Middle East Updates / Syrian Rebels Reject UN Plan for Aleppo

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Iraqi Shi'ite fighters carry their weapons as they prepare to launch an attack on Islamic State militants on the outskirts of the city of Tikrit February 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

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Latest updates:

10:23 P.M. Syrian rebels reject UN plan for Aleppo

Syria's main opposition and rebel factions in the northern city of Aleppo have rejected a proposal by the UN envoy to freeze fighting in parts of the city.

Despite the rejection, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Monday the U.N. will continue to pursue a peaceful solution for Syria, where a four-year conflict has killed more than 220,000 people.

The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, left Syria after talks with officials to try to arrange a "freeze" in fighting in Aleppo, which has been divided into government- and rebel-held districts since mid-2012.

The opposition said in a statement that it refuses to meet de Mistura if the talks are not based on the premise that a comprehensive solution to Syria's crisis includes President Bashar Assad's exit from office. (AP)

7:02 P.M. Iran's state TV: Government increases monitoring of social media

Iran monitored 8 million Facebook accounts with new software and will watch other social media sites for content that contravenes the Islamic Republic's moral codes, state television reported on Monday.

The Centre for Investigation of Organised Crime, a branch of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), accused Facebook of spreading immoral content and said it had arrested several users.

" is trying to push its users towards immoral content via its suggestion system, by making them choose harmful, decadent and obscene content over beneficial and educational subject matter," the IRGC said in a statement cited by state TV and other Iranian media.

Iran blocks access to social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but millions of Iranians easily get around that by using virtual private networks (VPNs).

However, that does not make Iranians immune from state surveillance and last year three men and three women who posted a video of themselves singing and dancing along with a Western pop song were arrested.

As well as testing the boundaries of Iran's Islamic dress and morality code, social networking sites were used to help organise massive anti-government protests in 2009 that Tehran said were stirred up by foreign powers.

The cyber security directorate will expand its "Spider" programme to monitor other social media including Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp, the IRGC said.

In December, Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi introduced a policy of "smart filtering" to improve the efficacy of its censorship, and said the policy would be fully in place by June.(Reuters)

6:27 P.M. New Saudi king meets Turkish President amid thaw in relations

Relations between the two nations had been tense largely due to Erdogan's criticism of Egypt's military-led ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power.

The official Saudi Press Agency says King Salman met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital, Riyadh, where discussion centered on the ongoing war in Syria, Iran nuclear talks and the turmoil in Yemen.

The meeting marks a thaw in diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which had been tense under the late Saudi King Abdullah largely due to Erdogan's criticism of Egypt's military-led ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia branded Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group a terrorist organization, while Turkey welcomed Brotherhood figures seeking refuge.

Erdogan was last in Saudi Arabia in January for Abdullah's funeral. Before meeting with Salman, he performed the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca and visited the first mosque built by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. (AP)

5:02 P.M. Bomb blast in downtown Cairo wounds nine people

A midday bomb blast in one of the busiest boulevards in downtown Cairo wounded nine people on Monday, the police said. Shortly after the explosion, a little-known group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bomb was hidden under a car parked near the High Court — the country's highest criminal court — and went off in Cairo's Ramses neighborhood. The area is very crowded, with dozens of street vendors selling their ware on stalls set up on the asphalt. Nearby are several bus stops, a railway station and a subway station.

Egyptian private The Seventh Day TV broadcast footage of the site, showing hundreds of onlookers around cars with smashed windows and blood on the pavement. Police cordoned off the area and state TV later reported that a second bomb was dismantled before it went off.

The Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry said there were no deaths, correcting an earlier state TV report that said one person died. The wounded included three officers, two conscripts and four civilians. (AP)

3:14 P.M. Report: ISIS makes threats against Twitter and it employees

Twitter Inc and U.S. authorities are investigating alleged threats made by Islamic State militants against the social media network's co-founder and other employees, according to media reports.

Islamic State supporters, in online posts on Sunday, called for attacks against Twitter and its "interests," including death threats, according to the online news media company Buzzfeed, which first reported the story, and NBC.

"Our security team is investigating the veracity of these threats with relevant law enforcement officials," Twitter said in a statement late Sunday, according to reports by CNBC and Buzzfeed.

Representatives for Twitter could not be immediately reached for comment.

One alleged threat was directed to Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, NBC reported. Dorsey didn't address or acknowledge the threats in his tweets on Sunday.

Islamic State militants have relied heavily on Twitter and other social media technology to coordinate and communicate, including shocking videos of beheadings and other violent acts against its enemies.

But social media companies, including Twitter, have also removed content and suspended accounts that post gruesome content, such as executions.

"Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you," one online post by Islamic State supporters said, according to Buzzfeed. "We told you from the beginning it's not your war, but you didn't get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back." (Reuters)

2:00 P.M. Saudi diplomat freed after three-year capitivty in Yemen

A Saudi Arabian diplomat has been freed and returned home, almost three years after being kidnapped in neighboring Yemen, the Saudi Interior Ministry said Monday.

The Ministry said Abdullah al-Khalidi, its deputy consul in the southern Yemen city of Aden, would undergo medical tests and be reunited with his family.

He was freed as a result of intensive efforts by the country's intelligence service, the ministry said, without giving further details
Al-Khalidi was seized outside his house in Aden in late March 2012 as he was leaving for work.

According to Saudi authorities, his kidnappers later handed him over to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

A Saudi fugitive claiming to act on behalf of the organization contacted the country's embassy in Sana'a last year demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners in Yemen in return for his freedom.

Kidnappings are common in Yemen, and experts say victims have repeatedly been sold on to AQAP after being captured by opportunistic hostage-takers. (Reuters)

1:00 P.M. UN nuclear watchdog: Iran hasn't haded over all key information

The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog said on Monday Iran had still not handed over key information to his staff, and his body's investigation into Tehran's atomic programme could not continue indefinitely.

"Iran has yet to provide explanations that enable the agency to clarify two outstanding practical measures," chief Yukiya Amano told the body's Board of Governors in Vienna, echoing a report seen by Reuters last month.

The two measures relating to alleged explosives tests and other measures that might have been used for bomb research should have been addressed by Iran by last August.

"The Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities," Amano said.

The Agency remains ready to accelerate the resolution of all outstanding issues, he added, but "this process cannot continue indefinitely".  (Reuters)

10:20 A.M. U.S. drone strike kills two Al Qaida militants in Yemen

Tribesmen and witnesses say a U.S. drone strike killed two suspected Al Qaida militants in southern Yemen.

The witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, say the suspected militants were traveling in a car when the strike took place at dawn on Monday in the Shabwa province, in an area called Markha.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni franchise is known, is considered the most lethal branch of the global network, and has been linked to several sophisticated plots to attack the United States, all of which were botched or foiled. (AP)

9:00 A.M. Iraq state TV: Operation to retake ISIS-held Tikrit begins

Iraq's state TV says government forces backed by allied Shiite and Sunni fighters have begun a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown from the Islamic State extremist group.

Al-Iraqiya television said Monday that the forces were attacking the city of Tikrit, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city, but gave no details.

Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the extremist group, promising them a pardon.

Tikrit, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer along with the country's second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in Sunni heartland. (AP)

7:30 A.M. UN report cites fears of weapons flow into Libya

A new U.N. report says Libya's ability to prevent the flow of weapons into and out of the chaotic country is "almost nonexistent," and it calls for the tightening of an arms embargo that the government says must be loosened so it can defend itself.
The report by a panel of experts also recommends the creation of a maritime monitoring force to help Libya's government prevent both the flow of weapons and the illegal export of the country's oil. The country has Africa's largest proven reserves of crude.

The international community is alarmed by the recent emergence of Islamic State group-affiliated fighters in the north African country, which is divided by two rival governments and multiple militias. 

But the United States and others worry that any weapons provided to the fragile Western-backed government, which is competing with an Islamist-backed rival, would quickly fall into the wrong hands. (AP)

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