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Syrian military helicopter shot down as fighting intensifies

A Syrian military helicopter has been shot down in northwest Syria, where an intensifying government offensive to retake the country’s last rebel-held areas has caused a massive wave of displacement. Syrian state media said the aircraft was hit by a missile at approximately 1:40pm (11:40 GMT) on Friday near the town of Urum al-Kubra in the western countryside of…

Syrian military helicopter shot down as fighting intensifies

A Syrian military helicopter has been shot down in northwest Syria, where an intensifying government offensive to retake the country’s last rebel-held areas has caused a massive wave of displacement.
Syrian state media said the aircraft was hit by a missile at approximately 1:40pm (11:40 GMT) on Friday near the town of Urum al-Kubra in the western countryside of Aleppo.
“This lead the helicopter to crash, killing all crew on board,” SANA news agency said, without providing any information on who was behind the incident.
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In Pictures: Syrians flee for safety as battle in northwest rages

Turkey’s Anadolu news agency also said rebels reported striking the helicopter while it was flying over the western Aleppo province.
The incident came days after rebels said they had downed another government helicopter on Tuesday near the town of Nairab.

Since December, the Russia-backed Syrian government forces have been pressing ahead with a ferocious assault on the last rebel bastion in the country’s northwest.
The offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in the nine-year war, with more than 800,000 people fleeing towards the Turkish border. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot absorb any more. 
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Clivegozu on the Turkish side of the border, said aid agencies are struggling to cope with the “huge number” of people displaced by the fighting.
“It’s a very delicate situation and activists are already saying it’s already a tragic humanitarian situation,” he said.
The intensified fighting, which saw five Turkish troops killed this week in Syrian government shelling, is the most serious since Ankara, which is supporting certain rebel groups in northest Syria’s Idlib province, first sent forces to its neighbouring country in 2016. 
In recent weeks, Turkey’s military has deployed large convoys of vehicles carrying commandos, tanks and howitzers to shore up its military posts in Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor that relies on sources in Syria, said on Friday that Turkey had deployed around 6,500 soldiers to reinforce existing units in the country’s northwest, as well as some 1,900 military vehicles since early February.
Government advances
Meanwhile, government forces have made new gains in northwest Syria in recent days.

They are currently securing areas along the key MP5 highway they seized from rebels this week, according to reports. They are pushing west of the motorway that connects Syria’s four largest cities and is economically vital for the government.
In an attempt to consolidate a “security belt” around the road, they captured a key base on Friday that they had lost to rebels in 2012, SOHR said. 
The base’s recapture marks a symbolic win for the government, which has reduced the rebel-held pocket to just over half of Idlib province, as well as slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia.
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U.S. military plans to move European headquarters from Germany to Belgium

The U.S. military plans to move its European headquarters from Germany to Belgium, bring thousands of troops back to America and reposition other forces across the continent in one of the largest military reconfigurations in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Pentagon officials laid out the changes at a press conference Wednesday morning,…

U.S. military plans to move European headquarters from Germany to Belgium

The U.S. military plans to move its European headquarters from Germany to Belgium, bring thousands of troops back to America and reposition other forces across the continent in one of the largest military reconfigurations in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Pentagon officials laid out the changes at a press conference Wednesday morning, detailing the plan to follow through on President Trump’s decision to draw down America’s troop presence in Germany. Some of the forces leaving Germany will be sent to other NATO nations, officials said, while others will return to the U.S.

Some forces that had been scheduled to move to Germany in the near future — such as 2,500 American airmen currently in the United Kingdom — will instead stay where they are.

Perhaps the biggest change would see the U.S. move its European Command headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany, to Mons, Belgium, where it would co-locate with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and other U.S. and NATO elements.

The major changes come amid Mr. Trump’s open feud with Germany over the country’s defense spending, financial contributions to NATO, and other disagreements. But Pentagon leaders denied that the president’s disputes with Berlin have had any bearing on the changes announced Wednesday, stressing that they’re part of a long-planned effort to reposition American forces across Europe to better deter Russia.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said NATO has reached an “inflection point” in which the U.S. and its allies must make changes to force structures to defend against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Moscow.

“As we’ve entered a new era of great power competition, we are now at another one of those inflection points in NATO’s evolution, and I am confident the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it,” he said.

Military leaders stressed that even though the total number of U.S. forces may be less once the changes are implemented, they argue NATO still will be in a stronger position.

“Every day our allies and partners join us in defending freedom, deterring war and maintaining the rules which underwrite a free and open international order,” said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “While we hope Russia and China will engage in more productive and cooperative behavior in the future, we are posturing our forces to deter aggression and counter their malign influence.”

But Mr. Trump appeared to muddy the military’s message, telling reporters Wednesday he approved the moves because of Germany’s low defense spending — and could reverse them if Berlin boosted military spending.

“We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s very simple. They’re delinquent.”

In addition to moving U.S. European Command headquarters to Belgium, some of the other specific changes include cutting the total number of troops in Germany from 36,000 to about 24,000. Of those, about 5,600 service members will be repositioned to other NATO countries, while 6,400 will return home to the U.S., officials said.

The nearly 4,500 members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Mr. Esper said, will return to the U.S.

About 2,500 American airmen based in Mildenhall will stay in the U.K. instead of completing a planned move to Germany. An F-16 squadron and other units will be repositioned to Italy, officials said. The Pentagon will also dispatch rotational forces to the Black Sea region to protect NATO’s southeastern flank.

Despite all of the detail, officials stressed that plans could change along the way. Gen. Hyten referred to the European repositioning proposal as “a concept.”

“We now have to turn it into plans,” he said.

Mr. Esper did not offer a firm figure on how much the reconfiguration will cost but said it will likely be several billion dollars “spread out over time.”

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Ethiopia

Ethiopia: Military deployed after more than 80 killed in protests |NationalTribune.com

The military was deployed in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday as armed gangs roamed neighbourhoods in a second day of unrest that claimed more than 80 lives. Popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was shot dead on Monday in what police said was a targeted killing. Protests following the killing, and a sense of political marginalisation, broke…

Ethiopia: Military deployed after more than 80 killed in protests |NationalTribune.com

The military was deployed in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday as armed gangs roamed neighbourhoods in a second day of unrest that claimed more than 80 lives.
Popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was shot dead on Monday in what police said was a targeted killing.
Protests following the killing, and a sense of political marginalisation, broke out the next morning in the capital and other towns and cities in the surrounding Oromia region.
The assassination of Haacaaluu, from the country’s largest ethnic group, stoked tensions that threaten to derail the country’s democratic transition.
“So far 81 people have been killed, including three Oromia special police force members,” said Bedassa Merdasa, the Oromia police chief.
Gunshots echoed through many neighbourhoods and gangs armed with machetes and sticks roamed the streets. Witnesses described a situation pitting youths of Oromo origin against some of the city’s other ethnic groups, and where both sides skirmished with police.

Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa shot dead in Addis Ababa

“We had a meeting with the community, and we were told to arm ourselves with anything we have, including machetes and sticks. We no longer trust the police to protect us, so we have to prepare ourselves,” said one Addis Ababa resident, who like others interviewed asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
The military had been deployed in some areas, three witnesses said. One described a street littered with rocks that anti-Oromo protesters had thrown at police
Businesses ablaze
Many residents feared Haacaaluu’s funeral – scheduled for Thursday in his home town of Ambo – could ignite more violence.
“Security forces have invaded our town, we can’t go out to mourn. No vehicles are moving around except security patrols with machine-guns,” Chala Hunde, 27, said from Ambo, 100km (60 miles) west of Addis.
“The security forces are putting a finger in our wound.”
A tussle over whether to bury Haacaaluu in Ambo or Addis laid bare the political tensions fanning the protests, said Professor Awol Allo at Britain’s Keele University.
“It’s very contentious. Oromos claim the city [Addis] to be theirs as it lies fully within the Oromo regional state,” he said. But the capital is under federal, not regional control.
The state broadcaster reported the arrest of prominent journalist and activist Eskinder Nega, a former political prisoner who runs a pressure group opposed to what it describes as Oromo attempts to dominate the capital.
A policeman was also killed in Addis Ababa, and three explosions there caused an unspecified number of deaths.
Prominent Oromo opposition leader Bekele Gerba and media mogul Jawar Mohammed, along with 34 other people, were also arrested when Jawar’s bodyguards refused to disarm during a standoff with police. 

‘Dangerous situation’
Haacaaluu provided a soundtrack to a generation of young protesters.
Their three years of bloody street demonstrations forced the unprecedented resignation of the previous prime minister and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed in 2018.
Abiy, Haacaaluu and Jawar are all Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, which has long complained of being excluded from power.
Jawar was a prominent supporter of Abiy’s appointment but became more openly critical last year. Jawar’s popular Oromia Media Network gives him the ability to mobilise support quickly across Oromia and his power base could pose a significant challenge to Abiy’s party in next year’s elections.
Ethiopia, an ethnic melting pot of 100 million people, has battled deadly intercommunal tensions in recent years, a major threat to efforts by Abiy to bring about democratic reforms in a country long ruled with an iron fist from Addis Ababa.
“The assassination of an important Oromo musician, subsequent protests which have in places involved property destruction and security forces using lethal force, and the arrest of Oromo leaders, creates a dangerous situation and is another blow to Ethiopia’s troubled transition,” said William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
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US military accuses Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya |NationalTribune.com

The US military accused Russia of deploying fighter aircraft to Libya “repainted to camouflage” their origin in support of mercenaries fighting for eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces. The allegation came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday told a Haftar ally that Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire and political talks that would culminate in…

US military accuses Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya |NationalTribune.com

The US military accused Russia of deploying fighter aircraft to Libya “repainted to camouflage” their origin in support of mercenaries fighting for eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
The allegation came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday told a Haftar ally that Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire and political talks that would culminate in united governing authorities.
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The United States’ fighter jet accusation against Russia raises concerns of a new escalation in the nine-year-long conflict, despite Lavrov’s call for a truce.
“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the US Africa Command said in a statement.

NEWS: Russia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya—–“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now.” – Gen. TownsendRelease: https://t.co/HpLdwUJxcrPhotos: https://t.co/raTal1LKPa pic.twitter.com/dVtsWKPYZ5
— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) May 26, 2020

Africom did not specify when the jets flew in to Libya, saying only it was “recently”.
The Russian defence ministry said it would “not comment right now” on the Africom statement. But Andrei Krasov, a member of the defence committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, dismissed the allegation as “fake” news.
The fighting in Libya has drawn in regional and global powers with what the United Nations described as a huge influx of weapons and fighters in repeated violation of a 2011 arms embargo.
Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt support Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which launched an offensive a year ago to seize the capital, Tripoli.
However, in recent weeks the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) has, with extensive Turkish military backing, pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and other parts of the northwest.

The US statement said the aircraft arrived in Libya “recently” from an airbase in Russia after briefly stopping in Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian origin. 
Russia has long denied any involvement in Libya’s conflict. There was no immediate response from the Russian defence ministry. 
Hundreds of Russian military contractors in Libya were reportedly evacuated into central Libya during the past few days after retreating from fighting on the capital’s front lines.
‘Tip the scales’
US Army General Stephen Townsend described the Russian planes as “fourth-generation jet fighters”.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya,” he said. 
“Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” he added, referencing the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, which the UN said last month had 1,200 fighters in Libya.
The US statement said Russia had used Wagner “to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions”.
US Air Force General Jeff Harrigian warned if Russia seized military bases on Libya’s coast it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank”.

A member of Libya’s GNA forces seen after they took control of the strategic al-Watiya airbase last week [Hazem Ahmed/Reuters]

The statement added neither the LNA or foreign mercenaries would be able to “arm, operate and sustain these fighters [jets]” – without support from Russia.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed in Tripoli reported people in the town of Bani Walid, a city 150km (93 miles) southeast of the capital, said 1,500 foreign “mercenaries” were now based there.
“The question now is whether they’re going to leave the country after the news they’re being re-deployed and provided advanced fighter jets,” he said. 
‘Talk is cheap’
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Lavrov conveyed a message to Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives who is aligned Haftar, that he wanted an immediate ceasefire and political negotiations in Libya.
Analysts questioned the motive behind the Russian call for a truce and negotiations. 
“Russia is on the back heel with Haftar and the recent military victories by the western-backed government, so it is advantageous for Russia to call for talks … which creates some space for retreat and re-positioning,” said William Lawrence, a professor at the American University in Washington, DC.
Mansour el-Kikhia, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Lavrov’s call was disingenuous. 
“The Russians have supplied aircraft all along under the guise of spare parts. Talk is cheap, ultimately what is the reality on the ground? They might withdrawal their forces, but their military hardware will get in one way or the other, directly or through Egypt or some other source,” el-Kikhia told Al Jazeera. 
“It’s a zero-sum game. Neither the Russians nor the Turks are willing to give up their gains in Libya, nor the Egyptians either. I assure you if Haftar loses more territory than Egypt will intervene, too … It’s a catastrophe. This war is going to last another 15-20 years.”
IEDs targeting civilians
The announcements came as the UN mission in Libya “strongly” condemned what it called the use of improvised explosive devices against civilians in the Libyan capital.
A statement released late Monday voiced alarm about reports that residents of the Ain Zara and Salaheddin districts in southern Tripoli had been killed or wounded by IEDs placed in or near their homes.

The statement did not name who was believed responsible but came after the GNA on Monday accused Haftar’s forces of planting land mines in houses before pulling back from positions in the south of the capital, killing two civilians on Saturday as they returned home in Salaheddin.
“This grotesque transformation and deterioration of the conflict that has occurred while families were seeking the safety and comfort of their homes for the Eid holiday demonstrates deliberate targeting of innocent civilians,” the UN statement.
“These acts, which serve no military objective, provoke extreme fear among the population and violate the rights of innocent civilians who must be protected under international humanitarian law.”
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