Iran health ministry says virus deaths cross 60,000 mark

Iran health ministry says virus deaths cross 60,000 mark
Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting a coronavirus, as they walk at Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, February 20, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 February 2021

Iran health ministry says virus deaths cross 60,000 mark

Iran health ministry says virus deaths cross 60,000 mark

TEHRAN: Iran's health ministry said the country's coronavirus fatalities broke the 60,000 mark on Sunday, as the Islamic republic battles the Middle East's worst outbreak of the illness.
"Sadly in the past 24 hours, 93 people lost their lives to Covid-19, and total deaths from this disease reached 60,073," health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said in a televised address.
Iran has registered a total of 1,631,169 infections, according to the ministry.

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
Updated 28 min 54 sec ago

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
  • Israeli media also described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel
  • Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM: A senior US general said on Thursday that he believed a Syrian missile exploding in Israel was not intentional, but rather showed a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actually incompetence in Syrian air defense ... I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

Earlier in the day, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile landed in southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens near the country’s top secret nuclear reactor. In response, it attacked the missile launcher and air-defense systems in neighboring Syria.

Israeli media later described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel.

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly launched air strikes at Syria, including at military targets linked to foes Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such strikes routinely draw Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thursday’s exchange was unusual because the Syrian projectile landed deep inside Israel.

A road sign shows the way to Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel's Negev desert. (AFP / Ahmad Gharabali)

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the exchange began with an Israeli air strike on Dumeir, a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Dumeir is believed to house Syrian army installations and batteries as well as bases and weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias. SANA said four soldiers were wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group based in Britain that tracks Syria’s civil war, said the Israeli strikes hit an air defense base belonging to the Syrian military and destroyed air defense batteries in the area. It said the Syrian military fired surface-to-air missiles in response.

The Israeli military described the projectile that landed near the nuclear site as a surface-to-air missile, which is usually used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles.

Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus, a long range for an errantly fired surface-to-air missile.



Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement
Updated 23 April 2021

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement

Houthis throw abducted model Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement
  • Lawyer says Houthi prosecutor questioned Al-Hammadi inside Yemen central prison after refusing to transfer her for a court trial
  • Yemeni model, 20, and two colleagues were abducted from Sanaa street on Feb. 20

AL MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis have thrown abducted Yemeni model and actress Entesar Al-Hammadi into solitary confinement as punishment for her protest against the initial incarceration and prison conditions, the model’s lawyer said on Thursday.

Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal told Arab News that a prosecutor from the rebel-controlled West Sanaa court on Wednesday questioned the model inside the central prison after officials refused to transfer her for a court trial over the past few weeks.

When the investigation ended, the 20-year-old Al-Hammadi verbally clashed with a captor and shouted out about the abduction and miserable prison conditions she had experienced.

Prison officials responded to the outburst by holding Al-Hammadi in solitary confinement, the lawyer said.

“She was separated from her colleagues,” Al-Kamal said. “She is going through bad psychological conditions inside the prison.”

Al-Hammadi and two of her friends were abducted from a Sanaa street on Feb. 20. Yemeni officials said the three actresses were traveling to shoot a TV drama series when the rebels stopped their vehicle on Sanaa’s Hadda Street and took them to an unknown location.

The abduction is the latest in a string of attacks by the Houthis on dissidents and liberal women in areas under the group’s control.

Local and international groups along with government officials have strongly condemned the abduction and called upon the rebels to release them. The Houthis have ignored demands and pledged to put them on trial but to no avail.

Al-Kamal said there were no clear accusations against the model, but he suspected that the Houthis might accuse her of committing “an immoral act,” for not covering her hair or walking without a male guardian in the street.

“I was very optimistic that my client would be released since the prosecutor did not find clear accusations against her,” he said.

Al-Hammadi had participated in two TV drama series and spoken publicly about her ambition of becoming an international supermodel. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Al-Hammadi used social media to promote traditional Yemeni dresses and beauty products.

The detainment of the actresses has sparked outrage inside and outside Yemen as human rights activists and government officials compared Houthi suppression of women to similar activities by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

In other developments around Sanaa, the Yemen Journalist Union said armed Houthis confiscated a media center after accusing them of collaborating with the internationally recognized Yemen government and the Arab coalition.

Taha Al-Ma’ameri, director of Yemen Digital Media, alerted the union that armed Houthis stormed the center and expelled workers and guards while replacing them with others.

The union accused the Houthis of fabricating accusations against independent media outlets in order to seize them. It also urged Arab and international journalist unions to support Yemen Digital Media by pressuring the Houthis into ending their crackdown on independent journalists.

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes
Updated 23 April 2021

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID-19 spikes

GAZA: The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.
Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the holy month on April 13.
Gaza health officials said around 70 percent of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37 percent at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43 percent over the week before.
“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr. Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.
Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43 percent this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.
Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.
Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammed Al-Haresh said he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.
“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.
“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”
Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.
Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.
Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.
The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53 percent of Israelis being fully vaccinated.
Amid growing concern, Hamas was set to begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.
But with around 49 percent of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.
“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.
Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.
Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans — 54.2 percent — said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5 percent who said they would and 15.3 percent who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the UAE and the global COVAX program.
“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.
One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.
“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

Speculation rife over deaths of 2 senior IRGC commanders

Speculation rife over deaths of 2 senior IRGC commanders
Updated 23 April 2021

Speculation rife over deaths of 2 senior IRGC commanders

Speculation rife over deaths of 2 senior IRGC commanders
  • Iranian media reports of COVID-19, heart attack as cause of deaths called into question
  • ‘IRGC looks a bit chaotic at the moment. Impact on morale could be quite significant,’ expert tells Arab News

LONDON: Two senior commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have died suddenly just days apart, and obscure reports from Iranian media have prompted suspicion that there is more to their deaths than Tehran is willing to admit.

Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hejazi, 65, was deputy head of the IRGC’s Quds Force. Iranian media reported that he had died suddenly last weekend from a heart attack. 

Hejazi was notorious for his role in violently suppressing the 2009 anti-regime protests while head of the IRGC’s domestic force, the Basij, and for commanding significant influence over the group’s missile program and relations with its proxies in Yemen and Lebanon.

He was promoted to his position in the Quds Force last year, when Esmail Qaani was assigned leadership of the organization following the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Just days after Hejazi’s death, another general from the Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Haghbin, was reported dead.

State media blamed COVID-19 for his death, but images circulating online showed him in a hospital bed with breathing apparatus and two heavily bandaged legs.

This prompted rumors that he had actually died from wounds sustained fighting alongside one of Iran’s proxies in Syria or Yemen. Iranian media later retracted the image and replaced it with one hiding his injured legs.

The two generals’ deaths have prompted speculation that the killings were conducted by Israel, which sees Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah, which Hejazi worked with closely, as a major security concern. 

Eloise Scott, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey analyst at political risk consultancy Sibylline, told Arab News that not only will Iran suffer from the loss of two seasoned commanders, but their deaths are the latest in a long series of embarrassing setbacks for the image-conscious IRGC.

Both Hejazi and Haghbin “have had quite considerable experience both internally in Iran, but also in places like Lebanon and Syria,” she said.

“The IRGC … has put a huge amount of effort into its proxies and its networks on the military front, but it’s also incredibly concerned and anxious about its perception at home, certainly in the last couple of years.”

Earlier in April, a large blast struck Iran’s flagship nuclear facility in Natanz, in an act of sabotage that observers said bears the hallmarks of Israel, Tehran’s regional arch-nemesis. 

“The IRGC looks a bit chaotic at the moment. Coming off the back of the Natanz incident … a lot of things are building up. The impact on morale could be quite significant,” Scott said, pointing to other incidents from the past two years that have hurt the paramilitary group’s reputation.

The downing of a Ukrainian jet in early 2020 and huge anti-regime protests in November 2019 — the anger of which, Scott said, was largely targeted at the IRGC — have left it in a “very fragile position in terms of its own domestic standing, particularly given the chaos in the country with regards to the pandemic.”

Iran is currently experiencing its worst wave of infections from COVID-19, and is grappling with hundreds of deaths every day.

“It’s setback after setback for them,” Scott said. “They’re trying to advance their causes in places like Lebanon, which is very fragile, while they barely look like they’re keeping it together at home.”

Lebanon PM hopes potential Pope Francis visit will jumpstart government formation

Lebanon PM hopes potential Pope Francis visit will jumpstart government formation
Updated 23 April 2021

Lebanon PM hopes potential Pope Francis visit will jumpstart government formation

Lebanon PM hopes potential Pope Francis visit will jumpstart government formation
  • Pontiff calls for end to political deadlock as Prime Minister-designate meets other Italian leaders in Rome on Thursday
  • “The Vatican knows very well who is and who is not obstructing the government formation process,” Hariri says

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is hoping a potential visit from Pope Francis to his fractured country will help political forces put aside their differences and finally form a government. 

Hariri met with the pope in the Vatican on Thursday, along with other Italian leaders.

“The Vatican knows very well who is and who is not obstructing the government formation process,” said Hariri, who has been unable to form a government of non-partisan specialists in Lebanon since his appointment on Oct. 22.

Pope Francis confirmed he would visit crisis-hit Lebanon but only after its fractious politicians can agree on a new government.

Hariri has been in disagreement with President Michel Aoun and his political team, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), for months over naming Christian ministers. Aoun has insisted on having the blocking third in the government.

It was a quick visit to Italy but Hariri was very busy. He also met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for relations with states. While in Rome, Hariri held meetings with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Luigi Di Maio, the country’s foreign minister.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said: “The pope met alone with Hariri for about 30 minutes and wanted to reaffirm that he is close to the Lebanese people, who are enduring extreme hardship and instability.”

The pope hoped, according to Bruni, that “with the help of the international community, Lebanon will be able to once again be the land of gathering, coexistence, and pluralism.” He stressed that “all political forces have the responsibility to urgently commit to all what benefits the country.”

After his meetings, Hariri said Pope Francis “was aware of the current problems in Lebanon and was understanding and encouraging that we can form a government. He also expressed his keenness to visit Lebanon, but only after the government is formed. This is a message to the Lebanese that we must form a government so that all powers and countries come together to help us.”

Hariri accused Hezbollah and the FPM, without explicitly naming them, of obstructing the formation of a new government.

“The dispute in Lebanon today is over two economic points of view,” Hariri said. “The first of which wants to have power over everything in the country, from the banking sector to the productive sector and telecommunications, under the pretext that they want to control it. The other team believes in a free economy and in communicating with all the world and not just with one, two, or three countries.

“We want a free economy and we want to work with the US, Europe, China, and Russia against a team that only wants to work with one side. There is a Lebanese group that supports the latter.”

Hariri stressed that the situation in Lebanon “is very bad, and forming a government will stop this collapse. There are those who are trying to prevent us from stopping this collapse in the first place because they want Lebanon to collapse so that they can stay in politics.”

Hariri indirectly criticized Aoun, saying: “Suggesting that I traveled abroad for the purpose of tourism offends the countries that I visit. Maybe they are on a tourist trip in the Baabda Palace.”

The one-on-one meeting between the pope and Hariri on Thursday was preceded by a meeting on Wednesday between Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rai and Gebran Bassil in Bkerke. 

Bassil implicitly declared after the meeting: “If Christ abandoned his message 2,000 years ago, there would be no Christians today. He bore witness to the truth, and we will continue to bear witness to the truth whatever the cost. We are sure that the cost is high, but we know that the truth will win in the end.”

Bassil’s statement was slammed on social media by his opponents, who criticized him for likening himself to Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, Aoun reprimanded security services about how they dealt with the FPM supporters who accompanied the Mount Lebanon state prosecutor, Judge Ghada Aoun, when she raided the Mecattaf money exchange company on Wednesday.

The media bureau of the Baabda Palace said: “Aoun stressed the importance of respecting freedom of expression while protecting public and private property and not attacking them, as well as the importance of understanding the pain of the citizens, especially as they have lost their money and deposits. The security forces must maintain security peacefully in accordance with the laws in force and avoid repeating what happened.”

Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmy said: “The internal security forces acted within the scope of policing and they did not attack private and public property.”

Judge Ghada Aoun, who defied the decision of the Supreme Judicial Council and the discriminatory public prosecutor to dismiss her from investigating a case related to financial transfers abroad, took computers and documents from the Mecattaf company office. She put them in her private car before leaving amid the support of FPM supporters and the astonishment of the judicial body and public opinion.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, blamed the FPM and said: “Protecting the rights of Christians cannot be done by attacking and destroying private companies. Fighting corruption cannot be done by anonymizing the perpetrator in the electricity sector, communications, and customs, and at illegal crossings, nor can it be done by practicing clientelism in the state through discretionary and unjust methods.”