Clashes in Syria between pro-regime forces and Islamic State group jihadists, along with air strikes, have killed at least 28 fighters in the northern province of Raqa, a war monitor said Tuesday. "IS has since Monday carried out several attacks on Syrian army and allied positions and checkpoints in the Badia (desert) of Raqa, killing 13 members of regime forces," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, told AFP the regime has retaliated with waves of air raids, killing 15 jihadists either in the strikes or fighting on the ground. Since its defeat in Syria in March 2019, IS has carried out regular deadly attacks on the army and Kurdish forces. In August, the jihadists claimed an attack near the city of Deir Ezzor that killed a general and two other soldiers of the Russian army forces allied to the Damascus government.
AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian opposition sources said Russian jets bombed rebel-held northwestern Syria on Sunday in the most extensive strikes since a Turkish-Russian deal halted major fighting with a ceasefire nearly six months ago. Witnesses said the warplanes struck the western outskirts of Idlib city and that there was heavy artillery shelling in the mountainous Jabal al Zawya region in southern Idlib from nearby Syrian army outposts. There were no immediate reports of casualties. “These 30 raids are by far the heaviest strikes so far since the ceasefire deal,” said Mohammed Rasheed, a former rebel official and a volunteer plane spotter whose network covers the Russian air base in the western coastal province of Latakia. Other tracking centres said Russian Sukhoi jets hit the Horsh area and Arab Said town, west of the city of Idlib. Unidentified drones also hit two rebel-held towns in the Sahel al-Ghab plain, west of Hama province. There has been no wide-scale aerial bombing since a March agreement ended a Russian-backed bombing campaign that displaced over a million people in the region which borders Turkey after months of fighting. There was no immediate comment from Moscow or the Syrian army who have long accused militant groups who hold sway in the last opposition redoubt of wrecking the ceasefire deal and attacking army-held areas. The deal between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia s President Vladimir Putin also defused a military confrontation between them after Ankara poured thousands of troops into Idlib province to hold back Russian-backed forces from new advances. Western diplomats tracking Syria say Moscow piled pressure on Ankara in the latest round of talks on Wednesday to scale down its extensive military presence in Idlib. Turkey has more than ten thousand troops stationed in dozens of bases there, according to opposition sources in touch with Turkish military. Witnesses say there has been a spike in sporadic shelling from Syrian army outposts against Turkish bases in the last two weeks. Rebels say the Syrian army and its allied militias were amassing troops on front lines. Two witnesses said a Turkish military column comprising at least 15 armoured vehicles was seen overnight entering Syria through the Kafr Lusin border crossing in the direction of a main base in rural Idlib.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – A party founded by Lebanon s Christian president made a proposal to end a dispute that has blocked the formation of a new cabinet and threatened a French drive to lift the country out of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. The proposal, put forward on Saturday, involved handing major ministries to smaller sectarian groups in a country where power is shared between Muslims and Christians. There was no immediate comment from Shia Muslim groups, which have insisted they choose who fills several posts. But a political source familiar with the thinking of dominant Shi ite groups said the idea was unlikely to work. Lebanon s efforts to swiftly form a new government have run into the sand over how to pick ministers in a country where political loyalties mostly follow sectarian religious lines. A September 15 deadline agreed with France to name a cabinet has passed. Paris, which is leading an international push to haul Lebanon back from economic collapse, has voiced exasperation and told Beirut to act “without delay”. The leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the party founded by President Michel Aoun and allied to Hezbollah, proposed “undertaking an experiment to distribute the so-called sovereign ministries to smaller sects, specifically to the Druze, Alawites, Armenians and Christian minorities”. The statement was issued after Gebran Bassil, FPM head and son-in-law of the president, chaired a meeting of the party s political leadership. Bassil is a Maronite, Lebanon s largest Christian community. Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon s sectarian system of power sharing, wants to shake up the leadership of ministries, some of which have been controlled by the same factions for years. Lebanon s main Shia groups – the Amal Movement and the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah – want to select the figures to fill a number of positions, including the finance minister, a top position often called a “sovereign” ministry. An FPM official said the party had not discussed the idea about distributing ministries with Hezbollah or Amal. “We are proposing an exit strategy for those who are stuck up a tree without a ladder,” the official told Reuters. With the nation buried under a mountain of debt and with its banks paralyzed, the finance minister will play a crucial role as Lebanon seeks to restart stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund, one of the first steps on France s roadmap.
The senior US commander for Africa met France s top general on Thursday to discuss the fight against militant groups in the region, as uncertainty persists over whether President Donald Trump will maintain American troop levels on the continent. General Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa Command, met with France s armed forces chief of staff General Francois Lecointre for a working lunch on their "continued US-French cooperation in Africa," according to a US statement. The US has provided aerial refuelling, intelligence and other crucial support for France s anti-terrorism campaign in West Africa, where a disparate Islamist insurgency has taken root in recent years. The US statement noted that US intelligence collection had "helped facilitate" the French operation that resulted in the killing of the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, in June. But the Trump administration insists it must focus on containing Russia and China, with Africa seen as less of a direct threat -- and one that should be left to France and the European Union. US officials indicated early this year that a troop drawdown was under consideration, though no concrete moves have been announced since. "We share common threats, mutual concerns, and a commitment to fighting violent extremist organizations," Townsend said. He added, however, that "continued French leadership and increased support from their European neighbours is key to helping the Africans change the trajectory and prevent the spread of violence in West Africa." French President Emmanuel Macron has been pressing EU allies to step up their contributions to the fight. France has more than 5,000 soldiers as part of Operation Barkhane, its anti-jihadist force in the Sahel. ."The situation in the Sahel was discussed," the French defence ministry confirmed in a statement, as well as "the necessary mobilisation of European countries to fight the terrorist threat in the region." Regarding a potential US withdrawal, "nothing has been officialised one way or the other," a military source told AFP on Thursday.
ATHENS (Reuters) – Cyprus is ready to engage in dialogue with Turkey to resolve differences but not under threats, the Mediterranean island’s President Nicos Anastasiades said on Wednesday. “Yesterday unfortunately a Turkish NAVTEX to expand illegal drilling by the Yavuz vessel was extended when at the same time a series of initiatives are ongoing that seek an end to Ankara’s unlawful actions and de-escalation,” he said, after a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Nicosia. Anastasiades said Turkey was continuing its provocations in the eastern Mediterranean. On Tuesday Turkey extended the operations of its Yavuz energy drill ship in disputed Mediterranean waters off Cyprus until Oct. 12, in a move that could stir tension between the island’s Greek Cypriot government and Ankara. Reporting by ANgeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou; Writing by George Georgiopoulos Photo: Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and European Council President Charles Michel bump elbows after the news conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus September 16th, 2020. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
GENEVA (AP) — UN-backed investigators pointed Tuesday to signs that Syria s government continues to perpetrate rape, torture and murder as the country s nine-year conflict grinds on, while citing possible war crimes by a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel groups and calling on Ankara to do more to help prevent them. The report from the Commission of Inquiry on Syria — its 21st — was based on some 538 interviews as well as documents, satellite imagery and other evidence. It covers the first half of 2020 at a time when a cease-fire between rebels and the government and its allies has largely held in the rebel-held Idlib region since March — a relative bright spot in an otherwise dismal situation. But the commission noted how Syria faces new strains linked to the coronavirus pandemic, a currency and economic crisis, and stiff new sanctions by the United States on top of the war s devastating toll over nearly a decade. The panel urged an easing of sanctions that compound the impact of lags in humanitarian aid deliveries because of COVID-19, and urged countries to take back their nationals who are the children of militants from the Islamic State group and women held by the thousands in squalid camps. The report cited “reasonable grounds” to believe that Syrian President Bashar Assad s government has “continued to perpetrate the crimes against humanity of enforced disappearance, murder, torture, sexual violence and imprisonment.” It also said possible war crimes, including hostage-taking, torture and rape, may have been committed by the so-called Syrian National Army, a coalition of Turkey-backed rebel groups that controls a broad swath of territory along the Turkish border. They have been at odds with the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, who are opposed by Turkey s government, in the northeast. The commission said it was, for example, investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yazidi women were detained in the Ra s al-Ayn and Afrin regions by Syrian National Army members within the last year. It highlighted Turkey s responsibility to “as far as possible, ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children.” In areas held by the Syrian Defense Forces, the commission noted worrying conditions in the camps deteriorated, with medical services “stripped down to skeletal levels due to COVID-19.” “The dramatic increase in those suffering from food insecurity in Syria in the first half of 2020 is deeply concerning,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, one of the commission s three members. “All barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid must be removed.”
CAIRO (AP) — An interim government in eastern Libya resigned on Sunday amid street protests that erupted across the divided country over dire living conditions, officials said. Prime Minister Abdallah al-Thani submitted the resignation of his government to Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives, said the government s spokesman, Ezzel-Deen al-Falih. Abdallah Abaihig, a spokesman for the parliament, confirmed the government s resignation, saying lawmakers would review it in their next meeting. No date set for the session. The parliament on Friday accused the Central Bank and government in the capital of Tripoli of “plundering” the country and neglecting the east, in apparent efforts to deflect blame for the deterioration of public services. Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Both the parliament and al-Thani s government, which is not internationally recognized, are allied with Khalifa Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, which controls Libya s east and south. Hundreds of young Libyans flooded the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities in the past couple of days in a spontaneous outburst of anger over the area s crippling electricity shortages. Protesters in eastern Libya set piles of tires a blaze and blocked traffic in several major roads. On Saturday, protesters attempted to storm a security headquarters in eastern town of Marj. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, said at least one civilian was reportedly killed and three others were wounded. It called for “a thorough and immediate” investigation into “the reported excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrations” and the speedy release of a number of detained protesters. The demonstrations mirror similar recent protests over power cuts and corruption in the capital Tripoli and other western cities in recent weeks. The protests have led to a power struggle within the UN-supported government. The recent protests across Libya were “motivated by deep-seated frustrations about sustained poor living conditions, shortages of electricity and water, rampant corruption, misgovernance, and a lack of service provision throughout the country,” the UNSMIL said. The UN mission said the protests underscore “the urgent need to lift the oil blockade” and the return to a “full and inclusive” political process to end Libya s yearslong conflict. Powerful tribes in eastern Libya loyal to Hifter closed oil export terminals and choked off major pipelines at the start of the year to pressure the Tripoli-based government, which is accused of using oil revenues to fund militias and mercenaries. The US Embassy in Libya said Hifter agreed to reopen oil fields and terminals no later than Saturday. By Sunday evening, it was not clear whether the blockade had been lifted. Hifter s spokesman did not answer phone calls and messages seeking comment. Hifter s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns. Fighting has died down in recent weeks amid intensive international efforts, including from the United States, to establish a lasting cease-fire and avert a battle over the strategic city of Sirte, the gateway for vital oil facilities.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese soldiers on Saturday fired rubber bullets and live rounds in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to march to the presidential palace during an anti-government demonstration. Tension is high in Lebanon following last month s devastating explosion at Beirut s port that killed nearly 200 people, and after another mysterious and huge blaze at the same site Thursday. The Aug. 4 explosion was caused by the detonation of nearly three thousand tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at the port for years. More than five weeks later, it is still not clear what started the fire that ignited the chemicals, and no one has been held accountable so far. The explosion, which created a massive shockwave that shattered glass and blasted windows, doors and injured 6,500 people, came on top of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis blamed on decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country s political class. Protesters had called for the march Saturday to the presidential palace in the suburb of Baabda to express their anger and call for accountability. Supporters of President Michel Aoun called for a counter-protest at the same location, adding to the tension. Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers separated the two camps. Later, as anti-Aoun protesters attempted to break a security cordon blocking their path on the highway leading to the palace, troops fired at first live rounds in the air, then rubber bullets, in an effort to disperse them. Some protesters threw stones and tree branches at the troops, injuring several of them. Some sat in the middle of the highway vowing to stay there. A group climbed on a sign post and hung ropes tied into nooses. Some soldiers threw stones and sticks back at protesters, and pointed their M-16 machine guns at them as well. The military later issued a statement saying it had to form a human barrier to separate the two groups of demonstrators near the presidential palace, and was forced to fire in the air after protesters pelted soldiers with stones and beat them with sticks in an attempt to reach the presidential palace. The public blames the corruption and negligence of Lebanon s politicians, security and judicial officials, many of whom knew about the storage of the chemicals that exploded and did nothing.
BEIRUT (AP) — A huge fire broke out Thursday at the Port of Beirut, triggering panic among residents traumatized by last month s massive explosion that killed and injured thousands of people. It was not immediately clear what caused the fire at the facility, which was decimated by the August 4 explosion when nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, triggering a shock wave explosion that blasted windows, doors and walls miles away. A column of black smoke billowed from the port at midday Thursday, with orange flames leaping from the ground. The Lebanese army said the fire is at a warehouse where oil and tires are placed in the duty free zone at the port adding that fighting the blaze is ongoing and that army helicopters are taking part in the operation. Panicked residents — still struggling to get over last month s catastrophic explosion — cracked open windows and called each other to warn them of the new fire. Local TV stations said the companies that have offices near the port have asked their employees to leave the area. Lebanese troops closed the major road that passes near the port referring traffic to other areas. The August 4 explosion killed more than 190 people, injured around 6,500 and damaged thousands of buildings in the Lebanese capital. The sight of another huge fire a month later created panic among residents traumatized by last month s explosion. State-run National News Agency said the fire was at a warehouse where tires are placed. It added that firefighters are dealing with the blaze. Army helicopters were taking part in efforts to extinguish the fire. A video circulating on social media showed workers at the port running away in fear as soon as the fire broke out, a chilling reminder of last month s blast that killed dozens of port employees and 10 fire fighters. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud and authorities called on people to stay away from roads leading to the port to allow fire engines to move quickly. Police spokesman Col. Joseph Msalam said they have no information about what is happening at the port adding that the facility is currently under control of the army. Asked about reports that the fire was caused by burning tires and oil, he said: “I don t know. It could be containers. I really don t know what is there.” It was the second fire at the port this week. On Tuesday, a small fire erupted, also creating some panic, that was quickly extinguished.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The warring parties in Libya and their international backers — the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Jordan vs Turkey and Qatar — violated a UN arms embargo on the oil-rich north African country that remains “totally ineffective,” UN experts said in a new report. The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Libya said in the report seen Tuesday by The Associated Press that 11 companies also violated the arms embargo including the Wagner Group, a private Russian security company the panel said in May provided between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support eastern Libya’s rebel commander Khalifa Hifter. In addition, the panel of experts said the warring parties and their international backers, along with Egypt and Syria, failed to inspect aircraft or vessels or both, as required by a 2015 UN Security Council resolution if they have reasonable grounds to believe the cargo contains military weapons and ammunition. “The panel considers that details in letters to certain member states, together with extensive media coverage, provides sufficient information for them to have reasonable grounds for inspection,” the report said. The new report follows a warning last week from the top UN official for Libya that the oil-rich country is at “a decisive turning point,” with foreign backers of its rival governments pouring in weapons and the misery of its people compounded by the coronavirus pandemic that appears to be “spiraling out of control.” Acting special representative Stephanie Williams told the Security Council that its actions “will help determine whether the country descends into new depths of fragmentation and chaos, or progresses towards a more prosperous future.” Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The county has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Eastern military commander Hifter launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture the capital of Tripoli. But Hifter’s campaign collapsed in June when militias backing the UN-supported government in Tripoli, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the capital and other western towns. Hifter is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Jordan and Egypt while the Tripoli forces are supported by the wealthy Gulf state Qatar and by Turkey, which is a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle over political Islam. The panel of experts said that “since the more direct engagement by Turkey in 2019 and the United Arab Emirates in January 2020 arms transfers to Libya by those two member states have been extensive, blatant and with complete disregard to the sanctions measures.” “The panel thus finds that Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were in repeated non-compliance” with the arms embargo, which has been in force since 2011, the report said. It cited Turkey’s deployment of military personnel and transfer of at least 10 types of military equipment as well as its transfer of foreign fighters. Most military hardware sent to the government in Tripoli — electronic warfare systems, anti-tank guided missiles, combat drones, self-propelled air defense guns and artillery, surface-to-air missile systems, frigates and fighter ground attack aircraft — came from Turkey, it said. The panel said the UAE deployed military personnel and transferred at least five types of military equipment into Libya including armored personnel carriers and patrol vehicles and a French Dassault Mirage 2000-9 jet fighter. Russia transferred at least two types of military equipment into Libya, pointing to a Mig-29A fighter jet operating at the Al Jufra airbase on May 18 and a Sukhoi SU-24 supersonic attack aircraft operating from both Al Jufra and Al Khadim airbases on the same day as well as “a main battle tank upgrade” for an unidentified Russian private military company. The experts said the Wagner group transferred “armed private military operatives and military equipment into Libya” to support Hifter’s military operations, including two armored personnel carriers. Wagner military operatives also took part in the withdrawal of Hifter’s forces from Bani Walid on May 27, the panel said, and on July 1, its operatives were reported to be based at five airbases — Al Jufra, Brak, Ghardabiya, Sabha and Wadden — and at the Sharara oil facility, the country’s largest. The 10 other companies accused by the panel of violating the arms embargo by providing logistical support for Hifter’s forces include airlines from Kazakhstan, Syria, Ukraine and Tajikistan and two UAE companies. The panel of experts said the resupply of both sides by air was extensive, with flights from the UAE to western Egypt and eastern Libya, and from Russia via Syria to eastern Libya to reinforce Hifter’s forces — and from Turkey to western Libya to reinforce the government. As for shipments by sea, the panel confirmed that five vessels destined for government ports flying flags of Albania, Lebanon, Tanzania and Panama were in “non-compliance” with the arms embargo along with two destined for Hifter’s eastern ports. One flying a Liberian flag has a UAE owner and the other flying a Bahamas flag has a Japanese owner, it said. AP emails to the UN missions of the UAE, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Qatar got no response. A spokesperson for Turkey’s UN Mission wouldn’t comment on the report but said it has cooperated with the UN-recognized government and supports the work of UN envoy Williams and the panel of experts. “Allegations regarding any violation by Turkey of sanctions are baseless,” said the spokesperson who was not authorized to be identified by name.
A Turkish court on Monday sentenced an Islamic State suspect to life in prison over the New Year’s Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul that left 39 people dead in 2017. The suspect, Albulkadir Masharipov of Uzbekistan, was convicted of 39 counts of murder and one count of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. He was handed 40 separate life sentences without parole. The court also sentenced him to a total of 1,368 years in prison for the attempted murder of 79 people who escaped the attack with injuries. Ilyas Mamasaripov, who was accused of aiding Masharipov, was sentenced to a total of 1,432 years, on charges of aiding murder, aiding attempted murder, and aiding an attempt against the constitutional order, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Of the 58 other defendants in the case, 11 were acquitted of the charges, while others received various sentences for membership in a terror organization, the agency said. Early on Jan. 1, 2017, an assailant shot his way into Istanbul’s Reina nightclub where hundreds were partying to celebrate the New Year. The assailant escaped from the scene and the Islamic State group later claimed the massacre. Several revelers jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack. Most of the dead were foreigners. Police arrested Masharipov in a police raid 15 days after the attack. Masharipov initially admitted that he had carried out the attack but later denied the charges against him, Anadolu reported. In his final words of defense on Monday, Masharipov asked that he be acquitted, saying his initial testimonies were taken under “torture and pressure.” He insisted there was insufficient evidence against him, Anadolu said. He is expected to appeal his conviction. A lawyer representing Ali Akyil, the father of one victim, said her client would seek compensation for the loss of his son, Kerim. “Obviously, as nothing would ease his pain, he found the punishment to be lacking,” Ruya Beril Calis told The Associated Press. “With this in mind, we are continuing our process of legal compensation.” Kerim Akyil, a dual Turkish-Belgian citizen, had traveled to Istanbul from Belgium to celebrate the New Year at Reina, Calis said. Turkey has been hit by a string of attacks since 2015 by Kurdish militants and IS extremists that have left more than 300 people dead. Photo caption: In this Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 file photo, a man adjusts a victim’s photograph displayed with floral tributes and Turkish flags, outside the Reina night club following the New Year’s day attack, in Istanbul. A Turkish court has on Monday, Sep. 7, 2020 sentenced an Islamic State militant to life in prison over the New Year’s Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul that left 39 people dead in 2017. Albulkadir Masharipov of Uzbekistan was charged with membership in a terror group, murder and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, among other charges. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, file)
Greece plans to acquire arms, boost its armed forces and revamp its defence industry, the government s spokesman said on Monday, as tensions with NATO ally Turkey over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean grow. Greece, which emerged from its third international bailout in 2018 and has been struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, wants to spend part of its multi-billion euro cash reserves on its defence sector. "We are in talks with allies to boost our armed forces," government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters, adding that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will outline his plans during an annual economic policy speech on Saturday. A Greek government official told Reuters last week that Greece is in talks with France and other countries over the acquisition of fighter jets. Greece has also been trying for more than a decade to consolidate and privatise its loss-making defence companies. Mitsotakis will meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Corsica on Thursday, before a Southern European leaders summit (MED7) on the French island of Corsica. The two leaders are expected to discuss the European Union s strained relationship with Turkey, Macron s office said. Petas said that cooperation in the defence sector between the two countries will also be on the agenda. Turkey and Greece have long disagreed over the extent of their continental shelves. Tensions rose last month after Ankara sent an exploration vessel into disputed waters, accompanied by warships, days after Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt. Ankara has since been extending the vessel s work in the wider region, issuing advisories which Athens calls illegal. The Greek conservative leader discussed the latest twists in the row with European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs summits of EU leaders, during a phone call on Monday. Michel will visit Athens on Sept. 15, Petsas said.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s top Christian cleric said on Sunday a new government must deliver urgent economic and other reforms in the national interest, rather than returning to past corrupt ways that have plunged the Middle Eastern nation into an economic crisis. Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, leader of the Maronite church, has an influential role as religious leader of the biggest Christian community in Lebanon, where political power is divided between its main Christian, Muslim and Druze sects. Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni Muslim, is in talks to swiftly form a cabinet by mid September, under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron. Picking ministers in the past has taken months of haggling. Macron has led international efforts to fix the country of about six million people that has been crushed by debt and which is reeling from a huge Aug. 4 port blast that shattered Beirut, exacerbating Lebanon’s deepest crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The patriarch called for an emergency government that was “small, qualified and strong” in his Sunday sermon, saying the new cabinet should not return to past ways of “clientelism, corruption and bias”. “Fateful times require a government in which there is no monopoly of portfolios, no sharing out of benefits, no dominance by one group, and no landmines that disrupt its work and decisions,” he said, adding it must “negotiate responsibly” with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). His comments were carried by an-Nahar newspaper website and other Lebanese media. Talks with the IMF were started this year by the outgoing government, but quickly stalled amid a row between ministers, politicians and banks about the scale of losses in the banking system that has been brought to its knees, sending the currency into tailspin and driving many people into poverty. Reporting by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Potter Image: FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai speaks after meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 15, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s prime minister-designate began consultations on Wednesday to form a new, crisis Cabinet, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Lebanese politicians had committed to a road map that begins with the formation of a government within two weeks to enact reforms. Mustapha Adib, a 48-year-old diplomat, was hastily approved for the job of prime minister earlier this week, ahead of a two-day marathon visit by Macron that ended on Tuesday night. It was his second visit in less than a month as Lebanon faces multiple crises and challenges — including an unprecedented financial and economic meltdown and the aftermath of last month’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port that ripped through the capital. The giant Aug. 4 explosion, caused by the ignition of nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, has resulted in intense pressure on Lebanon’s ruling elite, already blamed for driving the small country to the brink of total collapse. At least 190 people were killed and thousands were injured in the blast. Speaking at the end of two days of meetings in Beirut, Macron said France was committed to helping Lebanon get out of its crisis, but that failing to implement reforms within a three-month period would result in punitive actions, including withholding vital international assistance and possibly even sanctions against politicians. “Going back to business as usual would be madness,” Macron told reporters at the end of his visit. France and the international community have said they will not provide financial assistance to Lebanon unless it implements radical changes aimed at fighting widespread corruption and mismanagement that has characterized governance here for decades. Adib, a dual Lebanese-French citizen, promised to carry out the mission as he prepared to form a new Cabinet, saying he will work on reaching a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund. Humanitarian assistance has poured into Lebanon in the wake of the Beirut explosion, with most of it going directly to NGOs and other agencies, and bypassing authorities — a reflection of the lack of trust. In an apparent snub to the ruling class, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said he will not meet with Lebanese politicians during a visit to Beirut on Wednesday, but would hold talks with civil society activists. In an interview with the pan-Arab Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Schenker said the new Lebanese government must believe in reforms and implement them. “There is a need for a government that cares about its people and their demands, a responsible and transparent government that carries out economic and political reforms,” he said. “It will no longer be business as usual.” By ZEINA KARAM Image: A delegation, including French President Emmanuel Macron, arrives at the site of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport to visit French soldiers who are working with the Lebanese army in cleaning and investigating, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Macron is holding talks with Lebanese officials on ways to help the tiny country get out of its worst economic and financial crisis and the aftermath of a blast last month that left thousands dead or wounded. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in public for the first time in six months on Wednesday, smiling and chatting as he re-emerged from the constraints of the coronavius lockdown. The audience, at which the pope announced a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon, was held in the San Damaso courtyard of the Vatican s Apostolic Palace and gave him the public contact he thrives on. Visitors had their temperatures checked as they entered the Vatican and nearly everyone among the audience of 500 or so – including Swiss Guards in ceremonial uniforms – wore masks. The public sat in seats arranged to ensure social distancing. “After so many months, we resume our encounters face to face and not screen to screen, face to face, and this is beautiful,” he said to applause at the start of the audience. Francis clearly enjoyed himself as he walked past guests who had pushed together behind barriers, frequently stopping to converse with them from a distance of one to two meters (yards). The pope last held an audience with a public crowd in early March. After that, the coronavirus pandemic forced him to hold virtual audiences transmitted from the official papal library over television or the internet, an experience he described as akin to being “caged”. He blessed children from a distance as he passed on the way to a dais to make his address. Francis appeared to be energized by the crowd – even though it was a far cry from the tens of thousands that can be held in St. Peter s Square, where outdoor audiences are usually held. Francis kissed a Lebanese flag handed to him by Lebanese priest Georges Breidi and bowed his head to say a silent prayer for the country, still reeling from last month s deadly port blast and rising sectarian tensions. At the end of the audience he invited the priest to the front to hold up the flag as the pope made an appeal for peace and dialogue in Lebanon. He announced that Friday, Sept. 4 would be a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon and that he was sending his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin – the number two in the Vatican hierarchy – to Beirut on that day to represent him. He invited members of other religions to take part. “Lebanon cannot be abandoned to itself,” Francis said, asking politicians, religious leaders to commit themselves with “sincerity and transparency” to reconstruct the country and for nations to help “without getting involved in regional tensions”.
French President Emmanuel Macron has warned Lebanese politicians they risk sanctions if they fail to set the nation on a new course within three months, stepping up pressure for reforms in a country collapsing under the weight of an economic crisis. Visiting Lebanon for the second time in less than a month, Macron marked the country s centenary by planting a cedar tree, the emblem of a nation that is facing its biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war. "It s the last chance for this system," Macron told POLITICO in an interview while travelling to Beirut on Monday. "It s a risky bet I m making, I am aware of it ... I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital." Macron said he was seeking "credible commitments" and a "demanding follow-up mechanism" from Lebanon s leaders, including a legislative election in six to 12 months. Lebanese politicians, some former warlords who have overseen decades of industrial-scale state corruption, face a daunting task with an economy in crisis, a swathe of Beirut in tatters after the Aug. 4 port blast and sectarian tensions rising. In the hours before his arrival on Monday, a new prime minister was designated, Mustapha Adib, following a consensus among major parties that senior Lebanese politicians said was forged under pressure from Macron over the weekend. Macron, who also visited last month in the immediate aftermath of the blast that killed more than 190 people and injured 6,000, planted the cedar sapling at a forest reserve in the mountains northeast of Beirut. The French president s Elysée palace said Macron had planted the tree to show his "confidence in the future of the country". The French air force display team flew overhead, leaving smoke trails of red, white and green, the national colours of Lebanon whose borders were proclaimed by France 100 years ago in an imperial carve-up with Britain. It gained independence in 1943. TRANSCENDING DIVISIONS Macron, who has been at the centre of international efforts to press Lebanese leaders to tackle corruption and take other steps to fix their country, began his trip late on Monday by meeting Fairouz, 85, one of the Arab world s most famous singers whose music transcends Lebanon s deep divisions. He was greeted by dozens of protesters gathered outside her home with placards reading "No cabinet by, or with, the murderers" and "Don t be on the wrong side of history!" He told reporters on Monday he wanted to "ensure that the government that is formed will implement the necessary reforms." Macron s agenda includes a tour of the devastated Beirut port, a meeting with President Michel Aoun for a centenary reception and meetings with Lebanon s various factions. After being designated as premier on Monday, Adib called for the rapid formation of a government, immediate implementation of reforms and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Lebanon s economic crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and waste that landed the state with one of the world s heaviest public debt burdens. Since October, the currency has collapsed and depositors have been frozen out of their savings while the real value of those deposits has collapsed in a paralysed banking system. Poverty and unemployment has soared in a nation that already hosts the world s largest number of refugees per capita. France s foreign minister said last week that Lebanon risked disappearing because of the inaction of its political elite who needed to quickly form a new government to implement reforms.
Egypt s armed forces have killed 77 terrorist elements during various raids in the last few weeks, the country’s military spokesman said on Sunday, adding that the operations had led to the death or injury of seven army personnel. A video statement on the spokesman s Facebook page said the army had killed 73 takfiris in raids in North Sinai and had destroyed 317 hideouts and stores which the terrorist elements had used as shelters and ammunition warehouses. Ten four-wheel drive vehicles were destroyed during the raid. Other operations were carried out and resulted in the death of two "extremely dangerous" militants who were found in possession of two rifles, five magazines, and an explosive belt. Two other takfiris were killed and another one was wounded, the statement said. Four rifles, six magazines and large quantities of ammunition, explosives, a motorcycle, three water lifting machines, and sums of money were found in their possession, according to the spokesman. The injured terrorist is receiving medical treatment at a military hospital and is being interrogated. The statement also said that the air forces had destroyed nine four-wheel drive vehicles loaded with weapons and ammunition that were on their way to illegally cross the western borders. “This coincides with the intensification of the naval forces work of mopping-up and inspection of the operation area of the Mediterranean and Red Sea to secure economic objectives and secure the coastal strip against any threats, in addition to activating maritime security measures within our territorial waters,” the statement added. "As a result of the valiant combating operations, three officers and four soldiers were martyred or injured," read the statement. The operations were carried out between 22 July and 30 August.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday his powerful Iran-backed Shiite movement is "open" to a French proposal for a new political pact for Lebanon. His comments came a day before French President Emmanuel Macron was due in blast-hit Beirut for his second visit in less than four weeks to press for political reform and reconstruction in tandem with the start of political consultations to name a new Lebanese premier. Western leaders, including Macron who last visited two days after the August 4 mega-blast, have joined calls from Lebanese at home and abroad for deep-rooted political change after the explosion at Beirut port killed more than 180 people and laid to waste entire districts of the capital. "On his latest visit to Lebanon, we heard a call from the French president for a new political pact in Lebanon... Today we are open to a constructive discussion in this regard," Nasrallah said in a televised speech. "But we have one condition: this discussion should be carried out... with the will and consent of the various Lebanese factions." Speaking shortly before President Michel Aoun is expected to give an address to the nation to mark the centenary Tuesday of the declaration of Greater Lebanon, Nasrallah did not elaborate on what kind of changes his movement was willing to consider. But he cited criticism from "official French sources" over Lebanon s "sect-based political system and its inability to solve Lebanon s problems and respond to its needs". Lebanon recognises 18 official religious sects and its 128 parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims and Christians, an arrangement unique in the region. However, governments born out of this system have been prone to deadlock and failed to meet popular demands to improve living conditions. Macron, the first world leader to visit Lebanon after the devastating port blast said at the time that Lebanese leaders had a "huge" responsibility, "that of a revamped pact with the Lebanese people in the coming weeks, that of deep change". The explosion of a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate, left to languish for years in a warehouse, prompted the government to step down on August 10 and reignited a months-old protest movement demanding a political overhaul. Consultations to name a new premier are scheduled to begin on Monday in tandem with Macron s visit. Nasrallah said his movement would be "cooperative" in the formation of a government capable of spearheading reform and reconstruction. Over half of Lebanese at risk Many Lebanese have blamed the monster blast on a ruling class seen as mired in nepotism and graft since the country s 1975-1990 civil war. The explosion that wounded at least 6,500 people and rendered thousands homeless without any significant government support revived a protest movement that had emerged in October to demand the wholesale removal of the political elite. The blast came as Lebanon was already on its knees, struck by its worst economic crisis in decades compounded by a coronavirus lockdown. Lebanon has defaulted on its debt, while the local currency has plummeted in value on the black market and poverty rates have soared, on top of a spike in COVID-19 cases. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) said Sunday that "more than half of the country s population is at risk of failing to access their basic food needs by the year s end", as a result of the country s multiple woes. "Immediate measures should be taken to prevent a food crisis," said ESCWA executive secretary Rola Dashti. Lebanon relies on imports for 85 percent of its food needs, and the annihilation of the silos at Beirut port could worsen an already alarming situation, aid agencies and experts warn. Even before the blast, ESCWA said more than 55 percent of Lebanese are "trapped in poverty and struggling for bare necessities". On Friday, Macron spoke of the "constraints of a confessional system" in a country populated by Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiites. "If we let Lebanon go in the region and if we somehow leave it in the hands of the depravity of regional powers, it will be civil war," he said.
Turkey said on Thursday it will hold firing exercises in the eastern Mediterranean on Sept 1-2, the latest in a series of military drills which have fuelled tensions with Greece. The two NATO states have been locked in a bitter dispute over control of eastern Mediterranean waters which escalated after Ankara sent a seismic survey vessel to the disputed region this month in a move which Athens called illegal. They are at odds over claims to potential hydrocarbon resources based on conflicting views about the extent of their continental shelves in waters dotted with mostly Greek islands. The Turkish navy issued the latest advisory, known as a Navtex, on Thursday saying it will hold the shooting exercises in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Iskenderun, northeast of Cyprus. As the dispute widened, France said on Wednesday it was joining military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the deployment of French military aircraft in Greek Cyprus violated treaties regarding the control and administration of the island after independence from Britain in 1960. Aksoy said that France s stance was dangerously encouraging Greece and Cyprus to further escalate tensions in the region. Cyprus was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup. The island s Greek Cypriots live mostly in the south, and Turkish Cypriots in the north.
Israel said Wednesday it had launched air strikes against Hezbollah observation posts in Lebanon after shots were fired from across the border towards its troops the previous evening. The border flare-up came hours after Lebanon rejected an Israeli call to reform the UN peacekeeping force which patrols the border ahead of a UN Security Council vote to renew its mandate. The Israel Defense Forces had said earlier that a "security incident" was unfolding in the vicinity of Manara, a kibbutz near the UN-demarcated border between the two countries, and urged residents to take shelter. "During operational activity in northern Israel last night, shots were fired from Lebanon toward IDF troops," the military said on Twitter. "We responded with fire, & our aircraft struck Hezbollah observation posts near the border. This is a severe event & we remain ready to combat any threat to our borders." Lebanon s National News Agency reported Israeli gunfire and flares in the Mays al-Jabal area across the border from Manara. The Israeli army said "troops deployed dozens of illumination rounds and smoke shells and responded with fire". Afterwards "attack helicopters and aircraft struck observation posts belonging to the Hezbollah terror organisation in the border area". It reported no Israeli casualties. Peacekeeping row Israel and Lebanon are still technically at war, and the United Nations force, UNIFIL, is tasked with monitoring their ceasefire. Lebanon had hours earlier rejected an Israeli call to reform UNIFIL ahead of a UN Security Council vote to renew its mandate. The incident also comes after Hezbollah announced at the weekend it had brought down an Israeli drone flying over the border. The Iran-backed Shiite militant group vowed in September last year to down Israeli drones flying over Lebanon, following an incident a month earlier when two drones packed with explosives targeted its stronghold in south Beirut. Set up in 1978, UNIFIL was beefed up after a month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah. The 10,500-strong force, in coordination with the Lebanese army, is tasked with monitoring a ceasefire and Israeli pullout from a demilitarised zone on the border. Israel accuses the force, whose latest mandate expires at the end of August, of not being active enough against Hezbollah. It accuses the militants of stockpiling weapons at the border, and has been pushing for the UN force to be allowed to inspect private property. But Lebanon s caretaker foreign minister Charbel Wahbe informed the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council on Tuesday that his government wanted the force to stay on "without modifying its mandate or its numbers". Hezbollah wields considerable political influence in Lebanon and its allies dominate the caretaker government. Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes on Hezbollah targets in neighbouring Syria where the group is fighting alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. It has also struck Iranian targets in Syria in what it says is a campaign to prevent Tehran providing Hezbollah with the technology to replace its arsenal of rockets with ballistic missiles capable of penetrating Israel s Iron Dome air defence shield.
KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents set off a truck bomb on Tuesday in an attack on Afghan army commandos, killing three people and wounding 41, the defense ministry said, despite steps towards peace talks with the US-backed government. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast in the northern province of Balkh, saying on Twitter they had attacked the commandos. The defense ministry said two members of the commando force were killed and six wounded, while the rest of the casualties were civilians. The blast came as a Taliban delegation visited the Pakistani capital to discuss a peace process underpinned by an agreement between the Taliban and the United States on the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a promise to open power-sharing talks with the government. But despite what many Afghans see as the best hope for peace since the latest phase of Afghanistan’s war began in 2001, the level of violence has remained high. Diplomats and officials say the violence is sapping the trust needed for talks. The government has asked repeatedly for a ceasefire before negotiations start in Qatar’s capital of Doha, a request the Taliban have refused. Diplomats say Pakistan, which has long had influence over different Afghan factions, including the Taliban, has in recent months been pushing for a reduction in violence. It was not immediately clear what issues would be discussed in the talks between the Taliban and the Pakistanis in Islamabad. Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; additional reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel Image: Relatives react in front of a hospital, where their family member has been transferred for treatment after a truck bomb blast in Balkh province, in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan August 25, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer RECOMMENDATIONS Ethiopia says 75% of GERD construction completed, second filling in 2021 4 days ago Alexandria to launch its first surface metro project at $2.5 billion 4 days ago Egypt requires all passengers to provide PCR analysis document starting September 5 days ago KLM to resume passenger flights to Cairo after 3-year hiatus 5 days ago Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston cooperate for first time in 19 years 6 days ago Water already dwindling, Egypt’s farmers fear impact of dam 5 days ago Around 60,000 Egyptian gov workers to transfer to New Administrative Capital 6 days ago After 27 years, Amr Diab returns to acting in upcoming Netflix series 6 days ago Ancient Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia gets statue in New Administrative Capital 1 week ago Cairo police arrest two people for beating horse to death 7 days ago Conflicting tan lines: The burkini raises debate in Egypt 1 week ago Egypt reopens 21 coronavirus quarantine hospitals 2 weeks ago
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