Tunisian Ennahda official says party will defy COVID rules for protest

Tunisians wearing protective masks walk in the Kram area of the capital Tunis on May 8, 2020, as authorities begin a gradual sector and region-based process to mitigate lockdown measures. (AFP)
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Updated 13 January 2022

Tunisian Ennahda official says party will defy COVID rules for protest

  • Government said it was re-imposing a night curfew, banning all gatherings for two weeks and discouraging people from traveling
  • Ennahda and other parties had planned a major protest on Friday against Saied in central Tunis, but any public demonstration would be in breach of the new rules

TUNIS: A senior official in Tunisia’s main opposition Ennahda party told Reuters it planned to go ahead with a protest against President Kais Saied on Friday in defiance of a new COVID-19 ban on gatherings.
The government said earlier it was re-imposing a night curfew, banning all gatherings for two weeks and discouraging people from traveling abroad to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases.
Ennahda and other parties accuse the government of using the rules to stop protests against Saied, who in July sacked the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed broad powers in moves they call a coup.
They had planned a major protest on Friday against Saied in central Tunis, but any public demonstration would be in breach of the new rules.
“In principle, Ennahda will go ahead with the Friday protest,” said the official, Mohamed Goumani.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda was the largest party in the suspended parliament with about a quarter of seats and had played a role in successive coalition governments since the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy.
Saied, who insists his actions were necessary to save the state and denies harboring dictatorial ambitions, has started rewriting the country’s constitution and says he will put it to a referendum this summer before a new parliament is elected.
“The decision (to ban gatherings) is a political one, not a scientific one, especially given that hundreds of thousands of students will be going to school,” Goumani added.
The previous government’s perceived poor response to the pandemic, including a botched vaccine roll-out, raised the political pressure before Saied’s intervention in July.
Leaders of two other parties that had joined the call for protests on Friday also accused the government of restoring the health restrictions for political reasons.
“We will be on Revolution Street to protest whatever the cost,” Ghazi Chaouachi, the head of Attayar, which had 22 of the suspended parliament’s 217 seats, told reporters, using a nickname to describe the capital’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
The measures were intended “to prevent a wave of popular anger that they can only confront by citing health conditions,” said the leader of the smaller Joumhouri Party, Issam Chebbi.


Kurds advance on jihadists in besieged Syria jail, appeal for help

Updated 26 January 2022

Kurds advance on jihadists in besieged Syria jail, appeal for help

  • A tense stand-off has gripped the prison, with Kurdish forces and their Daesh rivals facing either a bloodbath or talks to end the fighting

HASAKAH, Syria: Kurdish forces advanced Wednesday inside a Syrian prison where Daesh group fighters have been holed up with minors for six days, amid pleas for international assistance to contain a jihadist resurgence.
More than 100 jihadists of the Daesh group last week attacked Ghwayran prison in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakah, held by a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration.
The brazen assault on the Kurdish-run facility involved a double suicide bombing and saw the jihadists free fellow Daesh members, seize weapons and take over a series of jail blocks.
It is considered the most sophisticated attack carried out by the group since it was territorially defeated in Syria nearly three years ago.
On Wednesday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and allied fighters “carried out search operations inside prison blocks” and in areas surrounding the facility, where intermittent clashes had broken out overnight, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
US-backed Kurdish forces were “advancing slowly” inside the jail where jihadists were still holed up, said the Britain-based monitor.
Fighting in and around the prison since Thursday has killed 181 people, including 124 Daesh jihadists, 50 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians, according to the Observatory.
With operations inside the facility underway, fears were raised over the fate of minors detained at Ghwayran, which held more than 700 boys among 3,500 Daesh suspects prior to the attack.
“They say they fear they’ll be shot down if they try to come out. They are begging for food, water, medicine,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler, adding she had made contact with three inmates including one minor trapped inside the jail.
They are calling for the United Nations “or other international organization to negotiate their safe exit,” Tayler said.
A tense stand-off has gripped the prison, with Kurdish forces and their Daesh rivals facing either a bloodbath or talks to end the fighting.
“The most likely way this ends is with the total defeat of the Daesh fighters at the prison,” said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Newlines Institute.
“But the nightmare scenario for the SDF and the US-led coalition is a drawn out standoff that kills hundreds, including many children prisoners.”
Kurdish forces since Monday have freed 32 prison staff, some of whom appeared in video footage that Daesh had shared on social media after launching the attack, the Observatory says.
Around 1,000 men, including rebelling inmates and Daesh jihadists, have so far surrendered to Kurdish forces, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Wednesday.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that a Syrian Daesh jihadist was negotiating with Kurdish forces to end the mutiny and secure medical care for wounded jihadists.
Farhad Shami of the SDF media office said the SDF had made calls for Daesh to surrender, but he refused to refer to them as formal negotiations.
Ghwayran is the prison with the largest number of suspected Daesh members in Syria, the Observatory says.
Kurdish authorities say more than 50 nationalities are represented in a number of Kurdish-run prisons, where over 12,000 Daesh suspects are being held.
The Kurdish administration has long warned it does not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, the thousands of Daesh fighters captured in years of operations.
“This issue is an international problem,” Abdulkarim Omar, the administration’s top foreign policy official, told AFP on Wednesday.
“We cannot face it alone.”
He called on the international community to “support the autonomous administration to improve security and humanitarian conditions for inmates in detention centers and for those in overcrowded camps.”
The proto-state declared by Daesh in 2014 once straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.
After five years of military operations conducted by local and international forces, its last rump was eventually flushed out on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria in March 2019.


Iran arrests 17 over social media horror pranks

Updated 26 January 2022

Iran arrests 17 over social media horror pranks

  • Gags included mock murders and a suicide as well as throwing cakes in the faces of passengers on the escalators of the Tehran metro

TEHRAN: Iranian police have arrested 17 university graduates on suspicion of filming candid camera horror pranks that boosted their social media followings but “sowed panic” in Tehran streets, reports said Tuesday.
Gags included mock murders and a suicide as well as throwing cakes in the faces of passengers on the escalators of the Tehran metro, Iranian newspapers reported.
“Police have arrested some individuals who amused themselves by playing on people’s nerves and the peace and security of the public by filming candid camera footage of horror gags on the streets of the capital,” Tehran police chief General Hossein Rahimi told the Iran newspaper.
“We arrested 17 people who perpetrated these illegal acts.”
The author of the gag filmed on the Tehran metro was open about his motives.
“I wanted to make people happy and increase the number of followers on my Instagram page,” he told the Shahab newspaper.
But the head of Tehran’s cyber police Col. Davoud Moazzami expressed outrage that educated people would scare the public for personal gain in this way.
“They filmed these candid camera videos to attract followers and advertising on Instagram and Twitter,” Moazzami said. “All 17 of those arrested had received university educations and worked for respected companies.”


Kuwait death toll raised to 4 in oil refinery fire

Updated 26 January 2022

Kuwait death toll raised to 4 in oil refinery fire

  • The fire erupted Jan. 14 during maintenance work at the Mina Al-Ahmadi oil refinery

DUBAI: The death toll from a fire at a major oil refinery in Kuwait has been raised to four after two critically injured workers died of their wounds, the Kuwait National Petroleum Company said in a statement Wednesday.
The fire, which erupted Jan. 14 during maintenance work at the Mina Al-Ahmadi oil refinery, initially killed two Asian workers, whose bodies were found on site, and had left five others in critical condition.
The state-owned company said that two of the critically injured workers have since died in the hospital while receiving treatment, raising the death toll to four.
The company’s top executive issued a statement in the days after the blaze saying such incidents, while “very painful for us,” are “very likely in a complex industry.”
Kuwait’s Oil Minister Mohammed Al-Fares and other top executives of the state-owned oil company visited the refinery immediately after the fire. They were seen fist-bumping members of the fire brigade and standing in front of the site of the blast for photos that were shared by the Kuwait National Petroleum Company’s Twitter account.
It was the second fire in a month at the site. A smaller fire erupted last week at separate petrochemical line run by the company, though no injuries were reported in that blaze.
The Mina Al-Ahmadi refinery was built to handle 25,000 barrels of oil a day to supply Kuwait’s domestic market primarily with gasoline and diesel. The facility recently underwent an expansion to reduce its emissions and boost capacity to 346,000 barrels a day.
Kuwait, a nation home to 4.1 million people, has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.

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UAE discussing defense upgrade after Houthi attacks- envoy to UN

Updated 26 January 2022

UAE discussing defense upgrade after Houthi attacks- envoy to UN

  • Nusseibeh confirmed ongoing security discussions with Washington but declined to provide details
  • The Houthis said they are punishing the UAE for backing forces battling the group in energy-producing regions

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates may upgrade its defensive capabilities after missile attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, while continuing diplomacy with Tehran to reduce regional tensions, a senior UAE diplomat said.
The Emirati envoy to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, told CNN on Tuesday that UAE intelligence showed the two assaults — the first on the regional commercial and tourism hub — had originated from Yemen, and there was also a need to stem illicit flows of weapons and funds to the group.
A Saudi-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, accuses Iran of supplying the Houthis with arms, which both Tehran and the group deny.
Monday’s strike, aimed at a base in Abu Dhabi hosting US forces, was thwarted by American-built Patriot interceptors, after a deadly attack a week earlier on the capital.
Nusseibeh confirmed ongoing security discussions with Washington but declined to provide details. The UAE uses the US anti-missile interception system THAAD.
“Our ability to intercept and deflect these attacks is world class,” she said. “There can always be upgrades and improvements and... additional intelligence cooperation and I think these are the fields we’re looking at with our (US) partners.”
She said the UAE, which has urged Washington to reinstate a terrorist designation of the Houthis, was also discussing with partners increasing pressure on the group to engage with stalled UN-led peace efforts.
“That means listing them again on sanctions regimes ... potentially listing additional figures, it means stopping the illicit flow of weapons and finance to them.”
The Houthis said they are punishing the UAE for backing forces battling the group in energy-producing regions, after the UAE in 2019 largely distanced itself from Yemen.
The Houthis have repeatedly launched attacks on Saudi Arabia in the war, seen as a proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran.
Nusseibeh said the Houthis would not succeed in undermining the UAE’s safe-haven status.
The UAE, which has been engaging with Iran, would continue diplomacy aimed at de-escalation, she said, while reserving the right to defend itself “defensively and offensively” in the Yemen conflict.

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Rights group says Lebanese staffer targeted with NSO spyware

Updated 26 January 2022

Rights group says Lebanese staffer targeted with NSO spyware

  • The New York-based rights group said the software was used against Lama Fakih
  • NSO Group has been mired in controversy following revelations against its spyware

BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that one of its senior staff members was targeted last year with spyware designed by the Israeli hacker-for hire company NSO Group.
The New York-based rights group said the software was used against Lama Fakih, the director of its Beirut office who also oversees its crisis response in several countries, including Syria, Myanmar, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and the United States.
NSO Group has been mired in controversy following revelations its spyware was used in several countries against journalists, activists and even US diplomats. The US barred the firm from accessing American technology last year, saying its tools have been used by repressive regimes, and Facebook and Apple have filed lawsuits against NSO over hacks against their products.
NSO Group does not disclose its clients but says it has safeguards in place to ensure its products are only used to target suspected criminals and terrorists. It says it does not have access to the intelligence its clients gather.
Its Pegasus spyware grants full access to a person’s phone, including photos, emails and real-time communications. The targeted person does not have to take any action, such as clicking a link, and would not be able to detect the breach without a sophisticated technical analysis.
NSO Group issued a statement expressing support for an “international regulatory structure” for cyber intelligence tools, but said any calls to suspend their use until one is established would benefit criminals who evade other forms of surveillance. It did not directly address the hacking reported by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said Fakih, a dual US and Lebanese citizen, was targeted on five occasions between April and August. Apple informed her of the breach on Nov. 24, and forensic analysis by Human Rights Watch confirmed the presence of the software, the group said.
“It is no accident that governments are using spyware to target activists and journalists, the very people who uncover their abusive practices,” Fakih said. “They seem to believe that by doing so, they can consolidate power, muzzle dissent, and protect their manipulation of facts.”