Middle East Updates / White House: At Least One Other U.S. Hostage Being Held in Mideast

Assad regime launches offensive against rebels in south; Sissi, Putin agree on closer military ties, co-operation in nuclear energy; U.A.E launches airstrikes from Jordan on ISIS; Assad regime launches offensive against rebels in south.

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Latest updates:

9:13 P.M. White House: At least one other American hostage being held in the Middle East

At least one other American is being held hostage in the Middle East, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday following confirmation of the death of U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller.

"We have avoided discussing the individual cases of Americans who have been held hostage, but we are aware of other American hostages being held in the region," Earnest said a briefing, in response to a question about whether Islamic State militants were holding any other Americans hostage. Earnest declined further comment.

"I'm not going to get into the specific discussions of the cases of individuals who are being held hostage, principally because we don't believe that it's in their best interests for me to discuss them publicly," Earnest said.

"But there have been public reports of at least one other American hostage being held in Syria," he added.

The family of Austin Tice, a journalist who disappeared in Damascus in August 2012, held a news conference in Washington last week about his case. (Reuters)

6:30 P.M. U.S. Embassy in Yemen to close

A U.S. official in Washington on Tuesday confirmed the American Embassy in Yemen is closing.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, did not give a date for the closure but Yemeni employees at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa earlier said the U.S. ambassador would leave by Wednesday.  (Reuters)

6:00 P.M. Assad regime launches offensive against rebels in south

Syria's army gained ground from rebels in the south on Tuesday in what a monitoring group described as a large-scale offensive in the region backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters against insurgents including Al-Qaida's Syrian wing.

The south is one of the last remaining areas where mainstream, non-jihadist rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have a foothold. Just a short drive to Damascus, the area remains a risk to the Syrian leader, who has otherwise consolidated control over much of the west.

"The operation started two days ago and is very big," Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said on Tuesday.

Abdulrahman said the offensive aims to take a triangle of rebel-held territory from rural areas southwest of Damascus to Deraa city to Quneitra. Syrian media and rebel sources said on Tuesday that battles raged in several areas of southern Syria.

Syrian troops had been on the defensive in the south, losing control of large areas of countryside near Jordan as well as parts of the border along with Israel near the Golan Heights, according to regional military analysts and diplomats.

The southern rebels, often described as the best organised of the mainstream armed opposition, see themselves as the last hope for a four-year-old uprising and civil war hijacked by Islamist militants, and are seeking a higher profile and more help. (Reuters)

5: 20 P.M. Obama confirms U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller killed by ISIS

AP

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday confirmed the death of Kayla Mueller, a U.S. aid worker who had been held hostage by Islamic State militants, saying the United States would "find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible."

Mueller's family also said in a statement that they were "heartbroken" to learn of her death and released a copy of a letter she had written in 2014 while in captivity. (Reuters) Read the full article

5:44 P.M. Cairo airport resumes landings as dust storm eases, six ports closed

Cairo airport resumed landings after earlier suspending incoming flights due to a dust storm, but Alexandria's airport was still only allowing departing flights, Egypt's state aviation firm said on Tuesday.

State media also reported six ports had closed due to the dust storm, citing high wind speeds and strong waves.

AP

Egypt's two main airports suspended landings and redirected flights when a dust storm severely reduced visibility, forcing two planes to make emergency landings in Cairo.

The suspension at Cairo Airport was lifted after 70 minutes because weather conditions improved, the National Air Navigation Services Company said in a statement. (Reuters)

4:01 P.M. Putin hopeful next round of Syria talks will bring resolution

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he expected that there would be a new round of talks to resolve the Syria conflict after some opposition figures and the Damascus government met in Moscow last month.

Standing next to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi after talks in Cairo, Putin said: "We look forward ... to the next round of such talks, which ultimately I hope will lead to a peaceful settlement of the situation in Syria."  (Reuters)

3:28 P.M. Sissi, Putin agree on closer military ties, co-operation in nuclear energy

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed on closer military ties, and increased Russian military aid to Egypt, the two announced at a press conference.

Also, the leaders announced agreement to co-operate on nuclear energy for civilian use. Putin is currently on an official visit to Egypt. (Haaretz)

AP/WAM

3:18 P.M. U.A.E launches airstrikes from Jordan on ISIS

The United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes Tuesday against the Islamic State group from an air base in Jordan, marking its return to combat operations against the militants after it halted flights late last year.

The General Command of the UAE Armed Forces said Emirati F-16s carried out a series of strikes Tuesday morning, according to a brief statement carried by the Gulf nation's official WAM news agency. The fighters returned safely back to base after striking their targets, the statement said. 

The Emirates, an oil-rich federation that includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is one of the most prominent Arab members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. American officials say the country halted airstrikes in December after a Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, was captured when his plane crashed behind enemy lines. Al-Kaseasbeh was later burned alive by the militants.

The Emirates had not commented on the suspension, and Tuesday's statement was the first confirmation it had restarted combat operations. (AP) Read the full article

12:54 P.M. Five blasts in Egypt's Alexandria wound 10, interior ministry says

Suspected Islamist militants bombed three police stations in Egypt's second city Alexandria on Tuesday, wounding 10 people, and also targeted two other locations, an interior ministry official said.

Nobody was injured in the two other blasts in the eastern part of the city, said Major General Amin Ezz al-Din, assistant interior minister for Alexandria.

Frequent small-scale attacks have hurt Egypt's efforts to project an image of stability after four years of turmoil triggered by the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Egypt hosts an investment conference next month in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, in the southern Sinai Peninsula, and hopes to attract funds to turn around an economy battered by instability.

The Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State, the militant group controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for attacks on security forces in Sinai that killed at least 30 people late last month. (Reuters) 

8:52 A.M. Assad says Syria receiving information from anti-ISIS coalition

Syrian President Bashar Assad said third parties including Iraq were conveying information to Damascus about a U.S.-led campaign of air strikes against the Islamic State militant group in Syria.

In an interview with the BBC broadcast on Tuesday, Assad said there was no direct cooperation with the United States, whose air force has been bombing Islamic State in Syria since September. (Reuters) Read full article

8:03 A.M. New Zealand troops get green light to train for Iraq

New Zealand's defense minister has given the go ahead for the countries armed forces to begin training for possible deployment in Iraq.

Gerry Brownlee said the training would include force protection and cultural awareness.

A group of military planners have already been deployed to assess whether New Zealand can play a role in training Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State jihadists.

"These personnel continue to assess the possible nature and location of a mission to train Iraqi Defense Forces," he said.

Prime Minister John Key has indicated a decision on deployment could be made before the end of February. (DPA)