Middle East Updates / Yemen Cease-fire Starts Between Saudi-led Coalition, Rebels

U.S. calls on Iran to direct Yemen-bound cargo ship to Djibouti; at least 15 killed in Syria government attack, activists say; report: Iranian warships will escort Yemen-bound cargo ship.

Reuters

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11:00 P.M. Yemen cease-fire starts between Saudi-led coalition, rebels

With cargo ships poised to launch a desperately needed aid operation in embattled Yemen, a five-day humanitarian cease-fire began Tuesday night, just hours after Saudi-led coalition warplanes struck against Shiite rebels and their allies.

It wasn't immediately clear if the two sides were honoring the cease-fire, which began at 11 p.m. (2000 GMT, 4 p.m. EDT). The halt to the fighting, which has killed hundreds of civilians, will test the adversaries' desire to enter into peace talks. Both sides say they are ready to respond with violence if their opponent breaks the cease-fire. (AP)
 

7:42 P.M. U.S. calls on Iran to direct Yemen-bound cargo ship to Djibouti

The United States on Tuesday called on Iran to direct an Iranian cargo ship that Tehran says is carrying Yemen-bound humanitarian aid to a United Nations distribution hub in Djibouti.

"If the Iranians follow UN protocol, move the ship to a port in Djibouti, allow the humanitarian cargo they claim is on the ship to be distributed through U.N. channels, then they will have done the right thing in this case," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.

"Anything short of that would not be the right thing," he said.

Iranian state news agency IRNA said the Iran-flagged Iran Shahed cargo ship set sail on Monday and was bound for the Yemeni port of Hodaida, which is held by Iran-allied Houthi fighters. (Reuters)

6:16 P.M. At least 15 killed in Syria government attack, activists say

Syrian activists say government helicopters have dropped barrel bombs in a neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 15 people.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the attack Tuesday in the city, carved up into rebel- and government-held areas, hit near a bus depot. The group said at least 20 people were killed and 30 were wounded, including women and children.

The Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group, said at least 15 people were killed in the attack on the Jisr al-Haj neighborhood. Both groups are based outside Syria but rely on a network of activists on the ground. The Aleppo Media Center, based in the city, said at least 35 people were killed.

Different casualty figures soon after the attacks are not uncommon. (AP)

4:58 P.M. Report: Iranian warships will escort Yemen-bound cargo ship

Iranian warships will accompany a cargo ship bound for the Yemeni port of Hodaida, held by Iran-allied Houthi fighters, a naval commander was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA on Tuesday. 

"The 34th fleet, which is currently in the Gulf of Aden, has special responsibility to protect the Iranian humanitarian aid ship," Admiral Hossein Azad said, referring to a destroyer and support vessel in international waters off Yemen. 

A ceasefire was due to begin on Tuesday evening between a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi militia in Yemen. (Reuters)

1:40 P.M. New UN envoy to Yemen arrives in capital Sanaa

The new UN envoy to Yemen arrived in the capital Sanaa on Tuesday, Yemen state news agency Saba said, hours before a five-day truce was set to begin between Gulf Arab nations and the Iran-allied Houthi militia.

Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed seeks to bring Yemen's feuding armed groups toward a political accord that could end more than six weeks of ground battles and Saudi-led bombing. (Reuters)

12:40 P.M. Iraqi Kurdish commander fighting against ISIS killed in bombing 

Officials say a prominent Iraqi Kurdish commander in the fight against the Islamic State group has been killed in a bombing near the northern city of Kirkuk.

The officials say Maj. Gen. Salah Delmani, head of the 118th brigade of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, was killed Tuesday along with three bodyguards when a bomb detonated near his car. The officials say it's unclear whether explosives were planted on Delmani's car or if his motorcade was struck by a roadside bomb.

Delmani was the commander in Daquq, a village south of Kirkuk on the road to Baghdad, which was recently recaptured from the Islamic State militant group. (AP)

12:01 P.M. U.S. drone strike reportedly kills 4 Al-Qaida leaders in Yemen

Islamic militant websites say four leading members of Yemen's Al-Qaida branch have been killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike the previous day in an eastern Yemen province.

The four died in Yemen's southern port of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea, where rockets believed to have been fired by U.S. drones hit Al-Qaida militants based in the city's presidential residence on Monday, according to security officials.

The three other militants were identified as Abu Anwar al-Kutheiri, Mohammed Saleh al-Gharabi and Mabkhout Waqash al-Sayeri. (AP)

10:55 A.M. Turkey delays training, arming of Syrian rebels fighting ISIS

Turkey's foreign minister says the start of a joint Turkish-U.S. program to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group has been delayed.

Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview on Turkish state television Monday that the program has been pushed back due to technical reasons and not because of any disagreement with the United States. He did not say when the program would start. (AP)

10:25 A.M. Locals report Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen capital hours before ceasefire 

Saudi-led air strikes pounded the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Tuesday, hours before a five-day truce was set to begin between the alliance of Gulf Arab nations and the Iran-allied Houthi militia which controls much of the country.

Residents said three air strikes hit a base for army units loyal to the Houthis in the north of the capital, sending up a column of smoke.

In the southern port of Aden, witnesses said the alliance bombed Houthi positions, and local armed groups were still fighting the rebels in the city and throughout Yemen's south. (Reuters)

9:55 A.M. ISIS destroys ruins, museums to cover up looting operations, Iraq says

The videos of Islamic State militants destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq's museums and blowing up 3,000-year-old temples could be a cover for the systematic looting of Iraq's cultural heritage, said Qais Hussein Rashid, head of Iraq's State Board for Antiquities and Heritage.

In the videos, militants can be seen taking sledge hammers to the iconic winged-bulls of Assyria and sawing apart floral reliefs in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud before the entire site is destroyed with explosives.

"According to our sources, the Islamic State started days before destroying this site by digging in this area, mainly the palace," he told The Associated Press. "We think that they first started digging around these areas to get the artifacts, then they started demolishing them as a cover up." (AP)

4:40 A.M. Five million Syrians live in areas at high risk of explosive weapons - study

About 5.1 million Syrians are living in areas at high risk from explosive weapons, some of which fail to detonate and so will pose a deadly threat for years to come, aid group Handicap International said.

Man reacts at a site hit by what activists say was a barrel bomb dropped by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo. (Reuters)

The global charity examined 78,000 violent incidents in Syria's war between December 2012 and March 2015 and found that more than 80 percent involved highly destructive weapons like rockets, mortars and bombs, rather than light arms. "Syria will inherit the deadly legacy of explosive weapons for years," said Anne Garella, Regional Coordinator of Handicap International.

The Handicap International study found that three-quarters of the incidents it recorded took place in populated areas like larger towns and cities. "This suggests that belligerents have no intention of effectively distinguishing between civilians and combatants -- which constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law," said the group, which provides aid to disabled people in conflict and disaster zones.

The heavily-populated western provinces of Aleppo, Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Rural Damascus were the most affected, the study found. The research was based news reports, social media and data from the United Nations and non-governmental organisations. (AP)

2:50 A.M. U.S. Senate passes resolution for release of Americans in Iran

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on Iranian officials to immediately release three Americans held in Iran and help locate a fourth.

The measure, which passed 90-0, calls for Iran to free Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian and cooperate with the U.S. government to locate and return former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who is believed to be missing in Iran. Abedini, a Christian pastor from Idaho, has been in Iranian custody since September 2012 and is serving an eight-year sentence for undermining state security. During a trial in January, he was convicted of trying to establish a network of Christian churches in private homes.

Sen. James Risch, who introduced the measure, argued that the four should have been released before the U.S. started negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. (AP)