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Syria crisis

ISIS has briefly overrun a hospital complex in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour, reports say.

Activists say about 35 pro-government fighters were killed and some medical staff taken hostage. More than 20 ISIS fighters were also reported killed.

The attack was centered on al-Assad hospital, to the west of the city.

Syrian government forces retook the hospital after several hours, reports say, but the fate of the hostages is unclear.ISIS Deir al Zour

ISIS controls more than of half of Deir al-Zour and is seeking to capture the entire city.

The jihadist group has been besieging government-held areas there for two years, trapping about 200,000 civilians.

ISIS’s Amaq news agency said its fighters had carried out a “major offensive” in Deir al-Zour on May 14, storming the hospital and cutting the route between a Syrian army base and the city’s airport.

Amaq said it had also taken over a fire station, university accommodation, grain silos and territory near the al-Tayyam oil fields.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces retook the hospital after several hours of fierce fighting.

Deir al-Zour is in an oil-rich area and on a vital supply route to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Top Hezbollah commander in Syria’s war Mustafa Amine Badreddine has been killed in Damascus.

Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, died in a large explosion near Damascus airport, the Lebanon-based militant group said in a statement on its al-Manar website.

He is charged with leading the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.

Hezbollah supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.Mustafa Amine Badreddine killedd

The US treasury, which imposed sanctions on Mustafa Amine Badreddine last July, said at the time he was “responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime”.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV had earlier said that Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in an Israeli airstrike. Israel has not commented on the claim.

Announcing Mustafa Amine Badreddine’s death, Hezbollah said in an initial statement: “He took part in most of the operations of the Islamic Resistance since 1982,” referring to the group’s military wing.

The second statement, on al-Manar’s website, said: “The investigation will work on determining the nature of the explosion and its causes and whether it was a result of an air, missile or artillery attack.

“We will announce further results of the investigations soon.”

Al-Manar said Mustafa Amine Badreddine would be buried in Beirut on May 13.

Born in 1961, Mustafa Amine Badreddine is believed to have been a senior figure in Hezbollah’s military wing.

He was a cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military wing’s chief until his assassination by car bomb in Damascus in 2008.

According to one report, a Hezbollah member interrogated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), described Mustafa Amine Badreddine as “more dangerous” than Imad Mughniyeh, who was “his teacher in terrorism”.

Mustafa Amine Badreddine and Imad Mughniyeh are alleged to have worked together on the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 personnel.

Syrian army has reached the outskirts of the ancient city of Palmyra, after driving back ISIS militants.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian government troops were now only 1.2 miles south of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ruins.

ISIS militants seized Palmyra and the adjoining modern town in May 2015.

They subsequently destroyed two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers, drawing global outrage.

ISIS, which has also demolished several world-renowned pre-Islamic sites in neighboring Iraq, believes that such structures are idolatrous.

UNESCO has condemned the destruction as a war crime.Syrian army reaches Palmyra

The Syrian Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria, told the AFP news agency that government forces were on March 23 only 1.2 miles from Palmyra’s southern outskirts and 3 miles from its western edge.

The governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, confirmed the advance and said troops were now stationed on several hills overlooking the Greco-Roman ruins.

“There is continuous progress by the army from all directions,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Talal Barazi added that he expected “positive results” over the next few days.

Syrian government forces launched an offensive to retake Palmyra at the beginning of March, backed by heavy Russian air strikes.

Last week, the Russian military said its aircraft were flying up to 25 sorties a day over Palmyra to help liberate what President Vladimir Putin has described as a “pearl of world civilization”.

Palmyra is also situated in a strategically important area on the road between Damascus and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour.

Russian troops have started to withdraw from Syria after yesterday’s surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin.

The first planes left Hmeimim air base in Syria on March 15, the Russian defense ministry said.

Western officials cautiously welcomed the move, saying Russian troops withdrawal could pressure Syria’s government to engage in talks.

Peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict are entering a second day.

Meanwhile, a UN commission will present a report on war crimes in Syria later.

The Russian force reduction was announced during a meeting between Vladimir Putin and his defense and foreign ministers.Russian forces leave Syria

Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his office sought to reject speculation there was a rift between the two countries, saying the move was mutually agreed.

The Russian air campaign started in September 2015, tipping the balance in favor of the Syrian government and allowing it to recapture territory from rebels.

No details have been given on how many planes and troops would be withdrawn from the Hmeimim base, in Latakia province, or a deadline for completing the pullout.

“The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the defense ministry statement said.

Russian TV earlier showed aircraft being refueled and crates being loaded with equipment.

Aircraft from the base would make the flight to Russia – more than 3,000 miles – in small groups each led by Il-76 or Tu-154 transport planes, the ministry added.

They would then go their separate ways to their own bases after crossing the Russian border, it said.

Su-24 tactical bombers, Su-25 attack fighters, Su-34 strike fighters and helicopters were returning home, the TV said.

It is not clear how many military personnel Russia has deployed, but US estimates suggest the number ranges from 3,000 to 6,000, AP reports.

Vladimir Putin, however, said Hmeimim and Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartus would continue to operate as normal.

Russia had long insisted its bombing campaign only targeted terrorist groups but Western powers had complained the raids hit political opponents of President Assad.

In a statement, the Syrian government said the plan was agreed between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria will present its report on war crimes committed by all sides in Syria’s war to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday in Geneva.

In a phone call, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama discussed the situation in Syria and the “next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities” agreed last month, the White House said.

The Kremlin said both “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict.

The Russian move has received a guarded welcome from Western diplomats and the Syrian opposition.

An unnamed US official quoted by Reuters said Washington was encouraged by the Russian move, but it was too early to say what it means or what was behind it.


World powers gathered in Munich, Germany, have agreed to seek a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin in a week’s time.

The halt will not apply to the battle against jihadist groups ISIS and al-Nusra Front.

The 17-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) also agreed to accelerate and expand aid deliveries.

The announcement comes as the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, advances in Aleppo province.

The move threatens to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in rebel-held parts of the major city of Aleppo.

The Syrian government has not yet responded, though a key rebel coalition welcomed the announcement.

More than 250,000 people have been killed and 13.5 million displaced in almost five years of fighting in Syria.Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry Munich talks on Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry admitted the ceasefire plan was “ambitious” and said the real test would be whether the various parties honored the commitments.

“What we have here are words on paper, what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground,” he said.

A task force chaired by the US and Russia will work to implement the truce through consultations with Syria’s rival groups.

Aid deliveries for besieged Syrian communities are due to begin as early as February 12.

Hohn Kerry made the announcement alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Sergei Lavrov said there were “reasons to hope we have done a great job today”. An earlier proposal from Russia envisaged a truce starting on March 1.

At the news conference John Kerry again suggested that Russian strikes were targeting what the West sees as moderate opposition forces, rather than terrorists, as Moscow says.

The ISSG also agreed that peace talks involving the Syrian government and rebels should resume as soon as possible.

Initial talks were suspended just days after they began earlier this month in Geneva, in the wake of the Aleppo offensive.

Thousands of people displaced by the fighting have been stranded at the border with Turkey and aid agencies have warned of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made a surprise visit to Moscow on his first overseas trip since the civil war broke out in his country in 2011, state TV says.

During his visit, Bashar al-Assad held talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Russia launched air strikes in Syria last month against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant groups battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Bashar al-Assad said Russia’s involvement had stopped the spread of “terrorism” becoming “more widespread and harmful”.

For his part, President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian people had been “almost alone… resisting, fighting international terrorism for several years”.

“They had suffered serious losses, but recently have been achieving serious results in this fight,” he said.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

The visit happened on October 20, but was not announced until October 21 – after Bashar al-Assad had returned to Damascus.

In comments that were videoed and published by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin thanked Bashar al-Assad for coming despite the “dramatic situation” back home.

Vladimir Putin said Moscow had joined the fight against “international terrorism”, not just to help the Syrian people, but to better protect Russians too.

He said some 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union were believed to be fighting in Syria right now.

“We cannot permit them – once they get fighting experience there and ideological training – to turn up here in Russia,” he said.

Bashar al-Assad thanked Russia for “standing up for the unity of Syria and its independence”, and said its intervention had “prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario”.

Both presidents spoke of the need for a political solution to the crisis.

Vladimir Putin said Russia stood “ready to contribute” to any political process that could bring about a peaceful resolution.


President Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for what he described as “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.

The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.

The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it added.

ISIS’s advance in neighboring Iraq has led some in Congress to press Barack Obama to take action.

Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces

Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces

Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in three years of civil war in Syria, as rebels fight troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“This funding request would build on the administration’s longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition, both civilian and armed,” the White House said.

It will also “enable the Department of Defense to increase our support to vetted elements of the armed opposition”.

The money will help stabilize areas under opposition control and counter terrorist threats, the White House said.

The rebels that would receive the funds would be vetted beforehand in order to alleviate concerns of equipment falling into the hands of militants hostile to the US and its allies, the White House said.

President Barack Obama has been under strong pressure from some members of Congress to increase assistance in the area, although it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request.

Last month Barack Obama hinted at increased help for the Syrian opposition in a speech at the military academy at West Point.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to be pressed by EU officials to take a stronger line on the crisis in Syria during a summit in St Petersburg.

EU member states want Russia to put pressure on its ally to withdraw heavy weapons from cities and comply fully with UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

Russia and China are also resisting US and European calls to condemn President Bashar al-Assad and seek his removal.

On Sunday, Bashar al-Assad denied his forces had any role in the Houla massacre.

In a televised address, President Bashar al-Assad told parliament the killing of more than 108 people in their homes, including 49 children, was an “ugly crime” that even “monsters” would not carry out.

Witnesses have blamed pro-government militiamen for the massacre, which has triggered international condemnation and led to several countries expelling Syrian diplomats in protest.

Bashar al-Assad said the only way to resolve the crisis was through political dialogue, and that “foreign meddling” was to blame for Syria’s divisions.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are among those attending Monday’s summit.

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin invited the EU leaders for dinner ahead of the talks at a lavish estate on the outskirts of the city.

Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy

Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy

European diplomats regard the meeting as a chance to renew ties with Vladimir Putin since his return to the presidency earlier this month.

The leaders are also expected to discuss trade and Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Russia will also be looking to speed up moves towards visa free travel in Europe.

“We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the [Assad] regime to implement [the peace plan],” an EU official quoted by the Reuters news agency said.

“The Russian side has certainly not been very helpful in finding solutions in terms of a political way out.”

Moscow insists it is not protecting Bashar al-Assad but says his removal cannot be a precondition for political dialogue.

Baroness Catherine Ashton, who met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before Sunday’s dinner, said in a statement: “Russia’s role is crucial for the success of Annan’s plan.”

She said the EU wanted to “work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence”.

The statement added that Baroness Catherine Ashton had spoken to Kofi Annan by telephone on Sunday and they had agreed that the crisis was at “a critical point”.

Analysts say pressure is growing on Moscow to concede that the initiative is stalled and to promote a compromise in which President Bashar al-Assad stands down to allow a transition of power.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that she had “made it very clear” to Sergei Lavrov in a telephone conversation that the focus was shifting to a political transition.

“Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition, but it should be an outcome so the people of Syria have a chance to express themselves,” she said during a visit to Stockholm.

Although the summit is not expected to produce any major breakthrough in relations between Russia and the EU, it is still important.

EU leaders will be able to reacquaint themselves with Vladimir Putin and it is also a chance to gauge what kind of relationship Moscow and Brussels are likely to have during his six-year presidency.