BEIRUT: Syrian rebels agreed to surrender a second besieged enclave in eastern Ghouta as their comrades in another insurgent pocket in the area continued their withdrawal after a month-long assault by the army.
It will leave only one remaining rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta — the city of Douma — and put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the brink of his biggest victory over the insurgents since driving them from Aleppo in December 2016.
His army’s month-long attack on the biggest rebel enclave near Damascus splintered it into smaller besieged pockets, seized most of its area and, according to a war monitor, killed more than 1,600 people. Insurgents in one of those pockets — the town of Harasta — began withdrawing in a convoy of buses for opposition territory in northwestern Syria on Thursday. More buses left on Friday carrying fighters and their family members.
Syrian state television broadcast their departure. From behind a half-drawn curtain, a woman in a headscarf could be seen gazing out through a spiderweb of bullet holes and cracks in the window of a bus as it prepared to carry her into exile. A witness near where the buses were gathering said some men had disembarked to pray while women and children walked nearby. Syrian army soldiers fired tracer bullets into the air to celebrate their victory.
Meanwhile, rebels in a second pocket around the towns of Arbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Terma said they had also agreed to leave for the northwest with their families and any other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule.
People who wished to stay on would not face prosecution, said Wael Alwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman group there, adding that the group would also release captured government soldiers.
About 7,000 people would depart in the deal starting on Saturday morning, including fighters carrying light weapons, state TV reported.
But bombs still fell on Friday on the besieged city of Douma, from which thousands of people have fled into government territory in recent days.
After insurgents have surrendered the other two pockets, it will stand as the last battered and besieged rebel area in eastern Ghouta, itself the opposition’s last major bastion near the capital. The Syrian army’s assault to recapture the area has been one of the most intense in the seven-year war.
It has been marked by tactics the army and its ally Russia have increasingly used to crush resistance — lay siege to an area, bombard it, launch a ground assault and finally offer the rebels and their families safe passage to the northwest.
After helping turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favour with air power and military support since its intervention in 2015, Russia has increasingly cast itself as a peace-broker. Russian representatives have played a role in negotiating local ceasefires and evacuations.
Assad and his allies say their offensive in eastern Ghouta is necessary to end the rule of Islamist militants over the area’s people, and to stop them shelling government areas.
Rebel rocket fire has killed scores of people during the army offensive on eastern Ghouta, state television has reported including in a strike that hit a market place on Tuesday.
US warn Turkey of facing ‘very negative’ consequences over S-400 deal
Washington: The United States on Wednesday warned that Turkey will have to face “very real and very negative consequences” if Ankara finalises the purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems.
In a statement, the State Department said, “We have said that the S-400 defence system, the acquisition of that would have serious consequences for the US and NATO’s defence relationship with Turkey.”
“We’re clearly willing to engage with them and have continued to engage regarding our concerns on this acquisition, but there will be very real and very negative consequences if that happens,” it added.
Turkey has repeatedly rejected US ultimatums for cancelling S-400 shipments and the purchase of American Patriot batteries instead. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned to the US ultimatum on Wednesday by calling it unacceptable, Sputnik reports.
In December 2017, Moscow and Ankara signed a loan agreement for the delivery of S-400 air defence systems to Turkey. Since then, the United States and NATO have criticised Turkey’s move, citing security concerns and incompatibility with NATO air defence systems.
Washington had earlier threatened Turkey with sanctions for its planned acquisition of S-400s and repeatedly said it may delay or cancel the sales of F-35 aircraft to Ankara. Turkey is one of the seven states that participate in the F-35 program.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on last Saturday told Al Jazeera that the S-400 deal with Russia was done and wouldn’t change.
“There is absolutely no question of [Turkey] taking a step back from the S-400 purchase. That is a done deal,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.
He also said Turkey and Russia would jointly produce S-500 defence systems after Ankara’s controversial purchase of the S-400s from Moscow.
Man busted for threatening to bomb Trump tower in New York
Washington: A 20-year-old New Jersey man accused of threatening on social media to “shoot everybody” at a pro-Israel march and bomb the Trump Tower skyscraper in New York City was arrested on Wednesday on a string of federal charges, prosecutors said.
Jonathan Xie, of Basking Ridge, was taken into custody on charges of attempting to provide material support to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip and which the United States designates as a terrorist organization, making false statements and transmitting threats over interstate commerce, according to federal prosecutors.
“Homegrown violent extremists like Xie are a serious threat to national security,” US Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a statement. “The actions that he took and planned to take made that threat both clear and present.”
According to the charging documents, Xie appeared in an Instagram Live video in April 2019 wearing a black ski mask and displayed a handgun as he expressed the desire to attack demonstrators at a pro-Israel rally.
“I want to shoot the pro-Israel demonstrators … you can get a gun and shoot your way through or use a vehicle and ram people … all you need is a gun or vehicle to go on a rampage….I do not care if security forces come after me, they will have to put a bullet in my head to stop me,” Xie said in the video, according to the court papers.
That same month Xie was spotted outside of Trump Tower, headquarters of the businesses owned by US President Donald Trump. He later posted photos of the building on Instagram along with a poll asking if he should bomb it.
“Okay, so I went to NYC today and passed by Trump Tower and then I started laughing hysterically … I forgot to visit the Israeli embassy in NYC … I want to bomb this place along with trump tower,” Xie said in a separate post detailed in the court documents.
In February 2019 Xie said he wanted to join the US Army in hopes of learning “how to kill” and applied for a security clearance as a first step, prosecutors say.
He is also accused of sending money to an individual in the Gaza Strip aligned with a faction of Hamas that has carried out attacks against civilian targets in Israel.
It was not immediately clear if Xie, who faces more than 30 years in federal prison if convicted on all charges, had retained an attorney.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro wins, Justice Minister loses in Congress
Brasilia: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro surmounted a crucial hurdle for his young government on Wednesday by winning approval from disgruntled lower house lawmakers for his move to reorganize the country’s executive branch.
But lawmakers voted against putting the Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF), a key tool for flagging suspicious funds moving through the banking system, under the control of Justice Minister Sergio Moro, a former judge who jailed many politicians in the sweeping corruption probe known as Car Wash.
“I lament what happened,” Moro said, according to newspaper O Globo. “It’s part of the democratic debate.”
The vote on the first decree Bolsonaro issued the day he took office in January was a test of his ability to govern without courting traditional parties in Congress, which is threatening to derail his agenda after months of mutual antagonism.
The decree that reduced the number of ministries to 20, from 29 previously, was due to expire on June 3.Failure to gain approval would have thrown the government into crisis, forcing a ministry reshuffle and increasing doubts that he can rally support for an ambitious pension reform bill – the cornerstone of his economic agenda – now in the hands of a political class he openly insults.
A former army captain and apologist for Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, Bolsonaro wielded little influence in his three decades in Congress and cast his grassroots campaign as a crusade against the horse trading of Brazil’s “old politics.”
“Bolsonaro despises democracy. We have to isolate his anti-democratic attitude and lack of respect for institutions so this does not paralyse the country,” lawmaker Marcelo Ramos, chairman of the congressional committee on pension reform, told Reuters.
Ramos said Bolsonaro was unable to build a coalition with the 308 votes needed to pass the pension bill, aimed at saving 1.2 trillion reais (USD 300 billion) in a decade to restore investor confidence and jump-start a weak economy. Ramos estimated the bill could currently only muster 200 votes.
Bolsonaro has said he would rather work with issue-focused caucuses than party leaders and has called on his supporters via social media to pressure lawmakers obstructing his agenda.
He attacked the political class on Monday for being the country’s “big problem” and blamed interest groups for impeding him from governing.
Lawmakers passed the decree despite their frustration with Bolsonaro’s refusal to reach out to them with government jobs and support for projects in their constituencies.
However, their decision to keep the COAF under the Economy Ministry was a set-back for Bolsonaro and especially Moro, who has declared war on the country’s entrenched culture of political graft and impunity.
The move had alarmed some lawmakers, many of whom are under investigation on suspicion of corruption.