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Saturday, December 31

Om Gan Ganpataye Namo Namah



Friday, December 30

Putin DID NOT order Russia's Anglo-American school closed

The story about the school closing was just CNN continuing with hissy fits on behalf of the Democratic Party and their dear leader Obama. Forbes has the details on the false school-closing story, which was picked up by several news outlets including the Daily Mail

By the way, CNN is behind House & Garden TV in the cable ratings.      

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Mr Obama, Mr Putin is more respected than you because he acts like an adult (UPDATED)

UPDATE
Mr Putin did not order the Anglo-American school in Moscow closed. It was a false news story put out by CNN. 

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Putin said that unlike the Obama administration, Russia will not target foreign diplomats and their families days before New Year’s celebrations.

Sputnik, December 30:
[...]
On Thursday unmarked SUVs surrounded a Maryland property belonging to the Russian Embassy to the United States to send a clear signal: Russians are not welcome anymore. The Obama administration designated the vacation retreat as a compound used for ‘spying purposes’ without expanding on what kind of spying was going on in the remote location.
Unsurprisingly, it is extremely difficult to justify intelligence gathering here, as no military base or government building can be found anywhere nearby and everyone in the neighborhood has known for decades that the spot is a retreat for Russian diplomats and their families. If you had been a spy, coming here would be the best way to blow your cover. Nevertheless, this quaint family vacation spot is what the US has targeted in their latest round of sanctions.

Putin: Russia will not expel anyone in response to US sanctions
30 Dec, 2016 12:30 (Edited 14:03)
RT

The Russian president has rejected a suggestion of the foreign ministry to expel 35 American diplomats in response to a similar move by the US. He said Obama’s act was designed to provoke a reaction, but Russia would not take the bait.

“We reserve the right to retaliate, but we will not sink to the level of this irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy. We will take further moves on restoring Russian-American relations based on the policies that the administration of President-elect Donald Trump adopts,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement published by the Kremlin website.

Putin said that unlike the Obama administration, Russia will not target foreign diplomats and their families days before New Year’s celebrations.

“We will not forbid families and children from spending the New Year’s holidays at the places they are used to. Moreover, I invite the children of all American diplomats with accreditation in Russia to New Year’s and Christmas festivities in the Kremlin,” the Russian president said.

Putin said he regretted that US President Barack Obama is ending his term “in such a way,” but that he extended his New Year’s congratulations to the outgoing US president and his family nevertheless.

“I congratulate President-elect Donald Trump and the entire American people!” he concluded.

The Kremlin said it will send a government plane to the US to evacuate the expelled diplomats and their family members. Earlier, there were reports that the diplomats were having problems

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Russia respond to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US by expelling 35 American diplomats from Russia. Similarly, the eviction of a Russian diplomatic staff from two vacation houses in the US would be mirrored by a similar eviction of Americans in Russia.

President Obama targeted Russian diplomats as a part of wider sanctions against Russian, which he justified by the alleged interference by the Russian government in the November presidential election in the US. Moscow denies the allegations.

The US claimed that the vacation houses had been used for espionage. Russia insists that they were used by the diplomatic staff to spend holidays with their families.

[END REPORT]

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90,000 Christians were murdered for their faith in 2016

RT
December 29, 2016

Ninety thousand Christians were murdered for their faith around the globe this year, which amounts to one being killed every six minutes, Italy’s CESNUR religious study group said.

Christians are now the most persecuted religious group in the world, Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), told Vatican Radio.

According to CESNUR statistics, around 500,000 Christians around the globe are unable to practice their faith completely freely, Introvigne said.

Seventy percent of the killings of Christians in 2016 occurred during tribal conflicts in Africa, he said, referring to data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

The large number of deaths may be explained by the fact that many devoted Christians refuse to take up arms, he added.

The remaining 30 percent, or 27,000, lost their lives in terrorist attacks, the destruction of Christian villages, or persecution by the authorities, Introvigne said.

However, he said that the number of Christian killings has decreased, compared to 105,000 deaths in 2015.

The data in the report may be incomplete as it doesn’t include India -- or China, where the Christian community survives in secrecy, he added.

The religious study group is due to release the full statistics on Christian persecution in January.

Introvigne also said that the Catholic Church is currently considering sanctification for Christian individuals killed by terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria and Iraq.

Earlier this year, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, said that during the five years of the Syrian conflict, the Christian population of the country had declined from 1.5 million to 500,000.

Most of the remaining Christians currently reside in areas controlled by the Syrian government after fleeing the jihadists.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that an agreement had been reached on a ceasefire in Syria and the start of peace talks, adding that the deal is “fragile” and requires a cautious approach.

[END REPORT]

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Thursday, December 29

List of armed groups that have signed onto Syrian ceasefire and their numbers

A reporter for AMN has put together the list. The ceasefire goes into effect at midnight in Syria, which is 5:00 PM EST, so it happened a half hour ago.

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Russian report on terrorist chemical weapon factory in E. Aleppo, Obama expels 35 Russians from USA

The more Syrian and Russian armies uncover about what was really going on in eastern Aleppo, the more the Obama administration and its allies have tried to change the subject.....




EXCLUSIVE: Sputnik Reports From Terrorist Chemical Factory in Aleppo (VIDEO)
19:52 - 29.12.2016

Sputnik

Recent search operations in eastern Aleppo have confirmed that chemical weapons were indeed used during the conflict – but by terrorists, not government forces.

Sputnik correspondents managed to explore makeshift factories in eastern Aleppo used by terrorists to build bombs laced with poisonous chemicals.

A source in the Syrian military confirmed that this type of ordnance was used by the terrorists against the Syrian army; one such attack occurred in the southwestern area of the city in the vicinity of the al-Assad Military Academy.

Analyses indicate that chemicals used by the terrorists were made in the US while the bombs were manufactured on site. Furthermore, the mark UN 3082 is clearly visible on the chemical canisters discovered at the terrorist factory.

Earlier this year Samer Abbas, spokesman for the Syrian National Authority monitoring the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, contacted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and presented documented proof of terrorists using sulfur mustard ordnance against civilians in Syria.


OCPW declared that a special committee to confirm the veracity of these documents needs to be created, but so far have apparently refrained from pursuing this line of inquiry for reasons unknown.

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Ministry experts collected evidence of terrorists using chemical weapons in Marana Um Hosh village located to the south of Aleppo.

[END REPORT]


Obama orders Russia expulsions, sanctions for interference in 2016 election

By Jeff Mason and Lesley Wroughton | HONOLULU/WASHINGTON
December 29, 2016 - 3:49pm EST
Reuters

President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and sanctioned Russian intelligence officials who Washington believes were involved in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 presidential election.

The measures, taken during the last days of Obama's presidency, mark a new low in U.S.-Russian relations which have deteriorated over serious differences on Ukraine and Syria.

"These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior," Obama said in a statement from vacation in Hawaii.

[...]

Obama sanctioned two Russian intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, four GRU officers and three companies "that provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations.

PERSONA NON GRATA

Obama said the State Department declared as "persona non grata" 35 Russian intelligence operatives and is closing two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland that were used by Russian personnel for "intelligence-related purposes". The State Department originally said the 35 were diplomats.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters the move would affect the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco.

The Russians have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds, which are used by Russian officials for intelligence gathering, will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday, the senior U.S. official added.

"These actions were taken to respond to Russian harassment of American diplomats and actions by the diplomats that we have assessed to be not consistent with diplomatic practice," the official said.

The State Department has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed U.S. diplomats in Moscow, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

"By imposing costs on the Russian diplomats in the United States, by denying them access to the two facilities, we hope the Russian government reevaluates its own actions, which have impeded the ability and safety of our own embassy personnel in Russia," the official said.

The U.S. official declined to name the Russian diplomats who would be affected, although it is understood that Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, will not be one of those expelled.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Jeff Mason and Dustin Volz and Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell)

[END REPORT]

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"Russia announces ceasefire in Syria from midnight" US was excluded from talks

Reuters
2:49pm EST

By Denis Pinchuk and Tulay Karadeniz | MOSCOW/ANKARA

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday.

The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.

The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, said it would abide by the ceasefire, due to come into force at 2200 GMT, and take part in future talks.


[...]

Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce, and a statement on readiness to start peace talks.

"The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement... But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions," Putin said.

He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.

Putin spoke by phone to Assad who said he was committed to observing the ceasefire, the Kremlin said.

Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire.

"This window of opportunity should not be wasted," Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said.

ISLAMIC STATE

Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda's Syria branch, the Nusra Front - appearing to contradict the Syrian army's statement.

The Free Syrian Army spokesman said the ceasefire also does not include the Kurdish YPG militia, which has mostly avoided conflict with the Syrian government. The YPG could not immediately be reached for comment.

Russia's defense ministry said insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main Turkey-backed FSA groups that had operated in Aleppo.

However, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham said it had reservations about the agreement and had not signed it.

The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally.

Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington's policy on Syria, officials have said.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month. He also wanted Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.

Washington said the news of a ceasefire was a positive.

"We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

The United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the ceasefire announcement and hoped it would save civilian lives, enable the delivery of aid and lead to productive peace talks in Astana.

The deal should also help U.N. negotiations on Syria to be held in February, de Mistura's spokeswoman said.


CIVIL WAR

[...]

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Wednesday, December 28

Hundreds of Syrian families return to E. Aleppo after Russian demining operation

During the past couple days I have seen reports that scores, perhaps as many as 60, sappers and troops have lost their lives during the massive demining/bomb defusal operations in East Aleppo. The mercenaries wired everything they could, including toys and kindergartern rooms, with explosives before they decamped. That's in addition to the landmines they buried. 

And there is a massive cleanup underway in E. Aleppo neighborhoods; I think it was yesterday that I saw a photograph, maybe at FARS or Sputnik, of a tractor clearing rubble from a street in E. Aleppo. Then will come tearing down unsafe buildings, then a start on reconstruction. 

I am very much hoping that China and India, and perhaps Japan, can finance and handle projects for the most critical infrastructure repairs/rebuilding in East Aleppo.       
   
December 28, 2016
FARS

TEHRAN (FNA)- A large number of Syrian families started returning to their homes after all terrorists were forced out of the Eastern districts of Aleppo city.
Hundreds of families from Eastern Aleppo's Seif al-Doleh are now back to their houses after the Syrian and Russian troops finished defusing mines and bombs planted by the terrorists.

The Russian Peace Coordination Center in Syria announced on Wednesday that the country's experts have cleared mines from 966 hectares of the newly-liberated neighborhoods of Eastern Aleppo city since December 5.

The Russian center said in a statement that an area as large as 966 hectares (each hectare equals 10,000 sq. m) has been cleansed from mines and bombs planted by Jeish al-Fatah coalition of terrorist groups in the Eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city.

The statement added that approximately 350 km of roads, 2,149 houses, 44 schools, 38 mosques, ten hospitals and clinics, a water pumping station and two power transition stations and a water treatment plant have been demined.

The statement added that the Russian soldiers managed to defuse over 14,700 bombs including 6,700 handmade grenades.

On Thursday, the last batch of terrorists and their families left the neighborhoods of Al-Zobaydiyeh, al-Ansari and Salahuddin East of Aleppo.

The Syrian Army and its allies from the resistance front made history and took back the country's second most important city from thousands of terrorists in a landmark victory that will change the future of the war in Syria.

The last pocket of terrorists left Eastern Aleppo on Thursday evening, meaning that the Syrian army and its allies purged all city districts of Jeish Al-Fatah terrorists and completed control over the entire city.

Syria has been grappling with deadly unrests since early 2011, and only after two years, Damascus found itself under the siege of a variety of terrorist groups overtly and covertly supported by the western powers and their regional allies -- especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey
.
[END REPORT]
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Iran Sends 140 tons of Humanitarian Aid to Aleppo

December 27, 2016
FARS

TEHRAN (FNA)- Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) Managing Director Seyed Amir Mohsen Ziyaee announced that his country has sent over 140 tons of humanitarian aid to the people in Aleppo.

"Given the problems that people in Aleppo have been facing, we had sent several cargos of aid to Aleppo before. In addition to that, we sent two 70-ton cargoes on two planes to Aleppo which included medicine, tents and other goods needed by the people," Ziyaee said, addressing a meeting in Tehran on Tuesday.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced after talks with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan earlier this month underlined that Iran and Armenia agree on the necessity for dispatching humanitarian aid to the people in Aleppo.

"We discussed Iraq and Syria as two countries which are facing the problem of terrorism today and we should help these governments to uproot terrorism and we agreed on sending humanitarian aid, specially to the Aleppo people," Rouhani told a joint press conference with Sargsyan.

[...]

[END REPORT]

Thank you people of Iran for all your sacrifices to defend the people of Syria, and thank you and Iran's Red Crescent Society for the aid. God bless you.   

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Russia delivers 45 tons of New Year presents collected for children in Syria

FARS has photographs. Thank you, FARS, for letting us know; it means a lot to me. Thank you, Russian people for sending the presents. And thank you for your sacrifices to defend the Syrian people. God bless you.   

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To person in Nantes, Pays De La Loire, France

Pourquoi copiez-vous autant de photos de mon blog?

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Tuesday, December 27

Western nation-builders at it again: Idlib, America's Model Syrian City

Idlib City Council



The report titled, “Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib,” describes a city so dangerous and dysfunctional the authors could not even venture there to conduct their interviews.

Just as is happening across Aleppo, when areas are finally returned back to Syrian control and the supply of foreign aid, weapons and support is removed, so too is the illusion of opposition.


Welcome to Idlib: America’s Model Syrian City
By Ulson Gunnar
December 18, 2016
Near Eastern Outlook

A report published by The Century Foundation (TCF), a US-based policy think tank, helps shed light on the inner workings of the small northern city of Idlib, Syria.

Idlib is to US State Department-listed foreign terrorist organization Jabhat Al Nusra (also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or Al Qaeda in Syria) what the eastern Syrian city of Al Raqqa is to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS).

It is also home to a wide range of other militant groups cooperating with the terrorist organization, as well as a myriad of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) funded and directed by the US, Europe, Turkey and the Gulf states.

And while great hope resides within statements of US, European and Gulf state politicians, echoed across their respective media platforms for this city’s possible role as an alternative “capital” for an alternative “government,” opposed to the current Syrian nation-state, TCF’s report dumps a cold bucket of water on what was but a spark, not even a flame of hope.

The “Opposition” Exists Solely Through the Support of Foreign Interests

The report titled, “Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib,” describes a city so dangerous and dysfunctional, the authors of the report could not even venture there to conduct their interviews, which were instead conducted remotely from the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border.

The report even admits that the “provincial council” meant to replace the Syrian government remained based in Turkey for years and still maintains an office there today.

The report states:
In Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, residents have established local governance bodies that provide needed services and simultaneously pose a political challenge to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. No overarching authority has replaced the state after it was forced from Idlib. Islamist and jihadist armed groups hold power at the local level, and have developed relatively sophisticated service coordination bodies. Yet ultimate decision-making power has typically sat with donor organizations outside the country.
The report points out that armed groups compete not only for influence within Idlib, but also for access to the constant stream of resources foreign donor organizations provide. The report admits that this foreign aid (dominated by USAID) sustains Idlib’s occupiers, who themselves lack the ability to unify the city, fund any of their activities, let alone challenge the Syrian state.

The report also admits that initially the Syrian government was able to protect Idlib’s urban centers, and that they only fell after the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey was taken over. This suggests that an influx of weapons, supplies and fighters over the border from Turkey, with Turkish and other state-sponsors’ backing, helped turn the tide against Syrian forces, not the momentum of the “uprising” itself.

Idlib province is now one of the few regions in the country that still has an unsecured border with Turkey, making it no surprise that Idlib remains one of the few areas still left beyond the Syrian government’s control. The report also admits terrorist organizations (Ahrar al-Sham and Al Nusra) dominate this remaining region, contrary to US and European rhetoric.

Dysfunction in Idlib Mirrors Failed Intervention in Libya, Afghanistan
  
The TCF report explores the various facets of dysfunction plaguing Idlib including corruption, nepotism and interference from armed groups. The crippling dependency on foreign aid and the constant infighting is not only the shape of things to come nationwide should the Syrian government ever be toppled, but it is also a reflection of Libya post US-NATO intervention, or even US-occupied Afghanistan.

With contractors interested only in getting paid, and local groups being consumed with infighting, Idlib provides the latest example of failed US-European “nation building.”

Idlib a Failed City, Would Preside Over a Failed Nation 

The report refers to Idlib as a “microcosm of the war.” It states:
Idlib’s governance and service sector has been, in many ways, a microcosm of the Syrian war and Idlib’s fractious rebel scene. As with the province’s armed opposition, an existing tendency towards localism and disparate, uncoordinated streams of external support have resulted in a service sector that is discombobulated and fractious.
Even if the US and its allies believed it was politically possible to announce Idlib as an alternative “capital” to Damascus, Idlib in reality could never serve such a role. Between its small size, the fact that it is transparently dominated by armed terrorists and completely dependent on foreign aid means that Idlib cannot even administer itself, nor the province it resides in, let alone the entire country. Any nation subjected to “rule” from the failed city of Idlib, would without doubt be a failed nation.

All Idlib could ever be used for is the illusion of viable opposition. The city and province’s administration is as artificial as the armed conflict its current state of dysfunction resulted from. Both city and provincial administration depend entirely on foreign support that is interested only in the overthrow of Damascus, not Idlib’s peace and prosperity.

Like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, once the war is over and regime change accomplished, contractors will seek to make as much money “nation building” as possible, interested more in returning home to spend their new fortunes than leaving behind a functioning and “free” nation state.

The report concludes with the question of whether or not the Syrian government could reassert itself in Idlib. The Syrian government possesses absolutely everything the current “administrators” of Idlib lack, namely unity, ability and resources. Just as is happening across Aleppo, when areas are finally returned back to Syrian control and the supply of foreign aid, weapons and support is removed, so too is the illusion of opposition.

Ulson Gunnar, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

[END REPORT]





Mass graves of torture victims found in E. Aleppo. That plus a penny.

AFP 2016/ LOUAI BESHARA

He said that the instances are being recorded as serious war crimes and will be given maximum publicity "so that European backers of the so-called opposition in London and Paris are well aware of who their [friends] actually are."

I don't share the Russian government's hope that making the evidence of the mass graves available to European governments will change minds about the nature of the militants who were present in E. Aleppo. Those governments have always known they've been aiding and abetting mercenaries who routinely commit atrocities. Nobody has to show them mass graves to make the point.

It's just that the governments who actively aided the mercenaries didn't think their complicity in war crimes would be exposed. At first they assumed that Assad would be assassinated or driven out of Syria. After the Russians stepped in, the European leaders assumed the American government could cut a deal with Russia that would force Assad to step down.  

And it didn't dawn on them until a month ago that the Syrian Amy coalition could be completely successful in ejecting mercenary militias from East Aleppo -- meaning that it would have full reign to inspect every square foot of the area.  

Now all the biggest offenders can do is try to divert public attention by making accusations that the Syrian (and Russian) militaries also committed atrocities in Syria.

A December 26 Associated Press report, Mass graves, booby traps found as Russians and Syrians sweep Aleppo, suggests how the European and American regimes are already maneuvering to avoid charges of aiding war crimes:
Human rights observers and the media have recorded numerous examples of massacres and organized torture, perpetrated by the government, opposition, and the Islamic State group.
In other words, the opposition fighters we've supported are no worse than the Syrian government.

Mass Graves in Aleppo Fuel Suspicion of So-Called 'Moderate Opposition' in Syria
13:00 - 27.12.2016 (updated 13:28)
Sputnik
The information the Russian military is making public about Aleppo should change the attitudes of Washington and its European allies, military expert Andrey Koshkin told Sputnik.

In an interview with Sputnik, military expert Andrey Koshkin suggested that the information on Aleppo which was disclosed by the Russian military may change attitudes toward the so-called moderate Syrian opposition in Washington and among its European allies.

The interview came after Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that mass graves of torture victims have been uncovered in liberated Aleppo in northern Syria.

"Mass burial sites of many dozens [of Syrians] have been found; they had been subjected to brutal torture and [then] murdered. In many cases, body parts are missing; most victims had been shot in the head. And this [discovery], it seems, is only the beginning," according to Konashenkov.

He said that the instances are being recorded as serious war crimes and will be given maximum publicity "so that European backers of the so-called opposition in London and Paris are well aware of who their [friends] actually are."

Konashenkov further revealed that militants from the "moderate opposition" in eastern Aleppo had booby-trapped nearly everything with explosives before leaving the city, including toys, streets, entrances to premises, cars and motorcycles.
Commenting on this, Andrey Koshkin said that the US and European countries should review their stance on the moderate Syrian opposition after the publication by Russia of information related to Aleppo.

"After the liberation of Aleppo from militants, unbiased information on the matter has witnessed demand, even in the West," Koshkin said. He cited the current efforts of "many journalists" to disclose the details of the making of fake videos and information. These were targeted at justifying the actions of Syria's moderate opposition and terrorist organizations, as well as discredit Russia's activity in Syria.

"It was an information and political trap, with both Geneva and the information space repeatedly generating the idea of a 'moderate opposition'. Actually, it was a line aimed at supporting militants," he added.

Konashenkov, meanwhile, added that seven large ammunition depots, enough to arm several infantry battalions, had also been discovered in Aleppo.

On December 22, Syrian government forces assumed full control of Aleppo as the last convoy with militants left the embattled city. Syrian government forces have been fighting multiple opposition and terrorist groups, including Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front. The Syrian civil war has been ongoing since 2011.

[END REPORT]

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Monday, December 26

Increasing numbers of young Iranian Muslims celebrating Christmas


Santa Claus' Trip to Iran: Christian Holiday in the Muslim Country
18:41 26.12.2016
Sputnik

As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, you might be surprised to learn that the holiday season is also observed in Iran, a predominantly Muslim nation where Christians make up less than 1% of the country's population.

Christianity however has a long history in Iran, dating back to the early years of the faith. It has been practiced in the country longer than the state religion, Islam. According to the country's statistics, today there are at least 600 churches for 300,000 – 370,000 Christians in Iran, most of whom are Armenians who are followers of the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity.

Assyrians, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians make up the remainder of Iran's Christian population.

Some Iranian Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 and New Years' on January 1, while Armenians celebrate Christmas at the same time as the Epiphany on January 6.

Christmas trees decorated with red, green and gold gift boxes placed behind shop windows or at the entrances of different shopping malls and hotels can be seen, especially in the Christian neighborhoods of Tehran.

​Decorated trees, along with Nativity scenes of the Virgin Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, can also be seen.

The festive mood, however, is not just limited to the Christian neighborhoods of Tehran, as some shops, especially those in the northern parts of the city, dedicate at least a part of their shop windows to decorations such as candy canes, snow globes and Santa Claus figures.

​Unlike other countries in the region where public celebration of Christmas is limited to hotels frequented by foreigners, there is no such restriction in Tehran. The sale of Christmas ornaments, which during the first years of the Islamic Revolution was limited to Christian districts, can now be seen around town.

Over the past decade, celebrating Christmas has become increasingly popular among young Iranians, regardless of their religion. The trend has some religious basis, as Muslims acknowledge the birth of Jesus Christ and recognize him as one of God's holy messengers.

Christmas in Iran is popularly known by the name of "Little Feast." The festival is preceded by "Little Fast," or 25 days of fasting from animal products. The ritual is observed mainly by the Assyrians from December 1, and requires abstaining from meat, eggs and even dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Plenty of meat is cooked up for the Little Feast celebrations though. The main dish for Christmas Day is a kind of chicken barley stew, popularly known as "Harrissa," which is cooked in large quantities and is stored and eaten for several days.

This year, shoppers lined up for selfies with one of several Santas stationed outside stores on the main drag in Tehran, making Iran an oasis of peace in a region beset by war.

[END REPORT]

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"Laila O Laila"

See how many types of musical instruments and styles you can spot in Rostam Mirlashari's 2013 version of this old Iranian love song for the Coke Studio Pakistan television series.  

Coke (yes, Coca-Cola) Studio Pakistan (which inspired an Indian version and one in MENA) has been facilitating a musical revolution that reminds me of the incredibly syncretic music called mbalax that arose in Senegal in the early 1970s. The roots are different in the present revolution but once musicians from widely different traditions from around the world start jamming together it's amazing what they can produce. 
[T]he program focuses on a fusion of the diverse musical influences in Pakistan, including eastern classical, folk, qawwali [Sufi], bhangra ... and contemporary hip hop, rock and pop music. The show provides a platform for renowned as well as upcoming and less mainstream artists, of various genres, regions and languages [in Pakistan], to collaborate musically in live studio recording sessions. [Wikipedia]
One note about the Irish fiddling music that finds its way into Laila O Laila. If, as some research suggests, the Celts originally hailed from the Indian subcontinent stretching into the Middle East, one might say that the fiddle solo for the song is the closing of a large musical circle.

Rostam Mirlashari's own musical history reflects a syncretic influence. From Wikipedia:
Mirlashari grew up in Sistan-Baluchistan, a province of Iran, and was inspired by his parents who were both singers. He studied civil engineering, worked in the building industry, and was a director of a construction company in Minab
In 1991, the political situation and fear for his life in Balochistan convinced him to leave Iran and move to Sweden. In 1994 he established a band made up of a mix of musicians from Balochistan, Sweden, Africa and a few European countries. He called the band Golbang (pronounced Gol-bāng).
He is an active musician and considers himself to be a member of both Swedish culture and the Baloch one.  Mirlashari also studied at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm
According to Pakistan Idol, he is known as "the prince of Balochi music."
Laila O Laila - YouTube. Click on the "CC" (subtitles/closed captions) button on the YouTube screen for English translation of the lyrics.

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"Assad visits Christian villages in Damascus on Christmas"

By Leith Fadel
December 25, 2016
AMN

                  

BEIRUT, LEBANON (4:05 P.M.) - Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with his wife and children visited the historical Christian village of Saydnaya in rural Damascus on Sunday in order to commemorate the Christmas holiday.

Assad and his family greeted hundreds of churchgoers outside a monastery in Saydnaya, offering warm wishes on this Christian holiday. [see website for photo]

Last year, the Assad family traveled to the liberated town of Ma'aloula to celebrate Christmas, marking their annual holiday visit with the Christians of Syria.

[END REPORT]

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Christians across Syria celebrate Christmas



25 December, 2016
SANA

(Damascus) Christian denominations in Syria celebrated on Sunday Christmas and held masses and prayers in churches.

In St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Damascus, a mass was held headed by Mar Ignatius Aphrem II Karim, Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church with the participation of Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Church of Damascus.

Patriarch Aphrem delivered the Christmas sermon in which he congratulated the Syrians on Aleppo’s liberation from terrorism, considering that “this joy is marred by the absence of the bishops of Aleppo John Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, hoping and praying that they will return soon.”

“We are celebrating Christmas in a time when beloved Syria is suffering from war, destruction, killing and displacement due to terrorist groups,” he added.

“Terrorist groups would not have been able to commit all these crimes and sabotage without complicity of some neighboring countries and international powers which supported, funded and armed these groups under the pretext of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights,” Patriarch Aphrem said.

A huge mass was also held in the National Evangelical Church of Damascus headed by Rev. Peter Zaaour.

In Daraa, the Christian denominations celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ the messenger of love and peace and held masses and prayers.

In Izraa city, celebrations were held in Mar Elias Church and the Church choir’s children recited hymns.

In Khabab town, the locals of the town lit a 14-meter-long Christmas tree and a nativity scene of 45 square meters.

In Hasaka province, the Christmas sermons highlighted the values of love, tolerance and peace that Jesus Christ brought to humanity.

In Lattakia, prayers and masses were held on this occasion in all the province’s churches, stressing on the need to adhere to these values in times of wars and destruction.


[END REPORT]

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Sunday, December 25

Two brothers build a Christmas Nativity from rubble of a cathedral in Aleppo

AFP video report on the project
at St. Elias Cathedral


The Nativity was completed in time for Christmas Eve Mass, the first conducted at the cathedral in four years. This video shows the Nativity and part of the Mass    


St. Elias Cathedral in pre-war days 


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The Christmas Tree Miracle, and a Frenchman plays Santa in Aleppo

Christmas tree lighting last week in Azizieh Square, Aleppo, the first time it's been lit since 2012  
"People are actually going out onto the streets more often and are gathering together near the Christmas tree. That is surprising because a bomb was placed underneath it and there was a blast. The bomb exploded on the pavement without damaging anything. "


Photo: YouTube/Hadi Joban

Remember Pierre Le Corf, the outspoken young Frenchman who's been living and working in western Aleppo for the better part of a year? Well, he decided to play Santa.   


Christmas in Aleppo: French NGO Arranges Presents for Syrian Children (PHOTOS)
17:26 - 24.12.2016
Sputnik

Pierre Le Corf, founder of the NGO “WeAreSuperheroes” is the only Frenchman who has been living in the west of Aleppo for several months. He spoke with Sputnik in an interview about how Aleppo is preparing to celebrate Christmas and showed 1200 gifts intended for children


“There is a bit of everything. For example, board games, toy cars for kids, superman figures with candy inside. There are balls, dolls and small gears for soap bubbles. All these little dolls are for girls, so are the skipping ropes, machines for soap bubbles, etc.,” Le Corf said.

He further said that together with his team they worked to collect different gifts not only for Christmas but also to make contact with people, especially with children.

Inside each small plastic bag containing the gifts there is a postcard attached. The postcards are in Arabic but there is an English version too. the card reads:

"It’s a beautiful day and soon a new year full of promises, Inshallah, of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction.
Remember that you’re stronger than this war through hope and imagination. Every day is a new day full of lessons, sometimes hard but it makes you stronger. You are a superhero in your own way, because you are who you are, a unique person with your own story, experiences and impact on people around you. These last years were difficult in Aleppo, some of you have lost their dreams, their trust, their self-confidence, family members or friends … but never give up, never stop believing in yourself, never stop being who you really are and whatever happens, don’t forget to live, to smile. It’s not always easy, for sure, but we believe in you.
Merry Christmas and we love you.” 
Le Corf told Sputnik that everyone is involved in the program in their own way. People are actually going out onto the streets more often and are gathering together near the Christmas trees.

According to the founder that is surprising because a bomb was placed underneath it [the tree in Azizieh Square] and there was a blast.   


“The bomb exploded on the pavement without damaging anything so the war still goes on, it is not yet over. People came out onto the streets with some family members going to the park. It is strange to see so many people on the street, whereas before people were afraid to go out at a certain time due to missile attacks,” Le Corf said.
It's a blessing that people can almost feel secure, knowing that all is not quite over but people are really happy. There is a feeling that a new life is beginning, a new page is opening.
The founder of the NGO recalling his stay in Aleppo said that the churches are located next to the mosques and there is no difference between people.

“There is no difference between the people from the eastern part either. For some it is more difficult to ‘accept’ life in the west because naturally they are discovering a new life. I have met with many of those who are now living on the streets and they are celebrating with them. I mean if you are Christian or Muslim — there is no difference between people. I was really surprised by that because even in France that is not so.”



Talking about the general outlook of the Syrian people, the strongest message would be that they do not hold evil against anyone. “In recent months, in recent years there has been a lot of anger because every day people are getting shot by the terrorists, people are dying, children and families.

“Now people are ready to turn over the page because they know that they are all together in this liberation,” Le Corf said. [1]  


Syrian government forces have been fighting against multiple opposition and terrorist groups, including Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front. The Syrian civil war has been ongoing since 2011 and has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displacing millions of people.

[END REPORT]

(1) His observation comports with ones from an expat Syrian radio show host in an interview with the BBC, published December 21:
In the meeting room after her show is off air, Sama tugs at her hair, buzzing with the emotions that have come down the phone lines [from Syria] into the studio.
"Did you hear the audience?" she asks me. "I mean they all want to forgive -- it's just stunning!"
She shakes her head in disbelief. "You know, I would have a problem forgiving you if you slapped me or if you took my cup of tea. Yet these people inside Syria who suffered bombings and missiles and death -- they say we must forgive. The Syrian people are really amazing."
*******



Christmas services held in churches across Syria

(SANA)

25 December, 2016
SANA

(Provinces) Christmas mass was held at St. Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo city, presided upon by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All East John X Yazigi.

In his Christmas sermon, Patriarch Yazigi said that no words can describe the feelings brimming in the hearts in these days which witnessed the great victory of Aleppo and its salvation from terrorism, saluting the people of Aleppo for their steadfastness and their commitment to their land.

Yazigi prayed to God to preserve President Bashar al-Assad, to grant the Syrian Arab Army victory, and to bless the entirety of Syria with peace and security, and he also prayed for the return of the abducted bishops Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim who were abducted by terrorists in Aleppo countryside in 2013.

Christmas mass was also held at the Malkite Greek Cayholic Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady in Damascus, presided upon by Archbishop Joseph Absi.

During the mass, Absi said that peace is looming in the horizon, and that Syria will become once more a paradise, affirming that reconciliation is the only way for Syria to return to security, happiness, and prosperity.

In Sweida province, Christmas services and masses were held in several churches including the Bosra, Horan, and Jabal al-Arab Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Jesus the King Church, the Good Shepherd Church, and the churches of Shahba, Ora, and al-Qarya.

In the same context, the tallest Christmas tree in the southern area was lit in front of Unwanak resort in Sweida.

Meanwhile in Hasaka city, the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral held services at the Virgin Mary Church, which includes Christmas hymns, lighting a Christmas tree, and inaugurating a nativity scene.

Aleppo

[END REPORT]

My sympathy for the Russian people's loss, condolences for victims' families

       (Wikipedia)                              

No report of survivors among the 92 people aboard the plane. The  tragedy is especially poignant because 64 of the passengers were members of Russia's great Alexandrov Ensemble choir and orchestra; it reminds me of the plane crash in 1961 that killed the entire U.S. figure skating team.

Sputnik, which is updating its report as developments come available, mentions that the weather during the flight was good, that the plane went through routine maintenance in September and the pilot was "experienced." And this:
Elizaveta Glinka, famous Russian charity leader was reportedly among the passengers of the crashed aircraft, delivering medication for a university hospital in Latakia, Syria.
Her charity fund, "Fair Help", provides material support and medical aid to those who need it. Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, or Dr. Lisa, as she is known in Russia and Ukraine, is a doctor who gives hope to those who have lost it. She is also a blogger and a charity activist. [Photo: RIA Novosti. Kirill Kallinikov]



Russian military plane crashes in Black Sea near Sochi
December 25, 2016 - 5:30am ET [updated]
BBC

A Russian military plane with 92 people on board has crashed into the Black Sea, Russia's defence ministry says.

The plane disappeared from radar two minutes after taking off from the resort of Sochi at 05:25 (02:25 GMT). Debris and several bodies have been found, with no reports of survivors.

The defence ministry said the Tu-154 was carrying soldiers, 64 members of the famed Alexandrov military music ensemble, and nine reporters.

It was flying to Latakia in Syria.

The flight originated in Moscow and had landed at Adler airport in Sochi for refuelling.

The defence ministry said in a statement: "Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5km (one mile) from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70m (165-230ft)."

An audio recording played on Russian media and said to be of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the plane reveals no sign of any difficulties being faced by the crew.

Voices remain calm until the plane disappears and the controllers try in vain to re-establish contact.

Reports from the area said flying conditions were favourable.

President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state commission to look into the crash and sent his condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

The defence ministry has published a passenger list (in Russian), showing that 64 of those on board were from the Alexandrov Ensemble, including its director, Valery Khalilov.

There were nine journalists, eight soldiers, two civil servants and eight crew members.

Also on board was Elizaveta Glinka, known as Dr Liza, the executive director of the Fair Aid charity and the inaugural winner of Russia's state prize for achievements in human rights.

Mr Konashenkov said the plane was carrying passengers to a New Year's performance for Russian troops deployed in Syria.

The performance was scheduled to take place at Russia's Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.

[...]

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