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Lebanon army declares pause in offensive against IS on Syria border
By Maya Gebeily
Beirut (AFP) Aug 27, 2017

US says UN Lebanon commander 'blind' to Hezbollah arms
United Nations, United States (AFP) Aug 25, 2017 - The United States blasted the commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon on Friday, accusing him of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah weapons smuggling.

US ambassador Nikki Haley said the 10,500-strong UNIFIL force was "not doing its job effectively" and singled out its Irish leader, Major General Michael Beary.

"What I find totally baffling is the view of the UNIFIL commander General Beary," Haley told reporters, accusing him of ignoring Hezbollah's arms dumps.

"He seems to be the only person in south Lebanon who is blind. That's an embarrassing lack of understanding on what's going on around him," she said.

Asked about Haley's sharp criticism, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said of Beary "we have full confidence in his work."

Haley was speaking at UN headquarters as member states debate the future of UNIFIL, which is deployed to keep the peace on Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

The existing mandate, last modified in 2006, expires at the end of the month, and the United States would like to see its language toughened.

Washington wants the UN force to take a tougher line on Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite armed movement that is represented in Lebanon's government.

Israel alleges that Hezbollah is restocking its arms dumps and missile batteries in southern Lebanon, under the eyes of Blue Helmet peacekeepers.

But Russia, which is allied with Iran and thus with Hezbollah in support of regime forces in the conflict in neighboring Syria, wields a UN Security Council veto.

And US allies France and Italy, which have hundreds of soldiers in the UN force that would be in danger if it clashed with the militia, are also concerned.

"Since 2006 there has been a massive flow of illegal weapons to Hezbollah, mostly smuggled in by Iran," Haley alleged.

"They openly threaten Israel. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is very destabilizing to the region."

Haley said the mandate obliges UNIFIL to work with the Lebanese Armed Forces to disarm illegal groups and that she would seek to underline this in the renewal.

Lebanon's army on Sunday announced a pause in its offensive against Islamic State group militants along the border with Syria in exchange for information on troops taken hostage in 2014.

The armed forces launched their campaign against IS militants entrenched in the mountainous Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa areas on Lebanon's eastern border on August 19.

"The army command announces a ceasefire beginning at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to make way for the last phase of negotiations linked to the fate of the kidnapped soldiers," it said in a statement on Sunday.

Nine troops are believed to still be held by IS after militants overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August 2014 and kidnapped 30 soldiers and police.

The army has said the missing troops were its "top concern" in its offensive against an estimated 600 IS fighters using the hilly border region as a base.

IS has claimed several attacks in Lebanon in recent years, including twin bombings in a densely populated Beirut suburb that killed 44 people.

An army source told AFP on Sunday that its command had agreed to IS's request for a ceasefire in order to get more information on the missing soldiers.

The head of Lebanon's General Security agency "Abbas Ibrahim has been authorised to negotiate with them for information on the kidnapped soldiers," the source said.

"In the meantime, the battle has stopped. If we find any ulterior motives or if we are dissatisfied with the solution, the army will continue its fight," the source added.

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which launched its own simultaneous attack against IS from the Syrian side of the border, also declared a ceasefire Sunday.

The group's War Media channel said the unilateral pause was "in the framework of a comprehensive agreement to end the battle in west Qalamun against Daesh (IS)".

- Hezbollah searching for troops -

Two sources with close knowledge of Hezbollah's operations in the area told AFP that fighters from the group were searching west Qalamun for the bodies of the missing soldiers.

The troops have been missing since August 2014, when IS and then Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front briefly overran Arsal, a town on Lebanon's restive eastern border with Syria.

The groups withdrew under a truce deal, but took 30 hostages from Lebanon's security forces with them.

Al-Nusra and IS each executed two of their hostages, and a fifth died of wounds sustained during the fighting in Arsal.

After months of fraught negotiations, Al-Nusra handed over 16 of the soldiers and police in December 2015 in exchange for prisoners from Lebanese jails in a swap overseen by General Security chief Ibrahim.

Lebanese defence minister Yaacoub al-Sarraf told journalists on Sunday that there would be a formal announcement once he had "clear information" on what happened to the soldiers.

The army says its nine-day assault has squeezed IS into 20 square kilometres out of 120 held by the jihadists in Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa.

Six soldiers have been killed since the start of the assault, which the army has insisted is not being coordinated with Hezbollah.

Last month, Hezbollah carried out its own campaign further south on the border area against what is now Al-Qaeda's former affiliate, after Al-Nusra broke off ties with the extremist group last year.

The six-day offensive ended with a ceasefire under which 8,000 refugees and jihadists were transported to northwestern Syria in return for the release of five captured Hezbollah fighters.

Children dead in new air strike on Yemen capital
Sanaa (AFP) Aug 25, 2017
Children were among at least nine people killed in an air strike Friday in a residential neighbourhood of Yemen's capital Sanaa, witnesses and medics said. The attack is the latest in a wave of deadly raids on residential areas of Yemen blamed on a Saudi-led coalition, drawing strong international condemnation. The United Nations on Friday accused the Arab coalition of killing 42 civilia ... read more

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