UN vote on Syria ceasefire pushed to Saturday

After multiple delays, the United Nations Security Council has pushed its vote on a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to noon on Saturday.

The Security Council’s 15 members were unable to reach an agreement on draft text and delayed the vote three times on Friday before putting it off for yet another day.

Security Council President Mansour Al-Otaibi said members were “very close” to closing the gaps, but didn’t elaborate on the main point of disagreement.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was clear in blaming Russia for the lack of action.

“Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria. How many more people will die before the The Security Council agrees to take up this vote?” Haley tweeted.

More than 400 people have been killed since Sunday in the relentless bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, an enclave near the capital Damascus.

Around 400,000 people are in hiding as the suburb crumbles around them after being pounded with shells, mortars and bombs dropped by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces since Sunday night.

Most of the dead are women, children and the elderly, Dr. Fayez Orabi, head of the enclave’s health department, told CNN in a series of WhatsApp messages.

“It’s difficult to have a precise count because of the internet and communications are weak and the shelling and bombing are 24 hours,” Orabi said. “During writing this message to you more than 20 rockets have fell around us,” he added.

The UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also estimated that around 400 people have been killed, including 95 children and 61 women.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russia is ready to vote for a ceasefire resolution but that the United States and its allies won’t provide guarantees that militants in Syria will observe it, according to Russia’s state-run RT outlet.

“For now, they refuse to accept an amendment which will place responsibility on them to ensure that the militants give clear guarantees to stop the shelling,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

Sweden’s ambassador to the UN, Olof Skoog, said he too was frustrated by the delays but that members are working really hard to find “a meaningful but consensual resolution.”

“I am extremely frustrated with the fact that the Security Council, that we have not been able to adopt a resolution to try to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. Yes, I’m very frustrated with that,” Skoog said.

“I think we all agree that there needs to be a ceasefire,” he said. “That has to be urgent, immediately. There’s still some discussions on exactly how to define that. That’s what we’re working on.”

Human Rights Watch called for immediate action. “Other countries should send a clear message to Syria’s chief enabler, Russia, that it needs to end its efforts to block the Security Council from taking action to stop these atrocities,” said Lama Fakih, the campaign group’s deputy Middle East director.

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ISIS fighters escape from US-backed detention in Syria

A small number of ISIS detainees have “recently” escaped from detention by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, according to a US official with direct knowledge of the program. The official described the incident as involving “less than five ISIS fighters.”

The fact that escape is possible has underscored the security worries: There have been urgent and growing concerns inside the US military and intelligence community about the security arrangements for hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to several US and coalition officials.

The fate of these fighters has taken on urgency because of the sheer number of ISIS operatives being held. US officials have said there are thousands of fighters in Syrian Democratic Forces hands, the majority of them Syrian nationals. Of the detained fighters, some 500 are foreigners from 40 countries, according to one of the officials.

As more fighters are captured and the detainee population swells, officials worry that the camps are becoming new ground for ISIS to regroup and develop new networks. The official with direct knowledge pointed out that in the days of large US-held detention facilities in Iraq, such as Camp Bucca, the US failed to realize quickly enough that such networks would take shape inside detainee populations.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca in 2004, and in retrospect many experts believe the beginning of ISIS could be traced to those days.

“We don’t want to make the same mistakes,” the official said. The official also confirmed that US personnel are conducting some interrogations under strict military procedures in order not to not violate any laws. Their interrogations have resulted in valuable intelligence, the official said: Two of the fighters were associates of the ISIS killer known as Jihadi John, responsible for the brutal beheadings of several hostages, including Americans. The two men have provided intelligence on the possible location of the remains of some of the dead Americans.

The Pentagon and State Department are trying to encourage the transfer of detained foreign fighters to their home countries. But some countries appear to be resisting this on potential legal grounds, the official said. Nations of origin would be in the position of taking custody from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is not a legally recognized power or nation. The Syrian government, which is in legal control of the country, obviously is not involved in any detention efforts.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, during a recent trip to Europe, failed to secure any transfer agreements.

“I wanted to bring this problem to everyone’s attention, under no illusions about that we would solve everything in 24 hours,” Mattis told reporters while traveling.

The Pentagon is openly acknowledging the security problem.

“These aren’t necessarily the best detention facilities in the sense of they are being held in Syria and not in the most secure area. I think it would be better if we make sure they are prosecuted, if possible, in their countries of origin,” said Katie Wheelbarger, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

“There were certain days where we are seeing 40-50 a day were being captured, so a capacity problem is very real,” she said.

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Teacher walkout closes West Virginia public schools

Public schools across West Virginia are closed Thursday as teachers and other school employees hit the picket lines, demanding higher wages and better benefits.

According to Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, teachers in all of the state’s 55 counties are participating in the planned two-day walk-out, and a group will march Thursday morning to the capitol building in Charleston.

Organizers expect thousands of teachers to participate.

The work stoppage comes after Gov. Jim Justice signed legislation late Wednesday night granting teachers a 2% pay increase starting in July, followed by 1% pay increases over the next two years. But union officials have said that’s not a sufficient fix. Teachers are also requesting better healthcare and benefits packages.

“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said in a statement after signing the pay raise bill. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”

Before the bill was signed into law, Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia, said the suggested raises didn’t reflect the state’s financial situation as described by the governor.

“They say they want us to stay in West Virginia and teach our children, but the multi-year pay raise has now been reduced from 5 percent to 4 percent. I don’t believe that any of our school employees are really buying what’s being said, especially when there are personal attacks and all these things from different directions,” Campbell said in a newsletter for union members.

“We told [Gov. Justice] from day one that was not enough,” Lee told CNN on the phone from a picket line in Charleston, West Virginia, Thursday morning.

Passing cars are honking their horns in support of the teachers as they drive by the picket line, Lee told CNN.

“The support we’re getting is truly amazing,” he said.

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‘Hell on earth’: UN mulls Syria action as E. Ghouta deaths rise

UN Security Council members may vote Thursday on a temporary ceasefire for Syria’s besieged Eastern Ghouta region, a day after the United Nations’ chief deplored the plight of the civilians trapped there as “hell on earth.”

A draft resolution put forward by Sweden and Kuwait on Wednesday calls for a 30-day halt in the fighting in the rebel-held Damascus suburb, where intense shelling by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces has taken a heavy toll this week.

If agreed, the ceasefire would allow for the delivery of critical supplies and the evacuation of the wounded.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that 335 people had been killed in Eastern Ghouta since Sunday evening, with 79 children and 50 women among the dead. The bombardment has injured another 1,745 civilians, the UK-based monitoring group said.

Twenty medical facilities have been targeted by regime strikes since Monday, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, adding to the suffering of a civilian population already desperately short on food, water and drugs after years under siege.

“I am deeply saddened by the terrible suffering of the civilian population in eastern Ghouta: 400,000 people who live in hell on earth,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday.

“My appeal for all those involved is for an immediate suspension of all war activities in Eastern Ghouta, allowing for humanitarian aid to reach all those in need, allowing for the evacuation of an estimated 700 people that need urgent treatment that cannot be provided there, and creating also the possibility for other civilians to be effectively treated in the site,” he said.

“This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes, and I don’t think we can let things go on happening in this horrendous way.”

Rebel groups have also fired into Damascus in response to the bombardment, causing a number of deaths and injuries in the Syrian capital.

The regime onslaught has prompted warnings that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by the Russian military, is preparing to crush the rebel-held enclave.

Syria says it is targeting terrorist groups in the area.

Merkel: Europe must do more

The UN Security Council’s deliberations come as international outcry over the plight of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, once known as a green oasis outside Damascus, gathers force.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday said that European nations — and Syria’s backers — must do more to halt the violence.

“What we currently see, the dreadful events in Syria, a regime fighting not against terrorists, but against its own people, the killing of children, the destruction of hospitals, all this is a massacre which needs to be condemned. We clearly say no, yet it calls on us to try and play a bigger role so that we can end such a massacre,” she said.

“This call also goes for the allies of the Assad regime, especially Iran and Russia. There is a responsibility there.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has spoken to the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross and will speak later with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Merkel said.

In a statement late Wednesday condemning the Eastern Ghouta attacks, the White House singled out Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime. “Assad and his deplorable regime must stop committing additional atrocities and must not be further abetted by backers in Moscow and Tehran,” it said.

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley earlier called for “immediate action” to try to save the lives of trapped civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

“It is simply preposterous to claim that these attacks on civilians have anything to do with fighting terrorism,” Haley said. “The Security Council must move to adopt a resolution establishing a ceasefire. The United States will support it, as should every member of the Council. As the Secretary-General warned us all, ‘eastern Ghouta cannot wait.'”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May also called Wednesday for Syria and its backers, including Russia, to ensure that the violence stops and help is allowed in.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, accused the Assad regime of using the fight against terrorism as a “pretext” to target civilians and its opponents and called for a humanitarian truce to allow the evacuation of injured civilians as soon as possible.

Russia: ‘Terrorists’ are responsible for crisis

As pressure has mounted, the Kremlin has sought to lay the blame for the crisis at the door of the rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday on a regularly-held call with journalists that those who support terrorists were “responsible for the situation in Eastern Ghouta,” Russian state news agency Tass reported.

He added that neither Russia, Syria nor Iran is one of those states, Tass said, “as they are the ones leading the uncompromising on-the-ground battle against terrorists in Syria.”

The Russian military conceded Wednesday that conditions in Eastern Ghouta constituted a “critical humanitarian” situation but claimed talks to resolve the conflict had been “derailed.”

Moscow said “illegal armed formations” had ignored calls “to stop fighting and lay down their arms.” It claimed they were preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone.

Peskov dismissed claims that Russia was partly to blame for the wave of civilian deaths this week as “unsubstantiated accusations.”

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Students across US face punishment for anti-gun walkouts

Students around the United States are walking out of class to demand tougher gun laws in response to last week’s deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, but some schools are threatening them with harsh punishments.

The Needville Independent School District in Texas issued a warning Tuesday that anyone who participated in a walkout or other political protest would be suspended for three days.

“Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative. We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty, or five hundred students involved. All will be suspended for 3 days and parent notes will not alleviate the discipline,” Superintendent Curtis Rhodes said in a statement posted on the Needville High School Facebook page.

Rhodes said the Houston-area district would not tolerate any protests or demonstrations during school hours.

“A school is a place to learn and grow educationally, emotionally and morally. A disruption of the school will not be tolerated,” he said.

The letter was posted on the same day that a 14-year-old was arrested at Needville Junior High School and charged with making a terroristic threat.

Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have been active in the week since the shooting — holding rallies, being interviewed by national media and organizing a bus trip to the Florida State Capitol to meet with lawmakers.

Students at other schools in Florida and across the United States have held rallies to show support.

A school district in Waukesha, Wisconsin, sent a letter to parents telling them that the school district is not involved in a walkout that is scheduled for March 14 and that teachers and students would not be excused if they participate.

“Participation in a walkout is disruptive and against school regulations, and will subject students to disciplinary measures,” Superintendent Todd Gray said in the letter.

In a follow-up statement on Wednesday, Gray said the the original letter was designed to let parents know that the walkout next month was planned by an outside group with no connection to the school.

“At no time have we said students cannot make a statement peacefully while staying in school,” Gray said, adding that he had not gotten requests to participate from any students or student groups.

“We acknowledge that individuals have a right to demonstrate to support a cause. Therefore, if parents wish to excuse their children from school to attend such an event or demonstration, that is their right,” he said.

Are you participating in student walkouts? Share your photos on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #yesCNN and tell us why you’re marching.

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Parkland cadet victims to receive JROTC Heroism Medals

The three JROTC cadets who lost their lives in last week’s Parkland school shootings will receive the Medal of Heroism from the U.S. Army.

Cadet Peter Wang, Cadet Alaina Petty and Cadet Martin Duque were all student members of the JROTC at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Wang has been credited with opening a classroom door to allow students escaping gunfire to seek shelter inside. A petition was created to encourage the armed forces to honor Wang with a military funeral.

Wang will be buried Tuesday in his JROTC uniform.

While Petty received her Heroism Medal during her funeral Monday, Duque will be awarded his medal at his Saturday service.

The Medal of Heroism is a military decoration awarded by the Department of the Army to a JRTOC Cadet who performs an act of heroism. “The achievement must be an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding that it clearly sets the individual apart from fellow students or from other persons in similar circumstances. The performance must have involved the acceptance of danger and extraordinary responsibilities, exemplifying praiseworthy fortitude and courage.”


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