Lebanese officials say drug-stuffed pomegranate shipment originated in Syria

Lebanese officials say drug-stuffed pomegranate shipment originated in Syria
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The pomegranate consignments that entered in stages were collected in an abandoned hangar in the town of Taanayel in the central Bekaa. (SPA)
Lebanese officials say drug-stuffed pomegranate shipment originated in Syria
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The pomegranate consignments that entered in stages were collected in an abandoned hangar in the town of Taanayel in the central Bekaa. (SPA)
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Updated 26 April 2021

Lebanese officials say drug-stuffed pomegranate shipment originated in Syria

Lebanese officials say drug-stuffed pomegranate shipment originated in Syria
  • Customs source tells Arab News of ‘constant war’ with smugglers

BEIRUT: A pomegranate shipment hiding millions of Captagon pills entered Lebanon in stages through the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, a Lebanese customs official has claimed in an interview with Arab News where he tried to lessen his country’s responsibility for the drug-stuffed fruit shipment which has recently caused Saudi Arabia to ban all fruit and vegetables imports from Lebanon.

The narcotic-stuffed shipment was seized in Dammam last Friday.

On Monday President Michel Aoun said Lebanon was keen not to endanger the safety of any country, while caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said neither Lebanon nor its people would accept any harm caused to the Saudis.

“We are with the Kingdom in combating smuggling networks and pursuing those involved,” Diab said.

Preventing smuggling from Lebanon’s borders was the focus of a meeting chaired by Aoun, with ministers and officials from security and customs services taking part.

Saudi Arabia was urged to “reconsider” its ban, which came into effect on Sunday, and Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi was assigned to communicate and coordinate with the Kingdom’s authorities to “follow up the procedures to discover the perpetrators and prevent the recurrence of such odious practices.”​

But a customs source revealed the scale of the challenge, as well sharing insights into the smuggling process.

“It is a constant war with smugglers and it needs advanced equipment while we work manually,” the customs source told Arab News. “The quantity of pomegranates that contained Captagon tablets entered Lebanon in stages on more than one truck at the end of January through the Masnaa border crossing with Syria. Documents of the consignments indicated that the pomegranates were imported for internal Lebanese consumption and bear a certificate that they are of Syrian origin and not intended for transit.”

The scanners that trucks and refrigerators passed through from Syria to Lebanon at land crossings and the port were defective. They were Chinese-made, 30 years old, and had not had any maintenance.

“So the goods are inspected manually. Customs at the Masnaa border crossing usually inspect 20 percent of the truckload in transit​.”

The pomegranate consignments that entered in stages were collected in an abandoned hangar in the town of Taanayel in the central Bekaa.

They were re-loaded into Lebanese refrigerated trucks to export them to Saudi Arabia as a Lebanese product in the name of the Cedar Company, which was owned by two Syrians with cover from a Lebanese person who was a major shareholder.

The owners of the company paid all the fees due on the shipment and they were usually high.

“The smugglers know that transit goods from Syria to Saudi Arabia are subject to vigilant inspection.”

Smugglers used Lebanese refrigerated trucks to avoid detection of their cargo because Saudi authorities had more confidence in dealing with the Lebanese side and the scrutiny was “less intense​,” according to the source.

The shipment set off from Lebanon in early February and needed about 15 days to reach Saudi Arabia by sea.

When the existence of drugs in the shipment was discovered in the Kingdom, authorities informed the Lebanese side before announcing it in the media.

Lebanese security services followed the course of the shipments, discovered what had happened in Taanayel and arrested the two Syrians, who were brothers.

The customs source told Arab News that Gulf states had long complained of drug smuggling operations to their territories from Syria via Lebanon.

“Lebanese security services have been keen to tighten supervision in this regard. However, drug traffickers always invent new unexpected methods.”

One of the participants at the Monday meeting was ​the head of the Farmers and Peasants Association in the Bekaa Valley Ibrahim Tarshishi, who was hopeful about the ban being lifted.

“​What we have heard about the measures that will be taken makes us optimistic about the possibility of reopening the borders to Lebanese agricultural products to the Gulf countries,” he told Arab News.

He said 40 trucks loaded with Lebanese agricultural products were currently stuck between Beirut and Jeddah. “Their fate is unknown,” he added.

Aoun stressed that smuggling of all kinds, including drugs, fuel and other materials, harmed Lebanon and “cost it dearly, and the recent smuggling operation to Saudi Arabia demonstrates this.”

He asked about the reasons for the delay in purchasing scanners to be placed at crossings, even though the decision to do that was taken last July, and called for the swift completion of the purchasing process.

​There was a statement from the meeting at the presidential palace about Lebanon’s keenness on “maintaining the strength of fraternal relations” with Saudi Arabia and the condemnation of everything that would “prejudice its social security or the safety of its brotherly people, particularly the smuggling of prohibited and narcotic materials, especially since Lebanon categorically rejects that its facilities be a gateway for such disgraceful crimes.”

​The meeting also requested that exporters abide by the rules of foreign trade and to check exported products to preserve Lebanon’s reputation.

 


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 28 min 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 6 min 4 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.