Algeria battles wildfires, observes day of mourning

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Algeria's Mi-171 helicopter collects water to extinguish a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021. (AFP)
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Villagers gather as smoke billows from a fire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 13 August 2021

Algeria battles wildfires, observes day of mourning

  • Tebboune says 22 suspects arrested for arson, adds ‘the majority of fires are of criminal origin’
  • France announces arrival in Algeria of two Canadair firefighting planes it has sent

ALGIERS/TIZI OUZOU: Blazes raged across northern Algeria on Thursday as the country observed a national day of mourning for dozens of people killed in the latest wildfires to sweep the Mediterranean.

The North African country has been in the grip of devastating fires since Monday that have claimed at least 69 lives — 41 civilians and 28 soldiers who were deployed to fight the fires.

Soldiers and civilian volunteers have joined firefighters on multiple fronts in the effort to extinguish the blazes that have been fanned by windy and tinder-dry conditions.

In Tizi Ouzou district, the area with the highest casualty toll, an AFP journalist reported entire sectors of forest going up in smoke.

Villagers forced to evacuate in order to escape the flames began trickling back to their homes, overwhelmed by the scale of the damage.

“I have nothing left. My workshop, my car, my flat. Even the tiles were destroyed,” one of them told AFP.

But he said he had “managed to save his family,” while adding that “neighbors died or lost their relatives.”

Flags were flying at half-mast after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning.

On Thursday evening, Tebboune announced the arrest of 22 suspects for arson, saying that “the majority of fires are of criminal origin,” in a speech on state television.

The Algerian authorities say they suspect widespread arson after so many fires erupted in such a short space of time.

Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane visited Tizi Ouzou, the regional capital of Kabyle, and said that authorities believe that the blazes started from illegal activity.

“We have formal, scientific evidence that these fires are of criminal origin, but for the moment, the most important is to extinguish them and above all, to take care of the population,” the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Benabderrahmane also praised the Algerian people’s “solidarity” toward Kabyle and said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was committed to providing financial aid to families affected by the fires.

Video footage posted online on Wednesday showed a crowd beating to death 38-year-old Jamal Ben Ismail and setting him ablaze.

They alleged he had started the fires.

The grisly murder was staged in Larbaa Nath Irathen, in the Tizi Ouzou district, one of the worst hit by the fires.

Those responsible “will receive a severe punishment,” the prosecutor said, adding that “odious crimes should not remain unpunished.”

Amnesty International called on authorities to investigate Ben Ismail’s death, which the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights branded as “barbaric and atrocious.”

“Scenes of the lynching and torching of the suspected arsonist — a young artist who had come to help put out the fires — are shocking,” the Algerian group said.

Ben Ismail’s father, quoted by local media, called for “calm” as he urged the authorities to “shed light” on his son’s death.

Algeria’s state prosecutor ordered an investigation after a mob lynched a man they accused of sparking the country’s deadly wildfires.

On the fourth day of the wildfires, efforts to overcome the blazes are continuing in many regions where civilians and soldiers often with limited means joined the fight.

Images of trapped villagers, terrified livestock and forested hillsides reduced to blackened stumps have been shared on social media.

Algeria is chartering two firefighting planes from the European Union, aircraft recently used to combat fires in Greece.

Two French water-dropping airplanes joined the effort to tame the fires in the Kabyle region after Algeria appealed Wednesday to the European Union Civil Protection framework for help.

“They will help the rescue efforts to deal with the terrible fires that Algeria has been facing for several days,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Thursday.

Two more are due to come from Spain, and one from Switzerland.

Neighbouring Morocco also offered to help by providing two planes.

Faced with the scale of the disaster, pleas for help are multiplying in Algeria and beyond.

“Individuals and associations are mobilizing... by organizing collections of clothes, foodstuffs, medicines and hygiene products,” said Algeria’s TSA news website, calling it a “surge of solidarity.”

The Arab Interior Ministers Council said it was following up on the fires in Algeria and Tunisia and was “greatly concerned.”

The council’s General Secretariat said it was confident that both countries have the ability to overcome this ordeal and its effects and consequences, and offered condolences to the families of the victims and wished the injured a speedy recovery.

The council praised the efforts of firefighters and the civil defense in the two countries, which mobilized all their capabilities.

Armed forces chief Said Chengriha visited soldiers in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, another badly affected area.

High winds fueled the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heatwave across North Africa and the wider Mediterranean.

Each summer, Algeria endures seasonal wildfires, but rarely anything approaching this year’s disaster.

Meteorologists expect the Maghreb heatwave to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 50 C.

Across the border in Tunisia, where almost 30 fires have been recorded since Monday, the mercury hit an all-time record of 50.3 C in the central region of Kairouan (center). The last previous high was 48.2 C in 1968.

On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, deadly wildfires have been raging in Turkey and Greece for the past two weeks.

In Italy, where firefighters were battling more than 500 blazes overnight, Sicily recorded a temperature of 48.8 C on Wednesday that is believed to be a new European record.

While Algerian officials suspect specific criminal acts fueled this week’s fires in Kabyle, climate scientists say there’s little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events such as heat waves, droughts and wildfires, which they say are likely to happen more frequently as Earth warms.


(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.