Lebanon removes security barriers in downtown Beirut

A man walks along a street in downtown Beirut, after Lebanese security forces removed roadblocks and barbed wire barriers surrounding the commercial district. (AP Photo)
Updated 03 January 2018
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Lebanon removes security barriers in downtown Beirut

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces have removed roadblocks and barriers surrounding Beirut’s downtown commercial district, which for years had been choked by security measures.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri ordered the roads leading to Parliament Square open days after the square witnessed its largest New Year’s Eve celebration, with thousands of revelers, as part of a government initiative to revive the area.
Berri on Wednesday urged business owners, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area to reopen after many of them had closed down, having given up on the area attracting visitors again.
The downtown area is home to Lebanon’s parliament and government building and has in the past often been the scene of anti-government protests, prompting security forces to close down the premises to pedestrians with concrete barriers and barbed wire.
Security forces removed metal barriers and heavy concrete slabs which had blocked all entrances to Beirut’s showpiece Place d’Etoile quarter and forced most shops and restaurants in the once thriving district to shut down.
The security measures had been in place for a number of years, but were significantly tightened in 2015 following large-scale protests over a garbage crisis.
Crowds thronged the Place d’Etoile for the first time in a decade on Sunday night to usher in the new year with fireworks, music and dancing in the streets.
The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who issued Wednesday’s order, said he hoped businesses, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area would now be able to resume work.
“There were many times we thought about closing, but we said ‘no, maybe things will pick up’,” said Zeina Hasbini, who runs a chocolate boutique just off the square.
She and her son, who runs a small grocery store next door, said they were sure lifting the barriers would boost business as footfall and investment increased.
Though Lebanon still faces daunting challenges, it has seen some progress over the past year despite continued conflict in neighboring Syria and rising tensions elsewhere in the region.
Its squabbling politicians clinched a deal that ended a two-and-a-half-year period without a state president and installed a new government under Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri. The government also approved its first budget in 12 years and awarded its first offshore oil land gas exploration licenses.
In August, Islamic State and other militants were cleared from the Lebanon-Syria border area after separate offensives by the Lebanese army and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia.
The Petit Cafe overlooking Place d’Etoile reopened in mid-2017 after shutting its doors as the Syrian crisis erupted.
“The country ground to a halt: you no longer saw tourists, or people from the Gulf countries, so we closed for about 6-7 years,” said Muhammad Faris, the restaurant manager.
He said the new year’s celebrations and the lifting of the barriers were signs that the area “can flourish again.”
Despite such signs of hope, Lebanon remains a politically fraught country.
Tensions flared in November when Hariri unexpectedly resigned as prime minister in a shock broadcast from Saudi Arabia — a move linked to conflict in the wider region between Riyadh and Tehran. He subsequently withdrew the resignation and the government resumed business as usual. 


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 16 July 2018
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.