Middle East Updates / At Least 9 ISIS Fighters Killed in Infighting in Syria

Arab League calls for multinational force to fight ISIS, other militants; ISIS militants beheaded eight Libya oilfield guards, official says; German woman fighting alongside Kurds killed in Syria while fighting ISIS.

Reuters

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8:59 P.M. France wants UN Security Council meeting on minorities in Middle East

France is calling for a UN Security Council meeting on March 27 to discuss the situation of minorities in the Middle East, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday.

Fabius told a news conference in Rabat he would chair the meeting which would discuss the problems of Christians and other minorities in the region. (Reuters)

6:32 P.M. Turkey's former top spy withdraws from June election

The former head of Turkey's intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, has withdrawn his application to run in a parliamentary election in June, a senior official in the prime minister's office said on Monday.

The withdrawal comes after President Tayyip Erdogan spoke out against Fidan's candidacy, in what was seen as a sign of friction between Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"Hakan Fidan made such a request and expressed his desire to withdraw. Davutoglu discussed the issue with Erdogan and approved of the withdrawal," the official in the prime ministry told Reuters on condition of anonymity. (Reuters) 

6:12 P.M. At least 9 ISIS fighters killed in infighting in Syria

At least nine members of Islamic State were killed during infighting in northwestern Syria after some of them tried to flee over the Turkish border, a group monitoring the conflict said on Monday.

The fighters clashed on Saturday near the town of al-Bab, 30 km (20 miles) south of the Turkish frontier, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Five of the escapees and four of those trying to prevent them were killed.

Those trying to escape included one Tunisian and nine European fighters, the Observatory's Rami Abdulrahman said, adding it was not clear exactly which members of that group had been killed.

The fighting on Saturday erupted when 10 Islamic State combatants broke out of a prison run by the group. They had tried to escape Syria previously and had been jailed, Abdulrahman said, citing sources on the ground.

The five escapees who were not killed were recaptured by the group, the Observatory said. (Reuters)

4:30 P.M. U.S., allies conduct 14 air strikes in Syria, Iraq

U.S. and coalition forces conducted five air strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and nine in Iraq since early Sunday, the U.S. military said on Monday.

In Syria, the strikes near Kobani hit a tactical unit and an oil refinery, and also destroyed seven fighting positions and a vehicle, the military said in a statement.

In Iraq, strikes hit tactical units, vehicles, a storage facility and a bunker near Kirkuk, Tal Afar, Al Qaim, Fallujah and Haditha, the statement said. (Reuters)

4:23 P.M. Arab League calls for multinational force to fight ISIS, other militants

The Arab League called for the creation of a regional force to combat militants as countries face a growing threat from Islamic State and other groups.

Speaking at the opening session of an Arab League meeting of foreign ministers, Secretary General Nabil el-Araby called for action.

"What is required now and urgently is to look into creating a...multi-national force that is able to look at what unites them in terms of responsibilities in the areas of quick intervention to fight terrorism, the activities of terrorist groups, helping in peacekeeping operations and securing humanitarian operations," he said.

It was not immediately clear which countries would join such a force or where or when it would be created. (Reuters)

2:00 P.M. Saudi Arabia blocks Swedish FM from addressing Arab League in a protest over her criticism of its human rights record

Saudi Arabia has blocked a plan for Sweden's Foreign Minister to address the League of Arab States in Cairo on Monday in a protest over criticism of its human rights record, a Swedish foreign ministry spokesman said.

Sweden's Social Democrat-led government wants to raise its international profile by emphasizing human rights and a feminist approach to foreign policy.

It also decided to recognise a Palestinian state, without formally consulting its allies, immediately after taking office in October last year.

"Last night, we were told that Saudi Arabia had blocked Margot's participation," the foreign minister's press spokesman Erik Boman said.

"The only explanation we've got is that this is because of the statements the Swedish government has made regarding human rights in Saudi Arabia."

Margot Wallstrom had been invited to give a speech to a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and the trip was aimed at building cooperation to promote democracy, human rights and economic integration.

Wallstrom tweeted criticism in January of Saudi Arabia's flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, calling it a "cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression."

Comment from the Saudi Arabian government was not immediately available.

Sweden is currently reviewing whether to renew a five-year deal to supply military material and training to Saudi Arabia. (Reuters)

1:22 P.M. ISIS militants beheaded eight Libya oilfield guards, official says

Libya's military spokesman says militants from the country's Islamic State affiliate beheaded eight guards after an assault on an oil field last week during which nine foreigners were abducted.

The spokesman, Ahmed al-Mesmari, also said Monday that an employee of the al-Ghani oil field watched the beheadings and subsequently died of a heart attack.

Al-Mesmari did not elaborate on how the army knows about the beheadings but the force serving as oil guards is closely allied to the Libyan military, which answers to the eastern-based government, one of Libya's two rival governments.

Authorities in the Philippines and Austria confirmed that nine of their citizens were abducted during the attack Friday on al-Ghani, part of IS attacks on Libya's oil infrastructure. (AP)

12:55 P.M. Al-Qaida pushed out of southern Yemen town, military says

Yemeni military officials say Al-Qaida militants staged an intense assault on a southern town and overran it for several hours before a counter-attack by the army pushed them out.

The officials say Monday's fighting over the town of Mahfad in Abyan province, a former Al-Qaida stronghold, lasted for eight hours.

They say the militants took control of the town council building and several army checkpoints and moved in on a key army base. The clashes killed four Yemeni soldiers and seven Al-Qaida militants.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. (AP)

12:40 P.M. Bangladesh citizen among nine foreign workers taken hostage by ISIS in Libya oilfield attack

Bangladesh on Monday confirmed one of its citizens was among nine foreign workers taken hostage last week by the Islamic State militant group in an attack on a Libyan oilfield.

Foreigners have increasingly become targets in Libya's turmoil, where two rival governments are battling for control and Islamist extremists have grown in the chaos that followed Muammar Gaddafi's ouster four years ago.

Up to 10 foreign workers were missing after the attack on the Al-Ghani oil field south of the Libyan city of Sirte, Czech and Libyan officials said.

"Unfortunately one Bangladeshi has been kidnapped and our embassy in Tripoli has engaged all its efforts to find out and release him with safety," junior foreign minister Mohammad Shahriar Alam told Reuters.

Bangladesh's foreign ministry identified the abducted citizen as Helal Uddin, a resident of Jamalpur, 200 km (124 miles) northwest of Dhaka, capital of the South Asian nation.

"One Bangladeshi national, along with eight other foreign nationals, were taken hostage by the Islamic group ISIS on Friday," it said in a statement.

Bangladesh's embassy in Tripoli was in close touch with Libya's National Oil Company and VAOS, the company targeted in the attack, the ministry added. (Reuters)

12:20 P.M. Three Egyptian soldiers killed by roadside bomb in Sinai

A roadside bomb killed three Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai peninsula on Monday, security sources said.

The blast, which also wounded a soldier, comes days ahead of an investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh resort, which Egypt hopes will project an image of stability and secure billions of dollars.

The bomb targeted a military vehicle in Sinai, home to Egypt's most dangerous Islamist militant group, Sinai Province.

Formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, it has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group which controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. (Reuters) 

12:17 P.M. German woman fighting alongside Kurds killed in Syria while fighting ISIS

Syrian activists and Kurdish officials say a German woman fighting alongside Kurdish militiamen has been killed in a battle with the Islamic State group.

They say Ivana Hoffman, a native of South Africa with German citizenship, was killed Saturday while fighting alongside the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, known as the YPG.

YPG spokesman Nawaf Khalil said Monday that Hoffman was killed near the Syrian village of Tel Tamr. Hoffman was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in Turkey.

Serdar Sitr, president of the Kurdish Solution Party in Iraq, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed Hoffman's slaying.

Hoffman is the third foreign national — and the first female foreign fighter — known to be killed fighting with Kurdish forces against the Islamic State group. (AP) Read full story here

12:14 P.M. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appoints ex-Revolutionary Guard general as Iran's new police chief

Iranian state television is reporting the Islamic Republic's supreme leader has appointed a former general in the country's Revolutionary Guard as the nation's new police chief.

The report Monday said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam with Gen. Hossein Ashtari for a three-year term. Moghaddam had held the top post for 10 years.

Under Iran's constitution, Khamenei has the power to appoint chiefs of the country's military and police forces.

Ashtari previously worked as deputy police chief and head of the security department of the police.

Many view Ashtari as being an impartial force in the country's politics. He was a member of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard during 1980-1988 war with Iraq, a conflict that killed and wounded more than 1 million people on both sides. (AP)

10:43 A.M. Iran, UN nuclear watchdog to hold talks in Tehran on Monday

Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog will hold talks in Tehran on Monday, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported, ahead of a March deadline for a framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program between Tehran and six major powers.

"Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will discuss remaining issues like explosives testing and neutron calculations," ISNA said, without giving a source.

"Also issues alleged by the IAEA, related to the framework agreement, will be discussed during their one day visit."

The IAEA says Iran has still not addressed specific issues that could feed suspicions it may have researched an atomic bomb, including questions on alleged research activities into explosives testing and neutron calculations.

Iran has rejected the accusations as baseless, but has promised to work with the IAEA as part of its efforts to end the country's decade-long nuclear standoff with the West.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet on March 15 in Switzerland, an Iranian official told Reuters.

"Then there will be bilateral and trilateral meetings with other members of the P5+1 countries ... followed by meetings between the seven countries," said the official, adding that "most probably the venue is (the Swiss city of) Lausanne." (Reuters) 

10:30 A.M. At least two militants, two soldiers said killed after Al-Qaida assault on southern Yemen army base

At least two militants and two soldiers died in an Al-Qaida assault on an army base in southern Yemen early on Monday, officials and residents said, in another sign of unravelling security.

The assault on the base in Mahfad in Abyan province was a setback for the country's splintered military which, alongside local militiamen, had largely expelled Al-Qaida from the area's towns in 2013.

Local sources told Reuters the battle was ongoing and army reinforcements backed by dozens of the armed "popular committees" had come to the soldiers' aid. (Reuters)

10:15 A.M. Kurdish forces attack ISIS around Kirkuk, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes

Kurdish forces attacked Islamic State positions around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq at dawn on Monday, backed by heavy air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition.

Speaking to a local television channel near the frontline, Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim, who was wearing a helmet, said the purpose of the offensive was to drive militants away from the city.

A Reuters reporter who went to the frontline on Monday said Kurdish peshmerga fighters were shelling Islamic State positions and had advanced on several fronts to the west of the city, seizing villages in the Mala Abdullah and Tel Ward areas.

There was also heavy fighting between peshmerga and Islamic State militants in Kharabarut, northwest of Kirkuk, according to a security source in the city.

The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk last August as the Iraqi army collapsed in the north and Islamic State militants overran almost a third of the country.

But the city has remained vulnerable, with the frontline little more than 20 kilometers away in some places. In late January, Islamic State briefly overran Kurdish defenses around Kirkuk. (Reuters) 

9:15 A.M. Four Filipinos among nine foreigners abducted from central Libya oil field

Officials say four Filipinos are among nine foreigners abducted by still-unidentified armed men from an oil field in central Libya and their abductors have yet to communicate any demand.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said Monday the Philippines is working with the Filipinos' employers, Austrian-owned VAOS Oil Service, the Libyan government and embassies of the others abducted.

Austria's Foreign Ministry believes the attackers are Islamic State-allied militants.

Friday's attack brings the total number of Filipinos missing in Libya to seven. Three others were abducted in another oil field on Feb. 3 and their whereabouts also remain unknown. Jose says the cases underscore escalating security threats to workers in oil fields there, and appealed to some 4,000 Filipinos in Libya to avail of the Philippines' mandatory repatriation program. (AP)

1:05 A.M. Air strike on ISIS-run refinery in Syria kills 30

A U.S.-led coalition air strike in Syria hit an oil refinery run by the Islamic State militant group near the border with Turkey on Sunday, killing 30 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said the dead were refinery workers and ISIS militants. The targeted refinery was just northeast of the town of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border, he said.

ISIS has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring them part of a cross-border "caliphate". The territories it controls in northern and eastern Syria include oil-producing regions that have financed the group's activities.

In November the United Nations estimated Islamic State's revenue from oil ranged between $846,000 to $1.6 million a day. However, the Pentagon has assessed that oil was no longer the main source of revenue for Islamic State. Western diplomats have said this was due to air strikes on oil installations and a plunge in global oil prices that has affected black market prices as well. (Reuters)