Coronavirus and financial deterioration strip Lebanon’s Easter of joy

Coronavirus and financial deterioration strip Lebanon’s Easter of joy
A woman wears a mask to protect from COVID-19 , as she attends a Good Friday Mass for the Passion of Christ, at a church in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, April 2, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 03 April 2021

Coronavirus and financial deterioration strip Lebanon’s Easter of joy

Coronavirus and financial deterioration strip Lebanon’s Easter of joy
  • People are exhausted economically and psychologically, says Beirut restaurant owner

BEIRUT: With the advent of Easter for the Christian sects that follow the Western calendar, Lebanon entered on Saturday a new round of total lockdown and curfews.

The holiday atmosphere is non-existent for the second year running due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

In addition, the economic crisis has diminished what was remaining of the holiday celebrations, which have been hampered by anti-virus measures.

The lockdown will continue until Tuesday morning.

On Saturday morning, roads were deserted and shops closed their doors, while supermarkets have committed to using an electronic platform that limits the number of customers allowed inside.

Restaurants resorted to providing takeaway and delivery services only.

The Internal Security Forces conducted vehicle and foot patrols and established checkpoints to control violations, stressing the necessity of wearing face masks.

The latest decision by the Ministry of the Interior permitted prayers in churches, provided they do not exceed 30 percent of their capacity, and that they commit to social distancing measures. Worshippers need to obtain a prior permit to traveling to church.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Lebanon continues to approach half a million, while the death toll has exceeded 6,200.

The last of the politicians who contracted the virus have been Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, and former Minister Ghassan Hasbani.

Dr. Firas Al-Abyad, director of the Hariri Governmental University Hospital, expressed his fear for an increase in the number of cases during Easter and Ramadan due to family gatherings.

The number of those who have received one dose of the vaccine has reached 149,687 people, with 81,680 receiving two doses.

Tony Bejjani, the owner of a restaurant in Beirut, said: “Easter this year is less than normal, and we have only fasted.”

He added: “There are no signs of Easter this year. None of the people I know have gone shopping.

“People do not communicate with each other for fear of contracting COVID-19, nor do they go to mass.”

Bejjani added: “People are exhausted economically and psychologically. Our work stopped for two months and 22 days after the New Year’s holiday due to the lockdown, and today we had to close again although the holidays are a good season in which we can make up for some of our losses.

“People are afraid and no one is happy. They are waiting for any opportunity to travel and never return.”

A bank employee with a salary that was relatively fair before the financial crisis said: “There is no joy this holiday. People are forbidden to meet, and if we go to church to pray, only two people are allowed to sit on the same bench.”

She said she “resorted for months to making sweets in my home and selling them through social media because the salary has barely been lasting a week with the deterioration of the Lebanese pound.”

She sarcastically said: “People did not buy regular eggs to color them this Easter after their price doubled, and they also stopped buying chocolate eggs.”

Lebanon has reached a blockage on the political level in the absence of any progress in mediation to resolve the conflict that has been obstructing the formation of the government for over 160 days.

This was the focus of an Easter message that Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi conveyed to the Lebanese people.

He criticized again the “ruling group and those surrounding it” and said: “They are manipulating the fate of the nation’s entirety, people, land, and dignity.”

He added in his harsh message to the politicians: “It has become clear that we are facing a plan that aims to change Lebanon in its entirety, including its system, identity, form, and traditions. There are parties that adopt a methodology of demolishing the constitutional, financial, banking, military, and judicial institutions.

“There are parties that also adopt the methodology of starting problems to prevent solutions and settlements. Let everyone realize that a country’s life is not made of quotas.”

As soon as Patriarch Al-Rahi concluded his message, President Michel Aoun tweeted that “fighting corruption is done by naming the corrupt and pointing to them. Generalizing the accusation anonymizes those who are truly corrupt and outrightly misleads the public opinion.”

Aoun’s comment raised many questions in political circles, especially with regard to its timing.

It was later announced that Aoun was heading to meet with Patriarch Al-Rahi on the eve of Easter.


Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri (R) and his Libyan counterpart Najla al-Mangoush (L) give a joint press conference after their meeting in the capital Cairo on June 19, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 44 min 33 sec ago

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya

Egypt calls for exit of foreign forces from Libya
  • The two ministers discussed preparations for a new set of Libyan peace talks in Berlin

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called for the exit of foreign mercenaries from Libya without delay, during a joint press conference with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush.
Shoukry affirmed Cairo’s support for the Libyan Presidential Council during its transitional period to restore security and stability in Libya until the elections on Dec. 24.
He reaffirmed Egypt’s support for the Libyan interim executive authority, noting that he discussed with Mangoush the efforts to restore security and stability in Libya, and advancing relations between the two countries.
Shoukry said that the talks with his Libyan counterpart included discussions about preparations for the Berlin ministerial conference, which will be hosted by Germany on June 23.

HIGHLIGHTS

Egypt’s foreign minister reaffirmed Cairo’s support for the Libyan interim executive authority, noting that he discussed with his counterpart the efforts to restore security and stability in Libya, and advancing relations between the two countries.

The meeting will discuss the Libyan crisis. The two ministers also discussed preparations for a new set of Libyan peace talks in Berlin.
The Egyptian foreign minister said that through this conference, both sides would seek the renewal of the commitment of the international community inside and outside of Libya.
He said that his and Magnoush’s renewed emphasis was on advancing joint cooperation frameworks aimed at ending foreign interference and preserving the capabilities of the Libyan people.
Meanwhile, his Libyan counterpart said: “We need Egypt’s support in the political process, to achieve stability and a cease-fire in Libya.”
Magnoush added that there were signs of hope for the unification of Libyans after the conference in Berlin.


Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Marib since February when the rebels resumed a major offensive to seize control of the region. (Reuters/File)
Updated 24 min 3 sec ago

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts

Houthi attacks on Marib and Saudi Arabia imperil peace efforts
  • Government forces repel ‘massive’ rebel assault on strategic city, forcing retreat

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen’s government warned on Sunday that Houthi military escalation in the central province of Marib and drone attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia threaten peace efforts to end the war in Yemen.

In a statement carried by the official news agency SABA, Yemen’s foreign ministry slammed the Houthis for stepping up shelling of residential areas in the central city of Marib, as well as intensifying ground offensives in the province and firing explosive-rigged drones and ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia.
The ministry accused the Houthis of executing Iran’s “subversive” policies in Yemen and seeking to derail efforts to end the war.
“Those terrorist attacks and the ongoing military escalations are clear messages and responses to all regional and international efforts to bring peace and end the war in Yemen,” the ministry said, renewing the government’s support to the Kingdom in defending its soil against Houthi strikes.
The warning comes as fighting between the Houthis and Yemeni government flared up over the last two days in Marib after the rebels resumed their push to seize control of the strategic city.
Yemen’s defense minister said that dozens of rebel fighters were killed in key battlefields outside the city of Marib after army troops and allied tribesmen repelled a large Houthi offensive.
Speaking to Arab News on Sunday from Marib, a local military official said that on Saturday, the Houthis mounted a “massive” assault on government forces in Al-Kasara, west of Marib city, and retreated after suffering heavy casualties and losses in military equipment.
“We crushed their waves of fighters, burnt two armed vehicles and captured a key Houthi military leader along with his group,” the official said.
Thousands of combatants and civilians have been killed in Marib since February when the rebels resumed a major offensive to seize control of the oil- and gas-rich region, the Yemeni government’s last bastion in northern parts of the country.
At the same time, dozens of civilians in the densely populated city have been killed after Houthis targeted residential areas with missiles, mortal shells and drones.
A week ago, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad told Arab News that the government “would not allow the Houthis to capture Marib” as it had thrown all of its weight behind the “make-or-break” battle.
The latest round of fighting in the province comes as regional and international mediators shuttle between Riyadh, Muscat and Sanaa to make a breakthrough toward reaching an agreement to end the war.
At the same time, Awad said that the Omani delegation that visited Houthi-held Sanaa earlier this month could not convince the rebels to accept the UN-brokered peace initiative, adding that the Yemeni government is in favor of stopping fighting immediately to ease the humanitarian crisis in the country.
“We see that the first humanitarian step is a comprehensive cease-fire on all fronts — on the ground and in the air. This is the most important step, because it will stop the bloodshed and will open crossings and passages,” the minister said, adding that along with halting hostilities, the peace plan calls for reopening Sanaa airport, lifting restrictions on Hodeidah port and resuming peace talks.


Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown
Updated 20 June 2021

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Iran’s sole nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown
  • The Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last for three to four days, state TV says

TEHRAN: Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone an unexplained temporary emergency shutdown, state TV reported on Sunday.
An official from the state electric energy company, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last “for three to four days.”
He said that power outages could result. He did not elaborate but this is the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant, located in the southern port city of Bushehr. It went online in 2011 with help from Russia. Iran is required to send spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia as a nuclear nonproliferation measure.
In March, nuclear official Mahmoud Jafari said the plant could stop working since Iran cannot procure parts and equipment for it from Russia due to banking sanctions imposed by the US in 2018.
Bushehr is fueled by uranium produced in Russia, not Iran, and is monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA did not immediately respond to request for comment on the reported shutdown.
Construction on Bushehr, on the coast of the northern reaches of the Arabian Gulf, began under Iran’s shah in the mid-1970s. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the plant was repeatedly targeted in the Iran-Iraq war. Russia later completed construction of the facility.
The plant, which sits near active fault lines and was built to withstand powerful quakes, has been periodically shaken by temblors. There have been no significant earthquakes reported in the area in recent days.


Decision time on Iran nuclear deal ‘approaching fast,’ says European diplomat

EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2021

Decision time on Iran nuclear deal ‘approaching fast,’ says European diplomat

EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. (Reuters)
  • E3 official said talks could not be open ended
  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on world powers to “wake up”

VIENNA: Talks on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers cannot continue indefinitely and a decision needs to be made soon, a senior diplomat from the ‘E3’ grouping of France, Germany and Britain said on Sunday.

“We continue to make progress but we still need to resolve the most difficult issues. As we have stated before, time is on nobody’s side. These talks cannot be open ended,” the diplomat said

“Delegations will now travel to capitals in order to consult with their leadership. We urge all sides to return to Vienna and be ready to conclude a deal. The time for decision is fast approaching.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday opened his first Cabinet meeting since swearing in his new coalition government last week with a condemnation of the new Iranian president.

He said Iran’s presidential election was a sign for world powers to “wake up” before returning to a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected Saturday with 62% of the vote amid a historically low voter turnout.

He is sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Raisi has not commented specifically on the event.

* With AP and Reuters

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Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede
Updated 20 June 2021

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede
  • Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival despite coronavirus restrictions
  • Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds
JERUSALEM: Israel’s government approved Sunday the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into a deadly disaster at a Jewish holy site in April that left 45 people dead.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the commission would investigate major safety shortcomings that led to a deadly stampede at Lag Baomer celebrations on Mount Meron.
It will be headed by a current or former senior judge, and its members selected by the country’s chief Supreme Court justice.
Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller’s office had previously issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.
Hundreds of people funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain’s holy site during the festival. A slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall, precipitating a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
The police launched an investigation into the disaster, but to date have yet to make any arrests.
The government said the commission would investigate the officials “who made the decisions that led to approving the event and determining the framework that was approved and its terms.”
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions at the religious festival.
Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
Netanyahu’s political allies, including ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, walked out on a Knesset committee hearing that discussed forming an investigation last month. Families of the mostly ultra-Orthodox victims of the disaster had called on Netanyahu to take action and form an independent state commission to investigate the incident.
Bennett said at the start of his newly formed government’s first Cabinet meeting that “the responsibility is on our shoulders to learn the lessons to prevent the disaster to come.”
“The commission cannot bring back those who died, but the government can do everything to prevent an unnecessary loss in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the ministers who advanced the motion to launch the commission, said in a statement: “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”