Battle for last Islamic State enclave edges toward its end

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria looked close to an end on Wednesday, with no sign of clashes as U.S.-backed fighters said they were combing the area for hidden jihadists.

Reuters reporters overlooking Baghouz from a hill on the bank of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border said the area was calm, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia searched for tunnels and landmines, an SDF official said.

The SDF on Tuesday captured an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave, pushing diehard fighters onto a sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.

There was no immediate update from the SDF on Wednesday on the fate of these remaining militants. A group of women and children were seen being evacuated from the Baghouz area.

Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.

(GRAPHIC: How Islamic State lost Syria – https://tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.

Some of the group’s fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.

For the SDF, it would cap a four-year military campaign in which its fighters drove Islamic State from swathes of northeastern Syria with the help of a U.S.-led coalition, taking the city of Raqqa after a months-long battle in 2017.

The group was also forced into retreat by numerous other local and foreign forces roused by its public displays of bloodletting and the attacks it plotted abroad.

Its enclave at Baghouz was the last part of the massive territory it suddenly seized in 2014, straddling swathes of Iraq and Syria, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate.

His fate, along with other Islamic State leaders, is not known, though the United States has said it believes him to be in Iraq.

The group’s supporters in Baghouz faced months of siege, pounded by coalition air strikes. Over the past two months, some 60,000 people poured out of the shrinking IS territory.

About half of that number were civilians, the SDF has said, including some Islamic State victims such as enslaved women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious community.

The others were the group’s supporters including about 5,000 fighters. In recent days, as the enclave shrank, the SDF said hundreds more of them started to surrender, or were captured trying to escape.

Most of those who left were moved to displacement camps in northeast Syria. The fighters were detained, but the SDF has urged foreign countries to take back their citizens, causing a dilemma for some Western states who see them as a threat.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Baghouz, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

Rescue of Spanish boy trapped in well to take few more days

A man watches a TV screen showing a deep well which Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, at a bar in Totalan, Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

TOTALAN, Spain (Reuters) – Rescue workers will need at least two more days to reach a two-year-old boy who has been trapped in a deep well in southern Spain since Sunday, a mining expert taking part in the effort said on Thursday.

Officials said they were not losing hope to would find the boy alive. Rescuers were now digging tunnels to reach the child who, fell into the well which is just 25 cm (10 inches) wide and 100 meters (328 feet) deep.

Diggers and trucks remove sand at the area where Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into a deep well four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, in Totalan, southern Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Diggers and trucks remove sand at the area where Julen, a Spanish two-year-old boy fell into a deep well four days ago when the family was taking a stroll through a private estate, in Totalan, southern Spain, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

“The most important here is to be able to get close to the boy. Either horizontally or vertically, in order to start the mining work to reach the place where the boy is at the moment,” mining engineer Juan Escobar told reporters at the site in Totalan, Malaga.

“It is very complicated (to complete) in less than two days”, added.

Among debris pulled out of the well, rescuers on Wednesday found hair, which DNA tests confirmed belonged to the child, though no signs of life have been detected.

“We will not stop until we’ve rescued the child. We’re confident that we can rescue him alive,” a government official in Malaga, Maria Gamez, told reporters gathered at the site.

The rescue of Julen, who was seen falling into the well as his family walked through a private estate in Totalan, has drawn huge media attention in Spain and the whole country is holding its breath for the outcome.

According to Spanish media, Julen’s parents lived another family tragedy in 2017 when their three-year-old son died suddenly while walking along a beach not far from Totalan.

Residents nearby gathered on Wednesday for a vigil to support the family, many holding homemade placards reading “All of Spain is with you”.

(Reporting by Miguel Pereira, writing by Jose Elias Rodriguez, editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

Israel says Hezbollah closed precision-guided missile plants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem December 16, 2018. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday Hezbollah had shut down plants to develop precision-guided missiles but was imperiling Lebanon with a cross-border tunnel network he deemed “an act of war”.

Netanyahu spoke hours before the U.N. Security Council was due to discuss Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group, and appeared aimed at swaying world powers to order stronger intervention by U.N. peacekeepers.

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel deems Hezbollah, against which it fought an inconclusive war in 2006, its most potent foe. Israeli forces have repeatedly struck suspected Hezbollah arms transfers via Syria during its civil war, but avoid such action in Lebanon.

Israel and the United States believe Hezbollah has sought homegrown production of precision-guided missiles that could paralyze Israeli civilian infrastructure.

Addressing the United Nations on Sept. 7, Netanyahu identified three such plants around Beirut airport – a disclosure that Lebanon’s foreign minister, a political ally of Hezbollah, dismissed at the time as fabricated.

“The underground sites for precision conversion of missiles, which (Israeli) military intelligence gave me, to expose, those sites were closed,” Netanyahu told a conference on Wednesday.

“They are trying to open other sites,” he said, without elaborating. Hezbollah hoped to have thousands of precision-guided missiles by now but instead had “at most, a few dozen”, according to Netanyahu.

In a separate speech to parliament, Netanyahu focused on four tunnels uncovered this month, whose presence was confirmed by UNIFIL peacekeepers and which Israel says were to be used for infiltrations of its northern villages.

Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels.

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“This is not merely an act of aggression. It is an act of war,” Netanyahu said.

Lebanon is fully committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry called on the Lebanese army “to take all necessary measures to ensure (the resolution) is well implemented in coordination with UNIFIL forces, especially in light of the tensions at the border in recent days.”

It added that it had not seen any “engineering works” being done on its side of the border.

Netanyahu accused UNIFIL of inaction, saying Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has grown tenfold since 2006 and that every third home in southern Lebanon was being used by the guerrillas.

The Security Council, he said, should ensure “UNIFIL is not restricted by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army in any way, and reports on any obstructions” of the peacekeepers’ mandate to enforce the 2006 Lebanon ceasefire.

Israel has itself violated the truce with overflights of Lebanon for surveillance or Syria sorties.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

Israel says new Gaza tunnel foiled, lifts veil on detection lab

FILE PHOTO: Construction work can be seen on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israel March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it destroyed a guerrilla tunnel from the Gaza Strip and gave rare details on a classified military laboratory spearheading efforts to foil the cross-border digs.

Palestinian gunmen used tunnels to blindside Israeli forces during the 2014 Gaza war. Israel has since been developing detection technologies and laying down an underground frontier wall which, it says, will end the Gaza tunnel threat by 2019.

It is the fifth such detection in as many months and Israeli officials regard publicity around their tunnel hunts as a double-edged sword.

They hope it will discourage new digs but worry it could prompt militants to preempt the razing of any existing passages by using them for attacks.

The most recent discovery was of a passage running “kilometres” from within Gaza to just over the border, Israel’s military said on Sunday, accusing the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists of being behind the project. Hamas did not comment.

“We were able to detect, and we destroyed it, using similar means that we have used in the past,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

“There was no use of explosives, but rather, we filled the tunnel, which rendered it useless for a very long period of time.”

Conricus did not elaborate on the means of detection nor how the tunnel was filled. Such details are secret in Israel, which has received U.S. congressional funding for the project.

Later on Sunday, Israel went public with a military laboratory it set up in 2016 to pool anti-tunnel expertise.

The laboratory “uses innovative ground research, which includes scanning of cavities and their dynamics, (and) strives to develop new discovery and mapping techniques”, a military statement said.

A video release showed soldiers, with faces obscured, poring over maps and computer screens at an undisclosed location.

Israel offered no explanation for its publication about the laboratory, which followed a surge in Gaza border protests that organisers want to peak in mid-May – the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, which Palestinians mourn as a catastrophe.

Israeli army snipers have killed 31 Palestinians during the demonstrations, drawing international censure. The military says it is taking necessary action against people suspected of trying to damage the border fence or provide cover for Hamas attacks.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has denied having any such plans.

The tunnel whose discovery was made public on Sunday crossed the border with Israel near the site of intensive Palestinian disturbances, Conricus said. “I wouldn’t think that it’s a coincidence,” he added, without elaborating.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said geophysicists from his ministry were involved in the anti-tunnel efforts, as well as researchers from the Technion, an Israeli university, and from state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Israel puts tunnel dug under Gaza border on display to show threat

An Israeli soldier stands next to an entrance to what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim, Israel January 18, 2018

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military brought journalists on Thursday to film a 2 km (1.25 mile) tunnel dug by militants from the Gaza Strip to Israel, saying it was putting the construction on display to show the continuing threat it faces from the territory.

The Islamic Jihad militant group has claimed responsibility for building the tunnel, saying its aim was to use it to attack Israel in the next armed confrontation.

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool

Twelve Gaza militants, most of them from Islamic Jihad, were killed in the destruction of the tunnel and in rescue efforts when Israel destroyed the underground passage on October 30.

The tunnel, around the height and width of an upright person, was lined with concrete slabs. It was discovered about 120 meters inside Israel near Kissufim, about six meters below ground, as tunnelers burrowed towards the surface looking to build an exit, the Israeli military said.

“The tunnel that we see here is one of three tunnels that have been destroyed over the last two months,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said. “The threat has not passed and the terror from Hamas has not passed.”

Palestinian tunnel diggers have long operated in border areas of the Gaza Strip, using the underground passageways to bypass tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of goods and people, and to smuggle weapons.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war. It is home to two million Palestinians, who complain that the blockade has left the enclave isolated and impoverished. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, tightened after the Islamist militant group Hamas took power in Gaza more than a decade ago.

(Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Peter Graff)

Six killed as Israel destroys Gaza tunnel

An Israeli soldier walks near the border line, between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in Israel October 30, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Six Palestinian militants were killed on Monday when Israel blew up what it said was a tunnel being dug across the Gaza Strip border.

A source for the Islamic Jihad militant group said Arafat Abu Marshould, head of the faction’s armed wing in central Gaza, was killed along with a senior associate and two other gunmen. The group said it had put its fighters on “full alert.”

The armed wing of the Islamist Hamas group said two of its gunmen were killed while trying to rescue Islamic Jihad men working in the tunnel. Gaza health officials said nine people were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party, said “groundbreaking technology” aided the tunnel’s discovery, but gave no details.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

During the last Gaza war in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces and threaten civilian communities near the frontier, a counterpoint to the Iron Dome anti-missile system that largely protected the country’s heartland from militant rocket barrages.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the tunnel destroyed on Monday was in the process of being dug from the Gaza town of Khan Younis across the border, where it was blown up.

Asked by reporters if Hamas, rather than another armed faction, had dug it, Conricus said: “I cannot confirm that.”

“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) does not intend to escalate the situation but stands prepared for a variety of scenarios,” Conricus said. “The working assumption is that this is not the only tunnel that Palestinian terrorist organizations are trying to dig.”

“We see Hamas as being responsible for any attempt emanating from its territory, and carried out by people who are under its authority, to impinge on our sovereignty,” Netanyahu told the Likud lawmakers, stopping short of accusing Hamas directly of digging the tunnel.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab in a statement said Israel’s bombing of “a tunnel of the resistance is a terrorist aggression” and Palestinian resistance factions retained the right to respond “at the suitable time”.

Hamas reached a reconciliation deal with Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority earlier this month, a decade after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a brief civil war.

Israel and the United States have called for Hamas to be disarmed as part of the pact so Israeli peace efforts with Abbas, which collapsed in 2014, could proceed. Hamas has rejected the demand.

On Saturday, UNRWA, the main U.N. welfare agency for Palestinians said it had discovered “what appeared to be a tunnel” underneath one of its schools in Gaza on Oct. 15 and had sealed the cavity.

 

 

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet Lawrence)

 

Israel building an underground barrier along Gaza border

The sun sets over the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has begun construction of an underground barrier along the frontier with the Gaza Strip that is meant to block cross-border tunnels built by Palestinian militants, Israeli defense and political sources said on Thursday.

Since being blindsided during a 2014 war by tunnel raiders from the Hamas Islamist group that controls Gaza, Israel has stepped up work on technologies for spotting the secret passages. Currently Israel has a fence along the border.

Military engineers unearthed and destroyed 32 tunnels during the war, Israeli officials say, and the military has since uncovered two others.

A general view shows the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side,

A general view shows the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side, September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

One Israeli political source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the government has already budgeted some 600 million shekels ($160 million) to build one section of the underground concrete barrier.

The barrier will eventually be about 65 km about 40 miles in length, the source said.

Israel’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on the issue.

($1 = 3.7521 shekels)

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch)

Israel discovers 2nd cross border tunnel built by Hamas

An entrance to a tunnel which Israel's military said it had discovered is seen just outside the southern Gaza Strip

By Eli Berlzon

SUFA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel’s military said it had discovered a cross-border tunnel on Thursday built by the Islamist group Hamas from the Gaza Strip during a rare flare-up of violence along a border that has been largely quiet since a 2014 war.

Gaza hospital officials said a 54-year-old woman had been killed and a man wounded by fragments of an Israeli tank shell fired near Rafah during the violence, which erupted on Wednesday.

Israel’s Shin Bet undercover intelligence agency said a Hamas operative arrested last month had provided useful information about the tunnel networks in the area, though it did not explicitly attribute Thursday’s discovery to his data.

Gaza analysts said the flare-up of violence, the most intense since the 2014 war, threatened the truce that has largely held in the area for nearly two years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to convene senior ministers on Friday to discuss the situation. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said after touring the area that Israel would not be deterred by Hamas’s threats and would continue to search “until all the tunnels are found.”

A senior Hamas official, Khalil al-Hayya, said efforts by Qatar and Egypt were ongoing to try to restore calm, but he warned that “Israeli incursions into Gaza would not be tolerated.”

Militants fired mortar shells at Israeli forces working to unearth the tunnel and Israel responded with tank fire and air strikes, an army spokeswoman said. The violence had subsided by late Thursday night and there was a period of calm toward midnight.

Israeli aircraft earlier targeted four Hamas positions in the vicinity of the tunnel, the military said. During Wednesday and Thursday, there were 10 instances of Hamas fire against Israeli forces operating in the area, it added.

Hamas, Gaza’s de facto ruler, has not confirmed responsibility for the shelling and did not comment on the announcement of the tunnel’s discovery.

TUNNEL SEARCH

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said the tunnel unearthed on Thursday was situated 28 meters (31 yards) below the surface and that an investigation was under way to determine whether it was dug before or after the war.

Lerner said the militants may have started firing mortars at the Israeli forces to prevent them discovering the tunnel. Last month a first tunnel was unearthed without incident.

But the armed wing of Hamas said the tunnel was not new and had been in use in the early part of the war in 2014.

Israel has been wary about discussing what means it has employed to uncover the tunnels but the arrest of Mahmoud Atouna, 29, from Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip early last month may have helped.

“Atouna provided his interrogators much information about the tunnel routes in the northern Gaza Strip, its tunnel-digging methods, the use of private homes and public buildings to bore tunnels and materials used,” Shin Bet said in a statement on Thursday.

More than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed during the 2014 Gaza conflict. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed by rockets and attacks by Hamas and other militant groups.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis; editing by Gareth Jones, G Crosse)

Hamas Begins Using Heavy Machinery To Build Tunnels

Hamas is using heavy equipment and engineering equipment to quickly build a system of attack tunnels into Israel according to sources of the Times of Israel.

The terrorists are using small bulldozers that can be used to negotiate tight spaces.  Larger tractors are being used on the Israeli side of the tunnel.

The tunnels are being reinforced with wood because it’s difficult for Hamas to obtain all the concrete they need to build their planned tunnel network.  The terrorists routinely redirect shipments of concrete meant for rebuilding houses to tunnel construction.

Hamas is also working on a rocket system that would produce short-range missiles quickly because those are the missiles least likely to be shot down by Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system.

Israeli security forces have said they are aware of the tunnel construction but that when they investigated the tunnels ended just before entering Israeli territory.

Israel Pulls All Troops From Gaza

A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said that all ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza Tuesday morning as part of a 72-hour cease-fire agreement.

The two sides in the conflict have now sent representatives to Cairo where an Egyptian mediator will shuttle between the two sides to try and work out some kind of deal to bring a lasting peace in the conflict.

Israel had said they would not agree to a cease-fire or any deal until all the Hamas tunnels into the country were destroyed.  IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said that the destruction of 32 tunnels was completed late last night.

Lerner also told reporters that at least 3,500 rockets from Hamas had been fired into Israel at the time the cease-fire went into effect.  He said that Israeli troops were able to destroy at least 3,000 rockets being held in storage during the ground incursion into Gaza.

Hamas has said their demands now include international funding for the rebuilding of Gaza.