Protests erupt after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling

Protests erupt after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling
A shortage of fuel is the latest grievance for the Lebanese population, who are quickly sinking into new depths of poverty, amid an economic crisis. (AFP)
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Updated 22 June 2021

Protests erupt after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling

Protests erupt after Lebanon bids to curb fuel smuggling
  • On the black market, the price is between 70,000 to 100,000 Lebanese pounds

BEIRUT: Demonstrators blocked a highway connecting Lebanon and Syria on Monday with burned tires and metal bars, protesting a decision aimed at curbing smuggling into Syria.
Gasoline smugglers blocked the Masnaa crossing after security forces moved to prevent them from driving through the legitimate crossing.
Amid worsening living conditions in Lebanon, some are filling up their cars with goods and fuel and traveling into Syria through the Masnaa crossing to sell them on the other side at double the price.
“The process involves paying bribes to pass into Syrian territory, so when the Lebanese side decided to prevent smuggling, the smugglers protested,” said a security source.
Customs authorities in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa region announced they will strictly enforce permit requirements for vehicles going into Syria to limit fuel smuggling.
Protesters on the international highway demanded the process be applied to everyone crossing into Syria or be scrapped.
The Lebanese are still queuing for hours at gas stations to get subsidized gasoline, with a 20-liter canister of gasoline being sold for 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29).
On the black market, the price is between 70,000 to 100,000 Lebanese pounds.
The shocking costs have led to citizens waiting at gas stations getting into fights.
One person was wounded from a fistfight that turned into a shooting in front of a station in Tripoli on Monday.
The minister of energy in the caretaker government, Raymond Ghajar, said a few days ago: “The real price of a canister is about 200,000 Lebanese pounds, while the Lebanese now pay about 40,000 Lebanese pounds.”
His remarks came amid indications that the substance will no longer be subsidized “at a certain point.”
The former head of the Banking Control Commission of Lebanon, Dr. Samir Hammoud, said the Banque du Liban (BDL) was trying to buy time and provide sufficient capacity to face the harshest emergency conditions.
He believes that the Central Bank would continue to provide support and would not leave the country in chaos.
“The easiest thing to do would be to resort to lifting subsidies on gasoline, even if the price of a canister becomes 200,000 Lebanese pounds, but who will secure dollars to cover the cost of import?”
He said: “If the process of securing dollars is carried out from outside the Central Bank, we would be in a hellish cycle of chaos.
“Should the central bank manage the import process, the pressure on the dollar market would be relieved and gasoline will be secured for the Lebanese even if it is at 200,000 Lebanese pounds per canister.”
Hammoud, however, said that if dollars are secured from the market, it would be catastrophic since a canister would be sold at 400,000 Lebanese pounds, and the dollar exchange rate would surge to 30,000 or 40,000 Lebanese pounds for $1, and another dark tunnel would be awaiting the Lebanese.
The state is gradually lifting subsidies without making public statements about the process, for fear of the situation imploding. However, the process could be made public once the subsidy card is approved, but the bill is still stuck in parliament.
The presidency of the caretaker government issued a statement on Monday on the matter: “The resigned government has completed the subsidy card bill, as well as the World Bank loan program to help needy families, and has developed many formulas to rationalize support.”
The presidency added it is “is awaiting parliamentary approval on the subsidy card to determine the appropriate formula, and is working to mitigate the repercussions of BDL’s decision to stop financing the import of gasoline, diesel, medicine and fuel for electricity, which we did not agree to without the subsidy card.”
In a statement, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government hit out at “the political impotence that tries to hide behind smoke bombs and throws the weights of its impotence on the caretaker government, to push it to violate the constitution.”
Diab’s government is already under criticism for doing nothing to confront the deep crisis in light of the failure to form a new government.
The process of forming the new government stumbled upon further obstacles following the stance taken on Sunday by the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil.
Visitors to the Lebanese President Michel Aoun quoted him on Monday as saying that he “still has hope that the initiatives would reach a solution in the presence of sane people, provided that the constitution and the powers of the presidency of the republic are not violated.”
They noted that Aoun accused “former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of attempting to marginalize the presidency since 2005, as he allowed himself to organize the government’s agenda, hold sessions, and issue decisions, ignoring the presence of the president at the time.”
According to the visitors, Aoun also accused parliament of marginalizing the presidency of the republic because “it did not reconsider Siniora’s illegitimate decisions, and the presidency has become under the authority and tutelage of other leaders, with the resulting rampant corruption.”
Hammoud, meanwhile, refused to accuse the BDL and the banks of “gobbling up the money of the Syrian refugees.”
He added: “When dealing with refugee money, the BDL and the banking sector took different measures.
“Refugee money was paid at 6,240 Lebanese pounds for 1$; 60 percent more than the rate set at 3,900 Lebanese pounds for other depositors.
“Today, they receive their money at 12,000 Lebanese pounds for $1, according to the rate on Sayrafa, BDL’s official platform. This way, they stay fair to everyone and preserve the purchasing power of displaced Syrians.”


Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road
Updated 26 May 2022

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road
  • The negotiations are part of a two-month truce that is due to expire on June 2 but the UN’s special envoy, Hans Grundberg, said working with all parties to extend it
  • He added that also as part of the truce, important progress has been made in efforts to agree the resumption of commercial flights to and from Sanaa airport

NEW YORK: Negotiations began in Amman on Wednesday between Yemen’s government and the Iran-backed Houthi militia over the reopening of roads in Taiz and other governorates.

The talks are taking place under the auspices of the UN. Hans Grundberg, the organization’s special envoy for Yemen, said that they are part of a two-month truce that was agreed in April at the start of Ramadan. He added that it is due to expire on June 2 but he is working with all parties to extend it.

Grundberg called on all of those involved to negotiate “in good faith” and take urgent action to reach an agreement on restoring freedom of movement and improving the living conditions of the people of Yemen.

“Yemenis have suffered for too long from the impact of road closures,” he said. “Opening roads in Taiz and elsewhere is a crucial element of the truce that will allow families divided by front lines to see each other, children to go to school, civilians to go to work and reach hospitals, and essential trade to resume.”

He added that also as part of the truce, important progress has been made in efforts to agree the resumption of commercial flights to and from Sanaa airport. More than 1,000 passengers have flown so far and the frequency of flights is increasing. Preparations are now under way to resume flights between Sanaa and Cairo, Egypt.

“This will allow more Yemenis to travel abroad to access medical care, educational and trade opportunities, and to visit family,” said Grundberg, who thanked the Egyptian government for its help arranging the flights and its “active support to the UN’s peace efforts.”

Although fighting has abated in Yemen since the truce began, with a significant reduction in civilian casualties, Grundberg raised concerns about reports of continued fighting and civilian casualties in some parts of the country in recent weeks.

“I call on the parties to exercise maximum restraint to preserve the truce and to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect civilians,” said the envoy, who vowed to continue to work with all involved under the terms of the truce to “prevent, deescalate and resolve incidents.”

He added: “We have seen the tangible benefits the truce has delivered so far for the daily lives of Yemenis. The parties need to renew the truce to extend and consolidate these benefits to the people of Yemen, who have suffered over seven years of war.

“The truce has presented a window of opportunity to break with the violence and suffering of the past and move toward a peaceful future in Yemen. The parties need to seize this opportunity by implementing and renewing the truce and negotiating more durable solutions on security, political and economic issues, including revenues and salaries, to support a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict.

“The parties have the responsibility to safeguard and deliver on this potential for peace in Yemen.”


UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon
Updated 26 May 2022

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon
  • Members also stressed the need for the urgent implementation of economic reforms, and urged all parties to dissociate themselves from external conflicts
  • They reiterated need for a transparent investigation into the 2020 Beirut explosion to be concluded, to meet Lebanese demands for justice and accountability

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council on Wednesday welcomed the fact that parliamentary elections in Lebanon went ahead as planned on May 15, “despite challenging circumstances,” but called for the swift formation of a new, inclusive government and the “urgent implementation” of previously outlined economic reforms.

In a joint statement, council members said that the reforms should include the adoption of “an appropriate” national budget for 2022 that will enable the speedy implementation of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund “to respond to the demands of the Lebanese population.”

The country’s economy has been mired since August 2019 in a crippling crisis, during which the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value and more than three-quarters of the population have fallen into poverty.

Last month, Lebanon and the IMF had reached an agreement on a plan that could unlock about $3 billion of international funding over several years. However, the deal is subject to approval by the management and executive board of the IMF, and hinges on Lebanese authorities implementing a host of economic reforms, including the restructuring of the country’s collapsed banking sector, improved transparency, and unifying the multiple exchange rates that apply to the nation’s spiraling currency.

The Security Council stressed the role Lebanese institutions, including the newly elected parliament, have to play in the implementation of these necessary reforms and underscored the importance of delivering them, “to ensure effective international support.”

Members also called for steps to be taken to enhance the “full, equal and meaningful participation and representation” of women in Lebanese institutions, including the new government.

“These elections were key to enabling the Lebanese people to exercise their civil and political rights,” the council members said.

They reiterated the need for “a swift conclusion of an independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, which left more than 200 people dead, thousands injured and many more displaced, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.

The council said the investigation is “essential to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people for accountability and justice.”

Members also urged all Lebanese parties to implement a tangible policy of “disassociation from any external conflicts, as an important priority, as spelled out in previous declarations, in particular the 2012 Baabda Declaration.”

The Iran-backed Hezbollah party has sent militants to Syria to fight alongside the forces of the Assad regime.


US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria
Updated 26 May 2022

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria
  • During a meeting of the UN Security Council, American envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for unity for the sake of millions of Syrians in need
  • Her Russian counterpart blamed the stalled peace process on “US occupation” of Syrian territories and American “plundering” of the country’s resources

NEW YORK: The denial of access for humanitarian efforts during armed conflicts is reinforcing a vicious cycle of killings and forced displacements, the US warned on Wednesday.

The result of this can be seen in Syria where, after 11 years of the “Assad regime’s brutal war,” 14 million people rely on humanitarian aid to survive and 6.6 million are displaced within their own country, said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the permanent US representative to the UN.

She called for the renewal and expansion of existing crossing points and addition of new crossings to make it easier to deliver aid to the Syrian people.

“Every month, Syrian civilians are attacked and killed by the Assad regime and others,” she said. “And hospitals often don’t have the medicine or supplies to help the injured because humanitarian convoys aren’t able to reach them.”

She was speaking as she convened a meeting of the Security Council, the presidency of which is held by the US this month. It came in the wake of the publication of a report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the protection of civilians during armed conflicts, which paints a bleak picture of the difficulties humanitarian operations face in conflict zones such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Mali.

It highlights grave concerns about attacks on humanitarian workers and assets; 143 such security incidents were recorded in 14 countries and territories during 2021, which resulted in the deaths of 93 aid workers.

In a concept note distributed before the meeting, the US mission stated that although international humanitarian law and other legal frameworks provide the necessary foundation to facilitate humanitarian access and the protection of aid workers, the legal principles are often ignored.

Focusing on Syria in particular, Thomas-Greenfield told her fellow ambassadors that the Security Council has the power to provide paths for humanitarian access where it is most desperately needed.

“We did this last year when we unanimously voted to renew the mandate for UN cross-border assistance in Syria,” she said.

“That was an important, lifesaving decision for millions of people. It demonstrated the best of what we can do when we work together.”

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians will need humanitarian assistance this year, an increase of almost 10 percent on last year.

“So we have to renew the mandate again,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “And we have to expand it and increase the number of crossing points to meet the rising demands for humanitarian aid in Syria.”

She will visit Bab Al-Hawa, the only crossing point that currently remains open, in the coming days.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one. Moscow argues that international aid operations violate the Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, said: “Despite notable successes in the fight against international terrorism, the establishment of complete peace and stability in the country is hindered by the illegal occupation by the United States of a significant part of the (Syrian) territory.

“Camps with inhuman living conditions for the civilian population continue to operate in the occupied territories. Devastation and total lawlessness reign.”

He accused the “occupying US power” of “openly plundering” Syria’s natural and agricultural resources, and of illegally smuggling oil and grain out of the country, describing it as “the American recipe for dealing with the global energy and food crisis.”

“Despite the protracted serious humanitarian situation in Syria and the economic crisis, the US and the EU continue to apply illegal, unilateral sanctions against the long-suffering people of Syria, with disastrous consequences,” Nebenzia added.

The current mandate for the cross-border mechanism is due to expire in July.


Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official
Updated 30 min 5 sec ago

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official
  • A natural gas exporter, Egypt takes over presidency of the UN climate talks from Britain
  • Delivering this financing is among Egypt’s priorities for COP27

CAIRO: Egypt will position itself as an impartial arbiter while hosting this year’s COP27 UN climate summit, as it pushes other nations to act on climate pledges while promoting the interests of the developing world, a senior Egyptian official said.
Egypt, where unauthorized public demonstrations are banned, would also welcome protests within the rules of the Nov. 7-18 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, said Wael Aboulmagd, special representative to the COP27 president.
A natural gas exporter, Egypt takes over presidency of the UN climate talks from Britain. Last year’s summit in Glasgow, Scotland, ended with the nearly 200 countries in attendance promising to strengthen their climate pledges this year.
Wealthy nations also disappointed many in Glasgow by saying they would not deliver the $100 billion per year promised from 2020 until 2023 to help developing countries with their energy transition and with adapting to a warming world.
Delivering this financing is among Egypt’s priorities for COP27. It also wants to focus on securing separate “loss and damage” funds, or compensation payments to climate-vulnerable countries already suffering from climate-related weather extremes, Aboulmagd said in an interview.
“There are issues that are of interest and priority to developing countries, and there are high expectations from us as a developing country to ensure that these issues are taken on board and that they achieve commensurate progress with how important they are,” he said.
But Egypt also would seek to mediate between developed and developing countries that have clashed over issues including carbon emissions and climate financing, as it tries to help steer a move from pledges to action, Aboulmagd said.
“In this particular year it is in the interest of the process that a perception of impartiality and equal distance from everyone is maintained.”
Aboulmagd said Egypt was working to launch about 17 voluntary initiatives in areas including food and agriculture and water management, hoping to inspire ideas and action to help countries meet their pledges.
Egypt is fine tuning its own updated target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC).
“We intend to move even faster, despite very difficult circumstances,” Aboulmagd said, referring to economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
To promote global access and representation at COP27, Egypt has sought to fast track accreditation for under-represented civil society organizations from Africa, Aboulmagd said, adding that he hoped climate campaigners and activists play a constructive role.
“There are certain rules and we’re working with the secretariat to ensure that if there are people who want to protest, they’re entitled to do that, and it’s done in a peaceful manner,” he said.
“It’s good to have people yelling at you — hopefully not throwing stuff at you, but just yelling at you and we’re accustomed to that.”
Egypt’s government had worked with hotels to provide affordable accommodation for participants in Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourist resort on the Red Sea, he said.
“What we have done to the utmost is to ensure that decent hotels and very reasonable rates are made available.”


Iraqi boy eludes security to board Iran-bound plane

Iraqi boy eludes security to board Iran-bound plane
Updated 25 May 2022

Iraqi boy eludes security to board Iran-bound plane

Iraqi boy eludes security to board Iran-bound plane
  • The international airport in Najaf said it would review security after the boy passed under the radar of seven checks
NAJAF: Iraqi aviation authorities have been left red-faced after a 10-year-old boy on his own boarded an Iran-bound plane from a busy airport in a Shiite shrine city after several security checks.
The international airport in Najaf, south of Baghdad, said Wednesday it would review security after the boy passed under the radar of seven checks, mixing in with large crowds of travelers.
The child was only intercepted after boarding an Iran Air-chartered aircraft, airport manager Hikmat Ahmed told AFP.
About five hours after his arrival at the airport on Monday night, “the plane crew contacted us about him,” he said.
“Anyone who failed in their duties will be sanctioned, fired or transferred” after an investigation, the official said.
According to a security source, his parents who live in a district near the airport had informed police of his disappearance.
Iraq’s civil aviation authority said a private firm had since 2019 been in charge of security at Najaf airport, which receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year.
“All legal procedures” would be taken against the company once the investigation has been completed, it said.