Radio call describes Iranian gunmen storming tanker off UAE coast

The ship that would later become the Asphalt Princess sails through Quebec City, Canada. (File/AP)
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Updated 04 August 2021

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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Hamas rejects PA’s call for Palestinian local elections

Updated 22 September 2021

Hamas rejects PA’s call for Palestinian local elections

  • Hamas is a long-standing rival of the Palestinian Authority
  • Hamas, which was furious by Abbas's general election postponement, said Wednesday that it "would not be part of... fragmented municipal elections"

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, said Wednesday it would not participate in municipal Palestinians elections set by the Palestinian Authority for December unless a general election is also called.
Hamas is a long-standing rival of the PA, based in the occupied West Bank, and had supported the decision to hold Palestinian legislative and presidential elections in May and July.
But president Mahmud Abbas in April indefinitely postponed those votes, which would have been the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.
Abbas cited Israel’s refusal to guarantee voting in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
But Palestinian experts said Abbas balked out of fear that Hamas would sweep the polls, in a repeat of 2006 results that the president’s Fatah movement did not accept.
Hamas, which was furious by Abbas’s general election postponement, said Wednesday that it “would not be part of... fragmented municipal elections.”
“The right solution is to hold comprehensive elections” for the Palestinian presidency, Palestinian legislative council, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), municipal bodies and trade and student unions, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told reporters.
Those votes could happen “simultaneously or according to a nationally agreed timetable,” he said.
“If that is plan, we are ready to participate.”
The municipal elections called by the PA would take place in 387 localities throughout the West Bank and Gaza on December 11, and then in 90 other places at a later date that has yet to be set.
Of the 477 voting sites, just 11 were in Gaza.
Hamas’s rejection of the process would make voting impossible in Gaza, an Israeli-blockaded territory controlled by the Islamists since 2007.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union but is seeking to bolster its legitimacy through election wins and by joining the PLO, a group of Palestinians factions recognized by Israel and the international community.


Morocco: 3 parties agree to form new coalition government

Updated 22 September 2021

Morocco: 3 parties agree to form new coalition government

  • King Mohammed VI appointed billionaire Aziz Akhanouch as prime minister earlier this month
  • A former agriculture minister, Akhanouch is one of Morocco’s richest men

RABAT: Morocco’s prime minister-designate announced Wednesday that a three-party coalition will form the country’s next government.
King Mohammed VI appointed billionaire Aziz Akhanouch as prime minister earlier this month after his party placed first in a legislative election, netting 102 out of the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament.
The coalition includes Akhanouch’s liberal National Rally of Independents Party, or RNI, the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM) and the conservative Istiqlal (IP).
Formed in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Hima, a personal friend of the king and one of his close advisers, PAM has never before been part of a Moroccan government.
The Istiqlal Party is Morocco’s oldest party and has participated in several governments since the kingdom gained independence from France in 1956.
The three parties together won 270 seats in the House of Representatives, giving the coalition government a comfortable majority to pass laws.
“We will work together to form an effective and coherent majority before presenting the government lineup to King Mohammed VI,” Akhanouch said during a press conference. “We share many historical backgrounds and we intersect in a number of priorities.”
A former agriculture minister, Akhanouch is one of Morocco’s richest men.
He replaces Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani, whose Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) suffered a stinging a defeat in the Sept. 8 election. The party, which has been in power since 2011, secured only 13 parliament seats, down from 125 in the 2016 election.
The PJD’s leadership resigned en masse after this month’s elections and said the party would join the opposition ranks.
In a statement, the moderate Islamist party alleged “many violations and imbalances witnessed” during the elections,” adding that “the results do not reflect the reality of the political map and the free will of the voters.”

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Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

Updated 22 September 2021

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

  • Political foes says Ali Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution
ISTANBUL: When President Tayyip Erdogan opened a new court complex this month, Turkey’s senior cleric sealed the ceremony with a Muslim prayer, triggering protests from critics who said his actions contravened the secular constitution.
“Make this wonderful work beneficial and blessed for our nation, my God,” Ali Erbas said in his address, adding that many judges had “worked to bring the justice which (God) ordered.”
Erbas’s appearance at the Sept. 1 ceremony in Ankara, and the wave of opposition criticism over his comments, reflect his rising profile at the head of a state-run religious organization and the growing influence it has attained under Erdogan.
The president, whose ruling AK Party is rooted in political Islam, has overturned decades-old restrictions imposed on religion by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, placing Islam center-stage in political life.
Last year Erbas delivered the first sermon in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia after the Byzantine church-turned-museum was reconverted into a mosque. He did so while clutching a sword, saying this was traditional for preachers in mosques taken by conquest. The church was captured by Ottoman forces in 1453.
His state-run Diyanet organization, or Religious Affairs Directorate, has its own television channel which is recruiting 30 new staff. Its budget, which already matches that of an average ministry, will rise by a quarter next year to 16.1 billion lira ($1.86 billion), government data shows.
Erdogan further endorsed Erbas last week by extending his term at the Diyanet. He was with Erdogan again on Monday in New York, reciting a prayer at the opening of a skyscraper that will house Turkish diplomats based there.
Erdogan’s political foes says Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, and shows the president is using religion to boost his waning ratings ahead of an election scheduled for 2023.
“It is completely unacceptable for the Religious Affairs Directorate to be used politically by the AKP,” said Bahadir Erdem, deputy chairman of the opposition Iyi Party.
“The reason for Ali Erbas repeatedly making statements that polarize the nation is very clearly the government using religious sensitivities of those whose votes it thinks it can win,” he said.
Apart from the Diyanet’s growing prominence, secularists also fret over a sharp increase in religious ‘Imam Hatip’ schools, a 10 percent rise in mosque numbers in the last decade, the lifting of a ban on Muslim headscarves in state institutions and the taming of Turkey’s powerful military, once a bastion of secularism, all during Erdogan’s rule.
Responding to the criticism over the Diyanet, the presidency shared a picture of Ataturk standing in prayer beside a Muslim cleric at a ceremony outside Turkey’s new parliament 100 years ago, suggesting that even the founder of the secular republic gave space to religion alongside politics.
The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accuse Erdogan of deliberately using Erbas to distract public attention from Turkey’s mounting economic woes.
“He has put the Religious Affairs Directorate chairman on the field like a pawn,” CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak said.
Turkey’s constitution says the Diyanet must act in line with the principles of secularism, without expressing political views.
Erbas, a former theology professor who took office in 2017, has not addressed the criticism directly but says his role is limited to religious guidance.
“In line with the duty set out in the constitution to ‘enlighten society regarding religion’, our directorate is working to convey to our people in the most correct way the principles of Islam,” he said in a speech last week.
That message does not reassure secularist critics.
Erbas’s frequent presence at Erdogan’s side reveals a “very significant elevation of the role of Sunni Islam in government in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The secularist firewall of the 20th century, established by Ataturk and guarded by his successors, that has separated religion and government, and religion and education, has completely collapsed,” he said.
Erbas has courted controversy in the past. Last year his suggestion that homosexuality causes illness triggered a clash between Erdogan’s AKP and Turkey’s lawyers’ associations over freedom of expression.
But he has won support from Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli.
“Turkey is a Muslim country,” he said. “The allergy against the Islamic religion of those wicked people who have broken off ties with our national and spiritual values is an incurable clinical case.”

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

Updated 22 September 2021

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

  • The total number of cases seen in Idlib province has more than doubled since the beginning of August
  • Extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible

BEIRUT: Coronavirus cases are surging to the worst levels of the pandemic in a rebel stronghold in Syria — a particularly devastating development in a region where scores of hospitals have been bombed and that doctors and nurses have fled in droves during a decade of war.
The total number of cases seen in Idlib province — an overcrowded enclave with a population of 4 million, many of them internally displaced — has more than doubled since the beginning of August to more than 61,000. In recent weeks, daily new infections have repeatedly shot past 1,500, and authorities reported 34 deaths on Sunday alone — figures that are still believed to be undercounts because many infected people don’t report to authorities.
The situation has become so dire in the northwestern province that rescue workers known as the White Helmets who became famous for digging through the rubble of bombings to find victims now mostly ferry coronavirus patients to the hospital or the dead to burials.
“What is happening is a medical catastrophe,” the Idlib Doctors Syndicate said this week as it issued a plea for support from international aid groups.
Idlib faces all the challenges that places the world over have during the pandemic: Its intensive care units are largely full, there are severe shortages of oxygen and tests, and the vaccination rollout has been slow.
But extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible. Half of its hospitals and health centers have been damaged by bombing, and the health system was close to collapse even before the pandemic. A large number of medical personnel have fled the country seeking safety and opportunities abroad. Tens of thousands of its residents live in crowded tent settlements, where social distancing and even regular hand-washing are all but impossible. And increasing violence in the region is now threatening to make matters worse.
Large parts of Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province remain in the hands of Syria’s armed opposition, dominated by radical groups including Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants who have struggled to respond to the outbreak, which intensified in August, apparently driven by the more contagious delta variant and gatherings for the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha.
Cases and deaths have also been increasing in recent weeks in government-held areas and those under the control of US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in the east, but the situation appears to be worse in Idlib, though it’s hard to measure the true toll anywhere.
In response, the political arm of the insurgent group that runs Idlib has closed some markets, forced restaurants to serve outdoor meals only, and delayed the opening of schools by a week.
But most residents are daily laborers who could not survive if they stopped working, making full lockdowns impossible.
“If they don’t work, they cannot eat,” said Idlib resident Ahmad Said, who added that most people cannot even afford to buy masks.
What’s more, a population that has suffered through so much already is often too weary to follow restrictions that have tested people even in easier circumstances.
“It is as if people have gotten used to death,” said Salwa Abdul-Rahman, an opposition activist who reports on events in Idlib. “Those who were not killed by regime and Russian airstrikes are being killed now by coronavirus.”
The vaccination campaign meanwhile, has been slow, though the arrival of some 350,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine earlier this month could help. According to the World Health Organization, only about 2.5 percent of Idlib’s population has received at least one shot.
The new virus outbreak also comes amid the most serious increase in violence in Idlib, 18 months after a truce reached between Turkey and Russia who support rival sides in Syria’s conflict brought relative calm. In recent weeks, airstrikes and artillery shelling by government forces have left scores of people dead or wounded.
At Al-Ziraa hospital, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah says there is no sign that the outbreak has reached its peak yet.
But for some Idlib residents, getting infected is the least of their worries.
“We have gone through more difficult situations than coronavirus,” said resident Ali Dalati, walking through a market without wearing a mask. “We are not afraid of coronavirus.”


Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

  • “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,”

NEW YORK: A sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the best way to ensure Israel’s future, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday. “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said on the opening day of the UN General Assembly.
“I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state.
“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment but we should never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.” Biden repeated his promise to return to the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, provided Tehran did the same. Talks on the issue are deadlocked over who takes the first step.
The world faced a “decisive decade,” Biden said, in which leaders must work together to combat a raging coronavirus pandemic, global climate change and cyber threats. He said the US would double its financial commitment on climate aid and spend $10 billion to fight hunger.
Earlier, Antonio Guterres, who begins a second five-year term as secretary-general on Jan. 1, warned of the dangers of the growing gap between China and the US, the world’s largest economies.
“I fear our world is creeping toward two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies,” Guterres said.
“This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War.”