Snowstorm Yasmine leaves Lebanese families stranded without heating

Snowstorm Yasmine leaves Lebanese families stranded without heating
A woman takes a picture on her mobile phone of children playing with snow in Houla, Lebanon, January 27, 2022. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 27 January 2022

Snowstorm Yasmine leaves Lebanese families stranded without heating

Snowstorm Yasmine leaves Lebanese families stranded without heating
  • President Aoun monitors aid effort as entire towns and villages are cut off
  • Japan donates $1.8 million to support UNICEF humanitarian aid programs

BEIRUT: People across Lebanon have been left stranded and struggling to find fuel for heating as snowstorm Yasmine continues to wreak havoc.

President Michel Aoun’s media office said he had instructed the relevant authorities to provide assistance to people in affected areas and had been following the work of military, security and civil agencies as they sought to clear roads.

As the storm intensified on Wednesday night, entire cities and villages in the Bekaa and northern regions were cut off, while power cuts left residents without heating.

Snow fell at an altitude of 500 meters above sea level, leaving dozens of towns along the eastern and western mountain chains isolated. Most main and mountain roads at an altitude of 1,100 meters and above were completely cut off.

Snow also engulfed the runways at Beirut Airport, though did not prevent operations, and covered beaches in the northern cities of Byblos and Beirut and the southern city of Sidon.

Also in Sidon, firefighters rushed to tackle a blaze after a school bus was set on fire by lightning.

Along the banks of the Hasbani River in Shebaa and the neighboring villages of Arqoub the snowfall was recorded at up to a meter deep.

Footage shot in some of the worst affected areas went viral on social media.

In some regions the authorities issued warnings to motorists against driving as the freezing temperatures covered roads with ice.

The Ministry of Public Works warned people against trying to find alternative routes around snow-blocked roads until the authorities had clarified the situation and issued guidance.

The director-general of the Lebanese Civil Defense, Brig. Gen. Raymond Khattar, said the agency had responded to multiple calls from around the country, while the army said it was helping to get fuel to people in need and clear snow from roads.

Meanwhile, many people have complained about not being able to buy gas or diesel to heat their homes as they have become too expensive and too scarce.

Many gas stations ran out of diesel, which is mainly used for heating in mountain regions, as the price of a 20-liter canister reached $17.

Some people resorted to burning charcoal, while those less fortunate did their best to stay warm by wrapping themselves in blankets.

“The lack of heating is not limited to mountainous areas, but rather to cities and Beirut in particular,” a Civil Defense worker told Arab News.

“In poor homes we found children and the elderly curled up with only blankets,” the person said.

Speaking about the diesel shortage, Economy Minister Amin Salam said: “Those who try to monopolize diesel will be pursued, especially in mountainous areas.”

Meanwhile, Energy Minister Walid Fayyad spoke of “violations committed by diesel distributors who do not abide by the specified fees.”

“There is an active black market taking commissions of up to 10 or 15 percent,” he said. “This is a crime. The perpetrators must be prosecuted and measures must be taken against them.”

One of the groups to be worst hit by the bad weather were the Syrian refugees — especially those in barren areas of Bekaa — whose flimsy plastic tents were left covered in snow.

UNICEF said on Thursday that Japan had contributed $1.8 million for humanitarian aid through the Adolescent and Youth, and Water Sanitation and Hygiene programs in Lebanon.

The money would be used to help 35,000 vulnerable children and families, it said.

Over the next two months, when temperatures at high altitude can fall to minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), UNICEF will distribute blankets and warm clothing to vulnerable people with limited or no access to heating, as well as continuing to provide water and sanitation services within Bekaa.

Okubo Takeshi, Japan’s ambassador to Lebanon, said: “We are fully aware of the gravity of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon where true victims are always vulnerable children and families.

“As they face the harsh winter conditions, Japan has decided to strengthen its interventions through UNICEF to alleviate their sufferings. I hope they receive our message through the assistance that the international community will be there with you at all times.”

Takeshi then tweeted: “No winter lasts forever, nor will the Lebanese crisis. Relief must come. May God protect Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s acting Information and Education Minister Abbas Al-Halabi said the Cabinet’s discussions of the government’s 2022 draft budget would be completed by Friday.

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea
Updated 20 May 2022

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea
  • The attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, were repelled by the yacht's security force
  • Lakota, owned by French yachtsman arget is one of sailing world’s most famous boats

AL-MUKALLA: The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen were accused on Thursday of trying to hijack one of the world’s most famous racing yachts in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah.
Attackers in three fast-moving skiffs and armed with rocket-propelled grenades tried to board the Lakota, a 19-meter sailing trimaran owned by the French yachtsman Philippe Poupon.
The trimaran’s crew repelled the attacks and continued sailing up the Red Sea toward the Suez Canal. The yacht carries a racing crew of five but it is not known if Poupon himself, who has recently been on an Antarctic expedition with his family, was on board.
Yemeni fishermen in nearby waters saw crew on the vessel exchange fire with the attackers. “Several attempts were made to board her,” the maritime intelligence company Dryad Global said. “Reports indicate she managed to get away.”
Satellite-tracking data on Thursday showed the Lakota just west of the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea between Yemen and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa coast.
The racing trimaran, previously called the Pierre 1er, is one of the most famous vessels in the sailing world. Built in 1990, it was once owned by the American tycoon and adventurer Steve Fossett.
Poupon bought the yacht this year for an estimated €250,000 euros ($263,000).
It was on its way from the Philippines to France, from where the yachtsman plans to sail it in the solo Route du Rhum transatlantic race in November, and had docked in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa last Sunday.
Yemeni government officials said they had no doubt that the Houthi militia had carried out the attempted hijack.
“Our information says three armed Houthi boats sailed from Al-Saleef in Hodeidah on Tuesday and were stationed in the sea. They attacked the boat,” one official told Arab News.
The attack on the Lakota came days after the Houthis hijacked another vessel in the Red Sea delivering food to government troops in the city of Medi, in northern Hajjah province.
The vessel, which had three fishermen and two soldiers on board, was sailing from government-controlled Khokha, south of Hodeidah, to the 5th Military Region in Medi on Sunday when it was attacked by armed Houthi boats.
“The crew sent an alert that the Houthis were surrounding them and would arrest them, two hours after leaving Khokha,” a local officer told Arab News.
In January, the Houthis hijacked the UAE-flagged vessel Rwabee with a crew of 11 off the country’s west coast, triggering local and international condemnation.
The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said the ship was carrying medical equipment from a temporary Saudi hospital on the Yemeni island of Socotra.

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup
Updated 19 May 2022

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup
  • Thousands of protesters took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces arrested leading anti-coup figures on Thursday, their party said, during protests by thousands against last year’s military takeover.

“Security forces raided the house of the political secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party Mohammed Mukhtar Al-Khatib,” the party said in a statement.

Another leading party member was also arrested at Khartoum airport, and the two men were taken to an “unknown location,” the party said.

The arrests came despite a pledge by coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to free political detainees to set the stage for talks among Sudanese factions.

Last month, authorities released several anti-coup civilian leaders arrested in a crackdown.

The Communist Party members were detained following a trip to Juba, South Sudan where they met with rebel leader Abdel Wahid Nour who has refused to sign a landmark 2020 peace deal with the Sudanese government, according to the party statement.

They also visited rebel-held areas in South Kordofan controlled by Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who also abstained from the 2020 deal, it said.

Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup led by Gen. Burhan, according to AFP correspondents.

The pro-democracy Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said security forces fired tear gas “in large quantities” to quell the protests.

Regular mass demonstrations have rocked Sudan since the coup which derailed a fragile political transition set in motion after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Bashir.

Demonstrations have been met by a violent crackdown which has so far killed at least 95 protesters and wounded hundreds of others, according to medics.

The UN, along with the African Union and regional bloc IGAD, have been pushing to facilitate Sudanese-led talks to resolve the crisis after the northeast African country’s latest coup.

UN special representative Volker Perthes in late March said the country was heading towards “an economic and security collapse” unless its civilian-led transition was restored.

The military leader threatened to expel Perthes for alleged “interference” in the country’s affairs.

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste
Updated 19 May 2022

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste
  • The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas

CHIBAYISH: Iraq’s vast swamplands are the reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, but the waterways are drying out and becoming so clogged with waste their very existence is at risk, activists warn.

“For 6,000 or 7,000 years the inhabitants have protected the marshes,” said Raad Assadi, director of Chibayish Organization for Ecotourism, who this week began work on a boat to try to clear some of the worst areas of trash.

“But we have reached a stage where the marshes are threatened with extinction.”

The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered they be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.

But after Saddam was toppled, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marshland communities, and they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

Tourists have returned, but one of the main visible sources of pollution in the area are visitors who throw away their “plastic waste,” said Assadi.

After decades of brutal war, Iraq lacks structures for the collection and disposal of waste, and 70 percent of its industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data compiled by the UN and academics.

A team of 10 joins the boat, cruising the maze of narrow waterways to collect the piles of plastic bottles filling the channels, and erecting signs urging people to “respect our land,” and not to litter.

But it is far from the only threat: Iraq’s host of environmental problems, including drought and desertification, threaten access to water and livelihoods across the country.

The UN classifies Iraq “as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world” to climate change, having already witnessed record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years.

The water level of the marsh is falling, a phenomenon accentuated by repeated droughts and by the dams built upstream of the two rivers, among Iraq’s upstream neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

“There is a threat to this ecosystem, which has significant biodiversity,” said French ambassador Eric Chevallier, at the launch on Thursday of the French-funded boat project.

Chevallier called for “much greater mobilization, Iraqi and international, to meet all the challenges” that a heating planet is causing.

A string of sandstorms in recent weeks have blanketed Iraq, with thousands needing medical care due to respiratory problems.

The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.

The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

The rubbish collectors are not the only unusual team in the marshes: earlier this year, the Iraqi Green Climate Organization launched a veterinary ambulance to help farmers treat their water buffalo.

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch
Updated 19 May 2022

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch
  • NGO accuses defense department of “refusal to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths” 
  • US Congress needs to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm, says HRW Washington director

LONDON: Internal US military reviews of operations resulting in civilian harm remain “fundamentally” flawed and require urgent redress despite pledges made last year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense released a public summary, but not the full report, of an airstrike it conducted against Syria in 2019 in which it acknowledged faults for the handling of the operation but found no one accountable.
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising the DOD has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths.”
She added: “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated the review after a November New York Times article condemned an initial investigation for its failure to acknowledge that dozens of civilians had been killed by the strike on Baghouz in March 2019 and alleged individuals within the DOD had sought to cover up the extent of civilian harm.
Despite Austin’s intervention and pledge to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, HRW said this latest review failed in its commitments to transparency, lacked information from witnesses, used “an overly elastic definition of combatants” and did not provide amends for the civilians harmed.
The NGO claimed the DOD classified all adult males as combatants, regardless of their participation in hostilities, contravening international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants; relied on incorrect Syrian allies, rather than properly verifying information received; and provided no evidence of interviews with people outside the US military.
In a statement, HRW said: “Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.”
Yager pointed to the failure to investigate as proof that the US Congress needed to intervene to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm.
“We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo,” she said.

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss
Updated 19 May 2022

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss
  • Crushing defeat prompts calls for inquiry amid claims movement ‘is filled with mercenaries and intruders’
  • PA ‘leading us from defeat to defeat,’ says Fatah official after Hamas activist bloc takes control of student council

RAMALLAH: The crushing defeat of the Fatah-backed bloc in Birzeit University student council elections this week has caused shock and outrage among members and supporters of the movement, which is aligned with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the wake of the defeat, one of its heaviest, Fatah says it will form a committee to study the cause of the loss and draw lessons.

The Fatah bloc’s rivals, a Hamas-linked activist group, won a landslide victory in the poll at the flagship West Bank university on Wednesday, a result that some observers believe signals a possible shift in Palestinian public opinion.

The loss is believed to be Fatah’s biggest since its defeat by Hamas in the 2005 legislative elections. 

Fatah has led the Palestinian struggle since its launch in 1965 and formed the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority since its establishment in 1994.

However, the Fatah bloc gained the lowest number of votes and seats since the start of the university elections in 1996, prompting the head of the Fatah movement in Ramallah and Al-Bireh, Muwafaq Suhwail, to resign.

Other members of the Fatah leadership in Ramallah are expected to quit in coming days amid demands for an inquiry into the defeat.

Suhwail called for an investigation into the election result, claiming the movement was filled with “mercenaries and intruders.”

Hamas, meanwhile, said that its victory sends “a message to the Palestinian Authority that security coordination will not bring rights to the Palestinian people.”

The group said that the “broad support confirms that it has become a leader of the national project, and resistance has become the choice of the Palestinian people.”

The Fatah loss will discourage the PA from organizing legislative or presidential elections of any kind from now on. The last legislative elections were scheduled in early 2005.

Hamas’ Al-Wafaa’ Islamic bloc won the Birzeit University election by a large margin, claiming 28 seats on the student council, the first time its candidates have gained control of the body. The Fatah movement won just 18 seats.

Fatah is reportedly trying to distance itself from the PA.

However, the movement’s supporters blame the election loss on the authority’s mistakes, as well as its policies regarding Israel and Palestinian citizens.

In an online post, former Hamas minister Mohammed Al-Barghouti wrote: “It is no longer convincing at all to try to convince people, especially university students, that the Palestinian Authority is one thing and the Fatah movement is another, especially since the head of the Fatah movement — the president of the Palestinian Authority — and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization is the same president.”

Al-Barghouti said that all the “negatives and misfortunes of the PA are borne and paid for by the Fatah movement.”

In return, he said “all the privileges and benefits of the PA go to a few beneficiaries, most of whom are not from the Fatah movement and have never been among its cadres.”

Fatah needs to take bold decisions and develop a well-thought-out structure if it wants to restore its image and build confidence, he said.

One of the leaders of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Walid Assaf, a former head of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission, wrote: “When the successful are held accountable, and the failures are rewarded, the price will be heavy on Fatah and the national project.”

Ahmed Ghuneim, a prominent Fatah leader in East Jerusalem, told Arab News: “Fatah cannot continue in this way. It is time for a decisive and courageous decision to be taken to stop this collapse and that the central committee bears responsibility for the weakness of Fatah.”

He added: “We in Fatah are paying the price for the failed decisions in the political, governmental, organizational and economic performance of the Palestinian Authority and leadership. This leadership knows and realizes that it is a problem, but they insist that they remain in power and lead us from defeat to defeat.”

However, Lt. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah central committee secretary-general, told Arab News that a committee meeting on Saturday will review the defeat and take necessary decisions.

“Our experience with this leadership is that they do not assess any loss, and if that happens, they do not take measures but blame the lower levels of the movement for their mistakes.”

Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian foreign minister dismissed from Fatah by Abbas after criticizing the PA leader’s policies, told Arab News from his home in France: “The votes that went to Hamas do not necessarily mean that they support its policy, but rather to punish Fatah, which deserves punishment because it has committed enough mistakes to turn Palestinian public opinion against it.”