JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli parliament will select a new speaker on Thursday after the Supreme Court forced the vote amid an unprecedented challenge to Israeli democracy and as the country is battling against the rapid spread of coronavirus. A new speaker from the opposition Blue and White party will deal a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he tries to cling to power while averting a looming corruption trial. Outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein resigned in protest Wednesday. A close Netanyahu ally, Edelstein had refused to comply with a high court order to convene the plenum for a vote on his successor the same day, angrily accusing the court of an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Even in stepping down, Edelstein tried to stall the vote for several days, as his resignation would take effect 48 hours later. The court responded by stripping Edelstein of his authorities even before his resignation became official, and ruled overnight that the Knesset s longest-serving member, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, can act as interim speaker for the sake of the vote. In her ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut lambasted Edelstein for his “unprecedented violation of the rule of law,” warning that it posed a dire threat to the rule of law. “Until today, we have never seen a case in state history of a ruling figure openly and brazenly defying a court order by saying his conscience wouldn t allow it,” she announced. “If this is how a person of authority behaves, why should the citizen behave otherwise?” The confrontation comes just as the government enacted new restrictions requiring Israelis to almost completely stay at home, under threat of fines. In a televised address, Netanyahu warned that if citizens didn t obey the stringent guidelines, a total lock-down would be imposed. Nearly 2,500 Israelis have been infected by the new virus, with 41 in serious condition. Six elderly Israelis with preexisting medical conditions have died and there are growing fears that Israel s medical system will eventually be overwhelmed. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or even death. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms. Netanyahu s caretaker government has passed a series of emergency executive measures to try and quell the spread of the new virus. They have included authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Netanyahu s own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges. The global pandemic erupted in Israel immediately on the heels of the country s third inconclusive election in less than a year and at the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu s opponents and supporters. It came to a boil with Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident and longtime lawmaker, who cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity. But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule. Netanyahu s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, won only the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament. Opposition leader Benny Gantz is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset and has been pushing for the country s legislature to continue functioning at such a critical time, even without a permanent government in place. Due to deep ideological divisions within the opposition, it appears unlikely that Gantz will succeed in forming an alternative government. But the bloc is unified in their opposition to Netanyahu and appear determined to cooperate to provide government oversight and pass legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from remaining in the prime minister s post. Parliament is expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz s centrist Blue and White party late Thursday as the new Knesset speaker. That would allow the bloc to proceed with planned legislation that includes a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister. With the number of coronavirus cases rising, and the tide turning against him in parliament, Netanyahu reiterated his call late Wednesday for Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government devoted to battling the virus crisis, despite the bad blood between them “I know that there is considerable unrest in all parts of the people, in both parts of the people. I say as clearly as possible: We must put an end to this,” he said. “We are one people. We are one state and the order of the day is unity.” Gantz, who has pledged outside support to government efforts to combat the virus, has thus far rebuffed Netanyahu s unity offers, deeming them insincere. His allies are concerned that Netanyahu is manipulating the crisis for his own means and will not carry out his promises to relinquish power within 18 months. But following a live televised plea from Israel s largely ceremonial President Reuven Rivlin late Wednesday, the two spoke by phone and instructed their teams to resume talks. “Find a way to present a shared leadership, a responsible leadership, for Israeli society in its time of crisis,” Rivlin appealed. “We simply do not have an alternative. Join together for the good of the Israeli people. If not now, when?”
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish prosecutors have formally charged two former aides of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and 18 other Saudi nationals over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, officials said Wednesday. A statement from the Istanbul chief prosecutor s office said it has completed its investigation into Khashoggi s grisly killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and has indicted 20 Saudi nationals. The killing drew international condemnation and cast a cloud of suspicion over Prince Mohammed. All suspects however, have left Turkey and Saudi Arabia has rejected Turkish calls for their return to face trial in Turkey. Riyadh insisted the kingdom s courts are the correct place for them to be tried and has put 11 people on trial over the killing. The Turkish indictment charges the prince s former advisers, Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Asiri, with “instigating a premeditated murder with the intent of (causing) torment through fiendish instinct,” according to a statement from Chief Prosecutor Irfan Fidan s office. The indictment also calls for life prison sentences for 18 other Saudi nationals charged with carrying out “a premeditated murder with the intent of (causing) torment through fiendish instincts.” Khashoggi, who was a resident of the U.S., had walked into his country s consulate on Oct. 2, 2018, for an appointment to pick up documents that would allow him to marry. He never walked out, and his body has not been found. A team of 15 Saudi agents had flown to Turkey to meet Khashoggi inside the consulate. They included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the crown prince s office, according to a report last year by U.N. special rapporteur Agnes Callamard. Turkish officials allege Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw. Fidan s office said the 18 suspects are accused of “acting in consensus from the beginning in line with the decision of taking the victim back to Saudi Arabia and of killing him if he did not agree.” The statement did not provide further details and it was not immediately clear if the suspects would be tried in absentia. The trial in Saudi Arabia last year concluded that the killing was not premeditated, prompting widespread criticism of a “whitewash.” Five people were sentenced to death while three other people were found guilty of covering up the crime and were sentenced to a combined 24 years in prison. Saudi authorities have said al-Qahtani was investigated and had no proven involvement in the killing, while al-Asiri was tried and released because of insufficient evidence. Turkey, a rival of Saudi Arabia, has used the killing on its soil to pressure the kingdom. It apparently had the Saudi Consulate bugged and has shared audio of the killing with the C.I.A., among others. Saudi Arabia initially offered shifting accounts about Khashoggi s disappearance. As international pressure mounted because of the Turkish leaks, the kingdom eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed by rogue officials in a brawl.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel appeared on the verge of a constitutional crisis Tuesday as top members of Benjamin Netanyahu s Likud urged their party colleague and parliament speaker to defy a Supreme Court order to hold an election for the prime minister s successor. After suspending parliamentary activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus, Yuli Edelstein on Monday dismissed the court s call to explain his delay in convening the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. It sparked an unprecedented judicial rebuttal, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut ordering him to hold a vote by Wednesday and ruling that “the continued refusal to allow the vote in the Knesset plenum on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process.” Even after that, at least two Likud Cabinet ministers, including Netanyahu s surrogate interim justice minister, called on Edelstein to defy the order, deeming it a judicial “coup” against Israel s elected officials. Cabinet Minister Yariv Levin led the charge, accusing the court of trampling the principle of separation of powers. He said it was creating “anarchy” and acting as if it “owned the country.” Netanyahu has yet to comment but others in the party, while equally lambasting the high court, called on Edelstein to respect its ruling to avoid a full fledged constitutional crisis at such a sensitive time. The developments marked the apex of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu s opponents and supporters in the wake of the country s third inconclusive election in less than a year and against the backdrop of a series of emergency executive measures enacted to quell the spread of the new virus. The opposition Blue and White party, which is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset, said the country s legislature must continue to function at such a critical time to provide oversight of the government. The party accuses Netanyahu and his caretaker government of carrying out undemocratic measures amid the crisis, and using it as cover to cling to power. With the country in near-shutdown mode, Netanyahu has already managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges and authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens. Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy. Blue and White is expected to choose a new speaker and use its parliamentary majority to push through legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future. The Knesset on Monday voted 61-0 in favor of convening the key Arrangements Committee, which is authorized to create the parliament s other decision-making committees. Later, it approved a half-dozen other temporary committees, including one devoted to the corona crisis. Netanyahu and his allies boycotted the votes to protest what they called a power play that relied on Arab members of parliament. Likud said it would take no part in the “unprecedented destructiveness.” Netanyahu s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies only won the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in Parliament. Gantz s majority bloc is deeply divided along ideological lines and unlikely to band together to form an alternative government. But they are determined to oppose Netanyahu and seem willing to cooperate in parliament. Replacing Edelstein on Wednesday appears to be the first step. The parliament speaker informed the court that he will “not agree to an ultimatum” and that “a permanent Knesset speaker has never been elected at a time of such great uncertainty concerning the composition of a future coalition.” He said he would not put the Knesset speaker vote on the agenda until the political situation becomes clearer. Netanyahu has called on his rivals to join him in an emergency unity government to combat the global pandemic, but says that option will be gone if Edelstein is replaced. In Israel, daily life has largely shut down with tens of thousands out of work and all but essential movement out of the home restricted. Cases have been multiplying over the past week, with more than 1,650 people testing positive for the new virus and fears that the spread will soon overwhelm the health system. One patient has died and 31 are in serious condition. Opposition leader Benny Gantz has pledged to support the government in its effort to combat the virus. But he and his allies have been skeptical about Netanyahu s power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power in 18 months. If no compromise or alternative government is found, Israel could once again find itself faced with the prospect of yet another unfathomable election. Given the current state of lock down and fear of contagion it s not clear if that would even be possible.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli forces shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man early on Monday who was hurling rocks at Israeli troops, the Palestinian health ministry and the Israeli military said. The military said it thwarted an attack and opened fire at a number of suspects who were throwing rocks at Israeli vehicles on a highway in central West Bank, near the town of Qaliqilya. It says one of the suspects was killed while another was wounded and escaped. Clashes often erupt in the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians but have dipped considerably since the outbreak of the coronavirus. In Israel, daily life has largely shut down with more then 1,200 people testing positive for the new virus. One patient has died and 24 are in serious condition. In the West Bank, 57 cases have been diagnosed so far, the majority of them in Bethlehem. The Palestinian prime minister has ordered a lock down and in Gaza, two cases have been diagnosed in patients who returned from Pakistan.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday welcomed positive responses from Libya s warring parties to calls for a humanitarian pause in fighting to allow authorities to respond to the public health challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The UN chief “hopes that this will be translated into an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. In the chaos that followed the country was divided. A weak UN-recognized administration that holds the capital of Tripoli and parts of the country s west is backed by Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar and Italy as well as local militias. On the other side is a rival government in the east that supports self-styled Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose forces launched an offensive to capture the capital last April and are backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt as well as France and Russia. According to media reports, fear of the new coronavirus is widespread in Libya, with the government announcing a curfew starting Sunday night over concerns of a possible outbreak and Hifter s forces worried that foreign mercenaries fighting alongside them may have the virus. Last month, the UN Security Council endorsed a 55-point road map for ending the war in Libya that 12 key leaders agreed to at a conference in Berlin on Jan. 19. This past week, the UN Mission in Libya and a large number of international groups called on the opposing parties to declare an immediate humanitarian pause in hostilities and halt the transfer of military equipment and personnel into the country to enable a response to the pandemic. Dujarric said the secretary-general welcomed the positive response from the government on March 18 and Hifter s Libyan National Army on March 21 to calls for a humanitarian pause. “Given the already dire humanitarian situation in Libya and the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the secretary-general calls on the parties to join forces to address the threat and to ensure unhindered access of humanitarian aid throughout the country,” the UN spokesman said. Guterres urges both sides to accept the draft cease-fire agreement reached during UN-facilitated talks in Geneva last month, Dujarric said.
Italy has just surpassed China for the most number of deaths related to coronavirus, making it the world s deadliest center of the outbreak. The number of deaths in Italy reached 3,405 on Thursday, the Italian Civil Protection Agency said at a news conference -- 156 more than China s toll, which, according to Johns Hopkins University, stands at 3,249. The total number of cases in Italy rose to 41,035 with 5,322 new cases, officials added. The grim figure comes hours after China marked a major milestone in the battle to limit the spread, reporting no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases for the first time since the pandemic began. As cases ratcheted up, Italy imposed nationwide restrictions similar to those seen in China -- placing more than 60 million people under lockdown. Italy s world-class health system has been pushed to the brink amid the outbreak, especially in the country s north, which has seen the highest concentration of cases. People are being treated in field hospitals and lined up in corridors inside its straining public hospitals. Doctors and nurses are being infected, due to a lack of adequate protection. Italian authorities are considering lengthening school closures beyond April 3, amid rumors of the lockdown also being extended. "I think we are going toward an extension," Italian Education minister Lucia Azzolina said Thursday, adding that schools would reopen once there is "certainty of absolute safety." Corriere della Sera quoted Thursday Italian PM Giuseppe Conte as saying "it is clear" the measures to tackle the outbreak, "both the one that has closed a lot of the country s businesses and individual activities, and the one that concerns the school, can only be extended to the deadline." The Prime Minister s spokesperson told CNN no official decision had yet been taken. Chinese medical experts helping the country deal with the crisis said the measures in the hard-hit Lombardy region are "not strict enough." The situation "is similar to what we experienced two months ago in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of Covid-19," the Chinese Red Cross vice president, Sun Shuopeng, said Thursday in a news conference in Milan, the region s capital. "In the city of Wuhan after one month since the adoption of the lockdown policy, we see a decreasing trend from the peak of the disease," Sun Shuopeng said. "Here in Milan, the hardest hit area by Covid-19, there isn t a very strict lockdown: public transportation is still working and people are still moving around, you re still having dinners and parties in the hotels and you re not wearing masks. We need every citizen to be involved in the fight of Covid-19 and follow this policy." He advised Italians to stop all "economic activities and cut the mobility of people," calling on everyone to just stay at home.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank surged ahead in 2019, a watchdog group said in a report Tuesday, maintaining a rapid pace that has drawn strength from the friendly policies of the Trump administration. Peace Now, a monitoring group that opposes the settlements, said that Israel s average annual construction rate has risen 25% since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Perhaps more significantly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s government last year approved plans to build thousands of new homes, laying the groundwork for a sharp spike in construction in the coming years. That included an explosion in plans for new settlement projects approved early this year. “In my opinion, they re trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity that they have under the Trump administration, knowing that it might change in a few months,” said Hagit Ofran, a researcher for the group. “There was no such supportive administration for the settlements previously, ever.” Most of the world considers the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, to be occupied territory and Israeli settlements illegal obstacles to peace. In a break from his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump has taken a much softer line toward the settlements. Surrounded by a group of advisers with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump s administration declared last year that it did not consider the settlements to be illegal under international law. Then, in January, he unveiled a Mideast plan that envisions placing large parts of the West Bank, including all of the settlements, under permanent Israeli control. The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, as parts of a future independent state. With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and over 220,000 more in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians say the chances of establishing a state in those territories are quickly dwindling. They have rejected the Trump Mideast plan, saying it would extinguish any remaining hopes of independence. According to the Peace Now figures, Israel began construction on 1,917 new homes in the West Bank last year. That marked a slight dip from 2,100 construction starts in 2018. But overall, Israel has begun construction on an average of 2,267 homes per year since Trump took office, compared to an annual average of 1,807 units during the Obama administration. The construction was scattered throughout the West Bank, including small settlements deep inside the territory. That new annual construction could house roughly an addition 9,000 people per year in settlements, based on Peace Now s estimate of four people per a household. Under Israeli law, settlements must go through several stages of bureaucratic planning before construction begins. According to Peace Now, Israel last year advanced plans to build nearly 8,457 new homes, putting them on track to potentially be built in the coming years — up from 5,618 units last year and 6,742 in 2017. By comparison, Israel advanced plans for a total 4,611 new homes during the final two years of the Obama administration, when ties with the U.S. were strained. Peace Now gathers its data from official Israeli sources and by conducting aerial photography of settlements. Israeli settlement groups, using different sets of measures, have also reported rapid growth in the settler population during the Trump era. Oded Revivi, mayor of the settlement of Efrat and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settler council, said it was “no secret” that the Trump administration has been more tolerant of construction. Whether the thousands of units in the pipeline are built, he said, will depend on who leads Israel s next government and who wins the U.S. presidential election in November. “If we still have the same players, Netanyahu and Trump, I predict the figures you will see in 2020, or more accurately 2021, will actually be higher than 2019,” he said. Netanyahu, fighting for his political life, took a number of pro-settlement steps while campaigning for re-election early this year. Immediately after Trump unveiled his Mideast plan, Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing the settlements. When the White House balked, he pushed forward a flurry of new settlement plans as he tried to cater to his hard-line base. During the first two months of this year, Israel pushed ahead plans for an additional 7,500 homes — nearly half of them in the sensitive “E1” area, according to Peace Now. Developing that area, jutting deep into the West Bank east of Jerusalem, would hinder Palestinian hopes of creating a contiguous state. Israel has previously refrained from building in E1 due to opposition by prior U.S. administrations. Israel also moved ahead with plans to build over 1,500 units in a contentious area of east Jerusalem. Despite these steps, Netanyahu came up short as the March 2 election ended in deadlock. Netanyahu s rival, Benny Gantz, is now trying to form the country s next government but also appears to face long odds of success. If neither man can cobble together a governing coalition, the country could plunge into a fourth consecutive election, placing Netanyahu s future into question as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges. Trump s future, meanwhile, also is suddenly in question following widespread criticism of the slow U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis. The virus could also play a role in the growth of the settlements in the coming months. An economic slowdown, for instance, could potentially slow demand in the Israeli housing market, including in settlements. In the West Bank, there are also risks from Israelis and Palestinians — who are covered by two different health systems and governments — coming together. Revivi s settlement, for example, is next to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and residents often come into contact with one other. Thousands of Palestinians, including construction workers, work in the settlements. “With all the potential of catching the virus, all these things become a much more relevant issue that needs to be discussed, determined, decided upon and definitely acted upon,” Revivi said.
Sudan s ruling council said on Tuesday it would step up its drive to remove loyalists of former president Omar al-Bashir, a day after the prime minister of the transitional government escaped an assassination attempt unscathed. A branch of Sudan s security services that was closely linked to Bashir will be brought under control of the civilian government and a committee tasked with dismantling the old regime will be given additional powers, sovereign council spokesman Mohamed al-Faki said in a statement. Authorities have launched an investigation into Monday s assassination attempt, when a blast targeted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok s convoy as he drove to work. They have not said who was behind it, but by reasserting that Bashir loyalists will be firmly dealt with, they have suggested possible links with old regime supporters trying to disrupt a democratic transition. Hamdok heads a government of technocrats serving under a 39-month power-sharing deal between civilian groups and the military that was struck after Bashir was overthrown last April. As part of efforts to disempower Bashir s supporters, the "dismantling" committee has already moved to disband the former ruling party and dismiss senior officials at banks and embassies. Some officers at the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have also been dismissed, and the name of the agency has been changed to the General Intelligence Service (GIS). Faki said on Tuesday that the part of the GIS that operates inside Sudan would be brought under the interior ministry. In mid-January, armed security agents linked to Bashir fought soldiers in Khartoum for several hours, after a dispute linked to severance packages.
Churches across Egypt have announced the suspension of church meetings and activities, following a government decision to suspend schools and universities for two weeks as a precautionary measure to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Coptic Orthodox Church confirmed the suspension of all church education programs for two weeks. The church s official Spokesperson Father Paul Halim announced in a press statement Sunday the suspension of all other church activities as well, including gatherings of large groups and services at nurseries, rehabilitation centers and church trips. The statement also stressed the suspension of study in all theological institutes and colleges. Meanwhile, the statement also said that it remains possible to hold more than one daily religious service at churches to avoid overcrowding at mass, especially on occasions and holidays. The statement stressed the need to take precautions before heading to mass, and warned citizens not to attend if they were suffering from a fever or displayed other influenza-like symptoms. The statement also cautioned churchgoers to frequently wash their hands and avoid shaking hands and sharing drinks and food as much as possible. Egypt had confirmed 126 cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, as of Sunday, according to the Ministry of Health. The country has reported two deaths from the respiratory illness, which produces mild to moderate symptoms in most people, such as a fever and cough. For the elderly and immunocompromised, however, COVID-19 can cause more serious illness, including pneumonia, and require hospitalization. Last week, Egypt reported that a 60-year-old woman from Daqahlia had died from complications of coronavirus. The first death reported in Egypt – a 60-year old German tourist who passed away in a hospital in Hurghada – was confirmed on March 8. Egypt has moved to close schools and universities across the country for two weeks and has halted large public gatherings to stop the spread of the virus, which has killed over 6,500 worldwide and infected upwards of 170,000. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanon declared a state of emergency and announced that the country s airports, borders, and ports would close starting Wednesday and extending through March 29, with nonessential businesses ordered to shut down and citizens urged to stay indoors. Jordan has also moved to suspend all incoming and outgoing flights beginning on Tuesday, according to Reuters, and has closed all tourism sites across the country. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have halted passenger flights as well, and the UAE has also imposed entry restrictions and moved to close restaurants and pubs across the country, while Qatar has restricted entry for all travelers except Qatari nationals and issued a ban on public transportation, according to Reuters. Local officials in Saudi Arabia announced over the weekend the closure of malls, restaurants, cafes, and public parks. Pharmacies, grocery stores, and food delivery were to remain open. Kuwait has moved to shutter restaurants and cafes as well, with businesses providing essential goods and services to stay open. A curfew is also set to be imposed in Iraq beginning late Tuesday, and includes suspending all flights from Baghdad s airport. Businesses remain open in Iran, however, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Religious Endowments have suspended most of their activities for two weeks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. The decision came after Egypt s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered on Saturday the suspension of schools and universities for two weeks as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Egypt has 110 confirmed coronavirus cases, 21 of whom have recovered. The country has recorded two deaths from the flue-like virus: a 60-year-old Egyptian woman and a German tourist. The Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement late on Saturday that it is suspending all church education services and theology schools for two weeks in line with the president s directives. The Church said that the daily mass may be split up into several smaller services to avoid large gatherings, especially on days off and on special occasions. The Church also urged those suffering from high temperature or flu symptoms to not take part in masses and called on people to avoid shaking hands. Similarly, the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments has temporarily banned holding marriage celebrations and funeral services at mosques or halls attached to them. It also decided to close all mausoleums and shrines nationwide and suspend classes at Islamic cultural centres affiliated with the ministry for two weeks. Mosques will be open only for daily prayers and the weekly Friday sermon, the ministry said in a statement, stressing that any other gatherings or events at mosques will be suspended. The ministry announced earlier that it was cancelling the annual Israa and Miraj celebrations, which mark the miraculous journey that the Prophet Muhammad embarked on from Mecca to Jerusalem and heaven. Since its outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 157,000 people globally and killed more than 5,800.
Iraqi and United Nations officials scrambled Thursday to contain the fallout from an unprecedented rocket attack that killed three US-led coalition members and threatened yet another escalation of Iran-US tensions. Within hours of the attack on Taji air base, north of Baghdad — the deadliest in years on a base used by US forces in Iraq — an air strike killed more than two dozen Iran-aligned fighters in neighbouring Syria. It marked a dramatic uptick in violence less than three months after rockets killed a US contractor in northern Iraq, unleashing a round of tit-for-tat attacks between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil. Fearing an even bloodier flare-up this time, Iraqi officials and the United Nations were quick to condemn the coalition deaths. Iraq s military command said it was “a serious security challenge” and pledged to open an investigation. President Barham Saleh and parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi condemned a “terrorist attack” which targeted “Iraq and its security”. The UN mission in Iraq called for “maximum restraint on all sides”. “These ongoing attacks are a clear and substantial threat to the country, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups remains a constant concern,” it said. “The last thing Iraq needs is to serve as an arena for vendettas and external battles.” Kataeb Hezbollah hails attack Wednesday s attack was the 22nd on US interests in Iraq since late October. It saw a volley of 18 rockets slam into the Taji base, one of about a dozen facilities across Iraq where coalition forces are posted. The coalition confirmed three of its personnel were killed and around a dozen more wounded. One of the dead was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Britain confirmed. A US military official told AFP the other two were a US soldier and an American contractor. There was no immediate word on Iraqi casualties and no group claimed responsibility. Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline faction within Iraq s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance, hailed the attack and its perpetrators, without saying they were behind it. “We believe it is the best time for popular, nationalist forces to resume operations to oust the evil attackers,” the group said in a statement. Kataeb Hezbollah also criticised “those who were quick to denounce and express their sympathy”, in a hint at top Iraqi officials who had condemned the rocket attack. In late December, the US accused Kataeb Hezbollah of killing an American contractor at a base in northern Iraq and carried out air strikes on western Iraq that killed 25 of its fighters. Days later, a US drone strike killed senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad airport. Iran then launched its own strikes on a western Iraqi base, leaving dozens of US troops suffering from brain trauma. Hashed factions have repeatedly pledged to avenge Muhandis s death in their own way. Hashed hammered in Syria Within hours of Wednesday s attack, an air strike near the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Albu Kamal killed 26 Iran-aligned Iraqi fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The US-led coalition denied carrying out any raids overnight on either Syria or Iraq. Both the coalition and Israel have targeted Iran-backed fighters in Syria, whom they fear could be transferring missiles from their regional foe Iran. The Hashed also blamed Israel and the US for a string of unexplained explosions last year. Post-Saddam Iraq counts years of close ties with both Iran and the United States, and Baghdad has been put in an increasingly difficult position by the spiralling tensions between its allies. In January, Iraqi lawmakers voted to oust all foreign troops from Iraq in reaction to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis. Some 5,200 US troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State jihadist group. While IS has lost all of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, sleeper cells remain capable of carrying out attacks on both sides of the border. On Sunday, two US soldiers were killed north of Baghdad while helping Iraqi forces battle IS remnants. US officials have previously told AFP they considered the Hashed a bigger threat than IS, given the frequency and accuracy of rocket attacks on US troops that could be traced back to the paramilitaries.
ATHENS (Reuters) — The Greek government dismissed on Wednesday a report in The New York Times newspaper that it was holding migrants who cross the border from Turkey at a secret “black site” where they are denied access to lawyers and cannot file asylum claims. Tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get into Greece, a European Union member state, since Turkey said on Feb. 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels in return for EU aid for the refugees. Greece has used tear gas and water cannon to deter the migrants and says it has stopped more than 42,000 people from entering its territory over the past two weeks. In its article, The New York Times quoted migrants who said they had been captured by Greek security forces, stripped and beaten and held in a complex of buildings near the border. Using satellite imagery and mobile phone data, the newspaper said the site was near the village of Poros, in the northeast, not far from the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros river delta. “There is no secret detention center in Greece,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters, adding that if an international newspaper knew about the site, it wasn t secret. “All issues related to guarding the borders or issues of security are transparent. The constitution is being applied… and there is nothing secret.” On March 3, Greece passed a decree suspending asylum applications for a month and allowing for the immediate deportation of any migrants seized crossing the border. Erdogan s decision to open the border appears designed to put pressure on the EU to provide more aid for some 3.6 million refugees and migrants Turkey is hosting. Ankara says it has received only about half of some 6 billion euros promised by the EU under the 2016 deal for the refugees. The New York Times article, citing video evidence and witness testimony, also alleged that Mohammed Yaarub, a 22-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who was shot dead near the border last week, had been killed by a Greek security officer. Petsas, the government spokesman, reiterated Greece s previous denials that its forces have killed any migrants. “We have categorically denied there was such an issue, at least on the part of Greece … This is organized Turkish propaganda and the spreading of fake news,” he said.
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Tuesday rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s request to delay the start of his corruption trial, clearing the way for proceedings to begin as planned next week. Netanyahu s lawyers had appealed for a delay, saying they needed more time to review evidence. State prosecutors responded that they oppose any delays and the court accepted their position. In overruling the request the presiding judge wrote that the first session on March 17 was a procedural reading of the charges only and the defendant s response was not needed, therefore there was no justification for a delay. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals that include accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt. His legal troubles stood at the center of last week s national election, Israel s third in less than a year. Like elections last April and September, this one ended inconclusively. Netanyahu s opponent, Benny Gantz, refused to sit with him in government and appears poised to push for legislation in the incoming parliament that would bar anyone indicted for a crime being able to lead a government — in effect disqualifying Netanyahu from leading the country. While the most straightforward way out of the deadlock in each of the previous rounds was a unity government, the sides have grown increasingly acrimonious toward each other with each campaign. On Tuesday, members of Netanyahu s Likud Party abstained from a procedural vote meant to approve the official election results, citing their demand for a recount of hundreds of ballots that are in contention. Gantz s Blue and White said the move set a “dangerous precedent” that damaged the legitimacy of the country s elections commission. The anti-Netanyahu forces in the new incoming parliament command a 62-58 majority but are deeply divided among themselves, even though Gantz and the smaller Yisrael Beitenu party, led by Netanyahu ally-turned-nemesis Avigdor Lieberman, have agreed to cooperate to form a government. Israel s president will soon begin consultations with the elected parties to determine who to tap as prime minister-designate, typically the leader of the largest party and in this case Netanyahu. If the deadlock continues, Israel could see itself heading toward a fourth straight election, which experts say would have disastrous effects on the public s confidence in their elected officials and electoral system. Netanyahu, Israel s longest-serving leader, is desperate to remain in office because installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire. Amit Haddad, one of Netanyahu s lawyers, had said he would seek a delay in the start of the trial. He said the request was “technical” and meant to give the defense time to review investigative materials that it still has not received.
Migration crisis talks were set to be held between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and senior EU officials in Brussels on Monday, as Germany said the bloc was considering taking in 1,500 child refugees. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been trying to break through the land border from Turkey for a week after Ankara announced it would no longer prevent people from trying to cross into the European Union. Turkey, which hosts around four million mostly Syrian refugees, has repeatedly railed against what it describes as unfair burden-sharing. Erdogan called on Greece to “open the gates” to the migrants after Greek police used tear gas and water cannon in skirmishes with crowds at the border. “I hope I will return from Belgium with different outcomes,” he said at a speech in Istanbul on Sunday as he announced the meeting. “Hey Greece! I appeal to you… open the gates as well and be free of this burden,” he said, adding: “Let them go to other European countries.” Early on Monday, Germany said the EU was considering taking in up to 1,500 migrant children who are currently housed in Greek camps. “A humanitarian solution is being negotiated at the European level for a coalition of the willing to take in these children,” the government said in a statement. Berlin was ready to take in an “appropriate” share, it added, saying the country wanted to support Greece in the “difficult” situation it is facing. Concern over the plight of the minors have grown as they either require urgent medical treatment or are unaccompanied by adults. On Friday, Erdogan ordered the Turkish coastguard to prevent risky Aegean sea crossings after more than 1,700 migrants landed on Lesbos and four other Aegean islands from Turkey over the past week. The coastguard however said Turkey s policy of allowing migrants and refugees to leave by land was untouched, and the instruction only affected sea crossings. Aid agreements The Turkish president will meet European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at 6pm (1700 GMT) on Monday. They will “discuss EU-Turkey matters, including migration, security, stability in the region and the crisis in Syria,” Michel s spokesman said on Twitter. In 2016, Turkey and the EU agreed a deal whereby Brussels would provide billions of euros in aid in exchange for Turkish authorities curbing the flow of migrants. But Ankara has repeatedly accused the bloc of not fulfilling promises that were made while Europe suffered its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Over a million people fled to the continent in 2015. Erdogan s top press aide has said one of the unmet conditions was that the EU would take in refugees from Turkey. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Michel met Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday as Turkey demanded greater support over the conflict and migrants. After the talks, Borrell promised an additional 170 million euros ($192 million) in aid for vulnerable groups in Syria. Erdogan has felt extra pressure as nearly a million people in Syria s northwestern province of Idlib fled towards the Turkish border during the recent Syrian regime assault backed by Russia and Iran. But the president and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed a ceasefire on Thursday after Turkey launched an offensive against Damascus following the deaths of 59 Turkish security personnel in attacks blamed on the regime.
More than 50 people in Zambia have been killed in mob violence in response to a spate of poision spray attacks, President Edgar Lungu said on Friday, blaming church leaders for encouraging some of the reprisals. The chemical attacks began in December and were initially confined to the mineral-rich copperbelt but have since spread to the capital Lusaka. Some 26 people have been arrested under suspicion of being behind the incidents, but police have still to pinpoint the motive or exact number of victims. In a speech to parliament, Lungu said some church and traditional leaders were inciting mobs to assault people suspected of being involved in the attacks. Many Zambians have been angered by what they perceive as an inadequate response by police. Lungu said after the arrests over the chemical attacks the situation had improved. However, some people had now targeted rural areas where they were spreading false information about the attacks to instigate mob violence, he said. "We have witnessed merciless killings. We have equally witnessed merciless reactions," Lungu said after parliament observed a moment of silence for the victims. Lungu did not name any church leaders who he believed to be responsible for the reprisals, but pentecostal pastor Jones Chiyana of the Lusaka-based New Life Assembly Church said anyone involved was not genuine. "If a church person is involved, then they are using the church to conceal their true identity. The church is for justice," Chiyana told Reuters. The president said he was considering establishing a commission of inquiry to explain the chemical attacks and the mob killings, a move pastor Chiyana said would be welcome.
CAIRO (AP) — The only civilian airport in the Libyan capital of Tripoli came under direct attack by eastern-based opposition forces, authorities in the capital said Thursday, as diplomatic efforts to end the war continued to falter. Four missiles had hit Mitiga International Airport late Wednesday, said Amin al-Hashemi, spokesman for the health ministry in Tripoli. A Grad rocket also struck several homes nearby, sending shrapnel crashing into one family s dining room. At least 20 more missiles struck the tarmac earlier in the week “causing structural damage,” including to a commercial airplane. Flights were diverted to the coastal city of Misrata. There were no reports of causalities. The eastern forces under the command of Khalifa Haftar accuse the Tripoli government of using the landing strip to receive foreign weapons and fighters. The renewed fighting around the capital comes days after the United Nation s envoy for Libya abruptly quit his post, throwing new doubt on whether a diplomatic solution to the conflict was possible. Ghassan Salame tied his resignation to his health, saying he could no longer take the stress. Last week he appeared deeply frustrated over moribund political talks between the Tripoli-based government and its rival eastern-based administration. His abrupt departure, which caught U.N. Security Council members by surprise, “comes at a perilous time,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as the possibility looms “that both sides will now take the gloves off.” Libyan factions across the political spectrum, which have long expressed doubts about the U.N. s efforts, gloated over Salame s departure. “Ghassan Salame escaped before the boat sank,” said Hamad al-Bandaq, member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, the eastern-based body allied with Haftar. “He failed from the beginning.” “I consider Salame s period to be the worst of all envoys,” said Abdul-Qader Hwaili, a member of the High Council, an advisory body to the Tripoli-based government. “Under his watch, Libya witnessed several offensives, the destruction of cities and the current siege on the capital.” Haftar s forces attacked the capital last spring, plunging the country into an intensified round of fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced over 150,000 people. Salame, an academic and seasoned diplomat who cut his teeth uniting Iraqi factions after the U.S.-led invasion, “was facing a Herculean challenge in Libya,” said Wehrey. His failure to get both sides to solidify even a basic cease-fire points to “broader international disorder” and the weakness of the flouted U.N. arms embargo. Libya s chaos has worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite their pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year. Turkey has sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled U.N.-backed Tripoli government. On the other side, Russia has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Haftar s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Haftar with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles. Even over the last few days, rival Libyan factions accused each other of violating a tentative truce with foreign weapons. The spokesman for Haftar s forces claimed they shot down six Turkish-made drones and killed 35 Syrian fighters. For its part, a coalition of militias allied with the Tripoli government announced a “sweeping attack” that destroyed six Emirati armored vehicles. “In the coming hours our combat will be extremely active,” Ahmed al-Mosmari, the spokesman for Haftar s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, told reporters late Wednesday. Salame departed with no hint of who might replace him, or obvious way for the U.N. s peacemaking efforts to proceed. “Without an acceptable political process in place that the parties adhere to, it s most likely that the conflict will continue in the same way we ve seen over the last few weeks,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Turkey said that two more of its soldiers were killed Wednesday in a Syrian government attack in northwestern Syria, as steady clashes between the two national armies continued to rack up casualties. Turkey has sent thousands of troops into the area to support Syrian insurgents holed up there, but hasn t been able to stop the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to retake the Idlib province. Near the Turkish border, the Idlib area is the last rebel stronghold after nine years of war in Syria. The Turkish Defense Ministry s statement said that the latest Syrian attack on its troops also wounded six soldiers. It did not provide further details. The assault came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to depart for Moscow where he says he aims to broker a cease-fire in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces in northwestern Syria have killed more than 50 Turkish troops in the past month, including 33 soldiers killed Thursday in a single airstrike. Moscow has laid the blame for the escalation on Ankara, ahead of the summit between the two main power brokers in Syria. Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of a cease-fire agreement reached in Sochi, Russia in 2018. They say Ankara has failed to honor the deal and rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.
REYHANLI, Turkey/AMMAN (Reuters) — Turkey shot down a Syrian government warplane on Tuesday over northwest Syria, where fighting has intensified in recent days, bringing Turkish and Russian forces close to direct conflict in the battle over the last swathe of Syria still held by rebels. It was the third Syrian warplane Turkey has shot down since Sunday in an escalating campaign against President Bashar al-Assad s forces. NATO-member Turkey supports the rebels, while Assad relies on his superpower ally Russia. With more than a million refugees amassing since December on the Turkish border, the battle for Syria s Idlib province has brought what the United Nations fears might be the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year-old Syrian civil war. “This relief operation has been overwhelmed. There needs to be more of everything. The first thing is money,” U.N. Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters at a trans-shipment point for supplies in southern Turkey. Fighting was raging north of the strategic crossroads town of Saraqeb, recaptured on Monday by Syrian troops, one of several times the town, which controls access to Idlib city and Aleppo, has changed hands in recent weeks. Syrian state media said the army was now combing the town and had dealt heavy blows to fighters still holed up in hideouts on its outskirts. A state television correspondent said Turkey was firing artillery to halt the government advance. Rebels said the government was aided by thousands of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen brought from other areas to help storm the town after two days of failed attempts. A Syrian general who has defected to the opposition, Ahmad Rahhal, said a Russian announcement on Monday that it had deployed military police in Saraqeb was aimed at blocking Turkey from trying to help rebels reclaim the town. HUMANITARIAN CRISIS Turkey has sent thousands of troops and armored vehicles into northern Syria over the past month to fight back against Assad. Last week, a Syrian air strike killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers in the deadliest attack on the Turkish army in decades. Moscow, which has anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, has since warned Turkey that it cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Syrian skies. The Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that its forces had shot down a Syrian L-39 ground attack jet. Syria s state-run SANA news agency confirmed the plane had been shot down over Idlib province by missiles fired from Turkish warplanes. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia s Vladimir Putin are due to meet on Thursday to seek ways to avert conflict. Asked about the prospect of direct clashes with Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “We hope that we re able to absolutely minimize this risk thanks to the close contact between the two countries militaries.” Turkey, already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot take any more. It wants to push Assad s forces back to lines agreed in a 2017 deal brokered with Russia and Iran, which left a buffer zone in northern Syria near its border. Since last week, Turkey has thrown open its frontiers with Greece and Bulgaria to allow migrants to enter the EU, a move apparently aimed at putting pressure on European countries to back it in Syria. Some 10,000 migrants have tried to cross into Greece by land in recent days and more than 1,000 have arrived by sea at Greek islands, creating fears of a repeat of the 2015-2016 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people crossed into Greece and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean. The opposition says Syrian government forces are deliberately attacking civilians to provoke them to flee. A rocket attack believed to have been fired by the Syrian army on a residential quarter of Idlib city left at least nine civilians dead, including five children, according to Osama Idlibi, a rescuer in the opposition-run Syrian Civil Defence. Overnight Russian and Syrian jets killed at least 10 people in the town of Al Foah in what residents said was a spike in strikes on several towns, including Binish and the outskirts of Tatanaz in Idlib province. Russia and its Syrian army ally deny indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they target jihadists. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, in Turkey inspecting the relief efforts, announced $180 million in additional funding for the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. “Humanitarian aid is only a response but the solution is an immediate ceasefire,” Craft told reporters. “This is not something that just happened. This is planned by the Assad regime,” Craft said. “It is cruel and brutal.”
NAZARETH, Israel (Reuters) – On the eve of Israel s third election in a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been urging supporters to mount a final push to win the one or two more seats he says he needs to form a government. But as he campaigns, another force in Israeli politics – the Arab minority – is hoping to use a new surge of anger against the right-wing leader and his U.S. allies to edge the electoral arithmetic the other way. Arab lawmakers are urging their communities to turn out in ever greater numbers on March 2 to show their opposition to the new peace plan – dubbed the “Deal of the Century” – unveiled by U.S. President Donald Trump in January. Anger among Israel s Arabs has focused on one part of that plan in particular, a proposed redrawing of borders that would put some Arab towns and villages outside Israel and into the area assigned to a future Palestinian state. “There is someone who set this plan: Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Ayman Odeh, chief of the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition. “We need to overthrow him, our biggest agitator, the person behind the Deal of the Century,” Odeh added during a stop in Taibe, a village that could be moved outside Israel under Trump s plan. Polls show Netanyahu s Likud movement virtually neck and neck with centrist leader Benny Gantz s Blue and White party. Arab lawmakers currently hold 13 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If the Arab and centrist blocs both hold their voting share – and certainly if they increase – that would make it harder for Netanyahu to get the extra seats he needs in the country s finely-balanced political set-up. Nearly 80% of Arabs who are familiar with the Trump plan oppose it, according to a Feb. 24 poll by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University. The poll s author, Arik Rudnitzky, said the Trump initiative had injected “new blood into this relatively calm electoral campaign” and forecast a slight increase in Arab turnout over last September s election, from 59% to 60%. Graphic: Trump s Middle East plan – here I AM STILL OCCUPIED Israel s Arab minority – Palestinian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship – makes up 21 per cent of Israel s population. Mostly Muslim, Christian and Druze, they are descendants of the Palestinians whose communities, including Nazareth, found themselves inside Israel as the country was formed in 1948. Their political representatives have had to choose their words diplomatically as they push their campaign against Netanyahu. If they reject the notion of coming under Palestinian rule too aggressively or overtly, they could be seen as selling out their brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But if they embrace that notion, they risk losing the benefits of Israeli citizenship. “Everyone wants to stay in Israel, everyone wants an Israeli I.D. because they can see the situation in the West Bank, and here it is better,” said Zuhri Haj Yahya, a Taibe resident. He said it made no difference to his sense of identity whether he lived under Israeli or Palestinian rule. “I am Palestinian,” he said. “I am still occupied, whether I am here or there.” As the election neared, Netanyahu dismissed concerns about land swaps and sought to win over Arab voters. “The last thing I believe in is uprooting anyone from their home. No one will be uprooted,” he told Arabic-language channels PANET and Hala TV on Feb. 18. Likud also said its 15 billion shekel ($4.37 billion) investment program was more than any government ever invested in Arab communities. But Arab politicians derided Netanyahu s appeals, and his promises of direct flights to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims. “What did Netanyahu really do for us,” asked politician Ahmad Tibi, calling it a last-ditch effort to “manipulate our community”. Reporting by Rami Ayyub, additional reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer in Taibe, Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Heaven.
KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — Syria s official news agency said two of its warplane were shot down by Turkish forces inside northwest Syria, amid a military escalation there that s led to growing direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces. SANA says the jets were targeted over the Idlib region, and that the four pilots ejected with parachutes and landed safely. Turkey s Defense Ministry said it had shot down two SU-24 aircraft and destroyed air defense systems after one of its aerial drones was downed. Earlier, Syrian military-run media said it had downed a drone inside northwest Syria, and was closing its airspace for any flights or drones across the country s northwestern region. It said any aircraft that penetrates Syrian airspace will be treated as hostile and shot down. The Syrian announcement came after two days of Turkish drone attacks in Idlib province that Syrian activists said caused heavy losses to Syrian government forces. These confrontations have added to soaring tensions between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had on Saturday announced his country opened its western borders to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union. The United Nations said Sunday that at least 13,000 people were massed on Turkey s land border with Greece, Erdogan did not explicitly link his decision to open the gates to Europe to the military escalation in Syria s northwestern Idlib province. However, he has warned that Turkey “can t handle a new wave of migration,” an apparent reference to Idlib where hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian civilians fleeing Syrian troop advances have moved toward the Turkish border. Turkish Defense Minsiter Hulusi Akar, speaking from military headquarters near the Syrian border, said Turkey aimed to confront Syrian government forces rather than Russian troops. He called on Moscow to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw to 2018 cease-fire lines on the edges of Idlib. Referring to losses inflicted on Syria, he said Turkey had “neutralized” more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks and eight helicopters. “The Spring Shield operation, which was launched following the abominable attack in Idlib on Feb. 27, continues successfully,” Akar said, referring to air strikes that killed 33 Turkish soldiers. The operation is Turkey s fourth in the war-torn country since 2016. The heavy fighting in northwest Syria has also triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the single largest wave of displacement in the nine-year Syrian civil war. Ankara is worried it might come under renewed international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to hundreds of thousands more Syrian civilians. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan s decision to open his country s borders with Europe made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent. His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south. The U.N. s International Organization for Migration said Sunday that by the previous evening, its staff working along the Turkish-Greek land border “had observed at least 13,000 people gathered at the formal border crossing points at Pazarkule and Ipsala and multiple informal border crossings, in groups of between several dozen and more than 3,000.” Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades through Saturday to prevent repeated attempts by a crowd of more than 4,000 people massed at the border crossing in Kastanies to cross, and fought a cat-and-mouse game with groups cutting holes in a border fence along the border to crawl through. Erdogan s communications director Fahrettin Altun later said Turkey had changed its focus to preparing for the possibility of new arrivals from Syria “instead of preventing refugees who intend to migrate to Europe.” “Europe and others must take robust action to address this monumental challenge,” Altun said. “We can t be expected to do this on our own.” He accused critics of Turkey s refugee policy of “rampant hypocrisy.” He claimed 80,888 had left Turkey for Europe “in the past several days” and called on Europe to share the burden of looking after refugees. But there was no evidence to support his claim. Greece has shut its border, and there were a few dozen arrests of people who managed to cross through the border, Greek authorities have said. Greek Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis told the local broadcaster Skai there were around 9,600 attempts to illegally cross Greece s border during the night Saturday to Sunday. Stefanis said all were successfully thwarted. Previously several dozen migrants had managed to make it through. Greek officials said they arrested 66 migrants Friday, 17 of whom were sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for entering the country illegally. All Afghans, they were the first migrants sentenced for illegal entry since 2014. On Saturday, Greece arrested another 70 people who tried to cross the land border illegally. Stavros Zamalides, president of the local community in Kastanies, said Turkish soldiers were actively helping people cross the Greek border clandestinely. “Turkish soldiers with cutters in their hands were cutting the wires of the fence to lead the illegal migrants” into crossing the border, he said. “The attempt was thwarted by the intervention of our own patrol that happened to be passing that area on patrol at the time, and it repaired the damage in the fence,” he added. Twenty-year-old Afghan Ayamuddin Azimi made it to the Greek border village of Nea Vyssa along with a compatriot. He said Turkey had opened its borders “to save the refugees” but when they got to the frontier they found the Greek side closed. He crossed clandestinely, he said. “What can I do? We have nothing to do. This is our life.” Others were making the short but often perilous sea crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. Initial figures collected by Greece s Merchant Marine Ministry from the coast guard around the eastern Aegean islands showed a clear increase in the number of people arriving by dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast. By midday Sunday, the ministry said initial figures indicated 390 people had arrived since Sunday morning in several boats. The vast majority arrived on the island of Lesbos, with smaller numbers on Chios and Samos. More were believed to be attempting to reach the islands. In parallel, the heavy fighting in northwest Syria has pushed nearly 950,000 displaced Syrian civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey. Turkey is a strong backer of the rebels in Syria s Idlib province. But the presence of thousands of Turkish troops there has done little to stop Assad s relentless campaign to seize the last rebel-held territories. Dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed by the Russian-backed Syrian government forces around Idlib in recent days. Erdogan has warned of an “imminent” operation against Assad s forces unless they pull back from Turkish lines in Syria by the end of February. As that deadline passed Saturday night, Turkish drones bombed Syrian government targets in Idlib, and Turkey-backed rebels shelled Syrian army positions. Fighting raged near the strategic town of Saraqeb as government troops sought to take it back from rebels, opposition activists and Syrian state-media said. The town, which lies on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, had changed hands several times in the last month. Turkey has lost 55 soldiers in Idlib in February, including 33 killed in an airstrike on Thursday, and now feels the need to respond strongly. Talks between Turkey and Russia, the main power brokers in Syria, have so far failed to defuse tensions. On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey would no longer stand in the way of refugees and migrants already in the country who hope to head to Europe. “We will not close the gates to refugees,” he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees.” Under a 6 billion euro deal in 2016, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since accused the EU of failing to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — An Israeli drone fired a missile at a car in southern Syria on Thursday, killing one person, Syrian state TV reported. The state-run media outlet gave no further details on the attack near the southern village of Hader in the Quneitra region on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It said the person killed was a civilian. There was no immediate comment from Israel about the drone attack. Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier. A Syrian military statement reported this week an Israeli attack near Damascus International Airport and said its air defenses confronted Israeli rockets coming from the direction of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It said the defenders intercepted or shot down most of them. In a rare acknowledgment of operations in neighboring Syria, Israel said its warplanes attacked targets late Sunday of the Palestinian militant Islamic Jihad group south of Damascus, in addition to sites in the Gaza Strip. It said the sites attacked were used for “research and development of armaments” manufactured in Syria and the Gaza Strip. It said the sites also produce dozens of kilograms (pounds) of rocket fuel each month.
I know that the horror of Corona virus will end soon, and I shall tell you why. God from time to time would like to request and save what has perished just as he did at the cross with crucifixion and redemption. He only reminds us of his presence and love, especially for those who are lost and far from his bosom. God who transferred the mountain of Muqattam after the prayers of his people of Egypt will surely listen