Deaths rise, 100,000 displaced as Turkish forces push deeper into Syria

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Smoke billows from targets in Tel Abyad, Syria, during bombardment by Turkish forces, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (AP)
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Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather in al-Bab city in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province on October 11, 2019 as they prepare to take part in Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Deaths rise, 100,000 displaced as Turkish forces push deeper into Syria

  • Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border

ANKARA:  Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s offensive against US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and thousands of civilians fled the violence. 

The UN said the attack had forced around 100,000 people to flee their homes and that there were many other humanitarian consequences to the assault. It said a water station servicing 400,000 people in the city of Hasakeh and surrounding areas was out of service.

Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a camp for displaced residents about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby amid intense clashes. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.” NATO member Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and says the offensive is a counterterrorism operation necessary for its own national security.

US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians, and the Pentagon said the operation is a threat to progress in combatting Daesh militants and a potential threat to US troops in Syria.

Plumes of black smoke billowed Friday from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area in an offensive that was progressing “successfully as planned,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

The Defense Ministry statement reported the death of two Turkish soldiers, with three wounded, but did not give details. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s term for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — have been killed so far. The figure could not be independently verified. Syrian activists say only eight fighters were killed.

The Pentagon said the incursion was damaging US-Turkey relations, adding that the US was not abandoning its Kurdish partners.

“We have not abandoned the Kurds, let me be clear about that,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at the Pentagon.

“Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey, just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation,” Esper said.

The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which have acted as the principal allies of the US in a campaign that recaptured territory held by Daesh.

The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Daesh’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Daesh fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

Eight people were killed and 35 wounded when the YPG militia launched a mortar and rocket attack on Turkey’s Syrian border town of Nusaybin, the governor’s office in the southeastern province of Mardin said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU calls Turkey’s military offensive “an invasion.”

The statement is considered by some a move to “weaponize” the refugees who have been in Turkey since the beginning of Syrian civil war, and to use them as a leverage.

“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable. Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us. That is why I consider threats made by Erdogan totally out of place,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said.

(With AP and Reuters)


Protests in Lebanon after move to tax calls on messaging apps

Updated 17 October 2019

Protests in Lebanon after move to tax calls on messaging apps

  • Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley
  • Demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

BEIRUT: Hundreds of people took to the streets across Lebanon on Thursday to protest dire economic conditions after a government decision to tax calls made on messaging applications sparked widespread outrage.
Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, in its southern suburbs, in the southern city of Sidon, in the northern city of Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Across the country, demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
Protesters in the capital blocked the road to the airport with burning tires, while others massed near the interior ministry in central Beirut, NNA said.
“We elected them and we will remove them from power,” one protester told a local TV station.
Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July, with the aim of trimming the country’s ballooning deficit.
The situation worsened last month after banks and money exchange houses rationed dollar sales, sparking fears of a currency devaluation.
The government is assessing a series of further belt-tightening measures it hopes will rescue the country’s ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
And it is expected to announce a series of additional tax hikes in the coming months as part of next year’s budget.
On Wednesday, the government approved tax hikes on tobacco products.
Earlier on Thursday, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah announced a 20 cent daily fee for messaging app users who made calls on platforms such as WhatsApp and Viber — a move meant to boost the cash-strapped state’s revenues.
The decision approved by cabinet on Wednesday will go into effect on January 1, 2020, he told reporters after a cabinet session, adding that the move will bring $200 million annually into the government’s coffers.
Lebanese digital rights group SMEX said the country’s main mobile operators are already planning to introduce new technology that will allow them to detect whether users are trying to make Internet calls using their networks.
“Lebanon already has some of the highest mobile prices in the region,” SMEX said on Twitter.
The latest policy “will force users to pay for Internet services twice,” it added.
TechGeek365, another digital rights group, said it contacted WhatsApp and Facebook regarding the matter.
“A spokesperson mentioned that if the decision is taken, it would be a direct violation of their ToS (terms of service),” it said.
“Profiting from any specific functionality within WhatsApp is illegal,” it added on Twitter.
But SMEX said that the 20 cent fee would be “a condition of data plans” offered by mobile operators.
“Also, Facebook previously complied with a social media tax in Uganda, which is effectively the same thing,” it said on Twitter.
Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the wake of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion — higher than 150 percent of GDP — according to the finance ministry.
Eighty percent of that figure is owed to Lebanon’s central bank and local banks.