Middle East Updates After Murdering Druze, Syrian Nusra Front Promises to Bring Killers to Justice

Syrian Kurds close in on ISIS stronghold on Turkey border; Egyptian court jails 23 for killing of Shi'ite Muslims.

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A boy from the Druze community holds a Syrian flag with the image of Syria's President Bashar Assad. April 17, 2013.
A boy from the Druze community holds a Syrian flag with the image of Syria's President Bashar Assad. April 17, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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Latest updates:

8:00 P.M. After murdering Druze, Syrian Nusra Front promises to bring killers to justice

The Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front acknowledged on Saturday that its members were involved in the killing of Druze villagers in northwestern Syria this week, saying they had violated orders and would face justice.

Twenty Druze villagers were reportedly killed in the village of Qalb Loze in Idlib province on Wednesday when Nusra Front members opened fire in an incident that spiralled from their attempt to confiscate a house.

In a statement, the Nusra Front said it had received with "great sorrow" news of the incident in which "a number of Nusra Front members" had taken part without consulting their leaders. (AP)

7:43 P.M. Egyptian court jails 23 for killing of Shi'ite Muslims

An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced 23 men to 14 years in jail without parole over the killing of four Shi'ite Muslims in 2013, judicial sources said.

In a picture taken from Alcakale, Turkey, a flag of the Islamic State flutters among buildings in the center of the Syrian city Tal Abyad on June 13, 2015. Credit: AFP

The four Shi'ites, one of whom was a prominent cleric, were killed in June 2013 when a mob stormed a house in a small village near Cairo, angry that a Shi'ite religious ceremony had been performed.

The crowd threw petrol bombs at the house, which caught fire, and the victims' bodies were dragged through the streets. (Reuters)

5:52 P.M. Syrian Kurds draw near ISIS stronghold on Turkey border

Kurdish officials and activists say Kurdish fighters are making headway toward a stronghold of the Islamic State group near the Turkish border amid intense fighting between the two sides.

The fighting has forced thousands of residents of Tal Abyad to flee to Turkey. On Saturday, hundreds of additional Syrians could be seen on the Syrian side of the border, waiting to cross into Turkey.

A statement by the main Syrian Kurdish fighting force, known as the YPG, said its fighters have laid siege to the Islamic State-held town of Suluk southwest of Tal Abyad. It said IS militants have "lost control" over Suluk and Kurdish forces were advancing toward Tal Abyad.

The Kurds are backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. (AP)

5:20 P.M. U.S., allies conduct 15 air strikes in Syria and Iraq

U.S. and coalition forces conducted 12 air strikes targeting Islamic State in Iraq on Friday and three strikes against the militant group in Syria, mostly focusing on urban areas, the U.S. military said on Saturday.

"The coalition continues to strike Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists in complex and congested urban terrain in Iraq and Syria,"" Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, chief of staff for the Combined Joint Task Force, said in a statement.

All the Syrian strikes took place near the town of Kobani near the Turkish border, hitting tactical units and destroying a fighting position, the military said.

The strikes conducted in Iraq were spread out near Baghdad, Al Huwayjah, Baiji, Makhmur, Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar, where they hit tactical units, firing positions and a staging area. They also destroyed vehicles, fuel tankers, weapons and a structure, the military added. (Reuters)

3:57 P.M. Iran won't allow nuclear inspections to jeopardise state secrets

Iran's President Hassan Rohani said on Saturday he would not put state secrets at risk in the country's nuclear negotiations, becoming the latest senior official to express reservations about intrustive inspections sought by world powers.

"Iran will absolutely not allow its national secrets to fall into the hands of foreigners through the Additional Protocol or any other means," Rohani said in a televised news conference, referring to a mechanism that would allow for more intrusive inspections of Iranian sites. (Reuters)

2:30 P.M. Suicide attacks kill 10 Iraqi troops, militiamen north of Baghdad

Authorities in Iraq say coordinated suicide attacks targeting security posts have killed 10 people north of Baghdad.

Police officials say four suicide bombers driving explosive-laden cars rammed into two security checkpoints and a military headquarters in the al-Hajaj area on Saturday, killing 10 Shiite militiamen and troops. They say at least 20 people were wounded.

Al-Hajaj lies on the road between Beiji and Tikrit in Salahuddin province.

Police said the four suicide attacks took place within a 15-minute period.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to journalists. (AP)

2:27 P.M. Syrian Kurds say begin advance toward ISIS-held town near Turkish border

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said it began an advance towards an Islamic State-held town at the Turkish border on Saturday, thrusting deeper into the jihadists' stronghold of Raqqa province with the backing of U.S.-led air strikes.

Redur Xelil, the YPG spokesman, told Reuters the YPG and smaller Syrian Arab rebel groups fighting alongside it had begun the move towards Tel Abyad after encircling the Islamic State-held town of Suluk 20 km (12 miles) to the southeast.

The advance raises the prospect of a big battle at the Turkish border between the well-organised YPG militia and Islamic State. Tel Abyad is important to Islamic State as the nearest border town to its de facto capital of Raqqa city.

Turkey says thousands of people have already fled across its border to escape fighting between the YPG and Islamic State near Tel Abyad.

The YPG has made a determined push into Raqqa province from neighboring Hasaka where, with the help of the U.S.-led alliance, it has driven Islamic State from wide areas of territory since early May.

"The move towards Tel Abyad from the east began today after the completion of the Suluk blockade," Xelil said. "Many of the Daesh militants have fled (Suluk), apart from a group of suicide attackers inside the town and the booby traps, so we are very cautious about entering the town center," he added via Skype.(Reuters)

2:10 P.M. Nine killed by Saudi-led air raids on area inhabited by Yemeni ex-leader's relatives

Nine people were killed when Saudi-led coalition warplanes bombed a district in the Yemeni capital Sanaa inhabited by relatives of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, residents and medics said.

The air raid, which also wounded at least 60 people, came ahead of planned U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva aimed at ending Yemen's conflict that has drawn in regional powers, including the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

Residents said the warplanes had targeted vacant houses in Bait Me'yad, a district near the heart of Sanaa that is home to a number of relatives of Saleh, whose loyalists are allied with Houthi forces, the dominant armed faction in the conflict.

Mohammed Yahya, an eyewitness, said two missiles struck two Saleh relatives' houses while the third crashed in the middle of the neighbourhood, causing several casualties. Another witness said three explosions shook the neighbourhood.

"We felt as if the house was going to collapse over our heads," said the man, identified as Ali Ahmed. "We ran, with the children, and hid under the stairwell. It was terrifying."

Medical sources said nine people who had suffered severe injuries died on arrival at hospital while 60 others were under care at three hospitals in the capital. (Reuters)

1:41 P.M. Egypt's new Suez Canal to open August 6, canal authority chairman says

Egypt's New Suez Canal will open on August 6, the canal authority chairman said on Saturday.

Mohab Mameesh, Chairman and Managing Director of the Suez Canal Authority, also said that the digging and dredging works would conclude on July 15.

The new canal will run alongside the existing 145-year-old waterway, part of a multi-billion-dollar project to expand trade along the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia. (Reuters)

12:35 P.M. Iran brings home body of top general killed in Syria

Iran is bringing home the body of a top-ranking military officer killed in April in southern Syria, Iranian news agencies reported, at least the second senior Iranian to die there this year while supporting Damascus in the war.

Hadi Kajbaf, a major general in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was killed near the rebel-held town of Busr al-Harir, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Damascus, the IRGC-linked Tasnim agency reported late on Friday.

Three other Iranians were killed alongside Kajbaf including a mid-ranking Shi'ite Muslim cleric, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Iranian military and financial support have been crucial to helping President Bashar Assad survive the war, now in its fifth year. The conflict is a focal point for Shi'ite Islamist Iran's power struggle with Sunni Saudi Arabia, which supports the insurgents battling to topple Assad.

Kajbaf held the highest rank used in Iran's armed forces, making him more senior than an IRGC brigadier general who was killed in January by an Israeli missile strike in Syrian territory near the Golan Heights, along with a number of fighters from the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah group. (Reuters)

12:28 P.M. ISIS militants attack Iraqi government forces near Baiji refinery

Islamic State militants attacked government forces and their Shi'ite militia allies on Saturday, killing 11 near the city of Baiji as part of the battle for control of Iraq's biggest refinery, army and police sources said.

Four suicide bombers in vehicles packed with explosives hit security forces and the local headquarters of the Shi'ite militias in the area of al-Hijjaj, 10 km (6 miles) to the south of Baiji town, near the refinery, sources at the nearby Tikrit security operations command said.

Iraqi government forces and powerful Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias face Islamic State on several fronts in Iraq, a major oil producer and OPEC member.

They include areas around Baiji refinery, north of Baghdad, and the city of Ramadi west of the capital, seized last month by Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group that poses the biggest threat to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. (Reuters)

11:53 A.M. Body of Tariq Aziz, top Saddam Hussein aide, in Jordan ahead of burial

The body of Tariq Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam Hussein's inner circle, is in Jordan ahead of being buried.

The body arrived in Jordan's capital, Amman, early Saturday. Authorities took it to a local morgue, where Aziz's son, Ziad, and others met it. Some Baath Party supporters chanted outside.

Aziz died June 5 at age 79. He had been in prison since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and suffered a series of strokes. He faced execution for his role in a government that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Jordan's government agreed to a request by Aziz's family to bury him in Jordan. After an autopsy, Aziz's daughter, Zeinab, said her father's body went missing at Baghdad International Airport. Authorities said a delay occurred over missing documents. (AP)

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