Powerful Tunisian union starts nationwide strike over pay

Tunisians wave flags during a rally marking the eighth anniversary of the 2011 revolution in front of the headquarter of the Tunisian General Labour Union in the capital Tunis on January 14, 2019. (AFP / Fethi Belaid)
Updated 17 January 2019
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Powerful Tunisian union starts nationwide strike over pay

  • The one-day strike will hit airports, ports, schools, hospitals, state media and government offices
  • Tunisia is under pressure from the IMF to freeze public sector wages as part of reforms to help reduce the country’s budget deficit
TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest union, UGTT, started a nationwide strike on Thursday affecting the country’s airports, schools and state media to protest against the government’s refusal to raise the salaries of 670,000 public servants.
Tunisia is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to freeze public sector wages as part of reforms to help reduce the country’s budget deficit.
International lenders have threatened to stop financing the economy, which has been in crisis since the toppling of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The one-day strike will hit airports, ports, schools, hospitals, state media and government offices, but Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said the state will provide minimum services in vital sectors including aviation, ports, buses and trains.
Tunisia’s state-owned airline Tunisair expects major disruptions to its flight schedule due to the strike and urged customers to change bookings, it said, adding that at least 16 flights will be postponed.
Chahed said the strike will be very expensive but the government could not raise wages disproportionately to the state’s ability to afford it.
Sami Tahri, Deputy Secretary-General of the UGTT, said the government had come under the dictates of the IMF and had chosen the difficult solution of confrontation with public servants.
Government and union sources told Reuters that the government had proposed spending about $400 million on pay rises whereas the UGTT had asked for about $850 million.
Tunisia struck a deal with the IMF in December 2016 for a loan program worth around $2.8 billion to overhaul its ailing economy with steps to cut chronic deficits and trim bloated public services, but progress has been slow.
Tunisia’s economy has been in crisis since the toppling of autocrat Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali threw it into turmoil, with unemployment and inflation shooting up.
The government aims to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2020 from the current 15.5 percent, one of the world’s highest levels according to the IMF.


US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

Updated 16 February 2019
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US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

  • President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria on Saturday
  • Groups said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday

BAGHOUZ, Syria: A US-backed force in Syria is closing in on Daesh militants in a tiny area less than a square kilometer (square mile) in eastern Syria, and will soon declare the defeat of the militant group, a commander with the group said Saturday.
The capture of the last pocket still held by Daesh fighters in the village of Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, speaking at a news conference at the Al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir Ezzor province.
President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against Daesh by the end of Saturday.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz Saturday, hundreds of meters away from the last speck of land where Daesh militants were holed up, saw several aircraft overhead and two airstrikes hit the area. SDF fighters said were fired by the US-led coalition.
The Syrian Democratic Forces declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated.
Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds more civilians in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.
Furat, the SDF commander, said Daesh fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 700 square meters (840 square yards). He said that SDF fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues that were held by Daesh.
Furat’s comments were carried by Kurdish news agencies, including Hawar News.
“We are dealing with this small pocket with patience and caution. It is militarily fallen but civilians are used as human shields,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press. Bali added that the SDF believes that Daesh gunmen are also holding previously kidnapped Syrians in the area.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are almost in full control of the area once controlled by extremists, adding that there might still be Daesh fighters hiding in a network of underground tunnels.
The Observatory said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday, days after about 240 others surrendered and were taken by SDF fighters and members of the US-led coalition.
“The defeat of Daesh will come within days,” Furat said. He added that after the physical defeat of Daesh, the SDF “will continue in its fight against Daesh sleepers cells.”
Despite the expected defeat on the ground, activists and residents say Daesh still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The group has claimed responsibility in recent months for deadly attacks, mostly in Iraq, more than a year after the Iraqi government said the extremists have been defeated after losing the northern city of Mosul in 2017, the largest they held.