Syria vows to ‘crush’ rebels
BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military will “crush” armed rebels, President Bashar Assad’s defense minister warned Saturday, as the regime shelled rebel positions in two cities and near the Lebanese border in a widening offensive.
Neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, set new rules of engagement after three shells from Syria hit Turkish territory Saturday. Turkey retaliated with artillery, as it has for the past four days, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this would now be the standard response.
Davutoglu insisted that “we haven’t taken a step toward war,” but Turkey’s threat to fire back for each errant Syrian shell was bound to keep border tensions high. Turkey is one of Assad’s harshest critics and a key supporter of Syria’s opposition.
The latest Syria-Turkey crisis erupted earlier this week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town.
The Syrian regime has apologized and tried to defuse tensions by pulling some tanks back from the border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
10 arrested in French anti-terror sweep
PARIS (AP) — Police carried out raids across France on Saturday after DNA on a grenade that exploded last month at a kosher grocery store led them to a suspected jihadist cell of young Frenchmen recently converted to Islam.
The man whose DNA was identified, named by police as Jeremy Sydney, was killed by police after he opened fire on them, slightly wounding three officers in the eastern city of Strasbourg. Officials said he had been under surveillance since last spring – around the time a French Islamic went on a shooting rampage against a Jewish school and French soldiers, killing seven people.
Ten other suspects, aged between 19 and 25, were arrested across the country on Saturday. One man was carrying a loaded gun, and police found weapons, cash and a list of Paris-area Israeli associations during the raids.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said all the arrested suspects were French and recent converts to Islam.
Four of the men involved in the raid had written wills.
“You can imagine what their other plans could have been,” Eric Voulleminot, a counterterrorism official, said at a news conference with Molins.
The prosecutor described 33-year-old Sydney, sentenced in 2008 to two years in prison for drug trafficking, as a “delinquent who converted to radical Islam.” He said others in the cell indicated they wanted to return to “the land of jihad.”
A statement from President Francois Hollande praised the police for the raids and said the state would continue to “protect the French against all terrorist threats.”
Last month’s firebombing of the grocery, in a Jewish neighborhood outside Paris, happened on Sept. 19, the same day a French satirical paper published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Anti-Western protests were also growing at the time against an anti-Islam film. One person was slightly injured, but the attack came after a summer of what residents described as growing anti-Semitic threats.
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is trying to contain the spread of a radical Islam hostile to Western influences.
The prosecutor was careful not to draw direct links between Saturday’s arrests and Mohamed Merah, a young Frenchman of Algerian descent who died in a shootout with police in March after the killings in the south of France. That attack terrorized the French Jewish community, which has since ramped up security in many parts of the country.
Merah had studied at an Islamist paramilitary camp in Pakistan and claimed ties to al-Qaida. Molins said officials did not believe the men arrested Saturday had trained abroad, but cautioned that the investigation was ongoing.
Israeli jets down drone that entered airspace
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel scrambled fighter jets to intercept a drone Saturday that crossed deep into Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea, shooting the aircraft down over the country’s southern desert, the military said.
The incident marked the first time in at least six years that a hostile aircraft has penetrated Israel’s airspace, and Israeli officials said they were taking the incident seriously, raising the possibility of retaliatory action.
It was not immediately clear who launched the drone, but suspicion quickly fell on the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed group is known to have sent drones into Israeli airspace on several previous occasions.
Tensions are running high between Iran and Israel over Tehran’s nuclear program, which the West believes is cover for the development of atomic weapons. The Islamic Republic denies the allegations, and says its program is for peaceful purposes only. Israel has threatened to carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said Israeli ground systems detected the drone, which flew over the Gaza Strip but did not originate there, Saturday morning. They alerted the air force, which scrambled the jets to intercept the aircraft. She said Israel was still trying to determine where the drone took off from. Nobody was hurt in the incident.
Leibovich said Israeli jets escorted the drone before deciding to bring it down in the northern Negev area, which is largely uninhabited.
The drone, which was downed near the Yatir Forrest close to the West Bank, had spent about 20 minutes in Israeli air space, an Israeli military official said on condition of anonymity in line with protocol.
Leibovich did not give more details, but Israel media reported that the aircraft was not carrying explosives and could have been a surveillance drone.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Israel views “this incident of attempting to enter Israeli airspace very severely and we will consider our response later,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will continue to defend our borders in the sea, on the land and in the air for the security of the citizens of Israel.”
It’s not the first time that Israel has shot down a drone in its airspace, although such cases are very rare.
Hezbollah sent a few aircraft over Israel over the past decade but without much success. In the 2006 war, the militant group launched an Iranian-made drone capable of carrying explosives into Israel that was shot down. Another drone two years earlier crashed in the Mediterranean.
Last week Israeli authorities indicted an Arab citizen of Israel on charges of spying for Hezbollah, accusing him of gathering intelligence on security for Israel’s president and other public officials as well as military installations.