Iraq Govt. Forces Launch Offensive on Kurdish-Held Kirkuk

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces launched on Monday an offensive to retake territory seized by Kurds in Kirkuk in what is seen as response to last month’s Kurdish independence referendum, which was rejected by Baghdad.

The forces have so far seized a swathe of countryside surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk in a bold military response to the September 25 referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in favor of independence.

Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the vote.

The government said its troops had seized Kirkuk airport and had taken control of Northern Iraq’s oil company from the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, known as Peshmerga.

Iraqi oil industry officials said there was no disruption to production from the facilities of the Company, which is based in Kirkuk and one of the two main oil companies that together provide nearly all of Iraq’s government revenue.

The military action was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to rein in the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who have governed themselves as an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“We call on the Peshmerga forces to serve under the federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement which was read out on television. He ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”, the statement said.

State television said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi‘ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.

The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.

The city of Kirkuk itself remained under Kurdish control, 12 hours after the start of the Iraqi operation, but two routes in and out were under control of the Iraqi forces.

“We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings,” a military commander involved in the operation told Reuters, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.

Another military commander said: “Kurdish leaders we consider our brothers have agreed to hand over control of North Oil and North Gas company facilities that belong to the state.”

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shi‘ite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

The Peshmerga and PMF exchanged artillery fire south of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official said. The official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by the PMF.

A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias announced they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

He said federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he added that the PMF have not entered the city center. Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.

Neither side provided a toll of casualties.

Major General Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press that his Kurdish forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.

“We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”

US forces which have worked closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS called on both sides to avoid escalation.

It said it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces was a “misunderstanding.”

It continued that it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”

The US-led task international force in Iraq was “closely monitoring (the situation) near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all,” a spokesman said on Twitter.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in the United States, tweeted a plea for Washington to “use (its) leadership role to prevent war”.

Major General Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” ISIS.

The action in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

Baghdad considers last month’s Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region itself but in territory in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, which the Peshmerga seized after driving out ISIS.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbors Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.

Abadi’s government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved almost unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.

30 Killed as Fires Rage in Portugal and Spain

At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in northern and central Portugal over the past 24 hours, rescuers said Monday, as three people were killed in neighboring Spain in blazes sparked by arsonists.

In Portugal, Prime Minister Antonio Costa asked for international help and declared a state of emergency as more than 4,000 firefighters fought some 20 major fires still raging Monday.

The 27 deaths, confirmed by Portugal’s national civil protection agency, came four months after 64 people were killed and more than 250 injured on June 17, in the deadliest fire in the country’s history.

About 520 separate fire outbreaks on Sunday were caused by “higher than average temperatures for the season and the cumulative effect of drought, which has been felt since the start of the year”, civil protection agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said.

In the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, on the Portuguese border, authorities were blaming arson for about 17 fires which have caused three deaths.

“They are absolutely intentional fires, premeditated, caused by people who know what they are doing,” said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the head of the Galicia regional government.

On Monday, the “situation remained very worrying”, Feijoo said, adding that firefighters along with soldiers and locals were battling the flames.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said in a tweet that “several people have been identified in connection to the fires in Galicia”.

The fires were being fanned by wind gusts of up to 90 kilometers per hour as Hurricane Ophelia moved north off the coast of Spain towards Ireland, Zoido told private broadcaster La Sexta.

“We have not had a situation like this in the past decade. We have never deployed so many means at this time of the year,” he said.

Madrid Gives Catalan Leader until Thursday to Clarify Independence Declaration

Catalonia

Madrid lamented on Monday that the Catalan leader had failed to respond to its demand that he clarify if he had declared the northeastern region independent last week.

It has given Carles Puigdemont until Thursday to come up with a definitive “yes or no” answer as demanded by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy last week shortly after the Catalan leader had told regional lawmakers last week he was ready for Catalonia to “become an independent state” following a secession referendum on October 1.

But he immediately said he was suspending proceedings to allow time for negotiations with Madrid.

Responding to an initial deadline set by the central government, Puigdemont sent a letter early Monday calling for talks with Rajoy “as soon as possible” amid Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Anything less than a full climb-down by Thursday’s 10:00 am (0800 GMT) deadline is likely to prompt moves by Madrid to impose direct control over the semi-autonomous region.

“The government regrets that the president of the Catalan government has decided not to respond to the request made by the government,” Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told a news conference.

“All we are asking for is clarity.”

In Monday’s letter addressed to the premier, Puigdemont wrote: “For the next two months, our main objective is to bring you to dialogue.”

In a written response, Rajoy said it was “absolutely necessary” that Catalonia clarify its position.

“I hope that in the hours that remain until the second deadline… you reply with all the clarity which citizens demand and the law requires,” Rajoy said, calling on the Catalan separatists to “return to legality”.

Puigdemont and some separatist allies want mediation with Madrid over the fate of the 7.5 million-strong region, an idea the central government says is a non-starter.

In his letter, he wrote that his “suspension of the political mandate given by the polls on October 1 demonstrates our firm will to find a solution and not confrontation.

“Our desire for dialogue is sincere, despite all that has happened,” he added.

He also called on Spanish authorities to halt “all repression” in Catalonia, referring to a police crackdown during the referendum that left hundreds injured.

Puigdemont said the Spanish government should also end its sedition case against two senior Catalan regional police force officers and the leaders of two pro-independence associations. All four, including Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero and Jordi Sanchez, the head of the Catalan National Assembly, were due at a hearing Monday in Spain’s National Court in Madrid.

Officials are investigating the roles of the four in September 20-21 demonstrations in Barcelona. Spanish police arrested several Catalan officials and raided offices in a crackdown on referendum preparations.

The four were released after questioning October 6, but the court said they would be recalled once it reviewed new police evidence relating to the referendum.

Catalonia, an economic heavyweight that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, has its own language and distinct culture but is deeply divided over independence. Separatists argue the prosperous region is helping to prop Spain up, saying it pays more in taxes than it gets back and that a break from the rest of the country would allow it to prosper.

But the region itself is profoundly split on independence. Although separatists say 90 percent of people who voted on October 1 backed secession from Spain, turnout was just 43 percent as many unity supporters stayed home.

Puigdemont, a 54-year-old former journalist and father of two, is under intense pressure from Madrid and world leaders to back off.

But he is also being squeezed by his separatist allies to crack on with independence.

Rajoy said he is ready to invoke article 155 of Spain’s constitution, allowing him to retake full control of Catalonia — the so-called “nuclear option.”

Suggesting Puigdemont and his team remained in no mood to follow Rajoy’s game plan, Catalan interior chief Joaquim Forn said Article 155 did not allow Madrid to remove members of the Catalan government.

And Puigdemont’s separatist allies have threatened mass strikes and protests in the event of a climb-down.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker last week said Catalan independence would encourage other regions to follow suit, potentially making the European Union ungovernable.

7 Killed in Militant Attack in Egypt’s North Sinai

Sinai

Seven people were killed on Monday when militants robbed a bank and engaged in a shootout with security forces in northern Sinai in Egypt, security sources said.

Four policemen were killed in the attack when five SUVs, each carrying four gunmen, fired at security forces nearby the unused Saint George Church before robbing a branch of National Bank of Egypt, in al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai.

Three civilians were also killed in the assault, officials said.

“They looted the entire bank and left explosive devices inside,” a senior security official said.

“The militants fired shots randomly in the street as if they were celebrating with some of them raising their black flags (of ISIS) and they roamed the streets for about 20 minutes then disappeared,” said Alaa Lotfy, a shop owner in the area who witnessed the clashes.

Fifteen people were injured in the attack, officials added.

A bank employee appeared to have been kidnapped in Monday’s attack, they revealed.

Security forces cordoned off the city center and evacuated residents living in the bank building.

Pictures posted on social media by locals from al-Arish showed school girls fleeing a school located in the vicinity of the bank and the church.

Services at the church were suspended months ago, following a wave of attacks on Christians in Sinai.

At least 24 militants and six soldiers were killed on Sunday in attacks on military outposts in North Sinai. The attacks were claimed by the ISIS affiliate in Sinai.

On Thursday, six other policemen were also killed in an attack by the terrorists in al-Arish.

Somalia’s Deadliest Bombing Kills more than 300

More than 300 people have been killed by a massive truck bomb that tore through a busy shopping district of Mogadishu, the government said Monday, making it the deadliest attack ever to hit Somalia.

The explosion occurred on Saturday afternoon at a junction in Hodan, a bustling commercial district which has many shops, hotels and businesses in the city’s northwest.

The devastation caused was widespread. Muhidin Ali, a Mogadishu resident who was close by at the time said it was, “the biggest blast I have ever witnessed, it destroyed the whole area.”

Desperate residents of the capital searched for news of missing relatives and friends after the monster explosion destroyed several nearby buildings, leaving victims burned beyond recognition.

“We have confirmed 300 people died in the blast. The death toll will still be higher because some people are still missing,” Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of the city’s ambulance service, told Reuters on Monday.

But the country’s ministry of information confirmed that 276 people were killed in the blast and 300 wounded were admitted at the different hospitals in Mogadishu.

“There is still a national rescue operation” under way, the ministry said in a statement, adding that there would be “national mourning and prayers for the victims” in the coming days.

Police official Ibrahim Mohamed told AFP that many of the victims were “burned beyond recognition” in what he described as “the deadliest attack ever.”

The government statement said an emergency center had been set up in the capital for people to seek information abut their loved ones.

“It has been more than 24 hours now and we don’t have any traces or information about the sister of my friend, we can assume she is dead with her flesh somewhere amongst the horribly burned dead bodies,” said Abdulahi Nuradin, who was helping in the search.

“We went to several hospitals to seek any information but no to avail, the family is now 99 percent convinced she is dead, I saw so many severed pieces of human flesh at the hospitals, you cannot even look at them,” he added.

Some of those seriously injured in Saturday’s bombing were moved by ambulance to the airport on Monday morning to be flown to Turkey for further treatment, Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said.

There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but the Shabaab, a militant group aligned with Al-Qaeda, carries out regular suicide bombings in Mogadishu in its bid to overthrow Somalia’s internationally-backed government.

Saturday’s blast, the worst in Somalia’s history, came six years after Shabaab militants were pushed out of Mogadishu by African Union and Somali troops.

While they were also pushed out of major towns across southern Somalia the militants still control rural areas and launch attacks on military, government and civilian targets in Somalia, as well as terrorist raids in neighboring Kenya.

Government: Philippine Troops Kill Southeast Asia’s ISIS Chief

The head of ISIS in Southeast Asia, who figures on the US “most wanted terrorists” list, has been killed in the battle to reclaim Philippines’ southern Marawi city, the country’s defense minister said Monday. 

Security analysts say Isnilon Hapilon has been a key figure in the terrorist group’s drive to establish a so-called “caliphate” as ISIS suffers battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria.

Hapilon’s death came during a push to end the four-month siege of Marawi.

“(Our troops) were able to get Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. They were both killed,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters, referring to another fighter who led the attack with Hapilon on Marawi in May.

“Their bodies have been recovered by our operating units.” 

The US government had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to Hapilon’s arrest.

Lorenzana said Philippine ground forces mounting a final assault on the militants in Marawi killed Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who lead a militant group allied to Hapilon, early Monday.

DNA tests will be carried out on the two bodies because of the reward offer from the US and Philippine governments, he added.

“The implication of this development is that the Marawi incident is almost over and we may announce the termination of hostilities in a couple of days,” Lorenzana said. 

“We were able to get a testimony from a hostage. She was able to confirm the presence of Isnilon and Maute in that particular building. That’s the building that we assaulted,” he added.

Pro-ISIS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon, authorities said. 

The Philippine military says Hapilon joined forces with the Maute group to plan the rampage. Since then more than 1,000 people have been killed and 400,000 residents displaced. 

Defense chiefs last month said other Philippine militant leaders had been killed in the battle for the southern city. 

Troops were still pursuing Malaysian militant leader Mahmud Ahmad in the Marawi battle zone, Lorenzana said on Monday. 

Hapilon is believed to have been involved in 2001 kidnappings of three Americans, two of whom were later killed. 

At Least 4 Dead in Ivory Coast Cargo Plane Crash

A cargo plane crashed Saturday into the Atlantic Ocean after taking off from Ivory Coast’s international airport in Abidjan, leaving at least four people dead.

Four Moldovan nationals were killed and two others were injured in the crash, the Ivorian security minister said.

Four French citizens also survived the crash but were injured, Sidiki Diakite told reporters at the scene of the
accident. Several Ivorian security sources said they were French soldiers.

The spokesman for French forces in Ivory Coast also said at least six people were injured.

The Antonov aircraft, which had been chartered by the French army as part of the anti-militant Operation Barkhane, was carrying French military cargo, the spokesman and a French military source said.

“We have six injured that we have evacuated to the Port-Bouet camp in Abidjan for treatment,” said the spokesman.

Ange Koutaye Ismael, a 19-year-old student, told The Associated Press he saw four bodies carried out of the airplane, which had been broken in two in the shallow waters.

Stormy weather likely played a role in the crash, he said.

“There was winds yesterday and I saw how planes seemed to have difficulties in getting up,” he added.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered at the beach as rescue workers ran to the scene. The tail and propellers of the plane were exposed.

Air traffic at the airport in the West African nation appeared to continue after the crash, according to the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.

ISIS Loses Eastern Syria’s al-Mayadeen

Syrian regime and allied forces have taken the eastern town of al-Mayadeen from ISIS militants, in the latest blow to the terrorist group.

Al-Mayadeen, near the Iraqi border in Deir Ezzor province, had become a major base for ISIS terrorists as they were being driven out of their de facto Syrian capital in Raqqa city by the US-backed offensive.

Over the past few months many of the individuals which the US-led coalition against ISIS has targeted have come from al-Mayadeen, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told Reuters.

The Syrian regime campaign to take al-Mayadeen has been supported by heavy Russian air strikes. The US-led coalition has also previously struck in the vicinity of the town.

Al-Mayadeen lies south of the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city, where Syrian and allied forces are also trying to oust the militants from a small pocket they still control.

“Units of our armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, have regained control of the city of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor, killing a large number of terrorists and destroying their weapons,” regime media said, citing a military source.

“Our units are chasing down remaining members of ISIS fleeing the city amid a collapse in their ranks, and the engineering units are removing mines and explosives planted by the terrorists in the streets and square of the city,” the source added.

Afghan Officials: US Drone Kills 14 ISIS Militants

A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith/Files

A US drone strike has killed 14 ISIS militants in a remote area in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, Afghan officials said Saturday.

Abdul Ghani Musamim, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the strike took place on Thursday afternoon in the Chawkay district.

He said it targeted a meeting of ISIS commanders planning for a terrorist attack.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Dawlat Waziri, confirmed the report. But there was no immediate comment from the US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Lawmaker Shazada Shaheed rejected the report, claiming the victims of the strike were civilians.

The government has no control of the remote area where Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate has managed to establish a presence.

The top US commander for the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, said Friday that American troops in Afghanistan have begun working with smaller Afghan units to prepare them for a more aggressive offensive against the Taliban next year in a push to break the stalemate in the 16-year-old war.

Votel said there is still much more work to be done to improve Afghan forces. But he is seeing some positive trends in the fight.

Myanmar Army Probing Atrocities against Rohingya

Myanmar’s military has said it is investigating its operations in Rakhine state, where the United Nations has accused troops of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against minority Rohingya Muslims, who have fled in droves to Bangladesh.

According to statements released Friday, the military is now preparing to publish results of its internal investigation.

“An investigation team led by Defense Services Inspector General Lt-Gen Aye Win is inspecting security forces and military units (to see) whether they perform the assigned duties or not,” said a statement from the army’s “True News Information Team.”

But a separate post published on the army chief’s Facebook page suggested troops would be cleared of abuses, saying: “it was found that all actions conformed to the law.”

“Measures are being taken to make a comprehensive report,” added the statement on General Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page.

In the last seven weeks, more than half a million Rohingya have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh, shocking the globe with accounts of Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs murdering and raping civilians before torching their villages to the ground.

The army has steadfastly denied the charges and insists it is targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25.

It has also blocked independent access to the conflict zone, triggering condemnation from the UN, which has accused the army of leading a systematic campaign to expel the Muslim minority.

The country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in free elections in 2015, lacks control over the military.

But her reputation has been battered by the crisis, with rights groups voicing outrage over her perceived lack of sympathy towards the Rohingya and unwillingness to condemn alleged atrocities by the army.