FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on… REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV/File Photo
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday it was checking information that a Russian air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa may have killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May.
The air strike was launched after the Russian forces in Syria received intelligence that a meeting of Islamic State leaders was being planned, the ministry said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.
“On May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located,” the statement said.
“According to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike,” the ministry said.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it could not confirm the Russian report that Baghdadi may have been killed.
The strike is believed to have killed several other senior leaders of the group, as well as around 30 field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, the Russian defense ministry statement said.
The IS leaders had gathered at the command center, in a southern suburb of Raqqa, to discuss possible routes for the militants’ retreat from the city, the statement said.
The United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike, the Russian military said.
Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Russian forces support the Syrian government which is fighting against Islamic State mainly from the west, while a U.S.-led coalition supports Iraqi government forces fighting against Islamic State from the east.
The last public video footage of Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden.
Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cast doubt on the report Baghdadi may have been killed. He said that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May.
“The information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory,” he said by phone.
Questioning what Baghdadi would have been doing in that location, he said: “Is it reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (U.S.-led) coalition and Russia?” — By Dmitry Solovyov | MOSCOW
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in MOSCOW and Tom Perry in BEIRUT; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Christian Lowe; Editing by)
Afghan Taliban warns Trump against sending in more troops
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.
KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban told U.S. President Donald Trump in an open letter on Tuesday that the military situation in Afghanistan was “far worse than you realize”, and sending in more troops would be self-destructive.
A senior Taliban official told Reuters the rare decision to address Trump directly was timed to coincide with the president’s deliberations on the future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
“Previous experiences have shown that sending more troops to Afghanistan will not result in anything other than further destruction of American military and economical might,” the Taliban said in the lengthy English-language letter.
It criticized the Afghan government as “stooges”, “lying, corrupt leaders” and “repulsive sellouts” who were providing Washington with “rosy pictures” of the military position.
The Taliban, seeking to restore Islamic rule, has waged an increasingly violent insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government since losing power in a U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Those attacks were planned by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from a base in Afghanistan.
“The war situation in Afghanistan is far worse than you realize!” the letter said, arguing that the only thing preventing the Taliban from seizing major cities was a fear of causing civilian casualties.
The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has requested several thousand additional troops to act as advisers to the struggling Afghan security forces. Influential voices including Republican Senator John McCain have also urged an “enduring” U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
But such plans have faced scepticism in the White House, where Trump and several top aides have criticized years of American military intervention and foreign aid.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Monday that the Trump administration was “very, very close” to a decision on Afghanistan, adding that all options were on the table. However, U.S officials believe it could take weeks for a South Asia strategy to be approved.
“We have noticed that you have understood the errors of your predecessors and have resolved to thoroughly rethink your new strategy in Afghanistan,” the Taliban told Trump.
“A number of warmongering congressmen and generals in Afghanistan are pressing you to protract the war in Afghanistan because they seek to preserve their military privileges.”
Some Taliban leaders disagreed with publishing the letter as they believe the group is close to being able to end the war on its own terms, while the “Americans are no longer in a position to fight this never-ending war,” one Taliban official said.
The first official said the Taliban was open to “discuss all issues with the United States for bringing peace to Afghanistan” if American troops are withdrawn.
“Everyone now understands that the main driver of war in Afghanistan is foreign occupation,” the Taliban letter said.
“The Afghans have no ill-intention toward the Americans or any other nation around the world but if anyone violates their sanctums then they are mighty proficient at beating and defeating the transgressors.”
(This story has been refiled to change second byline)
Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan
Senators want Congress to OK military action in Syria
FILE PHOTO – U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via… REUTERS
U.S. senators called on Congress on Tuesday to take back its authority to determine whether the country goes to war, saying recent U.S. strikes in Syria were not covered by existing authorizations for the use of military force.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has begun considering legislation that would cover military action in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Yemen against the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups.
“I have always believed that it’s important for Congress to exercise its constitutional role to authorize the use of force,” the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Bob Corker, told a hearing on Tuesday.
As President Donald Trump has ordered stepped-up military activity in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, members of Congress also want Trump to present a strategy for defeating Islamic State and other militant groups.
“It’s difficult for us to carry out our responsibility unless we know what the commander in chief needs,” Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, said.
The Trump administration, like former President Barack Obama’s, has been using a 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al Qaeda passed after the Sept. 11 attacks as the legal basis for a wide range of military action since.
Although there is bipartisan support for Congress to debate and vote on a new AUMF introduced by Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, the measure faces stiff opposition.
Lawmakers have introduced war authorizations repeatedly in the past several years. But they have failed to advance amid sharp divisions in Congress over whether, or how, to limit commanders’ use of military resources.
Many war-weary members of Congress also do not want to vote for anything that might become a foreign military quagmire consuming taxpayer dollars or leading to widespread U.S. casualties.
Trump has ordered stepped-up military operations against Islamic State and delegated more authority to his generals. U.S.-led forces said on Tuesday they had shot down an armed “pro-Syrian regime” drone near the border between Iraq and Syria. A U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian army jet over Syria on Sunday.
Democratic Senator Tom Udall voted for the 2001 authorization while he was a member of the House of Representatives. “I would have never imagined that vote supporting U.S. troops in Syria in 2017 and engagements with the Assad regime,” he said. — By Patricia Zengerle | WASHINGTON
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
‘Cheater’ Sharapova should not be allowed to play again: Bouchard
Tennis – WTA Stuttgart Tennis Grand Prix – Maria Sharapova of Russia v Roberta Vinci of Italy – Stuttgart, Germany – 26/4/17. Maria Sharapova of Russia in action. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
Canadian Eugenie Bouchard has lashed out at the WTA for giving Maria Sharapova the chance to compete in tournaments after serving a 15-month doping ban and said the Russian is a “cheater” who should never be allowed to play again.
Sharapova beat Italian Roberta Vinci in the first round of the Stuttgart Grand Prix on Wednesday after receiving a controversial wild card for the tournament, having lost all her ranking points in the wake of her suspension.
Sharapova was banned for two years after testing positive at the 2016 Australian Open for meldonium, a medication the former world number one had been taking within the rules but which was then reclassified as a banned drug.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her ban to 15 months, while finding Sharapova was not an “intentional doper” but “bore some degree of fault” for relying on her agent to check the prohibited list for changes and failing to ensure he had done so.
Bouchard, a 2014 Wimbledon finalist, told the Istanbul-based TRT World in an interview that a bad example had been set.
“She’s a cheater and … I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again,” she said.
“It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true. I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: ‘cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms’.
“I don’t think that’s right and (Sharapova is) definitely not someone I can say I look up to any more.”
Sharapova, who faces Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova in the second round in Stuttgart later on Thursday, has also received invitations to play in Madrid and Rome and will find out in May whether she will be given a wild card for the French Open.
(Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)