U.S.-backed SDF to let Syrian Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

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AIN ISSA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Islamic State fighters are set to abandon Raqqa in a withdrawal agreed with U.S.-backed Syrian militias that have them surrounded, a militia spokesman said on Saturday, as the jihadists’ defeat in their former Syrian capital edged closer.

Officials gave conflicting accounts on whether foreign fighters would also be leaving the city, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been battling to defeat Islamic State since June.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo said the foreign fighters would be left behind “to surrender or die”, without saying when the evacuation of Syrian fighters would take place.

But Omar Alloush, a member of Raqqa’s Civil Council, said the evacuation would include foreign fighters. He said it would take place overnight into Sunday. The jihadists would be taking some 400 civilians with them as human shields, he said.

The final defeat of IS at Raqqa would be a milestone in efforts to roll back the theocratic “caliphate” the group declared in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year it was driven from the city of Mosul.

IS used Raqqa as a base to plan attacks against the West.

The Kurdish YPG militia, which dominates the SDF, told Reuters earlier on Saturday that Islamic State was on the verge of defeat in Raqqa, and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said a convoy was due to leave Raqqa on Saturday, in an arrangement agreed by local parties. It described the arrangement as “a civilian evacuation” and said it would not condone any arrangement that allowed “terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice”.

Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said the coalition’s stance was that IS fighters must surrender unconditionally, but added that he could not comment on who would be in the convoy. He said difficult fighting was expected in the days ahead.

The coalition statement said the arrangement brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders on Oct. 12 was “designed to minimise civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists”.

The coalition believed the arrangement would “save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqa with less risk of civilian casualties”, it said.

Children play inside a truck at a refugee camp for people displaced because of fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Tribal leaders from Raqqa said the SDF had agreed to allow safe passage out of the city for Syrian Islamic State fighters still inside, and they were organising a “mechanism” for them to leave.

Its statement made no mention of the fate of Islamic State’s foreign jihadists, but said the remaining fighters in the city were only “a small number besieged in one or more positions in the city, who have no choice but surrender or death”.

Alloush earlier told Reuters that the IS fighters would go to remaining territory held by the group in Syria.

BUSES ARRIVE

Negotiated withdrawals of combatants facing defeat have become a common feature of the six-year-long Syrian war.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight Friday from the countryside to the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that reports on the war, said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families.

The Syrian army, which is supported by Iran-backed militias and the Russian air force, declared another significant victory over Islamic State on Saturday, saying it had captured the town of al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province.

The eastern province is Islamic State’s last major foothold in Syria, and it is under attack there from the SDF on one side and Syrian government forces supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air strikes on the other.

Islamic State fighters had previously agreed to an evacuation last August, from an area on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

But as their convoy moved towards Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria, coalition planes blocked its route by cratering roads, destroying bridges and attacking nearby Islamic State vehicles.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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It has been reported and confirmed that Angelina Jolie has filed for divorce from Brad Pitt – and that the Hollywood power couple is no more. Stefan Molyneux …

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Russia says Islamic State operates near U.S base in Syria unhindered

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MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused the United States on Wednesday of allowing Islamic State to operate “under its nose” in Syria, saying Washington was letting the militant group move about freely in an area abutting a U.S. military base.

The allegations, made by Russia’s Defence Ministry, centre on a U.S. military base at Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq in the south of the country.

Russia says the U.S. base is illegal and that it and the area around it have become “a black hole” where militants operate unhindered.

The United States says the Tanf facility is a temporary base used to train partner forces to fight against Islamic State. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning on Tuesday said Washington remained committed to killing off Islamic State and denying it safe havens and the ability to carry out strikes.

But Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry, said Moscow wanted to know how around 300 Islamic State militants in pickup trucks had passed through the U.S.-controlled area and tried to block the highway between Damascus and Deir al-Zor used to supply Syrian forces.

He said the U.S. had not yet given an explanation.

“We suggest the American side also explain about another incidence of their ‘selective blindness’ towards militants operating under their nose,” Konashenkov said in a statement.

He said about 600 militants based in a refugee camp in the U.S. controlled area had driven en masse to a former customs post called Tafas on the Syrian-Jordanian border earlier this month and seized food and medical supplies meant for locals.

“You don’t need to be an expert to now forecast an attempt to rupture the peace agreement in the southern de-escalation zone,” said Konashenkov.

“We issue a warning. All responsibility for sabotaging the peace process will lay exclusively with the American side.”

Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dmitry Solovyov

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Vladimir Putin’s new state limo will have a Porsche V8 and classic Packard design themes

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Russia’s new state limousine has recently been spotted undergoing winter testing in Scandinavia, shedding light on a mostly secret project that has been successfully kept under wraps for the past few years. Intended as a replacement to the long-serving ZiL 115 family of limousines and sedans, the new Porsche-engined limo is believed to make its debut during Vladimir Putin’s expected inauguration next spring. But the best look at the upcoming limo came courtesy of patent filings disclosing the sedan’s exterior design earlier this year.

First of all, you read that right: This thing is expected to be powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter Porsche V8 paired with a five-speed automatic, dialed down from 4.6 liters. This powerplant is expected to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. A second domestically developed V12 with a two-stage turbocharger is also expected in the lineup, producing around 860 hp and 737 lb-ft of torque. While the Porsche engine is pretty much confirmed — this is the engine with which prototypes have been spotted testing — the V12 is still in development.

What can we glean from the patent scans of Project Cortege, as it is currently known?



Project Cortege front and back

The full range of cars envisions a sedan, a limo, an SUV and a luxury MPV, but we’ll wait and see just how many versions will be built. Photo by NAMI


For starters, the resemblance to current Rolls-Royce models is mostly incidental, despite first impressions. The cars that Project Cortege is trying to mimic are vintage Packards and Soviet cars inspired by Packards such as the ZiS 110. The 110 was a World War II-era state car whose design and engineering was inspired by prewar Packards that were imported into the USSR and used by top party officials. In fact, if we look some of the later Packard concept cars such as the Packard Request, we can see the outlines of the grille that this sedan wears. Further nods to the Packards of the 1950s can be seen by the U-shaped inlets flanking the grille — once again prominently featured on the Packard Request concept.

The 1950s Packard themes are no accident, as a classic sedan called the GAZ 13 Chaika and one version of the ZiL 111 drew inspiration from Packard sedans of the 1950s. The Chaika remained in production until 1983.

Earlier versions of Project Cortege’s design bore a much closer resemblance to 1940s Packards, but these designs were essentially diluted into what we see here. And what we see here, besides some vaguely Gothic themes, are long front and rear overhangs, a high ride height, thin C-pillars and a very slab-sided greenhouse. The result is a very top-heavy appearance with upright pillars and expansive windows — the opposite of a great place to start when it comes to armoring.



Packard Request concept

The new limo will make a few nods to classic Packard design when it comes to the front fascia, drawing inspiration from a number of Packard models such as the Request concept.


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Second, these patent filings only reveal the exterior of the sedan; the project is expected to include a sedan, a six-person limousine, an SUV and even a luxury MPV. But it remains to be seen whether the manufacturer — the LiAZ bus plant 80 miles east of Moscow in the town of Likino-Dulevo — will actually get beyond the sedan and the limo. There is no doubt that there is enough will and money to batch-produce a few sedans and limos, but pushing even for Rolls-Royce-level production figures is not being seriously discussed. After all, there is only so much domestic demand for a handmade state sedan.

Third, there is the factor of the price, which is what doomed production of ZiL limousines back in the early 1990s. While the planned economy of the USSR could afford to build a couple of dozen money-no-object V8 limos per year, a spiritual successor to the ZiL limos still has to bear some connection to real-world economics (even though the vast majority of these are expected to be purchased by government agencies). But once again, there are only so many government agencies, and breaking even when it comes to a big, luxury limo with a Porsche V8 means a daunting unit cost.
 



Project Cortege sedan side

The upright and slab-sided greenhouse dilutes associations with recent Rolls-Royce models, but the proportions seem very foreign. Photo by NAMI


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Finally, there is the issue of the brand. No official name has been announced for the marque, which is unlikely to reuse the ZiL name as that car and truck factory no longer exists. The code-name Project Cortege and various related platform names such as EMP (no relation to electromagnetic pulse) give little hint of the direction that the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which is spearheading the project, will give this newly established marque.

Given the fact that a total of three car plants will assemble major components, not counting Porsche engines and Bosch parts, these sedans and limos will have a lot of parents. It remains to be seen if the project bosses will opt for something internationally and politically-friendly or go with another difficult to pronounce factory acronym starting with the letter Z followed by half a dozen numbers.

 












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Attacks on US diplomats in Cuba continued longer than first announced, State Department now says

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Unusual health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba continued as recently as August despite previous assessments that the activities had stopped in the spring, the U.S. said on Friday.

“We can confirm another incident which occurred last month and is now part of the investigation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

The U.S. is continually revising its assessments of the extent of the attacks as new information is obtained, Nauert said. An investigation has not been completed.

The announcement that the attacks – in which a potential covert sonic device caused a series of issues, including permanent hearing loss – comes after the union representing American diplomats said that mild traumatic brain injury was among the diagnoses given to diplomats victimized in the attack.

The American Foreign Service Association said additional symptoms had included brain swelling, severe headaches, loss of balance and “cognitive disruption.”

U.S. officials had previously said that the attacks had started in fall 2016 and continued until spring 2017. Last week, Nauert had said at least 16 Americans associated with the U.S. Embassy in Havana had been affected, but that the “incidents” were no longer occurring. The tally of U.S. government personnel affected jumped to 19 following Friday’s revelation.

The revised assessments suggested that U.S. officials were still a long way from a full understanding of what transpired in the unexplained attacks. U.S. investigators have been searching to identify a device that could have harmed the health of the diplomats, believed to have been attacked in their homes in Havana, but officials have said no device had been found.

“We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community,” Nauert said. She added that the embassy has a medical officer and has been consistently providing medical care to those who have reported incidents.

“We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month.

But Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement August 9 denying the allegations.

“Cuba has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception,” the ministry said in a statement. “Moreover, it reiterates its willingness to cooperate in the clarification of this situation.”

Two Cuban diplomats were kicked out of the Washington embassy by the State Department following news of the incidents.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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U.S.-led coalition says still monitoring Islamic State convoy in Syria

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families being evacuated into jihadist territory in east Syria remained in government-held areas of Syria on Friday, U.S.-led forces said.

“It has not managed to link up with any other ISIS elements in eastern Syria,” Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said.

There are about 300 fighters and about 300 civilians in the convoy, which the Syrian army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group gave safe passage to after the jihadists surrendered their enclave on Syria’s border with Lebanon.

But the coalition against Islamic State has used air strikes to block the convoy from crossing into the group’s main territory straddling Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.

The Islamic State fighters in the border pocket accepted a truce and evacuation deal after simultaneous but separate offensives by the Lebanese army on one front and the Syrian army and Hezbollah on the other.

It angered both the coalition, which does not want the fighters bussed to a battlefront in which it is active, and Iraq, which is fighting Islamic State across the border.

“We are continuing to monitor that convoy and will continue to disrupt its movement east to link up with any other ISIS element and we will continue to strike any other ISIS elements that try to move towards it,” Dillon said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave prayers on Friday for Islam’s Eid al-Adha festival in the town of Qara, near the enclave surrendered on Monday by the Islamic State fighters.

FILE PHOTO:A convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families begin to depart from the Lebanon-Syria border zone in Qalamoun, Syria August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Confined to Damascus for long periods in the early part of Syria’s six-year civil war, Assad has grown more confident in travelling around government-held areas as the army and its allies have won a series of victories.

Assad was shown on state television standing and kneeling on a green carpet in a packed mosque alongside Syrian religious leaders as he followed the imam giving prayers.

The departure of Islamic State and other groups from the Western Qalamoun district means the border with Lebanon is Syria’s first to be controlled entirely by its army since early in the conflict.

Qara is only a few miles from the mountains delineating the frontier with Lebanon, in which Islamic State and other militant groups held territory until August.

Part of an agreed exchange under the truce went ahead on Thursday as wounded Islamic State fighters were swapped for the bodies of pro-government forces. But the fate of the main part of the convoy is uncertain.

“It was moving this morning and then they had stopped … I don’t know if they stopped for a break or were trying to figure out what to do,” Dillon said.

The frontline between Syrian government forces and Islamic State in eastern Syria is active, as the army, aided by Russian jets and Iran-backed Shi‘ite militias, presses an offensive to relieve its besieged enclave at Deir al-Zor.

On Friday, a Syrian military source said the army and its allies had made an advance against Islamic State in that area and had also taken several villages in a jihadist enclave in central Syria.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Arizona State unveils Pat Tillman statue at Sun Devil Stadium

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A bronze likeness of perhaps the greatest Sun Devil in school history now adorns the north end of Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium.

The school unveiled a bronze statue of former soldier and pro-football player Pat Tillman during a ceremony Wednesday, a monument designed as a tribute to the man who gave so much —  and as inspiration to the players trying to follow his footsteps.

“Pat spent his whole life trying to be the best person he could possibly be,” Tillman’s brother, Kevin, said before the drape was dropped. “He didn’t focus on money, he didn’t focus on fame, he didn’t focus on a pretty statue. It was, ‘How can I make myself a better person in all these different facets of my life?’ And ASU gave him an opportunity to do that.”

The ceremony, held in the redesigned football facilities in the north end zone, drew several hundred people, including Tillman’s family, former and current ASU players and university officials.

Tillman played at Arizona State from 1994-97 and went on to play for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals before walking away from a multi-million dollar contract to serve his country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Tillman became an Army Ranger in 2003 and served until he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

Current Sun Devils coach Todd Graham has made sure every wall in the redesigned football complex included at least one photo of the man who never backed down from a challenge. The players see an image of Tillman at the end of the tunnel where they enter the field.

In addition to the images, Graham said the football team will start a new tradition of touching the statue as they charge onto the football field, according to ASU Now.

“I want to challenge our players with this,” he said. “If you come out and touch that statue, you need to pour everything you have onto the field and play with passion because that’s what his life was about — having a passion for what you’re doing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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Islamic State convoy in Syria appears to have turned back, U.S.-led coalition says

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of Islamic State fighters appears to have turned back after U.S.-led airstrikes thwarted its attempt to reach territory held by the militant group in eastern Syria, the head of U.S.-led forces fighting Islamic State said on Thursday.

More than 300 lightly armed IS fighters and about 300 family members were evacuated from Syria’s western border with Lebanon under a ceasefire agreement involving the ultra-hardline group, the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah.

On Thursday they sought to move into IS-held territory from a new location after U.S.-led strikes on Wednesday stopped them joining forces with their jihadist comrades, a commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said.

(For graphic on IS convoy to move, click tmsnrt.rs/2wlya8V)

However, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S.-led forces fighting Islamic State, told a Pentagon briefing that the convoy had turned back into Syrian government territory.

“When I walked into this conference about an hour ago, the buses were on the move. They had turned and had driven back into regime-held areas,” he told reporters via a video teleconference from Baghdad.

“We haven’t struck the convoy. But we have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy. And we’ll continue to do that,” he said.

The coalition opposes experienced combatants being moved to a battle zone in which it is active, and used warplanes on Wednesday to halt the convoy by damaging the road ahead. It also struck fighters on their way to meet the convoy.

A commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said the convoy had headed north towards the town of Sukhna on Thursday after being halted in the desert and would try to reach Deir al-Zor province, close to the border with Iraq.

Two sources familiar with U.S. policy on Syria said the airstrikes did not signal a more aggressive military approach, and were intended to prevent the IS fighters in the convoy reinforcing their comrades in Deir al-Zor.

But the standoff shows the tangled nature of a war theatre divided into several overlapping conflicts, and where the engagement of local, regional and global powers is further complicated by a mosaic of alliances and enmities.

Six years into Syria’s civil war, in which Islamic State has seized swathes of land, the jihadist group is on the retreat across the region, losing ground to an array of foes.

In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has rapidly gained ground this year as the army advanced eastwards, backed by Russia and allied Iran-backed militia including Hezbollah, towards its besieged enclave in Deir al-Zor.

But in the north, the United States — which opposes Assad, Iran and Hezbollah — has led a coalition backing Kurdish and Arab militias as they assault Islamic State’s former Syrian capital of Raqqa.

NASRALLAH VISITED DAMASCUS

A convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families begin to depart from the Lebanon-Syria border zone in Qalamoun, Syria August 28, 2017.Omar Sanadiki

Hezbollah-affiliated media have reported that the Syrian town of Al-Bukamal, close to the border with Iraq, is the final destination for the convoy.

Hezbollah has been one of Assad’s closest allies in the war and it trumpeted the departure of Islamic State, after that of two other militant groups, from the Lebanon border as a “day of liberation”.

On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Assad had only reluctantly agreed to the evacuation after Nasrallah visited Damascus to request it, a rare public acknowledgement that he had travelled outside Lebanon.

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said it was “unacceptable” to ferry more jihadist fighters from another battlefront in Syria to the edge of Iraqi territory, prompting a statement from Hezbollah defending the move.

Iraq has formed a dedicated intelligence operations room to monitor and track the jihadists, a senior Interior Ministry official told state media, saying the convoy included “elite commanders” of Islamic State.

After it was blocked from moving eastwards on Wednesday, the convoy headed north within government territory to try to move into Islamic State land from a new location, the commander in the pro-Assad alliance said.

The commander added that the convoy would head on again after an exchange of dead combatants and prisoners. The bodies of an Iranian killed in the fighting and two other dead fighters were to be swapped for 25 wounded IS fighters travelling with the convoy, the commander said.

In Tehran, the country’s Revolutionary Guards said on their website that the dead Iranian, whom they identified as Mohsen Hojaji, would be returned at an unspecified date for a funeral and burial.

LIFE ON BUSES “GETTING KIND OF HARD”

The fighters retained light weapons but left heavier arms in their enclave after being evacuated from western Lebanon following heavy fighting there.

“I would imagine life getting kind of hard on those buses after two and a half days or more, largely cooped up in those buses driving around in the desert,” Townsend said.

Such deals have increasingly been used by the Syrian army and its allies to press besieged rebels to surrender their enclaves and to relocate to insurgent-held territory elsewhere, but this is the first such deal involving Islamic State.

In the process, Islamic State revealed the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers it took captive in its border enclave in 2014, as well as surrendering a Hezbollah prisoner.

An official in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is helping with the exchange, has entered Islamic State territory to accompany the prisoner back to the government-held area, the commander in the pro-Assad military alliance said.

Hezbollah-aligned al Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon reported on Thursday that some IS leaders in eastern Syria did not want members of the group who had surrendered territory to be welcomed back into their self-declared caliphate.

Reporting by Leila Bassam and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Idrees Ali, David Alexander and John Walcott in Washington, and Dubai Newsroom, Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Timothy Heritage

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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