US sending F-16 fighter jets to protect ships from Iranian seizures in Gulf region

US Air Force F-16 fighter jets to be deployed around the strategic Strait of Hormuz to protect ships from Iranian seizures, says senior defense official. (AP file photo)
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Updated 15 July 2023
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US sending F-16 fighter jets to protect ships from Iranian seizures in Gulf region

  • Move comes after Iran tried to seize two oil tankers near the strait last week, opening fire on one of them
  • US says also considering a number of military options to address increasing Russian aggression in Syrian skies

WASHINGTON: The US is beefing up its use of fighter jets around the strategic Strait of Hormuz to protect ships from Iranian seizures, a senior defense official said Friday, adding that the US is increasingly concerned about the growing ties between Iran, Russia and Syria across the Middle East.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters, the official said the US will send F-16 fighter jets to the Gulf region this weekend to augment the A-10 attack aircraft that have been patrolling there for more than a week. The move comes after Iran tried to seize two oil tankers near the strait last week, opening fire on one of them.
The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of military operations in the region, said the F-16s will give air cover to the ships moving through the waterway and increase the military’s visibility in the area, as a deterrent to Iran.
The US Navy said in both instances the Iranian naval vessels backed off when the USS McFaul, a guided-missile destroyer, arrived on the scene.
In addition, the defense official told reporters the US is considering a number of military options to address increasing Russian aggression in the skies over Syria, which complicated efforts to strike a Daesh group leader last weekend. The official declined to detail the options, but said the US will not cede any territory and will continue to fly in the western part of the country on anti-Islamic State missions.
The Russian military activity, which has increased in frequency and aggression since March, stems from growing cooperation and coordination between Moscow, Tehran and the Syrian government to try to pressure the US to leave Syria, the official said.
The official said Russia is beholden to Iran for its support in the war in Ukraine, and Tehran wants the US out of Syria so it can more easily move lethal aid to Lebanese Hezbollah and threaten Israel. The US has seen more cooperation, collaboration, planning and intelligence sharing, largely between mid-level Russian and Iranian Quds force leaders in Syria, to pressure the US to remove troops from Syria, the official added.
There are about 900 US forces in the country, and others move in and out to conduct missions targeting Daesh group militants.
The US does not believe Russian aircraft plan to drop bombs on US troops or shoot down manned aircraft. But there are concerns that Russian pilots will knock a Reaper drone out of the sky and that Moscow believes that type of action would not get a strong US military response, the official said.
As an example, in March, a Russian warplane poured jet fuel on a US surveillance drone and then struck its propeller, forcing the US military to ditch the MQ-9 Reaper into the Black Sea. The incident spiked tensions between the two countries and triggered a call between their defense chiefs, but led to no direct military response.
Last week, Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov, head of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, said the Russian and Syrian militaries have been doing joint training. In comments carried by Syrian state media, he said Moscow is concerned about drone flights by the US-led coalition over northern Syria, calling them “systematic violations of protocols” designed to avoid clashes between the two militaries.
US and Russian military commanders routinely communicate over a deconfliction phone line that has been in place for several years to avoid unintended clashes in Syria, where both sides have troops on the ground and in the air.
There are often many calls a day, and at times result in angry threats as commanders argue over an ongoing operation, said the US official. Describing a conversation, the official said the Russians will often declare an area of space a restricted operating zone and say they are doing military exercises there.
The US sees no exercises, and tells Russia that American forces are on a counterterror mission against the Daesh group and plan to fly in that area. The Russians then say they can’t guarantee US aircraft safety if they go there. And once the mission begins, and the aircraft move into the zone, “it sometimes gets very heated,” said the official, as both sides loudly protest and reject the other’s assertions.
The most recent incident was Friday morning, when a Russia aircraft flew repeatedly over the at-Tanf garrison in eastern Syria, where US forces are training Syrian allies and monitoring Islamic State militant activity. The official said the Russian An-30 aircraft was collecting intelligence on the base.
The US did not have fighter aircraft in the area and took no direct action against the Russian flight.


UN tells Israel it will suspend aid operations across Gaza without improved safety

Updated 45 min 34 sec ago
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UN tells Israel it will suspend aid operations across Gaza without improved safety

  • UN and other aid officials have complained for months that they have no way to communicate quickly and directly with Israeli forces on the ground

WASHINGTON DC: Senior UN officials have warned Israel that they will suspend the world body’s aid operations across Gaza unless Israel acts urgently to better protect humanitarian workers, two UN officials said Tuesday. The ultimatum is the latest in a series of UN steps demanding Israel do more to safeguard aid operations from strikes by its forces and to curb growing lawlessness hindering humanitarian workers.
A UN letter sent to Israeli officials this month said Israel must provide UN workers with a way to communicate directly with Israeli forces on the ground in Gaza, among other steps, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations with Israeli officials. The UN officials said there has been no final decision on suspending operations across Gaza and that talks with Israelis were ongoing.
Israeli military officials did not respond to requests for comment. Israel has previously acknowledged some military strikes on humanitarian workers, including an April attack that killed seven workers with the World Central Kitchen, and has denied allegations of others.
Citing security concerns, the UN World Food Program has already suspended aid delivery from a US-built pier designed to bring food and other emergency supplies to Palestinians who are facing starvation amid the eight-month war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
UN and other aid officials have complained for months that they have no way to communicate quickly and directly with Israeli forces on the ground, in contrast with the usual procedures — known as “deconfliction” — employed in conflict zones globally to protect aid workers from attack by combatants.
In its letter to Israeli officials, the UN cited communication and protective equipment for aid workers as among the commitments that it wanted Israel to make good on for its aid operations to continue in Gaza overall, the two UN officials say.
The UN said in April that about 30 humanitarian workers have been killed in the line of duty in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October.
The UN and other humanitarian organizations also complain of increasing crime in Gaza and have urged Israel to do more to improve overall security for their operations from attack and theft. The lawlessness has stymied what Israel said was a daily pause in fighting to allow a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza, with humanitarian officials saying groups of gunmen are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo.
On top of that, “missiles hit our premises, despite being deconflicted,” said Steve Taravela, a spokesman for the World Food Program, one of the main organizations working on humanitarian delivery in Gaza. He was not one of those confirming the UN threat to suspend operations across the territory. “WFP warehouses have been caught in the crossfire twice in the past two weeks.”
Humanitarian officials said conditions for civilians and aid workers have worsened further since early May when Israel launched an offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where many aid groups had their base. The operation has crippled what had been a main border crossing for food and other aid.
Aid workers trying to get shipments through the main remaining crossing, Kerem Shalom, face risks from fighting, damaged roads, unexploded ordnance and Israeli restrictions, including spending five or more hours a day waiting at checkpoints, Taravela said.
“Restoring order is crucial for an effective humanitarian response to meet soaring needs. UN agencies and others need a safe environment to be able to access people and scale up,” he said.
Israeli officials say the problems at Kerem Shalom are a matter of poor UN logistics.
Separately, the United Nations has also suspended cooperation with the US-built pier since June 9, a day after the Israeli military used the area around the pier in a hostage rescue that killed more than 270 Palestinians.
While US and Israeli officials said no part of the pier itself was used in the raid that rescued four hostages taken by Hamas, UN officials said any perception in Gaza that the project was used in the Israeli military operation may endanger their aid work.
The UN has finished a security assessment of the pier operation following the raid but has not yet made a decision on resuming any delivery of supplies from the US-built structure, according to a humanitarian official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not yet been released publicly.
Speaking to reporters traveling with a US delegation to a gathering of defense chiefs in Botswana on Tuesday, an official with the US Agency for International Development expressed optimism that aid deliveries from the pier would eventually resume.
“I think it’s a question of when the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) can provide, and the government of Israel can provide, the assurances that the UN is seeking on deconfliction and security right now,” said Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator of USAID, which has been working with the World Food Program on aid distribution from the pier.


Egyptian foreign minister discusses Gaza aid situation with UN official

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 June 2024
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Egyptian foreign minister discusses Gaza aid situation with UN official

  • The outcomes of Kaag’s talks with Israeli officials to ease the movement of aid trucks at the crossings were also discussed

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the UN Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag discussed the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in a phone call on Tuesday.

Kaag’s call addressed the impediments imposed by Israel on aid access, and the exacerbating gravity of the humanitarian disaster in the strip.

Shoukry was keen to know the UN official’s plans to mitigate the severity of the crisis facing Palestinian civilians in the strip.

The outcomes of Kaag’s talks with Israeli officials to ease the movement of aid trucks at the crossings were also discussed.

Both exchanged views on the process of rushing aid via the Rafah crossing in view of Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian side of it.

Shoukry reiterated Egypt’s rejection of the loot of some aid in Rafah and the Israeli side’s non-commitment to protecting it and ensuring that it reaches those who deserve it.

Both agreed to continue coordination and consultation on the humanitarian situation in the strip.

 


Israeli air force commander confirms ‘increase in readiness for any attack on Lebanon’

Updated 25 June 2024
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Israeli air force commander confirms ‘increase in readiness for any attack on Lebanon’

  • German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrives in Beirut for talks following meetings in Tel Aviv and the West Bank
  • Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, holds talks at HQ of the Maronite Patriarchate focused on ‘finding solutions for Lebanon and its suffering people’

BEIRUT: Fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli army continued in regions along the border between Lebanon and Israel on Tuesday, with artillery exchanges and drone strikes in both directions.

During a meeting with Ori Gordin, the head of the Northern Command, Israeli Air Force Commander Tomer Bar confirmed “an increase in readiness for any attack on Lebanon,” Russia Today reported.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah said it carried out “an attack with assault drones on a brigade headquarters in Nahal Gershom, targeting the positions and settlement of enemy officers and soldiers.” The group said it also attacked “the Bayad Blida and Birkat Risha sites.”

The Israeli army targeted the outskirts of the town of Khiam and the village of Blida with artillery and warplanes. In the Wazzani area, a Syrian driver was forced to jump from his truck for his life when the Israeli army opened fire on it with machine guns.

Israeli combat drones launched from Misgav Am dropped shells on the border town of Taybeh. No injuries were reported as the town, like many close to the border, has been abandoned by residents.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Beirut on Tuesday evening following meetings in Tel Aviv on Monday and the West Bank on Tuesday. She was expected to meet Lebanese officials to discuss the situation in southern Lebanon and Israel’s threats of an expanded war against Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is also visiting Lebanon, held talks at the headquarters of the Maronite Patriarchate that focused on “finding solutions for Lebanon and its suffering people.”

He said there is a deep political rift between Christians in Lebanon and Hezbollah over the latter’s decision to go to war without consulting the state, the group’s demands relating to the selection of a candidate to fill the post of president, which has been vacant since October 2022, and the disruptions it has caused during parliamentary sessions to discuss the election of a new president.

The vice president of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, Sheikh Ali Al-Khatib, declined an invitation to attend a lunch hosted by the Maronite Patriarchate in honor of Parolin, to which all Islamic and Christian spiritual authorities and the heads of Christian political parties in Lebanon were invited.

A council source said: “The sheikh did not take part in the meeting in protest against positions expressed by the Maronite patriarch, Bechara Al-Rahi, concerning the resistance.”

In his most recent Sunday sermon, Al-Rahi objected to the failure to elect “a president who negotiates according to constitutional powers, and asks the UN Security Council to implement its resolutions. This means that Lebanon will not go back to being a launching pad for terrorist actions that destabilize the region’s security and stability.”

Al-Khatib is considered a supporter of Hezbollah. His representative, Grand Jaafari Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Qabalan, criticized Al-Rahi’s sermon without naming him, saying: “There is no neutrality when it comes to what is right and there should be no bias toward what is wrong.” He also spoke of “the resistance’s role in protecting the church in Syria and Lebanon in the face of Daesh and Al-Nusra attacks.”

When Lebanon’s religious leaders met Parolin, Al-Rahi called on all Christians in the country “to consider next Sunday as a day of prayer for peace in southern Lebanon and Gaza.”

During a ceremony hosted by the Embassy of Malta, Parolin stressed the “importance of the church in Lebanon being a testament to coexistence, which is one of the most significant characteristics of the ‘Land of the Cedars.’”

He added: “Lebanon is suffering from a great vacuum and a diminishing Christian life,” as he called on officials “to elect a president as soon as possible to calm the situation and overcome the current difficulties.”


Libya repatriates 170 Nigeria migrants, plans more returns

Updated 25 June 2024
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Libya repatriates 170 Nigeria migrants, plans more returns

  • The operation was announced by Mohammed Baredaa, head of the Libyan interior ministry organization tasked with halting irregular migration
  • These operations would “continue over the coming weeks,” he said

TRIPOLI: Libya said it repatriated 174 irregular migrants to Nigeria on Tuesday, including dozens of women and six children, with further returns planned in the coming weeks.
The operation was announced by Mohammed Baredaa, head of the Libyan interior ministry organization tasked with halting irregular migration.
Baredaa said the department had begun “to repatriate 174 irregular migrants of Nigerian origin,” including 39 women and the six children.
These operations, which are carried out by plane or road depending on the nationality, would “continue over the coming weeks,” he said.
The International Organization for Migration, or IOM, helps vulnerable migrants blocked in Libya or who wish to go home to do so through its voluntary humanitarian return program.
Smugglers and human traffickers have taken advantage of the climate of instability which has dominated Libya since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.
Libya, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Italy, is a key departure point in North Africa for sub-Saharan migrants risking sea journeys to Europe.
“I have been in Libya for three years to work and earn money and move to Europe,” Zakaria Abubaker Shueib, a 20-year-old Nigerian migrant set to be repatriated, told AFP.
An IOM report said migrant deaths or disappearances rose to 4,984 last year on Middle East and North Africa routes, compared with 3,820 in 2022.
“Tunisia accounts for the highest number of incidents recorded followed by Libya with 683 recorded deaths” of migrants, the majority of whom left western Libya, said the report published in mid-June.


US warns Israel-Hezbollah conflict threatens to spark regional war

Updated 44 min 21 sec ago
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US warns Israel-Hezbollah conflict threatens to spark regional war

  • “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East,” Austin said
  • Gallant said that “we are working closely together to achieve an agreement but we must also discuss readiness on every possible scenario”

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant at the Pentagon on Tuesday, warning that a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could spark a regional war and urging a diplomatic solution.
More than eight months of war in Gaza has heightened tensions across the region, with Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah exchanging fire on a near-daily basis.
“Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East,” Austin said. “Diplomacy is by far the best way to prevent more escalation.”
Gallant, speaking at the opening of the meeting with Austin, said that “we are working closely together to achieve an agreement but we must also discuss readiness on every possible scenario.
The Israeli army said last week that plans for an offensive in Lebanon were “approved and validated” amid escalating cross-border clashes, but Washington is seeking to lower the temperature and head off another major conflict in the Middle East.
Gallant is on a visit to Washington seeking to reaffirm the value of ties with Israel’s top ally after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly chastised the United States for what he said was a delay in weapons deliveries.
The US government insists that only one shipment of bombs has been held up over concerns about their use in populated areas, and that other arms deliveries are proceeding as usual.
The United States is Israel’s main supplier of weapons but the growing death toll from the Gaza conflict has piled pressure on President Joe Biden to take action and fueled tensions between his administration and Netanyahu.
Gallant met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington the previous day, with the top US diplomat calling on Israel to avoid escalation in Lebanon.
The Israeli minister also held talks with CIA chief Bill Burns, the key US point man in negotiations to free hostages from Hamas, which launched an unprecedented attack on Israel in October that sparked a devastating conflict in Gaza.
Netanyahu has said Israeli forces are winding up the most intense part of the Gaza war and will redeploy to the northern border, although he has cast the move as defensive.
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a full-scale war in 2006 when a cross-border Hezbollah attack sparked 34 days of fighting that took a heavy toll on Lebanon, especially the country’s south.