Lebanese president and speaker decry US sanctions against Hezbollah MPs

Nabih Berri, above, is the Lebanese Parliament Speaker and a Shiite ally of Hezbollah. (File/AFP)
Updated 11 July 2019
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Lebanese president and speaker decry US sanctions against Hezbollah MPs

  • US Treasury enforced sanctions against three Lebanese officials from Hezbollah
  • Lebanese PM said the sanctions won’t affect the work of the government or parliament

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president and parliament speaker decried on Wednesday new US sanctions targeting two Hezbollah MPs, as the prime minister sought to reassure the public the fragile economy won’t be affected.
The country’s top leaders were reacting a day after the US Treasury Department said it is targeting two Hezbollah lawmakers and a security official suspected of using their positions to further the aims of the Iran-backed group as well as bolster Tehran’s “malign activities.”
The new sanctions were the first time Washington targeted lawmakers currently seated in Lebanon’s parliament — a jab at the militant group’s growing political role which seemed to have struck a nerve at a time when the country is dealing with a major economic slump.
The widening dragnet also comes as the US increases its pressure on Tehran, levying new sanctions on Iran and raising tensions across the region.
Hezbollah has been under increasing financial sanctions from the United States. But Treasury officials said the latest designation, naming lawmakers Mohammad Raad who leads the group’s parliamentary bloc and Amin Sherri, makes clear that there is no dividing line between Hezbollah’s political and militant wings.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said the US decision to target lawmakers was regrettable, adding that his government will pursue the matter with American officials.
Aoun said the decision contradicts previous US positions vouching for the commitment of Lebanon and its banking sector to international agreements combatting money laundering, funding terrorism and other criminal activities.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called the sanctions an aggression against the whole country and against Lebanese democracy. He called on the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union to take the necessary measures to deal with “the irrational behavior.” It is not clear what the union can do.
Both Berri and Aoun are Hezbollah allies.
The Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, one of Hezbollah’s main local opponents, said the sanctions took a “new course” when they hit elected lawmakers but urged that the issue not be exaggerated to avoid aggravating already tense domestic relations.
“This will not affect parliament or the work that we do both in parliament and in the Council of Ministers,” Hariri said during a function in Beirut. “It is important that we preserve the banking sector and the Lebanese economy, and God willing, this crisis will pass sooner or later.”
Hezbollah and its allies won a majority in 2018 elections and the group has three Cabinet seats, the largest number it has ever controlled. The group, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the 1980s, is among the most effective armed groups in the region and has fought several wars with neighboring Israel. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel.
Hezbollah has also sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to fight alongside the troops of President Bashar Assad.
Lebanese groups are sharply divided over Hezbollah’s growing regional clout but the local rivals have worked together to preserve a delicately balanced political system. The sectarian-based arrangement has survived flare ups over policy decisions following a 1989 political deal that capped 15 years of civil war.
“The most important thing that we must work on at present is to secure the needs of the Lebanese citizens and provide them with a good economic situation because they are fed up of political rhetoric and slogans,” Hariri said.


Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

Updated 22 July 2019
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Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

  • A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies

GABES: A putrid odour lingers outside a morgue in Tunisia’s coastal city of Gabes as dozens of bodies of would-be migrants to Europe pulled out of the sea await burial.
A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies and struggling to find them a final resting place.
More than 80 drowned migrants have been retrieved from Tunisian waters — most of them victims of a deadly July 1 shipwreck that left only three survivors.
Fished out of the sea between the port city of Zarzis and the tourist island of Djerba in the south, their bodies were brought to Gabes hospital — the only facility in the region capable of taking DNA samples.
Under pressure from civil society groups, Tunisian authorities have stepped up efforts to systematically collect the DNA of each unidentified drowned migrant, hospital director Hechmi Lakhrech told AFP.
The samples could well be the only hope of informing the victims’ families of their fate, he added.
In the basement morgue, staff use surgical masks or simple scarves to fend off the stench of bodies stacked one top of the other on the floor.
Since July 6, the numbers have “overwhelmed” the morgue’s 30-body capacity, said Lakhrech.
With just two forensic doctors and two assistants, not to mention a lack of equipment, the facility is struggling to keep them properly stored, he added.
After forensic tests, the bodies are kept at the morgue until a burial site is found, which in Tunisia is complicated, according to Gabes governor Mongi Thameur.
Many municipalities have refused to allow the drowned migrants to be buried in their cemeteries.
“Some fear the bodies carry cholera, and others refuse to bury people in Muslim cemeteries if their religion is unknown,” he told AFP.
It comes down to “a problem of mentality and also of humanity in some cases,” he said, adding that many people needed to be “sensitised.”
At the Bouchama cemetery, the only one in Gabes to have so far accepted migrant bodies, 16 graves dug off to the side lie empty.
“My parents are resting here, I don’t want non-Muslims to be buried by their side,” said one local resident.
In front of the hospital, the stifling midday heat beats down as 14 white bags are carefully loaded onto the back of a garbage truck.
Once loaded, it will make the two-hour journey to Zarzis, where an improvised cemetery flooded with the bodies of migrants for several years is now full, and a new one has just been opened.
Each grave is marked with a simple plaque bearing the victim’s DNA file number and burial date.
“On July 12, we collected 45 bodies in one day!” said Zarzis deputy mayor Faouzi Khenissi, calling it a “phenomenal problem.”
The city has taken in the bodies “because we have this culture, we can’t just leave the remains unburied,” he said.
Zarzis is a hotspot for illegal departures to Europe and Khenissi says some of the city’s own youth have also been victims of the wrecks.
Municipal workers and officials take shifts volunteering after work to conduct the burials.
After three hours of prep under the blazing sun, 14 bodies are buried alongside the 47 others already laid to rest at the new site, just outside a shelter for rescued migrants.
Mongi Slim of the country’s Red Crescent called for “international mobilization” to address the issue which “does not concern Tunisia alone.”
“The country is already struggling to take care of rescued migrants, but even more so for those who’ve died.”