Over 600 Europe-bound migrants returned to Libya: navy

Over 600 Europe-bound migrants returned to Libya: navy
In this photo taken Friday, April 30, 2021 migrants rest aboard of the Ocean Viking during its navigation in the Mediterranean Sea. (Flavio Gasperini/SOS Mediterranee via AP)
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Updated 02 May 2021

Over 600 Europe-bound migrants returned to Libya: navy

Over 600 Europe-bound migrants returned to Libya: navy

TRIPOLI: More than 600 migrants hoping to reach Europe from Libya have been stopped since Friday, the navy said, as the International Organization for Migration warned Libya was “not a safe port.”
Three groups of illegal migrants were intercepted at sea on Friday and Saturday by Libya’s coast guard and units in charge of securing ports, the navy said in a statement, released overnight Saturday to Sunday.
It said the 638 people were mostly citizens from sub-Saharan African nations trying to reach Europe, and they were brought to a naval base in the capital Tripoli ahead of handing them over to an anti-immigration squad run by the interior ministry.
The navy said a first group of 334 migrants, who were on board four inflatable boats, were “rescued” on Friday.
Two other groups, of 132 and 172 people, were assisted separately on Friday and Saturday.
The navy did not say if the boats were sinking or had technical problems.
International agencies have repeatedly denounced the return to Libya of migrants intercepted at sea, due to the chaotic situation in the country and poor conditions in detention centers.
The IOM repeated its concerns late Saturday.
“Today, 172 migrants, including women and children, were returned to Libya by the coast guard,” it said.
“Our teams provided emergency assistance to more than 600 migrants intercepted over the past 48 hours, it added.
“We reiterate that Libya is not a safe port.”
Libya is a major route for migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, and traffickers have thrived in the lawlessness that followed the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.


Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
Updated 18 sec ago

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
  • Torture survivor Alshogre urges delegates to hold Assad regime accountable for its treatment of political prisoners

NEW YORK: The atmosphere in the UN Security Council changed when human rights activist and survivor of Assad regime prisons Omar Alshogre began to talk. Monday’s meeting had been convened to shed light on the prevailing impunity in Syria and the need for the council to do more to end it and ensure accountability for crimes committed during the country’s ongoing war.

The conflict began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, more than 350,000 people have died and millions more forced from their homes.

Alshogre, whose harrowing experiences as a political prisoner in Bashar Assad’s jails — “being detained, starved, tortured within an inch of my life” — had made the news worldwide, looked the representatives of world powers in the eye in the UNSC chamber and asked them: “If you were presented with the opportunity to save an innocent life without risking your own, would you do it? Most people would.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the 25-year-old refugee continued. “The opportunity is presenting itself today. It presented itself yesterday, and every day since March 15, 2011. That is 3,912 missed opportunities to save lives in Syria. In that time, more than 350,000 people have been killed by the Syrian regime, according to the UN.”

The informal meeting was convened by council members Estonia, France, the UK and the US, along with a dozen sponsors including Qatar and Turkey.

Alshogre told the ambassadors that it was his own mother’s “courage to stand up to the brutal dictatorship” that saved his life and urged them to remember her name, “Hala,” and follow her example.

Despite her husband and sons being massacred in front of her eyes by Assad’s men and their “Iranian allies,” and “instead of complaining about her limitations, (my mother) found a way to take action.

“Despite many failed attempts to get me out of prison, she kept trying again and again. She persisted until I was freed,” Alshogre said.

“By saving me from prison, my mother set an example of how we all must act to stop the Syrian regime from taking more lives and hold its leaders accountable for the countless lives it has already taken.

“It doesn’t require a miracle. It just requires courage, action and persistence.”

A recent report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.

The UNSC had tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict.

“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.

“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling of nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”

The perpetrators, however, still roam freely in Syria amid no tangible deterrence, as violations and crimes continue to this day.

The sentencing by a German court in Koblenz in February of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity has been hailed as historic.

Al-Gharib had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center, where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria had ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.

Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s former permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”

Teams from war crimes units in Sweden, France and Germany have recently begun joint investigations into Syria’s war crimes, with Sweden focusing on torture and killings by both the Assad regime and Daesh.

In France, a preliminary investigation has drawn on the tens of thousands of photos of dead bodies taken between 2011 and 2013 by “Caesar,” the codename for a former Syrian military photographer.

While speakers at Monday’s meeting welcomed similar proceedings in courts outside of Syria, they said that such moves “do not come close to addressing the magnitude of the Syrian crisis.”

They lamented the UNSC’s inaction and the fate of its 2014 resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, which was not approved.

“Several resolutions aimed at identifying those responsible for the use of chemical weapons met the same fate,” said the meeting’s sponsors in a statement. They reiterated their call for the file to be placed in the hands of the ICC.

As Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, who also gave heart-wrenching testimony about life under Assad, played a video in the chamber showing an Aleppo mother at the moment she lost her child in an Assad bombing, some council members choked back tears.

Alshogre said: “We have stronger evidence today than what we had against the Nazis at Nuremberg. (We) even know where the mass graves are located. But still no international court and no end to the ongoing slaughter for the civilians in Syria.

“I understand that there are barriers to action, but I also believe in the international system and the UN and the principles they were founded upon.”

Alshogre made a final plea to the international community that, while it is too late to save those who died, there are millions of Syrian lives that can still be saved and “that is my biggest ask to you: That you save them.”


Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’
Updated 28 min 3 sec ago

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’
  • Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay the parliamentary election
  • Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea, said: ‘Not fighting, but to more slow death’

MAARAB, Lebanon: One of Lebanon’s main Christian politicians accused foe Hezbollah and its allies of working to postpone a parliamentary election set for March over fears of electoral losses, warning such a move would condemn Lebanon to a “slow death.”

Western donors that Lebanon is relying on to stem its financial implosion have said the vote must go ahead. Politicians from all sides, including Hezbollah, have repeatedly said it should happen otherwise the country’s standing would be dealt a further blow.

But Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay it “because they are near certain that they will lose their parliamentary majority.”

Aoun said this month he would not sign authorization for the vote, approved by parliament, to be held on March 27 as the date was too early.

Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea, said: “Not fighting, but to more slow death.”

“With the current way things are going, state institutions — and so the state — is dissolving day by day,” he said at his residence in the mountains overlooking the coastal town of Jounieh.

Lebanon has no reliable opinion polling but should the election take place, Geagea’s party is widely expected to make gains, with the Free Patriotic Movement expected to lose seats, potentially robbing Hezbollah of its majority.

Without an election to shake up parliament “you will see more of the same,” Geagea said. The United Nations says the economic meltdown has left nearly 80 percent of people in poverty.

Lebanon’s government, formed from most major political parties in September following a 13-month period of political paralysis, has already not convened in nearly 50 days amid a push by Hezbollah and its allies to remove the judge investigating the deadly August 2020 Beirut port blast.

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is the second largest Christian party in parliament. It has stayed out of the cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019.

But the group was thrust back into the headlines when tensions over the probe erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade last month, reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Seven people, all followers of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, were killed.
Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of ambushing its supporters at the protest. Geagea confirmed supporters of his party, along with others, were involved in the clashes, but denied the move was pre-meditated and blamed Hezbollah for entering Beirut’s mostly Christian Ain Al-Remmaneh neighborhood, a strong support base for the Lebanese Forces.

During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Forces, under Geagea, was a right-wing militia that controlled swathes of territory including eastern Beirut.

Following October’s clashes, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused it of seeking to start a sectarian conflict and warned Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters at his disposal.

Geagea denied Nasrallah’s allegation that the Lebanese Forces had 15,000 fighters, saying the party had 35,000 members of whom only some had personal arms and perhaps more than 10,000 — “the whole old generation” — had military training.

Geagea said the Lebanese Forces did not seek a physical confrontation with Hezbollah and were not concerned about the breakout of sectarian violence due to the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining civil peace.

However, he said he had limited his movement and was not leaving his mountain residence in Maarab due to security threats, without giving further details.


Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia
Updated 32 min 35 sec ago

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia
  • US law enforcement officials say smuggling of Captagon from Syria and Lebanon has been on the rise
  • Authorities became suspicious and stopped a van in rural Damascus carrying 525 kilograms of the pills

DAMASCUS: Syrian authorities said Tuesday they seized over 500 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of amphetamine pills known by the brand name Captagon hidden in pasta packages in a van bound for Saudi Arabia.
An investigation was underway to determine who was behind the attempted smuggling, a statement on the official state news agency SANA said. It didn’t offer details on whether anyone has been arrested.
US law enforcement officials say smuggling of the amphetamine-based drug from Syria and Lebanon has been on the rise, with over $3 billion worth of Captagon seized since February 2020.
The amount far exceeds the value of Syrian legal exports, said James Walsh, a high-level official with the State Department’s international narcotics bureau, earlier this month. He had no details on how much goes through Lebanon and how much is from Syria.
The statement carried by SANA said authorities became suspicious and stopped a van in rural Damascus carrying 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds) of the pills hidden in a shipment of pasta heading to Saudi Arabia. The smugglers had sprayed pepper over the pills to distract sniffer dogs, the statement said.
Walsh said the smuggling of amphetamines from Syria has a wide ranging impact on Europe, Africa and Asia and is obstructing efforts to resolve the country’s lengthy civil war, while contributing to deteriorating relations with Gulf states. He spoke at a conference organized by the Washington-based Atlantic Center earlier this month.
The US has imposed various sanctions on Syrian government officials and businesses linked to President Bashar Assad, whom it blames for much of the country’s decade-old conflict.
Arab countries have been making moves to re-engage the Assad government after years of boycott following the war’s outbreak. Experts say a crackdown on drug smuggling would be key for Arab rapprochement with Syria.
Over 5 million Captagon pills hidden in a shipment of pomegranate from Lebanon were seized in Saudi Arabia in April.
In response, the Saudis banned Lebanese produce from going to or even transiting through the Kingdom, a blow to Lebanon’s exporters.
Lebanese farmers denied the pomegranate was Lebanese, saying the shipment came from Syria.
Jordan has also seized drugs smuggled from Syria, including a shipment transported by a drone across the border in October.


Bahrain Catholic cathedral to be consecrated on Dec. 10

Bahrain Catholic cathedral to be consecrated on Dec. 10
Updated 55 min 23 sec ago

Bahrain Catholic cathedral to be consecrated on Dec. 10

Bahrain Catholic cathedral to be consecrated on Dec. 10
  • The ark-shaped structure, which seats 2,300 people, will be the largest Catholic cathedral in the Gulf region
  • It was built on a plot of land that was given eight years ago to the church by Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who has been king of Bahrain since 2002

VATICAN CITY: A new Catholic cathedral in Bahrain, Our Lady of Arabia, will be consecrated on Dec. 10 by the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.

The ark-shaped structure, which seats 2,300 people, will be the largest Catholic cathedral in the Gulf region. 

It was built on a plot of land that was given eight years ago to the church by Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who has been king of Bahrain since 2002. The king will inaugurate the cathedral on Dec. 9.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only a small number of people will be allowed to attend the inaugural ceremony and consecration.

The cathedral is part of a complex of around 95,000 square feet in Awali, a small municipality in the center of the country, which has a population of 1.7 million people.

Aside from the cathedral, the palm tree-lined complex features a multipurpose building, a courtyard, and a two-story parking area.

The cathedral’s altar, baptistery, pews and other furnishings are crafted in Italy. 

The cathedral is topped with an octagonal dome, a deeply symbolic geometric detail that can be seen in a number of churches around the world such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and Germany’s Aachen Cathedral.

King Hamad personally presented a detailed three-foot-long model of the cathedral to Pope Francis in 2014.

In 2011, the Vatican officially proclaimed Our Lady of Arabia as the Catholic patron saint of the vicariates of Kuwait and Arabia.

Later that year, the Holy See reorganized the Vicariate of Kuwait, giving it the new name of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, and including the territories of Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

The inauguration of the cathedral follows King Hamad’s official invitation to the pope to visit Bahrain.

Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, the king’s adviser for diplomatic affairs, personally delivered the invitation when he met Pope Francis and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin on Nov. 25.

Vatican statistics estimate that there are nearly 80,000 Catholics living in Bahrain, mostly from the Philippines and India.


Vatican nuncio in Syria urges international community to lift sanctions

Vatican nuncio in Syria urges international community to lift sanctions
Updated 30 November 2021

Vatican nuncio in Syria urges international community to lift sanctions

Vatican nuncio in Syria urges international community to lift sanctions
  • Zenari called on the EU, the US, and Syrian government, to “take a step of good faith” and remove sanctions
  • He has convened a conference of the Syrian Catholic Church and charities, to be held in March next year

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican nuncio in Syria called on the international community to lift economic sanctions, and lamented the Syrians’ loss of hope as the world forgot their suffering. 

Cardinal Mario Zenari has been the apostolic nuncio to Syria for over 13 years and has lived in Damascus throughout the war. 

He has convened a conference of the Syrian Catholic Church and charitable agencies working in the country, to be held in March next year.

“I am extremely sorry to see that, in Syria, hope is dying,” Zenari told Vatican Radio. “I was greatly pained to watch people, especially children, die during the war. But, beyond this suffering, people nourished glimmers of hope. At that stage they said that eventually the war would end, and people would be able to go back to work, make a little money, and perhaps repair their homes and return to a normal life.”

He said this dream was far from the reality that faced Syrians today, which was one filled with poverty.

“Bombs are no longer falling in many parts of Syria, but another terrible bomb has exploded which has silently opened a gaping wound.”

Syria faced continuing economic uncertainty, largely as a consequence of the international sanctions against the government, and he believed that these, combined with growing corruption, the pandemic, and the economic and political crisis in Lebanon were placing a heavy economic burden on the Syrian population.

Zenari called on the EU and the US, along with the Syrian government, to “take a step of good faith and remove the sanctions regime, so that Syria can begin to rebuild and restart its economy.”

Referring to a recent report by the World Food Programme that said 12 million Syrians, 60 percent of the population, were living in food insecurity, he said: “It is the people, the poor people, who are suffering.”

Zenari also said there was a general lack of interest from the international media about the situation in Syria.

The conference will be held on 15-17 March, 2022, and aims to coordinate charitable activities in Syria to better serve those in need there and increase the necessary coordination to better help the Syrian people “who are living this extremely difficult moment.”