Middle East Updates / ISIS Claims to Seize Gas Field in Homs From Syrian Army

Iran: Sabotage attempt on heavy water tanks foiled; Tunisian anti-Islamists win most seats in election; Director of United Nations' humanitarian operations says that Syria's neighbors at 'breaking point.'

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Supporters of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party wave party flags during a campaign rally in Tunis, October 25, 2014.
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11:15 P.M. U.S. military says advisers needed in Iraq's embattled Anbar province

The United States needs to expand a limited advise-and-assist mission in Iraq into embattled Anbar province, where some Iraqi forces are isolated and in defensive positions against Islamic State, the top U.S. military officer said on Thursday.

But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraq's government must be ready to arm Sunni tribes as a precondition for getting outside advisers into the western Iraqi province. (Reuters)

8:34 P.M. Hagel: Assad may benefit from U.S. attacks on ISIS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be benefiting from U.S. attacks on Islamic State fighters in his country, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday, but he added that U.S. policy still supported Assad's removal from power.

Hagel also told reporters at Pentagon news conference that the systematic killing of Sunni tribesmen in Iraq by Islamic State fighters was the brutal "reality of what we're dealing with" in the conflict. (Reuters) 

7:27 P.M. Syrian air force kills at least 221 civilians over past 10 days, monitor says

Bombing runs by the Syrian air force over the past 10 days have killed at least 221 civilians, a third of them children, a group monitoring Syria's civil war said on Thursday.

The intensifying offensive by President Bashar al-Assad's forces has heightened concerns among his opponents that he may be taking advantage of U.S.-led air raids on Islamic State insurgents to regain territory elsewhere in the country.

Since Oct. 20 the Syrian military has staged at least 769 attacks including barrel bombings in many areas of Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and more than 500 people have been wounded.

It said the strikes targeted the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, Homs in central Syria as well as contested provinces in the more populated west such as Latakia, Quneitra, Hama, Aleppo, Idlib and Deraa, as well as the fringes of Damascus.

"The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its condemnation at the continued silence of the international community regarding the massacres committed daily by the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the sons of the Syrian people." (Reuters)

7:19 P.M. ISIS claims to seize Homs gas field from Syrian army

Islamic State fighters in Syria claimed on Thursday to have taken control of a gas field in the central province of Homs after battles with government forces.

A series of photos posted on social media by Islamic State purported to show the Sha'ar gas field, the bodies of Syrian soldiers and seized weaponry, according to the SITE jihadist website monitoring service.

The report said Islamic State seized five tanks, two infantry combat vehicles, machineguns and ammunition. Reuters could not independently confirm the events.

Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Islamic State was in control of most of the field by late on Thursday but clashes were continuing.

The Observatory, which tracks the conflict through a network of sources, said on Wednesday the assault on the gas field had killed at least 30 pro-government fighters. Syrian state media said dozens of "terrorists" were killed in fighting. (Reuters) 

6:07 P.M. Lebanon army detains 50 in raids on northern towns, Syrian refugee camps

Lebanese troops detained 50 people in raids on towns and Syrian refugee camps in the north of the country, the army said on Thursday, part of a security crackdown after battles with Islamist gunmen over the weekend.

The army has mounted several raids since Islamist militants clashed with soldiers in and around the northern city of Tripoli from Friday to Sunday, some of the worst fighting to spill over to Lebanon from the Syrian civil war.

Soldiers moved on the towns of al-Minya, Mashta Hassan, Mashta Hammoud and refugee camps in the town of Behneen on Wednesday. The 50 detainees were mainly Syrian but included nine Lebanese and one Palestinian, an army statement said.

In one of the raids, soldiers seized a number of weapons including rocket-propelled grenade launchers as well as communications equipment, the statement said.

Soldiers also stopped and arrested a man at a checkpoint near the northern Lebanese border town of Arsal who confessed to being a weapons smuggler for militants in the area. (Reuters)

5:49 P.M. ISIS kills at least 220 Sunni tribesman; bodies found in mass graves

ISIS militants executed at least 220 Iraqis in retaliation against a tribe's opposition to their takeover of territory west of Baghdad, security sources and witnesses said.

Two mass graves were discovered on Thursday containing some of the 300 members of the Sunni Muslim Albu Nimr tribe that Islamic State had seized this week. The captives, men aged between 18 and 55, had been shot at close range, witnesses said.

The bodies of more than 70 Albu Nimr men were dumped near the town of Hit in the Sunni heartland Anbar province, according to witnesses who said most of the victims were members of the police or an anti-Islamic State militia called Sahwa (Awakening).

"Early this morning we found those corpses and we were told by some Islamic State militants that 'those people are from Sahwa, who fought your brothers the Islamic State, and this is the punishment of anybody fighting Islamic State'," a witness said.

The insurgents had ordered men from the tribe to leave their villages and go to Hit, 130 km (80 miles) west of Baghdad, promising them "safe passage", tribal leaders said. They were then seized and shot.

A mass grave near the city of Ramadi, also in Anbar province, contained 150 members of the same tribe, security officials said.

4:49 P.M. Bodies of 48 Sunni tribesman killed by ISIS found in west Iraq

An Iraqi official says authorities have found the bodies of 48 Sunni tribesmen killed by the Islamic State group in the restive western province of Anbar.

Faleh al-Issawi, a councilman in the Anbar provincial government, says the bodies were found Thursday in a mass grave outside the town of Hit.

He says those killed were tribal fighters allied with the government and members of the security forces who were rounded up from villages around Hit after IS militants seized the area in early October. Most of the tribal fighters came from the Al Bu Nimr tribe, he said.

A day earlier, another 30 bodies of Sunni fighters killed by the Islamic State group in Hit was found. The town is located about 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of Baghdad. (AP)

3:54 P.M. Amnesty International: Libya militias, armed groups committing 'mounting war crimes'

Amnesty International says rival militias and armed groups in Libya are committing "mounting war crimes" with impunity.

In a new report released Thursday, it accuses fighters of having complete disregard for civilian lives, saying militants have fired GRAD rockets and artillery into civilian neighborhoods. It also says "scores of civilians have been abducted by armed groups."

"In today's Libya the rule of the gun has taken hold. Armed groups and militias are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity," Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said in a statement.

Libya is mired in its worst turmoil since 2011, with the country deeply fractured and having two rival governments.(AP) 

3:41 P.M. Syria rebel commander: Send fighters to Aleppo, not Kobani

Sending additional Syrian rebel forces to Kobani is a mistake, a senior rebel commander said Thursday, warning that the fighters are needed to stave off President Bashar Assad's forces who are poised to encircle Aleppo, a key city.

Nizar al-Khateeb, a commander of the Dawn of Freedom brigade, fought in Kobani until last week and is set to return to the northern Syrian town this weekend.

More than 2,000 fighters, mostly Syrian Kurds but also moderate rebels, are battling the ISIS militant group in Kobani. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and dozens of rebel fighters entered the town this week to join its defense.

"It was wrong to send more fighters to Kobane, because we need more forces in Aleppo where the situation is very critical," al-Khateeb, who is allied to the Free Syrian Army movement, told a press conference in Istanbul.

"The regime is trying to close the circle around Aleppo. We need all the fighters we can get there," he added. (DPA)

11:50 A.M. Egypt bans pro-Morsi pressure group

Egypt on Thursday banned a pressure group that has pushed for the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was overthrown by the army last year, dealing a new blow to the country's oldest Islamist movement.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb issued a decree on Thursday dissolving the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy and Reject the Coup as well as its political arm, the Independence Party, in line with an earlier court ruling.

The Coalition, which included Brotherhood supporters and other Islamist groups, was set up after then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mursi in July 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

The Coalition was conceived as a vehicle to bring together Egyptians from across the political spectrum who were opposed to the overthrow of a democratically president. In reality, it attracted individuals and groups sympathetic to the Brotherhood's brand of political Islam. (Reuters)

10:40 A.M. Iran says sabotage attempt on heavy water tanks foiled

An Iranian newspaper says authorities have foiled a sabotage attempt involving tanks used for the transportation of heavy water, a key component in nuclear reactors. (AP)

6:30 A.M. Secularists win Tunisian election

A liberal party with ties to the deposed regime has taken the most seats in Tunisia's parliamentary elections, leaving the once dominant Islamists running a close second.

The Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls) Party, running on an explicitly anti-Islamist platform, took 85 of the 217 seats in the Tunisian parliament, giving it the right to lead a coalition government.

The election commission said early Thursday that the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party won 69 seats, or nearly 32 percent, of the new parliament, representing a loss of some 23 seats.
Since overthrowing its dictator in 2011 and kicking off the Arab Spring pro-democracy wave, Tunisia has been buffeted by turmoil.

Analysts say voters in Sunday's election punished the Islamists for their uneven record and chose a party with figures from the past regime.

1:36 A.M. UN says Syria's neighbors at 'breaking point'
The director of the United Nations' humanitarian operations is warning that some of Syria's neighbors are at their "breaking point," caught between a sense of duty to keep their borders open to refugees and a responsibility to their own citizens.

John Ging said Wednesday that Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan likely will have the refugees "for many years to come." About 3.3 million people have fled Syria.

His remarks come a day after Jordan and Lebanon told an international conference that the influx is straining their resources and threatening political stability. In the case of Lebanon, refugees have made for a 25 percent increase in the population.

Ging urged more international funding to help ease the burden. He said a $3.7 billion appeal for the Syrian refugee crisis is just 52 percent funded. (AP)

Wednesday night:

9:34 P.M. Gov't troops enter central Benghazi after nearly 10 days of fighting

Government troops entered central Benghazi Wednesday after nearly 10 days of fighting Islamic extremist militias, a military spokesman said, in violence that killed dozens of people and forced hundreds of families to flee.

Mohammed Hegazi says former Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who led a campaign against Islamist militias, appeared in a military parade on Gamal Abdel-Nasser Street in the heart of Benghazi. The majority of the city is now under army control, he said, although militias dispute the claim. (AP)

9:02 P.M. ISIS releases 25 kidnapped Kurdish children from Kobani

Islamic State insurgents freed 25 Kurdish school children on Wednesday, the last of more than 150 children kidnapped in May to be released, a Kurdish official and a rights group said.

The hardline Sunni Muslim group, which has fought Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq, abducted the children aged 13 and 14 from the Syrian town of Kobani as they returned from taking exams in the city of Aleppo, rights groups said.

"It is true. They were released from (the Syrian town of) Minbij today. This is the last part of the releases," Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister of Kobani district, told Reuters by telephone. (Reuters)