Middle East Updates / ISIS Attacks Government Airbase in Eastern Syria

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Members of Al-Qaida's Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2.Credit: Reuters

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6:20 P.M. Car bombs in east Baghdad kill 15

Two car bombs in Baghdad's densely populated eastern district of Sadr city killed 15 people on Thursday, medical and police sources said, hours after a bombing on the edge of the capital's central Green Zone killed two others.

The car bombs went off within 20 minutes of each other on Thursday evening, the sources said. A total of 51 people were also wounded.

Earlier a bomb killed two people near the Green Zone district which houses most government buildings, security and medical sources said.

The bomb struck 200 meters from the edge of zone, they said. In response, security forces closed two nearby bridges that span the Tigris River, linking eastern and western Baghdad.

Bombings are frequent in the Iraqi capital, but mostly strike neighborhoods some distance from the central district which houses the Iraqi parliament and the U.S. Embassy and is a base for many Iraqi politicians.

Sunni militants from Islamic State, which controls much of the north and west of Iraq, regularly target Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad with car bombs.  (Reuters)

5:10 P.M. Airstrikes reported near Tripoli

Forces allied to one of two rival governments vying for power in Libya conducted an air strike near Tripoli on Thursday, officials and residents said, part of an ongoing struggle since a group seized the capital and set up its own cabinet.

Libya is caught in the conflict between the two sides, each with its own government and parliament. One is a self-declared government created after fighters from a group known as Libya Dawn took over Tripoli in August, and the other the internationally recognized government, forced out of Tripoli and now operating from the country's east.  (Reuters)

3:05 P.M. Report: Al-Qaida in Yemen threatens to kill U.S. photojournalist

Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen threatened an American hostage kidnapped over a year ago, giving Washington three days to meet unspecified demands and denouncing U.S. actions in the Arabian Peninsula country in a new video released Thursday.

The hostage, identified as 33-year-old Luke Somers, an American photojournalist born in Britain, is featured for the first time in the video, posted on the Al-Qaida offshoot's Twitter account and first reported by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant sites.

The video mimicked some of those used by al-Qaida rivals from the Islamic State group, which has beheaded several American and British hostages in the aftermath of a summer blitz that captured much of Iraq and Syria. The IS fighters have at times battled al-Qaida and prompted defections among their rivals.

Somers was kidnapped in September 2013 from a street in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where he had worked as a photojournalist for the Yemen Times. Since his capture, Yemeni journalists have been holding sit-ins in Sanaa to press the government to seek his release. (AP)

1:04 P.M. Report: Saudi Arabia suspends aid to Yemen after Houthi takeover

Saudi Arabia has suspended most of its financial aid to Yemen, Yemeni and Western sources said, in a clear indication of its dissatisfaction with the growing political power of Shi'ite Houthi fighters friendly with Riyadh's regional rival, Iran.

Yemen, which is battling an Al-Qaida insurgency, a southern secessionist movement, endemic corruption and poor governance, has often relied on its richer northern neighbor to help finance everything from government salaries to welfare payments.

But soon after Houthi fighters took over the capital Sanaa in September, Sunni Saudi Arabia promptly suspended much of that aid, concerned the rebels will use their military muscle to dominate domestic politics and project Iran's influence.

The Saudis also fear the movement's strong emphasis on Zaydi Shi'ite rights will aggravate sectarian tensions that al Qaeda could exploit to carve out more space in Sunni areas and launch attacks against the kingdom.

A deal signed in September between political parties and the Houthis called for the formation of a new unity government followed by the Houthis' withdrawal from the capital. But even though the new government has been formed, Houthi fighters continue to man checkpoints around the city and guard many state institutions in the capital.

"The Saudis have conditioned any aid on the implementation of the (deal). The Houthis have to leave before they pay," a senior Yemeni government official told Reuters.

Despite the suspension, Saudi Arabia this week announced $54 million in food relief for 45,000 families. A Western source, who asked not to be further identified, said the Saudis were also still funding some development and infrastructure projects.

But the source said the Saudis had stopped making other essential payments. (DPA)

11:09 A.M. ISIS attacks government airbase in eastern Syria

Syrian activists say ISIS militants have launched an attack the last major Syrian military air base in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

The Local Coordination Committees activist collective and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights both reported the fighting for the airfield, which is just outside of the city of Deir el-Zour. Almost all of the surrounding province is under IS control.

The Observatory said Thursday that at least 19 government troops have been killed in the fighting, which began overnight with a suicide bombing on a Syrian military position near the air base. It said seven IS fighters have been killed.

The Local Coordination Committees and the Observatory both reported heavy clashes and government shelling on the villages surrounding the airfield. (AP)

10:00 A.M. ISIS cedes little ground despite air attacks

They have made enemies across the globe and endured three months of U.S.-led air strikes, but Islamic State fighters have surrendered little of their self-declared caliphate to the broad sweep of forces arrayed against them.

Across thousands of square miles in Syria and Iraq, the radical Islamists face an unlikely mix of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, Shi'ite and Kurdish militias and rival Syrian Sunni Muslim rebels.

While they have lost towns on the edges of their Iraqi realm, especially in ethnically mixed areas where their hardline Sunni theology holds little appeal, they have consolidated power in parts of their Sunni Muslim heartland.

In August, Islamic State's attack on Iraqi Kurdish regions was repulsed and two months later its fighters were driven from the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad. It was also pushed out of two towns near the Iranian border last month.

But with a few exceptions, such as the army's breaking of an Islamic State siege of the country's largest oil refinery in Baiji, the militants' hold over predominantly Sunni provinces north and west of Baghdad has not been seriously challenged.

Islamic State's opponents say the recaptured towns show the tide has turned in Iraq and the group is on the defensive.

"The best they can do now is to cut a road or attack a patrol, but any advances and gains of territory have been completely stopped." said Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, a Shi'ite militia which along with Kurdish peshmerga spearheaded the recapture of Saadiya and Jalawla, near the Iranian border. (Reuters)

9:12 A.M. Australia bans visits to Syrian province under new law

The Australian government Thursday made it an offence for any Australian to visit the Al-Raqqa province of Syria, in the first application of new anti-terrorism laws passed last month.

Under the Foreign Fighters Act the government can make it an offence to visit a proscribed region without a legitimate reason such as specific humanitarian or family purposes, punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Syrian province was the de facto capital of extremist group Islamic State and the center of many of the organization's terrorist operations.

She said other regions where the group is operating could soon be added to the banned list. The declaration "sends a strong message to those Australians who seek to participate in the Syrian conflict" Bishop said. (DPA)

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