Beirut, Jul 22 (AP/UNB) — Multiple Airstrikes hit a busy market in a rebel-controlled town in northwestern Syria on Monday, killing at least 27 people and turning several buildings into piles of rubble, according to opposition activists and a war monitor. Shortly afterward, state media said rebels shelled a government-held village, killing seven.
The high death toll marked a sharp increase in the escalation between the two sides amid intense fighting. Government troops, backed by Russian air cover, try to push their way into the enclave near the Turkish border, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants and other jihadi groups.
Monday's airstrikes took place in the town of Maaret al-Numan and also wounded more than 30 people, according to the reports from the region, which has witnessed intensive airstrikes and bombardment almost every day for the past three months. The strikes came in several rounds and caused widespread destruction, burying several people under the rubble.
Hours after the airstrikes, paramedics were able to remove a little girl alive, rushing her to a nearby ambulance.
Syrian state news agency SANA said insurgents shelled the village of Jourin in the northern part of Hama province, killing seven civilians when a shell hit a moving car. State TV also reported that insurgents shelled the government-held town of Suqailabiyah, wounding four people, including a child, while a shell hit a university in the coastal city of Latakia, a government stronghold, without causing any casualties.
Idlib province and northern parts of the nearby Hama region, in the northwestern corner of Syria, are the last major rebel stronghold in the country outside the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syrian government forces launched their offensive in Idlib province in late April. The fighting has killed more than 2,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
But the troops have made little progress since the push started.
"It is one of the ugliest massacres carried out by Russian warplanes," said opposition activist Hadi Abdallah speaking on camera from the scene of the airstrike in Maaret al-Numan where destruction appeared widespread.
Syrian opposition activists said Russian warplanes carried out Monday's attack, but Russia's Defense Ministry dismissed the reports as a "hoax," adding that the Russian air force didn't "carry out any missions in that area in Syria." There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting on the ground in Syria through a network of activists, said 27 people were killed, including two children, in the strike on Maaret al-Numan. It added that the number of casualties from Monday's airstrike was likely to rise due to the large number of wounded. The Thiqa news agency, an activist collective in northern Syria, also reported that the strike killed 27 people.
A member of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said one of their colleagues was killed in a second airstrike that hit the market.
On Sunday, government bombing in Idlib killed at least 11 civilians according to the Observatory and first responders.
Despite the heavy bombardment, Assad's troops have been unable to make any significant advances against the rebels or jihadi groups in Idlib. Militant groups have hit back hard, killing an average of more than a dozen soldiers and allied militiamen per day in recent weeks.
The struggling campaign underscores the limits of Syria's and Russia's airpower and inability to achieve a definitive victory in the country's long-running civil war, now in its ninth year.
In neighboring Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara would launch a new offensive into northern Syria if a so-called "safe zone" is not established and if threats against Turkey continue from the region.
Cavusoglu made the comments on Monday as a delegation led by U.S. Special Representative on Syria, James Jeffrey, was to hold talks in Ankara. The possible safe zone along the border with Turkey was expected to be on the agenda.
Turkey views Kurdish fighters who have fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State group as terrorists and wants the safe zone established to keep the fighters away from the border. It has recently been sending troop reinforcement to its border region.
Cavusoglu said Turkey would intervene "if there's no safe zone and if the terrorists are not cleared and continue to pose a threat."
Tehran, Jul 22 (AP/UNB) — Iran said Monday it has arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on the country's nuclear and military sites, and that some of them have already been sentenced to death.
The arrests took place over the past months and those taken into custody worked on "sensitive sites" in the country's military and nuclear facilities, an Iranian intelligence official told a press conference in Tehran.
He did not elaborate, say how many of them got the death sentence nor when the sentences were handed down.
The announcement comes as Iran's nuclear deal with world powers is unraveling and tensions have spiked in the Persian Gulf region. The crisis stems from President Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of Tehran's deal last year and intensify sanction on the country.
The Iranian official did not give his name but was identified as the director of the counterespionage department of Iran's Intelligence Ministry. Such a procedure is highly unusual in Iran; officials usually identify themselves at press conferences. It is also rare for intelligence officials to appear before the media.
The official claimed that none of the 17, who allegedly had "sophisticated training," had succeeded in their sabotage missions. Their spying missions included collecting information at the facilities they worked at, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.
The official further claimed the CIA had promised those arrested U.S. visas or jobs in America and that some of the agents had turned and were now working with his department "against the U.S."
He also handed out a CD with a video recording of an alleged foreign female spy working for the CIA. The disc also included names of several U.S. Embassy staff in Turkey, India, Zimbabwe and Austria who Iran claims were in touch with the recruited Iranian spies.
There was no immediate comment from Washington.
Occasionally, Iran announces detentions of spies it says are working for foreign countries, including the U.S. and Israel. In June, Iran said it executed a former staff member of the Defense Ministry who was convicted of spying for the CIA.
In April, Iran said it uncovered 290 CIA spies both inside and outside the country over the past years.
Dubai, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — In an audio recording released by a maritime security risk firm, a British naval officer can be heard saying that the transit of a British-flagged vessel through the Strait of Hormuz must not be impaired under international law, just before it is seized by Iranian forces.
The same recording has an Iranian naval officer telling the Stena Impero to change course, saying: "You obey, you will be safe."
The audio released Sunday by Dryad Global shows how the British navy was unable to prevent the ship's seizure by Iranian forces on Friday.
Iranian officials say the move came in response to Britain's role in seizing an Iranian supertanker loaded with some 2 million barrels of crude weeks earlier.
Friday's incident comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Tehran, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — Iran's seizure of a British oil tanker was a response to Britain's role in impounding an Iranian supertanker first, senior officials said Saturday, as newly released video of the incident showed Iranian commandos in black ski masks and fatigues rappelling from a helicopter onto the vessel in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The seizure prompted condemnation from the U.K. and its European allies as they continue to call for a de-escalation of tensions in the critical waterway.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain's response "will be considered but robust."
In comments on Twitter on Saturday, he said he spoke with Iran's foreign minister and expressed extreme disappointment that the Iranian diplomat had assured him Iran wanted to de-escalate the situation but "they have behaved in the opposite way."
Speaking to reporters later Saturday after an emergency government meeting, Hunt said the "totally and utterly unacceptable" interception of the British-flagged Stena Impero "raises very serious questions about the security of British shipping and indeed international shipping" in the Strait of Hormuz.
The free flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz is of international importance because one-fifth of all global crude exports passes through the waterway from Mideast exporters to countries around the world. The narrow waterway sits between Iran and Oman.
The Stena Impero was intercepted late Friday by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard forces. The ship's owner, Stena Bulk, said the vessel was stopped by "unidentified small crafts and a helicopter" during its transit through the Strait of Hormuz. The vessel was seized with a crew of 23 crew aboard, although none are British nationals.
In a dramatic video released by the Revolutionary Guard, several small Guard boats can be seen surrounding the larger tanker as it moves through the strait. Above, a military helicopter hovers and then several men wearing black masks begin to rappel onto the ship.
The high-quality video was shot with at least two cameras, one from a speed boat-like vessel and one from the chopper, which captured the fatigue-clad men as they prepared to slide down a rope and also took aerial footage of the tanker.
Hunt said the ship's seizure shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous and destabilizing path. He also defended the British-assisted seizure of Iran's supertanker two weeks ago as a "legal" move because the vessel was suspected of breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.
Iranian officials "see this as a tit-for-tat situation, following Grace1 being detained in Gibraltar. Nothing could be further from the truth," Hunt said later Saturday.
The view from Iran was different.
In comments on Twitter on Saturday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif characterized the seizure of Iran's tanker July 4 as "piracy." Politician and former Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, wrote that Iran was not seeking conflict, "but we are not going to come up short in reciprocating."
The spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was also quoted in the semi-official Fars news agency describing Friday's seizure as a legal "reciprocal action." The council rarely comments on state matters, but when it does it is seen as a reflection of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's views. The council works closely with Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.
The tit-for-tat move by Iran drew condemnation from European signatories to Iran's nuclear accord with world powers. Germany and France both called on Iran to immediately release the ship and its crew, with Berlin saying the seizure undermines all efforts to find a way out of the current crisis.
Europe has struggled to contain the tensions that stem from President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal, which had lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for compliance on its nuclear program.
Trump has since re-imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, including its oil exports, and Iran recently increased uranium enrichment levels beyond limits of the deal in a bid to pressure Europe into finding a workaround the crippling economic sanctions.
Britain, which remains a signatory to the nuclear accord, has figured prominently in rising U.S. tensions with Iran ever since Royal Marines took part in the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker by Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain. Officials there initially said the July 4 seizure happened on orders from the U.S.
Britain has said it would release the vessel, which was carrying more than 2 million barrels of Iranian crude, if Iran could prove it was not breaching EU sanctions. However, a court in Gibraltar just Friday extended the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace 1.
Stena Bulk, the owner of the seized British tanker, said the vessel's crew members are of Indian, Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationalities. Iranian officials say the crew remain on the tanker.
Britain's defense secretary Penny Mordaunt told Sky News the takeover was a "hostile act" by Iran. She said a British Royal Navy frigate deployed to help protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz was roughly 60 minutes from the scene when the Iranians took control of the tanker.
That same frigate had previously warned off Iranian Guard vessels from impeding the passage of a British commercial vessel the navy was escorting through the Strait of Hormuz.
There are concerns that with each new maneuver a misunderstanding or misstep by either side could lead to war. In June, Iran shot down an American drone in the same waterway, and Trump came close to retaliating with airstrikes.
The U.S. has increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf region in recent weeks. The U.S. will also send more than 500 U.S. troops as well as aircraft and air defense missiles to Iran's rival, Saudi Arabia.
It marks the first such deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia since America's withdrawal from the country in 2003. King Salman approved hosting the American forces "to increase joint cooperation in defense and regional security and stability," a statement in the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.
Dhaka, July 20 (UNB) — Archaeologists working in Israel's Negev desert have discovered an ancient rural mosque, thought to be one of the earliest in the world.
The mosque, which dates back to the 7th or 8th century, was discovered by researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority as they prepared to build a new neighborhood in the southern Israeli Bedouin city of Rahat, reports CNN.
The archaeologists said in a statement that large mosques from the period have been found in Mecca and Jerusalem but that it was rare to find such a building in the area, which is north of the city of Beer Sheva.
Researchers excavated the remains of a rectangular open-air mosque with a prayer niche facing south toward Mecca The mosque, they said, would be "a rare discovery anywhere in the world" and was likely to have been used by local farmers.
"This is one of the earliest mosques known from the beginning of the arrival of Islam in Israel, after the Arab conquest of 636 C.E.," said Gideon Avni, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The remains of the mosque were discovered as Israeli authorities prepared to build a new neighborhood in the city of Rahat. Photo: Courtesy
Other buildings were also found during the excavation, including a Byzantine farm and a small settlement from the Islamic period. The archaeologists said in a statement that no similar buildings had been previously discovered in the area.
Israeli authorities say they are looking into ways to integrate the structure into the new neighborhood due to be built in the city.
Correction: The mosque is estimated to date back to the 7th or 8th century CE, not BC.