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The United States along with some Western and Arab allies formed a coalition in the summer of 2014 and began launching airstrikes on ISIS-held areas on Aug 8. (File Photo: Reuters)
Staff writer | Al Arabiya News
Dozens of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group were killed in air raids in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Friday, Al Hadath television reported.
ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to around 2 million Iraqis, in June as part of its sweeping advance through northern Iraq almost unchallenged by Iraq’s national army. Thousands of Yazidis had to flee their homes, in addition to Christians living in Mosul, in fear of being targeted by the extremist group.
ISIS fighters claim to have set up an “Islamic Caliphate” that will wash away borders drawn by Western powers in the 20th century.
But the militant group has suffered major blows in Iraq in recent weeks. On Wednesday, an air strike in west Iraq reportedly killed a senior figure of the group.
Senan Meteeb, the so-called ISIS “emir” of the western Anbar province, was reportedly killed by a coalition air raid in the Anbar city of Hit. Twenty-four other ISIS fighters were also reportedly killed.
On the same day, ISIS failed to take the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces backed by the coalition air force repelled a major attack by the by the group on the northern Iraqi city.
Iraqi security forces wilted under the initial June ISIS onslaught, but are now backed by U.S.-led air strikes, international advisers, Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribes, and have begun to claw back some areas.
Kiev: Six more coffins carrying body parts of victims from downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands from Ukraine on Friday, with nine victims of the July disaster still unidentified.
A Dutch Air Force C-130 transport plane arrived at an airfield in the southern city of Eindhoven after leaving Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
The coffins were loaded into six hearses at a ceremony attended by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, before heading for a forensic research facility in Hilversum where the process of identifying the victims is taking place.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was blown out of the sky on July 17 over Ukrainian rebel-held territory, killing all 298 people on board, including 193 Dutch citizens.
The Dutch-led probe team has so far identified 289 of the victims and is set to transport the wreckage of the plane by road to the Netherlands for further investigation.
But nine victims remained unidentified as recovery work at the crash site shut down for the winter.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying pro-Kremlin insurgents with the missile that shot down the jet but Moscow and the separatists deny they were responsible and have instead pointed the finger at Kiev.
Dutch and Ukrainian officials earlier Friday held a memorial ceremony at the airport in Kharkiv for the last batch of human remains to be transported this year.
Kharkiv governor Igor Baluta said the debris of the downed jet would be loaded onto trucks for transportation Saturday and depart from eastern Ukraine in the near future.
Searches would resume again in March, Baluta said.
Dutch justice ministry spokesman Jean Fransman told: “It`s probably not the last time that human remains will be returned from the crash site.”
“There are some areas where we`ve not searched yet,” he said.
Russian anti-submarine ship Severomorsk.
A fleet of Russian warships entered the English Channel on Friday but a NATO official dismissed a Russian media report that they were there to conduct military exercises.
Russian news agency RIA quoted the Northern Fleet as saying its vessels, led by anti-submarine ship Severomorsk, had passed through the Strait of Dover and were now in international waters in the Seine Bay to wait for a storm to pass.
“While it is anchored the crew are undertaking a series of exercises on how to tackle infiltrating submarine forces and are training on survival techniques in the case of flooding or fire,” RIA quoted the Northern Fleet as saying in a statement.
The Russian Navy could not reached for comment and the Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report.
France’s navy confirmed the location of the ships and said it was not unusual to have Russian warships in the Channel.
“They are not holding exercises. They’re just waiting in a zone where they can be several times a year,” said the French Navy’s information service.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen, NATO’s military spokesman, also said the alliance was aware of the Russian ships’ location.
“Our information indicates that the ships are transiting and have been delayed by weather conditions. They are not exercising in the Channel, as some Russian headlines would have us believe,” he said.
Russia has flexed its military muscle recently, with the NATO military alliance reporting more incursions by Russian fighters and long-range bombers.
The Russian maneuvers followed months of tension over Ukraine, where Moscow has annexed the Crimean peninsula and has supported armed separatists opposed to the Kiev government.
Pope to talk ISIS on historic 3-day tour of Turkey.
Pope Francis embarks a plane, leaving for Turkey, at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Pope Francis travels to Turkey this weekend amid new Muslim-Christian tensions and a violent war next door, with Islamic State militants seizing chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria and sending 1.6 million refugees across the border into Turkey. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Allen Pizzey, CBS News.
Pope Francis begins an historic three-day tour of Turkey Friday morning, only the fourth trip by a pope to mostly Muslim nation. He’s already arrived in the Turkish capital and security is tight as Francis travels throughout the country.
The focus of the trip will be on shoring up the region’s beleaguered Christian minorities and countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat, reports CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.
Speaking to reporters on his plane, Pope Francis praised Turkey’s help for refugees from the conflict zone. The arrival in the Turkish capital was low-key — just an honor guard, handshakes from minor officials and the motorcade was off.
Francis won’t be using his preferred open Pope mobile on this trip because Turkey is 98 percent Muslim and crowds are not expected. Given the proximity of the self-declared Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, that’s a relief to his security detail.
The first official event was the mandatory stop at the Mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey where the Pope laid a wreath — but it’s the subtext that matters.
Turkey is officially a secular state, but the government is taking an increasingly Islamist stance.
Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew whom the Pope will meet later on the trip has said his small Christian flock feels “crucified” by the Turkish government.
The first potential controversy is the official welcome at the 1,000 room White Palace. Ordered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it cost an estimated half a billion dollars, opulence that is in direct contrast to the austerity and humility that Pope Francis embraces.
Turkish architects asked him to boycott what one blogger called “a symbol of greed cronyism and hunger for absolute power.”
Saturday Francis heads to Istanbul for two days where he will visit a mosque, say Mass and deliver two speeches.
Not one to shy from the issues, Francis is expected to stress the need for dialogue to accompany military responses to terrorism and to speak out against fundamentalism and persecution of religious minorities.
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Members of a Ukrainian militia walk past a house riddled with shrapnel. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times.
Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times.
PISKY, Ukraine — Since a cease-fire was declared in eastern Ukraine on Sept. 5, nearly 1,000 soldiers and civilians have died in a grinding conflict with rebel separatists that is being waged largely out of sight. That is almost a quarter of the 4,317 killed since April and an average of 13 a day, the United Nations estimates.
Over the same three-month period, the Ukrainian military says it has recorded 3,412 rebel cease-fire violations, while separatist fighters regularly accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling the region’s biggest city, Donetsk, killing civilians. And Russia has continued to build up the rebel forces, sending in troops, military vehicles and heavy weapons, including what Ukraine says was a convoy of 85 vehicles this week carrying heavy armor, fighters and ammunition.
All this has made for a nervous few months for the Ukrainian soldiers in the village of Pisky, who endure almost constant shelling, sniper fire and raiding parties from the rebel separatists only a mile away on the front lines of a confrontation that carries the potential, at almost any moment, of exploding into a hot new theater in a revived Cold War.
The front zigzags through a glum tableau of abandoned houses, muddy fields and trash-strewn streets, where all but a few retired people have long since fled. The two sides are only about a mile apart, so close that they can see each other’s positions through a high-powered periscope.
On a recent visit to the Ukrainian side, gunfire broke out near the abandoned house where a soldier calling himself Simferopol and his mates in the all-volunteer Dnipro-1 pro-Ukrainian militia were stationed.
As bullets whistled over a nearby fence, walkie-talkies started crackling.
“Look to your 3 o’clock.”
“I don’t see anything.”
Eventually, they gave up, as they often do, unable to ascertain the origin of the shooting. Another Ukrainian unit reported later that it was test-firing a gun, though it was unclear whether this was the same incident.
All the same, after some time, the Ukrainians decided to send off a return volley of mortars, shot in the direction of Donetsk.
“If you cannot see clearly what is happening, you shoot, to ease your soul,” said Simferopol, who took his nickname from his hometown on the Crimean Peninsula, which he left after Russia annexed the territory in March. He was unsure of the purpose of this firing, or where the next bullets might come from. “I’m not really a professional,” he said. “I used to sell Tupperware.”
Simferopol and Ukrainian paramilitary and regular army soldiers deployed in the village say they are fighting defensively, noting that, despite their efforts, rebel lines have been creeping forward.
And yet, the Ukrainian forces regularly fire mortars and artillery toward the separatist lines.
“They shoot at us to remind us they are still there,” Simferopol said of cease-fire violations that run into the dozens of incidents daily. “And then we shoot at them, to remind them we are still here.”
The two sides may seem dug in, but the rebels have advanced several hundred yards since the cease-fire declaration.
In an interview, Zhora, a commander in the Vostok battalion, a pro-Russian, separatist militia, said he had success in “expanding the lines,” and this was necessary to better defend the flanks of a position that the rebels held before the cease-fire, but was vulnerable for jutting into the Ukrainian zone. The position had been under attack.
“We moved ahead,” he said, in an interview at his headquarters, where dozens of empty, green wooden boxes for artillery shells were stacked in a parking lot. “We had no left or right flank. What we did was smooth out the line.”
Pro-Russian soldiers deny receiving aid from Russia, and yet a proliferation of ammunition, howitzers, new uniforms and high-caliber sniper rifles on their side tells a different story.
However enfeebled and impoverished the Ukrainian Army, rebel fighters who were on the ropes in the summer before a Russian incursion could hardly be pushing an entrenched regular army equipped with artillery and tanks without state sponsorship.
Both Simferopol and Zhora say they are fighting to win back their home territory from the other side, but the similarities end there.
A Russian flag adorns Zhora’s headquarters in a warehouse, while graffiti saying “This Is Ukraine” is scrawled on the abandoned house that is Simferopol’s temporary home.
As the pro-Russian line is flush with the city of Donetsk, stray shots by the Ukrainian artillery regularly land in outlying districts of the city. In Pisky, rebel shelling is a menace to the Ukrainian soldiers but few civilians, since most have left the village.
The only residents to be found were a retired couple, Ivan and Lyubov Siderov, who live in their root cellar in the buffer zone between the two armies and stayed on because “we have a cow, we have a reason to stay.”
They trade milk for bread with the soldiers, and emerge from the cellar only to do chores, and in this way hope to survive until one or the other side wins.
One of the Ukrainian paramilitary soldiers, who uses the nickname Zloy, or Angry, said he was motivated by what he saw as a Russian attempt to oppress Ukrainians, and not for the first time.
“Russia oppresses us and not only for six months in this war, but for centuries, from the time of Peter the Great,” he said. “There were Cossacks who went to Moscow and kneeled and bowed, and there were those who did not. I’m one of those types.”
With the Russian buildup on the other side, nerves are fraying, particularly in light of a catastrophic defeat for Ukrainian volunteers in the town of Ilovaisk last summer.
There, as here, volunteers fueled by heady patriotism headed for the thickest part of the fight, ahead of the Ukrainian Army. But a Russian advance then pushed the Ukrainian regulars off a road protecting the retreat, and at least a hundred paramilitary soldiers were killed and hundreds more captured.
“What can we do, a soldier just lives through the day,” said Grigory V. Matiash, a 22-year-old from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, who volunteered after participating in last winter’s protest in Independence Square.
Such fatalism is understandable in a surreal war zone where boredom is relieved only by deadly attacks, and the sound of .50-caliber sniper fire — first the snap of an incoming bullet, then a boom a moment later — has become background noise.
The separatists and the Ukrainians alike send artillery controllers to spot the flashes of outgoing artillery, and correct answering fire. While in a sense defensive, as the spotters are intended to silence the other side’s guns, their activities only escalate the small-arms firing, as each side tries to shoot the other’s observers, using infrared scopes.
Also, the Ukrainians sometimes shoot randomly in the direction of their enemy’s lines, something they call “prophylactic fire,” to keep heads down.
After the sun goes down, Pisky becomes an even scarier place, as the buffer zone of abandoned houses becomes a no-man’s land of constant skirmishes between nighttime patrols sent out by both sides.
“Our guys die, and their families suffer,” said one of the Ukrainian fighters, a former Pentecostal preacher who uses the nickname Padre. “There are widows and orphans. And our government doesn’t want to declare war. We are at war with Russia. Nobody wants to say it, but this is a real war.”