Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

A monument demanding justice stands before grain silos that were gutted in the, August 2020, Beirut port explosion. (AP Photo)
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Updated 16 September 2021

Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

  • Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning
  • Bitar has also demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question

BEIRUT: The judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut Port blast issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning.

Judge Tarek Bitar has also subpoenaed former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was the premier at the time of the port blast, and has demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question.

Diab stepped down as caretaker prime minister and left the country when Prime Minister Najib Mikati took office earlier this month. Social media was abuzz with the news of Diab’s departure, with many speculating that he would not return for his scheduled questioning on September 20. Diab reportedly travelled to the US to visit his children, whom he had not seen for two years, before receiving Bitar’s subpoena, which was issued on August 26.

A judicial source said that the discriminatory Attorney General, Judge Ghassan al-Khoury — the judicial public prosecutor in the investigation, referred the subpoena against Diab to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces for implementation.

Bitar issued another subpoena against Diab on Sept. 14, this time including the address of his residence in Beirut. If Diab fails to return before Monday morning, then the judge would have the right to issue a warrant for his arrest.

In response to the arrest warrant for Fenianos, who is affiliated with the Marada movement but is not currently an MP and therefore does not have immunity, the head of the Marada movement, Suleiman Frangieh, tweeted: “We reiterate that we stand by Fenianos, who has the right to defend himself.”

Bitar is facing pressure from all sides of the political spectrum. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of “playing a political game.” Bitar’s predecessor in the case, Judge Fadi Sawan, was relieved of his duties as a result of political pressure when two of the former ministers he had charged with negligence for the disaster had their request for his removal from his post granted by a court.

Many see the subpoena against Diab as a measure of how seriously the new government is taking the investigation. If Diab is allowed to continue to evade questioning from Bitar, and if the newly formed government’s parliament refuses to lift ex-ministers’ immunity, then there seems little hope of justice for the victims of the blast and their families.

Those families took to the streets again on Thursday to apply more pressure on the political establishment to stop what they perceive as its interference in the judiciary’s investigation. They blocked the road in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut and stressed the need to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Mothers of some of the victims carried their children’s pictures and banners that referenced Mikati’s emotional speech when he discussed how people were suffering in Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. “If your eyes watered when you thought about the mothers who were suffering, then stand with us, the mothers of the victims. Help Judge Bitar bring us justice,” the banners read.

Others held banners with blunter statements, including: “We want our rights and we will not let our children’s blood go to waste.”

William Noun, whose brother Joe was one of the 215 people killed by the explosion, which left thousands injured and several residential neighborhoods completely destroyed, told Arab News: “Diab left the country because he is running away from justice. He knows which party blew up the ammonium nitrate. The same party that prevented him from going to the port (when he got word of the ammonium nitrate stored there) before the explosion facilitated his departure.”

The families of the victims said in a joint statement: “The Public Prosecution, which is supposed to be on our side, is taking suspicious actions; it released suspects without having the powers to do so and began leaking information about the investigation.

“Stop confronting us with politics. We do not understand your policies. What we do understand is that you killed us. The Beirut Port blast was on purpose. Someone is responsible and they should be held accountable,” the statement continued.

Local media was so preoccupied with the arrest warrant for Fenianos, that news of Syrian vehicles loaded with Iranian diesel entering Lebanese territory went almost unnoticed.

The convoy — estimated to consist of around 80 tankers — entered through illegal Hezbollah crossings on the outskirts of Hermel. Hezbollah followers reportedly gathered on the road to Baalbek to greet it, and the cargo was emptied into tanks belonging to Al-Amana Fuel Co., which is currently subject to US sanctions.


Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province

Updated 20 October 2021

Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province

  • Army troops and allied tribesmen trying to regain three strategic areas Iran-backed Houthis captured in the past month

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s army troops and allied tribesmen on Wednesday launched counterattacks in the southern province of Shabwa with the aim of liberating three strategic areas that the Iran-backed Houthis captured during the past couple of weeks.
Local officials said hundreds of Yemeni troops attacked Houthis in the district of Bayhan and managed to recapture a military base along with a large swathe of land in the district after killing and capturing dozens of rebels.
Rashad Al-Mekhlafi, a military official at Yemen’s Armed Forces Guidance Department, told Arab News on Wednesday that military units from Shabwa’s capital Attaq, Abyan province, along with security forces also took part in the offensive in Shabwa.
“This is a well-prepared military offensive,” Al-Mekhlafi said. “There are great advances for the government forces.”
After months of relentless attacks on government forces, the Houthis have recently managed to seize control of three areas in Shabwa and the besieged Abedia district in the province of Marib. The advancement put them closer to oil and gas fields and Marib city, the main goal of their continuing offensive in the province.
In Marib, dozens of combatants were killed in fierce fighting between government forces and the Houthis outside the city of Marib as the Arab coalition intensified airstrikes in the province.
Al-Mekhlafi said that at least three Houthi field leaders were killed in fighting with government forces or in the coalition’s airstrikes. Several army officers and tribesmen were also killed in the fighting.
The focus of Wednesday’s fighting was on the Juba and Hareb districts, south of Marib city, where government forces pushed to expel the Houthis from areas they controlled during their latest incursions.
Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik pledged full support to army troops and tribesmen who have fought off relentless Houthi attacks in Marib. He also urged international aid organizations to help displaced people and civilians who come under Houthi missiles, drones, and ground strikes in Marib province.
The official Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported that the prime minister called the governor of Marib, Sultan Al-Arada, to express the government’s support with Marib’s authorities in their battles against Houthis. He also praised their handling of the desperate humanitarian situation in the city of Marib, which hosts more than 2 million internally displaced people.
Abdul Malik accused the Houthis of committing genocides in Abedia and other areas in the province. The Yemeni prime minister vowed to throw full weight behind government forces in order to win the “existential” battle in Marib.
Thousands of combatants and civilians have been killed in Marib province since early this year when the Houthis resumed a major military offensive to control Marib city, the government’s last stronghold in the northern half of the country.


US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

Updated 20 October 2021

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

  • Amos Hochstein met President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, PM Mikati and other ministers
  • Lebanon is ready “to continue to cooperate positively,” Aoun said

BEIRUT: Amos Hochstein, the US envoy appointed by the Biden administration this month to mediate Lebanon’s maritime border dispute with Israel, held talks on Wednesday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the future of the negotiations.
Aoun expressed “Lebanon’s readiness to continue to cooperate positively” with the process. However, the points of contention remain.
“The administration of President Joe Biden is ready to help Lebanon and Israel find a mutually acceptable solution to their common maritime borders,” the State Department said.
Hochstein, who is also the State Department’s senior adviser for energy security, also met Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, Energy Minister Walid Fayyad and army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun.
The speaker’s office said Berri’s discussion with Hochstein focused on “multiple files, particularly the demarcation of the maritime and land border between Lebanon and occupied Palestine. The framework agreement announced in October last year was confirmed.”
The US administration’s framework agreement for talks, which was implemented a year ago by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, includes two demarcation zones, for land and maritime borders. In accordance with the agreement, the US acts as mediator at the request of both sides.
Lebanon has been seen as struggling with the demarcation of its maritime borders. After submitting a border proposal to the UN in 2011, Lebanese officials decided that it was based on mistaken estimates and demanded an additional 1,430 square kilometers, an area that includes part of Israel’s Karish gas field. The Israelis oppose this.
Berri told Hochstein: “We have a new opportunity to resume negotiations in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, thanks to the new US efforts in this context.”
He also highlighted “the importance of excluding Lebanon from the sanctions of Caesar’s law in the topics of piping Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan through Syria to Lebanon.” Lebanon has been experiencing widespread power outages as a result of fuel shortages amid a crippling economic crisis. The Caesar Act is US legislation sanctioning the Syrian government for war crimes against the Syrian people.
“The US envoy conveyed to Berri an optimistic view about positive progress being achieved in what relates to these matters,” the speaker’s office said.
Oil industry governance expert Diana Al-Qaisi told Arab News: “The US mediator has reached out to the Egyptian minister of electricity regarding redirecting the Egyptian gas into Lebanon.”
She added that Hochstein’s talks in Lebanon focused on diplomacy and how best to facilitate negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border to agree a mutually acceptable solution, though Lebanon continues to stand firm in its demands.
Lebanese officials have yet to agree a strategy for the next phase of negotiations and their starting point for talks on the border.
The focus of Lebanese authorities then shifted on Wednesday to the nation’s financial crisis and a forensic audit of Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank. President Aoun met a delegation from the company Alvarez and Marsal, who informed him that the audit of the bank’s accounts was due to begin on Thursday morning. Aoun urged them to work quickly due to the urgency of the task.
On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund opened negotiations with the Lebanese government to agree a strategy to begin to address the country’s insolvency.
Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, stressed the need to address the losses faced by the financial sector and determine an accurate picture of the current financial situation in the country.
“Last time we had a full update of the situation was August 2020, before the resignation of the previous government, therefore many things have happened and we need to update the numbers and have a new baseline,” he said.


New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

Updated 20 October 2021

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

  • Regime kills 13 in retaliatory shelling of Idlib

JEDDAH: At least 27 people died in separate attacks in Syria on Wednesday in the country’s worst day of violence for nearly five years.

Two bombs planted on an army bus in central Damascus were detonated early in the morning, killing 14 people. Video footage showed emergency crews searching the charred shell of the bus and a bomb squad defusing a third device near by.
The bombs were detonated as the bus passed near the Hafez Al-Assad bridge, close to the national museum.The capital had been largely spared such bloodshed since troops and allied militias retook the last significant nearby rebel stronghold in 2018.
“We hadn’t seen violence of that type in a long time,” Salman, a fruit seller, said at the scene. “We thought we were done with such attacks.”
The bus attack was the deadliest in Damascus since a Daesh bombing targeted the Justice Palace in March 2017, killing at least 30 people.
No one admitted Wednesday’s bombing, but the finger of blame was pointed at Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance of militants who control the northwest Idlib province. An hour after the attack, Assad regime forces began shelling the opposition-held town of Ariha in Idlib. Four children on their way to school were among 13 people killed, the highest civilian toll since a March 2020 truce brokered by Turkey and Russia effectively put fighting in Idlib on hold.
“At 8 a.m. we woke up to the bombardment. The children were terrified and were screaming,” said Bilal Trissi, a father of two who lives near by. “There are children who died and people who lost their limbs. We don’t know why, what are we guilty of?”
The Save the Children charity said the shelling caused minor damage to two schools in the area.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF condemned the shelling, which it says was a “reminder that the war in Syria has not come to an end.”
The Damascus bombing will also challenge the Assad regime’s assertion that Syria’s decade-old civil war wasover and that stability was guaranteed for reconstruction and related investment.
The conflict erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of unarmed protesters demanding regime change and it has left about half a million people dead. Bashir Assad’s position once hung by a thread, but Iranian support and Russia’s military intervention in 2015 marked the start of a long and bloody fightback.
Regime forces have recaptured nearly all key cities, while US-backed Kurdish forces still run the northeast.The regime’s main focus is now Idlib region, home to opposition forces who were forced to surrender elsewhere.
In a separate incident on Wednesday, six members of a pro-Assad militia were killed in an arms depot blast in the central province of Hama. Regime sources said a “technical error” caused the explosion.


Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo

Updated 20 October 2021

Egypt: 19 killed in truck-microbus collision outside Cairo

  • Footage circulating online purported to show bodies lying on the roadside as ambulances rushed to pick up casualties
  • Traffic accidents kill thousands every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record

CAIRO: A head-on vehicle collision Wednesday left at least 19 people dead and one other injured just outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo, state-run media said.
The Al-Ahram daily reported the crash took place when a passenger microbus collided with a truck on a highway that links Cairo’s outskirts on the banks of the Nile River.
Another state-run daily, Akhbar el-Yom said the truck crossed to the wrong side of the highway and collided head-on with the microbus.
Footage circulating online purported to show bodies lying on the roadside as ambulances rushed to pick up casualties.
Traffic accidents kill thousands every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. Crashes are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Last month, a bus overturned on a highway linking Cairo with the city of Suez, killing at least 12 people and injuring 30 others.
In April, a bus overturned while trying to pass a truck on a highway in the southern province of Assiut, leaving at least 21 people dead and three others injured.
Egypt’s official statistics agency says around 10,000 road accidents took place in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.

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Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights

Updated 20 October 2021

Virus: Morocco suspending UK, Germany, Netherlands flights

  • The new restriction will come into force just before midnight Wednesday, the North African kingdom's airports authority said
  • In a tweet, national carrier Royal Air Maroc said the move was due to “the pandemic situation”

RABAT, Morocco: Morocco is suspending until further notice all flights to and from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands amid rising coronavirus infections in those countries.
The new restriction will come into force just before midnight Wednesday, the North African kingdom’s airports authority said.
In a tweet, national carrier Royal Air Maroc said the move was due to “the pandemic situation.” It did not provide further detail.
Morocco’s Health Ministry warned Monday of the threat of a new virus surge, stressing “the need to avoid possible a relapse of serious and critical cases and COVID-19-related deaths, which have occurred in several European countries.”
COVID-19 cases have been rising sharply in the Netherlands over the past two weeks and also are climbing in Germany.
The UK recorded almost 50,000 new infections in a single day this week. The chief executive of health care umbrella group, the NHS Confederation, said the health system risks being overwhelmed unless measures are introduced now, while the government urged millions get booster vaccine shots.
Germany’s foreign ministry urged citizens in Morocco to immediately contact their travel company due to the imminent halt in flights.
Dutch carrier Transavia said it was investigating whether it could get clearance to fly beyond the midnight cutoff “to pick up stranded passengers” from Morocco.
The World Health Organization said there was a 7 percent rise in new coronavirus cases across Europe last week, the only region in the world where cases increased.
Earlier this month, the Russian embassy in Rabat announced that commercial flights between the two countries had been suspended, citing a decision it had received from Moroccan authorities, but did not indicate the reason.
Morocco has Africa’s highest vaccination rate, with more than 50 percent of the population fully inoculated.
The government has also started administering booster vaccine shots, and said it is introducing a COVID-19 vaccine pass as a mandatory requirement for access to public venues and travel. The decision takes effect Thursday.
Overall, Morocco has registered more than 942,000 infections and 14,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to the Health Ministry.

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