Egypt PM orders measures to prevent fraud in Hajj trips

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has ordered 16 tourism companies to be stripped of their licenses and referred their managers to the public prosecutor’s office for illegally facilitating pilgrims’ travel to Makkah. (AP/File)
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Updated 22 June 2024
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Egypt PM orders measures to prevent fraud in Hajj trips

  • The prime minister presided over a crisis cell meeting initiated by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, focusing on the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims
  • Preliminarily, 16 travel agencies were identified as circumventing regulations and transporting pilgrims without offering proper services

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has ordered 16 tourism companies to be stripped of their licenses and referred their managers to the public prosecutor’s office for illegally facilitating pilgrims’ travel to Makkah.
The prime minister presided over a crisis cell meeting initiated by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, focusing on the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims.
A report discussed at the meeting highlighted that the rise in the deaths of unregistered Egyptian pilgrims stemmed from some companies that “organized the Hajj programs using a personal visit visa, which prevents its holders from entering Makkah” via official channels.
It emerged that attempts to bypass the official process included trekking through desert paths and the absence of suitable accommodation at other sacred sites, leading to exhaustion among unregistered pilgrims due to severe heat.
Preliminarily, 16 travel agencies were identified as circumventing regulations and transporting pilgrims without offering proper services.
The prime minister ordered the immediate revocation of these companies’ licenses, referred the responsible people to public prosecution, and imposed fines to benefit the bereaved families of the deceased pilgrims.
During the meeting, measures were discussed to prevent such incidents in the future, including enforcing immediate actions against companies or entities that facilitated these irregular pilgrimages.
Madbouly said that although the official Egyptian Hajj delegation comprises more than 50,000 pilgrims, it was difficult to ascertain the number of unregistered travelers due to the absence of recorded data.
An official source, preferring anonymity, told Arab News that high fatality numbers reported might include many who traveled under visit visas — not Hajj visas.
He suggested that those responsible for “these transgressions face severe repercussions, possibly extending beyond license revocation to criminal prosecution.”
The French news agency AFP reported that the death toll among Egyptian pilgrims for this year’s Hajj had risen to 600, indicating the majority were not part of the official delegation.
Regarding legal responsibilities, Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Abul Saud said that travel agencies bear criminal responsibility if they knowingly facilitate these illegal activities.
Conversely, he said that if they were unaware and merely issued visas based on client requests, it would be easier to hold them accountable if it was proven they had explicit knowledge of the pilgrims’ intentions.
Saturday’s discussions also revealed that some companies possibly knew what the unofficial pilgrims planned, while others may have been unaware, issuing visas without knowing the intended misuse.
This situation underscores the complexity of ensuring that all travel facilitators adhere strictly to legal and ethical standards, emphasizing the need for robust oversight and accountability measures to prevent future occurrences.
Officials said that ensuring all travel facilitators adhere to legal and ethical standards required robust oversight and accountability measures.


Diplomats in Lebanon assess magnitude of damages in the south

Updated 24 July 2024
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Diplomats in Lebanon assess magnitude of damages in the south

  • Foreign Affairs Committee met with ambassadors from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Britain, and Canada to present the results of the ongoing Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon
  • Hezbollah released a new video recorded by the Hudhud drone within Israel, showcasing footage from inside the Ramat David Air Base

BEIRUT: The head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Lebanese Parliament, MP Fadi Alama, revealed that “the number of attacks on South Lebanon has exceeded 5,736 until July 15, resulting in 538 martyrs, and 1,850 injuries.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee met on Wednesday with several ambassadors from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Britain, and Canada to present the results of the ongoing Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon, as part of preparations for “the government’s work in the post-ceasefire phase.”

MP Alama said that “representatives of diplomatic missions and international organizations were surprised when we talked about 1,800 hectares intentionally burned by the Israeli enemy. They were also surprised by the number of schools that were targeted and the number of students who were unable to complete their education and moved to other places. Additionally, they were informed of the 28,000 new families who have been displaced from areas that are being targeted daily.”

The parliamentarian said there was urgency for the government to develop a plan and a roadmap as soon as possible.

MP Wael Abu Faour, a member of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, stated that “the human, health, urban, agricultural, and environmental losses as a result of Israeli attacks have become enormous. Initial estimates from Lebanese institutions indicate a cost of approximately two $2 billion so far, in addition to other damages and losses.”

Abu Faour said: “This is a new challenge for the Lebanese state that must be dealt with in Lebanon’s Arab and international relations. The state is bankrupt and unable to bear such responsibilities, but at the same time, it cannot abandon its responsibilities towards its citizens regardless of any controversial local political considerations regarding the feasibility of war or its justifications among some parties.”

Hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army continued on Wednesday. According to Israeli media, “43 settlements were evacuated in the north, (and) more than 1,500 buildings, cars, and infrastructure were damaged in the north. Additionally, six industrial zones were affected, and hundreds of businesses were forced to close due to Hezbollah strikes.”

Israel targeted the towns of Kafr Shuba, Tayr Harfa, and Hula on Wednesday with airstrikes and artillery shelling. A raid also targeted a house in the town of Kfar Hammam, leading to its destruction. This small village is located in Hasbaya District on the eastern side of Nabatieh Governorate.

Hezbollah released a new video recorded by the Hudhud drone within Israel, showcasing footage from inside the Ramat David Air Base, located approximately 50 km from the Lebanese border.

According to Hezbollah, “the footage was captured on Tuesday using a drone.”

The new eight-minute video released by Hezbollah showcases several sensitive areas within the base, including aircraft fuel tanks, the headquarters of Squadron 109, an Iron Dome missile defense platform, and ammunition depots. It also reveals the locations of the Squadron 157 and Squadron 105 headquarters. Hezbollah included an image of the base commander’s office, exposing intricate details of the facility.

This is not the first time Hezbollah has employed such tactics. Previously, the group broadcast aerial footage of critical installations captured by similar unmanned aerial vehicles in Haifa and the Golan Heights.

Israeli media reacted strongly, with one outlet stating: “Over eight minutes of Hezbollah video exposing our vulnerability is a disgrace.”

The Israeli military, however, downplayed the incident, claiming the footage was captured by a drone designed solely for photography and did not affect base operations.

A Hezbollah source linked the timing of the video release to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington.

Amid these developments, the Israeli military announced on Wednesday that its “reserve brigade has completed a drill simulating war scenarios in Lebanon.”

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir expressed support for a comprehensive war against Hezbollah, stating: “The sooner, the better.”

However, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Simona Halperin maintained that while Tel Aviv is prepared for military confrontation with Lebanon, it still prefers a diplomatic solution.

She emphasized that Israel is not interested in a large-scale war. “We cannot dismiss a scenario where Israel might be compelled to engage in a wide-ranging war on the northern front,” she added.

Coinciding with Israel’s war rhetoric, the Canadian Embassy in Lebanon issued a renewed advisory to its citizens.

It called on “Canadians, permanent residents, their spouses, and dependent children to heed travel advisories and leave the country while commercial flights are available.”

The embassy emphasized its focus on assisting individuals in obtaining necessary travel documents and keeping families together during this process.

This escalation comes as thousands of Lebanese expatriates with dual citizenship from Canada, the US, and Europe have arrived in Lebanon for summer vacations.


US destroys 3 Houthi missile launchers in Yemen

US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) sails in formation with the FS Forbin (D 620).
Updated 24 July 2024
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US destroys 3 Houthi missile launchers in Yemen

  • US and UK forces have carried out dozens of attacks since January on Houthi-held areas to prevent attacks by the militia on international shipping
  • Houthis say operations at Hodeidah Port have returned to ‘full capacity’ after fires in fuel tanks, caused by an attack by Israel on Saturday, were extinguished

AL-MUKALLA: The US Central Command said on Wednesday that it destroyed three missile launchers on territory in Yemen held by the Houthi militia.

It was the latest in a series of military operations targeting Houthi sites in response to continuing attacks by the militia on international shipping.

“It was determined these weapons presented an imminent threat to US (and) coalition forces, and merchant vessels in the region,” the US military said in a message posted on social media platform X. It added that by destroying the launchers it was taking preemptive action to prevent Houthi attacks on international shipping and protect freedom of passage.

US and UK forces have carried out dozens of attacks since January on sites in Sanaa, Hodeidah and other Houthi-held parts of Yemen being used to store missile launchers, unmanned aerial vehicles and drone boats, in an effort to prevent threats to international maritime routes off the coast of Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Houthis said operations at Hodeidah Port, on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, have resumed at “full capacity” after fires in fuel tanks, caused by an attack by Israel at the weekend, were extinguished.

Houthi governor Mohammed Quhim reported on Tuesday night that the blazes were under control, and Houthi officials at the port said it was operational and two ships carrying hundreds of cargo containers and thousands of tonnes of steel had docked.

In response to a Houthi drone strike that killed one person and injured at least 10 in Tel Aviv, Israeli warplanes bombed several parts of Hodeidah on Saturday, including the port, a power station and an area on the city’s northern outskirts. The Houthis said six people were killed and more than 80 injured by the attacks, which destroyed dozens of fuel tanks and a crane at the port.

The militia have demanded that foreign organizations operating in regions under their control provide them with the names and jobs of all employees, as the Houthis intensify their crackdown on Yemenis who work with international organizations or at Western embassies, amid accusations of espionage.

In a letter dated July 17 that circulated on social media this week, the Houthi Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation ordered international organizations active in Yemen to provide staffing structures within a week, including the names of workers, their positions and nationalities, and lists of prospective employees for approval.

The Yemeni government’s information minister, Muammar Al-Eryani, said the demand reflects the growing Houthi pressure on foreign organizations to employ workers loyal to the militia so that they can control the flow of international aid to Yemen.

In a message posted on X, he urged international groups operating in the country to transfer their offices from Houthi-controlled regions to the government-controlled southern port city of Aden, the nation’s temporary capital, to protect their staff from Houthi persecution.

“The terrorist Houthi militia considered the hesitant international positions a green light to continue its crimes and violations, and to further escalate its repressive measures towards international and humanitarian organizations working in the areas under its control,” he added.

The Houthis have abducted more than 60 Yemenis working for international organizations and Western missions in recent months, including more than a dozen employees of the UN. They claim Yemeni workers at such organizations are part of a large Israeli and US spy network.


First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

Updated 24 July 2024
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First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

  • “The port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, said
  • Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith

HODEIDA, Yemen: Two container ships have docked in Yemen’s Hodeida harbor, the first since a deadly Israeli strike hit fuel storage tanks at the militant-held port, according to Houthi media and ship trackers.
The strikes on Saturday, the first claimed by Israel on Yemen, triggered a massive blaze that burned for days at the dock amid slow firefighting efforts.
It destroyed some cranes and dozens of oil tanks, according to experts. Another tank exploded overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, reigniting some flames at the harbor, a critical gateway for fuel imports and humanitarian aid into Houthi-held areas.
Despite the ongoing threat, “the port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, told the Houthi-run Saba news agency on Tuesday.
The port’s director of maritime operations, Mohamed Al-Sais, told Saba that two ships had docked at the harbor on Tuesday.
He identified them as “Marsa Zenith,” a vessel that carried 514 containers of “various goods,” and “Brother 1,” which was loaded with 22,803 tons of iron, Saba said.
Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith, identifying it as a Panama-flagged vessel that departed from the port of Djibouti.
It additionally reported the arrival of the Tanzania-flagged Brother 1, which also sailed from Djibouti, according to the website.
The quays of Hodeida were spared major damage in the Israeli strike that militants say killed nine people and targeted a fuel storage depot owned by the Yemen Petroleum Company as well as a power plant north of the port.
Maritime security firm Ambrey said there were no reports of major damage to vessels in or near the harbor following the strike.
The port, however, is still at risk of another “catastrophe,” said Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni right group which dispatched an assessment team to the dock.
“Based on (the findings of) our field team, the risk of more fuel tanks exploding still remains,” it told AFP in an emailed statement.
“Whenever the firefighting teams tried to extinguish the fires, the explosions and flames reignited,” Mwatana said.
“There are major concerns that the teams may not be able to... prevent another explosion.”


‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

Updated 24 July 2024
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‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

  • Mother fell through several floors of bombed family home
  • Families face daily tragedy as Israel battles Hamas in Gaza

GAZA: Nine months pregnant, Ola Al-Kurd could not wait to hold her baby and bring new life to Gaza during a war which has killed over 39,000 fellow Palestinians and razed much of the enclave.
That special moment never came.
An Israeli airstrike smashed into the family home in Al-Nuseirat in central Gaza on July 19, according to her father Adnan Al-Kurd. The blast threw Ola down several floors to her death in the house, whose inhabitants included women, children and the elderly, he said.
Somehow, her baby survived, as did her husband, who was hospitalized.
“It’s a miracle that the fetus stayed alive inside of her when she was martyred (died),” Adnan Al-Kurd said, contemplating a photo of his daughter’s graduation.
The explosion, like many others, killed several members of a single family, a daily tragedy across Gaza since Israel began its offensive in Gaza in response to a devastating cross-border attack by Palestinian Hamas militants on Oct. 7 last year.
Mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt have failed in multiple attempts to secure a ceasefire. So it is highly unlikely that Israeli airstrikes and shelling will end anytime soon.
“She wanted to hold her child and fill our home with his presence,” Al-Kurd said. “She would say, ‘Mom, hopefully, this will make up for the loss of my martyred brothers and bring life back to our home’.”
Entirely against the odds, surgeons at Al Awda hospital in Nuseirat — where Ola was first taken after the strike — managed to deliver the newborn, Malek Yassin. He was then transferred to Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, where an aunt touched the baby’s face as he lay in an incubator.
“Thank God, this baby’s life was saved and he is now alive and well,” doctor Khalil Al-Dakran said at the hospital, where many medical facilities have been destroyed in over nine months of war.
Al-Kurd gazes at photos of his three late children killed in the Gaza war. He said baby Yassin is blond like his deceased uncle Omar. “I go visit him everyday. He is a part of me,” he said.
Babies who survive frequent Israeli bombardment get no relief as the conflict inflicts more destruction in the heavily built-up, densely populated Gaza Strip.
“We are in fact facing very great difficulties in the nursery department,” said Al-Dakran, due to a lack of sufficient medication and supplies and fears that the hospital generator could stop at any moment due to fuel shortages.
Hospitals across impoverished Gaza have been demolished or seriously damaged during the war, which began when Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
Israel responded with an air and ground offensive that has killed more than 39,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, and levelled much of the coastal territory.
“What is the fault of this child to start his life under difficult and very bad circumstances, deprived of the most basic necessities of life?” said Dakran.


Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

Updated 24 July 2024
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Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

  • Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
  • Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons

KENITRA: Golden fields of wheat no longer produce the bounty they once did in Morocco. A six-year drought has imperiled the country’s entire agriculture sector, including farmers who grow cereals and grains used to feed humans and livestock.
The North African nation projects this year’s harvest will be smaller than last year in both volume and acreage, putting farmers out of work and requiring more imports and government subsidies to prevent the price of staples like flour from rising for everyday consumers.
“In the past, we used to have a bounty — a lot of wheat. But during the last seven or eight years, the harvest has been very low because of the drought,” said Al Housni Belhoussni, a small-scale farmer who has long tilled fields outside of the city of Kenitra.
Belhoussni’s plight is familiar to grain farmers throughout the world confronting a hotter and drier future. Climate change is imperiling the food supply and, in regions like North Africa, shrinking the annual yields of cereals that dominate diets around the world — wheat, rice, maize and barley.
The region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
In Morocco, where cereals account for most of the farmed land and agriculture employs the majority of workers in rural regions, the drought is wreaking havoc and touching off major changes that will transform the makeup of the economy. It has forced some to leave their fields fallow. It has also made the areas they do elect to cultivate less productive, producing far fewer sacks of wheat to sell than they once did.
In response, the government has announced restrictions on water use in urban areas — including on public baths and car washes — and in rural ones, where water going to farms has been rationed.
“The late rains during the autumn season affected the agriculture campaign. This year, only the spring rains, especially during the month of March, managed to rescue the crops,” said Abdelkrim Naaman, the chairman of Nalsya. The organization has advised farmers on seeding, irrigation and drought mitigation as less rain falls and less water flows through Morocco’s rivers.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons — a yield that was still considered low. The amount of land seeded has dramatically shrunk as well, from 36,700 square kilometers to 24,700 square kilometers.
Such a drop constitutes a crisis, said Driss Aissaoui, an analyst and former member of the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture.
“When we say crisis, this means that you have to import more,” he said. “We are in a country where drought has become a structural issue.”
Leaning more on imports means the government will have to continue subsidizing prices to ensure households and livestock farmers can afford dietary staples for their families and flocks, said Rachid Benali, the chairman of the farming lobby COMADER.
The country imported nearly 2.5 million tons of common wheat between January and June. However, such a solution may have an expiration date, particularly because Morocco’s primary source of wheat, France, is facing shrinking harvests as well.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Morocco as the world’s sixth-largest wheat importer this year, between Turkiye and Bangladesh, which both have much bigger populations.
“Morocco has known droughts like this and in some cases known droughts that las longer than 10 years. But the problem, this time especially, is climate change,” Benali said.