Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East

Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East
A BBC investigation has established that Iraq’s and Lebanon’s first virus cases originated on the flights of Mahan Air, a private company linked to the IRGC. (AP)
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Updated 06 May 2020

Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East

Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East
  • Mahan Air kept flying after ban on China travel
  • They took first COVID-19 victims to Iraq, Lebanon

LONDON: An Iranian airline under US sanctions flew passengers infected with the coronavirus to Iraq and Lebanon and between Iran and China, fueling the spread of the virus across the Middle East.

Mahan Air, a private company linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), continued flying to China and elsewhere for weeks after Tehran officially barred flights to and from the country on Jan. 31.

The airline lied about these flights taking place, according to an investigation by the BBC. Arrival and departure data from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini and Chinese airports shows flights continued into March.

One flight on Feb. 6 carried 70 Iranian students back from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, before traveling on to Iraq the same day.

Mahan Air claimed it had ended all flights from China after an Iranian student newspaper criticized the Feb. 6 flight. But there were 55 more flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen until Feb. 23, data from commercial flight tracker Flightradar24 confirmed.

The BBC investigation established that Iraq’s and Lebanon’s first virus cases originated on Mahan Air flights.

Planes that went to Tehran from China also made onward travel within 24 hours to Barcelona, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul. Cabin crew raised concerns about their lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and containment measures on planes, but were silenced by the airline.

Mahan Air claims that it was sending humanitarian aid to China and that none of the flights were passenger flights. The data shows this was not the case, and they were confirmed as passenger flights.

Iran’s severe shortage of PPE and medical equipment throughout the coronavirus crisis also makes it extremely unlikely that they were supplying humanitarian aid to China.

Mahan Air is viewed worldwide as a rogue operation. The US designated it a supporter of terrorism in 2011 because of its support for the Quds Force of the IRGC. The airline is banned from Saudi airspace, and has been stripped of its landing rights in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

As the battle to curb the spread of the virus continued on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia reported 1,595 new cases, taking the total to 30,251, and the death toll rose by nine to 200. Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 3.7 million people and killed more than 250,000.

In the UK, there was growing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the pandemic after Britain overtook Italy to report the highest death toll in Europe.

More than 7,000 deaths were recorded in the week to April 24, raising the total to 32,313.

Only the US, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities.

Nearly 8,000 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the same week, three times higher than a month previously. “These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition MP Liz Kendall.


Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece
Updated 50 min 34 sec ago

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece
  • ‘Turkey has violated international laws and conventions’, Greek foreign minister told Turkish counterpart
  • "Our foreign minister put him in his place in the face of this behaviour and attitude," Erdogan told reporters Friday

ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday robustly defended his foreign minister after he traded barbs in an unusually public spat with his Greek counterpart.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’s visit to Ankara on Thursday ended in disarray when he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu used their closing statements to accuse each other of discrimination and violating international laws.
“Turkey has violated international laws and conventions in the Aegean Sea and in the eastern Mediterranean,” Dendias told Cavusoglu at one point.
“Turkey has carried out 400 (military) flights over Greek soil,” said Dendias.
“If you heavily accuse my country and people before the press, I have to be in a position to respond to that,” Cavusoglu retorted.
The oddly undiplomatic press event became the dominant talking point on Turkish news shows and overshadowed what was meant to be an attempt by the two NATO neighbors to mend ties after a year of disputes.
It was the first time the two ministers met since the two countries teetered on the edge of war when their gunboats collided during a Turkish push into disputed eastern Mediterranean waters last August.
Erdogan said Cavusoglu “could not be any softer” with Dandias because “that would not suit our country or people.”
“Our foreign minister put him in his place in the face of this behavior and attitude,” Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers in Istanbul.
The Turkish leader said his own meeting with Dendias earlier that day was held in a “warm atmosphere.”
Dendias had also described his talks with Erdogan as “extraordinary.”
Turkey had said last month that Dendias was coming to prepare what could have been a groundbreaking summit between Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
But the heated exchange highlighted the deep diplomatic divide that stands between the two neighbors and no summit was announced.
The disagreements on Thursday included each country’s treatment of their respective Turkish Muslim and Greek Orthodox minorities.
Erdogan took issue with Dendias’s decision to pay a visit to the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Istanbul on Wednesday.
“You don’t show the necessary ... concern for our 150,000 (Turks in Greece). You appoint their chief mufti,” Erdogan said. “We do not appoint the patriarch here.”


UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths
Updated 16 April 2021

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths
  • The total number of infected cases since the pandemic began has reached 493,266
  • The total fatalities stand at 1,547

DUBAI: The UAE has recorded 1,843 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours after conducting 198,135 tests, state news agency WAM reported.
The Ministry of Health and Prevention said the total number of infected cases since the pandemic began has reached 493,266 while the total fatalities stand at 1,547 after two deaths were confirmed.
Meanwhile, 1,503 people had recovered from the virus, raising the total number of recoveries to 476,518.


Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry
Updated 16 April 2021

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry
  • Over 3,000 foreign investors who paid a minimum 2 million euros were given Cypriot passports between 2013 & 2019
  • In "tens" of cases, the commission recommended rescinding citizenship without giving details

NICOSIA: More than half the passports Cyprus issued to rich foreigners in an investment scheme were illegal, a government-appointed board of inquiry has found.
More than 3,000 foreign investors who stumped up a minimum of 2 million euros were given Cypriot passports between 2013 and 2019, with the scheme proving popular with Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese and Cambodians.
The program was terminated last year after a corruption scandal, embarrassing the island’s center-right administration which had championed the scheme before admitting it was flawed.
“Our interim report gives statistical data concerning illegal naturalizations — those which, in the view of the committee, were issued by exceeding the boundaries of the law — and those are 51.81% of the total,” Myron Nicolatos, who chaired the inquiry, told reporters on Friday.
He said some others were within the proper legal framework but did not meet some legal criteria which applied at the time.
In “tens” of cases, the commission recommended rescinding citizenship, Nicolatos added, without giving details.
His report has been passed to the attorney-general’s office and not been made public.
“The interim report notes possible criminal, disciplinary or administrative responsibilities which will be investigated by the relevant authorities,” said Nicolatos, who was president of the Supreme Court until he retired in 2020.
Panned by critics as opaque and fraught with the risk of money-laundering, the scheme had been staunchly defended by the government through a slew of mainly foreign media reports and European Union misgivings.
The authorities were forced to unceremoniously dump it after the Al Jazeera network secretly filmed a former speaker of parliament and others allegedly offering to help a person with a criminal record obtain a passport.
He resigned, but denied any wrongdoing, saying his comments were taken out of context.
The European Commission launched infringement procedures against Cyprus over the scheme last year, arguing that granting EU citizenship for pre-determined payments, without any genuine link to the state, concerned undermined EU citizenship.
Investigators probed 2,478 passports issued from 2007 to 2016, and an additional 417, deemed high-risk, until 2020.


Iran says production of 60% enriched uranium ‘underway’

Iran says production of 60% enriched uranium ‘underway’
Updated 16 April 2021

Iran says production of 60% enriched uranium ‘underway’

Iran says production of 60% enriched uranium ‘underway’
  • The move takes Iran closer to the 90 percent purity level needed for use in a nuclear weapon
  • Britain, France and Germany have expressed “grave concern” over Iran’s latest enrichment move

TEHRAN: Iran has begun producing uranium at 60 percent purity and is making nine grams per hour, the head of the Islamic republic’s atomic agency said on Friday.
“The enrichment of uranium to 60 percent is underway at the Martyr Ahmadi Roshan nuclear facility” in Natanz, Ali Akbar Salehi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said, quoted by Tasnim news agency.
“We are now getting nine grams (almost a third of an ounce) per hour,” Salehi said later on state television.
Iran announced this week that it would boost its uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity in response to an attack Sunday on the Natanz nuclear facility that it blamed on arch-foe Israel.
The move takes Iran closer to the 90 percent purity level needed for use in a nuclear weapon.
The Islamic republic has gradually rolled back its nuclear commitments since 2018, when then US president Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral deal and began imposing sanctions.
The 2015 deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
Under the accord, Iran had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67 percent, though it had stepped this up to 20 percent in January.
Diplomatic negotiations aimed at ensuring the return of the United States to the JCPOA resumed this week in Vienna.
Britain, France and Germany — the European parties to the JCPOA — have expressed “grave concern” over Iran’s latest enrichment move.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday sought to allay Western concerns over the move, saying the Islamic republic’s nuclear program is “peaceful.”


Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya
Updated 16 April 2021

Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya
  • Egypt’s foreign affairs minister Sameh Shoukry reiterates support for UN special envoy’s efforts

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry reiterated his country’s support in reaching a comprehensive political settlement to the Libyan crisis in a meeting with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis.

Shoukry said such a settlement should preserve the unity of Libya, ensure the exit of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from it, and preserve the capabilities of its people and its national institutions.

Egypt’s foreign minister stressed the importance of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which seeks to pave the way for legislative and presidential elections in Libya scheduled for December.

Shoukry also reaffirmed his country’s support for the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which includes five representatives from each of the rival sides in the conflict. He is optimistic the commission can unify security and military institutions within Libya.

Ahmed Hafez, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Shoukry is also backing the continuous efforts made by Kubis in his mission to reach a political solution that would serve the Libyan people and achieve their aspirations for a stable and prosperous nation.

The UN envoy briefed Shoukry on the results of his recent contacts with the parties involved in the Libyan crisis. The envoy expressed his appreciation for Egypt's efforts aimed at supporting its national neighbors and his aspiration for continued coordination with Cairo.