Middle East Updates / Turkish Parliament Authorizes Possible Military Action in Iraq, Syria

Pope convenes Vatican Mideast envoys over Islamist threat to Christians; Iraq considering Australia's request to launch airstrikes against IS; Fighting intensifies near Kurdish town of Kobane.

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Latest updates:

7:59 P.M. Turkey's Constitutional Court has struck down parts of a law which expanded state institutions' powers to block websites without court orders and to store user data for two years. The law was passed last month by the conservative Justice and Development Party, which dominates parliament. The opposition Republican People's Party had filed an appeal to the court.

The government began to tighten already tough internet laws in February, expanding the powers of the telecommunications authority to shut down sites, in a move activists decried as attempts to censor the public.

Twitter and YouTube were closed down for brief periods this year. Protesters used social media during last year's anti-government demonstrations and the platforms were used this year to spread audio recordings containing corruption allegations against the government and business leaders.

Authorities shut down Twitter and YouTube this year after then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly slammed social media ahead of local elections in March. Activists said that, even prior to the passage of the new laws, tens of thousands of websites had been blocked in Turkey. (DPA) 

7:06 P.M. A prominent Egyptian activist who came to fame during the country's 2011 uprising was sentenced to one month in prison Thursday on charges of insulting the police, though he said he didn't know about the hearing.

A court official did not offer specifics on how Abdel-Fattah insulted the police, though he said the charges stem from a complaint filed by prison authorities while he was held pending trial in a separate case. The official said an appeal over Abdel-Fattah's sentencing was scheduled for October 16. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

On Facebook, Abdel-Fattah said he had not been aware of the new case against him. The activist is free on bail pending a retrial over his 15-year prison sentence for violating a widely criticized law that bans protests without prior government approval.

Abdel-Fattah is a powerful voice for civil rights in Egypt and has spent time in prison under four different Egyptian governments. He is a member of one of Egypt's most prominent activist families and his sister, Sanaa, is currently being held pending her own trial over charges of violating the protest law. (AP)

5:53 P.M. Pope Francis convened his ambassadors from across the Middle East on Thursday for three days of meetings to find ways to better protect Christians targeted by Islamic militants and care for those who have been forced to flee their homes.

As the Vatican ramps up its support for military force to stop the militants' advance, Francis told the envoys he hoped their brainstorming would come up with initiatives to show the church's solidarity with persecuted Christians and "respond to the needs of so many people who are suffering in the region," the Vatican said.

The meeting brought together Vatican envoys from Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Turkey. They were joined by various heads of the Holy See bureaucracy, including the head of the Vatican's main charity, Cor Unum, and Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who travelled to Kurdistan last month as Francis' personal envoy, with money for displaced Christians and other religious minorities.

The Islamic State group has seized around a third of Iraq and targeted religious minorities in the onslaught, killing hundreds and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. The Vatican is particularly worried because the advance has emptied Christian communities that have existed for 2,000 years.

Francis has denounced the persecution and said it is legitimate to stop the advance. Earlier this week, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the UN General Assembly that multilateral intervention using a "proportionate use of force" was both "licit and urgent." (AP) 

5:10 P.M. The Turkish parliament approved a motion on Thursday enabling the government to authorize cross-border military incursions into Iraq and Syria to battle Islamic State militants.

The motion also allows foreign soldiers to be stationed in Turkey and to use its military bases for the same purposes.

Ankara has come under pressure to play a more robust role in the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State after the insurgents advanced to within clear sight of Turkish military positions on the Syrian border. (Reuters) Read the full article here.

4:59 P.M. A U.S. citizen has joined Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State militants in northern Syria, a spokesman for the main Kurdish armed group in the country said on Thursday.

The Kurdish official said that Jordan Matson had joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), who are mainly battling advances by Islamic State close to Syria's borders with Turkey and Iraq. "Yes it is true," YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said in an online message. "He is fighting in the Jazaa area."


Jazaa is a town in Syria's northeastern Hasaka province, close to the Iraqi border and has been the site of heavy fighting between the two groups. (Reuters) Read the full article here.

4:17 P.M. Senior military officials in Egypt say soldiers have killed a top militant in the Sinai Peninsula amid clashes. The officials say that Mohammed Abu Sheeta, a leader of the Al-Qaida-inspired group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, was killed Thursday in the town of Rafah, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.

The officials say Sheeta had led the abduction of Egyptian soldiers to press the government to release his detained brother. The officials also say soldiers discovered an underground field hospital and a store packed with explosives. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for several deadly suicide bombings in Egypt over the past year. (AP)

3:44 P.M. Islamic State-led insurgents took control of most of the western Iraqi town of Hit in Anbar province early on Thursday, security sources and local officials said.

The ultra-radical Sunni Muslim militants have captured vast swathes of western and northern Iraq including the north's biggest city Mosul in June, as well as large areas of the east and north of neighbouring Syria. The fall of Hit exposes the Ain al-Asad military base in the nearby town of al-Baghdadi to attack. Iraqi government forces suffered big losses after insurgents laid siege to other military camps in recent months.

"Ninety percent of Hit has been overrun by militants," said Adnan al-Fahdawi, an Anbar provincial council member, adding that the attackers were better armed than local security forces. An eyewitness speaking from Hit told Reuters: "Scores of militants can be seen in the town with their vehicles and weapons, I can hear shooting now everywhere." (Reuters)  

3:36 P.M. A spokesman for a renegade general in Libya says two suicide car bombings near an eastern airport has killed seven troops and wounded 12. Col. Mohammed Hegazi told AP that the bombers targeted checkpoints 1 kilometer away from the Benina airport in Benghazi.

The airport is the only site remaining under the control of renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter after he was defeated by a coalition of Islamist militias, including the extremist group Ansar al-Shariah. That group is blamed for the deadly 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. (AP)

3:25 P.M. Activists say there has been a rare protest in Syria by hundreds of supporters of President Bashar Assad against the governor of the central Syrian town of Homs after twin bombings killed 25 children.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Thursday's demonstration occurred after grieving resident gathered at a roundabout in Homs near where the attack took place. A pro-Assad Facebook youth group in Homs also reported the protest.

In Syria's three-and-a-half-year civil war, open criticism against the government by Assad loyalists has been extremely rare. It was not immediately clear why the demonstrators specifically demanded the governor's resignation. Wednesday's twin bombing near a Homs school killed at least 25 children and eight adults. (AP) 

3:11 P.M. Germany, which said no to joining the US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group, will send military doctors to northern Iraq, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday.

Berlin has already sent six paratroopers to the conflict zone to begin training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the use of German arms. Germany has said it aims to equip 10,000 Kurdish fighters with Milan anti-tank rockets, bazookas, assault rifles, grenades and vehicles to push back the Islamic State. It has already begun shipping the weapons and equipment to Iraq. (DPA)

12:02 P.M. Danish lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved sending seven F-16 fighter jets to take part in airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State militant group. The decision was carried by a 94 to 9 vote, with members of the leftist Unity List voting against, while 76 lawmakers were absent.

"It was a correct decision, but also a difficult one," Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said after the vote. The fighter jets are only to operate in Iraqi airspace. Defence Minister Nicolai Wammen said the jets were to be airborne before midday, and were to be based in Kuwait. Three of the jets were to serve as backup planes. Denmark is also to contribute about 120 soldiers to train Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. (DPA)

6:38 A.M. Iraq is considering Australia's request to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets, Iraqi envoy to Australia said on Thursday, but gave no timetable for when his government might reach a decision.Australia has six F/A-18F Super Hornet jet fighters waiting on standby in the United Arab Emirates for final authorization to begin combat missions with the U.S.-led coalition.

"We are seriously considering the request from Australia," Ambassador Mouayed Saleh told The Associated Press.He said a decision could be made Thursday, the last working day before Independence Day and a week long holiday. But it might not be made until after the holiday, he said.

Australia's Cabinet was waiting for the Iraqi response before it can formally commit to a combat role.

The Australian government can commit troops without asking Parliament, which sits for the last day on Thursday before a two-week break.

Two unarmed Australian air force planes — an E-7A Wedgetail surveillance and communications jet and a KC-30A refueling plane — joined operations over Iraq from the al-Minhad Air Base outside Dubai for the first time on Wednesday in support roles, the air force said. (AP)

5:53 A.M. The fight for the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane geared up early Thursday as Islamic State militants advanced, a monitoring group said.

"Fighting intensified at dawn Thursday between Islamic State militants and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) at western outskirts of the city of Kobane, prompting the YPG to withdraw from the area to the outskirts of the city, while militants advanced," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The watchdog said the YPG and other Kurdish fighters were preparing for street battles amid fears that the Islamic State militants might commit massacres if they take the city.

The observatory said that additional fierce fighting was taking place in the eastern and southern parts of the city, which was being shelled by Islamic State militants.
The observatory said Islamic State fighters "have not yet stormed the city, as some media outlets close to the jihadist group reported.(DPA)