Russia accused of striking civilian targets in Syria

Activists say warplanes are targeting civilians in areas under control of Western-backed rebels, a claim Russia denies.

Activists said Russian airstrikes targeted a mosque Idlib's Jisr al-Shoghour, destroying most of it and injuring civilians [Syria Civil Defence]

Activists said Russian airstrikes targeted a mosque Idlib’s Jisr al-Shoghour, destroying most of it and injuring civilians [Syria Civil Defence]

by Basma Atassi, Al Jazeera

Russian warplanes unleashed a new wave of air strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, amid concerns that many of Moscow’s targets were civilian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Paris on Friday to discuss the air raids with his counterpart Francois Hollande, as Moscow maintained that the attacks were aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and other “terrorist organisations”.

France is a member of the US-led coalition against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. On Thursday, the countries of the coalition called on Russia to cease its aerial campaign which they said was hitting the Western-backed Syrian rebels and civilians.

“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation,” said the coalition, which also includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

Russian jets on Thursday hit areas in the suburbs of Hama and Idlib, all areas under the control of loose coalitions of rebel groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

Activists on the ground told Al Jazeera that the majority of the attacks hit civilian targets, a claim that Moscow, a key ally of Assad, denies.

In the Hama suburb of Habeet, an air strike at about 08:30pm local time killed three civilians, including a 5-year-old girl, and injured 12 others, according to opposition activist Hadi al-Abdullah.

“The destruction caused by the strike was massive. A two-storey house was completely flattened to the ground,” he told Al Jazeera.

Earlier at 02:30pm local time, an attack on Jisr al-Shoghour in the northwestern province of Idlib destroyed a mosque and killed two civilians, other activists told Al Jazeera.

In Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawya region, two children were among at least seven civilians killed in suspected Russian air strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The UK-based monitoring group said Russian air strikes on Syria have killed 28 people since they were launched on Wednesday.

‘Information warfare’

Putin rejected allegations that civilians had been killed in Russian raids, dubbing the reports “information warfare”.

Russia’s defence ministry said the air raids were hitting several ISIL targets, including in the group’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.

Both Western officials and activists on the ground said expressed concern that they are attempting to hit opposition rebel fighters.

Both Idlib and Hama have no ISIL presence since January 2014.

The initial Russian strikes on Wednesday hit Talbiseh, a suburb in the central Homs suburb that is under the control of the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham rebel group and Faylaq al-Sham group, and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

The rebel groups had pushed back ISIL from the suburb six months ago.

The air strikes came as Russia presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that would call for consent from Damascus for attacks against ISIL in Syria.

Washington had previously blocked a similar resolution, and no date has been set for a vote on this one.

The Syrian conflict, which began as protests against Assad’s regime in 2011, has escalated into a multi-faceted war that has drawn thousands of fighters from overseas.

Over the past four years, more than 250,000 people have been killed and half of the population displaced.

Nine dead in shooting at college in US state of Oregon

Nine people killed at a college in Roseburg by 26-year-old gunman who was later killed in a shootout with police.

Chris Harper Mercer

by Al Jazeera

A gunman went on a shooting rampage at a college in the US state of Oregon, killing nine people and wounding seven before he died in a shootout with police.

Authorities initially said more had died in Thursday’s shooting but the Sheriff’s department corrected this.

A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of “routine” mass killings.

The shooter – identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, 26 – opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in rural Roseburg, and moved to other rooms methodically gunning down his victims, witnesses said.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said nine people were killed and seven were injured, several critically. He said the victims’ identities would not be released for at least 24 hours.

Witnesses quoted in US media described scenes of terror and panic as the tragedy unfolded. One man whose daughter was wounded told CNN that the gunman ordered students to stand up if they were Christian and then shot them.

“They would stand up and he said ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second’,” Stacy Boylan told CNN, relaying his daughter Ana’s account.

He said his daughter played dead when the gunman ordered her to stand up as she lay on the floor.

Student Cassandra Welding was in a classroom when she heard 35 to 40 shots coming from an adjacent room.

She saw a fellow student be shot after opening the classroom door to check what was happening.

“Then we locked the doors, turned off the lights and … we were all pretty much in panic mode and called 911 (emergency services) and our parents and (said) ‘I love yous’ because we didn’t know what would happen, if those were our last words.”

‘We have become numb’

Voicing both anger and sadness at the latest mass shooting at a US school, Obama threw down the gauntlet to politicians and voters on the thorny issue of gun control.

“Somehow this has become routine,” said the president. “We’ve become numb to this.”

“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shooting every few months,” he added.

“It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.”

Hanlin said police were alerted to the shooting shortly after 10:30am and rushed to the site where two officers exchanged fire with the gunman who was later confirmed dead.

Authorities said investigators were examining social media postings thought to belong to the shooter. Several reports said he may have shared his intentions online beforehand.

Other reports said police recovered three handguns and an assault rifle at the scene along with a cell phone that presumably belonged to the shooter who wore a bullet proof vest.

Hanlin confirmed that authorities had identified the gunman, but declined to release his name.

“You will never hear me mention his name,” Hanlin said. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”

A candlelit vigil was held late Thursday for the victims in Roseburg, a close-knit logging community with many locals among the 3,300 students at the college.

‘We all froze’

Brady Winder, another student at Umpqua, said he was in class when suddenly he heard a loud pop coming from an adjoining classroom.

He said his teacher called out through the door to see if everything was OK and then further shots rang out.

“We all kind of froze and bolted out the door,” Winder said. “I didn’t really have any time to think. It was fight or flight.”

Police searched the entire campus after the shooting aided by sniffer dogs and patted down students and staff as they left and boarded buses that transported them to local fairgrounds.

“Most of us have relatives taking classes here,” said Douglas County fire Marshall Ray Shoufler. “Pretty much everybody knows everybody type scenario.

“So something like this affects many, many, many people.”

School shootings are a disturbing reality of American life and many facilities have reinforced security in recent years, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

Twenty students and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.

On Wednesday, a student who got into an argument with the principal at a high school in South Dakota pulled a gun and shot the school official in the arm before he was tackled and subdued by staff.

There have been 142 school shootings in the United States since the Sandy Hook massacre, according to data compiled by Mass Shooting Tracker.

Trump: I would send Syrian refugees home

Republican Donald Trump vows to send home all Syrian refugee if he is elected, saying they could be ISIL members.

Trump questioned why Syrians were fleeing their country instead of staying and fighting [Reuters]

Trump questioned why Syrians were fleeing their country instead of staying and fighting [Reuters]

by Al Jazeera

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said he would send back Syrian refugees taken in by the US if he is elected president.

Trump said during a rally in New Hampshire on Wednesday that he was worried the refugees could be disguised members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

“I am putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they are going back, they are going back, I am telling you, they are going back,” Trump said.

His remarks came the same day Russian warplanes began air raids in Syria’s centre and north – their first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

“Look, if Russia wants to go in there, [it] would have been nice if we went in as a unified front, to be honest. But if Russia wants to go in there and knock out ISIS (ISIL) and maybe stabilise, this big migration with 200,000 people into the United States…” Trump later reiterated to CNN.

“If I win, I’m going to say it right now and I’ll say it to you, those 200,000 people – they have to know this and the world will hear it – are going back.

“We’re not going to accept 200,000 people that may be ISIS. We have no idea who they are. And I’m telling you now, they may come in through the weakness of (President Barack) Obama,” but would return to their homeland if Trump makes it to the White House, he said.

Millions of Syrians have been fleeing a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.

But Trump questioned why Syrians were fleeing their country instead of staying and fighting.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this month that the US would significantly increase the number of refugees it takes in over the next two years.

So far this year it has taken in about 1,500 Syrian refugees.

Kerry said the US will increase the number of refugees it takes in by 15,000 over each of the next two years, bringing the total to 100,000 in 2017.

The US will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, he said. Many of them will be Syrians.

Palestinian flag raised at UN for first time

Flag hoisted in New York in a historic step, despite prior condemnation from Israel and the US.

The flag was raised in the rose garden after President Abbas delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly [Brian Chacon/Al Jazeera]

The flag was raised in the rose garden after President Abbas delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly [Brian Chacon/Al Jazeera]

by Al Jazeera

The Palestinian flag has for the first time been raised at the United Nations following an address delivered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the UN General Assembly.

The flag was raised in the rose garden at 1:00pm local time (6:00pm GMT) on Wednesday as a large crowd of diplomats and reporters watched on.

Speaking to the crowd, Abbas dedicated the ceremony to “the martyrs, the prisoners and the wounded, and to those who gave their lives while trying to raise this flag”.

Hundreds of Palestinians assembled in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, where they watched the flag-raising on a large screen set up in Yasser Arafat Square.

“The mood is festive,” reported Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, adding that “families sang along to nationalistic songs and waved the Palestinian flag”.

Having been strongly criticised by Israel, the move was also opposed by the United States.

Palestinians celebrated in the West Bank city of Ramallah as the Palestinian flag was raised at the United Nations for the first time in history [EPA]

In an op-ed published at the Huffington Post, Abbas called the flag-raising a “moment of hope” and called on the international community to recognise “the independence of the state of Palestine, peacefully resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Palestine Liberation Organisation Central Council member Mustafa Barghouti described the move as “an important symbolic step”.

“In essence, it will honour the many Palestinians who were killed by Israel while trying to raise that flag in the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said earlier in the day.

The General Assembly approved the resolution to raise the flag with an overwhelming majority voting in favour of it on September 10.

The motion passed with 119 votes in favour, while 45 countries abstained and eight voted against, among them Israel, the US and Australia.

But Barghouti also called on the Palestinian leadership to take several steps in order to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

Barghouti said the PA should “declare the end of negotiations with Israel because the negotiations have dragged on forever”, arguing that Israel has used the peace process as a smokescreen to expand its settlements in the occupied territory in order to “end the idea of a Palestinian state”.

After cancelling the Oslo Accords and terminating security cooperation with the Israeli military, the PLO member said that the Palestinian leadership should “support popular resistance” and “encourage a world embargo against Israel”.

In 2012, the UNGA recognised Palestine as a “non-member observer state”, a position also held by the Vatican. That followed a failed push for full member state status a year earlier.

Tholfikar Swairjo, the Gaza-based spokesman of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said that “anything that shows the world that we exist and that we’re present” is a “positive development”.

But focusing solely on using only diplomatic tools to achieve statehood “will result only in more ink on paper”, Swairjo told Al Jazeera. “The struggle for a democratic, independent and secular Palestine will continue on the ground against the Zionist project”.

Palestinians watch PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UNGA on a large screen in East Jerusalem, the site of several clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in recent weeks [EPA]

Senior Hamas leader Ghazi al-Hamad said the flag-raising is “a positive step”, but added that “it’s not enough”.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has focused too much on “symbolic acts”, Hamad told Al Jazeera, adding that only with unity between the West Bank and Gaza can Palestinians “confront the Israeli occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state”.

Hamas also called for Abbas to call off all agreements with Israel during his UNGA speech on Wednesday.

Hamad said that Palestinians were in a “dire situation” as Israeli settlements continue to rapidly expand and tensions soar at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, where clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli forces have occurred on a near-daily basis in recent weeks.

Following the UNGA’s resolution to raise the flag earlier this month, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Ron Prosor, condemned the move as “a blatant attempt to hijack the UN”, calling for the resumption of direct negotiations between the PA and Israel.

Fourteen years after US invasion, Taliban offensive claims major city

Afghan government pledges to retake Kunduz one day after coordinated assault by Taliban

A Taliban fighter sitting on a motorcycle in Kunduz on Tuesday. (Photo: Uncredited/AP)

A Taliban fighter sitting on a motorcycle in Kunduz on Tuesday. (Photo: Uncredited/AP)

by Jon Queally, Common Dreams

The U.S. military launched airstrikes against targets in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Tuesday, just a day after Taliban fighters caught the U.S. Army, the Afghan National Security Forces, and local security forces off guard by staging a massive military offensive to capture the key northern city.

According to the ToloNews, a privately-run Afghan 24/7 news agency, local reports from the city “indicate that there are civilian casualties because of Afghan and foreign troops airstrikes.” On Monday, a Doctors Without Borders team working in a Kunduz hospital reported numerous casualties from the initial Taliban offensive.

The Guardian reports:

Kunduz is the first provincial capital in 14 years to effectively fall to the Taliban, and is possibly the militants’ biggest victory since they were ousted from power in 2001.

By Tuesday morning, roads were blocked and some government buildings set on fire, several residents told the Associated Press.

“From this morning, the Taliban have been setting up checkpoints in and around the city, looking for the government employees,” one resident said. “Yesterday it was possible for people to get out of the city, but today it is too late because all roads are under the Taliban control.”

On Tuesday morning the Afghan Ministry of Defense confirmed that the Army, along with other security personnel, had commenced a ground-level counter-offensive just after 8 am local time. Speaking from Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani later gave a televised address in which he vowed to retake the city. Ghani claimed the “enemy has sustained heavy casualties” and said government forces were “retaking government buildings … and that reinforcements, including special forces and commandos are either there or on their way there.”

The Wall Street Journal reports:

According to Jason Ditz, writing at Anti-War.com, “The loss of Kunduz is a huge blow to the Afghan government, because it had never really been under control of the Taliban even when the Taliban were in power. Kunduz was the center of the Northern Alliance rebellion against the Taliban, which eventually took over the key government positions during the U.S. occupation, and holds them to this day.”

And Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, argues that the fall of the city speaks to a more robust failure of the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan, which has allowed the war to drag on—”token” draw downs aside—with nearly no progress towards a negotiated settlement, despite nearly 14 years of continuous fighting.

“The fall of Kunduz,” wrote Roggio on Monday, “would invalidate the entire U.S. ‘surge’ strategy from 2009 to 2012. The U.S. military focused its efforts on the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, claiming that these provinces were the key to breaking the Taliban. Little attention was given to other areas of Afghanistan, including the northern provinces, where the Taliban have expended considerable effort in fighting the military and government. Today, the Taliban are gaining ground in northern, central, eastern and southern Afghanistan, with dozens of districts falling under Taliban control over the past year.”

Regarding additional updates on the fighting on Tuesday, Al Jazeera correspondent Qais Azimy, reporting from Baghlan, just south of Kunduz, said government troops attempted to reenter the city but were turned back due to intense fighting.

The fall of Kunduz, reported Azimy, “sends a message to the international community and Kabul, that the Taliban fighters are now capable of taking control of a provincial capital after 14 years.”