RENNES, France, Jan 3, (Agencies): Emilie Koenig, a Frenchwoman suspected of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State group who figured on US and UN blacklists, has been arrested by Kurdish forces in Syria, her mother said Tuesday. The 33-year-old daughter of a gendarme is “being held in a Kurdish camp and has been interrogated and tortured,” her mother told Ouest-France newspaper.
Koenig went to Syria in 2014 and three of her children were born in that country. She was put on the UN list of the most dangerous fighters and a year later figured on a US terror list. Koenig converted to Islam after marrying her first husband, a man of Algerian origin, who was arrested for drug trafficking. She learnt Arabic, changed her name to Samra and started wearing a veil. She left for Syria to join her new partner, who was eventually killed.
She appeared in several propaganda videos in which she appealed for jihad “as long as the enemy is around.” Koenig’s mother said she wanted to return to France and to seek forgiveness of her family, her friends and her country.”
Meanwhile, the Syrian army backed by Russian jets escalated bombing of the last rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus as they prepared to break a siege of an army base encircled by opposition forces, residents and witnesses said on Wednesday. They said the army was amassing elite forces to prepare for a major assault on the Military Vehicles Administration, which is besieged by rebels.
At least 200 troops were believed to be trapped within its sprawling, heavily defended grounds. Since Sunday, rebels mainly belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al Sham faction widened their control of parts of the army base in Harasta that penetrates the Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion around the capital.
They stormed the base last November in a drive to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta’s towns and villages, which have seen escalating aerial attacks in the last week. State media did not report the assault but said “terrorists” had fired mortars on residential areas in Harasta and the army responded by strikes in Eastern Ghouta that led to losses in the ranks of the insurgents. No further details were given. Civil defence sources said that in four days of heavy aerial strikes since Friday 38 civilians have been killed and at least 147 people have been injured. Five civilians were killed on Tuesday. The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission.
More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013. The advances bring rebels closer to the heart of the capital once again, after they were pushed out of their remaining pockets last year by months of siege and bombardment. The army setback comes against a backdrop of successive battlefield victories that allowed the Syrian army with heavy reliance on Russia and Iran to regain in the last year large tracts of territory from insurgents. Residents said at least 30 aerial strikes hit residential areas of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday. Shelling of a market in the city of Douma, the main urban centre in the Ghouta, left one dead and scores injured.
“The frontlines of Ghouta are witnessing battles and clashes and big losses inflicted on (Syrian President) Assad’s forces and his militias,” said Hamza Biriqdar, the spokesman for Jaish al Islam, a main rebel faction. Further northwest, rebels ranging from jihadists to mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) were retreating from more villages seized by the army in southern Idlib province and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside. The strikes have escalated in the last week on this major front with at least 50 villages retaken by the Syrian army and its allies in their push into the last major province in rebel hands that borders Turkey.
The intensity of strikes by Russia and the Syrian Air Force has driven tens of thousands of villagers in these areas to flee to the relative safety of the northern part of Idlib province near of the Turkish border, where many families have spread makeshift tents on main roads and agricultural land. At least seven civilians, including five children, were killed Tuesday by air strikes in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the last outside government control, a monitor said.
Government and allied forces backed by Russian warplanes have been battling jihadist fighters and rebels for more than a week in an area straddling the boundary between Idlib and Hama provinces. The air strikes targeted the town of Khan Subul in the centre of Idlib province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“There were at least seven dead, five children and two women,” the Observatory said. “We do not know if these were air strikes by the Syrian regime or the Russians,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. The official SANA news agency said the army took control of six villages in the central Hama province. The government push on the edge of Idlib province follows two months of sporadic fighting that the United Nations says has displaced more than 60,000 people. “Displacement sites are reportedly overwhelmed. Some services are 400 per cent above their planned capacity to serve,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
An AFP correspondent said there were more clashes on Tuesday. A column of white smoke could be seen after a regime air strike on the town of Al-Tamana, and rebel artillery was targeting government positions. A commander of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — an alliance of rebel forces dominated by a former al-Qaeda affiliate — said Syrian troops were trying to reach a military airport. “The regime’s goal is to reach Abu al-Duhur airport. All the talk about their aim to reach Idlib province is completely false,” said the commander going by the name of Abu Islam. He said rebels and jihadists have buried their “differences” and set up a joint command to battle regime forces. Idlib province, held by Tahrir al- Sham, was one of four “de-escalation zones” agreed to help halt fighting around Syria by regime backers Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey.
The war in Syria has killed more than 340,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. The Arab League on Tuesday reexpressed blessing for the US-spearheaded Geneva track of negotiations for resolving the Syrian crisis. Secretary General Ahmad Abul Gheit has indicated that there is no track for Syria’s talks other than the “real route” for negotiations (in Geneva), praising the opposition for advocating this process and forming a unified delegation for the talks with the Damascus government. The Western-sponsored political process for Syria had resulted in a series of sessions in the Swiss city.
However, Russia, a power broker on the Syrian arena, has sponsored talks in Astana and is currently promoting a possible third track, the Black Sea city Sochi. Abul Gheit expressed readiness to play “any role” for serving interests of the Syrian people, urging all sides to be ready for “hard concessions for sake of serving future of the Syrian people who experienced unspeakable plights over the past years.” For his part, Al-Hariri briefed the League chief about the eighth round of the negotiations, held in Geneva in December, and reasons that resulted in failure of reaching common grounds between the opposition and the regime. He asked Abul Gheit to undertake a greater role to push forward the slow-moving process. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had sponsored indirect talks between opposition and regime officials in Geneva. The process has not resulted in a tangible and major breakthrough to end the seven-year conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives.