Lebanon vows to punish drug smugglers as Saudi import ban bites

Lebanon vows to punish drug smugglers as Saudi import ban bites
A Saudi custom officer opens imported pomegranates, as customs foiled a attempt to smuggle millions of Captagon pills, which came from Lebanon, at Jeddah Islamic Port on April 23, 2021. (SPA)
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Updated 25 April 2021

Lebanon vows to punish drug smugglers as Saudi import ban bites

Lebanon vows to punish drug smugglers as Saudi import ban bites
  • Smuggling hurts economy and reputation, says Foreign Ministry  
  • Greek authorities announced seizing cannabis hidden in machinery at Piraeus that was en route from Lebanon to Slovakia

BEIRUT: Lebanon has vowed to punish drug smugglers after massive quantities of narcotics were intercepted and seized by Saudi Arabia and Greece. 
Saudi authorities on Friday reported foiling an attempt to smuggle millions of amphetamine pills stashed in a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon at Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port. It said that five people involved in the case were arrested, four citizens and an expatriate. 
There was another interception of a pomegranate shipment, also from Lebanon and also containing drugs, in Jeddah.
Shortly after the Saudi statement, Greek authorities announced seizing four tons of cannabis hidden in dessert-making machinery at Piraeus that was en route from Lebanon to Slovakia. The value of the drugs was estimated to be around €33 million ($39 million).
The Greeks said they received help on the case from Saudi Arabia’s drug enforcement agency.
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said that smuggling drugs in containers or trucks carrying fruit and vegetables from Lebanon to foreign countries was punishable by law. “Smuggling drugs harms the Lebanese economy, farmers and reputation,” the statement added.
It urged authorities to exert “utmost efforts” to control all smuggling operations on border crossings in light of the laws that criminalized drug use, trafficking and smuggling.
Saudi Arabia said that Lebanese fruit and vegetable imports would be banned from Sunday because authorities had noticed an increase in smuggling operations targeting the Kingdom using Lebanese products.
The Kingdom’s ambassador to Lebanon, Walid Al-Bukhari, said that the safety and security of the country and its people were the motives behind the ban.
“Drug smuggling into the Kingdom reveals the extent of the challenges from local and international criminal networks being faced by Saudi Arabia,” he told local media.
A security source told Arab News that the seized cargo was not Lebanese but had a Syrian certificate of origin, transiting through Lebanon from Syria between April 10 and 15.
Ibrahim Tarshishi, who is the head of the Bekaa Farmers’ Association, said Lebanon’s agricultural producers were innocent of smuggling drugs into Saudi Arabia, which imported more than 50,000 tons of Lebanese produce every year.
He expressed his fears about the ban’s impact.
“Lebanese authorities must contact their Saudi counterparts as soon as possible to confirm that Lebanon has no intention whatsoever of harming the Kingdom,” he told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia is the largest importing country of our agricultural produce. Exports were supposed to kick off in May. The Saudi decision means that our exports will not reach further than Jordan and will not be transited through the Kingdom to the rest of the Gulf states. This is a disaster that threatens the whole agricultural sector in Lebanon.”
Lebanon did not have pomegranates to export and had been importing them from Syria, Egypt and Tunisia for the last 20 years, he said. 
“We export our vegetables, citrus, peaches, pears, apricots and cherries to Saudi Arabia. This export relationship with Saudi Arabia was established 50 years ago and the exports are carried out by land, sea and air, and our work is completely legal.”
Non-Lebanese agricultural cargo had transited through Lebanon and the drugs that were seized turned out to be smuggled in Syrian trucks, he said. 
“Lebanese farmers have nothing to do with this matter. The cargo is controlled by Lebanese Customs. They go through a scanner at the Masnaa border crossing with Syria. However, scanners at Beirut airport have been damaged since the Beirut blast on Aug. 4. New scanners were provided but have not been installed yet. Therefore, cargo is emptied at the free zone where a customs’ member handles the cargo before they are shipped.”
The founding committee of the Lebanese-Saudi Friendship Association issued a statement expressing regret over the actions that had led the Kingdom to introduce the import ban. It was “proof of the regressive level” that Lebanon had reached due to some people trying “to take control of the country and its assets and seeking to jeopardize its public institutions,” the statement added.
Lebanon’s security bodies have pounced on many drug factories, especially ones producing Captagon pills in the Bekaa valley, as well as drugs to be smuggled abroad. 
On April 10, Hassan Daqou was arrested over suspicions of drug dealing, production and smuggling. He is from the town of Tufail, which is 57 kilometers from Damascus.
The former mufti of Baalbek, Sheikh Ayman Al-Rifai, said that the Hermel region suffered from drug use, dealing and production.
“This has led to several social problems and family issues that we are trying to solve,” he told Arab News, saying he wished that authorities would carry out more raids and arrests.


EU’s Borell says Iran nuclear talks moving to crucial stage

Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 34 min 7 sec ago

EU’s Borell says Iran nuclear talks moving to crucial stage

Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
  • “I am optimistic,” EU foreign affairs chief said

VIENNA: Negotiations in Vienna between world powers and Iran are moving into a crucial stage and the next few weeks will be critical to saving their 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union's top diplomat said on Monday.

US officials returned to Vienna last week for a fourth round of indirect talks with Iran on how to resume compliance with the deal, which former US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, prompting Iran to begin violating its limits on uranium enrichment about a year later.

“I am optimistic, there is a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks, (until) end of the month,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing the talks, told a news conference in Brussels.

“But a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that the negotiations will enter into a phase of nonstop (talks) in Vienna,” he said following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

The crux of the 2015 agreement was that Iran committed to rein in its uranium enrichment program to make it harder to obtain the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, in return for relief from US, EU and UN sanctions.

Tehran denies having nuclear weapons ambitions.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the negotiations as tough and laborious, but added that all participants were conducting them in a constructive atmosphere.

“However, time is running out. We aim for the full restoration of the Iran nuclear deal as this is the only way to guarantee that Iran will not be able to come into possession of nuclear weapons,” Maas said in Brussels. 


Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire
Updated 12 min 11 sec ago

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

JERUSALEM: Hamas said it fired rockets at Israel on Monday, triggering warning sirens in Jerusalem and near the Gaza border, in an apparent response by the militant group to the injury of more than 300 Palestinians in clashes with Israeli police outside al Aqsa mosque.
Hamas, an Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, had given Israel an ultimatum to stand down its forces at al Aqsa and another Jerusalem flashpoint by 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).
Minutes after the deadline passed, sirens blared in Jerusalem and several explosions were heard. Hamas claimed responsibility, and there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.
After Hamas, which last fought a war with Israel in 2014, issued the ultimatum, Israel's military announced it was suspending for a day a major exercise, citing possible "escalation scenarios".
Earlier, as Israel marked the anniversary of its capture of parts of Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at hundreds of Palestinians who hurled rocks at them at al Aqsa. The violence had died down by the time Hamas issued the ultimatum.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said at least 305 Palestinians were injured, and 228 of them were taken to hospital, in the skirmishes at al Aqsa, situated in a compound holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. It said several were in critical condition. Police said 21 officers were injured.
Recent clashes in Jerusalem have raised international concern about wider conflict, and the White House called on Israel to ensure calm during "Jerusalem Day".


Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel
Updated 10 May 2021

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel
  • A number of rockets fired from Gaza toward Israeli towns on Sunday evening and Monday morning were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system
  • The Israeli army responded to the attacks by bombing sites belonging to Palestinian factions in Gaza

GAZA CITY: Tensions on the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Monday continued to mount following recent violent confrontations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

A number of rockets fired from Gaza toward Israeli towns on Sunday evening and Monday morning were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and no injuries were reported. Incendiary balloons were also launched toward Israel.

The Israeli army responded to the attacks by bombing sites belonging to Palestinian factions in Gaza.

Night demonstrations also resumed along the border in support of several Palestinian families threatened with eviction from their homes in Jerusalem and as part of the so-called March of Return protests that have gone on for two years.

Mohammed Deif, commander-in-chief of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, recently warned that the resistance would “not stand idly by” and that Israel would “pay a dear price” if it continued with its actions against Palestinians.

He said the brigades’ leadership was “watching what is happening (in Sheikh Jarrah) closely” while saluting “our steadfast people in occupied Jerusalem.”

Deif has been on Israel’s wanted list for more than two decades and has been accused of being behind numerous military operations against the country. He has survived several assassination attempts, the most recent being during the 2014 Gaza war.

Jerusalem has recently witnessed violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protestors over eviction plans to give Palestinian homes in the city suburb to Jewish settlers.

In East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, Palestinians feel an increasing threat from settlers who have sought to expand the Jewish presence there by buying properties, constructing new buildings, and through court-ordered evictions.

Meanwhile, Israel has suspended Palestinian fishing rights off Gaza over the incendiary balloon attacks which it blamed on Hamas.

A statement on Sunday issued by the coordinator of the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian Territories, said: “It has been decided to close the fishing distance in the Gaza Strip, and the decision will take effect immediately, and will continue until further notice.”

On Monday, the Israelis also announced the complete closure of the Erez border crossing. Israeli Army Radio said: “Hamas in Gaza is making an extensive effort to ignite the situation. On the other hand, we are ready on all fronts. I advise them not to give us a try.”

Speaking at a recent Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I tell the terrorist organizations that Israel will respond forcefully to any rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.”

Mustafa Ibrahim, a columnist, told Arab News that the current escalation in tensions was calculated both by Hamas and Israel.

He said: “At this stage, it seems that Hamas is well aware that the conditions are not conducive to escalating toward a military confrontation with Gaza. Therefore, the rockets fired from Gaza have a short range ... and also the current Israeli response to them does not indicate that it wants to expand the confrontation.

“The somewhat positive reactions from the international community toward Jerusalem seem to have curbed the harsh reaction by the Palestinian factions in Gaza.

“Any developments in Jerusalem and the West Bank may always push Gaza into a military confrontation that may be limited and may be wide. But it seems that we have not reached a broad confrontation this time,” he added.


UN says 5 migrants downed; over 700 intercepted off Libya

UN says 5 migrants downed; over 700 intercepted off Libya
Updated 10 May 2021

UN says 5 migrants downed; over 700 intercepted off Libya

UN says 5 migrants downed; over 700 intercepted off Libya

CAIRO: At least five people, including a woman and a child, drowned when a boat carrying at least 45 Europe-bound migrants capsized off Libya, a UN migration official said on Monday. The wreck was the latest disaster in the Mediterranean Sea involving migrants seeking a better life in Europe.
Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, said the wreck took place on Sunday. She said fishermen rescued 40 migrants and returned them to the shore.
Msehli said the boat was among nine others carrying more than 700 migrants intercepted Sunday by the Libyan coast guard off the coast of the North African country.
The intercepted migrants were taken to overcrowded detention centers, where the UN migration agency fears more threats to their lives and violations of their rights, she said.
There has been a spike in crossings and attempted crossings from Libya in recent weeks, with smugglers taking advantage of the calm sea and warm weather.
Federico Soda, head of IOM in Libya, said he was “extremely concerned” about the spike in migrant departure from Libya and “the continuous loss of life.”
“The situation cannot be ignored, and states must live up to their responsibilities and redeploy search and rescue vessels,” he tweeted.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Earlier this month, at least 11 Europe-bound migrants drowned when a rubber dinghy carrying two dozen people capsized off Libya. That followed another tragedy in April where at least 130 migrants were presumed dead, in one of the deadliest maritime tragedies in years along the busy route.
Around 7,000 Europe-bound migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year, according to the IOM’s tally.
Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Europe either on their own or after being rescued at sea.
Thousands have drowned along the way. Others were intercepted and returned to Libya to be left at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers that lack adequate food and water, according to rights groups.


UAE to bar travel from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka from Wednesday

UAE to bar travel from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka from Wednesday
Updated 10 May 2021

UAE to bar travel from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka from Wednesday

UAE to bar travel from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka from Wednesday
  • Part of measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates will bar entry for travelers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka starting Wednesday, as part of measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority said on its website on Monday.

“Flights between the four countries will continue to allow the transport of passengers from the UAE to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka,” it said.

The UAE announced last month a ban on entry from India to guard against the spread of the highly contagious Indian variant of the coronavirus.