U.N. alleges war crimes in Eastern Ghouta fight

The United Nations said Wednesday that Syrian army and rebel forces committed war crimes as they fought over a Damascus suburb gripped by the longest siege in modern history.

Hundreds of civilians were killed earlier this year during the government’s months-long offensive to push rebel groups from Eastern Ghouta, their last foothold near the capital. The rebels surrendered in early April.

In a 23-page report released Wednesday, investigators from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry said the Syrian military campaign to seize Eastern Ghouta after five years of rebel control involved indiscriminate attacks on civilian homes, markets and hospitals, forcing a besieged and terrified civilian population underground. 

Under international law, the panel said, those attacks amounted to war crimes.

Relief organizations said at the time that more than a thousand people were killed and almost five times as many wounded. 

About 140,000 people had been displaced by the time the rebels surrendered. The capitulation was precipitated by an alleged chemical attack by government forces that killed scores.

While that incident is being examined by a global watchdog linked to the United Nations, the independent commission appears to have removed its own preliminary findings that were in a draft version of the report.

The U.N. panel also said that hard-line rebel forces had arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians in areas under their control. In the dying weeks of the military campaign, they also intensified indiscriminate reprisal attacks on densely populated areas held by the government, killing and wounding hundreds, the panel said.

— Louisa Loveluck

Warring leaders meet for 1st time since 2016

South Sudan’s warring leaders met face to face for the first time in almost two years on Wednesday amid efforts to end a five-year-old civil war, shaking hands but making no public comments.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar were expected to continue talks on Thursday in neighboring Ethiopia, which invited them for talks as pressure grows to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and created Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Machar fled South Sudan after new fighting erupted in the capital in July 2016, ending a brief attempt at peace in which he returned to his role as Kiir’s deputy. He later was put under house arrest in South Africa.

Both sides in South Sudan’s civil war have been accused of abuses against civilians.

— Associated Press

192 feared drowned as ferry sinks in lake

Distraught relatives accused Indonesia’s government of not enforcing basic safety measures on passenger boats and pleaded Wednesday for a bigger search effort for the more than 190 people presumed drowned after a ferry sank in a Sumatran lake early this week.

The wooden vessel, packed with passengers and dozens of motorbikes, did not have a manifest, and disaster officials have repeatedly changed passenger estimates as family members provided information.

The boat was five times over its passenger capacity of 43 and equipped with only 45 life jackets, Transport Minister Budi Karya Sumadi and National Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said at a news conference. The latest information is that 192 people are missing, Syaugi said. Only 18 survivors have been found.

The boat sank Monday evening less than half a mile from a popular island.

Several dozen divers were searching, Syaugi said, and an underwater drone has been deployed. He said four deaths have been confirmed.

— Associated Press

Yemeni forces claim progress in battle for Hodeida's airport: Yemeni fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates said they seized the southern runway of the international airport near Yemen's port city of Hodeida, as fighting raged between pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. The coalition launched an offensive a week ago to retake Hodeida, which handles 70 percent of impoverished Yemen's food imports. The campaign threatens to worsen the country's humanitarian crisis.

Macedonia's parliament ratifies name deal: A deal to end a decades-long dispute over whether Greece can lay sole claim to Macedonia as a place name easily passed a ratification vote in the parliament of neighboring nation Macedonia. The deal to rename the country North Macedonia has angered opposition parties and hard-liners in both Greece and Macedonia, who claim their respective leaders conceded too much in reaching the agreement.

Ukraine's Tymoshenko to run for president: Ukrainian opposition leader and political veteran Yulia Tymoshenko said she would run for president in elections due next year. "I will run for the presidency of Ukraine," she said during a question-and-answer video posted on her official Facebook page.

— From news services