Algeria mourns 65 dead as Mediterranean wildfires spread

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A man looks at a forest fire near the village of Larbaa Nath Irathen, near Tizi Ouzou,100 kilometers east of Algiers, Wednesday, Aug.11, 2021. (AP)
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A woman reacts after wildfires in the village of Larbaa Nath Irathen, neat Tizi Ouzou, 100 kilometers east of Algiers, Wednesday, Aug.11, 2021. (AP)
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A forest burns near the village of Larbaa Nath Irathen, neat Tizi Ouzou, 100 kilometers east of Algiers, Wednesday, Aug.11, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 12 August 2021

Algeria mourns 65 dead as Mediterranean wildfires spread

  • A total of 69 separate wildfires remained active Wednesday, spread across 17 provinces
  • France, EU and Morocco to dispatch aircraft to help Algeria tackle the blazes

ALGIERS/TIZI OUZOU: Firefighters, troops and civilian volunteers battled blazes in forests across northern Algeria on Wednesday as the country reeled at a death toll of at least 65 people in the latest wildfires to hit the Mediterranean.
Soldiers deployed to back the overstretched emergency services tackle the rash of more than 50 fires that broke out on Tuesday accounted for 28 of those killed, state television reported.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris would send two water bombers to the Kabyle region, promising on Twitter to support the country combat the violent fires. 
“To the Algerian people, I want to give our full support (and) as of tomorrow, two Canadair aircraft and a command plane will be deployed in Kabyle,” he said. There are no such planes in the rugged area yet.
He also offered “unreserved solidarity” with the Algerian people in “facing this tragedy.”
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed France’s solidarity with the Algerian people.
“Our hearts go out to all the victims and their loved ones,” he said on Twitter, adding: “France stands ready to lend its support to deal with this situation.”
Benoit Payan, the mayor of Marseille city, where a large number of the Algerian-French nationals reside, also offered to send a team of firefighters and equipment to Kabyle, “if Algeria requests it.”
Algeria’s government later said it had reached an agreement with the European Union to hire two firefighting planes. The prime minister’s office said the planes, which will be in action from Thursday, had been used to tackle blazes in Greece.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI expressed readiness to dispatch two aircraft and was waiting for approval from Algerian authorities to go ahead, Morocco’s state news agency MAP said.
The authorities say they suspect widespread arson after so many fires erupted in such a short space of time. They have announced several arrests but have yet to elaborate on the identity or suspected motives of those detained.
Images of trapped villagers, terrified livestock and forested hillsides reduced to blackened stumps were shared on social media, many of them accompanied by pleas for help.
AFP journalists saw villagers desperately trying to put out the spreading fires with makeshift brooms in an effort to save their homes.
High winds fueled the rapid spread of the fires in the tinder-dry conditions created by a heat wave across North Africa and the wider Mediterranean, fire official Youcef Ould Mohamed told the state-run APS news agency.
A total of 69 separate wildfires remained active Wednesday, spread across 17 provinces, emergency services spokesman Nassim Barnaoui told reporters.
Most of the fires and 16 of the deaths were recorded in Tizi Ouzou district, in the mainly Berber region of Kabyle, east of the capital Algiers.
“I left all my stock in my village and fled to Tizi Ouzou with my wife and three children,” said Abdelhamid Boudraren, a shopkeeper from the village of Beni Yeni.
“Luckily I own a flat in the center of Tizi Ouzou where I’m holed up with my family and some neighbors.”
There have been mounting calls for aid convoys to be sent to the worst-hit districts with food and medicine from the capital.
On Wednesday, an AFP correspondent saw several lorries headed to Tizi Ouzou with aid donated by the public.
An appeal for volunteer doctors to assist the city’s overstretched medical services also appeared on Facebook.
State media have reported four arrests for suspected arson.
Meteorologists expect the heat wave across North Africa to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).
In neighboring Tunisia, the capital Tunis hit an all-time record of 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.
The Tunisian emergency services reported 15 fires across the north and northwest, but no casualties.
On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, Turkey reported eight deaths and Greece three from wildfires that have raged for the past two weeks.
Each summer, Algeria endures seasonal wildfires but rarely with anything approaching this year’s toll.
In 2020, nearly 440 square kilometers (170 square miles) of forest were destroyed by fire, and several people were arrested on suspicion of arson.
On Monday, the UN released a major report showing how the threat from global warming is even more acute than previously thought.
It highlighted how scientists are quantifying the extent to which human-induced warming increases the intensity and/or likelihood of a specific extreme weather event, such as a heatwave or a wildfire.
Climate change amplifies droughts, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread out of control and inflict unprecedented material and environmental damage.
(With AFP and Reuters)


Cricket flourishes among Qatar World Cup migrant laborers

Updated 26 November 2022

Cricket flourishes among Qatar World Cup migrant laborers

  • The sport that spread across the reaches of former British empire remains favorite of South Asian laborers
  • The need for migrant labor has seen Gulf Arab nations draw cricket-playing workers to their shores for decades

DOHA: As dawn broke Friday in Qatar, the laborers who built this energy-rich country’s World Cup soccer stadiums, roads and subway filled empty stretches of asphalt and sandlots to play the sport closest to their hearts — cricket.

The sport that spread across the reaches of the former British empire remains a favorite of the South Asian laborers who power economies across the Arabian Peninsula, including more than 2 million migrant workers in Qatar.

It’s a moment of respite for workers, who typically just have Friday off in Qatar and much of the rest of the Gulf Arab nations. And it’s one they look forward to all week, batting and bowling before the heat of the day fully takes hold.

“It’s in our blood,” said laborer Kesavan Pakkirisamy as he coached his team at one sandlot, the skyline of Doha visible in the distance. “We’ve played cricket since a long time. It’s a happy journey for us.”

Laborer rights have been a focus of this World Cup since Qatar won the bid for the tournament back in 2010. Workers can face long hours, extortion and low pay. Qatar has overhauled its labor laws to put in a minimum wage and untie visas from employers, though activists have urged more to be done.

On Fridays, however, laborers control their day. Just down the road from the global headquarters of Qatar’s satellite news network Al Jazeera, workers gathered in a parking lot and another large desert expanse wedged between roads.

Some appeared nervous when Associated Press journalists stopped by their matches, with several asking if they’d be in trouble for playing cricket in vacant lots in this autocratic nation. Others, however, smiled and invited visitors to watch.

Hary R., an Indian from the southern state of Kerala, showed a reporter the mobile phone app he used to keep track of runs and overs. While Friday’s match was a friendly, there are tournaments organized among the Indian and Sri Lankan communities in Qatar to vie for supremacy.

“We are working throughout the week and we need to just get relaxed and meet our friends just for time pass and entertainment,” he said. His teammates on the Strikers, some of whom wore matching uniforms, shouted at him to keep track of the game.

Pakkirisamy, who shouted encouragement near two discarded couches used by players as a bench, praised his company for helping his colleagues take part in wider competitions.

“From my father and my grandfather, they have been playing in cricket since childhood age,” he said, describing a lifelong love of the game.

Pakkirisamy and his teammates, while lovers of cricket, still were excited about the World Cup being in Qatar.

“We are here for work, we are here for earning something for our family,” he said, adding that being in Qatar means, “It’s easy for us to be there, to see the game on ground, not only the TV.”

Cricket, with its lush green grass pitches, may seem like an anomaly in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. However, the need for migrant labor has seen Gulf Arab nations draw cricket-playing workers to their shores for decades.

The United Arab Emirates has a cricket team that qualified for the International Cricket Council’s T20 World Cup in Australia last month.

Dubai in the UAE is even home to the ICC’s headquarters and has hosted major cricket events, including the Indian Premier League, the Pakistan Super League and the T20 championships.

But for laborers in the region, any empty patch of ground can be turned into a pitch.

“You can be in any road. You can be in any place,” Pakkirisamy said. “Any small place, you can play cricket.”


Iran’s Khamenei praises Basij forces for confronting ‘riots’ — TV

Updated 26 November 2022

Iran’s Khamenei praises Basij forces for confronting ‘riots’ — TV

DUBAI: Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that Basij militia forces sacrificed their lives in “riots” sparked by the death in custody of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in September.
The Basij force, affiliated with the country’s Revolutionary Guards, has been at the forefront of the state crackdown on protests that have spread across the country. “They have sacrificed their lives to protect people from rioters,” Khamenei said in a televised speech.


Rockets target US Syria base in latest strike: Centcom

Updated 54 min 23 sec ago

Rockets target US Syria base in latest strike: Centcom

  • Rockets aimed at ‘coalition forces at the US patrol base in Al-Shaddadi, Syria’

BEIRUT: Two rockets targeted a US patrol base in northeastern Syria late Friday, the third such attack in nine days, US Central Command said.

Centcom did not indicate who fired the rockets but said, in a statement, that they aimed at “coalition forces at the US patrol base in Al-Shaddadi, Syria.”

The strike at about 10:30 p.m. (1930 GMT) caused no injuries or damage to the base or coalition property, said Centcom, which covers the Middle East region.

The US troops support Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are the Kurds’ de facto army in the area and led the battle that dislodged the Daesh group from the last scraps of their Syrian territory in 2019.

Hundreds of American troops are still in Syria as part of the fight against Daesh remnants.

“Syrian Democratic Forces visited the rocket origin site and found a third unfired rocket,” Centcom added in its latest statement.

On November 17 rockets targeted the coalition’s Green Village base which is in Syria’s largest oil field, Al-Omar, near the Iraqi border, Centcom said at the time. There were no injuries.

A war monitor, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which has a wide network of sources in Syria, said that strike came from “a base of pro-Iranian militias.”

Such groups have significant influence in the Syria-Iraq border region.

In another attack, a Turkish drone strike on Tuesday killed two SDF fighters and posed “a risk to US troops,” Centcom said earlier.

That strike hit a base north of Hassakeh city, also in Syria’s northeast but farther north.

On November 20 Turkiye announced it had carried out a series of air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria, a week after a bomb attack in Istanbul that killed six people and wounded 81.

Turkiye says it is targeting rear bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the SDF.

Both Kurdish groups denied responsibility for the Istanbul attack.


US official urges ‘de-escalation’ as Turkiye strikes Syria

Updated 25 November 2022

US official urges ‘de-escalation’ as Turkiye strikes Syria

  • Turkiye this week launched a wave of airstrikes on suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in neighboring Syria and Iraq
  • The developments are “unacceptably dangerous and we are deeply concerned,” said Granger

BEIRUT: A US official in Syria on Friday called for an “immediate de-escalation” following days of deadly airstrikes and shelling along the Syria-Turkiye border, saying the actions destabilize the region and undermine the fight against the Daesh group.
Turkiye this week launched a wave of airstrikes on suspected Kurdish rebels hiding in neighboring Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blames on the Kurdish groups.
The groups have denied involvement in the bombing and say the Turkish strikes have killed civilians and threatened the anti-Daesh fight.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said that 67 civilians, gunmen and soldiers, have been killed in Turkish attacks in northern Syria since the airstrikes began.
Nikolas Granger, the US senior representative to northeastern Syria, said Washington “strongly opposes military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities and families in Syria and we want immediate de-escalation.”
The developments are “unacceptably dangerous and we are deeply concerned,” said Granger, who is currently in Syria, and added that the strikes also endanger US military personnel there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a new land invasion of northern Syria targeting Kurdish groups. On Friday, he said Turkiye would continue its “struggle against all kinds of terror inside and outside our borders.”
Turkiye and the United States both consider the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terror group for the decadeslong insurgency and attacks the group has staged within Turkiye’s borders.
But they disagree on the status of the main Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The Syrian Kurdish group has been a key US ally in the fight against Daesh.
Turkiye has carried out three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 and its forces still control part of the country.
Kurdish officials in Syria have been warning that any new Turkish incursion would disrupt the fight against Daesh, which still has sleeper cells and has carried out deadly attacks in recent months against the Syrian Kurdish-led opposition forces as well as Syrian government forces.
“We take these threats seriously and prepare to confront any ground attacks,” Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces told The Associated Press.


Iran bolsters border security to prevent ‘infiltration’

Updated 25 November 2022

Iran bolsters border security to prevent ‘infiltration’

  • Deployment aims to prevent infiltration and the smuggling of weapons in the north by Kurdish opposition groups exiled in Iraq
  • Iran has several military bases near the Iraqi border and forces have been present there on a rotating basis for decades

BAGHDAD: Iran has sent additional units of special forces to fortify its northern border with Iraq and clamp down on what it says is infiltration by Kurdish opposition groups, Iranian state media reported on Friday.
Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, chief of ground forces of the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard, said “armored and special forces” units had been deployed to west and north-west provinces to bolster existing border security, the official IRNA news agency reported.
The deployment aims to prevent infiltration and the smuggling of weapons in the north by Kurdish opposition groups exiled in Iraq that Tehran claims is orchestrating country-wide anti-government protests. It is a claim the Kurdish groups deny and to date Iran has not provided any evidence to support it.
Iran has several military bases near the Iraqi border and forces have been present there on a rotating basis for decades.
The troop movement also comes after Iraq issued directives for boosting security along its side of the border to prevent further bombardment by Iran, according to a statement issued by Iraq’s military spokesman Maj. Gen. Yahya Rasool. Kurdish opposition groups have bases in Iraq’s Kurdish-run northern region.
Earlier this week, Iranian officials were quoted in state-run media as saying they did not have plans to conduct a ground military operation to root out opposition groups from the bases, despite having reportedly threatened to do so during the visit by top general Esmail Ghaani to Baghdad last week.
Country-wide protests engulfed Iran in September following the death of a young woman in police custody for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. The protests have become one the greatest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the chaotic years after its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mahsa Amini, 22, died Sept. 16, three days after her arrest by Iran’s morality police. Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated in police custody, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained.