Middle East Updates / Syrian Troops Capture Villages in Aleppo in Surprise Attack

U.S., Turkey to sign Syrian opposition train-and-equip deal in days: official says; Japan to provide $15.5M in aid for Middle Eastern counter-terror efforts.

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Rebel fighters prepare to launch a locally made shell towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad at the frontline in Aleppo, Dec. 10, 2014
Rebel fighters prepare to launch a locally made shell towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad at the frontline in Aleppo, Dec. 10, 2014Credit: Reuters
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7:45 P.M. Syrian troops capture villages in Aleppo in surprise attack

Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese militant Hezbollah fighters captured several villages near the northern city of Aleppo in lightning advances on Tuesday, bringing them closer to their goal of besieging rebel-held neighborhoods in the country's largest city, activists said.

In the push, the government troops were able to cut off the highway linking Aleppo with the Turkish border, according to Aleppo-based activist Amer Hassan and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory said 18 opposition fighters and several troops and pro-government gunmen were killed in Tuesday's fighting.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial center, has been divided by neighborhood between government and opposition forces since mid-2012.

Government forces have been on the offensive, trying to besiege rebel-held neighborhoods for few months now without much progress — until early Tuesday, when the latest offensive began. (AP)

6:15 P.M. Deposed Egyptian president Morsi to face military court

Egypt's deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi has been referred to a military court for the first time, the state news agency said on Tuesday, part of a sustained crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

Morsi was ousted by then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi after mass protests against his rule in 2013.

Morsi, who has been incarcerated in an Egyptian jail, is facing trial in several cases in civilian courts.

Other defendants in the case include senior Brotherhood leaders Mohammed Badie, the movement's general guide, and Khairat al-Shater, on charges of murder and attempted murder and assaulting soldiers and burning churches in Suez City.

The case, involving 199 defendants, is focused on the deaths of 31 civilians and the wounding of 34 soldiers, state news agency MENA said.

Egypt expanded the jurisdiction of military courts in October to try civilians accused of acts ranging from attacking state facilities to blocking roads. (Reuters)

6:05 P.M. U.S., Turkey to sign Syrian opposition train-and-equip deal in days: official

The United States and Turkey could sign an agreement to train and equip fighters in the moderate Syrian opposition within days, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.

The U.S. military has said it is planning to send more than 400 troops, including special forces, to train Syrian moderates outside the country as part of the fight against Islamic State militants.

Turkey also hopes the move will bolster the weakened and divided Syrian opposition in their struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Negotiations have been concluded and an agreement text will be signed with the U.S. regarding the training of the Free Syrian Army in the coming period," foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said.

U.S. officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters a year for three years under the plan. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey, have publicly offered to host training sites.

A deal between Ankara and Washington would be a positive development between the two long-standing allies, despite strains over Middle Eastern policy. Turkey wants Assad's departure to be the focus in Syria, while Washington's priority remains battling the Islamic State insurgents. (AP)

5:52 P.M. Islamic State burns 30 people to death in Iraq, residents say

Islamic State militants burned to death 30 people accused of working with Iraqi security forces, residents in Anbar province say.

The killings took place near al-Baghdadi town, which has largely fallen to the jihadist group in the past week. The Ain al-Asad airbase is nearby, and U.S. troops are stationed there on a training mission. (DPA)

11:53 A.M. Four killed in Saudi Arabia military helicopter crash

Four crew members have been killed in a military helicopter crash in eastern Saudi Arabia during a training mission, media reports said Tuesday, citing the defense ministry.

The crash took place on Monday night near Hafr al-Batin, close to the borders with Iraq and Kuwait, broadcaster al-Arabiya reported.

The crash is being investigated, the reports said.
Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition carrying out airstrikes in Syria.

The kingdom has significantly boosted its military presence along the border in Iraq in response to the Islamic State group's rapid expansion in the neighboring country. (DPA)

10:30 A.M. Report: Syrian army takes ground north of Aleppo, blocks road

The Syrian army backed by allied militia has captured several villages north of Aleppo from insurgents and blocked a main supply route leading into the northern city amid heavy fighting, a group monitoring the war said on Tuesday.

Aleppo, Syria's second city, is at the heart of clashes between pro-government forces and a range of insurgents which include Al-Qaida's Syria wing Nusra Front, Islamist brigades, foreign fighters in other groups and Western-backed rebels.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government forces had blocked a road leading north from the city towards the Turkish border and heavy clashes continued.

Pro-government newspaper al-Watan reported on Monday that government forces aimed to encircle the city this week in an offensive against insurgent groups.

(Reuters)

9:55 A.M. Egypt's Al-Sissi calls for UNSC resolution on international intervention in Libya

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi called for a United Nations resolution mandating an international coalition to intervene in Libya after its jets bombed Islamic State targets there.

"There is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act," he told France's Europe 1 radio in an interview aired on Tuesday.

Asked if it would recommence its own action: "We need to do it again, and all of us together." (Reuters)

3:17 A.M. Japan to provide $15.5 million in aid to support counter-terror efforts in Middle East and Africa

Japan will provide $15.5 million in aid to support counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and Africa, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday, doubling the figure pledged last month.

Islamic State militants have said they would target Japanese citizens after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid to countries fighting the group. Two Japanese citizens were beheaded by the group last month.  

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