BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein pledged on Thursday that his country will investigate human trafficking networks responsible for smuggling hundreds of Iraqis into Europe, specifically to Lithuania from Belarus.
The announcement came after a meeting in Baghdad with visiting Lithuanian counterpart, Gabrielius Landsbergis. Lithuania, which recently had to declare a state of emergency due to the rising influx of migrants, had appealed on Iraq to act in the matter.
Hussein said Iraq will form a committee with representatives from the Foreign Ministry, Migration Ministry, as well as intelligence and the Civil Aviation Authority to clamp down on the smuggling networks.
He spoke to reporters in a joint press conference with Landsbergis.
Landsbergis said there was a “mutual need” to disrupt the network from Iraq into Europe that was being perpetrated by “malign actors” using criminal elements.
He blamed neighboring Belarus for encouraging migration into Lithuania.
In the past two months, more than 1,500 people have crossed into Lithuania — 20 times more than in the whole of 2020.
In response, Vilnius declared a state of emergency and accused Belarus of organizing border crossings by people, mainly from Iraq.
“An unfriendly country to us, our neighbor, is using migrants, mostly Iraqi people, to pressure my country, to pressure the European Union in order for us to change our policy,” Landsbergis said.
“We feel Iraqi people are becoming a victim of the Belarusian regime,” he said.
Landsbergis added that he had recounted to Hussein some of the testimony collected by Lithuanian authorities from 800 Iraqi migrants about how they were trafficked into Lithuania.
“Iraqi people are being promised an easy trip to Europe, a European paradise of sorts, but the problem is, they end up in a Lithuanian forest in a refugee camp,” he said.
“We think those people were lied to, they had to pay a lot of a money to get to the border.”
Relations between Lithuania and Belarus soured after the August 2020 elections in Minsk, which was won by long-time President Alexander Lukashenko but has been condemned by the West as rigged.
The vote results triggered months of protests and a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
Hussein said the committee would investigate the issue inside Iraq and take action based on its results.
Migrants in Verebiejai, Lithuania, told The Associated Press earlier this week that they came to Minsk from Baghdad.
“I gave somebody $1,400 to bring me to the woods. I think it was the border. They showed me the way. They told me: go this way. Then I walked,” an unnamed migrant said.
Another told the same story and added that he booked a hotel in Minsk and after that, “started trying” to cross the border into Lithuania.
Egyptian president calls on religious scholars to confront platforms that broadcast false ideas about Islam
Radi referred to the mission as a “fundamental task” that would necessitate the combined efforts of “all religious scholars, including muftis, imams and preachers”
Updated 8 min 17 sec ago
Mohammed Abu Zaid
CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, on Tuesday, called on religious scholars in the country to confront electronic platforms spreading false ideas that distort the essence of Islam and exploit religion to achieve political goals through acts of terrorism.
Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said that El-Sisi met the delegation participating in the international conference “Fatwa Institutions in the Digital Age,” organized by the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta.
The spokesman said that the president emphasized the need for the world’s fatwa institutions to keep pace with digital developments, especially regarding social media, and address electronic platforms that broadcast ideas that could “confuse the essence of the true Islamic religion.”
“The meeting stressed the importance of correcting religious discourse at the level of individuals, groups and countries,” he said. “El-Sisi reviewed the important role played by ancient religious institutions in Egypt, represented by the Dar Al-Ifta, Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and the Ministry of Endowments.”
Radi referred to the mission as a “fundamental task” that would necessitate the combined efforts of “all religious scholars, including muftis, imams and preachers.”
At the opening of the conference, Shawki Allam, Egypt’s grand mufti, praised the “moderate national religious institutions in Egypt” for taking a strong stance and confronting the danger of extremism, which has “caused great harm to the world” and “worked to invade young minds.”
“Our jihad for the sake of God Almighty was to speak the truth,” he said, referencing the efforts to counter extremist ideology. “We have launched digital platforms and held continuous training programs.”
Yemen government troops make limited advances in Marib province
Strategic mountains secured by loyalist forces as sporadic fighting flares up in Hodeidah
Houthi landmines claim 18 civilian lives in recent months
Updated 18 min 43 sec ago
ALEXANDRIA: Yemeni Army troops on Tuesday scored limited advances in the province of Marib as the president warned that the Iran-backed Houthis are destroying the country and threatening regional and international security.
Yemen’s Defense Ministry said that its troops and allied tribesmen liberated a mountain in Al-Mushairef area, in the south of Marib province, after launching an attack on the Houthis.
At least 14 Houthis were killed and many others wounded during clashes on Al-Bayadh mountain. The rebels were forced to flee the battlefield, leaving behind the bodies of their dead comrades and weapons, the ministry added.
Warplanes from the Arab coalition carried out several sorties, targeting Houthi military reinforcements arriving from Al-Bayda province, killing many fighters and destroying military vehicles.
Forces from the internationally recognized government have recently purged the Houthis from another “strategic” mountain in southern Marib province. By seizing control of the two mountains, loyalists have further secured the region from Houthi attacks.
Despite their gains in the south, government troops have continued battling relentless attacks from the Houthis west of the city of Marib, with no confirmed gains for both sides.
Local media reports said the Arab coalition on Tuesday intensified air raids on Houthi targets in Al-Mashjah and Al-Kasara, both west of Marib, as the rebels pressed ahead with deadly attacks on government forces in an attempt to break months of stalemate.
Over the last six months, the Houthis have stepped up their attacks against government forces with the aim of seizing control of the strategic city of Marib, the Yemeni government’s last bastion in the northern half of the country.
Yemeni Army commanders said that thousands of Houthis have been killed or wounded in the fierce fighting, adding that loyalist forces halted their advance to Marib.
Government forces in the western province of Hodeidah on Tuesday shot down a Houthi explosive-rigged drone over Beit Al-Faqih district as other loyalist elements sporadically traded mortar fire with the Houthis in flashpoints in the province, the Giants Brigades media reported.
Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi warned that the Houthi “destructive and aggressive” policies — such as detonating opponents’ houses and attacks on civilians — are ruining the country and causing fractures in its social fabric. Hadi vows to defeat the rebels. During an “exceptional” meeting with his deputy, Ahmed Mohsen Al-Ahmer and Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed in Riyadh on Monday evening, Hadi said the Houthi planting of sea mines and their attacks on ships in the Red Sea show that they pose a threat to international maritime navigation. He also thanked the Arab coalition for military and humanitarian assistance to Yemenis.
The Yemeni Landmine Monitor said on Tuesday that landmines planted by the Houthis in various liberated areas had recently killed 18 civilians, including 10 children and five women. The blasts wounded 32 others, including seven children and two women, over April, May and June.
On Monday, a man was killed and two more wounded when his vehicle ran over an anti-tank mine planted by the Houthis in Al-Dhahyiah village in Hays district, south of Hodeidah province. Last week, another landmine planted by the Houthis killed three civilians and wounded 11 in Hodeidah’s Al-Durihimi district, the monitor said.
Why the trauma does not end for Beirut blast survivors
Twelve months on from the blast, Lebanese officials are accused of deliberately obstructing justice
Civil society forced to step in to address widespread mental trauma caused by Aug. 4, 2020, explosion
Updated 34 min 22 sec ago
TAREK ALI AHMAD
BEIRUT: A year after narrowly avoiding death, Hadi’s heart still races when he hears sudden loud noises. The 27-year-old was lucky to survive when, on Aug. 4, 2020, a huge cache of ammonium nitrate ignited inside a warehouse at the Port of Beirut, close to his home in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood.
At least 217 people were killed, more than 6,500 injured, and at least 300,000 left homeless by the resultant blast, which devastated Lebanon’s main port. It was equivalent to the force of 1.1 kilotons of TNT and caused damage to buildings up to 20 kilometers away.
Despite promising the victims and their families that justice would be swift, Lebanese authorities are yet to hold anyone accountable.
“It was fight or flight after the explosion,” Hadi, who declined to give his full name, told Arab News in advance of the first anniversary of the blast.
“I packed whatever I could find. In my mind this was the first bomb out of hundreds more to come — and if this was the first one, God knows what was coming.”
After scrambling out of his apartment block with whatever he could carry, Hadi found the surrounding streets he knew so well were damaged beyond recognition.
“The sights I saw that day after leaving the building were absolutely petrifying,” he said. “People lying on rugs, gushing blood. Some without arms, some without legs, scarred all over, as people were trying to help them. Cars in the middle of the road, destroyed, gasoline leaking on the streets. No one understood what was going on.”
* 300,000 - People left homeless.
* 70,000 - Jobs lost after the explosion.
* 163 - Schools destroyed.
* 6 - Hospitals destroyed.
* 0 - Number of people sentenced over blast.
Thousands of Beirut residents share similar traumatic memories of a day that was the bloodiest and most devastating since the civil war. The explosion, which was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, more than 200km away, was one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.
The world was horrified by images and video footage on social media and news broadcasts that showed the scale of the damage caused by the shock wave that rocked the city, the destruction in the streets, and the dirty-pink mushroom cloud hanging over the city.
Among the youngest victims were two-year-old Isaac Oehlers and three-year-old Alexandra Naeggar. But equally tragic is the number of lives the explosion continues to claim indirectly.
“We continue to hear about people losing their lives to suicide every day, and we continue to be overwhelmed with requests for psychological support, with an ongoing waiting list of 70 to 100 patients in our clinics every month,” Mia Atoui, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Embrace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mental health, told Arab News.
A year after the blast, Embrace’s public helpline, called National Lifeline, is receiving more than 1,100 calls each month. Staff at its free clinic conduct more than 500 mental health consultations a month.
“It has indeed been a turbulent year,” Atoui said. “There is a collective sense of depression and anxiety among every person you meet and talk to. People are down, worried, hopeless, helpless, despaired and unable to enjoy any of life’s pleasures.”
The aftermath of the Beirut explosion is just one of a multitude of overlapping crises blighting a country wracked by an ongoing economic crisis, mass unemployment, a fresh wave of coronavirus infections, and shortages of fuel and electricity — all of which is made worse by seemingly endless political paralysis.
Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war under a sectarian banner.
Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by, often turning for help to a flourishing black market.
But the trauma caused by the port explosion and its aftermath has been compounded by the failure of the government to move forward with its investigation into the disaster.
“The lack of accountability is triggering on all fronts,” Atoui said. “It not only leaves our wounds open, it reinforces the idea that our lives don’t matter, that the lives of our loved ones we have lost don’t matter and are of no value. It means that we cannot feel safe or secure again.
“It threatens our existence, both present and future, and there is nothing more painful, more distressing and more overwhelming to our quality of life than the sense of injustice and living in an unjust world where your rights are robbed.”
The Lebanon Relief Network, a digital platform launched after the blast to help individuals affected by it to connect with trauma experts and therapists, considers the failure to deliver justice and accountability a recipe for long-term mental illness.
“The lack of accountability reduces trust in communities and has a significant negative effect on mental health. This is clearly exacerbated in times of crisis,” the network said in a statement to Arab News.
The FBI reportedly estimated that about 552 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded inside the Beirut port warehouse on August 4, much less than the 2,754 tons that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013. The Reuters news agency said the FBI report did not give any explanation for the discrepancy, or where the rest of the shipment might have gone.
Amnesty International, the international rights-advocacy group, has accused Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.
In February, Lebanese authorities dismissed the first judge appointed to lead the investigation after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far they have rejected requests by his replacement to lift the immunity granted to officials, and to question senior members of the security forces.
Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.
MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion, and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.
* Victims of the blast have seen little accountability, despite promises that justice would be swift.
* The blast killed more than 200 people, injured 6,500 and made at least 300,000 homeless.
“Lebanese authorities promised a swift investigation; instead they have brazenly blocked and stalled justice at every turn, despite a tireless campaign for justice and criminal accountability by survivors and families of victims,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
“The Lebanese government tragically failed to protect the lives of its people, just as it has failed for so long to protect basic socioeconomic rights. In blocking the judge’s attempts to summon political officials, the authorities have struck yet another blow to the people of Lebanon. Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny.”
According to a report this year by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Regional Program Political Dialogue and Regional Integration South Mediterranean, Lebanon ranks lowest in the MENA region in terms of public trust in the national government, parliament, prime minister, head of state and local government — all of which are rated below 28 percent.
In the absence of trusted government institutions, civil-society groups have been forced to step in to address the widespread mental trauma caused by the explosion, and to feed and provide new homes for people who lost everything.
“People are asking for different kinds of support, but many right now have asked for support to deal with the trauma of the blast — many are seeking support for the first time, one year after the traumatic event,” Atoui said.
“This reinforces the fact that the long-term effects of the blast will persist for many years and that the healing process is a long journey. Many people will need ongoing support.”
Hadi, the Beirut resident, said he returned to the Mar Mikhael neighborhood only once after the blast, to salvage what remained of his possessions. He now lives in a part of the city far away from the port and anything that could trigger him.
Lebanon’s Aoun supports transparent investigation on eve of blast anniversary
Aoun also said on Tuesday he was exerting all efforts to remove any obstacles towards forming a salvation government
Updated 27 min 21 sec ago
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said on Tuesday he was fully supportive of an impartial investigation on last summer’s Beirut port blast.
In a televised speech on the eve of the anniversary of the explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the city, Aoun also said he was for a strong judiciary that would not back down when questioning any officials, no matter how high they ranked.
“Justice delivered late is not justice,” he said.
The blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, was caused by a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate that had been left at the port since 2013.
One year later, no senior official has been brought to account, angering many Lebanese. A local investigation is stalling as requests by the lead investigating judge to lift immunity and question top officials are hampered.
Protests have been called for Wednesday to demand justice. Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai is due to lead a mass at the port to be attended by families of the victims.
A report released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday concluded there was strong evidence to suggest some Lebanese officials knew about and tacitly accepted the lethal risks posed by the ammonium nitrate, which can be used to make fertiliser or bombs.
Businesses and government offices are expected to close on Wednesday for what the state has declared an official day of mourning.
The blast occurred when Lebanon was already suffering a deep economic crisis that has worsened in the last year.
The World Bank says Lebanon is suffering one of the worst depressions in modern times. More than half the population is in poverty and the currency has lost over 90% of its value.
Aoun also said on Tuesday he was exerting all efforts to remove any obstacles towards forming a salvation government to implement reforms and lift Lebanon out of its financial meltdown.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government quit after the blast and continued only in a caretaker capacity. But Lebanon’s main parties have failed to form a new government, with squabbles over roles in a cabinet obstructing any agreement
Egypt’s El-Sisi calls for first bread price rise in decades
Al-Sisi on Tuesday did not specify the amount of any potential increase
"It is time for the 5 piaster loaf to increase in price," al-Sisi said at the opening of a food production plant
Updated 03 August 2021
CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said it was time to increase the price of the country’s subsidised bread, revisiting the issue for the first time since 1977 when then president Anwar Sadat reversed a price rise in the face of riots.
El-Sisi on Tuesday did not specify the amount of any potential increase, but any change to the food support system in the world’s largest wheat importer would be highly sensitive. Bread was the first word in the signature slogan chanted in the 2011 uprising that unseated former president Hosni Mubarak.
Bread is currently sold at 0.05 Egyptian pounds ($0.0032) per loaf to more than 60 million Egyptians, who are allocated five loaves a day under a sprawling subsidy program that also includes the likes of pasta and rice, and costs billions of dollars.
“It is time for the 5 piaster loaf to increase in price,” El-Sisi said at the opening of a food production plant. “Some might tell me leave this to the prime minister, to the supply minister to (raise the price); but no, I will do it in front of my country and my people.
“It’s incredible to sell 20 loaves for the price of a cigarette.”
Previous attempted changes to the subsidy program, which caused deadly bread riots in 1977, were agreed as part of former President Anwar Sadat’s loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
El-Sisi’s government has also turned to the IMF, which granted a $12 billion loan in 2016 and a one-year $5.2 billion loan last year, but specified that food subsidies should only reach those most in need.
The loan program also required higher fuel and electricity prices.
“I’m not saying we make it significantly more expensive, to as high as it costs to make it, 65 or 60 piastres, but (increasing the price) is necessary,” El-Sisi said.
“Nothing stays stagnant like this for 20 or 30 years, with people saying that this number can’t be touched.”
The Egyptian supply ministry will immediately begin studying raising the bread price and will present its findings to the cabinet as soon as possible following El-Sisi’s remarks, minister Ali Moselhy told local newspaper El-Watan.
El-Sisi has sought to rein in Egypt’s massive subsidy program by targeting those deemed to be sufficiently wealthy while leaving bread prices untouched.
Hussein Abu Saddam, head of the farmer’s syndicate, told Reuters: “The decision is right and comes at a very suitable time. It helps us finish with the old practices and customs, in which the president was always afraid of touching bread prices, fearing the outcry of the poor.”
A hashtag which translates as “except the loaf of bread” trended on Twitter in Egypt by Tuesday afternoon with more than 4,000 tweets.
Last year the country shrank the size of its subsidised loaf of bread by 20 grams, allowing bakers to make more fixed-price loaves from the standard 100kg sack of flour.
“I hope that this is not poorly received, as if we are planning to make a big jump in prices ... we are only talking about achieving balance,” El-Sisi added.
In its 2021/22 budget, Egypt allocated 87.8 billion Egyptian pounds ($5.6 billion) to subsidise supply commodities and support farmers.
Of that amount, 44.8 billion pounds are allocated toward the bread subsidy.
The government set a wheat price assumption of $255.00 per ton in fiscal year 2021/2022, from $193.90 a ton the previous year, according to the budget. Egypt last bought wheat on Monday for $293.74 a ton c&f.
Wheat prices globally have rallied over supply concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.