Iran releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian citizens in operation involving Oman, Belgium

Austrian-Iranian citizens Kamran Ghaderi, third right, Massud Mossaheb, right, and a Danish citizen, center, are greeted by officials upon their arrival at Melsbroek military airport, outside Brussels, on June 3, 2023. (Belga/AFP)
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Updated 03 June 2023
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Iran releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian citizens in operation involving Oman, Belgium

  • Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he was “very relieved” that Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb were being brought home
  • Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg thanked the foreign ministers of Belgium and Oman for providing “valuable support”

BERLIN: Iran has released one Danish and two Austrian citizens, the European countries said Friday, thanking Oman and Belgium for their help in getting the trio freed.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he was “very relieved” that Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb were being brought home after “years of arduous imprisonment in Iran.”
Denmark’s foreign minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, said that he was “happy and relieved that a Danish citizen is on his way home to his family in Denmark after imprisonment in Iran.” He didn’t name the person, saying their identity was “a personal matter” and he couldn’t go into details.
Schallenberg thanked the foreign ministers of Belgium and Oman for providing “valuable support,” without elaborating on what form it took. Løkke Rasmussen also thanked Belgium and said that “Oman played an important role.”
Last week, a prisoner exchange between Belgium and Iran returned to Tehran an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to bomb exiles in France, Assadollah Assadi. Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, looking visibly gaunt, headed back to Brussels as part of the swap.
There was no immediate word on what, if anything, Iran obtained in return for the latest releases.
On Friday, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib tweeted that her country was “unwavering in our dedication to advocating for other Europeans who are being arbitrarily detained” and had “successfully secured the release of two Austrians and one Dane who were unjustly held in detention in Iran.”
Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said he had briefed his Austrian and Danish counterparts at a Thursday meeting in Moldova on the “imminent release” of the three prisoners “heading to Belgium via Oman.”
Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge a release on Friday, which is part of the weekend in the Islamic Republic.
Oman often serves an interlocutor between Iran and the West and brings released captives out of the Islamic Republic. An Oman Royal Air Force Gulfstream IV, which had been on the ground in Tehran for several days, took off shortly before news of the European trio’s releases came out. It landed later Friday in Oman’s capital, Muscat.
The releases also come after Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq visited Iran on his first trip there since becoming the Arab nation’s ruler in 2020.
Ghaderi is an Iranian-Austrian businessman who was arrested in 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying for the US, charges strongly rejected by his supporters. His family had criticized Austria for being silent on his case in recent years.
Mossaheb, also an Iranian-Austrian businessman, was arrested in 2019 and received a 10-year prison sentence after what Amnesty International called “a grossly unfair trial for vague national security offenses.” Amnesty had said Mossaheb suffered from heart failure and diabetes, making his imprisonment that much more dangerous for him.
Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses and sentencing them following secretive trials in which rights groups say they have been denied due process.
Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.
Schallenberg said his ministry would spare no effort to secure the release of a third Austrian national who remains in detention in Iran and whose case is currently on appeal.
Iran, facing Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has experienced protests in recent months and economic strain. However, it also reached a detente with Saudi Arabia through Chinese mediation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency dropped two inquiries into the country’s nuclear program.


How Arab countries can address pollution and improve urban air quality

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How Arab countries can address pollution and improve urban air quality

  • Unique challenges faced by region, including high temperatures and frequent dust storms, contribute to poor air quality
  • Experts believe poor air quality warrants urgent attention at November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai

DUBAI: Already contending with the combined challenges of rapid urbanization, a warming climate, and stress on freshwater resources, countries across the Middle East and North Africa are now fighting for something even more fundamental — breathable air.

The World Health Organization has warned that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted outdoor air that exceeds what it deems as acceptable levels, adding that the Arab region in particular has some of the world’s poorest air quality.

With the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, set to take place in Dubai in November, experts believe not only does the problem of the region’s poor air quality warrant urgent attention, it also requires sustainable and cost-effective solutions.

The 2022 World Air Quality Report, conducted by Swiss firm IQAir, studied levels of PM2.5 (particles small enough to penetrate deep into the respiratory tract and lungs, causing or exacerbating illnesses such as asthma and heart issues) in 7,323 cities across 131 countries, regions and territories.

It found that the most polluted cities in the region are Baghdad in Iraq with an 80.1 average PM2.5 concentration, Manama in Bahrain with 66.6, Kuwait City in Kuwait with 55.8, and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia with 41.5.

Overall, a total of 118 (90 percent) of the 131 countries and regions studied exceeded the WHO’s annual PM2.5 guideline value of 5 µg/m3. (A concentration of 1 µg/m3 means that one cubic meter of air contains one microgram of particulate matter.)

There is disagreement among experts over why the Middle East appears to suffer from especially poor air quality. Some of them point to such sources of gas emission as oil-fired power stations, vehicles and heavy industry.

“The main sources of pollution in these cities are energy production, emissions from industrial processes, waste burning, construction and vehicles,” Prof. Tadhg O’Donovan, a solar researcher and deputy vice principal at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, told Arab News.

“The most critical discussion at the COP28 should be around the use of renewable energy sources.”

Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot are some of the many pollutants that are released into the atmosphere by the combustion of conventional (fossil) fuels and contribute to poor air quality.

The combustion of fuels also releases a number of gases — such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — into the atmosphere that contribute to a greenhouse effect and thus global warming.

“These greenhouse gases have a long half-life in the atmosphere ranging from decades to centuries,” Dr. Aseel Takshe, head of department and associate professor of public health at the Canadian University of Dubai, told Arab News.

While transparent discussions regarding the future of conventional fuels have been ongoing, Takshe believes significant action is yet to be taken to mitigate their environmental impacts. “More commitment to renewable energy is urgently needed,” she said.

Other scientists regard the Middle East’s frequent sand and dust storms as the most significant contributor to poor air quality. Rising average global temperatures and creeping desertification are believed to have increased the frequency of such storms, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.

Although Middle Eastern civilizations have experienced dust storms for thousands of years, post-industrial desert dust storms are different, lifting a growing load of airborne pollutants and transporting these substances over long distances.

Dust storms therefore magnify the problem of poor air quality, skewing the figures against Middle Eastern cities regardless of their emission-reduction policies.

“The unique challenges faced by the region, including high temperatures and frequent dust storms, should not be overlooked,” Yousuf Fakhruddin, CEO of Fakhruddin Properties and developer of clean-air technologies, told Arab News.

He said strategies for managing these issues, such as improved meteorological forecasting and infrastructure design, will become vital for protecting air quality and public health in the future.

Depending on levels of air pollution, people’s lives can be impacted in various ways. From a reduction of life expectancy by two to five years to a range of chronic health conditions, prolonged exposure to high levels of air pollution can have devastating effects on population health.

“Respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are among the most common. These conditions can significantly reduce quality of life, and in severe cases, can be fatal,” said Fakhruddin.

Furthermore, cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, have been linked to air pollution exposure. This is because pollutants can cause inflammation and damage to the cardiovascular system over time, increasing the risks.

In fact, research suggests that long-term exposure to certain air pollutants may even increase the risk of lung cancer, and emerging evidence suggests that air pollution may be linked to mental health issues and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

“It’s worth noting that the average person inhales approximately 11,000 liters of air each day,” said Fakhruddin.

“When this air is polluted, it means we’re introducing harmful substances into our bodies in large quantities every single day, which only amplifies the health risks.”

Mindful of the need to simultaneously reduce harmful emissions, the Gulf region has made improving air quality a high priority by seeking to cut vehicular exhaust emissions and halt the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.

O’Donovan highlights the Middle East’s targets for the transition to renewable energy, with the UAE aiming to increase the use of renewables as part of its energy mix to 44 percent by 2050, while Saudi Arabia is targeting 50 percent by 2030.

Gulf countries will most likely boost their renewable energy capacities primarily through solar and wind power, says O’Donovan, citing the twin advantages of the region’s climatic conditions and the falling price of such infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia is building one of the world’s biggest green hydrogen facilities, which will be powered by 4 gigawatts of solar and wind energy and will be operational by 2025. The NEOM project’s plant is expected to create 650 tons of green hydrogen per day.

The Kingdom is building wind farms in Yanbu, Waad Al-Shamal and Al-Ghat. Dumat Al-Jandal, the Middle East’s largest wind farm and the first in Saudi Arabia, began producing 400 megawatts of carbon-free energy in August 2021.

The UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park, the world’s largest single-site facility of its kind, is another key project, which aims to generate some 5,000 megawatts by 2030.

To address the issue of clean air, the UAE has launched the National Air Quality Agenda 2031 — a comprehensive plan to monitor and manage air quality across the country, providing real-time data in the country.

“This information is then shared with the authorities to help them develop policies on air-pollution control as well as enabling researchers and academicians to study the impact of environmental factors, industrial progress and population density on air quality,” said O’Donovan.

The issue goes beyond energy production. According to Fakhruddin, improving industrial emission standards is a critical issue that requires discussion at the upcoming COP28 summit.

“Many industries currently emit large quantities of pollutants with minimal regulation or oversight,” he said. “Implementing and enforcing stricter emission standards could significantly improve air quality.”

He also believes sustainable urban development should be a priority, with a focus on green building practices, efficient public transport networks, and greening initiatives.

Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, has launched a greening initiative to boost plant cover. As part of the Saudi Green Initiative, the Kingdom aims to plant 10 billion trees, with 7.5 million for Riyadh and its surroundings.

The project is transforming Riyadh into an environmentally friendly metropolis with a high quality of life, reducing the capital’s energy consumption by easing ambient temperatures, and ultimately reducing healthcare expenditure.

Experts say a single hectare of land, when 11 percent of it is covered by plants, can remove 9.7 kg of air pollutants every year.

Saudi Arabia is also collaborating with other Arab governments on a Middle East Green Initiative, which includes a pledge to plant an additional 40 billion trees, the world’s largest afforestation effort.

The initiative could reduce land degradation and desertification in the process, thereby cutting the scale and frequency of dust storms.

Another important topic of discussion at COP28 will likely be how public-private partnerships can enable initiatives that improve air quality, according to O’Donovan of Heriot-Watt University.

“Some examples of potential initiatives are subsidies for the manufacture and use of electric vehicles, investing in renewable energy projects, collaboration for infrastructure projects that support pedestrian traffic and encouraging innovation aimed at addressing local air quality issues,” he said.

Fuse EV Conversions, a company that converts car engines from petrol to electric, is an example of how private enterprise can help to accelerate the Arab region’s energy transition.

“The current costs of electric vehicles are prohibitive,” Salman Hussein, founder and CEO of Fuse EV Conversions, told Arab News.

To capitalize on the opportunity, “we are developing conversion kits and working with regulators to roll out our services in more cities,” he said.

While many of the firm’s customers are classic car owners, it is also working on solutions for other applications such as the commercial sector, defense and NGOs.

Viewing the upcoming COP28 event as an opportunity for the region to address its sustainability challenges, Hussein believes governments should pay attention to practical steps by which environmental and climate goals could be reached.

“While billions of dollars have been prioritized toward sustainability, we should also explore ways to adapt existing solutions,” he said, adding that if costs borne by consumers are reduced tangibly, clean mobility goals could be achieved much faster.

“Here in the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed to net-zero carbon goals, and they are already transitioning to clean-energy solutions. This inspires confidence and, together with the clean tech ecosystem, we can create unparalleled impact.”


Lebanese security services arrest 2 Syrians involved in people smuggling from Libya

Updated 28 min 14 sec ago
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Lebanese security services arrest 2 Syrians involved in people smuggling from Libya

  • Report of ‘terrorist plot to blow up Baalbek columns’ raises concern

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s General Directorate of Internal Security Forces announced on Monday that they had arrested two Syrian nationals, aged 48 and 52, on suspicion of people smuggling.

The suspects had been accused of smuggling people of various nationalities from Libya to Europe via boats. Their names were not disclosed.

The suspects were operating in coordination with people of Lebanese nationality in the Wadi Khaled region in northern Lebanon, on the border with Syria.

The arrests come a few weeks after a boat sank off the coast of the city of Tobruk, Libya, resulting in the death of dozens of migrants.

The directorate said that the two detainees had fled from Libya to Syria after one of them was the target of a murder attempt by some of the victims’ families. 

The two then secretly entered Lebanon and took up residence in the towns of Lala and Bar Elias in the Bekaa.

The second person was kidnapped by unknown people in the Wadi Khaled area and held captive for four months.

During his captivity, he was compelled to pay $43,000 in compensation to the people he had attempted to smuggle to Europe through Libya, but had failed to do so after taking their money.

According to the directorate, detainees confessed during interrogation to receiving $3,500 for each person.

They also reportedly admitted that hundreds of people were smuggled by sea from Libya to Italy and Greece using boats.

The boats’ capacities ranged from 250 to 500 people of various nationalities.

The operation took place in collaboration with the brother of one of the detainees living in Libya and another person residing in Greece, they said.

Also on Monday, a news report about a terrorist plot to blow up the columns of the historical Baalbek citadel sparked reactions that ranged from surprise to fear to skepticism.

The story, published on Monday morning in An-Nahar newspaper, cited a security report.

The report alleged the existence of a plot by fundamentalist terrorist groups to blow up the columns of Baalbek citadel because it was a pagan symbol, and to send a message to Hezbollah in its stronghold.

Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada, who represents the Amal Movement — an ally of Hezbollah in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s caretaker government — neither confirmed nor denied the news.

Mortada said: “Regardless of whether it is true or not, the Jupiter columns remain a beacon and a symbol of civilization, unparalleled anywhere on the planet.

“Therefore it is not unlikely that our enemies might entertain the idea of targeting them with their dark, ignorant tools,” the minister said.

He added: “In any case, we reassure the Lebanese that Baalbek and its citadel are protected, and will remain standing tall despite the hatred of our enemies and the clouds of evil passing through our region.”

The minister criticized the circulation of the terror threat claim as the historic citadel had received a large number of tourists this year.

Baalbek Gov. Bashir Khodr also denied the report.

Khodr considered it to be “a result of the resounding success of this year’s tourist season in Baalbek, and the large numbers of tourists, especially foreigners, whom they are trying to intimidate.”

He said: “Leave Baalbek in peace.”

The city of Baalbek and its region are considered a key stronghold for Hezbollah. The party coexists with the tribes that live in the region.

Mafias and drug traffickers reportedly benefit from Hezbollah’s presence amid the spread of illegal weapons and the illegal crossings used for organized smuggling to and from Syria.

News about extremist groups, especially Daesh, occasionally surfaces in Lebanon.

The Lebanese army has announced a series of security operations over the past two years that have resulted in the arrest of Daesh-affiliated armed cells preparing to implement terrorist plots inside Lebanon.

A security source told Arab News that it was likely that there were sleeper cells of terrorist organizations in Lebanon that could be activated by a political decision, and there were lone wolves as well.

The source said: “Whenever political solutions become more complicated in Lebanon, tension is relieved through a specific security event, and perhaps what happened in the Ain Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp last month is one example.”

In this context, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria quoted a security source on Monday as saying: “The situation in Lebanon is very dangerous, with suspicious movements and attempts to sabotage and disrupt security.”

According to the source, the situation required the highest level of vigilance.

“The security and military agencies are on high alert and are performing their duties to protect it, through coordination with each other to thwart any attempt to tamper with the country’s security and stability.”


Egyptian president El-Sisi confirms candidacy in December presidential election

Updated 50 min 36 sec ago
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Egyptian president El-Sisi confirms candidacy in December presidential election

  • El-Sisi confirms he will stand for a third term in office
  • Supporters have been urging the former army chief to stand

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi confirmed on Monday that he will stand for a third term in office in a presidential election scheduled for December.
El-Sisi, a former army chief who has been president since 2014, had been widely expected to run again and secure a third term after constitutional amendments four years ago that would allow him to stay in office until 2030.
In recent weeks supporters have mounted a campaign using billboards and public messages urging El-Sisi to stand.
El-Sisi came to power after leading the ousting of Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. He was announced winner of presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 with 97 percent of the vote.
The election comes as Egypt is struggling with record inflation and a chronic shortage of foreign currency.


Houthis stop aircraft from taking off to put pressure on airline over flights

Updated 02 October 2023
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Houthis stop aircraft from taking off to put pressure on airline over flights

  • Yemenia resumed commercial flights from Houthi-controlled Sanaa Airport to Amman in April 2022 as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire that permitted ships to berth at the Hodeidah seaport

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis have prevented a Yemenia plane from taking off from Sanaa Airport in a bid to compel the national airline to reverse its decision to suspend flights to Amman.

A Yemeni government official told Arab News on Monday that the Houthi militia seized a plane en route to Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, shortly after the company announced that it would suspend the only international flight from Sanaa Airport due to the Houthis’ ban on the use of its funds in Sanaa-based banks. 

The official added that the company needs its $80 million in the Houthi-controlled banks to pay salaries, maintenance, and other operational expenses, as well as installments for recently purchased aircraft. 

“The company faces significant financial obligations, such as payments and purchasing two new aircraft. The (Houthi) group has rejected all settlement proposals for this dispute,” the Yemeni official — who wished to remain anonymous — said, adding that the funds had accrued in the banks over a long time, even before the April 2022 restart of commercial flights between Sanaa and Amman.

The official added that the funds had “increased from $70 million to more than $80 million. More than 70 percent of the company’s revenue comes from Sanaa.”

They said: “However, Yemenia now pays for its travels with revenues from its southern and eastern governorates’ offices. The group wants to confiscate the amount.”

Yemenia resumed commercial flights from Houthi-controlled Sanaa Airport to Amman in April 2022 as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire that permitted ships to berth at the Hodeidah seaport.

Yemeni official Mohsen Ali Haidra told Al-Ghad Al-Mushreq TV on Sunday that the Houthis had denied access to funds in Sanaa, citing “orders from security and intelligence” authorities, and that the Houthis were attempting to put pressure on the airline to launch new international routes.

Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Al-Ezzi said Yemenia would not be permitted to withdraw significant sums of money from its accounts, as part of the militia’s alleged anti-corruption efforts.

“We have merely ceased withdrawing significant sums to prevent corruption and to ensure that we establish honest, disciplined, and transparent behavior for the sake of the company as a national carrier,” Al-Ezzi said on social media platform X.


Thousands flee Sudan town as war grips country’s south: witnesses

Sudanese citizens gather to renew their passports in the city of Port Sudan, Sudan, September 24, 2023. (Reuters)
Updated 02 October 2023
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Thousands flee Sudan town as war grips country’s south: witnesses

  • RSF fighters attacked the town of Wad Ashana, on the border between North Kordofan and White Nile states, on Saturday

PORT SUDAN: Thousands have fled a southern Sudan town, residents said Monday, after attacks by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, at war with the army for nearly six months.
RSF fighters on dozens of armed vehicles attacked the town of Wad Ashana, on the border between North Kordofan and White Nile states, on Saturday, according to residents.
“My neighbor and my cousin were both killed in the crossfire. It was hours of terror,” Al-Tayeb Abdelbaqi told AFP from El Odaydab, a town 10 kilometers away to which he could eventually flee, sheltering with a relative along with three other families.
By early September, the war between Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his former deputy, RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, which began on April 15, had killed nearly 7,500 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project.
The worst of the violence has been concentrated in Khartoum and the western region of Darfur, but North Kordofan — a crossroads between the capital and Darfur — has also seen fighting.
Almost 4.3 million people have been displaced by the fighting within Sudan, in addition to around 1.2 million more who have fled across borders.
Dozens of families like Abdelbaqi’s, who fled to save their lives but left everything behind, were holed up in schools in the area.
“We left with only the clothes on our backs,” said another resident, Ahmed, who used to own a store in Wad Ashana and asked to only be identified by his first name for fear of retaliation.
He said the local market “had been completely looted.” The same allegation has followed RSF attacks across Sudan since the war began.
Footage posted to social media on Sunday by the RSF claimed to show fighters “taking over the Wad Ashana garrison in North Kordofan and advancing toward Kosti,” the last major town on the road to South Sudan.
The Sudanese Armed Forces have not yet issued any comment on the situation there.
According to Abdelbaqi, the area had been spared the fighting, until last week, when “an army force set up camp west of town.”
Three days later, “the RSF attacked the city, completely overtaking it and pushing the army” 35 kilometers east, he said.
Already one of the world’s poorest countries, the war has brought a humanitarian catastrophe to Sudan, where millions are on the brink of famine, and diseases are spreading, according to the United Nations.