Archive for January 15, 2017


2017-01-06

SIRTE – Escalating tensions between rival Libyan armed forces threaten to plunge the North African country deeper into turmoil only weeks after the fall of the Islamic State group’s bastion Sirte.

The deeply tribal nation has been sharply divided since the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with rival militias vying for influence and control of oil resources.

The power struggle pits an administration based in eastern Libya, backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar, against a UN-brokered unity government in Tripoli supported by militias from the western city of Misrata.

“The situation is most likely going to escalate further given that the voices of war are now the loudest” after an air strike by Haftar’s forces against the Misrata militias, analyst Mohamed Eljarh of the Atlantic Council said.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is the centerpiece of Western hopes to stem an upsurge of jihadism in Libya, but it has failed to assert its authority across the country.

The rival authority in the east has refused to cede power and has its own armed forces, which call themselves the Libyan National Army (LNA) and are led by Haftar.

Pro-GNA fighters mainly from the Western town of Misrata drove IS from Sirte in December, capping a deadly months-long campaign for Kadhafi’s hometown.

The Misrata militias include hardliners determined to fight Haftar’s army.

The LNA has battled jihadists in second city Benghazi for more than two years and blames Misrata militias of backing diehard extremists.

On December 7, two days after Sirte’s liberation, tensions flared when hardline Misrata militias joined an attack against Haftar’s forces launched by an alliance of Islamist and tribal fighters.

– Fears of IS regrouping –

The assault on a town near Libya’s “oil crescent” — where Haftar had seized four export terminals from pro-GNA forces in September — was launched from Al-Jufra air base in southern Libya.

The LNA repelled it and since then has frequently bombarded the base, calling it a den of “terrorists”.

On Monday, an LNA air strike hit a military plane carrying senior Misrata military and political figures who were flying out of Al-Jufra, killing one and wounding several.

The Misrata militias dispatched reinforcements to Al-Jufra as well as the Sebha region further west.

Martin Kobler, the UN special envoy to Libya, said he was “alarmed by the tensions in Libya’s south” and urged all sides “to act with restraint and to resolve issues through peaceful dialogue”.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby warned that further fighting could embolden the Islamic State group and other jihadists to reorganize.

“We note with deep concern… renewed fighting between Libyans… fighting which we believe will only benefit Daesh (IS) and other violent extremists there,” he said.

“The truth is that to date, Libyan forces have made progress against Daesh in Sirte and in eastern Libya, and that’s what makes this renewed fighting here of concern,” Kirby added.

Despite the recapture of Sirte, which had been IS’s main base in Libya, the jihadist threat persists in the country where experts say IS cells are present in several other areas including Tripoli.

– Hardliners win support –

Eljarh said a confrontation between Misrata and Haftar’s forces could play out in Tripoli as well as the “oil crescent” and the southern region.

Such an outcome “will have a knock-on effect on Libya’s oil and water facilities adding to the suffering of the entire population especially in western Libya and the capital,” he added.

Eljarh said that the attack on the plane carrying Misrata dignitaries had inflamed even the most moderate factions in the western city.

“Hardliners … have now managed to successfully switch public opinion within Misrata in their favour” and could now mobilize public support against the LNA, he added.

Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Haftar was trying to form alliances with Libya’s powerful tribes to control the south of the country.

“The south is the most immediate flashpoint where Haftar is trying to replicate the strategy of tribal alliances and limited show of force that allowed him to capture the oil crescent in September,” he said.

“Sirte is another flashpoint with Misratan fears that Haftar will use tribal allegiances to strip Misrata of its gains on the ground,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80704.

JAN. 9, 2017

GAZA (Ma’an) — Qatar has reportedly decided to build an embassy in the besieged Gaza Strip during a meeting of the Qatari committee for Gaza reconstruction on Monday.

The head of the committee, Abd al-Halim al-Issawi, gave the greenlight for the construction of the embassy after visiting the planned location, a five-dunam (1.2 acres) plot of land south of the Gaza City port, on Thursday with contractors.

While Qatar has had a representative office in the besieged Palestinian enclave, the planned embassy could mark a significant diplomatic move, as most countries have implanted their diplomatic missions and consulates to the occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Qatar is a prominent backer of the Hamas movement — the de facto ruling party in Gaza — and has provided significant financial support for reconstruction in the blockaded enclave following several devastating Israeli offensives.

Naji Sharab, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, told the Dunya al-Watan news outlet that “such a step is unprecedented in diplomatic relations,” and that he saw it as a potential move by Qatar to recognize the Gaza Strip as a national entity separate from the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank.

However, Dunya al-Watan quoted another political analyst and writer, Hussam al-Dajani, as saying that embassies are usually located in the capital cities of the host countries, but that given East Jerusalem’s occupied status, “Qatar can choose a location for its embassy to Palestine in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Al-Dajani thus dismissed the significance of the move “as long as the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah and the one in Gaza are in agreement.”

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=774823.

Riyadh (AFP)

Jan 10, 2017

Saudi Arabia and Lebanon agreed Tuesday to hold talks on restoring a $3-billion military aid package, opening a “new page” in relations, a Lebanese official source said.

“The blockage is lifted,” said the official in the delegation of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who held talks over lunch with King Salman in the Saudi capital.

After a tense year which saw Saudi Arabia freeze the aid deal over what it said was the dominance of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, Aoun arrived in Riyadh on Monday night with a delegation of ministers.

It was his first trip to the kingdom since his election in November ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in the Lebanese parliament.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian former army chief who was backed by Hezbollah, clinched the presidency with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after concerns over the role played by Hezbollah in the Lebanese government and the threat posed by jihadists and the war in neighboring Syria.

The Iran-backed Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to his government.

Riyadh last March declared Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

In February, the kingdom halted the $3-billion (2.8-billion-euro) military aid package to Lebanon to protest what it said was “the stranglehold of Hezbollah on the state”.

The program would see Riyadh fund the transfer of vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannons and other military equipment from France, which has been seeking to boost arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

The Lebanese official told AFP that a “new page” in relations with Riyadh had been turned and said the aid was “going to move”.

“There is truly a change. But when and how, we have to wait to see,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He added that King Salman’s son, the powerful Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will discuss with his Lebanese counterpart how to move the package forward.

– ‘Security, stability’ –

After Aoun’s election, France’s foreign ministry said it was in “close dialogue” with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in hope of a deal.

Aoun told Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria that his ministers of foreign affairs, education, finance and information would meet their Saudi counterparts “to find some fields of cooperation.”

Asked vaguely about the military aid, Aoun said: “Of course we will discuss all the possible issues.”

Syria’s nearly six-year civil war has been a major fault line in Lebanese politics, and the country hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.

Aoun said that Lebanon’s partners “have agreed to build Lebanon, regardless of the results in the other countries, because building Lebanon is for all, and secondly, security and stability is for all.”

He told Al-Ekhbaria his country’s internal political situation had improved, and expressed confidence that “balance” can be maintained.

“The state must realize, and maintain, security and stability for individuals and groups even if there are different political visions regarding neighboring and regional countries,” Aoun said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Saudi_unblocks_military_aid_to_Lebanon_Lebanese_source_999.html.

January 11, 2017

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The killing of five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates in a bombing in southern Afghanistan marks the deadliest attack ever for the young nation’s diplomatic corps, though it’s too soon to tell who was behind it or if the Gulf envoys were even the targets.

The federation of seven sheikhdoms, founded in 1971 on the Arabian Peninsula, said it would fly the nation’s flag at half-staff for three days in honor of the dead from the attack Tuesday in Kandahar.

The Taliban denied planting the bomb, even as the insurgents claimed other blasts Tuesday that killed at least 45 people. No other group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Kandahar, a province in Afghanistan’s Taliban heartland.

The bomb targeted a guesthouse of Kandahar Gov. Homayun Azizi, who was wounded in the assault along with UAE Ambassador Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi. The attack killed 11 people and wounded 18, said Gen. Abdul Razeq, Kandahar’s police chief, who was praying nearby at the time of the blast.

Razeq said investigators believe someone hid the bomb inside a sofa at the guesthouse. He said an ongoing construction project there may have allowed militants to plant the bomb. “Right now we cannot say anything about who is behind this attack,” he told The Associated Press, while adding that several suspects had been arrested.

On Wednesday, broken glass from the powerful blast still littered the blood-stained ground outside of the guesthouse, with thick black soot still visible on the building. Some furniture sat outside, apparently moved as part of the construction.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the UAE prime minister and vice president, offered condolences for the families of the dead and condemned the attack. “There is no human, moral or religious justification for the bombing and killing of people trying to help” others, he wrote on Twitter.

On the Afghan side, authorities said the dead included two lawmakers, a deputy governor from Kandahar and an Afghan diplomat stationed at its embassy in Washington. The attack inside the heavily guarded compound represents a major breach of security, even in Afghanistan, a country long torn by war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday condemned the attack and ordered an investigation.

The Taliban is usually quick to take credit for attacks, particularly those targeting the government or security forces. They claimed attacks earlier on Tuesday in Kabul at a compound of government and legislative offices that killed at least 38 people and wounded dozens. Another Taliban-claimed suicide bombing on Tuesday killed seven people in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

But on Wednesday, the Taliban issued a short statement blaming an “internal local rivalry” for the Kandahar attack. The Taliban have denied some attacks in the past that diplomats and security forces later attributed to the group. Other insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, also operate Afghanistan.

A Taliban attack targeting Emirati officials would be surprising. The UAE was one of only three countries, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to recognize the Taliban government during its five-year rule of Afghanistan.

Emirati combat troops deployed to Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. The UAE had troops there for years as part of the NATO-led mission, training members of the Afghan armed forces and often winning the support of locals by praying with them in community mosques and respecting their traditions as fellow Muslims.

Multiple daily commercial flights link the countries, with Dubai serving as an important commercial hub for Afghan businessmen. Over the years, Taliban and Afghan officials also have met in Dubai to try to start peace talks.

Although the UAE is only 45 years old, Emirati diplomats have come under attack in the past, some felled by assassins’ bullets. Saif Ghubash, the UAE’s first minister of state for foreign affairs, died after being shot in an October 1977 attack at Abu Dhabi International Airport, an attack that apparently targeted Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul-Halim Khaddam. Khaddam later blamed the attack on Iraq.

In 1984, the UAE’s ambassador to France was assassinated outside his Paris home by a gunman. A diplomatic club was named in honor of the slain envoy, Khalifa al-Mubarak, in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2015.

Another Emirati diplomat was wounded in a shooting in Rome in 1984. Reports at the time linked those two attacks to the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, a Palestinian militant group. Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said Tuesday’s attack wouldn’t stop the UAE’s humanitarian efforts abroad.

He wrote on Twitter: “We will not be discouraged by despicable terrorist acts carried out by the forces of evil and darkness.”

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.