Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

In recent weeks, daily new infections in Idlib have repeatedly shot past 1,500, believed to be an undercount because many infected people do not report to authorities. (AP)
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Updated 22 September 2021

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

  • The total number of cases seen in Idlib province has more than doubled since the beginning of August
  • Extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible

BEIRUT: Coronavirus cases are surging to the worst levels of the pandemic in a rebel stronghold in Syria — a particularly devastating development in a region where scores of hospitals have been bombed and that doctors and nurses have fled in droves during a decade of war.
The total number of cases seen in Idlib province — an overcrowded enclave with a population of 4 million, many of them internally displaced — has more than doubled since the beginning of August to more than 61,000. In recent weeks, daily new infections have repeatedly shot past 1,500, and authorities reported 34 deaths on Sunday alone — figures that are still believed to be undercounts because many infected people don’t report to authorities.
The situation has become so dire in the northwestern province that rescue workers known as the White Helmets who became famous for digging through the rubble of bombings to find victims now mostly ferry coronavirus patients to the hospital or the dead to burials.
“What is happening is a medical catastrophe,” the Idlib Doctors Syndicate said this week as it issued a plea for support from international aid groups.
Idlib faces all the challenges that places the world over have during the pandemic: Its intensive care units are largely full, there are severe shortages of oxygen and tests, and the vaccination rollout has been slow.
But extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible. Half of its hospitals and health centers have been damaged by bombing, and the health system was close to collapse even before the pandemic. A large number of medical personnel have fled the country seeking safety and opportunities abroad. Tens of thousands of its residents live in crowded tent settlements, where social distancing and even regular hand-washing are all but impossible. And increasing violence in the region is now threatening to make matters worse.
Large parts of Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province remain in the hands of Syria’s armed opposition, dominated by radical groups including Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants who have struggled to respond to the outbreak, which intensified in August, apparently driven by the more contagious delta variant and gatherings for the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha.
Cases and deaths have also been increasing in recent weeks in government-held areas and those under the control of US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in the east, but the situation appears to be worse in Idlib, though it’s hard to measure the true toll anywhere.
In response, the political arm of the insurgent group that runs Idlib has closed some markets, forced restaurants to serve outdoor meals only, and delayed the opening of schools by a week.
But most residents are daily laborers who could not survive if they stopped working, making full lockdowns impossible.
“If they don’t work, they cannot eat,” said Idlib resident Ahmad Said, who added that most people cannot even afford to buy masks.
What’s more, a population that has suffered through so much already is often too weary to follow restrictions that have tested people even in easier circumstances.
“It is as if people have gotten used to death,” said Salwa Abdul-Rahman, an opposition activist who reports on events in Idlib. “Those who were not killed by regime and Russian airstrikes are being killed now by coronavirus.”
The vaccination campaign meanwhile, has been slow, though the arrival of some 350,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine earlier this month could help. According to the World Health Organization, only about 2.5 percent of Idlib’s population has received at least one shot.
The new virus outbreak also comes amid the most serious increase in violence in Idlib, 18 months after a truce reached between Turkey and Russia who support rival sides in Syria’s conflict brought relative calm. In recent weeks, airstrikes and artillery shelling by government forces have left scores of people dead or wounded.
At Al-Ziraa hospital, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah says there is no sign that the outbreak has reached its peak yet.
But for some Idlib residents, getting infected is the least of their worries.
“We have gone through more difficult situations than coronavirus,” said resident Ali Dalati, walking through a market without wearing a mask. “We are not afraid of coronavirus.”


Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

Updated 58 min 35 sec ago

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

  • "We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15," said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune
  • He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied

ALGIERS: Algeria said Tuesday it would reopen its land border with Tunisia later this month, more than two years after it was shut at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied, who was leaving the country after attending a huge parade marking 60 years since Algeria’s independence from France.
Passengers had been blocked from crossing the border since March 2020 to stop the Covid-19 illness spreading, although cargo traffic had continued.
Being cut off from a neighbor of some 44 million people has dealt a serious blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry.
More than three million Algerians usually visit the country every year, according to local media.
Air and sea links between the two countries were restored in June 2021.


Egypt FM attending freedom of religion conference in London

Updated 05 July 2022

Egypt FM attending freedom of religion conference in London

  • Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is attending the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London.

The event, which is being held on July 5-6, is hosting 500 religious, government and civil society leaders from 60 countries to call for more action to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world.

In the opening speech of the conference, the UK’s Prince Charles said in a recorded message: “Freedom of conscience, of thought and of belief is central to any truly flourishing society. It allows people to contribute to their communities without fear of exclusion, to exchange ideas without fear of prejudice, and to build relationships without fear of rejection. A society where difference is respected, where it is accepted that all need not think alike, will benefit from the talents of all of its members.”

Speaking at the conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in London, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss said: “The freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship, or indeed not to believe is a fundamental human freedom and has been one since the dawn of time. Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful. This fundamental right is covered in the very first clause of Magna Carta and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is one of the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt said were ‘essential everywhere in the world.’”

Yesterday, the Egyptian minister, at the start of his London visit, met UK Minister of State for North Africa, South and Central Asia, the Commonwealth and the UN Lord Tariq Ahmed. The two discussed the conference, Egypt’s preparations for hosting and chairing COP27 in November, and the importance of continuing coordination between Egypt and the UK.


Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

Updated 44 min 32 sec ago

Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

  • Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse over how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact ended in Doha, Qatar, last week

JEDDAH: Iran has made alarming progress on enriching uranium and is hampering talks on a revived nuclear deal by making a series of unrelated demands, US special envoy Robert Malley said on Tuesday.

Negotiations in Vienna aimed at salvaging the collapsed 2015 agreement have been stalled since March, and talks in Qatar last week to break the impasse ended in failure.

Tehran had “added demands that I think anyone looking at this would view as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they’ve wanted in the past,” Malley said.

BACKGROUND

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would make every effort to make Tehran return to the negotiating table.

“The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we’re prepared to have that. It’s between Iran and itself. They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”

Iran ramped up enrichment of uranium after the US pulled out of the deal in 2018, and Malley said it was now much closer to having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

“We are of course alarmed, as are our partners, about the progress they’ve made in the enrichment field,” he said.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

The window to revive the deal was closing, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Tuesday. “If we want to conclude an agreement, decisions are needed now. This is still possible, but the political space … may narrow soon,” he said.

On a visit to Paris, new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Iran was “violating the agreement and continues to develop its nuclear program.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would make every effort to make Tehran see reason and return to the negotiating table.


Greek PM criticizes ‘constant aggressive behavior’ of Turkey

Updated 05 July 2022

Greek PM criticizes ‘constant aggressive behavior’ of Turkey

  • Greece has voiced strong support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion
  • Mitsotakis noted he was referring to “the constant aggressive behavior of Turkey,” with which relations have shown increasing strain over the past two years

ATHENS: Greece’s prime minister said Tuesday that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a “turning point” in the course of Europe, stressing that any type of outcome that could embolden aggression by other nations on the continent must be avoided.
Greece, which has long-standing disputes with far larger neighbor Turkey that brought them to the brink of war three times in the last half-century, has voiced strong support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion.
“The battle of Ukraine is not just another event on the international scene. It is a turning point in the course of Europe,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
“We owe it today to Ukraine to avert any type of fait accompli which could be imitated tomorrow by new potential trouble-makers,” he said.
Mitsotakis noted he was referring to “the constant aggressive behavior of Turkey,” with which relations have shown increasing strain over the past two years. Although both NATO members, the two countries have decades-old disputes over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Recent quarrels have focused on Greek islands off Turkey’s coast, with Ankara accusing Athens of maintaining a military presence there in violation of treaties. Greece counters it is acting according to international law and is defending its islands in the face of Turkish hostility.
“One thing is certain, we do not need new revisionism and the revival of imperial fantasies,” Mitsotakis said. “And another thing is also certain, Greece will not tolerate any questioning of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The Greek prime minister said his country was “keeping our doors shut to threats, keeping our windows open to peaceful contacts. Disputes between nations are resolved based on international law, not through bullying.”
Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of violating its airspace — something which Greece frequently accuses Turkey of doing to its own airspace, and denies violating Turkey’s.
“We don’t have an issue like ‘let’s go to war with Greece, let’s make war.’ But Greece is not standing by their promises,” Erdogan said after Friday prayers, accusing Greece of having violated Turkish airspace 147 times.
“Of course, if you’re going to violate our airspace like this, then what falls on us? My air force will give you the necessary visuals. That’s what our air force is doing,” Erdogan said, adding that “our armed forces are doing their duty and if these airspace violations continue after this, we will continue to do our duty in the same way.”
The Turkish president said the leaders of many NATO countries had tried to reconcile him and Mitsotakis. Erdogan said that “we are not thinking that right now,” but would see what happens in the future and evaluate it then.


Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

Updated 05 July 2022

Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

  • Man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in ‘illegal’ detention since

BRUSSELS: Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months under “espionage” charges, Belgium’s justice minister said Tuesday, as his country weighed a controversial prisoner swap treaty with Tehran.
The man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in “illegal” detention since, the minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, told Belgian MPs without identifying him.
Belgium last year imprisoned an Iranian diplomat for 20 years after his conviction under “terrorist” charges for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris in 2018.
While Quickenborne did not give the detained Belgian’s identity, Iran International, a Saudi-financed media outlet based in London, reported that a 41-year-old Belgian former aid worker is detained in Iran.
The outlet said the Belgian’s arrest appeared to be another instance of Iran “imprisoning foreigners as hostages to exchange them with certain Iranians jailed in Western countries.”
Among those Iran is holding is a Swedish academic who also holds Iranian citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who taught at a Brussels university. Iran also applied “espionage” charges to Djalali and has sentenced him to death.
Quickenborne said officials from Belgium’s embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed Belgian to give all possible assistance, and that his family had earlier Tuesday made public his detention.
“I cannot say more, at the express request of the family,” the minister said.
Belgium’s parliament on Thursday is to vote on whether to ratify a bilateral treaty with Iran that would open the way for prisoners in each country to be repatriated.
Quickenborne on Tuesday said as he presented the proposed treaty to MPs for debate that “if the bill is not fully approved, the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase.”
Some US lawmakers, however, are pressing Belgium to ditch the proposed treaty, which was signed in March.
One, Randy Weber, a Republican representative in Texas, tweeted he was “shocked to find out that the Belgian gov has cut a deal with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and plans to send Iranian terrorists back to Iran to plot more terroristic acts.”
The imprisoned Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted by a Belgian court in February 2021 of attempted “terrorist” murder and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group.”
He was found guilty of supplying explosives for a bomb attack on June 30, 2018 event outside Paris held by the dissident National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) group.
Information supplied by several European intelligence services allowed Belgium to thwart the attack by intercepting the car carrying the bomb.
A two-year investigation into the plot determined that Assadi was an Iranian agent operating under diplomatic cover.
Assadi was arrested in Germany, where his claim to diplomatic immunity was denied because he was attached to Iran’s embassy in Austria, and extradited to Belgium for trial.
He opted not to appeal against his sentence. Tehran has protested his conviction.
Lawyers for the NCRI, whose core is made up of a militant organization known as the MEK, said the proposed Belgium-Iran treaty was designed to allow Assadi to go back to Iran.
The controversy in Belgium over the treaty comes as European powers are trying to bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.
That pact was badly weakened when former president Donald Trump pulled America out in 2018.
Iran has since leapt ahead with its uranium enrichment to a level putting it close to the point where it could produce nuclear weapons.

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