DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, April 9, (Agencies): The US Air Force says it has deployed B-52 bombers to the Mideast nation of Qatar to take part in the US-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State group. It is the first time the Cold Warera heavy bombers will be based in the region since the 1991 Gulf War, when they operated from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Air Force says the B-52s arrived to Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Saturday. The long-range bombers will join a multinational coalition carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere, rebels seized a town in southern Syria from groups loyal to Islamic State just a day after fighters captured another town from the hardline militants in a separate insurgent assault in the north, a rebel source and a monitoring group said.
The rebels had by late on Friday taken control of Tasil in Deraa province that is near the Jordanian border and the Israelioccupied Golan Heights, the source and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They drove out fighters from the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade and the Muthanna Movement, which they said were groups loyal to Islamic State. “Our battle continues against them, until we have cleansed the area of them,” said Abu Ghiath al-Shami, a spokesman for the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group that is part of a rebel alliance in the south.
He described the latest attacks against the hardline jihadists as a “widened campaign against DAESH”, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. It was the second blow dealt by insurgents fighting against Islamic State or Islamic State-linked fighters in as many days.
In a separate assault in the north of the country near the Turkish border on Thursday, rebel forces took over a town that had been the main stronghold of Islamic State in the northern Aleppo countryside. A cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria that began on Feb 27 has slowed fighting in some areas in western Syria but has not halted the violence. Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are not included in the truce.
The Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russian air power, are separately fighting against Islamic State. Clashes between the government and non-jihadist rebels have continued in some areas during the ceasefire.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State group has released most of the 300 cement workers it abducted near Damascus after questioning them to find out who were Muslims and killing four who were members of the minority Druze sect, a Syrian opposition monitoring group and a news agency linked to the extremists reported Saturday. The reports came two days after IS abducted the cement workers and contractors from al-Badia Cement Company in Dumeir, just northeast of the capital, after a surprise attack on government forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said all those abducted have been released except for 30 people who were guards at the cement factory. It said the fate of the 30 is unknown. The IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency said most of the 300 were released after questioning to determine their religion and whether they support the government. It said four workers who belonged to the minority Druze sect were killed and 20 pro-government gunmen are still being held. The Druze, a 10th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, made up about 5 percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people.
Lebanon and Israel also have large Druze communities. IS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, considers all Shiites to be heretics deserving death. Aamaq also released a video from inside the cement plant, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, showing trucks and bulldozers in the sprawling facility. Some fighters could be seen inside. Government forces and insurgents meanwhile clashed near Handarat, just north of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, activists said. In the western part of Aleppo province, troops backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters battled militants in Khan Touman and al-Ais, where insurgents last week killed more than two dozen Lebanese militants and government forces, according to activists and state media. In other news, hundreds of displaced Syrian residents of Palmyra returned home Saturday to inspect their houses for the first time since the Russian-backed army captured it from the Islamic State group two weeks ago.
Ten months after fleeing their famed city the residents arrived on governmentrun buses from the provincial capital of Homs where they had sought shelter from jihadist rule. “The first thing I checked in the house was the roof,” Khudr Hammoud, a 68-year-old retired civil servant, told AFP, adding that he was relieved that it was still there. “The walls, the windows and the door are also still there, and that’s enough for me to get my family ready to return to Palmyra,” he said.
On March 27, the Syrian army recaptured the city and its world famous antiquities, in a major symbolic and strategic coup for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its key backer Russia.
Once home to 70,000 people, Palmyra has been scarred by Syria’s five-year war and retreating jihadists sowed traps around the city. As Hammoud and the others inspected their homes and gathered personal belongings, Russian sappers could be seen clearing mines and powerful blasts could be heard in the distance. Many apartment blocks are partially collapsed while others have been totally demolished, AFP journalists said. In Hammoud’s home all the windows have been shattered, and some of the walls, although they are still standing, are riddled with bullets.
A local official told AFP that residents would not be allowed to spend the night in Palmyra until infrastructure is repaired and demining operations are completed. “There is no water or electricity, and we are continuing to work on demining the surroundings of the city,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“We will need at least three weeks to rehabilitate the city’s infrastructure to the extent that residents will be able to spend the night in their homes,” he added.
Hammoud said he left his family back in Homs because he did not want them to see the damage and destruction. But before boarding one of the 25 buses chartered by the authorities he made a dash for his son’s room to pick up a toy. “I promised Abdu that I would bring him the toys he wanted, which he had left in his room,” he said. Palmyra was a key tourist destination before the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 known for its celebrated ancient ruins, including colonnaded streets and 2,000-year-old temples. But IS destroyed some of Palmyra’s most striking monuments and used the ancient amphitheatre as a venue for public executions.
Clutching her Barbie doll and a teddy bear, six-year-old Marwa trod carefully as she accompanied her parents on their first visit to inspect their home in Syria’s Palmyra since the Islamic State group was expelled. They were among thousands of residents who fled as IS overran the ancient city in May last year, and among hundreds who returned Saturday, two weeks after the Russian-backed Syrian army regained control. For the past 10 months, they have been living in the provincial capital Homs, where they sought shelter from jihadist rule.
On Saturday, they returned to the city known as the “Pearl of the Desert” on board 25 government-run buses, some of the passengers overcome with emotion. “I can’t find some of my toys in the house. All I found was my Barbie, my teddy bear, a necklace and a notebook,” Marwa said. “I’ll come back to look for the rest,” she added. Her father Jamal, 55, meanwhile packed a bag with some of the family’s belongings. “The main reason why I came back to Palmyra today, despite the dangers, was Marwa and her toys,” said Jamal, a driver. He added that the family was also keen to rescue their sewing machine. “My wife uses it for work, and it is a source of income for us,” he told AFP.
On March 27, the Syrian army recaptured the city and its world famous antiquities, in a major symbolic and strategic coup for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its key backer Russia. Once home to 70,000 people, Palmyra has been scarred by Syria’s five-year war and retreating jihadists sowed traps around the city. As Marwa’s parents and the others inspected their homes and gathered personal belongings, Russian sappers could be seen clearing mines and powerful blasts could be heard in the distance. Many apartment blocks are partially collapsed while others have been totally demolished, AFP journalists said