Lufthansa stops using Iran airspace and keeps halt on Tehran flights

Planes of German airline Lufthansa are grounded during a strike action by ground crews, services staff and security personnel, at Munich International Airport in Munich, southern Germany, on February 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 13 April 2024

Lufthansa stops using Iran airspace and keeps halt on Tehran flights

  • “The safety of our guests and crew members is Lufthansa’s top priority,” a spokesperson said
  • Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

FRANKFURT, Germany: German airline Lufthansa said Friday its planes would no longer use Iranian airspace as it extended a suspension on flights to and from Tehran amid soaring Middle East tensions.
“Due to the current situation, Lufthansa is suspending its flights to and from Tehran up to and including Thursday, 18 April,” a company spokesperson said Friday.
“The airline is also no longer using Iranian airspace.”
Its subsidiary Austrian Airlines followed suit.
The flights to the Iranian capital have been suspended since April 6.
Lufthansa did not outline the immediate reasons for the suspension.
In a statement, Austrian Airlines cited “the current situation in the Middle East.”
“For Austrian Airlines, the safety of its passengers and crews has top priority. The situation in the Middle East is being evaluated on an ongoing basis. To this end, Austrian is in close contact with the authorities.”
The move comes after Iran blamed arch-foe Israel for a strike in Syria this month that killed two Iranian generals, and threatened reprisals.
Israel has stepped up strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria since the war in the Gaza Strip began in October.


Hard-liner Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf re-elected as speaker of Iran’s parliament

Updated 3 sec ago

Hard-liner Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf re-elected as speaker of Iran’s parliament

TEHRAN: Iran’s parliament re-elected hard-liner Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf on Tuesday as its speaker, reaffirming its hard-right makeup in the wake of a helicopter crash that killed the country’s president and foreign minister.
Of 287 lawmakers voting, 198 backed Qalibaf to retain the position he first took in 2021. He initially became speaker following a string of failed presidential bids and 12 years as the leader of Iran’s capital city, in which he built onto Tehran’s subway and supported the construction of modern high-rises.
Many, however, know Qalibaf for his support as a Revolutionary Guard general for a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999. He also reportedly ordered live gunfire be used against Iranian students in 2003 while serving as the country’s police chief.
In Tuesday’s vote, challenger Mojtaba Zonnouri, a hard-line Shiite cleric who once led parliament’s national security commission, won 60 votes. A former foreign minister to hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Manouchehr Mottaki, received five votes.
Qalibaf offered no immediate remarks after the vote. The March parliament election saw the country’s lowest turnout since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Of those elected to the 290-seat body, hard-liners hold over 230 seats, according to an Associated Press survey.
A trained pilot, Qalibaf served in the paramilitary Guard during the country’s bloody 1980s war with Iraq. After the conflict, he served as the head of the Guard’s construction arm, Khatam Al-Anbia, for several years leading efforts to rebuild.
Qalibaf then served as the head of the Guard’s air force, when in 1999 he co-signed a letter to reformist President Mohammad Khatami amid student protests in Tehran over the government closing a reformist newspaper and a subsequent security force crackdown. The letter warned Khatami the Guard would take action unilaterally unless he agreed to putting down the demonstrations.
Violence around the protests saw several killed, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested.
Qalibaf then served as the head of Iran’s police, modernizing the force and implementing the country’s 110 emergency phone number. However, a leaked recording of a later meeting between Qalibaf and members of the Guard’s volunteer Basij force, included him claiming that he ordered gunfire be used against demonstrators in 2003, as well as praising the violence used in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests.
Qalibaf ran failed presidential campaigns in 2005, 2013 and 2017, the last of which saw him withdraw in support of the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi later became president and died in the May 19 helicopter crash that also killed Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six others.
Iran’s parliament plays a secondary role in governing the country, though it can intensify pressure on a presidential administration when deciding on the annual budget and other important bills. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, has the final say in all important state matters.
Iran will hold presidential elections on June 28 to replace Raisi. On Thursday, a five-day registration period for candidates will open.

UNRWA says around 1 million people have fled Rafah in past 3 weeks

Updated 36 min 17 sec ago

UNRWA says around 1 million people have fled Rafah in past 3 weeks

  • Many Palestinians have complained they are vulnerable to Israeli attacks wherever they go

DUBAI: Around one million people have fled the Gazan city of Rafah in the past three weeks, the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said on Tuesday.
The small city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip had been sheltering more than a million Palestinians who fled Israeli assaults on other parts of the enclave.
Since early May, Israel’s military has been carrying out what it says is a limited operation in Rafah to kill fighters and dismantle infrastructure used by Hamas, which runs Gaza. It has told civilians to go to an “expanded humanitarian zone” some 20 kilometers away.
Many Palestinians have complained they are vulnerable to Israeli attacks wherever they go and have been moving up and down the Gaza Strip in the past few months.
UNRWA said the flight from Rafah “happened with nowhere safe to go and amidst bombardments, lack of food and water, piles of waste and unsuitable living conditions.”
Providing assistance and protection is becoming nearly “impossible,” the agency said.

International donors pledge $5.4 billion for Syrian refugees

Updated 28 May 2024

International donors pledge $5.4 billion for Syrian refugees

  • Jordan’s foreign minister said the international community was abandoning Syrian refugees as funding to support them in host countries dwindles

BRUSSELS: International donors led by the EU on Monday pledged $5.4 billion (five billion euros) for Syrian refugees, as Brussels insisted they should not be “pushed back” to their war-torn homeland.

An annual gathering hosted by the EU and chaired by its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell saw the European Union commit 2.12 billion euros for 2024 and 2025.

That figure included 560 million euros already promised this year for Syrians displaced inside the country and in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and the same amount for 2025.

The bloc also pledged one billion euros for Syrian refugees in neighboring Turkiye.

“The situation in Syria is more dire today than one year ago. In fact, it has never been so dire and humanitarian needs are at all time high,” Borrell said.

“Today 16.7 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, the highest level since the start of the crisis over 13 years ago.”

EU humanitarian chief Janez Lenarcic said that on top of the five billion euros in grants, a further 2.5 billion euros was promised by donors in loans.

He said the EU and its member states overall accounted for three quarters of the grants pledged.

The United States said it had also pledged nearly 545 million euros ($593 million) in humanitarian assistance for Syria. Washington “remains committed to assisting the Syrian people and encourages other donors to continue their support for Syrians,” a State Department statement added.

The donor drive came after the United Nations refugee agency warned its operations to support displaced Syrians remained “significantly underfunded at 15 percent almost six months into 2024.”

“While we welcome the pledges made today, the discussion remains far removed from the harsh realities Syrians face,” Oxfam’s Syria director, Moutaz Adham, said.

“Funding still fails to match the scale of needs and year after year, the number of people relying on aid grows.”

In the face of the shortfalls, regional countries hosting millions of refugees from Syria have been increasingly pushing for “voluntary” returns to the country.

But Borrell cautioned about any efforts to make people move back to Syria.

“We make a warning about the so-called voluntary returns of Syrian refugees to Syria,” he said.

“Voluntary returns mean voluntary. The refugees should not be pushed back to Syria.”

Borrell insisted that the international community should not “incentivise this by any means.”

“We consider that there is not the safe, voluntary, informed and dignified returns of refugees to Syria for the time being,” the EU’s top diplomat said.

Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.

More than a quarter of Syrians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said Saturday, 13 years into a devastating civil war that has battered the economy and impoverished millions.

Borrell said that efforts to find a political solution to the conflict remained at an “impasse.”

“The Assad regime has shown no intention of engaging in any meaningful political process,” he said.

“We request everyone, including partners in the region, to use their political leverage to encourage a renewed impetus on the political process.”

Netanyahu says deadly Israeli strike in Rafah was the result of a ‘tragic mistake’

Updated 28 May 2024

Netanyahu says deadly Israeli strike in Rafah was the result of a ‘tragic mistake’

  • “Despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake,” Netanyahu said Monday in an address to Israel’s parliament

TEL AVIV, Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that a “tragic mistake” was made in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah that set fire to a camp housing displaced Palestinians and, according to local officials, killed at least 45 people.
The strike only added to the surging international criticism Israel has faced over its war with Hamas, with even its closest allies expressing outrage at civilian deaths. Israel insists it adheres to international law even as it faces scrutiny in the world’s top courts, one of which last week demanded that it halt the offensive in Rafah.
Netanyahu did not elaborate on the error. Israel’s military initially said it had carried out a precise airstrike on a Hamas compound, killing two senior militants. As details of the strike and fire emerged, the military said it had opened an investigation into the deaths of civilians.
Sunday night’s attack, which appeared to be one of the war’s deadliest, helped push the overall Palestinian death toll in the war above 36,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and noncombatants in its tally.
“Despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake,” Netanyahu said Monday in an address to Israel’s parliament. “We are investigating the incident and will obtain a conclusion because this is our policy.”
Mohammed Abuassa, who rushed to the scene in the northwestern neighborhood of Tel Al-Sultan, said rescuers “pulled out people who were in an unbearable state.”
“We pulled out children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal,” he said.
At least 45 people were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service. The ministry said the dead included at least 12 women, eight children and three older adults, with another three bodies burned beyond recognition.
In a separate development, Egypt’s military said one of its soldiers was shot dead during an exchange of fire in the Rafah area, without providing further details. Israel said it was in contact with Egyptian authorities, and both sides said they were investigating.
An initial investigation found that the soldier had responded to an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, Egypt’s state-owned Qahera TV reported. Egypt has warned that Israel’s incursion in Rafah could threaten the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.
The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency closed meeting for Tuesday afternoon on the situation in Rafah at the request of Algeria, the Arab representative on the council, two council diplomats told The Associated Press ahead of an official announcement.
Rafah, the southernmost Gaza city on the border with Egypt, had housed more than a million people — about half of Gaza’s population — displaced from other parts of the territory. Most have fled once again since Israel launched what it called a limited incursion there earlier this month. Hundreds of thousands are packed into squalid tent camps in and around the city.
Elsewhere in Rafah, the director of the Kuwait Hospital, one of the city’s last functioning medical centers, said it was shutting down and that staff members were relocating to a field hospital. Dr. Suhaib Al-Hamas said the decision was made after a strike killed two health workers Monday at the entrance to the hospital.
Netanyahu says Israel must destroy what he says are Hamas’ last remaining battalions in Rafah. The militant group launched a barrage of rockets Sunday from the city toward heavily populated central Israel, setting off air raid sirens but causing no injuries.
The strike on Rafah brought a new wave of condemnation, even from Israel’s strongest supporters.
The US National Security Council said in a statement that the “devastating images” from the strike on Rafah were “heartbreaking.” It said the US was working with the Israeli military and others to assess what happened.
French President Emmanuel Macron was more blunt, saying “these operations must stop” in a post on X. “There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire,” he wrote.
The Foreign Office of Germany, which has been a staunch supporter of Israel for decades, said “the images of charred bodies, including children, from the airstrike in Rafah are unbearable.”
“The exact circumstances must be clarified, and the investigation announced by the Israeli army must now come quickly,” the ministry added. ”The civilian population must finally be better protected.”
Qatar, a key mediator in attempts to secure a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, said the Rafah strike could “complicate” talks, Negotiations, which appear to be restarting, have faltered repeatedly over Hamas’ demand for a lasting truce and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, terms Israeli leaders have publicly rejected.
The Israeli military’s top legal official, Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, said authorities were examining the strike in Rafah and that the military regrets the loss of civilian life.
Speaking to an Israeli lawyers’ conference, Tomer-Yerushalmi said Israel has launched 70 criminal investigations into possible violations of international law, including the deaths of civilians, the conditions at a detention facility holding suspected militants and the deaths of some inmates in Israeli custody. She said incidents of property crimes and looting were also being examined.
Israel has long maintained it has an independent judiciary capable of investigating and prosecuting abuses. But rights groups say Israeli authorities routinely fail to fully investigate violence against Palestinians and that even when soldiers are held accountable, the punishment is usually light.
Israel has denied allegations of genocide brought against it by South Africa at the International Court of Justice. Last week, the court ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive, a ruling it has no power to enforce.
Separately, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, over alleged crimes linked to the war. The ICC only intervenes when it concludes that the state in question is unable or unwilling to properly prosecute such crimes.
Israel says it does its best to adhere to the laws of war. Israeli leaders also say they face an enemy that makes no such commitment, embeds itself in civilian areas and refuses to release Israeli hostages unconditionally.
Hamas triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into Israel, in which Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seized some 250 hostages. Hamas still holds about 100 hostages and the remains of around 30 others after most of the rest were released during a ceasefire last year.
Around 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes. Severe hunger is widespread, and UN officials say parts of the territory are experiencing famine.

UN Security Council set to meet over deadly Rafah strike

Updated 28 May 2024

UN Security Council set to meet over deadly Rafah strike

  • The attack prompted a wave of international condemnation, with Palestinians and many Arab countries calling it a ‘massacre’
  • UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: ‘There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop’

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: The UN Security Council was set to convene an emergency meeting Tuesday over an Israeli strike that killed dozens in a displaced persons camp in Rafah, as three European countries were slated to formally recognize a Palestinian state.

AFP journalists on the ground early Tuesday reported fresh Israeli strikes overnight in the southern Gaza border city, where an Israeli attack targeting two senior Hamas members on Sunday night sparked a fire that ripped through a displacement center, killing 45, according to Gaza health officials.

The attack prompted a wave of international condemnation, with Palestinians and many Arab countries calling it a “massacre.” Israel said it was looking into the “tragic accident.”

“There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres posted on social media.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths pointed to the widespread warnings of civilian deaths that circulated ahead of Israel’s incursion into Rafah, saying in a statement: “We’ve seen the consequences in last night’s utterly unacceptable attack.”

“To call it ‘a mistake’ is a message that means nothing for those killed, those grieving, and those trying to save lives,” he added.

Diplomats said the UN Security Council would convene Tuesday for an emergency session called by Algeria to discuss the attack.

The EU’s foreign policy chief said he was “horrified by news” of the strike, while French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “outraged,” and a US National Security Council spokesperson said Israel “must take every precaution possible to protect civilians.”

The Israeli military said it was launching a probe.

Displaced Gazan Khalil Al-Bahtini was preparing to leave the impacted area, saying Monday that “last night, the tent opposite to ours was targeted.”

“We have loaded all our belongings, but we don’t know where to go.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament the deaths occurred “despite our best efforts” to protect civilians.

The outcry over the strike came as Spain, Ireland and Norway were set to formally recognize a Palestinian state on Tuesday in a decision slammed by Israel as a “reward” for Hamas.

“Recognizing the state of Palestine is about justice for the Palestinian people,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said Monday in Brussels.

It was also “the best guarantee of security for Israel and absolutely essential for reaching peace in the region,” he said alongside his Irish and Norwegian counterparts.

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said he had told Spain’s consulate in Jerusalem to stop offering consular services to West Bank Palestinians from June 1 as a “preliminary punitive” measure.

Israel launched the deadly strike on Rafah late Sunday, hours after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at the Tel Aviv area, most of which were intercepted.

Israel’s army said its aircraft “struck a Hamas compound” in the city and killed Yassin Rabia and Khaled Nagar, senior officials for the militant group in the occupied West Bank.

Gaza’s civil defense agency said the strike ignited a fire that tore through a displacement center in northwestern Rafah near a facility of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

“We saw charred bodies and dismembered limbs... We also saw cases of amputations, wounded children, women and the elderly,” said civil defense agency official Mohammad Al-Mughayyir.

One survivor, a woman who declined to be named, said: “We heard a loud sound and there was fire all around us. The children were screaming.”

Adding to already heightened tensions since Israel launched its Rafah ground operation, the Israeli and Egyptian militaries reported a “shooting incident” on Monday that killed one Egyptian guard in the border area between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip.

Both forces said they were investigating.

Footage from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society showed chaotic nighttime scenes of paramedics racing to the attack site and evacuating the wounded.

Mughayyir said the rescue efforts were hampered by war damage and the impact of Israel’s siege, which has led to severe shortages of fuel and “water to extinguish fires.”

The Israeli attack sparked strong protests from Egypt and Qatar, both of which have played key roles as mediators in efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange.

Egypt deplored what it called the “targeting of defenseless civilians,” saying it was part of “a systematic policy aimed at widening the scope of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip to make it uninhabitable.”

Qatar condemned a “dangerous violation of international law” and voiced “concern that the bombing will complicate ongoing mediation efforts” toward a truce.

The top world court, the International Court of Justice, on Friday ordered Israel to halt any offensive in Rafah and elsewhere that could bring about “the physical destruction” of the Palestinians.

The war in Gaza started after Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,050 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, which has been central to aid operations in the besieged territory during the war, said on social media platform X that “with every day passing, providing assistance & protection becomes nearly impossible.”

“The images from last night are testament to how Rafah has turned into hell on Earth,” he said.