UN envoy: UN monitors needed to observe Yemen cease-fire

UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. envoy for Yemen called Friday for the urgent deployment of U.N. monitors to observe the implementation of a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida and the withdrawal of rival forces — a potential breakthrough in Yemen's four-year civil war. Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that a speedy … Continue reading “UN envoy: UN monitors needed to observe Yemen cease-fire”

UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. envoy for Yemen called Friday for the urgent deployment of U.N. monitors to observe the implementation of a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida and the withdrawal of rival forces — a potential breakthrough in Yemen's four-year civil war.

Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that a speedy presence in the field is "an essential part of the confidence" needed to accompany implementation of Thursday's agreement between Yemen's government and Houthi Shiite rebels reached after eight days of negotiations in Sweden.

Griffiths said in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan that Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert will lead the monitoring mission and could be in the region "as soon as the middle of next week."

While calling the achievements at the talks "a significant step forward," Griffiths also urged caution saying "what's in front of us is a daunting task … and the hard work is only about to begin."

The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen's internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

The conflict has killed over 10,000 people, created the world's worst humanitarian crisis and brought the country to the brink of famine. Fighting has recently intensified near the port of Hodeida, the "lifeline" for the delivery of 70 percent of Yemen's humanitarian aid and imports including desperately needed food and fuel.

Griffiths said the "ghastly prospect" of famine has made solving the fighting in Hodeida "both urgent and necessary."

The cease-fire agreement in the province of Hodeida, which entered into force upon its publication Thursday, includes "phased but rapid mutual withdrawals from both the three Hodeida ports and the city," he said.

It also gives the U.N. a leading role in managing and carrying out inspections at the ports of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa which must "happen within days," Griffiths said.

The government and the Houthis also reached "a mutual understanding to ease the situation in Taiz" and open humanitarian corridors for people and goods to cross the front lines and reduce fighting in the province, he said.

Looking ahead, Griffiths said both sides agreed to meet again at the end of January and discuss his framework for a political solution to the war that will restore peace to Yemen. He noted that the Houthis "are in agreement with the general tenor of all its elements" while the government has some reservations.

The U.N. envoy responded to people who question whether the parties can be trusted to implement the agreements made in Sweden by saying there are different views.

"My own is that this is not about whether we can trust one or the other on this or that commitment," Griffiths said. "This is about helping them both to make it happen and reporting on their success, and noting those areas where they fall short of that."

He stressed that "verification is the key to building trust."

Griffiths quoted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom who said after Thursday's announcement of the agreements that "no longer can Yemen be considered a forgotten war."

"And now we can begin to hope for a track that may indeed lead to its early resolution," Griffiths added.

Australia recognizes west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

SYDNEY – Australia has decided to formally recognize west Jerusalem as Israel's capital, but won't move its embassy until there's a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday.

Morrison said in a speech that Australia would recognize east Jerusalem as Palestine's capital only after a settlement has been reached on a two-state solution. The Australian Embassy won't be moved from Tel Aviv until such a time, he said.

While the embassy move is delayed, Morrison said his government would establish a defense and trade office in Jerusalem and would also start looking for an appropriate site for the embassy.

"The Australian government has decided that Australia now recognizes west Jerusalem, as the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel," Morrison said.

He said the decision respects both a commitment to a two-state solution and long-standing respect for relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Australia becomes the third country to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, following the U.S. and Guatemala.

Unlike its predecessors, however, Australia recognized only the western part of the city. The move, therefore, is unlikely to please either side entirely.

For the Palestinians, it offers a partial resolution to an issue that they believe should be resolved through negotiations. That decision is softened, though, by recognizing their claim to east Jerusalem.

The Israelis welcome recognition of Jerusalem as their capital, but the Australian decision falls far short of their claim to all of the city. Refusing to include east Jerusalem, home to the city's most important religious sites, is likely to upset Israeli nationalists who dominate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

There was no immediate comment from Jerusalem on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Morrison had earlier floated the idea that Australia may follow the contentious U.S. move of relocating its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but it was seen by many Australians as a political stunt. Critics called it a cynical attempt to win votes in a by-election in October for a Sydney seat with a high Jewish population.

The consideration had sparked backlash from Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, threatening a free trade deal that has now been delayed.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the decision to recognize west Jerusalem as Israel's capital but not move the embassy there was a "humiliating backdown" from the October by-election campaign.

"What I'm worried is that Mr. Morrison put his political interest ahead of our national interest," Shorten told reporters.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel considers east Jerusalem an indivisible part of its capital, while the Palestinians seek the area, home to the city's most sensitive holy sites, as the capital of a future state.


Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Professor hired mercenaries to rescue student from ISIS in Iraq after he said he wouldn’t finish his thesis

Few students can name a professor willing to go the extra mile to ensure their students finish their studies. Fewer still can say their teacher hired an elite team of mercenaries to save you so you can finish your Ph.D.

But a chemistry professor from Sweden did exactly that to rescue a student and his family from ISIS in Iraq.

Charlotta Turner, a professor at Lund University, in the city of the same name, took the unprecedented action after she received a text message in 2014 from her student Firas Jumaah, saying it was unlikely he would be able to finish his research due to threats from the terror group.

“What was happening was completely unacceptable,” Turner told the university magazine LUM four years later. ”I got so angry that IS [Islamic State] was pushing itself into our world, exposing my doctoral student and his family to this, and disrupting the research.”


"What was happening was completely unacceptable. I got so angry that IS was pushing itself into our world, exposing my doctoral student and his family to this, and disrupting the research."

— Charlotta Turner

Jumaah told the professor to assume he would not be able to finish his thesis if he did not return within a week, because he was stuck in an Iraqi town being surrounded and shelled by Islamic State militants.

“I had no hope then at all,” Jumaah said. “I was desperate. I just wanted to tell my supervisor what was happening. I had no idea that a professor would be able to do anything for us.”

Firas Jumaah texted his professor to tell her that he’s unlikely to be able to finish his PhD as he was stuck in a town being surounded by ISIS militants. (Facebook)

Jumaah and his family were particularly in danger because they are part of the Yazidi ethnoreligious group that was subject to brutal treatment by ISIS, who often tortured or murdered the men and sold women into sex slavery.

He voluntarily entered the war zone after his wife in the area told him that ISIS had taken over a nearby village, massacring the men and enslaving women, according to The Local.

The threat of danger prompted the professor to take matters into her own hands and contact the university’s then-security chief Per Gustafson.

“It was almost as if he'd been waiting for this kind of mission,” Turner told the university magazine. “Per Gustafson said that we had a transport and security deal which stretched over the whole world.”


Firas Jumaah with his wife. (Facebook)

Following a few days of preparations, Gustafson hired a private security company, which then moved into the war zone in two Landcruisers with four heavily-armed mercenaries and one goal: rescue Jumaah and his family.

“It was a unique event. As far as I know, no other university has ever been involved in anything like it," Gustafson said.

"It was a unique event. As far as I know no other university has ever been involved in anything like it."

— Lund University’s then-security chief Per Gustafson.

After finding Jumaah in hiding, they sped to an airport in Erbil Airport, an airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, safely escaping the mortal danger.

“I have never felt so privileged, so VIP,’ Jumaah told LUM. “But at the same time I felt like a coward as I left my mother and sisters behind me.”

Luckily, according to the magazine, the rest of Jumaah’s family survived the occupation of ISIS, which has since been decimated in the region thanks to pushback by the Kurdish forces aided by Western countries.

He successfully completed his Ph.D. and works at a pharmaceutical company in Malmö. The family also almost paid off the university for the mercenaries they hired.

Lukas Mikelionis is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LukasMikelionis.

Yemen’s contested port city of Aden shows challenge of peace

ADEN, Yemen – Yemen's government nearly saw itself pushed into the sea by advancing rebels here three years ago. Now the port city of Aden shows the challenges that will likely still plague the nation following any potential peace agreement.

Bursts of heavy machine gun fire still punctuates the nights in Aden, now marked with war-shattered buildings and questions over what an end to its war might mean for a region where secessionist flags appear to fly everywhere.

As a round of peace talks in Sweden ended Thursday between the government and Houthi rebels, foreign journalists on a tour organized by the Saudi-led military coalition saw a city needing huge sums of money and aid. A Central Bank official spoke of a hoped-for infusion of $3 billion by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, underscoring the long road ahead for the Arab world's poorest country as U.S. lawmakers grow increasingly uneasy about America's role in the conflict.

"The road ahead is extremely difficult," said Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Washington-based think tank New America. "Security issues remain extremely perilous in the city of Aden, the economy remains in deep trouble and the currency continues to fluctuate."

Yemen, the southern undercarriage of the Arabian Peninsula also home to oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the Dubai skyscrapers of the United Arab Emirates, was torn by decades of warfare prior to this current conflict.

Rebels known as Houthis stormed into the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and later seized power from the country's internationally recognized government.

The Houthis, members of a Shiite sect, pushed government forces south and almost entirely out of Aden before Saudi and Emirati forces backed by other nations like the U.S. launched a war against them in March 2015.

The Houthis, an armed group of followers of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, still hold Sanaa and surrounding areas in Yemen's north.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since 2016, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks Yemen's war. The fighting has also displaced 2 million others, spawned a cholera epidemic and pushed the country to the brink of famine as emaciated children die of malnutrition. Millions wake up hungry each day, not knowing where their next meal will come from.

On the surface, life appears to be humming on in Aden. Fishermen secure their catches in the sun-soaked waters of the Gulf of Aden. Cashiers thump through giant wads of cash at the Central Bank.

But Yemen's currency, though making recent gains, has heavily depreciated in the war. Government salaries, a major economic driver, dried up for those in Houthi-controlled areas.

"We need international support in the upcoming year to fill the gap and allow us to pay salaries to Yemeni citizens," said Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, the prime minister of Yemen's internationally recognized government. "Supporting Yemen's economy will largely impact the humanitarian situation in Yemen."

Saudi Arabia has deposited billions into Yemen's Central Bank to support the country. Officials hope another $3 billion soon will come from Kuwait and the UAE, said Shokeib Hobeishy, the deputy head of Central Bank.

He also said he hoped the country would be able to once again export oil for international sales.

"Oil exports used to amount to 76 percent of the country's income," Hobeishy said. "This is one of the main reasons that we stress the importance of resuming Yemen's capability to export oil."

Yet Western fatigue with the Saudi-led war is growing. The killing and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, allegedly by members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's royal entourage, has fueled the anger of U.S. lawmakers. Already, the U.S. refueling of Saudi warplanes has stopped after months of indiscriminate airstrikes on hospitals and markets, killing civilians.

Saeed, Yemen's prime minister, invoked the regional threat from Iran as a reason America needed to remain involved in the conflict, something earlier echoed on a trip last month to Yemen by U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller. United Nations experts, Western nations and analysts say Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons ranging from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles the rebels can now fire deeply into Saudi Arabia to target its capital, Riyadh. Iran denies arming the rebels.

"Yemen's security and the stability of the region is the most important thing right now," Saeed said. "The United States' decision should take into account what Iran is doing in the region and the role it plays in Yemen."

Peace talks over ending the war wrapped up Thursday in Rimbo, Sweden, with the warring sides agreeing to a cease-fire in the strategic port city of Hodeida, where fighting has disrupted vital aid deliveries for the entire country, and a withdrawal of combatants from the city's front lines. The agreement is considered an important first step toward further talks in January aimed at drawing down the stalemated conflict.

However, more conflicts lurk just beneath the war. Throughout Aden, murals bore the flag of the former Communist South Yemen. Even soldiers escorting foreign journalists in Aden flew the tricolor red, white and black flag, its light blue chevron and red star flapping in the wind.

"It's quite clear that many Southern secessionists are now empowered; the key moving forward is going to be the solution to the southern issue," said Baron, the Yemen analyst. "Yemen will not have any sort of wider-range stability until the southern issue is dealt with in some form, and I think that's something obvious that you can't ignore if you're walking or driving through the streets of Aden."


Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . Follow Malak Harb at www.twitter.com/malakharb .

UN climate talks inch forward, success uncertain

KATOWICE, Poland – Negotiators from almost 200 countries raced to find agreement on the rules that will govern an international treaty on curbing global warming, but the text the Polish diplomat chairing the talks planned to present to delegates Thursday remained under debate as the two-week summit neared an end.

Diplomats and ministers huddled behind closed doors at a U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, weighing every word in drafts that cover issues such as how countries will count their greenhouse gas emissions and tally the effect of efforts to reduce them.

Along with the rulebook for putting the goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord into practice, the main issues at the talks are how much financial support poor countries will get to offset the effects of climate change and whether to send a strong message about future work to curb climate change.

Last week, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked endorsement of a scientific report on a key element of the Paris agreement: capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7. Fahrenheit). The action angered other countries and environmentalists, who accused the four oil-exporting nations of trying to stall progress toward the accord's most ambitious target.

"Tonight is the critical night," Greenpeace Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said. She urged developed countries to keep the rules from getting watered down in the final hours and to ensure poor nations get the help they need.

Mohamed Adow, a climate expert at Christian Aid, said the discussions on financial support seemed to be moving in the right direction, though the overall outcome of the talks was uncertain.

Developing countries have been promised billions of dollars (euros) in aid, loans and other financial support to help them reduce their emissions and adapt to inevitable changes in the world's climate.

Some are also demanding money to make up for the damage already caused by global warming, arguing that rich industrial nations are to blame for most of the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere.

"Real action requires real money for real solutions," said Adow. "The EU needs to separate itself from the laggards like Australia, Japan and the United States."

While U.S. President Donald Trump has announced he's pulling out of the Paris accord, American officials dangled the possibility that the U.S. might consider rejoining if it gets more favorable terms.

China, which was a key broker of the 2015 accord, dismissed the idea of revising core parts of the pact.

"China and the U.S. have worked together with all other countries to complete the negotiation and thus make the Paris Agreement a milestone achievement in global climate governance," Beijing's chief negotiator. Xie Zhenhua, told reporters.

"We will not reopen negotiations on issues where we have already reached agreement," he said.

Xie also pushed back on demands from rich nations for China to accept the accounting and reporting rules developed countries follow. He noted that while China is the largest single emitter of polluting gases, its gross domestic product per capita remains below the world average.

German negotiator Karsten Sach expressed optimism a deal could be reached, rating the draft texts that emerged between Wednesday night and Thursday morning as "somewhere between seven and eight" out of ten.

"Quite good, but not perfect," he said.

One veteran of global climate talks said it wasn't unusual for negotiations to hit a crisis toward the end, as exhausted negotiators try to reconcile a complex set of drafts with their national interests.

"In a positive way, it's creative chaos," said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "But I do not know how it will be this time."


Associated Press reporter Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.


Read more stories on climate issues by The Associated Press at https://www.apnews.com/Climate

Israeli troops arrest dozens in West Bank raid

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli forces arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the West Bank overnight as the army intensified a crackdown in response to a pair of deadly shootings believed to have been carried out by Hamas militants, officials said Friday.

Some 70 Hamas members, including lawmakers, were arrested this week, including about 40 overnight, said a Hamas official in the West Bank. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing arrest by Israel. The Israeli military confirmed the overnight arrests.

The arrests came as Israel's military accelerated its search for the Palestinian gunman who opened fire the day before on a West Bank bus stop, killing two soldiers. The shooting occurred just a short distance from the scene of another drive-by shooting earlier this week that wounded seven Israelis and caused the premature delivery of a baby boy that later died.

As Israel prepared to bury the two soldiers killed in Thursday's shooting, another soldier was severely wounded near a West Bank settlement after a Palestinian struck him in the head with a rock, knocking him unconscious, the military said. The army said it appeared the soldier was also stabbed. It said Israeli forces were searching for the suspect.

Thursday's shooting topped off a deadly week that claimed seven lives, including the Israeli newborn, a 60-year-old Palestinian businessman and three Palestinian assailants, two of them members of the Islamic militant Hamas group.

The latest shootings prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to beef up troop levels in the West Bank, order detentions of Hamas activists and call for demolishing the homes of assailants within 48 hours.

Amid the tense manhunt, Israeli forces encircled Ramallah, the Palestinians' typically quiet center of government and commerce. To prevent what it called "copycat attacks," the army set up checkpoints, searched cars and blocked roads in an unusual show of force that reflected the severity with which Israel views the shootings.

"Our guiding principle is that whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us will pay with his life," Netanyahu said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of creating a "climate" of violence by conducting frequent military raids in Palestinian cities. He also accuses Israel of incitement against him.

Israeli officials accuse Hamas of being behind the recent attacks. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, praised Thursday's shooting and confirmed that two people killed by Israel this week were members of its military wing. But it has stopped short of claiming responsibility for their attacks.

The latest string of West Bank violence comes amid years-long diplomatic paralysis, diminishing hopes for peace and escalating Palestinian frustration with the policies of President Donald Trump, who Palestinians accuse of unfair bias toward Israel.

Peace talks have stalled throughout Netanyahu's decade-long tenure, while Israeli settlements in the West Bank have expanded, incensing Palestinians. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip for their future independent state.

UN approves aid deliveries across borders to Syrians

UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council voted Thursday to authorize delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and conflict lines in Syria for another year, expressing "outrage" at the continuing violence in the country and "grave distress" at the devastating humanitarian situation.

The resolution, sponsored by Kuwait and Sweden, was adopted by a vote of 13-0, with Syria's main council ally Russia abstaining along with China.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock thanked the council for approving the resolution, saying that "cross-border aid provides a critical lifeline for millions of Syrians who cannot be supported through other means."

"You have done your part; we will now do ours to sustain aid in a way that is as effective and accountable as possible," he said.

Lowcock said the situation is especially "very challenging" in northwestern Syria, where some 3 million people remain dependent on cross-border aid.

While a pause in airstrikes has been positive, he said, shelling and fighting continues in and around the demilitarized zone and recent hostilities forced nearly 15,000 people to flee their homes to neighboring villages.

Lowcock also warned that Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, "remains on the edge of a humanitarian disaster."

He said a further escalation of violence "would quickly overwhelm the ability of humanitarian agencies to respond." He urged the warring parties to end the violence and head of the "humanitarian catastrophe" that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned about.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari criticized the resolution for deliberately avoiding Syrian sovereignty.

Russia's ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said Moscow abstained because "the new realities in Syria" require that the program for cross-border deliveries be fine-tuned "with the ultimate goal here being to gradually but inevitably wrap it up," but this was not included in the resolution.

"We decided not to block the decision because of humanitarian considerations and also taking into account appeals from our partners in the region," Nebenzia said.

The resolution expresses "outrage at the unacceptable level of violence and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of child casualties, as a result of the Syrian conflict," which began in 2013.

The Security Council reiterated "its grave distress at the continued devastating humanitarian situation in Syria and at the fact that urgent humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, is required by more than 13 million people," including 6.2 million who have fled their homes and more than 1 million still living in hard-to-reach areas.

The resolution renewed cross-border deliveries until Jan. 10, 2020, demanded unimpeded access for humanitarian convoys from the U.N. and its partners, and stressed that "the situation will continue to deteriorate further in the absence of a political solution to the Syrian conflict."

The council again warned that "it will take further measures" — U.N. language for sanctions — against those violating the resolution.

Syrian Kurdish-led fighters take Hajin, last town held by IS

BEIRUT – U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led fighters captured the last town held by the Islamic State group on Friday, after days of intense battles in the militants' single remaining enclave in eastern Syria, activists said.

The fall of Hajin is a blow to the extremists. The town was their main stronghold in the last pocket of land they control in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. IS still holds some villages nearby.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been fighting to take Hajin and the surrounding villages in Deir el-Zour province for over three months. In the past weeks, the offensive intensified with the arrival of reinforcements from northern Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF took Hajin early in the morning, after fierce fighting under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. It said some IS fighters withdrew to the villages and that fighting is still going in the fields outside Hajin as SDF fighters chase the extremists.

Europe-based activist Omar Abu Layla of the DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group confirmed that the town was taken, adding that some IS fighters are still holed up in small pockets on the edge of Hajin.

Aby Layla said that in IS ranks, disagreements over hierarchy and posts between Iraqi and Syrian fighters helped "speed up the collapse" of IS defenses in Hajin.

Nuri Mehmud, spokesman of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as People's Protection Units or YPG — the main component of SDF — said "intense fighting" is still ongoing in small parts of Hajin.

The area was home to some 15,000 people, including 2,000 IS gunmen who fought back with counteroffensives and suicide attacks. Over the past days, hundreds of civilians were able to flee the enclave toward areas controlled by the SDF east of the Euphrates River and government-controlled regions on the river's west bank.

The Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, denounced Turkey's threat of a military operation against YPG and called on Syrians of all ethnic and religious groups to unite ahead of a possible Turkish attack.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his criticism of U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters, saying Friday that Turkey would clear the key northern town of Manbij. Over the summer, the two NATO allies had struck a "road map" for Manbij to remove YPG, which Turkey considers a terror organization linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Erdogan argued the United States has not kept its promises to push YPG east of the Euphrates River.

"If you don't take them out, we will also enter Manbij," he said. American troops are stationed in Manbij, which was cleared of IS in 2016, and Washington and Ankara recently started joint patrols around the town.

Erdogan's threat comes days after he announced his military would launch a new cross-border operation into Syria "within a few days" to fight YPG east of the Euphrates.

On Thursday, a Turkish soldier was killed in the northwestern town of Afrin after an attack from nearby Tel Rifat. The Turkish military and allied Syrian opposition fighters took the town from the YPG earlier this year.


Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy contributed to this report from Istanbul.

Lebanese wary as Israel destroys Hezbollah border tunnels

MAYS AL-JABAL, Lebanon – As Israeli excavators dug into the rocky hills along the frontier with a Lebanese village, a crowd of young Lebanese men gathered to watch.

The mood was light as the crowd observed in real time what Israel says is a military operation — dubbed "Northern Shield" — aimed at destroying attack tunnels built by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. The young men posed for selfies, with the Israeli crew in the background, as they burned fires and brewed tea to keep warm.

But Lebanese soldiers were visibly on high alert, deploying to new camouflaged posts behind sandbags and inside abandoned homes. About two dozen U.N. peacekeepers stood in a long line, just ahead of the blue line demarcating the frontier between the two countries technically still at war.

The scene highlights the palpable anxiety that any misstep could lead to a conflagration between Israel and Lebanon that no one seems to want.

Underscoring such jitters, shadowy figures appearing across the misty hills of the border village of Mays al-Jabal last weekend sparked panic, and Israeli soldiers fired in the air to warn a Lebanese military intelligence patrol, according to Lebanese reports. Israel said it fired at Hezbollah members who came to the site to dismantle sensors installed to detect tunnels.

Israel's tunnel search comes at a time when the civil war in neighboring Syria seems to be winding down. Hezbollah had sent hundreds of troops to Syria in 2013 to fight alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. With Assad's forces emerging victorious, attention now seems to be returning to the tense Israel-Lebanon border.

Israel said its troops have discovered at least three tunnels along the frontier — a tactic used by Hezbollah in previous wars — and called on the international community to impose new sanctions on Hezbollah.

The militant group, which fought a bruising but inconclusive war with Israel in 2006, has not commented on the Israeli operation or statements.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Thursday that neither Israel nor Lebanon wanted to go to war, but noted that Israel violates Lebanese airspace and international waters on a regular basis.

He said the Lebanese army "will deal with this issue" after receiving a full report from the U.N peacekeeping force, but did not elaborate.

The peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, has confirmed the presence of tunnels and said it is working with both sides to address the situation in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In southern Lebanon on Thursday, Lebanese army soldiers observed the frontier in Mays al-Jabal, taking photos of their Israeli counterparts operating only a few meters (yards) away. At times, the Lebanese soldiers asked the young men to move back, away from the frontier.

Ali Jaber, a 21-year-old resident of Mays al-Jabal, said he believes that Hezbollah is more popular after the Syria war, and that this is the reason Israel is now turning to it. "But whoever puts up a shield and is hiding and making fortifications must be scared," he said.

Hussein Melhem, a 19-year old electrician from the village, came to watch. His cheeks ruddy on a cold but clear day, he covered his head with a tight hood. He alleged that Israel is trying to change the border.

"If they could occupy all of this, they would," he said, in an apparent reference to Israel's 18-year military occupation of southern Lebanon which ended in 2000. "But the resistance will prevent them."

As a seven-year-old in 2006, Melhem and his family left Mays al-Jabal when Israel invaded. His village was badly damaged but has since largely recovered and he said he found their home intact.

It is hard to forget about war in the villages and towns along the frontier. Pictures of Hezbollah fighters who died in the 2006 war, as well as the one raging in neighboring Syria, known locally as the "Sacred Defense," are everywhere. Posts on town squares boast of defeating Israel or urge the locals to "know their enemy."

During the Syrian civil war, Israel has frequently carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian-allied forces, particularly Hezbollah. Israel says it aims to prevent sophisticated weaponry from reaching Hezbollah, which it considers its most pressing security concern.

In Lebanon, Netanyahu's warnings have raised suspicions that he is also using the tunnel operation as a diplomatic pressure card.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for more sanctions against Hezbollah. In a visit to the frontier earlier this week, he warned that if Hezbollah tries to disrupt the search for tunnels, "it will be hit in a way it cannot even imagine."

In Israel, some newspaper commentators have been critical of the U.N. peacekeeping force, whose mandate Israel and the United States have unsuccessfully attempted to expand to include "intervention and deterrence."

About 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the north from Mays al-Jabal, Israeli soldiers are also operating along another frontier to uncover what they suspect is a tunnel location.

There, a high concrete wall separates them from the Lebanese village of Kfar Kela.

U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese army separately patrol the area. Israel began building the wall in 2012, and this section was completed weeks ago. While graffiti covers the older slabs of concrete, water has collected under the newer segment of the wall.

A U.N. peacekeeping force was working to clear the water after Lebanese residents complained it comes from irrigation drainage from the other side.

The Latest: Israeli troops seal off Ramallah to find shooter

JERUSALEM – The Latest on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (all times local):

1:45 p.m.

Israel has sealed off major roads leading to the West Bank city of Ramallah and set up checkpoints in search of a gunman who earlier in the day carried out a deadly shooting attack nearby.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the measures, saying only it had sent reinforcements to the area.

A Palestinian gunman opened fire on a bus stop outside a West Bank settlement on Thursday, killing two Israelis and wounding another two.

The unusual measure to clamp down on Ramallah, the Palestinians' economic and administrative hub, reflects the severity with which Israel views an uptick in violence this week in the West Bank.

Thursday's shooting comes after Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian suspected of a drive-by shooting at a West Bank bus stop on Sunday, in which a baby delivered prematurely as a result of the attack died.


11:55 a.m.

The head of Israel's medical rescue service says two Israelis have been killed and two wounded in a shooting attack near a West Bank settlement.

Eli Bin, the head of Israel's Magen David Adom service, told Israeli Army Radio that two people were dead following Thursday's shooting. He says another two, a man and woman, were critically wounded and were being taken to hospital. Their identities were not immediately known.

The Israeli military had no immediate additional details.

The incident comes as Israeli troops ended a two-month manhunt for a Palestinian wanted in the killing of two Israelis at a West Bank industrial zone in October.

On Wednesday, Israel also killed a Palestinian suspect accused of staging a shooting attack in the West Bank earlier this week.


8:30 a.m.

Israeli police say security forces tracked down a Palestinian accused of killing two Israelis and shot and killed him, following a two-month manhunt.

Police say Ashraf Naalweh was armed when he was found and that he was killed during the arrest raid early on Thursday near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Naalweh fled the scene of a West Bank industrial zone in October after shooting to death two Israelis. Israeli forces have conducted a widespread manhunt for him since.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian suspect wanted in a drive-by shooting at a West Bank bus stop, shooting him just hours after an Israeli baby delivered prematurely as a result of the weekend attack died.

The militant Hamas group that rules Gaza said both men were its members.