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120 killed in Syria as govt, rebels pound populated areas

Monitor News Bureau

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BEIRUT: Almost 120 people were killed across Syria during a 24-hour period beginning as both pro-Assad forces and rebels bombarded heavily populated areas without any thought for the lives of non-combatants.
In one of the deadliest attacks in the Syrian capital in the country’s seven-year civil war, 44 people, most of them women and children, were killed when anti-government fighters fired mortar shells on a busy market in Damascus on Tuesday night.
In another bloody scene, an airstrike killed 21 people, 16 of them children, in a rebel-held province in northwestern Syria on Wednesday. The children, between seven and 10 years old, were leaving their schools in Kfar Batkeeh village when jets began flying overhead.
Raghda Ghanoum, an activist near Kfar Batkeeh, said the children and four adults took cover in a cave nearby, where the airstrikes hit. Ghanoum said she documented 21 victim names, including 16 children.
Meanwhile, government forces pounded opposition-held areas in Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, with shelling and airstrikes on Tuesday, killing 56 people.
The violence in both government-held and opposition-held areas came as Syrians celebrated Mother’s Day, turning the occasion that ushers the spring season into a blood-spattered day for families on both sides of the conflict.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 were people killed in the airstrikes on Kfar Batkeeh village.
The organisation put the death toll in the market shelling in Damascus at 43, including 11 pro-government fighters. Videos of the aftermath posted online showed scenes of chaos, with people screaming and bodies and store mannequins strewn across the ground.
Hospital director Mohammed Haitham al Husseini told Al Ikhbariya TV that 35 others were wounded in the mortar attack, with six in intensive care. He said most of the casualties were women and children.
Witnesses told state-run TV that the mortar shells fell during rush hour in the popular market on the eve of Mother’s Day, celebrated in the Middle East with the start of spring. A child said he was out shopping with his family for Mother’s Day when they heard a huge explosion. “Everyone started running, and people were going into narrow streets to give first aid to others,” the child said.
A woman in the hospital said her niece, who was wounded by shrapnel, lost her four-year old son. “We just saw him in the morgue,” the woman told Al Ikhbariya. The TV network did not identify the woman or the child.
The government blamed the attack on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, where Syrian troops and Russian warplanes have been waging a major offensive over the past month that has killed hundreds of people.
The first-responders group, known as the White Helmets, said 56 civilians were killed in Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, as government forces stepped up their assault to dislodge the last pockets of resistance in the region outside the capital.
Video from the White Helmets showed rescue workers surrounded by fire and ongoing shelling struggling to retrieve survivors from a building in Douma.
The assault on eastern Ghouta has displaced 45,000 people, the United Nations said. Before the latest offensive, it was estimated that 400,000 people were trapped in the besieged region. The rebels first seized the area in 2012.


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International

‘Window dressing, made no difference,’ says US on Hafiz Saeed’s previous arrest

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Washington: The Trump Administration expressed doubts over Pakistan’s intentions in arresting terrorist Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, the mastermind of the 2001 Parliament attack and the 2008 Mumbai attack, saying his previous arrests made no difference either to his activities or that of his outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba.

“We’ve seen this happen in the past. And we have been looking for sustained and concrete steps, not just window dressing,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the US next week.

Saeed, a UN-designated terrorist was arrested on Wednesday — the seventh times since December 2001, when he was nabbed in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament.

 

“Let me reassure you, we are clear eyed about the history here. We’re under no illusions about the support that we could see from Pakistan’s military intelligence services to these groups. So we will look for concrete action,” the official said when asked about the actions that Pakistan has taken against terrorist group and if the US believes in them.

“I noticed that Pakistan has taken some initial steps such as pledging to seize assets of some of these terrorist groups. And, of course, they put under arrest yesterday Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba which is responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks,” said the official requesting anonymity.

But the official quickly noted that this was the seventh time that Saeed was arrested since 2001 attack on India’s Parliament when he was detained right after that attack and was subsequently released.

“That is why we are very clear eyed and realistic when you see him arrested” as he has been arrested and released in the past. “So we would look to see that Pakistan take sustained action in actually prosecuting these people,” the official said.

“Quite frankly, the previous arrest of Hafiz Muhammed Saeed hasn’t made a difference and the LeT has been has been able to operate. So we’re monitoring the situation,” said the senior administration official as reporters asked questions on the links between Pakistani intelligence services and terrorist groups.

The US “remains concerned” about terrorist groups that continue to operate in Pakistan, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Haqqani network. “We do have concerns about link between these groups and Pakistan intelligence services in military. That’s no secret,” the official said.

The US, the official said, welcomes Prime Minister Khan’s pledge that Pakistan will not allow its soil to be used by militant groups and its vocal leadership and the Trump Administration is pressing for a new direction in this regard.

According to the official, the US has seen some initial steps with Pakistan pledging to seize the assets of some of these terrorist leaders, pledged to reform the madrasa and has taken under administrative control some of the facilities owned by these groups.

Prime Minister Khan himself said that Pakistan cannot reach its full potential unless it has peace and stability in the region. Of course, peace and stability in the region would require it to crack down on the terrorist and militant groups that are creating the instability, the official said. Pakistan really needs to prove that this time they are something different, he said.

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It’s our America: Michelle Obama weighs in on Trump

Agencies

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Washington: Former first lady Michelle Obama added her voice to the Democratic outcry following President Donald Trump’s attack on four ethnic minority congresswomen, saying “there’s a place for all of us.”

“What truly makes our country great is its diversity… Whether we are born here or seek refuge here, there’s a place for all of us,” Obama tweeted, without mentioning Trump.

“We must remember it’s not my America or your America. It’s our America.”

 

Trump has come under intense fire after he attacked four first-term Democratic congresswomen known as the “Squad.”

In a rare move, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Tuesday rebuked Trump for “racist comments” after he said the four should “go back” to their countries of origin if they are not happy in the United States.

But chants of “Send her back!” directed at Somali-born congresswoman Ilhan Omar broke out at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rally in Greenville, North Carolina on Wednesday night.

Trump claimed to reporters in the Oval Office the following day that he was not pleased by the taunts and attempted to cut them short.

Television footage, however, showed he let the chant continue for more than 10 seconds before he resumed speaking.

“Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Friday when asked about the chants.

“She’s lucky to be where she is, let me tell you,” he added about Omar.

The first-term lawmakers — all but one of whom, Omar, were born in the United States — are of Hispanic, Arab, Somali and African-American descent.

Some Republicans have urged Trump to tone down the rhetoric, but the president has made it clear that attacks on the “Squad” will be a centerpiece of his 2020 re-election strategy — despite the risk of inflaming racial tensions and widening the partisan divide.

Omar responded to the chants by condemning Trump’s “racist remarks” and branding him a “fascist.”

The president’s “nightmare is seeing a Somali immigrant refugee rise to Congress,” she told supporters when she returned home to Minnesota Thursday night.

“We are going to continue to be a nightmare to this president, because his policies are a nightmare to us,” she said through a megaphone to the cheering crowd at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

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During talks with Pak PM, Trump to seek release of doctor who helped track Osama

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Washington: US President Donald Trump, during his meeting next week with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, would seek the release of jailed Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden, a senior administration official said Friday.

The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the White House on Monday.

“This is an extremely important issue to the President and the American people. I think Pakistan could demonstrate its leadership role in the region and among the international community by freeing Dr Afridi who remains unjustly imprisoned in Pakistan,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday.

 

Before being elected as the president of the United States Trump had said during his campaign that he will get Afridi freed within two minutes from Pakistan.

Afridi helped the CIA track down al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2011. He was later arrested and is currently serving a jail-term in Pakistan.

In an interview to Voice of America, the lawyer and family of Dr Afridi, expressed hope that Trump and Khan would discuss his release.

“Dr Afridi can’t sleep properly due to harsh conditions and sweltering heat as there is no window in the cell where he is kept. Imran Khan is visiting the US, but if Dr Afridi remains in pain, then I think the visit won’t be a success,” his lawyer Qamar Nadeem told the VOA.

The United States has requested Pakistan to free Dr Afridi, the senior administration official told a group of reporters ahead of the Monday meeting between Trump and Khan.

“We have clearly and regularly communicated this to Pakistan at the highest level in public and private and will continue to do so until he is released. Pakistan’s leadership will be judged by treatment of Dr Afridi, while he remains in prisons. We are calling on Pakistan to release him,” said the senior administration official.

Describing Dr Afridi as a “hero”, the senior administration official said that he helped the US capture the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the worst terrorist incident in history.

“This is something that is of the utmost importance to us. It is likely to come up (during the meeting),” the official said, adding that it remains a very important issue for the US. He has been unjustly imprisoned, the official said.

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