Iran extends coronavirus restrictions ahead of Yalda festival

Iran extends coronavirus restrictions ahead of Yalda festival
Iranian man arranges pomegranates at his shop in downtown Tehran on Dec. 21, 2014, in preparation for the annual festival of Yalda. (File/AFP)
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Updated 19 December 2020

Iran extends coronavirus restrictions ahead of Yalda festival

Iran extends coronavirus restrictions ahead of Yalda festival
  • Shops were ordered to close two hours earlier, from 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday
  • The Health Ministry said on Saturday that 175 people had died over the past 24 hours, the lowest daily death toll since Sept. 19

Shop closures and traffic restrictions in Iran will begin earlier on Saturday in an effort to avert a resurgence of coronavirus infections and deaths as Iranians prepare for the Yalda Night winter festival, authorities reported.
“Let’s not gather, so we don’t become fewer,” President Hassan Rouhani said in televised remarks on Saturday, urging Iranians not to hold extended family gatherings on Yalda Night, or Shab-e Yalda.
This year, the ancient winter solstice celebration falls on Sunday night. Families traditionally celebrate until the early hours of the morning, reciting poems, singing and eating nuts, dried fruits, watermelon, pomegranates and persimmon.
Shops were ordered to close two hours earlier, from 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi announced on state television. A traffic curfew was brought forward an hour to 8 p.m. until 4 a.m.
The Health Ministry said on Saturday that 175 people had died over the past 24 hours, the lowest daily death toll since Sept. 19. It said to date a total of 53,448 people had died from the coronavirus and 1,152,072 had been infected in Iran, the Middle East’s worst hit country.
Raisi said there had been a decline of 50% in daily deaths from coronavirus since stricter restrictions were imposed on Nov. 21 to curb the spread of the virus.
He said the spread of the virus had slowed in 30 of Iran’s 31 provinces, but holding Yalda gatherings could reverse those efforts.
When the Yalda feast is over, traffic restrictions will go back to 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. in the lower risk “orange” cities, including the capital Tehran, Raisi said.
The Yalda Night festival is also celebrated in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
Pomegranates are eaten to symbolize the cycle of life, watermelon represents health while dried fruits and nuts, or ajeel, symbolize prosperity and wealth.


Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier
An honour guard of Israeli soldiers with their rifles stands to attention during a one minute siren, as they partake in a state ceremony for Memorial Day in Jerusalem on April 13, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2021

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier

Israel shocked by self-immolation of traumatized ex-soldier
  • ‘He saw horrible things and nobody took care of him,’ his tearful brother Avi Saidian told journalists at the hospital

JERUSALEM: Israel was shaken Tuesday after a 26-year-old former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since the 2014 Gaza war set himself on fire, suffering severe injuries.
Itzik Saidian went to a support service for wounded soldiers near Tel Aviv on Monday, doused himself with a flammable liquid and lit it, “due to significant psychological distress,” the army said.
He was rushed to the intensive care unit of Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv and was in “critical condition” with “deep burns all over his body,” the hospital said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “very shocked” and “determined to undertake a complete reform of the way we take care of our disabled and wounded veterans.”
The young man had been recognized as partially disabled because he suffered from PTSD related to his service during the 2014 war between Israel and the armed Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Around 2,250 Palestinians were killed in the war, mostly civilians, and 74 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Saidian’s self-immolation came on the eve of Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and attack victims.
It sparked controversy over the support system for wounded or psychologically ill soldiers, which is often deemed inefficient and bureaucratic.
“He saw horrible things and nobody took care of him,” his tearful brother Avi Saidian told journalists at the hospital.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced a “thorough investigation to find the reasons for this tragic event.” His ministry pledged to “substantially improve the treatment of post-traumatic soldiers.”
Military service is mandatory in Israel for 18-year-olds. Women serve two years and men two years and six months.


Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval
Updated 13 April 2021

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval

Lebanon’s president says new maritime claim needs government approval
  • Aoun's decision could significantly delay the process
  • Israeli Energy Minister said Monday Lebanon's expanded claim would derail talks

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president said on Tuesday a draft decree expanding its maritime claims in a dispute with Israel must be approved by the caretaker government, rejecting a request to grant it swift presidential approval.
The dispute with Israel over the maritime boundary has held up hydrocarbon exploration in a potentially gas-rich area of the eastern Mediterranean.
The decree, approved by Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, defense minister and minister of public work on Monday, would add around 1,400 square km (540 square miles) to an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean claimed by Lebanon.
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s office said the decree should be approved by President Michel Aoun so that the new maritime coordinates setting out Lebanon’s claim could be submitted to the United Nations.
But the presidency said it should be approved by Diab’s full cabinet, even though the government resigned eight months ago following a devastating explosion in Beirut, because of the gravity of the issue.
The draft decree “needs a collective decision from the council of ministers..., even under a caretaker government, due to its importance and the consequences,” a statement from Aoun’s office said.
Aoun’s decision could significantly delay the process. Since the government resigned in August it has referred all issues for exceptional approval by the president, leaving them to get formal endorsement when a new government is finally agreed.
Negotiations were launched in October to try to resolve the dispute with Israel yet the talks, a culmination of three years of diplomacy by the United States, have since stalled.
Israel already pumps gas from offshore fields but Lebanon has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday Lebanon’s expanded claim would derail the talks rather than help work toward a common solution, warning that Israel would implement “parallel measures.”
Lebanon, in the throes of a deep financial meltdown that is threatening its stability, is desperate for cash as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. But political leaders have failed to bridge their differences and form a new government.


Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions
Mahmud Fannas, who carries out the traditional role of a Musaharati (Ramadan drummer), who awakens Muslims for the pre-dawn traditional suhur meal during Ramadan, visits a young fan in an alley in the old city of Sidon, Lebanon. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2021

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions

Ramadan in Lebanon limited due to high inflation, virus restrictions
  • Iftar events banned as new curfew goes into effect and donations are fleeting during the holy month
  • People ask me about the prices, and when I answer, they seem very unhappy. Some even beg me to give them lower prices. But the truth is, I am one of these people. I am suffering just like them

BEIRUT: The social events, traditions and gatherings usually celebrated during Ramadan will be very different this year in Lebanon as the country continues to grapple with unprecedented economic collapse and a coronavirus (COVID-19) surge.

Leading up to the holy month, preparations for Ramadan were slight in Beirut as only a few signs reminding people to donate could be seen in the city’s main streets. Charity foundations usually rely on the month of Ramadan every year to collect donations but the country’s ability to give is fleeting.

“More than 50 percent of the Lebanese now live under the poverty line,” World Bank Group Vice President for Middle East and North Africa Farid Belhaj said on April 4.

In an attempt to combat the spread of the virus, the National Disaster Management Operations Room imposed a new curfew that applies during Ramadan from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. It has also banned all iftar events.

Charitable organizations can distribute food to houses, but only after obtaining a permit from the electronic platform. The capacity of worshippers at mosques will be limited to 30 percent while restaurants and cafes, which have already endured several months of lockdown, will be closed again during the holy month.

The price inflation has become a daily nightmare for the Lebanese, and with the arrival of Ramadan, the prices of essential goods, like vegetables and fruits, have increased even further due to the high demand.

“The price of one kilo of beef has increased to between 60 and 70,000 pounds and a kilo of taouk chicken was sold at 50,000 pounds on the first day of Ramadan,” Abbas Ali Salim, a butcher shop owner in Beirut’s southern suburbs, told Arab News.

“People ask me about the prices, and when I answer, they seem very unhappy. Some even beg me to give them lower prices. But the truth is, I am one of these people. I am suffering just like them. The black market is trading the state-subsidized meat, monopolized by traders who are controlling the prices.”

Due to inflation, the cost of a typical iftar meal — lentil soup, fattoush salad, a main dish of chicken and rice, a half a cup of yogurt and a single date — has reached more than 60,000 Lebanese pounds, according to the crisis observatory at the American University of Beirut.

By those estimates, a full month of iftar meals for a family of five would cost 1.8 million pounds, which is much higher than the Lebanese minimum wage of 675,000 pounds. This cost does not even cover the juices, desserts, gas, electricity or cleaning material used for cooking.

Researchers at the observatory said a fattoush salad for a small family that cost 6,000 pounds during Ramadan last year, now costs 18,500 pounds. This means that the cost of a daily salad during this year’s Ramadan would be about 82 percent of the minimum wage.

The observatory feared that families might cope with the inflation by “cutting quantities or opting for cheaper alternatives to replace vegetables and meat, which would result in malnutrition.”

Mohammad Chamseddine, a researcher from the independent studies and statistics company Information International, said: “The prices of basic goods in Ramadan have increased by between 25 and 100 percent, with a significant reduction in sales, as the purchasing power of the Lebanese, especially those getting paid in Lebanese pounds, has eroded.”

Ramadan has also been affected by the country’s slow COVID-19 vaccination plan, which started in February. Lebanon's Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Tuesday that “over 20 percent of the Lebanese people have developed immunity, either through infection or vaccination.”

 


Russia backs Egypt on Nile water rights

Russia backs Egypt on Nile water rights
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a meeting in Cairo, Egypt April 12, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 13 April 2021

Russia backs Egypt on Nile water rights

Russia backs Egypt on Nile water rights
  • Sergey Lavrov: Russia is looking forward to reaching a solution for all parties, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, on the filling and operation of the dam through negotiations

CAIRO: Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi that Moscow will oppose any interference in Egypt’s historical water rights in the Nile.

Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River’s main tributary, which Egypt and Sudan deem a major threat if it is filled and operated without a legally binding agreement.

In a meeting with the Egyptian leader on Monday, Lavrov highlighted Russia’s firm position rejecting any interference in Egypt’s historical water rights in the Nile, and rejected unilateral actions in this regard.

He also voiced appreciation for Egypt’s efforts to resolve the issue.

Lavrov said that Russia is looking forward to reaching a solution for all parties, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, on the filling and operation of the dam through negotiations.

El-Sisi said the lack of resolution of this issue would affect the security and stability of the region.

El-Sisi also discussed the Egyptian efforts to support the new interim government in Libya at various bilateral, regional and international forums, stressing the need to clear Libya of mercenaries.

Illegal foreign interference in Libyan affairs is fueling the crisis, he said.

Lavrov underlined Cairo’s role, especially the president’s personal efforts, to prepare a political pathway in Libya.

He said that this underlined Egypt’s role in regional security and stability, adding that Russia seeks to continue cooperation and coordination with Cairo on the issue.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry briefed Lavrov on the recent consultations over the dam held in Kinshasa in the presence of the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

He said that communication will continue with Russia over the issue as it is an active member of the UN Security Council, and because of its diplomatic capabilities and its impact in the international arena.

 


Italian politicians slam Libyan release of alleged human trafficker

Italian politicians slam Libyan release of alleged human trafficker
Updated 13 April 2021

Italian politicians slam Libyan release of alleged human trafficker

Italian politicians slam Libyan release of alleged human trafficker
  • UN considers Abd Al-Rahman Milad one of Libya’s most wanted human traffickers
  • His release is ‘disturbing news,’ says head of Sinistra Italiana party

ROME: Members of left-wing political party Sinistra Italiana expressed their dismay at Libyan authorities’ decision to release a man considered by the UN to be one of the country’s most wanted human traffickers.

Abd Al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija, was arrested on suspicion of being part of a criminal network operating in northwest Libya.

He was released less than four months after his arrest in Tripoli. The city’s military attorney general dropped the charges against him “for lack of evidence.”

Italian newspaper Avvenire reported that Bija and five other Libyans were placed under sanctions in 2018 by the UN Security Council for being directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats.

The newspaper reported that Bija had attended official meetings in Rome with Italian authorities during negotiations over illegal migrants. He was introduced there as “a commander of the Libyan coastguard.”

Bija’s release “is disturbing news,” Sinistra Italiana leader Nicola Fratoianni said in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, asking the government to “clarify this obscure situation.”

He added: “This man is accused of torture and other cruel criminal acts on human beings. The relationship between Italian institutions and this man, who was freed only a few days after the visit to Tripoli of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, must be fully clarified.” 

Fratoianni told Arab News: “In Libya, migrants live in inhumane and atrocious conditions, as confirmed by all international organizations. The Italian government must do something.”

Marco Minniti, Italy’s interior minister at the time of the meetings attended by Bija, has denied any wrongdoing, saying Rome was unaware of the allegations against the Libyan.

Nello Scavo, the Italian journalist who first reported for Avvenire on Bija’s presence in Italy, and Nancy Porsia, the freelance reporter who first wrote about the Libyan’s suspected criminal activities in 2016, were given police protection after receiving threats.

In recent years, the EU has partnered with Libya’s coastguard and local groups to try to halt the dangerous sea crossings via the Mediterranean to reach Italian shores.

Several NGOs, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuse.

An Associated Press investigation in 2019 revealed that militias tortured, extorted and abused migrants for ransom in detention centers under the nose of UN officials, often in compounds that receive millions in European money, paid to Libya’s government to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.