Pope Francis has said he s "pained" by Turkey s decision to convert Istanbul s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Speaking at a service in the Vatican, the Roman Catholic leader added that his "thoughts go to Istanbul". Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral nearly 1,500 years ago and turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. The Unesco World Heritage Site became a museum in 1934 under Turkish Republic founding father Ataturk. But earlier this week a Turkish court annulled the site s museum status, saying its use as anything other than a mosque was "not possible legally". Pope Francis confined himself to a few words on the issue: "My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained." President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers would be held in Hagia Sophia on July 24. Shortly after the announcement, the first call to prayer was recited at the site and broadcast on all of Turkey s main news channels. Hagia Sophia s social media channels have also been taken down. Islamists in Turkey have long called for it to become a mosque again but secular opposition members opposed the move. Erdogan: Turkey s pugnacious president Is pandemic being used for power grab in Europe? BBC - Travel - An insider s tour of Hagia Sophia Defending the decision, President Erdogan stressed that the country had exercised its sovereign right, and he added that the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign visitors. Voices not heard The Pope is one of several religious and political leaders worldwide who have criticised the move. The World Council of Churches has called on President Erdogan to reverse the decision. The Church in Russia, home to the world s largest Orthodox Christian community, immediately expressed regret that the Turkish court had not taken its concerns into account when ruling on Hagia Sophia. It has also drawn condemnation from Greece, and Unesco said its World Heritage Committee would now review the monument s status. One of Turkey s most famous authors, Orhan Pamuk, told the BBC that the decision would take away the "pride" some Turks had in being a secular Muslim nation. "There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard," said Mr Pamuk. History of a global icon Hagia Sophia s complex history began in the year 537 when Byzantine emperor Justinian built the huge church overlooking the Golden Horn harbour With its huge dome, it was believed to be the world s largest church and building It remained in Byzantine hands for centuries apart from a brief moment in 1204 when Crusaders raided the city In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) and the victorious conqueror performed Friday prayers inside Hagia Sophia The Ottomans soon converted the building into a mosque, adding four minarets to the exterior and covering ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy After centuries at the heart of the Muslim Ottoman empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 in a drive to make Turkey more secular Today Hagia Sophia is Turkey s most popular tourist site, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors a year
BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese businessman serving a five-year sentence in the United States for providing millions of dollars to the militant Hezbollah group arrived Wednesday in Beirut after his early release, local media reported. Kassim Tajideen was sentenced last year in a federal court in Washington for his role in a money laundering conspiracy aimed at evading US sanctions. He was arrested in Morocco and extradited to the US in 2017, where he was charged with laundering money for Hezbollah. A State Department official said the US government had opposed Tajideen s motion for compassionate release but in the end the court ruled in his favor. Tajideen, who was designated as a terrorist in 2009, would remain on a terrorist list and his assets would remain blocked, the official added. The fact that he is being released early doesn t diminish the severity of his crime, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. There was no immediate comment from Lebanese officials on Tajideen s early release. Lebanon s National News Agency reported Tajideen s arrival. A local Lebanese TV station, LBC, broadcast a video taken with a mobile phone of his arrival at the Beirut airport. He stepped out of a small jet, wearing a face mask as a necessary coronavirus precaution. The video shows a man rushing toward Tajideen, hugging him and stooping down to Tajideen s feet in celebration of his release. A federal judge in Washington had ordered Tajideen s release in May. The National, an English language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, said the 64-year-old Tajideen was granted compassionate release due to health conditions and fears of coronavirus infections in prison. The US Department of Justice had contested the release. Tajideen was accused of conspiring with at least five other people to conduct over $50 million in transactions with US businesses in violation of sanctions barring him from doing business with US nationals and companies because of his support for Hezbollah. Washington has designated the Iran-backed Hezbollah a terrorist group. Tajideen pleaded guilty last December and agreed to forfeit $50 million. In March, a Lebanese military tribunal ordered the release of a Lebanese-American held in the country for nearly six months on charges of working for an Israeli-backed militia two decades ago. Amer Fakhoury s release raised speculation that Tajideen may be granted early release in return. Fakhoury, 57, who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon, became a US citizen last year and is now a restaurant owner in Dover, New Hampshire. US officials had called for imposing sanctions on Lebanon to pressure Beirut to release him. Separately, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, visited Lebanon on Wednesday, where he met with President Michel Aoun and senior political and defense officials. The US Embassy said McKenzie reaffirmed to Aoun the “importance of preserving Lebanon s security, stability and sovereignty” and the strong partnership between the US and the Lebanese Armed Forces. McKenzie also made a brief stop at memorials honoring Americans who perished while serving in Lebanon. Bombings in 1983 of the US Embassy and US Marine barracks in Beirut killed nearly 260 Americans and 63 others. McKenzie s visit and reports that he may visit the Marine barracks bombing site sparked anti-US protests. Dozens gathered near the airport amid a heavy deployment of soldiers. Some chanted “Death to America” and expressed support for the 1983 attacks and raised Hezbollah and Communist Party flags. Others burned a picture of US Ambassador Dorothy Shea and the Israeli flag. McKenzie s visit comes as Lebanon is facing its worst economic and financial crisis, which has triggered anti-government protests and created domestic political tension between rival groups. Amid the crisis, strained relations between Washington and Hezbollah, the country s powerful militant group with strong political representation, have deepened. Although the US designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group, it is also a major donor to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah lashed out late Tuesday at Shea, calling recent public comments she made that were critical of his group “unacceptable.” Nasrallah also accused Washington of taking advantage of the economic crisis to stir public opinion against Hezbollah and try to “isolate” his group. “Hezbollah won t give up. This will only strengthen it and weaken your allies and your influence,” Nasrallah said, addressing Washington. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn t respond to questions about Tajideen s release, but said Washington will continue to enforce sanctions on Hezbollah while calling for reforms to ensure a path out of Lebanon s current economic crisis. “There can be no mistake what the United States has done and will continue to do to put pressure on Hezbollah and also to try to assist the people of Lebanon at building out a successful government,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and we are supportive if Lebanon as long as they get the reforms right and they re not a proxy state for Iran in Lebanon.”
Leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar vowed on Wednesday to protect Libya s fortunes from the "barbaric aggression" of Turkey. Haftar, amid leaked reports about Turkish intentions to attack Al-Jufra, said the LNA will continue to build its troops for its anti-terrorism campaign. Turkey seeks to control Libya s fortunes to solve its economic crisis, said Haftar. "Turkey is practising barbaric aggression against Libya. It established rooms of operations and sends its officers, mercenaries and weapons to Libya to fight the LNA," Haftar was quoted by Sky News Arabia as saying. "Our nation is under imminent threat to its present and future by the hateful Turkish colonialism," he added. Haftar vowed to stop the transfer of further weapons and mercenaries to Libya, stressing his support to the international community s demands concerning working on a political settlement to the Libyan conflict. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli, is backed by Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in its war against the eastern-based LNA and its leader Haftar. During the past week, local and foreign media outlets reported that Turkey is preparing to attack Al-Jufra. Sources told Al-Arabiya on Monday that Turkish intelligence officials were wounded following the LNA s air strikes on Al-Watiya air base on Sunday, which was recently captured by the GNA and its Turkish backers. The wounded were transferred to hospitals in Tripoli and Turkey. Brigadier-General Khaled Al-Mahgoub, an LNA leading commander, told Al-Arabiya that similar strikes on Al-Watiya will soon take place. Al-Mahgoub also said that Turkish radars, military equipment and air defence systems were destroyed during the air strikes. Turkey, according to sources who spoke to Reuters in June, is negotiating the establishment of two bases -- including one at Watiya -- with the GNA. Al-Watiya is western Libya s most significant air base.
GENEVA (Reuters) — Syrian and Russian planes have carried out deadly aerial strikes amounting to war crimes on schools, hospitals and markets in Idlib province, UN investigators said on Tuesday in a report that also condemned attacks by jihadist fighters. They said that “indiscriminate bombardment” by pro-government forces, ahead of a March ceasefire brokered with Turkey, claimed hundreds of lives and forced nearly one million civilians to flee, which may amount to a crime against humanity. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group that controls part of northwest Syria, of firing artillery into civilian areas “with no apparent legitimate military objective.” Fighters from HTS, a group formerly known as Nusra Front, have tortured and executed detainees, it added. “What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN panel, said in a statement. The report, covering Nov. 2019 until June 2020, was based on overflight data and witness testimony. It examines 52 “emblematic attacks” in northwest Syria, including 47 attributed to the Russian-backed Syrian government. Russian warplanes were solely implicated in a deadly March 5 strike on a poultry farm near Marat Misrin that sheltered displaced people and in three strikes next to a hospital damaged in the rebel-held town of Ariha on Jan. 29, the report said. Russia denies involvement in the latter attack, it said. The region is home to a mix of Islamist militant and opposition groups, many of which fled other parts of Syria as President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian backing, seized back territory from them. “The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that pro-government forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” it said. Karen Koning AbuZayd, a panel member, said: “Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights… “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”
Fathi Al-Marimi, advisor to the speaker of the eastern-based parliament in Libya Aguila Saleh, told Al-Arabiya on Monday that the Libyan people "will not let Turkey fulfil its ambitions" in the war-torn country. Al-Marimi pointed out that the "Turkish intervention" in Libya took place following a deal with Fayez Al-Sarraj s government, adding the intervention has three objectives that serve the interests of Turkey, not those of the Libyan people. The objectives, said Al-Marimi, include "stealing the money and wealths of the Libyan people amid the Turkish economy s decline and retreat and currency s collapse,... redrawing borders... (and) taking a share of the Mediterranean waters that it [Turkey] does not deserve." He viewed the visit of Turkey s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to Tripoli and meetings with his troops in Libya as a "blatant interference" in Libya s internal affairs. Akar and the Chief of the General Staff Yasar Guler visited Libya on Friday to discuss activities carried out within the scope of the "memorandum of understanding on security and military cooperation,” which was signed last year. After Akar s visit to Libya, Turkey agreed with Al-Sarraj to establish new training centres for militias in western Libya. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli, is backed by Turkish troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries in its war against the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and its leader Khalifa Haftar. Al-Marimi called on the international community to stop the Turkish intervention that violates international norms and laws. He stressed that the Libyan parliament and people back Egypt s position on Libya as they oppose "the Turkish attempt to occupy Libya" and their attempts to threaten the red line of Sirte-Jufra. Last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said Egypt has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya and ordered the army to be prepared to carry out any mission outside the country if necessary. He added any intervention by Egypt would mainly be aimed at protecting Egypt s western border, achieving a ceasefire, and restoring stability and peace in Libya, stressing that crossing the Sirte-Jufra frontline is a “red line” for Egypt. Al-Marimi revealed that Russia promised to step in -- through its permanent membership in the UN Security Council -- to solve the Libyan crisis and expressed its willingness to open an embassy in Libya, though it will be based in Tunisia, and a consulate in Benghazi. These developments came during Aguila Saleh s visit to Moscow last week. According to Al-Marimi, Saleh will also visit Switzerland and Italy to explain the ongoing situation in Libya. Meanwhile, sources told Al-Arabiya on Monday that Turkish intelligence officials were wounded following the LNA air strikes on Al-Watiya air base on Sunday, which was recently captured by the GNA and its Turkish backers. The wounded were transferred to hospitals in Tripoli and Turkey. Brigadier-General Khaled Al-Mahgoub, an LNA leading commander, told Al-Arabiya that similar strikes on Al-Watiya will soon take place. Al-Mahgoub also said that Turkish radars, military equipment and air defence systems were destroyed during the air strikes. Turkey, according to sources who spoke to Reuters in June, is negotiating the establishment of two bases -- including one at Watiya -- with the GNA. Al-Watiya is western Libya s most significant air base.
Turkey s military occupation of Libya is escalating through the use of advanced, dangerous weapons, said the Libyan National Army s (LNA) Commander Khalifa Haftar, who added that the leader of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj is working with them to destabilize the country s southern region. The LNA is safely controlling and securing Southern and Eastern Libya, Libyan TV channel Al-Hadath quoted Haftar in his phone call to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and added that Western Libya is still under threat of terrorist group and militias. Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar signed a military agreement with Sarraj to establish a Turkish military base in Libya, according to media reports. Libyan commander Khaled al-Mahgoub stated that this agreement seeks control over Libya s oil fields and to penetrate the red line areas adjacent to Egypt s borders. Italy meanwhile pledged to ensure that the ban on the transfer of weapons to Libya is among the tasks carried out by the EU s Naval Force Mediterranean Operation IRINI. The IRINI is an EU military operation under the umbrella of the Common Security and Defense Policy, launched in March to enforce the UN s arms embargo to Libya. Egypt launched in June a new plan to resolve the Libyan crisis dubbed the “Cairo Declaration”, expressing a firm desire to enforce the Libyan people s wish goals of stability and development, to preserve the country s sovereignty and to put its interests first and foremost. Egypt s plan will respect all international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis thus far and includes a 48-hour ceasefire throughout Libyan territories, dismantling militias and handing their weapons over to the LNA, expelling foreign mercenaries out of the country, and resuming the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission under the auspices of the UN.
CAIRO (Reuters) — A monk s death sentence for the murder of a bishop at an Egyptian monastery in 2018 was commuted to life in prison by a Cairo court on Wednesday, a judicial source said. Wael Saad and Ramon Rasmi Mansour, known by their monastic names Isaiah al-Makari and Faltaous al-Makari, were convicted of the killing of Bishop Epiphanius, 64, the abbot of St Macarius Monastery, some 110 km (70 miles) northwest of Cairo, in a case that sent shockwaves through Egypt s Coptic Christian community. Saad struck the bishop three times in the back of the head with a steel pipe while Mansour stood guard outside, prosecutors had said during their trial. Mansour s sentence was reduced to life in prison after he appealed against his death sentence, the judicial source said. Saad s death sentence was upheld by the court hearing the appeal. The death sentence requires the president s authorization before it is carried out, a standard procedure under Egyptian law, the source added. Separately, a Cairo court of cassation also reduced by three years the 10-year sentence handed down to an officer convicted of the killing of liberal activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh in a 2015 protest marking the anniversary of the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, two judicial sources said.
Egypt s top appeals court upheld on Wednesday a death sentence against one monk and decided to commute a sentence against another to life imprisonment over the killing of a bishop at a monastery in 2018, a judicial source said. The two monks, Wael Saad Tawadros and Ramon Rasmy Mansour, were sentenced to death by a lower criminal court in April 2019 over the killing of 64-year-old Bishop Epiphanius at the desert Saint Macarius Monastery in Wadi El-Natroun, northwest of Cairo. The sentences followed a review by the country s grand mufti for his non-binding opinion, as required by Egyptian law. On Wednesday, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentence against Tawadros, whose monastic name is Isaiah El-Maqary, and reduced the sentence against Mansour, known as Faltaous El-Makary, to life in jail -- which is 25 years in Egypt. The two defrocked monks were convicted of premeditated murder. Investigations showed that the two men ambushed the bishop on his way from his residence to the monastery chapel, where Tawadros hit him on the head with a steel bar, while Mansour stood guard, prosecutors previously said. Wednesday s sentences are final and cannot be appealed. The murder of Bishop Epiphanius sparked outrage among the Coptic Christian community and led the introduction of strict measures by the Coptic Orthodox Church to regulate monastic life. These included a freeze on accepting new monks, a ban on monks use of social media, a ban on building non-sanctioned places of worship, and barring monks from leaving monasteries without official permission.
CAIRO (AP) — Sudanese protesters returned to the streets on Tuesday to pressure transitional authorities, demanding justice for those killed in the uprising last year that led to the military s ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. As the rallies got underway, police used tear gas to disperse protesters marching on a road leading to the airport in the capital, Khartoum. There were no immediate reports of causalities. The “million-man march” was called by the Sudanese Professionals Association, and the so-called Resistance Committees, which were incremental in the protests against al-Bashir and the generals who took over power for months after his removal. Security forces closed off major roads and streets leading to government and military headquarters in Khartoum ahead of the protests, which fall on the anniversary of the Islamist-backed coup that brought al-Bashir to power in 1989, toppling Sudan s previously elected government. The protests are also the first major demonstrations since rallies last year — three months after al-Bashir ouster — when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Sudan s capital and elsewhere in the country to pressure then-ruling military council to hand over power to a civilian government. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Monday sought to reassure the protesters, saying that their demands are “legitimate” and “necessary to correct the revolution s track.” He said the military-civilian alliance that rules Sudan during this transitional period was “sensitive and critical,” adding that there are many “difficulties” that threaten its stability. He did not elaborate. Hamdok promised his transitional government would work to carry out the protesters demands in the next two weeks. “In the coming days, a number of decisive decisions […] will follow,” he said. “Some of them may have a significant impact — politically, economically and socially — and some parties will try to use them to fuel and create instability.” Earlier in June, security forces arrested at least nine leaders of al-Bashir s now dissolved National Congress Party and Islamists for plotting “hostilities” against the government, Information Minister Faisal Saleh said on Monday. They were arrested in a raid on a house in Khartoum on June 18, and brought to prosecutors for further investigations, Saleh said. Sudan s former foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, who also headed al-Bashir s party, was arrested Monday from his Khartoum home, the party said in a statement. The party s leaders were holding a “normal societal activity” when he was arrested, the statement said. Al-Bashir had fired Ghandour in February last year, after he told reporters that the government was behind seven months on paying diplomats salaries. The former top diplomat was appointed the party chairman after al-Bashir s removal in April last year. Last August, the protests, along with international pressure, forced the generals to sign a power-sharing deal with the protesters, creating a joint civilian-military “sovereign council.” However, the civilians part of the government has struggled to assert authority in the face of the military s power. The protest organizers also called for the appointment of civilian governors for Sudan s provinces and making peace with the country s rebels who were part of the power-sharing deal. They also called for swift, public trails for al-Bashir and top officials in his government. Al-Bashir, who has been in prison in Khartoum since his removal, faces an array of accusations related to the 1989 coup and the crackdown against the uprising against his rule. The crowds gathered in Khartoum and its twin city, Omdurman, as well as in several other cities. Footage circulated online showed protesters marching peacefully, waving Sudanese flags. Some were seen wearing face masks but few observed social distancing requirements to avoid contracting the coronavirus. Meanwhile, in central Darfur province, hundreds of people, mostly displaced and refugees, were camping for the second day outside government buildings in the town of Nitrite. The protesters call for the resignation of the provincial government, and a halt to attacks by government-sanctioned armed groups, said Adam Regal, a spokesman for a local organization that helps run refugee camps in the area. Regal shared footage showing hundreds of people, mostly women, holding signs that read: “Freedom, Peace and Justice,” the slogan of the uprising against al-Bashir.
KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Militants attacked the stock exchange in the Pakistani city of Karachi on Monday, killing at least three people — two guards and a policeman, according to police. Special police forces deployed to the scene of the attack and in a swift operation secured the building, killing all four gunmen. The attackers were armed with grenades and automatic rifles, police said. They launched the attack by opening fire at the entrance gate of the Pakistan Stock Exchange in the southern port city, the country s financial center. Heavily armed special forces quickly surrounded the building located in the heart of Karachi s financial district, where the Pakistan State Bank is located, as well as the headquarters of several national and international financial institutions. Local television stations broadcast images of police in full body armor surrounding the building but still staying outside the high-walled compound of the stock exchange. Rizwan Ahmend, a police official at the scene, said that after opening fire, the gunmen entered the stock exchange grounds. He said that after the attack was over, food supplies were found on the bodies of the gunmen, indicating they may have planned a long siege, which police quickly thwarted. Inside the stock exchange, broker Yaqub Memon told The Associated Press that he and others were huddled inside their offices while the attack was underway. As the firing ended and the gunmen were killed, police gathered all the employees and brokers in a single room while security forces went floor by floor to ensure that no explosives had been left behind, he said. Shazia Jehan, a police spokesman, said the bomb disposal team was also called to the stock exchange to clear the building of any explosive devises. Later, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group has been waging an urgency for years, demanding independence for Pakistan s gas-rich southwestern Baluchistan province, which borders the southern Sindh province, where Karachi is the provincial capital. The Karachi stock exchange is Pakistan s largest and oldest stock exchange, incorporated today with the exchanges in Islamabad and Lahore. The Baluchistan Liberation Army, which Pakistan says has found safe across the border in Afghanistan, has carried out a series of attacks in Karachi in recent years, including an attack on the Chinese Consulate that killed two people. The Arabian Sea port of Gwadar is located in Baluchistan, and is part of China s multi-billion dollar one-road project linking south and Central Asia to China. The Baluchistan militant group has opposed the one-road project including a highway connecting the Gwadar port to the Chinese border.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon s foreign minister summoned the US ambassador to Beirut over comments she made recently in which she criticized the militant Hezbollah group, state-run National News Agency reported Sunday. The agency gave no further details other than saying that the meeting between Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti and Ambassador Dorothy Shea is scheduled for Monday afternoon. Local media said the minister will tell the ambassador that according to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, an ambassador has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country and should not incite the Lebanese people against one another. On Saturday, a Lebanese judge banned local and foreign media outlets in the country from interviewing the US ambassador for a year saying that her criticism of Hezbollah was seditious and a threat to social peace. The judge s ruling came a day after Shea told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath that Washington has “great concerns” over Hezbollah s role in the government. The move was harshly criticized by many in Lebanon, which enjoyed one of the more freer media landscapes in the Arab world. Others, however, criticized Shea for comments deemed an interference in Lebanon s internal affairs Since the ban by the judge was imposed on Saturday, several local TV stations aired fresh comments from Shea in which she described the judge s decision as “unfortunate.” She added that a senior Lebanese government official, whom she did not name, apologized to her. “I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a very high-ranking and a well-placed official in the Lebanese government and this official expressed apologies, conveyed that this ruling did not have proper standing,” Shea told the local MTV station on Sunday. Shea added that the official told her that the government “will take the necessary step to reverse it.” The court decision reflected the rising tension between the US and Hezbollah. It also revealed a widening rift among groups in Lebanon, which is facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah on Sunday called Shea s comments “a flagrant aggression on the sovereignty of our country and its national dignity.” He called on the foreign ministry to force the ambassador to “respect international law.” Lebanon is gripped by a deepening financial crisis and talks with the International Monetary Fund for assistance has been complicated by political infighting. Shea said Lebanon is reeling from years of corruption of successive governments and accused Hezbollah of siphoning off government funds for its own purposes and of obstructing needed economic reforms. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group, and its allies are dominant in parliament and back the current government. It is designated by Washington as a terrorist group and the US has continued to expand sanctions against the group. However, Washington is one of the largest donors to the Lebanese army, making for one of the more complicated diplomatic balancing acts in the region.
BEIRUT (Reuters) — President Michel Aoun warned on Thursday of an “atmosphere of civil war” during recent unrest in Lebanon and what he described as attempts to stir up sectarian tensions as a financial crisis sweeps the country. Aoun, a Maronite Christian, was speaking at a meeting that he said was called to protect civil peace but which was boycotted by opponents including Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri and other ex-prime ministers who said it a waste of time. The crisis is seen as the biggest threat to Lebanon s stability since the 1975-90 civil war. A 75 percent decline in the Lebanese pound since October has been reflected in soaring prices and savers have been frozen out of their deposits. Aoun s comments referred partly to confrontations in Beirut earlier this month that opened old sectarian faultlines between Shia Muslims and Christians and between Shia and Sunnis. “We touched the atmosphere of civil war in a worrying way. Movements replete with sectarian tensions were launched in a suspicious manner,” Aoun said. Lebanon s sectarian power-sharing system requires the president to be a Maronite, the prime minister to be a Sunni and the parliament speaker to be a Shia. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, appointed in January with backing from Aoun, the powerful Iranian-backed Shia group Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said the exchange rate was the only concern for Lebanese. “Lebanese want the central bank to control the dollar exchange rate vis-à-vis the Lebanese pound and to preserve the value of their salaries and savings,” he told the meeting. Former prime ministers Hariri, Najib Mikati and Tammam Salam said the real threat to stability may come from the deteriorating economic and financial situation and “this cannot be solved by large meetings that do not have a clear agenda.”
More than a thousand European lawmakers have signed a joint letter protesting Israel s planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, saying such a move would ``be fatal to hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter was addressed to European governments and published online Tuesday. It is part of a growing international outcry against the Trump administration s Mideast plan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s promise to begin annexing parts of the West Bank that have Israeli settlements, perhaps as early as July 1. The letter by 1,080 parliamentarians from 25 European countries called for decisive action by European leaders to ``prevent annexation and to safeguard the prospects of the two-state solution and a just resolution to the conflict. ``Failure to adequately respond would encourage other states with territorial claims to disregard basic principles of international law, the letter said. If Israel goes ahead, the letter calls for ``commensurate consequences. Israel s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to comment. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and in the decades since has built dozens of settlements that are now home to roughly 400,000 Israelis. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal. The Palestinians seek the territory as part of a future independent state. President Donald Trump s Mideast plan, which heavily favors Israel and which has been rejected by the Palestinians, would scuttle any hopes of a viable Palestinian state. Netanyahu s government has yet to publish details of the proposed annexation but the prime minister has called for roughly 30% of the territory _ including the strategically important Jordan Valley _ to be annexed by Israel. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Israel on Tuesday to hear global calls and not to proceed with annexation plans. He told The Associated Press that annexation would not only violate international law, but ``would be a major factor to destabilize the region. Last week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he strongly opposed annexation of parts of the West Bank, which would ``amount to a breach of international law.
The European Union on Monday announced the start of the fourth Brussels Conference, “Supporting the future of Syria and the region.” The virtual conference, which is held in partnership with the UN, will take place from June 22 to June 30. The conference is intending to help raise funding pledges for Syrians, and to engage civil society organizations from Syria and neighboring countries. The EU s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell remarked on the conference, saying that, “Syrians have suffered for too long. After nine years of conflict, there is a risk that the world becomes immune to the pictures and accounts of unacceptable and unnecessary suffering but we cannot allow that to happen; we cannot ignore their plight. It is our moral duty to continue supporting the people of Syria. The Conference aims to further mobilize the international community behind UN-led efforts to achieve a lasting political solution to the Syria crisis in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254. This is the only way to bring back stability and peace for all Syrians.” Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič added that, “The humanitarian situation in Syria is at even greater risk as the coronavirus pandemic threatens the most vulnerable. The EU will not abandon the Syrian people in most urgent need for assistance inside the country as well as in the region.” The first two days of the conference, dubbed “Days of Dialogue,” feature panel discussions with guests from a broad variety of governmental and non-governmental institutions. The remainder of the conference, meanwhile, will include a number of side events, such as a session on “regional response and recovery in the face of coronavirus crisis,” and another on “immediate needs in response to the humanitarian situation.” A full schedule can be downloaded here, and commissioners remarks will be made available online. Borrell on June 30 will co-chair the segment of the conference in which 80 delegates from neighboring countries, partner countries, EU Member States and international organizations will gather to discuss diverse aspects of the Syrian crisis. This will also be the time during which political commitments and pledges will be made. A virtual exhibition “Voices from Syria and the region,” which is funded by the EU, has also just been made available online. The exhibition aims to display the strength, resilience and diversity of the Syrian people in the face of ongoing conflict and strife.
One day after hostile statements made by the Ethiopian foreign minister, in which he hinted at the possibility of war with Egypt over stalled negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sent a message laden with meaning. While inspecting Egypt s Western Military Zone on Saturday, Sisi said, “The Egyptian army is strong, and is one of the most powerful armies in the region. But it is a reasonable army, an army that protects and does not threaten, an army that secures and is not the aggressor. This is our strategy, our beliefs, and our constant position. And I am sure that if we need you to do work and sacrifice [you will].” Sisi thanked the combat units of the Egyptian Air Force, saying: “Be prepared to carry out any mission on our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders.” Sisi s message, which promoted peace more than war, appeared to be a response to comments made by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew in an interview with the Associated Press. Andargachew was quoted as saying that Egypt seeks war, and that Ethiopia will go ahead with filling the dam in July, despite having not yet reached an agreement with Egypt and Sudan. Contrary to Ethiopia s statements, Egypt s tone in dealing with the crisis has seemed calm and responsible, stressing the historical rights of Egypt to the waters of the Nile. Egypt s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry characterized his Ethiopian counterpart s statements as “hostile” and “disappointing.” This “will not make us abandon our policy of negotiations and seeking peaceful solutions,” Shoukry said. Although Ethiopia has repeatedly hinted at war, according to documented military information there is a significant gap between the respective capabilities of the Egyptian and Ethiopian armies. Here is a comparison between the Egyptian and Ethiopian armies based on figures provided by the Global Fire Power website: 1. The Egyptian army ranks ninth out of 138 armies around the world, while the Ethiopian army ranks 60th. 2. The Egyptian Air Force owns 1,054 assorted military aircraft, including 215 fighter jets, 59 military means of transport, 388 trainers, and 294 military helicopters. The Ethiopian army has only 86 aircraft, 24 of which are fighter jets, 20 are trainers, nine are transports, 33 are military helicopters and eight are attack helicopters. 3. The Egyptian army has more than 4,000 tanks, 10,000 armored vehicles, 1,000 self-propelled artillery and more than 2,189 field artillery, while the Ethiopian army has 400 tanks and 650 pieces of field artillery. 4. The Egyptian naval fleet includes about 320 marine vessels, including two aircraft carriers, seven corvettes and four submarines, in addition to 50 patrol ships and nine frigates. Because it is a landlocked country, Ethiopia does not have a naval fleet. 5. The defense budget of the Egyptian army is US$11.2 billion, compared to $350 million for the Ethiopian defense budget. 6. The Egyptian army has about 920,000 soldiers, with 440,000 currently in service and 480,000 in reserve. The Ethiopian army has a total 162,000 soldiers, and no reserve soldiers.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday said that Egypt has the right of international legitimacy at this point, based on the United Nations Charter, to militarily intervene in the Libyan crisis. During a televised speech at the Western Military Zone, Sisi added that Egypt has also received support from the Libyan House of Representatives to intervene in the Libyan crisis. Any intervention will aim to protect and secure the western borders from terrorist militias, Sisi explained, and to restore stability to Libya s territories and thereby maintain the stability of Egypt and Arab national security at large. Egypt is working towards a ceasefire at Libya s eastern and western borders, while also preparing to launch comprehensive political settlement negotiations under the auspices of the UN and to implement the resolutions of the Berlin Conference and the recently announced “Cairo Declaration“, backed by Khalifa Haftar and Libya s parliamentary speaker Aguila Saleh. Sisi also called to raise the Egyptian army s level of military readiness to carry out operations in Egypt and Libya. He praised the Egyptian army s combat capabilities and hailed it as one of the strongest armies in the region, describing it as a rational army that protects but does not threaten. The Cairo Declaration takes into consideration the international resolutions, UN efforts, and Berlin Conference resolutions towards ending the Libyan crisis, Sisi explained, paving the way for the future of Libya following the withdrawal of foreign forces and the dissolution of military militias. Egypt works towards peace first and foremost, and calls to resolve the crisis through political means that meet the needs of the Libyan people and respects international law. Sisi also issued a warning to all Libyan and foreign parties from forcibly seizing the strategic city of Sirte and al-Jafra, calling them the “red line” for Egypt s national security. The president s remarks and visit to the Western Military Command came a day after the release of 23 Egyptians who were detained in the Libyan city of Tarhuna. A video showing militia members abusing Egyptian laborers in Libya went viral on Tuesday, triggering anger among social media users and Egyptian officials. President Sisi instructed authorities to return the abducted laborers. Egyptian authorities managed to secure their release and return them home safely.
JERUSALEM (AP) — A senior Emirati official warned Wednesday that Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead Arab states to call for a single bi-national state for Israelis and Palestinians. The Arab minister’s remarks, delivered to an influential Washington think tank, struck a new setback to Israel’s hopes of normalizing relations with the Arab world and added to the increasingly vocal international opposition to the Israeli annexation plan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the strategically important Jordan Valley. Such a unilateral move would dash Palestinian hopes of establishing a viable independent state. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built dozens of settlements that are now home to nearly 500,000 Israelis. The Palestinians seek the territory as the heartland of their future state. Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal under international law. Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’s minister of state for foreign affairs, told the Washington-based Middle East Institute that his country is committed to dialog and the two-state solution to the decades-long conflict. But he added that “ultimately, I personally believe that if we are going where we are going today, and we lose the possibility of really implementing a two-state solution, we will really be talking about equal rights and one state.” A binational state of Israelis and Palestinians would mean an end to Israel’s goal of being a democracy with a solid Jewish majority. Israel has cultivated close, but clandestine, ties with several Arab states, including the UAE, because of their shared concern about Iran. Those warming relations have manifested themselves publicly with Israeli ministers visiting the UAE, Israeli athletes attending sports events and some quiet business ties. Israel only has formal diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, which also have both strongly criticized the annexation plan. On Tuesday, Gargash told the American Jewish Committee that “the UAE is clearly against any annexation as being proposed by the current Israeli government.” Last Friday, Yousef Al Otaiba, the Gulf state’s ambassador to the US, published an editorial in a leading Israeli newspaper warning that annexation of occupied territory would “upend” Israel’s efforts to improve ties with Arab countries. Also on Wednesday, Gargash said “less than 100” Emirati soldiers remain in Yemen amid a Saudi-led war on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that hold the capital, Sanaa. The UAE began to withdraw in July 2019 from the yearslong war in the Arab world’s poorest nation amid international criticism of a campaign that saw airstrikes kill civilians and prisoners tortured. ___ Image: In this Feb. 20, 2020 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the area where a new neighborhood is to be built in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. A senior Emirati official warned Wednesday, June 17, 2020 that Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead Arab states to call for a single binational state for Israelis and Palestinians. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Turkey said Wednesday it has airlifted troops for a cross-border ground operation against Turkey s Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, the first known airborne-and-land offensive by Ankara inside Iraqi territory. The airborne offensive into Iraq s border region of Haftanin, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Turkey-Iraq border, was launched following intense artillery fire into the area, said the Defense Ministry in Ankara. The operation by commando forces is being supported by warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and armed and unarmed drones, according to the ministry s statement posted on Twitter. It did not say how many troops are involved. Turkey regularly carries out air and ground attacks against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which it says maintains bases in northern Iraq. Wednesday s was the first known airborne and land offensive. Turkey has defended its past operations into northern Iraq, saying neither the Iraqi government nor the regional Iraqi Kurdish administration have acted to remove PKK insurgents who allegedly use Iraq s territory to stage attacks on Turkey. The ministry said Wednesday s operation follows ``increasing harassment and attempts to attack military outposts or bases in Turkey. It said the Turkish forces would target other ``terror groups in the region, but did not name them. ``Operation Claw-Tiger is continuing successfully as planned, the ministry said. It shared videos of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar overseeing the mission at a command center in Ankara. It came days after Turkey launched an air operation in the region, which the Defense Ministry said hit suspected PKK targets in several locations in Iraq s north, including Sinjar, and targeted 81 rebel hideouts. A military official said the operation began with artillery units targeting some 150 suspected PKK positions and was followed by an aerial attack involving F-16s, drones and attack helicopters. Some of the commandos crossed the border by land while other units were transported by helicopters. The troops had began to enter PKK hideouts in Haftanin, the official said, providing the information on condition of anonymity in line with government rules. It was not clear if the latest offensive would target the Sinjar region, where the Turkish government says has become a new base PKK commanders. A video provided by the Defense Ministry, showed Akar addressing the commandos: ``You have always demonstrated the Turkish military s force. I believe that you will demonstrate it again. ``Turkey continues its fight against terrorists using the rights based on international law,`` said Omer Celik, the deputy chairman of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan s ruling party. ``It is our most natural right and duty to fight terrorists who attack our borders, citizens, and security forces. There was no immediate reaction from the PKK or from Baghdad and northern Iraq s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Iraq s government however, summoned the Turkish ambassador on Tuesday to protest against the aerial offensive. The PKK has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey s mainly Kurdish southeast region. It is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The conflict has led to the loss of tens of thousands lives since it started in 1984.
Providing for 16 children including four sets of twins is only getting harder for Ahmad Yassin al-Ali and his wife Fawza Umri, Syrians who were forced to flee their home nearly a decade ago and are now crammed into a tent at the Turkish border.
ANKARA (Reuters) — Turkey and Libya s internationally recognized government are discussing possible Turkish use of two military bases in the North African country, a Turkish source said on Monday, teeing up a lasting Turkish presence in the south Mediterranean. No final decisions have been made over possible Turkish military use of the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya air base, which was recently recaptured by the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA has driven back Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA) — backed by Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — in recent weeks and recaptured several positions. Last week, Turkey said it could expand its cooperation in Libya with new energy and construction deals once the conflict ends. “Turkey using al-Watiya […] is on the agenda,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It could also be possible for the Misrata naval base to be used by Turkey.”
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis appealed on Sunday for both sides in the Libyan civil war to seek peace, urging the international community to facilitate talks and protect refugees and migrants he said were victims of cruelty. In an impassioned plea during his noon address in St. Peter s Square, Francis said he was pained by the situation in Libya, which has had no stable central authority since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011. For more than five years Libya has had rival parliaments and governments in the east and the west, with streets often controlled by armed groups and sporadic fighting. “Please! I urge international bodies and those who have political and military responsibilities to restart, with conviction and resolve, the search for a path towards an end to violence, leading to peace, stability and unity in the country,” he said. Egypt announced a new initiative for Libya on Saturday. Meanwhile Russia and Turkey, who support opposing sides in Libya, have postponed ministerial-level talks on the conflict. Libya is divided between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) with nations split over their support of the LNA or the GNA. In an apparent reference to the coronavirus pandemic, Francis said the already precarious health conditions of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers had been aggravated, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. “There is cruelty. I call on the international community – Please! – to take their plight to heart … Brothers and sisters, we all have responsibility in this. No-one can consider themselves dispensed from this,” he said. Human rights groups such as Doctors Without Borders have said people in migrant detention centers in Libya are being held in harmful conditions and exposed to abuses.
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