Syria, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) —Syrian activists and a war monitor say at least seven people have been killed in a suicide bombing inside a restaurant in the northwestern city of Idlib.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a city restaurant after opening fire on those inside, killing eight people, including six jihadists. The Idlib Media Center said the explosion killed seven people.
Thursday's explosion is the latest in a string of bombings in Idlib where lawlessness is rampant. Idlib is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or Levant Liberation Committee.
The city has been hit with blasts over the past months that have killed and wounded scores of people.
A spokesman for U.S.-backed forces in Syria says the group is resuming military operations against Islamic State militants holed up in their last pocket of territory in eastern Syria.
Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, says the operations to liberate the village of Baghouz resumed Friday evening after all civilians were evacuated and hostages that were kidnapped by IS were freed.
"Only terrorists are left in Baghouz," Bali said in a tweet.
Officials estimate there are hundreds of IS militants in the small patch of territory in Baghouz that sits atop caves and tunnels. The military operation was halted last month to allow for the evacuation of civilians. In the last week alone, 13,000 people left the territory, according to the United Nations.
More civilians evacuated from the last territory held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria Friday, amid a warning by the United Nations about the plight of thousands who have fled the area in recent weeks.
In a statement, the U.N. cited reports that more than 84 people, two thirds of them young children under five years of age, have died since December on their way to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria after fleeing the extremist group in Syria's Deir el-Zour province.
In the last week alone, it said, some 13,000 people have arrived at al-Hol camp.
"Many of the arrivals are exhausted, hungry and sick," said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at a news briefing in Geneva.
Dubai, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia announced Friday it had revoked the citizenship of Hamza bin Laden, the son of the late al-Qaida leader who has become an increasingly prominent figure in the terror network.
There was no immediate explanation why the royal decree stripping his citizenship, signed in November, was only becoming public now. However, the announcement comes after the U.S. government on Thursday offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his capture as part of its "Rewards for Justice" program. He also was added Thursday to a United Nations Security Council terrorism sanctions list.
The kingdom similarly stripped Osama bin Laden's citizenship in 1994 while he was living in exile in Sudan when Hamza bin Laden was just a child. Where he is now remains in question.
"This is an example of history rhyming," said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies who studies al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. "He's basically born right after al-Qaida is founded, so his life is totally consumed in the establishment, the formation of al-Qaida and the launching of its war against the West and America."
Saudi Arabia revoked Hamza bin Laden's citizenship in November, according to a circular by the Interior Ministry quietly published Friday by the country's official gazette. State-run media in the kingdom did not report on the decision.
Bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, where his father became known among the mujahedeen fighters. His father returned to Saudi Arabia and later fled to Sudan after criticizing the kingdom for allowing U.S. troops to deploy in the country during the 1991 Gulf War. He later fled Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, where he declared war against the U.S.
As leader of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden oversaw a series of attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. He and others plotted and executed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. Navy SEALs ultimately killed bin Laden in a raid on a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
For Hamza bin Laden, now believed to be around 30, his father initially worried for his safety and thought to send him away for study, but his son instead "wants to get into the fight," Joscelyn said. He's then sent away for explosives training in Pakistan.
Video released by the CIA in 2017 that was seized during the Abbottabad raid shows Hamza bin Laden with a trimmed mustache but no beard, at his wedding. Previous images have only shown him as a child. The State Department said in its announcement Thursday about the $1 million bounty on him that it believes he married the daughter of Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hamza bin Laden began appearing in militant videos and recordings in 2015 as an al-Qaida spokesman.
"If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong," he said in his first audio recording.
In recent years, the Islamic State group, which began as al-Qaida in Iraq before breaking away from the terror group, has taken much of the international attention. However, Joscelyn warned al-Qaida remains a transnational threat, something that authorities may now pay more attention to as the Islamic State group withers away in Syria.
The U.N. Security Council committee in charge of al-Qaida-related sanctions said Thursday that Hamza bin Laden's prominence has grown in recent years, calling him "the most probable successor" to lead a potential new version of the terror group.
His addition to the sanctions list subjects him to a travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo that all U.N. member states are obligated to enforce.
A U.N. report published last year suggested both he and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden's death, "are reported to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas."
"Al-Qaida's leadership demonstrates strategic patience and its regional affiliates exercise good tactical judgment, embedding themselves in local issues and becoming players," the U.N. report warned. "While there is as yet little evidence of a re-emerging direct global threat from al-Qaida, improved leadership and enhanced communication will probably increase the threat over time."
Malaysia, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) — More than 30 Muslim Rohingya women and children were found stranded along a beach in Malaysia's northernmost state, and are believed to have been dropped off by human traffickers, authorities said.
A police official in Kangar, the capital of northern Perlis state, said villagers early Friday found the 34 people, including nine children, weak, hungry and covered in mud as they made their way through the coast. A Myanmar welfare group said the group is believed to have been trafficked into Thailand from Bangladesh, before heading to Malaysia, whose dominant Malay Muslim population makes it a sympathetic destination.
More than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017, when a group of militants attacked security forces, triggering a massive retaliation by Myanmar's army. The exodus came after hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya escaped previous bouts of violence and persecution.
The police official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said they have been fed and handed over to immigration officials.
Nur Aziah Mohamad Shariff, an official with the National Security Council, said his office was aware of the illegal entry and is investigating.
Zafar Ahmad Ghani, who heads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization of Malaysia, said he obtained information that many more Rohingya are being tricked by traffickers into leaving Bangladesh after being warned they may face death if repatriated to Myanmar.
Pictures and videos obtained by members of the group showed a long rope placed across the shore at low tide to help the Rohingya walk through the mud.
Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which works to improve conditions for Rohingya, said the women and children may be part of a large group that sailed from Bangladesh in two boats in mid-February. She said the total number of passengers was unclear, with estimates of about 150, and that it was unclear what happened to the others.
She said the Arakan Project spoke to a Rohingya man who landed in northern Malaysia in late February on a boat that had arrived undetected with 85 aboard.
Lewa said it was unclear why the women and children were stranded, and that the two boats were the only ones they knew had sailed from Bangladesh this year.
Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar don't accept Rohingya Muslims as a native ethnic group. They are, instead, viewed as having migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar.
Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982 and lack access to education and hospitals.
The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution in December condemning "gross human rights violations and abuses" against Myanmar's Rohingya.
Myanmar's government denies claims of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The country rejects the U.N. investigators' work and the General Assembly resolution as biased.
New York, Mar 1 (AP/UNB) — Gap Inc. is splitting into two. The retailer said Thursday that it's creating two independent publicly traded companies — low-priced juggernaut Old Navy and a yet-to-be named company, which will consist of the iconic Gap brand, Athleta, Banana Republic as well as the lesser known names Athleta, Intermix and Hill City.
The San Francisco-based company said the spin-off will enable each company to focus on flexibility and pare down costs.
The company also said that it will be shuttering 230 Gap brand stores over the next two years. A year ago, the Gap brand had 725 stores worldwide. After the closures, which also include the 68 stores it shuttered this year, the chain will be down to roughly 427 stores. It expects to have more than 40 percent of Gap's business coming from online after the restructuring.
Gap's stock surged 25 percent in after-market trading.
The split up, which followed a comprehensive board review, comes as Old Navy has been thriving, while Gap still hasn't been able to regain its footing despite numerous attempts to fix the business. Once the go-to place for casual clothing, Gap has been mired in a sales funk for years, hurt by increasing competition from the likes of Target and Amazon.
Analysts applauded the move.
"This is great news for Old Navy, no longer having its success consistently outweighed by sluggish performance by Gap," said Tiffany Hogan, senior analyst at Kantar Consulting. "But for the Gap, this seems like potentially a last significant effort to help the brand find its place in a market where it has lost relevance."
She noted that in order for Gap to succeed, it needs to find the right mix of style and basics for its stores, while getting a better grasp of who its customer is.
Separately, Gap Inc. reported that Gap's overall sales at stores opened at least year were down 1 percent during the fiscal fourth quarter. By division, the Gap brand posted a 5 percent drop, while that figure at Banana Republic was down 1 percent. Old Navy posted sales that were unchanged from a year ago. But that was on top of a 9 percent gain in the year-ago period.
"It's clear that Old Navy's business model and customers have increasingly diverged from our specialty brands over time, and each company now requires a different strategy to thrive moving forward," said Robert Fisher, Gap Inc.'s chairman.
Gap's current CEO, Art Peck, will hold the same position at the new company after the separation. Sonia Syngal, current CEO of Old Navy, will continue to lead the brand as a stand-alone company, which has about $8 billion in annual revenue. The new company that Peck will run has about $9 billion in annual revenue.
During a conference call with investors on Thursday, Peck called the separation a "unique and catalyzing moment to simplify what we are doing and how we're doing it."
Upon separation, Gap Inc. shareholders are expected to receive a pro-rata stock distribution and as a result will own shares in both the new company and Old Navy in equal proportion. The deal is expected to close in 2020.
The new company will be based in Gap Inc.'s current headquarters and Old Navy will remain at its current headquarters, both located in San Francisco.
Gap's shares rose $6.50 to $31.90 in extended trading after the split-up was announced.
New Zealand, Mar 1 (AP/UNB) — An environmental disaster is unfolding in the Pacific after a large ship ran aground and began leaking oil next to a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Solomon Islands, Australian officials said Friday.
Footage taken this week shows little progress has been made in stopping the Solomon Trader ship from leaking oil since it ran aground Feb. 5, according to the Australian High Commission in the Solomon Islands.
Australian experts estimate more than 80 tons of oil has leaked into the sea and shoreline in the ecologically delicate area and that more than 660 tons of oil remains aboard the Hong Kong-flagged ship, which is continuing to leak.
The ship was chartered by the Bintan Mining company in the Solomon Islands to carry bauxite, which is used in aluminum production.
Bintan Solomon Islands chief executive Fred Tang was not immediately available for comment Friday.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said there was a high risk that the remaining oil would leak and it was "profoundly disappointed" by the slow response.
It said the Solomon Islands government had advised it that the responsibility to salvage the ship and mitigate the environmental impact lay with the companies involved.
Radio New Zealand reported that the ship's owner King Trader Ltd. had sent a team to help with the salvage operation while Bintan had claimed that as charterer, it had no legal responsibility for the ship or liability for the accident.
UNESCO has designated the southern third of Rennell Island as a World Heritage site. It says the island is the largest raised coral atoll in the world and is a "true natural laboratory" for scientific study.
It's also home to about 2,000 people, whom the High Commission notes rely on the ocean along with the natural resources of the island for their livelihoods.
Both Australia and New Zealand have sent experts to help with the monitoring of the oil spill and the potential salvage of the ship.