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US officials confirm Israel air raid in Iraq

There have been at least three explosions at Iraqi Shia militia bases in the past month [Screen grab/Al Jazeera]

US officials have confirmed that Israel was responsible for the bombing of an alleged Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month, The Associated Press news agency reports.

The attack marks a significant escalation in Israel’s years-long campaign against what it sees as Iranian military assets in the region.

The confirmation comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly hinted that his country was behind recent air raids that have hit bases and munition depots belonging to Iran-backed paramilitary forces operating in Iraq.

The mystery attacks have not been claimed by any side and have left Iraqi officials scrambling for a response amid strong speculation that Israel may have been behind them.

Earlier this week, the deputy head of the Iraqi Shia militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, openly accused Israeli drones of carrying out the attacks, but ultimately blamed Washington and threatened strong retaliation for any future attack.

Such attacks are potentially destabilising for Iraq and its fragile government, which has struggled to remain neutral amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Baghdad during the latest round of air raids, said Iranian-backed armed groups have been operating in Iraq with the full support of the government since 2014 when they joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.

“A new law that came into effect on July 31 requires all paramilitary groups to report to the Iraqi security forces, or put down their weapons,” Ghoneim reported.

Iranian commanders killed

There have been at least three explosions at Iraqi Shia militia bases in the past month. US officials now confirm Israel was responsible for at least one of them.

Two US officials said Israel carried out an air raid on an Iranian weapons depot in July that killed two Iranian military commanders. The US officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter with the media.

The July 19 attack struck a militia base in Amirli, in Iraq’s northern Salaheddin province, causing a huge explosion and fire.

A senior official with the Shia militias at the time told AP that the base hit housed advisers from Iran and Lebanon.

He said the attack targeted the headquarters of the advisers and a weapons depot.

On August 12, a large explosion at the al-Saqr military base near Baghdad shook the capital, killing one civilian and wounding 28 others.

The base housed a weapons depot for the Iraqi federal police and the PMF. The most recent of the explosions came on Tuesday night, at a munitions depot north of Baghdad.

There have been weeks of speculation in Israel that the army is attacking targets in Iraq.

‘We act in many arenas’

In an interview with a Russian-language TV station on Thursday, Netanyahu indicated the speculation is true.

“I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere,” he said, accusing the Iranians of trying to establish bases “against us everywhere”, including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

Asked whether that means Israel is operating in Iraq, Netanyahu said: “We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran.”

Early on Friday, the New York Times, citing Israeli and US officials, reported that Israel bombed an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month.

It would be the first known Israeli air raid in Iraq since 1981 when Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein.

It also steps up Israel’s campaign against Iranian military involvement across the region.

Israel has previously acknowledged hundreds of air raids on Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria, primarily arms shipments believed to be destined for Iran’s Hezbollah allies.

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and has repeatedly promised that it will not allow the Iranians, who are supporting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

Striking Iraq would be far more complicated than reaching neighbouring Syria.

The Israeli warplanes would likely have to travel through Turkey, a former ally that now has cool relations with Israel, or through Saudi Arabia, to carry out attacks on Iraq.

Source: Aljazeera

Deadly storms hit Tatra Mountains range in Poland, Slovakia

Summer storms can develop into severe and violent weather events. [Reuters]

Five people have been killed and 100 injured, some seriously, in thunderstorms in Poland’s Tatra Mountains and the West Tatras in Slovakia.

Piotr Cwik, the governor of Krakow province, told reporters that the death toll, as reported on Thursday, could rise.

Lightning struck a popular hiking destination atop Mount Giewont, along the border of southern Poland and northern Slovakia.

Tourists climbing Giewont in Poland often aim to end their trip at the top, where a 15-metre iron cross was installed in 1901.

Rescuers believe the cross could have acted as a type of lightning rod. There are also metal chains along the trail to the summit that hikers often use to help climb to the top that could have conducted the electricity from the lightning bolt.

Other victims were hurt in different areas of the mountain range, which spreads over 57 kilometres in southern Poland.

Four helicopters and emergency crews were used to transport the injured off the mountain safely.

Also on Thursday, Polish rescuers found the body of one of the two cavers who became trapped in the mountains after a tunnel flooded and blocked their exit.

“The first of the cavers has been found in the cave is dead. More information will be available tomorrow,” said the local mountain rescue service, TOPR.

The two became trapped in the Wielka Sniezna, the longest and deepest cave in the Tatra Mountains, on Saturday, when colleagues notified the rescue services.

Source: Aljazeera

Nigeria: Displaced women live in fear as incidents of rape rise

One of the world’s deadliest conflicts is taking place in Nigeria‘s central region.

Thousands have been killed in decades of fighting between ethnic groups. About 4,000 have been killed in the last two years alone.

Now another crisis has added to the troubles of those displaced by this conflict.

Source: Aljazeera

Japan PM Abe: S Korea move to end intelligence pact damages trust

The Japan-South Korea pact was designed to share information on the threat posed by North Korea [Kim Hong-Ji/EPA]

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has denounced South Korea’s decision to end an intelligence-sharing pact between the two countries, saying such action “damages trust” with Tokyo.

South Korea officially informed Japan on Friday of its decision to scrap the 2016 agreement, further straining ties amid a dispute over South Koreans pressed into forced labour during Japan’s wartime occupation of Korea.

Abe accused Seoul of not keeping past promises and vowed to work closely with the United States for regional peace. 

Japan will urge South Korea to recover trust between us, including resolving the matter of violation of the international treaty between Japan and South Korea and hope South Korea will keep their promise,” Abe said. 

Tokyo summoned on Friday morning the South Korean ambassador in protest of the decision to end the pact, which is due for automatic renewal on Saturday.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also criticised Seoul for what he said was mixing the export controls with security issues.

“Given such issues as North Korea, everyone probably understands the importance of this agreement. But this decision was made while linking it to Japan’s review of export controls,” he told reporters. “I cannot help saying they are completely misreading the security environment.”

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya called the move “extremely regrettable”.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was designed to share information on the threat posed by North Korea and its missile and nuclear activities – a threat underlined by the North’s recent launch of a series of short-range ballistic missiles.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said the latest move by Seoul highlights how intertwined political and trade issues are between the Asian neighbours and US allies.

“It has taken many people here by surprise,” he added. “It was thought that South Korea, begrudgingly, would renew this pact, or at the very least freeze the pact.”

But many in South Korea are blaming Japan for starting the dispute, he said.

“It has opened up decades-old animosities between the two former adversaries.”  

Blaming Tokyo

South Korea’s Kim You-geun, a deputy director of the presidential National Security Council, said Japan had created a “grave change” in the environment for bilateral security cooperation by removing South Korea’s fast-track export status this month.

“Under this situation, we have determined that it would not serve our national interest to maintain an agreement we signed with the aim of exchanging military information which is sensitive to security,” Kim told a news conference.

Relations between South Korea and Japan began to deteriorate late last year following a diplomatic row over compensation for wartime forced labourers during Japan’s occupation of Korea.

They soured further when Japan tightened its curbs on exports of hi-tech materials needed by South Korea’s chip industry, and again this month when Tokyo said it would remove South Korea’s fast-track export status.

‘Trump’s fault’

The US, which fears weakened security cooperation in the region, also expressed dismay.

“We’re disappointed to see the decision the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement. We’re urging each of the two countries to continue to engage,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Ottawa, Canada.

“There is no doubt that the shared interests of Japan and South Korea are important and they’re important to the United States of America,” he added, saying he had spoken to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha earlier on Thursday.

Analysts in the US also saw the move as misguided and some blamed an inward-looking Trump administration for failing to pay sufficient attention to its allies.

“This is what America First gets us – everyone for themselves in lieu of a collaborative network of partners,” Daniel Russel, the State Department’s top diplomat for Asia until early in the Trump administration, told the Nelson Report online newsletter.

“At a time when North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are rapidly expanding, the abrogation of GSOMIA  directly harms US national security,” he said.

Source: Aljazeera

US charges 80 people, mostly Nigerians, in $46m internet scam

The investigation began in 2016 with a single bank account and one victim [File: Getty Images]

US authorities have announced charges against 80 people, most of them Nigerians, in a wide-ranging fraud and money laundering operation that netted millions of dollars from victims of internet con jobs.

American authorities on Thursday unsealed a 252-count grand jury indictment charging those people in an operation that procured at least $46m from victims of internet scam jobs.

Seventeen people were arrested and taken into custody in Los Angeles and other cities in the United States.

The investigation began in 2016 with a single bank account and one victim, said Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI‘s Los Angeles office.

The suspects used a variety of scams to allegedly target the elderly, individuals seeking romantic relationships, and small and large businesses, to convince them to send money online.

“We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in US history,” US Attorney Nick Hanna told a news conference. “We are taking a major step to disrupt these criminal networks.”

The indictment alleges that at least $6m in fraudulently obtained funds were transferred through a money-laundering network run by two Nigerians – Valentine Iro, 33, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38.

The pair were among those arrested.

‘Extremely depressed’

One of the victims, identified as only “F.K.” in court papers, was reportedly “extremely depressed and angry about these losses”, the federal complaint stated.

“She began crying when discussing the way that these losses have affected her.”

FK, a Japanese woman, started an online relationship with a fraudster named Terry Garcia, claiming to be stationed in Syria, through an international social network for digital pen pals.

The two would communicate over email, with her using Google to translate his English into her Japanese. 

Garcia told her he had found a bag of diamonds in Syria within a month of their relationship, and began introducing her to his associates, starting with a Red Cross representative who told her Garcia had been injured but had given him the box.

In total, she made 35 to 40 payments, receiving as many as 10 to 15 emails a day directing her to send money to accounts in the US, Turkey and the United Kingdom through Garcia’s many purported associates.

At one point, she was even threatened with arrest if she did not make the payments.

The relationship ended with FK losing $200,000 and on the verge of bankruptcy. She had borrowed money from her sister, ex-husband and friends to help Garcia with his fraudulent plan.

Source: Aljazeera

Syria's army encircles rebels in Hama, imposing 'choking siege'

Syrian army soldiers laid siege on several towns and villages in Hama [SANA handout/Reuters]

Syria‘s army encircled rebels in a cluster of towns in northwest Syria’s Hama countryside, imposing a “choking siege” and marching deeper into the pocket, state-run Ikhbariya TV said on Friday.

Government forces seized a dozen hills and expanded their control of a main highway that runs through the area and stretches from the capital Damascus to Aleppo city, the channel said.

The live broadcast came from the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun in soutern Idlib province.

Sources told Al Jazeera that Khan Sheikoun and much of the surrounding areas in northern Hama, which includes a few towns that rebels have held for years, were now either under army control or within its firing range.

Several rebel officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government forces, backed by Russia, recovered the town of Kafr Zita from rebels who had controlled it since 2012.

A Turkish military post in the nearby town of Morek was now also encircled, the UK-based war monitor and state TV said.

Last rebel stronghold

Under its deals with Russia, Turkey has forces stationed at a dozen military posts in Idlib. The latest army advances have put Turkish troops in the firing line and threatened Ankara’s hopes of preventing a new wave of refugees on its border.

Ten of thousands of people have fled towards the Turkish border in recent days as air and ground raids battered parts of Idlib and Hama, the country’s last big rebel stronghold.

The United Nations says the offensive has killed hundreds of people since it began in late April.

On Thursday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry has said it was opening a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians to leave the area.

The ministry, in a statement carried by Sana news agency, said that the corridor was opened in the village of Soran on the southern edge of the rebel-held area.

The corridor will be used to evacuate “civilians who want to leave areas controlled by terrorists in northern Hama and the southern countryside of Idlib” province, the statement added.

The besieged area is home to tens of thousands of civilians, as well as armed rebel fighters and Turkish troops.

Opposition fighters withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday amid the government offensive launched in late April to retake the country’s last major rebel stronghold.

The withdrawal from Khan Sheikhoun, one of the northwestern province’s largest towns that has been in rebel hands since 2014, came after days of fierce fighting between rebel factions and Russia-backed forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Khan Sheikhoun was the scene of an infamous chemical attack in April 2017 that killed more than 80 people, including many children. UN investigators said Syrian government forces were behind the attack.

Upcoming trilateral summit

Earlier this week, air raids struck a Turkish military convoy making its way through Idlib. The convoy was heading to an observation post in Morek, one of the 12 that Turkey has maintained in and around Idlib province since a deal with Russia last year.

According to the Turkish defence ministry, the convoy had been sent to keep open supply routes, ensure the safety of the observation post and protect civilians in the region.

But Damascus denounced what it said was a Turkish attempt to save routed rebels.

Ankara backs some of the rebels in northwest Syria and has deployed forces in the Idlib region under deals with Moscow.

On Wednesday, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said all of Turkey’s observation posts will remain in place and support will continue to be provided to the posts.,

Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting, Kalin said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have phone calls with US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the coming days to discuss developments in Syria.

He also said there will be a trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran on September 16 in Ankara.

The Astana peace process, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, was launched in January 2017 by Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian government, as well as Turkey.

In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, but ceasefire attempts have been consistently broken, especially in recent weeks.

After a short-lived ceasefire, the area has seen intense bombardment as the Syrian army gained ground against the weakened rebels.

Idlib is home to about three million people, half of whom were transferred there en masse from other areas that were taken by pro-government forces.

Source: Aljazeera