JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of maintaining a “secret arms depot” in a residential neighborhood of Beirut, warning it could cause another tragic explosion in the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah denied the allegations and invited international and local media to immediately visit the site, where they found a small factory housing heavy machinery but no weapons. In an address to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu pointed to maps purportedly showing the missile depot s location next to a gas company and residential housing, not far from Beirut s international airport. He also showed what he said was a picture of the entrance to the depot. “Here s where the next explosion will take place, right here,” he said. “You ve got to act now, you ve got to protest this, because if this thing explodes, it s another tragedy,” Netanyahu said, addressing the Lebanese people. “You should tell them, Tear these depots down. ” Last month, a warehouse filled with nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut s port, killing nearly 200 people, wounding thousands and causing widespread destruction in the capital. The ammonium nitrate had been stored there for several years after being removed from an impounded cargo ship. No one has yet been held accountable for the blast, which appears to have been triggered by an accidental fire. Israel has long accused Hezbollah of storing weapons and maintaining military posts in civilian areas, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern Lebanon, both strongholds of support for the Iran-backed militant group. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied Netanyahu s allegations, insisting the group does not store missiles in civilian facilities. “Whoever wants to go can go now. If Hezbollah is storing missiles in this facility, then there is not enough time to remove them,” Nasrallah said in a televised address. “We don t store missiles at the port or near gas facilities. We know where to store missiles.” “We will allow media outlets to enter the facility so that the world knows that Netanyahu is lying,” he added. Dozens of reporters, including an Associated Press photographer, toured the small factory in the southern neighborhood of Jnah late Tuesday, where they saw large pieces of iron and steel, heavy machinery and oxygen canisters — but no missiles or weapons of any kind. Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif, who led the tour, said the facility did not belong to the militant group. “You can see the missile and the missile factory behind you,” he said sarcastically. “We want to confirm again that all charges by the enemy are mere lies.” After Netanyahu s address, the Israeli military released detailed maps showing the site in Jnah and two other alleged missile depots it said were under residential apartment blocks. It described all three as precision-guided missile manufacturing sites. The military provided precise locations of what it called weapons sites but gave no other evidence and did not say how advanced the manufacturing program is. Israel has long warned that Hezbollah is seeking to manufacture precision-guided missiles or add guidance systems to its existing projectiles, something Israel insists is a red line that may require military action. Hezbollah is believed to have massively expanded its arsenal in the years since it fought Israel to a monthlong stalemate in 2006. Israel believes Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of hitting virtually anywhere in Israel, but precision guidance would make them far more lethal. Netanyahu said another depot had exploded just a few days ago in the southern Lebanese village of Ain Qana, near the port city of Sidon. It is not clear what caused that explosion, which sent smoke billowing into the sky but did not cause any casualties. The Israeli prime minister usually uses his annual address to the United Nations to highlight Israel s concerns about archenemy Iran and its nuclear program. And he does it in a distinctive manner. In contrast to most leaders, who typically sit behind desks or stand at podiums, he often uses visual aids such as maps and diagrams to make his points. This year, talking about potential explosions, he delivered his speech against the backdrop of a Jerusalem street scene filled with intense oranges and yellows. This year, Netanyahu said the recent decision by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel showed that Israel and Arab countries “stand together in confronting the greatest enemy of peace in the Middle East — Iran.” Netanyahu claimed that Iran would have “enough enriched uranium in a few months for two nuclear bombs” after it recently began exceeding limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran began publicly exceeding those limits after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. Iran insists it has never sought nuclear weapons and that its atomic program is for civilian purposes. Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal, praised Trump s decision to withdraw from it and called on the world to follow the US in snapping back sanctions. He also reiterated his willingness to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of Trump s proposal to end the conflict, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and has been rejected by the Palestinians.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded Monday after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq s military said. It was the first time in months an attack caused civilian casualties. The rocket targeted the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead. Among the dead were three children and two women. Two children were also severely wounded. The home was completely destroyed. The rocket was launched from the al-Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad. A statement from the military described the attack as a “cowardly crime” perpetrated by “criminal gangs” with the aim of creating chaos and terrorizing people. It said Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had ordered the arrest of the perpetrators and said “these gangs will not be allowed to go around and tamper with security” with impunity. The attacks have become a frequent occurrence, often targeting the US Embassy in Baghdad, within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and US troops present in Iraqi bases as well as the Baghdad airport. Roadside bombs have also frequently targeted convoys carrying equipment destined for US-led coalition forces. Previous attacks have caused minor damage but rarely deaths or injuries. The frequency of the rockets have strained Iraq-US relations, prompting the Trump administration last week to threaten to close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if Shiite militia groups believed to be orchestrating them are not reigned in. The disparate nature of Shiite militias following the US assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani and Iranian militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has complicated Iraqi efforts to clamp down on rogue armed elements. A government raid on the powerful Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, suspected of launching rocket attacks, backfired when those detained were released for want of evidence.
The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, U.S., Iraqi and other officials said Monday. As news of the warning sent shockwaves across Baghdad, Iraq s military said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing five Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others. A U.S. official said the administration s warning was given to both Iraq s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The warning signals the administration s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. However, closing the embassy and withdrawing U.S. personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives. The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said. Pompeo told Saleh that if the U.S. presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a ``strong and violent response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call. Pompeo went further with al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the U.S. will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound. In a tangible sign of a strain in U.S.-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days. Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to U.S. dollars. Despite comments from U.S. officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months time to take action. "America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months," one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, al-Kadhimi s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the U.S.-led coalition or else, "aggressive" action would follow, the official said. Iraq s leadership is feeling the heat. Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions. So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone. The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the U.S. ahead of the November federal election. "We expect large crowds," said one official of the protests. "And we expect it will impact American thinking." Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the U.S. has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment. Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats. Diplomats were told the U.S. had already started the process of closing but would ``re-evaluate while progressing,`` one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved. In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias. As a member of Congress, Pompeo had been a strong critic of the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He is loathe to see a repeat of such an attack on his watch, according to current and former U.S. officials. In addition, Trump has been clear about his desire to reduce the U.S. presence in the Mideast, although he has focused primarily on the military. However, closing the embassy after the massive U.S. investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003 would likely draw significant criticism from Trump allies in Congress, including lawmakers who supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ahead of November s election, it is not clear if Trump would be willing to invite that criticism. The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq s leadership, but said the U.S. will not tolerate threats. ``We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,`` the department said. ``It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq.`` Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue. On Monday, five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq s military said. The rocket may have been targeting the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead, Iraqi security officials said, requesting anonymity in line with regulations. Also on Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for U.S. forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Syria s foreign minister accused Turkey on Saturday of being “one of the main sponsors of terror” in his country and the region, and said it is guilty of “a war crime and a crime against humanity” for cutting water to more than a dozen towns that resisted Turkish occupation. In unusually harsh language, Walid al-Moallem said “the Turkish regime reigns supreme” when it comes “to sponsors and financiers of terrorism.” He said in a prerecorded speech to the first-ever high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the cutoff of water supplies endangered civilian lives, especially during the coronavirus crisis. The nine-year Syrian conflict, which initially began as a civil war, later became a regional proxy fight. Turkey, which now controls a zone in northern Syria, has backed opposition fighters against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syrian Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State extremist group. Al-Moallem also accused Turkey of moving “terrorists and mercenaries — referred to by some as `moderate opposition — from Syria to Libya,” violating Iraq s sovereignty, using refugees “as bargaining chips against Europe” and laying claim “by force to energy resources in the Mediterranean.” “The current Turkish regime has become a rogue and outlaw regime under international law,” the Syrian minister said. “Its policies and actions, which threaten the security and stability of the whole region, must be stopped.” Turkey s UN Mission said it “rejects Syrian regime s delusional statement, ridden with ludicrous allegations, in its entirety.” “It s shameful and unacceptable that the murderous Syrian regime which lost its legitimacy long ago continues to misuse (the) UN General Assembly general debate to distort the facts,” said a mission spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Syrian regime is responsible for death, mutilation, abduction, starvation and enforced disappearance of millions of Syrians,” the spokesperson said. “Its crimes against humanity, violations of international humanitarian law and the war crimes have been documented in countless UN reports.” Al-Moallem declared that the Syrian government “will spare no effort to end the occupation by all means possible under international law” of American and Turkish forces. US troops are deployed in the country to fight the Islamic State group. “The actions of these forces, taken directly or through their terrorist agents, secessionist militias, or manufactured and illegitimate entities, are null and void, with no legal effect,” he said. Al-Moallem, who is also deputy prime minister, denounced US sanctions, saying they are blocking the delivery of life-saving medicine and equipment during the pandemic. He called the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” passed by the US Congress an “inhumane attempt to suffocate Syrians, just like George Floyd and others were cruelly suffocated in the United States, and just like Israel suffocates Palestinians on a daily basis.” Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died May 25 after a white officer used his knee on Floyd s neck to pin him to the ground. The officer has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Al-Moallem called on all countries affected by unilateral sanctions “and those that reject such measures to close ranks against them and alleviate their impact on our peoples … through cooperation, coordination, and concrete political, economic and commercial means.” On the political front, he said Syria s government hopes a committee given the responsibility of drafting a new constitution for the country “will succeed.” But, he said, this will be possible only “if there is no external interference whatsoever in its work and by any party.”
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II said on Thursday that the Nile River is a gift from God, like air and the sun, for all people, and that he therefore “prays and trusts” that the negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) “will move forward towards a solution that is appropriate for all," Al-Ahram Arabic reported. Tawadros remarks came during a meeting with the recently appointed Ethiopian ambassador to Egypt, Markos Tekle. The last round of trilateral talks on the dam, which were brokered by the African Union (AU), concluded in August without reaching an integrated draft agreement on the operation and filling of the dam. Egypt s irrigation ministry said on 28 August that Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had not reached consensus on the legal and technical points of contention on the $4.8 billion hydropower project. On Wednesday, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said in his address to the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly that the GERD negotiation period "should not be extended indefinitely, to impose a new status quo." The GERD, built 15 kilometres from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, has been a source of contention between the three countries since construction began in 2011. The first filling of the near-complete dam took place this summer. During Thursday s meeting, Tawadros hailed the strength of the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as between the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches, referring to the loving relationship that binds him to the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Mathias. The pope also stressed the importance of the role the Ethiopian ambassador will play to strengthen relations between the two countries during his term.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – An arms depot of the Iran-backed Shi ite Muslim group Hezbollah exploded in southern Lebanon on Tuesday, a security source said, injuring several people and sending a new shockwave across a nation grappling with its deepest crisis in three decades. The security source said the arms depot blast, which sent a huge column of black smoke into the sky, was caused by a “technical error”. The explosion rocked the village of Ain Qana in south Lebanon, a region that is a political stronghold of the heavily armed and politically powerful group which has fought wars with neighbouring Israel. The blast has further rattled a nation grappling with its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war and still reeling from a devastating explosion at Beirut port that ripped through the capital, killing at least 190 people. Since the Beirut blast on August 4, subsequent fires at the port and elsewhere in the capital have caused panic in Beirut and across the country, whose economy is in meltdown while politicians have yet to agree on how to form a new government. The previous government resigned after Beirut blast and is acting in a caretaker capacity. Forming the new cabinet has hit a logjam as Hezbollah and its main Shi ite ally have demanded they name the finance and some other ministers. Another security source said Hezbollah had set up a security cordon around Tuesday s blast site, about 50 km (30 miles) south of Beirut. Journalists were prevented from approaching the area. There was no immediate statement from Hezbollah. The group s television channel Al Manar said in a news broadcast that the cause of the blast was still not clear. Security sources said there were several injuries without giving figures. A witness near the village said they felt the ground shake. Footage from the area broadcast by Al-Jadeed showed men walking over scorched ground littered with debris. Damage was shown in an adjacent house where the floor was covered in glass and what appeared to be a pool of blood. At least one fire was still burning in the location, the footage showed.
Clashes in Syria between pro-regime forces and Islamic State group jihadists, along with air strikes, have killed at least 28 fighters in the northern province of Raqa, a war monitor said Tuesday. "IS has since Monday carried out several attacks on Syrian army and allied positions and checkpoints in the Badia (desert) of Raqa, killing 13 members of regime forces," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, told AFP the regime has retaliated with waves of air raids, killing 15 jihadists either in the strikes or fighting on the ground. Since its defeat in Syria in March 2019, IS has carried out regular deadly attacks on the army and Kurdish forces. In August, the jihadists claimed an attack near the city of Deir Ezzor that killed a general and two other soldiers of the Russian army forces allied to the Damascus government.
AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian opposition sources said Russian jets bombed rebel-held northwestern Syria on Sunday in the most extensive strikes since a Turkish-Russian deal halted major fighting with a ceasefire nearly six months ago. Witnesses said the warplanes struck the western outskirts of Idlib city and that there was heavy artillery shelling in the mountainous Jabal al Zawya region in southern Idlib from nearby Syrian army outposts. There were no immediate reports of casualties. “These 30 raids are by far the heaviest strikes so far since the ceasefire deal,” said Mohammed Rasheed, a former rebel official and a volunteer plane spotter whose network covers the Russian air base in the western coastal province of Latakia. Other tracking centres said Russian Sukhoi jets hit the Horsh area and Arab Said town, west of the city of Idlib. Unidentified drones also hit two rebel-held towns in the Sahel al-Ghab plain, west of Hama province. There has been no wide-scale aerial bombing since a March agreement ended a Russian-backed bombing campaign that displaced over a million people in the region which borders Turkey after months of fighting. There was no immediate comment from Moscow or the Syrian army who have long accused militant groups who hold sway in the last opposition redoubt of wrecking the ceasefire deal and attacking army-held areas. The deal between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia s President Vladimir Putin also defused a military confrontation between them after Ankara poured thousands of troops into Idlib province to hold back Russian-backed forces from new advances. Western diplomats tracking Syria say Moscow piled pressure on Ankara in the latest round of talks on Wednesday to scale down its extensive military presence in Idlib. Turkey has more than ten thousand troops stationed in dozens of bases there, according to opposition sources in touch with Turkish military. Witnesses say there has been a spike in sporadic shelling from Syrian army outposts against Turkish bases in the last two weeks. Rebels say the Syrian army and its allied militias were amassing troops on front lines. Two witnesses said a Turkish military column comprising at least 15 armoured vehicles was seen overnight entering Syria through the Kafr Lusin border crossing in the direction of a main base in rural Idlib.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – A party founded by Lebanon s Christian president made a proposal to end a dispute that has blocked the formation of a new cabinet and threatened a French drive to lift the country out of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. The proposal, put forward on Saturday, involved handing major ministries to smaller sectarian groups in a country where power is shared between Muslims and Christians. There was no immediate comment from Shia Muslim groups, which have insisted they choose who fills several posts. But a political source familiar with the thinking of dominant Shi ite groups said the idea was unlikely to work. Lebanon s efforts to swiftly form a new government have run into the sand over how to pick ministers in a country where political loyalties mostly follow sectarian religious lines. A September 15 deadline agreed with France to name a cabinet has passed. Paris, which is leading an international push to haul Lebanon back from economic collapse, has voiced exasperation and told Beirut to act “without delay”. The leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the party founded by President Michel Aoun and allied to Hezbollah, proposed “undertaking an experiment to distribute the so-called sovereign ministries to smaller sects, specifically to the Druze, Alawites, Armenians and Christian minorities”. The statement was issued after Gebran Bassil, FPM head and son-in-law of the president, chaired a meeting of the party s political leadership. Bassil is a Maronite, Lebanon s largest Christian community. Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon s sectarian system of power sharing, wants to shake up the leadership of ministries, some of which have been controlled by the same factions for years. Lebanon s main Shia groups – the Amal Movement and the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah – want to select the figures to fill a number of positions, including the finance minister, a top position often called a “sovereign” ministry. An FPM official said the party had not discussed the idea about distributing ministries with Hezbollah or Amal. “We are proposing an exit strategy for those who are stuck up a tree without a ladder,” the official told Reuters. With the nation buried under a mountain of debt and with its banks paralyzed, the finance minister will play a crucial role as Lebanon seeks to restart stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund, one of the first steps on France s roadmap.
The senior US commander for Africa met France s top general on Thursday to discuss the fight against militant groups in the region, as uncertainty persists over whether President Donald Trump will maintain American troop levels on the continent. General Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa Command, met with France s armed forces chief of staff General Francois Lecointre for a working lunch on their "continued US-French cooperation in Africa," according to a US statement. The US has provided aerial refuelling, intelligence and other crucial support for France s anti-terrorism campaign in West Africa, where a disparate Islamist insurgency has taken root in recent years. The US statement noted that US intelligence collection had "helped facilitate" the French operation that resulted in the killing of the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, in June. But the Trump administration insists it must focus on containing Russia and China, with Africa seen as less of a direct threat -- and one that should be left to France and the European Union. US officials indicated early this year that a troop drawdown was under consideration, though no concrete moves have been announced since. "We share common threats, mutual concerns, and a commitment to fighting violent extremist organizations," Townsend said. He added, however, that "continued French leadership and increased support from their European neighbours is key to helping the Africans change the trajectory and prevent the spread of violence in West Africa." French President Emmanuel Macron has been pressing EU allies to step up their contributions to the fight. France has more than 5,000 soldiers as part of Operation Barkhane, its anti-jihadist force in the Sahel. ."The situation in the Sahel was discussed," the French defence ministry confirmed in a statement, as well as "the necessary mobilisation of European countries to fight the terrorist threat in the region." Regarding a potential US withdrawal, "nothing has been officialised one way or the other," a military source told AFP on Thursday.
ATHENS (Reuters) – Cyprus is ready to engage in dialogue with Turkey to resolve differences but not under threats, the Mediterranean island’s President Nicos Anastasiades said on Wednesday. “Yesterday unfortunately a Turkish NAVTEX to expand illegal drilling by the Yavuz vessel was extended when at the same time a series of initiatives are ongoing that seek an end to Ankara’s unlawful actions and de-escalation,” he said, after a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Nicosia. Anastasiades said Turkey was continuing its provocations in the eastern Mediterranean. On Tuesday Turkey extended the operations of its Yavuz energy drill ship in disputed Mediterranean waters off Cyprus until Oct. 12, in a move that could stir tension between the island’s Greek Cypriot government and Ankara. Reporting by ANgeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou; Writing by George Georgiopoulos Photo: Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and European Council President Charles Michel bump elbows after the news conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus September 16th, 2020. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
GENEVA (AP) — UN-backed investigators pointed Tuesday to signs that Syria s government continues to perpetrate rape, torture and murder as the country s nine-year conflict grinds on, while citing possible war crimes by a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel groups and calling on Ankara to do more to help prevent them. The report from the Commission of Inquiry on Syria — its 21st — was based on some 538 interviews as well as documents, satellite imagery and other evidence. It covers the first half of 2020 at a time when a cease-fire between rebels and the government and its allies has largely held in the rebel-held Idlib region since March — a relative bright spot in an otherwise dismal situation. But the commission noted how Syria faces new strains linked to the coronavirus pandemic, a currency and economic crisis, and stiff new sanctions by the United States on top of the war s devastating toll over nearly a decade. The panel urged an easing of sanctions that compound the impact of lags in humanitarian aid deliveries because of COVID-19, and urged countries to take back their nationals who are the children of militants from the Islamic State group and women held by the thousands in squalid camps. The report cited “reasonable grounds” to believe that Syrian President Bashar Assad s government has “continued to perpetrate the crimes against humanity of enforced disappearance, murder, torture, sexual violence and imprisonment.” It also said possible war crimes, including hostage-taking, torture and rape, may have been committed by the so-called Syrian National Army, a coalition of Turkey-backed rebel groups that controls a broad swath of territory along the Turkish border. They have been at odds with the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, who are opposed by Turkey s government, in the northeast. The commission said it was, for example, investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yazidi women were detained in the Ra s al-Ayn and Afrin regions by Syrian National Army members within the last year. It highlighted Turkey s responsibility to “as far as possible, ensure public order and safety, and to afford special protection to women and children.” In areas held by the Syrian Defense Forces, the commission noted worrying conditions in the camps deteriorated, with medical services “stripped down to skeletal levels due to COVID-19.” “The dramatic increase in those suffering from food insecurity in Syria in the first half of 2020 is deeply concerning,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, one of the commission s three members. “All barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid must be removed.”
CAIRO (AP) — An interim government in eastern Libya resigned on Sunday amid street protests that erupted across the divided country over dire living conditions, officials said. Prime Minister Abdallah al-Thani submitted the resignation of his government to Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives, said the government s spokesman, Ezzel-Deen al-Falih. Abdallah Abaihig, a spokesman for the parliament, confirmed the government s resignation, saying lawmakers would review it in their next meeting. No date set for the session. The parliament on Friday accused the Central Bank and government in the capital of Tripoli of “plundering” the country and neglecting the east, in apparent efforts to deflect blame for the deterioration of public services. Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Both the parliament and al-Thani s government, which is not internationally recognized, are allied with Khalifa Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, which controls Libya s east and south. Hundreds of young Libyans flooded the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities in the past couple of days in a spontaneous outburst of anger over the area s crippling electricity shortages. Protesters in eastern Libya set piles of tires a blaze and blocked traffic in several major roads. On Saturday, protesters attempted to storm a security headquarters in eastern town of Marj. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, said at least one civilian was reportedly killed and three others were wounded. It called for “a thorough and immediate” investigation into “the reported excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrations” and the speedy release of a number of detained protesters. The demonstrations mirror similar recent protests over power cuts and corruption in the capital Tripoli and other western cities in recent weeks. The protests have led to a power struggle within the UN-supported government. The recent protests across Libya were “motivated by deep-seated frustrations about sustained poor living conditions, shortages of electricity and water, rampant corruption, misgovernance, and a lack of service provision throughout the country,” the UNSMIL said. The UN mission said the protests underscore “the urgent need to lift the oil blockade” and the return to a “full and inclusive” political process to end Libya s yearslong conflict. Powerful tribes in eastern Libya loyal to Hifter closed oil export terminals and choked off major pipelines at the start of the year to pressure the Tripoli-based government, which is accused of using oil revenues to fund militias and mercenaries. The US Embassy in Libya said Hifter agreed to reopen oil fields and terminals no later than Saturday. By Sunday evening, it was not clear whether the blockade had been lifted. Hifter s spokesman did not answer phone calls and messages seeking comment. Hifter s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns. Fighting has died down in recent weeks amid intensive international efforts, including from the United States, to establish a lasting cease-fire and avert a battle over the strategic city of Sirte, the gateway for vital oil facilities.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese soldiers on Saturday fired rubber bullets and live rounds in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to march to the presidential palace during an anti-government demonstration. Tension is high in Lebanon following last month s devastating explosion at Beirut s port that killed nearly 200 people, and after another mysterious and huge blaze at the same site Thursday. The Aug. 4 explosion was caused by the detonation of nearly three thousand tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at the port for years. More than five weeks later, it is still not clear what started the fire that ignited the chemicals, and no one has been held accountable so far. The explosion, which created a massive shockwave that shattered glass and blasted windows, doors and injured 6,500 people, came on top of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis blamed on decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country s political class. Protesters had called for the march Saturday to the presidential palace in the suburb of Baabda to express their anger and call for accountability. Supporters of President Michel Aoun called for a counter-protest at the same location, adding to the tension. Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers separated the two camps. Later, as anti-Aoun protesters attempted to break a security cordon blocking their path on the highway leading to the palace, troops fired at first live rounds in the air, then rubber bullets, in an effort to disperse them. Some protesters threw stones and tree branches at the troops, injuring several of them. Some sat in the middle of the highway vowing to stay there. A group climbed on a sign post and hung ropes tied into nooses. Some soldiers threw stones and sticks back at protesters, and pointed their M-16 machine guns at them as well. The military later issued a statement saying it had to form a human barrier to separate the two groups of demonstrators near the presidential palace, and was forced to fire in the air after protesters pelted soldiers with stones and beat them with sticks in an attempt to reach the presidential palace. The public blames the corruption and negligence of Lebanon s politicians, security and judicial officials, many of whom knew about the storage of the chemicals that exploded and did nothing.
BEIRUT (AP) — A huge fire broke out Thursday at the Port of Beirut, triggering panic among residents traumatized by last month s massive explosion that killed and injured thousands of people. It was not immediately clear what caused the fire at the facility, which was decimated by the August 4 explosion when nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, triggering a shock wave explosion that blasted windows, doors and walls miles away. A column of black smoke billowed from the port at midday Thursday, with orange flames leaping from the ground. The Lebanese army said the fire is at a warehouse where oil and tires are placed in the duty free zone at the port adding that fighting the blaze is ongoing and that army helicopters are taking part in the operation. Panicked residents — still struggling to get over last month s catastrophic explosion — cracked open windows and called each other to warn them of the new fire. Local TV stations said the companies that have offices near the port have asked their employees to leave the area. Lebanese troops closed the major road that passes near the port referring traffic to other areas. The August 4 explosion killed more than 190 people, injured around 6,500 and damaged thousands of buildings in the Lebanese capital. The sight of another huge fire a month later created panic among residents traumatized by last month s explosion. State-run National News Agency said the fire was at a warehouse where tires are placed. It added that firefighters are dealing with the blaze. Army helicopters were taking part in efforts to extinguish the fire. A video circulating on social media showed workers at the port running away in fear as soon as the fire broke out, a chilling reminder of last month s blast that killed dozens of port employees and 10 fire fighters. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud and authorities called on people to stay away from roads leading to the port to allow fire engines to move quickly. Police spokesman Col. Joseph Msalam said they have no information about what is happening at the port adding that the facility is currently under control of the army. Asked about reports that the fire was caused by burning tires and oil, he said: “I don t know. It could be containers. I really don t know what is there.” It was the second fire at the port this week. On Tuesday, a small fire erupted, also creating some panic, that was quickly extinguished.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The warring parties in Libya and their international backers — the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Jordan vs Turkey and Qatar — violated a UN arms embargo on the oil-rich north African country that remains “totally ineffective,” UN experts said in a new report. The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Libya said in the report seen Tuesday by The Associated Press that 11 companies also violated the arms embargo including the Wagner Group, a private Russian security company the panel said in May provided between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support eastern Libya’s rebel commander Khalifa Hifter. In addition, the panel of experts said the warring parties and their international backers, along with Egypt and Syria, failed to inspect aircraft or vessels or both, as required by a 2015 UN Security Council resolution if they have reasonable grounds to believe the cargo contains military weapons and ammunition. “The panel considers that details in letters to certain member states, together with extensive media coverage, provides sufficient information for them to have reasonable grounds for inspection,” the report said. The new report follows a warning last week from the top UN official for Libya that the oil-rich country is at “a decisive turning point,” with foreign backers of its rival governments pouring in weapons and the misery of its people compounded by the coronavirus pandemic that appears to be “spiraling out of control.” Acting special representative Stephanie Williams told the Security Council that its actions “will help determine whether the country descends into new depths of fragmentation and chaos, or progresses towards a more prosperous future.” Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The county has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Eastern military commander Hifter launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture the capital of Tripoli. But Hifter’s campaign collapsed in June when militias backing the UN-supported government in Tripoli, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the capital and other western towns. Hifter is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Jordan and Egypt while the Tripoli forces are supported by the wealthy Gulf state Qatar and by Turkey, which is a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle over political Islam. The panel of experts said that “since the more direct engagement by Turkey in 2019 and the United Arab Emirates in January 2020 arms transfers to Libya by those two member states have been extensive, blatant and with complete disregard to the sanctions measures.” “The panel thus finds that Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were in repeated non-compliance” with the arms embargo, which has been in force since 2011, the report said. It cited Turkey’s deployment of military personnel and transfer of at least 10 types of military equipment as well as its transfer of foreign fighters. Most military hardware sent to the government in Tripoli — electronic warfare systems, anti-tank guided missiles, combat drones, self-propelled air defense guns and artillery, surface-to-air missile systems, frigates and fighter ground attack aircraft — came from Turkey, it said. The panel said the UAE deployed military personnel and transferred at least five types of military equipment into Libya including armored personnel carriers and patrol vehicles and a French Dassault Mirage 2000-9 jet fighter. Russia transferred at least two types of military equipment into Libya, pointing to a Mig-29A fighter jet operating at the Al Jufra airbase on May 18 and a Sukhoi SU-24 supersonic attack aircraft operating from both Al Jufra and Al Khadim airbases on the same day as well as “a main battle tank upgrade” for an unidentified Russian private military company. The experts said the Wagner group transferred “armed private military operatives and military equipment into Libya” to support Hifter’s military operations, including two armored personnel carriers. Wagner military operatives also took part in the withdrawal of Hifter’s forces from Bani Walid on May 27, the panel said, and on July 1, its operatives were reported to be based at five airbases — Al Jufra, Brak, Ghardabiya, Sabha and Wadden — and at the Sharara oil facility, the country’s largest. The 10 other companies accused by the panel of violating the arms embargo by providing logistical support for Hifter’s forces include airlines from Kazakhstan, Syria, Ukraine and Tajikistan and two UAE companies. The panel of experts said the resupply of both sides by air was extensive, with flights from the UAE to western Egypt and eastern Libya, and from Russia via Syria to eastern Libya to reinforce Hifter’s forces — and from Turkey to western Libya to reinforce the government. As for shipments by sea, the panel confirmed that five vessels destined for government ports flying flags of Albania, Lebanon, Tanzania and Panama were in “non-compliance” with the arms embargo along with two destined for Hifter’s eastern ports. One flying a Liberian flag has a UAE owner and the other flying a Bahamas flag has a Japanese owner, it said. AP emails to the UN missions of the UAE, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Qatar got no response. A spokesperson for Turkey’s UN Mission wouldn’t comment on the report but said it has cooperated with the UN-recognized government and supports the work of UN envoy Williams and the panel of experts. “Allegations regarding any violation by Turkey of sanctions are baseless,” said the spokesperson who was not authorized to be identified by name.
A Turkish court on Monday sentenced an Islamic State suspect to life in prison over the New Year’s Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul that left 39 people dead in 2017. The suspect, Albulkadir Masharipov of Uzbekistan, was convicted of 39 counts of murder and one count of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. He was handed 40 separate life sentences without parole. The court also sentenced him to a total of 1,368 years in prison for the attempted murder of 79 people who escaped the attack with injuries. Ilyas Mamasaripov, who was accused of aiding Masharipov, was sentenced to a total of 1,432 years, on charges of aiding murder, aiding attempted murder, and aiding an attempt against the constitutional order, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Of the 58 other defendants in the case, 11 were acquitted of the charges, while others received various sentences for membership in a terror organization, the agency said. Early on Jan. 1, 2017, an assailant shot his way into Istanbul’s Reina nightclub where hundreds were partying to celebrate the New Year. The assailant escaped from the scene and the Islamic State group later claimed the massacre. Several revelers jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack. Most of the dead were foreigners. Police arrested Masharipov in a police raid 15 days after the attack. Masharipov initially admitted that he had carried out the attack but later denied the charges against him, Anadolu reported. In his final words of defense on Monday, Masharipov asked that he be acquitted, saying his initial testimonies were taken under “torture and pressure.” He insisted there was insufficient evidence against him, Anadolu said. He is expected to appeal his conviction. A lawyer representing Ali Akyil, the father of one victim, said her client would seek compensation for the loss of his son, Kerim. “Obviously, as nothing would ease his pain, he found the punishment to be lacking,” Ruya Beril Calis told The Associated Press. “With this in mind, we are continuing our process of legal compensation.” Kerim Akyil, a dual Turkish-Belgian citizen, had traveled to Istanbul from Belgium to celebrate the New Year at Reina, Calis said. Turkey has been hit by a string of attacks since 2015 by Kurdish militants and IS extremists that have left more than 300 people dead. Photo caption: In this Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 file photo, a man adjusts a victim’s photograph displayed with floral tributes and Turkish flags, outside the Reina night club following the New Year’s day attack, in Istanbul. A Turkish court has on Monday, Sep. 7, 2020 sentenced an Islamic State militant to life in prison over the New Year’s Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul that left 39 people dead in 2017. Albulkadir Masharipov of Uzbekistan was charged with membership in a terror group, murder and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, among other charges. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, file)
Greece plans to acquire arms, boost its armed forces and revamp its defence industry, the government s spokesman said on Monday, as tensions with NATO ally Turkey over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean grow. Greece, which emerged from its third international bailout in 2018 and has been struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, wants to spend part of its multi-billion euro cash reserves on its defence sector. "We are in talks with allies to boost our armed forces," government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters, adding that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will outline his plans during an annual economic policy speech on Saturday. A Greek government official told Reuters last week that Greece is in talks with France and other countries over the acquisition of fighter jets. Greece has also been trying for more than a decade to consolidate and privatise its loss-making defence companies. Mitsotakis will meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Corsica on Thursday, before a Southern European leaders summit (MED7) on the French island of Corsica. The two leaders are expected to discuss the European Union s strained relationship with Turkey, Macron s office said. Petas said that cooperation in the defence sector between the two countries will also be on the agenda. Turkey and Greece have long disagreed over the extent of their continental shelves. Tensions rose last month after Ankara sent an exploration vessel into disputed waters, accompanied by warships, days after Greece signed a maritime deal with Egypt. Ankara has since been extending the vessel s work in the wider region, issuing advisories which Athens calls illegal. The Greek conservative leader discussed the latest twists in the row with European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs summits of EU leaders, during a phone call on Monday. Michel will visit Athens on Sept. 15, Petsas said.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s top Christian cleric said on Sunday a new government must deliver urgent economic and other reforms in the national interest, rather than returning to past corrupt ways that have plunged the Middle Eastern nation into an economic crisis. Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, leader of the Maronite church, has an influential role as religious leader of the biggest Christian community in Lebanon, where political power is divided between its main Christian, Muslim and Druze sects. Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni Muslim, is in talks to swiftly form a cabinet by mid September, under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron. Picking ministers in the past has taken months of haggling. Macron has led international efforts to fix the country of about six million people that has been crushed by debt and which is reeling from a huge Aug. 4 port blast that shattered Beirut, exacerbating Lebanon’s deepest crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The patriarch called for an emergency government that was “small, qualified and strong” in his Sunday sermon, saying the new cabinet should not return to past ways of “clientelism, corruption and bias”. “Fateful times require a government in which there is no monopoly of portfolios, no sharing out of benefits, no dominance by one group, and no landmines that disrupt its work and decisions,” he said, adding it must “negotiate responsibly” with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). His comments were carried by an-Nahar newspaper website and other Lebanese media. Talks with the IMF were started this year by the outgoing government, but quickly stalled amid a row between ministers, politicians and banks about the scale of losses in the banking system that has been brought to its knees, sending the currency into tailspin and driving many people into poverty. Reporting by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Potter Image: FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai speaks after meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 15, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s prime minister-designate began consultations on Wednesday to form a new, crisis Cabinet, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Lebanese politicians had committed to a road map that begins with the formation of a government within two weeks to enact reforms. Mustapha Adib, a 48-year-old diplomat, was hastily approved for the job of prime minister earlier this week, ahead of a two-day marathon visit by Macron that ended on Tuesday night. It was his second visit in less than a month as Lebanon faces multiple crises and challenges — including an unprecedented financial and economic meltdown and the aftermath of last month’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port that ripped through the capital. The giant Aug. 4 explosion, caused by the ignition of nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, has resulted in intense pressure on Lebanon’s ruling elite, already blamed for driving the small country to the brink of total collapse. At least 190 people were killed and thousands were injured in the blast. Speaking at the end of two days of meetings in Beirut, Macron said France was committed to helping Lebanon get out of its crisis, but that failing to implement reforms within a three-month period would result in punitive actions, including withholding vital international assistance and possibly even sanctions against politicians. “Going back to business as usual would be madness,” Macron told reporters at the end of his visit. France and the international community have said they will not provide financial assistance to Lebanon unless it implements radical changes aimed at fighting widespread corruption and mismanagement that has characterized governance here for decades. Adib, a dual Lebanese-French citizen, promised to carry out the mission as he prepared to form a new Cabinet, saying he will work on reaching a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund. Humanitarian assistance has poured into Lebanon in the wake of the Beirut explosion, with most of it going directly to NGOs and other agencies, and bypassing authorities — a reflection of the lack of trust. In an apparent snub to the ruling class, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said he will not meet with Lebanese politicians during a visit to Beirut on Wednesday, but would hold talks with civil society activists. In an interview with the pan-Arab Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Schenker said the new Lebanese government must believe in reforms and implement them. “There is a need for a government that cares about its people and their demands, a responsible and transparent government that carries out economic and political reforms,” he said. “It will no longer be business as usual.” By ZEINA KARAM Image: A delegation, including French President Emmanuel Macron, arrives at the site of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport to visit French soldiers who are working with the Lebanese army in cleaning and investigating, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Macron is holding talks with Lebanese officials on ways to help the tiny country get out of its worst economic and financial crisis and the aftermath of a blast last month that left thousands dead or wounded. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in public for the first time in six months on Wednesday, smiling and chatting as he re-emerged from the constraints of the coronavius lockdown. The audience, at which the pope announced a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon, was held in the San Damaso courtyard of the Vatican s Apostolic Palace and gave him the public contact he thrives on. Visitors had their temperatures checked as they entered the Vatican and nearly everyone among the audience of 500 or so – including Swiss Guards in ceremonial uniforms – wore masks. The public sat in seats arranged to ensure social distancing. “After so many months, we resume our encounters face to face and not screen to screen, face to face, and this is beautiful,” he said to applause at the start of the audience. Francis clearly enjoyed himself as he walked past guests who had pushed together behind barriers, frequently stopping to converse with them from a distance of one to two meters (yards). The pope last held an audience with a public crowd in early March. After that, the coronavirus pandemic forced him to hold virtual audiences transmitted from the official papal library over television or the internet, an experience he described as akin to being “caged”. He blessed children from a distance as he passed on the way to a dais to make his address. Francis appeared to be energized by the crowd – even though it was a far cry from the tens of thousands that can be held in St. Peter s Square, where outdoor audiences are usually held. Francis kissed a Lebanese flag handed to him by Lebanese priest Georges Breidi and bowed his head to say a silent prayer for the country, still reeling from last month s deadly port blast and rising sectarian tensions. At the end of the audience he invited the priest to the front to hold up the flag as the pope made an appeal for peace and dialogue in Lebanon. He announced that Friday, Sept. 4 would be a day of prayer and fasting for Lebanon and that he was sending his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin – the number two in the Vatican hierarchy – to Beirut on that day to represent him. He invited members of other religions to take part. “Lebanon cannot be abandoned to itself,” Francis said, asking politicians, religious leaders to commit themselves with “sincerity and transparency” to reconstruct the country and for nations to help “without getting involved in regional tensions”.
Mina M. Azer
As Egypt is getting ready to launch the ECO Egypt campaign to promote ecotourism, Dr. Yasmine Fouad, Minister of Environment, and Osama Heikal, Minister of State for Information, visited the Migratory Bird Watching Center in Sharm El Sheikh in the presence of tourism and environmental experts and representatives of international news agencies. It is worth mentioning that Ecotourism has a broad concept that include