by security incidents, is in direct contact with the administrations of Trebil and al-Walid crossings.

Dulaimi said that the majority of employees at both crossings are from Anbar, though some have been compelled to leave the province and abandon their work, another reason for the slow pace of work. Additionally, military operations continue to take place on the roads linking the border crossings to the rest of provinces, thus, it is impossible for commercial activity to take place.

Dulaimi called on security forces to secure some of these roads to ease the flow of goods, and to enforce less bureaucratic measures on the crossings, so that traders can keep transporting their goods.

Iraq’s parliamentary economic committee held the Iraqi government responsible for the losses inflicted on Iraq due to security incidents in Anbar, describing the situation at the border crossings as “economic chaos.”

Mahma Khalil, an economic committee member, said in a phone interview with Al-Monitor that the federal government is neglecting the border crossings issue and the plight of traders and truck drivers. The country’s political and security issues have come to overshadow economic issues, which is why Iraq lags behind economically. Khalil explained that the government — and politicians in particular — do not recognize the importance of the economic situation.

Though the private sector is affected by the border situation, the public sector is experiencing less harm because it is already weak and not supported by the government.

Economic expert Hassan al-Assadi told Al-Monitor that the various fees imposed on goods transported through Trebil and al-Walid have increased by 20 to 30%. This increase, he explained, began after several traders and truck and transportation company owners refrained from transporting goods through Anbar crossings because of the security situation. He noted that this rate has impacted the price of goods, a consequence citizens alone will bear.

Translated by Steffi Chakti.

Assyrian International News Agency

Al-Maliki agrees to allocate 25 billion dinars to open the closed border crossing with Iran for 34 years

Alsumaria news Diyala
The Governor of Diyala Amer Salman Al-majmaie, Tuesday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed to allocate 25 billion to speed up the reopening the closed border crossing with Iran for 34 years.

Al-majmaie, said in an interview for “alsumaria news”, “Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed to allocate 25 billion dinars to finance the service projects within the crossing Sumar-Mandali (124 km North East of Baquba) between Iraq and Iran in order to speed up the file reopened to commercial and economic activities after the 34-year-old closure”.

The academicians to “reopen the crossing Sumar-Mandali will positively on Northeastern Diyala and provides thousands of jobs for the unemployed, in addition to its positive impact on improving economic and trade between Iraq and Iran.”

The Directorate of the Mandali in Diyala province revealed, (October 22, 2013), decision of the Central Government to wait to open a border crossing with Iran for unknown reasons, stressed the importance of reopening the crossing and its positive impact on the local economy are active.

The crossing (Sumar-Mandali) of border with Iran closed since nearly 30 years against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and has not been reopened since.

Diyala province has a border crossing with Iran called region, occupying a strategic importance due to the large commercial convoys flowing from both sides, as well as one of the main border crossings through which visitors enter the Holy to Iraq and a lot of goods.


Dinar Daddy’s Tidbits

Ukraine border guards report Russian build-up

Russia has started a build-up of armoured vehicles on the Russian side of a narrow stretch of water between Russia and the Ukrainian region of Crimea, Ukrainian border guards said.

A border guard spokesman also told the Reuters news agency that Russian ships had been moving in and around the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet has a base, and that Russian forces had blocked mobile telephone services in some parts of Crimea.

He said the build-up of Russian armour was near a ferry port on the Russian side of what is known as the Kerch Strait, which separates the eastern edge of the Crimea peninsula and the western edge of the Taman Peninsula.

The strait is 4.5 km (2.8 miles) wide at its narrowest point and up to 18 metres (59 feet) deep.

“There are armoured vehicles on the other side of the strait. We can’t predict whether or not they will put any vehicles on the ferry,” the spokesman said by telephone.

The border guard spokesman did not say how many armoured vehicles had gathered in Russian territory, opposite the city of Kerch on the Ukrainian side of the strait.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian Defence Ministry.

The Kerch Strait also connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Russian forces have taken control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, and Ukraine has ordered a military mobilisation as well as putting its forces on combat alert.

Russia’s upper house of parliament has authorised President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops in Ukraine to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine who are said by Moscow to be under threat.

War games

With Russian forces in command of Crimea, the focus is shifting to eastern swaths of Ukraine, where most ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language.

Those areas saw more demonstrations on Sunday after violent protests on Saturday, and pro-Moscow activists hoisted flags for a second day at government buildings and called for Russia to defend them.

Russia has staged war games with 150,000 troops along the land border, but they have so far not crossed. Kiev said Russia had sent hundreds of its citizens across the border to stage the protests.

Ukraine’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert. But Kiev’s small and under-equipped military is seen as no match for Russia’s superpower might.

The defence ministry was ordered to stage a call-up of reserves, meaning theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription, although Ukraine would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for many of them.

Washington on Sunday threatened to isolate Russia economically after Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour in Moscow’s biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an “incredible act of aggression”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Ukraine with his Chinese counterpart on Monday and their views coincided on the situation there, Russia’s foreign ministry said.

In a statement, the ministry said the two veto-wielding UN Security Council members would stay in close contact on the issue.



Afghan Taliban Militants Reportedly Kill Three Turkmen Border Guards

Taliban militants in Afghanistan have reportedly killed at least three Turkmen border guards in the northwestern province of Baghdis.

A spokesman for the provincial governor told RFE/RL that the incident took place late on February 26 while the Turkmen border guards were patrolling the border between the two countries.

There has been no official confirmation of the incident by Turkmen officials yet.

The Taliban has also not confirmed the attack.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

CSTO Secretary General Declares Tajik-Kyrgyz Border Situation Improved

The secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) says the situation along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border has improved.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, who is in Tajikistan on a one-day working visit, told journalists in Dushanbe on February 20 that a joint Tajik-Kyrgyz commission is concluding its works on the delimitation of the border between the two countries.

The border has been closed since mid-January, when an exchange of fire along the border left five Kyrgyz border guards, one Kyrgyz police officer, and two Tajik border guards injured.

Kyrgyzstan accused Tajik forces of using grenade-launchers and mortars, while Tajikistan blamed the Kyrgyz side, saying the incident was caused by the construction of a highway by Kyrgyzstan on disputed territory.

Based on reporting by asiaplus.tj and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Pakistan Calls On Iran To Respect Border

Pakistan has urged Iran to respect its borders.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry made the statement on February 18, one day after Tehran said it might send forces into Pakistan to free kidnapped border guards if Islamabad did not take measures to secure their release.

The guards were reportedly seized on February 6 in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province.

Jaish-ul Adl, a little-known Sunni Islamist militant group, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

“Pakistan has already informed the Iranian authorities that its Frontier Corps teams have intensively combed the entire region but could not verify the entry or presence of the abducted Iranian border guards on its territory,” said the statement by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.

It added that it was possible the kidnappers, along with the abducted guards, were still hiding within the Iranian territory.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

ISIL and Syrian Turkmen Clash Close to Turkish Border

ISIL and Syrian Turkmen Clash Close to Turkish Border

Posted 2014-02-02 00:54 GMT

Around three hundred Turkmen fought off Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members trying to take over the predominantly Turkmen town of Cobanbey, north of Aleppo on Thursday night.

The armed conflict between ISIL and Syrian Turkmen groups which has been going on for more than a week continued last night as well, local sources told the Anadolu Agency.

The ISIL after the weeklong fighting had to withdraw nine kms out of Cobanbey town. A group of 300 armed Turkmen raided the ISIL militants last night to clear them off the region. There are no records of numbers of casualties or death toll, local sources reported.

The gunshots were heard from the Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkish Elbeyli town of Kilis province.

The sources also reported that many militants from Cerablus, Rakka, Tal Abyad look set to help ISIL fighting in the region.

Turkish Armed Forces are also tightening security along the border due to increasing armed conflict close to the borders.

Assyrian International News Agency

Turkey Seals Border Against Al-Qaeda

The turmoil on the Turkish border is likely to intensify following major operations by the Syrian army in Aleppo and Idlib. The regime’s move pushed opposition forces northward against the border and prompted infighting between them. At the moment, the Turkish border, already the scene of crucial developments because of crossings of refugees, militants, arms and ammunition as well as traditional smugglers, had become even more volatile because of the clashes between the Islamic Front and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

The Syrian border crossings of Bab al-Salameh, Carablus and Tal Abyad, which face the Turkish crossings of Kilis-Oncupinar, Gaziantep-Karkamis and Sanliurfa-Akcakale, respectively, were captured by ISIS one after the other. When Turkey closed the crossings because of this development, the trucks waiting there to crossing into Syria were diverted to the Cilvegozu border crossing at Reyhanli-Hatay. But after the Jan. 20 car-bomb attacks at Syria’s Bab al-Hawa facing Cilvegozu, Turkey closed this crossing as well. The queue of trucks waiting at Cilvegozu was 30 kilometers (19 miles) long Wednesday [Jan. 22]. Only Syrians wanting to go back to their country are allowed to cross.

FSA couldn’t hold out

A senior official told Al-Monitor that although Bab al-Hawa is technically under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), ISIS has a presence in the area and passages are therefore risky. He said, “There was stiff opposition to al-Qaeda at Tal Abyad, which is across from our Akcakale border crossing. But when al-Qaeda got the upper hand in the clashes, FSA people manning the crossing abandoned their weapons at the border and escaped to Turkey. Turkmen villages in the area were evacuated. At the moment, there is no force other than al-Qaeda at Tal Abyad. That is why we had to seal off the Akcakale border crossing. Three hundred trucks a day used to pass through that crossing. Now the owners of the Akcakale-based truck fleets have formed a pressure group and they want us to reopen the crossing. They say they have commercial obligations and they have to deliver. According to them, al-Qaeda has transferred control of the crossing to civilians. Turkey is now assessing the situation but if you ask me, to allow trucks to cross from there would only benefit al-Qaeda because although ISIS may have withdrawn, it is al-Qaeda that actually controls the crossing.”

The official continued, “There was a long clash at Carablus about a week ago. In the end, the Tawhid Brigade gave up and ran away. About 1,500-2,000 civilians living in tents near the border also crossed into Turkey. These were people who had escaped from clashes at Hama and Homs. Most of them are Turkmen. Turkey was keeping them in camps on the Syrian side of instead of letting them cross into Turkey. But when the border was closed, humanitarian assistance was disrupted and Turkey had to accept these refugees.”

He concluded, “There were bomb attacks in the town of Azez across from our Oncupinar. At Bab al-Hawa across from Cilvegozu, control is in the hands of the Islamic Front.”

One can sense a martial command in the region, especially to the east, where the Kurds are. The Nusaybin, Senyurt and Ceylanpinar crossings that provide access to Qamishli, Derbesiye and Serekaniye are controlled by the Kurds and already are closed. According to the official who spoke to Al-Monitor, vehicles going to Qamishli are processed at the Habur border crossing. At Senyurt, humanitarian assistance trucks are occasionally allowed through. That Turkey erected a wall at Nusaybin to prevent illegal crossings was interpreted as enmity toward Kurds and a challenge to Kurdish efforts to set up an autonomous region in Rojava.

The official said it is impossible to prevent illegal crossings on a border of 910 kilometers (565 miles), but the least Turkey could do would be to devise policies that would discourage the villagers on the Turkish side from joining the smuggling enterprises common there.

Alarm over terror

Another reason for Turkey’s increased vigilance on the border is the intelligence gathered on al-Qaeda’s intentions to stage attacks in Turkish cities. The latest report reaching the security units concerned ISIS plans to launch suicide attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and Hatay.

Intelligence reports said ISIS was specifically targeting the big hotels where the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition hold their meetings, hence the urgent warning sent to police and the gendarmerie. Turkey’s support of the Islamic Front, which is now fighting ISIS, and the recent detentions of al-Qaeda militants in some cities have increased fears that Turkey itself may be targeted.

Translated by Timur Goksel.

Assyrian International News Agency

Kyrgyz Reservists’ Exercises Held Near Disputed Border Section

BATKEN, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan has been holding reservists’ military training in the southern Batken province near a disputed section of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

The Kyrgyz Defense Ministry announced on January 20 that the three-day military exercises had started January 18.

All males up to 50 years of age residing in the region were drafted for the training.

Army units are also taking part in the exercises.

Last week, Bishkek recalled its ambassador to Tajikistan over a shooting incident along the border that left several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards and one Kyrgyz policeman injured. 

Tajik authorities have not commented on the Kyrgyz military exercises.

Many areas along borders in Central Asia have remained in dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With reporting by mil.kg

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Christian Villages on Lebanon-Syria Border Beef Up Security

The Christian villages of Ras Baalbek, above, and al-Qaa, which are on the Lebanese border with Syria, are increasing security, both militarily and on the civilian level (photo by www.panoramio.com/photo/644219/AbouMarc).RAS BAALBEK and AL-QAA, Lebanon — Christian villages on the Lebanese border with Syria are increasing security, both militarily and on the civilian level, following death threats by a local municipality figure and reports of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups lurking in the mountains nearby.

“Civilians are forming patrols to protect the borders in places like al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek,” said a source in the Defense Ministry that chose to remain anonymous, as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “What they are doing is in coordination with the local municipality and the governor of the Bekaa, so it’s half-legal, let’s say.”

The war in Syria has dragged on for almost three years now, producing so many casualties that the United Nations recently suspended counting at 100,000 dead. Despite Syria’s influence on its diminutive neighbor, Lebanon has only seen pockets of violence, occasional clashes usually limited to specific neighborhoods in Tripoli and increasingly regular car-bomb attacks. But with reports and occasional grainy videos trickling out of Syria depicting the brutal violence there, some of it sectarian, religious minorities in Lebanon are concerned by the threat posed from Islamist radicals working to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria and beyond.

Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa are two of Lebanon’s largest Christian villages, inhabited predominately by Greek Catholics and located on the northeast border with Syria. To date, locals say Ras Baalbek has yet to experience any incidents involving armed groups. The Lebanese army is stationed at the village entrance and has conducted searches of the homes of Syrians who have recently taken up residence there. Despite the relative security, locals are still concerned with developments just across the border.

“After the kidnapping of the nuns in Maaloula, we are anxious and scared that maybe some of these radical groups will enter our village,” said William Nasr, a retired schoolteacher from Ras Baalbek. Many of the residents said that while such incidents have yet to occur, they don’t feel secure, considering their surroundings. In addition to the perceived threat in Syria, Ras Baalbek rests just north of the Sunni village of Arsal. In the last year or so, Arsal has become a bastion for fighters and a base for al-Qaeda-affiliated factions from which to operate freely and plan attacks in Lebanon.

“Since we are Christians, we are conscious of what is happening around us,” said Nasr. “We watch what is going on around the village with open eyes, though we don’t feel 100% safe.”

Though Ras Baalbek has seen little trouble, residents of neighboring al-Qaa feel the threat is more imminent. Numerous security incidents have already affected the village.

Al-Qaa Mayor Saad Hussein at-Towm said that in September, while celebrating a Christian religious holiday, he received notice of a threat from a militant wearing an explosive belt, intent on a suicide mission. The militant was captured by military intelligence before he could detonate his weapons.

This week, the head of al-Qaa municipality, Miled Rizk, claimed he received a death threat in a text message from a man purporting to be an Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emir named Abou Hasan al-Mhaje. The emir said that rockets would rain down on al-Qaa if anyone from the village stood against his men.

Locals also say that some armed militants use the nightly fog to try to slip through the village. At the moment, residents say the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is operating a kilometer away in the mountain range bordering al-Qaa.

While al-Qaa is traditionally watched over by a large statue of the Virgin Mary, spiritual protection has been deemed insufficient, as the site is now acting as a makeshift base for around 125 members of the Lebanese Air Assault Regiment (AAR). The regiment’s troops, some of whom have necks the size of small tree trunks, are a strategic mobile reserve force that patrols the edges of the village in case armed militants trickle out of its wild mountainous backdrop. A unit from Lebanon’s internal security forces also guards the village, while Lebanese military intelligence is also monitoring the situation in both al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek.

In addition to the presence of the AAR and military intelligence, retired soldiers are forming units to patrol the villages.

“First of all, we are afraid of the brutality of radical Islamist groups like ISIS,” said Antoun Aad, a retired corporal with the Lebanese army from al-Qaa who has joined the civilian patrols. Aad, a burly man with thinning gray hair and a trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache, referred to incidents that attracted widespread media attention, including a video of a radical eating the heart of a dead enemy combatant.

“We share 40 kilometers (25 miles) of border with Syria and though the situation here [has been] relatively stable, it is collapsing around us,” said Aad.

About a year ago, while the unraveling of the situation in Syria continued, Aad and a group of other concerned retired military personnel decided to start patrolling their village, watching for armed insurgents.

“We recruited retired army soldiers to use them for protection,” said Towm. “We pay them for their gasoline, transportation and food, but that’s all. They still take their army pension.”

The group started with only five or six members but has grown to around 60 men. An average patrol consists of two cars with four retired soldiers in each, looking for any person or vehicle that looks suspicious or that they don’t recognize. They communicate using walkie-talkies and bought a private phone line that any resident can call to report suspicious activity. And while Towm says the patrols are not heavily armed, a message also conveyed by residents in Ras Baalbek, he maintains that the village has no shortage of weapons.

“Every one of us has a weapon, but we feel it is safest not to brandish them at the moment,” said Towm.

“We protect 90% of the village through our patrols,” said Aad. Still, much of the region remains out of the reach of the patrol units as security incidents continue to threaten the village. Earlier that day, two rockets had struck the mountains nearby.

Despite the Christians’ fears, some locals say that their role as minorities in the region works in their favor.

“It is not weapons that protect us,” said Butros Rizk, a former leader in Ras Baalbek’s Communist Party. “It is our wisdom and mind that can protect us. Everybody wants the Christians to be on their side.”

He added that even during the 15-year Lebanese civil war that pitted religious sects against one another, there were few incidents in the surrounding villages.

For most residents, though, fears persist as security incidents creep closer to home.

Wadiaa is an employee of the Ras Baalbek municipality and has lived in the village for all of her 50 years. She said, “We used to leave our doors open when we left the house, but now we lock them.

“Up until five years ago, I didn’t know that Arsal was Sunni, Hermel [north of Ras Baalbek] was Shiite or Zahle was Catholic, because we never had sectarianism,” she said, her voice betraying grave concern. “During the civil war, we didn’t feel anything. But we are feeling it hard now.”

Assyrian International News Agency

Kyrgyz, Tajik Guards Injured In Border Clash

BISHKEK — Officials say five Kyrgyz border guards, one Kyrgyz policeman, and three Tajik border guards have been hospitalized with injuries after tensions escalated into exchanges of gunfire along the mutual border. 

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have ordered senior officials to conduct a joint investigation of the incident in the Batken region.

The cause of the January 11 shooting wasn’t immediately clear, but tensions have been high in the region for years amid a series of territorial disputes.

Tensions soared in September 2013 in Batken after five members of a Tajik family were killed.

Those killings were followed by the slayings of four members of a Kyrgyz family.

Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken Province borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Ill-defined borders have led to regional tensions since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iranian Intelligence Tracking Al-Qaeda Militants Along Iraq’s Border With Syria

Iranian Intelligence Tracking Al-Qaeda Militants Along Iraq’s Border With Syria

By Robert Tilford

Posted 2013-12-26 22:00 GMT

Iranian Defense ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said Iraqi forces had destroyed two militant camps in Anbar. This may have been accomplished with the sharing of secret intelligence information with Iraq by Iran.

It should be noted that Iraq doesn’t have the intelligence capabilities to track such movement by terrorists currently, begging the question where they got the information from in the first place. Certainly the United States didn’t provide it, leading many analysts to guess that Iran was responsible for sharing critical battlefield intelligence to its Iraq allies engaged in what is a life or death struggle with Sunni Islamic militants. One that threatens the very stability of Iraq as a nation.

According to the report:

“The Iraqi government responded to the attempted killing of Saadoun Al-Dulaimi by launching an operation dubbed “Avenge the Leader Mohammed,” named after the divisional commander who was killed in the brazen attack.”

“Military operations are continuing in Anbar 24 hours per day, and we are focusing on areas near the border,” a senior official said, adding there was a major deployment along the Syrian border to stop the movement of militants and weapons.

“Such camps have proliferated in areas near the border with neighboring Syria, where a brutal civil war has bolstered militant groups and fueled violence in Iraq”, Askari said at the weekend.

He said aerial photographs and other information pointed to “the arrival of weapons and advanced equipment from Syria to the desert of western Anbar and the border of Nineveh province”.

This has encouraged Al-Qaeda-linked militants to “revive some of their camps that were eliminated by security forces in 2008 and 2009,” Askari said, adding that aerial photos showed 11 militant camps near the border with Syria.

“Photographs and intelligence information indicate that whenever there is pressure on armed groups in Syria, they withdraw to Iraq … to regroup and then carry out terrorist operations in the two countries,” Askari said in the report.

Assyrian International News Agency

Roads Closed Along Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Amid Tensions

BISHKEK — Several roads along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border remain closed after an alleged arson attack destroyed a teahouse belonging to a Kyrgyz citizen in a disputed area.

On December 19, Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokon Mamytov went to the area to join negotiations between local Kyrgyz and Tajik officials in Tajikistan’s Isfara district.

The incident took place on December 17, one day after Tajik border guards released two Kyrgyz citizens detained on December 15 for allegedly crossing the border illegally.

On December 17, the Kyrgyz government asked Tajikistan to hold the next round of talks on border demarcation on December 24.

Clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks along the border have been reported several times this year.

Three countries sharing the Ferghana Valley — Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan — inherited unclear borders when they gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many populated areas along those borders remain in dispute.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Talks To Resume

BISHKEK — The Kyrgyz government has asked Tajikistan to hold the next round of talks on border demarcation.

The head of the Kyrgyz government’s agency for border demarcation, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, said on December 16 that Bishkek proposed that Dushanbe hold the gathering on December 24.

Iskandarov’s statement comes as Tajik border guards released two Kyrgyz citizens detained on December 15 for allegedly crossing the border illegally.

The two Kyrgyz nationals were detained while trying to transport two electric poles in a disputed area near a Tajik village to a Kyrgyz village.

Clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks along the border have been reported several times this year.

Three countries sharing the Ferghana Valley — Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan — inherited unclear borders at their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Many populated areas remain in dispute.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Israeli soldier killed near Lebanon border

An Israeli soldier has been killed in cross-border gunfire near the Lebanese border, the Israeli military has said.

Gunfire was exchanged near the village of Naqoura, at around 8:30pm on Sunday night.

Sources on both sides say the shooting originated from the Lebanese side of the border, but it remains unclear what the target of the shooting was, after Israel initially claimed a civilian vehicle had been shot at.

“A sniper from Lebanese Armed Forces opened fire at a civilian vehicle travelling on the Israeli side,” an Israeli army spokesperson said, without giving details of any casualties.

“We will not tolerate aggression against the state of Israel and maintain the right to exercise self-defence.”

There was no immediate confirmation of an armed Israeli response, and it is not yet known what prompted the shooting – despite local media speculation that Israeli troops had crossed the border.

Lebanese sources told Reuters said they had lost contact with the Lebanese soldier after the shooting, which took place at the western tip of the border region, across which Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in 2006. There was suspicion that the sniper was being held by Israeli troops, reported Israeli daily Haaretz.

The UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon said they had been informed about “a serious incident” at the border.

“We are now trying to determine the facts of what happened and the situation is ongoing,” UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.

“UNIFIL’s force commander is in contact with counterparts in the Lebanese and Israeli army, urging restraint.”

Tenenti said that both sides were cooperating with UNIFIL after the incident, which he said appeared to have happened on the Israeli side of the Blue Line which divides Lebanese and Israeli forces.

In August, four Israeli soldiers on patrol were wounded in a blast 400 metres inside Lebanese territory, Lebanon’s army and a UN peacekeeper in the border region said.



Al-Qaeda Rebels Seize 120 Syrian Kurds Near Turkish Border

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda kidnapped at least 120 Kurdish civilians on Friday from a village near the Turkish border in Aleppo province, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters entered Ihras, 20 km (12 miles) south of the border town of Azaz, and took the captives, including at least six women, to an unknown location.

The British-based Observatory, which has a network of sources across Syria, cited Arab and Kurdish sources in and around Ihras. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.

The incident is the latest in a series of kidnappings and killings by ISIL this month targeting Kurds in northern Syria, where mainly Sunni Arab Islamist rebels and Kurdish fighters have clashed repeatedly in recent months.

Control over Syria’s northeast, where Kurds predominate, has swung back and forth between them and Islamists, who strongly oppose what they suspect are Kurdish plans to secede.

The Observatory said ISIL had kidnapped 51 Kurdish civilians from the towns of Manbij and Jarablus northeast of Aleppo since the start of December, including eight women and two children.

ISIL has also evicted 15 Kurdish families linked to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from their homes in Idlib province, according to the Observatory.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Friday that both rebels and government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had stepped up abductions recently.

“In just the past few months, we have seen a significant and deeply alarming rise in abductions of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, religious figures and others by armed opposition groups, as well as the continuing arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of individuals by government forces,” Pillay said.

Syrian Kurds number over two million of a total of more than 25 million Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Kurds are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state.

Oppressed under President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Syrian Kurds view the civil war as an opportunity to gain more autonomy – much as their ethnic kin in neighboring Iraq have consolidated self-rule during turmoil there.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alistair Lyon.

Assyrian International News Agency

Roadside Bomb Kills 4 Pakistani Soldiers Near Afghan Border

Pakistani military officials say at least four soldiers were killed when a military convoy struck a roadside bomb in a northwestern tribal area near the Afghan border.

The bomb also wounded five soldiers in the village of Spinwam, in the North Waziristan tribal region.

No one has claimed responsibility but authorities have previously blamed Pakistani Taliban for similar attacks.

North Waziristan is one of the main strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban.

The umbrella Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan faction and Al-Qaeda-linked militants in recent years have carried out hundreds of attacks on security forces and government forces, concentrated largely in the northwest.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Syria Islamists Seize Turkey Border Crossing

Beirut (AFP) — Syria’s largest Islamist rebel force seized a crossing on the Turkish border Tuesday from other rebels, including brigades loyal to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic Front, a new grouping of the most powerful Islamist rebel groups battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, seized the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northwestern Syria.

The capture came after the Islamic Front seized arms depots near the crossing belonging to the Free Syrian Army at the weekend, heightening tensions among the fractured Syrian opposition.

Last week the Islamic Front rejected the authority of the FSA, which was the first major rebel force formed after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war and was made up of army deserters and civilians.

The Islamic Front was formed last month by six rebel groups that merged with the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime and establishing an Islamic state.

It does not include Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — two jihadist rebel groups linked to Al-Qaeda.

Assyrian International News Agency

Islamic Front Fighters Take Over Free Syrian Army Bases Near Turkish Border

The Islamic Front, a recently formed Islamist alliance of several large groups that cooperate with al Qaeda in Syria, has driven Free Syrian Army forces out of bases and a warehouse at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey. Late last month, the warehouse and its FSA commanders were taken over by the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.

Following an all-night battle between the Islamic Front and FSA units, today Islamic Front fighters seized FSA arms depots containing weapons that had come into Syria through Turkey, according to the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said the Islamic Front fighters raised their own flag in place of the FSA’s, after “asking” FSA personnel to leave, Reuters reported.

Agence France Presse notes that the capture of the FSA bases took place only four days after the Islamic Front declared that it rejected FSA command.

Last week, the Islamic Front, estimated at 45,000 fighters, published its charter, which sets out its goals of creating an Islamic state under sharia law. Although the charter does not mention al Qaeda or its two official Syrian branches, the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, the Islamic Front embraces jihad and calls the foreign fighters “our brothers.” Taken as a whole, the charter indicates that the Islamic Front is willing to cooperate with both Al Nusrah and the ISIS; most of the Islamist groups that make up the Islamic Front have fought alongside the al Qaeda groups already. [See LWJ reports, Islamic Front endorses jihad, says 'the Muhajireen are our brothers,' and Analysis: Formation of Islamic Front in Syria benefits jihadist groups.]

Shortly after the publication of the charter, General Salim Idriss, head of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, congratulated the Islamic Front on its formation and pledged to cooperate with it. A few days earlier, on Nov. 24, an FSA spokesman had claimed that the Islamic Front answered to the Supreme Military Council; he also estimated that the Islamic Front controlled up to 60 percent of the rebel fighters in Syria, TIME reported.

A report in the BBC today states that al Qaeda-linked fighting units are becoming increasingly organized in the recruitment and transfer of foreign fighters through safe houses near the Turkish border into Syria and often out again back to their home countries.

A French jihadist who joined a brigade that consists of 8,000 fighters told the BBC that “there are thousands of us, literally from every corner of the world” and “we are all al-Qaeda.” He also claimed that his brigade had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.

In a further indication of the growing strength of the Islamist forces and corresponding weakness of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, a former rebel commander told the BBC that FSA fighters are now being targeted by jihadist forces and that he fled to Turkey after jihadists captured his unit and killed most of his men.

By Lisa Lundquist

Assyrian International News Agency

Georgian Police Arrest Suspects In Shooting Near Armenian Border

TBILISI — Georgian authorities have arrested six men suspected in a deadly shooting at a checkpoint along the Georgian-Armenian border.

The incident took place at the Sadakhlo checkpoint overnight.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry said on November 26 that the suspects, traveling in two cars, opened fire inside Georgia at a car with three Georgian nationals as it headed toward the border checkpoint.

All three of the car’s occupants were wounded and two of them died later at Marneuli hospital.

The six suspected attackers have been arrested.

No other details have been released so far.

An investigation is under way.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Israel says Separation Wall will be border

Israeli negotiators have told their Palestinian counterparts that the Separation Wall that cuts through the occupied West Bank will serve as the border of a future Palestinian state, local media reports said.

Just hours before US Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrival for top-level talks on ongoing direct peace negotiations on Tueaday, two press reports said the Israeli team had made the proposal.

“Israel’s opening position was that the border be the route of the separation barrier [wall], and not the 1967 lines as the Palestinians have demanded,” public radio said in a report, which also featured in the top-selling Yediot

Since talks resumed in late July, the Palestinians have repeatedly complained about Israel’s lack of clarity on the issue of borders.

The Palestinians insist the talks be based on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War, when Israeli seized and occupied Gaza, the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected any return to the 1967 lines as “indefensible”, saying that would not take into account the “demographic changes” over the past 46 years, in a clear euphemism for Jewish settlements.

Israel reneges?

Israel began work on its sprawling wall in 2002 at the height of the second intifada, and has defended its construction as a protective measure, pointing to a drop in attacks inside Israel as proof of its success.

But Palestinians, who refer to its as the “apartheid wall”, say it is a land grab. When complete, 85 percent of it will have been built inside the West Bank.

There was no confirmation of the report from Netanyahu’s office, which has refused to comment on the content of the ongoing peace talks in line with a US-requested media blackout.

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the start of the barrier’s construction, repeatedly insisted that the barrier was not a border for a future Palestinian state but only a measure to keep out attackers.

When construction began, Israel resisted calls to route it along the so-called Green Line, which acted as a de facto border between 1949, when fighting ended after Israel was established, and the 1967 war.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding opinion declaring the barrier contrary to international law, which was ignored by Israel.



Israel to build wall along Jordanian border

Israeli government has decided to build a security fence on the the border with Jordan, a report said, angering Palestinians ahead of talks with US Secretary of State.

The report published on Sunday by Israeli newspaper Maariv said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have the construction started “immediately upon the completion of the fence on the Egyptian border”.

A spokesman for Netanyahu refused to provide details on the plan to “strengthen barriers” or comment on the Maariv report, which was picked up by the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

The spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the reported plans.

“The Israeli premier’s statements on building a wall in the Jordan Valley is only a proactive step to foil (US State) Secretary (John) Kerry’s visit,” Nabil Abu Rudeina told Wafa.

More settlers’ homes

Israel also issued tenders on Sunday to build 1,859 more settlers’ homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, settlement watchdog Peace Now told AFP news agency.

The organisation said that 1,031 plots were offered by Israel’s housing and construction ministry in the occupied West Bank and 828 in annexed East Jerusalem.

The successful bidders would be able to start construction shortly, the watchdog said.

“Within a few months they will choose the winning bids and the successful contractors will be able to start building within a number of weeks (after that),” the group’s Hagit Ofran said.

The move angered the Palestinians who threatened on Sunday to go to the United Nations Security Council over the issue.

“The PLO is considering a mechanism to go the Security Council and the UN against these new Israeli decisions, especially as there are international resolutions that consider settlements illegal,” Wassel Abu Youssef, Palestine Liberation Organisation senior member, told AFP.

The latest developments came ahead of Kerry’s separate meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas on Wednesday that aims to push the two sides towards peace talks.

Palestinians have accused Israel in derailing the negotiations with its settlement plans.



Kyrgyz Border Guard Chief Sacked

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service Kurmanakun Matenov has been temporarily relieved of his duties amid allegations he committed fraud.

An investigation determined that Matenov submitted a fake statement of residence to the pensions department and, as a result, received some 409,000 som (about $ 8,500) in payments which he was not entitled to receive.

The military prosecutor’s office issued a statement on suspending Matenov and forwarded its findings to President Almazbek Atambaev who signed a decree on October 26 dismissing Matenov from his post.

Matenov was the third border chief Kyrgyzstan has had this year.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran guards killed on Pakistan border

At least 18 Iranian border guards were killed in clashes with “armed bandits” on the country’s southeastern boundary with Pakistan overnight, Iran’s state TV reported.

Iran’s state news agency, IRNA reported another death toll, saying that 17 guards were killed early on Saturday.

It gave no more detail on the identity of the armed group, but security forces have fought drug traffickers before in the border region with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera’s Soraya Lennie, reporting from Tehran, said other sources were suggesting that the group Jaish Ul Adl, or ‘Party of Justice’,  was responsible for the violence.

The area also has a history of unrest, with the mainly Sunni Muslim population complaining of discrimination at the hands of Iran’s Shia Muslim authorities.

IRNA quoted an unnamed official saying the fighting took place in the southeast Sistan-Baluchistan province and the exact number of dead had not been confirmed.



Syrian Kurds, Jihadists Clash Near Iraq Border

BEIRUT — Fierce clashes erupted in Syria overnight between Kurdish fighters and jihadists near the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.

“The clashes began around midnight (2100 GMT Wednesday) and lasted around 12 hours, with the Kurds advancing in the direction of Al-Yaarubia, an area controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other jihadist groups,” the Britain-based monitor said.

“The Kurds have managed to take two villages controlled by the jihadists but it will be difficult to capture Al-Yaarubia from ISIL,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Al-Yaarubia border crossing with Iraq is seen as a key supply route for arms and fighters. ISIL has carried out attacks on both sides of the border.

The Kurds and the jihadists have been fighting for control of northeastern Syria, an area rich in oil and wheat, for months.

Rebels ostensibly fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned their guns on each other in recent months, with jihadists clashing with the mainstream Free Syrian Army in the north, where the rebels control vast swathes of territory.

Kurdish fighters affiliated with Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have meanwhile struggled to carve out an autonomous region in northeastern Syria similar to one in northern Iraq.

Daily Star, Lebanon

Assyrian International News Agency

Syrian Kurds, Jihadists Clash Near Iraq Border

BEIRUT — Fierce clashes erupted in Syria overnight between Kurdish fighters and jihadists near the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.

“The clashes began around midnight (2100 GMT Wednesday) and lasted around 12 hours, with the Kurds advancing in the direction of Al-Yaarubia, an area controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other jihadist groups,” the Britain-based monitor said.

“The Kurds have managed to take two villages controlled by the jihadists but it will be difficult to capture Al-Yaarubia from ISIL,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Al-Yaarubia border crossing with Iraq is seen as a key supply route for arms and fighters. ISIL has carried out attacks on both sides of the border.

The Kurds and the jihadists have been fighting for control of northeastern Syria, an area rich in oil and wheat, for months.

Rebels ostensibly fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned their guns on each other in recent months, with jihadists clashing with the mainstream Free Syrian Army in the north, where the rebels control vast swathes of territory.

Kurdish fighters affiliated with Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have meanwhile struggled to carve out an autonomous region in northeastern Syria similar to one in northern Iraq.

Daily Star, Lebanon

Assyrian International News Agency