Syria, Mar 11 (AP/UNB) — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters resumed their offensive on the last pocket held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria on Sunday, lighting the skies over the besieged village as artillery shelling and heavy gunfire rang out in the distance.
Warplanes and drones circled over the besieged village of Baghouz. Explosions and fires illuminated columns of smoke over Baghouz as it came under intense artillery and rocket fire. On several occasions the village was struck with apparent cluster fire.
After sunset, amid thuds of artillery a large column of smoke rose up, illuminated by explosions, apparently after a strike by cluster fire.
The operation was launched around 6 p.m. after a deadline for IS gunmen to surrender expired, tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. He said warplanes struck ammunition belonging to the extremists.
"The fighting is direct and intense," Bali said, adding that so far there have been no casualties among SDF fighters.
Clashes had already broken out earlier in the day, with IS snipers targeting SDF positions and prompting a rattle of gunfire in response. Associated Press reporters witnessed SDF fighters take cover in a damaged building and fire back at the extremists. They packed high-caliber bullets into munitions belts and headed to the front line.
The assault was renewed days after thousands of people left the tiny village held by IS on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border area.
Some 3,000 to 4,000 women and children are believed to still be in the pocket, along with around 500 IS fighters, said an SDF commander on the outskirts of Baghouz, who identified himself as Ali Sheikh.
Shiekh said that to minimize casualties the SDF will advance on the ground, with the U.S.-led coalition providing air support. He said IS fighters have been surrendering themselves daily and that no SDF prisoners remained after the extremists freed them over the past weeks.
The battle to completely retake the pocket is likely to take three days, an SDF official, Aras Orkesh, said earlier. He said about 2,500 SDF fighters were prepared for the assault.
The capture of Baghouz would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to defeat the group's so-called "caliphate" that once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.
The SDF has been marching toward Baghouz since September. But the operation has been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians who had been holed up in the pocket, most of them families of IS members who have fled with the group as its once extensive territory shrank.
Over the past few weeks, more than 10,000 civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz, streaming out daily through a corridor arranged by the two sides. But since Friday, only a small group has left.
"Our forces are ready now to start and finish what is left in ISIS's hand" Bali, the SDF spokesman, tweeted Sunday, using another acronym to refer to IS.
A U.S. senior defense official said in Washington on Friday that it would not be a surprise, based on current conditions, if it took another couple of weeks to finish "mopping up" the IS enclave.
The official who could not be identified by name under Pentagon ground rules said that nearly all of the 20,000 people, including women and children who left the area held by IS recently, are seen as IS followers or adherents.
The fight against IS has taken place amid Syria's nearly 8-year-old civil war.
In southern Syria, dozens of people demonstrated Sunday in the city of Daraa to protest the construction of a statue of late Syrian President Hafez Assad, days before the country marks the eighth anniversary of the country's crisis, Syrian opposition activists said.
Daraa is the city where the Arab Spring-inspired uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but escalated into an armed rebellion that has killed more than 400,000 people. Last year, Syrian government forces captured all parts of southern Syria, including parts of Daraa city where tensions still exist.
The late Assad is the father of President Bashar Assad whose forces have made major gains over the past few years in the war with backing from his strong allies, Russia and Iran.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the protest occurred in Daraa's center with protesters chanting "Long live Syria" and "Down with Bashar Assad."
The Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said security forces did not interfere with the protest.
Other opposition activist collectives, including Sham Network, also reported the protest.
Also Sunday, Assad met with China's assistant foreign minister, Chen Xiaodong, telling him that the war against Syria is now taking a new form which is mostly economic warfare.
The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Syrian businessmen and entities they consider close to the government.
Washington, Mar 11 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is reviving his border wall fight, preparing a new budget that will seek $8.6 billion for the U.S-Mexico barrier while imposing steep spending cuts to other domestic programs and setting the stage for another fiscal battle.
Budget documents are often seen as just a starting point of negotiation, but fresh off the longest government shutdown in history Trump's 2020 proposal shows he is eager to confront Congress again to reduce domestic spending and refocus money on his priorities. It calls for boosting defense spending and making $2.7 trillion in nondefense cuts.
Trump's proposal, titled "A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First" and set for release Monday, "embodies fiscal responsibility," said Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Vought said the administration has "prioritized reining in reckless Washington spending" and shows "we can return to fiscal sanity."
Two administration officials confirmed that the border wall request was part of Trump's spending blueprint for the 2020 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
That document, which sets the stage for negotiations ahead, proposes increasing defense spending to $750 billion — and standing up the new Space Force as a military branch — while reducing nondefense accounts by 5 percent, with cuts recommended to safety net programs used by many Americans.
The plan sticks to budget caps that both parties have routinely broken in recent years and promises to come into balance in 15 years, relying in part on economic growth that may be uncertain.
The officials were not authorized to discuss budget details publicly before Monday's release of the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.
While pushing down spending in some areas, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the proposal will seek to increase funding in others to align with the president's priorities, according to one official.
The administration will invest more than $80 billion for veterans services, a nearly 10 percent increase from current levels, including "significant" investments in rehabilitation, employment assistance and suicide prevention.
It will also increase resources to fight the opioid epidemic with money for prevention, treatment, research and recovery, the administration said. And it seeks to shift some federal student loan costs to colleges and universities.
By adhering to strict budget caps, Trump is signaling a fight ahead. The president has resisted big, bipartisan budget deals that break the caps — threatening to veto one last year — but Congress will need to find agreement on spending levels to avoid another federal shutdown in fall.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump's budget "points a steady glide path" toward lower spending and borrowing as a share of the nation's economy. He also told "Fox News Sunday" that there was no reason to "obsess" about deficits, and expressed confidence that economic growth would top 3 percent in 2019 and beyond. Others have predicted lower growth.
The border wall, though, remains a signature issue for the president and is poised to stay at the forefront of his agenda, even though Congress has resisted giving him more money for it.
Leading Democrats immediately rejected the proposal.
"Congress refused to fund his wall and he was forced to admit defeat and reopen the government. The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. They said the money "would be better spent on rebuilding America."
In seeking $8.6 billion for the wall, the budget request would more than double the $8.1 billion already potentially available to the president after he declared a national emergency at the border last month in order to circumvent Congress — although there's no guarantee he'll be able to use that money if he faces a legal challenge, as is expected. The standoff over the wall led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.
Along with border wall money, the proposed budget will also increase funding to increase the "manpower" of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Customs and Border Patrol at a time when many Democrats are calling for cuts — or even the elimination — of those areas. The budget also proposes policy changes to end sanctuary cities, the administration said.
The budget would arrive Monday as the Senate readies to vote this week to terminate Trump's national emergency declaration. The Democratic-led House already did so, and a handful of Republican senators, uneasy over what they see as an overreach of executive power, are expected to join Democrats in following suit. Congress appears to have enough votes to reject Trump's declaration but not enough to overturn a veto.
Trump invoked the emergency declaration after Congress approved nearly $1.4 billion for border barriers, far less than the $5.7 billion he wanted. In doing so, he can potentially tap an additional $3.6 billion from military accounts and shift it to building the wall. That's causing discomfort on Capitol Hill, where even the president's Republican allies are protective of their power to decide how to allocate federal dollars. Lawmakers are trying to guard money that's already been approved for military projects in their states — for base housing or other improvements — from being shifted to build the wall.
The wall with Mexico punctuated Trump's campaign for the White House, and it's expected to again be featured in his 2020 re-election effort. He used to say Mexico would pay for it, but Mexico has refused to do so.
Bogota, Mar 10 (AP/UNB)— Authorities say a dozen people have been killed in a plane crash in central Colombia.
Colombia's Civil Aviation Authority said the DC-3 aircraft declared an emergency late Saturday morning while en route to the city of Villavicencio.
Officials later confirmed that all 12 people aboard were killed in the accident.
The aircraft was reportedly operated by Laser air service and had departed from San Jose del Guaviare.
President Ivan Duque sent his condolences to the families of those killed and said authorities were working to identify the remains.
Caracas, Mar 10 (AP/UNB) — The Venezuelan opposition and government loyalists held rival demonstrations in Caracas on Saturday, as both sides prepared for what some fear could be a protracted power struggle.
The rallies unfolded as power and communications outages continued to hit Venezuela, intensifying the hardship of a country paralyzed by economic and political crisis. The blackouts heightened tension between the bitterly divided factions, which accused each other of being responsible for the collapse of the power grid.
"Hard times are ahead," said opposition leader Juan Guaido, who addressed crowds with a loudspeaker after security forces earlier dismantled a speakers' stage that the opposition had erected. He said he planned to tour Venezuela to seek support and lay the groundwork for a massive rally in Caracas.
The 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly said he anticipated more government efforts to sideline and intimidate the opposition. However, President Nicolas Maduro's government has not moved directly against Guaido since he returned to Venezuela from a Latin American tour Monday.
Guaido earlier speculated that Maduro was effectively ignoring him in an attempt to sap the energy of the opposition, whose hopes of ousting the government have so far been stymied.
But on Saturday, Maduro stepped up verbal attacks on Guaido, calling him "a clown and puppet" in a speech to supporters outside Miraflores, the presidential palace. He scoffed at Guaido's claim in late January to be interim president of Venezuela, a declaration supported by the United States and about 50 other countries.
"Not a president, not anything," said Maduro, who accused Guaido and his U.S. allies of sabotaging Venezuela's Guri Dam, one of the world's largest hydroelectric stations and the cornerstone of Venezuela's electrical grid.
He said authorities had restored 70 percent of power in Venezuela since what he called an "international cyberattack" late Thursday, but progress was lost on Saturday when "infiltrators" allegedly struck again.
The Venezuelan opposition and U.S. officials say Maduro's attempts to pin blame on his political adversaries is absurd, and that government corruption and mismanagement over many years caused the blackout and wider deterioration of the economy.
In another blow to Venezuela's infrastructure, an explosion occurred at a power station in the country's Bolivar state on Saturday, according to local media. Video posted on social media showed fire and smoke billowing from the site. Venezuelan authorities have not commented.
Netblocks, a non-government group based in Europe that monitors internet censorship, said Saturday that the second outage had knocked out almost all of Venezuela's telecommunications infrastructure.
Earlier, it referred to online connectivity data indicating that the initial outage that began Thursday and eased about 24 hours later was the largest on recent record in Latin America.
Managers of the Caracas subway said they were waiting for the electricity supply to stabilize before resuming service, and the power grid problems quickly became only another issue that galvanized Venezuelans to take to the streets.
Opposition protesters who converged on Avenida Victoria in Caracas vented anger over the country's problems, including hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities. They pushed against the shields of riot police who avoided a clash by withdrawing from the area.
Some protesters elsewhere in the city said police tried to block them from reaching the rally, creating a sense of confusion as power and communications outages plagued the country.
"This is chaos," said Jorge Jaimes, a physician frustrated with the decline of a country that was once the wealthiest in Latin America.
At the pro-government rally, people danced and waved flags on what organizers labeled a "day of anti-imperialism" in a show of defiance toward the United States, which has imposed oil sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to oust Maduro. Many showed up wearing red caps and shirts in support of the self-proclaimed "socialist revolution" of leader Hugo Chavez, who died six years ago and was succeeded by his protege, Maduro.
Washington, Mar 10 (AP/UNB) — The federal budget deficit is ballooning on President Donald Trump's watch and few in Washington seem to care.
And even if they did, the political dynamics that enabled bipartisan deficit-cutting deals decades ago has disappeared, replaced by bitter partisanship and chronic dysfunction.
That's the reality that will greet Trump's latest budget , which will promptly be shelved after landing with a thud on Monday. Like previous spending blueprints, Trump's plan for the 2020 budget year will propose cuts to many domestic programs favored by lawmakers in both parties but leave alone politically popular retirement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Washington probably will devote months to wrestling over erasing the last remnants of a failed 2011 budget deal that would otherwise cut core Pentagon operations by $71 billion and domestic agencies and foreign aid by $55 billion. Top lawmakers are pushing for a reprise of three prior deals to use spending cuts or new revenues and prop up additional spending rather than defray deficits that are again approaching $1 trillion.
It's put deficit hawks in a gloomy mood.
"The president doesn't care. The leadership of the Democratic Party doesn't care," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "And social media is in stampede mode."
Trump's budget arrives as the latest Treasury Department figures show a 77 percent spike in the deficit over the first four months of the budget year, driven by falling revenues and steady growth in spending.
Trump's 2017 tax cut bears much of the blame, along with sharp increases in spending for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies and the growing federal retirement costs of the baby boom generation. Promises that the tax cut would stir so much economic growth that it would mostly pay for itself have been proved woefully wrong.
Trump's upcoming budget, however, won't address any of the main factors behind the growing, intractable deficits that have driven the U.S. debt above $22 trillion. Its most striking proposed cuts — to domestic agency operations — were rejected when tea party Republicans controlled the House, and they face equally grim prospects now that Democrats are in the majority.
Trump has given no indication he's much interested in the deficit and he's rejected any idea of curbing Medicare or Social Security, the massive federal retirement programs whose imbalances are the chief deficit drivers.
An administration official said Friday that the president's plan promises to balance the budget in 15 years. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss specifics about the budget before the document's official release and spoke on condition of anonymity
Democrats have witnessed the retirement of a generation of lawmakers who came up in the 1980s and 1990s and negotiated deficit-cutting deals in 1990 and 1993. But those agreements came at significant political cost to both President George H.W. Bush, who lost re-election, and President Bill Clinton, whose party lost control of Congress in 1995.
But the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has withered with the electoral wipeout of "Blue Dog" Democrats at the hands of tea party forces over recent election cycles.
"Concern about the deficit is so woefully out of fashion that it's hard to even imagine it coming back into fashion," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., one of his party's few remaining deficit hawks. "This is as out of fashion as bell bottoms."
While in control of the House, Republicans used to generate nonbinding budget blueprints that promised to balance the federal ledger by relying on a controversial plan to eventually transform Medicare into a voucher-like program. But they never pursued follow-up legislation that would actually do it.
Republicans, who seized Congress more than two decades ago promising and ultimately achieving balanced budgets during the Clinton administration, have instead focused on two major rounds of tax cuts during the Trump era and the administration of President George W. Bush in 2001.
Nor are Republicans willing to consider tough deficit-cutting steps such as higher taxes or Pentagon budget cuts. Leading Democratic presidential contenders talk of "Medicare for All" and increasing Social Security benefits instead of curbing them.
"You have to get pretty damn serious about revenue as well as defense spending, and those are two things the Republicans don't want to bring into the conversation," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "My Democratic friends who talk about expansion of benefits. I've told them to 'get real.'"
Trump has never gone to the mat for his plan to slash domestic spending such as renewable energy programs.
"If Trump can be criticized I think the perception has been that he has not fought for the spending cuts that he's proposed," said former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "There's no upside to trying to cut anything. There's no political reward. But if you cut something there's a lot of political downside."
Neither is there any reservoir of the political will and bipartisan trust required to take the political heat for the tough steps it would take to rein in deficits. And it's not like voters are clamoring for action.
"There's been very little dialogue in the last several years about debt and deficit and how to really be able to address it," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. "It just never came up" in the 2016 election. "It still doesn't come up."
The deficit registered $714 billion during Trump's first year in office but is projected to hit about $900 billion this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which says Trump's tax cut will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years.
"One of the short-term goals should be — I know it's not a lofty goal — stopping things from getting a lot worse. It's something the Republicans obviously were unable to do. That's a low bar, but they couldn't meet a low bar," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.