Tens of thousands gather across Lebanon for third day of protests

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Riot police stand guard as anti-government protesters try to remove a barbed-wire barrier to advance towards the government buildings during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP)
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Lebanese protesters wave national flags as they take part in a third day of protests against tax increases and official corruption in the southern city of Sidon, on October 19, 2019, after security forces made dozens of arrests. (AFP)
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Lebanese army soldiers pass by protesters on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, in Zouk Mikael on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrations swept through the eastern Mediterranean country in protest against dire economic conditions. (AFP)
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Black smoke rise from burning tires that were set fire to block a road during a protest against government's plans to impose new taxes in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP)
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People walk through damage a day after protests targeting the government over an economic crisis in Beirut, Lebanon October 19, 2019. (Reuters)
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Lebanese demonstrators block the way for cars on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, in Zouk Mikael on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrators swept through the eastern Mediterranean country to protest against dire economic conditions. (AFP)
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Protesters wave the national flag in downtown beirut as hundreds continued to gather on October 19, 2019 for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption after the security forces made dozens of arrests. (AFP)
Updated 03 November 2019

Tens of thousands gather across Lebanon for third day of protests

  • Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tires. Banks and many restaurants and shops remained closed
  • The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah

BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of Lebanese people took to the streets Saturday for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption despite several arrests by security forces.
They streamed into the streets around the country's parliament in Beirut, as well as elsewhere across the country, AFP journalists said, despite calls for calm from politicians and dozens of arrests on Friday.
The number of protesters grew steadily throughout the day, with major demonstrations in second city Tripoli, in the north, and other locations.
Many waved billowing Lebanese flags and insisted the protests should remain peaceful and non-sectarian.
The demonstrators are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon's political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.
They have crippled main roads and threatened to topple the country's fragile coalition government.
Most Lebanese politicians have uncharacteristically admitted the demonstrations are spontaneous, rather than blaming outside influence.
In Tripoli demonstrator Hoda Sayyur was unimpressed by the contrition some leaders displayed on television and echoed a widely-held hope that the entire political class be replaced.
"They took all our fundamental rights... We are dying at hospital gates," the woman in her fifties said.
"I will stay in the street... Since I was born, we've been spectators to their quarrels and corruption," she said.
The army on Saturday called on protesters to "express themselves peacefully without harming public and private property".

Saturday evening thousands were again packed into the Riyadh al-Solh Square in central Beirut, despite security forces using tear gas and water cannons to disperse similar crowds a day before.
The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made Friday on accusations of theft and arson.
But all of those held at the main police barracks were released Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said.
It said that the father of one man detained tried to set himself on fire in front of a police station.
The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government's swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition until Monday evening to give their backing to a reform package aimed at shoring up the government's finances and securing the disbursement of desperately needed economic assistance from donors.
He held a series of meetings Saturday regarding the situation, NNA said.
Hariri's political rival, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, gave his first response on Saturday, telling protesters their "message was heard loudly" and calling for political action.
In a thinly veiled criticism of Hariri, Nasrallah condemned those who had renounced their "responsibilities and were blaming others."
But he warned against demanding resignation of the government, saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis.
The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.
Karim el-Mufti, a Lebanese political scientist, said Hezbollah, which is fighting in neighbouring Syria alongside the government of Bashar al-Assad, wanted to avoid potential chaos at home.

In the southern port city of Tyre, supporters of Shia politician and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters Saturday, a witness said, a day after demonstrators had accused him of corruption.
His Amal political party condemned the attack and called for an investigation.
More than a quarter of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Many of the country's senior politicians came to prominence during the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
A protester in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold, said protesters are demanding their "rights". protesting.
"They are trying to portray us as a mob, but we are demanding our rights," he told a local television channel. "We are used to repression."
Lebanon has one of the highest public debt burdens in the world and the government is trying to reach agreement on a package of belt-tightening measures to cap the deficit in next year's budget.
The promised austerity moves are essential if Lebanon is to unlock $11 billion in economic assistance pledged by international donors last year.
Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighbouring Syria.
Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion -- more than 150 percent of gross domestic product -- according to the finance ministry.

Lebanon agrees final budget with no taxes 

Lebanon's finance minister said on Saturday following a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri that they had agreed on a final budget that did not include any additional taxes or fees in a bid to appease nationwide protests.
Lebanon President Michel Aoun said in a tweet that there would be a "reassuring solution" to the economic crisis.

(With Reuters)


Houthis ‘using trapped families in Marib as human shield’

Updated 27 February 2021

Houthis ‘using trapped families in Marib as human shield’

  • Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas

AL-MUKALLA: Hundreds of Yemeni families trapped inside their camps in Marib province by Iran-backed Houthis are being used as a human shield against government forces, a Yemen government unit has claimed.

In a report seen by Arab News on Saturday, the internationally recognized government’s Executive Unit for IDP Camps said that militia fighters had besieged camps and planted land mines on main roads to stop families escaping and hinder advancing troops.

“Houthis have prevented 470 families from fleeing, using them as human shields. Until today, many families in the camps are still trapped by the Houthis,” the report said.

Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas. 

The government unit has appealed to the rebels to stop using displaced families as hostages and allow them to leave the camps.

“The Executive Unit for IDP Camps calls on the Houthis to respect international humanitarian law and stop targeting civilians and displaced persons, and to open safe corridors in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

The Houthis earlier this month renewed a bloody offensive on Marib, an oil-rich city and the government’s last bastion in the northern half of the country. For four weeks, the Houthis have faced stiff resistance from government forces backed by massive air and logistics support from the Arab coalition. 

Army commanders say that hundreds of Houthis have been killed, wounded or captured and their advance on Marib halted. 

Maj. Gen. Nasser Al-Thaybani, commander of the army’s Military Operation Authority, said that more than half the Houthi fighters sent to seize Marib have died or been wounded in the fighting, while army troops and allied tribesmen have pushed back all of the Houthi attacks on government-controlled areas. 

Yemeni government forces also suffered heavy casualties during fierce clashes.

Local officers and media said on Saturday that Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghani Sha’alan, commander of the Special Security Forces in Marib, was one of several government soldiers who died in fighting with the rebels near Balouq mountain in Serwah district, west of Marib city, on Friday. 

A local military officer, who declined to be named, told Arab News that Sha’alan was leading government troops pushing back a Houthi attack on the peak, which was claimed by government forces last week.

Several army commanders and tribal leaders have been killed since the beginning of the rebel offensive on Marib.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday criticized international rights groups over their failure to “name and shame” the Houthis for attacking residential areas after the densely populated city was targeted by 10 ballistic missiles in the previous 24 hours.

“Since the beginning of February, the province has come under the largest and fiercest Houthi attack in which the militia used all kinds of heavy weapons, including artillery, explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles,” the ministry said in a statement. 

On Friday, Yemen’s Prime Minister, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, hailed military support from the Arab coalition to help tilt the war in the army’s favor, vowing to continue backing army troops and tribesmen until they push the Houthi out of areas under their control.


Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

Updated 27 February 2021

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

  • Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel
  • Comments follow Friday’s attack on Syria-Iraq border compound by US jets

LONDON: US airstrikes in Syria demonstrate that Iran should expect retaliation for supporting militia groups that threaten American interests, President Joe Biden has warned.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said when asked about Friday morning’s strikes on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The Pentagon said the attack was carried out by two US Air Force F-15E aircraft that fired seven missiles.

The pair destroyed nine buildings used by Iran-backed militias and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria.
Officials said the strikes were not intended to destroy the groups, but to demonstrate that the US “will act firmly” to avoid greater regional escalations.
The airstrikes were “legal and appropriate” as they “took out facilities housing valuable capabilities used by the militia groups to attack US and allied forces in Iraq,” officials said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the decision was “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden “used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.”
She said the strikes were designed to deter future actions by Iran-backed militias following a rocket attack on Feb. 15 in Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member.
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said the strikes resulted in “casualties,” but declined to comment on the details.
An Iraqi militia official with close links to Iran said one fighter was killed in the strike and several others wounded.
The group housed in the compound is known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades — an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group sponsored by Iran.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons. It reported that 22 fighters from an Iraqi umbrella group of militias were killed.
Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed that one of its fighters was killed and warned that it had the right to retaliate.

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Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Updated 27 February 2021

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

  • In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s revolution, thousands of Ennahda supporters marched in Tunis
  • The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety and disillusionment with democracy

TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest political party assembled an immense crowd of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and the prime minister.
In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters marched through central Tunis chanting “The people want to protect institutions!” and “The people want national unity!.”
The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the UGTT, the powerful main labor union, as debt repayments loom.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
Banned before the revolution, it has been a member of most governing coalitions since then and, although its share of the vote has fallen in recent years, it still holds the most seats in parliament.
“Nationalists, Islamists, democrats and communists,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, “we were gathered together during the dictatorship ... and we must unite again.”
The most recent election, in 2019, delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
When the government collapsed after only five months in office, Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister.
But they soon fell out, and Mechichi turned for support to the two biggest parties — Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however.
Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting last month against inequality and police abuses focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahda.
Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular opposition to Saied — raising the spectre of competing protest movements.
“This is a strong message that all the people want dialogue and national unity,” Fethi Ayadi, a senior Ennahda official, told Reuters.
To add to the tensions, demands by foreign lenders for spending cuts, which could lead to unpopular reductions in state programs, are opposed by the UGTT.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans.
But Tunisia’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began, and market concerns about its ability to raise funds are reflected in sharp price rises for Tunisian credit default swaps — insurance against default on its debt. ($1 = 2.7 Tunisian dinars)


Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Updated 27 February 2021

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

  • It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks
  • Interim PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map

TRIPOLI: The Libyan parliament will discuss holding a vote of confidence on a new unified government for the divided country on March 8, its powerful speaker Aguila Saleh said.
Oil-rich Libya has been mired in chaos since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a popular uprising backed by a NATO air campaign a decade ago.
Its Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, while eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a parallel administration based in the east.
“Parliament will convene to discuss a vote of confidence on the government on Monday, March 8, at 11 am in Sirte if the 5+5 Joint Military Commission guarantees the security of the meeting,” Saleh said in a statement late Friday, referring to a city halfway between east and west.
The military commission is a forum bringing together five representatives from each side.
“If that proves impossible, the session will be held in the temporary seat of parliament in Tobruk at the same date and time,” he said, adding that the military committee would need to advise the parliament in advance.
It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map.
He said he had submitted to Saleh a “vision” for a cabinet line-up that would help steer Libya to elections in December, and that the names of proposed ministers would be disclosed in parliament during the confidence vote.
Parliament has 21 days to vote on the line-up, according to the road map.
Dbeibah was selected early this month in a UN-sponsored inter-Libyan dialogue, the latest internationally backed bid to salvage the country from a decade of conflict and fragmented political fiefdoms.
Saleh said Friday that Dbeibah should choose “competent people with integrity, from across the country, in order to achieve (national) consensus” for his government.
“Everyone should be represented so that (Libya) can emerge from the tunnel,” Saleh said.
If approved, a new cabinet would replace the Tripoli-based GNA, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the parallel administration in the east.
The premier will then face the giant task of unifying Libya’s proliferating institutions and leading the transition up to December 24 polls.


Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

Updated 27 February 2021

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

  • Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed
  • Militia groups responsible for attacking bases targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door

LONDON: Eight Iraqi interpreters who worked with British forces fighting Daesh have said they fear for their lives after receiving threats from Iranian-backed militias.
Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed to anti-coalition groups targeting bases used by US and UK troops, The Times reported.
The interpreters stopped translating for British forces at the Camp Taji military base in March 2020 after troops who were training Iraqi forces began to leave the country.
Two interpreters told the British newspaper that their full names, identification numbers and vehicle registrations were handed over to Iraqi Security Forces and the information was handed over to checkpoints in Baghdad. This meant that the data ended up being accessed by Iranian-backed militias.
Militia groups responsible for attacking bases where coalition troops were stationed targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door. They had told Iraqis working with coalition forces to work with them instead.
The interpreters have moved, except for one who could not afford to do so. Some have left their families amid concerns that they would be found and killed.
The UK’s Ministry of Defense said it was investigating the allegations. It is understood that the British military believes there were no data breaches and that standard security was followed.
Another interpreter said that Iranian-backed militias increased their targeting of coalition bases after the death of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
He said that tougher security requirements after the attacks meant that interpreters had to supply their full documentation, including vehicle details, to the coalition.
“They told us they would not pass this information to the Iraqi government, but it was then circulated for all the checkpoints throughout Baghdad. Many of these checkpoints are joint with the Popular Mobilization Forces — the legal name of these militias, of which many of them have loyalty to Iran,” he told The Times.
He is appealing to Britain to give him and his family sanctuary. “We are not a huge number, there are only eight of us with our families.”
The Ministry of Defense said: “While we do not employ interpreters in Iraq directly, we take any breach of personal security extremely seriously. We hold our contractors to the highest standards and are investigating.”