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.”


Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
Updated 23 October 2021

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
  • US official says Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations

WASHINGTON: A senior Al-Qaeda leader was killed in a US drone strike in Syria, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The strike comes two days after a base in southern Syria, used by the US-led coalition fighting the Daesh group, was assaulted.
“A US airstrike today in northwest Syria killed senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar,” said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement.
There were no known casualties from the strike, he said, adding it was conducted using an MQ-9 aircraft.
“The removal of this Al-Qaeda senior leader will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks,” he said.
At the end of September the Pentagon killed Salim Abu-Ahmad, another senior Al-Qaeda commander in Syria, in an airstrike near Idlib in the country’s northwest.
He had been responsible for “planning, funding, and approving trans-regional Al-Qaeda attacks,” according to Centcom.
“Al-Qaeda continues to present a threat to America and our allies. Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations,” Rigsbee said.
The ongoing war in Syria has created a complex battlefield involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
The war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.


Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”


Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.


Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.


More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
Updated 23 October 2021

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
  • The coalition said it had carried out 31 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah over the past 24 hours
  • UN says 10,000 were displaced last month alone by fighting in Marib governorate

JEDDAH: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Friday it had killed at least 92 Houthi rebels in airstrikes on two districts near the strategic city of Marib.

The deaths are the latest among hundreds that the coalition says have been killed in recent fighting around Marib, and come during a second week of reported intense bombing.

“Operations targeted 16 military vehicles and killed more than 92 terrorist elements” in the past 24 hours, the coalition said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. The coalition has for the past two weeks reported almost daily strikes around Marib.

Most of the previously announced strikes were in Abedia, about 100 km from Marib — the internationally recognized government’s last bastion in northern Yemen.

The latest airstrikes reported were in the districts of Al-Jubah, some 50 km south of Marib, and Al-Kassarah, 30 km northwest.

The Houthis began a major push to seize Marib in February, and have renewed their offensive since September after a lull. Several Yemenis are waiting for help after fleeing fighting in Marib, according to Reuters.

Iman Saleh Ali and her family left Al-Jubah in the dead of night with only the clothes on their back to escape fighting, the second time they have been forced to do so.

The UN says some 10,000 people were displaced last month alone by the fighting in Marib governorate. It is calling for a humanitarian corridor for aid.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen David Gressly told Reuters that access has been most restricted to Abedia, but that they have now been given authorization though security concerns remain.

Luckily, he said, food was distributed in coordination with the World Food Programme just before the fighting, which is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has left millions on the verge of famine and 20 million needing help.