Syria, Mar 4 (AP/UNB) — Islamic State militants are desperately fighting to hang on to the last tiny piece of territory they hold on the riverside in eastern Syria, deploying snipers, guided missiles and surprise tunnel attacks. The resistance prompted a fierce pounding Sunday by the U.S-led coalition and its ground allies in their final push to end the extremist group's territorial hold.
Rings of black smoke billowed over the besieged speck of land still controlled by the group in the village of Baghouz, after airstrikes hit several targets.
Mortar rounds from a hill overlooking a tent encampment where the militants are still holed up rang into the night.
The U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces resumed an offensive to recapture the area in Baghouz on Friday night, after a two-week pause to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the area. Retaking the sliver of land would be a milestone in the devastating four-year campaign to end IS' self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that once straddled vast territory across Syria and Iraq.
The group continues to be a threat, however, with sleeper cells in scattered desert pockets along the porous border between the two countries.
SDF commanders estimate that hundreds of fighters remain in Baghouz, taking cover in tunnels and trenches.
A senior SDF commander described the militants as "rats" but acknowledged that they're still fighting to the bitter end.
Commander Akeed, who leads one of the main fronts in the last battle against IS, said the militants are sticking to their trademark techniques, carrying out swift attacks without aiming to hold ground but laying the area with mines to increase casualties. They also deploy "inghimasiyoun," a term that the group uses to refer to infiltrators who enter areas behind their enemies' lines, in a bid to take hostages.
Early Sunday, one of Akeed's units came under attack from a group of 10 IS militants, including four women who emerged from a tunnel but were met with fire. At least two militants died but the rest escaped, he said.
"They have said they will engage and won't leave," Akeed told The Associated Press from his position, hundreds of meters from a very noisy front line. "They are strong enemies but they are besieged from three fronts. What could they do? Attack to prove themselves."
What appears to be a major weapons depot was targeted Saturday in the opening salvo of a ground assault on the tent encampment and parts of the villages still in IS hands. On Sunday, airstrikes continued to hit the depot, as fire raged for more than 24 hours and ignited ammunition flew in the air.
Other airstrikes hit another mortar depot on the other edge of the tent encampment, which days ago was full of residents before they were evacuated ahead of the military assault. A third hit a building where a sniper was taking cover.
Sefqan, another SDF commander who leads a special forces unit that advanced into Baghouz Saturday night, said the targeted weapon depot appeared to be a major one for the militants.
He said the airstrikes continued to target the two-floor depot to keep the militants away from whatever remains there.
SDF fighters tightened the noose on the militants Saturday, advancing from two fronts, and cutting off their access to the river that abuts their last territory from two sides.
Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman, said coalition airstrikes destroyed several car bombs during the past two days of battle in Baghouz. In a tweet, he said three car bombs that were trying to hit SDF positions were destroyed.
President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser, John Bolton, described the territory IS holds as an "insignificant piece of real estate." Asked in an interview with CNN whether IS has been defeated in "100 percent of the land" in Syria, as Trump had asserted earlier this week, he said: "It will happen very, very soon."
The global fight against the Islamic State group is one conflict in a country that has been at civil war for nearly eight years.
Near the northwestern province of Idlib, a Syrian jihadist group linked to al-Qaida killed 21 Syrian soldiers and allied militiamen, in one of the most serious violations of a months-old truce in the area, according to activists and a Syria war monitor.
Sunday's attack by Ansar al-Tawhid fighters was carried out in the village of Massasneh in the north of Hama province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A statement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed the attack, saying "terrorist groups" launched a pre-planned attack on armed forces stationed along the main road of Massasneh, killing and wounding a number of soldiers.
"Syria confirms the full readiness and integrity of the Syrian army in dealing with these crimes and violations," the statement added.
Berlin, Mar 4 (AP/UNB) — Hungary's populist prime minister described members of a European Union political group who want his party expelled as "useful idiots," saying in an interview published Sunday they are playing into the hands of left-wing opponents.
Discussion over whether Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party should remain part of the center-right European People's Party intensified after the Hungarian government launched a public ad campaign last month opposing the positions of EU leaders on migration.
Critics see anti-Semitic undertones in the billboards, posters, print and television ads that carry images of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
By suggesting that Soros influences European Union policies on mass migration, some of those offended by the campaign say it evokes Nazi-era propaganda that portrayed Jews as puppet-masters and international enemies.
Orban said in an interview with Germany's Welt newspaper that EU parliament members who want Fidesz kicked out of the European People's Party were "useful idiots" for the left, using an expression commonly attributed to Lenin.
"While they believe they're fighting in a spiritual struggle, in fact they're serving the power interests of others — indeed, of our opponents," Orban said.
Orban said Hungarians don't consider the posters anti-Semitic.
"I can't do anything about the fact that George Soros is a Hungarian of Jewish origin," he added. Soros has been the target of various Hungarian government smear campaigns in the past few years.
The European People's Party is the largest trans-national political group in the European Parliament. It was founded to represent Christian Democrats.
Some of Fidesz's fellow members, including parties from Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and Greece, have fiercely criticized Hungary's campaign. The ads follow years of grumbling within the group over Orban's efforts to build an "illiberal state."
The European Parliament voted in September to launch a sanctioning process over the Hungarian government's perceived shortcomings regarding the rule of law and European values. The procedure could lead to Hungary losing its voting rights in the EU.
In his interview with Welt, Orban seemed to offer a possible compromise, which on closer inspection hardly changed his position on the migration policy campaign.
He told the newspaper that government ads against Juncker would soon be withdrawn. However, he said Fidesz would be launching its own campaign, with European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans replacing the EU chief.
Timmermans is the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists to succeed Juncker after May's European Parliament election. He has been highly critical of Orban, and Orban has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the Dutch politician.
The European People's Party candidate seeking to succeed Juncker, Manfred Weber, tweeted in response to Orban's interview that the Hungarian leader was "following the wrong political path, particularly when it comes to style or fundamental questions about the democratic order."
Weber linked to his interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, published Friday, in which he said "Orban badly damaged the EPP" with the Soros poster campaign.
In the interview, he said Orban had a "weak" approach that relies on "scaremongering" instead of persuasive advocacy.
"I expect him to apologize and put an end to the poster campaign," Weber said in the interview. "Beyond that, we cannot simply return to business as usual....We will take concrete steps very soon."
He did not say whether he'd support the removal of Fidesz from the EPP, but told Spiegel "all options are on the table."
"Enough is enough," Weber said. "That is our message."
Washington, Mar 4 (AP/UNB) — The family of a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year are claiming that he has been subjected to routine torture and is on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
After months of quietly trying to secure his release, the family of Dr. Walid Fitaihi is now seeking to publicly pressure both the Saudi government and the Trump administration on the issue.
"There is an American citizen being tortured in a Saudi prison," said Howard Cooper, a lawyer working with the Fitaihi family. "He has been not only psychologically tortured but physically tortured and he can't hold out much longer."
In seeking to publicize the issue, Cooper and the Fitaihi family will have to contend with the extremely tight public relationship between President Donald Trump and powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly referred to as MBS.
Fitaihi gained his American citizenship while studying and working in the U.S. for years. He received undergraduate and medical degrees from George Washington University and a master's in public health from Harvard, said Cooper a Boston-based attorney who has known Fitaihi for more than 10 years.
He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2006 to help found a hospital built by his family and also became a popular motivational speaker on television. In November 2017, Fitaihi was one of about 200 prominent Saudis detained in a mass roundup and held prisoner in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel.
The Saudi government described the mass arrests as a crackdown on corruption; critics, however, decried it as a move to consolidate power by Prince Mohammed and claimed the detainees were being tortured.
Most of those detainees were eventually released after agreeing to pay massive financial penalties, but Fitaihi and a small handful of others were instead transferred to a prison in Riyadh. Cooper said Fitaihi was recently moved to a different prison in the coastal city of Jeddah and that he was now in the prison hospital after suffering "an emotional breakdown" after months of physical and psychological torture.
Trumps relationship with Saudi Arabia has already been tested by last year's grisly murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump however stood firmly by Prince Mohammed; in the face of widespread international skepticism, Trump repeatedly backed the official Saudi explanation that the murder was a rogue operation that took place without the crown prince's knowledge.
Despite the Kashoggi controversy, the relationship remains strong and the Trump administration continues to depend on Prince Mohammed as a key regional ally. Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met with Prince Mohammed last week to discuss Kushner's plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
National Security Adviser John Bolton was briefly asked about Fitaihi's case during a Sunday interview on CNN's "State of the Union." Bolton said he knew only that American diplomats had recently met with him in prison.
"Beyond that, we don't really have any additional information at this point," Bolton said.
In response to an Associated Press query, the State Department released a statement confirming that U.S. diplomatic representatives have met with Fitaihi and have "raised his case" with the Saudi government.
"We take all allegations of abuse and torture extremely seriously. We urge the Government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, and rule of law," the statement said. "We also call on the Government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to treat prisoners and detainees humanely, and to ensure that allegations of abuse are investigated quickly and thoroughly."
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Kabul, March 3 (Xinhua/UNB) - At least 20 people were killed and many others went missing after flash floods hit Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, authorities said Sunday.
Triggered by the heavy rain, the floods have killed 20 people, including a number of children, when their homes collapsed or the vehicles they were travelling in were swept away since early Friday, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan said in a statement.
Houses and infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed, the statement said, adding "Provincial Disaster Management Committee convened an initial meeting, and rapid assessment teams have been deployed. At least 10 people, including children, are still missing."
The Afghan officials and UN agencies are still working to find the full extent of needs for the victims, the statement added.
While heavy snow hit most parts of the country, floods also damaged dozens of houses and shops in western provinces over the period, according to officials.
Beijing, Mar 3 (AP/UNB) — In an unusual step, China's ceremonial legislature is due to endorse a law meant to help end a bruising tariff war with Washington by discouraging officials from pressuring foreign companies to hand over technology.
The battle with China's biggest trading partner is overshadowing the National People's Congress, the country's highest-profile event of the year. It brings 3,000-plus delegates to the ornate Great Hall of the People in Beijing for two weeks of speeches, meetings with senior leaders and political ritual to endorse the ruling Communist Party's economic and social welfare plans.
A gathering of noncommunist groups held at the same time brightens Beijing's drab winter, drawing tech billionaires, movie stars and ethnic minorities in distinctive traditional dress.
That gives President Xi Jinping's government a platform for advertising changes aimed at ending the fight with President Donald Trump that has disrupted trade in goods from soybeans to medical equipment.
The technology measure is part of a proposed law on foreign investment that aims to address complaints by Washington, Europe and other trading partners that China's system is rigged against foreign companies.
Trump cited complaints Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology when he slapped punitive tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports in July. Europe, Japan and other trading partners disapprove of the tariff hikes but echo U.S. complaints.
China has balked at changing its strategy for nurturing technologies that American officials worry might challenge U.S. industrial dominance. But communist leaders face pressure to reach a settlement after economic growth sagged to a three-decade low of 6.6 percent last year.
On the domestic front, companies and investors are hoping officials announce details of how Beijing will carry out promises to curb the dominance of state industry and support entrepreneurs who generate much of China's new jobs and wealth. They are looking for details of a promised cut of up to 1.3 trillion yuan ($200 billion) in value-added and other taxes.
The congress opens Tuesday with an annual "work report" on government plans by Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 ruling party leader behind Xi and China's top economic official.
State media have cited other potential topics including revising China's patent law — another source of foreign complaints — and measures to encourage foreign investment in agriculture and technology and developing free-trade zones.
Chinese officials deny Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over trade secrets and technology. But they are trying to mollify Trump and other governments by promising better legal protections.
"I think the (American and European) complaints have been reflected in the revision of the law," said Citigroup economist Li-Gang Liu.
Under the proposed law, officials would be barred from using "administrative methods to force technology transfers."
The chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, Tim Stratford, called the measure a "step forward." But business groups say they need to see how it will be enforced.
It was unclear whether the vaguely worded measure would appease Trump. The American Embassy in Beijing said it had no comment.
Companies have been disappointed in the past after "hearing positive words," said Stratford, a former deputy U.S. trade representative.
The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the law's "vague language" gives regulators too much discretion. The focus on "administrative methods" would leave officials free to use other pressure tactics, it said.
The state press has cited other potential topics including revising China's patent law — another source of foreign complaints — and measures to encourage foreign investment in agriculture and technology and developing free-trade zones.