TikTok gang bust lays bare continued criminal abuse of children in Lebanon

Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 May 2024
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TikTok gang bust lays bare continued criminal abuse of children in Lebanon

  • Authorities investigating dozens of individuals who allegedly used the app to groom and sexually abuse children 
  • Scandal has provoked outrage among Lebanese and led to calls for the app to be banned in the country

DUBAI: Less than a year since the rape and murder of six-year-old Leen Talib in a case that shocked Lebanon, the country has again been rocked by a scandal involving the sexual abuse of children, and this time the social media platform TikTok is caught up in the furore.

Lebanese authorities are investigating a group of 28 to 30 individuals who allegedly used the app to groom children into performing indecent acts. The acts were reportedly filmed for sale online.

Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood, alongside three minors who allegedly used their accounts to lure others.




These images from social media influencer George Moubayyed's TikTok account shows himself posing in front of his salon in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)

According to local news media, the gang includes men and women and includes several Syrian and Turkish nationals.

The allegations have provoked outrage across Lebanon and have led to calls for TikTok to be banned in the country.

The Lebanese Internal Security Forces released a statement saying the arrests took place after several children reported being sexually assaulted on camera by members of a predatory gang and being forced to partake in drug use at hotels and seaside chalets.

One teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told Arab News that he was groomed by the gang, but was able to avoid being sexually assaulted.





Lebanon's Internal Security Forces had been busy lately trying to suppress the burgeoning drug and arms smuggling trade in Lebanon, and now massive human trafficking and rampant exploitation of minors. (AFP/File photo)

“A few months after I opened my TikTok account, I was sent a message from an account which, at times, would call itself The Agency,” the teenager said. “They explained that they recruit children my age — 15 to 16-year-olds — to publish funny videos that get monetized, and I would receive any money the videos made. There was no (hint) of anything predatory at first.

“That soon changed, however. I started receiving texts from random accounts of a flirtatious nature. I was approached by an anonymous elderly man whose texts would range from normal to borderline flirtatious.

“He offered to buy me a new phone and give me $1,500 in cash if I were to meet him. Rather than coming to my neighborhood and meeting at a public place like a restaurant or coffeehouse, the man insisted on sending me a taxi to a private location. I refused. I later (found out) he was friends with one of the men from The Agency gang.”

Arab News could not independently corroborate the teenager’s allegations.

INNUMBERS

4.76 million Internet users in Lebanon at the start of 2024.

3.92 million TikTok users in Lebanon, mostly in 8-24 age group.

1.56 billion Monthly active TikTok users globally as of today.

Judicial authorities and local news media have identified several individuals they believe are linked to the gang, including a lawyer registered with the North Bar Association in Tripoli called Khaled Merheb; Abdo Keysso, the owner of Matrix clothing store; dentist Hussein Allaq; Paul Meouchi; Peter Naffah; and Hassan Singer.

Gigi Ghanawi, a social media influencer, proceeded to delete all of her social media accounts after being accused by some Lebanese media outlets of being part of the gang. Her accounts had multiple photos of her posing with the accused.

Some of the alleged victims have also claimed that Ghanawi sent them private messages of a provocative nature, asking to meet up with them, but when they arrived at the scheduled location, they were met by gang members. According to the latest reports, Ghanawi has been arrested.

While the investigation is still in its preliminary stages, Attorney General Judge Tanios Saghbini, the public prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Mount Lebanon who is presiding over the case, has issued multiple arrest warrants and has requested Interpol’s assistance, as some of the suspects reside abroad — Meouchi is a resident of Sweden, while Naffah has reportedly fled Lebanon.

The teenager who spoke to Arab News said that he was asked to go to a shop called Fashion Zone to pick up the money he was owed from the “funny” videos he had filmed.

“The boutique was situated near George Moubayyed’s Hair Zone salon. You’d have to collect the money in cash. There was no other way to receive it directly. That’s how I came to know Moubayyed.




Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)

“Upon meeting me, he suggested that he should cut my hair on camera, saying he’d do it for free and that it would give me more exposure, on account of him having over 400,000 followers on TikTok. He seemed adamant and pushy about the whole thing, then took my number to schedule a date for the appointment.

“Another time I went, I was introduced to Paul Meouchi. Paul would always try to take me out, often citing that he doesn’t live in town, that he resides in Sweden, and that I should really make the most of it while he’s around. I came to sense they all had that pushy attitude about them. They do not take no for an answer, always (asking) to meet for dinner and drinks.

“At one point, I received private messages from anonymous accounts claiming they had pornographic videos and photos of me and they said they would release them if I did not (meet them at) a certain location. I called their bluff, though. I knew there was nothing of that nature. Once I did that, the account deactivated.”

According to Singer’s testimony, the gang would use the children’s own videos to blackmail them into keeping quiet and continuing to be abused by gang members.

Singer alleges he was approached by other minors in his neighborhood who confided in him, and that he was posing as a pedophile in order to gather evidence and try to bring the offenders to justice




Amid Lebanon's economic and political crises, minors are feared to be most at risk to pedophiles and ghuman traffickers using social media to lure them. (AFP/File)

Despite portraying himself as a concerned citizen, several videos have surfaced on social media that reportedly show Singer in questionable settings with minors.

“I was also contacted by Hassan Singer,” the teenager told Arab News. “Hassan pretended to be a friend. He would often ask me out for lunch. He said I should be warned of bad men who wish to do harmful things to little boys and that I should steer clear of them. He also said he supports children my age by giving them money, which I found to be a little odd.

“One time he suggested that, if I ever needed a dentist, I should go to Hussein Allaq’s clinic. He said that to get a good deal and a quick appointment, instead of calling the clinic, I should message Allaq privately, tell him my age and send him some photos of me.”

The teenager also claimed that he was approached on TikTok by an Arab man who offered him $20 for each pornographic image or video sent.

In a statement, Judge Saghbini said the accused had formed “a criminal network for human trafficking and money laundering” and had “solicited minors, via social media networks, mainly TikTok, for sexual purposes.”




A judge has said that a "criminal network for human trafficking and money laundering” and had “solicited minors, via social media networks, mainly TikTok, for sexual purposes.” (Shutterstock images)

He also said members of the network had forced the minors to take drugs before raping them, had taken nude photos of them for the purpose of sale and distribution, and had engaged in “violent and life-threatening practices.”

According to Lebanese police, the videos and photos were intended to be sold on the dark web — online content that can only be accessed by specific software and usually requires authorization of some kind. While it is not illegal to access the dark web, some of its websites engage in criminal activity, which, according to the International Monetary Fund, includes “arms trafficking, drug dealing and the sharing of exploitative content.”

But what about the clearnet — the publicly accessible online content the majority of people use regularly, and which includes the major social media platforms? Does this latest scandal involving the abuse of such platforms make a case for banning the likes of TikTok?

Popular among the “Gen Z” demographic, TikTok — which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — has 1.56 billion monthly active users globally as of 2024, according to market researchers at DemandSage.




Infographic courtesy of DemandSage

It ranks fifth among the most popular social media platforms, and is almost equally popular with men (52 percent of users) and women (48 percent), with the majority of its users aged 18 to 34.

Despite its popularity, its impact on mass culture, and the many small businesses and influencers who depend on it for sales and publicity, the site has faced opposition around the world.

It was banned in India in June 2020 amid tensions with China. Nepal also announced a decision to ban TikTok in November 2023 and Pakistan has implemented a number of temporary bans since 2020.

TikTok is also under pressure in the West because of concerns over data. It has been banned from government-issued phones in the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand, and staff at the European Commission have also been banned from using it on work-issued devices.




Members of the City Youth Organiztion rally in Hyderabad on June 30, 2020, in support of the Indian government's decision to ban the wildly popular video-sharing 'Tik Tok' app. (AFP/File)

In April 2024, citing national security, US President Joe Biden signed into law the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which is an effective ban on, or forced sale of, TikTok.

TikTok has filed a lawsuit, calling the act an “extraordinary intrusion on free speech rights” of the company and its 170 million American users.

Could similar restrictions on the app now follow in Lebanon?

According to the Akhbar Al-Yawm news agency, the media office of Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications Johnny Corm issued a statement on May 8 saying a TikTok ban would first require a court order.




The Lebanese government's TikTok account has only 71,400 followers. A ban on the app may not be that much of a problem. 

“At a time when social media sites are abuzz with discussions and claims related to the blocking of the TikTok application in Lebanon following its use by a gang involved in extorting minors, it is important for the office to confirm that the banning of any application, whether TikTok or others, and the blocking of websites or private applications by the Ministry of Telecommunications requires a court order in accordance with legal protocols,” it said.

“The Ministry of Telecommunications is an executive authority, and (whatever) the Lebanese judiciary (rules) in terms of banning or not banning any application, the ministry is committed to implement exclusively. There is no individual authority for the minister of communications to decide whether to ban any application or not. The ministry has the technical ability to stop and block the TikTok application. In the event of a judicial decision in this regard, the ministry will apply this decision,” the statement continued.

Corm’s office also stressed the need for parents to monitor their children’s online activity and added that there are tools in most applications, including TikTok, that allow parents to block inappropriate content.
 

 


Palestinian militants release video of Israeli hostage alive in Gaza

Updated 29 May 2024
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Palestinian militants release video of Israeli hostage alive in Gaza

GAZA STRIP: Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad released a video on Tuesday showing an Israeli hostage alive and held in the Gaza Strip.

The captive, identified by Israeli media as Sasha Trupanov, 28, is seen speaking in Hebrew in the 30-second clip.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum campaign group identified him as Alexander (Sasha) Trupanov, and called on the Israeli authorities to secure the release of all captives held in Gaza.

It was unclear when the footage, in which he is seen wearing a T-shirt, was taken.

Trupanov, a Russian-Israeli dual national, was captured on October 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz along with his mother, grandmother and girlfriend.

The three women were freed during a truce between Hamas and Israel at the end of November, which led to the release of 105 hostages.

“Seeing my Sasha on television today is very heartening, but it also breaks my heart that he has been in captivity for such a long time,” said his mother, Yelena Trupanov, in a short message published by the families’ forum.

Israel’s government has instructed its negotiating team to continue talks with mediators to secure a deal for the release of the hostages, but no new round of talks has begun.

“The Israeli government must give a significant mandate to the negotiating team, which will be able to lead to a deal for the return of all the hostages — the living to rehabilitation and the murdered to burial,” a families’ forum statement said after the release of Trupanov’s video.

Trupanov’s father was killed in the October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 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 36,096 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Algeria to present UN resolution on end to Rafah ‘killing’

Updated 29 May 2024
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Algeria to present UN resolution on end to Rafah ‘killing’

UNITED NATIONS: Algeria will present a draft UN resolution calling for an end to “the killing” in Rafah as Israel attacks Hamas fighters in the crowded Gaza city, its ambassador said Tuesday after a Security Council meeting.

Defying pressure from the United States and other western countries, Israel has been conducting military operations in Rafah, which is packed with people who have fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

An Israeli strike Sunday killed 45 people at a tent camp for displaced people, said the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, drawing a chorus of international condemnation.

“It will be a short text, a decisive text, to stop the killing in Rafah,” Ambassador Amar Bendjama told reporters.

It was Algeria that requested Tuesday’s urgent meeting of the council after the Sunday strike.

A civil defense official in Gaza said another Israeli strike on a displacement camp west of Rafah on Tuesday killed at least 21 more people.

The Algerian ambassador did not say when he hoped the resolution might be put to a vote.

“We hope that it could be done as quickly as possible because life is in the balance,” said Chinese ambassador Fu Cong, expressing hope for a vote this week.

“It’s high time for this council to take action. This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of emergency,” the French ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said before the council meeting.

The council has struggled to find a unified voice since the war broke out with the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, followed by Israel’s retaliatory campaign.

After passing two resolutions centered on the need for humanitarian aid to people in Gaza, in March the council passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire — an appeal that had been blocked several times before by the United States, Israel’s main ally.

Washington, increasingly frustrated with how Israel is waging the war and its mounting civilian death toll, finally allowed that resolution to pass by abstaining from voting.

But the White House said Tuesday that Israel’s offensive in Rafah had not amounted to the type of full-scale operation that would breach President Joe Biden’s “red lines,” and said it had no plans to change its policy toward Israel.

Asked about the new Algerian draft resolution, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “we’re waiting to see it and then we’ll react to it.”


Will EU aid in exchange for curbing refugee flows make it harder for Syrians in Lebanon to overcome hostility?

Updated 28 May 2024
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Will EU aid in exchange for curbing refugee flows make it harder for Syrians in Lebanon to overcome hostility?

  • EU leaders say a new 1 billion euro aid package for Lebanon will ease the economic pressure of hosting displaced Syrian
  • Rights groups say the pledged funding has only emboldened Lebanese authorities to mount a crackdown on Syrians

LONDON: Since the EU announced a €1 billion ($1.087 billion) aid package to assist Syrians in Lebanon, in exchange for Lebanese authorities agreeing to curb the flow of migrants to Europe, hostility toward the Syrian community in Lebanon has, by most accounts, continued to rise.

Earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, announced that the EU would allocate a substantial package of aid to crisis-racked Lebanon for the 2024-27 period to help it cope with its substantial refugee population.

Of this amount, €736 million would be allocated to supporting refugees, while €264 million would go toward training the Lebanese armed forces to tackle illegal migration to Europe.

Von der Leyen said the aid would bolster border management, assist reform to the banking sector, and support basic services to the most vulnerable communities, including refugees, amid a crippling economic crisis in Lebanon and a surge in the number of irregular boat arrivals in Cyprus from Lebanon.

The EU recently announced a €1 billion aid package to assist Syrians in Lebanon, in exchange for Lebanese authorities agreeing to curb the flow of migrants to Europe. (AFP)

The announcement came after Cyprus, an EU member state, voiced concern about the number of migrant boats arriving on its shores last month. The majority were Syrians arriving from Lebanon.

This sharp increase in arrivals prompted the Cypriot government in mid-April to suspend the processing of asylum applications from Syrians. Nicosia also called on its EU partners to step up efforts to aid Lebanon.

However, von der Leyen’s announcement appears to have emboldened Lebanese authorities to step up their crackdown on Syrians, human rights monitor Amnesty International said on Monday.

Within a week of the announcement, on May 8, Lebanon’s General Security announced a new clampdown on Syrians, further tightening work and residency restrictions and ramping up raids, evictions, arrests and deportations.

More than 400 refugees were repatriated to Syria on May 14, according to Amnesty International, which, alongside other rights bodies, concluded that “Syria remains unsafe for return, and refugees are at risk of human rights violations.”

Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the Al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. (AFP)

“Once again, President von der Leyen has put her desire to curb the flow of refugees at any cost into Europe before the EU’s obligations to protect refugees fleeing conflict or persecution,” Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

“This appears to have emboldened Lebanese authorities to intensify their ruthless campaign targeting refugees with hateful discourse, forced deportations, and stifling measures on residency and labor.”

Lebanon is home to about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Anti-Syrian sentiment in the country has intensified since the onset of the financial crisis in 2019, pushing 80 percent of the Lebanese population below the poverty line.

The hostility and suspicion, stoked by the rhetoric of senior politicians, boiled over in mid-April when a senior Lebanese Forces official was reportedly abducted and killed in a Syrian area near the Lebanese border.

Lebanese mobs indiscriminately attacked Syrians and vandalized their properties, while local authorities and self-appointed community groups evicted many from their homes and businesses.

IN NUMBERS

  • 1/3 of Lebanese citizens in five governorates were living in poverty in 2022.
  • 90% of Syrians in Lebanon were living below the poverty line in 2022.
  • 2,000 Syrians arrived in Cyprus by sea in the first quarter of 2024.

The EU-Lebanon deal augurs poorly for acceptance of displaced Syrian refugees, rights groups say.

Wadih Al-Asmar, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told Arab News he has never witnessed “this amount of pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where all the security services are participating.”

He believes the hostility toward Syrians is “purely for electoral reasons” and that von der Leyen has “opened a Pandora’s box in the region, especially in Lebanon.”

Syrian refugees are among the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon, with the majority unable to afford basic essentials and more than half of households living in shelters that are either overcrowded or below minimum standards for habitability, according to UN agencies.

A Syrian child stands barefoot amidst snow in the Syrian refugees camp of Al-Hilal near Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley on January 20, 2022. (AFP)

Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the New Lines Institute, said displaced Syrians in Lebanon “are always in a position where they have to pick between two ugly options: Staying in Lebanon or going back to Syria.

“It’s the balance between the ugliness of these two factors that determines whether they decide to stay in Lebanon or go back to Syria,” he told Arab News.

Until now, the next best option for Syrians was onward travel to a third country — ideally an EU member state. However, since Cyprus stopped processing Syrian refugee applications, options have narrowed further.

“The option to leave Lebanon and go to Europe has also been made much, much harder because it’s much more difficult to go to Greece from Lebanon instead of going to Cyprus, which is much, much closer,” Shaar said.

Cyprus is a mere 185 km from Lebanon — taking about 10 hours to reach by boat. More than 2,000 Syrians arrived by sea in the first quarter of 2024. Whether the new EU funding for Lebanon will reduce those numbers remains to be seen.

Syrian refugees are among the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon, with the majority unable to afford basic essentials. (AFP)

Shaar said the money allocated to support Syrians in Lebanon is “relatively small.” Furthermore, owing to the routine misappropriation of funding by Lebanese authorities, little is likely to reach those most in need.

“If you think of the 3RP (Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan), which is the main UN-sponsored plan for helping Lebanon cope with the Syrian refugee crisis, the sums that Lebanon has been receiving per year are actually higher than the amount that the EU has announced — if you look at the elements relating specifically to Syrians,” he said.

“Unfortunately, in light of aid diversion, which is the case in Lebanon, in Syria — in most corrupt countries to varying extents — little of that amount will actually find its way to Syrians.

“However, I think part of those amounts is urgently needed, especially in the field of education and the support toward the UNHCR.”

Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the New Lines Institute, said part of the money allocated to support Syrians in Lebanon is “urgently needed, especially in the field of education and the support toward the UNHCR.” (AFP)

Co-led by the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Development Programme, the 3RP provides a platform for humanitarian and development partners to respond to the Syrian crisis at the regional and host country level.

The 3RP estimated in this year’s Regional Strategic Overview report that Lebanon, the country with the highest proportion of refugees in the world relative to its population, will need $2.7 billion in financial aid to meet humanitarian needs in 2024.

Last year, Lebanon received $1.8 billion, representing a mere 31 percent of the required $5.9 billion, according to the same report.

Al-Asmar of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights believes the latest EU aid package will have “more negative than positive effect on Lebanon.”

The UN said Lebanon will need $2.7 billion in financial aid to meet humanitarian needs in 2024. (EU)

On the one hand, he said, the €1 billion “is not new money — this was the support that was planned for the next four years.” It was primarily a “marketing or packaging announcement,” he said.

On the other hand, “this support, instead of being welcomed by Lebanese politicians, was somehow a trigger to initiate one of the biggest hate campaigns against Syrian refugees.”

Rather than shouldering the responsibility for the country’s predicament, including the ongoing financial crisis, Lebanese politicians are instead making scapegoats of the Syrians, he said.

€1 billion for Lebanon over four years means €250 million per year,” which “is nothing,” especially when considering the “number of refugees we have in Lebanon.”

Syrian refugees stand in the balcony of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)

Pointing out that EU officials have not yet approved the agreement, he said: “We have the feeling that the EU is trying to outsource border management … and pushing the Lebanese government to commit human rights violations that EU countries cannot afford to commit.

“So, whenever there are Syrian people to be pushed back from Cyprus, for example, they will not be pushed back to Syria, which is a crime. They will be pushed back to Lebanon, and then the Lebanese army will commit this international crime, which is a violation of the Convention against Torture, by sending them back to Syria.”

Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture stipulates that “no state party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

As a party to the convention, Lebanon has breached its international obligations by summarily deporting thousands, including opposition activists and army defectors, to Syria, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ahead of the 8th Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, held on Monday, humanitarian organizations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned that Syrians are at risk of being forgotten by the international community.

With 16.7 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance in 2024, according to UN figures, aid agencies urged donors to increase investment in early recovery to help Syrians rebuild their lives and access basic services.

Human Rights Watch said Lebanon has breached its international obligations by summarily deporting thousands, including opposition activists and army defectors, to Syria. (AFP)

The EU pledged €2.12 billion for 2024-25 to support Syrians at home and in neighboring countries, as well as their host communities in Lebanon, Turkiye, Jordan and Iraq.

In response to the pledge, the aid agency Oxfam said the discussion in Brussels “remains far removed from the harsh realities Syrians face.”

In a statement the agency said: “Funding still fails to match the scale of needs, and year after year, the number of people relying on aid grows, a stark reminder of the eminent collapse in Syria’s humanitarian situation.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned that the Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan for 2024, covering neighboring countries, is only 8.7 percent funded, at $352 million out of the required $4.07 billion.

In neighboring countries, just $371 million, or 7.7 percent, of the $4.49 billion required is covered.

 


Blinken discusses need to end Sudan war with top general

Updated 28 May 2024
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Blinken discusses need to end Sudan war with top general

  • Blinken discussed a resumption of peace negotiations with Burhan
  • Recent attacks around Al-Fashir have shattered a local truce that protected it from the wider war

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the need to urgently end the war in Sudan with Sudanese army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan in a phone call on Tuesday, the State Department said.
The two also addressed ways to “enable unhindered humanitarian access, including cross border and cross line, to alleviate the suffering of the Sudanese people,” it said.
Sudan has been gripped since April 2023 by a civil war between the Sudanese army, led by Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
Thousands of civilians are estimated to have died.
Blinken discussed a resumption of peace negotiations with Burhan and the need to protect civilians and defuse hostilities in Al-Fashir, North Darfur, the State Department said.
Recent attacks around Al-Fashir have shattered a local truce that protected it from the wider war.
Egypt will host a conference next month bringing together Sudan’s civilian political groups with other regional and global parties, the Egyptian foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
The conference aims to produce an agreement between Sudan’s civilian groups on ways to build a comprehensive and permanent peace, it added.


Palestinian refugees’ health suffering crushing blow due to Israeli war in Gaza: UNRWA

Updated 28 May 2024
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Palestinian refugees’ health suffering crushing blow due to Israeli war in Gaza: UNRWA

  • Destruction of infrastructure, transportation has affected healthcare delivery

LONDON: Palestinian refugees in Gaza are experiencing an unprecedented health crisis as a result of Israel’s war on the region, according to the annual UN Relief and Work Agency’s health report released on Tuesday.

Palestinian refugees’ health and well-being have suffered a “crushing blow,” the report said, with higher rates of injury, trauma, and mental health disorders.

The destruction of infrastructure and transportation has affected healthcare delivery, while congested living conditions and limited access to clean water have increased the risk of infectious disease.

Hepatitis and types of diarrhea are becoming more common. Malnutrition has also hit the region, with one out of every three children under the age of 2 in the northern Gaza Strip experiencing acute malnutrition.

Healthcare access declined in the fourth quarter of 2023 as 14 out of 22 health centers were forced to close, and power outages crippled telehealth systems.

UNRWA established 155 emergency shelters in response, deployed 108 mobile medical units, coordinated the shipment of critical medicines, and implemented disease outbreak surveillance.

Dr. Akihiro Seita, UNRWA’s director of health, said: “The health crisis among Palestine refugees can only be mitigated with immediate and sustained healthcare interventions and support.

“UNRWA remains committed to addressing these urgent needs and improving the health and well-being of Palestine refugees.

“Our staff (have) remained at the frontline in Gaza. As of May 2024, UNRWA has lost over 191 staff members, including 11 healthcare professionals. Our hearts go out to the affected families.

“This report underscores our gratitude for the dedication of our healthcare staff, who continue to deliver quality services despite their loss and being displaced several times.”

Increased restrictions of movement and rising violence have also created new challenges in the West Bank. UNRWA has adapted by finding temporary solutions to ensure patient access and uninterrupted delivery of medical supplies.

More than 2 million patients rely on UNRWA’s health services in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, and Syria.

Despite operational challenges, including defunding, UNRWA managed to provide nearly 7 million primary healthcare consultations in 2023, maintaining high levels of immunization, particularly in Gaza, which has played a critical role in preventing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.