Anger in Tunisia at ‘criminal’ response to virus

A Tunisians register to receive Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in Tunis on Tuesday. Tunisia only fully vaccinated 913,000 people or about 8 percent of its population, a rate that remains among the highest in Africa. (AFP)
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Updated 22 July 2021

Anger in Tunisia at ‘criminal’ response to virus

  • Tunisia’s president orders military to manage virus crisis
  • Interim health minister took office Wednesday after his predecessor was fired over a surprise decision to vaccinate adults of all ages for first time

JEDDAH/TUNIS: Tunisia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is “criminal,” Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi admitted on Wednesday after firing the health minister.

The country has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, and the death toll is approaching 18,000 in a population of about 12 million.

There have been 1.4 deaths per 100,000 residents per day over the past week, the second-worst in the world after Namibia.

Tunisia’s death toll is also the biggest in North Africa despite its small population. Hospitals have faced acute shortages of oxygen, staff and intensive care beds, and fewer than 8 percent of the population are fully vaccinated.

“There is an extraordinary level of dysfunction at the head of the Health Ministry,” Mechichi said after dismissing Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi.

Mehdi had initiated a temporary opening of vaccination stations to all Tunisians over 18 for Tuesday and Wednesday to mark the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival.

But that led to stampedes at some of the 29 vaccination centres, where jab stocks quickly ran dry.

The ministry announced it would continue the campaign over the coming days but then backtracked and restricted jabs to those aged over 40 on Wednesday to avoid a new rush.

Mechichi said the hastily arranged program was “populist” and “criminal.” He said: “Neither the head of the government nor the governors nor the security services were aware of it.”

Analyst Selim Kharrat said: “We have a head of government who uses his ministers as fuses, to absorb any public dissatisfaction. “But how long can that last?”

Tunisia’s president, meanwhile, ordered the military Wednesday to take over managing the national COVID-19 pandemic response.
The military health service will be assigned the task, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced on regional TV network Al Arabiya.
Soldiers and military medics are already carrying out vaccinations in remote parts of Tunisia. 
On Tuesday, military trucks transported oxygen to regions in the center and northwest of the country where hospitals are suffering shortages.
Tunisian authorities restricted gatherings and reinstated a curfew in some regions with high numbers of confirmed cases.

In a new blow to Tunisia’s long-struggling tourism sector, authorities closed some of the country’s Mediterranean beaches.

(With AP)


Turkey refuses to serve as ‘waiting room’ for US-bound Afghan refugees

Updated 26 min 42 sec ago

Turkey refuses to serve as ‘waiting room’ for US-bound Afghan refugees

ANKARA: Ankara on Tuesday slammed a US move to offer potential resettlement to Afghan migrants who have US affiliations, saying it would cause another “migration crisis” in the country.

Under the new program announced by the US State Department on Monday, the US will open its doors to thousands of Afghans who are fleeing the Taliban violence, but with certain preconditions.

Ahead of the formal withdrawal of US soldiers at the end of this month, the Priority Two refugee program will cover Afghans who worked for US-funded projects and US-based NGOs and media outlets.

Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa program are among those eligible for this program. However, they should be referred by a US agency or the most senior US citizen employee of an NGO or media outlet that is based in the US.

In the meantime, they must wait in a third country after they leave Afghanistan, and this waiting time can last for 12 to 14 months before their application is processed.

Ankara fears this may trigger potential refugee inflows to the country as Afghans mostly use Turkey as a transit country to reach Europe and the US.

“It is unacceptable to seek a solution in our country without our consent instead of finding a solution among the countries in the region,” Tanju Bilgic, a spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said on Aug. 3, adding that Turkey cannot handle another migration wave on behalf of a third country.

Hundreds of Afghans have recently crossed into Turkey over the passing week, fueling anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and raising concerns about further influx as the country already hosts more than 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghans.

On Aug. 3, 264 Afghans were held after being found inside a truck in the eastern province of Van, where the country has begun building high walls to stop infiltrators from Iran.

“If the US wants to take these people…it is possible to transfer them directly to their country by planes,” Bilgic said.

Fahrettin Altun, communications chief for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Bloomberg on Wednesday: “Turkey does not, and will not, serve as any country’s waiting room.”

A great majority of Afghan asylum seekers will probably remain in Turkey because the number of people who are eligible under the US program is limited, while the UN only resettled 20,000 asylum seekers from Turkey this year.

Deniz Senol Sert, a migration expert from Ozyegin University, said the migration wave following the US decision will mainly comprise highly educated Afghans.

“These people will come to Turkey following visa procedures, and they will not cross the border by land but, most likely, by plane. However, Afghanistan’s passport still ranks as the world’s least powerful,” she told Arab News.

According to Sert, Afghan migrants who have already applied for asylum will have to wait at least one year before their procedures finish.

“It is still unknown whether we have the capacity to handle all these migrants. This wave will continue for months depending on the moves of the Taliban, although Turkey has traditionally faced an influx of Afghan migrants in the summer,” she said.

Neva Ovunc Ozturk, a law expert working on transnational migration at Ankara University, said: “The US ranks among the countries that make the most settlements. It is not the first time that the US resettles Afghan migrants under this procedure. This time, it is focusing on Afghans who are affiliated with the US,” she told Arab News.

According to Ozturk, such settlement programs have served as pull factors in the past for immigration waves.

“However, Turkey already has a legal framework for conditional refugee status for those who will be resettled in third countries. Therefore, legally speaking, we have already been serving as a waiting room for some categories of refugees,” she said.

However, experts underline that the latest US decision should accompany diplomacy that promotes fair burden-sharing among countries that are neighboring war-torn Afghanistan.

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees can encourage states to increase their refugee resettlement quotas. The US may also encourage countries close to Afghanistan, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, to host a certain number of refugees fleeing the Taliban,” Ozturk said.


UN chief: Threat to global peace from Daesh rising

Updated 37 min 28 sec ago

UN chief: Threat to global peace from Daesh rising

  • The report said Daesh and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of the disruption caused by COVID-19
  • It added that the group remains active in wide swaths of Syria where it is seeking to rebuild its combat capabilities

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says in a new report that the threat to international peace and security from extremist group Daesh is rising, pointing to an “alarming” expansion of its affiliates in Africa and its focus on a comeback in its former self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
The report to the UN Security Council, which was circulated Tuesday, said Daesh and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of “the disruption, grievances and development setbacks” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the ground and online.
While lockdowns in non-conflict areas suppressed terrorist activity, in conflict areas where pandemic restrictions have less impact the threat from Daesh “has already increased,” Guterres said.
“As pandemic-related restrictions gradually ease, there is an elevated near-term threat of Daesh-inspired attacks outside conflict zones by lone actors or small groups that have been radicalized, incited and possibly directly remotely online,” he said.
The UN chief said this exemplifies a wider and evolving risk from the accelerated use of digital technologies during the pandemic, and the potential for “new and emerging technologies to be used for terrorist purposes.”
In assessing Daesh’s threat, Guterres said its leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman Al-Mawla, “remains reluctant to communicate directly with supporters,” and “the group’s command and control over its global affiliates has loosened, even though it continues to provide guidance and some financial support.”
He said the autonomy of regional affiliates has strengthened especially in West Africa and the Sahel, East and Central Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. This evolution will be an important factor in Daesh’s future global impact, he quoted unidentified UN member states as saying.
Member states also assess that the extremist group “will continue to prioritize regrouping and seeking resurgence” in Iraq and Syria as its core area of operations, he said.
The 16-page report, prepared by Security Council counter-terrorism committee and by experts monitoring sanctions on Daesh, said the group remains active in wide swaths of Syria, where it is seeking to rebuild its combat capabilities and expand its insurgency.
Guterres said Daesh wages hit-and-run operations against checkpoints from hideouts on both sides of the Euphrates River in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and continues operations against government forces and in the Syrian desert.
In Iraq, Daesh remains under constant counter-terrorism pressure but continues to carry out hit-and-run operations “seeking to undermine critical infrastructure projects, inflame sectarian divisions and communal grievances and generate media coverage,” he said.
As for the extremist group’s finances, the UN chief said estimates of financial reserves available to Daesh in Iraq and Syria range between $25 million and $50 million, with one unidentified UN member state saying most funds are in Iraq.
The secretary-general said the most striking development in the first half of 2021 has been the expansion of Daesh in Africa, where terrorist groups have inflicted the largest number of casualties.
He said some of the most effective Daesh affiliates are spreading their influence and activities from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger, from Nigeria into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and from Mozambique into Tanzania.
“It highlights that the interplay between terrorism, fragility and conflict has grown stronger, and underscores the need for an urgent, global response to support African countries and regional organizations,” Guterres said.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Daesh affiliate has expanded its presence in several provinces and in and around the capital Kabul, “despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020.” In Kabul, most of its attacks have targeted minorities, civil society actors, government employees and security forces, he said.
In Daesh’s efforts to regroup and rebuild in Afghanistan, Guterres said the group has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters and hopes to attract Taliban members and other militants who reject the US-Taliban agreement as well as fighters from Iraq.
Estimates of Daesh strength in Afghanistan range widely, from 500 to 1,500 fighters, with one unidentified UN member state saying its strength may rise to 10,000 in the medium term, he said.
Guterres said UN member states have already warned “that Daesh could regain the ability to orchestrate international attacks if either its core or one of its regional affiliates became strong enough.”
“This scenario has only become more plausible,” the UN chief warned.


Radio call describes Iranian gunmen storming tanker off UAE coast

Updated 33 min 2 sec ago

Radio call describes Iranian gunmen storming tanker off UAE coast

  • “Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” a crew member said in a radio recording

FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

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Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Updated 04 August 2021

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

  • Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran
  • Taghavi suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes

BERLIN: A German-Iranian woman held in Iran has been given a decade-long jail term by an Iran court for participating in an outlawed group, her daughter said Wednesday.

Nahid Taghavi, 66, was given “ten years for membership in an illegal group” and “eight months for propaganda against the regime,” said her daughter Mariam Claren.

Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women’s rights and freedom of expression, according to the rights group IGFM.

According to Claren, Taghavi has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she contracted Covid-19 last month.

Claren has repeatedly flagged up warnings about her mother’s health, saying that she suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Germany’s foreign ministry said in October that it was aware of the arrest of a German-Iranian woman in Iran, but did not name the detained citizen.

Frank Schwabe, who is the spokesman on human rights issues for the Social Democrats, condemned the verdict.

“The charges are baseless and the verdict a farce,” he wrote on Twitter.


International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

Updated 04 August 2021

International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

  • The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut port killed at least 214 people
  • About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference

SAULIEU, France: The French presidency said an international conference on Lebanon has gathered over $357 million in aid required to meet the country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port.
Wednesday’s virtual conference, co-hosted by France and the United Nations, was meant to show support for the Lebanese people, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
France will provide 100 million euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months, Macron said. Paris will also send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the country.
President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in a video message, pledged to give $100 million in new humanitarian assistance.
About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference, according to Macron’s office. Participants included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and European Council President Charles Michel.
Lebanon’s current humanitarian needs have been estimated by the UN to be at least $357 million. Aid will focus on food, schools, the health sector and clean water supply, Macron’s office said.
Wednesday’s event was also meant to mount pressure on Lebanese leaders to form a new government able to implement reforms and start rebuilding the country.
Lebanon is going through the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.
Biden said that “no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough, if Lebanon’s own leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption. That’s essential, and has to start now.”
Lebanese politicians have only made the situation ”worse by placing their individual and political interests above the Lebanese people’s interests,” Macron criticized. “Lebanon definitely deserves better.”
Macron said that humanitarian aid promised Wednesday will be unconditional.
However, he warned that “there will be no blank check to the Lebanese political system because it is defaulting. ... Lebanese leaders seem to opt for the deterioration (of the situation). I regret it. I think it’s a historical and moral error.”
Michel, the European Council President, stressed that the EU adopted a few days ago a “sanctions framework ... to target those in Lebanon who obstruct efforts to end the political crisis. We obviously hope that we will not be obliged to activate it.”
Macron, who went to Beirut twice since the explosion at the port, has led international efforts to try to help the former French protectorate by providing emergency aid. Last year’s conference on Lebanon, organized in the wake of the explosion, raised about 280 million euros ($332 million).
According to the UN, over half of Lebanese people now live in poverty, one in three Lebanese suffer from food insecurity and nearly 4 million people are at risk of not accessing safe water.