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Israel’s intelligence minister says Syria must not have chemical weapons

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Israel's intelligence minister said Tuesday that Syria cannot be allowed to obtain chemical weapons, after a report emerged that Israel targeted the country's chemical weapons facilities.

In an interview with Israeli Army Radio, Elazar Stern would not directly comment on the report in the Washington Post that said that Israel struck Syria on two occasions — once this year and once last year — in a bid to block attempts to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile. But Stern, a retired military general, hinted that Israel could not accept such weapons in the hands of its enemy to the north.

“We have a neighbor who has already proved that it doesn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons even against its own people,” he said. “(Syrian President Bashar) Assad must not have chemical weapons."

Israeli officials have declined to comment on the Washington Post report.

Military affairs commentators in Israel, who often are briefed by top defense officials, said the timing of the report was not a coincidence and comes as negotiators are meeting with Iran in Vienna to try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.

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Iran has close ties with Syria and has sent fighters and advisers to back the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country's decade-long civil war.

“It was a signal to all of the actors, Iran and the United States, that Israel is serious about acting against the development of non-conventional weapons by its enemies,” wrote Yossi Yehoshua in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between global powers and Iran, which granted Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Instead, it has called for an accord with even tighter safeguards on Iran's nuclear program and that addresses other Iranian military behavior, such as its missile program and support for anti-Israel militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which also has sent fighters to Syria. Israel also supports a “credible” military threat against Iran as leverage.

Israel believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon — a charge Iran denies. U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA have said Iran ran an organized nuclear weapons program until 2003.

Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in Syria — almost all of them aimed at Iranian forces or its proxies. Attacks on Syrian targets are rare.

One of the raids cited by the Washington Post, on June 8, was reported by Syrian state media as an Israeli aerial attack near the Syrian capital Damascus and in the central province of Homs, that prompted a response from Syrian national air defenses.

There was no mention in official media of what was targeted in the strikes, although loud explosions were heard in Damascus.

The Syrian government reported the strike to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in a July 9 letter. In it, Syria acknowledged that two chlorine cylinders were destroyed in an airstrike and had been moved there from Douma, the central Syrian town where the global chemical weapons watchdog agency has said chlorine was used as a weapon against civilians in 2018.

Although the agency did not assign blame for the attack, which killed some 40 people, the U.S., Britain and France blamed Syria and launched punitive airstrikes.

The Syrian Archive, a Berlin-based group that documents human rights violations in Syria with a focus on chemical weapons, said one of the sites has reportedly been described as a chemical production center in the southern region. It said another in central Syria was described by former Syrian military officials, who joined the opposition, as a place where chemicals are stored and where work on developing missiles warheads as well.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that closely monitors the war in Syria, has said the targeted sites included a branch of the military-linked Scientific Studies and Research Center northwest of Homs, in addition to an ammunition depot likely to belong to Hezbollah, south of Homs. The strikes killed 11 soldiers, including a colonel it identified as Ayham Suleiman Ismail.

Unconfirmed reports published by pro-Assad media at the time identified Ismail as a leading chemist at the research center.

The center is a government agency described by the Syrians as a facility for the advancement of scientific research. But Syria watchers have long described it as an outfit for the development of chemical, biological and other weapons.

Israel is believed to have struck facilities associated with the SSRC on numerous occasions in the past.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus.

By August 2014, the Assad government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed, but its initial declaration of chemical stockpiles and production sites to the OPCW has remained in dispute.

OPCW investigators have blamed at least three chemical attacks in 2017 on President Bashar Assad’s government. The agency last year suspended Syria's voting rights in the organization. Syria says it has complied with its commitments and wants to continue cooperation with the OPCW.

Earlier this year, the UN’s disarmament chief, Izumi Nakamitsu, told the Security Council that Damascus’ declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites nearly eight years ago remains incomplete.

Read more:

Israel hit chemical weapons facilities in Syria over past two years

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Saudi tourist killed by elephant in Uganda park

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A Saudi tourist was trampled to death by an elephant during a game drive at a popular park in Uganda, a wildlife official said Wednesday.

The attack happened on Tuesday at the Murchison Falls National Park when the man left the vehicle he was travelling in with friends, said Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesman Bashir Hangi.

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“They stopped along the way and the deceased went out of the car, an elephant charged at him, killed him on the spot,” Hangi said in a statement.

The victim was identified as Ayman Sayed Elshahany.

Park officials said police will investigate Elshahany’s death as they review security protocols to “avoid repeat of such incidents.”

Animal attacks are not unheard of in the East African country.

In 2018, a leopard snatched and ate the three-year-old son of a female game ranger at another park in the west of the country.

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US responds to Russia’s security demands in Ukraine crisis

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The US delivered its response to Russia’s security demands, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, the latest step in the high-stakes diplomacy over Moscow’s buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border.

The response delivered by Ambassador John Sullivan on Wednesday sets out “a serious diplomatic path forward, Blinken told reporters in Washington. “We are open to dialogue, we prefer diplomacy. It remains up to Russia to decide how to respond. We are ready either way.

The report delivered to officials in Moscow largely sticks to points made by Blinken and other US officials: It rejects Russia’s demand that NATO close its door to potential Ukraine membership in the future, but offers suggestions for areas of mutual interest, such as arms control talks and greater transparency over troop movements and military exercises, Blinken said.

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“We will uphold the principle of NATO’s open door, Blinken said, repeating the US and European position that Russia shouldn’t get to dictate which nations join the military alliance.

“We also do lay out areas where we believe that together we could actually advance security for everyone, including for Russia, Blinken said.

The top US diplomat said he expects to speak with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the “coming days, adding that the US response won’t be released publicly.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is expected to speak to reporters soon on the alliance’s response to Russia.

Tensions have soared as Russia masses more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, though officials in Moscow have repeatedly said they have no intention of invading the country.

Nevertheless, a top official of the pro-Kremlin ruling party who’s also a senior member of the Senate, Andrey Turchak, suggested it could send “certain weapons to the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Openly arming the separatists would undermine Russia’s claims — rejected by Ukraine and the West — that it’s not a party to the conflict.

Russia has said it will decide on whether to continue diplomatic efforts with the US and its allies based on the written answers.

The Kremlin has said it wants the US to respond to its key demands — no further expansion of NATO to the east, no deployments of weapons there that can strike Russia and a pullback of alliance forces in the region — even though Washington has made clear those are non-starters.

Moscow has said previously that the talks the US did offer publicly on limiting missiles and reducing risks around military maneuvers were positive, but not sufficient to address its security concerns.

Even as talks continued and Russia awaited the replies in recent days, the Kremlin continued its buildup of troops, tanks and equipment near Ukraine’s borders, with a major deployment to Belarus for exercises. Russia has said the forces aren’t a threat to anyone, but has refused Western calls to reverse the buildup.

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US to shut down Afghan embassy, strip diplomats of immunity: Sources

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The US government has informed Afghanistan’s diplomats that they will shut down the embassy in Washington and the consulate missions in Los Angeles and New York, sources familiar with the matter tell Al Arabiya English.

The Afghan diplomats will also be stripped of their diplomatic immunity, according to a memo sent to the Afghan diplomats at the beginning of the week.

– Developing

Read more: Once-bustling Afghan Embassy in US down to few diplomats

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