The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church decided on Sunday to suspend mass service in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as Sunday school services and church meetings in response to the surge of COVID-19 cases the country is reporting. The priests of each church will be allowed to hold only one mass per week with the attendance of no more than five deacons for the next month. “The decision comes to limit gatherings after the increase in the number of coronavirus infections,” the church said in a statement. The evening rites of the Coptic month of Kiahk have been suspended completely, and recordings of them will instead be broadcasted on Christian satellite channels. It has also been decided that studies will continue in seminaries, institutes and educational centers at 25 percent capacity. The official Coptic Orthodox Church spokesperson Paul Halim said that the church had lost a large number of its clergy and priests to coronavirus since the pandemic took hold. Halim stressed that all Egyptians must take care and follow the official instructions issued by Egypt’s Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to curb the spread of the virus. He pointed out that Egypt has entered the second wave of the virus outbreak, which requires more severe measures to limit transmission among the public. Halim said that funerals will be held in the presence of the family of the deceased only, and if the death is due to the coronavirus, the prayer for the deceased will take place in a cemetery only. The Wednesday sermon of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark Episcopate, will be on Wednesday without an audience. The Health Ministry announced 418 new coronavirus cases and 21 virus-related deaths on Sunday.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox churches will suspend masses and other services in Cairo and Alexandria starting Monday for one month due to rising numbers of coronavirus cases detected among clergymen and churchgoers. According to an official statement released by the Coptic Orthodox Church on Saturday, Sunday s schools, meetings, services and masses will be also be suspended. Priests in every church will be allowed to hold only one mass weekly in the presence of a maximum of five deacons only. Funeral services will be allowed with the participation of only one priest and only one deacon alongside the family of the deceased, with halls designated for mourning services to be closed until conditions improve. Baptism will only be allowed in churches in the attendance of a maximum of four members of the child s family. The statement added that study at institutes and educational centres will continue with a reduced maximum attendance rate of 25 percent. As for the dioceses, each bishop can decide what suits the health situation in his diocese in cooperation with the congregation of priests, according to the statement. The church also called for priests, deacons and churchgoers to "precisely" adhere to all precautionary measures. After more than four months of suspension as part of broader measures aimed to curb the spread of the pandemic, Orthodox churches across the country resumed in early August public masses, prayers and funerals, with many anti-coronavirus measures put in place. Egypt has witnessed an increase in the daily coronavirus infection toll recorded over the last several weeks, with daily infections exceeding the 400-mark following months of a lower and steady rate. Several steps have been taken recently by the government to address the recent rise in coronavirus cases, including fining those who do not wear facemasks on public transport or in crowded places, and shutting non-compliant places for three days, as well as reducing shopping hours. The virus has so far infected 118,014 and killed 6,750 in the country since the outbreak began in February.
The Greek archaeological mission in charge of restoring the Patriarchate building and its courtyard will open a Coptic museum in the courtyard in 2021, General Undersecretary of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Abram Emil, said. Construction was scheduled to start before the coronavirus outbreak, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Emil told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Thursday the museum will include important collections of the cathedral s ancient holdings, most notably a number of historical Bibles, old books and some vessels used in church prayers. A special corner is planned to sell Coptic souvenirs to visitors, such as the icon of the Virgin Mary and the path of the Holy Family. There will also be an information center for those who d like to learn about the shrine of Saint Mark the Apostle, he added. According to Emil, the first phase of the renovation began in November 2017 and was completed before the pandemic took hold. The project s final phase includes installing new chandeliers and restoring the wooden windows. The project s planners have ensured that the changes will preserve the historical Greek features of the property, especially since the church is both a place of prayer for Copts and a tourist destination, he mentioned. Emil added that the Greek archaeological mission has restored the sacred icons, antique collectibles, wooden decks, and the Byzantine Iconostasis (sacred icons holder), as well as restored the church s entrance and given the walls a thorough scrub down. The church s icon holder is a historical monument, dating back to 1870. Emil said that the massive project worth LE7 million was entirely fueled by donations to the church, and it is the first construction project since the church s expansion in 1990. The Patriarchate of Alexandria is the first church in Egypt and Africa, and therefore has great significance. It is considered a symbol of the Coptic Church in Egypt and is visited by many people of different nationalities and religions each year.
Governments across Europe are trying to navigate between avoiding spreading the coronavirus over the Christmas holiday season and allowing people to celebrate with family and friends. Here are some measures that will be adopted for year-end festivities by some European countries: NORWAY Prime minister Erna Solberg said that Norwegians can invite up to 10 guests in their homes on two separate occasions between Christmas and New Year. Outside those days the current limit of up to five guests in one home remained, she added.. AUSTRIA The Austrian government, which will relax some lockdown rules as of Dec. 7, said skiing would be allowed from Dec. 24, but there would be no Christmas markets this holiday season. FRANCE The government will allow people to travel from Dec. 15, including over the end-of-year holidays, if coronavirus cases drop to around 5,000 new cases per day. France, which has decided to keep its ski slopes off limits until January, said on Dec. 2 that it would make random border checks to stop people getting infected with COVID-19 by crossing into countries where ski resorts remain open. BELGIUM Belgian households will only be able to be in close contact with one extra person over Christmas, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. People living on their own will be able to meet two others. Fireworks will be banned on New Year s Eve to limit gatherings and foreign travel is strongly discouraged. IRELAND Three households will be allowed to meet between Dec. 18 and Jan. 6, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said. The countrywide travel ban will be lifted for that period. GERMANY Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed with leaders of Germany s 16 states to extend and tighten the coronavirus lockdown until Dec. 20, but to ease rules over the Christmas holidays to let families and friends celebrate together. Up to 10 people will be allowed to gather, not counting children. POLAND The Polish government said no more than five people could be invited to one household according to the new set of rules which are to last until Dec. 27. BRITAIN The four nations of the United Kingdom have agreed to relax COVID-19 restrictions for Christmas to allow up to three households to meet at home from Dec. 23 until Dec. 27, also allowing them to meet in places of worship and in outdoor public places but not at indoor hospitality or entertainment venues. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he was relaxing rules to allow shops to stay open for longer over Christmas and in January. WEIGHING THEIR OPTIONS Governments of Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have all said they were considering special rules for the holiday season, but have yet to announce specific steps.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season. Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town. Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve. “Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak — when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus last March. She kept her 25 workers on staff for several months but ultimately couldn’t continue to pay them. Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff because there is no sign of the pandemic ending or tourists visiting anytime soon. “We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.” Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel, the main entry point for international visitors to the region, banning tourists because of the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said. “Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” said al-Arja, a cousin of the Angel Hotel owner. The Ambassador Hotel, which is located near the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, has reopened one floor in hopes that some local visitors may want to come celebrate in the coming weeks. Mahmoud Tarman, the hotel’s receptionist, said the Ambassador has brought back eight of its 60 workers to serve local guests. But with the West Bank’s economy devastated by repeated lockdowns, it remains unclear how many people will come. “At this time of the year, this empty hotel would be bustling with life. But as you see, there is no life, not even a Christmas tree yet,” he said as he pointed at the empty lobby. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this week imposed a new nighttime lockdown to help contain a spike in coronavirus cases. People must remain indoors from seven pm until six am, and Bethlehem is included in the lockdown. Officials say the lockdown could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if the infection levels don’t come down. The Health Ministry has reported a total of about 65,000 coronavirus cases in the West Bank, and over 620 deaths. Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the city had planned to receive 3,000 invited guests, including local scout troops and musical bands from around the world that normally entertain visitors during Christmas Eve festivities. He said the famed Christmas tree lighting, scheduled on Thursday, will be limited to just 15 guests, including local mayors, the district governor and the Latin Patriarch and other clergy. The 85-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who usually joins the celebration, has been invited but has not said whether he will attend. Midnight Mass, a solemn event led by the Latin Patriarch that is usually attended by religious leaders, local VIPs and hundreds of pilgrims from around the world, has also been scaled back, Salman said. He said officials are still working on the guest list, but it is expected to include religious leaders and some foreign diplomats. The event will be closed to the general public but broadcast live for people to watch. “No one can hold the responsibility of inviting large numbers of people to Christmas events,” he said. “Nothing will be the same during the pandemic.” By JELAL HASSAN Image: Christians take photos inside the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Normally packed with tourists from around the world at this time of year, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town – with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops shuttered by the pandemic.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The fugitive leader of Ethiopia s defiant Tigray region on Monday called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “stop the madness” and withdraw troops from the region as he asserted that fighting continues “on every front” two days after Abiy declared victory. Debretsion Gebremichael, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he remains near the Tigray capital, Mekele, which the Ethiopian army on Saturday said it now controlled. Far from accepting Abiy s declaration of victory, the Tigray leader asserted that “we are sure we ll win.” He also accused the Ethiopian forces of carrying out a “genocidal campaign” against the Tigray people. With the Tigray region still cut off a month after the fighting began, no one knows how many people have been killed, and it s difficult to verify the warring sides claims. Each government regards the other as illegal after Abiy sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People s Liberation Front after taking office in early 2018. The fight is about self-determination of the region of some 6 million people, the Tigray leader said, and it “will continue until the invaders are out.” He asserted that his forces held an undetermined number of “captives” among the Ethiopian forces, including the pilot of a fighter jet that his side claims to have shot down over the weekend. The Tigray leader also asserted that his forces still have several missiles and “we can use them whenever we want,” though he rejected a question about striking at the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saying the primary aim is to “clear Tigray from the invaders.” He again accused Abiy of collaborating with neighboring Eritrea in the offensive in Tigray, something Abiy s government has denied. As for the idea of talks with Abiy s government, something Abiy s government has repeatedly rejected, the Tigray leader said that “depends on the content” and Ethiopian forces would first have to leave the region. “Civilian casualties are so high,” he said, though denied having any estimate of the toll. He accused Ethiopian forces of “looting wherever they go.” “The suffering is greater and greater every day,” he said, calling it collective punishment against the Tigray people for their belief in their leaders. Nearly a month of fighting between Ethiopian federal forces and Tigray regional ones has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors. Hospitals and health centers in the Tigray region are running “dangerously low” on supplies to care for the wounded, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Sunday. Food is also running low, the result of the region being cut off from outside aid for almost a month. In a rare report from inside Mekele, the ICRC also said a major hospital in northern Ethiopia, Ayder Referral Hospital, is lacking body bags and some 80% of its patients have trauma injuries. Fears of a widespread humanitarian disaster are growing. The UN has been unable to access the Tigray region with aid. Human rights groups and others worry about the atrocities that might emerge once transport and other links are restored. Nearly one million people have been displaced, including about 44,000 who fled into Sudan. Camps in Tigray that are home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees have been in the line of fire. “We need first and foremost access” to Tigray, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Sunday, adding that his UN colleagues in Addis Ababa are in discussions with the government there. Abiy s government has promised a “humanitarian corridor” managed by itself, but the UN has stressed the importance of neutrality.
ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – The Ethiopian government launched a manhunt on Sunday for leaders of a rebellious faction in the northern region of Tigray after announcing federal troops had taken over the regional capital and military operations were complete. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed government has been trying to quell a rebellion by the Tigray People s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful ethnically-based party that dominated the central government from 1991 until Abiy came to power in 2018.
In Libya s frontline city of Sirte, parts of which still lie in ruins, the commission set up to oversee warring rivals recent ceasefire has put its name on a large downtown conference centre - an outward sign of its commitment to peace. So far the ceasefire is holding, and some elements of the truce have been implemented: flights between rival cities Tripoli and Benghazi have resumed and foreign fighters have left oil facilities - the keys to Libya s economy. But meetings of the Joint Military Commission in northern Libya, attended by five officers each from the two sides, have yet to make progress on other key demands of a UN-brokered agreement, underlining its fragility. The rivals in a civil war that has left thousands dead and the country in chaos have yet to withdraw troops from frontline positions, open a major coastal road linking Sirte to Misrata and rid their ranks of foreign mercenaries. "The danger won t end unless the process of national reconciliation is completed," said Mohammed Mofteh, 33, the head of a charity in Sirte, summing up widespread public scepticism about permanent peace. Since the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) drove Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA) back from the capital Tripoli in June, the shooting has given way to political jostling. The UN-led diplomatic effort has set a roadmap to elections at the end of next year and implemented an audit of the central bank, which is split between the sides. The 75 participants in a UN-led political dialogue, which is separate from the military commission s work, have also a Dec. 24, 2021 election date. But they have not agreed on a unified transitional government needed to oversee the vote. Progress in those political talks slowed when they turned to the question of who would be on the new presidential council and the prime minister, said Hamad al-Bandaq, an eastern-based member of parliament who took part. "We reached a stumbling block, which is the choice of who will be in the presidential council and government," he said. Beyond the GNA and LNA s involvement in the peace process, their foreign backers - Turkey in the case of the GNA and Russia, the UAE and Egypt in the case of the LNA - also support it too. FRONTLINES Situated near Libya s main oil terminals, and seen as the gateway to the OPEC producer s "oil crescent", Sirte - now under the control of the LNA - was a major prize in the civil war. Its domed Ouagadougou Conference Centre, an undamaged part of which is now the Joint Military Commission headquarters, serves as a reminder of what is at stake. The biggest building Muammar Gaddafi gave to his hometown, the centre hosted the 2009 African Union summit. But it is pitted with bullet and shrapnel marks from a battle in the 2011 uprising that toppled the former leader. After Islamic State seized Sirte in 2015, its black flag was painted onto the centre. Today a new banner for the commission hangs where GNA and LNA negotiators hash out details of their October ceasefire. They have pledged to remove foreign mercenaries from Libya by late January, pull forces back from forward positions and open the road across frontlines. But UN acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams last week told the Security Council the GNA was still patrolling, the LNA setting up new fortifications and both sides landing cargo planes at bases they have used to resupply. A Western diplomat focused on Libya said the two sides had asked for only limited outside monitoring of the ceasefire - a sign they may not plan new withdrawals until the political situation is clearer. In Sirte, queues of up to 50 cars at petrol stations point to the hardships of life near the frontline. Living conditions in Tripoli and the eastern centre of Benghazi this summer led to widespread protests. Williams has said this public frustration will aid the push for a deal. The UN process helped resolve an eight-month LNA blockade of oil exports which aggravated economic problems in both east and west. The third strand of talks beyond the military commission and the political process is economic negotiations. There, too, the tussle, particularly over the National Oil Company and Central Bank of Libya, continues.
BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between Kurdish fighters and Turkey-backed opposition gunmen in northern Syria left at least 18 fighters dead in some of the most intense fighting in weeks, an opposition war monitor and a Kurdish news agency said Tuesday. Exchanges of fire and shelling between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey-backed opposition gunmen who identify as the Syrian National Army have not been uncommon since Turkish troops invaded parts of northern Syria in October last year. The clashes began before midnight Monday near the town of Ein Issa and were triggered by an assault from Turkey-backed gunmen on SDF positions, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and the Kurdish ANHA news agency. The Observatory said Turkey-backed fighters lost 18 gunmen in the battle and an unknown number of SDF fighters were also killed or wounded. ANHA said dozens of Turkey-backed fighters were killed or wounded. An SDF spokesman who goes by the name of Mervan Qamishlo also confirmed the clashes, saying the group s fighters repelled a Turkey-backed attack. He did not comment on how many SDF gunmen were killed but said six civilians were wounded in the shelling. Maj. Youssef al-Hammoud, an official with the so-called Syrian National Army, said the fighting started when SDF fighters attacked their positions on two fronts. He denied losing any fighters, saying only two were wounded. It is not uncommon for insurgent groups to deny losing fighters in battle. Also in northern Syria, two explosions hit the towns of al-Bab and Afrin that are both controlled by Turkey-backed fighters, according to the Observatory and Thiqa news agency, an activist collective. Five people were killed and 20 wounded in a roadside bomb attack in al-Bab, according to the Observatory and Thiqa. At least three people were killed and 16 wounded in a car bomb attack in a market in Afrin, according to the Observatory. Turkey says Kurdish fighters in Syria are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey s mainly Kurdish southeast region and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The US-backed SDF played a major role in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The IS lost its last sliver of land in March last year. The SDF is holding thousands of IS militants in jails it runs.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish court on Tuesday added new defendants to the case against Saudi officials charged over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, state media reported, in a trial that Ankara says is needed to reveal the full truth behind the killing. Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Turkish officials believe his body was dismembered and removed, while his remains have not been found. In September a Saudi court jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing, in a trial that critics said lacked transparency. None of the defendants was named. At Tuesday s hearing in Istanbul, only the second session of a trial which opened four months ago, the court accepted a second indictment adding six defendants to the list of 20 Saudi officials already being tried in absentia. The latest indictment accuses a vice consul and an attache of “premeditated murder with monstrous intent”. The four others, also Saudi nationals, were charged with destroying, concealing or tampering with evidence. The court heard testimony from one witness, Egyptian opposition activist Ayman Noor who was a friend of Khashoggi s, before adjourning the case to March 4 and extending a process which has kept Khashoggi s killing in the public eye and further strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Yasin Aktay, a member of President Tayyip Erdogan s AK Party and an acquaintance of Khashoggi, said a just verdict could not have been expected from a Saudi court that was ruling on senior Saudi officials. “The events actually transpired in Turkey. If we have a concern about justice, there is no other way than to have confidence in Turkish courts,” he said after Tuesday s hearing. The first indictment accused two top Saudi officials, former deputy head of Saudi Arabia s general intelligence Ahmed al-Asiri and former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, of instigating murder. It said 18 other defendants were flown to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, a prominent and well-connected journalist who had grown increasingly critical of the crown prince. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was disappointed by the court s rejection of its request to join the case as a civil party, and would continue to closely monitor the case and call for adherence to international standards. “It s time to end business as usual with Saudi Arabia. It s time to ensure justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Rebecca Vincent, RSF Director of International Campaigns.
The leader of Ethiopia s dissident Tigray region said Monday that his people were "ready to die" defending their homeland, rejecting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed s ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours. Abiy launched a military campaign against the Tigray People s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, as well as defying and seeking to destabilise his government. The federal army says its forces are within 60 kilometres (37 miles) of Mekele, the Tigrayan capital and seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened all-out bombardment of the city of half a million people. Abiy -- last year s Nobel Peace Prize winner -- on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were "at a point of no return". But the TPLF s leader Debretsion Gebremichael said Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces, and was issuing threats to buy time. "He doesn t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region," Debretsion told AFP via WhatsApp. A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify. - No mercy threat - Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew, as quoted by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Monday, said that federal troops were "marching into Mekele" having captured key towns to the north and south. The army has threatened a "no mercy" tank assault on the TPLF leadership in Mekele, warning civilians to leave while they still can, raising concerns among rights activists. "Treating a whole city as a military target would not only (be) unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment," Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader wrote on Twitter. Abiy urged the people of Mekele to side with the national army against the TPLF, "in bringing this treasonous group to justice". Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in nearly three weeks of fighting which has seen warplanes bomb the region and tanks enter the fray. Amnesty International also documented a gruesome massacre in which "scores and likely hundreds" of people were stabbed and hacked to death in the southwest town of Mai-Kadra. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have meanwhile fled west into Sudan and rockets have hit Eritrea to the north, spurring fears the internal conflict risks instability beyond its borders. - Rocket attack - In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray, two witnesses told AFP on Monday that rockets had hit the city, the third time it has endured shelling since the fighting began. "Three rockets fell on the city near the airport area. We don t know about casualties or damages," said one witness, who asked not be named. There was no immediate response from the government, nor any claim of responsibility. The TPLF claimed responsibility for earlier rocket strikes on Bahir Dar and Gondar, another city in Amhara, as well as Eritrea s capital Asmara. Abiy, in a statement late Sunday, accused Tigrayan forces of destroying key infrastructure in their retreat from fighting, including the airport in the town of Axum and schools, bridges, medical centres and roads. Images broadcast by Ethiopian authorities on Monday showed what appeared to be deep gouges and damage to the tarmac at Axum. Abiy has resisted international pressure to halt the fighting, including from the African Union (AU), describing the campaign as a "law enforcement operation" against a "treasonous group" that is now entering its final phase. Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict, said the government would meet envoys sent by the AU "as a matter of respect" but flatly ruled out any talks with the TPLF. "Facts on the ground have changed, and we ve come to the very end," he told reporters on Monday. The TPLF led the armed struggle that toppled the brutal Derg regime in 1991 and controlled the coalition that took over, ruling Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Abiy was appointed in 2018. Since then, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country s woes.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli aircraft on Sunday struck multiple sites in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket fired earlier from the Palestinian territory, Israel s military said. There were no immediate reports of injuries. While several militant groups operate out of the Palestinian enclave, Israel holds Gaza s Hamas rulers responsible for all rocket fire out of the territory and usually strikes Hamas targets in response. The Israeli military said in a statement that fighter jets and attack helicopters hit two rocket ammunition manufacturing sites, underground infrastructure and a Hamas naval forces training compound. Late Saturday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket toward Israel, setting off air-raid sirens in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, the Israeli military said. Israeli police said the rocket caused damage to a structure in the Ashkelon area, roughly 10 kilometers (six miles) north of Gaza, but there were no injuries. Israeli media said the rocket struck a factory, causing damage. Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel s destruction, are bitter enemies who have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007.
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian special forces allegedly killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan, with senior commandos reportedly forcing junior soldiers to kill defenseless captives in order to “blood” them for combat, a four year investigation found. Australia said on Thursday that 19 current and former soldiers will be referred for potential criminal prosecution for allegedly killing the 39 Afghan locals. Detailing the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into the conduct of special forces personnel in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016, Australia s General Angus John Campbell said there was credible information of 39 unlawful killings by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel in 23 separate incidents. All of those kills were outside the “heat of battle”, Campbell said. “These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values,” Campbell told reporters in Canberra. “The unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.” The report said the majority of those killed, which included prisoners, farmers and other Afghan locals, were captured when they were killed and therefore protected under international law. Following the recommendations of the report, Campbell said 19 current and former members of Australia s military will be referred to a soon-to-be appointed special investigator to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. Australia s Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said last week that Canberra had been advised that local prosecution would negate charges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. BLOODING Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had earlier warned the report would include “difficult and hard news for Australians”, but few expected some of the most shocking revelations. While the report was heavily redacted, it included allegations that senior special forces personnel ordered the killing of unarmed Afghans. “There is credible information that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier s first kill, in a practice that was known as blooding ,” the report read. Once a person had been killed, those allegedly responsible would stage a fight scene with foreign weapons or equipment to justify their action, the report concluded. The actions did not immediately come to light due to what the report concluded was a culture of secrecy and compartmentalization in which information was kept and controlled within patrols. The veil of secrecy was a key reason that the allegations took so long to come to light. Although it has been the subject of rumor, Australia s official investigation only began after the publication of classified documents about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. A former military lawyer, David McBride, has been charged with providing the classified papers to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. He admits that he supplied the papers, but says it is in the national interest. The four-year inquiry was conducted by New South Wales state Judge Paul Brereton, who was appointed by the Inspector-General of Defence in 2016 to investigate rumours of war crimes in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2016. The inquiry examined more than 20,000 documents and 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 witnesses under oath. The report recommended Canberra should compensate victims families even without a successful prosecution. Campbell said he would seek to revoke citations for special operations task groups that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. The release of the report came after Morrison spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “The Prime Minister of Australia expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan,” Ghani s office wrote on Twitter. Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2002 as part of the US-led coalition fighting the Taliban militia. Australia has about 1,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli warplanes struck Iran-linked targets in Syria overnight after troops uncovered roadside bombs along the frontier in the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said Wednesday. Syria said the strikes killed three Syrian soldiers. The Israeli military said the improvised explosive devices had been placed by a “Syrian squad led by Iranian forces.” Israel said it struck military targets belonging to Iran s elite Quds force and the Syrian military, including “storage facilities, headquarters and military compounds,” as well as Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries. Later, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the strikes targeted the Iranian military headquarters in Syria at the Damascus airport, a secret facility that hosts visiting Iranian military officers and the Syrian army s 7th Division, which oversees the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. He added that Iran s Quds force is embedded with the 7th Division. Syrian state media quoted an unnamed military official as saying the strikes killed three soldiers, wounded a fourth and caused material damage. The report added that Syrian air defenses shot down some of the Israeli missiles before they hit their target. Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. Israel views Iran as its greatest threat and says it will not tolerate the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, especially near its borders. Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country s civil war and has dispatched military advisers and allied militias to aid his forces. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.
Six people died on Tuesday in Somalia s capital Mogadishu when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a restaurant near a police academy, a police spokesman and a witness said. It was unclear who was behind the attack. “A blast occurred at a restaurant near School Policio (police academy),” police spokesman Sadik Ali told reporters in a WhatsApp message group shortly after the blast went off. Later he told Reuters six people, including the perpetrator, had died in the bombing. A witness, shopkeeper Mohamed Ali, told Reuters police opened fire after the blast went off. He said he could see huge clouds of smoke rising above the restaurant and ambulances trying to reach the site, in the city s Hamar Jajab district near Mogadishu port. Another witness, Mohamud Ahmed, told Reuters heavy rain had sent a lot of people into the restaurant to seek shelter. “As I was sipping tea and looking down, (a) blast occurred. From there I don t know what happened,” he said. His legs, hands and head had been hit by shrapnel from the explosion, which he said had also given him concussion. Al Qaeda-allied Islamist group al Shabaab frequently carries out bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia as part of its campaign to topple the central government. The group wants to establish its own rule in the Horn of African country based on its own strict interpretation of Islam s sharia law.
The Coptic Orthodox Church totally rejects insults directed towards any religions, said Church Spokesperson Boulos Halim in response to a recent spat between a Christian and a Muslim which ended in their arrest. On Friday, prosecutors ordered the detention of Youssef Hany, an 18-year-old Christian student in the second grade of the Faculty of Arts at Suez Canal University, and a Muslim woman arrested for slandering the Christian faith for four days pending investigations. The Ismailia Court released Hany on Saturday after he apologized to the court and affirmed his respect towards all religions and Prophet Mohammed, and freed the Muslim suspect. Halim stressed the need to move forward wisely and not be dragged into polemics that divide society and weaken the nation. “We reject offending all religions, and the Bible has instructed us not to get any bad word out of our mouths,” he said. Offending all religions is completely unacceptable, as it splits human relations and members of a single society, he added. “When these disputes occur, it is necessary to uphold the values of coexistence that preserves the cohesion of society and the unity of the homeland. The institutions concerned with this must take practical measures to reduce these incidents which disgrace our society, threaten its stability and create a negative image of the nation,” Halim told Al-Masry Al-Youm. Halim stressed that the church opposes all types of abuse based on religion, color or gender. “We are in dire need of community and national solidarity in the current circumstances, as Egypt faces domestic challenges like the coronavirus pandemic and difficult external issues. So let us manage our affairs with wisdom and understanding, and not give the enemies of the homeland any opportunity to divide us.”
Gunmen in western Ethiopia killed at least 34 people in an attack on a bus on Saturday night, the national human rights body said on Sunday, as fears grow of a security vacuum in the country amid a military campaign in the north. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said the number of people killed was likely to rise after what it called a "gruesome" attack on the passenger bus in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. It said there were reports of "similar" attacks, and of people fleeing the violence, in other parts of the region. “The latest attack is a grim addition to the human cost which we bear collectively," Daniel Bekele, commission head, said in a statement. He urged regional and federal authorities to work together on a strategy for Benishangul-Gumuz due to the "unrelenting pace" of attacks there. Armed militia men killed at least 45 people in the same region in September, according to the Ethiopian government. The violence comes amid a 12-day-old war between the Ethiopian government and the restive Tigray region in the country s north. Experts say that conflict could encourage other ethnic groups to exploit the chaos to push for more autonomy, while the redeployment of forces to Tigray could leave other regions exposed.
About 11,000 people have crossed from Ethiopia to Sudan fleeing the conflict in their home country and an estimated 50% of them are children, a UN refugee agency official said on Thursday. "They are coming with very, very little possessions and while most of them have actually come in in a healthy condition, we have had information on some who have been injured," UNHCR representative Axel Bisschop told reporters in a virtual briefing. The agency had built a response plan for about 20,000 people, Bisschop said. "We also have a further contingency for up to 100,000 people but ... it s too early to have an informed estimate of the amount of people who can actually arrive." About 7,000 of those crossing have arrived at Hamdayat in Sudan s Kassala state, with another 4,000 arriving at Luqdi in al-Qadarif state. Most of them are Tigrayan and some 45% of them are female, said Bisschop. One photograph of a border crossing point showed about four boats ferrying people across a river, he said. UNHCR and local authorities have identified one site 70-100 km (43-62 miles) from the border at which to host the influx of refugees and were working to identify others, he added. Ethiopia s military has been waging a campaign against local forces in the northern Tigray region, where air strikes and ground combat have left hundreds dead.
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Thousands of Ethiopian refugees were fleeing into neighboring Sudan on Wednesday as federal troops continued to battle local forces in the closed-off northern Tigray region. With outsiders barred and communications down, the status of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s week-long offensive against regional rulers the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was unclear. Half a dozen journalists have been arrested, according to the country’s human rights commission, raising fears of an erosion of recent democratic advances in Ethiopia. Security sources and state media have spoken of hundreds of deaths in the mountainous state of more than 5 million people, where federal warplanes have been bombing arms depots as soldiers fight on the ground. Given deep antipathy between the Tigrayans and Abiy, who comes from the largest Oromo ethnic group, and ethnic frictions elsewhere around Ethiopia, there are fears of civil war and knock-ons around the Horn of Africa region. Ethiopia reached a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea two years ago, for which Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but both governments have long-held grudges against the TPLF. Abiy’s government also has troops deployed in Somalia helping to combat an Islamist insurgency. United Nations sources told Reuters the Tigray conflict had already sent 6,000-7,000 people fleeing across the border into Sudan, with Khartoum fearing that number could balloon. “The number is increasing around the clock,” said Alsir Khaled, an official from the Sudanese refugee commission. Abiy, who at 44 is Africa’s youngest leader, launched operations in Tigray last week after accusing the local government there of attacking a military base. INTERNATIONAL ANXIETY The United Nations, African Union and others are calling for a ceasefire, but diplomats and security officials say Abiy is intent on crushing the Tigrayan leaders and not ready to mediate. “We won’t rest till this junta is brought to justice,” he tweeted late on Tuesday. A former soldier who once fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea, Abiy took office in 2018 after a Tigrayan-led government had dominated politics since rebels from their region toppled Marxist military rule in 1991. But his efforts to open up a repressive political climate also led to an explosion of ethnic problems, with hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes in clashes over the last two years. The government of Oromiya, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnic-based regions with around 35 million people, called for protests against the TPLF and against an armed group from Oromiya. In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, an explosion under a bridge blew off a man’s leg, but there was no indication it was related to the Tigray fighting. The state-appointed human rights commission said that six Ethiopian journalists had been arrested. “We reiterate our call for the respect of due and fair process,” commission head Daniel Bekele tweeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a global watchdog, warned of “a dangerous reversal” of the Abiy government’s past steps to improve press freedom. Spokesmen for the federal police and Attorney General’s office, where the prime minister’s spokeswoman referred Reuters for comments, did not respond to calls and messages. Quelling Tigray may be tough for Abiy, experts say. The TPLF are a battle-hardened movement, having been at the forefront of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the defeat of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Their forces and militia are well-armed and number up to 250,000 men. Though there was little detail from the ground, the fighting will be worsening the humanitarian situation in Tigray, where there were already 100,000 internally displaced people and 600,000 dependent on food aid.
Armenia and Azerbaijan announced an agreement early Tuesday to halt fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under a pact signed with Russia that calls for deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers and territorial concessions. Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a 1994 truce ended a separatist war in which an estimated 30,000 people died. Sporadic clashes occurred since then, and full-scale fighting began on Sept. 27. Several cease-fires had been called but were almost immediately violated. However, the agreement announced early Tuesday appeared more likely to take hold because Azerbaijan has made significant advances, including taking control of the strategically key city of Shushi on Sunday. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Facebook that calling an end to the fight was ``extremely painful for me personally and for our people. Soon after the announcement, thousands of people streamed to the main square in the Armenian capital Yerevan to protest the agreement, many shouting, ``We won t give up our land! Some of them broke into the main government building, saying they were searching for Pashinian, who apparently had already departed.. The agreement calls for Armenian forces to turn over control of some areas it held outside the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the eastern district of Agdam. That area carries strong symbolic weight for Azerbaijan because its main city, also called Agdam, was thoroughly pillaged, and the only building remaining intact is the city s mosque. Armenians will also turn over the Lachin region, which holds the main road leading from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The agreement calls for the road, the so-called Lachin Corridor, to remain open and be protected by Russian peacekeepers. In all, 1,960 Russian peacekeepers are to be deployed in the region under a five-year mandate. The agreement also calls for transport links to be established through Armenia linking Azerbaijan and its western exclave of Nakhcivan, which is surrounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. Azerbaijani forces on Monday shot down a Russian helicopter that was flying over Armenia near the border with Nakhchivan, killing two servicemen. Azerbaijan s foreign ministry said the helicopter was flying low and ``in the context of these factors and in light of the tense situation in the region and increased combat readiness in connection with possible provocations of the Armenian side, the duty combat crew decided to open fire to kill. The seizure of Shushi, which Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed Sunday and was confirmed by Nagorno-Karabakh s presidential spokesman Monday, gave Azerbaijan a significant strategic advantage. The city is positioned on heights overlooking the regional capital of Stepanakert, 10 kilometers (six miles) to the north. ``Unfortunately, we are forced to admit that a series of failures still haunt us, and the city of Shushi is completely out of our control, Vagram Pogosian, a spokesman for the president of the government in Nagorno-Karabakh, said in a statement on Facebook. ``The enemy is on the outskirts of Stepanakert. Since the 1994 end of the previous war, international mediation efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe s ``Minsk Group to determine the region s final status faltered and the region was separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a demilitarized zone. Aliyev on Monday urged U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to intensify mediation efforts. In a congratulatory letter to Biden on his election victory, Aliev said, ``Azerbaijan expects the United States and other OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to step up their efforts to find a just solution to the conflict. Armenia says more than 1,200 Armenian troops have been killed in the war. Azerbaijan hasn t stated its losses.
TUNIS (Reuters) – The United Nations opened talks on Libya s future in Tunisia on Monday aimed at ending nearly a decade of chaos and bloodshed by arranging elections, but obstacles remain despite progress in cementing last month s ceasefire. Acting UN Libya envoy Stephanie Williams has described it as the best opportunity in six years to end the turmoil and warfare that have plagued the North African oil exporting country since 2011. But she warned at Monday s opening ceremony attended by Tunisian President Kais Saied: “The road will not be paved with roses and it will not be easy.” The talks, held among 75 participants chosen by the United Nations to represent an array of political viewpoints, regional interests and social groups, come as the main warring sides discuss how to implement a truce they agreed in Geneva. Libya has been split since 2014 between rival factions in the west, held by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and the east, home to Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA). However, both sides are made up of sometimes unstable coalitions with their own interests, and contain figures who might seek to sabotage any agreement they regard as a threat. They are also backed by foreign powers with their own concerns that have invested heavily to build up military strength on the ground and strike deals with their local partners. Turkey supports the GNA, helping it this summer to turn back an LNA assault on Tripoli backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt. After frontlines solidified near the central coastal city of Sirte, both sides began UN mediated ceasefire talks. Williams said they had made new progress in implementing the nationwide ceasefire they agreed last month and had set up a headquarters in Sirte to hash out details. She wants the Tunisia political talks to set a roadmap for elections as soon as possible and establish a single, unified authority across the country that can manage the process. Those taking part have pledged not to accept any role in a new transitional government, she said. Nearly a decade after central authority collapsed, repeated bouts of warfare have sapped state resources, damaged the water and power networks and worsened a financial crisis, making life wretched for millions. As Libya sweltered in August and cases of the coronavirus began to rise, protests broke out on both sides of the frontlines over dire living conditions and corruption. “It is necessary to set dates for the elections so that the Libyan people will have the ballot box after the sounds of bullets are silenced,” Saied said.
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