The Latest: Haley accuses Russia of distraction on Syria

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The Latest: Haley accuses Russia of distraction on Syria
A Turkish push into Kurdish territory.

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):

1:35 a.m.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley is accusing Russia of trying to distract attention from a new initiative by 24 countries to hold those who use chemical weapons in Syria accountable by proposing that the U.N. create a new investigative body to identify perpetrators.

Haley told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that if Russia wants an independent and impartial investigation, the United States is ready to re-establish the expert body known as the Joint Implementation Mechanism, or JIM, that Moscow refused to renew in November.

She stressed that “anything less is unacceptable.”

Haley said Russia was “fine” when the JIM found the Islamic State extremist group responsible for using chemical weapons, but when its investigation pointed to the use of sarin and chlorine by President Bashar Assad’s government, a close ally, it “threw up smoke to question the findings.”

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1:25 a.m.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has called the Joint Implementation Mechanism, or JIM, “a complete failure” and “a mechanism for political manipulation.”

He circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council Tuesday to establish the United Nations Independent Mechanism of Investigation or UNIMI.

The draft, obtained by The Associated Press, said UNIMI would determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria “on the basis of credible, verified and corroborated evidence, collected in the course of on-site visits.”

The Russian proposal focuses on collecting information about “non-state actors” — including extremist groups — that may be involved in using chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere, rather than on possible use by the Assad government.

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10 p.m.

The Kremlin says the presidents of Russia and Turkey have discussed a Turkey-led operation against a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call Tuesday with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the situation in Afrin.

It said the two leaders “emphasized the importance of continuing active joint work to settle the crisis, which should be based on preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces launched an offensive on Afrin on Saturday, aiming to push back a Kurdish militia that Ankara views as a threat.

The Kremlin said Putin and Erdogan also discussed final preparations for Syria peace talks Russia is set to host in Sochi next week.

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9:40 p.m.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley says reports of the Syrian government using chlorine gas against civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus are “are yet another demonstration of its blatant disregard for international law and cruel indifference for the lives of its own people.”

She said if the reports are true the attack on eastern Ghouta “should weigh heavily” on Russia, an ally of the government which vetoed the renewal of an expert body that determined responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Haley said in a statement that “the United States will never stop fighting for the innocent Syrian children, women, and men who have become victims of their own government and those who continue to prop it up.”

She said the U.S. will continue to pursue accountability for chemical weapons attacks, including through the Security Council, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and other bodies.

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7:45 p.m.

The United Nations says an estimated 5,000 people have fled the fighting from a Turkey-led offensive on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

The U.N. said Tuesday the estimate is based on local sources because there is no displacement registration mechanism and access to Afrin is limited for humanitarian organizations.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces attacked Afrin on Saturday, aiming to push back a Kurdish militia that Ankara views as a threat because of its links the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

The U.N. says the displaced fled from areas near the border but are still inside the enclave. Authorities in Afrin have ordered the closure of exit points with surrounding areas, and are only allowing people to enter from Syrian government-held areas to the south, according to the U.N.

The U.N. estimates some 323,000 people are in Afrin and surrounding Kurdish-controlled areas, nearly half of whom already fled from other parts of Syria. Local estimates say there are 800,000 people living in Afrin.

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7:20 p.m.

Turkey’s foreign minister has announced that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump will speak Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday the two leaders would speak on the phone. “Mr. Trump wants to speak with our president,” the minister said, quoted by Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.

It was not immediately clear which issues would be addressed but Turkish-American relations have been strained.

Turkey considers Syrian Kurdish militant group YPG a terror organization and has launched a military operation into Kurdish-held Afrin in northern Syria.

The U.S. has been arming the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF in combatting the Islamic State group. YPG fighters form the backbone of the U.S.-backed SDF, despite protests by Turkey.

Cavusoglu met Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier Tuesday in Paris, according to official Anadolu news agency

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5:45 p.m.

The French government is freezing assets of companies that help furnish material to a Syrian lab accused of producing chemical weapons.

The measures target procurement networks for the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, according to a statement Tuesday from the French foreign and finance ministers. It calls the lab “the principal Syrian laboratory in charge of chemical and toxic war programs.”

The statement says that through a series of affiliated companies based in multiple countries, the purchasing networks have been furnishing materials for the manufacture of chemical weapons including sarin gas.

The U.S. and EU imposed sanctions on employees from the lab last year, though Russia and China vetoed proposed U.N. sanctions against the lab. Syria denies having or using chemical weapons.

The announcement came as France, the U.S. and several other countries announced a new mechanism aimed at identifying and punishing anyone who uses chemical weapons.

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2:20 p.m.

Turkey’s top diplomat has announced that a second Turkish soldier has been killed in action in Turkey’s military offensive on a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that 1st Lt. Oguz Kaan Usta was killed Tuesday. He said: “We will not leave the blood of our martyrs on the ground and will continue our struggle until we root out terror.”

Turkey launched the “Olive Branch” operation against the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militant group, in Afrin across the Turkish border on Saturday.

First Sgt. Musa Ozalkan, who was killed Monday, was laid to rest in Ankara on Tuesday. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials attended the ceremony. Erdogan said, “Our martyr, Musa Ozalkan, is the first martyr in our Afrin operation.”

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1:50 p.m.

Turkey’s official news agency says dozens have been detained across Turkey for alleged terror propaganda on social media regarding a military offensive into a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria.

Anadolu Agency tallies show at least 55 people were detained in police operations in multiple provinces Tuesday. They are accused of supporting a Syrian Kurdish militant group through social media posts.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG a terror group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. A military operation codenamed Olive Branch was launched last week to clear YPG from Afrin.

The local president of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party was detained in the western province of Izmir.

More than 30 people were detained Monday on similar charges, including journalists.

Prosecutors may demand that the detained be put under pre-trial arrest or release them.

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1:45 p.m.

France’s top diplomat is urging Turkey to exercise restraint in Syria, expressing concern about the violent Turkish offensive against a Kurdish enclave.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday intense fighting between Turkish troops and a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in recent days is a sign of new conflicts that could erupt in the region as the Islamic State group is defeated.

Le Drian said he told his Turkish counterpart that this offensive “worries us” and said he calls on Turkey “to show the greatest restraint.”

Le Drian urged world powers to work together toward a political solution in Syria to so that other simmering conflicts don’t explode with the retreat of IS extremists, warning those conflicts could be “just as dramatic.”

The Turkish ground and air offensive on Afrin raises tensions in the already-complicated Syrian conflict.

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1:40 p.m.

A Kurdish militia spokesman says Turkey has shelled a city in northeastern Syria as Turkish forces press into a Syrian Kurdish enclave for the fourth straight day.

Nureddine Mehmud says Turkey fired on Qamishli and other towns along the Syrian-Turkish border on Tuesday, calling it a diversion from the main campaign by Turkey and allied Syrian militia forces to invade the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, along another part of the frontier.

There were no reported casualties.

Mehmud says forces from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have held the Turkish forces from making “any real progress” in Afrin.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Monitoring group says at 24 civilians, 24 Kurdish fighters, and 25 Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen have been killed in the clashes in Afrin since Saturday.