Middle East Updates Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front Reportedly Kills 20 Syrian Druze

Saudi-led airstrikes kill 20 Yemeni civilians this week; over 20 million in war-torn Yemen need humanitarian aid, says UNICEF.

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A member of Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front pictured in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, May 28, 2015.
A member of Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front pictured in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, May 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters
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Smoke billows from a Houthi-controlled military site after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen, June 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters

9:33 P.M. Daughter of Saddam Hussein's former top aide says her deceased father's body missing

The daughter of Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's former top aide who died last week in prison in Iraq, says her father's body has gone missing after it was snatched in Baghdad while en route to Jordan for burial.

Aziz's daughter Zeinab says she was told by her mother, who is in Iraq, that his body went missing at the Baghdad International Airport on Thursday. No further details were immediately known.

A Royal Jordanian official confirmed the last flight left Baghdad without Aziz's casket. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to talk to reporters.

Aziz died last Friday in the city of Nasiriyah, where he was imprisoned awaiting execution. Iraqi forensics chief Zaid Ali Abbas says autopsy results Thursday confirmed that he died of a heart attack. (AP)

9:20 P.M. U.S. House rejects measure to force vote on ISIS fight

The U.S. House of Representatives rejected an amendment to a defense bill on Thursday that would have forced lawmakers to vote on a formal authorization for the use of military force against Islamic State.

The House voted 231 to 196, largely along party lines, to defeat the amendment.

The vote took place a day after President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of 450 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to advise and assist Iraqi forces seeking to retake territory lost to Islamic State. (Reuters)

9:02 P.M. Saudi-led airstrikes kill 20 Yemeni civilians this week

A Saudi-led airstrike this week hit a public bus on a highway in southern Yemen linking the city of Aden with the north, killing at least 20 passengers, witnesses and officials said Thursday.

Another set of airstrikes hit a family traveling in a private car, a farmer driving a pick-up truck loaded with potatoes, also near Aden this week, as well as a group of anti-rebel fighters in a southwestern city.

The casualties underscore the losses and dangers faced by Yemeni civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire as the Saudi-led coalition targets the country's Shi'ite rebels, known as Houthis, in a bid to stop their advances.

The Saudi-led campaign and ground fighting in Yemen have killed 1,037 civilians, including 234 children, between mid-March and May and displaced more than a million people, according to UN estimates.

In a joint statement Thursday, 13 international aid groups appealed for a permanent ceasefire, saying 80 percent of Yemen's population has been affected by violence and is in need for assistance. (AP)

6:05 P.M. U.S., allies conduct 29 airstrikes in Syria, Iraq against ISIS militants

The U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State forces have launched 29 air strikes against the group since early on Wednesday, the Combined Joint Task Force leading the operations said in a statement on Thursday.

The 16 air strikes in Syria and 13 in Iraq hit various Islamic State fighting positions, fighting units, vehicles, buildings and other targets, the task force said in the statement. (Reuters)

5:34 P.M. Calls for aid to Syria's Druze after Al-Qaida kills 20

Fighters from Syria's Al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front, have killed at least 20 Druze villagers, raising fear for one of Syria's minorities as insurgents including Sunni Islamists gain ground against President Bashar al-Assad.

Druze in Lebanon and Israel have made separate appeals for their Syrian kin to be armed to defend themselves from groups such as Nusra and the more powerful Islamic State, which has persecuted both minorities and fellow Sunnis.

The shooting in the northwest occurred in the village of Qalb Loze in Idlib province, where the Nusra Front is part of an insurgent alliance that has seized wide areas from government control since March. (Reuters)

2:48 P.M. Syrian rebels say they seize southern air base, state denies

A rebel spokesman and an activist say Syrian opposition fighters have captured a major southern air base, a claim denied by state TV.

Maj. Issam al-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front alliance, says the Thaala air base in Sweida province was captured by rebels Thursday, two days after opposition fighters seized another key military base in southern Syria.Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in southern Syria, says troops withdrew from Thaala to other parts of Sweida province.
State TV denied the claims, saying troops have repelled three attacks on Thaala.

President Bashar Assad's forces have suffered a string of defeats in recent months at the hands of rebels, a local Al Qaida affiliate and the Islamic State group. (AP)

1:30 P.M. Syrian rebels claim to have downed gov't military jet

Syrian rebels said they had shot down a military jet on Thursday in southern Syria, where insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar Assad seized a major army base earlier this week.

Bashar al-Zoubi, leader of the Yarmouk Army rebel group, told Reuters his fighters had shot down the Russian-built MiG using anti-aircraft guns.

A video posted online by the opposition affiliated Syrian Media Organisation appeared to show a jet falling from the sky.

Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. (Reuters)

12:56 P.M. Erdogan says West backing Kurdish "terrorists" in Syria

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday accused the West of bombing Arabs and Turkmens in Syria while supporting Kurdish "terrorist" groups which he said were taking their place.

Moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces have been fighting Islamic State insurgents holding the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad in recent days, sending thousands of people fleeing to Turkey.Turkey is uncomfortable with gains by Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, saying they have links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. (Reuters)

12:22 P.M. Kurdish militia to hand body of American killed in Syria to family

The body of an American man who was killed in Syria fighting alongside Kurds against Islamic State will be handed over to his family in Turkey, Kurdish militia said in a statement on Thursday.

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday confirmed the man's death and identified him as Keith Broomfield. He was killed in clashes with Islamic State near the Syrian border town of Kobani, the People's Protection Union (YPG) Kurdish militia said on its web site, where it published the picture of man it said was Broomfield. (Reuters)

11:10 A.M. Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front reportedly kills 20 Druze in Syrian village

Members of the Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front have killed 20 Druze villagers in northwestern Syria, a group monitoring the war reported on Thursday. The mass killing occurred on Wednesday in the village of Qalb Loze in Idlib province, where the Nusra Front is part of an insurgent alliance that has seized wide areas from government control in the last three months.

The Druze faith is an offshoot of Islam viewed as heretical by the puritanical school of Sunni Islam espoused by Al Qaida.

The incident spiralled out of a confrontation that began when a Nusra Front member tried to confiscate the house of a villager who was fighting with Syrian government forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, citing local sources.

The dead included elderly people and at least one child, the Observatory said. A member of the Nusra Front was also killed when villagers managed to seize a weapon from a Nusra Front fighter. (Reuters)

10:37 A.M. Turkey's pro-Kurdish party open to all coalition partners except AKP

Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) said on Thursday it was open to all options for a coalition government other than with the ruling AK Party and that President Tayyip Erdogan should remain within his constitutional limits.

HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas also said that the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, was ready to make a call for disarmament and that a peace process with his group should accelerate. (Reuters)

7:15 A.M. U.S. orders more soldiers to Iraq to aid Sunni integration

Amid persistent setbacks in the fight against the Islamic State, President Barack Obama turned his military's focus to the Sunni-Shiite divide, ordering hundreds of troops to Iraq to better integrate Iraqi forces and lay the groundwork to retake Ramadi and other key cities.

The expanded military campaign will set up a new base in Anbar Province to advise Iraqi forces on how to plan and organize operations and help them reach out to Sunni tribes and bring them into the battle.

But it leaves out any move to send U.S. forces closer to the front lines, either to call in airstrikes or advise smaller battlefront units, underscoring Obama's reluctance to plunge the military deeper into war and risk the sight of more body bags coming home from Iraq.

Under the plan announced Wednesday, up to 450 more American troops will deploy to Iraq in the next six to eight weeks and set up a fifth training site al-Taqaddum, a desert air base that was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war. The site will be dedicated to helping the Iraqi Army integrate Sunni tribes into the fight, an element seen as a crucial to driving the Islamic State out of the Sunni-majority areas of western Iraq. (AP)

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