Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
The MV Helios Ray was hit by an exlosion. (MarineTraffic.Com)
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Updated 27 February 2021

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
  • The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship.

Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Arabian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. On Friday at 0230 GMT, the vessel stopped for at least nine hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.

According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides support and maritime training, he owns dozens of car-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.

The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was “aware and monitoring” the situation. The US Maritime Administration, an agency of the Transportation Department, issued a warning to commercial shippers early Saturday acknowledging the explosion and urging ships to “exercise caution when transiting” the Gulf of Oman.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”


Lebanese president urges calm after judicial dispute

Lebanese president urges calm after judicial dispute
Updated 21 min 7 sec ago

Lebanese president urges calm after judicial dispute

Lebanese president urges calm after judicial dispute
  • Lebanese President warns against property destruction after removing judge from a financial corruption probe
  • Judge Aoun stormed the offices of a foreign exchange dealer, took folders and computers out

BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun warned against the destruction of property on Thursday after removing a judge from a financial corruption probe last week prompted her and her supporters to storm a currency exchange bureau.
Aoun made the remarks in a statement after a security meeting that included caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, the interior minister and other officials.
On Wednesday, judge Ghada Aoun and others had stormed the offices of a foreign exchange dealer in defiance of her removal from the investigation, with some of them breaking down doors, local media reported.
It was the second such attempt to enter the bureau by judge Aoun, who is not directly related to the president and whose supporters appeared largely to back President Aoun’s party.
Judge Aoun, chief prosecutor of the Mount Lebanon region, took folders and computers out of the building with her, the state news agency reported.
Security forces deployed to the scene.
Aoun, who had also sought to question central bank chief Riad Salameh, has objected to her removal from financial crimes cases last week by Lebanese public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.
The row has spilled out into the streets and all over local media, with critics saying it laid bare the political grip on the judiciary in a country battered by a financial crisis rooted in graft and debt.
The collapse has sunk the currency, paralyzed banks and trapped savers out of their deposits.


Pope Francis confirms intention to visit Lebanon

Pope Francis confirms intention to visit Lebanon
Updated 22 April 2021

Pope Francis confirms intention to visit Lebanon

Pope Francis confirms intention to visit Lebanon
  • Spokesman: Pontiff ‘reiterated his closeness to the Lebanese people’
  • Pope met with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in the Vatican

ROME: During a private audience in the Vatican with Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, Pope Francis on Thursday confirmed that he wants to visit the country as soon as possible.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told a press briefing attended by Arab News that the pope “reiterated his closeness to the Lebanese people, who live in a time of great difficulty and uncertainty.”
Bruni said the pope confirmed to Hariri his desire to visit Lebanon “as soon as the conditions will allow it,” and expressed his wish that the country, “with the help of the international community,” will once again be a land of “coexistence and pluralism.”
Pope Francis announced his intention to visit Lebanon on his return flight from Iraq last month.
Hariri was tasked nine months ago with forming a government that is supposed to allow Lebanon to negotiate with the West long-awaited financial aid to overcome the country’s economic crisis.
A source in the Vatican told Arab News that Hariri asked the pope to intercede with Lebanese President Michel Aoun to help him form a new government.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Lebanon, has called for an international conference to save the country from financial collapse.
Hariri also met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is in charge of its relations with states.
On Thursday night, Hariri is expected to meet with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.


Sanctions-battered Iran, weary of pandemic, faces worst wave

Sanctions-battered Iran, weary of pandemic, faces worst wave
Updated 22 April 2021

Sanctions-battered Iran, weary of pandemic, faces worst wave

Sanctions-battered Iran, weary of pandemic, faces worst wave
  • Iran is now reporting its highest-ever new coronavirus case numbers — more than 25,000 a day
  • At the massive Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, already reeling from the pandemic, workers laid cinder-block rows of new graves

TEHRAN: As Iran faces what looks like its worst wave of the coronavirus pandemic yet, Tehran commuters still pour into its subway system and buses each working day, even as images of the gasping ill are repeatedly shown on state television every night.
After facing criticism for downplaying the virus last year, Iranian authorities have put partial lockdowns and other measures back in place to try and slow the virus’ spread.
But in this nation of 84 million people, which faces crushing US sanctions, many struggle to earn enough to feed their families. Economic pressure, coupled with the growing uncertainty over when vaccines will be widely available in the Islamic Republic, have many simply giving up on social distancing, considering it an unaffordable luxury. That has public health officials worried the worst of the pandemic still may be yet to come.
“I cannot stop working,” said Mostafa Shahni, a worried 34-year-old construction worker in Tehran. “If I do, I can’t bring home bread for my wife and two kids.”
Iran is now reporting its highest-ever new coronavirus case numbers — more than 25,000 a day. Its daily death toll has surged to around 400, still below the grim record of 486 it reached in November.
During the peak of Iran’s last surge, around 20,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized across the country. Today, that figure has topped 40,000. The health ministry warns the number will climb to 60,000 in the coming weeks. Iran remains among the hardest-hit countries in the world and the worst-hit in the Middle East.
Across Tehran, Associated Press journalists have seen signs of the pandemic’s toll.
At Tehran’s Shohadaye Tajrish Hospital, orderlies pushed the bodies of two victims of the coronavirus across a parking lot to its morgue, one wrapped in white, the other in a black body bag. All of its wards on five floors of the hospital are reserved for coronavirus patients. One empty gurney held a bouquet of roses left for a recently deceased man. A heart-shaped balloon hovered over a still respirator.
At the massive Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, already reeling from the pandemic, workers laid cinder-block rows of new graves. Mourners in black wept at a stream of funerals. Officials plan to open a new morgue at the site to handle the wave of death, much wrought by what Iranians simply call “corona.”
Saeed Khal, the director of Tehran’s main cemetery, said workers buried 350 bodies there on Tuesday alone — at least 150 had died of coronavirus. The cemetery had never processed that many burials in a single day, not even during Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s that saw 1 million people killed.
It was “one of the hardest and saddest days for my colleagues in the half-century-history of the cemetery,” Khal told state TV.
So much is the influx that some burials are being delayed by a day, unusual for Iran which follows the Islamic practice of immediately burying the dead.
Outside the gates of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Hospital complex, where the capital’s poor can receive free treatment at its 1,300 beds, scores crowded around one recent day as guards turned away routine cases and allowed in only test-confirmed coronavirus cases.
“They say the wards are full of corona patients,” said Manijeh Taheri, who sought a regular thyroid treatment for her mother at the hospital. “I have no idea where to take her when such a huge complex has no place for my mother.”
Field hospitals are being prepared in Tehran and other major cities. State TV has shown images at hospitals outside the capital with patients being treated in hallways.
“We are not going out of the red zone any time soon,” Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi told state media.
President Hassan Rouhani blames the current surge on the fast-spreading variant of the virus first found in Britain, which the government says arrived from neighboring Iraq. Travel between the countries has been restricted since March, though people and commerce continue to cross each day. Overall, Iran has seen 2.2 million reported cases and 67,000 deaths in total.
Lawmaker Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi blamed government mismanagement and continued US sanctions for the virus’ spread.
“Sanctions, challenges and wrong decisions will continue. We do not have sufficient vaccines so protect yourself and your relatives through personal health measures,” he wrote on Twitter.
As of now, Iran has administered over 500,000 vaccine doses, according to the WHO. Supplies, however, remain limited. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned US and British-made coronavirus vaccines, saying their import is “forbidden” because he does not trust those nations. Khamenei has approved the import of vaccines from “safe” countries, such as China and Russia, and has backed national efforts to produce a homegrown vaccine with help from Cuba.
But officials keep changing when they say the wider public will be vaccinated as it remains unclear when Tehran will have a promised 60 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Amir Afkhami, an associate professor at George Washington University, said that over the past year, Iran’s leadership could point to superpowers like the US struggling to contain the virus. With vaccines rolled out in the West and economies reopening, this could become much more difficult to do, he said.
“Ultimately Iran is not self-sufficient when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine development, and it doesn’t have the (intensive care unit) beds to absorb the patients it needs to so it really needs external help,” Afkhami said.
Authorities across Iran have closed mosques, restaurants and parks during Ramadan, the Islamic holy fasting month being observed by Muslims around the world. An evening curfew for private cars is in place and travel between cities is banned. Parliament has been suspended for two weeks.
But the wider fatigue from the virus has seen people ignore warnings and host fast-breaking meals known as iftars indoors. Already, authorities blamed celebrations around the Iranian New Year known as Nowruz in March for contributing to this wave.
Masoud Mardani, an infectious disease specialist on Iran’s COVID-19 national task force, has demanded a public curfew. But none so far has come.


Syria receives batch of UN vaccines to speed up coronavirus fight

Syria receives batch of UN vaccines to speed up coronavirus fight
Updated 22 April 2021

Syria receives batch of UN vaccines to speed up coronavirus fight

Syria receives batch of UN vaccines to speed up coronavirus fight
  • The AstraZeneca vaccines will be part of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 20% of the country’s population before the end of the year
  • Health Minister said the vaccine will be given first to frontline workers, the elderly and those with chronic diseases

DAMASCUS: The Syrian government received a batch of 203,000 COVID-19 vaccines Thursday, the health minister said, in a move aimed at speeding up a sluggish inoculation process in the war-torn country.
The arrival of the United Nations-secured jabs came as a new wave of infections has overwhelmed medical centers around Syria. The AstraZeneca vaccines will be part of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 20% of the country’s population before the end of the year.
Syria’s government controls two-thirds of the country, with the rest held by rebels and Kurdish factions. Millions have fled the country or been displaced, and the war has killed some half a million people from the pre-war population of 23 million.
Health Minister Hassan Ghabbash made the announcement during a news conference held in the capital Damascus. He said the vaccine will be given first to frontline workers, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
Akjemal Magtymova, the representative of the World Health Organization in Syria, said that the government drafted a plan with the WHO and UN children’s agency UNICEF to distribute the vaccine equally across the country.
Thursday’s announcement came a day after Syria’s last rebel-held enclave received its first batch of 53,800 COVID-19 vaccines, brought in from neighboring Turkey.
The 203,000 jabs that arrived in Damascus will cover government-held areas and those under the control of Kurdish fighters in the northeast. Hundreds of thousands more are scheduled to arrive in the coming months.
“The priority for immunization will be frontline health workers who are the first line of defense against COVID,” said Ted Chaiban, regional director for the Middle East and north Africa at UNICEF. Speaking with The Associated Press from neighboring Jordan, Chaiban added that after health workers, older people will be vaccinated.
The Syrian government has registered over 21,500 cases — including 1,483 deaths — in areas under its control since the first case was reported in March 2020. Over 21,000 infections and over 640 deaths have been recorded in rebel-held northwestern Syria, while the Kurdish areas in the northeast registered 14,400 cases including 477 deaths.
Officials in government-controlled areas had already rolled out limited vaccinations following an announcement by Damascus in February that it received an undetermined amount of vaccine from an unnamed friendly country.
Separately, the United Arab Emirates said it sent a shipment of COVID-19 vaccine doses that arrived Tuesday in Damascus to help Syria fight the pandemic. It didn’t say how many doses or which vaccine.
The WHO had said the vaccination campaign in Syria was expected to start in April. It aims to inoculate 20% of the population by the end of 2021.


UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone
Updated 22 April 2021

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone
  • The UAE’s health ministry reported 1,931 new coronavirus cases overnight

DUBAI: The UAE hit a milestone in its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign after achieving a vaccine distribution rate of 100.10 doses per 100 people.

The number signifies that at least one dose of the vaccine has been administered to all residents in the UAE. With 111,176 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered in the past 24 hours, the total number of doses provided now stands at 9,900,002.

The UAE’s health ministry reported 1,931 new coronavirus cases overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases to 502,791, as well as two deaths. The COVID-19 related number of deaths in the country is now at 1,561.