Middle East Updates / Saudi-led Air Strikes Hit Yemen Capital, Ending Lull

Yemen militia make gains against Houthis in central city; Car bombings kill at least six civilians in, around Baghdad; Syria's former spy chief dies in unclear circumstances.


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Latest updates:

9:53 P.M. Palestinian operatives helped free Syria hostages

A top Palestinian intelligence official provided first details Sunday of the release of two Swedish hostages held in Syria for 17 months, saying the captors drove them to a pre-arranged drop-off point, pushed them out of the car and sped off.

The abductors from the militant, al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front in Syria were not paid for the captives who were freed Friday, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the mission.

The official said Palestinian intelligence got involved after Swedish authorities asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for help in February. It was not clear why the Palestinians, who have largely stayed out of the Syria conflict, were sought out as mediators. The intelligence official did not explain how he was able to contact the abductors.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Sunday that Abbas' involvement "has been crucial" and she also thanked Jordan for its help. Swedish authorities did not identify the hostages or provide other details, saying only that the two were reunited with their families.

The Palestinian intelligence official said the Swedes were taken hostage in Syria on Dec. 3, 2013, but did not say where they had been held.

In early April, Palestinian agents entered Syria and obtained mobile footage of the two hostages, showing the men in track suits, standing near trees, the intelligence official said.

The hostages were released Friday afternoon near the Jordanian border, the official said.

"We entered 500 meters (550 yards) into Syrian lands, covered by the Jordanians," the official said. "The abductors came in a car, pushed the two Swedes outside and left the area immediately. We took them across the Jordanian border to the Swedish Embassy in Amman.'"

The Jordanian government spokesman was not immediately available for comment. (AP)

6:31 P.M. Turkey scrambles two F-16 jets on Syrian border

Turkey scrambled two F-16 fighter jets near its border with Syria on Saturday after a Syrian Su-24 bomber came close to the border, the Turkish army said in a statement on Sunday.

The Syrian jet withdrew after coming within 1.2 nautical miles of the Turkish border, the statement said.

In 2012, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet in the border area. Turkey and Syria were once allies, but the outbreak of civil war in its neighbor prompted Turkey to say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy. (Reuters)

6:14 P.M. Malaysia arrest 12 suspected Islamic State militants

Malaysian police have arrested 12 suspected Islamic State militants who were allegedly plotting bomb attacks on the outskirts of the capital, the country's police chief said Sunday.

Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said police counter-terrorism operatives have also seized bomb-making chemicals from the suspects who were arrested in separate raids in Kuala Lumpur and nearby areas.

Khalid said the bomb-making chemicals seized from the suspects were about 10 kilograms of ammonium nitrate and about the same amount of potassium nitrate.

Other items seized were a replica flag of the Islamic State, two remote control units, alarm motors, wiring, 9-volt batteries, a digital scale and three pieces of PVC pipes.

The suspects, aged between 17 and 41, allegedly planned to carry out bombings in response to a call by Islamic State to attack high-value targets in secular Islamic countries, which the militants consider as their enemies. (DPA)

12:00 P.M. Yemen militia make gains against Houthis in central city

A group of tribal and Islamist fighters in the strategically important central Yemeni city of Taiz on Sunday took back several districts from the Iran-allied Houthi militia amid heavy fighting, residents said.

The reverses deal a blow to the Houthis in an area they have controlled largely unopposed for more than a month. They may be a sign that more than a month of Saudi-led air strikes against Houthi forces have emboldened armed opposition groups. (Reuters)

11:01 Car bombings kill at least six civilians in, around Baghdad

Iraqi officials say car bombings in and around Baghdad have killed at least six civilians.

A police officer said the deadliest in Sunday's attacks was in the nearby town of Mahmoudiya, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, where a car bomb exploded, killing at least four civilians and wounding nine.

Two others were killed and 11 wounded in another car bomb explosion in Baghdad's southwestern Amil neighborhood.

Medical officials confirmed causalities. All spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information. (AP) 

10:32 A.M. Saudi-led air strikes hit Yemen capital, ending lull

At least five air strikes hit military sites and an area near the presidential palace compound in the Yemeni capital Sanaa at dawn on Sunday, residents said.

The bombings were the first raids on the city since a Saudi-led alliance said last week it was scaling back a campaign against Iranian-allied Houthi militias, which control Sanaa and have powerful allies in Yemen's factionalized armed forces. (Reuters)

10:18 A.M. Syria's former spy chief dies in unclear circumstances

Rustom Ghazali, Syria's last chief of intelligence in Lebanon who was a suspect in the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has died in Damascus, Lebanese media reported.

A Lebanese source with ties to Damascus also said that Ghazali had died on Friday. The cause and circumstances of his death were not immediately clear. There was no mention of his death on state media and the Syrian government made no statement.

Ghazali, in his 60s, succeeded Ghazi Kanaan as head of military intelligence in Lebanon in 2002 during Syria's tutelage over Lebanon, which lasted until Damascus pulled its troops from the country in 2005. He was one of Syria's key operatives in Lebanon when Damascus was the country's main power broker and deeply involved in internal political affairs after the end of civil war in 1990.

Lebanon's ties with Syria hit rock bottom after the assassination of Hariri in 2005 and accusations of Syrian involvement, which Damascus has always denied. Demonstrations in Lebanon over the killing of Hariri forced Syria to withdraw its 15,000 soldiers in April of that year, ending three decades of military presence in its smaller neighbor. UN investigators questioned Ghazali in September 2005 as a suspect in the Hariri killing. He was widely believed to be on the list of people to be brought to the tribunal to testify in the coming months.

Opposition reports say he had been dismissed over his alleged opposition to the prominent role played by Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah and Iran in the Syrian offensive to wrest back large parts of southern Syria from rebel hands. (Reuters) 

8:15 A.M. U.S.-led coalition launches 15 strikes in Syria, Iraq

U.S.-led forces targeted Islamic State militants in Syria with four air strikes from Friday to Saturday morning and conducted 11 strikes against the group in Iraq, the U.S. military said.

All of the strikes in Syria hit targets near Kobani, destroying four fighting positions and a boat, and also hitting an ISIS tactical unit, according to a military statement on Saturday.

In Iraq, five strikes near Fallujah hit tactical units, disabled a fighting position and destroyed vehicles, machine guns and an improvised explosive device. Four strikes near Mosul destroyed three buildings as well as machine guns and vehicles. Coalition forces also struck targets near Ramadi and Tal Afar, the statement said. (Reuters)

8:05 A.M. ISIS takes military barracks, dam in Iraq's Anbar, sources say

Islamic State militants in Iraq took partial control of a water dam and military barracks guarding it in the western Anbar province after fierce fighting through the night that continued on Saturday, security sources and witnesses said.

Officials from Iraq's defence and interior ministries could not immediately be reached for comment.

A video posted online on Saturday by ISIS' official media organisation appeared to show its fighters moving about freely at al-Thirthar dam, which serves as a flood control for Baghdad and other cities.

A black flag commonly used by the militants is seen flying from a radio tower. Two bodies apparently belonging to Iraqi forces also appear in the footage.(Reuters)

1:46 A.M. Sweden thanks Abbas for help in securing release of two Swedes in Syria

Sweden says that two of its nationals, held hostage in Syria, have been released and are reunited with their families.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm says in a statement it worked closely with several authorities and were particularly grateful to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was "crucial" in the release. It also singled out Jordan as helping in the releases.

Ministry officials on Saturday did not identify the hostages or say when or where they were released. They also declined to say where the Swedes had been held or for how long, or give further information. (AP)