Blast at Iranian ballistic missile plant ‘was caused by sabotage’, says security analyst

This combo image from the European Commission's Sentinel-2 satellite shows a June 21, 2020 photo (top) of the Iran blast site and after the explosion on June 26, 2020. (European Commission via AP)
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Updated 28 June 2020

Blast at Iranian ballistic missile plant ‘was caused by sabotage’, says security analyst

  • New satellite images show charred and blackened scrubland above underground site 20km east of Tehran
  • Iranian state TV said the blast had been caused by leaking gas in ‘a public area’

JEDDAH: A massive explosion at an Iranian missile plant that shook Tehran and sent a massive fireball shooting into the night sky was almost certainly caused by sabotage, a leading security analyst told Arab News on Saturday.

The blast happened at the Khojir military explosive manufacturing and testing site in the Parchin defense industries area, in the Alborz mountains about 20 km east of the capital.

The plant, which has a hidden underground tunnel system, produces and tests artillery rockets and ballistic and cruise missiles. New satellite photos of the site showed hundreds of meters of charred and blackened scrubland.

“Although military and defense industry accidents do occur in Iran, the consensus appears to be a cyberstrike by Israel against Iran,” said Dr. Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.

“The ongoing cyberwar between Iran and Israel is not new. Iranian cyberforces attacked Israeli infrastructure in April, specifically water and sewage treatment facilities. Israeli cyberforces retaliated the following month against Iranian facilities, military industries and ports. They attacked Shahid Rajaee Port in an attempt to shut it down.

“Although sabotage can occur from within the facility, that is doubtful. But from outside Iran, that is another story. The tactic of placing defective parts into a supply chain to create such an event cannot be ruled out either.

“To be sure, the timing of the explosion is important given continued Iranian mischief in the region.  As these tensions will probably grow in the coming months, the tit-for-tat nature of cyberwar is part of a troubled security landscape. The Khojir event is a continuation of the Stuxnex virus used 10 years ago to disrupt and deter Tehran’s military industry.”

Iranian state TV said the blast had been caused by leaking gas in “a public area,” but did not explain why the incident was handled by military officials rather than civilian firefighters. The explosion on Friday appeared to have struck a plant operated by the Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group, which makes solid-propellant rockets, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said Khojir was the “site of numerous tunnels, some suspected of use for arms assembly.” Large industrial buildings at the site visible from satellite photographs also suggest missile assembly.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency says Iran overall has the largest underground facility program in the Middle East. Such sites “support most facets of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities, including the operational force and the missile development and production program,” the DIA said in 2019. 

Iran’s missile and space programs have suffered a series of explosions. The most notable was in 2011, when a blast at a missile base near Tehran killed Revolutionary Guard commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam and 16 others. Authorities officially said the blast was an accident, but conducted secret interrogations on suspicion that Israel was behind it.


US working ‘intensively’ to bring Israeli-Palestinian violence to an end — Blinken

Updated 18 May 2021

US working ‘intensively’ to bring Israeli-Palestinian violence to an end — Blinken

COPENHAGEN: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged all parties in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to protect civilians and said the United States is working intensively to an end to the violence.
“We have been working around the clock through diplomatic channels to try to bring an end to the conflict,” Blinken said at a joint briefing with Denmark’s foreign minister in Copenhagen.
The fighting entered a second week on Monday as Israel bombed targets in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired rocket barrages at Israeli cities.
Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll since the hostilities flared at 198, including 58 children and 34 women. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children, Israeli authorities say.
“The United States remains greatly concerned by the escalating violence. Hundreds of people killed or injured, including children being pulled from the rubble,” he said.
“We are ready to lend support if the parties (...) seek a cease-fire,” Blinken said.
Blinken said Israel has the right to defend itself, but said he had been alarmed that journalists and medical workers had been put at risk, in particular after Israel on Saturday destroyed a tower block in Gaza housing the offices of the US-based Associated Press and other news media.
The United States has requested additional details from Israel regarding the attack, Blinken said.


Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up

Updated 18 May 2021

Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up

  • Palestinian death toll at 212, including 61 children and 36 women, since hostilities began last week
  • Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children

GAZA/TEL AVIV: More than a week of fighting between Israel and Hamas showed few signs of abating on Tuesday despite intense US and global diplomacy to stop the region’s fiercest hostilities in years.
The Israeli military said late on Monday that Hamas and other Palestinian groups had fired about 3,350 rockets from Gaza – 200 of them on Monday alone – and that Israeli air and artillery strikes had killed at least 130 militants.
Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll at 212, including 61 children and 36 women, since hostilities began last week. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children.
Amid seemingly fruitless diplomatic efforts to stop the violence, the top US military officer, Army General Mark Milley, warned that the violence could spread.
“My assessment is that you risk broader destabilization and you risk a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting continues,” Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters before landing in Brussels on Monday for talks with NATO allies. “It’s in no one’s interest to continue fighting.”
Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian enclave continued overnight. Soon after dawn, missiles struck two buildings in Gaza City, sending plumes of thick smoke into the air.
Militants in the Strip fired rockets early on Tuesday that set off sirens in southern Israeli cities, sending thousands running for bomb shelters.
There were no immediate reports of injuries on either side.
The overnight rocket fire from Gaza appeared to be less than in previous nights. There was a six-hour lull in rocket fire overnight before they again began being launched at dawn, according to rocket siren information from the Israeli military.
US President Joe Biden expressed his support for a cease-fire during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the White House said in a statement.
But Netanyahu told Israelis earlier that strikes against militant sites and leaders in Gaza would carry on.
“The directive is to continue to strike at terror targets,” he said in a televised speech, after meeting with military and intelligence chiefs. “We will continue to act as necessary to restore peace and security to all residents of Israel.”
The armed wing of Hamas promised more rockets in return: “The criminal Zionist enemy intensified its bombing of homes and residential apartments in the recent hours, and therefore, we warn the enemy that if it did not stop that immediately, we would resume rocketing Tel Aviv,” said spokesman Abu Ubaida.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all sides to protect civilians.
Although stressing that Israel had the right to defend itself, Blinken said he had not seen any evidence from Israel about its suggestion that Hamas was operating out of a building housing media outlets – including the US-based Associated Press – which was destroyed in an Israeli missile strike at the weekend.
Hamas denied having offices in the building. “These are false allegations and an attempt to justify the crime of targeting a civilian tower,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
Egypt and UN mediators also stepped up diplomatic efforts, while the UN General Assembly will meet to discuss the violence on Thursday.
The Biden administration approved the potential sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, and congressional sources said on Monday that US lawmakers were not expected to object to the deal.
Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The hostilities between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza have been accompanied by an uptick of violence in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-rule.
There have also been clashes between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities in mixed areas.
Israel’s president has warned that tension between Jewish and Arab Israelis could devolve into “civil war.”
General strikes are planned for Tuesday in Arab towns within Israel and Palestinian towns in the West Bank, with posts on social media urging solidarity “from the sea to the river.”


Turkey kills top Kurdish commander: Erdogan

Updated 17 May 2021

Turkey kills top Kurdish commander: Erdogan

  • Erdogan said the military push had eliminated a Syrian-born "terrorist" who used the nom de guerre Sofi Nurettin
  • Turkish army regularly conducts cross-border operations and air raids against PKK bases in northern Iraq

ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that Turkish forces had killed a top Syrian Kurdish commander during an offensive in neighboring Iraq.
The Turkish army last month launched a new ground and air offensive against militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party dubbed Operation Claw Lightning.
Erdogan said the military push had eliminated a Syrian-born “terrorist” who used the nom de guerre Sofi Nurettin.
He said Nurettin had served as the PKK’s top military commander in Syria.
Nurettin “was neutralized by the operation carried out in northern Iraq,” Erdogan said in televised remarks.
The PKK — listed as a terror group by Ankara and much of the international community — has been using Iraq’s northern mountains as a springboard in its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
The Turkish army regularly conducts cross-border operations and air raids against PKK bases in northern Iraq.
Turkey launched another operation in February against PKK rebels holed up in the northern Iraqi region of Dohuk.
That raid created controversy because it was designed in part to rescue 12 Turkish soldiers and an Iraqi held captive by the PKK in a cave.
Turkey accused the PKK of executing the 13 men before they could be freed.
Erdogan said on Monday that Nurettin bore partial responsibility for the 13 deaths.

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Egypt, Sudan agree to reach deal for operation of Renaissance Dam

Updated 17 May 2021

Egypt, Sudan agree to reach deal for operation of Renaissance Dam

  • Egyptian president praises Khartoum’s efforts to promote economic structural reforms

CAIRO: Egypt and Sudan affirmed during a meeting in Paris, France that the issues related to the Renaissance Dam are a matter of national security.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council and Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces Abdel Fattah El-Burhan reviewed the latest developments during the talks.

They said that the two countries would agree to reach a fair and binding legal agreement regarding the process of filling and operating the Renaissance Dam in a way that takes into consideration the common interests of all parties involved.

The talks also focused on developments along the Ethiopia-Sudan border, as well as issues related to crises in the region, and called for cooperation to continue between Egypt and Sudan.

President El-Sisi praised the strong relations between the two countries, expressing Egypt’s aspiration to deepen their ties in a way that contributes to achieving mutual interests, especially at the security, military and economic levels.

El-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s keenness to participate in the International Conference to Support the Sudanese Transition, which has the aim of achieving political and economic stability in Sudan.

The Egyptian president also referred to the link between Sudanese national security and that of Egypt and the historical ties that bind the two Nile Valley nations.

He highlighted Egypt’s commitment to supporting the Sudanese government achieve economic stability, eliminate its accumulated debt and reduce its financial burdens.

Egypt will take part in the international initiative to settle Sudan’s debt by using its share with the International Monetary Fund.

El-Sisi praised the steps that Sudan is taking in the direction of structural economic reform.

“These measures reflect a real political will to make the transitional stage successful,” he said, adding that Egypt was ready to apply its experience in economic reform in training Sudanese cadres.

El-Burhan expressed Sudan’s deep appreciation for Egypt’s efforts to support the country during its transitional phase.

“Such efforts are embodied in the president’s keenness to personally participate in the current Paris conference to support Sudan, consolidating the strength of extended ties between the two countries,” said El-Burhan.

He affirmed that there were broad prospects for developing cooperation between the two countries and underlined Sudan’s eagerness to provide a supportive environment to this end.


France to cancel $5 billion Sudan debt: Macron

Updated 18 May 2021

France to cancel $5 billion Sudan debt: Macron

  • ‘France are in favour of an outright cancellation of our debt to Sudan’, Macron told an international summit on Monday

PARIS: IMF member countries have agreed to clear Sudan’s arrears to the institution, France’s president said on Monday, removing a final hurdle to the African nation getting wider relief on external debt of at least $50 billion.
Hosting a conference for Sudan in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron also kick-started the broader debt relief effort, saying his country was in favor of fully canceling the $5 billion it is owed by Khartoum.
Sudan is emerging from decades of economic sanctions and isolation under ousted former President Omar Al-Badri.
It had built up huge arrears on its debt, but has made rapid progress toward having much of it forgiven under the IMF and World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) scheme, which would reopen access to badly needed cheap international financing.
A transitional military-civilian power-sharing government is trying to pull the country out of a deep economic crisis with inflation at over 300 percent and shortages of basic goods fueled by a lack of foreign currency reserves.
In order to reach the “decision point” that would unlock the HIPC process in June, Sudan recently cleared its arrears to the World Bank and the African Development Bank with bridge loans from Western states.
The remaining step was to clear Sudan’s arrears to the IMF, which France confirmed it would facilitate through a $1.5 billion bridge loan, and for that loan to be covered by member state pledges.
Those pledges were made during the Paris conference, paving the way for HIPC to proceed and boosting the prospects of broader economic reform in Sudan, Macron said.
Key recent reforms under an IMF monitoring program, a requirement for HIPC, include lifting fuel subsidies and sharply devaluing the currency.
“The reduction of Sudan’s debt that we are going to soon initiate is a first result of these reforms, and this trajectory ... should be consolidated, both economically and politically,” Macron said.
With arrears to multilateral lenders settled, Sudan can move forward to settling its estimated $38 billion debt to bilateral creditors. Of the country’s bilateral debt, about half is with Paris Club members. An additional $6 billion of its external debt is commercial debt, an unusually high proportion.
Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a tweet that Italy and Germany had committed to clearing their shares of Sudan’s debt, which total $1.8 billion, according to IMF estimates. Norway’s ambassador to Sudan said on Twitter her country would cancel its debt, listed at $100 million.
The HIPC process operates by consensus, whereby debt is restructured along similar terms for all creditors.
Kuwait, Sudan’s largest creditor by far at $9.8 billion, said in a statement it would support debt “resolution” discussions.
Saudi Arabia, another major creditor, has also said it will press strongly for a broad agreement on debt.
China has reduced and forgiven some debt and will push for the international community to do the same, said Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman.
The first part of the Paris conference was dedicated to promoting investment, with officials touting reforms in the banking sector and showcasing projects worth billions of dollars in energy, mining, infrastructure and agriculture.