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Thousands Return To The Freezing Ruins Of Aleppo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of people are starting to return to formerly rebel-held east Aleppo despite freezing weather and destruction “beyond imagination”, a top U.N. official told Reuters from the Syrian city.

In the last couple of days around 2,200 families have returned to the Hanano housing district, said Sajjad Malik, country representative in Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“People are coming out to east Aleppo to see their shops, their houses, to see if the building is standing and the house is not that looted … to see, should they come back,” he said in an interview.

But given the appalling conditions, the U.N. is not encouraging people to return.

“It is extremely, bitterly cold here,” said Malik. “The houses people are going back to have no windows or doors, no cooking facilities.”

Aid is vital to prevent more deaths. The U.N. is helping people to restart their lives in one room of their apartments to start with, he said, giving them mats, sleeping bags and plastic sheets to cover blown-out windows.

BREAD AND WATER

Hanano was one of the first Aleppo neighborhoods to fall to rebels in 2012, and the first to be retaken by the Syrian government on its way to seizing back full control of the northern city last month – the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad in nearly six years of war.

As government forces rapidly advanced, some residents stayed put, tens of thousands fled of their own accord and around 35,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated in late December in convoys organized by the Syrian government.

After months of fierce Syrian and Russian air strikes, reconstruction will take a long time, Malik said, but the immediate priority is to keep people warm and fed. U.N.-supported partners provide hot meals twice a day to 21,000 people, and 40,000 people get baked bread every day.

Over 1.1 million people once again have access to clean water in bottles or through tankers and wells.

Mobile clinics are up and running, and more than 10,000 children have received polio vaccinations. Thousands of children who have not been able to attend school need reintegrating into the education system through remedial classes to rebuild their confidence, Malik said.

There was no register of births, deaths and marriages in the rebel-held sector, so the U.N. is working with the government to issue people with papers. “I met a woman with five children and she was excited that she now has her kids registered as Syrians. She has ID cards and a family book,” he said.

Bombing has destroyed hospitals, schools, roads and houses, and damaged the two main water pumping stations. The experienced U.N. official said the level of destruction surpassed anything he had seen in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Somalia.

“Nothing would have prepared us to see the scale of destruction there, it’s beyond imagination.”

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

IMAGE: Samah, 11, and her brother, Ibrahim, transport their salvaged belongings from their damaged house in Doudyan village in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria, January 2, 2017. Picture taken January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Not A Lot Of Comfort And Joy As Obama’s Legacy Starts To Go Dark

I’m dreaming of a bleak Christmas, my mind full of the ways Barack Obama’s presidency is going down in history. Yes, with every Christmas card I write, as the song goes.

Here’s the thing making Republicans joyful and triumphant, and Democrats dark on the winter solstice: Obama left his legacy undefended on the field. There’s nothing to stop President-elect Donald J. Trump from knocking it down like a house of cards — with pleasure. With every appointment, he makes clear that Obama’s America is under lethal attack. He’s sending in the Marines to run the Pentagon; the CEO of Exxon, with ties to Vladimir Putin, to State; a critic decrying public education to Education; a doctor in the House who aims to dismantle Obamacare; and a climate change doubter to protect the environment.

Each one is a gift.

Give him this. President Obama had a fine arc since the summer of 2015, on foreign and domestic fronts. The Iran nuclear deal and singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for nine murdered black churchgoers signaled a greater confidence and command. Yes, I was a believer. The president would end his eight years on a high note, just as he came in, as the answer to our hopes and fears of all the George W. Bush years.

Yet besides the numbing loss of Hillary Clinton, his chosen successor, Obama has faced hard realities: Russian hacking to influence the election, not to mention the fall of Aleppo, Syria’s city in shambles.

James Comey, the FBI director, is our own heartless Ebenezer Scrooge for Christmas 2016. Charles Dickens, get me a rewrite for “The Christmas Carol.” Comey, a pious Republican when he was appointed by a Democratic president — Obama — may have caused the wings of the electorate to flutter just enough to halt Clinton’s closing momentum.

Comey made a big deal about new emails on Clinton’s private server, days before the election, giving a “misdirect” to the public. It turned out to be for nothing — naught! — except it hurt her in a close race. On a wild goose chase, Comey became immersed in the House Republican witch hunt of her, not staying true to the larger duty to the American people. Her enemies could not have scripted his moves better.

Even more egregious, the FBI made no good-faith effort to contact John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, to tell him about Russian hacking of campaign communications, including his own. Come on. Podesta was outraged to find the FBI made one phone call that went to the help desk. If Comey were doing his job properly, protecting national security, he would have briefed Podesta in person, in the light of day, during the campaign. Comey spent too little time on the real thing, and too much on a false pursuit of Clinton inside the FBI brute of a building.

It kills me that Obama appointed a Republican to the 10-year FBI post. It flatters his vanity to be above the partisan fray. Preening has consequences, causing Obama to leave us with the House, Senate, Supreme Court and White House, all on the other side. I’m sorry, but that’s rough. And rare.

Back to writing Christmas cards. I search for the words to share with a couple in Baltimore whose golden son was paralyzed when he hit a sandbar in the summer in Cape May. I write how resilient they are, that I’ve thought of them often. And, I added, I hope they haven’t lost their faith.

I’m not religious, but play me Handel’s “Messiah” anytime — and my heart will leap when the trumpet sounds, after the chorus sings Hallelujah. My true faith was grounded in politics, in democracy, in the founders and framers. Now it’s shaken as never before. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, authors of the Constitution, played a cruel joke on us. It’s called the Electoral College.

Ironically, they conceived the high-minded system to check the worst impulses of the masses, if they should elect an unscrupulous crowd pleaser. They meant to prevent Donald Trump from taking high office. Instead, they prevented Hillary Clinton from her rightful place, given she won the people’s vote by nearly three million.

Oh, yes, President Obama’s last White House days will go “down” in history — this bleak midwinter. Merry Christmas.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

IMAGE: U.S. President  Barack Obama delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Russian Ambassador To Turkey Shot Dead In Ankara Gallery

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – The Russian ambassador to Turkey was shot in the back and killed as he gave a speech at an Ankara art gallery on Monday by an off-duty police officer who shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo” and “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire.

The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the death of envoy Andrei Karlov, calling it a “terrorist act”. Relations between Moscow and Ankara have long been strained over the conflict in Syria, with the two support opposing sides in the war.

Russia is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its air strikes helped Syrian forces end rebel resistance last week in the northern city of Aleppo. Turkey, which seeks Assad’s ouster, has been repairing ties with Moscow after shooting down a Russian warplane over Syria last year.

The Ankara mayor said on Twitter the gunman as a 22-year-old police officer. Two security sources told Reuters he was not on duty at the time.

The attacker was smartly dressed in black suit and tie and stood, alone, behind the ambassador as he made a speech at the art exhibition, a person at the scene told Reuters.

“He took out his gun and shot the ambassador from behind. We saw him lying on the floor and then we ran out,” said the witness, who asked not to be identified. People took refuge in adjoining rooms as the shooting continued.

A video showed the attacker shouting: “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” and “Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) as screams rang out. He paced about and shouted as he held the gun in one hand and waved the other in the air.

A Reuters cameraman at the scene said gunfire rang out for some time after the attack. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency said the gunman had been “neutralized”, apparently killed.

Another photograph showed four people the ambassador lying on the floor.

“We regard this as a terrorist act,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Terrorism will not win and we will fight against it decisively.”

It was not clear whether the gunman was a lone operator, driven perhaps by popular discontent over Russian action in Syria or affiliated to a group like Islamic State, which has carried out a string of bomb attacks in Turkey in the last year.

Since a failed coup in July, President Tayyip Erdogan has been purging the police of supporters of an exiled cleric and former ally, Fethullah Gulen, whom he characterizes as the chief terrorist threat to Turkey.

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT

Erdogan contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin to brief him on the shooting, a Turkish official said. It was not immediately clear if Erdogan would release a statement later.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was due to meet with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Russia on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria. Officials said the meeting would still go on, despite the attack.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said it would not allow the attack to cast a shadow over Ankara’s relations with Moscow.

“The attack comes at a bad time: Moscow and Ankara have only recently restored diplomatic ties after Turkey downed a Russian aircraft in November 2015,” the Stratfor think-tank said.

“Though the attack will strain relations between the two countries, it is not likely to rupture them altogether.”

The U.S. State Department, involved in diplomatic contacts with Russia in an attempt to resolve a refugee crisis unfolding around the city of Aleppo, condemned the attack.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as Russian-backed Syrian forces have fought for control of the eastern part of Aleppo, triggering a stream of refugees.

Turkey has been hit by multiple bomb attacks that have been claimed by Kurdish militants, and beat back an attempted coup in July, where rogue soldiers commandeered tanks, warplanes and helicopters in attempt to overthrow the parliament.

Since then, the government has launched a sweeping crackdown on the judiciary, police and civil service in attempt to root out the coup plotters. The involvement of a police officer in Monday’s attack could raise questions for Ereogan about a force denuded now of a number of senior and rank-and-file officers.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Nevzat Devranoglu, Tulay Karadeniz, Ercan Gurses and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Humeyra Pamuk and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; editing by Ralph Boulton and Mark Trevelyan)

IMAGE: Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov accompanies Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul, October 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The Tragic Fall Of Aleppo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An operation to bring thousands of people out of the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo was under way again on Monday after being held up for several days, together with the evacuation of two besieged pro-government villages in nearby Idlib province.

Convoys of buses from eastern Aleppo reached rebel-held areas of countryside to the west of the city, according to a U.N. official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

At the same time, 10 buses left the Shi’ite Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, north of Idlib, for government lines in Aleppo, the sources said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a total of 12,000 civilians had been evacuated from Aleppo, including 4,500 since midnight on Sunday.

The evacuation of civilians, including wounded people, from the two villages had been demanded by the Syrian army and its allies before they would allow fighters and civilians trapped in Aleppo to depart. The stand-off halted the Aleppo evacuation over the weekend.

“First limited evacuations, finally, tonight from east Aleppo and Foua & Kefraya. Many thousands more are waiting to be evacuated soon,” Jan Egeland, who chairs the United Nations aid task force in Syria, tweeted late on Sunday night.

Syrian state TV and pro-Damascus stations showed the first four buses arriving in Aleppo from the besieged villages, accompanied by pick-up trucks and with people sitting on their roofs.

In Idlib, aid workers said more than 60 buses had arrived from Aleppo. Some evacuees were being taken in by relatives or other residents, while others could be housed in tents.

The recapture of Aleppo is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest victory so far in the nearly six-year-old war, but the fighting is by no means over with large tracts of the country still under the control of insurgent and Islamist groups.

WET AND COLD

Photographs of people evacuated from Aleppo showed large groups of people standing or crouching with their belongings or loading sacks onto trucks before heading off to further destinations.

Children, dressed in winter clothes against the cold, carried small backpacks or played with kittens and one older man, in traditional Arab robes and headdress, sat holding a stick.

Later on Monday, the Security Council will vote in New York on a resolution to allow U.N. staff to monitor the evacuations. The draft resolution was the result of a compromise between Russia and France, and the United States said it was expected to pass unanimously.

On Sunday, some of the buses sent to al-Foua and Kefraya to carry evacuees out were attacked and torched by armed men, who shouted “God is greatest” and brandished their weapons in front of the burning vehicles, according to a video posted online.

That incident threatened to derail the evacuations, the result of intense negotiations between Russia – Assad’s main supporter – and Turkey, which backs some large rebel groups.

The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey will hold talks in Moscow on Tuesday aimed at giving fresh impetus for a solution in Aleppo.

“It is not a miracle meeting but will give all sides a chance to listen to each other,” an official from Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

At stake is the fate of thousands of people still stuck in the last rebel bastion in Aleppo after a series of sudden advances by the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militias under an intense bombardment that pulverized large sections of the city.

“JUST WANT TO ESCAPE”

They have been waiting for the chance to leave Aleppo since the ceasefire and evacuation deal was agreed late last Tuesday, but have struggled to do so during days of hold-ups. The weather in Aleppo has been wet and very cold and there is little shelter and few services in the tiny rebel zone.

In the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district, organizers gave every family a number to allow them access to buses.

“Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape,” said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under the ceasefire deal that ends fighting in the city where violence erupted in 2012, a year after the start of conflict in other parts of Syria.

They were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed in Syria near the Turkish border to the north.

For four years the city was split between a rebel-held eastern sector and the government-held western districts. During the summer, the army and its allies managed to besiege the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.

A Reuters reporter who visited recaptured districts of Aleppo in recent days saw large swathes reduced to ruins, with rubble and other debris clogging the streets and sections of the famous Old City all but destroyed.

Assad is backed in the war by Russian air power and Shi’ite militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Iraq’s Harakat al-Nujaba. The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

East of Aleppo, several villages held by Islamic State have been captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of militias backed by the United States that includes a strong Kurdish contingent, the Observatory said.

The advance is part of a campaign backed by an international coalition to drive Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Humeyra Pamuk, Stephanie Nebehay, writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)

IMAGE: A member of forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stands with a civilian on the rubble of the Carlton Hotel, in the government controlled area of Aleppo, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki