Islamic militants seize 2 northern Syrian towns

 Islamic extremists captured two key towns and several villages near Syria’s northern border with Turkey on Wednesday after pushing out rival fighters in fierce clashes, opposition groups and activists said.

The towns, located in Syria’s Aleppo province, are the latest prize for Islamic State militants who have carved out a self-styled caliphate across vast swaths of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

Activists said fighters from the group captured the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh after fierce clashes with mainstream rebels who are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The militants also took a string of nearby villages over which they had been fighting, including Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 31 rebels and eight Islamic State group fighters were killed in the clashes. The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria for its information.

The capture of Akhtarin has strategic significance as the town is “the gate to the northern countryside of Aleppo,” said a local rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Thabet.

It seems the Islamic State’s ultimate goal, he said, was to reach Marea, a town a few kilometers (miles) to the west that is considered a stronghold of the Islamic Front as well as Azaz, a town located next to the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey.

The Islamic Front is a powerful alliance of rebel groups battling against the Islamic State group.

“They launched an all-out offensive for Akhtarin on Tuesday and the clashes lasted all night,” said Abu Thabet, whose moderate Aleppo Swords brigade is affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella group.

He said the mainstream rebels, including the FSA, were in chaos — encircled in Aleppo province by Syrian government forces on one side and the Islamic State group on the other side.

The fighters from the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group control huge swaths of territory in eastern and northern Syria and are fighting rival rebels, Kurdish militias and the Syrian army for more. In neighboring Iraq they are batting Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters as well as Iraqi government troops.

The takeover of Akhtarin and surrounding Syrian villages was also reported on social media by jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Also Wednesday, the international chemical weapons watchdog said all 581 metric tons (640 tons) of Syria’s precursor chemicals for sarin gas that had been transferred to the U.S. cargo vessel MV Cape Ray have been destroyed. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the Cape Ray has now begun to neutralize the remaining Syrian chemicals on the ship — 19.8 metric tons (22 tons) of sulfur mustard.

The remaining 700 metric tons (772 tons) of chemicals removed from Syria as part of a joint OPCW-U.N. mission are being destroyed at land-based facilities in Finland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

The operation began after Syria agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons program in the wake of a deadly chemical attack outside Damascus a year ago.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad’s rule, but turned into an insurgency after government forces violently cracked down on demonstrators. It has since deteriorated into a civil war with sectarian overtones and increasingly powerful Islamic militant groups. Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in over three years of fighting, activists say.

Palestinians mull Egyptian proposal for Gaza truce

Palestinian negotiators mulled over an Egyptian proposal to end the monthlong Israel-Hamas war as the latest 72-hour cease-fire in the Gaza Strip was due to expire at midnight Wednesday.

Since the truce went into effect Sunday, Israel has halted military operations in the coastal territory and Gaza militants have stopped firing rockets.

The cease-fire was meant to give the two sides time to negotiate a more sustainable truce and a roadmap for the coastal territory.

A member of the Palestinian delegation to Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo said Wednesday that his team was considering an Egyptian proposal, which was tabled Tuesday. Egyptian mediators have been ferrying between the Palestinians and their Israeli counterparts in an attempt overcome the differences between the sides.

The Egyptian proposal calls for easing parts of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, bringing some relief to the territory, according to Palestinian officials in the talks. But it leaves the key areas of disagreement, including Hamas’ demand for a full lifting of the blockade and Israeli calls for Hamas to disarm, to later negotiations.

The Palestinian negotiator said he had some reservations about the proposal and would try to improve it.

“We would like to see more cross-border freedom, and also to have the question of a Gaza seaport and airport discussed,” he said.

The Palestinian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss negotiations with the media. An Israeli government spokesman had no comment on the negotiations.

Amid the cease-fire, an Associated Press video journalist and a freelance Palestinian translator working with him were killed Wednesday when ordnance left over from the war exploded.

Italian national Simone Camilli, 35, and Ali Shehda Abu Afash, 36, died when an unexploded missile believed to have been dropped in an Israeli airstrike blew up as Gazan police engineers worked to neutralize it in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

The war began on July 8 with Israel’s air campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whom Israel blamed for the kidnapping and murder in June of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Nine days later, Israel sent in ground troops to destroy Hamas’ underground cross-border tunnels constructed for attacks inside Israel.

The fighting has so far killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, Palestinian and U.N. officials say. On the Israeli side, 67 people have died, all but three of them soldiers.

The latest outbreak of fighting is the third between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since Hamas took over control of the densely-populated territory in 2007. Hamas has been consistently pushing for an end of an Israeli Gaza blockade, which Israel says is necessary to prevent the group from gaining access to weapons and munitions it deploys against Israelis.

Athens Olympics leave mixed legacy, 10 years later

In an obscure corner of a park sits a forlorn reminder that, 10 years ago, Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics. The crumbling miniature theater is inscribed with the words “glory, wealth, wisdom, victory, triumph, hero, labor” — and it is where visiting Olympic officials planted an olive sapling that would bear their names for posterity.

Once a symbol of pomp, the marble theater is now an emblem of pointless waste in a venture that left a mixed legacy: a brand-new subway, airport and other vital infrastructure that significantly improved everyday life in a city of 4 million, set against scores of decrepit sports venues built in a mad rush to meet deadlines — with little thought for post-Olympic use.

As Greece groans under a cruel economic depression, questions linger of whether the Athens Games were too ambitious an undertaking for a weak economy. While economists agree it would be unfair to blame the meltdown on the 17-day Games, the post-Olympic era is seen as a decade of lost opportunities — including failure to significantly boost the country’s sporting culture. It’s a lesson to which Brazil may pay heed, as it races to complete projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“We didn’t take advantage of this dynamic that we got in 2004,” said former Olympic weightlifting champion Pyrros Dimas, a Greek sporting hero turned Socialist member of Parliament. “We simply made the biggest mistake in our history: We switched off, locked up the stadiums, let them fall to pieces, and everything finished there.”

“We spent a lot of money for some projects (that) are shut and rotting,” said Dimas, who won his last Olympic medal in an Athens arena now reinvented as a lecture and conference venue. “There were projects that should have cost 2 and 3 million (euros) and suddenly became so big that they cost 13 and 14 million. There was no control.”

The latest government estimate sets the final cost of the Games at 8.5 billion euros, double the original budget but a drop in the ocean of the country’s subsequent 320 billion-euro debt, which spun out of control after 2008. Former organizing committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos has commissioned the first independent survey of the Olympics’ overall economic effect. It will aim to weigh Olympic overspend and waste against a possible boost to the crucial tourism industry — arrivals have almost doubled since 2004, from 11.7 to 20.1 million — foreign investment and employment.

“The Olympics were very important in increasing the brand awareness … of Greece,” said economist Theodore Krintas, managing director of Attica Wealth Management. “But we did, very, very limited things on a follow-up basis.”

Andrew Zimbalist, a U.S. economist who studies the financial impact of major sporting events, said past experience shows that hosting the Olympics does not generally promote economic development: “At the end of the day, the main benefit to be had seems to be a feel-good experience that the people in the host city or the host country have,” said Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. “But that’s a fleeting experience, not something that endures.

“Why couldn’t Athens have simply invested … in development and transportation and communications and infrastructure, and not hosted the Olympics?”

The cost of hosting the Olympics and ensuring a city is not left with white elephants is a key issue facing the International Olympic Committee and new president Thomas Bach. Scared off by the record $51 billion price tag associated with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, several Western European cities declining to bid or dropped out of the race for the 2022 Winter Games.

Reducing the cost and focusing on long-term sustainability is part of Bach’s “Olympic Agenda 2020,” a package of reforms that will be voted on at a special meeting in Monaco in December.

In Greece, few of the sporting venues — mostly purpose-built permanent structures — have seen regular post-Olympic use. The badminton venue is a successful concert hall, but the empty table-tennis and gymnastics stadium is up for sale, and the beach volleyball center has been rarely used and was recently looted.

Most venues are padlocked.

The seaside site of Athens’ old airport hosted half a dozen venues. Politicians have dithered for a decade over how to use the sprawling plot — meaning facilities have simply been left to rot. Lengths of large tubing lie near abandoned runways. Decommissioned jumbo jets sit near where planners once dreamed of building a water amusement park. This year, private investors won a tender to develop the entire area into a residential, commercial, hotel and leisure center, in a 7 billion-euro investment.

Greek Olympic Committee head Spyros Capralos, a senior member of the 2004 organizing committee, said the state of the sporting venues “puts our country to shame.” The former swimming champion and two-time Olympic water polo competitor blames bureaucracy and lack of foresight.

“Nobody was thinking what would happen the next day,” he said. “Many of the sports facilities were constructed just to be constructed … and nobody thought that they required a lot of money for maintenance after the Olympic Games.”

In their haste to meet implacable construction deadlines, government officials didn’t even secure proper planning permits for several venues, including the elegant crown on the main Olympic Stadium — a steel canopy by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Greece’s sports ministry says it has finally rectified the permits oversight, which until now hindered necessary repairs and maintenance, and funding has been found to conserve the roof.

Overall, Capralos insisted, the Games were a boost for Greece, mainly due to non-sports infrastructure pegged to the Games that otherwise might never have materialized.

“It saddens me that public opinion has come to believe the Athens Olympic Games were not successful,” he said. “They were very much so, both from the sports aspect and through projects that gave life to Athens — tourism has increased, there is a modern airport, roads, the metro, phones work properly and when it’s very hot the power system doesn’t collapse.”

Capralos believes the legacy of the stadiums can still be salvaged.

“Simply, someone must do whatever is needed for the venues to be taken over by the private sector — because I don’t think the state can be a very good entrepreneur or venue manager.”

10 Things to See: A week of top AP photos

Here’s your look at highlights from the weekly AP photo report, a gallery featuring a mix of front-page photography, the odd image you might have missed and lasting moments our editors think you should see.

This week’s collection includes protesters marching in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Missouri; people struggling to reach prizes during a greased-pole climbing competition in Jakarta, Indonesia; displaced Pakistani men building a mud house on the outskirts of Islamabad; and University of Tennessee coach Butch Jones getting a cooler of ice dumped on him while participating in an ice bucket challenge launched by the ALS Foundation.

Exclusive: Militants, weapons transit Gaza tunnels despite Egyptian crackdown

AL-SARSOURIYA Egypt (Reuters) – A third of the houses on the main street of this Bedouin town near Egypt’s border with Gaza look derelict, but inside they buzz with the activity of tunnel smugglers scrambling to survive a security crackdown by the Egyptian army.

Smugglers and tunnel owners, who once publicly advertised their services, have taken over the nearly two dozen single-storey concrete structures and boarded up their doors and windows to avoid the attention of the authorities.

While tunnels used by Gaza’s dominant Hamas militants to infiltrate Israel were a priority target of an Israeli offensive in the Palestinian enclave this summer, many smuggling conduits into Egypt have skirted detection.

That has allowed transports of weapons, building materials, medicine and food to continue to and from the small, coastal territory that is subject to blockade by both Israel and Egypt, tunnel operators say and Egyptian security sources acknowledge.

“During the Gaza war, business has flourished,” said a Bedouin guide who gave Reuters access to one of the tunnels and a rare look at how the illicit, lucrative industry has evolved since Egypt began trying to root out the passages in 2012.

Egypt sees a halt to the flow of weapons and fighters as important to its security, shaken in the past year by explosions and shootings by an Islamist insurgency based mainly in the Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel.

Humanitarian supplies and building materials headed in the other direction have provided a vital lifeline to the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza who have been living under the Israeli-imposed blockade since Hamas seized the enclave in 2007.

Cairo mediated talks this month between Israel and Palestinian factions led by Hamas to try to end the war in Gaza but refused to discuss easing its tight control of the Rafah border crossing as part of the deal Hamas seeks.

A 10-day ceasefire expired on Tuesday without a deal to extend it indefinitely, with Israel resuming air strikes on Gaza and Hamas and other Islamist militants their rocket salvoes into the Jewish state.

The guide who accompanied Reuters and requested anonymity estimated the total number of functional tunnels in about 10 border villages like Al-Sarsouriya at nearly 500 – down from about 1,500 before the Egyptian clamp down began.

Most of the bigger tunnels – the kind that can accommodate cars and even trucks – have been destroyed by the Egyptians, but smaller ones ranging 1-2 meters (yards) in diameter survive.

The guide said that as many as 200 new tunnels had been built in the past two years, dodging Egyptian security sweeps, with new ones coming onboard each week.

The smaller tunnels are still big enough to allow weapons, building materials and humanitarian supplies to pass under the heavily guarded land crossing.

“Each day, about 3 or 4 people cross with weapons, and each one carries about 6 or 7 guns,” the Bedouin guide said, without specifying what type of arms were being transported.

A senior Egyptian security officer confirmed that while the biggest and longest tunnels were no more, smaller ones remain operational.

“The situation is much more controlled. It’s not 100 percent but we are trying to reach this percentage,” he told Reuters. He said the army had achieved a noticeable reduction in smuggling of weapons, fuel, food and drugs over the past two years.

Egypt accuses the Islamist Hamas of supporting the Sinai insurgents, which Hamas denies. For its part, Israel has long wanted Egypt to end arms smuggling from Sinai to Gaza militants.

LUCRATIVE TUNNEL BUSINESS BEHIND SHOWER CURTAIN

A shower curtain is all that conceals the entrance ramp to the tunnel which Reuters visited. Two sheep and a cart in an adjacent room gave the impression that the house was abandoned, should security forces come searching.

The tunnel owner and his teenage son sat on cushions around a small wooden table beside the curtain. A photograph of the pair hung on the wall overlooking their cash cow.

The concrete-lined entrance to the 600-metre (0.37 miles) tunnel turns to dirt after a few steps. Posts support a wooden ceiling as deep as 10 meters (33 feet) below the surface, and energy-saving bulbs every few meters light the way.

The Egyptian owner accompanies passengers to the midpoint where a sentry checks on the security situation on the other side and then brings them to meet the Palestinian co-owner.

“This tunnel is a partnership between us,” said the Egyptian. “Building it cost us $300,000. He paid half and I paid half. The profit is split between us 50-50.”

The tunnel regularly brings the men profits of $200 a day. Shipping rates vary, starting at $12 for one-meter crates of medicine or food and topping out at $150 for weapons, building supplies or fuel.

People can pass for $50 each but the rate increases if they are armed. Most of the passengers are men, the owner said, but women and children also use the tunnels. Farm animals occasionally make the journey as well.

“If someone is passing with one or two guns, we charge $60 to $70. But if someone has more weapons, it’s a special operation and might cost as much as $1,000 or $2,000 depending on the type of weapon,” the Egyptian owner told Reuters.

He said he does not check the identification of people who pass and even allows masked men to use his tunnel if his Palestinian partner vouches for them. “As long as they give me $50, I let them through,” he said.

The owner said he also does not seek to know the affiliation or destination of militants and weapons for fear that displeased customers will use another tunnel or report him to the security forces. “I just deliver the weapons and take the money,” he said. “I’m not concerned with where they’re going.”

In Gaza, Hamas has disputed Israel’s claim that it demolished all of the militants’ infiltration tunnels during the current conflict, and granted a rare tour to a Reuters news team last week to back up its assertion.