Middle East Updates / Iraqi Forces Advance in Bid for Baiji Refinery

Turkish protesters attack U.S. sailors; Monitor group: U.S.-led Syria air strikes kill at least 860; Car bombs kill at least four in east Libya; Egypt naval patrol attacked at sea.

AP

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10:49 P.M. Iraqi forces advance in bid for Baiji refinery

Iraqi government forces made significant advances on Wednesday in an effort to break an Islamic State siege of the country's biggest refinery just outside the city of Baiji, an army commander and state television said.

Backed by Shi'ite militias, government forces have seized 60 percent of the city center and are close to opening a corridor to Islamic State militants ringing the refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital, said the commander.

A deserted area between the edge of the city and the refinery may be difficult to cross because of roadside bombs and snipers, security officials say.

Reuters

"We expect to break the siege within two days," said the commander, who asked not to be named. (Reuters)

9:31 P.M. Iran says it has responded to Obama's letters

A top security official in Iran said Wednesday the Islamic Republic has written back in response to letters sent by U.S. President Barack Obama, the first acknowledgement of such correspondence. However, it's not clear whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote the letters himself. (AP) Read full article

7:46 P.M. Turkish protesters rough up US sailors in Istanbul

Anti-American protesters shouting "Yankee, go home!" roughed up three U.S. Navy sailors Wednesday in Istanbul near where their warship was docked on an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait in the Black Sea.

A dozen or more protesters shouted at them, calling them killers and said they should leave Turkey. The protesters, who carried a banner of the left-leaning Youth Association of Turkey, threw red paint at the sailors and briefly succeeded in putting white sacks over their heads.

"Soldiers from the occupying country think they can walk around freely in Eminonu," association spokesman Melik Dibek said, referring to the neighborhood where the incident occurred. "It's obvious why they've anchored here — because of their ambitions in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. American imperialism is the reason why the Middle East has turned into a chamber of fire."

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara condemned the attack on Twitter and said it had no doubt that most Turks would reject such an action. (AP)

6:26 P.M. Car bombs kill at least four in east Libya

Car bombs exploded in eastern Libyan towns under the control of the internationally recognized government on Wednesday, killing at least four people and wounding 20 others, officials said.

Four more people were killed when an air strike - a possible response to the car bombs - hit targets in Derna, an eastern town home to a large radical Islamist community, medics said. (Reuters)

6:23 P.M. Report: Egypt naval patrol attacked at sea

Egypt's state news agency is reporting that a naval patrol near one of the country's Mediterranean ports has come under attack from three boats, prompting an exchange of fire that wounded no sailors.

A military official told the MENA news agency that gunmen from boats fired at the naval patrol Wednesday north of the port of Damietta.

The official said air force and navy fighters were deployed to rescue the patrol after their boat caught fire. He said reinforcements "destroyed" the three attacking boats and 20 people were subsequently arrested. The official, unnamed in the report, did not identify the attackers.

Human smuggling is common in the Mediterranean. Troops increasingly have come under attack from militants since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last year, though never at sea (AP)

4:47 P.M. Monitor group: U.S.-led Syria strikes kill at least 860

U.S.-led coalition air strikes against the Islamic State group and other extremists in Syria have killed more than 860 people, including civilians, since they began in mid-September, a monitoring group said Wednesday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the vast majority of those killed — 746 people — were Islamic State militants, while another 68 were members of al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate known as the Nusra Front. At least 50 civilians, including eight children and five women, also have been killed in the air strikes, the group said.

In Baghdad on Wednesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi shook up the country's military, relieving 26 army officers from their command, retiring 10 others and appointing 18 new commanders.

A statement posted on the official website of the prime minister's office said the changes were ordered "as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms." (AP)

4:17 P.M. Iran denies nuclear scientist killed in Syria, IRNA reports

Iran denied on Wednesday a monitoring group's report that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been killed in Syria last week, according to the official IRNA news agency.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday five nuclear engineers, four of them Syrian and one Iranian, were shot dead on the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday while traveling in a small convoy to a research center near the northeastern district of Barzeh.

"No Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Syria," Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Ghashqavi was quoted as saying by IRNA. (Reuters)

2:46 P.M. Iran shows flight footage of U.S. drone replica

Iran's state TV on Wednesday broadcast footage of an aircraft it says is a replica of a U.S. stealth drone captured in 2011. (AP) Watch video and read full article

1:30 P.M. Amnesty: Sinai buffer zone no solution to militancy in Egypt

Egypt's plan to create a security buffer zone along its border with Gaza is not a solution to growing militancy in the Sinai region as it does not address the roots of the problem, the head of Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

"These are all shortcuts, you are not able to address the underlying issue which is what is happening in the Gaza Strip and how the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition are being treated," Salil Shetty, the rights group's Secretary General, told Reuters.

"You can create fortresses and buffer zones but it will come back to bite," he said, adding that human rights in Egypt had regressed since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak three years ago.

11:16 P.M. Truce in Damascus district allows in aid

Cars carrying food and aid supplies entered a southern Damascus neighborhood on Wednesday thanks to a local ceasefire agreement between pro-government officials and insurgents, a monitoring group said on Wednesday.

The ceasefire in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Qadam was agreed back in August after months of negotiations, opening the way for Wednesday's aid access, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The agreement was struck between rebels in the area, the governor of Damascus, the leader of the main pro-government paramilitary group, and various other local chiefs.

The Observatory, which says it gathers information from all sides of the conflict, said dozens of residents had been able to reenter the neighborhood at the end of last month.

The truce called for the complete withdrawal of the army from the district, with army checkpoints at its entrances only. It also called for the release of prisoners held by the government and gave the rebel Western-backed Free Syrian Army responsibility for running the area, allowing them to keep their weapons. (Reuters)

9:55 A.M. Russia optimistic over deal at Iran nuclear talks

Russia believes there is a good chance of world powers reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear program by a November 24 deadline, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says.

"We aren't looking at the possibility of not reaching a deal by November 24. We are focused completely on the task before us in so far as we have a chance and it's not small. We can't miss (the opportunity)," he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. (Reuters) 

4:13 A.M. Car bomb outside fast-food restaurant in Egypt's northern Sinai wounds 10 civilians

A car bomb outside a fast-food restaurant in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula wounded 10 people late on Tuesday when it exploded as security forces were evacuating a heavily populated area, security and medical sources said.

They said the explosion shook the town of Arish in northern Sinai, a volatile area where security forces have launched a crackdown on militant Islamists they believe were behind attacks that killed 33 of their number last month.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The blast came days after Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Egypt's most active militant group, pledged allegiance to al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State, which is now facing U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Security sources said police had begun to evacuate the area after a stolen car parked in the vicinity aroused suspicion. (Reuters)

2:37 A.M. Amnesty: Qatar lagging on addressing labor reforms

Amnesty International said Wednesday that 2022 World Cup host nation Qatar is lagging behind on addressing concerns about the abuse of migrant workers six months after it laid out plans for labor reforms.

The wealthy OPEC nation has come under increasing scrutiny over its labor practices since world football governing body FIFA awarded it the rights in 2010 to host the tournament. Like other energy-rich Gulf nations, Qatar relies heavily on migrant workers drawn mainly from South Asia to build its roads, skyscrapers and stadiums.

In a new report, the London-based human rights group criticized Qatar for failing to substantially tackle issues such as the "kafala" employee sponsorship system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer, and requirements that workers obtain exit permits from their employers in order to leave the country.

Amnesty notes that Qatari officials increasingly acknowledge the existence of labor problems and the need for improvement. But it also warns that a failure to put serious changes in place in the coming months "will call into question whether the Qatari authorities are serious about reform." (AP) 

1:49 A.M. Iran's human rights situation is as bad under Rohani as it was under Ahmadinejad, Iranian Nobel Peace laureate says

Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi says the human rights situation in Iran is as bad under President Hassan Rohani as it was under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in some cases it is worse.

Ebadi said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press the difference is that Ahmadinejad supported severe limitations on human rights while Rohani has vowed to ease restrictions on freedom of expression and eliminate discrimination against women and minorities.

But she says Rohani "can't do much" amid stiff resistance from hard-liners.

Ebadi is in New York for two days campaigning for support for a UN General Assembly resolution that expresses deep concern at the "serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations" in Iran. (AP)

1:38 A.M. Iraq president arrives in Saudi Arabia for talks following years of strained relations

Iraqi President Fuad held important talks late Tuesday in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz following years of strained relations between the neighbouring countries, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Massoum, who headed a high-ranking delegation that included several Iraqi cabinet ministers, was greeted at Riyadh Air Base by Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and several top Saudi officials, the agency said.

Relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have been tense for years but deteriorated during the rule of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom the kingdom accused of marginalizing Sunni Muslims and giving greater power to Iraq's Shiite majority.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said earlier that talks between the Saudi monarch and the Iraqi president would improve relations. (DPA)

Iraqi state-media said Massoum's talks with high-ranking Saudi officials would address political and security conditions in Iraq and the region.