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Suspected Western Jihadists In ‘Evil’ IS Beheading Video

Beirut (AFP) — Authorities were on Monday investigating the suspected involvement of Western jihadists in the brutal video by the Islamic State group claiming the beheading of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig.

The killing of Kassig and the simultaneous beheadings of at least 18 Syrian military personnel in the video sparked global horror, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling it “an act of pure evil”.

It was the latest in a series of atrocities by IS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The video showed the Syrian men kneeling on the ground each before a separate executioner, whose faces were uncovered.

Among the militants shown beheading the Syrian servicemen were some known foreign fighters, including at least one Frenchman and possibly a Briton, an Australian, and a Dane.

French authorities identified one of the executioners as Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old from a small village in Normandy in northern France who left for Syria in August last year.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said “circumstantial evidence confirms the involvement of a Frenchman in the decapitation of Syrian prisoners shown in an IS video released on Sunday.”

An investigation into Hauchard was opened in August by French authorities “for criminal association in relation to a terrorist organisation,” a judicial source said.

– Lured by online videos –

Interviewed in July by French TV station BFM via Skype, Hauchard said he had decided to join IS after watching videos online.

“The personal objective of everyone here is (to become a) shahid (martyr). That is the greatest reward,” he said.

An intelligence source said it was also being verified whether a second French citizen was among the jihadists seen in the video.

Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to join IS in Iraq and Syria, and experts say they are often among the most violent and brutal of the jihadists.

A British-accented jihadist has been at the center of previous IS beheading videos and appeared again in Sunday’s recording claiming Kassig’s killing.

The father of another British jihadist fighting with IS initially told the media he had also seen his son in the video, but later said he was mistaken.

Britain’s Foreign Office refused to comment on speculation about the identity of the fighters in the video, but a spokesman said: “We are analyzing its contents.”

Kassig, who took the name Abdul-Rahman after converting to Islam, was captured last year and became the fifth Western hostage beheaded by IS after two U.S. reporters and two British aid workers.

“Abdul-Rahman was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity,” Obama said in a statement.

In the undated video released on Sunday, the jihadist stands above a severed head he claims is Kassig’s and urges Obama to send more troops to the region to confront IS.

“Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” the militant says, referring to a northern Syrian town.

Washington is preparing to double its military personnel in Iraq to up to 3,100 as part of the international campaign it is leading against the jihadists.

Kassig, an Iraq war veteran, had risked his life to provide medical treatment and relief supplies to those suffering from Syria’s civil war.

– Flags lowered in mourning –

Kassig’s parents said they were “incredibly proud” of his humanitarian work to help Syrians trapped in a bloody civil war.

“(He) lost his life as a result of his love for the Syrian people and his desire to ease their suffering,” Ed and Paula Kassig said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Flags were to be lowered at government buildings in Kassig’s home state of Indiana on Monday, Governor Mike Pence said in a statement, calling the killing “an unspeakable act of barbarism”.

Sunday’s video was substantially different from previous IS recordings of beheadings.

Kassig was not shown alive in the footage, and no direct threats were made against other Western hostages.

The video came as IS suffered battleground setbacks in Iraq backed by U.S.-led air strikes, with government forces Saturday breaking the jihadists’ months-long siege of the country’s largest oil refinery.

Monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it had documented the execution of 1,429 people in Syria by IS in the five months since it declared the establishment of a “caliphate” in areas under its control.

AFP Photo

Kerry In Southeast Asia Seeking Support Against IS Group

Jakarta (AFP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday visited Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, to press Southeast Asian nations to step up efforts in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Kerry was among foreign dignitaries in Jakarta for the inauguration of President Joko Widodo, a former furniture exporter who is the first leader of the world’s third-biggest democracy to come from outside the country’s political and military elites.

On the sidelines of the event, the top U.S. diplomat was using a series of bilateral meetings to urge Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and other Southeast Asian leaders to take more action against the growing threat from IS militants, officials said.

IS’s jihadist appeal is fanning fears that it could serve as a potent rallying cry for extremists in the region, who had been largely brought to heel following a run of deadly attacks.

A senior State Department official said discussions on combating the IS group were “at the top of the list” for the meetings.

During talks with Najib Razak, the prime minister of Muslim-majority Malaysia, Kerry thanked the leader for “Malaysia’s strong public comments” condemning the IS organisation and support for a United Nations resolution aimed at tackling the threat of radicals who join the extremist group, said another senior U.S. official.

“They also discussed the need for the international community to continue to do more to crack down on foreign fighters,” said the official.

As well as Widodo, Kerry was meeting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday.

– Growing alarm –

There is particular concern about the influence of the IS group in Indonesia, which has a population of some 250 million Muslims and a history of Islamic militancy, and in neighboring Malaysia.

Authorities in those countries have watched with alarm as scores, possibly even hundreds, of their nationals have gone to Syria and Iraq to join the fight for a hard line Muslim caliphate.

Malaysian police have arrested a total of three dozen people this year for suspected IS-related activities.

Jakarta has sought to ban support for IS ideology while police believe up to five Indonesians — including two suicide bombers — have died fighting with radical groups in the Middle East this year.

Indonesia launched a crackdown on extremists more than a decade ago after a series of attacks on Western targets, and managed to weaken major militant networks.

In the Philippines, the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group that recently pledged allegiance to IS militants last week released a German couple after a harrowing six-month hostage ordeal.

The extremists had threatened to behead one of the hostages unless Berlin pay them a $5.6-million ransom and withdraw its support for U.S. offensives against IS jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

During his meetings Kerry will press Southeast Asian countries on areas “where we believe and hope that the individual countries can do more”, a State Department official said.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, climate change and the Ebola virus will also be on the agenda during the meetings, officials said.

Following his visit to Indonesia, Kerry will head to Germany to attend events marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

AFP Photo/Bay Ismoyo

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U.S. ‘Concerned’ Over IS-Beseiged Border Town

Washington (AFP) — The United States said Tuesday it was “horrific” watching in real time the battle for the Syrian border town of Kobane, insisting it did not want to see the city fall to Islamic militants.

The blitz on Kobane by the Islamic State group follows a three-week siege that sent 190,000 refugees streaming into Turkey — and despite U.S.-led coalition air attacks, the town appears on the verge of falling.

In a measure of U.S. concern, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke late Monday and again Tuesday with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu about the crisis, as Kerry’s spokeswoman said “it’s horrific for everyone to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobane.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Tuesday that air strikes alone would not halt the Islamic State advance, which has already killed hundreds of people in the town.

“I am telling the West — dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution,” he said, calling for cooperation on a ground operation without offering to send in any Turkish troops.

A State Department official, who asked not to be named, admitted it was “a challenge” to get Turkey on board with fighting to protect Kobane, which has been a stronghold of Syrian Kurds.

Turkish authorities are wary of any moves that could encourage Kurdish separatism. Kurds bitterly accuse Ankara of merely looking on as the town risks being overrun by jihadists despite the dozens of Turkish tanks deployed on the border.

“Having them do more requires them moving beyond that” anti-Kurd position, the State Department official said.

– White House ‘very concerned’ –

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that Washington was “very concerned” about the safety of innocent civilians.

“Once again, we are seeing this extremist organization, in the name of an otherwise peaceful religion, Islam, perpetrating terrible acts of violence against religious and ethnic minorities.”

“This is something we remain concerned about.”

Multiple coalition air strikes around Kobane overnight destroyed four IS armed vehicles including one carrying an anti-aircraft artillery battery. Another vehicle and a tank were damaged and a IS unit destroyed, U.S. officials said.

General John Allen, the special U.S. envoy in charge of forging the anti IS-coalition, and top Iraq pointman Brett McGurk are due to arrive in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials on Thursday and Friday.

“I think Turkey is determining what larger role they’ll play broadly as a part of the coalition moving forward,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

But she dodged the question on whether it was a U.S. priority to save the city, saying: “Certainly, no one wants to see Kobane fall, but our primary objective here is preventing ISIL from gaining a safe haven.”

The U.S.-led coalition wants to stop the group, also known as ISIL, from being able to “stage attacks in Iraq, and possibly plan attacks against U.S. interests.”

That was part of “a deliberate, well-thought-out campaign in Syria to disrupt ISIL, specifically their command and control structures, destroy ISIL’s critical infrastructure, attack sources of ISIL fuel and financing,” Psaki added.

AFP Photo/Aris Messinis

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Backed By Strikes, Kurds Battle To Defend Key Syria Town

Mursitpinar (Turkey) — Kurdish fighters backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes were locked in a fierce battle Wednesday to prevent a key Syrian border town from falling into the hands of jihadists.

The heavy clashes in Ain al-Arab on the border with Turkey — a crucial recent battleground in the fight against the Islamic State group — left at least 10 people dead overnight, monitors said.

Kurdish forces have been on the retreat for more than two weeks in the face of a jihadist assault on the town that sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border.

With IS fighters less than three kilometers (two miles) from the town, the U.S.-led coalition carried out at least five air strikes on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitoring group said the strikes hit IS fronts south and southeast of the town, known as Kobane by the Kurds, where at least nine Kurdish fighters and one IS militant were killed in overnight fighting.

Ain al-Arab would be a key prize for IS, giving it unbroken control of a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

The U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab allies is providing air support to local forces in their ground war against IS, an extremist Sunni Muslim group that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. launched strikes in Iraq in August and has been joined by Western allies. Last week, Washington and Arab states also began hitting IS targets in Syria.

In Iraq, Kurdish fighters were advancing against IS militants on three fronts, with support from British and U.S. air strikes.

Backed by 11 coalition strikes, Kurdish forces went on the offensive on Tuesday in the town of Rabia on the Syrian border, north of jihadist-controlled second city Mosul, and south of oil hub Kirkuk, commanders said.

– Pentagon appeals for patience –

The Pentagon meanwhile appealed for patience, warning that there would be no quick and easy end to the fighting.

“No one should be lulled into a false sense of security by accurate air strikes,” Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told reporters.

“We will not, we cannot bomb them into obscurity.”

A long-term effort will be needed to train and arm Syrian rebel forces and strengthen Iraq’s army, he said.

He said “military action alone will not win this effort”.

The U.S. Marine Corps plans to deploy 2,300 troops to the Middle East for a new “special purpose marine air ground task force” designed to quickly respond to crises in the volatile region, Kirby added.

The idea for the task force originated before the U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State group and is not related “to the ongoing operations in Iraq,” he said.

NATO member Turkey, after months of caution in the fight against IS, has decided to harden its policy, and the government asked parliament Tuesday to authorize military action against IS in Iraq and Syria.

Lawmakers are due to debate a motion Thursday that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said would “meet all the demands and eliminate the risks and threats”.

Turkey has remained tight-lipped about what its intervention will entail, but Arinc indicated the parliamentary mandate will be kept as broad as possible to allow the government freedom to decide.

Australia announced that its military jets were joining the U.S.-led air campaign in neighboring Iraq in a support capacity, a day after Britain carried out its first strikes on IS targets there.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has described IS as an “apocalyptic death cult” said the aircraft would provide reconnaissance and refueling support only for now.

“We have not yet made a final decision to commit our forces to combat but Australian aircraft from today will start flying over Iraq in support of allied operations,” Abbott told parliament.

“Ours are support operations, not strike missions. Australian air strikes await final clearances from the Iraqi government and a further decision by our own.”

Britain said its jets had destroyed an IS convoy west of Baghdad on Wednesday in their second strikes on the jihadists in Iraq in as many days.

On Tuesday, British warplanes destroyed an IS heavy weapons post and a machine gun-mounted vehicle in the country’s first air strikes against the group in Iraq.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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