One attacker killed, another said at large after shooting on Champs-Elysees days before presidential elections
Military source estimates Syrian president’s stockpile consists of up to three tons of deadly materiel
AP — Syria still has up to three tons of chemical weapons, Israeli defense officials said Wednesday in the first specific intelligence assessment of President Bashar Assad’s weapons capabilities since a deadly chemical attack earlier this month.
The estimate came as the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog said laboratory tests had provided “incontrovertible” evidence that victims and survivors of the April 4 attack in northern Syria were exposed to sarin nerve gas or a similar banned toxin.
Israel, along with the United States and much of the international community, has accused Assad’s forces of carrying out the attack, which killed at least 90 people, including dozens of children.
A senior Israeli military official said Israeli intelligence believes Syrian military commanders ordered the attack, with Assad’s knowledge. Briefing reporters, he said Israel estimates Assad still has “between one and three tons” of chemical weapons.
The assessment was confirmed by two other Israeli defense officials. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military briefing rules.
Assad has strongly denied he was behind the attack in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northern Idlib province, and has accused the opposition of trying to frame his government. Top Assad ally, Russia, has asserted a Syrian government airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons factory, causing the disaster.
In response to the April 4 attack, the United States fired 59 missiles at a Syrian air base it said was the launching pad for the attack. Israel welcomed the strike on its northern neighbor.
The Syrian government has been locked in a six-year civil war against an array of opposition forces. The fighting has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.
Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting, though it has carried out a number of airstrikes on suspected Iranian weapons shipments it believed were bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah, both bitter enemies of Israel, along with Russia have sent forces to support Assad.
Following Russia’s intervention in September 2015, Israel and Moscow opened a hotline to coordinate military activity in Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will fly to Moscow next week for talks with senior Russian officials.
Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal to avert U.S. strikes following a chemical weapons attack in opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 that killed hundreds of people and sparked worldwide outrage.
Ahead of that disarmament, Assad’s government disclosed it had some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, including sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas.
The entire stockpile was said to have been dismantled and shipped out under international supervision in 2014 and destroyed. But doubts began to emerge soon afterward that not all such armaments or production facilities were declared and destroyed. There also is evidence that the Islamic State group and other insurgents have acquired chemical weapons.
Dan Kaszeta, a UK-based chemical weapons expert, said the Israeli estimate appeared to be conservative, but nonetheless was enough to be highly lethal.
“One ton of sarin could easily be used to perpetrate an attack on the scale of the 2013 attack. It could also be used for roughly 10 attacks of a similar size to the recent Khan Sheikhoun attack,” he said.
A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, is investigating the April 4 incident and on Wednesday its director-general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said that the results “from four OPCW designated laboratories indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance.”
He said in a statement that further results would follow, but that “the analytical results already obtained are incontrovertible.” The agency, based in The Hague, Netherlands, is expected to issue a report within two weeks.
Turkish and British tests also have concluded that sarin or a substance similar to the deadly nerve agent was used in the Idlib attack.
Earlier this week, Assad’s former chemical weapons research chief told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper that Syria had “at least 2,000 tons” of chemical weapons before the war and only declared 1,300. Former Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat said the Syrian government still possessed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press
( Iran: Please take note. – JW )
In first combat use of weapon, 11-ton ‘Mother Of All Bombs’ used in strike on jihadist cave complex
The Pentagon said Thursday US forces in Afghanistan dropped the military’s largest non-nuclear bomb on an Islamic State target in Afghanistan.
Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said it was the first-ever combat use of the bomb, known as the GBU-43, which he said contains 11 tons of explosives. The US Air Force calls it the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB.
Based on the acronym, it has been nicknamed the “Mother Of All Bombs.”
The strike occurred at about 7:32 p.m. local time (15:02 GMT).
Stump said the bomb was dropped on a cave complex believed to be used by IS fighters in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, very close to the border with Pakistan.
“As ISIS-K’s losses have mounted, they are using IEDs, bunkers and tunnels to thicken their defense. This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K,” said US General John W. Nicholson, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, in a statement.
“US Forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike. US Forces will continue offensive operations until ISIS-K is destroyed in Afghanistan,” the US army said in a statement.
Referring to the Islamic State, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said: “We must deny them operational space, which we did.”
The MOAB was rapidly developed in 2002-2003 around the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
According to the Air Force, the last time the MOAB was tested in 2003, a huge mushroom cloud could be seen from 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.
The satellite-guided weapon is so large it is rolled off a transport aircraft rather than dropped from the weapons bay of a bomber. It is partially used to intimidate enemy forces after the noted success of its predecessor, the BLU-82 bomb, which dates back to the Vietnam war where it was used to clear jungle areas for helicopters.
Newsweek: Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman ‘Wouldn’t Be Surprised’ if Iran’s Rouhani Is Assassinated in May ElectionApril 13, 2017
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would “not be surprised” if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was assassinated in the country’s upcoming presidential election next month, in an interview published Monday.
In comments made to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Lieberman appeared to allege that—like the proxy groups that Tehran backs in the Middle East, such as Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip—there are deep internal rivalries in the Iranian regime.
Lieberman, who is one of the most powerful political figures in Israel, was commenting on the murder of top Hamas militant Mazen Faqha near his home in Gaza on March 24. Hamas blamed his death on Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, but Lieberman said the militant group was responsible.
“We can say with certainty that it was an internal killing,” the minister said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if during the Iranian election on May 19, somebody assassinates the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.”
He continued: “With my understanding of the system there and the man leading it, this looks like an internal affair. It is characteristic of terrorist organizations.”
The right-wing minister, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, was referring to Yahya Sinwar: the new hardline leader of Hamas in the coastal enclave elected by the group in February. Lieberman claimed that Sinwar himself killed a Hamas battalion commander in February 2016, pointing to that case as evidence of deadly power plays within the ranks of the Islamist faction.
“Sinwar did it without Hamas leadership knowing and he didn’t ask anybody. [Sinwar] is the new leader now and he wants to establish himself and show that he’s the boss and he doesn’t need to ask anybody anything,” he told the newspaper.
Until Lieberman’s comments, Israel had remained quiet on the case of Faqha. Hamas has promised retribution, posting a video on March 29 now removed from YouTube of Lieberman and other Israeli officials, such as Israeli military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Mossad head Yossi Cohen, in the crosshairs of a Hamas sniper. In Arabic and Hebrew, the group’s message reads: “We will act in kind.”
Iran provides financial backing to Hamas, since both view Israel as an enemy and repeatedly threaten the country with attacks. Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
Iranians go to the polls next month in an election that pits reformist Rouhani against the more hardline ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ebrahim Raisi.
Hamas said Monday it had arrested a suspect in connection with the assassination of Faqha. The group launched a local media campaign after the murder, vowing to find those responsible for what it said was collaboration with Israeli intelligence services. Collaborating with Israeli forces is punishable by death in the territory.
Since 2007, when Hamas expelled Fatah forces from Gaza, the militant group has executed more than 40 people in the Gaza Strip, of which the majority were suspected collaborators with Israel during the seven-week conflict in 2014. Many of those convicted were tried in military courts or were executed without a trial.
Seven wounded Syrians __ two children, four women and a man __ waited in pain for darkness to fall to cross into enemy territory. Under the faint moonlight, Israeli military medical corps quickly whisked the patients across the hostile frontier into armored ambulances headed to hospitals for intensive care.
It was a scene that has recurred since 2013, when the Israeli military began treating Syrian civilians wounded in fighting just a few kilometers (miles) away. Israel says it has quietly treated 3,000 patients — a number that it expects to quickly grow as fighting heats up in neighboring Syria in the wake of a chemical attack and, in response, an unprecedented U.S. missile strike.
While the numbers are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in the six-year Syrian war, both doctors and patients say the program has changed perceptions and helped ease tensions across the hostile border.
Dr. Salman Zarka, director of the Ziv medical center in the northern Israeli town of Safed, is a former colonel in the medical corps who served on the Syrian border.
He said he “couldn’t then have imagined setting up a humanitarian program for Syrians” Now his hospital has delivered 19 Syrian babies and sends prescriptions with patients back into Syria.
“All this makes it more human, more complicated,” Zarka said, adding that he worries about patients he knows on a first name-basis who have returned to Syria.
In Thursday night’s rescue, medical officers decided that two of the seven patients had wounds that were too urgent to wait and so radioed in a helicopter. Soldiers carried the two on stretchers beneath the whirring blades as the helicopter lifted off into the inky night sky.
“We check their breathing, their pulse, their blood pressure — all their vital signs,” said Lt. Omri Caspi, a medical officer. “We take a look at their injuries, we saw the cuts, we checked the chest, the heads, everything, and then we decide which treatment they need.”
Just a few years ago, such scenes would have been unthinkable. Israel and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad were bitter enemies, and contact across the hostile lines of the divided Golan Heights was virtually nonexistent. Israel captured part of the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
The outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011 has radically altered the area, though. The Syrian side of the Golan is now divided between government troops and a host of rebel groups. Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces have all entered the fighting to offer support to Assad’s beleaguered forces.
Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting in Syria, which has claimed over 400,000 lives. But it has carried out a number of airstrikes on suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah, a bitter enemy that is fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
Tensions skyrocketed this week after an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government killed dozens of people. The U.S responded early Friday by launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base —— a dramatic escalation lauded by Sunni states, rebels and Israel but condemned by Assad, Russia and China.
Israel’s newest patients started their treatment just as the American missiles struck, a little before dawn, less than 200 kilometers (120 miles) away inside Syria.
Two Syrian patients shared their experiences in Syria and Israel with The Associated Press as soldiers from the Israeli military supervised. The two spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear they or their families would be targeted in Syria if their stay in Israel is made public.
Both young men praised the Israeli people and government while lambasting Assad and his supporters. They said that as patients have returned to Syria from Israel, word has slowly spread that Israel can help those desperately wounded. The medical care is free of charge. The hospital said it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to admittance, and insists it doesn’t collect personal patient information.
One patient, a 26-year old from Deraa, the city in Syria’s south where the revolution broke out in 2011, flashed a toothy smile while sitting in a wheelchair; one leg a bandaged stump, the other gripped in a metal cast. He said he was on the street when a bomb blast mangled his legs. He couldn’t find treatment in Syria’s devastated medical sector, so he made his way to Israel, a nation he was raised to hate.
“Back then when there were no incidents in Syria, no revolution, no nothing — the greatest enemy in the world was Israel. It was the first enemy,” he said.
His fellow patient used the pseudonym “Baibars,” the name of a 12th-century Muslim warrior who defeated the Crusaders and Mongols. A bomb crushed bones in his face, an injury that without medical help festered until he struggled to open his mouth.
After 40 days in the Ziv hospital and many surgeries later, the 25-year old revolutionary now talks incessantly and even sings about lost love — in addition to praising for Israeli pastries.
“We reached countries that my grandparents did not reach and met good people,” he crooned through a jaw yet to fully healed.
From his Israeli hospital room Baibars said he could see into Syria. In his long list of enemies of the Syrian people —— Assad, Russia, Iran, Houthis, Hezbollah, Afghanistan —— he no longer includes Israel.
“The regime has used chemical weapons since the beginning of the war,” Baibars says, referring to alleged attacks in East Ghouta and Dharaya. “We were just trying to defend ourselves.”
“The future of Syria has no Bashar Assad,” Baibars says. “Israel is not the enemy. Bashar is the enemy.”
Associated Press writer Areej Hazboun contributed to this report from Jerusalem.