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Syria: fresh fighting in eastern Ghouta despite UN-ordered ceasefire

Assad forces have launched new air and ground offensive on battered enclave, witnesses say

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Syria: fresh fighting in eastern Ghouta despite UN-ordered ceasefire” was written by Simon Tisdall, for The Guardian on Sunday 25th February 2018 17.53 UTC

Syrian regime forces launched a fresh ground and air offensive on Sunday against rebel positions in the besieged and battered enclave of eastern Ghouta in defiance of a nationwide ceasefire ordered by the UN security council.

Witnesses said fighting erupted on several fronts in what was seen as a possible last-ditch bid by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, to eliminate opposition resistance in Ghouta, near Damascus, before the 30-day ceasefire can be enforced.

At least 14 civilians including three children were killed in strikes on Sunday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, bringing the total number of dead in the week to 530, among them over 130 children. The monitor said the bombing was less intense than attacks over the past week.

Eastern Ghouta is the last rebel-held enclave bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus. Since 2013, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have imposed a suffocating and deadly siege on the area. Yet several insurgent factions have retained control.

This month, Syria’s army launched one of the most intense bombardments of the war, saying their assault was necessary to end rebel mortar strikes on the capital. Residents accuse Russia of also bombing Ghouta, a mixture of dense suburbs and fields that once served as the breadbasket for Damascus.

The latest violence nevertheless presented a direct challenge to the authority of the security council, which voted unanimously for a ceasefire on Saturday after days of intense and often acrimonious debate. The fighting also increased pressure on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and Assad’s most powerful backer, to rein in his Syrian ally.

Putin has faced sharp western criticism over what were viewed as cynical Russian attempts to delay passage of the ceasefire resolution. The US, Britain and other countries accused Moscow of deliberate time-wasting in order to allow Assad the opportunity to complete the reconquest of eastern Ghouta – a charge refuted by Russia.

In a joint telephone call to the Kremlin on Sunday, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, urged Putin to ensure the ceasefire was fully implemented as soon as possible. No details of the conversation were made public.

Human rights groups said it was vital to keep up the pressure. “If security council members want to save lives in eastern Ghouta, they must enforce [the] resolution,” said Ibrahim al-Assil of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. “This means articulating clear, meaningful consequences for any party that violates the 30-day truce, and introducing a credible timetable to turn the temporary truce into long-term de-escalation.”

The UN’s painstakingly negotiated ceasefire resolution is limited in scope and intended primarily to allow delivery of humanitarian aid and medical assistance, and the evacuation of the wounded. It called for the ceasefire to begin “without delay” but did not set a specific timeframe, following Russian objections. Nor did it say how a ceasefire would be enforced, how the injured would be evacuated, or how returning aid workers would be protected.

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said the fight against “terrorism” would continue regardless, noting the ceasefire excluded named organisations such as Islamic State and an al-Qaida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Nusra Front. “Our government will reserve the right to respond as it deems appropriate in case those terrorist armed groups are targeting civilians in any part of Syria with even one single missile,” Ja’afari said.

The two main rebel factions in Ghouta – Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – said they would implement the truce and facilitate aid access. But they also vowed to respond if attacked. Hamza Birqdar, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, said attempted advances by regime forces had been thwarted but that fierce battles were raging. The group said it had captured and killed “a number of soldiers” as they tried to infiltrate the area.

Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards and militiamen are fighting alongside Assad’s forces, said both it and Syria would respect the UN resolution. But Gen Mohammad Baqeri, Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, insisted the ceasefire did not apply in areas of Damascus’s suburbs “held by the terrorists”, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.

About 530 people have died and more than 2,500 have been wounded in eastern Ghouta since a relentless barrage of regime rocket fire, shelling and airstrikes began last Sunday.

Details of Sunday’s fighting were sketchy but witnesses told al-Jazeera that regime forces were attacking opposition groups on multiple fronts, while Syrian warplanes kept up their bombardment for an eighth consecutive day. The Syrian military made no comment.

Syria claimed meanwhile that the ceasefire applied to Turkish forces in Afrin, in north-west Syria, as well as American and Israeli forces operating elsewhere on Syrian territory. The Turkish deployment, targeting Syrian Kurd fighters who Ankara regards as terrorists, is opposed by Damascus. Turkey denied on Sunday that it was bound to observe the ceasefire.

The US has not said whether it is prepared to lay down its arms.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died

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Buckingham Palace has announced that The Duke of Edinburgh has died.

Philip Mountbatten, the rakish naval officer who captured the heart of a young Elizabeth Windsor and became the lifelong consort to the British queen, has died aged 99.

The death ends the longest marriage of a reigning monarch in British history, an enduring alliance that outlasted the Cold War, war and peace in Northern Ireland and the painful divorces of three of their four children.

Reacting to the death, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said;

“Prince Philip earned the affection of generations here in the UK, across the Commonwealth & around the world.

He was the longest serving consort in history & one of the last surviving people in this country to have served in WW2.”

Prince Philip never held the official title of Prince Consort, but he was Queen Elizabeth II’s closest confidant, most reliable political advisor and the undisputed master of the royal household for more than six decades.

Philip was known equally as a curmudgeon and a charmer who could quickly put nervous guests at ease with an easy one­liner.

The Queen, on the event of their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, said of her husband: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.”

The Duke is survived by his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, and his children Charles, Prince of Wales; Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

While Elizabeth presided over affairs of state, Philip championed dozens of charities, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which has promoted self­reliance, physical development and other personal accomplishment for more than 6 million youths all over the world.

(more…)
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Biden Expected To Repeal Military Trans Ban Tomorrow

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The Biden administration is expected to repeal the ban on transgender Americans from serving in the military, multiple people informed of the decision told CBS News. The announcement is expected as soon as Monday, one senior Defense official and four outside advocates of repealing the ban told CBS News.

The senior Defense official told CBS News the repeal will be through executive order signed by President Joe Biden. The announcement is expected to take place at a ceremony with newly-confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will order the Pentagon to go back to the policy enacted in 2016 by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter that allowed transgender Americans to serve openly.

The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The new order will direct the branches of the military to outline an implementation plan. 

The ban was announced by former President Trump via a tweet in July 2017. The ban took effect in April 2019 and barred transgender Americans from enlisting in the military.

In 2014, it was estimated there were around 15,500 transgender military members serving, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Biden frequently repeated on the campaign trail his promise to repeal the ban.

Austin said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he planned to repeal the ban.

“I support the president’s plan or plan to overturn the ban,” Austin said on Tuesday when asked by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “I truly believe, Senator, that as I said in my opening statement, that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve. And, you can expect that I will support that throughout.”

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Trump Pardons Steve Bannon In One of His Final Acts As 45th President

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(CNN)— President Donald Trump has decided to pardon his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a last-minute decision made only hours before he is scheduled to depart the White House for a final time.

Officials cautioned CNN that Trump’s decision was not final until he signed the paperwork. Trump told people that after much deliberation, he had decided to pardon Bannon as one of his final acts in office.

Bannon’s pardon would follow a frantic scramble during the President’s final hours in office as attorneys and top aides debated his inclusion on Trump’s outgoing clemency list. Despite their falling out in recent years, Trump was eager to pardon his former aide after recently reconnecting with him as he helped fan Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.

It was a far cry from when Trump exiled Bannon from his inner circle after he was quoted in a book trashing the President’s children, claiming that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” by meeting with a Russian attorney and labeling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Those statements from Bannon drove Trump to issue a lengthy statement saying he had “lost his mind.”

“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said at the time.Things shifted in recent months as Bannon attempted to breach Trump’s inner circle once again by offering advice before the election and pushing his false theories after Trump had lost.

Since Trump’s election defeat, the President has leaned further into his expansive pardon powers — granting pardons to his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, longtime ally Roger Stone and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, among others.

Among Trump’s pardons earlier in his term were those for former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and financier Michael Milken.

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