Raqqa Battle Nears End as ISIS Terrorists Surrender

Raqqa

Syrian ISIS members in Raqqa have started to leave the northern city in recent days, said a Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The removal of foreign ISIS fighters is being prepared.

“All Syrian fighters from the ISIS group left Raqa over the past five days,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, saying they headed to unknown destinations.

Some 200 ISIS members surrendered and they have left the area with their families, he added.

A local official revealed however that members of the terror group have surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He did not specify their numbers.

The Observatory had reported earlier that a convoy of buses had entered Raqqa to transport the remaining ISIS members and their families outside of the city.

A spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) stated that the forces combating ISIS in Raqqa are on the verge of defeating the group and declaring victory.

Nuri Mahmoud predicted that the announcement of the liberation of Raqqa will take place later on Saturday or on Sunday.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIS said that some 100 fighters had surrendered in the city in the past 24. They have since been removed from the area.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think ISIS will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” said coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced on Friday that the coalition will accept the surrender of ISIS members in Raqqa.

He added however that the surrender of the more radicalized members will not be accepted.

The international coalition estimated in a report on Thursday that some 4,000 civilians were still trapped in Raqqa. Most of them are being used as human shields by 300 to 400 ISIS terrorists.

Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF succeeded in liberating nearly 90 percent of Raqqa, ISIS’ former stronghold in Syria.

N. Korea Readies New Missile Launch as US, South Hold Military Drills Next Week

Korea

North Korea is preparing for a new ballistic missile launch, a news report said on Saturday.

The test will be held ahead of joint naval drills between the United States and South Korea, added the Donga Ilbo daily that cited a government source.

Satellite pictures show ballistic missiles mounted on launchers being transported out of hangars near Pyongyang and in the North Phyongan Province.

US and South Korean military officials suspect the North might be preparing to launch missiles capable of reaching US territory, the newspaper said.

This could be the Hwasong-14 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), whose range could extend to Alaska, or Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles which Pyongyang threatened to fire towards the US Pacific territory of Guam in August, the report said.

Another possibility is that the North might be preparing to test a new Hwasong-13 ICBM, it added, that has a longer maximum range than the other two missiles and could potentially reach the US West Coast.

A defense ministry spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying: “We don’t comment on any matters of military intelligence. We are keeping a close watch over the North.”

The US navy said Friday that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will lead the exercises with South Korea in the coming week, a fresh show of force against North Korea. The move will likely rile Pyongyang which has previously responded angrily to joint exercises.

The joint drills led by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier come after hectic US military hardware movements around the Korean peninsula in recent days.

These follow a flurry of missiles from Pyongyang, which conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last month in defiance of international sanctions.

On Friday the nuclear-powered USS Michigan submarine arrived at the southern South Korean port of Busan, just days after another nuclear-powered submarine — the USS Tuscon — left after a five day visit.

Earlier this week the US flew two supersonic heavy bombers over the Korean peninsula, staging the first night-time joint aviation exercises with Japan and South Korea.

US President Donald Trump’s continued threats of military action against Pyongyang if it does not tame its weapons ambitions have fueled fears of conflict on the Korean peninsula.

On Friday however, he said that he was open to the possibility that negotiations can steady tensions with Pyongyang, but he appeared to suggest he was keeping military options open.

Trump told reporters at the White House: “If it’s going to be something other than negotiation, believe me we are ready more so than we have ever been.”

He was responding to a question about his comment last week before a dinner with military leaders when he referred ambiguously to “the calm before the storm.”

Trump recently declared that his top diplomat was “wasting his time” in trying to negotiate with the North.

Meanwhile, the European Union will agree on Monday to ban business ties with North Korea, part of a new package of sanctions to isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

The practical impact of the moves is likely to be mostly symbolic: Brussels will impose an oil embargo and a ban on EU investment, but it sells no crude to North Korea and European companies have no substantial investments there.

North Korean workers in the EU, of which Brussels estimates there are about 400 mainly in Poland, will face a lower limit on the amount for money they can send home and their work visas will not be renewed once they expire.

The measures to be agreed by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg go further than the latest round of multi-lateral sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

Kurds: Baghdad Gives Ultimatum on Kirkuk Pullback

Baghdad has set a pre-dawn Sunday deadline for Kurdish forces to abandon positions in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk they took during the fightback against ISIS more than three years ago, a senior Kurdish official said.

“The deadline set for the peshmerga to return to their pre-June 6, 2014 positions will expire during the night,” the Kurdish official told AFP.

Asked at what time, he said 2 am on Sunday (2300 GMT Saturday).

The alleged ultimatum comes as thousands of Iraqi troops and the Popular Mobilization Forces are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters near ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk.

Tensions have soared between the erstwhile allies in the war against ISIS since a Kurdish vote for independence last month.

Tens of thousands of peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000
have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has said.

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km to 10 km south
of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions, including in Taza Khurmatu, without incident.

Also Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, held urgent talks with Kurdish leaders in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the south of the autonomous Kurdish region.

In June 2014, ISIS militants swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting many Iraqi army units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.

They did so primarily in historically Kurdish-majority areas they had long sought to incorporate in their three-province autonomous region in the north against the strong opposition of Baghdad.

The Kurds currently control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province which account for a significant share of the regional government’s oil revenues.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that the US was working to reduce tensions between Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces, urging them to remain focused on the war against terrorists.

“We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy, and at the same time recognizing that we have got to find a way to move forward,” he told reporters.

“Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want to go to a shooting situation,” he added.

Tender Closed on First Round of Offshore Energy Blocks in Lebanon

Khalil

Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil announced on Thursday that a tender on the first round of offshore energy blocks has been ended.

“The first licensing round for oil exploration closed,” he said during a press conference

He said that two consortiums had made bids, which will now be evaluated by the Lebanese Petroleum Authority and cabinet.

It will take at least five years for revenue from any of the blocks to start flowing to the country, he explained.

Lebanon relaunched the licensing round for five offshore blocks (1, 4, 8, 9 and 10) in January after a three-year delay due to political paralysis. It extended the bid deadline in September.

The minister rejected claims of political meddling in the tender process.

Abi Khalil revealed that French, Italian and Russian companies involved in the two bids, but he refused to give further details.

A total of 52 companies qualified earlier in the year to bid in this round.

Lebanon sits on the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean along with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Syria. A number of gas fields have been discovered there since 2009, such as the Leviathan and Tamar fields.

When the process was first launched in 2013, 46 companies qualified to take part in bidding, 12 of them as operators, including Chevron Corp, Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp.

California Wildfires Death Toll Rises amid Concern over Intensifying Winds

Fire officials in the US State of California have reported further progress against the most lethal outbreak of wildfires in state history, as the death toll rose to 35.

The wind-driven blazes, which erupted on Sunday night in the heart of California’s renowned wine country, north of San Francisco, have destroyed an estimated 5,700 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of at least 25,000 people.

The 35 confirmed fatalities – 19 in Sonoma County – mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With more than 200 people still missing on Friday in Sonoma alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities have said the number fatalities from the so-called North Bay fires would likely climb higher.

Even as firefighters gained more ground during a second day of better weather, they braced for a return of higher temperatures, lower humidity and strong, gusty winds that could increase the threat to communities still in harm’s way.

Ground crews raced to clear drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.

“We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.

As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires – some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together – had consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties.

Officials have said power lines toppled by gale-force winds the first night may have sparked the conflagration, though the official cause remained under investigation.

Much of the devastation centered in and around the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, where whole neighborhoods were reduced to landscapes of gray ash, smoldering debris and burned-out vehicles.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office had investigated nearly 1,500 missing-persons reports stemming from the fires, and all but 235 had since turned up safe as of Friday evening.

Israel Welcomes Trump’s ‘Courageous’ Stance on Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised on Friday US President Donald Trump’s decision not to re-certify to Congress the Iran nuclear deal.

He welcomed the “courageous decision,” saying Trump has created an opportunity to “fix this bad deal” and to roll back Iran’s aggression.

He encouraged all other relevant nations to do the same.

Israeli Minister Tzachi Hanegbi also praised Trump’s stand, noting however that there appear to be deep partisan divisions surrounding the US administration.

He added: “The result that may happen and which is the only positive thing we can see at this stage is for Congress to agree on new significant sanctions.”

These sanctions would compel large international companies to choose between doing business with the Iranians or the Americans.

Saudi Arabia Welcomes Hamas, Fatah Reconciliation Deal

Saudi Arabia welcomed the reconciliation of rival factions Hamas and Fatah and said it will help Palestinians to gain their legitimate rights, the state news agency SPA reported on Friday.

Citing an official source in the kingdom’s foreign ministry, SPA said Saudi Arabia hopes the reconciliation will “realize the brotherly Palestinian people’s hope of ending divisions and achieving unity”.

According to Reuters, Hamas and Fatah signed the reconciliation agreement on Thursday after Hamas agreed to hand over administrative control of Gaza, including the key Rafah border crossing, a decade after seizing the enclave in a civil war.

The deal brokered by Egypt bridges a bitter gulf between the Western-backed mainstream Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, a movement designated as a terrorist group by Western countries.

Palestinian unity could also bolster Abbas’s hand in any revival of talks on a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory. Internal Palestinian strife has been a major obstacle to peacemaking, with Hamas having fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and continuing to call for its destruction.

Hamas’s agreement to transfer administrative powers in Gaza to a Fatah-backed government marked a major reversal, prompted partly by its fears of financial and political isolation after its main patron and donor, Qatar, plunged in June into a major diplomatic dispute with key allies like Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets across Gaza on Thursday in celebration of the unity pact, with loudspeakers on open cars blasting national songs, youths dancing and hugging and many waving Palestine and Egyptian flags.

Egypt helped mediate several previous attempts to reconcile the two movements and form a power-sharing unity government in Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) are based.

Hamas and Fatah agreed in 2014 to form a national reconciliation government, but the deal soon dissipated in mutual recriminations with Hamas continuing to dominate Gaza.

Trump Strikes Blow against Iran 2015 Nuclear Deal

Washington- US President Donald Trump struck a blow against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on Friday, choosing not to certify that Tehran is complying with the deal in a major reversal of US policy.

“Based on the factual record I have put forward, I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification,” Trump said at a White House event as he unveiled a tougher strategy against Tehran.

Trump made the announcement in a speech that detailed a more confrontational approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for extremist groups in the Middle East.

“Today I am announcing our strategy along with several major steps we’re taking to confront the Iranian regime’s hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never — and I mean never — acquires a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.

While Trump did not pull the United States out of the agreement, aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, he gave the US Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the pact.

On the other hand, #US House Speaker Ryan says supports Trump’s decision to re-evaluate Iran Nuclear Deal, will work with administration to counter “Iran’s range of destabilizing activities.”

KSU Wins Best Scientific Research Award at Dubai Conference

King Saud University (KSU), represented by Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Chair for Osteoporosis Research at the Department of Biochemistry of the Faculty of Science, has won the Best Scientific Research Award at the 5th Clinical Conference & American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists Gulf Chapter Annual Meeting among the 106 papers submitted to the conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The KSU’s research titled “The Effect of Genetic Variations in Vitamin D Protein Gene on the Response to its Supplement,” said the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

KSU is a public university in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, founded in 1957 by King Saud bin Abdulaziz as Riyadh University, as the first university in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

KSU’s mission is to provide distinctive education, produce creative research, serve society and contribute in building the knowledge economy and community through learning, creative thinking environment, the optimal use of technology and effective international partnership.

US-Canadian Family Held 5 Years by Taliban Leaves Pakistan

An American woman, her Canadian husband and their children have left Pakistan after being rescued from the Taliban, who held them for five years, Pakistani officials said Friday.

Caitlan Coleman of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, her husband Joshua Boyle, along with their three children left by plane from Islamabad on Friday, two Pakistani security officials said. But they did not reveal where the family was headed.

The couple have reportedly told US officials and their families they wanted to fly commercially to Canada.

Pakistan said Thursday it rescued the family after their captors moved them across the border from Afghanistan, adding the rescue was made possible by intelligence provided by the US.

The couple was kidnapped in October 2012 while on a backpacking trip that took them to Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan. All three children were born in captivity.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump said that Pakistan’s cooperation in securing the release of the couple and their children signaled a new respect for Washington by Islamabad.

“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wish that it do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said at a White House event. “They worked very hard on this and I believe they are starting to respect the United States again.”

Head of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel also said the freeing of the couple and their children was a
positive sign and a recognition of how seriously Islamabad takes the protection of American citizens.

“We are very appreciative for the efforts of the Pakistani military in helping effect the securing of our American hostages that have been held there, and a Canadian citizen, for quite some time,” said Votel.

“It is a positive sign that they (recognized) the importance, they (recognized) the opportunity, they acted quickly and very responsibly to get control of these persons and begin to effect their return,” Votel told reporters.

Boyle’s father called the rescue a “miracle.” Coleman’s parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, meanwhile, posted a statement on the door of their Pennsylvania home expressing joy. Lyn Coleman said “I am in a state of euphoria, stunned and overjoyed,” in an interview with ABC News.

Coleman’s parents last had a conversation with their son-in-law on Oct. 8, 2012, via an email sent from an internet cafe he’d described as being in an “unsafe” part of Afghanistan. From then on, there were only desperate hostage videos released by their captors and hand-scrawled letters mailed home.