US Hostage Fate Uncertain Amid Increasing Anti-ISIS Strikes

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Published Saturday, February 8, 2014

Coalition warplanes allegedly pounded a stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group in Syria Saturday amid uncertainty over the fate of a US hostage the jihadists claim was killed in an earlier raid.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), meanwhile, said it would station a squadron of F-16 warplanes in Jordan to support it in strikes against ISIS, which published last week a video showing captured Jordanian pilot being burned to death.

The parents of American Kayla Jean Mueller said they were "hopeful" she was still alive, after ISIS said she had been buried under rubble following a strike by a Jordanian warplane on their self-proclaimed capital Raqqa.

Jordan — still reeling from the brutal murder of pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh — rejected the jihadists' claim that its warplanes killed Mueller, calling it an "old and sick trick" to deter coalition strikes.

ISIS said none of its fighters was wounded in the raid, and it did not publish any pictures of her body.

The United States said there was no proof that the 26-year-old aid worker from Arizona had been killed.

Mueller's parents appealed to her captors to contact them and for her safe return, in a statement carried by NBC News.

"This news leaves us concerned, yet, we are still hopeful that Kayla is alive. We have sent you a private message and ask that you respond to us privately," said Carl and Marsha Mueller.

An activist in Raqqa who asked not to be identified said unconfirmed reports indicate Mueller had been moved recently from a women's prison in the city to an ISIS camp farther east.

The camp "has recently been the target of intense coalition raids," he said. "At the moment, we cannot confirm whether she was killed in the raids."

US authorities have never given figures on the number of Americans kidnapped in Syria, sticking to a policy of complete silence.

Mueller travelled to the Syrian-Turkish border in 2012 to help refugees fleeing the civil war and was captured in Aleppo after leaving a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital.

Meanwhile, a coalition statement claimed it had carried out a total of 11 airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and 15 in Iraq during a 24-hour period up to Saturday morning.

It claimed one airstrike struck multiple ISIS weapons storage facilities in the Raqqa area.

The so-called anti-ISIS campaign has cost the Iraqi government more than $260 million, and the total cost of operations related to ISIS in Iraq and Syria reached $1.3 billion as of January 9. The average daily cost of US-led anti-ISIS coalition efforts is $8.3 million according to the Department of Defense’s website, or more than $330,000 an hour.

Critics opposing US-led anti-ISIS campaign have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering rebels in Syria and Libya. Moreover, neighboring countries, namely Jordan and Turkey, have been accused of turning a blind eye on jihadists’ free movement on its borders with Iraq and Syria.

UAE sending jets to Jordan

After Kasasbeh's warplane crashed in Syria in December and following his capture by ISIS, the UAE was concerned about search and rescue capabilities after the pilot was downed and withdrew from the US-led coalition's strike missions over fears for the safety of its own pilots.

However, the UAE is sending a squadron of F16 jet fighters to Jordan to conduct airstrikes against ISIS alongside Jordanian planes, an army source in Amman said.

The official Emirati news agency WAM said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, deputy head of the UAE armed forces, had ordered the deployment of the F-16s in Jordan.

"The initiative... reaffirms the UAE's unwavering and constant solidarity with Jordan and its leading role and immense sacrifices for the security and stability of the region as embodied by martyr and hero Moaz al-Kasasbeh," the agency reported.

UAE fighters would now join raids from inside Jordan, the source said.

"This is a big boost and will be helping our (Gulf) brothers shorten their flying distances and intensify strikes against the militants," the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

WAM added that the Gulf country had ordered a squadron of F16s to support the Jordanian armed forces in what it said was its "effective participation" in the military campaign against ISIS.

But it did not specify whether the aircraft would be carrying out airstrikes from Jordan.

A US official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the UAE would resume missions in the coalition air campaign in the next few days. The official did not provide further details.

The US military declined comment, referring queries to the UAE.

Jordan's King Abdullah has vowed to avenge pilot Kasasbeh's killing and ordered his commanders to prepare for a stepped-up military role in the US-led coalition against ISIS.

The Jordanian military has said its fighter jets have launched dozens of strikes since Thursday, and that it would provide details to journalists on Sunday about the targets it claims it has destroyed.

Two security sources close to the military speaking on condition of anonymity said the kingdom had conducted at least 60 raids over the past three days, mainly on targets in ISIS-held territory in Syria but also in Iraq.

Foreign Minister Nasser Judah told Fox News this week the air force had targeted ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

Interior Minister Hussein Majali said in remarks published Saturday that the burning alive of Kasasbeh by ISIS was a "turning point" in the kingdom's fight against extremism.

Many Jordanians however fear being dragged into a conflict that could trigger a backlash by hardline militants inside the kingdom.

Moreover, Jordanian military experts say the ability of the kingdom to sustain its airstrikes would soon come under strain given the 40 mid-life F16 jets the air force has at its disposal.

Jordan's monarch has been lobbying Washington, the kingdom's main backer to provide it with more spare parts, night vision equipment and other weapons to help it expand its operations.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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