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.”


US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans
Updated 30 November 2022

US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans
  • Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories

BAGHDAD: The US team’s victory over Iran at the World Cup on Tuesday was closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Supporters view it as the leader of an “axis of resistance” against what they see as US imperialism, corrupt Arab rulers and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
The divide is especially intense in Lebanon and Iraq, where heavily armed Iran-backed political factions vie for political influence with opponents more oriented toward the West. In those countries, many believe Iran or the US are due for comeuppance — even if only on the pitch.
Others wished a plague on both their houses.
“Both are adversaries of Iraq and played a negative role in the country,” Haydar Shakar said in downtown Baghdad, where a cafe displayed the flags of both countries hanging outside. “It’s a sports tournament, and they’re both taking part in it. That’s all it is to us.”
A meme widely circulated ahead of Tuesday’s match between the US and Iran jokingly referred to it as “the first time they will play outside of Lebanon.” Another Twitter user joked that whoever wins the group stage “takes Iraq.”
The Iran-backed Hezbollah was the only armed group to keep its weapons after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. It says its arms are needed to defend the country from Israel and blames Lebanon’s economic crisis in part on US sanctions. Opponents decry Hezbollah as an “Iranian occupation,” while many Lebanese accuse both the US and Iran of meddling in their internal affairs.
In Iraq, the 2003 US-led invasion led to years of intense violence and sectarian strife, and Iran-backed political factions and militias largely filled the vacuum. While US forces and Iran-backed militias found themselves on the same side against the Islamic State extremist group, they have traded fire on several occasions since its defeat.
Both Lebanon and Iraq have had to contend with years of political gridlock, with the main dividing line running between Iran’s allies and opponents.
In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi militia captured the capital and much of the country’s north in 2014. The Houthis have been at war since then with an array of factions supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two US allies.
In Syria’s civil war, Iran supported President Bashar Assad’s government against rebels, some supported by the West. In the Palestinian territories, it backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant factions that do not recognize Israel and have carried out scores of attacks over the years.
Interviews with soccer fans in Beirut and Baghdad revealed mixed emotions about the match.
In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a center of Hezbollah support, young men draped in Iranian flags gathered in a cafe hung with a “Death to America” flag to watch the match.
“We are against America in football, politics and everything else,” Ali Nehme said. “God is with Lebanon and Iran.”
Across the city on the seafront promenade, Beirut resident Aline Noueyhed said, “Of course I’m not with Iran after all the disasters they made. Definitely, I’m with America.” She added, however, that the US also was “not 100 percent helping us.”
The post-game reaction in the streets of Beirut after the US defeated Iran 1-0, eliminating it from the tournament and advancing to the knockout round, was far more subdued than after the previous day’s win by Brazil — a fan favorite in Lebanon — over Switzerland.
In Baghdad, Ali Fadel was cheering for Iran, because “it’s a neighboring country, an Asian country.”
“There are many linkages between us and them,” he added.
Nour Sabah was rooting for the US because “they are a strong team, and (the US) controls the world.”
In Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, fans also gave mixed reactions.
Twenty-seven-year-old Zainab Fakhri was rooting for the US to beat Iran “to punish the Iranian regime that has been oppressing the women’s revolution,” referring to recent protests there.
At the same cafe, Aras Harb, 23, was backing Iran. “We prefer them because my family were able to flee there during the war, and the Iranian people are kind.”
Saad Mohammad, 20, had been hoping for a tie, fearing that a win could worsen an already alarming security situation. If locals celebrate the win, he said, “I fear Iran will launch rockets at us.”
Although the Iran supporters were visibly upset at their loss, the crowd filed out after the game without incident.
Regional politics hovered over the last matchup, at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran famously defeated the US 2-1, eliminating it from the tournament. That came less than two decades after Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the US-backed shah and protesters overran the US Embassy, leading to a prolonged hostage crisis.
French riot police were on site at the stadium in Lyon that year, but they weren’t needed. The teams posed together in a group photo, and Iran’s players even brought white roses for their opponents.
In this year’s matchup, allegiances have been scrambled by the nationwide protests gripping Iran, with some Iranians openly rooting against their own team. The players declined to sing along to their national anthem ahead of their opening match, in what was seen as an expression of sympathy for the protests, but reversed course and sang ahead of their next one.
In some neighborhoods of Tehran, people chanted “Death to the dictator!” after the match, even though it was past midnight local time.
Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who has researched the politics of sports, said World Cup fandom is not necessarily an indicator of political affiliation, even in countries with deep divisions.
Local sports in Lebanon are “highly politicized,” with all the major basketball and soccer clubs having political and sectarian affiliations, he said. But when it comes to the World Cup — where Lebanon has never qualified to play — fans latch on to any number of teams.
That’s true across the region, where fans sporting Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys can be found from Gaza to Afghanistan.
“This is one of the few spheres where people have the liberty and freedom to choose a country that they simply like and not the country where they think there’s an obligation for them to be affiliated with it,” Reiche said.


Morocco and UNESCO to work together to protect Sub-Saharan heritage

Morocco and UNESCO to work together to protect Sub-Saharan heritage
Updated 29 November 2022

Morocco and UNESCO to work together to protect Sub-Saharan heritage

Morocco and UNESCO to work together to protect Sub-Saharan heritage
  • Under an agreement signed on Tuesday in Rabat, they will cooperate in efforts to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural property

RABAT: The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will work with authorities in Morocco to protect heritage in Sub-Saharan African countries, under a partnership agreement signed in Rabat on Tuesday.

In particular they will cooperate in efforts to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural property. They will also share their expertise in the protection of cultural artifacts with specialists in museums, promote the role of museums in African societies, create inventories, and train heritage-conservation experts.

The agreement was signed on behalf of Mohammed Mehdi Bensaid, the Moroccan minister of youth, culture and communication, and Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general.

 


Iraqi prime minister and Iranian president vow to fight ‘terror’

 Iraqi prime minister and Iranian president vow to fight ‘terror’
Updated 29 November 2022

Iraqi prime minister and Iranian president vow to fight ‘terror’

 Iraqi prime minister and Iranian president vow to fight ‘terror’

TEHRAN: Tehran and Baghdad Tuesday identified fighting “terrorism,” maintaining mutual security and extending economic cooperation as key priorities during the new Iraqi prime minister’s first official visit to Iran.

Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani was received by President Ebrahim Raisi, who expressed hopes of bolstering ties that have lately been hit by tensions over Iran carrying out cross-border strikes against exiled opposition groups.

Al-Sudani came to power last month, after a year-long tussle between political factions over forming a government following an October 2021 general election.

“From our perspective and that of the Iraqi government, security, peace, cooperation and regional stability are very important,” Raisi told a joint press conference.

“As a result, the fight against terrorist groups, organized crime, drugs and other insecurity that threaten the region depends on the common will of our two nations,” he said.

Al-Sudani said that “our government is determined not to allow any group or party to use Iraqi territory to undermine and disrupt Iran’s security.”

Since nationwide protests erupted in Iran more than two months ago, Iranian officials have accused Kurdish opposition groups exiled in northern Iraq of stoking the unrest and the Islamic republic has repeatedly launched deadly cross-border strikes.

Such strikes — targeting Iranian-Kurdish groups in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region — resumed this month, even after Iraq’s federal government summoned Iran’s ambassador in late September to complain about cross-border missile and drone hits that killed at least seven people.

Iraq has announced in the past week that it will redeploy federal guards on the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran, rather than leaving the responsibility to Kurdish peshmerga forces — a move welcomed by Tehran.

Al-Sudani added that the two countries’ national security advisers would hold consultations to “establish a working mechanism for on-the-ground coordination to avoid any escalation.”

Al-Sudani also thanked Iran for its continued deliveries of gas and electricity, which have been in short supply in Iraq, while he also pointed to discussions on a “mechanism” to enable Iraq to pay Iran for these services.


Dubai's Careem celebrates 1bn rides

Dubai's Careem celebrates 1bn rides
Updated 29 November 2022

Dubai's Careem celebrates 1bn rides

Dubai's Careem celebrates 1bn rides
  • Family trip back home to India brings delight to employee
  • Super app had 10th anniversary in July

DUBAI: Hailing app Careem has celebrated the completion of 1 billion rides across the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.

The billionth journey was completed by Captain Razak Uppattil, who has completed 10,500 rides since joining Careem four years ago. 

To commemorate the milestone, the Dubai-based super app gave Uppattil a trip back home to visit his family in India.

He said: “It’s the people that I get to meet from all over the world that I really enjoy.

“I have three children back home in Kerala, India, and I am so excited I’ll see them soon.”

Genera Tesoro, who was Careem’s 1 billionth passenger, was given a year of ride-hailing trips to mark the milestone. 

Careem, which marked its 10-year anniversary in July, is now operating in more than 100 cities in 14 countries. It recently expanded its fleet in Qatar by more than 50 percent ahead of the World Cup.

 


Turkish ground op in Syria would ‘jeopardize’ anti-Daesh gains: Pentagon

Turkish ground op in Syria would ‘jeopardize’ anti-Daesh gains: Pentagon
Updated 29 November 2022

Turkish ground op in Syria would ‘jeopardize’ anti-Daesh gains: Pentagon

Turkish ground op in Syria would ‘jeopardize’ anti-Daesh gains: Pentagon
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces have played a key role in dislodging Daesh fighters from the territory they seized in the country

WASHINGTON: A Turkish ground operation in Syria would “severely jeopardize” gains made in the war against Daesh, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, urging restraint.
Turkiye has carried out air strikes against semi-autonomous Kurdish zones in Syria and Iraq since a deadly Istanbul bombing it blames on Kurdish groups, and has threatened to launch an operation on the ground in Syria.
The US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now the Kurds’ de facto army in northeast Syria, have played a key role in dislodging Daesh fighters from the territory they seized in the country.
“The continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardize the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against Daesh and would destabilize the region,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told journalists.
“We... remain concerned about a potential Turkish ground operation in Syria, and again would urge restraint,” he said, while also acknowledging Ankara’s security concerns.
Ryder said US forces have reduced the number of joint patrols with the SDF, but have not redeployed.
“We have reduced the number of patrols because... we do these partnering with the SDF, and so they have reduced the number of patrols that they’re doing,” he said.
Since 2016, Turkiye has launched several incursions against Kurdish forces in northern Syria that have allowed it to control areas along the border.