No sign of new cabinet as Lebanese leaders meet, bank curbs continue

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri meets with President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 7, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 08 November 2019

No sign of new cabinet as Lebanese leaders meet, bank curbs continue

  • Most financial transfers out remain blocked
  • Customers find curbs on withdrawing hard currency

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s outgoing Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri met President Michel Aoun on Thursday without announcing progress toward forming a new government, as banking sources said most financial transfers out of the country remained blocked.
Already facing the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, Lebanon has been pitched deeper into turmoil since Oct. 17 by an unprecedented wave of protests against the ruling elite that led Hariri to resign as prime minister on Oct 29.
Banks reopened on Friday after a two-week closure but customers have encountered restrictions on transfers out of the country and withdrawals of hard currency.
Maronite Christian politician Samy Gemayel warned that the financial system was on the verge of collapse, and urged the immediate formation of a politically neutral government.
A banking source said that generally all international transfers were still being blocked bar some exceptions such as foreign mortgage payments and tuition fees. A second banking source said restrictions had gotten tighter.
The chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon said earlier this week the banks were not applying a policy of restrictions “but we are prioritising” after the two-week closure that had led requests to pile up.
Hariri has been holding closed-door meetings with other factions in the outgoing coalition cabinet over how the next government should be formed, but there have been no signs of movement toward an agreement.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an influential Shiite politician, said he insisted Hariri be nominated as prime minister again, saying this was in Lebanon’s interest.
Aoun has yet to formally start the process of consultations with lawmakers over nominating the new prime minister. The presidency said Aoun and Hariri discussed contacts aimed at solving “the current government situation.”
Hariri said his resignation was responding to protesters whose demands include a new government devoid of politicians accused of corruption. Hariri has held two meetings this week with Gebran Bassil, a son-in-law of Aoun and head of the political party he founded.
Both Aoun and Berri are allies of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, which has not said who it backs to be the next prime minister.
“A HUGE” COLLAPSE AHEAD
Leading Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, who had two ministers in the outgoing cabinet, appeared to take aim at Hariri and Bassil, saying on Twitter that despite the protests and social and economic dangers “they were meeting on how to improve and beautify” a political deal they struck in 2016.
Gemayel, whose Kataeb party was not part of the outgoing cabinet, said the main players had not understood the depth of the protest movement.
“I don’t see any change in the behavior of any of the main actors after everything that happened,” he told Reuters. “They are still trying to form a government where they can all be happy, and this is not what the people are asking for.”
The economy is choked by one of the world’s largest debt burdens as a result of years of inefficiency, waste and corruption. Growth, low for years, is now around zero.
Capital inflows vital to financing Lebanon’s state budget and trade deficits have been slowing for years, contributing recently to a scarcity of foreign currency and the emergence of a black market for the pegged Lebanese pound.
Gemayel said Lebanon was at the beginning of “a huge monetary and financial collapse.”
“We are heading to a huge problem of purchasing power, a huge problem of inflation, a huge problem of poverty,” he said.
He added that he expected restrictions on financial transactions would increase as banks sought to keep their cash.
Two importers indicated access to finance was not improving.
“So far we are still finding some liquidity to manage some transactions but the cash is being squeezed so we are worried about the longer-term,” said Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products and Drinks.
A second importer said his bank would not allow him to make any more international transfers.


Al-Shabab militants storm Somali jail, seven soldiers killed

Updated 57 min 54 sec ago

Al-Shabab militants storm Somali jail, seven soldiers killed

  • Al Shabab said it had freed at least 400 prisoners, many of them its members, in its assault on the main prison in Bosaso

BOSASO, Somalia: At least seven soldiers were killed when fighters of the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab stormed a jail in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland early on Friday, police and the group said.
Al-Shabab said it had freed at least 400 prisoners, many of them its members, in its assault on the main prison in Bosaso, Puntland’s largest city, in the early hours of Friday. The authorities did not confirm that figure.
“Last night many well-armed men attacked us from various directions. We fought back but finally they entered the central jail by force using explosions. They freed the prisoners and took most with them,” Mohamed Abdi, a prison guard, said.
“There was a hellish battle... As I fought inside, we lost five soldiers.”
He said two other soldiers who had been sent to reinforce the regular prison guards were killed in their car which was set on fire.
Al-Shabab confirmed that its fighters had carried out the attack and said they had freed at least 400 prisoners. The group often exaggerates its successes in such assaults.
“The prisoners included men and women who were Al-Shabab members and were in jail for over 10 years,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al-Shabab’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters.
Al-Shabab frequently carries out such attacks in Somalia and elsewhere as part of its campaign to oust the central government in Mogadishu and establish its own rule based on its strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
Bosaso police commander, Col. Hussein Ali, said an operation was underway to recapture prisoners who had escaped or had been taken away by the fighters.


Massive security net in Iraq as Pope Francis begins visit

Updated 05 March 2021

Massive security net in Iraq as Pope Francis begins visit

  • Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope
  • The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul

ROME: Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Pope Francis during his four-day visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.A senior security official who has been briefed on the security plan said that forces involved had been trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, from street battles to bombings and rocket attacks.
Large-scale exercises included hypothetical threats among preparations for the March 5-8 visit, the first-ever by a pope to Iraq. As well as concerns over violence, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, further complicating preparations.
The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict. Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of Prophet Abraham who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Interior Ministry special forces and the army will set up a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes, while the air force will operate drones around the clock to monitor the routes he will take. There will be an explosives team and
counterterrorism personnel on standby in case of any suspicious devices or street battles.
Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope. A technical team can also jam or cut off suspicious phone calls or radio communications, he added.
About 10,000 security personnel will be deployed to protect Francis, who may travel in armored cars in what would be a departure from the norm for him.
Pope Francis said in a video message on Thursday that he wants to be seen by the Iraqi people as a “penitent pilgrim” asking God for “forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” and for “consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”
He added:  “I come among you like a pilgrim of peace and I repeat, you are all brothers. I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity animated by desire to pray together and to walk together, also with brothers and sisters belonging to other religious traditions.”
A special bronze medal has been minted by the Vatican to celebrate the pope’s visit. Vatican sources told Arab News that the medal will be one of the gifts that the pope will give to Iraqi representatives.
The medal has been designed by artists from the Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico, the dedicated branch of the Vatican State Post Office for stamps and coins. It features the map of Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a palm tree and Abraham leaving Ur. In the lower part of the medal, there is the inscription of the apostolic visit’s dates (March 5-8) in Latin, the official language of the Vatican. In its upper part the medal reads “Visit Iraquiam,” Latin for “Visit to Iraq.”


Massive security net in Iraq as pope begins visit ‘like a pilgrim of peace’

Updated 05 March 2021

Massive security net in Iraq as pope begins visit ‘like a pilgrim of peace’

  • Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope
  • The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul

ROME: Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Pope Francis during his four-day visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.A senior security official who has been briefed on the security plan said that forces involved had been trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, from street battles to bombings and rocket attacks.
Large-scale exercises included hypothetical threats among preparations for the March 5-8 visit, the first-ever by a pope to Iraq. As well as concerns over violence, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, further complicating preparations.
The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict. Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of Prophet Abraham who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Interior Ministry special forces and the army will set up a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes, while the air force will operate drones around the clock to monitor the routes he will take. There will be an explosives team and
counterterrorism personnel on standby in case of any suspicious devices or street battles.
Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope. A technical team can also jam or cut off suspicious phone calls or radio communications, he added.
About 10,000 security personnel will be deployed to protect Francis, who may travel in armored cars in what would be a departure from the norm for him.
Pope Francis said in a video message on Thursday that he wants to be seen by the Iraqi people as a “penitent pilgrim” asking God for “forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” and for “consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”
He added:  “I come among you like a pilgrim of peace and I repeat, you are all brothers. I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity animated by desire to pray together and to walk together, also with brothers and sisters belonging to other religious traditions.”
A special bronze medal has been minted by the Vatican to celebrate the pope’s visit. Vatican sources told Arab News that the medal will be one of the gifts that the pope will give to Iraqi representatives.
The medal has been designed by artists from the Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico, the dedicated branch of the Vatican State Post Office for stamps and coins. It features the map of Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a palm tree and Abraham leaving Ur. In the lower part of the medal, there is the inscription of the apostolic visit’s dates (March 5-8) in Latin, the official language of the Vatican. In its upper part the medal reads “Visit Iraquiam,” Latin for “Visit to Iraq.”

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Egypt begins vaccine rollout to wider population

Updated 05 March 2021

Egypt begins vaccine rollout to wider population

  • Nearly 153,000 people have applied for vaccinations since Sunday when Egypt opened online registration

CAIRO: Egypt on Thursday expanded its coronavirus vaccination rollout to include the elderly and people with chronic diseases after several weeks of vaccinating medical staff, the Cabinet said.
Nearly 153,000 people have applied for vaccinations since Sunday when the North African country opened online registration, the Cabinet said in a statement.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with more than 100 million, has prepared 40 vaccination centers and plans to increase that number after the arrival of more vaccine batches, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said.
Egypt received 350,000 doses of a coronavirus vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) in two batches since December, in addition to 50,000 doses of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca in February.
It is hoping to receive vaccines through the COVAX facility, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable distribution of vaccines, in the coming weeks.
On Feb. 24, the Egyptian Drug Authority approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use.
Egypt’s Prime Speed Medical Services said it had obtained the right to provide Sputnik V in Egypt in a statement to the stock exchange, without giving details.
Egypt began vaccinating frontline medical staff against COVID-19 on Jan. 24 using the Chinese vaccine.
Those getting the Sinopharm jab have a second dose after 21 days while those who receive the AstraZeneca vaccine wait 12 weeks for the second dose, said Health Minister Hala Zayed.
As of Wednesday, Egypt had confirmed 184,168 coronavirus cases, including 10,822 deaths, since the start of the pandemic.
However, health officials say the real number is likely far higher due to a relatively low rate of coronavirus testing and the exclusion of private test results.
Meanwhile, Sudan will begin vaccinating healthcare workers followed by people aged 45 or older with chronic conditions for free next week after becoming the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to benefit from COVAX facility vaccines.
Sudan received 828,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-produced vaccine on Wednesday at Khartoum airport, a Health Ministry official said.
The delivery follows that of 4.5 metric tons of syringes and disposal boxes through COVAX in late February.
Sudan says it expects to receive the remainder of a total 3.4 million doses through COVAX, a vaccine-sharing program co-led by the World Health Organization, in the second quarter of this year.
It aims to cover 20 percent of its population of 44 million through COVAX by September, Health Ministry officials said.
“This is an essential part of our battle against coronavirus,” Health Minister Omer Elnageib said.
Sudan was also in initial discussions to produce the vaccine domestically, Elnageib added.
Sudan is a young country, with only about 4 percent of its population over the age of 65, according to UN statistics.
It has been suffering from a long economic crisis that has left it unable to import some basic medicines and its health care system suffered from decades of neglect and sanctions under former President Omar Bashir before his overthrow in 2019.
As of March 1, Sudan had officially recorded 28,545 cases of coronavirus since the start of the pandemic one year ago, including 1,895 deaths.


Egypt and Greece discuss cooperation in eastern Mediterranean

Updated 05 March 2021

Egypt and Greece discuss cooperation in eastern Mediterranean

  • President El-Sisi keen to advance ties in economic, energy, security and military fields

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have discussed areas of cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean.

This came hours after Turkey announced its willingness to negotiate with Egypt in order to reach an agreement to demarcate the maritime borders in the oil-rich region.

The Egyptian presidential spokesman, Bassam Radi, said that the call between the two officials discussed the close bilateral relations that bring the two countries together in various fields, especially cooperation in energy and the eastern Mediterranean.

During the call, the Egyptian president confirmed the strength of Egyptian-Greek relations.

El-Sisi expressed Egypt’s aspiration to advance various aspects of constructive cooperation, especially in economic and energy fields, and on areas of security.

The Greek prime minister affirmed his keenness to exchange views and consult with the president on regional issues of common interest.

He pointed out the importance of mutual coordination especially in the energy sector and in the eastern Mediterranean.

The phone call came hours after a statement made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who told a press conference that Turkey and Egypt may negotiate the demarcation of the eastern Mediterranean borders if their relations allow such a step.

Turkish presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, expressed his country’s desire to restore relations with Egypt back in October.

Turkey’s conflict has intensified with neighboring countries, especially Greece and Cyprus, since 2019 to control regional waters that are subject to international disagreement, with the aim of converting them into Turkish concession areas, which are likely to contain quantities of natural gas.

While Egypt has demarcated its borders with Greece, President El-Sisi last October ratified an agreement signed on Aug. 6, 2020 between the Egyptian and Greek governments regarding the designation of the exclusive economic zone.

In 2019, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian territories held the EastMed Gas Forum without Turkey.

Turkey’s gas exploration in maritime areas disputed with Greece and Cyprus has poisoned relations between these parties for months.