Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east

A member of the Lebanese security forces surveys the damage following an explosion at Beirut Port, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 September 2021

Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east

  • 20 tons of ammonium nitrate seized after raid on fertilizer warehouse in eastern Bekaa Valley
  • Shipment of the chemical carelessly stocked at Beirut Port caused a massive blast, killing 214 people, last year

BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities have seized 20 tons of ammonium nitrate — the same chemical behind a deadly explosion last year at Beirut’s port — in the eastern Bekaa Valley, state media reported on Saturday.
Ammonium nitrate is an odourless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertilizer that has been the cause of numerous industrial explosions over the decades.
At least 214 people were killed and some 6,500 others wounded on August 4, 2020 when a shipment of the chemical carelessly stocked at the Beirut port for years ignited and caused a massive blast.
On Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said security forces raided a fertilizer warehouse in the eastern Bekaa Valley, considered a hub for smuggling operations between Lebanon and Syria.
Authorities seized 20 tons of the dangerous chemical stored inside a truck parked at the warehouse, the NNA said, adding the material was transported to a “safe place.”
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, who visited the Bekaa Valley on Saturday, called on security forces to conduct a sweep of the area.
“We must do our best to move these materials to a safer place away from exposure to heat and sun” to avoid a “catastrophe,” the NNA quoted him as saying.
The company that owns the ammonium nitrate said that the fertilizer was intended for agricultural use.
“One of our employees informed the relevant authorities that we have ammonium nitrate, so they raided the warehouses on Friday,” one of the company heads told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The name of the firm that owns the fertilizer has not been made public pending investigations.
“We have been working in the feed and fertilizer industry for 40 years,” the company official added.
When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups for improvised explosives.
Lebanese authorities are still investigating the circumstances in which hundreds of tons of the chemical ended up in the Beirut port for years, before the monster explosion that levelled swathes of the city.


Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Updated 1 min 39 sec ago

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

CAIRO: The United Nations said on Friday that it has resumed humanitarian evacuation flights for migrants stranded in Libya after authorities suspended them for several months. The announcement comes after a massive crackdown on migrants by Libyan security forces.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that it had evacuated 127 people to Gambia from the Libyan city of Misrata on Thursday. It said the Gambian migrants were among thousands more who are waiting to go home through the organization’s voluntary return program.
Evacuation flights for migrants have operated sporadically amid Libya’s conflict, and been periodically suspended because of fighting. The latest suspension came from the country’s ministry of interior on Aug. 8, according to the IOM.
Libya was plunged into turmoil by the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The North African nation has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Many set out for Italy, packed by traffickers into unseaworthy boats.
Earlier this month, Libyan authorities started a massive crackdown against migrants in the western coastal town of Gargaresh, detaining more than 5,000 people over the course of a few days. In response, many turned to a community center operated by the UN’s refugee agency’s office in nearby Tripoli, camping outside and asking to be evacuated.
On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said that there are still 3,000 vulnerable people staying outside its community center for fear of government raids. The agency said it had suspended the center’s operations for security reasons but was still able to offer some limited provisions to the migrants there. It welcomed the resumption of humanitarian flights, but also called on the government to urgently address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in a “humane and rights-based manner,” especially those who cannot return to their countries of origin.
Detained migrants in Libya have been held in overcrowded detention centers where torture, sexual assault and other abuses are rife. UN-commissioned investigators said Oct. 4 that abuse and ill treatment of migrants in Libya could amount to crimes against humanity.
The migration agency has operated evacuation flights for those wanting to return home since 2015 and since then returned some 53,000 migrants. The program receives funding from the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Migration Fund, according to the IOM statement.

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

Updated 32 min 19 sec ago

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

  • Talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program have stalled since supreme leader ally Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency
  • Tehran dragging feet in returning to talks because of ‘internal paralysis,’ expert says

LONDON: Talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear arms program are on the verge of collapse, an anonymous source from a government involved in the negotiations has told The Independent.

Talks that had been continuing in Vienna earlier this year ground to a halt when Iran elected its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is a religious and political hard-liner and a close ally of supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Since then, Iran has failed to return in earnest to the talks and has instead ramped up production of enriched uranium and other measures that bring it closer to having a nuclear bomb. 

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), agreed in 2015 between Iran, the US, China, Russia and other world powers, curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but the deal later broke down.

Now negotiations for a return to the JCPOA are on the verge of collapse, The Independent has reported.

“The deal is not totally dead, but it’s on life support,” said an official of a government involved in the talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US has accused the Iranian side of dragging its feet in returning to the table for talks. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters “this is not an exercise that can go on indefinitely.”

Israel’s finance minister, Avigdor Liberman, warned this week that “a confrontation with Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time.”

Raisi’s team has claimed they need time to settle into their new government and that is why there are delays, but the official involved in the talks said: “If they’re just playing for time while expanding their program, we’ll have to recalibrate our approach.” 

Some suspect Iran is enriching more uranium and ramping up its production capacity to gain more leverage if it chooses to rejoin the talks.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Iran program at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told The Independent: “They are struggling to build a strategy and build consensus. Their foot-dragging can be seen as a leverage-building exercise, but it’s also a reflection of internal paralysis.”

She continued: “Their thinking is they can survive whatever is to come because they have survived everything thus far. But it’s a dangerous calculation. They’re always strategically on the razor’s edge. The outcome domestically could be dangerous in the long run. Yes, they have the monopoly of violence. Yes, the economy is bandaged, but the poverty level is increasing. Debt is increasing.”

The insider source told The Independent: “If the Iranians really wanted to take their time, why continue to escalate their non-compliance?

“Why not freeze their non-compliance? If they walk away, the options aren’t good. It would be a miscalculation to think everyone would just shrug their shoulders.”


Lebanon’s Hezbollah warns Israel against drilling in disputed maritime border area

Updated 46 min 16 sec ago

Lebanon’s Hezbollah warns Israel against drilling in disputed maritime border area

  • "If the enemy thinks they can act as they please before reaching a solution to this issue they are wrong," Nasrallah said in a televised speech
  • Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Friday warned Israel against drilling for oil and gas in the disputed maritime border area between the two countries until the issue is resolved, and said the Iran-backed group would take action if it did so.
“If the enemy thinks they can act as they please before reaching a solution to this issue they are wrong,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Lebanon’s cabinet had raised the question to the United Nations permanent representative and others in the international community after Israel granted US oilfield services group Halliburton an offshore drilling contract in the Mediterranean, asking to clarify whether the drilling would take place in disputed areas.
Lebanon and Israel are in dispute over the delineation of their territorial waters and negotiations between the old foes could lead to Lebanon being able to unlock valuable gas reserves amid its worst-ever financial crisis.
Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields.
The two countries have been holding on-off US mediated talks since October to try to resolve the issue.
“I will not state any positions on this as I don’t want to complicate the negotiations but for sure the resistance in Lebanon at the right time through following this issue when it finds that Lebanese oil and gas is in danger in the disputed area it will act accordingly,” Nasrallah said.
The US mediator for the indirect talks, Amos Hochstein, visited Beirut this week and said a period of shuttle diplomacy would proceed any return to indirect talks between the two countries similar those held in October 2020 at the United Nations’ peackepeers base in Lebanon’s Naqoura.

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Syria constitution talks stall at UN

Updated 22 October 2021

Syria constitution talks stall at UN

  • The government and the opposition traded barbs after the discussions
  • “The discussion today was a big disappointment. We did not manage to achieve what we had hoped to achieve”: Pedersen

GENEVA: Talks on a new constitution for Syria this week ended in disappointment, the United Nations mediator concluded Friday, and without a proper understanding on how to move the process forward.
The sixth round of discussions between 15 representatives each from President Bashar Assad’s government, the opposition, and from civil society, were held this week at the UN in Geneva.
The government and the opposition traded barbs afterwards, pointing the finger at each other for the lack of progress.
“It was ups and downs,” UN envoy Geir Pedersen told a news conference following the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC) talks.
“We had three days that went rather well and one day that was more difficult.”
This week, each delegation brought forward draft texts on different areas of the constitution: on Monday, the government on sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity; on Tuesday, the opposition on the armed forces and security; then civil society on the rule of law; and on Friday, the government on terrorism.
Pedersen wanted to wrap up Friday by striking a form of provisional agreement on the principles that had been discussed, either in part or in full — or if not, then agreeing on what the parties disagreed on.
“The discussion today was a big disappointment. We did not manage to achieve what we had hoped to achieve: that we would have a good discussion on how to reach forward for some kind of a consensus,” the Norwegian diplomat said.
“We lacked a proper understanding on how to move that process forward.”
Negotiations have not been held since January, when the fifth round of talks hit a brick wall.
No date was agreed for the next round of discussions.
The SCC was created in September 2019 and first convened a month later.
The tentative negotiations are aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution. It is hoped the talks could pave the way toward a broader political process.
Ahmad Kuzbari, the head of the government SCC delegation, said some opposition proposals were “far from reality and even reflected malign thought and aggressive agendas,” he told reporters afterwards.
He accused the opposition of “ceaseless attempts to lay obstacles and to make this round fail and lead it not to achieve any outcome.”
“Despite all that took place, our delegation reaffirms its will to carry on, to engage positively in the process,” he concluded.
Syrian opposition negotiations leader Hadi Al-Bahra said Kuzbari’s claims were “bare of any truth” and said the regime did not have the will to reach a solution.
“There were not even attempts to achieve a consensus,” he said.
Bahra said the opposition and the government’s position on Syrian independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity were interchangeable, “but still they are insisting that there is no consensus.”
But he said the talks in Geneva were the only international platform on which the Syrian opposition had a voice, so it was one “we must preserve.”
Pedersen said the participants “agreed that it could not continue like this,” but revealed that “a little bit of trust” had been established this week and he could “see that there are possibilities.”
Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011 after the violent repression of protests demanding regime change.
It quickly spiralled into a complex conflict that pulled in numerous actors, including jihadist groups and foreign powers. The war has left around half a million people dead.
Throughout the civil war, the UN has been striving to nurture a political resolution.


France urges Iran to curb nuclear activity, resume talks

Updated 22 October 2021

France urges Iran to curb nuclear activity, resume talks

  • US envoy Robert Malley joined counterparts from France, Britain and Germany at meetings in Paris
  • Iran’s new government has hinted it will return to the nuclear talks in Vienna but has balked at setting a date

PARIS: France on Friday urged Iran to curb nuclear activities of “unprecedented gravity” as US and European envoys met to discuss efforts aimed at reviving the troubled 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
US envoy Robert Malley joined counterparts from France, Britain and Germany at the meetings in Paris, at what the French Foreign Ministry called a “critical time” in efforts to salvage the accord.
“It is urgent and crucial for Iran to end the activities of unprecedented gravity that it is conducting in violation of the (agreement) and to immediately resume full-fledged cooperation” with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre said in an online briefing.
The IAEA is charged with monitoring the 2015 accord, which was aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. The US pulled out of the accord under Donald Trump and re-imposed sanctions.
Since then Iran has stepped up nuclear activity and is now in violation of several aspects of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Iran’s nuclear activity includes enriching uranium which Western nations fear could be used to build an atomic bomb. Tehran denies any such ambitions.
The US and European partners are ready to return immediately to negotiations with Iran “in order to swiftly conclude an agreement on Iran’s return to its commitments and the United States’ return to the JCPOA,” Legendre said.
Iran’s new hard-line government led by President Ebrahim Raisi, which took power in August, has hinted it will return to the nuclear talks in Vienna but has balked at setting a date.