BEIRUT (Reuters) – Near the wreckage of Beirut s port, a charity is bringing Christmas cheer to a city hammered by a devastating explosion, rising coronavirus infections and the worst economic crisis since Lebanon s 1975-1990 civil war. The Solidarity Christmas Village, decked out with flashing fairy lights and glittering trees, has been offering visitors free entry to watch concerts and pick up drinks and snacks, lifting the mood of families who can t afford seasonal luxuries. People dressed in giant polar bear costumes and others in Santa Claus outfits offer some festive spirit to a country that is a patchwork of Christian and Muslim sects. “We need to make our children happy …. even if we are tired,” said Toni Hossainy, who had brought her son. The Christmas village has been set up in a temporary warehouse near the port, flattened by a huge explosion on August 4 which also ruined a swathe of the capital. Near the port s shattered entrance, an artist erected a towering Christmas tree decorated not with shiny baubles but with grimy protective clothing and hard hats worn by firefighters who had battled the port conflagration. The blast left tens of thousands homeless in a nation already crushed by a mountain of debt. Opera singer Elias Francis gave a concert to open the Christmas village, bringing his own microphone as a precaution against the fast-spreading coronavirus. “No matter how negative things are around us, like the blast, like the coronavirus, like the economic situation which is very bad, there is still a glimmer of hope,” he said. In a predominantly Christian quarter of Beirut, Nina said her shop selling Christmas trinkets had been packed in previous years but now closes early because there are so few customers. Tears welled up as Georgette Suleiman, 63, who looks after a Beirut school damaged by the blast, remembered the challenges of 2020. “God willing, this Christmas will bring us joy and hope, and Lebanon will return to how it was,” she said.
The Egyptian foreign ministry condemned on Monday the “heinous” beheading of a Tunisian citizen, Okba Dhouibi, in Kasserine, extending its condolences to Tunisia and the victim s family. “Egypt reiterates its strong condemnation of such criminal acts that are revolting to the human instinct [and] affirms its full support for sisterly Tunisia in the measures it takes to eradicate the hateful scourge of terrorism,” the foreign ministry said. The body of Dhouibi, a shepherd in his twenties who was kidnapped from an area near the Algerian border in Kasserine province, was found on Sunday. Tunisian authorities have been conducting offensives against the Islamic State-affiliated militia Ajnad Al-Khilafa in the west of the country. Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has said that the war against terrorism would continue unabated in order to eliminate those threatening the security of the country and the people. He vowed that Dhouibi s murder would not go unpunished, ordering the ministers of defence and interior to enhance efforts to reveal the circumstances of the murder and bring the perpetrators to justice.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A car bomb blast that rocked Afghanistan s capital Sunday morning killed at least nine people, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi told reporters at the site of the attack that the attack wounded around 20 others, including a member of parliament, Khan Mohammad Wardak. Andarabi said the lawmaker was in “good condition.” The interior minister added that the casualty toll could rise further. The attack happened while the lawmaker s convey was passing through an intersection in Kabul s Khoshal Khan neighborhood. The blast set afire surrounding civilian vehicles, as well as damaging nearby buildings and shops. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement condemning the attack, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that the Taliban should stop violence against civilians and accept a ceasefire, to facilitate the current peace process. Ghani s statement did not directly lay blame on the Taliban for the car bombing or offer evidence that the group was responsible for it. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital of Kabul in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students. IS also claimed responsibility for Saturday s rocket attacks at the major US base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties in that assault, according to NATO and provincial officials. A NATO official confirmed the attack and said initial reports indicated that the airfield was not damaged. In another report from the southern Helmand province, the Afghan Defense Ministry in a statement confirmed that a suicide car bomber tried to attack an army checkpoint, but was identified and shot by soldiers. Two soldiers were slightly wounded in the attempted assault in Nawa district, the ministry said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack in Helmand. Violence in Afghanistan has spiked even as the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war. At the same time, the Taliban have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces. Earlier this week, US Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, held an unannounced meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha to discuss military aspects of last February s US-Taliban agreement. The agreement, signed in Qatar where the Taliban maintain a political office, was intended to set the stage for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. After talks with the Taliban, Milley flew to Kabul to consult with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He said he emphasized to both parties the need to rapidly reduce levels of violence across the country.
Tesfaye Berhe looked on with worry as his farmhands stripped leaves from sorghum stalks dried brown by the blaring sun, wondering how he could salvage a harvest disrupted by heavy fighting in Ethiopia s northern Tigray region. The portly, grey-bearded 60-year-old ran for cover when shells started flying around him a month ago -- launched from the east by the military and from the west by forces loyal to the dissident regional ruling party, the Tigray People s Liberation Front (TPLF). The chaos forced Tesfaye to abandon this year s crop of teff, a grain used to make injera flatbread, mid-harvest. Now he fears it could happen again with the sorghum, despite claims from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that the fighting is all but over. "We are still hearing that there are combatants in both directions. We are concerned about whether or not we can eat what we re harvesting now, if they come back," he said at his farm near the village of Ayasu Gebriel. Tigray, an impoverished region of about six million people, faced formidable food security challenges before the conflict began, compounded this year by the coronavirus pandemic and the worst desert locust infestation in decades. Now aid agencies fear the fighting -- which has reportedly killed thousands and displaced many thousands more -- could tip the region into catastrophe. AFP recently obtained exclusive access to southern Tigray, where some residents said they were growing desperate, begging from neighbours and serving their children boiled water just to get something warm in their stomachs. The hardship could last long after the guns are silenced, especially if farmers like Tesfaye see an entire season of grain wiped out. "The potential loss of the harvest inside Tigray, which was about to start when the conflict began, could have major implications for food insecurity in the region," said Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the UN s humanitarian coordination office. Region not stable Tensions over aid access have been mounting in recent weeks between Abiy, last year s Nobel Peace Prize winner, and humanitarian officials. Abiy s government has stressed its commitment to getting aid to "vulnerable communities," saying it will take the lead while coordinating access for outsiders, partly because of persistent insecurity. But that process has not gone smoothly and the United Nations has expressed frustration over lack of access. A week after the UN inked a deal ostensibly allowing some access, security forces fired on a UN assessment team trying to visit a camp for Eritrean refugees, claiming they had ignored instructions and driven through checkpoints. The UN said late Wednesday that 18 trucks bearing 570 tonnes of food had finally reached Tigray, although it was still awaiting "unhindered and full humanitarian access". The European Union has postponed nearly 90 million euros ($110 million) in budget support to Ethiopia unless the government meets its conditions, which include humanitarian access to all of Tigray. The government, meanwhile, has been touting its own efforts to provide assistance. In the Tigray town of Alamata, officials last Friday distributed 50-kilogramme (110-pound) sacks of wheat -- branded with the Ethiopian flag -- to hundreds of residents who queued outside a warehouse, some using umbrellas to block the sun. But Alamata has not seen much combat, nor is it home to many displaced Ethiopians. An official with the federal disaster commission, Solomon Admasu, acknowledged he and his colleagues were struggling to reach areas hit harder by the fighting. "The resources are there, but there are places that are not stable and places that have security problems," Solomon said. Another issue is that many local officials in Tigray are feared to have fled their posts, potentially complicating food distribution once federal officials make it deeper into the region, said Assefa Mulugeta, a peace ministry official coordinating the government aid effort in Alamata. "The government needs help, it is obvious," he said, "because the demands are very high." Living with God s help Some international aid is getting into Tigray. Over the weekend the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that seven trucks of medicines and medical equipment had reached the regional capital Mekele -- the first foreign aid convoy to make it there. Catholic Relief Services said it has worked with local church partners to get food aid into western Tigray and to thousands of displaced people along Tigray s border with the Amhara region. Yet in towns and villages throughout southern Tigray, residents said what little aid they have seen is not nearly enough. "People don t have anything to eat or drink, they need aid. Even the wealthy people, the importers and exporters," said Asene Hailu, a resident of Mehoni, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Mekele. He added that "there are no medical supplies" for civilians injured in shelling. The needs extend well beyond food, as many in Tigray went weeks without water and electricity, meaning "sanitation and health services have been seriously disrupted," the UN s Abreu said. But food is the most immediate concern, said one construction worker in the town of Korem who requested anonymity. The extended closure of banks meant even those who could afford rapidly-rising food prices have struggled to provide for their families, he said. "The low-income people are ashamed to beg but they need swift, easy aid at the moment. They are eating what they have on hand and that s almost finished," he said. "They are living with God s help."
BNEI BRAK, Israel (AP) — When Israel went into its second nationwide coronavirus lockdown in September, most of the country quickly complied. But in some ultra-Orthodox areas, synagogues were packed, mourners thronged funerals and COVID-19 cases continued to soar. The flouting of nationwide safety rules in ultra-Orthodox areas reinforced a popular perception that the community prioritizes faith over science and cares little about the greater good. It also has triggered a backlash that threatens to ripple throughout Israeli society for years. “Many Israelis understand that there is a serious challenge and we cannot just sort of allow time to pass and hope that this issue will go away,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that studies Israeli society and politics. Over the years, the ultra-Orthodox minority has wielded outsize influence over broader Israeli society, using its kingmaker status in parliament to secure generous budgets and benefits for its people and generating resentment among the broader public. The events of 2020 brought long-simmering tensions to a boil. Medical experts estimate the ultra-Orthodox have accounted for about one-third of the country s coronavirus cases, despite making up just 12 percent of the population. Avraham Rubenstein, mayor of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, calls the uproar unfair. Rubenstein has been widely praised for overseeing a successful effort to bring one of Israel s worst coronavirus outbreaks under control in just a few weeks. He believes the anger toward the ultra-Orthodox is motivated by ignorance, animosity and hostile media coverage. “There is a creator of the universe,” he acknowledged. “We are believers. But when you go outside in Bnei Brak, the first thing you will see is people wearing masks and keeping their distance.” Rubenstein says the lawbreakers are a tiny percentage of the ultra-Orthodox community and that the high infection rates are due to crowded conditions in his city. Ultra-Orthodox Jews live in some of Israel s poorest cities and neighborhoods. It is common for families of eight or 10 people to be crowded together in small apartments. Early on in the coronavirus crisis, Israel was seen as a model of success. The country moved quickly last spring to seal its borders and impose lockdown restrictions that appeared to bring the virus under control. But the reopening of the economy was mismanaged, and the virus quickly returned. The neighboring Palestinian territories — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — are coping with their own crises. With a poorer population and much less advanced medical system after years of Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has repeatedly imposed lockdown measures, devastating an already fragile economy.The Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, stifled by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, did not report a single case of community-spread coronavirus until August. But the numbers have spiked since then, raising fears that its decrepit health system could collapse. By mid-December, Israel reported 3,749 cases per 100,000 population. On the West Bank, there were 2,798 cases per 100,000 people; in Gaza, 1,327, according to the World Health Organization. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox were not the only ones who struggled. Israel s Arab minority also has experienced disproportionately high infection rates, in large part because of the popular custom of holding large weddings. Young Israelis, Jewish and Arab, flocked to beaches and parties. And many middle-class Israelis have participated in mass demonstrations against Netanyahu as the economy has suffered and unemployment has soared. Rubenstein won plaudits for bringing in a retired army general to manage the crisis last spring. His city operates numerous programs to assist the ill and their families and maintains a situation room that keeps close tabs on infections. It has enlisted hundreds of volunteers who have recovered from COVID-19, believing they are no longer contagious, to help older residents. Many people worship outdoors, and synagogues throughout the city have put up plastic sheets to keep attendees safe from one another. Rubenstein says Israelis must understand that the ultra-Orthodox, who avoid computers and the Internet and consider religious study to be essential like “water and oxygen.” Their schools have remained open while other children study remotely. He says they must be allowed to manage things in their own way, but that doesn t mean people want to be sick or don t consider themselves proud Israelis. “We are an inseparable part of the country,” he said.
(Reuters) – The United States has imposed sanctions on Turkey for purchasing Russian defense systems, targeting Turkey’s top defense procurement and development body Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), its chairman Ismail Demir and three other employees. Here is some background on the SSB: – As Turkey’s top body for defense project development and industrial participation, the SSB was responsible for more than 600 projects ranging from jet engine development to ammunition production as of end-2018. – It is tasked with reducing foreign dependency on hard-to-procure critical products and technologies, increasing national industrial capabilities and expanding defense exports. – Ismail Demir was appointed chairman in April 2014, having previously been general manager of Turkish Airlines’ maintenance and repair unit. He spent several years in the United States for graduate and doctoral studies. – The defense body was established in its original form in 1985 under the umbrella of the Defence Ministry to set and implement policies for defense industry infrastructure. – It was affiliated with the Turkish presidency under Tayyip Erdogan in December 2017 and renamed the SSB in July 2018, with the goal of developing a modern defense industry and modernizing the Turkish Armed Forces. – The SSB is a shareholder in companies including SSTEK, a holding company for stakes in emerging defense companies, including a jet engine developer and aircraft contractor TUSAS. TUSAS produces fuselage parts for F-35 fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones as well as aircraft components for Boeing and Airbus. – It is also a shareholder in the airport authority for Istanbul’s second airport Sabiha Gokcen, in defense contractor STM Savunma Teknolojileri and local testing and certification body TRtest. – The SSB is designated to conclude purchase contracts, to reorganize and integrate the industry, encourage and direct new enterprises and explore the possibilities for foreign capital and technology contributions. – It also sets procurement schedules and financing models and plans the production of required modern weapons and equipment by the private or public sector, as well as obtaining loans from domestic and overseas sources.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon s caretaker prime minister will not meet with the prosecutor investigating the Beirut port explosion as requested, persons familiar with the case said Monday, adding the premier has already given the prosecutor all the information he has. Premier Hassan Diab and three former Cabinet ministers were charged last week by Judge Fadi Sawwan with negligence in the massive August 4 blast that killed over 200 people, injured thousands and caused widespread destruction in the capital. The explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for six years with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it. The four are the most senior officials to be charged in the investigation and were set to be questioned as defendants this week by Sawwan, starting with Diab on Monday. Diab, however, has rejected the charges as “politically targeting” the position of prime minister and accused Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament. He has also received the support of the country s former prime ministers, Lebanon s top Sunni Muslim cleric and the militant Hezbollah group, a strong backer of Diab. Lebanon s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, according to the country s sectarian-based power-sharing system. A person familiar with the case said Diab would not meet with Sawwan. Another person referred inquiries about Diab s questioning to a statement issued by the prime minister s office last week. That statement said the premier informed Sawwan that “Diab has already provided all the information he had regarding this file, period.” They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Diab had been questioned by Sawwan as a witness earlier but now he would face questions as a defendant. The united front in support of Diab was seen by many as an attempt to block a precedent that might lead to accountability on a high level. A culture of impunity has prevailed in Lebanon for decades, including among the entrenched political elites. It has also fostered widespread corruption that has helped plunge Lebanon into the worst economic and financial crisis in its history. Diab, a former university professor who has cast himself as a reformer among Lebanon s widely corrupt political class, was criticized by some activists for refusing to appear before Sawwan on Monday. Rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh tweeted that Diab, like other politicians, is trying to “escape accountability by hiding behind his sect.” Former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former minister of public works Ghazi Zeiter told the daily Al-Akhbar that they also will not show up for questioning. Both are members of parliament and the legislature will have to remove their parliamentary immunity. It was not clear if former minister of public works Youssef Fenianos will show up at Sawwan s office. In a stunning move, Judge Sawwan filed the charges against Diab and the three former ministers Thursday, accusing them of negligence that led to the death of hundreds of people. Top security officials and politicians had known for years about the ammonium nitrate stored at a warehouse at the port and did nothing to remove or destroy it. Diab, who is supported by Hezbollah and its political allies, resigned six days after the blast but remains in his post in a caretaker capacity, as Lebanese officials have failed to agree on a new Cabinet. The move by Sawwan to exercise his discretion to accuse government officials came after he sent a letter and documents to parliament last month informing lawmakers of serious suspicions relating to government officials and asking them to investigate. The lawmakers responded by saying the material they received did not point to any professional wrongdoing.
Jihadists from the Boko Haram group killed at least 27 people in an overnight attack in southeast Niger, a local official said on Sunday. Other people wounded and some more reported missing in the assault in the village of Toumour in the Diffa region, said a senior local official. Witnesses and other officials confirmed the attack, which came as municipal and regional elections went ahead across the country.
BEIRUT (AP) — Ghassan Hasrouty spent most of his life working at the silos in Beirut s port, unloading grain shipments to feed the country even as fighting raged around him during the 1975-90 civil war. Decades later, he perished under the same silos, their towering cement structure gutted by the force of the August 4 explosion at the port, when 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrates ignited in what became one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. In a horrific instant, a burst of power ravaged Beirut. More than 200 people died and the horror and devastation scarred the survivors. Hasrouty s son, Elie, wants justice for his father and thinks the silos should stay as a “mark of shame” and reminder of the corruption and negligence of politicians that many Lebanese blame for the tragedy. A government-commissioned study in the wake of the disaster says the 50-year-old silos could collapse at any moment and should be demolished, sparking an emotional debate among the city s residents over how to preserve the memory of the tragedy. In Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has long prevailed and where those behind violent attacks, bombings and assassinations have rarely been brought to justice, the debate is steeped in suspicion. Sara Jaafar believes the government wants to obliterate the silos and move on as if nothing happened. “It is a reminder of what they did,” said Jaafar, an architect whose apartment overlooking the silos was destroyed in the explosion. “I never want to lose the anger that I have,” she said. Just days after the catastrophic blast, as public outrage mounted, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down, saying the country s endemic corruption was “bigger than the state.” The massive, 48-meter-high silos absorbed much of the explosion s impact, effectively shielding the western part of the city from the blast that damaged or completely destroyed thousands of buildings. The investigation into how such a large amount of dangerous chemicals was poorly stored for years under the nose of the port authority and the wider political leadership has dragged on. Rights groups and families are concerned it s a tactic to protect senior officials, none of whom have so far been detained or charged with any wrongdoing. More than four months later, rotting wheat is dripping from the shredded but still-standing silos, which stored up to 85 percent of Lebanon s grain. Pigeons and rodents have found home among the wreckage. Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-commissioned team of experts, spent several weeks using a laser scanner to gather digital data for an analysis of the silos structure after the explosion. Though they may look structurally sound from afar, the silos are tilted and their foundation is broken, which has caused vertical cracks in two of them. They could collapse at any moment, Durand said, although it is impossible to calculate when. “Silos are very strong as long as they have integrity, just like an egg,” Durand said. “Now if the shell of the egg is slightly broken, it becomes very weak and you will have no difficulty in crushing the egg.” The army has plans to demolish the silos with equipment that crushes concrete and rebar, Durand said. Kuwait, which financed the building of the silos in the 1970s, has offered to donate to rebuild them. Then came a proposal by Fadi Abboud, a former tourism minister and member of the largest Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement, to turn the port and silos into a “tourist attraction,” a site that would rival the Roman ruins in Baalbek. Families of the victims protested, called it a heartless commercialization of the site where so many died. “In their dreams!” vowed Gilbert Karaan, whose 27-year-old fiancée, firefighter-medic Sahar Fares, died battling the fire that broke out just before the explosion. “They will not profit off the martyrs.” Jonathan Dagher, a journalist with the independent online media platform Megaphone, said Abboud s words were in line with comments by Gebran Bassil, the party s leader, who said the explosion could be turned into a “big opportunity” to secure international support for Lebanon s cash-strapped government. “These words are not an accident” and belittle the tragedy of what happened, Dagher said. There are concerns the port blast could be treated in the same way as Lebanon s 15-year civil war. The war is not taught in schoolbooks. There is no memorial for the 17,000 missing from the war. A general amnesty allowed warlords and militia leaders to dominate the country s postwar politics. After the war, downtown Beirut was quickly rebuilt, a high-end corporate hub emerging from the ruins and devastation. Jaafar, the architect, said pushback against demolishing the silos stems from fear that a similar scenario, based on a “concept of amnesia” — if you don t see it, it didn t happen — is being engineered for the Aug. 4 blast. Lebanese architect Carlos Moubarak says the gutted silos should remain in place, their sheer size forever an echo of the massive explosion. “There is something very, very powerful about the silos,” he said. “They are now part of the people s collective memory”. Moubarak has designed a memorial park at the site, with the silos as a focal point, a remembrance ring at the crater, a museum and green space. The aim, he said, is to honor the victims and survivors while also capturing the spirit of solidarity among the Lebanese in the wake of the explosion. He is now trying to figure out ways to fund it. Elie Hasrouty s father and grandfather had both worked at the silos since they were built. His father, Ghassan, 59, called home 40 minutes before the explosion to tell his wife that a new shipment of grains would keep him there late and asked her to send his favorite pillow and bedsheets for the unplanned overnight at work. His remains were found at the bottom of the silos, 14 days later. The silos should stay on as “a witness to corruption, so we can learn,” Hasrouty said. “Something must change.”
KIRKUK (Reuters) -Two wells in a small oilfield in northern Iraq were set ablaze by explosives in a “terrorist attack” on Wednesday but overall production from the field was not affected, the Oil Ministry and officials said Wednesday. The Oil Ministry gave no further details about the assailants behind the explosive devices that targeted the wells in Khabbaz oilfield, 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Kirkuk. Technical teams isolated the two burning oil wells and there was no impact on output, two sources from the state-run North Oil Company (NOC), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. The field produces about 25,000 barrels per day, oil officials said. The ministry said production from the two wells that were targeted did not exceed 2,000 bpd. The ministry statement said a fire erupted at the two oil wells after explosive devices were set off half an hour apart, with one going off at 1:30 am (1030 GMT) and the second at 2:00 a.m (1100 GMT).
WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Pentagon pulls troops out of the Middle East in the coming weeks, under orders from President Donald Trump, US military leaders are working to find other ways to deter potential attacks by Iran and its proxies, and to counter arguments that America is abandoning the region. A senior US military official with knowledge of the region said Monday that Iran may try to take advantage of America s troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the planned departure of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz from the Persian Gulf. The official said as a result military leaders have determined that based on the security situation in the region, the Nimitz must remain there now and “for some time to come.” In addition, the official said an additional fighter jet squadron may also be sent to the region, if needed. The Nimitz left the Gulf region and was set to begin heading home. But the ship was ordered to return last week to provide additional security while the troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan continue. A US defense official said at the time that the decision would ensure that American troops could deter any adversary from taking action against US forces. No timeline was given, but the US military official speaking Monday made it clear that the change is open-ended, and it s not clear when the ship s crew will return home. The potential Iranian threat has become an increasing concern in recent weeks following the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iran has blamed the death on Israel, which has been suspected in previous killings of Iranian nuclear scientists. US officials are also worried about a possible Iranian retaliatory strike on the first anniversary of the US airstrike that killed Iran s top general, Qassem Soleimani, and senior Iraqi militia leaders near Baghdad s airport in early January. The military official said the US is aware of Iranian attack planning and threats, and that some are more mature, while others are aspirational. A key worry, he said, is that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq may be willing to act even without the blessings or direction of Tehran. The presence of the Nimitz, said the official, may cause Iran or the militias to rethink a possible attack. The Pentagon is mindful of the impact of the extended deployment on the Nimitz sailors and on the Navy s plan for the ship s maintenance, said the military official, who spoke to a small number of reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing troop deliberations. The Pentagon announced last month that the US will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfills Trump s pledge to bring forces home from America s long wars. Under the accelerated pullout, the US will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500. Postponing the return of the Nimitz, however, will keep between 5,000-7,000 sailors and Marines in the Middle East, likely into next year. Other ships in the Nimitz strike group may remain with the carrier. The military official said that the Pentagon will look at other ways to make up for the loss of the Nimitz when the carrier does leave the region. Trump s troop withdrawal decision got a cool reception from Republican lawmakers and allies, who warned of the dangers of reducing forces before security conditions are right. And it came despite arguments from senior military officials who favor a slower pullout to preserve hard-fought gains. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, top US commander for the Middle East, has long argued for a consistent aircraft carrier presence in the Gulf region to deter Iran. Visiting the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the North Arabian Sea in February, McKenzie told the sailors: “You re here because we don t want a war with Iran and nothing makes a potential adversary think twice about war than the presence of an aircraft carrier and the strike group that comes with it.” Despite widespread demands for US Navy ships in other parts of the world, McKenzie requested and received a much larger than usual naval presence in the Middle East region throughout the early part of this year. But over time, the numbers have declined, in recognition of the Pentagon s effort to put more emphasis on China and the Indo-Pacific.
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church decided on Sunday to suspend mass service in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as Sunday school services and church meetings in response to the surge of COVID-19 cases the country is reporting. The priests of each church will be allowed to hold only one mass per week with the attendance of no more than five deacons for the next month. “The decision comes to limit gatherings after the increase in the number of coronavirus infections,” the church said in a statement. The evening rites of the Coptic month of Kiahk have been suspended completely, and recordings of them will instead be broadcasted on Christian satellite channels. It has also been decided that studies will continue in seminaries, institutes and educational centers at 25 percent capacity. The official Coptic Orthodox Church spokesperson Paul Halim said that the church had lost a large number of its clergy and priests to coronavirus since the pandemic took hold. Halim stressed that all Egyptians must take care and follow the official instructions issued by Egypt’s Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to curb the spread of the virus. He pointed out that Egypt has entered the second wave of the virus outbreak, which requires more severe measures to limit transmission among the public. Halim said that funerals will be held in the presence of the family of the deceased only, and if the death is due to the coronavirus, the prayer for the deceased will take place in a cemetery only. The Wednesday sermon of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark Episcopate, will be on Wednesday without an audience. The Health Ministry announced 418 new coronavirus cases and 21 virus-related deaths on Sunday.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox churches will suspend masses and other services in Cairo and Alexandria starting Monday for one month due to rising numbers of coronavirus cases detected among clergymen and churchgoers. According to an official statement released by the Coptic Orthodox Church on Saturday, Sunday s schools, meetings, services and masses will be also be suspended. Priests in every church will be allowed to hold only one mass weekly in the presence of a maximum of five deacons only. Funeral services will be allowed with the participation of only one priest and only one deacon alongside the family of the deceased, with halls designated for mourning services to be closed until conditions improve. Baptism will only be allowed in churches in the attendance of a maximum of four members of the child s family. The statement added that study at institutes and educational centres will continue with a reduced maximum attendance rate of 25 percent. As for the dioceses, each bishop can decide what suits the health situation in his diocese in cooperation with the congregation of priests, according to the statement. The church also called for priests, deacons and churchgoers to "precisely" adhere to all precautionary measures. After more than four months of suspension as part of broader measures aimed to curb the spread of the pandemic, Orthodox churches across the country resumed in early August public masses, prayers and funerals, with many anti-coronavirus measures put in place. Egypt has witnessed an increase in the daily coronavirus infection toll recorded over the last several weeks, with daily infections exceeding the 400-mark following months of a lower and steady rate. Several steps have been taken recently by the government to address the recent rise in coronavirus cases, including fining those who do not wear facemasks on public transport or in crowded places, and shutting non-compliant places for three days, as well as reducing shopping hours. The virus has so far infected 118,014 and killed 6,750 in the country since the outbreak began in February.
The Greek archaeological mission in charge of restoring the Patriarchate building and its courtyard will open a Coptic museum in the courtyard in 2021, General Undersecretary of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Abram Emil, said. Construction was scheduled to start before the coronavirus outbreak, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Emil told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Thursday the museum will include important collections of the cathedral s ancient holdings, most notably a number of historical Bibles, old books and some vessels used in church prayers. A special corner is planned to sell Coptic souvenirs to visitors, such as the icon of the Virgin Mary and the path of the Holy Family. There will also be an information center for those who d like to learn about the shrine of Saint Mark the Apostle, he added. According to Emil, the first phase of the renovation began in November 2017 and was completed before the pandemic took hold. The project s final phase includes installing new chandeliers and restoring the wooden windows. The project s planners have ensured that the changes will preserve the historical Greek features of the property, especially since the church is both a place of prayer for Copts and a tourist destination, he mentioned. Emil added that the Greek archaeological mission has restored the sacred icons, antique collectibles, wooden decks, and the Byzantine Iconostasis (sacred icons holder), as well as restored the church s entrance and given the walls a thorough scrub down. The church s icon holder is a historical monument, dating back to 1870. Emil said that the massive project worth LE7 million was entirely fueled by donations to the church, and it is the first construction project since the church s expansion in 1990. The Patriarchate of Alexandria is the first church in Egypt and Africa, and therefore has great significance. It is considered a symbol of the Coptic Church in Egypt and is visited by many people of different nationalities and religions each year.
Governments across Europe are trying to navigate between avoiding spreading the coronavirus over the Christmas holiday season and allowing people to celebrate with family and friends. Here are some measures that will be adopted for year-end festivities by some European countries: NORWAY Prime minister Erna Solberg said that Norwegians can invite up to 10 guests in their homes on two separate occasions between Christmas and New Year. Outside those days the current limit of up to five guests in one home remained, she added.. AUSTRIA The Austrian government, which will relax some lockdown rules as of Dec. 7, said skiing would be allowed from Dec. 24, but there would be no Christmas markets this holiday season. FRANCE The government will allow people to travel from Dec. 15, including over the end-of-year holidays, if coronavirus cases drop to around 5,000 new cases per day. France, which has decided to keep its ski slopes off limits until January, said on Dec. 2 that it would make random border checks to stop people getting infected with COVID-19 by crossing into countries where ski resorts remain open. BELGIUM Belgian households will only be able to be in close contact with one extra person over Christmas, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. People living on their own will be able to meet two others. Fireworks will be banned on New Year s Eve to limit gatherings and foreign travel is strongly discouraged. IRELAND Three households will be allowed to meet between Dec. 18 and Jan. 6, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said. The countrywide travel ban will be lifted for that period. GERMANY Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed with leaders of Germany s 16 states to extend and tighten the coronavirus lockdown until Dec. 20, but to ease rules over the Christmas holidays to let families and friends celebrate together. Up to 10 people will be allowed to gather, not counting children. POLAND The Polish government said no more than five people could be invited to one household according to the new set of rules which are to last until Dec. 27. BRITAIN The four nations of the United Kingdom have agreed to relax COVID-19 restrictions for Christmas to allow up to three households to meet at home from Dec. 23 until Dec. 27, also allowing them to meet in places of worship and in outdoor public places but not at indoor hospitality or entertainment venues. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he was relaxing rules to allow shops to stay open for longer over Christmas and in January. WEIGHING THEIR OPTIONS Governments of Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have all said they were considering special rules for the holiday season, but have yet to announce specific steps.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season. Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town. Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve. “Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak — when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus last March. She kept her 25 workers on staff for several months but ultimately couldn’t continue to pay them. Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff because there is no sign of the pandemic ending or tourists visiting anytime soon. “We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.” Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel, the main entry point for international visitors to the region, banning tourists because of the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said. “Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” said al-Arja, a cousin of the Angel Hotel owner. The Ambassador Hotel, which is located near the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, has reopened one floor in hopes that some local visitors may want to come celebrate in the coming weeks. Mahmoud Tarman, the hotel’s receptionist, said the Ambassador has brought back eight of its 60 workers to serve local guests. But with the West Bank’s economy devastated by repeated lockdowns, it remains unclear how many people will come. “At this time of the year, this empty hotel would be bustling with life. But as you see, there is no life, not even a Christmas tree yet,” he said as he pointed at the empty lobby. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this week imposed a new nighttime lockdown to help contain a spike in coronavirus cases. People must remain indoors from seven pm until six am, and Bethlehem is included in the lockdown. Officials say the lockdown could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if the infection levels don’t come down. The Health Ministry has reported a total of about 65,000 coronavirus cases in the West Bank, and over 620 deaths. Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the city had planned to receive 3,000 invited guests, including local scout troops and musical bands from around the world that normally entertain visitors during Christmas Eve festivities. He said the famed Christmas tree lighting, scheduled on Thursday, will be limited to just 15 guests, including local mayors, the district governor and the Latin Patriarch and other clergy. The 85-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who usually joins the celebration, has been invited but has not said whether he will attend. Midnight Mass, a solemn event led by the Latin Patriarch that is usually attended by religious leaders, local VIPs and hundreds of pilgrims from around the world, has also been scaled back, Salman said. He said officials are still working on the guest list, but it is expected to include religious leaders and some foreign diplomats. The event will be closed to the general public but broadcast live for people to watch. “No one can hold the responsibility of inviting large numbers of people to Christmas events,” he said. “Nothing will be the same during the pandemic.” By JELAL HASSAN Image: Christians take photos inside the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Normally packed with tourists from around the world at this time of year, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town – with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops shuttered by the pandemic.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The fugitive leader of Ethiopia s defiant Tigray region on Monday called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “stop the madness” and withdraw troops from the region as he asserted that fighting continues “on every front” two days after Abiy declared victory. Debretsion Gebremichael, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he remains near the Tigray capital, Mekele, which the Ethiopian army on Saturday said it now controlled. Far from accepting Abiy s declaration of victory, the Tigray leader asserted that “we are sure we ll win.” He also accused the Ethiopian forces of carrying out a “genocidal campaign” against the Tigray people. With the Tigray region still cut off a month after the fighting began, no one knows how many people have been killed, and it s difficult to verify the warring sides claims. Each government regards the other as illegal after Abiy sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People s Liberation Front after taking office in early 2018. The fight is about self-determination of the region of some 6 million people, the Tigray leader said, and it “will continue until the invaders are out.” He asserted that his forces held an undetermined number of “captives” among the Ethiopian forces, including the pilot of a fighter jet that his side claims to have shot down over the weekend. The Tigray leader also asserted that his forces still have several missiles and “we can use them whenever we want,” though he rejected a question about striking at the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saying the primary aim is to “clear Tigray from the invaders.” He again accused Abiy of collaborating with neighboring Eritrea in the offensive in Tigray, something Abiy s government has denied. As for the idea of talks with Abiy s government, something Abiy s government has repeatedly rejected, the Tigray leader said that “depends on the content” and Ethiopian forces would first have to leave the region. “Civilian casualties are so high,” he said, though denied having any estimate of the toll. He accused Ethiopian forces of “looting wherever they go.” “The suffering is greater and greater every day,” he said, calling it collective punishment against the Tigray people for their belief in their leaders. Nearly a month of fighting between Ethiopian federal forces and Tigray regional ones has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors. Hospitals and health centers in the Tigray region are running “dangerously low” on supplies to care for the wounded, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Sunday. Food is also running low, the result of the region being cut off from outside aid for almost a month. In a rare report from inside Mekele, the ICRC also said a major hospital in northern Ethiopia, Ayder Referral Hospital, is lacking body bags and some 80% of its patients have trauma injuries. Fears of a widespread humanitarian disaster are growing. The UN has been unable to access the Tigray region with aid. Human rights groups and others worry about the atrocities that might emerge once transport and other links are restored. Nearly one million people have been displaced, including about 44,000 who fled into Sudan. Camps in Tigray that are home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees have been in the line of fire. “We need first and foremost access” to Tigray, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Sunday, adding that his UN colleagues in Addis Ababa are in discussions with the government there. Abiy s government has promised a “humanitarian corridor” managed by itself, but the UN has stressed the importance of neutrality.
ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – The Ethiopian government launched a manhunt on Sunday for leaders of a rebellious faction in the northern region of Tigray after announcing federal troops had taken over the regional capital and military operations were complete. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed government has been trying to quell a rebellion by the Tigray People s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful ethnically-based party that dominated the central government from 1991 until Abiy came to power in 2018.
In Libya s frontline city of Sirte, parts of which still lie in ruins, the commission set up to oversee warring rivals recent ceasefire has put its name on a large downtown conference centre - an outward sign of its commitment to peace. So far the ceasefire is holding, and some elements of the truce have been implemented: flights between rival cities Tripoli and Benghazi have resumed and foreign fighters have left oil facilities - the keys to Libya s economy. But meetings of the Joint Military Commission in northern Libya, attended by five officers each from the two sides, have yet to make progress on other key demands of a UN-brokered agreement, underlining its fragility. The rivals in a civil war that has left thousands dead and the country in chaos have yet to withdraw troops from frontline positions, open a major coastal road linking Sirte to Misrata and rid their ranks of foreign mercenaries. "The danger won t end unless the process of national reconciliation is completed," said Mohammed Mofteh, 33, the head of a charity in Sirte, summing up widespread public scepticism about permanent peace. Since the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) drove Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA) back from the capital Tripoli in June, the shooting has given way to political jostling. The UN-led diplomatic effort has set a roadmap to elections at the end of next year and implemented an audit of the central bank, which is split between the sides. The 75 participants in a UN-led political dialogue, which is separate from the military commission s work, have also a Dec. 24, 2021 election date. But they have not agreed on a unified transitional government needed to oversee the vote. Progress in those political talks slowed when they turned to the question of who would be on the new presidential council and the prime minister, said Hamad al-Bandaq, an eastern-based member of parliament who took part. "We reached a stumbling block, which is the choice of who will be in the presidential council and government," he said. Beyond the GNA and LNA s involvement in the peace process, their foreign backers - Turkey in the case of the GNA and Russia, the UAE and Egypt in the case of the LNA - also support it too. FRONTLINES Situated near Libya s main oil terminals, and seen as the gateway to the OPEC producer s "oil crescent", Sirte - now under the control of the LNA - was a major prize in the civil war. Its domed Ouagadougou Conference Centre, an undamaged part of which is now the Joint Military Commission headquarters, serves as a reminder of what is at stake. The biggest building Muammar Gaddafi gave to his hometown, the centre hosted the 2009 African Union summit. But it is pitted with bullet and shrapnel marks from a battle in the 2011 uprising that toppled the former leader. After Islamic State seized Sirte in 2015, its black flag was painted onto the centre. Today a new banner for the commission hangs where GNA and LNA negotiators hash out details of their October ceasefire. They have pledged to remove foreign mercenaries from Libya by late January, pull forces back from forward positions and open the road across frontlines. But UN acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams last week told the Security Council the GNA was still patrolling, the LNA setting up new fortifications and both sides landing cargo planes at bases they have used to resupply. A Western diplomat focused on Libya said the two sides had asked for only limited outside monitoring of the ceasefire - a sign they may not plan new withdrawals until the political situation is clearer. In Sirte, queues of up to 50 cars at petrol stations point to the hardships of life near the frontline. Living conditions in Tripoli and the eastern centre of Benghazi this summer led to widespread protests. Williams has said this public frustration will aid the push for a deal. The UN process helped resolve an eight-month LNA blockade of oil exports which aggravated economic problems in both east and west. The third strand of talks beyond the military commission and the political process is economic negotiations. There, too, the tussle, particularly over the National Oil Company and Central Bank of Libya, continues.
BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between Kurdish fighters and Turkey-backed opposition gunmen in northern Syria left at least 18 fighters dead in some of the most intense fighting in weeks, an opposition war monitor and a Kurdish news agency said Tuesday. Exchanges of fire and shelling between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey-backed opposition gunmen who identify as the Syrian National Army have not been uncommon since Turkish troops invaded parts of northern Syria in October last year. The clashes began before midnight Monday near the town of Ein Issa and were triggered by an assault from Turkey-backed gunmen on SDF positions, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and the Kurdish ANHA news agency. The Observatory said Turkey-backed fighters lost 18 gunmen in the battle and an unknown number of SDF fighters were also killed or wounded. ANHA said dozens of Turkey-backed fighters were killed or wounded. An SDF spokesman who goes by the name of Mervan Qamishlo also confirmed the clashes, saying the group s fighters repelled a Turkey-backed attack. He did not comment on how many SDF gunmen were killed but said six civilians were wounded in the shelling. Maj. Youssef al-Hammoud, an official with the so-called Syrian National Army, said the fighting started when SDF fighters attacked their positions on two fronts. He denied losing any fighters, saying only two were wounded. It is not uncommon for insurgent groups to deny losing fighters in battle. Also in northern Syria, two explosions hit the towns of al-Bab and Afrin that are both controlled by Turkey-backed fighters, according to the Observatory and Thiqa news agency, an activist collective. Five people were killed and 20 wounded in a roadside bomb attack in al-Bab, according to the Observatory and Thiqa. At least three people were killed and 16 wounded in a car bomb attack in a market in Afrin, according to the Observatory. Turkey says Kurdish fighters in Syria are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey s mainly Kurdish southeast region and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The US-backed SDF played a major role in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The IS lost its last sliver of land in March last year. The SDF is holding thousands of IS militants in jails it runs.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court on Tuesday added new defendants to the case against Saudi officials charged over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, state media reported, in a trial that Ankara says is needed to reveal the full truth behind the killing. Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Turkish officials believe his body was dismembered and removed, while his remains have not been found. In September a Saudi court jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing, in a trial that critics said lacked transparency. None of the defendants was named. At Tuesday s hearing in Istanbul, only the second session of a trial which opened four months ago, the court accepted a second indictment adding six defendants to the list of 20 Saudi officials already being tried in absentia. The latest indictment accuses a vice consul and an attache of “premeditated murder with monstrous intent”. The four others, also Saudi nationals, were charged with destroying, concealing or tampering with evidence. The court heard testimony from one witness, Egyptian opposition activist Ayman Noor who was a friend of Khashoggi s, before adjourning the case to March 4 and extending a process which has kept Khashoggi s killing in the public eye and further strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Yasin Aktay, a member of President Tayyip Erdogan s AK Party and an acquaintance of Khashoggi, said a just verdict could not have been expected from a Saudi court that was ruling on senior Saudi officials. “The events actually transpired in Turkey. If we have a concern about justice, there is no other way than to have confidence in Turkish courts,” he said after Tuesday s hearing. The first indictment accused two top Saudi officials, former deputy head of Saudi Arabia s general intelligence Ahmed al-Asiri and former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, of instigating murder. It said 18 other defendants were flown to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, a prominent and well-connected journalist who had grown increasingly critical of the crown prince. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was disappointed by the court s rejection of its request to join the case as a civil party, and would continue to closely monitor the case and call for adherence to international standards. “It s time to end business as usual with Saudi Arabia. It s time to ensure justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Rebecca Vincent, RSF Director of International Campaigns.
For 9 years, the church of the Saints Mark the Apostle and Pope Boutros in Sidi Bishr neighborhood of Alexandria celebrated the martyrdom of its martyrs who were martyred on the evening of New Year s Eve ten years ago as a result of the terrorist bombing attack. However, this year the celebration was canceled due to the spread of Corona virus. Only families of the martyrs will be allowed to attend the Divine Liturgy