AMMAN, JORDAN - Aid workers say escalating violence near the border between Turkey and Syria is making it hard to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of people in need. At least 1,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Iraq in search of safety from Turkey's bombardment and Syrian-allied troops on the ground.
As fighting intensifies in northeastern Syria between the Turkish military and Syrian militant troops against Kurds and Syriac Christians, humanitarian organizations are scrambling to get assistance to hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crosshairs.
Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council describes conditions of those fleeing escalating violence.
"The situation for many of the people is utter chaos. Fear gripping the entire area, not knowing what is going to happen next," Schembri said. "Where the next attacks will be. A lot of the displacement happening, the latest figures speak of around 200,000 people on the run because of the fighting. There have been displacement camps that have closed down with people evacuated to other areas, which are hopefully safer."
But Schembri and other aid workers say rapidly shifting battle lines also make it very difficult to reach those in need. Schembri explains the dilemma humanitarians are facing.
"Besides the fighting itself, it’s also the fact that many of the agencies cannot continue right now because it is so dangerous," Schembri said. "And that itself is putting lives in danger because there are at least 100,000 previous displaced due to the previous fighting in the Syrian crisis, who were completely dependent on humanitarian aid. So, they depend on aid agencies for water, food, medical aid, and shelter. Most of these services have been suspended because of the uncertainty and lack of safety for aid workers. So, every day that passes without these aid services resuming is putting lives at risk in itself, not to mention the fighting that has already killed civilians."
Some Syrians are fleeing into neighboring northern Iraq in search of safety. The United Nations refugee agency has reported that 1,000 Syrians have crossed the border.
Father Emanuel Youkhana, a Catholic priest, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, which is helping Iraqis displaced by Islamic State attacks in the Dohuk area, says he expects many more Syrian refugees to come. His staff is helping them when they arrive.
"But of course, they will increase," Youkhana said. "The staff has met them on the border of Fishkhabour and they are set up now in the camps."
Due to the deteriorating security situation in northeastern Syria, nearly all foreign aid workers have had to evacuate the area. Local staff also fear reprisals by the Turkish-led forces.
ISLAMABAD - As Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections on Saturday, the Taliban is again threatening to disrupt the polling, while the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has urged the insurgents to refrain from attacking civilians exercising their democratic right.
“The Islamic Emirate (a name used by the Taliban) directs its Mujahideen to prevent this process throughout the country by making use of everything at their disposal and activate their plans for its neutralization,” a Taliban statement read.
The statement said Afghans should stay home or risk being harmed in an attack.
Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, met with some members of the Taliban on Tuesday in Doha, where they maintain an unofficial political office, to discuss the issue of election-related violence.
“He highlighted that attacks directed against polling centers and civilians participating in the electoral process are clear violations of international law and may amount to war crimes. He furthermore stressed that perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable and urged the Taliban to retract any instructions which could disrupt elections,” a UNAMA statement issued Wednesday said.
The militant group has already claimed several attacks on election-related activity, including one in Parwan province that killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 50 others during a rally for incumbent President Ashraf Ghani.
In a separate statement issued Thursday, UNAMA reiterated its “deep concern” over the high number of civilian casualties.
“The disregard for civilian life exhibited by parties to the conflict in recent days, especially in indiscriminate attacks, is appalling,” said Yamamoto.
A recent Taliban-claimed attack on an Afghan intelligence agency’s building in Zabul province almost completely destroyed a nearby hospital and killed 25 civilians.
UNAMA also said two separate airstrikes against militant targets by the United States caused a high number of civilian casualties. One airstrike took place September 19 in Nangarhar, while the other occurred in Helmand September 22.
“In Nangarhar, UNAMA’s preliminary findings indicate that the airstrikes killed at least 16 civilians and injured 12 others. In Helmand, United States and Afghan forces conducted a ground operation, supported by U.S. airstrikes, with preliminary findings indicating that at least 20 civilians were killed and injured, mainly women and children,” according to the UNAMA statement.
A U.S. military official said earlier this week that U.S. and Afghan security forces were conducting an operation against al-Qaida terrorists in the town of Musa Qala in Helmand when heavy gunfire broke out. Officials say the incident is under investigation.
A recent BBC investigation found that an average of 74 civilians were killed daily in Afghanistan during the month of August.
“We confirmed 611 security incidents in which 2,307 people died,” a BBC report said.
This Saturday marks the fourth presidential election in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Close to 10 million registered voters, 30 percent of them women, will choose from a list of 18 candidates, although three of them have unofficially dropped out.
The winning candidate needs to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote. If none of the candidates gets that, the election goes to a second round in which only the two leading candidates participate. Most observers believe the current election has a high probability of going to a second round.
To deal with Taliban and other threats, including from the Islamic State terror group, around 72,000 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will be responsible for securing almost 5,000 polling centers across Afghanistan. Another 20,000 to 30,000 more will act as reserve forces, ready to be deployed to any part of the country that needs reinforcements.
News reports also say authorities have banned trucks from the streets of the capital, Kabul, to prevent suicide bombings.
NASSAU, BAHAMAS - A tropical cyclone was forecast to move across the northwestern Bahamas in the coming days, potentially bringing more rain and wind to islands already devastated by Hurricane Dorian, the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned on Thursday.
The Miami-based hurricane center issued a tropical storm warning for islands including hurricane-hit Abacos and Grand Bahama, saying the system could become a tropical depression or storm before making landfall as early as Friday.
Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas on Sept. 1 as a
Category 5 storm, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record to hit land, packing top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (298 km per hour).
The tropical cyclone was not expected to bring anywhere near that level of devastation, but was capable of winds of 30 miles per hour and 2 to 4 inches of rain through Sunday, according to the hurricane center.
Aid groups rushed shelter material to residents living in the shells of former homes or whose homes had been stripped of their roofs.
"We're seeing plastic tarps go out all over the islands, and that's extremely important because now you've got another tropical storm coming," said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs for U.S. relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
The prime minister of the Bahamas, Hubert Minnis, on Wednesday said the official death toll was 50 but was expected to rise.
Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said he believed "hundreds" were dead on Abaco "and significant numbers on Grand Bahama," the Nassau Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday.
Minnis said there were problems coordinating aid due to the level of devastation and he was trying to remove "bureaucratic roadblocks."
Tent cities for newly homeless
With 1,300 people still missing, according to the Bahamian government, relief services are focused on search and rescue as well as providing life-sustaining food, water, and shelter.
Officials have erected large tents in Nassau to house those made homeless by Dorian and plan to erect tent cities on Abaco capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people.
A flood of aid has caused bottlenecks at docks and airports, creating "a lot of delays" in relief supplies, said Nat Abu-Bonsrah of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, the global humanitarian organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Due to a shortage of functioning vehicles and facilities on Grand Bahama, the group turned to church members to lend their cars and kitchens for its program providing hot meals to over 400 people a day in Freeport.
“We’ve not been able to reach them as much as we want," he said of efforts to get hundreds of hygiene kits to survivors.
Groups like Samaritan's Purse, with their own aircraft or logistics chains, said they had not encountered issues with coordination or government red tape.
"I think we're accomplishing our mission, any roadblocks we have right now are our own," said Dennis Clancey, a field operations manager for relief group Team Rubicon, which has deployed mobile medical units to treat patients.
Bahamian authorities say the official death toll from Hurricane Dorian has risen to 50 in the country, but hundreds more, perhaps thousands are believed missing from the devastation left by last week's storm.
Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, in the northern part of the Bahamas archipelago, were virtually flattened by the Category 5 hurricane with winds of up to 320 kilometers an hour. Thousands of survivors have been forced to head to New Providence island, the country's most populous, which includes the capital, Nassau.
"We anticipate the discovery of more deceased persons, as the process of search and recovery progresses," police commissioner Anthony Ferguson said. Police have appealed to the public to file reports of missing persons.
The United Nations' International Organization for Migration said the devastation was "particularly startling" in places like Marsh Harbor in the Abacos, where Hatian migrants lived in shantytowns.
"Communities such as The Mudd and Pigeon Pea, where 70 percent of informal housing in Abaco existed, and where an overwhelming majority of Haitian migrants resided, has been decimated," the migration agency said.
The World Food Program said 90% of the housing and infrastructure is damaged or destroyed on Abaco, with thousands of houses leveled, telecommunications towers down and roads blocked.
Thousands of survivors of the hurricane are pouring off boats and planes in Nassau. Some could be seen sitting in hotel lobbies pondering their next steps, while others were transported to already crowded shelters or moved in with friends on New Providence.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday his administration is discussing the possibility of granting Bahamian residents temporary protected status, a short-term permission to reside in the United States.
Trump told reporters at the White House that "we're talking to a lot of different people" about the issue. However, he said the U.S. would need to make sure immigrants from the Bahamas are properly documented.
"We have to be very careful ... I don't want to allow people that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come in to the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members," he said.
Senators from the state of Florida have been asking the president to grant the status to Bahamian residents, a protection that in the past has helped people from Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras, which Trump has been trying to roll back.
Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters that the United States is expediting its immigration processes for residents of the Bahamas. However, he said immigration officials must still vet all immigrants for possible threats to national security.
When asked about an incident Sunday in which hundreds of storm survivors were prevented from boarding a ferry in the Bahamas because they lacked U.S. visas, Morgan said the situation was a mistake and the result of "some confusion." He said, "If your life is in jeopardy you will be allowed in, if you have documents or not."
The focus in the Bahamas is on rescue and recovery efforts Wednesday after the bulk of Hurricane Dorian finally moved north after flooding neighborhoods, ripping roofs off buildings and leaving thousands of people in need of aid.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said there were seven confirmed deaths from the storm, but that the number was expected to increase. He pledged, "No effort or resources will be held back," in responding to the disaster.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said flood waters on Grand Bahama and Abaco islands should start to slowly subside.
Aid efforts have been hampered by the long duration of the storm as it sat over the islands and pummeled the area with strong winds and rain, leaving the runway at Grand Bahama Airport under water.
The Red Cross said Dorian severely damaged or destroyed nearly half the homes on Grand Bahama and Abaco and that 62,000 people were in need of clean water. The United Nations said some 60,000 people need food after the storm.
Still a US threat
Dorian has weakened from its peak power, but still presents a threat to the southeastern United States.
The NHC said early Wednesday the storm still carried maximum sustained winds of 165 kilometers per hour and would move "dangerously close" to the coasts of Florida and Georgia during the day and into Wednesday night. The states of South Carolina and North Carolina are under threat for Thursday and Friday.
Even if the center of Dorian does not make landfall in those states, it is still bringing bands of heavy rains, strong winds that extend out far from the center, and high surf to shorelines. Rainfall forecasts range from seven to 25 centimeters in the coming days.
Hurricane Dorian battered Grand Bahama Island on Monday as the monster storm virtually stalled, toppling and damaging thousands of homes and sending a "life-threatening storm surge" barreling across low-lying coastal lands.
Forecasters called the storm "catastrophic" and "devastating." They predicted Dorian would continue to pound the island throughout much of the day with drenching rains, as much as 60 centimeters, and sustained winds measured at 270 kilometers an hour.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said earlier the storm was only moving west at 2 kilometers an hour, with its center currently about 200 kilometers east of the U.S. mainland in the state of Florida.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said an initial assessment by authorities and its officials showed extensive damage on Grand Bahama and Great Abaco islands, with as many as 13,000 houses that may have been badly damaged or destroyed. Storm surges reached seven meters above normal tide levels.
The international bank UBS estimated that the storm could cause $25 billion in damage.
There were no immediate estimates of casualties in the Bahamas, although news reports said a 7-year-old boy had drowned as a result of the storm.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis broke down in tears at a news conference Sunday, calling it "the worst day of my life." He said many Bahamians had not heeded warnings to evacuate, refusing to leave their homes.
"I can only say to them that I hope this is not the last time they will hear my voice," he said.
In the United States authorities ordered more than a million evacuated from coastal regions in Florida and further north in the states of Georgia and South Carolina. Nearly 1,000 flights were canceled in Florida as the storm edged closer.
alm Beach County, Florida, home to President Donald Trump's Atlantic oceanfront resort, was among the jurisdictions ordering a partial mandatory evacuation.
"This looks like it could be larger than all of them," Trump said Sunday during a hurricane briefing in Washington at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The agency said Dorian "will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast" by Monday night and stay close to the shoreline through Wednesday night.
"Although gradual weakening is forecast," meteorologists said, "Dorian is expected to remain a powerful hurricane during the next couple of days." Forecasters are predicting the storm will eventually turn northeastward, heading up the eastern U.S. shoreline.
In the Bahamas, residents riding out the storm posted images of water rising up the side of their homes. The Bahamas Power and Light utility said there was a total blackout in New Providence, the archipelago's most populous island, even though it was not in the direct path of the hurricane's eye. The company said its office on Great Abaco was flattened.
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said, "Hurricane Dorian is the strongest storm to ever threaten the state of Florida on the east coast. No matter what path this storm takes, our state will be impacted. We will continue to work around the clock to prepare."
Authorities expect the storm to weaken some and take a turn to the north and northeast in the coming days, but how much it turns and how quickly will determine the extent of Dorian's effects on the U.S. mainland. For now, forecasters have put hurricane warnings in place for about half of Florida's east coast.