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US-Russian Attacks Intensify on the Islamic State, Suicide Bombing in Saudi Arabia, and Helicopter Downing in Libya

October 28, 2015


Coffin of Vadim Kostenko, the first Russian soldiers who was killed in Syria arrives in home town in Southern Russia, October 27, 2015  


U.S. to intensify fight against Islamic State militants: Pentagon chief

Reuters Tue Oct 27, 2015 6:25pm EDT

WASHINGTON | By David Alexander and Yeganeh Torbati

U.S. to intensify fight against Islamic State militants: Pentagon chief | Reuters

The U.S. military will intensify air strikes and may carry out more direct ground attacks as it steps up efforts against Islamic State following a failed bid to train Syrian rebels, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee just days after a U.S. soldier was killed participating in a Kurdish-led mission to rescue Islamic State hostages, Carter indicated that similar missions were likely in the future as U.S. forces adapt to the fight in Syria and Iraq.

"We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground," said Carter, using an acronym for the militant group.

The Pentagon chief, who faced withering criticism over the administration's handling of the Islamic State crisis, said while the Iraq mission was to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces, "where we have actionable intelligence and a capable partner force, we want to support our partners and we will."

As Carter briefed the Armed Services Committee on the U.S. strategy against the militants, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors on the same issue, just days before heading to Vienna for multilateral talks on Syria.

An official in the region told Reuters that Iran had been invited to the Vienna talks by the United States and Russia, and Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian would attend, while the presence of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was still under discussion.

"Friday obviously will be an important day," said Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations panel. The Obama administration "are putting a lot of stock in Friday's meetings," he said.

Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that going forward the U.S.-led coalition would support local forces as they put pressure on Islamic State in the group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa and in the captured Iraqi city of Ramadi.

He said the United States was now supporting Syrian Arab forces already inside the country fighting Islamic State rather than trying to train completely new moderate Syrian fighters outside the country, an effort that cost millions of dollars and produced few trained troops.

Marine Corp General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel he would consider recommending putting more U.S. advisers with Iraqi troops to support the Islamic State fight if it improved chances of defeating the militants.

"If it had operational or strategic impact and we could reinforce success, that would be the basic framework within which I'd make a recommendation for additional forces to be co-located with Iraqi units," Dunford said.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sharply criticized the administration's handling of the war, saying it had "all too often made the problem worse" by trying to deal with symptoms rather than the sectarian divisions at the center of the problem.

"There's a clear military dimension to this problem," McCain said. "Unless the military balance of power changes on the ground, diplomacy, as has been amply proven, will achieve nothing."

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio and Christian Plumb)

Saudi mosque suicide bomber threatened Shi'ites, Saudi soldiers: audio

 Reuters Tue Oct 27, 2015 5:33pm EDT


The Islamic State suicide bomber who carried out an attack on a Shi'ite mosque in the Saudi city of Najran on Monday threatened Shi'ites and Saudi soldiers, according to a posthumous audio message purportedly by the attacker.

Najran, close to the Yemeni border, is the historic center of the Ismailis, a Shi'ite sect which has long complained of victimization by Wahhabis, who follow the Saudi state's prevailing school of Sunni Islam.

The 3-minute message, which showed a picture of a man with his face covered, circulated on Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts on Tuesday. Reuters could not verify its authenticity.

"My first message is a threat to the rejectionist Ismailis ... you will not enjoy life in the Peninsula," the man, identified as Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi, said, referring to the Arabian Peninsula.

"My second message, to the soldiers of the tyrant who protect the polytheists and their temples in (Saudi Arabia) ... you will not be safe in your homes or your offices and we'll target you as long as the planes of your guardian hit Muslims with Crusader planes in Iraq and Syria."

Saudi Arabia is part of a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants that has carried out a campaign of air strikes against the militants, who have seized parts of Syria and Iraq.

The group is bitterly opposed to Gulf Arab rulers and is seen as trying to stir up sectarian confrontation on the Arabian Peninsula to bring about the overthrow of ruling dynasties.

Monday's suicide bombing, which Islamic State said had targeted the "rejectionist Ismailis", killed one man and wounded several others.

Saudi Arabia has been hit by a spate of deadly shooting and bomb attacks in the last few months, many of them laid at the door of Islamic State, which has urged young Saudi Sunnis to attack targets including Shi'ites.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Libyan helicopter shot down, killing senior Tripoli officers

 Reuters Tue Oct 27, 2015 4:52pm EDT

By Ahmed Elumami

TRIPOLI, Reuters -

Several military commanders from Libya's self-styled government in Tripoli were killed on Tuesday when their helicopter was shot down by another of the country’s armed factions, triggering clashes west of the capital.

Libya is caught up in a conflict between that government and a second, internationally recognized one in the east, and the shooting comes as the United Nations pursues fragile negotiations between them to form a unity administration.

Hardliners on both sides are resisting a peace deal and see any violence as an excuse to challenge the talks.

Colonel Mustafa Al-Sharkasi, spokesman for the Tripoli government's chief of staff, said the helicopter had been returning to the capital when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea near al-Maya.

Security sources said 13 bodies had been recovered out of the 19 people on board, including three colonels from the Tripoli military command. They had been traveling by helicopter because of security risks on the coast road west of the city, a source said.


Fierce clashes erupted immediately after the crash between armed brigades from Zawiya city, which support the Tripoli government, and from Washafana town, whose fighters it blamed for shooting down the helicopter. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Four years after the revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, Libya still has no national army. Brigades of rebels have been put on the state payroll as security forces. But they often remain more loyal to their cities or regions, and have steadily turned again against one another and allied with rival political forces in a battle for control.

"We firmly condemn the incident and of course, we accuse elements of the so-called tribal army of Gaddafi's followers. We will respond strongly at the right time and place," Sharkasi said in a statement, referring to the Washafana fighters.

The international community is pushing hard for factions to sign up to the U.N. agreement as a way to end a crisis western officials fear could fracture an already deeply divided country. In the chaos, Islamic State militants have gained ground and people smugglers are taking advantage to ship illegal migrants to Europe.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by John Stonestreet)

Parents receive body of first Russian to die in Syria, doubt suicide

 Reuters Tue Oct 27, 2015 3:37pm EDT

GRECHANAYA BALKA, Russia | By Maria Tsvetkova

The body of the first Russian serviceman confirmed dead in four weeks of air strikes in Syria was delivered on Tuesday to his parents, who said they were not convinced by the military's account that their 19-year-old son had hanged himself.

In an interview with Reuters at their home in southern Russia before they received the body of their son Vadim, Alexander and Svetlana Kostenko said their son had sounded cheerful over the phone as recently as Saturday, the day he died while working at an air base on the Syrian coast.

"I will never believe this version (suicide)," said Svetlana, who was wearing a black head scarf. "We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. (On Saturday) he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed," she said.

Parents receive body of first Russian to die in Syria, doubt suicide | Reuters

Alexander, Vadim's father, speaking in a low voice, agreed: "We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well."

The body was delivered later on Tuesday afternoon in a military truck. Soldiers carried the body into the house inside a wooden box. Shortly afterwards, a woman could be heard loudly sobbing. A little later, a polished wooden coffin was delivered to the house.

After the family saw the body, Vadim's younger sister Katya, 14, told Reuters the corpse appeared undamaged and it was unclear if he was strangled or had hanged himself.

Kostenko was one of the Russian air force's support staff. He signed a contract on June 20 and was dispatched to Syria by plane on Sept. 14, two weeks before the Kremlin's air campaign began, his father said. He said they had only discovered Vadim was in Syria when he was already there.

Interfax news agency quoted a source in the defense ministry's press service confirming the death.

"A contract serviceman stationed at the Hmeimim airbase (in Latakia) as a technician committed suicide while he was resting after duty," the source told Interfax.

"According to preliminary information, in particular the analysis of text messages in his phone, the reason for the death of the contract serviceman is problems in his personal relationship with a girl," the source said.

The ministry, which did not name the girl, did not respond to written questions from Reuters.

When asked by Reuters via social media whether the couple had fallen out, Tatiana, Vadim's girlfriend, did not respond.

Opinion polls show strong public backing at home for the Kremlin's air campaign in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad; one survey put support above 70 percent.

Kostenko's death was first flagged by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of bloggers who have previously worked to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine, where Russia denies its troops are fighting despite what Western countries say is overwhelming evidence.

Kostenko's social network account, which contains an image of him in air force uniform, was filled with condolences, as well as disrespectful abuse from some users.


A Reuters reporter was told she could not enter the base of the air force unit, in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, where Kostenko served, and where CIT says Sukhoi-25 jets operational in Syria are usually based.

Standing in front of their house in the village of Grechanaya Balka in southern Russia as hens clucked around them before the body arrived, the Kostenkos said their son's battalion commander had broken the bad news personally, telling them Vadim had hanged himself on Saturday, Oct. 24.

The funeral would take place on Wednesday.

Vadim's sister and his aunt, Anna Musienko, said they also did not believe he had killed himself. Vadim was planning to marry his girlfriend and that the two got along well, they said.

Musienko painted a picture of her nephew as someone who was enthused by serving in the military, saying Vadim had nursed ambitions to train as a pilot. Vadim had told his relatives he and his friends could not refuse the order to go to Syria when it came, she said.

President Vladimir Putin ordered in May that deaths of Russian soldiers during special operations in peacetime should be classified as a state secret.

Before Tuesday, reports of Russian deaths in Syria had been unconfirmed.

On Oct. 20, a senior pro-Syrian government military source told Reuters at least three Russian citizens fighting with Syrian government forces had been killed by a shell. Russian authorities strongly denied at the time that any of their military personnel had been killed.

An unnamed Russian defense ministry source also told the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 23 that a Russian soldier had been killed in an incident related to careless weapons handling.

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)



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