New Yemen anger over ‘time bomb’ oil vessel

The FSO Safer being held hostage by Houthi Militia off Hodeidah in Yemen. (File photo)
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Updated 05 October 2020

New Yemen anger over ‘time bomb’ oil vessel

  • Houthis again reject UN request to inspect stricken tanker in Red Sea

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: There was renewed anger in Yemen on Sunday after Houthi leaders again refused to allow UN inspectors to board a rusting oil storage vessel moored off the port city of Hodeidah.

Yemeni authorities accused the Houthis of risking an environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea, and called for a tougher UN line against the Iran-backed militias.

“The international community’s lenient approach should stop,” Salem Al-Khanbashi, Yemen’s deputy prime minister, told Arab News on Sunday. 

“The Houthis behave arrogantly because of this approach. The international community should pressure the Houthis to either empty the ship or subject it to immediate maintenance.”

The FSO Safer has been moored 7 km off the coast of Yemen since 1988. It fell into Houthi hands in March 2015, when they took control of the coast around Hodeidah. The vessel has been described as “a ticking time bomb” amid fears that the 1.4 million barrels of oil it contains will start to seep out.

The Houthis briefly bowed to pressure in July and agreed to allow a team of UN engineers to visit the ship, before changing their minds and restating previous demands for the revenue from the oil. 

They have also demanded that the vessel be inspected by engineers from “neutral” countries such as Germany, Sweden, Russia or China, claiming that UN experts would issue a politically motivated report written in advance. 

Al-Khanbashi said his government would agree to authorize the UN to collect and hold revenues from Safer oil sales as a middle ground until any financial dispute was resolved.

He spoke after officials from the UN Yemen envoy’s office and the UN Office for Project Services held a “virtual” meeting with the Houthis to discuss access to the vessel.

The Houthis had been expected to finally agree, but instead they again rejected the request, and claimed that the UN had failed to consider their demands.

Yemeni government officials have long accused the Houthis of using the tanker as leverage to ease economic pressure and extract concessions from the Yemeni government, the Arab coalition and the international community. 

Saudi Arabia alerted the UN Security Council last month about an oil spot in the Red Sea west of the tanker, fueling fears of an impending disaster.  

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said in August that the UN was working on preventing a major catastrophe, and called for experts to visit the vessel immediately.

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

Updated 05 March 2021

Doubts over Turkey’s tactical move to extend olive branch to Egypt

  • Bilateral relations strained in recent years by Muslim Brotherhood, Libya conflict and other matters

ANKARA: With Turkey hinting at a potential deal with Egypt on exclusive maritime zones in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean, the impact of such an agreement on energy transit routes and the political concessions that Turkey might be obliged to make have come under the spotlight.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday said that the country wanted to sign a deal over maritime boundaries.

But this willingness is currently limited to declarations from the Turkish side, with no tangible reaction from the Egyptians.

Turkey’s tactical move indicates a willingness to reduce escalatory policies in the region in order to bypass any criticism from Brussels and US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Potential sanctions against Turkey’s controversial exploratory activities in the Eastern Mediterranean would be discussed at the European Summit on March 25-26, pushing it to not make aggressive moves ahead of that meeting.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

But experts regard such a deal to still be far-fetched, at least in the short-term, because Egypt has had an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Greece since last year. This pact angered Turkey because it has had longstanding disagreements with Greece over the extent of their mutual continental shelves.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a phone call on Wednesday evening, after Cavusoglu’s statement, on regional issues of common interest, with a special emphasis on energy and Eastern Mediterranean issues, another strong signal that Greece would do its best to not let a Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement happen.

Turkey said the deal between Greece and Egypt did not include a disputed zone to the south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo which Turkey claims under its own EEZ.

Relations with Egypt have been strained after the Turkish-backed Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by El-Sisi in 2013.

Last year, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece released a joint declaration accusing Turkey of carrying out “provocations” in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt has been involved in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum since 2019 without involving Turkey.

Turkey and Egypt have also backed opposing sides in Libya’s civil war.

“Turkey has tried to lure Egypt into signing an EEZ agreement with it by claiming it will receive a bigger share than it will from a bilateral agreement between Athens and Cairo,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told Arab News. “In a similar manner, it has presented the claim that the EEZ agreement between Israel and Cyprus gives Israel less than what it would receive had it signed an agreement with Turkey.”

While a relaxation in tensions between Turkey and Egypt was plausible, Lindenstrauss did not expect a serious rapprochement happening soon, so an EEZ agreement between the sides was not likely to materialize.

In late February, Egypt and Israel agreed on linking an Israeli offshore natural gas field to liquefied natural gas facilities in northern Egypt through an underwater pipeline to meet the increased demand for natural gas in Europe.

The pipeline will begin from Israel’s Leviathan gas field and then head to Egypt by land before going to Crete through the Greek-Egyptian EEZ.

This route sidesteps Cyprus. In other words, the gas is not likely to be exported through disputed areas that might draw Turkish objections.

Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the UK's Foreign Policy Centre, thought  that Turkey’s recent efforts to improve its relations with Israel and Egypt was motivated by a need to break the alliance between Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt.

“These countries have been united against Turkey’s increasing influence and gas searches in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he told Arab News. “From the Turkish policymakers’ strategic view, Greece and Cyprus interests are in contradiction with Turkey’s ambitions in the region. Therefore, Turkey will try to distance Greece and Cyprus from Egypt and Israel.”

These moves require a change in Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology that inspires Hamas in order to bring Egypt onside and end the bilateral dispute. Turkey hosts several of the organization’s members and supporters since the group’s activities were banned in Egypt.

Last month, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced seizing goods worth $121,000 sent by Turkey-based Hamas members to individuals in the West Bank through two Turkish companies.

“We have recently heard claims that Turkey has been reassessing its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is too early to assess any policy change in relation to this. Any substantial reconciliation with Israel and Egypt will require Turkey to distance its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Caliskan said.

For Caliskan, Turkey’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood was based on ideology and also on a strategic partnership.

“Distancing Turkey’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood would impact Turkey’s influence in Libya for example. Turkey is likely to compartmentalize its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, reducing its support to their presence in Egypt and Palestine, but will continue supporting them in North Africa, especially in Libya and Tunisia.”


Pope Francis delivers impassioned plea for peace as historic Iraq visit gets underway

Updated 06 March 2021

Pope Francis delivers impassioned plea for peace as historic Iraq visit gets underway

  • Pontiff remembers Christians massacred in 2010 church attack
  • He hailed Iraq as a “cradle of civilization,” despite its many problems

ROME/BAGHDAD: Pope Francis on Friday called for an end to extremism, violence and corruption as his historic visit to Iraq got underway.
He began the first-ever papal trip to the country by meeting government officials in Baghdad, before traveling to a church where Christians were massacred by militants in 2010.
He was greeted at Baghdad’s International Airport by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and treated to a display of traditional dancing.
He then met President Barham Salih at the Presidential Palace, where he delivered a strongly worded speech highlighting the problems that continued to blight the country.

Pope Francis speaks at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Najat) in Baghdad at the start of the first ever papal visit to Iraq on March 5, 2021. (AFP)

“May the clash of arms be silenced,”  he said. “Enough of violence, extremism, factions, intolerance. Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”
The pope, referring to the outside influences often blamed for destabilizing Iraq, said the international community must provide help “without imposing ideologies” and urged Iraqi officials to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law.”

Pope Francis speaks at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Najat) in Baghdad at the start of the first ever papal visit to Iraq on March 5, 2021. (AFP)

His visit comes as Iraq attempts to claw its way to stability after years of sectarian conflict, the Daesh occupation, chronic corruption, and widespread anger at government officials for failing to provide basic services. Iraq’s Christian population has also dwindled, with many fleeing overseas to build new lives.

But the pope hailed Iraq as a “cradle of civilization,” despite its many problems, and believed that all the crises it faced could be overcome by building a society based on fraternity, solidarity and concord.
He said that Iraq, with its varied religions, culture and ethnicities, could show that diversity should lead to harmony within society rather than conflict.


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He drew attention to the Yazidi sect, many of whom were murdered by Daesh in 2014, and called them “innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities, persecuted and killed for their religion, and whose very identity and survival was put at risk.”
He said room should be made for all those who wanted to build up Iraq in a way that included the participation of all political, social and religious groups.
The Catholic Church in Iraq, he added, wanted to cooperate constructively with other religions in serving the cause of peace.

He traveled across the city in an armored black BMWi750 rather than the popemobile normally used for foreign visits. The motorcade included dozens of police on motorcycles.
Iraq’s security situation was the greatest threat as to whether the visit would go ahead, along with the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. But concerns over Daesh sleeper cells and recent rocket attacks on US bases by Iran-backed militants failed to deter him.

At Our Lady of Salvation church, he paid tribute to the 58 people who were killed in an extremist attack in 2010, one of the deadliest targeting Christians.
“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church,” he said.
On Saturday the pope will meet Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf, and visit the birthplace of Prophet Abraham in Ur.


Go to Arab News' dedicated In Focus section on the Pope's visit to Iraq for coverage of the historic trip. Click here.


Official: Israel upgrading contingency plans for Iran attack

Updated 16 min 9 sec ago

Official: Israel upgrading contingency plans for Iran attack

  • Israeli Prime Minister blamed Iran for mysterious explosion that hit Israeli-owned vessel in Gulf of Oman while Tehran denied.
  • Iranian nuclear escalation must be stalled, Israeli defence minister told Fox News

TEL AVIV, Israel: Tension seems to be rising between Iran and Israel as the latter’s defense minister said his country is upgrading contingency plans to strike Iranian targets if Tehran shows signs of nuclear escalation.
Israel is still working on its plans, but that “we have them in our hands of course,” Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz told the American cable network Fox News on Thursday.
His comments came as President Joe Biden considers re-joining a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, with some changes to toughen curbs on Tehran’s activities.
The US’s Former President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the atomic accord in 2018 and imposed a so-called campaign of maximum pressure, including sanctions, on Tehran.
Since then, Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment. The UN nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program — said earlier this week that Iran nearly tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium since November in violation of its deal with world powers.
Deadlock over how to revive the deal struck between Iran and the Biden administration, with Tehran demanding an immediate lifting of sanctions while the US calling on Iran to first return to full compliance with the agreement’s restrictions.
Israel has vehemently opposed the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, tensions have been rising between arch foes Israel and Iran. Last week, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the Helios Ray, was damaged by a mysterious explosion in the strategically important Gulf of Oman.
Iran denied accusations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they attacked the vessel.
During Fox News interview, Gantz was asked about the ongoing uranium enrichment and whether Israel was completing preparations to strike Iranian targets if needed.
“We have them (plans) in our hands of course but we will continue constantly improving them,” Gantz said. “The Iranian nuclear escalation must be stalled. If the world stops them before, it’s very much good. But if not, we must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves.”
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Unlike Iran, Israel’s atomic program, which is widely believed to include an undeclared nuclear bomb program, is not under the watch of the IAEA.
During the interview, Gantz showed a map of Lebanon that he said includes ground forces, missiles and launching sites set up by the militant Hezbollah group, a proxy for Iran.
“This is a target map. Each one of them has been checked legally, operationally, intelligence-wise and we are ready to fight,” he said.
Previously, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, warned that in future conflicts, Israel would use heavy force in residential areas where Hezbollah rockets are stored and launched. He has said Israeli troops would warn civilians to evacuate their homes before launching such strikes.

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

Al-Shabab militants storm Somali jail, seven soldiers killed

Updated 05 March 2021

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.”