Hezbollah, Amal end boycott of Lebanon’s cabinet amid economic crisis

Hezbollah, Amal end boycott of Lebanon’s cabinet amid economic crisis
The grain silo damaged during 2020’s Beirut Port blast. Hezbollah and Amal groups have been refusing to attend cabinet sessions in a dispute over the blast’s investigating Judge Tarek Bitar, accusing him of bias. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 January 2022

Hezbollah, Amal end boycott of Lebanon’s cabinet amid economic crisis

Hezbollah, Amal end boycott of Lebanon’s cabinet amid economic crisis
  • The groups said the decision was driven by a desire to approve the 2022 budget and to discuss an economic recovery
  • Amal and Hezbollah had been refusing to attend cabinet sessions in a dispute over the handling of an investigation into the huge Beirut port blast in 2020

BEIRUT: Powerful Lebanese groups Hezbollah and Amal said on Saturday they would end a boycott of cabinet sessions, opening the way for ministers to meet after a three-month gap that has seen the economic crisis deepen and currency collapse further.
The groups, which back several ministers in a government made up of members from across the political and sectarian spectrum, said the decision was driven by a desire to approve the 2022 budget and to discuss an economic recovery.
The groups had been refusing to attend cabinet sessions in a dispute over the handling of an investigation into the huge Beirut port blast in 2020.
The failure to hold cabinet meetings has delayed talks on a recovery plan with the International Monetary Fund, seen as vital to unlocking international support to lift the country out of a crisis that has driven swathes of the nation into poverty.
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group that has a well-armed militia, and Amal, another Muslim Shiite group, have sought the removal of a judge who has been overseeing the blast probe.
They have accused Judge Tarek Bitar of bias after he sought to question two senior Amal figures charged over the blast.
Bitar, who does not make public statements, has been quoted by the families of blast victims as saying he would press on with his investigation that has repeatedly been stalled by a slew of lawsuits filed by powerful suspects in the case.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose post is held by a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s sectarian political system, said in a statement he welcomed the decision to end the boycott and would call for a cabinet meeting as soon as he received a draft 2022 budget from the Finance Ministry.
A government source told Reuters there was not expected to be cabinet session in the coming week as budget preparations were still under way and figures for a financial recovery plan were being drawn up.
Mikati has said his government was seeking to sign a preliminary agreement for an IMF support program in February.
An IMF spokesperson told Reuters that virtual talks would be held with Lebanese authorities in the last week of January.


Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces
Updated 22 May 2022

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four killed in attempt to smuggle drugs from Syria -Jordan’s armed forces

Four people were killed in an attempt to smuggle large amounts of drugs from Syria to Jordan, the kingdom’s armed forces said on Sunday.
Some smugglers were also wounded while others escaped by going back to Syria, it said.
The Jordanian armed forces did not specify who killed or wounded the people involved.
War-torn Syria has become the region’s main production site for a multi-billion dollar trade also destined for Iraq and Europe. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government denies involvement in drug making and smuggling.
In January, Jordanian soldiers killed at least 27 armed smugglers and wounded others as they crossed the border.


Israel reports monkeypox case as virus spreads to Middle East

Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2022

Israel reports monkeypox case as virus spreads to Middle East

Passengers arrive at the COVID-19 testing site of Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Lod on May 19, 2022. (AFP)
  • The virus, which causes distinctive pustules but is rarely fatal, is endemic to parts of central and west Africa

JERUSALEM: Israel confirmed its first case of monkeypox on Saturday, joining several European and North American countries in detecting the disease endemic to parts of Africa.
A spokesman for Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital said that a 30-year-old man, who recently returned from western Europe with monkeypox symptoms, had tested positive for the virus.
The virus, which causes distinctive pustules but is rarely fatal, is endemic to parts of central and west Africa.
In recent weeks, cases have been detected in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden as well as in the US, Canada and Australia, raising fears the virus may be spreading.
Symptoms of the rare disease include fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions or droplets from a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding or towels.


Ex-Tehran hostage: ‘Blundering’ IRGC is ‘Iranian

Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
Updated 21 May 2022

Ex-Tehran hostage: ‘Blundering’ IRGC is ‘Iranian

Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AFP)
  • Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries

LONDON: A former dual national prisoner jailed by Iran has said that the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are “blundering and brainwashed idiots.”
British Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, 35, who was jailed for almost three years on trumped-up charges of spying, told The Telegraph that her captors were incompetent and were “not well versed in security, geopolitics or counter-espionage.”
While detained in Evin Prison in Tehran, Moore-Gilbert was accused of operating as a spy in the country before her arrival, thanks to a mistake on the part of the IRGC, who used the wrong calendar in reference to her account.
After her ordeal and release in late 2020, Moore-Gilbert began writing a book, “The Uncaged Sky,” which details her treatment in Iran. It was released in April this year.

BACKGROUND

British Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries.

She said: “They’re not necessarily talented or skilled. Some of them are smart but they're brainwashed.
“I watched the movie about Johnny English in Farsi in my cell, and I thought, that is the Revolutionary Guard — the Iranian Johnny English. Most of the time, they are blundering around arresting innocent people because of brainwashing and conspiracy theories.”
The IRGC is Iran’s elite fighting force and answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But critics argue that in the case of Moore-Gilbert and other dual nationals arrested and jailed by the force — including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — the IRGC uses hostage-taking as a means to generate funds.
Moore-Gilbert was arrested in 2018 after leaving a conference but realized that she was being used as a pawn to extract concessions and funding from Western countries.
She said: “I had been calling for my case to be made public from the first few months of my arrest. I was telling my family on the phone — go to the media, get it out there, don’t keep it a secret. But unfortunately that wasn’t listened to.
“I don’t blame my family for it at all, the advice they were getting from the government was it’s better to keep quiet.”
The academic urged families of hostages taken by Iran to go public through media campaigns. “I don’t see any evidence of hostages being treated worse in prison (after going public),” she said. “I noticed that great attention was placed on my medical situation after the arrest became public.”
And to make matters worse, the academic discovered that her husband, Ruslan Hodorov, a Russian Israeli dual national, had been having an affair in Australia during her time in jail.
But Moore-Gilbert described the discovery as a “blessing in disguise.” The two have since divorced.
She said: “Whilst it doesn’t reflect well on his character that he abandoned me in my darkest moment, I’m better off without him.”


Lebanese government goes into caretaker mode amid calls to expedite economic recovery plan

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
Updated 22 May 2022

Lebanese government goes into caretaker mode amid calls to expedite economic recovery plan

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (R) and Prime Minister Najib Mikati (C) heading the cabinet meeting in Beirut on May 20, 2022.
  • Rescue opportunities only available through IMF, says PM Najib Mikati
  • Hezbollah-backed MP Gebran Bassil draws fire over electricity crisis

BEIRUT: The mandate of the newly elected Lebanese parliament begins on Sunday amid warnings that any delay in the country's economic recovery plan would have a high cost. The term of the previous parliament expired on Saturday.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the government of Najib Mikati was considered to have resigned based on the constitution.

Aoun expressed his appreciation to the prime minister and ministers, asking the government to act in caretaker mode until a new government was formed.

The Cabinet held its final session on Friday fraught with last-minute decisions, including the approval of the economic recovery plan, amid objection from the ministers of Hezbollah and the Amal movement.

FASTFACT

The Cabinet held its final session on Friday fraught with last-minute decisions, including the approval of Lebanon’s economic recovery plan.

Mikati said: “Deposits of up to $100,000 will be fully protected,” stressing at the same time that there was “no economy without banks.”

The financial strategy in the plan includes a program to restore financial solvency “as a priority to enhance confidence in the state.”

In the medium and long term, it aims to put the debt on a regressive path through the introduction of gradual financial adjustments accompanied by permanent and strategic debt restructuring reforms.

The government also expects to cancel a large part of the Central Bank's foreign currency obligations to commercial banks.

The Cabinet approved an increase in the telecommunications tariff, starting July, accompanied by the formation of a ministerial committee to review the remarks from the communications minister’s plan.

It did not approve the item related to the customs dollar after the finance minister withdrew it from the agenda “to avoid public anger.”

The Cabinet approved allocating $35 million for chronic diseases and cancer drugs, provided that the amount was secured by the Housing Bank in US dollars, which would be enough for four months.

Mikati warned: “Any delay in the recovery plan will have a high cost. Had we resolved this two years ago, the cost would have been much lower.”

He stressed that rescue opportunities were only available through the International Monetary Fund, and the Central Bank should set the necessary standards to ensure the growth of the economy.

He criticized the attempts of some to prioritize their interest over the public interest, indirectly finding fault in how the Free Patriotic Movement had handled the electricity crisis.

“I personally received two offers from companies willing to operate the Al-Zahrani and Deir Ammar plants to produce electricity on gas at excellent prices. A consulting office was assigned to study the two offers, but unfortunately, the minister of energy withdrew this item from the Cabinet’s agenda to be further discussed.”

MP Ashraf Rifi, commenting on the electricity issue, said on Saturday: “What Mikati said about withdrawing these offers from the Cabinet’s agenda constitutes a continuation of a major crime committed against the Lebanese immersed in darkness. Hezbollah-backed Gebran Bassil is the one to blame.”

Bassil, he added, had taken over the Ministry of Energy since 2008 “as if it were his personal property, with all the failures, waste, and corruption practiced within it, and the Lebanese are paying the price.”

Rifi called on sovereign and reformist MPs to make the electricity issue their priority, agree on a plan of action, and hold those involved accountable.

The International Support Group for Lebanon has called on adopting the necessary legislation to secure economic stability in Lebanon, strengthen governance, and implement the reforms that Lebanon and its people urgently need to bring the country back up on its feet.

The ISG also called on all concerned parties to move quickly to form a government that can implement the vital reforms that are long overdue and to continue working with the IMF, including implementing the prior measures that Lebanon committed to in the staff-level agreement on April 7 to lay solid foundations for the sustainable social and economic recovery of Lebanon.

The US State Department urged the elected MPs and political leaders to respond to the Lebanese people's call for change and to work seriously and urgently to take the necessary measures to save the economy.

It called for the rapid formation of a government that was capable and committed to carrying out the serious work required to restore the confidence of the Lebanese people and the international community.

The elected parliament is meanwhile preparing to elect a speaker and deputy speaker.

The Development and Liberation bloc announced Najib Berri's nomination for the parliament speaker position at the end of a meeting headed by him. He has headed parliament since 1992 and nobody is running against him.

If Berri is elected by acclamation, this will be his seventh term.

The bloc stressed the need for the caretaker government to carry out its duties in the transitional period and follow up on issues that concerned people and their economic and social problems, especially controlling the exchange rate and securing fuel, bread, and other needs.

The FPM, the Lebanese Forces Party, and independent and reformist MPs are against Berri’s nomination.

Member of the Development and Liberation bloc, Dr. Michel Moussa, told Arab News: “In this defining stage, parliamentary blocs communicate with one another to voice their positions on Berri's candidacy, while it is only natural for him to be running.”

He explained that the blocs would hold their meetings next week. “But in Lebanon, everything is decided at the last minute.”

As of Sunday evening, the elected MPs will have 15 days to elect the speaker, said Moussa.

Otherwise, the process of assigning a new prime minister to form the next government would be disrupted, provided the caretaker government continued to function until a decree to form the new government was issued.

“All these things will become clear next week.”

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Pressure mounts on Houthis to lift Taiz siege

Yemeni pro-government forces deploy on the road linking the districts of Hays and Al-Jarrahi on April 28, 2022. (AFP)
Yemeni pro-government forces deploy on the road linking the districts of Hays and Al-Jarrahi on April 28, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2022

Pressure mounts on Houthis to lift Taiz siege

Yemeni pro-government forces deploy on the road linking the districts of Hays and Al-Jarrahi on April 28, 2022. (AFP)
  • On April 7, the Yemeni government sent a list of four participants for the meeting, according to the UN Yemen’s office, almost three days after UN envoys asked both sides to nominate their negotiators

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis have named their representatives on a joint committee that will work to reopen roads in Taiz and other provinces, raising hopes of an end to the militants’ siege of the strategic city, a Yemeni government official said.

After weeks of delays, the Houthis sent a list of candidates for the committee to the office of the UN Yemen envoy, according to deputy head of the Yemeni government delegation on Taiz, Maj. Mohammed Abdullah Al-Mahmoudi.

The move comes as the militia faces growing pressure at home and abroad to end its eight-year siege of Yemen’s third-largest city.

Under the UN-brokered truce that came into effect on April 2, warring factions were expected to stop hostilities on all fronts, allow commercial flights to operate out of Sanaa airport, permit fuel ships to enter Hodeidah seaport, and nominate candidates for a joint committee to discuss the reopening of roads in Taiz and other provinces.

On April 7, the Yemeni government sent a list of four participants for the meeting, according to the UN Yemen’s office, almost three days after UN envoys asked both sides to nominate their negotiators.

The Houthis have been accused of failing to take the lifting of the blockade seriously, as they delayed naming representatives and kept up attacks on residents in the city.

Al-Mahmoudi told Arab News on Saturday that the Houthi delegation includes Yahyia Al-Razami, Hussein Dhaif, Mohammed Al-Mahtouri and Shukari Mahyoub.

“They are intelligence officers,” he said, adding that the committee might meet in the Jordanian capital Amman or elsewhere this week.

Al-Mahmoudi is joined on the government team by Abdul Kareem Shaiban, Abdul Aziz Al-Majeedi and Ali Al-Ajaar.

“We have been told to get ready for the meeting,” he said.

Pressure has increased on the Houthis to lift the siege of Taiz as the Yemeni government puts into place its commitments under the truce, including allowing about 12 fuel ships to enter Hodeidah seaport, facilitating the departure of two commercial flights from Sanaa airport, and naming its representatives in talks over the future of the city.

In a rare challenge to the militants, hundreds of people gathered for Friday prayers near a closed road on the eastern outskirts of the besieged city, despite the risk of coming under fire from Houthi snipers.

After the prayers, people raised posters and chanted slogans that called for roads to be reopened and an end to the siege.

Abdul Jabar Noman, an activist, told Arab News that many people had died on rugged and dangerous roads while seeking to avoid Houthi checkpoints around the city.

Daily protests are aimed at highlighting residents’ suffering under the blockade, he said.

“Lifting the siege will help people to move between cities easily, bring down prices of basic commodities, and fuel will be sold at the official price,” he said.

Abroad, Saudi, Yemeni and Western diplomats and officials are also increasing pressure on the Houthis to lift the blockade and join efforts to end the war.  

Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of defense, demanded the world, mainly the UN, order the Houthis to lift the siege, deposit revenues from Hodeidah port into the central bank, and comply with peace initiatives.

After meeting Timothy Lenderking, US special envoy for Yemen, in Washington, Prince Khalid tweeted: “Although the momentum of the truce remains high, I reaffirmed the need for the United Nations and the international community to pressure the Houthis into reopening the roads of Taiz, deposit revenues of the Hodeidah port, and engage with peace proposals.”

Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak, Yemen’s foreign minister, met with Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa, in Washington, where he called for global pressure on the Houthis to respect the truce and reopen roads in Taiz.

“I stressed our appreciation for the US and the need to pressure the #Houthis to adhere to the #truce and end #Taiz siege,” the Yemeni minister tweeted.

The Yemeni Embassy in Washington accused the Houthis of using the blockade as a pressure tactic, adding that the siege has isolated thousands of Taiz residents from the rest of Yemen.

“Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in the third-largest city in Yemen —  #Taiz — feel like they are boxed in a besieged city since 2015. A city that is cut off from the rest of Yemen by the #Houthis only to be used as a political bargaining chip,” the embassy tweeted.

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