Middle East Updates / Nusra Front Overtakes Strategic Army Base in Southwest Syria

Egypt's Cabinet extends dusk-to-dawn curfew in north Sinai for three more months; Seven killed in Damascus, Syria after Islamist fighters launch rocket barrage; Germany reportedly halts arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

AFP

For Saturday's updates, click here

Latest updates:

11:05 P.M. Iran FM summoned by Iranian parliament explain stroll with Kerry 

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been summoned before parliament to explain his recent public stroll with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a Sunday report by the country's official IRNA news agency.

On January 14, on the sidelines of ongoing nuclear negotiations, Zarif took a 15-minute walk through the streets of Geneva with Kerry. Now, according to IRNA, 21 Iranian parliamentarians are demanding that Zarif explain his "diplomatic mistake."

Zarif is representing Iran in negotiations with the so-called "P5+1" global powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

Zarif and moderate President Hassan Rouhani have faced intense skepticism from Iranian hard-liners — who believe they are making too many concessions to the West in negotiations to limit the scope of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the easing of crippling international economic sanctions. (AP)

7:00 P.M. Nusra Front overtakes strategic army base in southwest Syria

Syrian insurgents including fighters from al Qaeda's Nusra Front, seized an important government army base in the southwestern Deraa province on Sunday, fighters who took part in the battle said.

The base, one of several used to pound rebel-held villages and towns in southern Syria and along the frontier with Jordan, lies at the heart of a heavily fortified zone which has formed a southern line of defence protecting the capital, Damascus.

The fighters said hundreds of insurgents armed with rocket launchers and anti-aircraft weapons had taken over the Brigade 82 base near the town of Sheikh Maskeen, close to the main north-south highway between Damascus and Jordan.

"This advance will help us cut supply routes of the regime forces in the south from their supplies in the north to be able to eventually take over Deraa city," Colonel Saber Safar, a leader of the First Army, a major faction of Western-backed rebels in the "Southern Front" grouping, told Reuters by phone.

The rebel gain is the latest advance in the south, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have been on the defensive, losing control of large areas of countryside as well as parts of the border along with Israel near the Golan Heights, according to regional military experts and diplomats.

Fighters said the capture of the base had helped them to overrun most of the nearby town of Sheikh Maskeen, which they have attacked several times in last few months, but failed to seize.

The town is one of the main army supply routes to the city of Deraa, along the border with Jordan that was mainly in government hands.

The south is the last major stronghold of the mainstream, anti-Assad opposition, who have been weakened elsewhere by the expansion of the ultra-hardline Islamic State group in the east and north, and gains by the Nusra Front in the northwest.

However, Nusra is fighting in the south alongside the Western-backed groups, who have proved more united there than in other parts of Syria. (Reuters)

5:49 P.M. Egypt's Cabinet extends dusk-to-dawn curfew in north Sinai for three more months

Egypt's state media says the Cabinet has decided to extend a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the northern Sinai peninsula for three more months.

The curfew was originally instated in late October following a militant ambush that killed 31 Egyptian soldiers near the border town of Rafah.

Since then, the military has begun clearing a buffer zone along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip, meant to stop the flow of weapons and militants. The operation is displacing a population with longstanding grievances against Egypt's government.

Local residents expressed frustration at the news of the curfew extension, saying that it hinders their daily lives and hurts the local economy. (AP)

5:31 P.M. Seven killed in Damascus after Islamist fighters launch rocket barrage on Syrian capital

Islamist fighters struck the Syrian capital with at least 38 rockets on Sunday, killing seven people, a monitoring group said, in one of heaviest attacks on Damascus in over a year.

State media confirmed the attack and said at least four people were killed. It said the army was retaliating.

The Saudi-backed Islam Army, based in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, had warned earlier that it would hit back against an air strike last week in Ghouta in which more than 40 people were killed.

Damascus residents said Sunday's rockets seemed to be mortars and Katyusha.

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the violence in the country, said this was the heaviest attack on the capital for more than a year.

The Syrian army was shelling the rebel-held town of Douma where the Army of Islam is powerful, Abdulrahman said. Douma lies on one of the main roads linking the capital with Homs city further north.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports. (Reuters) 

4:25 P.M. Gunmen kidnap Libyan deputy foreign minister

Gunmen kidnapped the deputy foreign minister of Libya's internationally recognized government on Saturday, the interior minister said.

The gunmen took Hassan al-Saghir from a hotel where he was staying in the eastern city of Bayda, Interior Minister Omar al-Zanki said on Sunday.

Kidnappings have become frequent in the North African country, where two governments and parliaments, allied to different armed factions, are vying for legitimacy and control four years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

Abdullah al-Thinni, the internationally recognized prime minister of Libya, and his cabinet have been based in the east since a group called Libya Dawn seized the capital of Tripoli in August and reinstated the old assembly known as General National Congress assembly.

The elected parliament, the House of Representatives, has been forced to work in the remote eastern city of Tobruk near the border with Egypt. (Reuters) 

4:04 P.M. UN: 'Grave concern' over clashes between ISIS fighters and Lebanese forces on Syria border

The United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag is expressing "grave concern" over a border battle between Lebanese forces and Syria-based militants from the Islamic State group that killed eight soldiers.

Kaag issued the statement on Sunday as Lebanese television broadcast funerals of the soldiers killed during the fighting near the northeastern Lebanese village of Ras Baalbek.

The battle began as a cross-border attack on Friday from the Syrian side. A security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the attackers belonged to the militant Islamic State group.

It was the most serious attack since militants seized over 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen in a cross-border raid in August 2014. (AP)

4:00 P.M. Report: Germany halts arms exports to Saudi Arabia

The German government has halted all arms exports to Saudi Arabia, according to a report in Sunday's edition of the Bild newspaper.

The report said that Chancellor Angela Merkel, her deputy Sigmar Gabriel, and the other ministers on the government security council had either rejected contracts or deferred a decision on them when they met on Wednesday.

There was no official confirmation of the decision as the council's meetings are confidential, but the report cited sources within the government as saying the situation in the region was too unstable to send any more weapons there.

Saudi Arabia is one of the German arms industry's most important customers: in 2013, the security council approved exports to the oil-rich Gulf nation worth 360 million euros (403 million dollars).

Germany is the world's third-largest arms exporter.(DPA) 

1:35 P.M. Yemen's Shiite rebels disperse protesters in capital

Rebels occupying Yemen's capital have dispersed a handful of demonstrators protesting against them, firing automatic rifles into the air, breaking journalists' cameras and scuffling with the crowd while detaining 11 people.

In another protest Sunday in Sanaa, around 200 demonstrators gathered in Change Square for a march toward the presidential palace. The square was the birthplace of Yemen's 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.

State news agency SABA reported that parliament postponed a meeting which had been scheduled for Sunday to decide on whether to accept the resignation of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who quit as president Thursday along with his Cabinet. Hadi remains at his private residence.

Meanwhile, UN envoy Jamal Benomar was in Sanaa meeting with Houthi representatives, as well a variety of Yemeni political parties. (AP)

12:19 P.M. Protester killed in Egypt protest

A protester was killed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Sunday, a security source said, on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The source said the protester died from birdshot wounds.

11:00 A.M. Bomb wounds two policemen on anniversary of Egypt uprising

A bomb wounded two Egyptian policemen in Cairo on Sunday and security forces moved quickly to disperse small protests on the anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, officials said.

The blast targeted policemen stationed outside a sports club in Cairo's Heliopolis area, the security sources said.

Supporters of deposed president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered near Tahrir Square -- symbolic heart of the 201 revolt -- and held up photographs of him, a Reuters witness said. Security forces rounded them up. They also teargas to disperse a protest in Cairo's Ramses Square, officials said. (Reuters)

3:14 A.M. Japan PM Shinzo Abe 'speechless' after ISIS video shows hostage's death

Japan's prime minister says he's "speechless" after an online video purported to show one of two Japanese hostages of the extremist Islamic State group had been killed and is promising to save the other.

Shinzo Abe said on NHK TV early Sunday that the video is likely authentic and offered condolences to the family and friends of Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer taken hostage last year.

Abe declined to comment on the message on the latest video demanding a prisoner exchange for journalist Kenji Goto.

He had said in an earlier statement that Japan will not give in to terrorism.

President Barack Obama condemned what he called "the brutal murder" of Yukawa, saying he stood by Japan to get Goto released. (AP)