In Other News

Iraq: Yazidis demand autonomous zone

Haider Shasho, commander of the Yezidi Shingal Protection Forces in northern Iraq, met with the Yazidi community in the German city of Cologne last week to discuss the circumstances of his arrest by Kurdish authorities. Shasho said he was arrested April 5 for attempting to form a separate Yazidi force to fight ISIS outside the command of the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He added that the incident shows that Yazidis must establish their own autonomous zone within the KRG. "We intend to form an independent Yezidi entity in northern Iraq, to guarantee equal rights to the members of our community there," he said. "We as Yezidis will not detach ourselves from the Kurdistan Region, we are also Kurds, it's our right as part of the Kurdish people to have an independent political and administrative entity, so we can serve our people and protect their rights."

Syria: Nusra Front announces drive on Damascus

An Islamist rebel coalition led by al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front has made gains in northwestern Syria in recent weeks, taking the city of Idlib and the town of Jisr al-Shughour, and bringing them to the edge of government-held coastal areas north of the capital. "We will continue our focus on Damascus and on toppling this regime," Nusra leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani told Al Jazeera May 27. "I assure you, Assad's fall won't take a long time."

Israel bombs Gaza; Amnesty accuses Hamas

The Israeli air force carried out four strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip hours after a cross-border rocket landed in the city of Ashdod May 26. The planes targeted training camps belonging to the Islamic Jihad in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Gaza City. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Earlier, the Qassam Brigades, military wing of Hamas, confirmed they had fired five experimental rockets into the sea, but said one had landed accidentally in the southern Israeli city. Israel said it struck "four terror infrastructures in the southern Gaza Strip" in response to the rocket fire. The rocket was the third fired from Gaza since the ceasefire ending Israel's 50-day war on Gaza last summer. Two mortar bombs were also fired at Israel since September, according to the Shin Bet security agency. The air-strikes were the third since the end of the 2014 conflict. (Al Jazeera, May 27)

Bangladesh bans Islamist group in blogger attacks

Bangladesh on May 25 banned an Islamist militant group suspected of involvement in the murders of atheist bloggers that sparked protests in Dhaka earlier this year. The Home Ministry's move to outlaw the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) comes after police asked the government to ban the group. Police have also charged ABT followers with the 2013 murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. ABT is the sixth Islamist militant group to be banned in the country, which has seen a rise in militant attacks in recent years. The msot recent slaying of a blogger, which took place two weeks ago in Sylhet city, was claimed on Twitter in the name of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). AQIS previously claimed responsibility for the February slaying of  blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka. An Islamist has been arrested in connection with his murder but not formally charged. (Channel NewsAsia, May 25)

Burma passes restrictive population control bill

Burma's President Thein Sein on May 23 signed into law a bill requiring some mothers to space the births of their children three years apart. The Population Control Health Care bill, passed by parliament last month, allows authorities the power to implement "birth-spacing" in areas with high rates of population growth. Though the bill has no punitive measures, US deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken and rights activists worry it will be used to repress women's rights as well as religious and ethnic minority rights. Speaking on the matter, Blinken stated: "We shared the concerns that these bills can exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions and undermine the country's efforts to promote tolerance and diversity." The government claims the bill and three others like it were aimed at bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates and protecting women and minorities, but activists argue that there are better ways to accomplish this goal.

Peru declares martial law at disputed mine site

The government of Peru on May 23 declared a two-month period of martial law in the southern region of Arequipa where residents are protesting the construction of a copper mine. Martial law allows police to enter homes without search warrants, as well as to break up protests and meetings. Southern Copper Corporation plans to build a copper mine known as Tia Maria for $1.4 billion, which residents strongly feel will contaminate the water and air in the region, and will be detrimental to the local farming economy. Protests have continued for over two months and often turn violent, even after the government approved the company's environmental study last year that claimed the company could operate a clean mine. The government had already sent in over 4,000 police officers and 1,000 soldiers to the area to control the protests, which have resulted in the deaths one police officer and three protesters. José Ramos Carrera, mayor of Punta de Bombon, stated that the martial law declaration "shows is that the government wants the mine to go ahead at all costs."

Kurdish factions clash on Iranian border

After two weeks of tense stand-off, clashes broke out between militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) on the Iran-Iraq border May 24, with at least two KDPI fighters reported killed. Fighting was reported in the Iraqi border villages of Kelashin, Khenela and Saqar. The dispute started when a KDPI force deployed to the border on May 10 to establish a base in areas where the PKK was already entrenched.  The PKK have now surrounded the KDPI forces in the area. With more than 5,000 militants spread across the area, the PKK is in virtual control of the borderlands between Iran, Iraq and Turkey.  The KDPI is the Iranian wing of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), loyal to Masoud Barzani. (Rudaw, BasNews, Doğan News Agency, May 24)

Colombia: peace process in jeopardy?

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on May 9 called upon his National Drug Council to halt the spraying of glyphosate on suspected coca fields following its recent reclassification as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The decision to put an end to 20 years of the US-backed aerial spraying was applauded by leaders of the FARC guerillas. The spraying has long been opposed by the FARC as well as by Colombia's peasant communities. Santos' announcement came one week after government representatives and FARC leaders met in Havana for the 35th round of ongoing peace talks—this time to focus on justice and restitution for victims of Colombia's long civil war. (Colombia Reports, May 10; Prensa Latina, May 3)

US scuttles Mideast nuclear-free zone —for Israel

The 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded at the UN in New York on May 22 without approving a final document—due to US blocking of a provision on creating a Middle East nuclear-free zone. The US blocked the document, saying Egypt and other Arab states tried to "cynically manipulate" the process by setting a March 2016 deadline for Middle East nations to meet on the proposal—including Israel. The US was joined by the UK and Canada in blocking the document. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked US Secretary of State John Kerry for blocking. Israel of course had no vote, as a non-signatory to the NPT. (AP, Interfax, The Guardian, May 23; Xinhua, May 22)

China pushes trans-Amazon railway project

China's Premier Li Keqiang, on a tour of South America, is plugging a transcontinental railway project that would cut through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Last year, President Xi Jinping signed a memorandum on the project with the governments of Brazil and Peru, and Li is now pressing for an actual feasibility study. According to an interactive map on Diálogo Chino website, the "Twin Ocean Railroad" or "Transcontinental Railroad" would start at Porto do Açu in Rio de Janeiro state, and cut through the Brazilian states of Goiás, Mato Grosso and Rondônia. It would terminate at Puerto Ilo in Peru's southern Moquegua region.

Israel court orders release of Palestinian lawmaker

A military court in Israel on May 21 ordered Palestinian lawmaker, Khalida Jarrar, be released on bail. Under the terms of her release, she is to pay a 20,000-shekel ($5,000) bond with a third-party guarantee. She is to be held three additional days pending a possible appeal. Jarrar, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was arrested last month by the Israeli military for incitement and involvement in terrorist activities after she disobeyed an Israel-ordered restriction from movement in the West Bank. She was placed under Israeli administrative detention, a system Israel says exists to prevent attacks by militants. Under administrative detention, individuals may be held captive for up to six months without being charged. The detention may be extended under a judge's approval, and evidence regarding the arrest may be withheld if deemed necessary. Some have called Jarrar's arrest a politically-fueled act, as Jarrar was instrumental in the Palestinian Authority's bid to formally join the International Criminal Court

Libya: ISIS tightens grip on Sirte

ISIS forces are in control of most of Moammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, and this week sucessfully repulsed an effort to retake the town by the Misrata-based 166 Brigade, which is aligned with the Libya Dawn rebel coalition that holds power in Tripoli. The 166 Brigade was reportedly pushed to the west after launching an attack on Nufaliya, and ISIS-held town on the outskirts of Sirte. ISIS claims to have taken 166 Brigade camps south and east of Sirte, and posted photos of what it says is seized equipment.

Christian terror plot on Catskill Muslims

Robert Doggart, apparently an ordained minister in something called the Christian National Church, pleaded guilty last month in a plot to massacre Muslims at an upstate New York village known as Islamberg. Doggart, a resident of Signal Mountain, Tenn., was detained by the FBI April 11 as he was evidently planning to burn down the school, mosque and cafeteria at Islamberg—formerly Hancock, in Delaware county along the Pennsylvania border, in the southwestern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. "Our small group will soon be faced with the fight of our lives," he wrote in an indiscrete social media post. "We will offer those lives as collateral to prove our commitment to our God. We shall be Warriors who will inflict horrible numbers of casualties upon the enemies of our Nation and World Peace." Court papers say he intended to use an M-4 assault rifle and explosives, and sought to recruit volunteers for the attack from right-wing militia groups. He was apprehended while planning a reconnaissance mission to Islamberg. Doggart ran as an independent for Congress in Tennessee's 4th District last year, but was handily defeated.

Syria: Kurdish-Assyrian alliance against ISIS

Kurdish forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG) are continuing to press gains against ISIS in northern Syria—even as the "Islamic State" is defeating government forces in both Syria and Iraq, taking the cities of Ramadi and Palmyra in recent days. On May 19, the YPG reported taking a number of villages and farms in the southern countryside of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) in northeast Syria's Hassakeh governorate. The YPG advance was supported by US-led air-strikes. (ARA News, May 20) The gains come as ISIS continues its campaign of ethnic cleansing against Assyrian Christians in Hassakeh. The YPG has formed an alliance with two Christian military formations, the Syriac Haras al-Khabur and Assyrian Military Council, now fighting ISIS for the towns of Sere Kaniye and Tel Temir. (ARA News, April 23)

ISIS in Palmyra: lives versus archaeology?

ISIS forces on May 20 seized the Syrian city of Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur and famed for its ancient ruins—built by an Arab civilization 2,000 years ago in the Greco-Roman style. The Local Coordination Committees civil resistance network said the entire city came under ISIS control after pro-regime forces staged a "strategic retreat." As ISIS has advanced on Palmyra, there has been growing concern that its archaeological treasures will fall victim to the systematic ISIS campaign of cultural cleansing that has already seen partial destruction of the Iraqi sites of Hatra and Nimrud. UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said: "The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population. I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra."