Belgium requests Iran return jailed aid worker

The family of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele. Belgium has formally asked Iran to repatriate jailed Vandecasteele from Tehran. (AFP/File)
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Updated 18 April 2023
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Belgium requests Iran return jailed aid worker

  • Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib wrote on social media “I denounced his conditions of detention and requested a visit by our ambassador in Iran”
  • Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib wrote on social media “I denounced his conditions of detention and requested a visit by our ambassador in Iran”

BRUSSELS: Belgium on Tuesday said it had formally asked Iran to repatriate jailed aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele from Tehran, after a disputed prisoner exchange treaty entered into force.
Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said she had informed her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of the “transfer request for our compatriot Olivier Vandecasteele.”
“I denounced his conditions of detention and requested a visit by our ambassador in Iran,” she wrote in a social media post.
Iran arrested Vandecasteele, 42, in February 2022 and sentenced him to 40 years for spying, in a move condemned as “hostage diplomacy” by his backers.
Brussels is eyeing a swap for Iranian official Assadollah Assadi, jailed in Belgium after he was convicted of masterminding a plot to blow up a 2018 Iranian opposition event outside Paris.
But a potential exchange was held up for months after a legal challenge by an Iranian opposition group to a prisoner exchange treaty with Tehran.
The complaint was dismissed by Belgium’s Constitutional Court last month, fueling hopes that Vandecasteele could be returned home.
The treaty formally entered into force on Tuesday.
The family of Vandecasteele, who worked for aid organizations in Iran for six years, said he was transferred to Tehran’s Evin prison 10 days ago and was being held in solitary confinement.
They said he complained in a brief phone call that “he could no longer sleep and could barely stand up straight because of excruciating muscle and nerve pain.”
“He is not being treated for this. His detention conditions have not changed and he is not given enough food to preserve his health,” the family said.
“Olivier is totally worn out. He cannot remain the pawn of talks between two countries. His life is at stake,” they said.


US destroys six Houthi drones in Red Sea

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US destroys six Houthi drones in Red Sea

  • The Houthis are engaged in a long-running civil war that has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises

WASHINGTON: The US military said Thursday that it had destroyed four Houthi nautical drones and two aerial ones over the Red Sea off Yemen.
The Iran-backed Houthis have launched scores of drones and missiles at commercial vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November, describing the attacks as being in support of Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
The United States and its allies, particularly Britain, have responded with an increased naval presence to defend shipping in the vital waterway and with retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement Thursday night that its forces had “destroyed four Iranian-backed Houthi uncrewed surface vessels (USV) in the Red Sea and two uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) over the Red Sea” in the past 24 hours.
CENTCOM said the day before that it had destroyed “one ground control station and one command and control node” in a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen.
This week, a merchant ship whose hull was breached in an earlier Houthi attack, the M/V Tutor, was believed to have sunk in the Red Sea after its crew was evacuated, according to a maritime security agency run by the British navy.
A Filipino sailor aboard the vessel was killed in the attack.
A Sri Lankan crew member on another ship, the M/V Verbena, was seriously injured in a separate attack, and the vessel had to be abandoned.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned those attacks in a statement and said Washington would “continue to take necessary action to protect freedom of navigation and commercial shipping.”
He also called on the Houthis “to release all detainees, including the United Nations, diplomatic, and non-governmental organization staff they detained earlier this month.”
The Houthis earlier this month arrested a number of people they claimed were part of a US-Israeli spy network, adding that those held worked under “the cover of international organizations and UN agencies.”
The heads of six United Nations agencies and three international NGOs subsequently issued a joint call for the release of their staff, with UN rights chief Volker Turk dismissing the spying accusations as “outrageous.”
The Houthis are engaged in a long-running civil war that has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than half of the population is dependent on aid in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.


Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

Updated 46 min 53 sec ago
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Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli officials during a meeting on Thursday of the need to avoid further escalation in Lebanon amid the war in Gaza, the State Department said.
Blinken was meeting Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs.


Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

Updated 21 June 2024
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Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

  • Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard

TEHRAN, Iran: In the second live debate on state television, six presidential candidates on Thursday discussed Iran’s economic problems ahead of the country’s June 28 election following a helicopter crash last month that killed President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others.
It was the second of five debates planned in the days before the vote in a shortened campaign to replace Raisi, a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once floated as a possible successor to the 85-year-old cleric.
Like the first debate, the second one also related to economics with the candidates discussing their proposals for Iran’s spiraling economy which is struggling under sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations.
The candidates also discussed inflation, the budget deficit, fuel consumption subsidies and education. They all promised to try to get the sanctions lifted and to introduce reforms, but none offered concrete details.
“Negotiation is a method of struggle,” said prominent candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 62, with regards to getting the Western sanctions on Iran lifted. Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
He emphasized the destructiveness of the sanctions on the economy and said that Iranians have a right to a good life, not just an ordinary life.
Iran’s vice president, Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, 53, said he will continue Raisi’s unfinished administration and vowed to develop the tourism industry.
Regarding the health sector and the emigration of doctors and nurses abroad, Qalibaf said there should be a fundamental change in the way health workers are paid to increase the motivation to stay.
Many doctors and nurses reportedly have left Iran in recent years over its deepening economic woes and poor working conditions. Qalibaf’s call for more pay for health workers was repeated by the other candidates.
All the candidates said they believe the Education Ministry is the most important part of the government because “the next generation of the country is raised in this ministry.” Qalibaf said the ministry’s budget must be increased.
The one pro-reform candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, who is backed by pro-reform figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, thinks the economic crisis can be resolved by solving party differences inside the country as well as external factors.
The June 28 election comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, its arming of Russia in that country’s war on Ukraine and its wide-reaching crackdowns on dissent.
Iran’s support of militia proxy forces throughout the wider Middle East, meanwhile, has been increasingly in the spotlight as Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

 


South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

Updated 21 June 2024
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South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

  • The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people

JUBA, South Sudan: South Sudan ‘s vice president said Thursday that peace talks in neighboring Kenya have failed to acknowledge the country’s peace agreement established in 2018, alleging a new draft agreement is aimed at replacing the original peace deal.
Riek Machar in a protest letter to the talks’ mediator said the draft established alternative institutions to replace or run in parallel with those established by the previous peace agreement. He added that the current peace talks should complement and not obliterate the original deal.
The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people. Machar and Kiir were on opposite sides in the war and Machar was appointed vice president after the 2018 deal. His group isn’t part of the current talks, which are for groups that were not included in the 2018 agreement.
Despite the peace deal, violence in South Sudan has continued, most of it attributed to rebel groups and warring ethnic groups.
The body mandated with monitoring the implementation of the 2018 peace deal raised concerns in May over the slow implementation of election related tasks with only a few months left until December elections.
Opposition groups that were not part of the 2018 peace agreement have been in talks in Kenya since May 9 aimed at bringing groups on board ahead of the December elections.
The talks have resulted in a draft agreement that recommends an extension of the transitional period to provide more time for election preparations.
President Kiir on Thursday received a progress report from government representatives in the ongoing talks with the government spokesperson telling media that participants in the talks are close to reaching a final agreement.

 


Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

Updated 21 June 2024
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Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

  • Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said Sunday that it was establishing a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza. But days later, this self-declared “tactical pause” has brought little relief to desperate Palestinians.
The United Nations and international aid organizations say a breakdown in law and order has made the aid route unusable.
With thousands of truckloads of aid piled up, groups of armed men are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the issue.
He said lawlessness has emerged as the main obstacle to aid distribution in southern Gaza — where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from Rafah, or more than half of Gaza’s entire population, are now sheltering in tent camps and cramped apartments without adequate food, water, or medical supplies.
Here is a closer look at the security challenges facing the UN and aid organizations.
Israel’s ‘tactical pause’ stymied
Israel said Sunday it would observe daily pauses in combat along a route stretching from Kerem Shalom — the strip’s only operational aid crossing in the south — to the nearby city of Khan Younis. Before the pause, aid organizations had reported that the need to coordinate trucks’ movement with the Israelis in an active combat zone was slowing aid distribution.
The UN official familiar with the aid effort said that there has been no sign of Israeli activity along the route. The UN tried to send a convoy of 60 trucks down the road Tuesday to pick up aid at Kerem Shalom. But 35 of the trucks were intercepted by armed men, the official said.
In recent days, armed men have moved closer to the crossing and set up roadblocks to halt trucks loaded with supplies, the UN official said. They have rifled through the pallets in search of smuggled cigarettes, a rare luxury in a territory where a single smoke can go for $25.
The surge in lawlessness is a result of growing desperation in Gaza and the power vacuum that left by Hamas’s waning power over the territory, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza who is now in Cairo.
With the territory’s police force targeted by Israel, he said, crime has reemerged as an untreated issue in Gaza.
“After Hamas came to power, one of the things that they brought under their control was the lawlessness of the so-called big clans,” said Abusada. “Now, that’s left for the Palestinians on their own to deal with it. So once again, we are seeing shootings between families, there are thefts, all the bad things are happening.”
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, used to deploy local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah, the agency said.
Israel says the police are legitimate targets because they are controlled by Hamas.
Is any aid still getting into Gaza?
The situation has largely paralyzed aid distribution to the south — particularly since Gaza’s nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt was closed when Israel invaded the city early last month.
The UN official said that 25 trucks of flour used the route Tuesday. Some private commercial trucks also got through — many of which used armed security to deter groups seeking to seize their cargo. An AP reporter stationed along the road Monday saw at least eight trucks pass by, armed security guards riding on top.
Before Israel’s offensive into the city of Rafah, hundreds of fuel trucks routinely entered the area.
The UN has now begun rerouting some fuel trucks through northern Gaza. Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman, said five fuel trucks entered Gaza Wednesday. The UN humanitarian office reported that these were the first fuel deliveries since early June and supplies remain scarce.
Aid groups say only a ceasefire and a reopening of the Rafah crossing could significantly increase aid flow to the area.
The military body in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, COGAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Security concerns also afflict aid from US pier project
The US installed a pier off Gaza’s coast last month, aiming to provide an additional route for aid to enter Gaza. But the ambitious project has suffered repeated logistical and security setbacks.
Cyprus, a partner in the effort, said the pier was up and running again Thursday after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas. COGAT said Thursday there were “hundreds of aid pallets awaiting collection and distribution by the UN aid agencies.”
But there, too, security concerns are hindering distribution of aid.
The UN suspended its cooperation with the pier on June 9 – a day after rumors swirled that the Israeli military had used the area in a hostage rescue operation that left over 270 Palestinians dead. Photos of the operation have shown an Israeli helicopter in the vicinity of the pier.
Both Israel and the US deny the pier was used in the operation. But the perception that the pier was used for military purposes could endanger humanitarian workers, and threaten humanitarian groups’ principles of of neutrality, the UN says.
Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
UN and other humanitarian officials, including Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, met with Israel’s military chief and COGAT officials this week to seek solutions.
USAID said afterward that the meeting ended with promises of specific actions, but gave no details.