Middle East Updates / Lavrov: Russia Will Continue Supporting Syria in Countering Terrorism

U.S. special ops took part in Yemen raid, senior defense official says; Death toll following Syria air strike in ISIS-stronghold of Raqqa rises to 95; U.S. drone strike in Pakistan kills five suspected militants.

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Syrian Kurdish refugees who fled Kobani at refugee camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, October 11, 2014.Credit: AP

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8:38 P.M. U.S. special ops took part in Yemen raid, senior defense official says

U.S. special operations forces took part in a rescue mission that freed eight hostages held by Al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a senior defense official said Wednesday, deepening the mystery surrounding a rare raid by American commandos in the country.

In confirming the U.S. troops' involvement, the official said no American was rescued, without elaborating. Yemeni officials said that the operation took place in a vast deserted area dotted with dunes called Hagr al-Saiaar, an al-Qaida safe haven where local tribes offer them protection near the Saudi border.

The operations, carried out joint with Yemeni security forces, come as U.S. drone strikes still target suspected militants amid a Shiite rebel power grab in the impoverished nation and fierce battles between Al-Qaida and Shi'ite rebels.

The New York Times first reported Wednesday on the U.S. role in the operation, saying some two dozen American commandos took part. The U.S. official who discussed it with The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the secret mission. (AP)

7:28 P.M. Egypt court sentences 78 minors over protests

An Egyptian judicial official says a court has sentenced 78 minors to up to five years in prison over their participation in Islamist demonstrations.

Alexandria Misdemeanor Juvenile Court issued its ruling Wednesday. A court official says the minors, between 13 and 17, faced several charges including blocking traffic, setting tires ablaze and sabotaging private properties. The sentences can be appealed.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Supporters of Egypt's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group staged near-daily demonstrations in the months that followed the military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Demonstrations often descended into violence. Authorities launched large crackdown against them, killing and arresting tens of thousands of people. (AP)

6:32 P.M. Turkey bans reporting on corruption investigation of ex-ministers

A Turkish court has banned media from reporting on a parliamentary investigation into corruption allegations against four ex-ministers, a move the opposition says amounts to protecting thieves.

Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister and now president, has called the corruption scandal this year a plot to unseat him. Courts have since dropped cases, including those against the sons of three ministers and businessmen close to Erdogan.

A copy of Tuesday's ruling, seen by Reuters, said the ban was imposed to "prevent damage to the individual rights" of the former economy, interior, EU affairs and environment ministers.

A parliamentary commission was set up in May to study prosecutors' files alleging wrongdoing by the ministers, who denied the accusations. It met for the first time in July and is due to finish its work by Dec. 27.

The Turkish Journalists' Association called the ban censorship, and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused parliament speaker Cemil Cicek of seeking it.

"Since when has parliament taken the role of protecting thieves," Kilicdaroglu told a party meeting in Istanbul.

Cicek later denied seeking the ban. The head of the parliamentary commission, dominated by members of the ruling AK Party, said he had called for it. (Reuters) 

5:50 P.M. Lavrov: Russia will continue supporting Syria in countering terrorism

Moscow and Damascus agree that "terrorism" is the main threat to stability in the Middle East, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

"Russia will continue supporting Syria ... in countering this threat," Lavrov told reporters after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.

Moualem said at earlier talks with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president had reaffirmed his resolve to develop ties with Syria and its president, Bashar Assad. (Reuters) 

5:42 P.M. U.S. drone strike in Pakistan kills five suspected militants

A U.S. drone killed five suspected militants in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, a militant and a government official said, as the intensity of air strikes grew as part of an anti-Taliban offensive by the Pakistani military.

The drone strike hit a house in Datta Khel, near the Afghan border, which was used by militants, said a militant in the area. Those killed were Pakistani fighters, the militant said.

"The Government of Pakistan condemns the drone strike that took place in the early hours of Wednesday, 26 November 2014 at Garga, north of Shawal in North Waziristan Agency," the government said in a statement.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalist, which tracks drone strikes using media reports, says there have been 20 strikes so far this year.

The United States says it targets militants in the drone strikes, but does not release details about individual strikes. Some of them have killed civilians, although the majority of the dead are suspected militants.

Pakistan usually protests about the drone strikes, saying they are an infringement of its sovereignty. But many say the military has given its tacit acceptance, and point to the fact that were halted in Pakistan for six months earlier this year while the government tried to negotiate peace with the Taliban. (Reuters)  

5:30 P.M. ISIS targeted in 17 air strikes by U.S.-led coalition

The United States led 17 air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since Monday, the U.S. Central Command said on Wednesday.

The strikes, part of Operation Inherent Resolve against the militant Islamic force, included 10 attacks near Kobani, Syria. They destroyed four staging areas and six fighting positions, and also hit Islamic State units, according to Central Command.

In Iraq, U.S. and allied forces destroyed vehicles, buildings and a fighting position near Mosul and also hit a large Islamic State unit in two air strikes. Targets also were hit near Kirkuk, north of Sinjar, west of Baiji and northwest of Ramadi, the command said. (Reuters)  

5:27 P.M. Death toll following Syria air strike in ISIS-stronghold of Raqqa rises to 95

The death toll from a series of Syrian government airstrikes on the Islamic State group's stronghold in northeastern Syria has risen to at least 95, making it one of the deadliest attacks on the city of Raqqa in the past three years, activists said Wednesday.

Some of the Tuesday airstrikes hit a popular market near a museum and an industrial neighborhood, causing many civilian casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights raised its death toll Wednesday to 95. Its director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the dead include 52 civilians whose names the group was able to document. They include three women and four children, he said. At least 120 others were wounded in the strikes, according to the group.

Other activists, including the Local Coordination Committees and a Raqqa-based collective called Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, estimated more than 100 people had been killed. It was not clear how many militants were among those killed.

The Associated Press could not independently confirm the death toll — one of the worst single-day tolls in the city, which is completely under the control of the Islamic State group. (AP)

4:54 P.M. Iran parliament ends standoff with Rohani, approves higher education minister

Iran's parliament voted on Wednesday to approve President Hassan Rohani's fifth candidate to head the higher education ministry, ending an ideological tussle over a cabinet post important to his pledge to liberalise life in the Islamic Republic.

Mohammad Farhadi, a centrist who held senior positions in a previous reformist administration, secured a 197-28 vote of confidence with 10 abstentions in the conservative-dominated Majlis (parliament).

It had rejected four other nominees of similar political leanings, citing mainly their alleged ties to mass unrest in 2009 over the disputed re-election victory of Rohani's predecessor, conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The street and university campus protests were the biggest since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, shaking the establishment led by hardline Shi'ite clerics and elite Revolutionary Guards before being crushed.

Strong memories of that upheaval made parliament, controlled by allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sensitive about who should head the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Technology, which sets the ideological tone at universities.

The ministry had been run by a caretaker since reformist Reza Faraji-Dana, appointed by Rohani after his landslide election victory in June 2013, was impeached by parliament three months ago over perceived links to the 2009 protests. (Reuters)

4:39 P.M. Lebanon FM: Cyprus may be jihadist transit point

Lebanon's foreign minister says more attention should be paid to the possibility of Cyprus becoming a gateway for aspiring foreign jihadists to transit in and out of the Middle East.

Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil warned after talks Wednesday with his Cypriot counterpart Ioannis Kasoulides that the small island nation could be used "as a European country for foreign fighters to move from Europe toward the Middle East" and vice versa.

Ethnically split Cyprus lies about 100 miles east of Syria.

A Cypriot security official said last week that Cyprus has already stepped up screening efforts across the island's dividing line to prevent Europeans from passing through en route to Syria. (AP)

4:34 P.M. Algeria military reportedly kills militant involved in French tourist beheading

Algeria's military has killed a militant involved in the abduction and beheading of French tourist Herve Gourdel in September, Justice Minister Tayeb Louh said on Wednesday.

The Caliphate Soldiers, a splinter group which has allied itself to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for Gourdel's killing, saying it was in retaliation for France's intervention in Iraq.

"It emerges from the investigation on the assassination of French national Herve Gourdel that one of those who committed this murder, ... was killed by the army during an anti-terrorist operation in October," he told state news agency APS.

Gourdel, a 55-year-old from Nice, was kidnapped when militants stopped his vehicle in remote mountains east of Algiers, where he was planned to go hiking.

The Frenchman's kidnapping was one of the first abductions of a foreigner by militants in Algeria since the North African country ended a decade-long war with Islamist fighters in the 1990s, when around 200,000 people were killed. (Reuters) 

4:32 P.M. Rebels attack house on Yemen leader, kill seven

Yemeni Shiite rebels attacked and occupied the seat of power of an influential tribe in the capital Wednesday, setting off clashes that left six guards and a rebel dead, security officials and rebel media said.

The rebels, known as Houthis, blamed the guards of al-Ahmar tribe for starting the clashes. Al-Masira TV station, allied with the Houthis, said the tribal fighters attacked a checkpoint erected by the rebels in the northern Sanaa district of Hassaba.

Residents said the clashes shook the neighborhood before daybreak. Pockmarks were visible on the gates of al-Ahmar palace where rebel gunmen were deployed. Glass from broken windows of the palace's facade littered the road.

The security officials said four al-Ahmar fighters and four rebels were injured in the clashes. The officials spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to brief reporters.

The attack early Wednesday is the latest move by the empowered Houthis to establish their control of Saana. The Houthis, supported by the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized control of Sanaa in September and have since engaged in battles in different parts of Yemen with both rival tribes and Al-Qaida militants. The rebels are demanding a bigger share in power. (AP)

3:40 A.M. An estimated 12.2 million Syrians need assistance because of increasing violence and deteriorating conditions in the country, up from 10.8 million in July, the UN humanitarian chief said Tuesday.

But Valerie Amos told the UN Security Council that the delivery of aid from Turkey and Jordan to rebel-held areas in Syria without government approval has "made a difference." She urged the council to extend the authorization for cross-border aid which expires on January 9.

Amos painted a grim picture of the worsening situation in Syria: a 40 percent contraction in the economy since 2011, three-quarters of the population living in poverty, a 50 percent drop in school attendance, and 7.6 million people displaced inside the country and 3.2 million who have fled to other countries — the largest displacement in any conflict. (AP)

3:10 A.M. Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem in Moscow Tuesday in bid to kick off new peace process. (Jack Khoury)