Russia says embassy in Syria hit in mortar attack, no casualties – IS attacks Syrian army east of Homs – monitors

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MOSCOW, Aug 2, (Agencies): Russia’s foreign ministry said Wednesday that its embassy compound in Damascus came under mortar fire from “terrorist groups of fighters”, causing no casualties.

“Two shells fell in the grounds of the Russian diplomatic mission and two more exploded just outside the perimeter,” Moscow said, causing slight damage but not injuring anyone.

The ministry said that “we decisively condemn terrorist attacks against the Russian diplomatic mission in Damascus,” following a number of recent incidents.

The ministry previously in June said that mortars exploded close to the embassy’s perimeter, attributing the attack either to al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front or its ally Faylaq al-Rahman.

Russia, which is providing military backing for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, also said the embassy came under mortar fire on two separate days in February.

Moscow called for Western countries in the Security Council to condemn the latest attack and confirmed that it will continue its “uncompromising battle against terrorists in Syria.”

Any Russian private citizens fighting with pro-government forces in Syria are volunteers and the Russian Defence Ministry has nothing to do with them, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

Based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, Reuters estimates the actual death toll in Syria among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40 in 2017, far higher than the official figures. .

“If there are Russian citizens in Syria as volunteers and so on, they have nothing to do with the state”, Peskov said.

Russia’s Defence Ministry on Wednesday denied a Reuters report about a rise in the losses suffered by Russia in its military campaign in Syria, calling it “a lie from beginning to end”, Russian news agencies reported.

“This is not the first time that Reuters is attempting to discredit by any means Russia’s operation aiming to destroy Islamic State terrorists and return peace to Syria,” the agencies cited Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

The exclusive report, published by Reuters on Wednesday and based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, estimates the actual death toll among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40 so far this year, higher than official figures.

Ten Russian servicemen have been killed fighting in Syria so far this year, according to statements from the Defence Ministry.

But based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, Reuters estimates the actual death toll among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40.

That tally over seven months exceeds the 36 Russian armed personnel and contractors estimated by Reuters to have been killed in Syria over the previous 15 months, indicating a significant rise in the rate of battlefield losses as the country’s involvement deepens.

Most of the deaths reported by Reuters have been confirmed by more than one person, including those who knew the deceased or local officials. In nine cases, Reuters corroborated a death reported in local or social media with another source.

The data may be on the conservative side, as commanders encourage the families of those killed to keep quiet, relatives and friends of several fallen soldiers, both servicemen and contractors, said on condition of anonymity.

The true level of casualties in the Syrian conflict is a sensitive subject in a country where positive coverage of the conflict features prominently in the media and ahead of a presidential election next year that incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

Meanwhile, Islamic State militants attacked Syrian government forces and their allies in countryside east of Homs and Hama on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Heavy fighting raged around the mountainous Jabal al-Shomariya area in Homs province, and the government side was carrying out air strikes there, the British-based monitoring group said.

Pro-Damascus media outlets quoted a military source saying warplanes had hit targets in the eastern Hama countryside, which borders Jabal al-Shomariya to the north.

Islamic State has been losing ground to government forces further east, close to its stronghold of Deir al-Zor province and al-Sukhna, the last town it holds in Homs province.

Several sides in Syria’s crowded battlefield are fighting Islamic State, including Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran, and US-backed, Kurdish-dominated forces around its Raqqa stronghold.

The exchange between Syria’s al-Qaeda branch and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group has resumed in what will lead to the return of thousands of Syrian refugees to their country.

Some 9,000 Syrian refugees and gunmen were waiting to leave Lebanon’s Arsal region and head to a jihadi-held part of Syria, according to an agreement between Lebanon, Syria, Hezbollah, and Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate known as Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS.

Three Hezbollah fighters were released on Wednesday morning by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, in return for the release of three al-Qaeda fighters who were held in Lebanon. Scores of buses carrying Syrian refugees were expected to move later in the day toward Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

The al-Qaeda faction will release five more Hezbollah fighters held in Syria.

Buses carrying Syrian militants and refugees left a Lebanese border area bound for a rebel-held part of Syria on Wednesday, under a deal made after Shi’ite Hezbollah routed Sunni Islamist Nusra Front insurgents in their last foothold at the frontier.

Some 7,000 Syrians including 1,000 militants, their families and refugees are to leave the Lebanese town of Arsal and the surrounding border area and head for Syria’s northwestern Idlib province under the deal, Hezbollah-run media outlets said.

The transfer echoes deals struck within Syria in which Damascus has shuttled rebels and civilians to Idlib and other opposition areas. Such evacuations have helped President Bashar al-Assad recapture several rebel bastions over the past year, and are criticised by the opposition as amounting to the forced transfer of populations seen as sympathetic to the opposition.

The ceasefire took effect last week, just days after Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian army launched an offensive to drive Nusra Front and other Sunni Muslim militants from their last foothold along the Syria-Lebanon border.

The operation has highlighted the major role of Hezbollah in fighting militants along the frontier during Syria’s six-year war, part of the much bigger role it has played across Syria in support of Assad.

A Palestinian-Syrian software pioneer has been executed in prison after being arrested five years ago by Syrian authorities in Damascus, his widow and colleagues said Wednesday, in what Amnesty International said was a “grim reminder of Syrian prison horrors.”

Noura Ghazi Safadi wrote on Facebook late Tuesday that she has received confirmation that security services executed Bassel Khartabil in October 2015 after torturing him in prison.

Khartabil, who also went by the name Bassel Safadi, was a champion and leading contributor to Arabic Creative Commons, a framework for coding and legal rights that promotes the open distribution of software and ideas, according to his Lebanese friend Dana Trometer.

He ran a software development workspace in Damascus, which was known to the Syrian authorities. Trometer says his trial was held in secret, and the cause for his arrest was never given.

Khartabil was taken from the street in Damascus in March 2012 amid a wave of military arrests, Creative Commons said in a statement Wednesday confirming news of his execution. He was jailed for several years, during which time he was allowed to infrequently communicate with family members. Then, in October 2015, he was abruptly transferred to an undisclosed location and all communications with the outside world ceased, it said.

Oussama Jarrousse, a Berlin-based colleague of Khartabil, said he was not only a highly skilled software developer but he was also knowledgeable in the policy side of the internet, and was well integrated with the international “Open Internet” community, like Wikipedia, Mozilla, Creative Commons, and had a good reputation among his international peers.

“It takes years of hard work and effort to build such trust and relationships,” he said.

A 19-year-old Danish woman has been indicted on suspicion of violating terrorism laws for allegedly joining the Islamic State group in war-torn Syria.

Prosecutor Bo Bjerregaard says the unnamed woman is abroad — “probably in Syria” — and an international arrest warrant could be issued. He declined to give details about such an arrest order.

The woman was indicted in absentia at a closed court hearing Wednesday in suburban Copenhagen. She allegedly traveled to Syria via Turkey in June, and is also accused of having tried to help a female family member to get there in March. Media reports said her court-appointed defense lawyer pleaded not guilty.

Denmark’s security service earlier said that about a third of the at least 145 people who have been radicalized since 2012 are women.


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