Beirut blast judge issues subpoena for PM Diab after no-show
Tarek Bitar, a Lebanese judge leading the probe into last year’s explosion at Beirut’s port, made the decision after weeks of delay by Hassan Diab
Security forces have been ordered to bring in Diab by force, 24 hours before the date of the next questioning session, which Bitar set for Sept. 20
Updated 26 August 2021
BEIRUT: A subpoena for Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister was issued on Thursday after he failed to show up for questioning in a growing case surrounding last year’s Beirut blast.
Tarek Bitar, a Lebanese judge leading the probe into last year’s explosion at Beirut’s port, made the decision after weeks of delay by Hassan Diab.
Last month, Bitar confirmed charges filed by his predecessor against Diab and three former ministers.
Security forces have been ordered to bring in Diab by force, 24 hours before the date of the next questioning session, which Bitar set for Sept. 20.
A judicial source told Arab News: “This step will be followed by similar ones. Judge Bitar may issue similar subpoenas, based on Article 106 of the Code of Criminal Procedures, against other defendants, including former ministers and security officials.”
Bitar and judicial investigator Fadi Sawan — who handled the case before him — charged former ministers and current MPs in addition to Diab, namely Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter, Nohad Machnouk and former minister Youssef Fenianos.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4 last year, killing 215 people, injuring more than 6,500 and devastating nearby neighborhoods.
“The failure of the political class to facilitate Bitar’s judicial work in a crime that took place a year and three weeks ago without accountability is the reason for him to take this path in order to reach the truth,” the judicial source added.
On Wednesday, Bitar simulated the circumstances that preceded the explosion, which occurred after a gap was welded in the structure of a warehouse in which the ammonium nitrate was stored.
The simulation was attended by several lawyers representing the concerned parties, a joint committee of army officers and the Information Division of the Internal Security Forces, while members of the Civil Defense supervised field preparations.
The Lebanese Meteorological Department was also present to link the simulation with climatic conditions on the day of the explosion.
The simulation took four to five hours and was documented without a media presence.
A detailed reenactment of the welding was carried out to verify whether it had a direct effect in causing the fire that preceded the explosion.
A model similar to the original warehouse was constructed for the purposes of the simulation, just meters away from the hole created by the explosion.
Bitar assigned technical experts to draw up a report showing whether the welding caused the explosion after investigators previously ruled out the potential of an aerial bombardment.
He is expected to issue an indictment at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Bitar is struggling with a lack of harmony with the Public Prosecution in the Beirut blast probe.
In December 2020, Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat stopped pursuing the investigation as a judicial prosecutor in the case because he is related to MP Ghazi Zeaiter, who was later charged.
The families of fire brigade members who died in the blast have also met Bitar. William Noun, whose brother Joe was one of the victims, said: “The families of all the victims will take action next week and organize a sit-in in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut to support the investigation’s progress. History will prove that politicians are failures.”
Meanwhile, three people have been charged for the Aug. 15 explosion of a fuel tank that killed 31 people in the town of Al-Tleil in the Akkar region.
Military Court Judge Fadi Akiki accused detainees George Rashid Ibrahim and Ali Sobhi Faraj of “unsafely storing flammable materials, despite their knowledge of the danger they pose to the lives of citizens, and causing the death of 31 soldiers and civilians.” He charged another detainee Jerji Elias Ibrahim with “setting the fire with a lighter.”
UN migration chief voices concern over Mediterranean deaths, pledges new solutions
US former White House adviser Amy Pope started as head of IOM on Oct. 1 at a time of record forced displacement around the world and high political tensions over irregular immigration
Updated 18 sec ago
GENEVA: The new head of the UN migration agency has voiced concern that the deaths of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean were being “normalized” and vowed to work with governments to provide options for economic migration to address the crisis.
US former White House adviser Amy Pope started as head of the International Organization for Migration or IOM on Oct. 1 at a time of record forced displacement around the world and high political tensions over irregular immigration.
Recently, an Italian minister and billionaire Elon Musk have criticized Germany for backing charities helping distressed migrants on the world’s most dangerous Mediterranean route, where 22,000 people have died or gone missing since 2014. Germany’s foreign ministry defended its policies.
Asked to comment on the debate, Amy Pope said: “Our biggest concern is that the deaths in the Mediterranean have been normalized and that people take for granted that this is just a cost of human movement.”
“If we are really going to stop people crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats and dying as they do, we need to approach the situation far more comprehensively,” she said.
She declined to comment directly on Musk’s remarks. Pope, who wants to build partnerships with private companies to manage migration better, won a tense election in May against her then-boss, becoming the first female head of the UN agency since it was created in 1951.
IOM seeks to ensure humane and orderly migration and intervenes where needed. In her first press conference, she vowed to work with countries that want to renew their labor forces like Spain.
“The evidence is fairly overwhelming that migration actually benefits economies,” she said, especially in wealthy countries with aging populations and low birth rates.
Pope said her first trip will be to East Africa to meet with the African Union Commission in Ethiopia and then to Brussels where she will meet with senior European officials as they search for a deal on handling irregular migration.
Tehran ‘opposes geopolitical changes’ in Caucasus, official says
The annexation of this corridor, strategic to Tehran, would cut off Iran’s access to Armenia and consequently to Europe
Updated 5 min 37 sec ago
TEHRAN: Iran on Monday said it opposes any “geopolitical changes” in the Caucasus, where it has long been angered over Azerbaijan’s desire to set up a transport link along the Armenian-Iranian border.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani, while voicing support for Azerbaijan’s reclamation of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region last month, said Tehran is “against making geopolitical changes in the region and this is our clear position.”
He was referring to the Zangezur land corridor which would connect mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan and then to Turkiye.
Relations between Baku and Tehran have been traditionally sour, as Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan is a close ally of Turkiye.
Following a lightning Azerbaijani military offensive that recaptured the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to the east of Zangezur last month, some experts believe that Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev could now seek to launch operations in southern Armenia to create territorial continuity with Nakhchivan.
Armenian separatists, who had controlled Nagorno-Karabakh for three decades, agreed to disarm, dissolve their government and reintegrate with Baku.
Nakhchivan does not share a border with Azerbaijan but has been tied to Baku since the 1920s — and is located between Armenia, Turkiye and Iran.
The annexation of this corridor, strategic to Tehran, would cut off Iran’s access to Armenia and consequently to Europe.
Kanani was commenting after the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, met on Sunday with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Ahmadian, during a visit to Tehran.
They discussed “the latest developments in the South Caucasus” and “military movements in the region,” Kanani said.
“We have always supported the return of these occupied territories to Azerbaijan,” he said, referring to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Iran, bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, has an Azeri-speaking community of around 10 million people, as well as an Armenian community of just under 100,000 people.
Ties between Azerbaijan and Iran soured in January when a gunman stormed into Baku’s embassy in Tehran.
He killed a diplomat and wounded two embassy security guards.
Tehran also fears that Israel, a major weapons supplier to Azerbaijan, could use Azerbaijani territory for an offensive against Iran.
DUBAI: Already contending with the combined challenges of rapid urbanization, a warming climate, and stress on freshwater resources, countries across the Middle East and North Africa are now fighting for something even more fundamental — breathable air.
The World Health Organization has warned that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted outdoor air that exceeds what it deems as acceptable levels, adding that the Arab region in particular has some of the world’s poorest air quality.
With the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, set to take place in Dubai in November, experts believe not only does the problem of the region’s poor air quality warrant urgent attention, it also requires sustainable and cost-effective solutions.
The 2022 World Air Quality Report, conducted by Swiss firm IQAir, studied levels of PM2.5 (particles small enough to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract and lungs, causing or exacerbating illnesses such as asthma and heart issues) in 7,323 cities across 131 countries, regions and territories.
It found that the most polluted cities in the region are Baghdad in Iraq with an 80.1 average PM2.5 concentration, Manama in Bahrain with 66.6, Kuwait City in Kuwait with 55.8, and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia with 41.5.
Overall, a total of 118 (90 percent) of the 131 countries and regions studied exceeded the WHO’s annual PM2.5 guideline value of 5 µg/m3. (A concentration of 1 µg/m3 means that one cubic meter of air contains one microgram of particulate matter.)
There is disagreement among experts over why the Middle East appears to suffer from especially poor air quality. Some of them point to such sources of gas emission as oil-fired power stations, vehicles and heavy industry.
“The main sources of pollution in these cities are energy production, emissions from industrial processes, waste burning, construction and vehicles,” Prof. Tadhg O’Donovan, a solar researcher and deputy vice principal at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, told Arab News.
“The most critical discussion at the COP28 should be around the use of renewable energy sources.”
Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot are some of the many pollutants that are released into the atmosphere by the combustion of conventional (fossil) fuels and contribute to poor air quality.
The combustion of fuels also releases a number of gases — such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — into the atmosphere that contribute to a greenhouse effect and thus global warming.
“These greenhouse gases have a long half-life in the atmosphere ranging from decades to centuries,” Dr. Aseel Takshe, head of department and associate professor of public health at the Canadian University of Dubai, told Arab News.
While transparent discussions regarding the future of conventional fuels have been ongoing, Takshe believes significant action is yet to be taken to mitigate their environmental impacts. “More commitment to renewable energy is urgently needed,” she said.
Other scientists regard the Middle East’s frequent sand and dust storms as the most significant contributor to poor air quality. Rising average global temperatures and creeping desertification are believed to have increased the frequency of such storms, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.
Although Middle Eastern civilizations have experienced dust storms for thousands of years, post-industrial desert dust storms are different, lifting a growing load of airborne pollutants and transporting these substances over long distances.
Dust storms therefore magnify the problem of poor air quality, skewing the figures against Middle Eastern cities regardless of their emission-reduction policies.
“The unique challenges faced by the region, including high temperatures and frequent dust storms, should not be overlooked,” Yousuf Fakhruddin, CEO of Fakhruddin Properties and developer of clean-air technologies, told Arab News.
He said strategies for managing these issues, such as improved meteorological forecasting and infrastructure design, will become vital for protecting air quality and public health in the future.
Depending on levels of air pollution, people’s lives can be impacted in various ways. From a reduction of life expectancy by two to five years to a range of chronic health conditions, prolonged exposure to high levels of air pollution can have devastating effects on population health.
“Respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are among the most common. These conditions can significantly reduce quality of life, and in severe cases, can be fatal,” said Fakhruddin.
Furthermore, cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, have been linked to air pollution exposure. This is because pollutants can cause inflammation and damage to the cardiovascular system over time, increasing the risks.
In fact, research suggests that long-term exposure to certain air pollutants may even increase the risk of lung cancer, and emerging evidence suggests that air pollution may be linked to mental health issues and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.
• 270,000 Estimated deaths per year caused by air pollution in the MENA region.
• $141bn Annual cost of air pollution in MENA (representing 2% of regional GDP).
• 60 Average number of days a MENA resident reports sick in their lifetime due to exposure to elevated air pollution levels.
Source: World Bank
“It’s worth noting that the average person inhales approximately 11,000 liters of air each day,” said Fakhruddin.
“When this air is polluted, it means we’re introducing harmful substances into our bodies in large quantities every single day, which only amplifies the health risks.”
Mindful of the need to simultaneously reduce harmful emissions, the Gulf region has made improving air quality a high priority by seeking to cut vehicular exhaust emissions and halt the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.
O’Donovan highlights the Middle East’s targets for the transition to renewable energy, with the UAE aiming to increase the use of renewables as part of its energy mix to 44 percent by 2050, while Saudi Arabia is targeting 50 percent by 2030.
Gulf countries will most likely boost their renewable energy capacities primarily through solar and wind power, says O’Donovan, citing the twin advantages of the region’s climatic conditions and the falling price of such infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia is building one of the world’s biggest green hydrogen facilities, which will be powered by 4 gigawatts of solar and wind energy and will be operational by 2025. The NEOM project’s plant is expected to create 650 tons of green hydrogen per day.
The Kingdom is building wind farms in Yanbu, Waad Al-Shamal and Al-Ghat. Dumat Al-Jandal, the Middle East’s largest wind farm and the first in Saudi Arabia, began producing 400 megawatts of carbon-free energy in August 2021.
The UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park, the world’s largest single-site facility of its kind, is another key project, which aims to generate some 5,000 megawatts by 2030.
To address the issue of clean air, the UAE has launched the National Air Quality Agenda 2031 — a comprehensive plan to monitor and manage air quality across the country, providing real-time data in the country.
“This information is then shared with the authorities to help them develop policies on air-pollution control as well as enabling researchers and academicians to study the impact of environmental factors, industrial progress and population density on air quality,” said O’Donovan.
The issue goes beyond energy production. According to Fakhruddin, improving industrial emission standards is a critical issue that requires discussion at the upcoming COP28 summit.
“Many industries currently emit large quantities of pollutants with minimal regulation or oversight,” he said. “Implementing and enforcing stricter emission standards could significantly improve air quality.”
He also believes sustainable urban development should be a priority, with a focus on green building practices, efficient public transport networks, and greening initiatives.
Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, has launched a greening initiative to boost plant cover. As part of the Saudi Green Initiative, the Kingdom aims to plant 10 billion trees, with 7.5 million for Riyadh and its surroundings.
The project is transforming Riyadh into an environmentally friendly metropolis with a high quality of life, reducing the capital’s energy consumption by easing ambient temperatures, and ultimately reducing healthcare expenditure.
Experts say a single hectare of land, when 11 percent of it is covered by plants, can remove 9.7 kg of air pollutants every year.
Saudi Arabia is also collaborating with other Arab governments on a Middle East Green Initiative, which includes a pledge to plant an additional 40 billion trees, the world’s largest afforestation effort.
The initiative could reduce land degradation and desertification in the process, thereby cutting the scale and frequency of dust storms.
Another important topic of discussion at COP28 will likely be how public-private partnerships can enable initiatives that improve air quality, according to O’Donovan of Heriot-Watt University.
“Some examples of potential initiatives are subsidies for the manufacture and use of electric vehicles, investing in renewable energy projects, collaboration for infrastructure projects that support pedestrian traffic and encouraging innovation aimed at addressing local air quality issues,” he said.
Fuse EV Conversions, a company that converts car engines from petrol to electric, is an example of how private enterprise can help to accelerate the Arab region’s energy transition.
“The current costs of electric vehicles are prohibitive,” Salman Hussein, founder and CEO of Fuse EV Conversions, told Arab News.
To capitalize on the opportunity, “we are developing conversion kits and working with regulators to roll out our services in more cities,” he said.
While many of the firm’s customers are classic car owners, it is also working on solutions for other applications such as the commercial sector, defense and NGOs.
Viewing the upcoming COP28 event as an opportunity for the region to address its sustainability challenges, Hussein believes governments should pay attention to practical steps by which environmental and climate goals could be reached.
“While billions of dollars have been prioritized toward sustainability, we should also explore ways to adapt existing solutions,” he said, adding that if costs borne by consumers are reduced tangibly, clean mobility goals could be achieved much faster.
“Here in the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed to net-zero carbon goals, and they are already transitioning to clean-energy solutions. This inspires confidence and, together with the clean tech ecosystem, we can create unparalleled impact.”
Lebanese security services arrest 2 Syrians involved in people smuggling from Libya
Report of ‘terrorist plot to blow up Baalbek columns’ raises concern
Updated 02 October 2023
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s General Directorate of Internal Security Forces announced on Monday that they had arrested two Syrian nationals, aged 48 and 52, on suspicion of people smuggling.
The suspects had been accused of smuggling people of various nationalities from Libya to Europe via boats. Their names were not disclosed.
The suspects were operating in coordination with people of Lebanese nationality in the Wadi Khaled region in northern Lebanon, on the border with Syria.
The arrests come a few weeks after a boat sank off the coast of the city of Tobruk, Libya, resulting in the death of dozens of migrants.
The directorate said that the two detainees had fled from Libya to Syria after one of them was the target of a murder attempt by some of the victims’ families.
The two then secretly entered Lebanon and took up residence in the towns of Lala and Bar Elias in the Bekaa.
The second person was kidnapped by unknown people in the Wadi Khaled area and held captive for four months.
During his captivity, he was compelled to pay $43,000 in compensation to the people he had attempted to smuggle to Europe through Libya, but had failed to do so after taking their money.
According to the directorate, detainees confessed during interrogation to receiving $3,500 for each person.
They also reportedly admitted that hundreds of people were smuggled by sea from Libya to Italy and Greece using boats.
The boats’ capacities ranged from 250 to 500 people of various nationalities.
The operation took place in collaboration with the brother of one of the detainees living in Libya and another person residing in Greece, they said.
Also on Monday, a news report about a terrorist plot to blow up the columns of the historical Baalbek citadel sparked reactions that ranged from surprise to fear to skepticism.
The story, published on Monday morning in An-Nahar newspaper, cited a security report.
The report alleged the existence of a plot by fundamentalist terrorist groups to blow up the columns of Baalbek citadel because it was a pagan symbol, and to send a message to Hezbollah in its stronghold.
Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada, who represents the Amal Movement — an ally of Hezbollah in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s caretaker government — neither confirmed nor denied the news.
Mortada said: “Regardless of whether it is true or not, the Jupiter columns remain a beacon and a symbol of civilization, unparalleled anywhere on the planet.
“Therefore it is not unlikely that our enemies might entertain the idea of targeting them with their dark, ignorant tools,” the minister said.
He added: “In any case, we reassure the Lebanese that Baalbek and its citadel are protected, and will remain standing tall despite the hatred of our enemies and the clouds of evil passing through our region.”
The minister criticized the circulation of the terror threat claim as the historic citadel had received a large number of tourists this year.
Baalbek Gov. Bashir Khodr also denied the report.
Khodr considered it to be “a result of the resounding success of this year’s tourist season in Baalbek, and the large numbers of tourists, especially foreigners, whom they are trying to intimidate.”
He said: “Leave Baalbek in peace.”
The city of Baalbek and its region are considered a key stronghold for Hezbollah. The party coexists with the tribes that live in the region.
Mafias and drug traffickers reportedly benefit from Hezbollah’s presence amid the spread of illegal weapons and the illegal crossings used for organized smuggling to and from Syria.
News about extremist groups, especially Daesh, occasionally surfaces in Lebanon.
The Lebanese army has announced a series of security operations over the past two years that have resulted in the arrest of Daesh-affiliated armed cells preparing to implement terrorist plots inside Lebanon.
A security source told Arab News that it was likely that there were sleeper cells of terrorist organizations in Lebanon that could be activated by a political decision, and there were lone wolves as well.
The source said: “Whenever political solutions become more complicated in Lebanon, tension is relieved through a specific security event, and perhaps what happened in the Ain Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp last month is one example.”
In this context, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria quoted a security source on Monday as saying: “The situation in Lebanon is very dangerous, with suspicious movements and attempts to sabotage and disrupt security.”
According to the source, the situation required the highest level of vigilance.
“The security and military agencies are on high alert and are performing their duties to protect it, through coordination with each other to thwart any attempt to tamper with the country’s security and stability.”
Egyptian president El-Sisi confirms candidacy in December presidential election
El-Sisi confirms he will stand for a third term in office
Supporters have been urging the former army chief to stand
Updated 02 October 2023
CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi confirmed on Monday that he will stand for a third term in office in a presidential election scheduled for December.
El-Sisi, a former army chief who has been president since 2014, had been widely expected to run again and secure a third term after constitutional amendments four years ago that would allow him to stay in office until 2030.
In recent weeks supporters have mounted a campaign using billboards and public messages urging El-Sisi to stand.
El-Sisi came to power after leading the ousting of Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. He was announced winner of presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 with 97 percent of the vote.
The election comes as Egypt is struggling with record inflation and a chronic shortage of foreign currency.