Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land. Palestinians and foreigners began converging on the "little town" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank from early morning, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity. Tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born, with Ola, a Nigerian visitor, saying it was a "special day." Outside in the winter sun, hundreds watched as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums. "I feel really emotional to be here today, it s wonderful," said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning. He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend. Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel s separation barrier. The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus. Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said. "We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago," Patton told AFP at the time. Tough Christmas in Gaza In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city. But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of the some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land. The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits. Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope. "The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection," he told AFP. "Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people."
Russia and Turkey have exchanged accusations over each other s involvement in the Libyan conflict amid calls by the Tripoli-based, UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for backing against the operations of General Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA). Russia has expressed concern over the deployment of Turkish troops in Libya, and the Tripoli government has called for the support of the United States, Britain, Italy and Belgium in its operations against the LNA.
Egypt s interior ministry said it has intensified security measures nationwide ahead of Christmas and New Year Eve. Security directorates deployed security in main streets, axes and squares, and around vital institutions and houses of worship, to maintain security and respond promptly and decisively to those who attempt to disturb celebrations, read a statement. The plans include boosting the security presence and deploying security checkpoints to monitor conditions, and providing rapid deployment forces in vital areas. The ministry also deployed inspection forces and secret services units, and female police to help in inspection and security operations. Coptic Egyptians, who make up 90 percent of all Christians in the country, celebrate Christmas on 7 January. Egypt is also home to a number of other denominations which observe Christmas on 25 December. Over the past years, terrorist attacks targeting churches during religious holiday seasons have left dozens of Christians killed and injured.
Dar al-Iftaa s Observatory of Takfiri Fatwas and Extremist Views in a statement warned of a mobile app called Because Communication Matters (BCM), used by sympathizers of ISIS. The observatory reported that ISIS launched the BCM app to promote its ideology. This new application appeared days after the success of the largest e-campaign against the organization since 2015, leading to the closure of about 26,000 accounts and platforms across social media websites.
Egypt has departed the list of top 10 countries affected by terrorism this year in the 2019 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) – which measures the impact of terrorism and is devised by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). Last year, Egypt ranked among the top 10 in the report. Egypt had the third largest total fall in deaths and one of the largest percentage decreases, with deaths from terrorism falling 90 percent in a single year. This fall in deaths came as the result of reduced activity from the Islamic State s Sinai Province group, following extensive military operations by the Egyptian government.
Russia s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will discuss Ankara s offer to provide military support to Libya s internationally recognised government during talks in Turkey next month, the Kremlin said on Tuesday. On Saturday, Turkey sent a bilateral accord with the Tripoli government to its parliament for approval, in a move that brings it closer to potentially sending military aid for the government of Fayez al-Serraj.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Tear gas engulfed central Beirut as security forces chased protesters near Lebanon s parliament on Sunday in a second night of street clashes that wounded dozens of people. Protesters had returned despite a fierce crackdown by security forces the night before when clashes also injured dozens. It marked the most violent unrest in the capital in a historic wave of protests that has swept Lebanon since Oct. 17 and pushed Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister. The protests erupted from anger at a political elite that has overseen decades of corruption and steered the country toward its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. “We will not leave. They are the ones who looted the country. They are the ones who got us here. We want our rights,” said Nadine Farhat, 31, a lawyer protesting on Sunday. Riot police and security forces, deploying again in large numbers, unleashed water cannons at hundreds of demonstrators who remained on the streets. The Lebanese Civil Defense said it had treated 46 people for injuries and taken 14 others to hospital. The clashes rocked a commercial district of Beirut for hours late into the night, and army soldiers closed off some roads. Lebanon s Internal Security Forces said they fired tear gas after demonstrators pelted them with fireworks and stones, injuring some officers. On Twitter, the ISF called on people to leave the streets. Crowds of men and women ran for cover chanting “revolution, revolution!” as white smoke streaming out of tear gas canisters encircled them. Some hurled the canisters back at riot police standing nearby in body armor. “They attacked us in a barbaric way, as if we re not protesting for their sake, their children,” said a protester, Omar Abyad, 25, a nurse who has been unemployed since he graduated two years ago. Abyad said he rallied on Sunday in part against Hariri s potential return as prime minister, calling him one of the same faces who have long ruled the country. Lebanon s main parties have fueded over forming a new government, and Hariri is expected to be named prime minister again at formal consultations on Monday. But political rifts look set to hinder agreement on the next cabinet, which the country badly needs to ward off an even worse crisis. Foreign donors say they will only help after there is a cabinet in place that can enact reforms. Lebanon s economic woes, long in the making, have come to a head: Pressure has piled on the pegged Lebanese pound. A hard currency crunch has left many importers unable to bring in goods, forcing up prices. And banks have restricted dollar withdrawals. “There s no work, no wages, no money, nothing,” Abyad said. “I am in the streets and I have nothing to lose.”
CAIRO (AP) — Just two days after rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter declared a “final” and decisive battle for the capital Tripoli, heavy fighting raged for a 24-hour period between his troops and militias loosely allied with the internationally backed government based in the city, officials said Saturday. The fighting came after Hifter, the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army, said Thursday that the “zero hour” of his battle for Tripoli had begun, nearly eight months after he began an offensive to take the city from the country s Government of National accord supported by the UN. The LNA s media office shared images of reinforcements arriving in Tripoli, including ground troops and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and of clashes in southern parts of the city. Hifter s forces took control of the town of al-Tawghaar, just south of Tripoli, the LNA said. But Tripoli-based forces disputed that claim. The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into another bout of violence rivaling the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In the chaos that followed Gadhafi s death, the country was divided into two parts — a weak UN-supported administration in Tripoli and a rival government in the east aligned with the LNA. The LNA s media office said it shot down a Turkish-made drone over the town of Ain Zara south of the capital. Hifter forces captured a major military camp from the Tripoli-allied militias and clashes continued around the camp, officials from both sides said. The LNA also launched airstrikes overnight against an air base at the Air Force Academy in the city of Misrata, targeting military warehouses allegedly housing Turkish-made drones used by Tripoli-allied militias, said LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari. Misrata, in western Libya, is the country s second largest city and is home to fierce militias who oppose Hifter and have been extremely important in the government s defense of Tripoli. There was heavy fighting elsewhere around Tripoli in the new push by Hifter s forces and officials on both sides said the latest offensive has been more intense than Hifter s other offensives over the past eight months. Since his troops marched toward Tripoli in April, Hifter has only been able to lay siege to the city, failing to claim it from the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. In past months, battle lines have barely changed, with both sides dug in and shelling each other in the southern capital s reaches. Both sides have also sought support from regional and international backers. UN experts said in a 376-page report to the UN Security Council this week that Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are supporting Libya s warring sides and have “routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, with little effort to disguise the source” in violation of a UN arms embargo. Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, France and Russia. The Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy. Libyan and US officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key Libyan battleground areas in recent months. While Moscow has repeatedly denied any role in the fighting in Libya, the Government of National Accord said it has documented between 600 and 800 Russian fighters in Libya fighting with Hifter forces. “The Russian fighters toughness, lethal techniques and coordination discipline have instilled fear in the anti-Hifter forces,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “Now, Hifter and all foreign states backing him have become dramatically more confident that Hifter s brigades will enter Tripoli within the foreseeable future.” The UN experts report also said the presence of Chadian and Sudanese fighters in Libya “has become more marked” in 2019 and said they represent “a direct threat” to the country s security and stability. Hifter s declaration of his most recent offensive came after the signing of a security arrangement and maritime deal between Sarraj s government and Turkey last month. The maritime deal would give Turkey access to a Mediterranean Sea economic zone offshore from Libya. Cyprus, Egypt and Greece claim the accord violates international law. The deal has also added tension to Turkey s ongoing dispute with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over oil and gas drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
ANKARA (Reuters) – Former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, once a close ally to President Tayyip Erdogan, applied on Thursday to establish a breakaway political party which could erode support for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party. Davutoglu, 60, served as prime minister from 2014 to 2016, before falling out with Erdogan. Earlier this year, he slammed the president and the AK Party s (AKP) economic management, and accused them of curbing basic liberties and free speech. A source close to Davutoglu said the former premier applied to the Interior Ministry on Thursday to form his new party and that he will formally announce it at a news conference in Ankara on Friday. It will be called Future Party, the source said. “He will announce his party s principles and give information about the founding members,” the source said. “The new party will breathe new life into politics”. Davutoglu announced his resignation from the Islamist-rooted AKP in September, saying it was no longer able to solve Turkey s problems and no longer allowed internal debate. His resignation came two months after former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan resigned from the AKP, citing “deep differences”. Earlier this year Turkey s main opposition party handed stinging defeats to Erdogan s AK Party in mayoral elections, taking control of the capital Ankara and Istanbul, the country s commercial hub, after more than two decades. Babacan, will also announce his own rival political party within weeks, a source close to Babacan said. “Efforts to form the party are in the last stages. The final changes are being made to the texts, the party s founders are nearly complete,” the source said. In his first televised interview since resigning from the AKP, Babacan said last month that Turkey was in a “dark tunnel” and warned of the dangers of “one-man rule”.
BAGHDAD (AP) — The Christmas tree in the middle of a central Baghdad plaza occupied by anti-government protesters is bare, save for portraits of those killed under fire from security forces. A tribute, the demonstrators explained, to a recent decision by Iraq s Christians to call off seasonal festivities to honor the losses. Leaders of Iraq s Christians unanimously cancelled Christmas-related celebrations in solidarity with the protest movement — but the aims of their stance go deeper than tinsel and fairy lights. Slogans of a united Iraq free of sectarianism resonate deeply within the community, which since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein has fearfully observed its diminishing influence amid growing Shia-dominated politics shaping state affairs. Christians have also left Iraq in huge numbers over the years after being targeted by militant Sunni groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. On a recent visit to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, said he was moved. “Now there you feel you are Iraqi,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “A new Iraq is being born.” The protests erupted in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia southern provinces on Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran s influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces and unidentified assailants firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations. “Morally and spiritually we cannot celebrate in such an atmosphere of tension … it s not normal to celebrate our joy and happiness while others are dying. That doesn t work,” said Sako. Chaldeans are the predominant Christian denomination in the country. He called on the government and parliament to listen to the demands of the protesters and to find suitable solutions through dialogue. “The military solution is bad,” he said. Under the order of the church, holiday celebrations will be limited to prayers, and money budgeted for expensive street decorations and festivities for the community will be donated to funds supporting wounded protesters, Sako said. Christmas decorations were forbidden within the fine interiors of Baghdad s Chaldean Patriarchate. “We will have no other celebration, we cannot make a big feast when our country is a in a critical situation,” he added. But Iraq s Christians support the leaderless protest movement for other reasons, said church officials. Falling demographics capture their existential anxieties, explained Sako. Christians numbered around 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion 16 years ago, roughly 6% of the population. Today the Christian population is believed to be less than a third of that figure, though accurate estimates are hard to come by given the lack of census data in Iraq. During the onslaught by the Islamic State group in 2014, Christians were forcibly displaced and fled fearing persecution from the extremists. Those who returned found their homes destroyed and their communities forever changed. “We have suffered a lot,” Sako said. “Since the collapse of the old regime many have been killed, others kidnapped, others threatened and left, and many homes and properties of Christians have been occupied by militias.” “So the protesters are telling them (the government) we look for justice and stability and to be equal citizens. We ask for the same justice for ourselves,” he said. Iraq s particular brand of sectarian governance — called the “muhasasa” in Arabic — entitles political elites to govern based on consensus and informal agreements. But it has had the effect of empowering Shia-majority parties over other sects. “The main thing we have suffered from the sectarian system is marginalization,” said Albert Elias, 50, a Christian civil activist known in Tahrir Square for his book stall where he hands out Bibles for free. “The politicians come and tell us we are qualified and loyal, but then no one gives us positions in the government so we can have a say,” he said. “We see that in reality we mean nothing to them.” In Tahrir Square, he sees a model of his ideal Iraq. Young students sometimes stop by and ask him questions about his faith, leading to impromptu lessons. “Did you know Christians were the first Iraqis?” he said to one unsuspecting youth on a crisp December day. In under 30 minutes Elias recounted seven centuries worth of history, from St. Thomas the Apostle s bringing of Christian teachings to what is now modern Iraq through to the Arab Islamic conquests. But the spirit of the uprising, and the risks associated with protesting in the square, transcends religious affiliation, said Elias. “We are all suffering the same thing. We share with them the risk. We are here and we don t know when someone will attack us with knives.” Mysterious attacks perpetrated by unknown assailants have recently spurred paranoia and fear in the square. On Friday, 25 people, including three policemen were killed when gunmen fired live rounds from cars in Khilani Square, which is close to Tahrir Square. The day before, several stabbing incidents occurred as demonstrators supporting political parties and Iran-backed militias withdrew from the square. Protesters largely blame Iran-backed militias for the violence. In Baghdad s Karada neighborhood, once a religiously mixed area and now predominately Shia, trees covered in fake frost and stuffed Santas are still on display. But shoppers are more conservative in their choice of purchases compared to previous years, said Hakmat Dawood. “We should not celebrate while the bloodshed continues,” he said. Outside the mall stood a Christmas tree, wrapped in Iraq s national flag.
BEIRUT (AP) — Angry residents attacked the municipality headquarters in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Tuesday, smashing windows and setting a room on fire, an outburst of violence that came after a house collapsed overnight in the area, killing two siblings. A large military force was sent to the site to deal with the violence. It was not immediately clear what had caused the house to collapse. The two killed were a 19-year-old woman and her older brother, according to local media. Tripoli has witnessed some of the largest protests since nationwide demonstrations broke out on Oct. 17 against widespread corruption and mismanagement. The protesters have since transitioned to demand an end to the rule of the political elite that has run the country following the 1975-90 civil war. Residents told the local LBC TV station that the collapse was the result of negligence, saying that the municipality has repeatedly ignored calls by the owners to renovate the old house. Their claims could not be immediately confirmed. Lebanon s state-run National News Agency said that the angry residents damaged the office of the mayor as well as a municipality car that was parked outside the building. It added that the army later intervened and prevented further violence. The violence came a day after Lebanese soldiers had to separate protesters and the bodyguards of a Lebanese lawmaker after scuffles broke near his house in Tripoli.
CAIRO (AP) — Over 110 Yemeni children were killed between January and October in the key port city of Hodeida and a southwestern province, an international charity said on Monday. Save the Children said in a report that 56 children were killed and 170 wounded as a direct result of fighting in Hodeida, despite a cease-fire there between Yemen s internationally recognized government and the Huthi rebels that was brokered by the U.N. last December in Sweden. “The Stockholm Agreement brought a glimmer of hope to civilians in the area, but the fighting is far from over,” said Mariam Aldogani, Save the Children s field manager for Hodeida. The city serves as a main passageway for aid and a lifeline for Huthi-controlled areas. The charity said it was forced to close some of its children s centers in Hodeida for three months this year due to security fears as a result of shelling by the warring parties. The U.N.-brokered deal, which also included a prisoner swap, has prevented massive humanitarian suffering in Yemen but has yet to be fully implemented. Another 57 children were killed in the province of Taiz in the first ten months of this year, more than double the toll in 2018 when 28 children were killed, the charity said. The fighting also wounded 49 children in Taiz. “Every day we receive wounded children in Save the Children-supported hospitals needing our care. In 2019, our team has given medical care to more than 500 children who have been caught up in this conflict, some with life-threatening injuries,” Aldogani said. She said that in once instance, Save the Children simultaneously treated six wounded children from two families, some of whom had broken legs and shrapnel wounds across their bodies. “I cannot forget the youngest girl, just three years old, with burns all over her hands” she said. “We need to stop this war on children,” she added. The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iranian-backed Huthi rebels who control much of the country s north. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the internationally recognized government has been fighting the Huthis since March 2015. In the relentless campaign, Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Huthis have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia. The war has killed over 100,000 people and created the world s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical shortages. In Sanaa, the Huthis began Monday the trail of at least ten journalists who have been detained for more than four years over accusations of collaborating with the Saudi-led coalition, lawyer Abdel-Majid Sabra said. Sabra said the journalists were allegedly tortured, beaten and mistreated at the hands of the Houthi guards, and have been denied medical care since their detention in 2015. Nine of the ten were detained at the same time in June that year, when Huthi fighters raided a Sanaa hotel where the journalists had gathered because it offered electricity and internet access. The tenth were detained two months later, also in the capital. The Committee to Protect Journalists has repeatedly called for their release, along with other journalists detained by the Huthis. “The Huthis have demonstrated their brutality by holding at least 10 journalists in what by all accounts are deplorable conditions for nearly four years,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in May. The war in Yemen has taken a toll on journalists and media outlets, which have suffered from airstrikes, arson attacks, arbitrary detentions, and other press freedom violations by both sides.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Anti-government protesters wielding a blood-drenched flag returned to Baghdad s central plaza on Saturday after a night of bloody attacks that left 25 people dead and more than 130 wounded. Storm clouds gathered over Khilani Square as the protesters surveyed the blackened facade of a parking garage that had served as their de facto command post before unknown assailants torched it Friday night. Buildings surrounding the square were pockmarked with bullet holes. One demonstrator collected as many as a dozen spent cartridges. The attack, which took place in darkness moments after the power was cut, marked a major escalation in assaults against protesters that have been taking place in recent weeks. It was among the deadliest since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran s influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations. Friday s attacks also came hours after Washington slapped sanctions on the leader of Asaib al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed militia accused of being behind deadly sniping attacks on protesters. The US Treasury sanctioned leader Qais al-Khazali, his brother Laith al-Khazali, a commander in the group, and Husain Falih Aziz al-Lami. Demonstrators feared the attacks would be followed by armed street fighting and more violence that would undermine the peaceful tone of their mass rallies. “Everyone is terrified,” said Noor, a protester who provided only her first name for fear of reprisal. “We don t want this to become a street war. That is why we are trying to stay peaceful. But day after day we find that we are alone.” Anti-government activists blame the attacks on Iran-backed militias, which have staged similar assaults against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country s southern cities. On Thursday, the militias attempted to hold their own demonstration in the square to counter anti-government protesters, many of whom were attacked with knives by unknown assailants. They later withdrew. Two Iraqi officials, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, said it was widely suspected that militiamen were involved in Friday night s attacks. Members of the Popular Mobilization Units, an official umbrella organization comprising an array of militia groups, have said the attacks during the protests have been aimed at infiltrators of the anti-government movement who were looking to cause disturbances. Falah Fayadh, chairman of the paramilitary PMUs, the program that oversees an array of Shia militia groups, directed the PMU forces to stay away from squares occupied by protesters, according to an internal statement issued Saturday and seen by The Associated Press. Those who disobeyed the order would be fired, Fayadh said in the statement. Protesters said the government s failure to protect them at the height of the hostilities on Friday forced them to rely on a militia linked to influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also the leader of the Sairoon bloc, which holds the most seats in Parliament. Al-Sadr has supported the protests by sending Saraya Salam (Peace Brigades), a militia group under his control, to block roads and prevent anti-protest gunmen from entering during Friday s clashes. Iraqi officials said they believed al-Sadr would use his popularity on the street as political leverage in talks over the selection of a new premier. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned last week in response to the protests. Abdul-Mahdi s ascension to prime minister was the result of an uneasy alliance between the Sairoon bloc and parliament s other main bloc, the Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri. Even protesters who are wary of al-Sadr s politics — they consider him part of the establishment they are protesting — said the presence of Saraya Salam members, who were unarmed, was key to their safety. “I wish the … army had come and fought for us so that other people don t feel that Sadr is protecting the protesters — because they are also a militia at the end of the day,” Noor said. For Iraqi officials inside the fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq s government, the presence of al-Sadr s militia on the street serves only to reinforce perceptions that the majority of anti-government protesters are in fact supporters of al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, meanwhile, said his home in the holy city of Najaf was hit by a drone strike on Saturday. He did not elaborate. Nassar al-Rubaie, head of Sairoon s political committee, decried the attack in televised remarks and called for an emergency parliamentary session to discuss the violence in Khilani Square. Friday s attacks had many protesters on edge. Mohamed, a protester who only provided his first name for fear of reprisal, said when he arrived at the square Friday night after receiving a call from distressed protesters, he saw groups of masked men wielding knives near the protesters command post at the parking garage. Twenty minutes later, he said, four white pickup trucks arrived from the direction of Abdul-Qadir Gilani mosque, adjacent to Khilani square, without license plates and car rying armed men wearing ski masks. “They fired at us, and we ran,” he said, noting that the electricity went off moments before. The armed men positioned themselves on the top floor of the parking garage and started shooting at the demonstrators below, said Mohamed, whose version of events was corroborated by a half-dozen other protesters. The shooting lasted for at least three hours, he said. The attacks claimed the lives of 22 protesters and three policemen, officials said. Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square early Saturday. Some protesters accused the government of colluding with the masked gunmen, pointing to the power outage that happened around the same time as the attacks. But a senior Electricity Ministry official, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, denied the allegation. The official said it would have been easy for anyone to cut the power lines.
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Officials in Libya s U.N.-supported government say they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside their opponents in the country s civil war. Libyan and U.S. officials accuse Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in the past months. They say the Russian fighters are backing commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli. The U.N.-supported Government of National Accord is based in Tripoli. The GNA has documented between 600 to 800 Russian fighters in Libya and is collecting their names in a list to present to the Russian government, according to Khaled al-Meshri, the head of the Tripoli-based government s Supreme Council of State. “We are going to visit Russia after we collect all evidence and present to the authorities and see what they say,” al-Meshri told The Associated Press last week. He did not say when that visit would take place. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya s fighting. Haftar s self-styled Libyan National Army — made up of army units, ultraconservative Salafists, and tribesmen — launched its offensive on Tripoli in April after seizing much of eastern Libya from Islamic militants and other rivals in recent years. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, while the Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy. Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias. Fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli s southern reaches. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters last week that the State Department is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Tripoli. “The way that this organization of Russians in particular has operated before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,” he said. Schenker s comments came shortly after U.S. officials met with Haftar to press for a cease-fire and “expressed serious concern” over Russia s intervention in the conflict. But President Donald Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages to Haftar. Trump voiced support of Haftar when he launched his attempt to take over Tripoli, praising the commanders “anti-terrorism” efforts in a phone conversation. The call was a sharp break with the U.S. policy of supporting Libya s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. Haftar s offensive dealt a blow to U.N. efforts to bring warring parties together. Al-Meshri called for confidence-building measures and a push toward presidential and parliamentary elections. “Since Gadhafi s ouster, there have been no presidential elections. People are fed up,” he said. The Russians presence has further mired an already complex conflict. Al-Meshri maintains his administration has strong evidence that there are Russians fighters on the ground. He says that government forces have found cell phones, intercepted communications and seized personal belongings left behind in the chaos of battle. He said flight data show dates and names of Russians moving from Syria to Egypt and then the Jordanian capital of Amman before flying to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Haftar s seat of power. He didn t elaborate or present any of these documents or items to the AP. Wagner Group is believed to have sent mercenaries to multiple conflicts, including Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, raising accusations that Moscow is using it to spread its influence. The firm is a military contractor run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Russian officials have refused in the past to comment on the firm s activities. By deploying fighters into Libya, Russia is embroiling itself in another conflict in the Middle East. Russia s military is involved in Syria s civil war, conducting airstrikes and deploying troops and military police. That operation successfully shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad s government and — at a relatively modest cost — helped Moscow expand its clout in the region. Analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to find leverage with Western powers in oil-rich Libya. They say he also recognizes that the country is a gateway for many migrants trying to reach European shores. “Most of this is smoke and mirrors designed to induce fear,” said Anas Gamati, founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute. “Russian influence has done only two things: inflate their size and specter of their power in Libya. They re not positively engaged or trying to play a constructive role with diplomatic or political value.” Officially, Russia continues to maintain a dialogue with both sides. Haftar has visited Moscow several times the past years, and al-Meshri was part of a GNA delegation that met with Putin during a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in March. The allegations of Russian interference come amid a renewed push for international players to reach a consensus on Libya. Germany is working with the United Nations to host a conference on Libya by early 2020. Observers hope that international players could exert enough pressure to stop the fighting. But others worry that Haftar s appetite for territory and power might prove too large. Former GNA defense minister Mahdi al-Barghathi, who left in the government in July, says the only way toward peace is for Haftar to be left with no powerful friends, and no other options. Otherwise, al-Barghathi said Haftar will be set to become another Gadhafi. “We don t want to go back to square one,” he said. As long as international powers remain divided, Libya s conflict risks continuing to play out as the world s latest proxy war, some observers warn. “Putin would like nothing more than to keep Europe busy and divided over Libya, scared of illegal immigration, paralyzed by right-wing populism that threatens the very idea of the EU,” said Mohammed Eljareh, an analyst who runs Libya Outlook, a consulting company on Libyan affairs. “All of this is music to Putin s ears,” he said. Reporting by Maggie Michael; Associated Press writers Matt Lee in Washington, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Isabel DeBre in Cairo contributed to this report.
The committee on the legalization of churches at its Wednesday meeting approved legalizing the status of 87 churches and affiliated buildings, bringing the number legalized since the committee began work a year-and-a-half ago to 1,322 churches and buildings, Prime Minister Spokesperson Nader Saad announced. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly chaired the Wednesday meeting in the presence of ministers of justice, parliamentary affairs, local development, housing, and representatives of the concerned authorities and Christian communities.
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) — A U.S. charity building a tent hospital in the Gaza Strip is causing Palestinian unease by offering foreign medical volunteers the opportunity of weekend tourism in Israel, just across the volatile border. The facility, to be operated by the U.S. evangelical Christian group FriendShips, had won rare joint support from Gaza s Islamist rulers Hamas and their enemy, Israel, which maintains a blockade along its frontier with the enclave. Now, however, eyebrows are being raised in Gaza over a Holy Land pilgrimage pitch on the Louisiana-based organization s website that is promoting an endeavor to improve health services strained by years of conflict. The 50-bed encampment in northern Gaza across from Israel s Erez border crossing “will offer a wonderful opportunity to work in an important and productive project and, at the same time, to see and enjoy the Biblical sites of Israel”, the website said. Volunteers at the facility would be expected to work and live onsite Monday through Thursday but they “will be free to go to Israel and tour” on their days off, it said. Asked about the NGO s tourism perk to volunteers, Hamas official Basim Naeem said: “We are certainly against using our people s suffering to market Israel or attracting employees at our people s expense.” There was no suggestion from Hamas that it was about to scrap the project as a result of the sightseeing offer. A de facto truce brokered between Israel and Hamas by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations after deadly cross-border fighting in May included the mediators support for the field hospital. Gaza s 13 hospitals often lack equipment for specialized treatments, while its two million residents need hard-to-obtain permits from Israeli authorities to get medical care in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The FriendShips encampment will have “telemedicine for worldwide consultation with specialists” and eventually offer cancer treatment and PTSD therapy, among other services, the NGO s website says. “It will either be an uplifting humanitarian tool for our people, or it will be asked to leave immediately,” senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya said. FriendShips, which previously operated a tent hospital along Israel s border with Syria, did not respond to multiple requests for comment and it was not clear when the facility would open. Israel declined to comment on the project. It keeps Gaza under a blockade, citing security concerns posed by Hamas, with which it has fought three wars and waged dozens of other deadly skirmishes over the past decade. But the hospital s construction with private U.S. funding drew criticism from Hamas s rivals in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. “It will be an American-Israeli military base put forward on the land of Gaza Strip,” said Mai Alkaila, the PA s health minister.
BEIRUT (AP) — An airstrike on a market in a rebel-held town in the country s northwestern province of Idlib Monday killed at least 10 civilians and wounded others, Syrian opposition activists said. The airstrike comes amid an increase of violence in Idlib province, the country s last opposition stronghold where fighting between troops and insurgents killed dozens of gunmen on both sides over the weekend. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Monday morning airstrike on the market in Maaret al-Numan killed 10 and wounded others. The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, that covers rebel-held areas in northern Syria also said 10 civilians were killed and dozens were wounded. The opposition s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said nine civilians, including two women, were killed while 13, including two children, were wounded. The group said the death toll is not final yet. “The bombardment of the market that was packed with civilians led to a massacre and wide destruction,” the Civil Defense said on its Facebook page that also posted photos of its paramedic removing bodies from the market. A beheaded man laid in a pool of blood in the market. The Observatory and the Civil Defense reported another airstrike on the nearby town of Saraqeb saying it killed and wounded several people. Syrian troops launched a four-month offensive earlier this year against Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The Syrian government offensive forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. A fragile cease-fire halted the advance at the end of August, but in recent weeks it has been repeatedly violated.
Three people were killed and four others injured on Sunday when the western wall of an ancient church at the Monastery of Saint Fana of the Mallawi Diocese in Upper Egypt s Minya gonernorate, the Coptic Orthodox Church has announced. Investigations are underway to unveil the reasons behind the tragic incident, the church statement said. The church expressed deepest condolences to the families of the martyrs and prayed for the injured to have a speedy recovery. The Ministry of Antiquities also expressed "deep sorrow over the incident and heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and the injured."
BAGHDAD (AP) — Security forces in Iraq shot dead 27 anti-government protesters in a 24-hour period, amid spiraling violence in the capital and the country s south, as Iran condemned the burning of its consulate. Security forces Thursday fired live ammunition, killing four protesters and wounding 22 on the strategic Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad, security and medical officials said. Violence across southern Iraq continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 23 protesters and wounding 165 since Wednesday evening. Protesters closed roads and police and military forces were deployed across key oil-rich provinces. In Baghdad, protesters attempted to cross the Ahrar Bridge leading nearby to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq s government. Protesters are occupying parts of three bridges – Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar – all leading to the fortified area. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Protesters had set fire to the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf late Wednesday, in one of the worst attacks targeting Iranian interests in the country since the anti-government protests erupted two months ago. The Iranian staff were not harmed and escaped out the back door. Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt and has also decried Iran s growing influence in Iraqi state affairs. At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities. Separately, the U.S. Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraq s media regulator to suspend nine television channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. Thursday s statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists. Local channel Dijla TV had its license suspended Tuesday for its coverage of the protests, and its office was closed and equipment confiscated, according an official from one of the channels under threat. Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge “agreeing to adhere to its rules,” said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for Tuesday s coordinated bombings in three Baghdad neighborhoods, which killed five people. That was the first apparent coordinated attack since anti-government protests began. The bombings took place far from Baghdad s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of weeks of anti-government protests that have posed the biggest security challenge to Iraq since the defeat of IS. Tehran called for a “responsible, strong and effective” response to the incident from Iraq s government, said Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, in statements to Iran s official IRNA news agency. Iraq s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by “people outside of the genuine protesters,” in a statement, adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries. One demonstrator was killed and 35 wounded when police fired live ammunition to try to prevent them from entering the consulate building. Once inside, the demonstrators removed the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations. A curfew was imposed in Najaf after the consulate was burned. Security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions Thursday morning. The province is the headquarters of the country s Shia religious authority headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani has been largely supportive of protester demands, siding with them by repeatedly calling on political parties to implement serious reforms to placate demonstrators. The consulate attack comes after days of sit-ins and road closures with protesters cutting access to main thoroughfares and bridges with burning tires. Protesters have also lately targeted the state s economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields. In the oil-rich province of Nassiriya, 23 protesters were killed overnight and 165 wounded by security forces who fired live ammunition to disperse them from a key bridge, security and medical officials said Thursday. Demonstrators had been blocking Nasr Bridge leading to the city center for several days. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. By Thursday afternoon, special forces were transferred from neighboring Najaf and Diwanieh provinces to Nassiriya to contain the violence, security officials said. In Basra, security forces were deployed in the city s main roads to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins, with instructions to arrest demonstrators if they tried to block roads. Basra s streets were open as of Thursday morning, but roads leading to the two main Gulf commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair remained closed. Schools and official public institutions were also closed. Protesters had brought traffic in the oil-rich province to a halt for days by burning tires and barricading roads.
BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of people were injured in overnight confrontations between supporters and opponents of Lebanon s president, most of them in fistfights and stone throwing that erupted in cities and towns across the country, the Lebanese Red Cross said on Wednesday. The nationwide uprising against the country s ruling elite has remained overwhelmingly peaceful since it began on Oct. 17. But as the political deadlock for forming a new government drags on, tempers are rising. President Michel Aoun has yet to hold consultations with parliamentary blocs on choosing a new prime minister after the government resigned a month ago. Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was Aoun s and Hezbollah s favorite candidate to lead a new Cabinet, withdrew his candidacy for the premiership, saying he hoped to clear the way for a solution to the political impasse after over 40 days of protests. Protesters have resorted to road closures and other tactics in an effort to pressure politicians into responding to their demands for a new government. The prolonged deadlock is awakening sectarian and political rivalries, with scuffles breaking out in areas that were deadly frontlines during the country s 1975-90 civil war. The violence first began on Sunday night after supporters of the main two Shia groups, the militant Hezbollah and Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, attacked protesters on Beirut s Ring Road. That thoroughfare had in the past connected predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the city s west with Christian areas in the east. Some of the most intense clashes occurred Tuesday night between the Shia suburb of Chiyah and the adjacent Christian area of Ein Rummaneh, where stones were hurled between supporters of Hezbollah and rival groups supporting the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. A shooting in Ein Rummaneh in April 1975 triggered the 15-year civil war that killed nearly 150,000 people. Also on Tuesday night, supporters and opponents of Aoun engaged in fistfights and stone throwing in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon s second largest, injuring 24 people; seven were taken to the hospital. In the mountain town of Bikfaya, 10 people were injured including five who were hospitalized after scuffles and stone throwing between Aoun s supports and supporters of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalange Party, according to the Red Cross paramedic group. The violence broke out after a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying Aoun supporters drove into the town, which has been historically a Phalange stronghold. “What happened yesterday was a mobile strife that intentionally tried to provoke our people,” said Phalange leader, legislator Samy Gemayel. “We warn our people that there are attempts to attack their revolution, which should remain peaceful.” Hezbollah and Amal supporters also attacked protesters in the northeastern city of Baalbek and the southern port city of Tyre. Police and troops deployed in the areas of clashes and got the situation under control hours after the violence broke out. Hariri had resigned on Oct. 29 in response to the mass protests ignited by new taxes and a severe financial crisis. His resignation met a key demand of the protesters but plunged the country into uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its economic and political problems. Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians. For weeks, the Lebanese security forces have taken pains to protect anti-government protesters, in stark contrast to Iraq, where police have killed more than 340 people over the past month in a bloody response to similar protests.
Iraqi officials said one anti-government protester has been killed by security forces on Tuesday and 21 others wounded amid ongoing clashes with security forces in Baghdad. Security and hospital officials said the protester died when he was struck with a rubber bullet fired by security forces on Rasheed Street near the strategic Ahrar Bridge. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Protesters are occupying part of three key bridges _ Jumhuriya, Ahrar and Sinak _ in a standoff with security forces. At least 17 protesters have died in renewed clashes, which kicked off last Thursday. The historic Rasheed Street, known for its crumbling architecture, has been a flashpoint in the recent violent escalations. Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets to repel protesters from scaling a barricade. Over 350 people have died and thousands more wounded since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and scarcity of jobs. The leaderless uprising seeks to dismantle the post-2003 political system.
Dr. Magid Ezzat Israel
The city of Bethlehem in Palestine has a distinguished location among all parts of the world, although it does not have many natural properties that lead to a great city. Yet, it has received great attention from Christians, geographers, historians, archeologists, mainly because it is the birthplace of Christ. Nature and geography of the place: The city of Bethlehem is located in the southern part of the Hebron M