Covering Mosul: a deadly city in a dangerous country

The death of two journalists in Mosul has highlighted once more the particular dangers of covering the battle to recapture the Iraqi city from Islamic State group fighters.A mine blast killed Iraqi Kurdish journalist Bakhtiyar Addad, 28, on Monday. His…

The death of two journalists in Mosul has highlighted once more the particular dangers of covering the battle to recapture the Iraqi city from Islamic State group fighters.

A mine blast killed Iraqi Kurdish journalist Bakhtiyar Addad, 28, on Monday. His French colleague Stephan Villeneuve later died of his wounds and two other French journalists were wounded.

They were accompanying Iraqi special forces during the battle for the city, where the jihadists are using around 100,000 civilians as "human shields", according to the UN.

These latest deaths brought the toll for journalists in Iraq to 28 killed since 2014, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media rights watchdog.

It was RSF -- it is known by its French acronym -- that broke the news of their deaths along with broadcaster France Televisions.

"Iraq is one of the world's deadliest countries for journalists," said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

"In 2015 and 2016, it was one of the three countries where the most journalists were killed in the course of their work."

Covering the battle for Mosul, especially in the narrow streets of the Old City, where the last jihadists are holed up, is particularly risky.

Ziad Al-Ajili, of Iraq's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said nine journalists -- eight of them Iraqi -- had now died covering the battle for the city since it began last autumn.

"It is one of the most dangerous places to cover," said Etienne Leenhardt, head of reportages at France Televisions.

"It is impossible to foresee what might happen: there are snipers waiting in ambush, drones that can drop explosive charges on your vehicle."

"It's a labyrinth," said Leenhardt. "A maze of little streets and lanes, with civilians in the middle. You have no visibility."

- Targeting journalists -

"Mosul, it's the final combat for a few hundred jihadists who are playing their last hand to save their 'capital'," veteran correspondent Georges Malbrunot told AFP.

Malbrunot, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, who in 2004 was held hostage for four months by jihadists in Iraq, still makes regular visits to the troubled country.

"They are trying to inflict the maximum damage, and human life has no value for them," he said of the jihadists.

The news media, particularly Iraqi journalists, paid a heavy price when IS fighters first captured Mosul in 2014.

"Mosul was subjected to a journalistic cleansing, with most journalists forced into exile," said RSF's Deloire. The jihadists still hold at least 10 journalists hostage, he added.

But the journalists covering the battle for the city were volunteers, said Leenhardt at France Televisions -- and they were under strict orders when it came to wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests. They also carried a tracker so they could be located if the need arose.

But there are limits.

"One of our teams went to Raqa (in neighbouring Syria) last week, and we decided to get them out after 48 hours, because we considered it was not a 'reasonable' risk," he said.

But these conflicts had to be covered, he stressed.

"We have to cover the suffering of civilians, the political stakes, the ethnic conflicts that arise, so that it doesn't fall under the radar," he said.

Iran’s Khamenei hails Iraq’s ‘success’ against jihadists

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday praised the “success” of Iraqi forces in the battle against the Islamic State group in Mosul.”Today Daesh is fleeing Iraq and this is an admirable success,” Khamenei said in reference to the jihad…

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday praised the "success" of Iraqi forces in the battle against the Islamic State group in Mosul.

"Today Daesh is fleeing Iraq and this is an admirable success," Khamenei said in reference to the jihadist group as he received Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Tehran.

But he warned that Iraq "should not trust" the United States, which is leading a coalition fighting IS in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Abadi is on a regional tour that started in Saudi Arabia and will include a stop in Kuwait.

He also met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as Iraqi forces on Tuesday pressed an assault on the Old City in western Mosul, the last part of Iraq's second city still held by the jihadists.

"The liberation of Mosul is the symbol of the end of terrorism and a victory for Iran, Iraq, Syria and all the countries of the region that are fighting against terrorism," Rouhani said during talks with Abadi.

He said Iran stands by Iraq in its fight against the jihadists and considers a "victory over terrorism" as its own.

Iraqi commanders said fierce clashes were taking place in the Old City on Tuesday but admitted that the jihadists were putting up fierce resistance.

"We have many obstacles -- the nature of the land, the nature of the construction, the roads and the civilian population -- all of which make us slow down our work," Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi told AFP in Iraq.

Shiite-majority Iran has been a key backer of the Syrian and Iraqi governments as they seek to root out IS and other Sunni rebels, sending thousands of fighters and military advisers.

12,000 camels, sheep forced back to Qatar amid crisis: report

Around 12,000 camels and sheep have become the latest victims of the Gulf diplomatic crisis, being forced to trek back to Qatar from Saudi Arabia, a newspaper reported Tuesday.Qatar has so far provided temporary shelter, as well as water and fodder, to…

Around 12,000 camels and sheep have become the latest victims of the Gulf diplomatic crisis, being forced to trek back to Qatar from Saudi Arabia, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

Qatar has so far provided temporary shelter, as well as water and fodder, to 7,000 camels and 5,000 sheep returning from the kingdom, Qatari newspaper The Peninsula said.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar and gave its citizens a two-week deadline to leave the kingdom.

This has forced Qatari farmers with livestock in Saudi Arabia to move their animals back to the emirate, The Peninsula said.

Qatar is home to around 22,000 racing camels, but the animals are also farmed for meat and milk.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have accused Qatar of supporting extremism, charges Doha firmly denies.

Clashes in south Yemen kill six civilians

Clashes between Yemeni security forces and gunmen in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday left six civilians dead, a security official said.The fighting erupted when security forces stormed a house in the Omar al-Mukhtar neighbourhood and arrested a ma…

Clashes between Yemeni security forces and gunmen in the southern city of Aden on Tuesday left six civilians dead, a security official said.

The fighting erupted when security forces stormed a house in the Omar al-Mukhtar neighbourhood and arrested a man suspected of being a member of the Islamic State jihadist group, the official said.

Shortly after the operation, unidentified gunmen from the district attacked a checkpoint, triggering clashes that lasted for around three hours.

Three other civilians were wounded in the gunfight, the official said.

Aden serves as a temporary base for the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as the capital Sanaa has been held by Shiite Huthi rebels since September 2014.

Despite several security campaigns, government forces in Aden appear to have failed to flush out jihadists who have taken advantage of the war with the Huthis to expand their presence.

Hadi, who is based in Riyadh, has occasionally visited the port city since loyalists backed by a Saudi-led Arab coalition pushed the Huthi rebels out of the city and four southern provinces in the summer of 2015.

Hadi fled Aden in March 2015 as the Shiite rebels closed in on his refuge, prompting a military intervention by the Arab coalition.

More than 8,000 people have been killed in the past two years and tens of thousands wounded in the war in Yemen, according to the World Health Organization.

Jailed Israeli ex-PM taken to hospital

Former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert, who is serving a 27-month prison sentence for corruption, was taken to hospital Tuesday with chest and shoulder pains, prison and hospital officials said.A spokeswoman at Sheba hospital, near Tel Aviv, told AFP he wa…

Former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert, who is serving a 27-month prison sentence for corruption, was taken to hospital Tuesday with chest and shoulder pains, prison and hospital officials said.

A spokeswoman at Sheba hospital, near Tel Aviv, told AFP he was being given "a complete medical checkup".

Olmert, who was prime minister between 2006-2009, is Israel's first former premier to serve jail time.

The 71-year-old has been at the centre of a fierce public row over press freedoms since police last week seized drafts of a book he is working on.

Daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot said security forces on Thursday raided the premises of Olmert's publisher Yediot Books, a subsidiary of the newspaper.

The paper said police also seized a draft of a book on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by journalist Ben Caspit, a fierce critic of the premier.

And they took a manuscript by former defence minister Moshe Yaalon, who was fired by Netanyahu last year and is now a political rival.

Yediot Ahronot said detectives also raided the home of the editor working on Olmert's book.

Caspit was one of several commentators to slam the police action, which he called "more befitting of the acts of an ignorant regime in a totalitarian state".

On Sunday, the justice ministry said there were suspicions some passages in Olmert's book might contain classified material "liable to cause grave harm to state security".

It said the searches were carried out under a court order, and other confiscated materials would not be examined.

"Contrary to claims that have been made, we would like to make clear that nobody intended to study material unrelated to Olmert's book and nobody will examine it or make any use of it," the ministry said in a statement.

"The remaining materials will be returned to the publisher and no copy will be kept by the police."

Olmert was convicted of graft and entered prison in February 2016.

He recently went before a parole board to request his sentence be shortened by a third, and a decision is expected on June 29.

Media reports have said the public prosecutor's office has opposed parole in light of the suspicions against him.

Morocco detains three as Rif protests move to Imzouren

Police have arrested three more members of a protest movement in northern Morocco’s neglected Rif region, prompting hundreds of demonstrators to rally demanding their release, activists said Tuesday.Three activists from Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or “Popular …

Police have arrested three more members of a protest movement in northern Morocco's neglected Rif region, prompting hundreds of demonstrators to rally demanding their release, activists said Tuesday.

Three activists from Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", were arrested Monday in the flashpoint northern port of Al-Hoceima, a member of the grassroots group told AFP.

Two other activists, one of them a minor, were summoned by the police and told to "sign a pledge vowing not to take part in any future protest", the source said, adding that the pair were later released.

Al-Hoceima has been rocked by protests since the death in October of a fishmonger, who was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve swordfish that authorities had thrown away because it was caught out of season.

Calls for justice snowballed into a wider social movement led by Al-Hirak demanding development, an end to corruption and jobs for the mainly Berber Rif region.

Demonstrators have rallied nightly in Al-Hoceima and the nearby town of Imzouren since the arrest of Al-Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi on May 29.

Since then, authorities have arrested more than 100 people, many of them prominent Al-Hirak members, accusing them of undermining state security.

They have also cracked down on the protest movement in Al-Hoceima, with police deploying in the city and blocking access to roads making it impossible for demonstrators to hold rallies.

Since Friday, protests in Al-Hoceima have become "sporadic" because "the police has sealed off the city, preventing people from gathering on the streets", a local journalist told AFP.

A protest demanding the release of those arrested by the authorities took place instead on the outskirts of Imzouren overnight Monday, an activist said, adding that 500 people took part in the demonstration.

The demonstrators also chanted slogans calling for jobs and the development of the neglected Rif region.

Coalition shoots down Iran-made drone in Syria

A US warplane shot down an Iran-made drone operated by pro-regime forces in southern Syria early Tuesday, officials said, the second such incident in less than two weeks.The US-led coalition said in a statement that an F-15E Strike Eagle jet destroyed …

A US warplane shot down an Iran-made drone operated by pro-regime forces in southern Syria early Tuesday, officials said, the second such incident in less than two weeks.

The US-led coalition said in a statement that an F-15E Strike Eagle jet destroyed the Shaheed-129 drone around 12:30 am (2130 GMT) northeast of the Al-Tanaf garrison, which is close to the Jordanian border.

"It displayed hostile intent and advanced on coalition forces," the statement read.

Coalition troops were working in the area alongside local forces who are being trained to fight the so-called Islamic State group.

A US military official told AFP the drone was "on a run toward our folks to drop a munition on them," so the coalition shot the unmanned aircraft down in self defense.

Al-Tanaf, on the key highway connecting Damascus with Baghdad, has been menaced by a surge of Iran-backed troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Coalition forces use the area -- just northeast of the Jordanian border -- as a training and staging area for attacks against IS.

The incident has similar hallmarks to a June 8 shoot-down, when a US F-15 destroyed a pro-regime drone after it dropped what turned out to be a dud bomb near US-backed local forces.

It also comes after an American F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber Sunday in northern Syria as it "dropped bombs" near the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance fighting IS.

"Hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated," the coalition statement read.

The downing of the regime jet led Moscow to say it would sever a vital hotline it uses to communicate with the US coalition to avoid mishaps in Syria's increasingly crowded and complicated battlespace.

Polio paralyses 17 children in Syria: WHO

A polio outbreak in war-ravaged Syria has paralysed at least 17 children since March, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, describing the situation as “very serious”.Fifteen more cases have thus been confirmed since WHO first announced, less tha…

A polio outbreak in war-ravaged Syria has paralysed at least 17 children since March, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, describing the situation as "very serious".

Fifteen more cases have thus been confirmed since WHO first announced, less than two weeks ago, that Syria had been hit by its first outbreak of the crippling disease since 2014.

"We are very much worried, because if there is one case of polio with a kid that is paralysed, it is already an outbreak," WHO spokesman Tarim Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.

He pointed out that for every polio-caused paralysis, there are on average nearly 200 children who have the virus but no symptoms.

"The virus is circulating. It is very serious."

The new cases all surfaced between March 3 and May 23, but were only just confirmed, since it can take up to two months to determine with certainty that a case of acute flaccid paralysis stems from polio, he said.

"It is expected that we will have more confirmations," Jasarevic warned.

All but one of the cases were registered in the Mayadeen district of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, most of which is controlled by the Islamic State group and where a siege of the capital has restricted access to basic goods and services for some of the population.

WHO did not specify whether the Deir Ezzor cases were in areas under IS control.

One case of the crippling and potentially fatal viral disease that mainly affects children under the age of five has also surfaced in IS stronghold Raqa.

But Jasarevic said it remained unclear if polio was actually circulating in Raqa, or if the paralysed child had caught the virus elsewhere.

- Vaccine-derived polio -

Unlike the last polio outbreak in Syria, which affected 36 children, the current outbreak does not involve the so-called "wild" version of the virus.

Instead, it originated from a specific type of polio vaccine, which contains small amounts of weakened but live virus.

Oral polio vaccine (OPV) replicates in the gut and can be passed to others through faecal-contaminated water -- meaning it won't hurt the child who has been vaccinated, but could infect their neighbours in places where hygiene and immunisation levels are low.

WHO plans to bring in more of the vaccine to get immunisations levels high enough to ensure they can halt the outbreak, Jasarevic said, adding that the aim is to vaccinate more than 400,000 children under five in Deir Ezzor.

"Our teams on the ground are currently looking into the logistics," WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer told AFP.

"We still don't know how we will get the vaccine in... by truck or helicopter," he added.

Saudi, Iraq hail ‘leap’ in ties after Abadi visit

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have made a “qualitative leap” in relations, they said Tuesday after a visit by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that followed years of strained ties.It was Abadi’s first visit to Saudi Arabia since he became prime minister in 2014….

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have made a "qualitative leap" in relations, they said Tuesday after a visit by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that followed years of strained ties.

It was Abadi's first visit to Saudi Arabia since he became prime minister in 2014.

After a quarter century without diplomatic relations, which were cut following Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh sent an ambassador back to Baghdad last year.

But he left amid controversy, reflecting the challenge of improving relations despite Abadi's support for better ties.

In a joint statement, Iraq and Saudi Arabia expressed "their happiness over... a qualitative leap in relations" after Abadi met King Salman on Monday.

Talks also included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks stressed the need "to explore opportunities to support economic and trade relations," the statement said.

It made no mention of Gulf tensions with Qatar, but the two sides agreed to intensify efforts against extremism and "terrorism".

Abadi's visit came with the Gulf region in turmoil after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other allies cut ties with Qatar more than two weeks ago.

They accuse Doha of supporting extremist groups, including some backed by Iran.

Qatar strongly denies the charges.

Abadi, from his country's largest Shiite political bloc, is to also visit Kuwait and Iran, Saudi Arabia's Shiite-dominated regional rival.

Riyadh has long expressed concern about Iran's alleged interference in the region, including through Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary group which has played a major role in reclaiming parts of the country seized by the Islamic State group.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that it captured three Iranian Revolutionary Guards aboard an explosive-laden boat heading to an oil platform in the Gulf, further ratcheting up tensions in the region.

Iran said the three people detained were fishermen.

Israel starts work on new settlement amid US peace push

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the start of work Tuesday on a new settlement in the occupied West Bank as US envoys prepared to discuss a new peace push.”Today, the work on the ground has begun, as I promised, to establish a new se…

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the start of work Tuesday on a new settlement in the occupied West Bank as US envoys prepared to discuss a new peace push.

"Today, the work on the ground has begun, as I promised, to establish a new settlement for the Amona settlers," Netanyahu tweeted over a picture of a small bulldozer and a digger working on a rocky hill overlooking a vineyard.

The Amichai settlement, in the northern West Bank, is earmarked for some 40 families evicted from the wildcat outpost of Amona in February under a high court order which ruled their homes had been built illegally on private Palestinian land.

It is the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank in some 25 years. The extensive construction in the meantime has focused on expanding existing settlements.

"After dozens of years, I have the privilege to be the prime minister building a new settlement in Judaea and Samaria," Netanyahu tweeted, using the Hebrew biblical term for the West Bank.

His announcement comes a day after Trump's special representative Jason Greenblatt arrived for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on relaunching peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

Greenblatt is to be joined by Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner on Wednesday.

Together they will "spearhead the peace effort" the US administration believes is possible, a White House official said.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, are illegal under international law and are considered one of the main obstacles to peace.

Trump has asked Netanyahu to hold back on settlement building as he seeks to build momentum for a new peace push.

But the Israeli leader faces political pressure from the settler movement, which wields strong influence in his right-wing governing coalition.

Ahead of the arrival of the two envoys, the White House urged both Israel and the Palestinians to "create an environment conducive to peacemaking".

"Those who want to make it harder rather than easier to make peace, whether by their statements or their actions, must be prevented from subverting the chances for peace," the official said.

Tuesday's ground-clearing work was in preparation for the installation of dozens of mobile homes for the families evicted from Amona, a spokesman for the main settler organisation, the Yesha Council, said.

The settlers would live in the temporary accommodation while work continues on building more permanent homes, the spokesman added.

Iran protests against Tillerson ‘transition’ remarks

Iran has called in the Swiss charge d’affaires, who looks after US interests, to protest against comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backing “peaceful transition” in the Islamic republic.The administration of President Donald Trump has taken a…

Iran has called in the Swiss charge d'affaires, who looks after US interests, to protest against comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backing "peaceful transition" in the Islamic republic.

The administration of President Donald Trump has taken an increasingly hawkish position towards Iran since taking office in January but Tillerson's testimony to a Congressional committee last week appeared to be the first expression of support for a change of government.

"The Swiss charge d'affaires was summoned to the foreign ministry to be a handed a strong protest from the Islamic Republic of Iran against the comments by the US secretary of state.... which were contrary to international law and the UN charter," ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi told Iranian media.

Alongside Monday's summoning of the Swiss envoy, Iran also sent a protest letter to UN chief Antonio Guterres, the ISNA news agency reported.

In last Wednesday's testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson accused Iran of seeking "hegemony" in the Middle East at the expense of US allies like Saudi Arabia.

"Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony... and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government," the US top diplomat said.

"Those elements are there certainly, as we know," he added, without elaborating on the groups he was referring to.

Iran was, with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, part of the "axis of evil" that the George W. Bush administration earmarked for "regime change" after it took office in 2001.

But when Saddam's ouster in the US-led invasion of 2003 triggered a deadly insurgency that continues to this day, the policy fell out of favour.

In his testimony, Tillerson also raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on the whole of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's main military force and a major player in the country's economy.

Currently, Washington has only blacklisted the Guards' foreign operations arm -- the Quds Force -- and some individual commanders.

"We continually review the merits, both from the standpoint of diplomatic but also international consequences, of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in its entirety as a terrorist organisation," Tillerson said.

The Guards have played a major role in training Shiite militias in Iraq that are a significant force in the fightback against the Islamic State group, and have also trained thousands of "volunteers" to battle alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria.

The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and its interests are looked after by Switzerland.

One dead in new Bahrain bombing: ministry

A bomb in a Shiite village outside the Bahraini capital has killed one person, the second blast in a suburb of Manama this week, the interior ministry said on Tuesday.The Sunni-ruled Gulf state has been rocked by unrest among its Shiite majority since …

A bomb in a Shiite village outside the Bahraini capital has killed one person, the second blast in a suburb of Manama this week, the interior ministry said on Tuesday.

The Sunni-ruled Gulf state has been rocked by unrest among its Shiite majority since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

The interior ministry gave no date for the latest bombing saying only that a body discovered on Monday was found to have been killed in a bombing.

"An initial investigation into a body found on a farm in the village of Hajar on June 19 showed the death was the result of a bomb blast," the ministry said, without elaborating.

Police meanwhile made several arrests in connection with a Sunday night bombing outside Manama that killed a policeman and wounded two others, the ministry said.

That blast struck in the flashpoint village of Diraz, home of the spiritual leader of Bahrain's Shiite majority, Isa Qassim.

Five people were killed in the village last month when security forces opened fire to disperse a months-long sit-in in protest at measures taken against the cleric by the authorities.

Last year, a court order stripped Qassim of his Bahraini citizenship, a sanction used against dozens of dissidents that has drawn the condemnation of human rights groups.

In May, a court sentenced him to a suspended one-year jail term on charges of money laundering and illegal fundraising.

The Bahraini courts have sentenced dozens of dissidents to long jail terms, many of them on "terrorism" charges.

The authorities have also banned the main Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq -- the largest in parliament before 2011 -- as well as the main secular opposition group Al-Waad.

Foreign press access is severely restricted in the tiny but strategic island state, which lies between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

Israeli settlement building soars, official data shows

Building starts on settler homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank soared by 70 percent in the year to March 2017, data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics showed Monday.Since April 2016, work began on 2,758 dwellings, compared to 1,619 during…

Building starts on settler homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank soared by 70 percent in the year to March 2017, data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics showed Monday.

Since April 2016, work began on 2,758 dwellings, compared to 1,619 during the previous 12 months.

The figures do not include Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem which the Jewish state considers an integral part of its "indivisible capital".

Settlement watchdog Peace Now said the settlement boom coincided with a 2.5-percent drop in construction starts inside Israel.

"Instead of working to solve the Israeli housing crisis, the government prioritises a radical minority living beyond the boundaries of the state," it said.

"Such construction continues to distance us from the only way to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict - a two-state solution."

More than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, that are seen as a major obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

They live alongside some three million Palestinians.

Earlier this month, Israel green-lighted plans for more than 3,000 settler homes.

The projects are at various stages in the planning process and the units are located in a number of settlements across the West Bank.

US President Donald Trump is seeking to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- stalled since talks collapsed in 2014.

Trump has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back on settlement building as he seeks to build momentum.

Netanyahu, however, faces political pressure from the settler movement, which wields heavy influence in his right-wing governing coalition.

"There was not and will not be a better government for settlement than our government," he told senior members of his Likud party on Monday.

"We build in all parts of the country, we do it with determination, methodically and wisely," he said.

US working to relaunch military hotline with Russia

The United States is seeking to re-establish a military hotline with Russia that has been vital in protecting both sides’ forces operating in Syria, the top US general said Monday.”We will work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to re-es…

The United States is seeking to re-establish a military hotline with Russia that has been vital in protecting both sides' forces operating in Syria, the top US general said Monday.

"We will work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to re-establish deconfliction," said General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to the special communications channel.

Russia's defense ministry earlier said it would halt its use of the incident-prevention hotline after US forces downed a Syrian jet, though Dunford noted it had remained in use "over the last few hours."

Russia also warned that its air defense systems would begin tracking all US-led coalition aircraft in central Syria, prompting the Pentagon to move some of its planes.

"We have taken prudent measures to re-position aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battlespace," Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Russia previously threatened to scrap the deconfliction line, after an April 7 US cruise missile strike on a Syrian regime airbase in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians.

The line has been a lifesaving -- albeit imperfect -- tool since it was set up soon after Russia entered Syria's civil war in late 2015 to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

The hotline was established between US officers monitoring the war from an operations center at a base in Qatar and their Russian counterparts operating in Syria.

If Moscow does indeed abandon the hotline, it could dramatically raise the risk to pilots and ground forces on all sides.

Saudi says captured 3 Iran Revolutionary Guards from boat

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that it captured three Iranian Revolutionary Guards aboard an explosive-laden boat heading to an oil platform in the Gulf.The three “are now being questioned by Saudi authorities,” the information and culture ministry said i…

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that it captured three Iranian Revolutionary Guards aboard an explosive-laden boat heading to an oil platform in the Gulf.

The three "are now being questioned by Saudi authorities," the information and culture ministry said in a statement, at a time of already-heightened tensions with Iran.

"It is clear this was intended to be a terrorist act in Saudi territorial waters designed to cause severe damage to people and property," the ministry said.

The latest statement came more than 12 hours after Saudi Arabia said it had seized weapons from a boat captured in the Gulf's Marjan field at about 8:30 pm Friday.

It said the navy fired warning shots when three small boats entered Saudi territorial waters and headed at high speed towards the platforms.

That statement made no mention of explosives and did not detail what type of weapons were found, though it said they were for "subversive purposes".

That statement also made no mention of arrests but said the boats bore "red and white flags".

Two of the boats got away, it said.

On Saturday Iran accused the Saudi coastguard of killing one of its fishermen after two fishing boats may have strayed into Saudi waters.

Netanyahu warns Iran after Syria missile strike

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned Iran not to threaten Israel after Tehran launched ballistic missiles at a Syrian base of the Islamic State group.Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it had fired six missiles from western Iran into…

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned Iran not to threaten Israel after Tehran launched ballistic missiles at a Syrian base of the Islamic State group.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard said it had fired six missiles from western Iran into northeastern Syria on Sunday, targeting "terror bases."

The Guard said the strike was "in retaliation" for June 7 attacks in Tehran that killed 17 people in the first IS-claimed operations in the country.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said Iran is a threat to the Jewish state, the Middle East and potentially the world.

"We follow their actions and we follow their words," he said Monday. "I have one message to Iran: Do not threaten Israel."

"The army and our security forces are constantly monitoring the activity of Iran in the region," Netanyahu told senior members of his Likud party on Monday.

"This activity also includes their attempts to establish themselves in Syria and, of course, to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah and other operations," a party statement quoted him as saying.

Netanyahu was a vocal opponent of the 2015 deal between Tehran and major powers that saw sanctions against Iran eased in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Israel, which is itself believed to have atomic weapons, says the programme aims to produce a nuclear bomb -- something Iran denies.

Iran's homemade missiles, including some that are capable of hitting Israel or American military bases in the region, are a major point of tension with Washington and Israel.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel was not worried by Sunday's strike.

"Israel is prepared for every development," he told members of his right wing Yisrael Beitenu party on Monday.

"We are prepared, we have no concerns or worries."

Iraq’s Abadi visits Saudi ahead of Iran stop

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Saudi Arabia Monday on a tour that will also take him to Riyadh’s rival Iran and to Kuwait.His visit comes with the Gulf region in turmoil after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other allies cu…

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Saudi Arabia Monday on a tour that will also take him to Riyadh's rival Iran and to Kuwait.

His visit comes with the Gulf region in turmoil after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other allies cut ties with Qatar two weeks ago.

They accuse Doha of supporting extremist groups, including some backed by Iran, "that aim to destabilise the region".

Kuwait, which did not follow its neighbours in severing diplomatic relations with Qatar, has been trying to mediate.

Abadi is to hold talks with Saudi King Salman, Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani during his tour of the region.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef greeted Abadi when he landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah for the one-day visit, state media reported.

Abadi, from his country's largest Shiite political bloc, arrives at a time of heightened tensions between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and its Shiite-dominated rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran early last year after years of strained relations.

Riyadh has long expressed concern about Iran's "interference" in the region, including through Iraq's paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi which has played a major role in reclaiming parts of Iraq seized by the Islamic State group.

Gulf states are also reported to have been angered by a ransom allegedly paid by Doha to Tehran-linked militias earlier this year to secure the release of a hunting party, including members of the Qatari royal family, kidnapped in southern Iraq.

Abadi has supported efforts to improve strained Baghdad-Riyadh ties but the road to normalisation has been rocky.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir travelled to Baghdad in February for talks with Abadi, on the first visit of its kind since 2003.

In 2016, Thamer al-Sabhan became the first Saudi ambassador to Iraq in a quarter century, after ties were cut following ex-president Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But he left amid controversy the same year.

Although Saudi Arabia supports the fight against IS Sunni jihadists some countries, including Iraq, have argued it needs to do more to help defeat the extremists and their ideology.

Moscow says US downing of Syria warplane ‘act of aggression’

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov condemned the United States on Monday for shooting down a Syrian warplane, describing it as an act of aggression.”This strike has to be seen as a continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of i…

Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov condemned the United States on Monday for shooting down a Syrian warplane, describing it as an act of aggression.

"This strike has to be seen as a continuation of America's line to disregard the norms of international law," Ryabkov told journalists in Moscow, according to the TASS state news agency.

"What is this if not an act of aggression?" he said in Russia's first official reaction to the downing of the plane on Sunday.

"It is, if you like, help to those terrorists that the US is fighting against, declaring they are carrying out an anti-terrorism policy," Ryabkov said.

The US-led coalition said the Syrian plane had dropped bombs on its allies fighting against the Islamic State group in the war-torn country.

Turkish troops in Qatar for joint exercises

Turkish troops have arrived in Doha to take part in joint training exercises, Qatar’s defence ministry said on Monday, at a time of high tension in the Gulf.The first joint drills took place on Sunday at the Tariq bin Ziyad military camp in Doha, the m…

Turkish troops have arrived in Doha to take part in joint training exercises, Qatar's defence ministry said on Monday, at a time of high tension in the Gulf.

The first joint drills took place on Sunday at the Tariq bin Ziyad military camp in Doha, the ministry said in a statement carried by the official news agency.

The exercises aim to raise "Qatari and Turkish fighting efficiency amid plans for joint operations to fight extremism and terrorism, as well as peacekeeping operations before and after military operations," said the statement in Arabic.

The drills had "been planned for some time" added the statement.

They are taking place as a diplomatic crisis in the Gulf enters its third week.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other countries have cut ties with Qatar over accusations the emirate supports extremism.

Doha denies the accusations and says measures imposed on Qatar by its Gulf neighbours amount to a "blockade".

Turkey is one of Qatar's strongest allies.

Earlier this month, Ankara fast-tracked a separate agreement to allow troops to be deployed at Turkey's military base in Qatar.

It has also increased food supplies to Qatar after the emirate's land border was closed.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has been one of the figures trying to forge a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slammed the economic and political isolation of Qatar as "inhumane and un-Islamic".

Last year, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was the first foreign leader to phone Erdogan after a failed coup in Turkey.

Last week, Qatar's navy carried out three days of joint training exercises with the US Navy.

Bomb attack kills policeman in Bahrain: ministry

A “terrorist” bomb attack in a Shiite village in Bahrain has killed a policeman and wounded two others, the interior ministry in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom said on Monday.The attack late Sunday occurred in Diraz, west of the capital Manama, the minis…

A "terrorist" bomb attack in a Shiite village in Bahrain has killed a policeman and wounded two others, the interior ministry in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom said on Monday.

The attack late Sunday occurred in Diraz, west of the capital Manama, the ministry said on its Twitter account.

Witnesses said they heard a loud blast near the home of revered Shiite cleric Isa Qassim, where five people were killed last month when security forces opened fire to disperse a sit-in.

Police blocked all entries into the village after the bombing, witnesses said, adding security forces have been maintaining a cordon around Qassim's house since the protest dispersal.

Qassim is considered to be the spiritual leader of Bahrain's majority Shiite community.

The Bahrain authorities sentenced Qassim in May to a suspended one-year jail term for illegal fundraising and money laundering.

A court last year stripped him of his citizenship, sparking repeated sit-ins outside his residence in Diraz.

The kingdom has been rocked by unrest since 2011, when security forces boosted by Gulf troops crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

Foreign press access is severely restricted in the archipelago, which is located between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

Award-winning authors take on Israeli occupation

A group of award-winning authors on Sunday launched a book highlighting Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, raising money for an NGO hated by the Israeli government.

Featuring chapters penned by more than two dozen writers including Dave Eggers, Colm Toibin and Geraldine Brooks, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” was edited by American Jewish husband and wife duo Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman.

Chabon, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, said the aim was to start a conversation about the impact of the occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians.

“We felt like we had to find some way of drawing people’s attention, at least some people’s attention, to this,” he told AFP ahead of the launch in Jerusalem Sunday evening.

By using famous authors, including the winners of three Pulitzers and a Nobel, they were aiming to “sort of trick” people “into paying attention to the occupation by baiting the trap, in a way, with the work of a really amazing writer”.

Proceeds from the book will go to Breaking the Silence, an NGO that documents alleged abuses by Israeli forces in the occupied Palestinian territories and publishes testimonies of soldiers, much to the chagrin of Israeli officials.

In 2016 the then defence minister accused the NGO of treason and the current government — the most right-wing in Israel’s history — has sought to curtail their work and ban them from speaking in schools.

The book, which is published in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian, takes the form of individual chapters by the authors, most of which centre around their trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in the past two years.

Chabon’s chapter touches heavily on the “arbitrary” nature of the occupation in the West Bank, with Palestinians often caught up in bureaucracy and subject to the whims of individual soldiers and commanders.

– ‘Our brick’ –

The purpose, he said, was “proving to the people you are conquering that they have absolutely no control over their fate or their destiny”.

Author Dave Eggers, who visited Gaza in his chapter, details life in the Palestinian enclave and how residents try to survive in the territory often labelled the world’s largest prison.

Two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, coralled by a decade-long Israeli blockade, with Egypt also sealing its border.

Israel says the occupation is necessary to protect its citizens, with Palestinians often carrying out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and elsewhere.

Eggers details peoples’ frustrations with their lives, including with the Islamists Hamas who run the strip and restrict cultural freedoms.

Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem and holds Israeli citizenship, said she had to try to tackle the occupation because it was done in her name as a Jew.

“The occupation is an edifice and those of us who care have to do what we can to chip away at it. This book — this is our brick that we are pulling out of the edifice of the occupation.

“Eventually enough bricks will be gone and it will fall.”

Israel values its relationship with the diaspora highly, highlighting itself as the home for all Jews from across the globe.

Both Waldman and Chabon said there was a growing gap between young American progressive Jews and Israel.

Seventy-one percent of US Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election compared with just 24 percent for Donald Trump — despite the latter promising to be the most pro-Israel president ever.

“Jews of my parents’ generation, even of my generation, had a much easier time being progressive on all issues except Israel,” said Waldman.

“Jews of my children’s generation, Jews in their 40s, 30s, 20s, those Jews are not willing to make an exception for Israel in their world view.

“They are not willing to engage in the same kind of hypocrisy that my generation and generations before us have.”

A group of award-winning authors on Sunday launched a book highlighting Israel's 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, raising money for an NGO hated by the Israeli government.

Featuring chapters penned by more than two dozen writers including Dave Eggers, Colm Toibin and Geraldine Brooks, "Kingdom of Olives and Ash" was edited by American Jewish husband and wife duo Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman.

Chabon, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", said the aim was to start a conversation about the impact of the occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians.

"We felt like we had to find some way of drawing people's attention, at least some people's attention, to this," he told AFP ahead of the launch in Jerusalem Sunday evening.

By using famous authors, including the winners of three Pulitzers and a Nobel, they were aiming to "sort of trick" people "into paying attention to the occupation by baiting the trap, in a way, with the work of a really amazing writer".

Proceeds from the book will go to Breaking the Silence, an NGO that documents alleged abuses by Israeli forces in the occupied Palestinian territories and publishes testimonies of soldiers, much to the chagrin of Israeli officials.

In 2016 the then defence minister accused the NGO of treason and the current government -- the most right-wing in Israel's history -- has sought to curtail their work and ban them from speaking in schools.

The book, which is published in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian, takes the form of individual chapters by the authors, most of which centre around their trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in the past two years.

Chabon's chapter touches heavily on the "arbitrary" nature of the occupation in the West Bank, with Palestinians often caught up in bureaucracy and subject to the whims of individual soldiers and commanders.

- 'Our brick' -

The purpose, he said, was "proving to the people you are conquering that they have absolutely no control over their fate or their destiny".

Author Dave Eggers, who visited Gaza in his chapter, details life in the Palestinian enclave and how residents try to survive in the territory often labelled the world's largest prison.

Two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, coralled by a decade-long Israeli blockade, with Egypt also sealing its border.

Israel says the occupation is necessary to protect its citizens, with Palestinians often carrying out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and elsewhere.

Eggers details peoples' frustrations with their lives, including with the Islamists Hamas who run the strip and restrict cultural freedoms.

Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem and holds Israeli citizenship, said she had to try to tackle the occupation because it was done in her name as a Jew.

"The occupation is an edifice and those of us who care have to do what we can to chip away at it. This book -- this is our brick that we are pulling out of the edifice of the occupation.

"Eventually enough bricks will be gone and it will fall."

Israel values its relationship with the diaspora highly, highlighting itself as the home for all Jews from across the globe.

Both Waldman and Chabon said there was a growing gap between young American progressive Jews and Israel.

Seventy-one percent of US Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election compared with just 24 percent for Donald Trump -- despite the latter promising to be the most pro-Israel president ever.

"Jews of my parents' generation, even of my generation, had a much easier time being progressive on all issues except Israel," said Waldman.

"Jews of my children's generation, Jews in their 40s, 30s, 20s, those Jews are not willing to make an exception for Israel in their world view.

"They are not willing to engage in the same kind of hypocrisy that my generation and generations before us have."

US shot down Syrian plane that bombed coalition-backed fighters

A US fighter jet shot down a Syrian regime plane Sunday after it dropped bombs on American-backed forces fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria, the US-led coalition said.The incident came as a monitoring group reported the first ground fig…

A US fighter jet shot down a Syrian regime plane Sunday after it dropped bombs on American-backed forces fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria, the US-led coalition said.

The incident came as a monitoring group reported the first ground fighting between Syrian regime troops and the US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

"At 6:43 pm (1743 GMT), a Syrian regime SU-22 dropped bombs near SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) fighters south of Tabqah and, in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces, was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet," the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.

It said that two hours earlier, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad attacked SDF fighters in the town of Ja'Din south of Tabqah, "wounding a number of SDF fighters and driving the SDF from the town."

Coalition aircraft then stopped the pro-regime forces' initial advance with a "show of force," the coalition added.

The Combined Joint Task Force stressed that the coalition's mission is to defeat IS.

"The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat," it said.

"The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated."

Following the downing of the Syrian plane, clashes between regime troops and coalition-backed fighters broke out in two villages some 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the city of Raqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Iran fires missiles into Syria in revenge for attacks

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it launched a series of missiles into Syria on Sunday in revenge for deadly attacks on its capital that were claimed by the Islamic State group.The missiles were fired from western Iran across the border into Deir Ezzor …

Iran's Revolutionary Guard said it launched a series of missiles into Syria on Sunday in revenge for deadly attacks on its capital that were claimed by the Islamic State group.

The missiles were fired from western Iran across the border into Deir Ezzor province, in northeastern Syria, targeting what the Guard called "terror bases".

The Guard said, in a statement published on its Sepahnews website, that the missiles were "in retaliation" for the June 7 attacks on Tehran claimed by IS.

"Medium-range missiles were fired from the (western) provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdestan, and a large number of terrorists were killed and weapons destroyed," the statement said.

It said the attack targeted "a command base.... of the terrorists in Deir Ezzor", Syria's oil-rich eastern province.

On June 7, gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the parliament complex and the shrine of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, killing 17 people.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in the attacks, vowed to avenge the bloodshed.

Senior Iranian officials had also put the blame on Riyadh after the Tehran attacks, saying Saudi Arabia was "promoting terrorist groups" in Iran.

The Islamic republic of Iran is a key ally of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, alongside Russia and the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement of Lebanon.

Iran has sent to Syria military advisers as well as thousands of "volunteer" fighters recruited among its own nationals as well as the Shiite communities in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan since Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011.

According to a report published in March, some 2,100 combatants sent by Iran have died in Syria and Iraq.

Bahrain orders Qatar troops to leave: source

Bahrain has ordered Qatari troops serving with a coalition fighting the Islamic State group to leave its territory, a source with knowledge of the situation said on Sunday.The soldiers, part of the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) which is hea…

Bahrain has ordered Qatari troops serving with a coalition fighting the Islamic State group to leave its territory, a source with knowledge of the situation said on Sunday.

The soldiers, part of the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) which is headquartered in Bahrain, had been asked to leave the coalition and may depart within the next 48 hours, the source told AFP.

"The Bahrainis told the US general in command of the base that Qatari soldiers must leave," the source said on condition of anonymity.

"They are still in the base but likely to leave within the next two days."

The news comes as the Gulf faces the biggest diplomatic crisis in recent years, with regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and some of its allies suspending ties with gas-rich Qatar over accusations the emirate bankrolled Islamist extremists and had ties to rival Iran.

Qatar denies the charges.

Direct tensions between Manama and Doha have been further exacerbated after Bahrain accused Qatar of directly interfering in its internal affairs.

Qatar has also denied those charges.

The source did not detail the number of Qatari troops based in Bahrain. One analyst estimated it was no more than a "handful of officers".

Qatar has deployed troops with NAVCENT since 2014, according to one official.

NAVCENT is part of the US Central Command whose area of operation includes the Middle East and Asia.

As part of their operations, numerous air strikes against IS targets in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been conducted from Qatar's Al-Udeid, the largest US base in the region.

Washington is involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse in the region but US policy has proved unpredictable.

President Donald Trump has sided with Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, claiming Doha had "historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level".

However, Pentagon and State Department officials have scrambled to reassure the emirate.

The United States last week agreed to a $12 billion sale of F-15 fighters to Qatar.

Wheel of fate spins at screening centre in Iraq’s Mosul

The Ferris wheel has long stopped spinning but the screening centre set up at its foot sees a constant stream of Iraqis fleeing the battle for Mosul and determines their fate.Haggard-looking men sit on nearby bumper cars and others on the ground in the…

The Ferris wheel has long stopped spinning but the screening centre set up at its foot sees a constant stream of Iraqis fleeing the battle for Mosul and determines their fate.

Haggard-looking men sit on nearby bumper cars and others on the ground in the shade, waiting anxiously for army officers to call out their names.

The small fairground lies at the end of a pontoon bridge across the Tigris recently opened to civilians that is the only physical link between the two banks of the river.

"Everyone who crosses to the eastern side has to go through here," said Air Force Brigadier General Jabbar Mustafa, who is in charge of the screening centre.

"There are medical tents here for the families and the men have to be checked against our database before they can move into eastern Mosul," he explained.

Most of the recent arrivals are from Shifa, a neighbourhood on the west bank of Mosul where Iraqi forces backed by Western jets and advisers are battling some of the last members of the Islamic State jihadist group in the city.

Some of the men are immediately designated as IS members or supporters and taken aside, their hands tied behind their backs with plastic cuffs.

Among them that day were two Egyptians, whose nationality made them suspects.

According to Iraqi officers, the majority of the few hundred jihadists defending their last redoubt in Mosul's Old City are foreigners.

Men in the crowd will sometimes volunteer "information" incriminating one former neighbour or exonerating another.

One of the two Egyptians was described as a jihadist sympathiser and the other, who several people said had worked as a butcher in Mosul for 30 years, was released.

"The foreigners in IS stay to fight until the end but the Iraqi IS supporters blend back into the population," said Salah Mohammed, who fled Shifa the day before but came back because he had lost his ID card.

"It's not hard for (IS supporters) to slip through the cracks of such a screening process," he said, scratching tufts of hair he missed when he sheared off the long beard men were forced to wear under jihadist rule.

- Less than foolproof -

Mustafa, the officer in charge, said they detain 10 to 15 suspected IS members or supporters each day at the centre.

Meanwhile, officers and medics were tending to a mute mother, struggling to convey her situation and whose six children looked very dirty and distraught.

Her husband was not with her and her sign language account of what had happened to him was confused.

The best hint the centre's staff got was that the youngest of her sons, aged about 18 months, was named Abu Bakr, which they took as an indication of the father's allegiance to IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"If citizens don't help the security forces, then they can't know who they are," said Major Maan Mahdi of the army's 16th Division, admitting that the screening process was less than foolproof.

But he insisted it took many converging accounts from displaced residents to decide on somebody's fate and said that most displaced people were screened more than once.

For eight months now, Mosul has been the biggest battlefield Iraq has known in years, but the city's population has never dipped below one million.

Most residents of eastern Mosul stayed put when the operation was launched on October 17 last year and some have already returned to retaken neighbourhoods on the west bank, despite extensive destruction there.

Even before the floating bridge was built, the population never stopped moving across the city.

Next to the fairground-turned-screening centre, the Nineveh hotel -- a Mosul landmark with its truncated pyramid shape -- has also seen different waves of occupants.

Once considered one of Iraq's best hotels where former dictator Saddam Hussein would host his officers, IS took it over when it overran the city in 2014, renamed it "Waritheen" (inheritors) and used it for its own elite.

US and French special forces, and elite Iraqi fighters from the Counter-Terrorism Service have all stayed there over the past months, as evidenced by the different types of food rations and other objects they left behind.

The battle moved across the river and the hotel is now empty, waiting for its next masters.

Jailed Saudi blogger’s children appeal for his release

Jailed Saudi blogger Raef Badawi’s three children appealed Saturday for his release on the fifth anniversary of his arrest on allegations that he insulted Islam in the conservative kingdom.Badawi, now 33, co-founded a discussion group called the Saudi …

Jailed Saudi blogger Raef Badawi's three children appealed Saturday for his release on the fifth anniversary of his arrest on allegations that he insulted Islam in the conservative kingdom.

Badawi, now 33, co-founded a discussion group called the Saudi Liberal Network Internet.

He was arrested in June 2012 under cybercrime provisions, and a judge ordered the website shut after it criticized Saudi Arabia's notorious religious police.

Badawi was sentenced in 2014 to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison in a case that triggered international outrage.

"It's not fair that our father is in prison. He's not killed anybody. He just created a blog. It's not illegal," one of his two daughters, Najwa, said in a video released by Amnesty International.

Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children -- aged 14, 10 and eight -- have lived in Quebec province of Canada since 2013.

Supporters around the province and in Montreal held rallies to call for Badawi's release.

The Quebec government reiterated its support for Badawi and said it would keep working to secure his release.

The European Parliament gave Badawi its Sakharov Prize for freedom of expression in 2015.

amch/mbr/elm/dw/acb

Tehran says Saudi coastguard killed Iranian fisherman

An Iranian fisherman was shot and killed Saturday by the Saudi coastguard which accused him of entering Saudi waters, Iran’s interior ministry said, fuelling tensions between the regional rivals.”Two fishing boats were in the Persian Gulf and strayed d…

An Iranian fisherman was shot and killed Saturday by the Saudi coastguard which accused him of entering Saudi waters, Iran's interior ministry said, fuelling tensions between the regional rivals.

"Two fishing boats were in the Persian Gulf and strayed due to high waves. The Saudi coastguard say the boats entered Saudi waters and killed one of the fishermen," Majid Aghababaie, head of border affairs at the interior ministry, said in a statement published by Iranian media.

He said it was not clear if the fishing boats had strayed into Saudi waters and that Iranian authorities were trying to determine the facts.

"Even if the boats had entered Saudi waters, the coastguard were not authorised to open fire," Aghababaie added.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi issued a similar statement.

The shooting comes amid increased tensions between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and its arch rival Iran.

The tensions flared after twin attacks on June 7 on the parliament and the shrine of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in which 17 people were killed.

The Islamic State jihadist group claimed responsibility.

But Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard has accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in the attacks.

Iran's Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has also put the blame on Riyadh.

"Saudi Arabia is sponsoring terrorist groups in Iran," he said on Thursday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia, during a visit to Norway this week.

"We have intelligence that Saudi Arabia is actively engaged in promoting terrorist groups operating on the eastern side of Iran in Baluchistan," Zarif said.

The incident also comes as the Gulf faces one of its worst diplomatic crises in years.

Earlier this month Saudi Arabia and several of its allies cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremist groups, including some backed by Iran.

Qatar denies the allegations.

Iran has urged its Gulf neighbours to engage in a dialogue to resolve their dispute.

It also sent several planeloads of food to Qatar earlier this month after the Gulf countries cut off air links with Doha.

Saudi Arabia also sealed its land border with Qatar, which relies heavily on imports for food and raw materials.

Syria army declares 48-hour truce in southern city

Syria’s army on Saturday declared a 48-hour ceasefire in the southern city of Daraa, bringing a cautious calm after days of heavy fighting.In a statement, the army’s general command said the truce went into effect at noon local time “in support of loca…

Syria's army on Saturday declared a 48-hour ceasefire in the southern city of Daraa, bringing a cautious calm after days of heavy fighting.

In a statement, the army's general command said the truce went into effect at noon local time "in support of local reconciliation efforts".

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, reported a cautious calm in the hours after the truce was announced.

Daraa is among the areas included in a plan for "de-escalation zones" agreed by regime backers Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey earlier this year.

But recent weeks have seen heavy clashes in Daraa city and the surrounding area, with civilians among those caught in fighting and bombardment.

Rebels control around 60 percent of Daraa city, and the province as a whole is one of the last remaining bastions of opposition forces in the country.

In Washington, the US State Department said "we welcome any initiative to reduce tensions and violence in southern Syria".

It urged Damascus "to live up to its own stated committment during this ceasefire initiative".

"The opposition should similarly halt attacks to allow the ceasefire to endure, and hopefully be extended," the statement added.

There was no immediate official confirmation that the opposition agreed to the truce but the quiet in the aftermath of the army announcement suggested hostilities had halted on both sides.

Syria's government has pursued a series of so-called "national reconciliation" agreements with rebels in different parts of the country, including recently near the capital.

Under the deals, rebels who surrender are generally offered safe passage to opposition-held territory elsewhere in the country.

The opposition criticises the deals as a "starve or surrender" tactic, saying they are forced into the agreements after heavy regime bombardment or siege.

But the government has touted the deals as the best way to end the six-year war, which has killed more than 320,000 people since it began in March 2011.

Al-Jazeera Twitter account ‘suspended’

Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera said the Twitter account for its main Arabic-language channel had been suspended on Saturday, in the latest “conspiracy” to hit the station.Yasser Abuhilalah, managing director of Al-Jazeera Arabic, confirmed the susp…

Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera said the Twitter account for its main Arabic-language channel had been suspended on Saturday, in the latest "conspiracy" to hit the station.

Yasser Abuhilalah, managing director of Al-Jazeera Arabic, confirmed the suspension on social media.

The suspension comes at a time of diplomatic crisis in the Gulf after Qatar was cut off by neighbouring countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"The main Al-Jazeera Twitter account has been suspended, and work is ongoing to solve the problem," Abuhilalah tweeted.

"Other secondary accounts remain active. Disruption (by others) will not stop because the truth terrifies them. We?ll be back."

In another tweet, he said that no other "channel in the world... faces the same amount of conspiracy".

Other Twitter accounts belonging to the channel were still working and one claimed that the suspension was due to "what seems to be an organised campaign".

The television channel has long been a target for criticism by other Middle East countries, with Al-Jazeera banned on several occasions.

There has been speculation that its closure could help end the diplomatic crisis which erupted last month between Qatar and its neighbours in the Gulf over Doha's alleged support of extremists.

Earlier this month, Al-Jazeera said it was combatting a large-scale cyber attack.

Saudi-Qatar crisis puts Syria rebels in tricky position

A diplomatic crisis pitting Saudi Arabia against Qatar has put Syrian rebels in a difficult position, analysts say, after rivalries between Gulf backers had already weakened the opposition.Both Sunni-ruled monarchies sided with the protesters in March …

A diplomatic crisis pitting Saudi Arabia against Qatar has put Syrian rebels in a difficult position, analysts say, after rivalries between Gulf backers had already weakened the opposition.

Both Sunni-ruled monarchies sided with the protesters in March 2011, when the war started with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations.

They continued supporting the mostly Sunni rebels when unrest spiralled into conflict between the armed opposition and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from the country's Alawite Shiite minority and is backed by Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran.

But six years later, the rebellion has been plagued by rivalries between Riyadh and Doha, as well as weakened by Russia's military intervention in support of Assad's forces.

Moscow's support for regime forces led to a series of setbacks for the rebels, including their landmark loss in December of second city Aleppo.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and allies, including the United Arab Emirates, severed or reduced diplomatic ties with Qatar over accusations the emirate supports extremism, claims Doha has denied.

"The current rupture puts the Syrian opposition in a very awkward position politically, as nobody wants to have to take sides publicly nor can afford to alienate either side," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

A rebel official in the opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus said he hoped the crisis between Doha and Riyadh was just "a temporary storm".

- 'Sensitive' issue -

"Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have supported the revolution of the Syrian people and shown solidarity throughout years of tragedy," the rebel official said.

In a sign of the embarrassment the crisis is causing, several rebel groups approached by AFP refused to comment, saying it was a "sensitive" issue.

But Sayigh said the latest flare-up in relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will have a limited impact on the Syrian conflict.

"It probably won't have a major financial impact, nor a military one since the US and Turkey have stepped up their support for factions that previously were close to Qatar or to Saudi Arabia," Sayigh said.

Riyadh "reduced its funding sharply starting" from the summer of 2015 "after it launched its intervention in Yemen" earlier in the year, he said.

Six years into the war, Syria's fractured rebellion controls just around 10 percent of the war-torn country, with backing from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and the United States.

Pro-Doha rebels including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group are present in the north of the country.

In Eastern Ghouta, pro-Doha opposition groups exist alongside the pro-Riyadh Jaish al-Islam rebel alliance.

Rebels in the south, meanwhile, are trained by Amman and Washington.

Another influential player is Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, which now leads the Tahrir al-Sham group and which some analysts and Syrian factions say has links with Qatar, although Doha has denied this.

- Tensions in Eastern Ghouta? -

Qatar led most mediation efforts to obtain the release of hostages held by the group formerly known as Al-Nusra Front.

In Eastern Ghouta, even before the Gulf crisis, factions supported by Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other had already clashed, killing hundreds of fighters.

Raphael Lefevre, a researcher at the University of Oxford, said the latest Saudi-Qatari crisis could well spark further tensions between rival groups in the rebel enclave.

In 2013 and 2014, "Qatar and Saudi Arabia competed for influence within exiled opposition bodies, each by supporting different factions and leaders, something which largely contributed to paralysing and fragmenting the Syrian opposition," he said.

But the consequences of the latest spat "could be much bloodier, especially as the two countries support rival rebel factions in areas already marked by a great degree of opposition infighting and regime violence such as the Eastern Ghouta", Lefevre said.

Syria expert Thomas Pierret however said "local dynamics rather than external patrons determine alliances" in Eastern Ghouta.

He said Ahrar al-Sham risked "suffering financially from a reorientation of Qatari politics", even if it continues to enjoy support from Turkey, which has intervened as a mediator in the Gulf dispute.

Syria's exiled political opposition is also fractured. The High Negotiations Committee is based in Riyadh, while the National Coalition work out of Istanbul.

Iraqis hunt for their cars in devastated post-IS Mosul

Saliha Sultan searches in vain for the family car among mounds of charred car skeletons and mangled trucks blocking roads in parts of Iraq’s Mosul retaken from jihadists.Vehicles of all shapes and colours — in varying condition — fill the streets of …

Saliha Sultan searches in vain for the family car among mounds of charred car skeletons and mangled trucks blocking roads in parts of Iraq's Mosul retaken from jihadists.

Vehicles of all shapes and colours -- in varying condition -- fill the streets of the northern city as Iraqi forces battle to retake its last western districts from the Islamic State group.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Mosul since anti-IS fighters backed by a US-led coalition launched the battle to retake the city in October.

As she searches for the family pick-up truck with her neighbour, Sultan is one of many Iraqis now returning home to find their vehicles are nowhere to be seen.

"We parked it near the house and left... but when we returned, it wasn't there," said the 40-year-old, dressed in a purple and brown overcoat.

"I don't know who took it," she said of the car her family left in their west Mosul district of Haramat when they fled fighting in March.

All around recaptured Mosul neighbourhoods, wrecked cars, windowless buses and upturned trucks block the thoroughfares, while empty yellow taxis sit abandoned by the road.

Near homes now abandoned by fleeing civilians, parked cars are covered in dust and rubble, some devoid of windows shattered in the fighting.

Umm Kamal, another returning Haramat resident in her forties, said she had no idea where her family's car has disappeared to either.

She and her family left the car near their home when they escaped as clashes intensified last month, but a few weeks later it has vanished.

"We reported it to the security forces, and we hope they will bring it back to us," she said.

"My children worked for 15 years to be able to buy it," said Umm Kamal.

Abu Nashmi, a 31 year-old member of the security forces, said he and colleagues have helped to reunite several families with their cars.

- 'Rather my car than my family' -

"Many families are complaining about their cars having gone missing, burnt or stolen by IS," he said.

"Sometimes, we find cars parked in the parking lots of other people's houses," he said.

"If there's data available, we contact their owners and ask them to come and take them."

Rami al-Tamimi, a first lieutenant with the Rapid Response forces fighting IS, said jihadists often used abandoned cars to defend themselves against advancing Iraqi troops.

"Daesh would gather cars from the streets, trying to block our progress" with improvised road barriers, he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

And they would "burn them to block the view of reconnaissance drones, as well as Iraqi and coalition planes," he said.

In areas they had retreated from, "they rigged cars and trucks with explosives to detonate them remotely as we advanced", he added.

Near the Haramat neighbourhood, a large barrier of cars stacked one on top of the other cuts across the main road.

Abu Hassan, a 40-year-old businessman, said vehicles left behind by fleeing civilians were used "as a defence line between the army and Daesh during the fighting".

"IS burned some of these cars as revenge against owners who did not pledge allegiance" after it overran the city in 2014, Abu Hassan said.

But after Iraqi forces launched their assault to retake the IS bastion, the jihadists "turned a large number of the cars into car bombs, and burned others to obstruct the view of warplanes".

On their side, Iraqi "military bulldozers worked to pile cars and trucks from the streets on top of each other, out of fear of car bombs and to block any attack by Daesh".

Mosul civilians also helped, Tamimi said.

"A large number of families helped the army by parking their car in the middle of the road to cut it off from IS," the officer said.

"We heard many say, 'Rather my car than my family'."

Turkey FM in ‘positive’ Saudi talks on Qatar

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks in Saudi Arabia on Friday with King Salman, continuing efforts to resolve the Gulf’s biggest diplomatic crisis in years.Diplomatic sources told AFP that”the meeting was positive”, but there were no s…

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks in Saudi Arabia on Friday with King Salman, continuing efforts to resolve the Gulf's biggest diplomatic crisis in years.

Diplomatic sources told AFP that

"the meeting was positive", but there were no specifics.

Riyadh, the UAE, Egypt and others severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar almost two weeks ago, accusing Doha of supporting groups, including some backed by Iran, "that aim to destabilise the region".

Qatar denies any such support for extremists.

Cavusoglu travelled to the holy city of Mecca where Salman is based for the last days of Ramadan, after meeting his Kuwaiti counterpart on Thursday.

The emir of Kuwait, which did not cut ties with Qatar, has also been trying to mediate.

Turkey's chief diplomat was in Doha on Wednesday where he called for dialogue after meeting Qatar's emir and foreign minister ahead of his Saudi stop.

"Although the kingdom is a party in this crisis, we know that King Salman is a party in resolving it," Cavusoglu said earlier.

"We want to hear the views of Saudi Arabia regarding possible solutions and will share with them our views in a transparent way... We pay a great attention to our relations with them," he said.

The crisis has put Turkey in a delicate position as Ankara regards Qatar as its chief ally in the Gulf but is also keen to maintain its improving ties with regional power Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Turkey is eager to maintain workable relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's foe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday described the decision by Gulf states to cut political and economic ties with Qatar as "inhumane and un-Islamic".

He stopped short of directly criticising Saudi Arabia and said that as "the elder statesman of the Gulf," Salman should resolve the matter.

Among the punitive measures, Qatar Airways is banned from the airspace of its neighbours, Gulf states gave Qataris 14 days to get out, and Saudi closed its land border through which much of Qatar's food supply crossed.

Tillerson skips OAS meeting to focus on Gulf crisis

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday cancelled his attendance at next week’s Organization of American States meeting in Mexico, opting to stay in Washington to focus on the diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.Deputy Secretary of State John Su…

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday cancelled his attendance at next week's Organization of American States meeting in Mexico, opting to stay in Washington to focus on the diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will represent the United States at the regional meeting scheduled for Monday to Wednesday in the resort city of Cancun.

"The secretary of state will continue his efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region through in-person meetings and phone conversations with Gulf and regional leaders," the State Department said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and others severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar almost two weeks ago, accusing Doha of supporting extremist groups.

Qatar -- a longtime US ally -- denies the accusations.

But last week, US President Donald Trump expressed support for the Saudi-led allegations, charging that Qatar had "historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level."

Pentagon and State Department officials have since scrambled to reassure the emirate, which hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East and the command headquarters for operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

On Thursday, the United States agreed to a $12 billion warplane sale to Qatar, reaffirming its support.

Tillerson "has made more than a dozen phone calls and participated in several in-person meetings" in efforts to tamp down the crisis, the State Department said.

"The secretary will continue these efforts."

US Navy accuses Iranian vessel of dangerous activity

An Iranian navy vessel conducted an “unsafe and unprofessional” interaction with US ships by pointing a laser at an accompanying Marine Corps helicopter, the US Navy said Wednesday.The incident occurred June 13 as amphibious assault ship the USS Bataan…

An Iranian navy vessel conducted an "unsafe and unprofessional" interaction with US ships by pointing a laser at an accompanying Marine Corps helicopter, the US Navy said Wednesday.

The incident occurred June 13 as amphibious assault ship the USS Bataan, the USS Cole destroyer and another American ship were sailing in formation in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.

"The Iranian vessel paralleled the US formation, shining a spotlight on Cole," Commander Bill Urban, a spokesman for the navy's Fifth Fleet, said in a statement.

"Shortly thereafter, the Iranian vessel trained a laser on a CH-53E helicopter that accompanied the formation."

The Iranian vessel then shined a spotlight on the Bataan, scanning the ship from bow to stern before heading away.

"During the interaction, the Iranian vessel came within 800 yards (meters) of Bataan," Urban said.

Naval Forces Central Command said the interaction was unsafe and unprofessional because of the laser.

"Illuminating helicopters with lasers at night is dangerous as it creates a navigational hazard that can impair vision and can be disorienting to pilots using night vision goggles," Urban said.

The Pentagon periodically voices concern over incidents in waters off Iran, accusing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and naval ships of conducting risky maneuvers around US vessels.

Iran has counter claimed that US ships act provocatively.

Macron in Morocco to discuss Libya, Qatar crisis

French President Emmanuel Macron was in Morocco Wednesday on a 24-hour visit for talks on battling terrorism as well as the Libyan conflict and Qatar’s dispute with its Gulf neighbours.As he stepped off the plane for his first visit to Morocco since hi…

French President Emmanuel Macron was in Morocco Wednesday on a 24-hour visit for talks on battling terrorism as well as the Libyan conflict and Qatar's dispute with its Gulf neighbours.

As he stepped off the plane for his first visit to Morocco since his election in May, the French president, his wife Brigitte at his side, was welcomed on the tarmac by King Mohammed VI.

The king's wife, Princess Lala Salma, and Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, 14, were also present at the airport to greet the French first couple, who were then driven to the royal palace for talks.

Ahead of the visit, the French presidency said Macron would discuss with Mohammed VI the dispute between Qatar and several countries, as both Paris and Rabat are keen on mediating a solution to the crisis.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other countries severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing the gas-rich Gulf nation of supporting Islamist extremism.

The crisis is the worst to grip the Gulf in years.

"President Macron has spoken with all the heads of state of the region and called for appeasement. This efforts could converge with the mediation that Morocco wants to attempt," said the Elysee Palace.

A French diplomatic source said "the priority is to help resolve the crisis".

Also on Macron's agenda was the conflict in Libya, where the UN-backed government is struggling to impose its legitimacy.

The fight against radicalisation and terrorism would also be at the centre of the talks between the two leaders, and Paris would like to "intensify" cooperation in that field, the source said.

Moroccans, or people of Moroccan origin, are believed to be behind several attacks that have been carried out in Europe in the past two years.

Macron and his wife are to attend an iftar meal, to break the fast of Ramadan, at the king's personal resident, and the French president will spend the night in Rabat before flying back home Thursday.

Israeli and international groups warn of looming Gaza disaster

Israeli and international NGOS joined the UN on Wednesday in warning of a “total collapse” in Gaza if Israel goes ahead with plans to further cut power supplies to the enclave.A joint statement of 16 groups, among them Israel’s B?Tselem, Peace Now and …

Israeli and international NGOS joined the UN on Wednesday in warning of a "total collapse" in Gaza if Israel goes ahead with plans to further cut power supplies to the enclave.

A joint statement of 16 groups, among them Israel's B?Tselem, Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights along with Amnesty International, said they has asked Israel's attorney general to intervene.

Gazans currently receive only three to four hours of mains electricity a day, delivered from the territory's own power station and others in Israel and Egypt.

Senior Israeli ministers decided on Sunday to reduce the amount of electricity supplied to Gaza by between 45 and 60 minutes a day after Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas cut funding for it by his West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

The move was widely seen as an attempt by the Palestinian leader to step up pressure on his rivals in the Islamist movement Hamas which runs the Gaza Strip.

"A group of civil society organisations... sent an urgent letter today to attorney general Avichai Mandelblit demanding that he advise the members of the security cabinet to immediately rescind (its) decision to reduce the supply of electricity sold and provided by Israel to the Gaza Strip," the NGOs said in their statement.

They said further cuts would contravene a 2008 Israeli supreme court ruling that years of Israeli control over the strip had created near-total dependence on power supply from the Jewish state and it must therefore continue to provide sufficient electricity to meet humanitarian needs.

Amnesty warned in a separate statement of a "looming humanitarian catastrophe".

It said additional reductions in power "will have a disastrous impact on Gaza?s battered infrastructure and cause a public health disaster."

"The move will also endanger thousands of lives including those of hospital patients with chronic conditions or in intensive care, including babies on life support."

The UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied territories, Robert Piper, warned that fresh cuts would be disastrous.

"A further increase in the length of blackouts is likely to lead to a total collapse of basic services, including critical functions in the health, water and sanitation sectors," Piper said in a statement.

"The people in Gaza should not be held hostage to this longstanding internal Palestinian dispute."

- 'A catastrophe' -

The French government also expressed concern.

"France is following with concern the situation in Gaza, which continues to deteriorate in the absence of a lasting political solution," said a foreign ministry spokesman.

Hamas has run Gaza since 2007, when it seized the territory from Abbas loyalists in a dispute over parliamentary elections swept by the Islamist movement the previous year.

Multiple attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement have failed, but his Palestinian Authority has continued to pay Israel for some electricity delivered to Gaza.

The prospect of even lengthier blackouts in Gaza has raised fears of a new upsurge in violence. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel had "no interest in an escalation," blaming internal Palestinian disputes for the crisis.

Hamas said the cut was made on Abbas's orders and termed it "a catastrophe".

"This decision aggravates the situation and risks an explosion in the Gaza Strip," it said on Monday.

But on Wednesday Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed the idea of a humanitarian crisis in the tiny enclave of some two million people.

"It is clear the Gaza Strip is not Switzerland, but there is no humanitarian crisis," he said, citing the "hundreds" of trucks delivering goods each day.

The World Food Programme, however, said Gazans also face a food shortage brought about by a drop in funding for its aid programme.

"Unless new funding quickly arrives, the United Nations World Food Programme may be forced to suspend its voucher food assistance in July," it said.

"The energy crisis has eroded people's purchasing power and increased the prices of basic essentials," it added. "The poorest families, including those assisted by WFP, are affected the most."

Egypt parliament approves island transfer to Saudi: state TV 

Egypt’s parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial maritime accord with Saudi Arabia that transfers two strategic Red Sea islands to the kingdom, state television and a lawmaker said.The deal, which is still being challenged in an Egyptian court,…

Egypt's parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial maritime accord with Saudi Arabia that transfers two strategic Red Sea islands to the kingdom, state television and a lawmaker said.

The deal, which is still being challenged in an Egyptian court, sparked rare protests last year, with the opposition accusing the government of selling Egyptian territory to its Saudi benefactors.

The vote came after days of heated debate in parliament with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

Courts had struck down the agreement, signed in April 2016, but a year later another court upheld it.

Lawyers are now challenging the deal before the constitutional court, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will have to ratify it.

The accord had sparked rare protests in Egypt, with Sisi accused of having traded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.

The government has said the islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Opponents of the agreement insist that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of journalists protested against the agreement in central Cairo, before being dispersed by police, journalists' union official Gamal Abdel Rehim told AFP.

Several were briefly arrested before being released but "three reporters are still detained, and contacts are being made with the interior ministry to get them released".

The government first announced the deal during a visit by Saudi King Salman in April 2016 during which Riyadh showered Egypt with aid.

Opponents of the government, and even some of its supporters, were enraged by the secrecy that surrounded the agreement until it was announced.

Generations of Egyptians had grown up learning in school that the two islands belonged to their country, and that soldiers had died defending them during wars with Israel.

Lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, the islands can be used to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat. They were captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war before being returned to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Sisi went ahead with the deal even though it threatened to dent his popularity, and at a time the government, which is grappling with austerity reforms that have fuelled inflation, is wary of protests.

Over the past weeks, Egypt has blocked dozens of news websites.

While many of the sites are based in regional rival Qatar, others are Egyptian and have expressed criticism of the islands' transfer.

Turkey FM heads to Doha as UN ‘alarmed’ by Gulf crisis

The search for a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis intensified Wednesday as Turkey’s top diplomat headed to Qatar while the UN voiced fears over growing humanitarian concerns in the region.Mevlut Cavusoglu, foreign minister of one of Qatar’s stron…

The search for a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis intensified Wednesday as Turkey's top diplomat headed to Qatar while the UN voiced fears over growing humanitarian concerns in the region.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, foreign minister of one of Qatar's strongest allies, is expected to hold talks with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on a mission which could also see him travel to regional powerbroker Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia has the potential and capability to solve this crisis as a wise state and big brother of the region and also as a major actor," Turkey's presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Wednesday.

"We aim to involve all actors in this process."

Riyadh is one of several countries which has imposed a political and economic "blockade" on Qatar, in protest at Doha's support for Islamist extremist groups as well as over its ties to Shiite Iran.

The move has been backed by nations including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and others.

Qatar strongly denies the charges and claims neighbouring countries are trying to interfere with its foreign policy.

Before heading to Doha, Cavusoglu said that "if the programme allows I will also visit Saudi Arabia", in quotes reported by the Anadolu news agency.

"It is very useful to take into account the opinions and suggestions of Saudi Arabia."

He added that the situation "was causing great discomfort for everybody" especially during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who has described the decision by Gulf states to cut political and economic ties with Qatar as "inhumane" -- is expected to hold phone talks with US President Donald Trump in the coming days.

In addition, the Turkish president's spokesman said a trilateral meeting between Ankara, Paris and Doha was planned.

The planned talks follow discussions on Tuesday between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

- UN 'alarmed' -

In Geneva, concern surrounding the humanitarian situation grew Wednesday, with the intervention of the UN human rights chief.

"I am alarmed about the possible impact on many people's human rights in the wake of the decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, in his first comments on the crisis.

"It is becoming clear that the measures being adopted are overly broad in scope and implementation," he added.

The decision to isolate Qatar had led to fears that thousands of families in the Gulf would be split apart.

As well as economic and political ties, the Gulf states also ordered Qataris out within 14 days as well as calling home their own citizens.

Amnesty International has warned of "heartbreak and fear" being suffered by ordinary people in the region.

It also accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of "toying with the lives of thousands of Gulf residents".

Bahrain and the UAE have also banned expressions of sympathy for Qatar.

Manama announced on Wednesday that it had detained a citizen for sympathising with Qatar on social media.

There have also been fears of food shortages in Qatar -- so far not realised -- and a disruption of imports needed for a number of capital projects in the gas-rich emirate.

Qatar is receiving food deliveries from Turkey, Iran and Morocco among others.

The 2022 World Cup host is also in the middle of building huge capital projects worth an estimated $200 billion-plus, many of which rely on suppliers in the region.

Doha-based airline Qatar Airways has been banned from using the airspace of neighbouring countries since measures were announced on June 5.

However, the carrier said services were largely unaffected by the decision in a statement Wednesday.

"Qatar Airways' global operations continue to run smoothly, with the vast majority of our network unaffected by the current circumstances," said chief executive Akbar Al-Baker.

Although the crisis remains a diplomatic one, there have been some fears voiced it could end in a military solution.

Also on Wednesday, Qatar announced it was withdrawing its troops from the Djibouti-Eritrea border.

Lebanon agrees new election law, sets vote for 2018

Lebanon’s government announced a new election law after a cabinet session Wednesday, ending months of tense discussions and paving the way for the first parliamentary elections in nine years.The deal comes after a stalemate that has seen the country’s …

Lebanon's government announced a new election law after a cabinet session Wednesday, ending months of tense discussions and paving the way for the first parliamentary elections in nine years.

The deal comes after a stalemate that has seen the country's parliament extend its term twice since the last elections in 2009.

Under the agreement, the current parliament's term will be extended once again, but this time for just 11 months to prepare for elections under the new rules in May 2018.

Parliament is scheduled to vote on the law on Friday.

The new law replaces the existing plurality voting system with proportional representation and reduces the number of electoral districts.

It comes after years of wrangling during which key political parties rejected various proposals for fear of losing parliamentary seats.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri hailed the law as "a great and historic achievement despite the long time that was needed and the lengthy discussions".

Parliament has twice delayed elections and extended its own mandate since 2009, a move civil society activists decried as "unconstitutional".

The final law is based on proposals from President Michel Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement and backed by its powerful Shiite ally Hezbollah, as well as the small Shiite Amal party of speaker Nabih Berri.

But the deal is seen as the latest in a string of compromises in the country's bitterly-divided political landscape.

Last November, Aoun was elected president after a stalemate of more than two years under a deal that saw Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and Hezbollah opponent become prime minister.

A new government was formed shortly afterwards.

Lebanon recognises 18 official religious sects and its 128 parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians, an arrangement unique in the region.

It remains scarred by a bitter 1975-1990 civil war, and its fragile sectarian and political balance has been shaken by the war in neighbouring Syria.

More than one million Syrian refugees have flooded the country, creating economic strains compounded by the political stalemate.

Egypt parliament agrees island transfer to Saudi Arabia: state TV 

Egypt’s parliament approved on Wednesday a controversial maritime agreement with Saudi Arabia that transfers two Red Sea islands to the kingdom, state television and a lawmaker said.The deal, which is still under challenge in court, had sparked rare pr…

Egypt's parliament approved on Wednesday a controversial maritime agreement with Saudi Arabia that transfers two Red Sea islands to the kingdom, state television and a lawmaker said.

The deal, which is still under challenge in court, had sparked rare protests in the country with the opposition accusing the government of selling Egyptian territory to its Saudi benefactors.

The vote came after days of heated debate in parliament with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

Courts had struck down the agreement, signed in April 2016, but a year later another court upheld it.

Lawyers are now challenging the deal before the constitutional court.

The accord had sparked rare protests in Egypt last year, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi accused of having traded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.

The government has said the islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Opponents of the agreement insist that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian.

On Tuesday evening dozens of journalists protested against the agreement in central Cairo, before being dispersed by police, journalists' union official Gamal Abdel Rehim told AFP.

Several were briefly arrested before being released but "three reporters are still detained, and contacts are being made with the interior ministry to get them released," he said.

Qatar Airways says service ‘unaffected’ by Gulf ban

Qatar Airways said on Wednesday that it was largely unaffected by the decision of several Arab countries to ban the Doha-based carrier from using their airspace.”Qatar Airways’ global operations continue to run smoothly, with the vast majority of our n…

Qatar Airways said on Wednesday that it was largely unaffected by the decision of several Arab countries to ban the Doha-based carrier from using their airspace.

"Qatar Airways' global operations continue to run smoothly, with the vast majority of our network unaffected by the current circumstances," said chief executive Akbar Al-Baker.

The Qatari carrier released a statement saying it had operated some 1,200 flights in the past week, 90 percent of which took off within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure times.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are among several countries that suspended ties with Qatar last week, including the suspension of all flights to and from Doha and an airspace ban on Qatar Airways.

On Tuesday, the four Arab countries said the air embargo only applies to airlines from Qatar or registered there.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse gas-rich Doha of supporting Islamist extremists in what is the worst crisis to grip the Gulf in years.

Qatar denies the allegations.

Earlier this week, Qatar Airways announced profits of $540 million in the fiscal year which ended in March.

But analysts warn the profitable carrier could take a hit should the diplomatic crisis drag out.

Qatar Airways on June 7 announced the cancelation of all flights into Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, just weeks after having been hit by a new US travel ban on laptops and tablets in passenger cabins.

UN rights chief ‘alarmed’ by impact of Gulf crisis

The UN human rights chief said Wednesday he was alarmed by the possible impact of the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, warning it could lead to widespread suffering among ordinary people. “I am alarmed about the possible impact on many people’s human rig…

The UN human rights chief said Wednesday he was alarmed by the possible impact of the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, warning it could lead to widespread suffering among ordinary people.

"I am alarmed about the possible impact on many people's human rights in the wake of the decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain to cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

"It is becoming clear that the measures being adopted are overly broad in scope and implementation," he added.

His comments came after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly severed all ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting "terrorism" -- allegations Doha strongly rejects.

Zeid warned Wednesday that the move had "the potential to seriously disrupt the lives of thousands of women, children and men, simply because they belong to one of the nationalities involved in the dispute."

"We are receiving reports that specific individuals have already been summarily instructed to leave the country they are residing in, or have been ordered to return home by their own government," he said.

He warned that mix-nationality couples and their children, as well as people with jobs or businesses based in opposing states and students studying abroad would likely be "badly affected".

"I am also extremely troubled to hear that the UAE and Bahrain are threatening to jail and fine people who express sympathy for Qatar or opposition to their own governments' actions," he said.

This, he warned, "would appear to be a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression or opinion."

Zeid urged all the countries involved to quickly resolve their dispute through dialogue and to "refrain from any actions that could affect the well-being, health, employment and integrity of their inhabitants."

Israeli minister backs closing Al-Jazeera bureau

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that he was in favour of closing the offices of Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, after several Arab states did so.”There is no reason for Al-Jazeera to continue to transmit from Israel,” he told publi…

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that he was in favour of closing the offices of Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, after several Arab states did so.

"There is no reason for Al-Jazeera to continue to transmit from Israel," he told public radio. "It is not media, it is a propaganda outfit in the style of the Soviets or Nazi Germany."

"All the reporting on Israel is biased and hostile, while the channel says nothing about Iran," he added.

Asked when the bureau could be closed, he said they were seeking a "legal solution."

Quoted in Israeli media, the head of Al-Jazeera's bureau said they would appeal any decision closing them down.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had raised the possibility of a closure on Monday, Israeli media reported.

Israeli leaders accuse the Qatari channel of supporting Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke off relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing the gas-rich Gulf state of "supporting terrorism."

The countries also banned Al-Jazeera, founded more than 20 years ago by the Qatari government, denouncing its "Islamist" orientations.

Al-Jazeera has nearly 80 offices around the world and broadcasts in several languages.

UN says Gazans being held hostage to Palestinian feud

The United Nations said Wednesday that Gazans were being held hostage to Palestinian political infighting, warning that longer blackouts triggered by president Mahmud Abbas threatened a “total collapse” of basic services.Gazans currently receive only t…

The United Nations said Wednesday that Gazans were being held hostage to Palestinian political infighting, warning that longer blackouts triggered by president Mahmud Abbas threatened a "total collapse" of basic services.

Gazans currently receive only three to four hours of mains electricity a day, delivered from the territory's own power station and others in Israel and Egypt.

Israel decided on Sunday to reduce the amount of electricity it supplies to Gaza by between 45 and 60 minutes a day after Abbas cut funding for it by his West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

The move was widely seen as an attempt by the Palestinian leader to step up pressure on his rivals in the Islamist movement Hamas which runs Gaza.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied territories, Robert Piper, warned the additional power cuts would have a disastrous effect.

"A further increase in the length of blackouts is likely to lead to a total collapse of basic services, including critical functions in the health, water and sanitation sectors," Piper said in a statement.

"The people in Gaza should not be held hostage to this longstanding internal Palestinian dispute," he said.

Hamas has run Gaza since 2007, when it seized the territory from Abbas loyalists in a dispute over parliamentary elections swept by the Islamist movement the previous year.

Multiple attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement have failed, but his Palestinian Authority has continued to pay Israel for some electricity delivered to Gaza.

The prospect of even lengthier blackouts in Gaza has raised fears of a new upsurge in violence. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel had "no interest in an escalation," blaming internal Palestinian disputes for the crisis.

Hamas said the cut was made on Abbas's orders and termed it "a catastrophe".

"This decision aggravates the situation and risks an explosion in the Gaza Strip," it said on Monday.

But on Wednesday Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed the idea of a humanitarian crisis in the tiny enclave of some two million people.

"It is clear the Gaza Strip is not Switzerland, but there is no humanitarian crisis," he said, citing the "hundreds" of trucks delivering goods each day.

UN decries ‘staggering loss of civilian life’ in Raqa

United Nations war crimes investigators expressed alarm Wednesday at the “staggering” number of civilian deaths as US-backed forces battle to oust the Islamic State group from its Syrian stronghold Raqa.”In areas controlled by extremist factions, we ar…

United Nations war crimes investigators expressed alarm Wednesday at the "staggering" number of civilian deaths as US-backed forces battle to oust the Islamic State group from its Syrian stronghold Raqa.

"In areas controlled by extremist factions, we are gravely concerned with the mounting number of civilians who perish during air strikes," said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who heads the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

"We note in particular that the intensification of air strikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) advance in Raqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes," he told the UN Human Rights Council.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Raqa and its surroundings since the US-backed SDF began its operation to capture the jihadist stronghold last year.

And new waves of displacement are expected as the battle inside the city progresses.

"The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where ISIL is present," Pinheiro said, using another acronym for IS.

The UN's Syria commission, which was set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the various sides of a wide range of war crimes and in some cases crimes against humanity.

On Wednesday, Pinheiro said a range of deals that have led to evacuations of rebel-held districts and towns in Syria "also raise concerns and in some cases amount to war crimes".

A number of evacuation agreements have been struck for Aleppo and towns and villages around Damascus, as well as in third city Homs.

The government says the deals are the best way to end the six-year war, but the opposition says this amounts to forced displacement.

Pinheiro, who already warned in March that the evacuation from Aleppo amounted to a war crime, said Wednesday that "there is no voluntariness nor choice when those who stay often face the risk of being either arbitrarily arrested or forcibly conscripted".

"In despair, civilians see no option but to leave," he added.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

Tunisia extends 2015 state of emergency

Tunisia has extended for another four months a state of emergency in place since a 2015 jihadist attack, the president’s office announced on Wednesday.”President Beji Caid Essebsi decided on Wednesday to extend the state of emergency for four months st…

Tunisia has extended for another four months a state of emergency in place since a 2015 jihadist attack, the president's office announced on Wednesday.

"President Beji Caid Essebsi decided on Wednesday to extend the state of emergency for four months starting from Thursday, June 15," his office said on Facebook.

The state of emergency has been in place since a November 2015 jihadist bombing in Tunis that killed 12 presidential guards.

The Islamic State group claimed the attack as well as bombings earlier in 2015 at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and at a beach resort near Sousse that killed a total of 59 foreign tourists and a Tunisian guard.

They were part of a wave of jihadist violence since a revolution toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

The government has repeatedly renewed the state of emergency despite its assurances that security has improved in the North African state.

A source in the president's office, who asked not to be identified, said that after recent attacks claimed by IS in London and Manchester, "it's better to be vigilant".

The state of emergency gives much greater powers to the police and allows the banning of strikes and meetings likely to provoke "disorder", as well as measures "to ensure control of the press".

It also allows the interior ministry to place under house arrest anyone whose activities it deems a "danger for security or public order".

In recent weeks, the government has used the powers not just for counter-terrorism but also for a widely publicised "war on graft".

Ten businessmen are currently under house arrest on suspicion of corruption.

Rights group warns US-led force on white phosphorus use

The Human Rights Watch organisation on Wednesday urged the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq to protect civilians from the effects of white phosphorus.The statement comes after several instances in which the US-led coa…

The Human Rights Watch organisation on Wednesday urged the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq to protect civilians from the effects of white phosphorus.

The statement comes after several instances in which the US-led coalition has deployed the munition in the fight against IS in Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqa city.

"No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities," said HRW arms director Steve Goose.

"US-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimise civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria."

White phosphorus can be used to create a smoke screen or as a battlefield marker, but it can also be deployed as a deadly incendiary weapon, a use prohibited under international law.

Last week striking images shared by activists and the Islamic State group showed white phosphorus being used over Raqa city, where a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters is battling to oust the jihadists.

Asked about the incident, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon declined to "discuss every detailed use of munition or capability available across our formations."

But he added that white phosphorus was used "in accordance with the law of armed conflict" and "in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian infrastructure."

HRW said it had not been able to independently verify any civilian casualties resulting from the use of white phosphorus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said 23 civilians had been killed by white phosphorus used in Raqa on June 8.

The Britain-based group said the US-led coalition had dropped the munition from planes.

But HRW said the images from Raqa were characteristic of ground-fire artillery projectiles containing white phosphorus.

US says ‘worst behind us’ in Qatar crisis

Progress has been made towards resolving the crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors after senior US officials met leading players in the standoff, the State Department said Tuesday.”I would characterize the mood and the approach to that as being o…

Progress has been made towards resolving the crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors after senior US officials met leading players in the standoff, the State Department said Tuesday.

"I would characterize the mood and the approach to that as being one that is hopeful, that believes that the worst is behind us," spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

Earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, whose government accuses Qatar of sponsoring extremist groups and has closed its border.

Tillerson and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have been working the telephones attempting to de-escalate the crisis between Riyadh and Qatar, which hosts a huge US air base.

Nauert refused to say whether Washington regards Qatar as a sponsor of terror or whether the closure of the border and ban on Qatari flights in Saudi airspace amount to a "blockade."

"Let's keep in mind that everyone has agreed or these parties are working toward an agreement of combating terrorism, and that is the main focus," she said.

"And let's not get bogged down in all the details about who's calling what when. This is trending in a positive direction. And let's stay focused on that so that we can continue to fight the war on terror."

Earlier, appearing alongside Tillerson -- who last week had urged that the "blockade" be eased -- Jubeir had insisted: "It's not a blockade."

Qatar risks FIFA action in Emir T-shirt protest

Qatar’s national team could face disciplinary action from FIFA after players warmed up for a World Cup qualifier against South Korea Tuesday in T-shirts showing support for the country’s emir.The players prepared for the crucial game in Doha wearing wh…

Qatar's national team could face disciplinary action from FIFA after players warmed up for a World Cup qualifier against South Korea Tuesday in T-shirts showing support for the country's emir.

The players prepared for the crucial game in Doha wearing white shirts emblazoned with a profile portrait of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

The image has become a widely-used symbol of defiance by Qataris in response to the current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf which has seen Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and others cut all ties with Doha.

The T-shirt was also waved by attacking midfielder Hasan Al-Haydos after he put the Qataris 1-0 ahead from a free kick in the 25th minute.

After scoring Haydos sprinted to the touchline and held up a T-shirt to the crowd.

The show of support from the football team comes during the worst diplomatic crisis witnessed in the Gulf for years.

Saudi and its allies claim they have moved in response to Qatar's support for "terrorism", a charge strongly denied by Doha, which says the diplomatic isolation is "unjust".

Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup finals.

FIFA bans any unsanctioned political, religious or commercial messages on shirts.

Earlier this week in response to the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said football's governing body does "not interfere in geopolitics" and gave his support for the 2022 tournament going ahead in Qatar.

Mine blast kills Saudi soldier on Yemen border

A Saudi border guard died Tuesday in a landmine blast along the frontier with Yemen, the interior ministry said.The mine exploded during a patrol in the kingdom’s southwestern Jazan district, a ministry statement said.More than 130 soldiers and civilia…

A Saudi border guard died Tuesday in a landmine blast along the frontier with Yemen, the interior ministry said.

The mine exploded during a patrol in the kingdom's southwestern Jazan district, a ministry statement said.

More than 130 soldiers and civilians have been killed in Saudi Arabia's southern border regions since a Saudi-led coalition began air strikes over Yemen in March 2015.

The coalition supports Yemen's internationally recognised government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in the fight against Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

The Huthis, allied with former members of the security forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have carried out retaliatory rocket strikes and engaged in firefights along the border.

The coalition has previously said the rebels laid mines along the border.

The insurgents have also launched ballistic missiles further into the kingdom.

In Yemen itself, more than 8,000 people have been killed in fighting since the coalition intervened more than two years ago, the World Health Organization says.