News Briefs – March 25, 2016

Russian general says military special forces active in Syria

Russia’s special forces have helped direct air raids in Syria and Russian military advisers have played a key role in the Syrian army’s offensive, a top Russian military officer said.
Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, who commanded the Russian military in Syria, said in an interview with the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta released March 23 that special forces soldiers have conducted intelligence to pinpoint targets for Russian airstrikes in Syria. He said they also have helped direct aircraft during their missions and carried out other unspecified tasks.
Dvornikov didn’t say how many special forces soldiers have been deployed to Syria.
President Vladimir Putin last week ordered a pullout of some Russian warplanes from Syria, but said that strikes against the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front will continue. Those groups have been excluded from a Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 and has largely held.
Russian warplanes have conducted more than 9,000 missions in Syria since the air campaign began on Sept. 30, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military to reverse the tide of war and make some key advances.
Dvornikov said that the ongoing Syrian army offensive on the historic town of Palmyra will “cut the Islamic State group of forces in two and open the road to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and create conditions for reaching the border with Iraq and establishing control over it.”
He named the Syrian advances around Aleppo, taking control of some major oilfields and establishing firm control over key highways among other Damascus’ military successes.
Dvornikov said that along with air cover, Russia also provided the Syrian military with artillery systems, intelligence and communications means and other gear and deployed its military advisers to direct the Syrian operations.
“Those officers have helped Syrian colleagues in planning and conducting military action against terrorists and also helped them learn how to handle Russian weapons,” he said. AP

Navy tugboat lost for a century found off California coast

A U.S. Navy tugboat that sank nearly a century ago has been found by a team of government researchers off the San Francisco coast, officials announced March 23.
The USS Conestoga departed San Francisco Bay for Pearl Harbor in March 1921. But the boat never made it to Hawaii, and her 56-man crew was declared lost. The boat was never found, despite a search that covered hundreds of thousands of square miles and was the biggest air and sea search of its time.
Officials from the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the tug has been found about 30 miles off the coast, near the Farallon Islands.
NOAA is in the midst of a multiyear effort to map roughly 300 shipwrecks off in the waters off San Francisco. The discovery process began in 2009 when a coastal survey documented a possible shipwreck near the islands. In October 2015, a joint NOAA and Navy mission confirmed the Conestoga’s identity.
The 170-foot steel tugboat, one of the largest seagoing tugboats in the period, was launched in 1903. It was originally built to tow coal barges for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company.
The U.S. Navy purchased the Conestoga in September 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It carried out towing duties along the Atlantic coast and at the end of the war it was attached to Naval Base No. 13, Azores. After the war it was assigned to harbor tug duty at Norfolk, Virginia. It was reclassified USS Conestoga AT 54 in 1920 and after undergoing alterations, it was ordered to duty as a station ship in American Samoa, but disappeared on its way after departing San Francisco.
When the Conestoga failed to arrive in Hawaii, the Navy launched a massive search, finding only a lifeboat with the letter “C” on its bow off Manzanillo, Mexico. AP

U.S. airstrike hits al Qaeda training camp in Yemen

The U.S. military conducted an airstrike March 22 against an al Qaeda training camp in Yemen, causing dozens of casualties, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the training camp was located in the mountains, and was being used by more than 70 terrorists belonging to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Cook did not specify the location of the camp. But Yemeni security officials and a witness said the airstrike hit a former military base that had been taken over by al Qaeda militants about 75 kilometers (47 miles) west of the terror group’s stronghold city of Mukalla.
“We continue to assess the results of the operation, but our initial assessment is that dozens of AQAP fighters have been removed from the battlefield,” Cook said.
A tribal member at the site said about 40 people were killed and wounded in the Brom Maifa district March 22. He didn’t give a breakdown and said that bodies were still being counted. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety.
The Yemeni officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to reporters.
“This strike deals a blow to AQAP’s ability to use Yemen as a base for attacks that threaten U.S. persons, and it demonstrates our commitment to defeating al Qaeda and denying it safe haven,” Cook said.
Yemen has been left fragmented by war pitting Shiite Houthi rebels and military units loyal to a former president against a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized government.
The war has given AQAP a freehand to expand and seize cities and large swaths of land. Militants from the extremist Islamic State group have also taken advantage of the chaos to wage a series of deadly attacks across the country. AP

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