Iran prison fire death toll rises to 8 inmates killed

A picture obtained from the Iranian Mizan News Agency on October 16, 2022 shows damage caused by a fire in the notorious Evin prison, northwest of the Iranian capital Tehran. (AFP)
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Updated 17 October 2022
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Iran prison fire death toll rises to 8 inmates killed

  • State media reported that the blaze was extinguished after several hours and no detainees escaped
  • Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed, including 32 minors

DUBAI: Eight prisoners died as a result of a fire at Tehran’s Evin prison over the weekend, Iran’s judiciary said on Monday, doubling the death toll from the blaze which has increased pressure on a government struggling to contain mass protests.
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 while in police custody has sparked protests across the country which the authorities have been trying to put down by force.
Iran’s judiciary said all the victims of the prison blaze had been held in a section of the prison designated for prisoners of robbery-related crimes. Evin also holds political prisoners and many detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality.
Authorities said that a prison workshop had been set on fire “after a fight among a number of prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft.” State media reported on Sunday that the first four deaths had been caused by smoke inhalation and that more than 60 had been injured, four of them critically.
In a commentary, state newspaper Iran said that counter-revolutionary forces with the help of foreign intelligence services planned the fire in order to keep international attention on the country’s unrest.
“A review of its different dimensions of this event indicates due to the presence of these dual-national “spies” or “spies” who are citizens of western countries, this would attract sensitivity of those countries, igniting the protesters,” said the newspaper.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the fire at Evin could happen in any country.
US President Joe Biden and the European Union are among those to have criticized Tehran’s crackdown on protesters, with the EU considering to impose asset freezes and travel bans on a number of Iranian officials involved.
The judiciary spokesperson Masoud Setayeshi warned that “Spreading lies with the intention of disturbing public opinion is punishable by law.”
Families of some political detainees took to social media to call on the authorities to ensure their safety at Evin, which in 2018 was blacklisted by the US government for “serious human rights abuses.”
The protests sparked by Amini’s death a month ago have turned into one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 revolution, with protesters calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic, even if the unrest does not seem close to toppling the system.
Protests resumed early on Monday in Yazd and several other cities. The widely followed activist Tasvir1500 Twitter account carried a video showing people setting fire in the streets and calling for the death of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reuters could not independently verify the videos. Iran has deployed the Basij militia, voluntary military troops which have been at the forefront of repressing popular unrest, but they have failed to contain the protests.
The elite Revolutionary Guards, who have not taken part in the crackdown, began military exercises on Monday.
Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed, including 32 minors. Over 8,000 people had been arrested in 111 cities and towns, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday. The authorities have not published a death toll.
Iran, which has blamed the violence on enemies at home and abroad, denies security forces have killed protesters. State media said on Saturday at least 26 members of the security forces had been killed by “rioters.” 


Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

In this aerial view, Iraqi campers set up a tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 7 sec ago
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Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

  • Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group
  • Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away

SAMAWAH, Iraq: Far from the hustle and bustle of major cities, young Iraqis are increasingly taking advantage of a renewed sense of safety to explore the country’s serene desert getaways.
Sheltering amidst the golden dunes, Ghadanfar Abdallah and his friends gather around a flickering campfire in the Samawah desert south of the capital, humming tunes, laughing and eating.
“When we post pictures, people do not believe that there are such places like the dunes in Iraq,” the 35-year-old oil sector worker said.

Visiters manoeuver their car on the sand in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 26, 2024. (AFP)

“My friends ask me if the pictures were taken in Dubai. They are shocked when they learn that they were, in fact, in Iraq.”
For years, only the most intrepid of hikers and campers would brave the trips into Iraq’s desert. But with the rise of social media and a period of relative stability, it has become a popular destination for those seeking not only adventure and off-roading but also tranquillity in the vast, barren landscape.
“It is something I loved since I was a little boy. But I only started doing it with friends in the winter of 2018 or 2019,” Abdallah said.

An Iraqi camper reads a book inside his tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)

He crossed 200 kilometers (125 miles) from his southern city of Basra to reach an area untouched by the trappings of urban life — including phone networks.
On a crisp winter weekend, around 20 campers set up their tents amid the serene dunes. The air filled with the aroma of carp grilling over a smoky wood fire, as the hikers prepared to feast on Iraq’s national dish, masgouf.
Later, some played dominoes while others bickered over heated games of backgammon, sipping hot cups of tea and smoking hookahs (water pipe). Their voices resonated with traditional Iraqi songs, their laughter piercing the still desert night.

An Iraqi man rides a camel during a trip to the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 27, 2024. (AFP)

Abdallah said such desert expeditions have “become more widespread, and today many stores sell camping gear.
“Some are starting to realize that it is safe, it is an adventure.”
But for many, the lingering sense of danger remains.
Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group.

Iraqi campers gather around a fire in the early morning in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 3, 2024. (AFP)

Though the terrorists were driven out of their major strongholds in late 2017, many retreated into desert hideouts, largely in the country’s west, from where they still sporadically — though with increasing rarity — stage deadly attacks.
“How can someone go to a desert where there is no water or mobile network? If something happens, how would you report it?” Abdallah said.
Iraq’s soaring summer temperatures — often surpassing 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) — mean these arid adventures are limited to wintertime.
A weekend getaway costs between $75 and $100 per person, covering food, transportation and accommodation. A single trip can bring together a group of up to 30 people — typically men in the conservative country where women would not normally take part in such activities.
For Hussein Al-Jazairi, the journey is worth every penny.
“The city is full of dust, noise and daily annoyances,” the 34-year-old influencer said during his first desert camping trip.
“One can come here, where it is quiet, serene, and there is fresh air.”
Jazairi is often glued to his phone, scrolling through his social media accounts. But his recent trip to the Samawah desert proved to be a completely different experience.
“Social media is my work. I receive non-stop notifications. By the end of the day, I have spent a very long time on my phone,” Jazairi said.
“Here, there is no network. It has been two days, and my phone’s battery is still 70 percent. I haven’t used it.”

While Jazairi encourages people to explore the country’s vast sandhills, he warns that “one should not go alone, especially for the first time.”
“We came with experts who know the places around.”
Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away.
Today, campers still need to remain vigilant, as some areas are still riddled with mines, while the borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria are intersected by routes used by drug traffickers or terrorists.
“We don’t start any trip without first identifying where we will sleep,” said Murad Al-Bahadli, a camper with over eight years of experience.
“We plan carefully to avoid any security risk,” the 38-year-old added.
Yet the placid desert nights are a far cry from the years of turmoil, and for many their lure is irresistible.
Among those is Ravshan Mokhtarov, an Uzbek who has been living in Basra for six years.
“This area is unique. There is no one, not even a sound,” the young man said, expressing gratitude for “Iraqi hospitality.”
“It is pretty much safe. I don’t feel any danger.”

 


Iran’s president discusses Gaza with Algerian counterpart — Algeria’s presidency

Updated 12 min 7 sec ago
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Iran’s president discusses Gaza with Algerian counterpart — Algeria’s presidency

  • Algeria, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, backs the Palestinian cause and has called several times for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

DUBAI: Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday discussed bilateral relations, energy cooperation, trade and Gaza with Algeria’s leader Abdelmadjid Tebboune in a one-day state visit, according to Algeria’s presidency.
Algeria, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, backs the Palestinian cause and has called several times for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

 


Netanyahu rival’s visit to US highlights cracks within Israel’s wartime leadership

Updated 03 March 2024
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Netanyahu rival’s visit to US highlights cracks within Israel’s wartime leadership

  • Netanyahu reportedly had a “tough talk” with Benny Gantz and told him the country has “just one prime minister”
  • Gantz is a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack
  • A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost support for Gantz's political future

TEL AVIV, Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked a top Cabinet minister arriving in Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, according to an Israeli official, signaling widening cracks within the country’s leadership nearly five months into its war with Hamas.

The trip by Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, comes as friction between the US and Netanyahu is rising over how to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and what the postwar plan for the enclave should look like.
An official from Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party said Gantz’s trip was planned without authorization from the Israeli leader. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu had a “tough talk” with Gantz and told him the country has “just one prime minister.”
Gantz is scheduled to meet on Monday with US Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and on Tuesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to his National Unity Party. A second Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Gantz’s visit is intended to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages.
In Egypt, talks were underway to broker a ceasefire before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.
Israel did not send a delegation because it is waiting for answers from Hamas on two questions, according to a third Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Israeli media reported that the government is waiting to learn which hostages are alive and how many Palestinian prisoners Hamas seeks in exchange for each.
All three Israeli officials spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorized to discuss the disputes with the media.
On Saturday, the US airdropped aid into Gaza. The airdrops came after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from an Israel-organized convoy were killed last week, and they circumvented an aid delivery system that has been hobbled by Israeli restrictions, logistical issues and fighting in Gaza. Aid officials say airdrops are far less effective than deliveries made by trucks.
US priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by Netanyahu’s Cabinet, which is dominated by ultranationalists. Gantz’s more moderate party at times acts as a counterweight.
Netanyahu’s popularity has dropped since the war broke out, according to most opinion polls. Many Israelis hold him responsible for failing to stop the Oct. 7 cross-border raid by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took roughly 250 people as hostages into Gaza, including women, children and older adults, according to Israeli authorities.
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters. Around 80 percent of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.
Israelis critical of Netanyahu say his decision-making has been tainted by political considerations, a charge he denies. The criticism is particularly focused on plans for postwar Gaza. Netanyahu wants Israel to maintain open-ended security control over Gaza, with Palestinians running civilian affairs.
The US wants to see progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, envisioning a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza with an eye toward eventual statehood.
That vision is opposed by Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government. Another top Cabinet official from Gantz’s party has questioned the handling of the war and the strategy for freeing the hostages.
Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most conservative and religious ever, has also been rattled by a court-ordered deadline for a new bill to broaden military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many of them are exempted from military service so they can pursue religious studies. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been killed since Oct. 7, and the military is looking to fill its ranks.
Gantz has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood. Polls show he would earn enough support to become prime minister if a vote were held today.
A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost Gantz’s support.
Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US official said Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.
Israelis, deeply traumatized by Hamas’ attack, have broadly backed the war effort as an act of self-defense, even as global opposition to the fighting has increased.
But a growing number are expressing their dismay with Netanyahu. Some 10,000 people protested late Saturday to call for early elections, according to Israeli media. Such protests have grown in recent weeks, but remain much smaller than last year’s demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
If the political rifts grow and Gantz quits the government, the floodgates will open to broader protests by a public that was already unhappy with the government when Hamas struck, said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Israeli strikes late Saturday in Rafah and in the Jabaliya refugee camp killed more than 30 people, including women and children, according to local health officials. And on Sunday two Israeli strikes southwest of Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza killed at least five people and destroyed an aid truck, according to witnesses and staff at Al Aqsa hospital.
Amid concerns about the wider regional conflict, White House senior adviser Amos Hochstein was going to Lebanon on Monday to meet officials, according to an administration official who was not authorized to comment. White House officials want Lebanese and Israeli officials to prevent tensions along their border from worsening.
 


US envoy due in Beirut to continue de-escalation talks

US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut, Lebanon. (File/Reuters)
Updated 03 March 2024
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US envoy due in Beirut to continue de-escalation talks

  • Lebanon deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab said he believed timing of visit pointed to progress in efforts to secure a Gaza truce “within the next few hours or days”

BEIRUT: US envoy Amos Hochstein will visit Beirut on Monday to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalating the conflict across the Lebanese-Israeli border and bringing stability, a senior Lebanese official and a White House official said on Sunday.
The Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and Israel have been locked in hostilities for months in parallel to the Gaza war. It has marked the worst conflict between the heavily armed adversaries since a 2006 war, fueling fears of an even bigger confrontation.
Lebanon deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab, one of the officials due to meet Hochstein, told Reuters he believed the timing of his visit pointed to progress in efforts to secure a Gaza truce “within the next few hours or days.”
“If this happens, I believe that Hochstein’s visit this time will be of great importance to follow up on the truce on our southern borders and to discuss what is needed for stability and ending the possibility of the expansion of the war with Lebanon,” he said.
The White House official did not offer further details about the visit.
Washington has said a ceasefire deal in the Gaza war is close and is aiming to have it be in effect by the start of Ramadan, a week away.
Israel however boycotted talks in Cairo on Sunday after Hamas rejected its demand for a complete list of hostages that are still alive, an Israeli newspaper reported.
Hezbollah has publicly indicated that it would halt its attacks on Israel from Lebanon when the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip stops, but that it was also ready to keep on fighting if Israel continued hostilities.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati told Reuters on Thursday that a halt to fighting in the Gaza Strip as early as this week would trigger indirect talks to end hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.
Bou Saab said Hochstein had “serious ideas that may provide the beginning of a sustainable solution, stability, and banishing the spectre of war that will not be in anyone’s interest.”
Hochstein, who visited Beirut in January, previously brokered a rare diplomatic deal between Lebanon and Israel in 2022 to delineate their maritime border.
Designated a terrorist group by the United States, Hezbollah has not been a direct party to his diplomatic efforts. Instead his ideas have been passed on by Lebanese mediators. The group wields significant influence over the Lebanese state.
The Gaza war began when Hamas stormed Israel on Oct. 7, in an attack that killed 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being abducted, according to Israeli tallies.
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip in the Israeli offensive launched in response, according to Gaza health authorities.


Abbas to discuss intra-Palestinian dialogue in Ankara

Updated 03 March 2024
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Abbas to discuss intra-Palestinian dialogue in Ankara

  • The Israeli military said on Sunday it intensified operations in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, destroying dozens of militant targets in a blitz of air and artillery strikes

ANKARA: Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas will visit Turkiye on Tuesday for talks about the Gaza war and reconciliation efforts between Palestinian factions, the Turkish foreign minister said.
The visit comes as intensive diplomacy is underway to pause the fighting in the almost five-month-old war between Israel and Hamas sparked by the Oct. 7 attacks.
Turkiye’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said: “There is a serious desire and effort to reach a ceasefire before Ramadan,” in closing remarks to an annual diplomacy forum in the Mediterranean holiday resort of Antalya.
Fidan confirmed that Abbas would visit Ankara on Tuesday at the invitation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal advocate of the Palestinian cause.
Both leaders would discuss “the developments in Palestine, the current course of the war as well as the intra-Palestinian dialogue, Fidan said.
Hamas is a rival of Abbas’s Fatah faction that rules the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
It ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007 following its landslide victory in the previous Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Erdogan has become one of the harshest critics of Israel’s war in Gaza.
He has branded Israel a “terrorist state” and compared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler while calling Hamas “a liberation group.”
The Israeli military said on Sunday it intensified operations in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, destroying dozens of militant targets in a blitz of air and artillery strikes.
The air force and artillery hit about 50 targets within six minutes, it said, in a bid to “intensify operational achievements in the area.”
“During the strikes, the troops destroyed terrorist infrastructure and eliminated Hamas terrorists who were operating from civilian facilities in urban areas,” it said.
Residents in the area said they were surprised by the swift advancement of Israeli tanks, which sparked fresh battles with gunmen.
In one housing project some families took to social media, saying they were unable to leave their homes with the tanks in the streets.
Islamic Jihad said it attacked two tanks with rockets and blew up a building where soldiers had entered.
Khan Younis has been a focus of Israel’s military offensive in recent weeks.