Coronavirus threat ‘a new terror’ in Syria’s scarred Idlib region

Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib is now recording 300-500 infections a day, and the number is rising fast. (AP)
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Updated 19 November 2020

Coronavirus threat ‘a new terror’ in Syria’s scarred Idlib region

  • Pace is dizzying at the largest isolation hospital in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib
  • COVID-19 infections in the last opposition-controlled territory in Syria have been increasing rapidly

IDLIB, Syria: Nurses hover over a patient to insert a breathing tube as his condition suddenly deteriorates. ICU beds fill up almost overnight. As one patient dies of the coronavirus and is wheeled out, another is whisked in to take his place. An exhausted doctor leans against a wheelchair for a breather.
The pace is dizzying at the largest isolation hospital in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib. There are no bombs falling outside and the wounded don’t crowd bloodstained corridors amid a shaky cease-fire in the country’s decade old civil war. Still, the intensive care unit staff is overwhelmed with beds full of elderly patients gasping for air.
COVID-19 infections in the last opposition-controlled territory in Syria have been increasing rapidly. Spared until July, the region is now recording 300-500 infections a day, and the number is rising fast.
The area, battered by repeated military offensives from the government of President Bashar Assad, is home to nearly 4 million people, most of them displaced and living in tent camps or unfinished buildings.
Infection rates jumped nearly twentyfold between September and October, the UN said. Since then, it has climbed 300 percent, with nearly 11,900 cases recorded by Nov. 16, up from 8,100 a week earlier.
The number of infections is probably much higher. Cities have been hit hardest, but workers fear the virus will take hold in overcrowded camps.
“There are many patients, most in very bad condition. We have no time to give them all they need,” said Aref Shabib, one of over 95 nurses and technicians in the 70-bed isolation hospital, one of two in the city of Idlib, now a virus hot spot.
The pandemic, which has severely tested even developed countries, is the biggest challenge yet for Syria’s health sector, already depleted by years of conflict. Authorities are pacing themselves, deploying equipment and supplies where needed in war-scarred areas.
Announcements of virus deaths on social media or mosque loudspeakers compete with posters honoring those killed in battle, with 95 fatalities linked to COVID-19.
As winter rains began, bringing with it renewed rumblings of war, fear is growing that exhausted medical teams may not be able to cope.
Nearly 17 percent of infections were among health workers, who were first to get the virus. At least three doctors and an administrator died. Medical workers who survived the battlefield find themselves fighting an invisible enemy that pushes their resilience to new limits.
Unlike the war wounded, an entire 24-hour shift can be devoted to just one COVID-19 patient, said Shabib, the ICU specialist.
“We could work for six or eight hours nonstop without even sitting down. It is very hard work,” he said.
In northwestern Syria, which has been outside government control for most of the last decade, dispersing aid is as complicated as the politics of the conflict.
According to the UN task force coordinating efforts, there are at least 142 ICU beds and 155 breathing machines in use in the area. The plan is to eventually have 219 ICU beds and 162 machines. Nearly 500 doctors and nurses are working in COVID-19 centers.
Seven of eight hospitals in northwestern Syria that are equipped to treat the virus are already overwhelmed.
“The increase in COVID infections, cases of hospitalization and nearing full occupancy of ICUs, brings us closer to a state of emergency,” said Salem Abdan, head of Idlib’s health directorate.


Egyptians mourn 41 killed in Cairo Coptic church fire

Updated 7 sec ago

Egyptians mourn 41 killed in Cairo Coptic church fire

  • Witnesses to the fire Sunday morning described people rushing into the multi-story house of worship to save those trapped, but the rescuers were soon overwhelmed by heat and deadly smoke

CAIRO: Funerals were held in two Cairo churches Sunday evening for 41 victims of a fire that ripped through a Coptic Christian church during mass, forcing worshippers to jump out of windows.
The blaze, blamed on an electrical fault, hit the Abu Sifin church in densely populated Imbaba, a working class district west of the Nile River, part of Giza governorate in greater Cairo.
Hundreds gathered to pay their respects in and around the two Giza churches where clergymen prayed for the victims, according to AFP correspondents.
Pallbearers pushed through crowds of weeping mourners who reached for the coffins, including that of a priest at the church, Father Abdel-Messih Bekhit.
The Egyptian Coptic Church and the health ministry reported 41 dead and 14 injured in the blaze before emergency services brought it under control.
Witnesses to the fire Sunday morning described people rushing into the multi-story house of worship to save those trapped, but the rescuers were soon overwhelmed by heat and deadly smoke.
Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, making up at least 10 million of Egypt’s 103 million Muslim-majority population.
“Everyone was carrying kids out of the building,” said Ahmed Reda Baioumy, who lives next to the church. “But the fire was getting bigger and you could only go in once or you would asphyxiate.”
Another witness, Sayed Tawfik, told AFP that “some threw themselves out of windows to escape the fire.” He pointed to a car bearing dents “left by a person who is now lying in the hospital with a broken arm and back.”
A resident of the area, Mina Masry, said emergency services were slow in responding. Ambulances took “over an hour to arrive” and fire trucks “nearly an hour, though their station is five minutes away.”
“If the ambulances had come on time, they could have rescued people,” Masry added.
A statement from the public prosecutor’s office indicated that asphyxiation caused the deaths, as there were “no visible injuries.”
The interior ministry said “forensic evidence revealed that the blaze broke out in an air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the church building” which also houses social services.
Father Farid Fahmy, of another nearby church, told AFP a short circuit caused the fire.
“The power was out and they were using a generator,” he said. “When the power came back, it caused an overload.”
In the morning, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said on his Facebook page that he had “mobilized all state services” in response. He later said he had “presented his condolences by phone” to Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
He also directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to “take over the reconstruction and renovation” of the church, the presidency said in a statement.
Christian communities often complain that reconstruction of churches after devastating fires is marked by long delays and bureaucratic hurdles.
Giza’s governor ordered “urgent aid of 50,000 pounds (around $2,600) for the families of the deceased and 10,000 pounds for the injured.”
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost Muslim institution, expressed his condolences for “the tragic accident” and affirmed “the readiness of Al-Azhar hospitals to receive the injured.”
A statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered his “deepest condolences” to the families of the victims.
Accidental fires are not uncommon in the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo, where millions live in informal settlements.
Baioumy, the neighbor, told AFP that firefighters were hampered by the church’s location “on a very narrow street.”
Egypt, with its often dilapidated and poorly maintained infrastructure, has suffered several deadly fires in recent years.
The Coptic minority has endured attacks and complained of discrimination in the north African country, the Arab world’s most populous.
Copts have been targeted in deadly attacks by Islamist militants, particularly after El-Sisi overthrew former Islamist president Muhammad Mursi in 2013, with churches, schools and homes burnt down.
Copts also complain they have been left out of key state positions and they have deplored restrictive legislation for the construction and renovation of churches.
El-Sisi, the first Egyptian president to attend the Coptic Christmas mass every year, in February appointed the first ever Coptic judge to head the Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest.

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Iraq judiciary dismisses Al-Sadr’s demand to dissolve parliament

Updated 14 August 2022

Iraq judiciary dismisses Al-Sadr’s demand to dissolve parliament

  • Followers of Sadr, in defiance of his Shiite rivals of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, have been staging a sit-in protest at Iraq’s parliament

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s judiciary said Sunday it lacks the authority to dissolve parliament as demanded by populist Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who is engaged in an escalating standoff with political rivals.
Followers of Sadr, in defiance of his Shiite rivals of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, have been staging a sit-in protest at Iraq’s parliament.
In the latest twist to the political turmoil, the firebrand cleric has urged the judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of this week to pave the way for new legislative elections.
But the judiciary replied that “the Supreme Judicial Council has no jurisdiction to dissolve parliament,” citing “the principle of a separation of powers.”
Under the constitution, parliament can only be dissolved by an absolute majority vote in the house, following a request by one-third of deputies or by the prime minister with the approval of the president.
Nearly 10 months on from the last elections, Iraq still has no government, new prime minister or new president, due to disagreement between factions over forming a coalition.
In the latest turmoil to strike the oil-rich but war-scarred nation, Sadr has called for “early democratic elections after a dissolution of parliament.”
Although it did not endorse the dissolution of parliament, the Supreme Judicial Council said it agreed with Sadr’s criticism of the system’s “failure to elect a president of the republic, a prime minister and the absence of a government formed within the constitutional timeframe.”
“This is an unacceptable situation that must be remedied,” it said.
The Coordination Framework opponents of Sadr launched their own Baghdad sit-in on Friday, nearly two weeks after the cleric’s supporters stormed parliament and began an open-ended protest, first inside, then outside the legislature.
The opposing encampments are the latest turn in a standoff which has so far remained peaceful.
On Twitter, a close associate of Sadr, Saleh Mohamed Al-Iraqi, said it was time to show “which of the two sides has the most support” among the Iraqi people.
He called on Sadr’s supporters across the country to rally in Baghdad for a “million-man demonstration.”
The demonstration would take place at 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Saturday, he said, calling for it to be “unprecedented in terms of numbers.”
Sadr’s camp launched the sit-in two weeks ago after the Coordination Framework nominated a candidate they saw as unacceptable for prime minister.
The cleric’s bloc emerged from the October elections as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
In June, 73 of his lawmakers quit in an aborted bid to break the months-long political logjam.


Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.

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Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.


Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.