BEIRUT: A massive silo holding thousands of tons of grain at Beirut port is at risk of collapse because of a fire that has been smoldering for weeks amid Lebanon’s summer heat.
Flames and thick black smoke could be seen rising from the silo after the blaze flared up on Friday.
The fire prompted a warning by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati to “workers and members of the civil defense and the fire brigade not to approach the location for their safety and to avoid endangering their lives.”
Recent high temperatures are believed to have caused wheat in the silo — one of two massive structures that withstood the deadly blast at Beirut’s port two years ago — to ferment, igniting thousands of tons of grain.
Reports by the ministries of interior, economy, public works and environment have warned that “parts of the left side of the silo might be at risk of collapse.”
The threat to the silo is causing growing alarm among port workers and management of the facility.
Smoke and flames at the site also revive the painful memory of the deadly explosion that shook the port on Aug. 4, 2020.
Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi has asked the fire brigade and civil defense to immediately start “cooling down” the wheat silos.
While the Lebanese look on helplessly as the last of the wheat stored in the silo burns, mills and bakeries around the country are struggling with an acute shortage of subsidized flour used to make Lebanese pita bread.
Caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam said that 50,000 tons of wheat will arrive in Lebanon in the coming 10 days, ensuring a six-week supply.
Seven mills out of 11 have closed because they ran out of subsidized wheat, according to a bakery owners’ syndicate.
The presence of more than 500,000 tourists in Lebanon is adding to the strain on bread supplies, it added.
Meanwhile, the silo fire has revived simmering tensions between families of the port blast victims and government bodies.
Last April, government agencies recommended the silos be demolished due to the risks the structures pose to the surrounding area.
However, families and activists reject the demolition, saying that it will destroy “one of the main landmarks of the biggest explosion witnessed by Lebanon,” according to the Order of Engineers.
The silos “stand as a witness to a crime that affected everyone,” it said.
The Order of Engineers has called for work to “consolidate the affected silos.”
Experts say that the fire will die down eventually, but have warned against using water to fight the blaze, saying this might accelerate the fermentation process.
Political, security, judicial and military officials continue to blame each other for the port explosion.
Judicial investigations into the crime were suspended last November, due to political interventions and lawsuits filed against judge Tarek Bitar, who is heading the inquiry.
Defendants, including former MPs and ministers, are calling for Bitar to be removed from the case.
In a briefing submitted to the Security Council on Thursday, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, highlighted “the absence of progress in the judicial measures related to the Beirut port explosion case, which further saddens the families of the dead and wounded.”
Wronecka demanded that “hindrances obstructing the judicial course be removed, and a comprehensive and transparent investigation into the case be carried out.”
Saudi FM calls for global support amid MENA security pressures
Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud covered security pressures in Lebanon, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen
Urges global community to ‘cooperate for progress’ in combating the proliferation of weapons
Updated 25 September 2022
NEW YORK CITY: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud has reaffirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to the UN charter, calling on the international community to strengthen cooperation amid several global challenges.
In a wide-ranging speech on the fifth day of the 77th UN General Assembly in New York City, the minister covered several major geopolitical issues across the region and the world.
Outlining how the Kingdom’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and its charter is underpinned by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic and Arab values, Prince Faisal said that his country supports all efforts to “silence the guns, protect civilians, and provide prospects for development and peace.”
He added that the Kingdom supports “all efforts that can bring about a political solution to put an end to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis in order to stop the fighting and preserve international and regional peace and security.”
Moving to issues in the Middle East, the foreign minister said that the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development, which saw the participation of the US and nine Arab states, was an opportunity to “confirm collective action for a better world in the region for our peoples and our countries.”
He added that “security and stability in the Middle East requires a just and global solution for the Palestinian question,” calling for Palestinian state.
Commenting on Lebanon, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, he said these countries must not become a “breeding ground” for terrorists as they endure various crises of peace and stability.
“Afghanistan must not become a basis for terrorist operations,” the prince said.
Earlier in the day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised the Kingdom’s efforts campaigning for a truce in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis in the war-torn country.
Guterres made the remarks during a meeting with Prince Faisal, who covered the Yemeni crisis during his speech. The foreign minister reaffirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to a truce in Yemen.
Prince Faisal continued on the theme of Yemen’s crisis, telling the UN General Assembly that roads must be reopened, especially around Taiz, the country’s third-largest city.
He urged partners at the 77th UN General Assembly to “cooperate for progress” in the security field, calling on “the international community to counter the proliferation of weapons,” adding that the Kingdom is campaigning for “the Middle East to become free from these weapons.”
The foreign minister also referred to Sudan and Egypt, reaffirming the Kingdom’s support for the water needs of both countries.
He added that the Kingdom is committed to fighting climate change, with Saudi Arabia making particular contributions to the Paris Agreement.
The foreign minister said that the Kingdom is committed to “gradual and responsible change to diversified energy sources that are more sustainable,” noting that the global community must take into account the different economic and energy situations in every country.
He referred to the Kingdom’s Green Initiative, adding that Saudi Arabia is focussed on protecting the environment and green areas.
Prince Faisal concluded that he hoped the Kingdom’s “spirit of partnership and respect for a better world” would help to deliver Saudi Arabia’s message to the international community.
Morocco’s appeals court sentences 12 more migrants
The AMDH human rights group said the 12 migrants would be jailed for three years without parole after being prosecuted for “illegal entry onto Moroccan soil” and “violence against law enforcement officers”
Updated 25 September 2022
RABAT: A Moroccan appeals court has sentenced 12 Sudanese migrants to three years in jail over violence in the run-up to a June 24 border tragedy in which two dozen migrants died, a rights group said.
Around 2,000 people, many of them Sudanese, stormed the frontier on June 24 in an attempt to reach Spanish territory across one of the EU’s two land borders with Africa.
Rights groups have accused both Moroccan and Spanish security forces of responding with excessive force, leaving at least 23 migrants dead, the worst toll in years of such attempted crossings.
The AMDH human rights group said the 12 migrants would be jailed for three years without parole after being prosecuted for “illegal entry onto Moroccan soil” and “violence against law enforcement officers.”
“It’s a very harsh and unexpected sentence, given that they had initially been sentenced to 11 months in prison,” said Omar Naji of AMDH in the border town of Nador.
The June 24 tragedy followed days of clashes between Moroccan security forces in a forest near Melilla where migrants often spend months living rough before attempting to cross the heavily fortified barrier.
Naji said the 12 had been arrested in one of the clashes, six days before the border incident.
Since the tragedy, Morocco has sentenced dozens of migrants to prison terms of up to two and a half years on charges including illegal entry and belonging to criminal gangs.
The Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta have long been a magnet for people fleeing violence and poverty across Africa to seek refuge in Europe.
Iran lead negotiator to meet UN nuclear watchdog chief
The UN watchdog said early this month it was ‘not in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful’
Updated 25 September 2022
TEHRAN: The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency said on Saturday he will meet next week the chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, as attempts to revive the country’s nuclear deal stall.
“I will go to Austria to take part in the annual general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where I will meet with Director General Rafael Grossi,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Eslami told state television.
The Vienna-based IAEA’s annual conference takes place this year from Sept. 26-30.
The UN watchdog said early this month it was “not in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”
It has been pressing for answers on the presence of nuclear material at three undeclared sites and the issue led to a resolution that criticized Iran being passed at a June meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors.
The three sites represent a key sticking point in negotiations to restore a tattered 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Those negotiations began in Vienna in April 2021 but have repeatedly stalled. The US walked out of the original deal under then-President Donald Trump in 2018 and re-imposed biting sanctions, provoking Tehran into incrementally stepping back from its nuclear commitments.
Iran has repeatedly said it wants the IAEA to drop its interest in the three sites — a position that the nuclear watchdog says lacks credibility.
“I hope that my talks will put an end ... to the false accusations about certain (nuclear) sites stemming from political pressure and psychological operations exerted against Iran,” Eslami added.
In a speech at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi reiterated his country’s long-held insistence that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon.
Urgent reform of UN needed, says Egypt’s FM Shoukry
Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat
Egypt is also facing a potential water crisis
Updated 25 September 2022
NEW YORK CITY: Echoing other developing countries, Egypt’s top diplomat on Saturday implored countries to reform the UN and lamented double standards in how the world’s powerful nations deal with crises and expressed concern about growing national debt incurred during the pandemic.
Speaking at the annual UN Generally Assembly, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry also talked about Africa’s food crisis, saying one in every five people on the continent are at risk of hunger.
The pandemic along with the effects of climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have impacted the cost and availability of grain. Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat and had to take out loans to purchase wheat to feed the country’s poor.
Shoukry additionally urged support for poorer countries facing the ravages of climate change. “They are the most deserving of such support,” he said.
Egypt is host and president of the upcoming UN climate change conference, known as COP27.
Egypt, which has a population of over 103 million people, is also facing a potential water crisis from Ethiopia’s controversial mega-dam that is being built on the Blue Nile.
Shoukry said that while Egypt recognizes Ethiopia’s rights to development, Egypt will not let go of its right to the water of the Nile River, which he said has always been a part of the nation’s history.
How Syrian refugees became a scapegoat for Lebanese’s man-made catastrophe
Political discourse has grown increasingly toxic in tandem with deepening socio-economic crisis
Hostile narrative may spurred uptick in violence against the more than 852,000 Syrians residing in Lebanon
Updated 25 September 2022
DUBAI: When Dareen and her family fled to Lebanon in 2014, escaping violence in their home city of Aleppo, northern Syria, she thought their displacement would last a year at most. Eight years on, she and her three children still reside in an informal settlement in Chtaura, near the Syrian border.
Dareen is one of a UN-estimated 852,000 Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, who have seen their living conditions deteriorate since the onset of their host nation’s financial crisis in late 2019, which has been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine.
Amid this economic turmoil, the language of Lebanon’s political discourse has grown increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees, with pundits and ministers alike pushing a narrative that holds displaced households responsible for the country’s hardship and the ongoing strain on public services.
In the hope of easing this perceived “burden” on Lebanon’s crippled economy, the country’s caretaker government, which claims the number of Syrian refugees is closer to 1.5 million, has launched a scheme to repatriate them.
“Eleven years after the start of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon no longer has the capacity to bear this burden, especially under the current circumstances,” Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, told a ceremony in June launching this year’s UN-sponsored Lebanon Crisis Response Plan.
“I call on the international community to work with Lebanon to secure the return of Syrian refugees to their country, or else Lebanon will ... work to get Syrians out through legal means and the firm application of Lebanese law.”
According to the UN, Lebanon has appealed for $3.2 billion to address the ongoing impact of the Syria crisis. Around $9 billion has already been provided in assistance since 2015 through the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan.
Mikati’s comments, which amount to a thinly veiled ultimatum to the UN to send more financial assistance, followed similar remarks in May by the acting Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar, who said Lebanon could no longer afford to host such a large refugee population.
According to experts, the causes of Lebanon’s economic problems and its multiple overlapping crises are far more complex than the mere expense of hosting Syrian refugees, for which it receives global assistance.
In August, the World Bank accused Lebanon’s post-civil war leadership of orchestrating “a deliberate depression” by accumulating excessive debt, misusing and misspending commercial bank deposits, and weakening public-service delivery over a 30-year period.
Nevertheless, the experts say, Syrian refugees have become something of a convenient scapegoat to draw blame away from the nation’s embattled political elite.
In July, Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker minister of the displaced, said the government plans to begin returning at least 15,000 Syrian refugees per month. Calling the move “a humane, honorable, patriotic and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon,” he insisted it is now safe for refugees to return to Syria.
In a joint meeting with Charafeddine, Hussein Makhlouf, the Syrian regime’s minister of local administration, said “the doors are open for the return of Syrian refugees,” and the government of President Bashar Assad is prepared to facilitate their return.
Lebanon’s repatriation plan has been devised against the backdrop of mounting public resentment and even outright hostility toward Syrian refugees, as Lebanese citizens who are struggling to feed their families demand that the state prioritize their needs over those of perceived outsiders.
“I cannot bear the sight of them anymore,” Maria, a 51-year-old schoolteacher, told Arab News. “We are struggling already, and their presence is making it worse. There is only so much to go around without having to share with outsiders.
“When I see them begging on the streets, when I see them lining up with some form of welfare cards to pay for their goods, I catch myself fighting the urge to scream at them. They are not welcome here. It is our land, our food, our money. They should just go back home already.”
Some pundits and political figures have even claimed that, thanks to cash handouts by aid agencies, Syrian refugees have been getting more assistance than the poorest Lebanese. Such statements have fueled a narrative around Syrian refugees being responsible for the country’s overflowing cup of woe.
Posting in July on his official Twitter account, Nadim Gemayel, a member of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, said: “For Lebanon, the return of Syrian refugees is not an option, but rather a national necessity. If Syria is not safe for the Syrians to return, then their stay is not safe for the Lebanese, and recent events are proof of that, so either return or return.”
Concerned about the possible impact of this hardening narrative against Syrians, Najat Rushdi, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, has urged Lebanese public figures to refrain from stoking hostility.
9/10 Syrians in Lebanon are living in poverty.
Lebanon plans to deport 15,000 Syrians a month.
Many of the 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey fear being sent back after a shift in Ankara-Damascus ties.
Syrian medical student Faris Muhammad Al Ali recently lost his life in an attack by his peers in Hatay.
The toxic public discourse appears to have resulted in an uptick in violence against Syrians. In June, footage emerged on social media of a Lebanese landowner whipping a group of Syrian boys with a cable.
The boys, who were reportedly hired by the landowner to harvest cherries, can be seen in the footage with potatoes stuffed in their mouths like gags while the landowner beats them and accuses them of stealing.
Even state authorities in Lebanon have been accused of mistreating Syrians. A report published by the human rights monitor Amnesty International in March 2021 included the testimonies of 26 Syrians who claimed they had been tortured by Lebanese authorities, including beatings with metal rods and being held in stress positions.
In early September, Bashar Abdel Saud, a Syrian refugee, was allegedly tortured to death by members of Lebanon’s state security agency. When leaked photos of his badly bruised body appeared on social media, authorities claimed he had confessed to being a member of Daesh. Abdel Saud had been arrested for being in possession of a counterfeit $50 bill.
Despite these concerning incidents, many Syrian refugees say they would prefer to stay in Lebanon than go back home. “The reason I left is still there. Assad is still president,” Abu Faisal, 68, who lives in a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, told Arab News.
“I would rather die outside from a stranger’s humiliation than die in what I consider home by his torture and humiliation. I would live on a small patch of land isolated from the world and not go back.”
Some observers suspect Hezbollah, which has long been a prominent supporter of the Assad regime, is actively encouraging harmful social attitudes to pressure Syrian refugees to return home — and thereby burnish the regime’s global image and its labor force.
However, although the intensity of fighting has eased across much of Syria in recent months, human rights monitors say the country is still far from secure, with well-documented cases of returnees being detained, tortured, and even killed by the mistrustful and vengeful regime.
“My husband remains missing,” Dareen, the Syrian from Aleppo now living as a refugee with her family in Chtaura, told Arab News. “In 2018, he returned to Syria because he had been working on starting a project with a friend of his to make some money. I haven’t heard from him since the second day he was there.
“I was advised by my friends and family to continue my life as if he’s dead. I am certain he was arrested by Syrian henchmen. I would rather think of him as dead than languishing in Assad’s prison slaughterhouses.”
Evidence compiled by human rights monitors indicates returnees are not warmly embraced by the regime but are instead treated like traitors for having left.
“My sister-in-law went back to Syria to check on her sick brother last year,” said Dareen. “She was harassed on the Syrian border. The soldiers called her a traitor for leaving, called her a whore and threatened to rape her. She didn’t even want to come back here. She didn’t want to go through the border again, but she had to.”
The UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 3,057 cases of the regime arresting returnees between 2014 and 2021 — of which 203 were women and 244 were children. The majority of those returnees had come from Lebanon.
In light of these threats to the lives and well-being of returnees, aid agencies have repeatedly called on the Lebanese government not to deport refugees and to continue offering them sanctuary.
“Lebanon is obligated not to return or extradite anyone at risk of torture and is bound by the principle of non refoulement in customary international law, as a party to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment,” New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch said in a report in July.
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has likewise reminded the Lebanese government of its duty “to respect the fundamental right of all refugees to a voluntary, safe and dignified return.”