Middle East Updates U.S. Believes Several Hundred Islamic State Fighters Killed in Kobani Strikes

U.S. carries out strikes on Islamic State positions near Kobani and Iraq; Egypt warplanes bomb Islamist positions in Benghazi, Libya; Magnitude 6 earthquake strikes western Iran.

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An injured man arrives at the Helal hospital near the site of a blast that wounded 12 people in Cairo, Egypt, 14 Oct., 2014.
An injured man arrives at the Helal hospital near the site of a blast that wounded 12 people in Cairo, Egypt, 14 Oct., 2014. Credit: AFP
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Haaretz's latest Middle East analyses and opinions: Sissi's speech burst Netanyahu and Lieberman's bubble (Haaretz Editorial) | The adolescent phase of Islam (David Barzilai)

Kerry and Lavrov shake hands in Paris, October 14, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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Latest updates:

11:52 P.M. Trinidad says 'several' citizens aid Islamic group

A government official in Trinidad and Tobago says several citizens from the two-island Caribbean nation have traveled overseas to help the Islamic State militant group.

Minister of National Security Gary Griffith says not all those aiding Islamic State are fighters. Some are providing financial and logistical support to the group fighting an international coalition in Syria and Iraq.

Griffith says the government learned from foreign intelligence agencies about the involvement by some of its citizens. He declined Wednesday to provide an exact number of those thought to be taking part but said officials are concerned about their return.

The country of 1.2 million people has a small Muslim minority. An Islamic militant group staged a violent coup attempt in 1990 after some members received training in Libya. (AP)

10:00 P.M. U.S. believes several hundred Islamic State fighters killed in Kobani strikes

The U.S. military believes it has killed several hundred Islamic State fighters in air strikes in and around the Syrian town of Kobani, a Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday.

An increased number of air strikes around the embattled town by the U.S.-led coalition in recent days can be partly attributed to an increase in militant activity in the area, but despite the strikes, the city could still fall to Islamic State fighters, Rear Admiral John Kirby said at a news briefing in Washington. (Reuters)

9:22 P.M. U.S. special envoy for anti-Islamic State coalition says U.S. striking targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes.

U.S. air strikes around the Syrian town of Kobani are designed to relieve defenders and to buy time to try to build up forces in Syria to combat Islamic State militants, retired U.S. General John Allen said on Wednesday.

"We are striking the targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes. I'd be very reluctant to attempt to assign something, a term like 'a strategic target,' or 'a strategic outcome,'" Allen, the U.S. special envoy responsible for building the coalition against the Islamic State group, told reporters.

"Clearly ... given the circumstances associated with the defense of that town, there was a need for additional fire support to go in to try to relieve the defenders and to buy some white space, ultimately, for the reorganization on the ground," he added. "We have picked up the tempo and the intensity of the air strikes in order to provide that white space." (Reuters)

9:00 P.M. Saudi Arabia convicts 22 on militant charges, sentences one to death

A Saudi court sentenced one person to death and 21 others to various jail sentences after they were convicted of a range of militant crimes, including setting up training camps and identifying oil locations to hit, state news agency SPA said on Wednesday.

Riyadh's concern about Islamist militants has increased over the past two years as conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted more of its own citizens to travel there to join groups fighting in the name of jihad.

Of the 22 people convicted, the man sentenced to death was a citizen of Chad, SPA said. The rest, which included another Chadian and a someone described as Bengali, were given prison sentences of between five and 28 years.

The group was convicted of embracing militant ideology, the possession of ammunition in their apartment and firing on security services during a raid on their apartment in Mecca, killing one security officer. (Reuters)

7:15 P.M. Rockets hit chemicals storage tank outside of Benghazi

Rockets hit a chemicals storage tank of Libyan oil services firm al-Jouf outside the eastern Benghazi city on Wednesday, an oil official said.

Planes have bombed suspected Islamists positions in the port city throughout the day, residents said.

Rockets, probably from a plane, hit a storage tank of chemicals used to clean pipelines, Saad al-Fakhri, deputy head of Libya's oil workers' union, told Reuters.

Civil defence teams extinguished the fire at the tank west of Benghazi. The site is at least 100 km from Zueitina oil port, the closest export terminal in the oil-rich east.

6:49 P.M. Turkish Airlines investigating Arabic inscriptions found on several plane engines

Turkish Airlines said it is investigating after Arabic inscriptions found on several of its plane engines sparked panic among staff who feared a security breach by Islamist militants - only to find the inscriptions were of a prayer for abundance.

The incident has raised security fears at Istanbul's Ataturk airport as no security camera footage was available to find those responsible for the mysterious blessings, airport news website Airporthaber reported.

The discovery of Arabic writing on a jet engine at Europe's fifth-busiest airport on Sunday led to fears among staff who, unable to read it, feared it might be linked to Islamic State militants, Airporthaber said.

Similar inscriptions were then found on the engines of three more aircraft, all of which had arrived from different destinations. (Reuters)

6:46 P.M. Egypt warplanes bomb Islamist positions in Benghazi, Libya

Two Egyptian government officials say their country's warplanes are bombing positions of Islamist militias in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

The officials, who have first-hand knowledge of the operation, say the use of the aircraft is part of an Egyptian-led operation against the militiamen that involves Libyan ground troops.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but added that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. (AP)

6:30 P.M. France will continue delivering arms to Kurds fighting Islamic State in Syria

France will keep delivering arms to Kurds fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, said President Francois Hollande as battles were raging between the two groups in Kobani, near Turkey.

The French government will "do everything to help" those fighting against the Islamic State group, especially the Kurds, by delivering "adapted weaponry," Hollande said Wednesday, according to government spokesman Stephane Le Foll. He didn't specify which arms France will deliver. (AP)

5:58 P.M. U.S. military carries out 18 strikes on Islamic State positions near Kobani

U.S. aircraft carried out 18 strikes on Islamic State positions near the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday, the U.S. military's Central Command said.

U.S planes also conducted five strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq, it said in a statement on Wednesday.(Reuters)

5:50 P.M. Algerian police march to president's headquarters in protest

Algerian police tried to push their way into the president's headquarters Wednesday in an unprecedented protest movement prompted by violence against security forces in the south. The whereabouts of the long-ailing president were unclear.

The unrest in southern Algeria and protests in the capital come amid concerns that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is too ill to rule Africa's largest country, an ally in U.S. efforts against terrorism. Bouteflika, who helped bring stability to Algeria after a decade of bloodshed, has barely been seen in public since his re-election in April.

In the second day of protests in Algiers, about 300 police officers marched to the president's office, wearing their blue uniforms but apparently unarmed. Some tried to push their way past the front gate but were stopped by presidential guards. (AP)

5:04 P.M. Bahrain orders pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja detained for seven days

Bahraini authorities have ordered pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja to be detained for questioning for seven days after a judge accused her of insulting King Hamad by tearing up his picture, her lawyer said on Wednesday.

Zainab, daughter of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who is on hunger strike, fell foul of the judge on Tuesday during an appeal hearing into two cases involving her that date back to 2012, her lawyer Mohammed al-Wasti said.

"The judge yesterday accused Zainab of insulting the king by tearing up his picture during the trial," Wasti told Reuters.

Zainab, who is pregnant and lives in Bahrain, was an activist during 2011 pro-democracy protests, where she became known for publishing news of the uprising on social media. (Reuters)

4:59 P.M. Magnitude 6 earthquake strikes western Iran

A magnitude 6 earthquake struck western Iran on Wednesday at a depth of 36.7 km, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

It hit 59 km (37 miles) west-northwest of Dezful, near the border with Iraq. No further details were immediately available. (Reuters)

4:40 P.M. UN refugee chief asks EU to grant legal entry to more Syrian migrants

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antףnio Guterres said on Wednesday he had asked the European Union to grant legal entry to more Syrian refugees who are risking their lives trying to reach Europe illegally by sea.

Thousands of migrants, including many Syrians fleeing a three-year civil war, have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats operated by human traffickers.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Guterres said he had just come back "from Europe, from the European Council of Justice and Home Affairs, asking them for more Syrian refugees (to) also be able to come legally into Europe."

"It breaks my heart to see Syrian families that have suffered already so much in their country to drown in the Mediterranean at the hands of smugglers," he said. (Reuters)

4:33 P.M. Malaysia detains 14 Muslims suspected of being linked to Islamic State

Malaysian police said Wednesday they have detained 14 Muslims, including two women and a student, suspected of being linked to the militant Islamic State group.

The detentions bring the number of people held for suspected militant links to 36 since April.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the group was detained over the last three days in an operation in central Selangor state. They included a student, a chef, an engineer, a graphic designer and a housewife, he said.

Khalid said in a statement that three were believed to be leaders of a cell responsible for recruiting, sponsoring and sending Malaysians to fight in Syria. (AP)

3:54 P.M. Kurdish fighters make small advances in Kobani following street battles against Islamic State

Bolstered by intensified U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting militants from the Islamic State group, Kurdish militiamen fought pitched street battles Wednesday with the extremists in a Syrian Kurdish border town near Turkey, making small advances, activists and officials said.

Elsewhere in Syria, in a stark reminder of the country's wider civil war, a Syrian lawmaker was gunned down in the central province of Hama — the latest assassination to target a figure linked to President Bashar Assad's government.

In the border town of Kobani, members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, were advancing hours after the U.S.-led coalition stepped up airstrikes against the Islamic State group in and around the town, said Asya Abdullah, a Syrian Kurdish leader.

The Pentagon said Tuesday that 21 airstrikes against Islamic State targets near Kobani overnight Monday marked the largest number there in a 24-hour period since the air campaign in Syria began last month. (AP)

3:38 P.M. At least three killed in Benghazi, Libya clashes

A local Libyan commander says deadly clashes are underway between Islamist militias and forces loyal to a renegade general who has vowed to take control of the eastern city of Benghazi.

The militia commander says at least three people have been killed in the fighting so far. He says his militia took a military camp and tanks from Gen. Khalifa Hifter's forces after a suicide bomber blew himself at the camp gates.

A security official allied to Hifter denied the claim. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the fighting in Benghazi. (AP)

1:54 A.M. Al-Qaida and Shiite rebels clash in south Yemen

Yemeni security officials say Al-Qaida Sunni militants and Shi'ite rebels are locked in fierce battles in a province south of the capital, Sanaa. They say fighting erupted late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday in the town of Raad in Baydah province. They say initial reports indicate five rebels and six Al-Qaida militants were killed in the fighting and thousands of residents have fled the town to escape the violence.

The clashes followed a lightening push by the Shiite Houthi rebels who on Tuesday captured Damar province, also south of Sanaa, and a key Red Sea port city. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media.

Al-Qaida has vowed to fight the Houthis, who are suspected to be linked to predominantly Shiite Iran. (AP)

12:56 P.M. German FM: U.S. unlikely to send ground troops to Syria

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier does not expect the United States to put troops on the ground in Syria and does not see U.S. mid-term elections next month altering that, he said on Wednesday alongside his French colleague.

"I don't see the Americans sending troops into Syria," he told a news conference with France's Laurent Fabius, in response to a reporter's question about whether U.S. policy might change after the Nov. 4 congressional elections.

The United States is leading an allied air campaign against Islamic State militants but Washington is resisting calls from some U.S. conservatives, such as Sen. John McCain, to deploy troops to help forces fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. (Reuters)

12:41 P.M. U.S. says no talk about prolonging Iran nuclear talks

World powers and Iran are not discussing extending a late November deadline for reaching an agreement over Tehran's nuclear program, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, adding there was still time to reach a deal.

The State Department official spoke ahead of a meeting later on Wednesday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Vienna. "We're not talking about extension or anything like that in the room. We're talking about getting this done by the 24th (of November)," the U.S. official said.

Iran and the six major powers aim to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear program by reaching a settlement to curb the country's atomic activities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions hurting its oil-dependent economy. (Reuters) Read the full article

11:28 A.M. Syrian lawmaker assassinated

Syria's state-run news agency and a government official say gunmen have assassinated a lawmaker in the restive central province of Hama. SANA says Waris al-Younnes was gunned down while travelling on a road linking the city of Hama with the town of Salamiyeh. He represented Hama province in the parliament in Damascus.

A Syrian official told AP that al-Younnes was killed on Tuesday night. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Several Syrian officials have been assassinated since Syria's crisis began in March 2011. (AP)

10:57 A.M. Saudis sentence outspoken Shi'ite cleric to death

A Saudi judge on Wednesday sentenced to death an outspoken Shi'ite Muslim cleric whose arrest two years ago prompted deadly protests, the cleric's brother said on his Twitter account. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was detained in July 2012 after backing mass protests that erupted in February 2011 in the Qatif district of eastern Saudi Arabia, which is home to many of the Sunni-ruled country's Shi'ite minority.

Last year a prosecutor said he was seeking to convict Nimr for "aiding terrorists" and "waging war on God", which carry the death penalty. The former interior minister Prince Ahmed had previously accused Nimr of being "mentally unbalanced". His capture, during which he was shot and wounded by police, prompted several days of protests in which three people were killed. Protests have continued sporadically in Qatif, where more than 20 people have died in violence since 2011. (Reuters)

8:28 A.M District chief killed by Taliban in Helmand province

An official in Afghanistan says Taliban gunmen have killed a district chief and his security guard in the country's southern Helmand province. Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor of Helmand, says that an insurgent ambush Tuesday night killed district chief Mohammad Anwar Khan and the guard. Zwak said Wednesday that the attack in the province's Nad Ali district also wounded six police officers.

Nad Ali is one of the districts in Helmand in which Taliban have a strong presence and use as a base to launch attacks elsewhere in the province. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the killings, but Taliban insurgents have step up their attacks against Afghan government officials across the country ahead of most foreign troops withdrawing at the end of the year. (AP)

2:44 A.M. Blast in Cairo wounds 12

A strong blast hit a busy district in central Cairo on Tuesday night, leaving 12 wounded, Egypt's official news agency reported, as a court sentenced seven Islamic militants to death over earlier terror attacks.

MENA quoted a senior security official as saying that the explosion was caused by a home-made bomb placed in the vicinity of a court house. The site of the attack is a busy district and near a subway station.

The agency quoted Mohammed Sultan, a health minister official as saying that the blast caused no deaths and that 12 people were injured. No further details were immediately available.

Egypt has witnessed a series of suicide bombings, assassinations and attacks over the past year after the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after demonstrations demanding his resignation. (AP)

1:40 A.M. U.S., Russia vow to renew cooperation on global security matters

The United States and Russia vowed Tuesday to renew cooperation on a broad array of global security matters, including intelligence sharing on Islamic State militants, even as the two powers remained deeply at odds over the crisis in Ukraine.

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn't use the term "reset" — a relationship-mending term U.S. President Barack Obama coined in his first term to tighten U.S.-Russian ties — he employed familiar language about managing differences and forging a better partnership on matters where they agree.

After meeting for more than three hours in Paris with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, Kerry said both sides need to recognize they have "major responsibilities" as world powers, from combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East to dealing with Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs. As a concrete example of their work together, he said the U.S. and Russia would start sharing intelligence on the Islamic State militants, which the U.S. and allies are fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Lavrov, speaking separately, confirmed intelligence-sharing would begin and also spoke positively about improving U.S.-Russian ties. "Mr. Kerry and I don't represent warring sides," he said. The nations play a "special role" in the world, he said. "We can cooperate better together to increase the effectiveness of settling problems for larger society. That especially concerns the fight against terrorism, which has now become the main threat to the whole Mideast." (AP)

1:15 A.M. U.S. jury indicts Libyan militant over Benghazi attack involvement

A U.S. federal grand jury on Tuesday issued a new indictment that includes the death penalty against Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a Libyan militant accused of involvement in the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The indictment supersedes earlier charges brought against Khatallah in July and adds 17 new charges, including allegations that he led an extremist militia group and he conspired with others to attack the facilities and kill U.S. citizens.

Khatallah was captured in Libya in June by a U.S. military and FBI team and transported to the United States aboard a U.S. Navy ship to face charges in Washington federal court. Four Americans were killed in the attack, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. (Reuters)

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