Middle East Updates / Kobani Death Toll Passes 800, Syria Activists Say

Tunisia authority confirms voter turnout around 60 percent; ten civilians killed as Yemeni Houthis advance into Al-Qaida stronghold; at least two reported killed after mortar shells hit school in Aleppo, Syria.

Reuters

Haaretz's latest Middle East analyses and opinions: Brazen Hezbollah could trigger third Lebanon war (Amos Harel) | Israeli citizens fighting for Islamic State: a small, yet worrying trend (Jack Khoury)

A supporter of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party waves party flags during a campaign rally.
AP

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9:26 P.M. Almost 60 percent of Tunisia's eligible voters turned out for Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to the country's election authority, a significantly higher figure than the 50 percent turnout recorded in 2011. (DPA)

8:23 P.M. Ten civilians killed as Yemeni Houthis advance into Al-Qaida stronghold

Around 10 civilians were killed as Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters backed by Yemeni government fire fought into strongholds of Al-Qaida and its Sunni tribal allies in the center of the country on Sunday, local tribesmen said.

They said the Yemeni army pounded fighters of Al-Qaida's local wing, Ansar al-Sharia, and local tribes with air strikes, artillery and Katuysha rockets in al-Baydah province, about 160 km (100 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa.

"Around 10 civilians were killed and a number were injured, including women and children," one tribal source said. "But because it is dark and due to the continuing clashes, we were unable to retrieve all the victims," he told Reuters, adding that dozens of families had fled the fighting. There were no details of casualties among the fighters. (Reuters)

5:00 P.M. Four Lebanese soldiers died in clashes with Islamist gunmen across northern Lebanon on Sunday, bringing the total killed to 10 since militants began fighting the army on Friday.

4:56 P.M. Iraqi Kurds to offer artillery support, not direct combat, in Kobani

Iraqi Kurdish forces will not engage in direct combat in the Syrian town of Kobani but are to provide artillery support for fellow Kurds fending off Islamic State militants there, the regional government's spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.

Last week, Ankara said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters passage through Turkish territory in order to reach the besieged border town. The autonomous region's parliament voted in favor of deploying some of its peshmerga forces, which have been fighting their own battle against Islamic State in northern Iraq, to Syria.

"Primarily, it will be a back-up support with artillery and other weapons," Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters. "It will not be combat troops as such, at this point anyway." (Reuters)

4:43 Syria activists say Kobani death toll passes 800

A Syrian activist group said Sunday that the death toll in 40 days of fighting in and around the northern Syrian border town of Kobani has reached 815, as Kurdish fighters battled Muslim militants for a hill west of the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll includes 21 Kurdish civilians and 302 fighters with the main Kurdish force known as the Peoples Protection Units, or YPG. It said 481 fighters with the Islamic State group have been killed since the battles began. (AP)

3:29 P.M. Iran frees leading human rights campaigner after short detention

Iranian security forces have released leading human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was detained after leading a protest against what she called unfair legal practices in the Islamic Republic, she said on Sunday.

The lawyer and activist was picked up along with several friends on Saturday on their way back from a sit-in outside Tehran's Bar Association in Tehran. They were freed after a brief background check, leaving only Sotoudeh in custody.

"I was held for seven hours and then set free," she told Reuters by telephone from Tehran. "There were two men from the intelligence ministry, meeting me separately. I told them I wouldn't answer any question because they had no court order."

The 51-year-old Sotoudeh came to prominence after her arrest in 2010 during a government crackdown on protests against ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection. (Reuters) 

3:40 P.M. More U.S. air strikes target Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

U.S. military forces conducted five air strikes against Islamic State targets near the embattled Syrian city of Kobani and with the help of partner nations another 12 separate strikes in Iraq, the U.S. Central Command said on Sunday. (Reuters)

2:58 P.M. At least two reportedly killed after mortar shells hit school in Aleppo, Syria

Activists and state media say rebels in the northern city of Aleppo have fired two mortar shells, hitting a school and killing two and wounding several children.

State news agency SANA says the attack in Al-Seryan neighborhood Sunday killed two people and wounded 24. One of the dead and most of the wounded are schoolchildren.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one of the shells hit the Hoda Shaarawi school; the second shell fell in front of the same school.

Aleppo, once Syria's commercial capital, has seen heavy fighting since rebels seized part of the city in 2012. (AP)

2:53 P.M. Iraqi troops retake Sunni town seized by ISIS

Iraqi soldiers backed by Shi'ite militiamen retook control Sunday of a Sunni town seized previously by Islamic militants, said an Iraqi official and state-run TV, a rare victory for Iraqi security forces that have been battling to regain areas lost to the militants.

The provincial official said that government forces entered Jurf al-Skhar, which fell to fighters from the Islamic State group in late July.

Col. Muthana Khalid, spokesman of the Babil provincial police, said the battle over the town left dozens of militants dead or wounded.

"Our soldiers raised the Iraqi flag over government offices and buildings in the town. It is another victory achieved against the terrorists," Khalid added.

The town, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital, is part of a predominantly Sunni ribbon that runs just south of Baghdad.

2:42 P.M. ISIS fighters fail to seize Kobani border post from Syrian Kurds

Islamic State militants tried to seize a border post in the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish frontier overnight but were repulsed by Kurdish fighters, Kurdish officials and a monitoring group said on Sunday.

Islamic State fighters have been trying to capture Kobani, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic, for over a month, pressing their assault despite U.S.-led air strikes on their positions and the deaths of hundreds of their fighters.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria's three-and-a-half-year-old conflict, said on Sunday it had confirmed that 815 people had been killed in the fighting for the town over the last 40 days - more than half of them Islamic State fighters.

Idris Nassan, a local Kurdish official, said Islamic State fighters had shelled Kobani's border gate on Saturday night but Kurdish fighters had pushed them back in the south and west.

"Of course they will try again tonight. Last night they brought new reinforcements, new supplies, and they are pushing hard," he said. (Reuters) 

2:27 P.M. Egypt sentences 23 young activists to three years in jail for violating protest law

An Egyptian court sentenced 23 young activists to three years in jail on Sunday for violating a law that forbids protesting without a permit, judicial sources said.

The activists, among them a 28-year-old lawyer with a prominent local rights organisation, were arrested in June after protesting against a law passed last year that bans demonstrations held without the approval of the police.

They were also found guilty of blocking off a road during the protest, among other charges. The court fined those sentenced 10,000 Egyptian pounds($1,400). (1 US dollar = 7.1500 Egyptian pound) (Reuters)

1:50 P.M. Houthi fighters enter main Al-Qaida stronghold in central Yemen

Houthi fighters backed by Yemeni government forces entered an Al-Qaida stronghold in central Yemen on Sunday, local tribesmen said, one day after Sunni Islamist fighters pushed their Shi'ite rivals back.

The Houthis moved into al-Manasseh area in al-Bayda province under cover from Katyusha rocket fire from the Yemeni army and presidential guard. Tribal sources said the Ansar al-Sharia fighters withdrew to another district called Bakla, some 3 km (two miles) away.

The Houthis have advanced into central and western Yemen since they seized control of Yemeni capital Sanaa on Sept. 21, taking on Sunni tribesmen and Al-Qaida militants.

Fighting has flared up in several provinces, alarming neighbour Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter.

The Yemeni army had so far avoided clashing with the Houthis or to support them in their advance on Al-Qaida strongholds. But President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi considers Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the main threat facing the country. (Reuters) 

1:45 P.M. Lebanese army fights street battles against Muslim militants in northern city of Tripoli

The Lebanese army brought tanks and commando forces into the northern city of Tripoli Sunday, where fighting with Muslim militants has intensified and spread to nearby areas.

Several tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees carrying commandos arrived on the edge of the Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood, where clashes were heaviest. Intense gunfire exchanges and sporadic explosions rang out across the neighborhood, the worst fighting Tripoli has seen for months.

The clashes, which broke out Friday night, have so far killed five soldiers, two civilians and wounded many others. It was not clear if there were casualties among the militants.

On Wednesday, troops killed three militants and detained a local leader in a raid in the northern Dinniyeh region, setting off the spark that led to the Tripoli fighting.

The Lebanese army said in a statement that troops attacked a school in the nearby town of Bhannine that gunmen were using. It said several militants were wounded while others fled, adding that troops found two cars rigged with explosives as well as well as weapons and ammunition.

The statement said troops are deploying in Bab Tabbaneh and responding to the gunfire "of terrorists."

State-run National News Agency said the troops are now in full control of Tripoli's northern suburb of Minyeh after arresting several gunmen. (AP)

12:40 P.M. Three Turkish soldiers killed by gunmen in Kurdish-majority southeast province

Three Turkish soldiers have been shot dead by gunmen in the Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Hakkari, the army says, blaming the attack on a "terrorist organization."

The Anadolu news agency said on Sunday that five suspects have been arrested.

Around two weeks ago the Turkish army carried out airstrikes in the province against positions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebel group, which is banned.

After the airstrikes, the PKK accused the Turkish government of violating a ceasefire in place since March last year. (DPA)

12:15 P.M. Iraqi forces retake four villages from ISIS after victory near Baghdad

Iraqi government forces retook four villages on Sunday near a mountain ridge overlooking Islamic State supply lines, security officials said, in a campaign which has struggled to make advances against the Sunni Islamist insurgents.

Iraqi security forces backed by Shi'ite militias gained some momentum on Saturday in their bid to loosen the grip of Islamic State, which controls large swathes of territory in the north and west of the country.

After months of fighting they drove Islamic State militants out of Jurf al-Sakhar, just south of Baghdad, while Kurdish fighters regained control over the town of Zumar in the north.

Sunni insurgents have been moving fighters, weapons and supplies from western Iraq through secret desert tunnels to Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraqi officials have said. Now it appears government forces may be able to disrupt that network.

Iraqi security forces backed by Shi'ite militias launched an assault on Saturday on areas around the Himreen mountains, a hotbed of militant activity 100 km (60 miles) south of the oil city of Kirkuk.

On Sunday they seized control of four villages in the area, security officials said, adding that it was very difficult to accelerate efforts to capture more territory because of roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses.

"We have decided to make slow advances. We hold the ground, set up watch towers, clear the explosives and build sand barriers to prevent the armed men from returning," army major Ahmed Nu'aman told Reuters by telephone. (Reuters)

11:54 A.M. Pakistan military jets reportedly kill at least 18 militants

Pakistan's army says its jets have killed at least 18 militants as part of an ongoing offensive to eliminate militants' hideouts and ammunition stockpiles in the Khyber tribal region.

An army statement Sunday says the jets destroyed five such hideouts with "precise strikes" during the offensive late Saturday night.

Besides the militants killed, the army said the strikes destroyed huge caches of arms and ammunition hidden in various parts of the region, near the Afghan border.

The Pakistani army is now regularly targeting militants' hideouts in Khyber, since fighters fled there from North Waziristan tribal region where it has been conducting a months-long operation. (AP)

11:32 A.M. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood condemns Friday's Sinai Peninsula attacks

Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has condemned attacks in the Sinai Peninsula that killed at least 33 security personnel on Friday but said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was responsible for security failures.

The attacks are a setback for the government, which had managed over the past few months to make some progress in the struggle against an Islamist militant insurgency in the Sinai as it focuses on trying to repair the economy.

The Muslim Brotherhood says it is a peaceful movement and has consistently denied links to Islamist militant attacks against security forces, which have increased since the movement was removed from power.

In an e-mailed statement, the Brotherhood called the attacks a "massacre" and offered condolences to the victims' families.

"The Muslim Brotherhood believes the shedding of blood of any Egyptian is forbidden. The group holds the junta and its leaders responsible for the continued failure in the security, economic and social fields, as experienced by all the people, especially the people of the Sinai," the statement said. (Reuters)

10:39 A.M. Afghan court sentences mullah to 20 years in prison for raping a 10-year-old girl

An Afghan court has sentenced a mullah to 20 years in prison after finding the religious teacher guilty of raping a 10-year-old girl.

The sentence, passed by a Kabul judge on Saturday, has been welcomed by family as well as women's support groups as a rare victory in their fight for justice for female victims of sex crimes. Rape is often treated as adultery in Afghanistan, and victims can face prison themselves.

Hassina Sarwari, who runs a shelter for women in northern Kunduz province, where the rape took place, said Sunday that if the trial had not been transferred to Kabul the result would probably have been very different.

The rape took place in May in the girl's home village near the provincial capital, also called Kunduz.

"If the case would have not been transferred to Kabul, we were so worried that the mullah would have not been punished in Kunduz for his crime," said Sarwari. When she saw the girl, Bershna, who like many Afghans only uses one name, for the first time in the hospital she was in a very bad condition and required transfer to Kabul for additional treatment. (AP)

3:00 A.M. Tunisian to vote for new parliament Sunday
Tunisians will elect a new parliament on Sunday as the prospect of a full democracy finally comes within their reach, four years after they cast out autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

But where the role of Islam in politics dominated the first election in 2011, now jobs, economic opportunities and Tunisia's low-intensity conflict with Islamist militants are the main concerns of a country heavily reliant on foreign tourism.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda and rival secular alliance Nidaa Tounes are favoured to win most seats in Sunday's vote, only the second free election in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled into exile. But the large number of other parties, from conservative Islamist Salafist movements to Socialists, means a coalition government is the probable outcome.

The 217-member assembly will choose a new prime minister.

Ennahda won most seats in the first election and led a coalition before a crisis over their rule and the murder of two secular leaders forced them into a deal to step aside for a caretaker premier. Criticised for economic mismanagement and lax handling of hardline Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.

But Nidaa Tounes, which includes some former members of the Ben Ali regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able manage economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.

"Ennahda are the only party we can rely on after the revolution, despite the mistakes they made," said Hatem Kamessi, sports teacher attending an Ennahda rally in Tunis. "After the first election, they didn't have the experience."  (AP)

Saturday night:

10:11 P.M. Iraq government forces, militias take control of strategic town

Iraqi government forces and Shi'ite militias took control of the strategic town of Jurf al-Sakhar just south of Baghdad on Saturday, breaking the grip of Islamic State militants after months of fighting, security officials said.

The officials said the Sunni insurgents fled to two nearby villages and were still attacking with sniper fire and mortars and government forces were preparing for a major overnight operation against them. (Reuters)