Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast
A picture taken on August 11, 2020, shows a view of a heavily-damaged traditional Lebanese house due to the Beirut port explosion, in the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood across from the harbour. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast
  • Explosion left hundreds of thousands homeless
  • WHO says 50% of hospitals “out of service”

BEIRUT: Beirut residents are being urged not to sell their homes or real estate following the devastating explosion that laid waste to swathes of Beirut, as brokers swoop in to buy shattered buildings.
Last week’s explosion at the Port of Beirut has so far killed 171 people, injured more than 6,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Dozens remain missing. The World Health Organization has estimated that 50 percent of Beirut hospitals are “out of service” due to the explosion.
The Tuesday blast has seen people take to the streets to pick up the pieces and clean up the chaos, even as Lebanon struggles to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and severe economic, financial and political difficulties. 
Small cards have been fixed to damaged cars in neighborhoods destroyed by the blast. They read: “If the car is for sale, call the number on the card.”
The cards were spotted in areas of Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, Al-Mdawar and Karantina near the port area. Residents have complained that brokers are “touring their buildings to make offers” to buy houses and real estate in exchange for large sums of cash in dollars.
The devastated areas include heritage buildings, and the head of the Order of Engineers in Lebanon Jad Tabet estimated the number of old buildings threatened with total or partial collapse ranged from 50 to 60.
Many residents in these buildings are either tenants or poor owners who are unable to restore what has been destroyed, especially in light of Lebanon’s severe economic crisis and the collapse of the lira against the US dollar.
The behavior of the brokers has caused anxiety for other reasons, too. The areas destroyed in the explosion are predominantly Christian. 
Beirut’s port was the start of the 1975 Green Line that divided the capital into east and west, a situation that remained until 1990 when the war ended. Although the Green Line was abolished, the demographic division created by the war is the same but for a few exceptions.
In the past two days there have been reports that political or partisan elements in the country are “taking advantage of the opportunity to infiltrate” these areas.
“News about the existence of brokers is widely circulated in the affected areas,” MP George Okais told Arab News. “There are wealthy owners, old owners who are poor and other owners whose properties have been passed from their parents and grandparents and cannot be sold due to the difficulty of the heirs to reach an agreement. It seems that some people want to exploit the people’s feelings of disgust and anger as well as their intentions to emigrate from Lebanon, by offering them attractive amounts to buy these properties whether heritage buildings, or old buildings.”
The Orthodox Gathering appealed to the owners of buildings and real estate in the affected areas not to give in to despair or frustration, even though these feelings were justified in the face of such horror. It urged people to refrain from selling their property and to hold on to the “land and stone, symbol of their existence.”
Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, warned the municipality of Beirut against committing the crime of destroying heritage in Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Ashrafieh for the benefit of some brokers. “The Municipality of Beirut has enough money to restore the heritage and shelter the victims and help them,” he said.
Talal Al-Doueihy, head of the “Lebanese Land – Our Land Movement,” who has been active for the past two years to prevent the sale of lands belonging to the Lebanese, particularly Christians, said: “Some people informed me that lawyers and agents of real estate developers have expressed interest in buying their damaged or destroyed properties.” 
He spoke of the “unrealistic amounts” offered to people — $8,000 dollars per square meter. 
“The demographic change in these areas may be or may not be on the table, but it is our duty to offer solutions and tell people to not sell their land and to not leave Lebanon no matter what sect they belong to,” said Okais. “The main focus is to provide people with financial support. That is what we are working on right now.”
The Lebanese Ministry of Culture has decided to “prevent any transaction of sale, disposal or insurance relating to the damaged properties and prevent their registration in real estate departments until after the completion of all repair work and after the approval of the ministry in accordance with the rules relating to the protection of historical and heritage buildings.”
The World Maronite Union accused “rich and wealthy people, owners of mafia money that sabotaged Lebanon, owners of smuggling and drugs money sponsored by Hezbollah in addition to Iran’s money, of trying to change the cultural and demographic face of Beirut.”
It feared that people would act “unconsciously and sign contracts and agreements that would steal from them and deprive them of their history and the future of their children.”
Rumors about further explosions in the Lebanese capital are also causing fear and confusion. The rumors have been attributed to the Lebanese Red Cross, the French embassy and also UN forces in Lebanon — with all three quick to deny them.
The embassy rejected the content of an audio recording that claimed the diplomatic mission had warned its citizens from going to Beirut between Aug. 13 and 15, stressing that the audio message was old and was being circulated “with the aim of misleading people and provoking panic.”
The United Nation Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) also denied the veracity of the recording. Its spokesman Andrea Tenenti said: “The audio recording claiming that the UNIFIL has warned of a terrorist act in areas of Beirut is unfounded. It only aims at creating confusion in these exceptional circumstances.”


‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
Updated 11 April 2021

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
  • Behrouz Kamalvandi said there were no injuries nor pollution caused by the incident
  • Iran later called the incident sabotage

TEHRAN: Iran's Natanz nuclear site suffered a problem Sunday involving its electrical distribution grid just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges that more quickly enrich uranium, state TV reported. It was the latest incident to strike one of Tehran's most-secured sites amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers.
State TV quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's civilian nuclear program, announcing the incident.
Kamalvandi said there were no injuries or pollution cause by the incident.
The word state television used in its report attributed to Kamalvandi in Farsi can be used for both “accident” and “incident.” It didn't immediately clarify the report, which ran at the bottom of its screen on its live broadcast. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the civilian arm of its nuclear program, did not immediately issue a formal statement about the incident on its website.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Israel, Iran's regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out an attack there, as well as launching other assaults, as world powers now negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant, injecting them with the uranium gas and beginning their rapid spinning. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran's first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since then-President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes, but fears about Tehran having the ability to make a bomb saw world powers reach the deal with the Islamic Republic in 2015.
The deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for it limiting its program and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep a close watch on its work.


Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
Updated 11 April 2021

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
  • The country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence
  • Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot

TRIPOLI: Libya's new unity government launched a long-delayed COVID-19 vaccination programme on Saturday after receiving some 160,000 vaccine doses over the past week, with the prime minister receiving his jab on live television.
While Libya is richer than its neighbours due to oil exports, the country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence, and it has struggled to cope during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot, without saying which vaccine he had been given. At least 100,000 of the doses that arrived this week were Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Dbeibeh's interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month after emerging through a UN-facilitated process with a mandate to unify the country, improve state services and oversee the run-up to a national election in December.
Dbeibeh's government has framed the delivery of vaccines and the national roll-out as evidence that it is improving the lives of ordinary Libyans after replacing two warring administrations that ruled in the east and west of the country.
"Through the political consultations and the efforts of the prime minister, the vaccine is available," said Health Minister Ali Al-Zanati, who has said previously the government had so far ordered enough doses to inoculate 1.4 million of the country's more than six million people.
Libya's National Centre for Disease Control has said more than 400,000 people have registered for vaccination in more than 400 centres around the country.
Libya has recorded more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, though UN envoys have said the true figures are likely far higher.
"I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never," said Ali al-Hadi, a shop owner, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.
Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.
"We hope the Health Ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients," said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33. 


Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
A file photo shows a dredger trying to free the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given long vessel across the waterway of Egypt's Suez Canal. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
  • Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies

CAIRO: Egypt has welcomed the largest dredger of its kind in the Middle East, the “Mohab Mamish,” on board the heavy transport vessel Xiang Rui Kou.

Dredgers are advanced drilling equipment used by the Suez Canal to cleanse the waterway of sand and mud deposits, contributing to its expansion and deepening.

The Suez Canal showed its reliance on dredgers in the rescue and re-float operation of the giant container ship “Ever Given,” which ran aground in the shipping course on March 23. The incident caused the canal’s closure for six days.

Sources said that the dredger, inaugurated by the Dutch IHC Shipyard, would begin its new duties within the Suez Canal fleet soon.

The “Mohab Mamish” has a length of 147.4 meters, a width of 23 m, a depth of 7.7 m, and a draft of 5.5 m. It has a productivity of 3,600 cubic meters of sand per hour over a length of 4 km.

Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies.

The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Osama Rabie, said the “Mohab Mamish” was one of the vessels used to boost the canal’s development and that the dredging fleet was the main pillar in the strategy for developing the canal’s shipping course.

It provided the best guarantee to maintain the canal’s 24-meter depth, allowing the crossing of giant ships with large submersibles.

Rabie added that the canal’s dredging fleet had recently expanded its work, joining in with the development of Egypt’s ports and the disinfection of lakes.

IHC is working on launching another dredger for the Suez Canal called “Hussein Tantawi.” The two dredgers have a combined value of €300 million ($357.06 million).

Rabie also said the authority’s machines would be developed and the tensile strength would be adjusted to carry 250,000 tons, in comparison to the current 160,000 tons to match the tonnage and size of ships crossing the shipping course.


Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
Updated 11 April 2021

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant
  • The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran on Saturday started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in breach of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb its nuclear program.

The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington said it had offered “very serious” ideas on rescuing the agreement, which collapsed in 2018 when the US withdrew, but was waiting for Tehran to reciprocate.

Tehran’s response came on Saturday, when President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

Rouhani also launched tests on the “mechanical stability” of its latest-generation IR-9 centrifuges, and remotely opened a centrifuge assembly factory to replace a plant that was badly damaged in a July 2020 explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

Under the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers, Iran is permitted to use only “first-generation” IR-1 centrifuges for production, and to test a limited number of IR-4 and IR-5 devices.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping up its nuclear enrichment to levels prohibited under the JCPOA.

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Iran’s latest move follows an opening round of talks in Vienna Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the deal on bringing the US back into it.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but is relying on the EU as an intermediary, got off to a good start.

However, US allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, believe any revived deal should also cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Iran has demanded that the US lift all sanctions imposed by Trump before it resumes compliance with the JCPOA. The US insists that Iran must act first.

“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” a US official said.

But the official said the US was waiting for its efforts to be reciprocated by Iran.

Iran is also demanding an end to all US restrictions, but the JCPOA covers only nuclear sanctions and not US measures taken in response to human rights and terrorism issues.

(With AFP)


Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
Egyptian Christians worshippers attend Christmas Eve mass at the Coptic Catholic St. Mark Church in Minya city, in Cairo on January 6, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
  • Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions

CAIRO: Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has suspended Mass prayers in seven dioceses following a rise in daily coronavirus cases.

Prayers were suspended at the dioceses of the Virgin Mary in Fayoum, Archangel Michael in Aswan, Asna and Armant in Luxor, Akhmim in Sohag, Tahta and Juhaina in Sohag, Nag Hammadi in Qena, and Sohag.

“The suspension follows a significant increase in coronavirus cases recently,” said Besada El-Anba, bishop of Akhmim.

He said that priests will continue daily Mass with a number of deacons without people attending for an indefinite period.

“The diocese of Aswan started suspending Coptic prayers in churches during the holy week and resurrection,” the bishop added.

“Mass prayers will be limited to priests and a limited number of deacons,” said Bishop Hani Bakhoum of Sohag.

Anba Kyrillos, bishop of Nag Hammadi, said that the suspension of prayers will begin on Monday and will continue on until further notice, depending on health advice.

Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions.

Other dioceses have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak of the virus, including holding Mass with 25 percent of the church’s capacity, stopping church activities, services, Sunday schools and conferences, and closing cemeteries.

Priests have also been advised against making home visits.