UK team helps free Iranian hostages from Somali pirates

UK team helps free Iranian hostages from Somali pirates
More than 2,000 sailors were hijacked off the Somali coast between 2005-2012, when piracy became a lucrative business, with around half a billion dollars paid out in ransoms. (AP Photo)
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Updated 27 August 2020

UK team helps free Iranian hostages from Somali pirates

UK team helps free Iranian hostages from Somali pirates
  • The deal for the sailors’ release involved a ransom payment of $180,000 — brokered by the UK-based Hostage Support Partnership
  • It ends the longest-running maritime hostage situation in the region to date, with the three men having spent five-and-a-half years in captivity

LONDON: A British team has helped secure the release of three Iranian sailors from Somali pirates, amid heightened tensions between the UK and Iran over the case of the imprisoned charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The deal for the sailors’ release involved a ransom payment of $180,000 — brokered by the UK-based Hostage Support Partnership — which was coordinated by Kenya-based former British diplomat John Steed in partnership with Leslie Edwards, a UK-based hostage-negotiation specialist. It ends the longest-running maritime hostage situation in the region to date, with the three men having spent five-and-a-half years in captivity.

More than 2,000 sailors were hijacked off the Somali coast between 2005-2012, when piracy became a lucrative business, with around half a billion dollars paid out in ransoms. As companies began putting armed guards on vessels and international navies started patrolling the sea around the Horn of Africa more frequently, attacks dropped, but did not die out completely.

“This marks the end of an era of Somali piracy, and the pain and suffering of Somalia’s forgotten hostages,” said Steed.

Eight Iranian sailors were originally captured on board their vessel, the Siraj, while fishing off Somalia in March 2015. Five were released in 2018 — one of them, Mohammed Jaffrey, was so malnourished he appeared to have prematurely aged. The sailors allege they were treated “like goats.”

The Hostage Support Partnership has had extensive engagement with Somali pirates over the past few years. Since 2013, it has helped to negotiate the release of the crews of three other hijacked vessels whose owners were uninsured.

The owners of the Siraj are also believed to have been uninsured, and so unable to help the crew. The $180,000 was a fraction of the sum originally requested, and had to be raised by supporters in the Iranian shipping industry. Complex negotiations took place over many months, with the team working with Iranian diplomats to obtain proof that the three remaining hostages were still alive.

However, there have been allegations that the case failed to gain traction among the higher echelons of the regime in Tehran because the crew members are of Baluchi ethnicity, a group typically treated as second-class citizens in Iran.

The release of the Iranian hostages through the work of British and Iranian actors comes in sharp relief to the tension surrounding Tehran’s incarceration of dual national Zaghari-Ratcliffe. 

This week, a BBC “Panorama” documentary claimed Iran was holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe “hostage” to secure a £400 million ($528.2 million) payment withheld by London after an arms deal was scuppered by the Iranian Revolution in 1978.


Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February
Updated 17 min 48 sec ago

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February
  • Sultanate has reported 1,5480 COVID-19 deaths so far this month

DUBAI: The number of COVID-19 related fatalities in Oman rose in February compared with the earlier month, health officials in the country said.

A total 41 were reported to have died from coronavirus complications last month compared with 30 in January, according to the latest Ministry of Health figures.

The Sultanate has reported 1,5480 COVID-19 deaths so far this month.

The Gulf country has expanded its immunization campaign against coronavirus, and now covers individuals aged 60 and above, whether or not the individuals are healthy, as well as patients suffering chronic diseases and health workers in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

“Some of this spread is due to the presence of rapidly spreading mutated strains of the virus,” according an earlier statement from the country’s Supreme Committee, which tasked with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total 142,169 coronavirus cases have been reported overnight, with 132,945 of the patients making full recovery.

Health officials meanwhile said 19 people have been admitted to hospital with COVID symptoms over the last 24 hours, a report from Times of Oman said.


Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack
Updated 22 min 36 sec ago

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack
  • The MV Helios Ray was sailing along the Omani coast toward the Arabian Sea
  • The suspected attack has raised tensions in the region

DUBAI: An Israeli-owned cargo ship that suffered a mysterious explosion last week has left Dubai’s port and was transiting the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, satellite tracking data showed. The suspected attack has raised tensions in the region.
The giant MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, was sailing along the Omani coast toward the Arabian Sea, according to satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com, days after docking in Dubai for repairs. Overnight, the vessel passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a third of the world’s oil flows. Its destination remained unclear.
Last week, a blast struck the cargo ship in the same waterway, raising alarms about ship security in the Mideast. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Israel’s regional foe Iran of attacking the ship. Iran swiftly denied the charge.
Tensions between Iran and the West have escalated in recent weeks as Iran accelerates its nuclear program, seeking to pressure the United States to grant sanctions relief it received under its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. In the current standoff, each side is insisting the other move first to return to the deal, which former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.
It remains unclear what caused the explosion, which reportedly punched two holes in the vessel’s port side and two on its starboard side, just above the waterline. The incident recalled the summer of 2019, when the US military blamed Iran for a series of suspected attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf. The Navy had alleged that Iran used limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to strike some of the vessels. Iran denied any role in the suspected assaults.


Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
Updated 57 min 59 sec ago

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
  • Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above

DUBAI: Dubai has expanded the coverage of its COVID-19 vaccination program, with residents aged 40 and above holding valid resident visas now allowed to register and receive jabs at any of the emirate’s inoculation facilities.

Dubai’s health authority likewise said that elderly individuals aged 60 and above with a valid resident visa issued in any emirate can register for the vaccine, provided they can prove they are residing in Dubai, according to state news agency WAM.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above, instead of 18 years, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above, instead of those between 18-65 years.

Gulf nationals with a valid Emirates ID can also now get vaccinated at Dubai health facilities, the report added.

The UAE, which leads the world on COVID-19 vaccinations, has embarked on a widescale campaign to inoculation to achieve mass immunity and will help reduce the number of cases and control the spread of coronavirus.

About 66,539 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered overnight, bring the total doses at 6,094,956 with a rate of vaccine distribution of 61.62 doses per 100 people.

Health officials meanwhile confirmed 2,721 new infections overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases in the UAE to 396,771.


Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
In this file photo taken on May 22, 2017, smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
  • People in Khartoum watch a movie at the Sudanese European Film Festival at an outdoor cinema for visitors adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. (AFP)

PARIS: Lawyers representing survivors of a chemical weapons attack in 2013 in Syria have filed a criminal complaint against Syrian officials whom they blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a rebel-held area.
France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.
The case, which about a dozen people have joined, follows a similar one opened in Germany last year. It offers a rare legal avenue for action against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the UN Security Council.
“This is important so that the victims have the possibility to see those responsible being brought to justice and held accountable,” Mazen Darwish, who heads the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), said.
The SCM filed the complaint along with two other NGOs: the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive.

BACKGROUND

France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.

France’s intelligence services concluded in 2013 that a sarin gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta region just south east of Damascus that killed 1,400 people had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
The complaint is based on what the lawyers say is the most comprehensive body of evidence on the use of substances such as sarin gas in Syria.
“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta, whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi Al-Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive.
A UN-commissioned investigation to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine and sarin gas.
Darwish said he expected another case to be opened in Sweden in the coming months.


Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
Soldiers of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) parade during celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD Saturday, Feb.27 2021 near Tindouf, southern Algeria. (AP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
  • A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public

RABAT: Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of “deep misunderstandings,” notably related to the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco is angered by German criticism of former US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for moves by Rabat to normalize its relations with Israel.
A letter leaked online from Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to the rest of the government orders officials to suspend “all contact, interaction and cooperation” with the German Embassy and embassy-related activities.
A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public.
The official also noted the appearance of a flag of the pro-independence Polisario Front outside the state assembly in the northern German city of Bremen. Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of media reports about the letter.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara after Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. UN peacekeepers now monitor a 30-year-old cease-fire between Moroccan forces and Polisario supporters.
The UN has expressed concern that Trump’s decision could thwart negotiation efforts in the long-running Western Sahara conflict.