BEIRUT — Armed men killed 21 Syrian soldiers, heading to arrest a former opposition commander, in an ambush in Daraa province on Tuesday, a war monitor said.
“At least 21 members of the Fourth Armored Division and the regime’s intelligence units were killed in an ambush by militants,” said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The soldiers were heading to the Al-Mzairib district in the rural west of the province when militants loyal to the former opposition commander opened fire at them seeking to thwart his capture, Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said.
“The militants attacked two military trucks and two small buses carrying regime forces,” he added.
That sparked a gunfight which forced Damascus to deploy reinforcements to the area, Abdul Rahman said.
Russia-backed regime fighters recaptured Daraa from rebels in 2018, in a symbolic blow to the anti-government uprising born there in 2011.
State institutions have since returned, but the army is still not deployed across the whole province, the Observatory says.
Many former rebels stayed instead of evacuating under a Moscow-brokered deal, either joining the army or remaining in control of parts of the province. They were allowed to keep their light firearms.
Al-Mzairib is among the districts controlled by former opposition forces.
Since it came under regime control, Daraa has witnessed a spate of bombings and assassinations targeting regime forces, former opposition figures and civilians. Most of them remain unclaimed.
Syria’s war has killed more than 388,000 people and displaced millions since it started with anti-government protests in 2011.
Libyan factions face international call to step up peace process
Arab League, African Union, EU and UN call for accelerated efforts to improve security and fully implement ceasefire
UN chief Antonio Guterres says urgent and immediate action is needed or window of opportunity might be lost
Updated 21 April 2021
The international Libya Quartet on Tuesday urged authorities in the country to step up their efforts to improve the security situation and build confidence, to help bring peace to the country and fully implement the ceasefire agreement.
The members of the Quartet — the League of Arab States, the African Union (AU), the EU and the UN — said they are ready to help with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission’s plans for a “robust, credible and effective” ceasefire monitoring mechanism.
On Friday the UN Security Council unanimously voted to send up to 60 international monitors to Libya to oversee the ceasefire, which was agreed in October between the two rival factions in the East and West of the country. Operational and logistical preparations for the mission are under way.
Speaking at the sixth meeting of the Libya Quartet, which was convened on Tuesday by the League of Arab States, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the monitoring team will initially be a “nimble” presence in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but expand over time.
He also made it clear that after years of violence and suffering there is a window of opportunity for peace “but urgent and immediate actions are needed to make use of this narrow window.”
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the Quartet members called for the “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the country as a prerequisite for fully restoring Libyan sovereignty and preserving national unity.
They also condemned continual violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and the threat posed by armed groups and militias. They called for “the sustained implementation of measures to fully identify and dismantle these groups, and ensure the subsequent reintegration of those individuals meeting the requirements into national institutions as outlined in the ceasefire agreement … without delay.”
The meeting also included discussion of the possible deployment of AU, EU and Arab League observer missions, “at the request of Libya’s authorities, and if the requisite conditions on the ground permit,” to assist the National Elections Commission in its preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
The importance of the elections taking place in “a favorable political and security environment, so that they are held in an inclusive, transparent and credible manner and where all Libyans commit to respect their results and integrity” was emphasized.
Participants also encouraged Libya’s new Government of National Unity, and other relevant institutions, to uphold their commitment to appoint women to at least 30 percent of senior executive positions, and to promote a national, rights-based reconciliation across the country.
Yemen launches first round of COVID-19 vaccination campaign
The 12-day campaign was launched in the temporary capital Aden and 13 Yemeni governorates
The campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts
Updated 21 April 2021
RIYADH: Yemen launched the first round of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Tuesday in the temporary capital, Aden.
The campaign is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief).
Yemeni Minister of Public Health and Population Qasim Buhaibeh, Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdul Nasser Al-Wali, Governor of Aden Ahmed Hamed Lamlas, Yemen’s representative for UNICEF Philippe Duamelle, and director of the WHO office in Aden Noha Mahmoud all received the vaccine in a show of support, Saba News Agency reported.
Yemen received 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 31, part of a consignment from COVAX expected to total 1.9 million doses this year.
Buhaibeh said this was the first step toward reaching the ministry’s goal of administering 12 million vaccines by the end of the year, urging doctors, the elderly and those with chronic diseases to register to receive the jab.
Duamelle said frontline workers, the elderly and those with certain health problems would be prioritized.
“The launch of the campaign against the coronavirus is an important day in Yemen’s history,” he said, adding that the health minister and other ministers have taken the vaccination confirming its safety.
The 12-day campaign aims to reach 317,363 people in 133 districts across 13 Yemeni governorates under the control of the internationally recognized government.
There has been a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections in Yemen since mid-February, further straining a health system battered by the conflict.
The government’s health ministry has previously said the COVAX vaccines will be free, and distributed across the country. COVAX is co-led by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the WHO to provide COVID vaccines to low-income countries.
Tuesday’s rollout covered only government-held parts of the country, said Ishraq Al-Seba’ei who is with the government’s emergency coronavirus committee. But she said 10,000 doses were being sent to Sanaa via the WHO.
Yemen’s emergency coronavirus committee registered 42 confirmed cases and six deaths on Tuesday. It has recorded 5,858 coronavirus infections and 1,132 deaths so far though the true figure is widely thought to be much higher as the war has restricted COVID-19 testing.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north have provided no figures since a couple of cases last May.
Meanwhile, KSrelief said it has provided support for protection projects within Saudi Arabia’s grant for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2020.
The center cooperated with UNICEF to provide protection services by enabling children and their families to access psychosocial support and mental health services, totaling $4 million. (With Reuters)
A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad
Natanz nuclear plant sabotage lays bare vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of own population
Analysts say Tehran’s tepid response is a sign of its desperation for sanctions relief above all else
Updated 21 April 2021
LONDON: Analysts have said that the blast that struck Iran’s most critical nuclear facility on April 11 is another significant event in a decades-long shadow war between Tehran and its regional adversary Israel.
They say the sabotage has not only exposed Iran’s vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of its own population, but its tepid response has revealed its desperation for sanctions relief above all else.
Unnamed intelligence officials from Mossad told Israeli media and the New York Times last week that the mysterious Natanz explosion was their handiwork. And, according to Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, it is a continuation of the spate of blasts, blackouts, and fires that swept across the Islamic Republic last year — but with one major difference.
“What has changed from last year is how public it is. (Israel) is ready to take responsibility. From a shadow war it has moved to the forefront,” Mekelberg told Arab News.
“This confrontation has been taking place for two decades now, at least. Cyberattacks, assassinations of scientists, attacks on ships — this is something that is ongoing. What you have seen in the last year or so is that it is becoming open, from covert to overt.”
In the past year alone, Iran has been rocked by a relentless series of attacks, assassinations, and sabotages. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in a sophisticated attack.
Their entire nuclear archives were stolen and smuggled out of the country, and nuclear, military, and logistics sites across the country have suffered from a series of mysterious setbacks.
According to Mekelberg, these incidents have not only hindered Iran’s economy and nuclear program, but also exposed a fundamental weakness in the regime.
“They have a real issue inside their nuclear program,” he said. “The idea that their top scientist, they couldn’t protect him, and that someone managed to take your nuclear archives out of the country — that is not something you can simply put in your pocket.”
Iranian state television named 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi as the prime suspect in the April sabotage — but said he had already fled the country in the hours before the blast occurred.
Mekelberg and other experts believe the involvement of an Iranian national is indicative of the regime’s core vulnerability: Turncoats within its population, and even within the nuclear program itself.
* $40 - Price per barrel of oil used in Iran’s budget calculations.
* 300,000 - Estimated oil exports in barrels per day (bpd) in 2020.
* 2.8m - Iranian oil exports in bpd in 2018.
“They have a real issue with security. I assume that the more things like this happen, the more paranoid they become about who they can trust, who is working with foreign agencies. Obviously, someone is,” Mekelberg said.
Olli Heinonen, a non-proliferation expert and distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, believes the sophistication of the Natanz attack means there is little doubt that local collaborators from within the regime enabled it.
“Those who have designed and executed these actions have insider information and highly likely local contributors,” Heinonen told Arab News.
Like Mekelberg, Heinonen highlighted Iran’s apparent ineptitude in defending even its most critical nuclear facilities and pointed to the stark contrast between the country’s record and another global pariah state’s nuclear program.
“It is worth noting that we have not heard about similar incidents in North Korea,” he said. “It is evident that the (Iranian) security forces have not been able to protect the assets as the leadership had expected.
“This does not come as a surprise. Not all Iranians, including technical professionals, buy the reasonability of the enrichment efforts, the investments for which could be used better elsewhere, even within the nuclear program.”
Tehran has admitted that the attacks caused serious damage at the Natanz facility. Last week, Alireza Zakani, a regime hardliner who heads the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on state television.
“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee said. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”
Heinonen said the attacks have “certainly slowed production” of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is above the enrichment level needed for nuclear power, but far below the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium.
However, he cautioned that production could begin to ramp up again within three months of the attack, and Tehran’s promise to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack could act as a springboard toward rapid development of a nuclear bomb.
“In a short term (60 percent enrichment) does not contribute much to breakout time, but it demonstrates the fact that uranium enrichment is mainly designed to build a nuclear latency; to be in a position to relaunch in short interval a full nuclear weapon acquisition program, if such a decision is made,” he said.
The response to the attacks is part of a delicate balancing act by Tehran, according to Nader Di Michele, an Iran-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Prelia.
“They do not want escalations but the government has to show a response in terms of its foreign policy. That could be aimed at international actors or even its domestic population,” he told Arab News.
Beyond increasing uranium enrichment, it was reported that unknown actors targeted an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the following days. However, Di Michele thinks the damage caused by that attack was, by design, minimal compared with the devastation caused by the Natanz attack.
“There always has to be a response to these attacks, but I think the Iranian delegation understands that there is a limit to what they can do if they want sanctions relief.”
Di Michele said if the ongoing negotiations in Vienna prompt a lifting of sanctions and release of various assets that, in turn, deliver a financial boost to the regime, “we can never be sure what proportion of that would go to support which activities.”
He added: “It can be assumed that a proportion of those assets released would go toward foreign policy activities. What those entail, I couldn’t speculate on.”
Turkey logs highest daily COVID-19 deaths since pandemic started -data
Turkey registered its highest daily toll of 346 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday
Total cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613
Updated 20 April 2021
ISTANBUL: Turkey recorded 346 deaths from COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Tuesday, registering the highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
The data also showed the country recorded 61,028 new coronavirus cases in the same period.
The total number of cases stood at 4,384,624 while the total death toll rose to 36,613, according to the data.
Turkey currently ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.
Defiant Lebanese judge referred to Judicial Inspection Authority
Ghada Aoun has six criminal cases and 28 complaints against her
Judge Ghada Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad
Updated 21 April 2021
BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge who defied a decision dismissing her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches was Tuesday referred to the Judicial Inspection Authority over her actions.
Judge Ghada Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad.
She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month, defying a decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her from the case. There have been six criminal cases and 28 complaints filed against Aoun.
Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council met the judge on Tuesday, deciding to refer her to the authority and asking it to take the necessary measures.
“Any investigation or judicial case will be followed up to the end by the competent judiciary whoever the judge may be and regardless of any considerations outside of the judicial framework,” the council said, emphasizing that judicial authority was exercised by all judges. “It is their responsibility to preserve and protect it, abide by their oath and not mix between their duty and issues that do not come in line with the nature of proper judicial work.”
Aoun’s actions gained political traction when she was accompanied on one of the raids by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the political party led by MP Gebran Bassil.
A number of FPM supporters accompanied Aoun on Tuesday to the vicinity of the Justice Palace in Beirut.
They waited for her on the street while she attended the council session, which lasted for 40 minutes and took place amid strict security measures taken by the army and Internal Security Forces.
On Monday, rival protests had to be broken up after fighting erupted between those who supported her and those who did not.
The conflict between Aoun and Oweidat temporarily diverted attention away from the months-long political deadlock that has stopped a new government from being formed.
But the involvement of FPM supporters has angered some, who said the judge was being used as a tool to settle political scores.
The council downplayed the idea that there was a dispute, judicial or political.
“What happened is not a dispute between those who want to fight corruption and hold the corrupt accountable, and those who do not want to and are preventing it, or a conflict between the prosecutor general and the region public prosecutor. It definitely is not a political dispute between two parties, as some are portraying it.”
The council said it had asked the Court of Cassation’s Public Prosecutor and the head of the Judicial Inspection Authority to take the necessary measures, each within his jurisdiction, regarding her actions, to listen to her before the council due to her “violation of the obligation to exercise reserve, recurrent failure to meet the commitments she expressed before the council, and refusal to come to the Cassation Public Prosecution.”
Its statement also referred to Aoun’s “positions and actions” following Oweidat’s decision, in which he amended the distribution of work at Mount Lebanon Public Prosecution.
The council’s term ends in June and it tried, through the position it adopted on Tuesday, to save face due to the judiciary’s image suffering in the past few days.