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WAR REPORT
Joint session on Syria to go ahead: Kazakhstan
by Staff Writers
Astana, Kazakhstan (AFP) Feb 16, 2017


Dozens of Dutch to be tried in absentia for Iraq, Syria roles
The Hague (AFP) Feb 16, 2017 - Dutch prosecutors have opened investigations into up to 190 nationals fighting alongside jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, with the first trial set to open next month.

"These people believe that they have said 'goodbye' to our judicial system. But we have not said 'goodbye' to them," said Ferry van Veghel, a spokesman for the prosecution service.

"They have committed atrocious crimes, and think they are untouchable, but they are absolutely not."

At least 280 Dutch citizens, a third of them women, have left The Netherlands to join the Islamic State (IS) and other groups in Syria and Iraq.

About 45 have been killed and another 45 have recently returned, leaving 190 believed to be still on the ground.

Investigating them is "not simple", relying largely on photos and videos posted on social media or messages sent to their families at home, the prosecution service said.

Those who return to the country will be immediately arrested, while others will be tried in absentia.

A first hearing is due to open in Rotterdam on March 23 involving 10 alleged fighters "most likely in their absence".

Last July a court in The Hague sentenced four men in absentia to six years in prison for joining several groups, including IS, and for carrying out terrorist acts in Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2014.

In a report this week the national counter-terrorism office AIVD said it expected to see more people returning to the country as IS comes under pressure from an all-out offensive by the US-led coalition.

These people pose "a greater threat" than those who have already returned, the AIVD said, arguing that they have become more battle-hardened and brainwashed and have a greater knowledge of weapons use.

There are also thought to be about 80 children as young as nine who are receiving training from jihadists. They could also pose a threat, the AIVD said.

UN envoy urges greater Syria peace efforts in Moscow
Moscow (AFP) Feb 16, 2017 - UN envoy Staffan de Mistura called Thursday for greater efforts in the push for peace in Syria, as he visited Moscow ahead of a fresh round of talks in Geneva.

De Mistura was in Russia for meetings with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as the United Nations gears up to hold negotiations in Switzerland on February 23.

"Now is the right time to step up efforts to normalise the political process in Syria," de Mistura told Lavrov in comments translated into Russian by the state-run TASS news agency.

TASS reported that de Mistura said the UN "supports" Russian-led peace efforts in the Kazakh capital of Astana, where armed opposition groups and Syrian regime representatives are set to hold a second round of indirect talks on Thursday.

The talks in Kazakhstan -- co-sponsored by Turkey and Iran -- are being billed as a prelude to the Geneva meeting, with negotiations expected to focus on shoring up a shaky ceasefire on the ground.

Moscow has increasingly taken the lead on shaping Syria's future after its military intervention on the side of leader Bashar al-Assad helped turn the tables in the protracted conflict.

Russia says the Astana process is meant to support the Geneva talks, but there has been speculation that it is working with Ankara to develop an alternative to the UN-led initiative.

Kazakhstan said a new round of talks on the Syria conflict backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran and endorsed by the United Nations were going ahead Thursday after a day's delay.

A plenary session involving all three power-brokers and delegations from the Syrian government and opposition is scheduled to begin at 1600 local time (0900 GMT), a Kazakh foreign ministry official said at a press briefing in Astana on Thursday.

On Wednesday Kazakhstan said talks initially slated for February 15 had been moved to February 16 for unspecified "technical reasons".

Bilateral consultations ahead of the plenary session are reported to have been underway since Wednesday, as parties seek an end to the conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011.

Rebel spokesman Yehya al-Aridi told AFP Wednesday the opposition was participating, but as a "smaller" delegation than the one it sent for the talks in Astana last month, when it refused to negotiate directly with Damascus.

The rebels, who initially cast doubt over their participation in the latest meeting will be led by Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), he confirmed.

The Syrian regime is represented in Astana by its ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari.

He told Russian agency Ria Novosti on Wednesday that one-on-one meetings between the opposition and the government were "not planned".

The first set of talks on Syria that took place in the Central Asian country's capital in January did not result in any significant breakthrough.

The latest round of discussions will focus mostly on bolstering a faltering six-week truce with negotiations over any political settlement expected to wait for February 23 talks in Geneva.

Russia has sent presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev to the event while Iran dispatched deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari.

UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said he would not participate personally in the latest Astana meeting but that his office would be represented by a "technical team".

Russia and Iran have helped turn the tables on the ground in the war-torn country with their military backing for strongman Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has supported rebels fighting to oust the strongman.

Turkey says clearing Syria town of remaining IS militants
Istanbul (AFP) Feb 16, 2017 - Turkey on Thursday said its armed forces were engaged in "clean-up" operations to clear remaining IS militants from the flashpoint Syrian town of Al-Bab after a weeks-long campaign.

The Turkish army, backing Syria rebels, have since December been engaged in fierce fighting to oust the jihadists from the town but Ankara now says Al-Bab is largely under its control.

"Al-Bab is now completely surrounded," Defence Minister Fikri Isik told Turkish media in Brussels where he was attending a NATO meeting.

"There is a serious clean-up going on inside to clear Daesh (IS) completely," he added. "Once this clean-up is completed, we expected life in Al-Bab to return to normal."

Turkey's offensive has been matched by a separate operation by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the town from the south.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights however said Turkish forces had made little progress since entering the town from the west.

It accused Turkey of killing 24 civilians in air strikes. But Turkey's army said it had killed 15 "terrorists" in air strikes, artillery fire and clashes.

Isik said the Turkish forces subsequently wanted to move on the town of Manbij but wanted the Kurdish militia fighters who ousted IS there last year to leave first.

Isik reaffirmed Turkey was also looking into the possibility of a joint operation with the United States and other powers to take the jihadist bastion of Raqa from IS.

But he again insisted that the Kurdish militia -- enemies of Turkey but allies of the US in the fight against IS -- must not be involved in the operation.

Isik announced that US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford would be visiting Ankara on Friday for talks about the issue.

"We will consider whether to do the Raqa operation together," Isik said. "I don't think the US has taken a definite decision on this," he added.


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