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WAR REPORT
Israeli warplanes hit targets in Syria as tensions flare
By Delphine Matthieussent
Jerusalem (AFP) March 17, 2017


US claims Syria strike, denies targeting mosque where 46 killed
Al-Jineh, Syria (AFP) March 17, 2017 - The US said it carried out an air strike in Syria against an Al-Qaeda meeting but denied deliberately targeting a mosque where a monitor said on Friday 46 people were killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the dead in the Thursday evening raid on Al-Jineh, in the northern province of Aleppo, were civilians.

The US-led coalition has been bombing jihadist groups in war-torn Syria since 2014, with hundreds of civilians unintentionally killed in the country and in neighbouring Iraq.

"We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target -- which was where the meeting took place -- is about 50 feet (15 metres) from a mosque that is still standing," said Colonel John J. Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command.

According to a Centcom statement: "US forces conducted an air strike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists."

The Centcom spokesman later clarified that the precise location of the strike was unclear -- but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province.

"We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike," he added.

An AFP correspondent saw rescue workers in white helmets working under spotlights with picks and shovels late on Thursday to dig people out of the rubble.

Much of the mosque, identified by a black placard outside as a mosque, had been flattened.

The empty prayer hall was covered in debris, and rescue workers stepped through it carefully, deliberating how to break down a wall to search for more survivors.

Rescuers had earlier left the wreckage site but were forced to double back when they heard moaning coming from the rubble.

- Some bodies 'unrecognisable' -

"More than 100 people were wounded," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said on Thursday, adding that many were still trapped under the collapsed mosque in the village of Al-Jineh, just over 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of Aleppo.

The village is held by Islamist groups, but the Observatory said no jihadist factions are present.

Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he "heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it.

"I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn't even recognise some of the bodies," he added.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict with anti-government protests six years ago.

A ceasefire between government forces and non-jihadist rebel groups was brokered by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia in December, but violence has continued.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information, says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.

But the skies over Aleppo province are busy, with Syrian regime and Russian warplanes as well as US-led coalition aircraft carrying out strikes.

Russia began a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, and in the past has dismissed allegations of civilian deaths in its strikes.

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group said earlier this month that its raids in Iraq and Syria had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians since 2014.

Critics say the real number is much higher.

Israeli warplanes struck several targets in Syria early Friday, prompting retaliatory missiles launches, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.

Syria's military said it had downed an Israeli plane and hit another as they were carrying out pre-dawn strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra that it recaptured from jihadists this month.

"Our air defence engaged them and shot down one warplane over occupied territory, hit another one, and forced the rest to flee," the army said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.

The Israeli army denied any planes had been struck and the Syrian government has made similar unfounded claims in the past.

"The safety of Israeli civilians or the Israeli air force aircraft was at no point compromised," army spokesman Peter Lerner told AFP.

The Israeli air force said earlier that it had carried out several strikes on Syria overnight, but that none of the ground-to-air missiles fired by Syrian forces in response had hit Israeli aircraft.

It was an unusual confirmation by the Jewish state of air raids inside Syria.

"Overnight... aircraft targeted several targets in Syria," an Israeli army statement said.

"Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and (army) aerial defence systems intercepted one of the missiles."

None of the missiles fired from Syria hit their targets, the army added.

One missile was intercepted north of Jerusalem by Israel's Arrow air defence system, Israeli media reported.

It would be one of the first times the system has been used.

A Jordanian military source said shrapnel from one missile struck in the north of the kingdom without causing any casualties.

- Air sirens wail -

Both Israeli and foreign media have reported a number of Israeli air strikes inside Syria targeting arms convoys of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel and is now fighting alongside the Damascus regime.

The Jewish state does not usually confirm or deny each raid but may have been led to do so this time by the circumstances of the incident.

The missile fire prompted air raid sirens to go off in the Jordan Valley during the night, the Israeli army said.

In April 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah.

Israel and Syria are still technically at war, though the border had remained largely quiet for decades until 2011 when the Syrian conflict broke out.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah has been fighting inside Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad against the rebels.

While there has been periodic stray fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that has prompted retaliatory strikes, Israel has largely avoided getting sucked into the conflict directly.

Witnesses cited by the press also reported two explosions that could have been caused by the launch of the anti-missile system.

The Arrow 3 interceptor, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, was handed to air force bases in Israel in January after successful testing by Israel and the United States.

Israel seized most of the Golan Hights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel pays close attention to developments in the Syrian conflict for fear that it could be exploited by its arch-rival Iran to install allies close to the armistice line on the Golan and Israel's borders.

In the summer of 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war that killed nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and about 160 Israelis, most of them troops.

WAR REPORT
UAE soldier killed in Yemen war
Dubai (AFP) March 16, 2017
The Emirati armed forces said Thursday that one of its soldiers was killed while on duty with the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen for the past two years. The armed forces identified the soldier as Zakariya Suleiman al-Zaabi in a statement carried by state news agency WAM, but it did not provide details of the circumstances of his death. Some 85 Emirati soldiers h ... read more

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