Lebanese drugs kingpin uses wife as ‘human shield’ to evade troops

A customs agent checks boxes of oranges, in which fake fruits filled with Captagon in the Lebanese capital. (AFP)
A customs agent checks boxes of oranges, in which fake fruits filled with Captagon in the Lebanese capital. (AFP)
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Updated 11 June 2022

Lebanese drugs kingpin uses wife as ‘human shield’ to evade troops

A customs agent checks boxes of oranges, in which fake fruits filled with Captagon in the Lebanese capital. (AFP)
  • Military weapons seized, 12 arrests in army raids targeting crime boss

BEIRUT: One of Lebanon’s most notorious drug barons used his wife as a “human shield” to evade capture by Lebanese troops during a series of military raids in Baalbeck, northeast of Beirut.

Troops targeting Ali Munther Zeaiter, known in the drug world as Abu Salleh, destroyed drug-manufacturing labs and seized military-grade weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, during a week-long military operation centered on the Al-Sharawneh neighborhood at the northern entrance to the city.

One soldier is believed to have been killed and five others wounded in an attempt to arrest Zeaiter, a major drug dealer believed to oversee one of Lebanon’s biggest narcotics production and smuggling networks.

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Many reacted to the military operation on social media, with activists calling on the army leadership to strike with an iron fist, and get rid of the gangs and drug dealers, while other activists accused Hezbollah of covering up for drug dealers and benefiting from trafficking.

A military source told Arab News that Zeaiter managed to escape after using his wife as a “human shield” and firing on advancing troops.

Zeaiter was shot in the thigh during a gun battle in which rockets were fired, with troops forced to retreat to avoid harming civilians, the source said.

Six Lebanese and six Syrians were arrested in connection with the raid or on previous drug trafficking charges.

Zeaiter’s bodyguards are believed to be among those detained.

The military source said: “Army units, despite all the surveillance cameras and informants deployed on the roads leading to the neighborhood, managed to reach Zeaiter’s house. The goal was the catch him alive. This guy has 390 arrest warrants against him and has been flooding Lebanese areas with drugs, especially Beirut and Mount Lebanon.”

He added: “Our weakness was our decision not to harm civilians, and the army does not consider the people of Baalbeck to be hostile in any way.”

Al-Sharawneh links Baalbek to northern Bekaa. Since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the neighborhood has turned into a hotbed of criminal activity.

Crime rates soared after it became a haven for professional gangs committing ransom kidnappings, manufacturing and smuggling drugs, and recruiting known criminals.

Although the area is dominated by Hezbollah, the party has never sought to control the situation there.

Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun said from Baalbeck on Friday: “Our war on drugs has not ended. We do not wait for any political or religious cover to combat drugs, and we do not work according to any agenda, but rather out of our responsibility toward our people and our country.”

Two drug-making labs had been seized in the raids along with narcotics, large quantities of cash and three four-wheel-drive vehicles, Aoun said.

Weapons and ammunition, including grenade launchers and 15 hunting rifles were also seized.

The military operation revealed dozens of surveillance cameras placed on roofs and balconies of residential buildings in Al-Sharawneh to monitor the movements of the army and security forces, Aoun said.

Troops destroyed four houses believed to used for Zeaiter’s drug operations, prompting women from the neighborhood to take to the streets to protest the demolition.

Families in Baalbeck-Hermel accused troops of using “excessive force,” while MP Ghazi Zeaiter from the Amal movement also criticized the army’s actions.

Sheikh Mohammed Yazbeck, a member of Hezbollah’s Shoura Council, told members of the Zeaiter clan: “I give the army one to two hours to stop the pursuit of the wanted persons, otherwise we will stand by the clan. We are grateful for the Zeaiter family for their restraint and decision not to use their weapons.”

However, the military source denied that the army was pressured by Hezbollah to end its operation in the Al-Sharawneh neighborhood. “The party was trying to find out how much time the military operation would take.”

It is unknown whether Zeaiter managed to escape to Syria or is still in Lebanon.

The military source confirmed that other raids are planned in the area, adding: “So long as drug production continues, so will our mission.”

Many reacted to the military operation on social media, with activists calling on the army leadership to strike with an iron fist, and get rid of the gangs and drug dealers, while other activists accused Hezbollah of covering up for drug dealers and benefiting from trafficking.

Statistics from the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces showed a significant increase in the spread of Captagon pills, followed by hashish. In 2021, 42.5 million Captagon pills were seized, a record number compared with previous years.

The source said: “Drug use does not seem to have been affected by the economic crisis much. Dealers and peddlers have relied on price cuts, and requests vary according to the users’ financial capabilities. Some are resorting to theft to secure funds to buy drugs.”


UAE pledges $100 million in quake relief to Syria, Turkiye

UAE pledges $100 million in quake relief to Syria, Turkiye
Updated 11 sec ago

UAE pledges $100 million in quake relief to Syria, Turkiye

UAE pledges $100 million in quake relief to Syria, Turkiye
DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates Tuesday pledged $100 million to Syria and Turkiye, one of the largest sums yet following a massive earthquake that killed more than 5,400 people across both countries.
The oil-rich Gulf nation — which had already pledged some $13.6 million to Syria — is spearheading regional relief efforts, having dispatched planes to both countries with relief items and rescue teams following the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck early Monday.
On Tuesday, Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan “ordered the provision of $100 million for the relief of those affected,” Emirates News Agency said.
The sum would be equally split between Syria and Turkiye, with each getting $50 million, according to the news agency.
It was not immediately clear if the funds for Syria included the $13.6 million previously announced.
Major General Saleh Al-Ameri, commander of joint operations at the UAE’s defense ministry, said Tuesday that three military planes had been dispatched to Turkiye, carrying search and rescue teams who have since commenced operations.
A total of seven flights are planned to the quake-hit countries, including two to the Syrian capital Damascus, he told local media.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said Tuesday that an Emirati plane carrying 10 tons of food supplies had arrived at the Damascus international airport.
The UAE reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital in December 2018.
In March last year, Assad made a visit to the UAE — his first to an Arab state in more than a decade of brutal civil war.

3 Yemeni families buried under quake rubble in Turkiye

3 Yemeni families buried under quake rubble in Turkiye
Updated 17 min 56 sec ago

3 Yemeni families buried under quake rubble in Turkiye

3 Yemeni families buried under quake rubble in Turkiye
  • No deaths have been reported among at least 300 Yemenis living in earthquake-hit centers in Turkiye
  • The Yemeni Embassy and the union have set up emergency facilities and hotlines

AL-MUKALLA: Rescuers are trying desperately to reach three Yemeni families buried under earthquake rubble in a southern Turkish city, authorities said on Tuesday.
The disaster that killed thousands in Syria and Turkiye on Monday has also left at least 50 Yemenis injured and their property destroyed.
A spokesperson for the Yemen Students Union in Turkiye, Anas Al-Mazabi, told Arab News that a woman had been pulled from the wreckage of a building as rescuers continued attempts to save three Yemeni families buried under debris in Malatya in the south of the country.
No deaths have been reported among at least 300 Yemenis living in earthquake-hit centers in Turkiye.
The Yemeni Embassy and the union have set up emergency facilities and hotlines, and asked Yemenis to report any missing relatives or friends.
Al-Mazabi said that a special operations center is monitoring information and maintaining contact with Yemenis trapped in regions devastated by the earthquake.
An aid team has been sent to Hatay province and an evacuation team to Iskenderun to help Yemenis, he added.
Hotlines have been swamped with calls from anxious Yemenis in Turkiye and Yemen searching for relatives and friends after earthquake-affected regions experienced Internet and mobile phone blackouts.
“We attempted to comfort them about the situation and (told them) that if their children do not respond, it is because communication has been disrupted and does not imply that their circumstances are awful,” Al-Mazabi said.
Official Yemeni media said that Rashad Al-Alimi, president of the Presidential Leadership Council, and other council members phoned the Yemeni Ambassador to Turkiye, Mohammed Saleh, for an update on the situation facing Yemenis and ordered him to offer all required help.
Thousands of Yemenis, including politicians, tribal leaders, military personnel and journalists, fled to Turkiye and nearby countries after the Iran-backed Houthis took control in Yemen in 2014.
Hundreds of Yemeni students attend Turkish institutions around the country.
Separately, Al-Alimi reiterated his council’s commitment to helping a UN mission establish peace in Yemen and secure a comprehensive agreement to end the war.
During a meeting with UN Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg in Aden, Al-Alimi called for greater international pressure on the Houthis to comply with efforts to end the war.
Grundberg landed in the city on Tuesday as he embarked on a fresh mission to push for a renewal of the UN-brokered truce that collapsed in October and to persuade Yemeni factions to embrace a peace agreement.
The UN envoy’s arrival in Yemen follows a visit to Riyadh, where he discussed peace efforts, and economic and humanitarian operations with the GCC Secretary General Jasem Al-Budaiwi and the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al-Jabir.
Attempts to restore peace in Yemen suffered a severe blow in October when the Houthis refused to extend the UN-brokered truce or open roads to the besieged city of Taiz.
The militia also launched drone attacks on oil installations in southern Yemen in an attempt to force the Yemeni government to share oil profits and pay public workers in regions they control.


Survivors ‘praying for miracles’ as Turkiye steps up quake rescue efforts

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency for three months
Mesut Hancer holds the hand of his 15-year-old daughter Irmak, who died in the earthquake in Kahramanmaras. (AFP)
Updated 07 February 2023

Survivors ‘praying for miracles’ as Turkiye steps up quake rescue efforts

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency for three months
  • Heavy rain and snow are hindering efforts to save thousands of people trapped under rubble
  • Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency for three months

ANKARA: Turkiye is praying for a miracle as the search continues for survivors of a massive earthquake that devastated southern regions of the country.

Heavy rain and snow are hindering efforts to save thousands of people trapped under rubble as the death toll continues to climb.

More than 5,000 people were killed and 15,000 injured in Turkiye and neighboring Syria when the magnitude 7.8 quake and a series of aftershocks struck in the early hours of Monday.

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency for three months in areas affected by the earthquake, the most severe in the country for 80 years.

The death toll in Turkiye stands at 3,500, with over 22,000 injured and 6,000 buildings destroyed. More than 8,000 survivors have been hauled from the ruins of collapsed buildings.

Authorities warn the number of dead will continue to rise.

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency for three months. (AFP)

Turkiye has announced one week of national mourning and allocated $5.3 billion in emergency aid, while Turkish Airlines has carried more than 11,000 volunteers to the quake zone.

Tens of thousands of aid workers and emergency personnel have been sent to the affected area as part of national and international humanitarian assistance, with more 70 nations offering help.

Firat Gerger, a lawyer in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, drove his wife and children to their country house after surviving the quake before returning to the city center to join rescue efforts.

“I began evacuating guests from the hotel I own in the Haliliye district of Urfa. Then we noticed that the columns of the building next to my hotel were cracking. The building tilted to one side. We quickly surrounded the building with ropes and moved away nearby cars,” he told Arab News.

Thousands of buildings have toppled to the ground withthousands trapped inside. (AFP)

Gerger and his team climbed through a window into a veterinary surgery on the first floor of the building to rescue animals trapped inside.

However, their attempts to get a refugee family to leave their third-floor apartment ended in tragedy when the building collapsed shortly afterwards.

“We even threw a stone at their window to attract their attention,” he said. “The old building collapsed in seconds under a cloud of dust like in a horror movie,” he said.

The refugees were the only people to remain in the building after calls for evacuation. The bodies of five members of the family were found following the rescue operation.

Millions of Syrian refugees who fled the war in their country now live in the region.

Local people say that many buildings were not built to required standards to withstand earthquakes, and were never inspected properly.

New buildings, even those built only months ago, collapsed in the quake.

Serdar Ozsoy, a photojournalist who reached the port city of Iskenderun yesterday, was in the hard-hit Kirikhan district in Hatay province after the quake struck.

“It is one of the most affected zones. The damage is so widespread that rescue teams cannot be organized effectively. Today the humanitarian assistance seems much better than yesterday. I saw so many tents arriving for survivors. But the rain keeps falling and hampering rescue efforts,” he said.

There have been hundreds of aftershocks. (AFP)

“The first day was critical to find survivors under the collapsed buildings. But now the chances to rescue people are diminishing, apart from miracle cases.”

Ozsoy said that he had talked to a survivor whose house had been ransacked while he was at the cemetery burying his mother.

“The thieves found a golden opportunity to break into his house and steal anything precious,” he said.

Rescue teams from Uzbekistan reached Kirikhan district early on Tuesday, while other international rescuers, including from EU countries, are working across the region.

Turkiye’s Red Crescent is also providing tents and blankets, along with mobile kitchens.

In Hatay, thousands of survivors are sheltering in their cars amid fears of further aftershocks.

“There is an urgent need for cash because there is no electricity and no ATM to draw money,” Ozsoy said.

For many survivors have been left without shelter in the freezing temperatures. (AFP)

In other cities, such as southeastern Gaziantep, stocks of essential items are running low.

Ugur Poyraz, general secretary of the IYI Party, said there is no bread because natural gas supplies to the city were hit by the quake.

“Some local people are trying to distribute soup to the survivors with their own facilities,” he said.

In Hatay, Ghanaian football player Christian Atsu, who made 107 appearances for English Premier League side Newcastle and is now playing for the Turkish club Hatayspor, was rescued from a collapsed building.

Damaged roads, a fire that erupted in Iskenderun port and a blocked airport runway have made access to Hatay province more difficult.

Duygu Duman told Arab News that her relatives could hear voices beneath the rubble of a collapsed building in the center of Hatay, where her grandmother and aunt were trapped.

“My grandmother is very old, she cannot wait for so long. It is a race against time,” Duman said.

Another survivor, Ismail Keser, rescued his sister-in-law from the ruins of a five-story building in Antakya.

“We cannot enter the house because of the aftershocks,” he said. “I’m still involved in rescue efforts, but we are running out of hope. There is a chaos here,” he told Arab News.

 


Jordanian aid plane jets off to Turkiye and Syria

Jordanian aid plane jets off to Turkiye and Syria
Updated 07 February 2023

Jordanian aid plane jets off to Turkiye and Syria

Jordanian aid plane jets off to Turkiye and Syria
  • A Jordanian rescue team, including five doctors, was also on the plane

AMMAN: Jordan’s first of several aid planes loaded with rescue equipment, tents, and logistical and medical materials for the victims of the earthquake in Syria and Turkiye, took off on Tuesday.
Aboard the plane was a team of 99 personnel from the Jordanian International Search and Rescue Team and five doctors from the Jordanian Royal Medical Services.
Jordan’s News Agency shared on Tuesday a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, saying the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization on Monday evening reached out to authorities in Syria and Turkiye in order to send aid to the areas affected by the earthquake and to take part in rescue operations.
The JHCO is the only entity in Jordan responsible for delivering aid, the statement underscored, and any cash or in-kind donations will be delivered through the organization.


UK activates aid for Turkiye, Syria rescue efforts

UK activates aid for Turkiye, Syria rescue efforts
Updated 07 February 2023

UK activates aid for Turkiye, Syria rescue efforts

UK activates aid for Turkiye, Syria rescue efforts
  • Development minister: ‘The aid budget is under very considerable strain’
  • The UK is sending 76 experts and specialists to Turkiye, as well as an emergency response team

LONDON: The UK is sending aid to Syria and Turkiye to support earthquake recovery efforts, The Guardian reported.

Development Minister Andrew Mitchell said although Britain’s development budget faces “very considerable strain,” there are reserve funds that can be activated to respond to severe humanitarian disasters.

Dozens of countries around the world, as well as hundreds of aid organizations, have committed to sending aid and personnel to Turkiye and Syria in the wake of the earthquakes, which killed more than 5,000 people.

The UK is sending 76 experts and specialists to Turkiye, as well as an emergency response team, Mitchell said.

“The aid budget is under very considerable strain. But Britain always carves out a certain amount to cope with humanitarian crises,” he told Sky News.

The death toll from the series of earthquakes, which measured at magnitude 7.5, could rise to more than 20,000, the World Health Organization has warned.

“There’s continued potential of further collapses to happen so we do often see in the order of eightfold increases on the initial numbers,” said Catherine Smallwood, the WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe.

“We always see the same thing with earthquakes, unfortunately, which is that the initial reports of the numbers of people who have died or who have been injured will increase quite significantly in the week that follows.”