US has told Lebanon not to fear sanction law over energy supply plans, says PM’s office

Fuel tankers block a road in Beirut during a general strike on Jan. 13, 2022 by public transport and workers unions over the country's economic crisis. (Anwar Amro / AFP)
Fuel tankers block a road in Beirut during a general strike on Jan. 13, 2022 by public transport and workers unions over the country's economic crisis. (Anwar Amro / AFP)
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Updated 15 January 2022

US has told Lebanon not to fear sanction law over energy supply plans, says PM’s office

US has told Lebanon not to fear sanction law over energy supply plans, says PM’s office
  • Weak local currency piling pressure on population
  • IMF delegation postpones Lebanon visit to February

BEIRUT: The US has told Lebanon it should not fear a sanctions law over its plans to receive energy supplies from the region, according to a statement from Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office on Friday.

US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, handed Mikati a letter from the US Treasury to answer Lebanese authorities’ concerns about regional energy agreements that the US had helped to facilitate with Jordan and Egypt.

The diplomat said: “There will be no fears from the US sanctions law. This message represents forward momentum and an important milestone as we continue to make progress to achieve cleaner and more sustainable energy, to help address the energy crisis.”

Lebanon is grappling with a deep financial crisis and a weak local currency that is piling pressure on the population.

On Friday, the dollar exchange rate on the black market dropped by more than LBP5,000 at once to reach LBP27,500.

Money exchange shops tried to limit their sales of dollars after people rushed to buy or sell them.

The Central Bank issued a circular on Dec. 27 and followed it up with amendments. The circular removed a ceiling related to bank purchases of dollars using the official Sayrafa exchange rate platform.

It allowed depositors and account holders of Lebanese pounds to withdraw their deposits and salaries in dollars based on the rate set by Sayrafa.

The move pumped dollars into the Lebanese market by replacing withdrawals from pounds with fresh dollars.

A new clause was introduced allowing the banks to increase the quota in dollars, by buying dollar bills from the Central Bank at the rate set by Sayrafa using the pounds owned by these banks or their clients with no specific ceiling. This was aimed at meeting the demand for dollar withdrawals.

Financial experts said these measures would reduce the dollar exchange rate on the parallel market as a result of supply and demand and take back the pounds “stashed by citizens in their homes,” bringing down the inflation.

It also allowed the reassessment of the Central Bank's role in the issue of controlling the dollar exchange rate, the experts added.

This role had recently faded as a result of speculation and the Central Bank’s focus on subsidizing commodities, fuel and medicines, they pointed out.

The main focus should have been on controlling the dollar rate as it was the starting point to control other prices, said the experts.

The crisis of confidence in the banking sector has been escalating since late 2017, leading to a decrease in the flow of capital to Lebanon, while a parallel market became prominent in Sept. 2019. The political authorities at the time did not - and still have not - agreed to approve the introduction of capital controls.

Black market money changers have been flooded with Lebanese pounds. Audio recordings of them expressing their confusion and concern about the latest developments have been shared on social media.

A banking expert told Arab News: “The Central Bank began a test procedure on Dec. 27. People exchanged their salaries at banks from Lebanese pounds to dollars based on the Sayrafa exchange rate.

“Money exchange shops are now left with huge amounts of dollars, for people are no longer willing to buy dollars from them because of the high exchange rate, which led to a decrease in the exchange rate of the dollar on the black market.

“The Central Bank is thus trying to maintain the dollar exchange rate within a certain range. It is possible to say that, with this measure, the Central Bank is restoring its role in the currency market.”

However, the banking expert feared a surge in the dollar exchange rate during the weekend, with banks closing their doors and the attempt of Syrian dealers in the Bekaa to buy dollars from the region’s money changers.

He also expected the exchange rate to drop again at the beginning of the week with the banks resuming their work.

Economist Dr. Louis Hobeika told Arab News: “These are superficial declines, as the political situation is further deteriorating and nothing suggests the emergence of solutions any time soon.

“If this measure is not accompanied by the resumption of the Cabinet’s meetings and the launch of a recovery plan that includes implementing reforms and restoring confidence in the banking sector, these measures will be nothing but unreliable tactics. The issue is not monetary, but political and economic. What the Central Bank is trying to do is fine tuning.”

When asked if the measure may lead to the unification of the dollar exchange rate, which is one of the International Monetary Fund’s demands, Hobeika replied: “I think that the rate of the Sayrafa platform is the most reasonable one in Lebanon.”

But Hobeika said the matter had “nothing to do” with the IMF.

The IMF delegation, which was scheduled to arrive in Lebanon this month, has postponed its visit until February.


Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison
Updated 28 January 2022

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison
  • About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison
  • Daesh group's Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019

BEIRUT: US-backed Kurdish-led fighters searched Friday near a Syrian prison for Daesh group militants as dozens of armed extremists holed up in a small part of the jail, a Kurdish official said.
About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison, according to Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
He would not confirm or deny a report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, that SDF fighters discovered the bodies of 18 of their comrades inside Gweiran prison, also known as Al-Sinaa prison, in northeast Syria on Friday.
Daesh group’s Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019. It came as the militants staged deadly attacks in both Syria and Iraq that stoked fears that Daesh may be staging a comeback.
The weeklong assault on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria has turned the city of Hassakeh into a conflict zone. The Kurdish-led administration declared a curfew and sealed off the city, barring movement in and out.
Thousands of people in Hassakeh were displaced in recent days because of the fighting.
The SDF claimed Wednesday it had regained full control of the prison — a week after scores of militants overran the facility. The attackers allowed some to escape but also took hostages, including child detainees, and clashed with SDF fighters in violence that killed dozens.
The SDF had said that between 60 and 90 militants were hiding out in the northern section of the prison.
Ali said the militants are in the basement of a two-story building and that those who remain inside are refusing to surrender. “Our units are surrounding the building and are trying to convince them to surrender,” he said.
The Observatory said SDF fighters are betting that more time will force Daesh militants to surrender as their food dwindles.
The Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, reported that several automatic rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade and hand grenades were confiscated from the Daesh gunmen who surrendered Friday. It added that SDF fighters are conducting search operations in the prison as well as several Hassakeh neighborhoods in search for Daesh sleeper cells.
The SDF said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered since its operation to retake the prison’s northern wing began three days ago.
At least 300 foreign child detainees are believed to be held in the Gweiran facility. Thousands more, mostly under the age of 12, are held with their mothers in locked camps in other parts of northeastern Syria on suspicion of being families of Daesh members. Most countries have refused to repatriate them, with only 25 out of 60 countries taking back their children, some without their mothers.
The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll from the struggle at over 260, including over 180 militants and more than 73 fighters from the Kurdish-led force. At least seven civilians were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
The SDF said preliminary information put the force’s death toll at 35.


HRW: New sentence for rights campaigner spotlights Tehran’s assault on civil society

HRW: New sentence for rights campaigner spotlights Tehran’s assault on civil society
Updated 28 January 2022

HRW: New sentence for rights campaigner spotlights Tehran’s assault on civil society

HRW: New sentence for rights campaigner spotlights Tehran’s assault on civil society
  • Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 6 years behind bars and 74 lashes after a 5-minute court hearing
  • Rights organization says ‘unaccountable and deeply repressive state’ responsible for struggles of Iranian residents

LONDON: Human Rights Watch has slammed Tehran for leveling a new charge against a human rights defender just a year after she was released from jail, arguing that it “demonstrates Iranian authorities’ commitment to crush any grassroots human rights efforts.”

Narges Mohammadi, a rights defender, was sentenced to six years behind bars earlier this month for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and to two years in prison and 74 lashes for “acting against national security and disrupting public order,” her husband told HRW.

The trial, he said, was held behind closed doors — and lasted no more than five minutes.

Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Iranian authorities’ cruel detention and prosecution of Narges Mohammadi only one year after she was released from an earlier prison term and then piling on more unfair prison sentences are clearly intended to crush her into silence at all costs.”

She continued: “People like Narges Mohammadi are the ones who work to bring Iranian civil society together. Governments that are engaging diplomatically with Iran should make sure to press the government to stop its relentless crackdown against human rights defenders.”

Iran has long been criticized for its treatment of Iranians who are perceived to have voiced discontent with the regime or who advocate for any change, big or small.

In early January, Iranian poet and filmmaker Baktash Abdin died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while serving a six-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

At the time, Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders placed the blame for his death squarely at the feet of the Iranian government.

He “had been unjustly sentenced to six years in prison and was in detention in hospital, ill with COVID-19 and deprived of the necessary care,” said the group, adding: “RSF blames the regime’s authorities for his death.” 

HRW said sentences for people like Mohammadi and the death of those like Abdin are part of a pattern of repression that penetrates to the core of the Iranian model of governance.

The group said: “At the center of Iranian residents’ struggles is an unaccountable and deeply repressive state. Iranian authorities ignore or punish peaceful dissent and have launched a sustained crackdown on civil society, from labor activists, lawyers and human rights defenders to journalists and even former senior political leaders.”


6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia

6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia
Updated 28 January 2022

6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia

6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia
TUNIS: At least six Africans trying to migrate to Europe died and an estimated 30 were missing in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia on Thursday, according to Tunisia’s Defense Ministry.
Tunisian naval and coast guard forces retrieved the bodies, rescued 34 survivors and are searching for the people listed as missing, the ministry said in a statement. The survivors told rescuers that the boat had 70 people on it and they were headed for Italy, the ministry said.
The boat had left from neighboring Libya and sank about 40 kilometers (24 miles) off the Tunisian town of Zarzis, near the Libyan border, it said.
The survivors included people from Egypt, Sudan and Ivory Coast, according to Mongi Slim, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent.
It’s the latest of several migrant boat sinkings in the region. The central Mediterranean route, which runs from North Africa to southern Italy, is the busiest and deadliest migration route to Europe. People travel from Libya and Tunisia in crowded boats and at the mercy of the smugglers they pay to get them across the sea.
About 60,000 people arrived in Italy by sea last year, and some 1,200 died or disappeared on the journey, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Tunisian Defense Ministry said authorities thwarted eight boat migration trips in the last 48 hours off the coast of the city of Sfax, and 130 people from Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa were detained.

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound
Updated 28 January 2022

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound
  • US air base, known as Camp Victory, is located around the perimeter of Baghdad’s civilian airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets landed in the Baghdad International Airport compound and near an adjacent US air base, damaging one disused civilian aeroplane, Iraqi police sources said.
The police sources did not report any other damage or any injuries. The damaged aircraft was an out of use Iraqi Airways plane, they said.
The US air base, known as Camp Victory, is located around the perimeter of Baghdad’s civilian airport.
Rocket attacks which US and some Iraqi officials blame on Iran-aligned Shiite militia groups who oppose the US military presence in the region have regularly hit the complex in recent years.


Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp

Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp
Updated 28 January 2022

Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp

Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp
  • Coalition spokesman slams Houthis for peddling misleading information
  • Joint Forces Command ready to present facts to UN Humanitarian and Red Cross teams

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen on Friday denied targeting a prison in Saada and accused the Houthi militia of trying to mislead the public.

Houthi officials on Thursday claimed that coalition air strikes last week killed around 90 people and wounded more than 200 at Saada prison.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Malki said the targeted location was a Houthi special security camp, which is a "legitimate military target". 

Al-Maliki cited a report of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) dated January 27, 2022, after investigating the Houthis' claim.

The statement said there are four locations identified as prisons in the Joint Forces Command’s No Strike List (NSL) in Saada, all of which are being used by the "terrorist Houthi militia" in launching "cross-border attacks to target civilians and civilian objects."

The closest prison is located 1.8 kilometers away from the site targeted in a coalition air strike.

"What was announced and disseminated by the terrorist Houthi militia in its media outlets is a blatant attempt to mislead the public opinion regarding the true nature of the location in an attempt to garner sympathy from UN organizations and INGOs," Al-Maliki said in the statement.

He assured that the Joint Forces Command "applies the highest targeting standards."

The Coalition said it is prepared to shed light on the issue with representatives of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Red Cross.

"The terrorist Houthi militia bears the full responsibility in case it uses civilians as human shields in its military locations," Al-Maliki said.

Fighting has escalated in recent weeks, with more air strikes on what the coalition says are Houthi military targets.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement has stepped up missile and drone attacks on the United Arab Emirates and cross-border launches on neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The coalition had previously accused the Houthis of using civilian centers as a shield against legitimate strikes.