Lebanon’s president says no one is protected in port probe

Lebanon’s president says no one is protected in port probe
Civil defense workers give oxygen to a man who fainted from the tear gas during a riot between family members of victims of Beirut blast and security outside caretaker interior minister Mohamed Fehmi’s house during protests. (AP)
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Updated 14 July 2021

Lebanon’s president says no one is protected in port probe

Lebanon’s president says no one is protected in port probe
  • An investigation by a state-appointed judge has been riddled by charges of political interference
  • Aoun said Wednesday “there will be no political cover for anyone who was negligent or guilty”

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president said Wednesday there would be no political cover for anyone implicated in last year’s massive explosion at the Beirut port, speaking a day after protests erupted over the handling of the investigation.
The blast on Aug. 4 was caused by the ignition of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer that had been stored for years at the port with the knowledge of top government officials.
It still is not clear what exactly caused the explosion, and an investigation by a state-appointed judge has been riddled by charges of political interference. The first investigator, who charged senior officials with negligence, was removed from the case.
The delays have frustrated the public, particularly amid reports that most of the Lebanese leadership, including the president, had knowledge of the explosive material stored at the port. They did little to store it safely or to alert civilians in the area of its presence.
Beirut’s port and parts of the city were devastated in the ensuing massive explosion that killed over 200 people and injured hundreds more.
Tuesday’s protests outside the house of the interior minister of the caretaker government lasted several hours. Families of the victims and explosion survivors held a mock funeral and burial outside his home. Protesters scuffled with security forces guarding the building, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Dozens of protesters and security forces were lightly injured.
Interior Minister Mohammed Fehmi had rejected a request by the new lead investigator to remove immunity for one of the most senior security officials accused in the port case — the head of general security, Abbas Ibrahim, allowing him to be questioned.
President Michel Aoun said Wednesday the port investigation is ongoing and that “there will be no political cover for anyone who was negligent or guilty.” However, he did not address critics who said that Fehmi obstructed the investigation.
Aoun’s comments came during a meeting with Patrick Durel, French President Emmanuel Macron’s envoy.
Aoun also approved Aug. 4 as a day of mourning, declaring it a national holiday. Families of the victims have been campaigning for this recognition.


Lebanon’s new PM begins bid to form long-awaited cabinet

Lebanon’s new PM begins bid to form long-awaited cabinet
Updated 15 min 5 sec ago

Lebanon’s new PM begins bid to form long-awaited cabinet

Lebanon’s new PM begins bid to form long-awaited cabinet
  • The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new prime minister-designate Najib Mikati started consultations with leading political parties Tuesday with a view to forming a long-awaited government.
The billionaire politician, already twice a prime minister, was designated on Monday, days after Saad Hariri threw in the towel.
The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August and efforts to agree on a new lineup have proved fruitless.
The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for Lebanon, which defaulted on its debt last year and has since sunk into what the World Bank has described as one of the world’s worst crises since the mid-19th century.
On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun.
Following their meeting, Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad said his party is ready to “seriously cooperate” with the new PM-designate.
“What is required is speedy cabinet formation and cooperation from all parties toward that end,” Raad told reporters.
FPM chief Gebran Bassil, accused by critics of repeatedly obstructing efforts to form a new government, said his party has decided “not to participate in the next cabinet, which means we will not get involved in the formation process.”
In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be “purely technical” and tasked with bridging the gap to elections due next year.
Several lawmakers, including deputy speaker Elie Ferzli, on Tuesday, backed this push.
“The government will consist of specialists,” Ferzli said. “As for the nominating process, it will rest on Mikati and his agreements with the president.”
The designation of the 65-year-old Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man and to many a symbol of its corrupt oligarchy, was met with general skepticism.
A native of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.
“How can I trust a thief who stole from me and my children and their future?” asked 57-year-old Beirut resident Mohammed Deeb, after Mikati’s designation.
“As long as this (political) class is still in power, nothing will change.”
On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati’s Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.
Lebanon’s former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati’s designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.
But Lebanon’s bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing a political deadlock that has stymied efforts toward forming a government.
Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.
Tuesday’s meetings with the parliamentary blocs are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister’s designation but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to begin.
In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati addressed the shortages that have plunged the country into darkness and further crippled its crumbling economy.
Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours a day nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.
Almost none of the international community’s demands for a broad program of reforms have so far been met.
Further stalling the bankrupt state’s recapitalization has been the government’s failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.
Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million as part of its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) aid financing scheme to help Lebanon recover.
Experts have warned however that the amount would not be enough and risked being misused by a ruling class that offers no more guarantees of transparency than before.
According to the Al-Akhbar newspaper, Mikati wants to use the IMF money to build new plants aimed at stabilising Lebanon’s power supply.


Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day
Updated 16 min 2 sec ago

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day
  • The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier
  • The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week

TEHRAN: Iran recorded over 34,900 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, setting the nation’s single-day record for cases as vaccinations lag, public complacency deepens and the country’s outbreak spirals further out of control.
The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier, providing a sense of how quickly Iran’s latest surge, fueled by the contagious delta variant, is mounting. Health authorities recorded 357 COVID-19 fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 89,479 — the highest in the Middle East.
The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week. The government ordered the closure of state offices, public places and non-essential businesses in the capital of Tehran. But as with previous government measures, the lockdown looked very little like a lockdown at all. Tehran’s malls and markets were busy as usual and workers crowded offices and metro stations.
Iranian authorities have avoided imposing heavy-handed rules on a population that can little afford to bear them. The country, which has suffered the worst virus outbreak in the region, is reeling from a series of crises: tough US sanctions, global isolation, a heat wave, the worst blackouts in recent memory and ongoing protests over water shortages in the southwest.
Now, health officials warn that hospitals in the capital are overwhelmed with breathless COVID patients too numerous to handle. Fewer than 3 percent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated in the sanctions-hit country. Many front-line medical workers have been vaccinated with Iran’s locally produced shots or the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine that may be less effective than other inoculations.
Iran’s government announced that its homemade vaccine provides 85 percent protection from the coronavirus, without disclosing data or details. Iran also imports Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through the United Nations-backed COVAX program.


UAE reports 1,539 additional COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths in past 24 hours

UAE reports 1,539 additional COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths in past 24 hours
Updated 41 min 35 sec ago

UAE reports 1,539 additional COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths in past 24 hours

UAE reports 1,539 additional COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths in past 24 hours
  • An additional 1,497 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19

DUBAI: The UAE reported on Tuesday 1,539 additional COVID-19 infections and two deaths overnight as total coronavirus cases in the country reached 674,724, including 1,929 fatalities related to the highly infection disease.
The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) also said that 296,686 COVID-19 tests were done over the past 24 hours, as the UAE expands testing capacities nationwide to ensure earlier detection of coronavirus cases so the necessary treatment of patients could undertaken.
MoHAP also noted that an additional 1,497 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries to 652,180.
Health officials earlier said the UAE has provided 16,524,169 COVID-19 vaccines doses, for a vaccine distribution rate of 167.07 doses per 100 people.
About 77.88 percent of the Emirates’ population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19, while 68.93 percent have been fully vaccinated.
Abu Dhabi from August 20 would allow only vaccinated people access to some public places including shopping centers, restaurants, cafes and all other retail outlets, which officials said was designed to safeguard public health and curb the spread of COVID-19.
In Dubai, hotels have been allowed to operate up to full occupancy while entertainment were allowed to increase capacity to 70 per cent.
Weddings are allowed to have guests of up to 100 people at venues and hotels, but all staff and guests must be vaccinated. Private gatherings have been limited to 30 guests.


EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia
Updated 59 min 38 sec ago

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia
  • Borrell pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Tuesday called for a speedy return to political stability in Tunisia after the country plunged into turmoil following the president’s ousting of the prime minister.
“The European Union is following developments in Tunisia with the greatest attention,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“We call for the restoration of institutional stability as soon as possible, and in particular for the resumption of parliamentary activity, respect for fundamental rights and an abstention from all forms of violence.”
Borrell insisted that “the preservation of democracy and the stability of the country are priorities,” and pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The young North African democracy, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, was thrust into a constitutional crisis on Sunday after President Kais Saied dismissed premier Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup.”
Saied then sacked the defense minister and justice minister.
The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response, as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per capita rates.


Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran
Updated 27 July 2021

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran
  • Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies
  • Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz will travel to France this week to discuss spyware sold by Israeli cyber firm NSO that was allegedly used to target French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s phone was on a list of targets that were possibly under surveillance by Morocco, which used NSO Group’s Pegasus software, according to France’s Le Monde newspaper. The French leader has called for an investigation.
Gantz will meet French Defense Minister Florence Parly on Wednesday, an official Israeli statement said.
“Gantz will discuss the crisis in Lebanon and the developing agreement with Iran. He will also update the minister on the topic of NSO,” it said.
Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies like Pegasus.
A global investigation published last week by 17 media organizations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.
Israel has since set up a senior inter-ministerial team to assess any possible misuse of the spyware.
NSO rejected the reports, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.” Pegasus is intended for use only by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime, the company said.
Gantz’s trip was planned before the NSO affair and was meant to focus on the growing economic crisis in Lebanon, which shares a border with Israel, and on world powers’ efforts to resume a nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli media said.
Israel is concerned a revival of the deal may eventually allow its arch-foe Tehran to acquire atomic weapons. Iran denies seeking the bomb. Attempts to revive the 2015 accord, after then-President Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018, have been slow to make progress.
France’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Iran was endangering the chance of concluding an accord with world powers over reviving the deal if it did not return to the negotiating table soon.